Mark Blyth on the past and Future of Capitalism

The indispensable Scottish economist Mark Blyth has written an article for Foreign Affairs Magazine called Capitalism In Crisis where he reviews three recent books on the past, present and future of capitalism. In fact, they break down along those lines:

  • Capitalism: A Short History, by Jürgen Kocka – Capitalism’s past.
  • Buying Time by Wolfgang Streeck – Capitalism’s present.
  • Postcapitalism by Paul Mason – Capitalism’s future.

Although in reality, that’s a vast oversimplification; all three of these deal with both the past, present and future of capitalism, each in their own way. And, at least some of them depart from the hoary standard economic orthodoxy that sees no problems with our current trajectory and everything getting better for everyone in the future forever. Another theme linking all three of these together according to Blyth is the escalating tensions between capitalism and collective governance, i.e. democracy:

Ever since the emergence of mass democracy after World War II, an inherent tension has existed between capitalism and democratic politics; capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through votes. Economists, in particular, have been slow to accept that this tension exists. Instead, they have tended to view markets as a realm beyond the political sphere and to see politics as something that gets in the way of an otherwise self-adjusting system. Yet how democratic politics and capitalism fit together determines today’s world. Politics is not a mistake that gets in the way of markets.

The first book is a straightforward history of capitalism in only 163 pages, but does provide some interesting philosophical insights:

For [Jürgen] Kocka, capitalism is …a set of institutions that enshrine property rights, promote the use of markets to allocate resources, and protect capital. is also an ethos, he claims, a set of principles and ideas. Defining capitalism so expansively allows Kocka to see its earliest forms developing among traders in Mesopotamia, in the eastern Mediterranean, and along Asia’s Silk Road, until, by the eleventh century, the beginnings of a merchant capitalist bourgeoisie had emerged on the Arabian Peninsula and in China.

Capitalism developed later in Europe, boosted by long-distance trade with Asia and the Arab world, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Merchants formed cooperative institutions that led to greater risk sharing, which encouraged the accumulation of capital. This develop­ment, Kocka writes, led to “the formation of enterprises with legal personalities of their own,” rudimentary capital markets, and, finally, banks whose fortunes became intimately connected with the rise of modern states through the management of their debts.

This alliance between merchant capitalism and the emergent state helped usher in the age of colonialism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and conquistadors, with increasingly powerful states backing them, propelled European expansion. Critical to this expansion was the tri­angular trade, in which European merchants brought finished goods to Africa, traded them for slaves, and then exchanged those slaves in the New World for sugar and cotton that went back to Europe. This process helped embed capitalism deeper in Europe than in the Middle East and China: the scale of investment that such ventures required led to the rise of what would become known as “joint-stock companies” and the beginnings of what economic historians call “finance capitalism”—stock exchanges opened in Antwerp in 1531 and Amsterdam in 1611.

When discussing the possibility of full employment and the existence of unemployment, a number of readers have pointed me to the work of Michael Kalecki. Kalecki’s insights are central to the second of Blyth’s reviewed books, and he ably summarizes the ideas of the Polish economist in a very clear and concise manner:

Kalecki argued that if full employment ever became the norm, workers would be able to move freely from job to job. Not only would this undermine traditional authority relationships within firms; it would also push wages up regardless of productivity levels, since workers would have more leverage to demand higher wages.

In response, firms would have to raise prices, creating a spiral of inflation that would eat into profits and lower real wages, which would, in turn, promote greater labor unrest. Kalecki argued that to restore profits, capitalists would rebel against the system that promoted full employment. In its place, they would seek to create a regime in which market discipline, with a focus on price stability rather than full employment, would be the primary goal of policy. Welfare protections would be rolled back, and the discipline that unemployment provides would be restored.

The response to this situation was to unleash Neoliberalism, one of the central tenets of which is the “disciplining” of labor through various means, outsourcing, mass immigration, automation, union-busting, student debt, and so forth:

Kalecki’s predictions proved aston­ishingly accurate. By the 1970s, as Kalecki had foreseen, inflation had risen dramatically, profits had fallen, and capital began its rebellion. Organ­izations…pressured governments to reduce taxes, especially on high earners. But cutting taxes in the recessionary early 1980s meant that revenues fell, deficits widened, and real interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, set out to weaken labor and shrink the role of the state as they dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of finance since the 1940s.

This “financialization” of the economy reduced taxes on wealth and shrank the tax base by hollowing out the middle classes of the formerly industrialized world. To finance government expenditures in the era of haute finance, politicians turned to debt instead, but government debt is also an asset on the balance sheets of major financial institutions and the one percent, giving them effective control over the politics of nation-states. As I have described it before, we stopped taxing the rich and started borrowing from them instead:

The financial industry could now grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries. This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes. But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since World War II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. Now, as govern­ments began to rely more and more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of the contemporary neoliberal era.

The debt-based states of the Neoliberal era were hamstrung by the investor class who demanded safe returns and high interest rates, and could exercise veto power over government spending through the bond market. So not only were the workers forced to compete against the labor pool of the entire world thanks to Neoliberalism, but governments could do nothing to ease the pain of the transition or redistribute the spoils of globalization even if they wanted to:

This transformation has had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed transnational capitalists to override the preferences of domestic citizens everywhere: bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt. In the most extreme cases, investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina, or they can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015. The financial industry has become, Streeck writes, “the second constituency of the modern state,” one more powerful than the people.

The use of debt financing initially seemed to restore prosperity to nations and citizens after the crisis of capitalism that occurred during the stagflation and oil shortages of the 1970s. But it was all illusory, created by bringing spending forward in time through the unrestrained extension of credit (following Catton’s Overshoot, let’s call this “phantom wealth”). This blew up giant bubbles of indebtedness which were certain to burst at some point. In other words, none of this solved the basic underlying problems of capitalism that have been festering since the late 1970’s:

This shift from taxes to debt initially bought time for capitalism: it restored profits, destroyed labor’s ability to demand wage increases, tamed inflation to the point of deflation (which increases the real value of debt), and even seemed to provide prosperity for all after the crisis of the 1970s. Mortgages and credit cards allowed private citizens to rack up deficits of their own—a process the sociologist Colin Crouch has described as “privatized Keynesianism.” But it was all an illusion. Credit sustained the appearance of pros­perity for the lower classes. In reality, the rich captured most of the newly created wealth. In the United States, for example, the top one percent more than doubled their share of the national income over the last three decades, as wages for the bottom 60 percent stood still.

In 2008, as we know, it all came crashing down, and the world has been in stagnation mode ever since, thanks in part to debt overhangs. Another factor is the fact that “disciplining” labor has been so effective that the incomes are not there to drive consumer spending anymore, increasing the severity of the downturn and preventing expansion (since your spending is my income). The hourglass shaped incomes caused by Neoliberal economic policy also mean that escalating housing and education costs (both underwritten by lending) are eating up much of the spending power of the former middle class. Much of the wealth captured by the rich has been plowed back into the political system in order to throttle any attempts at reform and catapult propaganda messages that argue that system is doing just fine, and no one is to blame but the workers themselves (“the Chinese are getting rich!!!!”) It all leads to a downward spiral:

In 2008, the financial crisis shattered this illusion. Governments bailed out the banks and transferred the costs of doing so to public budgets. Public debt exploded as governments bailed out the rich, and austerity measures, intended to reduce this new debt, have only com­pounded the losses of the majority of citizens. Capital continues to dominate democracy, especially in the EU: in Greece and Italy in 2011, technocrats replaced democratically elected govern­ments, and in 2015, the so-called troika—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—bulldozed Greek democracy.

So where Kocka blames profligate governments and debt-laden citizens for the current crisis, Streeck instead sees them as the victims. It’s not lavish public spending, he shows, but rather falling tax revenues and financial bailouts that have created so much government debt and empowered capital. If states are spending extravagantly on voters, as Kocka and those who fetishize austerity maintain, there is precious little to show for it. “Had the rise in public debt been due to the rising power of mass democ­racy,” Streeck writes, “it would be impossible to explain how prosperity . . . could have been so radically redistributed from the bottom to the top of society.” Streeck foresees a prolonged period of low growth and political turmoil ahead, in which states commanded by creditors, allied with transnational in­vestors, struggle to get resisting debtor states into line…

Blyth then turns to Paul Mason’s book, Postcapitalism, which I have written about before.

In Postcapitalism, [Paul] Mason writes that capitalism is “a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” The roots of capitalism’s demise, Mason argues, lie in the 1980s (also when Kocka saw problems arise), when capi­talism was taken over by neoliberalism: an ideology and a set of policies that recognize no limits to the commodification of the world. Unfortunately for capi­talism, “neoliberalism is broken.” To explain why, Mason turns to the work of Nikolai Kondratieff, a brilliant Soviet economist whom Stalin had murdered in 1938. According to Kondratieff, capitalism goes up and down in 50-year cycles. At the bottom of a cycle, old technologies and business models cease to function. In response, entrepreneurs, both public and private, roll out new technologies to open up untapped markets, and an upswing begins. This leads to a loosening of credit, which accelerates the upswing.

Blyth then summarizes Mason’s description of the various Kondratieff waves that have determined the course of market capitalism since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the English Midlands:

Mason’s first cycle runs from 1790 to 1848. The upswing began when British entrepreneurs first harnessed steam power to run their factories, and it ended with the depression of the 1820s. The subse­quent downswing produced the revolutions of 1848, when the emergent bourgeois classes of Europe burst onto the historical stage.

Mason’s second cycle runs from 1848 to the mid-1890s. The spread of railways, the telegraph, and shipping drove growth until the depression of the 1870s. In the decades that followed, strong labor movements gained momen­tum all over the world, and capital, in response, became more concentrated.

Electricity and mass production then powered a third upswing that crashed in the Great Depression and the massive capital destruction of World War II.

After the war, a fourth cycle began with innovations in electronics and synthetics, improvements in the organization of production, and labor’s relative victory over capital in the institutions of the welfare state. That cycle’s upswing peaked in the mid-1970s, but this time, there was no major depression. The fourth cycle stalled.

Why did the fourth cycle stall? Mason’s analysis has four components:

  • After U.S. President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971, the United States moved to a paper standard, which eliminated the constraints on deficit financing that the gold standard entailed.
  • The financialization of the developed economies masked the reality of stagnant incomes by substituting credit for wage increases.
  • The emergence of global imbalances in finance and trade allowed the United States to keep consuming as Asian countries stepped in as producers.
  • Advances in infor­mation technology empowered capital and weakened labor, and helped spread neoliberal practices across the globe.

This where automation comes into the picture. In all of the previous crises, labor managed to organize and fight for more rights and higher living standards. This caused capitalism to adapt, to the benefit of all stakeholders (including the capitalists themselves). However, this time, automation, globalization and mass immigration (and, I would add, the influence of the corporate mass media), have combined in an engine that has succeeded in crushing labor. Add to that the fact that the proliferation of digital goods has meant that Markets can no longer price goods correctly, since markets rely on excludable goods and scarcity, and digital goods are abundant, non-rival, and non-excludable:

Mason borrows from Marx and Kalecki the idea that average profits in any market will fall due to both compe­tition and the flood of capital into a new market, which reduce returns on investment. As a result, capitalists will always try to replace human labor with machines to protect their share of profits.

During a downswing, as profits shrink, capitalists will do everything they can to boost their share of profits at the expense of labor: they will force employees to work intensively and will accelerate their attempts to replace workers with machines…In the past, such attempts to restore profits simply by crushing labor failed. In each of the first three waves, one way or another, workers managed to resist. The best examples of such resistance were the postwar constraints on capitalism: strong unions, rigorous regulations, and generous welfare systems. When workers defy capitalists’ attempts to squeeze profits from them by building such institutions, firms have to adapt. Rather than fight labor over the fixed distribution of income, they are forced to invest in improving workers’ produc­tivity, to the benefit of both parties: this was the post–World War II growth story.

But under neoliberalism, capitalists have managed to squeeze labor in an entirely new way. Globalization oblit­erated the power of workers to resist, because if they did, capital—and jobs—could easily flow elsewhere. This explains why the number of labor strikes has declined so steeply all over the world. As Mason writes, “The fourth long cycle was prolonged, distorted and ultimately broken by factors that have not occurred before in the history of capitalism: the defeat . . . of organized labour, the rise of information technology and the discovery that once an unchal­lenged superpower exists, it can create money out of nothing for a long time.”

Hence the plummeting living standards all over the industrialized world–North America, Western Europe, Japan. Meanwhile the abundance of digital goods has meant that copyright and legal protection have become onerous and excessive to protect corporate profits (and no other reason). Mason’s hope is that digital technologies will allow new para-capitalist and extra-capitalist (my terms) structures to emerge which will be the seeds of a new and growing economic arrangement that will ultimately be better for people and for the planet:

Still, Mason believes that these factors have only delayed capitalism’s inevitable collapse. Where Marx thought that organized labor would rise up and overthrow the system, Mason bets that information technology will destroy it from within. Digital goods, such as music files and software, create a real problem for markets: they destroy the role of price in balancing supply and demand. People can copy digital goods freely forever: they have zero marginal cost and are nonrival in consumption. When one person downloads a music file or a piece of code from the Internet, for example, she makes it no harder for anyone else to do the same. So the only way that firms can maintain their profits is by enforcing monopoly property rights…

Mason is optimistic about what will replace the profit motive. He points to decentralized networks such as Wikipedia…and the rise of the so-called sharing economy: nonmarket peer pro­duction systems, where work has value but cannot be priced in a traditional manner. The result is a “contradiction in modern capitalism . . . between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information.” In such a world, the central battle will be between those who want to preserve property rights and those who wish to destroy them in the name of democracy. The stakes, Mason argues, could not be higher. Without the revolution he calls for, the world will be vulnerable to a much greater threat: catastrophic climate change.

Mark Blyth makes a major, major mistake in this otherwise excellent review, however. The fact that even someone as knowledgeable and aware as Mr. Blyth has fallen for the propaganda is both astonishing and very depressing: “A group of experts called the Club of Rome famously published The Limits to Growth in the 1970s, forecasting economic and environ­mental crises—and those predictions have failed to come to pass. But this time may be different.”

No, no no! Limits to Growth did not make any predictions. Let’s say that again: Limits to Growth did Not make any predictions!!! It used models to forecast a number of possible scenarios. The standard run scenario is actually very close to how the world economy has unfolded over the past few decades. In fact, one could argue that it’s so-called “predictions” are far more accurate than any economists’. As Ugo Bardi has explained multiple times:

Now, you may have heard that “The Limits to Growth” (let’s call it “LTG”) is an outdated work; that it was all a mistake, that they made wrong predictions and the like. Those are just urban legends. People tend to disbelieve what they don’t like and that is why LTG was so widely rejected and even demonized. ..Limits to Growth was a very advanced study for its times; it was not a mistake and its predictions were not wrong. In any case, these models are there to show you trends; not to give you exact dates for what will happen.

Mason argues that capitalism in its current form will engender catastrophic climate change:

The world is in trouble…The world cannot burn 60 to 80 percent of remaining known carbon fuel stocks without causing catastrophic warming. But under capitalism, this is exactly what the world will do. Carbon taxes will do little to change this reality…Add to this mix an aging developed world with huge pension liabilities and a climate-shocked developing world of young people who have nowhere to go, and it’s little wonder that the Organiza­tion for Economic Cooperation and Development has forecast stagnant growth for the global economy for the next 50 years and an almost 40 percent rise in inequality in the world’s rich countries…Mason thinks that climate change may be the one bullet that capitalism cannot dodge. Neoliberals often naively assert that capitalism will generate a miracle technology at just the right moment to stave off catas­trophe. But Mason argues that previous Hail Mary passes, such as geoengineering and carbon capture, have failed to pay off. What gives him hope is that large-scale technological innovations may not be as important as micro-level changes in the structure of property rights themselves…

Blyth concludes:

Mason emphasizes an aspect of capitalism that both Kocka and Streeck underplay: its adaptive potential…Although capitalism may be reaching its adaptive limits, it has been more robust than most doomsayers realize…Whether or not such a restructuring will be enough to save the world remains unclear. But Mason is right to hold out hope. Capitalism, in its current form, has reached a dead end. If ever there were a time for pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, it is now.

Or, it could all lead to collapse. I guess we’ll see. But that’s another column…

More Mark Blyth:

Austerity’s Big Bait-and-Switch (Harvard Business Review) (P.S. the joke’s on him–in Milwaukee we all have thick Scottish accents!)

In a highly indebted world, austerity is a permanent state of affairs (Aeon)

The World Is Run by Folk Theories

I noticed my thoughts on democracy, or the lack thereof, were echoed very closely in a recent column in The Guardian by George Monbiot. Monbiot asks a trenchant question:

What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?

You’ve gotta hand it to the guy, he’s willing to go where other journalists aren’t. He is riffing off a book called Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. That book refers to something that they term “The folk theory of democracy,” which is something I was also trying to get at in my post. The folk theory of democracy that we learn in our civics textbooks bears little resemblance to the reality we all live with:

[T]he “folk theory of democracy” – the idea that citizens make coherent and intelligible policy decisions, on which governments then act – bears no relationship to how it really works. Or could ever work…

In the real world, however, instead of rational people coming together to consider the best course of action on various important issues, people form antagonistic tribes and vote based on emotion, rationalizing their decisions after the fact based on their preconceived notions or social group affiliation. I find it endlessly amusing to see all the “Trump/Pence” signs in the white separatist enclaves and rural exurbs outside of the city given that four years ago those same signs were for Mitt Romney, someone who believed the 180-degree opposite than what Mr. Trump currently espouses on any number of issues. Heck, Mr. Romney’s very business was carving up American companies and offshoring jobs! But, of course, we’re told that we vote for candidates based on “issues.” Yeah, right. Anyone who has ever tried to have a “rational” discussion about the issues with an American voter has had a rude awakening.

Voters, [Achen and Bartels] contend, can’t possibly live up to these expectations. Most are too busy with jobs and families and troubles of their own. When we do have time off, not many of us choose to spend it sifting competing claims about the fiscal implications of quantitative easing. Even when we do, we don’t behave as the theory suggests.

Our folk theory of democracy is grounded in an Enlightenment notion of rational choice. This proposes that we make political decisions by seeking information, weighing the evidence and using it to choose good policies, then attempt to elect a government that will champion those policies. In doing so, we compete with other rational voters, and seek to reach the unpersuaded through reasoned debate.

In reality, the research summarised by Achen and Bartels suggests, most people possess almost no useful information about policies and their implications, have little desire to improve their state of knowledge, and have a deep aversion to political disagreement. We base our political decisions on who we are, rather than what we think.

In other words, we act politically not as individual, rational beings, but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. We remain loyal to political parties long after they have ceased to serve us.

The idea that parties are guided by the policy decisions made by voters also seems to be a myth; in reality, the parties make the policies and we fall into line. To minimise cognitive dissonance – the gulf between what we perceive and what we believe – we either adjust our views to those of our favoured party or avoid discovering what the party really stands for. This is how people end up voting against their interests.

Lies, fearmongering and fables: that’s our democracy (Guardian)

My argument was a little different. I argued that it doesn’t matter anyway, since the government is run by technocrats. As I pointed out earlier this year, since the rise of Market Liberalism the economy has been “disembedded” from society by design, and operates within its own strict set of rules and limits, walled off from any political “interference.” So what can politicians do anyway? It is the Market which determines whether people can or can’t find work, or afford to rent an apartment, or whether they have to live on the street and go without necessary health care. What can the government—any government— do under these circumstances? The answer is usually some sort of “program,” but we’re constantly told over and over again that programs don’t work, that they distort the Market and cause “inefficiencies,’ and that there simply is not enough money around to fund them, anyway.

There’s another different, but related, argument. Reader Apneaman points out this article: The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge (Aeon).

The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent. Democracies tend to pass laws and policies that appeal to the median voter, yet the median voter would fail Econ, History, Sociology, and Poli Sci 101. Empirical work generally shows that voters would support different policies if they were better informed.

Voters tend to mean well, but voting well takes more than a kind heart. It requires tremendous social scientific knowledge: knowledge that most citizens lack. Most voters know nothing, but some know a great deal, and some know less than nothing. The goal of liberal republican epistocracy is to protect against democracy’s downsides, by reducing the power of the least-informed voters, or increasing the power of better-informed ones.

The author of this article also wrote a book, called Against Democracy. In it, he champions the idea of epistocracy–voting would be restricted to those with a basic level of competence. In this case, voting would still determine the leadership of the nation, and be done in some sort of regular time period, but there would need to be qualifications to vote. Not just anyone, no matter how ignorant, would be allowed to cast a ballot:

…most of of us still believe that the voters have a right to rule, no matter how ignorant and biased they might be. As political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels put it in another important new book on political ignorance, “the ideal of popular sovereignty plays the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era.” Much like the kings and emperors of an earlier age, the people are seen as having an inherent right to wield political power, whether or not they do it well. Unlike Achen and Bartels, Brennan is willing to knock our multiheaded king off his pedestal.

In most situations, he points out, we readily assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have at least a reasonable degree of competence to do so. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.” We don’t allow quacks to make medical decisions, for example. This is especially true when the medical decisions in question are extremely important, and the “patients” have no choice but to obey the doctor’s orders.

Voting, of course, often literally involves matters of life and death, and the politicians who get elected rule over the entire society, including those who voted against them or chose to abstain. Ignorant or illogical decisions by voters can easily lead to ill-advised wars, economic recessions, abusive law enforcement, environmental disasters, and other catastrophes that imperil the lives, freedom, and welfare of large numbers of people. If we refuse to tolerate ignorant medical practice or ignorant plumbing, we should take an equally dim view of ignorant voting.

Democracy vs. Epistocracy? (Washington Post)

The technocracy idea I was proposing is somewhat similar, but it eliminates the idea of voters. The idea that we could find enough average voters to weigh in on, say, atmospheric science, or nuclear regulation, is slim to nil. What exactly are even these “knowledgeable” voters going to vote on, then? And furthermore, I contended that voting doesn’t change much anyway, since most departments are bureaucracies staffed with professionals that run themselves regardless of who is elected into office.

The “Folk Theory of Democracy” reminds me of the “Folk Theory of the Market” that I always like to bring up. It’s just as much of a fairy tale. The folk theory of the market usually describes some sort of idealized farmer’s market-type situation where relatively equal sellers are competing against one another with simple products, and rational consumers have enough time and knowledge to pick and choose among them, so that everyone ends up better by “mutually agreeable” trades in perfectly “free and open” markets. Much of economics (practically all of it, actually), is attempting to describe this idealized situation using advanced mathematics. However, the above situation bears no resemblance whatsoever to the anything that has ever existed in reality. In economists’ conception of the Market, there is no coercion, no monopolies, no externalities, no advertising, no marketing, perfectly rational omniscient consumers, buyers sellers on an equal footing, etc.

In reality, the market is plagued with constant bubbles, manias, booms, busts, panics and crashes, always swinging from overproduction to underproduction and threatening to tear the whole fabric of society apart. Markets do not lead to “rational allocation of goods and services,” but are fueled by “animal spirits” and driven by things like the cognitive biases, the herd mentality, Ponzi dynamics, and the Greater Fool Theory. This is what history shows outside of economic textbooks and academic papers. The other thing that economists spend a lot of time doing is trying to get markets to work the way the textbooks say they should, while simultaneously extolling “private enterprise” and berating government “distortion.”

This article pointed out something relevant – we’re almost a decade into slow/stagnant growth that’s causing the world to progressively deteriorate poltically and socially, and economists have no answers. Instead they award the “Nobel prize” to economists who study contract theory. Really, that’s all the relevance the mighty economics discipline has anymore? It’s like the economic discipline has become so far removed from actual reality that it just can’t provide any real answers to our mounting problems.

This is predictable, and, I submit, is the most predictable phenomenon within the ambit of the discipline. Economics is in disrepute, and its current elite are determined to keep it there. The latest ersatz Nobel prize went to a couple of guys who theorize a lot about contracts. This is the kind of work that now dominates much of economics. Tinkering with mathematics, incentives, and other aspects of minutiae whilst steadfastly turning away from the rapidly approaching storms that threaten the lives of real people outside the tenured redoubts professors hide within.

The Market and Nobels (Real World Economics Review)

The whole article is an excellent summary of the history of economics – where it came from, and why it is inherently hostile to the state from its inception:

All mainstream economics begins with the proposition that there exist markets endowed with utopian qualities. These magical places are populated with people who behave in only one way: they exercise rational choice. Indeed, so rational are they that they exhibit no choice in any real world sense of the word choice. When presented with an array from which to choose these people will make only one choice. They are, thus, perfectly predictable. They can be accorded incentives to induce predictable behavior. They will never err. They will never fail prey to human weaknesses. Nor will they alter. They are, in sum, the perfect grist for the mathematical modeling mill. Which is why they were invented.

With this nirvana thus established, economists systematically explore various forms of relaxation of their utopian rules. This, they argue, allows them to home in on sundry “inefficiencies”. For it can only be that a fall from the sublime grace of utopia is to decline into a less than sublime underworld. That underworld inevitably includes the state.

So, from its very inception, economics was designed to “prove” that state intervention into markets was inherently to disrupt this utopian order.

One example of market irrationality I always like to point out is the farmers who poured milk down the drain during the Great Depression while many people were unemployed, starving and hungry. I used to have to refer to the 1933 Wisconsin Milk strike. But now I can use a much more relevant example, as milk is currently being poured down the drains thanks to a massive dairy glut:

Dairy farmers in the United States have dumped more than 43 million gallons of milk between January and August of 2016. This milk has been poured into fields, manure lagoons, and animal feed, or down the drain at processing plants. According to the Wall Street Journal, this amount of milk is enough to fill 66 Olympic-sized swimming pools and is the most wasted in at last 16 years.

The problem is that the United States is in the midst of a massive dairy glut. Farmers responded to a shortage two years ago that is now catching up with a nation unable to absorb the quantity of dairy being produced. Prices are so low – down 36 percent from in 2014 – that “many can’t even afford to transport raw milk to market at current prices.” Two years ago, U.S. dairy farmers were exporting tons of milk, but it has all crashed…

43 million gallons of milk have been dumped so far this year (Treehugger)

Traditionally, the solution has been for the government to buy up excess, and then release it to the market when the price is high. This has “smoothed over” the repeated boom-and-bust cycles and prevented wild price swings. In truth, the “cheap abundance” we enjoy today is as much due to government intervention as free market capitalism, yet our indoctination will not allow us to accept this fact (another example of irrationality related to the above). As economist William Mitchell has often argued, this same system could be theoretically used to keep the price of labor high and eliminate the wasted excess, but the powers that be will not allow it.

And continuing on the idea of the Folk Theory of the Market, while looking for something else I came across this excellent blog with several posts pointing out how many parts of standard economic theory make no sense. For example, No One Has Time For A Completely Free Market:

The free market often sounds quite simple and straight forward. Consumers simply decide whether product A or B benefits them more and then choose accordingly. If the same or similar product is sold by shop A or B consumers simply choose whichever is cheaper, better quality or otherwise benefits them. It is easy and doesn’t require any complicated plan or someone telling consumers what is best for them, people simply decide themselves. This is the market as described by economists, politicians and writers, especially when they are trying to make a political point. After all, if the market is so simple and straight forward, why do we need the government interfering? All these rules and regulations only get in the way, surely it is better for everyone if we just leave the consumers to decide for themselves.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and although this sounds like a completely reasonable idea, it is completely unworkable in reality. As tempting as it is to simply remove regulations and let people figure it out for themselves, the free market is not simple and straight forward. It is an extremely complex mechanism that none of us fully understand. The biggest reason we shouldn’t remove regulations is because simply do not have the time.

Let me use an example. I once went to the shops to buy some bacon. In my economics classes this was always presented as a simple affair. I would just compare two types of bacon see which was better (in terms of price or quality) and choose whichever gave me the most utility. However, when I came to the aisle, to my surprise, I saw that there were 40 different types of bacon. There were different sizes, different brands, different parts of the pig etc. How was I supposed to know which was best? Perhaps I could give each one a taste test and rate them accordingly and devise a system that combines taste and price to calculate the most efficient option. But I would have to cook each piece identically with similar food in order to give a fair test and perform it more than once, to avoid the risk of getting an unusually good or bad piece. Needless to say this would be an enormously time consuming task that would take weeks (by which time need bacon products would probably be released) and no one has the time for.

Yet this is only one product. Supermarkets contain thousands of products that all must be considered, compared and a decision made on them. I am a skinny lad with incredibly unimaginative tastes in food (I’ve never cooked myself a meal with more than three ingredients) who only shops for myself, yet a full shopping involves buying 30-40 goods. More imaginative people and those with families have even more decisions to make. Plus there is also all the other goods you decided not to buy, meaning that doing the shopping involves over a hundred decisions and hundreds of comparisons. All of this occurs in one supermarket but there are also a dozen others that you could go to instead (also containing hundreds or thousands of products) further multiplying the calculations that could be made. No human has the time or willingness to do a full and comprehensive comparison of all the economic costs and benefits.

So what do people do instead? Sometimes they just choose randomly. As an economics student it always struck me as odd that I was spend all day learning complex equations that supposedly related as to how consumers made their decisions and then randomly choose what to eat for dinner. Most times, people just buy the same product they did before. Or they’ll choose one with nice packaging or that they recently saw an ad for. I usually buy the cheapest.

No One Has Time For A Completely Free Market (Whistling In The Wind)

Remember, economic “science” assumes that we all have “perfect information” about literally everything we do. No, I am not making that up. The author then points out what would happen if we repealed all consumer protection, environment, anti-discrimination, worker protection, and other laws, and let the unregulated market decide as libertarians demand that we do:

So without regulations the already complicated decision of picking which bacon to buy, becomes exponentially more difficult. Now I have to compare the 40 or so brands based on their relative price, taste, quality, risk of disease, treatment of animals, environmental impact, working conditions, sanitary conditions, attitudes towards minorities and women, both in terms of willingness to hire, pay an equal wage and promote, nutrition, origin (people like to support local businesses), honesty (is this actually bacon?) and a dozen other factors I have probably forgotten. Needless to say your brain would melt if you tried to calculate all these factors (assuming you had all the information you needed), so instead people pick one or two that matter and ignore the others. This means that I’ll buy the cheapest, even if the workers aren’t treated well or the quality is shoddy. So contrary to what some would have you believe, consumers don’t have the power to compel businesses to act as they wish and the threat of switching brands merely means switching some disfavourable factors for others.

This is why regulation is actually helpful to consumers and simplifies life. This might sound odd and contrary to what you’ve always heard about regulations, so I’ll repeat it. Regulations simplify decisions. When I go to the supermarket, I know that the products have to meet some basic standards such as health & safety, environmental impact and working conditions. This means I don’t have to worry as much about it and reduces the number of factors by which I judge products. By standardising other factors, I am freed to focus mainly on price and quality, which makes comparison and competition much easier to determine. It also means this is where businesses have to compete instead of undercutting each other where consumers don’t see.

So contrary to what most people think, removing regulations would actually complicate, not simplify our life. No one has the time to make the endless calculations that are necessary for a completely free market to function.

Another good post is this one, skewing the idea that markets exist on some sort of platonic, frictionless universe and somehow reach equilibrium.

Even on its own grounds, the argument for equilibrium to naturally occur is flawed. The market forces that are supposed to push the price towards equilibrium and hold it there are either too weak or non-existent. But won’t a business that charges too much have too few customers? Won’t a business that sells too cheaply not be able to pay its costs? True, but this does not mean it will reach equilibrium. You see, not all costs are equal, rather they all run on separate time frames. Repaying your mortgage on the building is a fixed cost not related to production. Not all employees are directly productive (managers and security guards provide benefit but are not directly related to the production of goods). Therefore it is not as easy as simply equating supply and demand when it is such a variable cost. It is quite possible for a business to run a loss for quite some time and still remain in business.

Do we ever reach equilibrium (Whistling In The Wind)

So, we’re told that choosing in the market as consumers is the only kind of choice that matters. Yet we clearly see in both markets AND democracy that it really amounts to no choice at all. Instead we cling to outdated folk theories as the world goes to hell around us. So much for “rational choice.”

Why Is College So Expensive? Blame The Powell Memorandum

I spent some time recently listening to the Powell Memorandum, courteously read aloud by the Attack Ads podcast:

If you have some time to kill and a strong stomach, it’s a fascinating document to listen to all the way through.

The Powell memorandum struck a paranoid tone that the “free enterprise” system was a under merciless and sustained assault centered mainly on collage campuses. I had not realized the extent to which the Powell Memorandum specifically focuses the spotlight on America’s higher education system as the prime source of discontent. If you take the memorandum’s argument seriously, Americas universities were virtual leftist madrassahs inculcating revolutionary fervor in America’s youth and doing it on corporate America’s dime. According to Powell, Communist firebrands were barnstorming the country brainwashing America’s youth to overthrow the free enterprise system and inculcating contempt for its core institutions. College campuses were nothing less than an injection system for radical ideas into the body politic, funded by corporate America itself, and they needed to be stopped, or else the free enterprise system was doomed!:

“Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of ‘the politics of despair.’ These young men despise the American political and economic system . . . (their) minds seem to be wholly closed. They live, not by rational discussion, but by mindless slogans.” A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: “Almost half the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries.”

A visiting professor from England at Rockford College gave a series of lectures entitled “The Ideological War Against Western Society,” in which he documents the extent to which members of the intellectual community are waging ideological warfare against the enterprise system and the values of western society. In a foreword to these lectures, famed Dr. Milton Friedman of Chicago warned: “It (is) crystal clear that the foundations of our free society are under wide-ranging and powerful attack — not by Communist or any other conspiracy but by misguided individuals parroting one another and unwittingly serving ends they would never intentionally promote.”

Powell makes corporate America out to be like a cuckolded husband, underwriting the very people who sought to destroy it. In other words, corporations were funding their own demise. Imagine if Star Wars’ rebel alliance were cashing checks signed by Darth Vader. He chides big business for being “apathetic” to the gathering storm developing on college campuses:

One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

The message was clear: education was a threat to big business. This led to the radical divestment of big business from education, part of the overall “revolt” against taxes which precipitated a dramatic shrinking of all of America’s public institutions (except military/security and corporate welfare) across the board.

In the public sector, which educates 80 percent of American students, state funding hit a peak in 1980 and has been falling ever since…[1] If states had continued to support public higher education at the rate they had in 1980, they would have invested at least an additional $500 billion in their university systems, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.That’s an amount roughly equal to the outstanding student debt now held by those who enrolled in public colleges and universities.[2]


The Powell Memorandum is, of course, the impetus for the creation of all of the subsequent right-wing think-tanks (AEI, Cato, ALEC), propaganda news outlets (FOX, talk radio), foundations (Bradley, Heritage etc.), astroturf groups (Tea Party) and the like. But the extent to which all that was driven by what was happening on America’s college campuses in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is often overlooked. What is also overlooked is why this led to America’s spectacularly expensive and wasteful education system.


One of the reasons there was so much protest in Universities was that almost anyone could go. College was not prohibitively expensive before 1980. Places like the University of California–whose Berkeley campus was synonymous with anti-war protests and leftist ideas–was practically free. It became an attractor to intellectual, independent youth from all over the country who came into contact with each other and could form a critical mass of opposition. The Vietnam War was a major driver of this. Colleges were safe havens from the draft.

It’s hard to believe today, given the apathy on collage campuses, but there was a very real concern in the days of Cold War paranoia that the intellectual ferment on campuses was an existential threat to capitalism itself. As Powell’s paranoia above indicates, corporate businessmen and right-wing politicians were genuinely scared and on the defensive.

Richard Nixon cannily realized that all the concern over bombing those poor brown people in Vietnam had nothing to do with selfless concern for others; what the students were really protesting was that their privileged white asses might be sent over to die in the jungle via the draft. In other words, they were protesting the draft and feigning concern for peace and justice and all that. So he got rid of the draft, and, just as he had predicted, the protests petered out and eventually ceased.

But then, how would America get troops for its military?

By divesting public support for education through taxes and replacing them with student loans—debt servitude—students would no longer be questioning the system, but instead be trying to get into the system as quickly as possible in order to pay off their huge debt burdens. Student loans were a way of “disciplining” students, so they wouldn’t have time to question the system, as Noam Chomsky points out:

“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society, Chomsky suggested. “When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”

Mission accomplished.

It also served a second purpose. Because military service would fund higher education, it would drive students from poorer backgrounds to serve in America’ foreign wars. Originally, the G.I. Bill was to help returning World War Two veterans (which most college-age men were) fund a higher education so as to bring about a more educated and—the thinking went—more productive workforce. This was to compete with the Soviet threat (where everything was theoretically state-funded).

But what they had also done was accidentally stumble upon the perfect way to get plenty of recruits without having a draft and without any protest. As education costs soared into the stratosphere, more and more people would sign up “of their own free will” to get government money to pay the enormous costs burdens of that education. No reason to protest – there’s no draft. Students from affluent backgrounds didn’t have to worry, they could afford the higher education costs. And the military service option would make America’s wildly expensive college seem “just.” Can’t afford to pay? Just put on uniform and head overseas!

It was diabolically brilliant. Another mission accomplished.

Fast forward nearly forty years. Now students are told they must get a “valuable” degree that pays dividends. Anyone wasting time studying anything not “practical” has only themselves to blame. College is all about ROI (return on investment). Students are spending all their time studying, especially if they are from poorer backgrounds, to “compete” in the harsh job market upon graduation. Who has time for protests when you’re studying all day and working a job at night to get through college? Besides, a black mark on your rerecord will make you unemployable, a serious problem when you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over your head before you even graduate.

The coup-de-grace of this movement is the push to completely eliminate liberal arts studies from college campuses, and make universities solely for the education of STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, math). Students in STEM courses are not a threat to the “private enterprise” system. No one in engineering or medical school is going to learn about alternative economic theory or America’s foreign policy, nor do they care. The protestors at Berkeley and elsewhere were probably not engineering/science majors after all.

Florida’s…governor, Rick Scott, wants more of the state’s youths to pick up college degrees… but only if the degrees are useful to corporations and don’t teach students to question social norms. “You know what? They need to get education in areas where they can get jobs,” Scott told a …radio host Monday morning. He continued:

“You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

He explained the strategy Monday in a separate interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Rick Scott to Liberal Arts Majors: Drop Dead (Mother Jones)

This was all part of the Neoliberal revolution on college campuses. As the Guardian summed up the situation, “Higher education is stuffed with overpaid administrators squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of lecturers and focusing on the ‘profitable’ areas of science, technology, engineering and maths. Are the humanities at risk of being wiped out?”

The emphasis on STEM degrees means that collage campuses will not be places where the system is questioned, just vocational schools were compliant corporate drones will be reliably churned out. After all, you probably won’t be questioning the system if you’re in engineering or nursing school. Economics education has been taken over by Neoliberal ideas and free-market fundamentalism–academics who even mention Marx (except as ridicule) are exiled. And rather than genuine protests, affluent students spent their time bickering over nonsense like “trigger alerts” and “safe words” and gender/sexual identity issues egged on by the corporate media echo chamber. The New Left was cleverly used to neuter the Old Left, supported by corporate America. Powell would be proud.

Republicans’ inherent hostility to higher education can be illustrated by a revealing anecdote. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker attempted to rewrite the “Wisconsin Idea”–a largely symbolic statement that guided the mission of University of Wisconsin system. Walker famously not only cut 300 million dollars of support for this formerly world-class institution (while simultaneously funding a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks), but also stealthy attempted to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea with new corporate-friendly language slipped into the bill:

In Section 1111 of Walker’s proposed budget legislation, Senate Bill 21, he strikes language specifying that the UW has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.”

Walker adds “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core mission of the university.

Walker also strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as the language: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Scott Walker removes ‘Wisconsin Idea’ from UW’s mission in budget bill (updated) (The Capitol Times)

“Searching for truth” is the last thing these guys want. Neither do they care about “improving the human condition.” And they certainly don’t want people with the time or inclination to think for themselves.

A public outcry derailed his plans. But the story itself is telling. There is really no reason for messing with this statement besides pure ideology. What is that ideology? A hostility to free thinking and a desire for education to be nothing more than a handmaiden to serve big business. Wildly costly education serves that purpose nicely. Debt serfs don’t question.

Powell would surely approve.

In other words, cutting funding for higher education and student debt was all part of the plan since the 1970’s. Now you can see why “free education” is such a threat to the authoritarian structure of the United States. Corporate America spent decades putting down the insurrection on college campuses, and they surely don’t want to go thorough that again.

So, given their hostility to higher education, why do businesses universally require degrees for everything from CEO to janitor?

One reason is what we saw above – they want people to be struggling and in debt. Struggling people don’t have time to think or criticize; they’re too busy just trying to survive. They will be docile, compliant workers, because they are essentially indentured servants. Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Their fear will keep them in line. There are bills to pay, and delinquent loans will ruin your credit rating.

Another is something called “signaling.” A degree is a way to say, “I’ll jump through any arbitrary hoops in order to climb the ladder.” I’m a docile, obedient worker, hire me!” It’s a social marker more than anything else.

Requiring a degree is one of the last remaining forms of legal workplace discrimination. A degree is a way of filtering out people and making sure only the “right” candidates apply (from affluent backgrounds, white, etc.) and are hired.

But the main factor driving this trend is the fact that today’s corporations just don’t need that many educated workers anymore. Thanks to the Neoliberal “disciplining” of labor, and the rise of the “service” economy, the majority of jobs now pay a pittance wage–barely enough to survive on. So this will drive people to struggle to acquire a degree—just like people will purchase lottery tickets no matter the cost—in the hope of getting a leg up on the competition for the few remaining jobs that pay a decent wage. This allows corporations to divest  from funding higher education and yet still have plenty of willing, educated workers banging down their door. And besides, in the global economy, corporations can sponge off of the education systems of other countries, hiring qualified workers from all over the world. Not willing to do what it takes? Well, then, you have only yourself to blame. Why invest in “American” education anymore in a global economy? America’s students are on their own. Training costs are now entirely borne by the workers/government, even as corporations constantly moan about “socialism” (another legacy of the memorandum).

For all of the above reasons, costly college is not a bug; it’s a feature. It serves so many simultaneous purposes for the elites. And I didn’t even mention the gravy train loans are for the financial sector, since they are backed by government (and hence low risk). It’s not likely they’re going to do anything about any of this without a fight.

BONUS: Good interview with Chomsky on education.

“You Just Don’t Understand Economics”

I see this argument all the time, especially on Reddit: “you don’t understand economics” or “clearly this person doesn’t understand economics.”  Whenever anyone says this, they don’t actually attempt to explain what it is the person doesn’t understand, or even how their argument is wrong, or even engage with what’s being said in any way at all. It’s just tossed out there like a mic drop. “You just don’t understand economics” is the ultimate thought-stopping technique deployed whenever anyone questions conventional free market orthodoxy. The subtext is that anyone who has any opinion outside of the narrow box of laissez-faire capitalism is a foolish, starry-eyed dreamer, whereas the hard, grounded poster “gets it.” But, of course, the only thing they really “get” is the economic doctrines they’ve been spoon fed their whole life.

This lecture by Ha-Joon Chang is a good refutation of the non-argument “you just don’t understand economics.”

The Election Myth

Some of his responses seemed little more than free-associative non-sequiturs. “I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers,” said Trump when asked about US cybersecurity weaknesses. (The Guardian)

There’s an ongoing debate about whether a Trump presidency will mean the end of the world as we know it, or just the end of the country.

But some people have argued that who becomes the president doesn’t matter all that much. That is, the bureaucracy that runs the government is so well-trained and so professional that even an incompetent moron can sit at the head of it and the United States will still be governed adequately. The nuclear codes will be safe. The army and the police will keep order.The regulators will still do their job. Social Security checks will still be mailed out and taxes will still be collected. The roads will still be surfaced and the lights will remain on. The vast machinery of the American state is so complex and so vast that it just sort of runs itself, like some sort of clockwork mechanism, unfathomable and impervious to the intentions and predilections of solitary individuals, even one as venal and incompetent as a Donald J. Trump or a George W. Bush.

That is, the Federal government is, as the military saying goes, “Designed by geniuses so it can be run by idiots.”

Who are these anonymous civil servants? Sometimes they’re referred to as “technocrats.” They are typically highly educated professionals from prominent and wealthy families with advanced degrees from America’s prestigious elite institutions on the east and west coasts. They are not elected, they are hired, and they are hired based on their skills and qualifications. They often spend years and years in school studying their particular area of expertise – economics, law, science, business, foreign policy, history, sociology, etc. They learn from the best and are vetted and professional. They do not have pander to the the ignorant opinions of the general public. In fact, they often hold views quite at odds with them, about which more below.

This leads to an inevitable question: Why do we have a president at all? What is the point?

If the identity of the president doesn’t really matter, then what is the purpose of these lavish quadrennial spectacles which we are constantly told by the media are allegedly major turning points in world history with earth-shattering importance? Why does the “horse race” receive saturation coverage? Why do campaigns start earlier and earlier?
Could it be that they’re not really that important after all?

After all, we go from Democrat to Republican, Republican to Democrat, and very little changes. Globalization, inequality, foreign wars, mass migrations, new technology, etc., these things just keep steamrolling ahead, apparently beyond the capacity of any one administration to cope with. The U.S. empire and foreign policy has pretty much been laid down since the end of World War Two: America is the empire that runs the world, and nothing really changes that; only tweaks around the edges.

This picture really gets interesting when it comes to the Congress. This is supposedly “our” representative body, elected by the “we the people” to carry out our will. But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people vote based on personality, or social affiliation (rural/urban, black/white, male/female), and rationalize their decisions after the fact. We’ve all seen it. The lies and misdemeanors conducted by members their “team” are conveniently ignored, whereas the lies and misdemeanors of the other side are high treason. The “other side” is wholly responsible for ruining the country. Once “their side” gets in, they are mollified and ignore all the mounting problems that they were so incensed about earlier. They are simply “political fans” or “political cheerleaders” with absolutely no understanding of any major issue facing the country.

Is this really the path to effective governance?

In the real world, the same politician simply gets rubber-stamped year after year, often for their whole life if they so choose. That’s hard to rectify with the idea that we are choosing politicians based on accountability or reflecting deeply on issues which are important to us.

Besides, the average American has absolutely no understanding of the issues facing us today. Why would they? They are too busy working, or just trying to keep a roof over their heads, or acquiring yet another gong so that they can climb the career ladder and keep their kids in the appropriate class bubble. Yet we’re supposed to have information on issues from relations with Iran to alternative energy to tax policy? Give me a break!

When it comes to regulation, the main purpose of the Congress appears to be to subvert the will of the experts and be a means for big business and the moneyed interests to control the direction of the country.

They way it works is like this–for all intents and purposes, whoever has the most money wins any election at the national level. So politicians spend most of their time not governing, but raising campaign cash. This money comes from the only people with the kind of money to fund modern political campaigns–corporations and a wealthy donor class. These entities also own and control the media, and they determine who is “acceptable” and who is not, and destroy the career of anyone whom they see as not furthering their own interests. Politicians spend most of their time, not reading the policy recommendations of our finest minds, or assessing ongoing threats to humanity, but going out to dinner parties with millionaires and CEO’s.

That brings us to anthropogenic climate change. The highly-educated members of the technocracy, the ones with Ph.D.’s in things like atmospheric science and meteorology, the ones who work for the government in various capacities such as the National Weather Service or NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, they all know what’s happening. They know the grave threat to humanity that this issue presents, and yet they can do nothing. Why?

Because what we do is ultimately decided by a handful of corrupt politicians who are funded by corporations and the wealthy donor class. Those politicians routinely ignore the recommendations of the highly-trained experts in the field the government has retained and are on its own payroll.

If the Ph.D.’s actually controlled public policy, rather than sleazy, pandering yahoos (most of whom are lawyers), whose main “skill” is kibbutzing with millionaires on the golf course and pressing the flesh, how would things be different? Do you think we would still be ignoring our problems the way we are? And you can extend this into any number of issues similar to ACC – renewable energy policy, health care policy, transportation policy, internet regulations, copyright law; you name it, the list is almost endless. There are a lot of good ideas in our universities; too bad they will never have a change of being implemented. And as bad as economists are, the mainstream is actually far more moderate than the ultra-libertarian radicals on the payroll of think-tanks whom the politicians routinely listen to. Wouldn’t it be nice if the educated people who actually study the issues for the government actually had the power to decide what we should do about them?

Now, the main objection is that such people are “unaccountable.” Elections give us the feeling that we have a say, and that we have the ultimate control, but of course this is just an illusion. Things that the public strongly disproves of go on year after year, like the drug war, or our ongoing overseas military debacles. The military and the deep state have become practically governments unto themselves. Who is really running the show here? It seems like the “we the people” have no say at all. How does this square with the “accountability” thesis? No wonder trust in government is at an all-time low. Is our “democracy” just a myth? Our “elected” leaders preside over a self-running system just like the leaders of the old Soviet Union or Communist China. They just don’t have the comforting myths to distract and mollify them.

Our electoral “democracy” is over 200 years old. It works at the local level. I’m sure it was a beneficial change from the era of hereditary kings and unaccountable rulers. In a simple agrarian world of powdered wigs, horse-drawn carriages, muskets,and yeoman farmers, I’m sure it was a great improvement. But things change. In the days of nuclear reactors, the Internet, globalized corporations, GMO crops and climate change, does it really work anymore? Our world is just too large, too complex and too specialized not to be governed by experts. Do we really think that any one man or one woman has control over anything anymore? Aren’t we just fulfilling our primitive tribal instincts to have some sort of “leader” be in charge?

I realize that what I’m saying is sacrilege. I’m striking at a sacred myth of the America. But that in itself should tell us something: our belief in representative democracy is based more in religion than in logic. It’s a comforting myth that has outlived its usefulness.

The common objection will be that I am advocating giving unlimited power to “unaccountable” bureaucrats. But what I argue above is that they are really running the show anyway, with Clinton and Trump essentially being irrelevant clowns who are just in it for the money/fame. They are just a distraction. The fact that we survived eight years of George W. Bush is proof of that (as David Brin pointed out). Why don’t we just acknowledge the obvious and stop pretending (kind of like how we have to keep pretending that we live in a “free market”)?

Not having to constantly run for office has advantages. There is no legalized bribery. You spend your time working for the citizens who sign your paycheck rather than corporate donors. You are not subject to the fickle will of the people, which is manipulated by the corporate-owned media anyway. You have spent years of your life studying the issues you are making decisions about. You draw a salary, so you don’t have to raise cash from corporations to constantly run for elective office. In order to be bribed, you literally have to be bribed, which is illegal and allows for prosecution. It seems like there are lot less conflicts of interest in that system. The biggest problems are regulatory capture and the revolving door, that is, civil servants making decisions in order to curry favor or get a secure a place with those they are regulating rather than making good impartial choices in the public interest. Corporations poaching from government is also a problem. But no system is perfect, just better or worse. There are surely ways to cope with that. Our electoral system, on the other hand, seems like an anachronistic and pointless relic of history.

It seems to me we might be better off doing away with our parasitic political class, and just letting the technocracy run the show. Our presidential elections are clearly a farce. It’s just entertainment. Our elected representatives do not care what we think. They have no knowledge of the issues, and are often aggressively ignorant imbeciles whose only “training” is in manipulating the public and raising funds. It’s a gravy train where billions of dollars are annually poured down a black hole. All the myth of elections does is allow an even greater degree of control by wealthy oligarchs by pandering to the ignorant masses, which, face it, we all are on some level. Maybe it’s time for us to just acknowledge the way things are accomplished in the real world outside of the civics textbooks and work on improving and reforming that system rather than clinging to imaginary ideas which have no basis in reality. Sacrilege, I know, but oh well. Prove me wrong.

Afterwards, while Trump was filmed hastily disappearing in his car, Clinton told supporters at a debate watch party to keep fighting, telling them: “You saw tonight how high the stakes are…”

Architecture and Other Stuff

After the rather–er–grim nature of my last post (which still needed to be written), I think it’s time for some less heavy stuff.

This is inspiring: People enhanced the environment, not degraded it, over past 13,000 years. (Science Daily) If we have a future on this planet, THIS is what we need to pay attention to. This is a good example of the Permaculture vision in action–not only do we farm in a way that doesn’t undermine the long-term viability of the ecosystems that support us, but actually enhances and regenerates them. Apparently some cultures did practice this.

Norway to invest $1bn to create 10 ‘bike superhighways’ (Treehugger). Los Angeles needs these.

This is an old article from 2007, but I just found it. It should come as no surprise that traditional buildings perform better than modern ones.  It’s a study by Adam Architecture, a UK firm that specializes in traditional buildings.

Not all ancient buildings were energy efficient, According to legend, Nero had a rotating dining room. People have dismissed this as imaginary, but now archaeologists think it may have actually existed, and they think they know how it worked.

I had no idea until recently that there was an organization called Students for Classical Architecture. They have an awards program which looks like it only started last year, but The gallery of winners for 2015 is amazing: Students for Classical Architecture Design Awards 2015. Is this the beginning of a slow paradigm shift? I think I need to start practicing watercolor. No rotating dining rooms, though.

In a similar vein is this very good article: Making Room for Traditional Architecture (Traditional Building)

The Atlantic published an exciting history of drywall, prompting Lloyd Alter to wonder if we should really be using something else? Before drywall, we used either wood or lath and plaster, which holds up better, breathes nicely, and lends itself to artistic expression in a way that plaster does not:

We wrote about the stuff a few years ago in How did we end up with drywall? and quoted TreeHugger hero Steve Mouzon, who wrote:

“They call that boring white stuff we put on our walls “drywall” because so long as you keep it dry, you have a wall. But just as soon as it gets wet, it turns to messy mush. And even if it doesn’t fall apart, it loves to host mold and mildew and make your family sick…. . We need to learn how to build durable and resilient buildings like our great-grandparents did so that the summer shower is no reason to call the insurance adjustor; you simply wipe down the walls that got wet and never give it a second thought.”

In the Atlantic, [Haniya] Rae…quotes Steve Mouzon, who describes how houses in New Orleans that were built out of plaster or wood panelling survived Katrina nicely, but that millions of square feet of housing built with drywall had to be bulldozed…

“Mouzon, the architect who worked in New Orleans, has experimented with building wood-paneling systems that remove the gaps between wallboards altogether. ‘At the beginning, tradesmen don’t like it because they’re used to running their lines in the walls wherever,” says Mouzon. “But, once they see the system, there’s less thinking they have to do because it’s more organized. After a few jobs, it’s pretty much a wash in terms of cost.'”

Is it time to hang up on hanging drywall? (Treehugger) Also from Lloyd Alter: Is toast the insulation of the future (!!) ?

Here’s a very cool piece of organic architecture: The Wilkinson Residence (Quiet Corner)

I’ve written a lot about the Great Migration and its effects this year. The Smithsonian has a long article describing the history of it which is very much worth reading: The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration. Really, I see the history of the twentieth century in America as a tale of three Great Migrations: that of African-Americans out of Dixie as described in the article; that of a more mixed group of people from the Old industrial heartland and Northeast corridor to the Sunbelt, and that of Mexicans from Northern Mexico into the United States toward the end of the millennium. We tend to focus on politics as if they somehow arise in a vacuum, but really history follows from things like migrations.

You can see the second Great Migration in the list of largest cities in the United States. Sun Belt cities are in bold. Here’s 1940:

1.) New York, N.Y. 2.) Chicago, Ill. 3.) Philadelphia, Pa. 4.) Detroit, Mich. 5.) Los Angeles, Calif. 6.) Cleveland, Ohio  7.) Baltimore, Md. 8.) St. Louis, Mo. 9.) Boston, Mass. 10.)     Pittsburgh, Pa.

Here’s 2012:

1.) New York, N.Y. 2.) Los Angeles, Calif. 3.) Chicago, Ill. 4.) Houston, Tex. 5.) Philadelphia, Pa. 6.) Phoenix, Ariz. 7.) San Antonio, Tex. 8.) San Diego, Calif. 9.) Dallas, Tex. 10.) San Jose, Calif.

Where I live went from #11 in 1960 to not even in the top 20. Why do I live here again??

Frivolous, but here are 24 examples of really crappy product design

Alternative ways of living: My American dream led to a trailer park. And I couldn’t be happier (The Guardian)

Here’s another: Leanna runs an organic farm part time in Upstate New York (BBC):  “Leanna left college where she studied engineering, with $22,000 in student debt. Like many Millennials, she chose to pursue her passion instead of a high paying job. Young farmers list student debt, access to land an capital as their main challenges.”

This Washington D.C. family operates on solar power without the electric grid: Living Off the Electrical Grid in America’s Capital (The Atlantic)

Here’s a “chicken tractor on steroids” to help build organic soil. Of course, many farm animals literally are on steroids today 😉

It’s a not uncommon argument in environmental circles to hear that animal husbandry is inherently inefficient. After all, when you feed animals on grains and other food that could instead go to feed humans, you inevitably end up losing calories and expending more energy than you otherwise would for the same amount of plant-based food…But many permaculturists have a slightly different view: If animals are treated as part of a holistic landscape, using resources that would otherwise go to waste, and if we make sure we use every possible output from those animals—not just meat, eggs and dairy—but poop and even their natural scratching behaviors, then surely they can help us be more, not less, efficient?

We all know that McMansions are crap architecture, as well as energy inefficient. What makes them so aesthetically awful though? This post answers the question: McMansions 101: What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture? (McMansion Hell)

On the same note, we know that living in suburbia is alienating and depressing, but we don’t know why. This article attempts an explanation: Why Suburbia Sucks (Quartz)

…[I]t’s been difficult to elucidate in specific physical terms what it is about suburbia that makes it so hostile to humanity. To someone with no training in architecture, it’s often experienced as a great, non-articulated existential malaise, like depression. You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why. The same holds true in reverse; North Americans who have not travelled abroad extensively and don’t have a clear basis for comparison can be tongue-tied when asked to explain what exactly makes a non-sprawl city street “charming” or “cozy.” It’s telling that we have no widespread cultural vernacular for why classical urban settlements, which draw on millennia of intellectual background and corpuses of architectural knowledge, are pleasant. It’s because Americans took that inheritance and unceremoniously discarded it, consonantly with the rise of the mass-produced automobile. It irks me that many of us know, on some level, that we live in a dystopian nightmare but can’t say what makes it a dystopian nightmare.

If one hopes to avoid broad vagueries like “Designed for cars, not humans,” and instead to get specific, then there’s no single linchpin attribute that makes suburbia what it is. It’s an interdependent constellation of misanthropic zoning rules, building codes, and planning guidelines. My aim is to list as many of these as I’ve discovered and been able to formulate.

Similarly, a not-as-good-article There may be an evolutionary reason suburbia feels so miserable (Business Insider) Also from Quartz: American cities are designed for cars—which makes life worse for everyone.

Here’s What Happens When You Give $1,000 to Someone in Extreme Poverty (NewCo Shift)

The White Ghost Dance

On of the more popular pieces I wrote last year was called The Dying Americans (including among spammers promoting escorts in Dubai). It seemed to hit a nerve with a lot of people.

I think some of the main points of that piece may have gotten muddied somewhat, however. I argued that given bleakness of living in the horror show that the modern-day America has become, suicide is actually a rational option for many people. For a large and growing segment of the population, there truly is no hope. I’m less surprised by the rise in the suicide rate than the fact that it isn’t even higher than it is. I’m more amazed at what makes people go on in this vicious, hellish, Social Darwinist dystopia.

Furthermore, I argued that this was by design. I argued that eliminationism is an intentional, albeit unstated, policy of the ruling class of this country. From their perspective, it really would be more convenient, all things considered, if the excess population, would, you know, just sort of take care of themselves and not cause too much bother on their way out.

As my evidence, I noted that things like medical care and health services were being intentionally denied and curtailed by Republican governors of many states, even when it cost them nothing. There is simply no reason to do this besides ideology. They want their poor to die faster. And it’s working.

An 86-year-old Port St. Lucie man said he killed his wife while she slept because she was in poor health and he could no longer afford her medications…William J. Hager said he had been thinking about killing his wife Carolyn for several days because she was in pain…After Hager shot his wife, he went to his kitchen and drank coffee, called his daughters and later dialed 911, the affidavit said.

Records show the Hagers filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Staff at the Hands of St. Lucie County clinic say this is a tragic situation. They help people whose insurance won’t cover necessary medications. “These stories you hear from quite many people, that they actually decide whether they are going to pay the electric bill this month or buy the drug that may be keeping them alive,” said Andrew Passeri, Executive Director at Hands of St. Lucie County.

Port St. Lucie man accused of shooting wife because she was in pain & he couldn’t afford medications (WPTV)

Maine’s supposedly progressive city of Portland is on the verge of compounding the LePage-wrought human rights disaster by potentially shuttering the India Street Public Health Center, the city’s only public clinic that provides overdose antidote prescriptions, sexually transmitted infection testing, a needle-exchange program and an HIV positive primary health care clinic that even the local government acknowledges has a stellar track record…Some members of Portland’s all-Democrat city council are justifying putting this clinic on the austerity chopping block by trumpeting their simultaneous pursuit of a privatization scheme that will rely on a non-profit clinic, the Portland Community Health Center, which is eligible for federal funding. Yet language about “fiscal responsibility” and “transfer of services” cannot obscure the fact that the closure is one particularly devastating part of a larger push to slash public healthcare spending by a quarter, at a time the city should be expanding lifesaving services.

Why Portland, Maine Is Currently Exhibit A in How Austerity Can Make America’s Opioid Crisis Even Worse (Alternet)

The vulnerable are always the first to go.

The title of my post was inspired by The Dying Russians, a harrowing portrait of the morbid consequences of the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. That shock extracted a heavy death toll on the population that anyone would classify as a legitimate dieoff. The demographic fallout is felt even today, such as the skewed gender ratios (men died off at a higher rate than women, largely due to alcohol poisoning). Yet we are told that no such shock happened in America, just a short recession in 2008 that we have mostly recovered from. Yet the death rates are eerily similar, and they go back long before 2008. Is it possible our media propaganda machine is so powerful that a nation can collapse without us even knowing it? The evidence sure seems to indicate it. The old-style Soviets propagandists would be green with envy—the Americans have outdone them yet again!


The fact that the peasants are killing themselves in droves flies in the face of the Panglossian “You’ve never had it so good!!!” op-ed pieces regularly issuing from the mainstream media bullhorn. When the amounts of suicides and overdoses in your country is increasing by leaps and bounds every year, it acts as a potent refutation of the idea that every day in every way, things are getting better and better for everyone. Bigger screens are not much of a salve when a large and growing amount of your citizens are so tormented by life that they choose death as preferable to living in contemporary America.

The predictable “Even the poor have indoor plumbing,” rhetoric probably isn’t going to change the minds of many people in the post-industrial sacrifice zones of Middle America, but then again it isn’t meant to. It’s meant to be consumed by people in the elite citadels where extensive dynastic wealth and financialization ensure comfortable lifestyles and access to the all the credentials, gongs, and social connections it takes to get into the last few remaining high-paying non-service jobs in the government or corporate bureaucracy. It is designed to normalize the way things are and keep elites in their comfortable, filtered bubble, so that they can sleep with a clear conscience. You can rest easy in Palo Alto and the Hamptons tonight and not worry about the bodies of dead peasants piling up in morgues all across the country. You see, the peasantry is just to stupid to realize how good they’ve got it! I mean, even the Sun King Louis XIV didn’t have a smart phone, for Christ’s sake!!!

These articles are typically written by the children of those same elites doing unpaid internships after grad school in the world’s most fantastically expensive cities. They will become the opinion makers and shapers of the next generation, and their message will be the same: globalization was a roaring success; we created all the new jobs we needed to in the face of ongoing deindustrializtion and automation, and anyone left behind has only themselves to blame and is probably a racist to boot. “Why didn’t they just attend M.I.T. like I did?”

For example, Paul Krugman, who seem to be intent on shredding whatever credibility he once had, takes a pleasant stroll around the modern-day Versailles of Manhattan and declares everything better than ever in attempt to be the Marie Antoinette of his generation. Let them eat bagels!

If you want to feel good about the state of America, you could do a lot worse than what I did this morning: take a run in Riverside Park. There are people of all ages, and, yes, all races exercising, strolling hand in hand, playing with their dogs, kicking soccer balls and throwing Frisbees. There are a few homeless people, but the overall atmosphere is friendly – New Yorkers tend to be rushed, but they’re not nasty – and, well, nice.

Yes, the Upper West Side is affluent. But still, I’ve seen New York over the decades, and it has never been as pleasant, as safe in feel, as it is now. And this is the big bad city!

The point is that lived experience confirms what the statistics say: crime hasn’t been lower, society hasn’t been safer, in generations. ..

Will Fear Strike Out? (The Conscience of a Liberal)

Meanwhile, outside of the Acela corridor, things don’t look quite so rosy. People are dying at rates that would have been considered a national emergency between 1950 through 1970’s. But it’s not anymore. Why not? And why does no one care?

Middle-aged people laid off and unable to find work are taking another way out. They’re killing themselves.

Suicide rates are soaring, according to federal data released last week. Especially in economically depressed states and job-starved upstate New York. People in need of work are twice as likely to take their own lives as employed people, and people fired in their 40s and 50s find it hardest to get hired again.

That makes boosting economic growth a life-or-death issue for many. But you wouldn’t know it listening to President Obama and Hillary Clinton. President Obama whitewashes reality, claiming the “American economy is pretty darn good right now.”

How the state of the economy is literally killing people (NYPost)

Chicago is on pace for more than 600 homicides in a single year for the first time since 2003. The country’s third-biggest city has had more killings so far this year than the two larger cities — New York and Los Angeles — combined.

Gun violence surges in Chicago, where residents want to show ‘everything is not all bad’ (Washington Post)

As often noted in the passionate writings of Henry Giroux, poor Americans are becoming increasingly ‘disposable’ in our winner-take-all society. After 35 years of wealth distribution to the super-rich, inequality has forced much of the middle class towards the bottom, to near-poverty levels, and to a state of helplessness in which they find themselves being blamed for their own misfortunes.

According to Pew Research, in 1970 three of every ten income dollars went to upper-income households. Now five of every ten dollars goes to them.

The Social Security Administration reports that over half of Americans make less than $30,000 per year. That’s less than an appropriate average living wage of $16.87 per hour, as calculated by Alliance for a Just Society.

Numerous sources report that half or more of American families have virtually no savings, and would have to borrow money or sell possessions to cover an emergency expense. Between half and two-thirds of Americans have less than $1,000.

For every $100 owned by a middle-class household in 2001, that household now has just $72.

Not surprisingly, race plays a role in the diminishing of middle America. According to Pew Research, the typical black family has only enough liquid savings to last five days, compared to 12 days for the typical Hispanic household, and 30 days for a white household.

The evidence for the health-related disposability of poor Americans comes from a new study that finds nearly a 15 year difference in life expectancy for 40-year-olds among the richest 1% and poorest 1% (10 years for women). Much of the disparity has arisen in just the past 15 years.

It’s not hard to understand the dramatic decline in life expectancy, as numerous studies have documented the health problems resulting from the inequality-driven levels of stress and worry and anger that make Americans much less optimistic about the future. The growing disparities mean that our children will likely see less opportunities for their own futures.

Disposable Americans: The Numbers are Growing (Common Dreams)

But of course, these people are non-people, and these areas are non-areas. After all, since deindustrialization, we just created all sort of terrific new service jobs, didn’t we? Everything just worked out okay! Ignore the open-air drug markets, boarded up storefronts, tent cities and people with cardboard signs standing beside freeway off-ramps in flyover country. New York and San Francisco look better than ever, and that’s what matters to people who work for the six media conglomerates which manufacture ninety percent of what we see and hear every day.

The old Soviet model suppressed “free speech” and locked dissidents up in gulags. Under the American model, you’re “free” to say whatever you like, because it makes no difference whatsoever to the people in charge thanks to the influence of the mainstream media. And instead of gulags, “undesirables” are just deprived of the means of subsistence until they just sort of, you know, go away. Or maybe they are arrested for some sort of imaginary “crime” like drug possession or failing to pay a parking ticket. Even homelessness is a crime now. As Goethe said, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

As I said in my original article, they don’t have to kill you if they can get you to kill yourself. Judging by the all evidence, that’s been a roaring success:

Imagine that the rate of terrorism deaths in the US had risen dramatically over the past 15 years.

Imagine that this rise in deaths had been remarkably widespread, affecting almost all identifiable demographic groups.

Imagine if more than 40,000 people a year died from terrorist attacks in this country, rather than a bare handful.

Imagine if terrorism were one of the 10 leading causes of death in the US.

It’s almost an impossible hypothetical; the impact would simply be too massive to really grasp.

After all, though the impact of terrorist violence on the United States has been negligible since the September 11, 2001, attacks, we’ve already made massive changes to the basic functions of our system to combat it. We’ve tortured; we’ve jailed people without trial for a decade and a half; we’ve undertaken a system of vast warrantless surveillance; we’ve built an immense, and immensely expensive, infrastructure for combatting terrorism. All in the face of a threat that kills a negligible number of people.Yet the conditions I outlined above accurately describe another killer, one that attracts far less attention: suicide.

The National Center for Health Statistics recently released a major study, examining the national trends in suicide. The results are grim: The age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased a staggering 24% from 1999 to 2014. Increases were seen in every age group except for those 75 and above and in every racial and gender category except for black men. The national rate rose to 13 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014. Contrast that with homicide, which killed 5.1 Americans per 100,000 in 2013. We instinctively fear the murderer hiding in the bushes, but we are at far greater risk from ourselves.

America’s suicide epidemic has gotten worse (Business Insider)

More Americans are dying, a new report shows. For the first time in many years, the overall death rate ticked up in 2015, according to new federal data.

“Among the causes of death included in this report, increases between 2014 and 2015 in both crude and age-adjusted death rates were observed for Alzheimer’s disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, chronic lower respiratory diseases, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, septicemia, homicide, firearm-related injury, suicide, and unintentional injury and drug overdose,” the NCHS, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in its report.

U.S. Death Rate Rises, But Health Officials Aren’t Sure Why (NBC)

The number of white, non-Hispanic Americans dying aged between 45 and 54 years old has jumped significantly. If the mortality rate was still the same as between 1979 and 1998, half a million deaths between 1999 to 2013 could have been avoided, according to research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis are to blame, especially among the less educated, it found. Drug poisoning has already become a more common cause of death than lung cancer, and now suicide is poised to become more common, too.

The decline in caucasian Americans’ mortality bears resemblance to what happened during peak of the AIDS epidemic, which killed 650,000 people between 1981 and 2015. Public awareness of AIDS increased, and along with behavioral change and drug therapy, the disease was brought under control, but PNAS found that this generation taking drugs could “age into Medicare” in worse health than the current elderly.

US death rate increases for first time in a decade due to drugs, alcohol and suicide (The Independent)

It’s not a figment of your imagination. Eliminationism is real. It’s the Final Solution for the working class.


What obscures this is the fact that it’s not usually active elimination. Once and a while, it does become up-close and personal, such as in the significant amount of homeless people who are routinely shot and killed by police each year. My guess is the Black Lives Matter movement correctly inferred that all those stray bullets finding their way into black people across the country were just a more direct means of dealing with them than having to go through the complicated and expensive legal system.

Most police encounters do not end in people getting killed. But far too many do. Every two days, a black person is shot by the police. It can be easy for some to say that espousing a sense of fear for a routine police encounter is hyperbolic and counterproductive. But one can only say such a thing when those who look like them have not been deemed disposable by the state. In the past several years, we have been witness to more and more black men and women dying on the other side of the camera lens, and earlier this month we saw two more.

The stream of names of those who have been killed at the hands of the police feels endless, and I become overwhelmed when I consider all the names we do not know—all of those who lost their lives and had no camera there to capture it, nothing to corroborate police reports that named them as threats. Closed cases. I watch the collective mourning transpire across my social-media feeds. I watch as people declare that they cannot get out of bed, cannot bear to go to work, cannot function as a human being is meant to function. This sense of anxiety is something I have become unsettlingly accustomed to. The familiar knot in my stomach. The tightness in my chest. But becoming accustomed to something does not mean that it does not take a toll. Systemic racism always takes a toll, whether it be by bullet or by blood clot.

…Living under the perpetual and pervasive threat of racism seems, for black men and black women, to quite literally reduce lifespans. Black people face social and economic challenges—often deriving from institutionalized racism—in the form of disparities in education, housing, food, medical care, and many other things. But the act of interfacing with prejudice itself has profound psychological implications, resulting in the sorts of trauma that last long beyond the incidents themselves.

Perhaps just as important, according to research published this past December in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, simply perceiving or anticipating discrimination contributes to chronic stress that can cause an increase in blood-pressure problems, coronary-artery disease, cognitive impairment, and infant mortality. Black Americans do not have to directly experience police brutality to experience the negative health ramifications of its possibility. And that fear is not something grounded in paranoia. As President Obama noted in his speech after the deaths of Sterling and Castile, these disparities in treatment at the hands of the police are well-documented.

Racism, Stress, and Black Death (The New Yorker)

But then, again, homeless people and black criminals deserve to die, right?

Right? Certainly a lot of Americans think this way. And people wonder how the holocaust could have happened.

For the rest of the population,however,  it’s more passive elimniationism that rules the day. Here’s a brief sketch:

1.) Shrink the pool of jobs that pay enough to live on. Make it so that they are not able to sell their labor power at any price. Concentrate poverty in ghettos that can be safely be ignored by the people living outside of it.

2.) Increase the credential requirements for the remaining jobs in order to restrict them to the offspring of the affluent and well-connected. As people become more and more desperate for lifeboat jobs, jack up the price of these credentials into the stratosphere and profit $$$. It’s a whole new income steam for debt. Of course, most graduates will never get these jobs, just as not all people in a game of musical chairs will get a chair. That’s not an opinion, it’s just math. But don’t ever acknowledge that fact.

3.) Blame the people who didn’t get those jobs for their own predicament. Promote “rugged individualism.” There are an endless number of bingos out there: STEM degrees, worker retraining, become a plumber, McDonalds is always hiring, etc. Tell them that they just need to get more “skills” for the “jobs of the future,” or that they need to “Hop in the U-Haul” and “move to where the jobs are.” Once these internal economic refugees leave their decaying post-industrial hellholes and make their way to the bright lights of Seattle, L.A., Boston or Denver like modern-day Okies, their future will be bright, the pundits tell us. If they don’t, well, then they are just stubborn mules who deserve what they get. Here’s a prime example courtesy of The National Review:

The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves…It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. …

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

The Truth About These Dysfunctional Downscale Communities is the They Deserve to Die (Economists View)

3.) Use the media to normalize the situation. For example, the media constantly proclaims that the economy is doing great and the professional economist class tells us that the unemployment rate is only five percent. We’re at full employment!!! And college degree-holders make so much more money! If there is one reliably consistent message in the mainstream media, it is that a college degree is always a “good investment” and if you don’t get one you deserve to make sub-minimum wages, if you make any wages at all, that is.

4.) Restrict abortion so the peasants will continue to breed no matter how immiserated and desperate they become. Yes, they are worthless useless eaters, but you need the extra people to keep wages low, and the more extra people, the lower the wages. The excess people will sort themselves out, as per below.

5.) Promote the idea that people are simply paid “what they’re worth”. i.e. their “marginal productivity.” Argue that supply and demand and uneven power relations play no role whatsoever. After all, it’s been “scientifically proven” by the economists! Also, make sure and tell them “government can’t create jobs” and that the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around is because taxes are too high combined with an overly generous welfare state.

6.) Minimize public assistance to the greatest extent politically possible so workers are desperate. If some of them starve or die from preventable diseases, oh well, that’s just natural selection in action. Once they are desperate enough, they will take anything. Be sure and use racial animosity to help nurture this process—people will happily suffer if they know the people they hate are suffering more.

7.) Make sure guns and lethal opiates are plentiful and readily available to the general public. I’m a little skeptical that the opiate epidemic allegedly caused by doctor’s prescriptions just sort of “accidentally happened.” And gun culture is heavily promoted among the very bottom-most strata of the white working class. Those guns almost always end up in their own mouths, or pointed at their friends and relatives, rather than at the scary brown hordes or jack-booted government thugs of their fevered imaginations.

Days After Kids Go Back To School, They’re Already Being Shot (ThinkProgress)

8.) If people have the temerity not to quietly slink off into a corner and die, make sure you have plenty of security forces to cart them off to jail if they get uppity. The people in Americas vast carceral system, the world’s largest by far, become official non-persons. They are not counted as unemployed and they have no constitutional rights—slavery is 100% legal if convicted of a crime. Many prisoners work for pennies a day for some of the largest corporations in the world.

Jail is a big business, both for bail bondsman and for cash-strapped counties in the South (some of which are notorious for stopping out-of-state black people on any imaginable pretext so as to hold them up for bail money). Many court dockets, particularly in poor, populous locations, are completely swamped with cases without remotely enough resources to process everyone according to the rules of due process. One quick and easy shortcut is to load up the accused with as many charges as possible, demand a gigantic bail, and rely on fear and economic pressure to secure a guilty plea. (Some 97 percent of cases which are not dismissed are settled by plea bargaining.)

It’s hard to say how many legally innocent people are jailed in this way. At any given moment, roughly 646,000 people are in American jails, but there is also tremendous churn in and out of the jail system — 11.4 million admissions in 2014 alone.

The fact that millions of these people probably sat in jail for lack of money is nothing less than a moral abomination.

The grotesque criminalization of poverty in America (the Week)

9.) Normalize that using the media. If you have nothing to hide, why worry, right? It can’t happen to you, just get back to work. Maybe check out all the ways tech is going to totally transform your life!

10.) If the number of proles actually threatens to go down because of soaring death rate and plummeting birth rate, (despite #5), simply import from the bottomless pool of workers abroad. There are enough Hispanic line cooks and Indian engineers to last until the end of time—they breed like rabbits. The new electorate will be forever grateful for their shot at the “American Dream” and for getting them out of whichever failed state they came from, and will vote accordingly. Depict anyone who opposes this as a racist bigot. This is why both mainstream political parties, economists, and the media all support open borders.

The remaining “disciplined” workers will continue to be happy turkeys so long as they are regularly fed and watered by their owners. After all, the ones who got their heads lopped off clearly did something to deserve it, didn’t they? They will continue to think that even while Thanksgiving approaches.

Whether this plan was hatched in an apocryphal smoke-filled room or not (probably not), it’s pretty clear that, to paraphrase the malfunctioning Marco Rubio, “Let’s not pretend that the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing.”

The sad thing is the American people are happily going along with the program. They’re too busy being clawing each others’ eyes out thanks to media-manufactured “culture wars” to put up any effective resistance, unlike during the Great Depression. Either that, or they’re working two jobs to keep a roof over their head or heading off to school for yet another wildly expensive diploma so that some other poor sap ends up in living in their car instead of them.

Now the white working class are the nation’s new n*ggers:

His solution to every problem had always been work. Work harder. Work weekends. Work doubles. Work a second job. In Northeast Indiana, the epicenter of American manufacturing, everything was right there if you were just willing to work for it, so in the weeks after the announcement Setser had taken every available shift, increasing his hours and working 19 consecutive nights while still making it back home on school days to stand on the porch and wait for the bus.

Together between his overtime and Bowers’s small salary at another manufacturer in Fort Wayne, they had remained firmly in the middle class by finding ways to make their money stretch. When they wanted to drive to Florida for their first overnight vacation in a decade, Setser could volunteer for more overtime to save up the cash. When they wanted a new TV, he could spend the 10 percent premium he earned for working third shift. He had cashed out part of his 401(k) account to pay for his daughter’s braces, purchased some of their basic household items with credit cards and taken out a no-money-down loan on their $95,000 house.

He had never worried too much about saving money, because there was always more to make. Every night was another shift. Every week was another paycheck. It was Day One to Day Dead, but now a few executives from Mexico had begun visiting the UTEC factory to prepare for the move and the layoff was closing in.

From belief to outrage: The decline of the middle class reaches the next American town (Washington Post)

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, there was an urgent and acute perception that we were in a crisis, and the people in charge needed to do something about it, or else. By contrast, today “we” have successfully eliminated a large portion of the workforce, and degraded a swath of the United States the size of Western Europe down to sub-Saharan African levels of poverty, violence and destitution without so much as a hint of resistance. Or even an acknowledgement from economists and the media that it even happened!

The existence of a professional class of economists and the media is the major difference between then and now, and they serve their purpose admirably. Every culture has ways to get rid of undesirables; some ways are just more direct than others.


They are what the popular blog post at More Crows than Eagles dubbed the Unecessariat. These are the people who just have no role in society anymore, so we’re just happy to stand by and watch them die, whistling past the graveyard hoping that we won’t become one of them someday. First they came for the trade unionists, but I did not speak out because i was not a trade unionist…

The viral article offers a visceral boots-on-the-ground depiction of the silent holocaust happening in middle America:

A typical day would include three overdoses, one infant suffocated by an intoxicated parent sleeping on top of them, one suicide, and one other autopsy that could be anything from a tree-felling accident to a car wreck (this distribution reflects that not all bodies are autopsied, obviously.) You start to long for the car wrecks.

The workers would tell jokes. To get these jokes you have to know that toxicology results take weeks to come back, but autopsies are typically done within a few days of death, so generally the coroners don’t know what drugs are on board when they cut up a body. First joke: any body with more than two tattoos is an opiate overdose (tattoos are virtually universal in the rural midwest). Second joke: the student residents will never recognize a normal lung (opiates kill by stopping the brain’s signal to breathe; the result is that fluid backs up in the lungs creating a distinctive soggy mess, also seen when brain signalling is interrupted by other causes, like a broken neck). Another joke: any obituary under fifty years and under fifty words is drug overdose or suicide. Are you laughing yet?

And yet this isn’t seen as a crisis, except by statisticians and public health workers. Unlike the AIDS crisis, there’s no sense of oppressive doom over everyone. There is no overdose-death art. There are no musicals. There’s no community, rising up in anger, demanding someone bear witness to their grief. There’s no sympathy at all. The term of art in my part of the world is “dirtybutts.” Who cares? Let the dirtybutts die.

The article points out that the increased deaths are equivalent to the AIDS epidemic at its height. Yet there is no alarm, no sense of crisis or urgency on the part of elites or the general public. Instead, we are all told that this is the new order of things. The people in the shrinking winners circle are there because they are better people, you see, and they are the only ones that matter. So you’d better do what it takes to join them, or else. Maybe invent the next Facebook. And God help you if your children don’t graduate at the top of the class.

Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!

It wasn’t always that way, of course:

In an interview with the US PBS service (December 26, 2013) – Tracking the breakdown of American social institutions in ‘The Unwinding’ – George Packer described the “breakdown of institutions” in this way:

“And a social contract that sort of underwrote all of them, a contract that said if you work hard, if you essentially are a good citizen, there will be a place for you, not only an economic place, you will have a secure life, your kids will have a chance to have a better life, but you will sort of be recognized as part of the national fabric. And over the generation of my adult life, going back to the late 70s, that fabric has come unraveled, and the contract has essentially been torn up.”

He implicates policy makers who abandoned support from promoting a well-paid workforce:

“And, instead, workers became disposable. Their wages flattened out. And the benefits of our free enterprise system went more and more to the top. And so we have more of a society of winners and losers.”

The neo-liberal race to the bottom is destroying communities and killing workers (BillyBlog)

And the media is solely focused on the winners. After all, they’re the only ones with the money to buy the advertisers’ products.

Competitive individualism and the cult of personal failure have ensured that, unlike a disease, we will perceive ourselves as deserving of our fate. You can’t cure AIDS by studying harder, after all, and diseases don’t care what your IQ is. The above article correctly asserts that the destruction of any sort of sense of community explains why the white working class, just like the blacks before them, are as lambs to the slaughter.


The original apostles of the Market promulgated it as the best and most effective way to ensure collective prosperity for all. It was a utilitarian ideal – the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Sure, some unfortunate folks get thrown under the bus from time to time, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, after all. The ends always justify the means, argued the great Liberal economists.

They said this about the Enclosure Movement, and they said it again with Globalization. It will make us all better off in the long run, you’ll see. Just a generation or two of suffering during the unfortunate “transition period ” and our grandchildren will be living lives “we can’t even dream of!” After all, it’s a law of nature, just like gravity.

Now, by contrast, they don’t even try to roll out those arguments anymore, except for some naive center-leftists like the Paul Krugmans of the world. Instead, the Market (and the University system) is now promoted as sort of a Social Darwinist winnowing mechanism designed to cull the hapless and weak. Those who prosper are invariably the “fittest” of the human species because they get the highest grades in school and work the longest hours. Or maybe they can find an economic niche to exploit for a while (professional entertainers, athletes, motivational speakers, nutritional supplement peddlers, etc.).

The rest of us, by contrast, are evolutionary dead weight and would be better off dying as soon as possible to decrease the surplus population (Dickens’ clever dialogue for Ebenezer Scrooge was a sly dig at Thomas Malthus). Pure, unrestrained, unceasing, unremitting, constant struggle and competition is what ensures the “progress” of the human species in the minds of an increasing number of people, including influential libertarians and the alt-right. Eliminationism is just a part of the process. It’s for the good of the species, you see.

In other words, a large part of the population simply deserves to die. Suicide is seen as merely sort of a Social Darwinist “cleansing” of the “weak” from the population. This is in contrast to older ideas which once saw poverty in a wealthy society as something to be ashamed of, and something that could, in theory, at least be ameliorated if not eliminated outright.

Instead, the new Market apostles argue, poverty should really be maximized, because people are only poor if they are inferior. The Market distributes its rewards fairly, and this lets us identify those who are feckless and weak, and the sooner they are culled, the faster the advancement of the human species to it ultimate goal: the creation of artificial life and the expansion of humanity out into the stars. Or perhaps the ushering in of the “Singularity” where the remaining survivors of the Market mechanism will live as immortal cyborg gods traversing all time, space and dimension for all eternity. More subtle arguments simply point out decreased levels of interpersonal (but not institutional) violence and the increasing incomes of those inside the winners’ circle. The ubiquitous Stephen Pinker is the go-to guy here. And Pinker does not hide his love for “non-zero-sum, cooperative” markets as the driving force behind his utopia, making him a very convenient intellectual for the powers-that-be. “The Market makes even the poor rich,” they proclaim. It also makes a lot of them dead.

Societies have operated under Malthusian mechanisms before, of course. But this was seen as an unfortunate consequence of the way the world worked. It was conceived of as a feature of the natural world – food production increased arithmetically while population increased geometrically, leading to inevitable shortages. The power of animal reproduction was greater than the power of the earth to sustain it. But the idea that we should intentionally design human systems to eliminate large portions of the population even in times of unparalleled plenty, well, that’s something totally new.


The thing is, it’s not just the poor who are dying. As the terror of falling into vast, yawning chasm of the underclass becomes an ever-present existential dread, the unremitting strain and constant pressure of keeping up is extracting a heavy toll even on the alleged “best and the brightest.” The media-supported notion that college degree holders are doing just fine flies in the face of the evidence:

Workplace suicides are sharply on the rise internationally, with increasing numbers of employees choosing to take their own lives in the face of extreme pressures at work. Recent studies in the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan all point to a steep rise in suicides in the context of a generalized deterioration in working conditions.

Rising suicides are part of the profound transformations in the workplace that have taken place over the past 30 years. These transformations are arguably rooted in the political and economic shift to globalization that has radically altered the way we work…today’s globalized workplace is characterized by job insecurity, intense work, forced redeployments, flexible contracts, worker surveillance, and limited social protection and representation. Zero-hour contracts are the new norm for many in the hospitality and healthcare industries, for example.

Working Ourselves To Death: The psychological consequences of corporate abuse (The New Republic)

One evening in 2007, Jan Yoder of Normal, Illinois noticed that her son Jason seemed more despondent than usual. Yoder had been a graduate student in organic chemistry at Illinois State University but after incurring $100,000 in student loan debt, he struggled to find a job in his field. Later that night, Jason, 35, left the family’s mobile home. Concerned about her son’s mood, Jan Yoder decided in the early morning hours to go look for him on campus, where a professor she ran into joined her in the search. The two of them discovered his body in one of the labs on campus and called campus police at 8:30AM. 32 minutes later, Jason was declared dead due to nitrogen asphyxiation.

When the story was posted on several different sites in 2007 and 2008, the Internet chatter was not always kind to the dead man. While many expressed great sympathy for Yoder and ranted against the student lending system, others were quick to invoke the “personal responsibility” argument — “it was his fault;” “why did he take out that amount of loans?;” “Mr. Yoder took out those loans . . . he had an obligation to pay them back.” — and denigrate him…

The Ones We’ve Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides (The Huffington Post)

Let’s Talk: Suicide And Student Loan Debt (The College Investor)

The night after Cameron’s death, a sophomore at Gunn named Martha Cabot put up a YouTube video that eventually logged more than 80,000 views, and comments from parents all over the country. Sitting in her bedroom in a T-shirt, with curls falling loose from her ponytail, she confirmed many parents’ worst fears about themselves. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” Martha said. “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She was recording the video mostly for parents, she explained, because apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention. “We’ll do just fine, even though we got a B‑minus on that chem test,” she said. “And no, I won’t join the debate team for you.”

The Silicon Valley Suicides (The Atlantic)

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds, a 128% increase since 1980 (The Jason Foundation)

Meanwhile, the usual suspects will argue that such people deserved their fate. In the libertarian marketplace, you always get what you deserve. And that includes death.


Neoliberalism wants to achieve a utopia by neutering nation states. In the service of this utopian goal it is willing to kill a lot of people, not in battlefields or gulags, but in their own homes and communities. If you cannot make it into the lifeboats, well, that’s that’s no one’s fault but yours.

But all this means is that the conflict is no longer between nations, but between a global class of elites and the broad class of citizens within their own counties without money or connections. In this struggle, the elites are unified. They meet each another at Davos regularly. They vacation in Dubai or at the Olympics. Their kids go to the same universities (Harvard, Stanford, etc.). They may speak different first languages, but they all converse in English. They know each other by their first names. A lot of them are economists.

The several billion members of the working class, however, have never been more divided. Even workers in the same industry in the same country see themselves as competitors and enemies in the musical chairs game.

It is said that humans divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. For the elites, the in-group is other elites, and the out-groups are their own fellow citizens. And those citizens are likely to be greeted with stun grenades and tear gas from the internal police forces supported by their tax dollars if they resist. It turns out that world peace and rising incomes for the Chinese comes at a price. It’s war all right – but war by economic means.

A utopian ideology determined to subsume the whole world no matter how many people it kills. Where have we seen that before? The difference is, Neoliberalism appears to be succeeding where Communism failed. As advancing technology becomes more mature, the window of resistance will soon be forever closed, if it isn’t already. The Internet, supposedly a tool for uniting us, has been the greatest weapon in dividing us thanks to the media filters that only expose us to what we want to hear. Any visit to an online comments section will confirm that. Everyone can indulge their own biases and believe their own facts, tailor-made to order. And the digital tools of our economic liberation really just lead to wealth concentration to a greater extent than ever before, along with a strengthening of elite power and a loss of jobs. Now, the reach of global corporations is infinite, as is the spying power of the states that exclusively serve them . The rest of us will just have to fend for ourselves—under Neoliberalism, governments are just impotent hollow states. You’re on your own.

It is a digital boot stamping on the human face forever.

What [recent research] tells is almost identical to what has already been narrated for Russia and Greece. And what is responsible for the increasing death rates is neoliberal economic policy, neoliberal trade policy, and the polarization and impoverishment of a large part of society. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, death rates soared, lifespans shortened, health standards decreased all throughout the Yeltsin administration, until finally President Putin came in and stabilized matters. Putin said that the destruction caused by neoliberal economic policies had killed more Russians than all of whom died in World War II, the 22 million people. That’s the devastation that polarization caused there.

Same thing in Greece. In the last five years, Greek lifespans have shortened. They’re getting sicker, they are dying faster, they’re not healthy. Almost all of the British economists of the late 18th century said when you have poverty, when you have a transfer of wealth to the rich, you’re going to have shorter lifespans, and you’re also going to have emigration. The countries that have a hard money policy, a creditor policy, people are going to emigrate…Now, the question is, in America, now that you’re having as a result of this polarization shorter lifespans, worse health, worse diets, where are the Americans going to emigrate? Nobody can figure that one out yet…

So it looks… this trend looks very bad. If you want to see where America is going demographically, best to look at Greece, Latvia, Russia, and also in England. Dr. Miller has done studies of health and longevity, and he’s found that the lower the income status of any group in England, the shorter the lifespan. Now, this is very important for the current debate about Social Security. You’re having people talk about extending the Social Security age because people are living longer. Who’s living longer in America? The rich are living longer. The wealthy are living longer. But if you make under $30,000 a year, or even under $50,000 a year, you’re not living longer.

Neoliberalism lowers life expectancy (Washington’s Blog)

The stories have become all too familiar in Japan, though people often do their best to ignore them. An elderly or middle-aged person, usually a man, is found dead, at home in his apartment, frequently right in his bed. It has been days, weeks, or even months since he has had contact with another human being. Often the discovery is made by a landlord frustrated at not receiving a rent payment or a neighbor who notices an unpleasant smell. The deceased has almost no connections with the world around him: no job, no relationships with neighbors, no spouse or children who care to be in contact. He has little desire to take care of his home, his relationships, his health. “The majority of lonely deaths are people who are kind of messy,” Taichi Yoshida, who runs a moving company that often cleans out apartments where people are discovered long after they die, told Time magazine. “It’s the person who, when they take something out, they don’t put it back; when something breaks, they don’t fix it; when a relationship falls apart, they don’t repair it.”

These lonely deaths are called kodokushi. Each one passes without much notice, but the phenomenon is frequent enough to be widely known. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported there were 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013, but some researchers estimate that because of significant under-counting, the true figure is closer to 30,000. In any case, the frequency of kodokushi has been on the rise since they emerged in the 1980s.

But the increase in deaths of despair may not be unique to Japan. In November of last year, Nobel Prize–winning economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case reported a reversal in one of the most reliable and reassuring trends in modern public health: A big slice of the American populace was dying faster than expected. Deaton and Case, a pair of Princeton economists who happen to be married to each other, specifically found that the mortality rate for white people aged 45–54 without a college education had increased dramatically between 1999 and 2013. The increase ran counter to all recent historical precedent, and it contrasted with concurrent decreases among black and Hispanic people in the U.S. and nationwide decreases in all other rich countries. “Half a million people are dead who should not be dead,” Deaton told the Washington Post. “About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with [deaths from] HIV-AIDS.” Deaton said the increase is so contrary to longstanding trends that demographers’ first reaction would be to say, “‘You’ve got to have made a mistake. That cannot possibly be true.’”

Alienation is killing Americans and Japanese (Nautilus)

Economic growth is creating a world where more and more people want to kill themselves, and more and more of them are dying alone. Individualism, exclusion, social isolation, and capitalism always go hand in hand.

The dieoff is global.


We talk about suicide prevention. But we never consider the social factors that drive people to suicide in the first place: the alienation, the despair, the struggle to secure any kind of paying work, the uncertainty as to whether you’ll be able to keep it, the debt burdens and associated harassment, the abuse and bullying in the workplace, the competition and ranking from birth on, the individualism, the social isolation, the lack of close personal relationships, the pressure to succeed, the shaming if you don’t, “no money no honey,” the culture of extreme overwork and “the devil take the hindmost” social attitudes. It’s hard to see smartphones and big screen TVs making up for all this.

It’s well-known that drug abuse is less a problem in healthy societies, despite drugs being just as common, and just as addictive. So if people are overdosing at epidemic rates, does that not tell us something? Can this be measured in GDP or income figures? Karl Polanyi wrote: “…of course, a social calamity is primarily a cultural not economic phenomenon that can be measured by income figures or population statistics…Some who would readily agree that life in a cultural void is no life at all nevertheless seem to expect that economic needs would automatically fill that void and make life appear livable under whatever conditions. This assumption is heavily contradicted by  anthropological research…” In other words, rising incomes and computer gadgets do not compensate for a working atmosphere which amounts to psychological torture.

The hidden epidemic from accountt1234

It has been said that having children is a sort of referendum on the future. But not only has the birthrate sunk to historic lows, but even the people who are already alive are deciding that it’s just not worth living. Did someone forget to tell them about the Mars rockets???

Polanyi cites the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians as an example of an attempt to revive a dying culture destroyed by the inexorable forces of Market and globalization. Given the  of Trump campaign’s emphasis on bringing back manufacturing jobs from overseas, kicking out foreigners, and “Making America Great Again™” I think it makes sense to see the Trump campaign as sort of a “Ghost Dance for White Americans.” It’s likely to be ultimately just as effective.


“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
–Lao Tzu

At the end, I’ve no solutions to offer. Maybe, however, we should acknowledge that the way we’re going has been a failure. It’s going to lead to a lot of death, if not complete and total social breakdown. It doesn’t matter if you go faster if you’re headed in the wrong direction. Maybe we should ditch the econometric and productivist agenda rammed down our throats. Maybe we should stop listening to the mainstream media and treat economics like the pseudoscience it is. Maybe we should stop fighting our fellow citizens all the time in media-manufactured culture wars. Maybe we should acknowledge that the Fordist economy is gone for good, and that we aren’t going to automatically create enough good jobs for everyone via “impersonal market forces.” Maybe we should look for different social models, before it is too late. Maybe we should take the stigma off the unemployed and quit worshiping at the altar of the Protestant work ethic. Maybe we should cultivate some goddamn empathy instead of behaving like crabs in a bucket all the time. Maybe we should realize we shall all hang together, or we shall all hang separately. Maybe we should recognize that most of us are losing out under the current system. Maybe we should find a way to climb out of our invisible boxcars.

Maybe we should fight back for once.

Free Trade and War

In my discussion of the The Great Transformation I mentioned that Polanyi attributed the First World War and the breakdown of the Hundred Years Peace to the tensions brought about by free trade, especially in regards to imperialism.

A number of economists have also come to the same conclusion. There are a few basic theories of the underlying mechanism that caused free trade to end in the War. One of them is described in this post by economist Branko Milanovic. In it, he reviews a book called “The First World War, an Agrarian Interpretation” by Avner Offer which came out in 1991. I’m going to paraphrase his summary, so you should definitely check out the original post, or even the book if you can.

Free trade and war: a review of Avner Offer’s “The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation” (globalinequality)

The basic problem is simple: every country has a certain finite number of workers, and they can either work in the factories producing manufactured goods or in the fields producing food.

In order to produce enough goods for export, you need to have your workers laboring in the factories. But without workers in the fields, you will not have enough food to feed them and your workers will starve.

If you keep workers in the fields, however, you will be able to feed yourself, but you will not be able to industrialize, as the workers will be stuck in low-value added raw commodity production (e.g. grain, cotton) instead of high-value-added manufacturing. In order to make industrialization viable, you need to have a huge pool of landless laborers desperate enough to provide the cheap labor needed to run the factories. But then, where will you get your food from?

In addition, you have two internal vested interests at loggerheads. The landowners derive their income from selling crops, principally grain (corn), and they want as high a price as possible. They also want high land rents.

Meanwhile the factory owners want grain as cheap as possible. The major expense in of manufacturing goods is the labor it takes to produce them, and wages are primarily set by the price of grain. Manufacturers want cheap land and cheap grain, so that they can pay their workers as little as possible. They need to pay their workers as little as possible in order to have a chance to be competitive in export markets (e.g. modern-day China)

So, in other words, to become an industrial power, you need to move your workers from the farms to the factories without having them starve in the process. Since labor is major factor in the price of manufactured goods, you also need to keep your factory wages as low as possible, so that you can undersell your competition. Finally, you cannot allow cheaper imports to undercut your own manufactured goods, otherwise you will never be able to industrialize.

Every major industrial power had to manage this tradeoff. Balancing all of this stuff is key the understanding the nineteenth century and the run up to the First World War.

The solution the British hit upon was to repeal the Corn Laws beginning in 1846. The Corn Laws specified that you could not import corn (the generic term for grain, not what we North Americans call corn), unless the price rose above a certain level. This protected to English landowners and farmers. If the Corn Laws were repealed, there would be no protection for domestic grain producers and the price would fall below what English farmers could compete with. Much of this grain came from the great breadbaskets of America and Russia. The repeal of the laws is considered a watershed where the needs of the merchants finally won over the needs of the great landowners (and thus the final nail in the coffin for feudalism). “Market Liberals,” or what we now call economists, were the driving force behind this act.

By repealing the Corn Laws, grain could be imported as cheaply as possible and the workers could be paid low enough wages to make Britain competitive in manufacturing.  Additionally, by destroying the rural economy, the landless laborers would provide the grist for the “Satanic Mills.”

So Britain would import all of the food it needed to feed its workers from the rest of the world. It would pay for the grain by selling high-value-added manufactured goods. This would free up farmers the land and force them into the factories to become the footloose industrial proletariat. Problem solved!

But by becoming dependent on imports of cheap grain from overseas to feed their people, Britain’s position became much more precarious. Any disruption to grain imports would cause prices to rise threatening that delicate balance. The newly immiserated proletariat (as described by Engels et. al.) might revolt if it could no longer afford to buy bread, or even turn to *gasp* socialism!

Because it was now dependent on grain from overseas, Great Britain could be starved into submission by a naval blockade or trade sanctions. The only solution was to have a powerful enough navy to prevent this from happening. In fact, free trade made it necessary! As Milonovich puts it: “…specialization and international division of labor directly led to the need for a strong military. Free trade was underwritten by arms.” As Karl Polanyi describes:

International free trade involved no less an act of faith. Its implications were extravagant. It meant that England would depend for her food supply upon overseas sources; would sacrifice her agriculture, if necessary, and enter on a new form of life under which she would be part and parcel of some vaguely conceived world unity of the future; that this planetary community would have to be a peaceful one, or, if not, would have to be made safe for Great Britain by the power of the Navy; and that the English nation would face the prospects of continuous industrial dislocations in the firm belief in its superior inventive and productive ability. However, it was believed that if only the grain of all the world could flow freely to Britain, then her factories would be able to undersell all the world. Again, the measure of determination needed was set by the magnitude of the proposition and the vastness of the risks involved in complete acceptance. Yet less than complete acceptance would have spelt certain ruin. (p. 138)

As Ha-Joon Chang argues, another motivation for the repeal of the corn laws was to create a large enough market for grain such that other countries would not industrialize, but choose instead to continue to specialize in agriculture and raw materials for Britain’s industry. That is, they would prefer to produce for Britain’s market rather than to try and pull off the same trick of gutting their own rural economy in favor of industrialization. And he points out that Corn Laws were only repealed AFTER Britain had gained a first-mover advantage in high-end manufacturing through a series of low tariffs on imported raw materials and high tariffs on imported manufactured goods.

The repeal of the Corn Law is these days commonly regarded as the ultimate victory of Classical Liberal economic doctrine over wrong-headed mercantilism. Although we should not underestimate the role of economic theory in the policy shift, many historians more familiar with the period point out that it should probably be understood as an act of ‘free trade imperialism’ intended to ‘halt the move to industrialization on the Continent by enlarging the market for agricultural produce and primary materials’.

Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective; p. 23

However, it turned out that other countries were not satisfied keeping their workforce laboring in the fields. They wanted to get in on the industrialization act. Chief among these countries was Germany.

So Germany, too had to build a strong military to ensure that adequate supplies of grain would flow to it. Germany’s grain came from areas of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Ensuring that they would have enough food to feed their people would continue to be an obsession of German leadership well into the twentieth century. Hitler would refer to this idea as “Lebensraum” (living space), and planned to seize the breadbasket of the Ukraine to feed a growing German population (and invade the Caucasus to ensure an abundant supply of oil for industry).

So, to make this happen, Germany, too, needed to become a military superpower. Germany built up a huge Navy at this time to ensure ships carrying grain from overseas could get to it and it could not be blockaded by the British or anyone else. The British very clearly perceived the German drive to create a world-spanning navy as a clear and present danger. While Britain and France had a vast territory of overseas colonies to exploit, Germany (and Italy) had no such advantage and instead trained their imperialist ambitions on the continent itself.

These military and colonial rivalries were the seed of the alliances that led to the First World War. Milanovich says: “It thus gradually dawned on both British and German military planners that the most effective way to fight the enemy was to disrupt its food supplies and the surest way to remain invulnerable was to have a navy powerful enough to repel all such attempts by the other side.” He concludes from the book:

Unlike those who…interpreted Ivan Bloch and Norman Angell to have believed that increasing interaction and economic links between the countries would make the war unthinkable, Offer implicitly argues the very opposite. It is precisely the decision to specialize in the production of manufactures…that led to the need to have a war machine and ultimately to the war itself…World War I was in effect the first war of globalization.

While international division of labor makes the costs of wars exorbitant for all participants, it also requires, in order that the system be maintained, a permanent armed underpinning. But that permanent armed underpinning by itself renders the war more likely because it leads more than one power to make the same calculation and come to the same conclusions…More diversified, less autarkic, countries become much more productive but at the cost of being more fragile and brittle to any disruption.

Polanyi argues that imperialism was driven by the need for overseas markets:

The import tariffs of one country hampered the exports of another and forced it to seek for markets in politically unprotected regions. Economic imperialism was mainly a struggle between the Powers for the privilege of extending their trade into politically unprotected markets. Export pressure was reinforced by a scramble for raw material supplies caused by the manufacturing fever. Governments lent support to their nationals engaged in business in backward countries. Trade and flag were racing in one another’s wake. Imperialism and half-conscious preparation for autarchy were the bent of Powers which found themselves more and more dependent upon an increasingly unreliable system of world economy. And yet rigid maintenance of the integrity of the international gold standard was imperative. This was one institutional source of disruption…

Milanovich adds a footnote concerning the book’s description of opposition to mass immigration during the first period of globalization: “…the anti-immigrant attitude of the (White) working class which saw in Asian labor a competitor against which they were bound to lose, the rise of populist politicians, inconsistent racial stereotyping… seizure of would-be migrants’ assets…and finally outright ban of Asian migration….” Of course, this is merely evidence of the Double Movement in action–people don’t want to constantly be exposed to foreign competition that undermines their wages by choice. Footloose labor and migration from poor areas to rich, both internally and externally is a feature of the Market-based world. There is no sense of place or culture.

The agrarian interpretation fits well with another essential ingredient to industrialization: fossil fuels. Not only do you need to feed your people, but you also need to have sufficient energy to fund the machines that make industrialization possible. Just as with grain, you can import it from elsewhere, but this makes you vulnerable. Germany and Britain both suffered declining fossil fuel reserves early on and turned to imports. Britain could count on the U.S. for both food and fuel, but Germany had fewer options. A popular interpretation a few years back saw the Berlin-Baghdad railway as a major cause of the war.

Milanovic has written about the causes of the war before. He favors and interpretation of Lenin/Hobson/Luxenberg. This interpretation would probably be considered in line with Polanyi’s thinking as well.

In this view, the global Market also contributes the the war. There is a hundred year’s peace based on financial interdependence, true. But what happens is that overproduction combined with extreme income inequality inside countries means that the workers are too poor to consume all the goods they are producing (sound familiar?). In order to provide the necessary export markets, colonial trade blocks are established where competitors are excluded behind various trade barriers, otherwise you will have not enough industrial output to employ your people, or raw materials to feed your industry. This interdependence on the rest of the world, and the attempts to control it led inevitably to the outcome of the major powers going to war with each other.

Here’s a good summary from Pseudoerasmus’ blog (who argues against it):

According to this interpretation the war was caused by imperialist competition, embedded in the domestic economic conditions of the time: very high income and wealth inequality, high savings of the upper classes, insufficient domestic aggregate demand, and the need of capitalists to find profitable uses for surplus savings outside their own country. In the early twentieth century, finding an external investment outlet for the surplus savings meant being in physical control of a place, and making such investment profitable required that other possible competitors be excluded even at the cost of a war…

This “competitive struggle for markets” led to the exploitation of the colonies. Economic success required creating colonies, protectorates, or dependencies, and introducing what Paul Bairoch has called the colonial contract. The colonial contract was defined by the following elements: colonies could trade only with the metropolis, with goods transported on the metropolis’s ships, and colonies could not produce manufactured goods. The scramble for colonies in Africa was fueled by the interests of European capitalists…A similar, almost equally brutal, scramble for new territories took place in Siberia, where Russia expanded eastward, and in the Americas, where the United States expanded westward to annex Mexican territories and southward to reinforce political control…

At the turn of the twentieth century, the argument linking colonialism to domestic maldistribution of income was made by John Hobson in his book Imperialism: A Study…As Hobson put it, “it is not industrial progress that demands the opening up of new markets and areas of investment, but mal-distribution of consuming power which prevents the absorption of commodities and capital within the country” (p. 85). There is an entire tradition of linking domestic maldistribution of income to foreign expansion going back to Marx, even if Marx did not develop it as thoroughly as did Hobson, Luxemburg, and Lenin…

This article adds some additional details:

Writing in “Who Stands to Gain?”on the eve of World War I, Lenin saw the arms race as a source of super-profit for capitalist investors: In Europe, “the states that call themselves ‘civilised’, is now engaged in a mad armaments hurdle-race. In thousands of ways, in thousands of newspapers, from thousands of pulpits, they shout and clamour about patriotism, culture, native land, peace, and progress – and all in order to justify new expenditures of tens and hundreds of millions of rubles for all manner of weapons of destruction – for guns, dreadnoughts, etc. … the renowned British firm Armstrong, Whitworth & Co … engaged mainly in the manufacture of ‘armaments’ declared a dividend of 12. percent. Dividends of 12.5 per cent mean that capital is doubled in 8 years. and this is in addition to all kinds of fees to directors, etc.”

War, for imperialism, is not only used to conquer and control the colonies and to prevent the development of socialism, but also to compete with other imperialist powers. Periods of peace, says Lenin, are “nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars.” World War I, to Lenin, could only be understood as an inter-imperialist war.

The superprofits of imperialism enable the capitalists to buy off the workers in the home country….According to Lenin, companies in the developed world exploit workers in the developing world where wages are much lower. The increased profits enable these companies to pay higher wages to their employees “at home” (that is, in the developed world), thus creating a working class satisfied with their standard of living and more inclined towards imperialism and war.

That “free trade is underwritten by arms” is an often overlooked fact. Just like trading doesn’t take place without some sort of authority with recourse to violence to make sure that people don’t renege (police, courts, sheriffs. etc.), at the global level you need a global “sheriff” to make sure that others who don’t participate are punished. Britain once filled this role, and now the United States does. That’s why we have the military budget we do. It has nothing to do with “defending our freedom” and everything to do with “defending their profits.” And, as always, it’s the ordinary working people who die to make sure that continues.

Free Trade and Food Security

Earlier, I wrote about the effects of free trade on its victims in the Irish Famine. Most people are aware by now that Ireland was a net exporter of food at the peak of the famine, even while many people were starving to death. How was this possible? It was all due to the “free market,” in which food goes to the people who can afford it, no matter where they are, rather than the people who need it, even if they produce it themselves. Giving aid to starving people would create a “culture of dependency”; the exact same rhetoric you hear today about giving aid to the victims of globalization.

I hadn’t realized that Ireland was not the only case of free trade ideas causing the deaths of millions of people during this period. The British also used their Indian colony as a laboratory for the ideas of Adam Smith with even more disastrous results:

Unidentified British Male: “If you talk about atrocities committed in the colonial period by the British Empire most people would just stare at you blankly. They have no idea what you’re talking about. If you talk about Stalin‘s atrocities, they’re fully apprised of those. But Lord Lytton, in India, probably killed as many people as Stalin did, by very similar methods, exporting grain in the midst of a famine, huge, huge quantities of grain, often from places where there was a surplus of production, a very successful harvest, and engineered a famine in which tens of millions of people died. But we hear nothing of this. We know nothing of this.”

NICHOLAS WOODESON (narrator): “How many British students learn about the work of the historian Mark Curtis? Drawing on formerly secret UK government files, he estimates that Britain is complicit in the deaths of over ten million people from countries around the world since 1945.”

The Lottery of Birth (Lumpenproletariat)

Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on the Indian Famine:

Great Famine of 1876–78

In part, the Great Famine may have been caused by an intense drought resulting in crop failure in the Deccan Plateau. However, the commodification of grain, and the cultivation of alternate cash crops also may have played a role, as could have the export of grain by the colonial government; during the famine the viceroy, Lord Lytton, oversaw the export to England of a record 6.4 million hundredweight (320,000 ton) of wheat.

The famine occurred at a time when the colonial government was attempting to reduce expenses on welfare. Earlier, in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, severe mortality had been avoided by importing rice from Burma. However, the Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticized for excessive expenditure on charitable relief. Sensitive to any renewed accusations of excess in 1876, Temple, who was now Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, insisted not only on a policy of laissez faire with respect to the trade in grain, but also on stricter standards of qualification for relief and on more meager relief rations. Two kinds of relief were offered: “relief works” for able-bodied men, women, and working children, and gratuitous (or charitable) relief for small children, the elderly, and the indigent.

And the entry on Lord Lytton. Queen Victoria’s Durbar occurred during the same years that the famine was taking place and millions of Indians were starving. One is reminded of the Presidential Inaugurations in Washington DC taking place miles away from post-collapse neighborhoods ravaged by drugs and crime.

I was reminded in that entry of Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts, which details these victims of free trade in detail. I have not read it, but ought to pick it up to give essential details of the results of free trade. Here’s a good discussion on Reddit AskHistorians on the famine.

From my understanding the root cause for the worsening famine in the eighteen seventies was that the British (notably East India company) completely centralized the grain market in just a few years time, thereby destroying the localized market system. at the end of it not only the provinces under drought had to suffer trough famine but provinces with grain surpluses too because the centralized prices completely skyrocketed.

On top of that officials didn’t (want to) realize the extent of the problem and they actually continued to export grain which worsened the famine even further.

I thought this comment was especially interesting.

Polanyi himself writes of the situation (pp. 159-160):

Indian masses in the second half of the nineteenth century did not die of hunger because they were exploited by Lancashire; they perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished. That this was brought about by the forces of economic competition, namely, the permanent underselling of hand-woven chaddar by machine-made piece goods, is doubtless true; but it proves the opposite of economic exploitation, since dumping implies the reverse of surcharge.

The actual source of famines in the last fifty years was the free marketing of grain combined with local failure of incomes. Failure of crops was, of course, part of the picture, but despatch[sic] of grain by rail made it possible to send relief to the threatened areas; the trouble was that the people were unable to buy the corn at rocketing prices, which on a free but incompletely organized market were bound to be the reaction to a shortage.

In former times small local stores had been held against harvest failure, but these had now been discontinued or swept away into the big market. Famine prevention for this reason now usually took the form of public works to enable the population to buy at enhanced prices. The three or four large famines which decimated India under British rule since the Rebellion were thus neither a consequence of the elements, nor of exploitation, but simply of the new market organization of labor and land which broke up the old village without actually resolving its problems. While under the regime of feudalism and of the village community, noblesse oblige, clan solidarity, and regulation of the corn market checked famines, under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.

The term “exploitation” describes but ill a situation which became really grave only after the East India Company’s ruthless monopoly was abolished and free trade was introduced into India. Under the monopolists the situation had been fairly kept in hand with the help of the archaic organization of the countryside, including free distribution of the corn, while under free and equal exchange Indian perished by the millions. Economically, India may have been–and, in the long run, certainly was–benefited, but socially she was disorganized and this thrown a prey to misery and degradation.

In that post I also mentioned that the “starving African” and “starving Indian” was not a fixture of these societies prior to the last few hundred years. Now this article offers concrete proof of that fact:

An Archaeological Mystery In Ghana: Why Didn’t Past Droughts Spell Famine? (NPR)

The anthropologists in the article found through scientific analysis that there were much more severe famines in the past than the more recent ones in Ghana, yet there was apparently no starvation! People tightened their belts but were able to hold out reasonably well.

In the Banda district of west-central Ghana, July is the hungry season. This year’s sorghum, yams and millet are still young and green in the rain-fed fields, and for most farmers, last year’s harvest is long gone. People survive on cassava. They grind the roots and cook a polenta-like porridge called tuo zaafe and they stir the leaves into a soup. But there isn’t enough to go around always, and the meal lacks protein. It’s hard to know whether autumn will bring more food: Rains in Banda have been erratic lately and harvests sparse. The region has been in the midst of a 40-year drought.

It’s easy to think that life has always been this way in Banda — a poor, mostly agricultural district, a 10-hour drive from Ghana’s thriving capital, Accra. But according to Northwestern University archaeologist Amanda Logan, that could not be further from the truth. Logan says the hungry-season gap likely didn’t exist in the past. In fact, her research shows that before the mid-19th century, people here usually had enough to eat — even when rains failed…Logan reports that food security in Banda peaked about 500 years ago, smack in the middle of an epic drought. By contrast, a much milder dry spell is currently wreaking havoc on local diets.

In the past, droughts were even more severe than the El-Nino influenced droughts that Mike Davis describes in LVH. Yet local economies thrived as did local markets:

From the 11th through 15th centuries…people mostly ate pearl millet, a grain historically loved by communities all over West Africa. Other artifacts…show that during this period, merchants were plugged into trade networks, and local artisans were busy. That suggests there was enough food to feed a significant number of people who weren’t farming. In other words, the people of Banda were thriving.

Then, in the middle of the 15th century, a two-century-long drought set in — sedimentary records from nearby Lake Bosumtwi tell the story.”That drought, in terms of its severity and length, is like nothing we’ve seen in modern Africa,” Logan says. “It’s really intense.”

But here’s the mystery: The archaeological record during this period shows no signs of food stress — no big increase in wild plant remains, which people often eat to get through famines; no shift to less-preferable foods; no major declines in population. People kept eating millet. And a wide range of iron, copper, ceramic, ivory and cloth artifacts show that trade and craft production were still thriving…It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1800s, long after the drought ended, that Logan began to turn up evidence of food stress.

What changed? The anthropologists find it was because they were part of a thriving local economy that had multifaceted aspects and kept most food and economic exchanges local. By contrast, under the free trade regime imposed by Europe, people could not compete with cheaper imports, and the local economy was demolished. People had no other choice than to become export farmers, subject the vagaries of the One Big Market. This meant that in the case of harvest failures, there was no backup plan, and no alternatives.

According to Logan, two key things [changed]: The slave trade siphoned off many young farmers and artisans, and Banda was incorporated into Britain’s Gold Coast colony in the late 1800s. The British wanted to expand markets for their own industrial goods like iron and cloth, so they undercut local production of these items.
“Five hundred years ago, Banda was a producer as well as a consumer of highly sought-after stuff [like] gold, ivory, iron and copper,” she says. “As you get to the colonial period, Banda stops being a producer of anything but agricultural and locally consumed goods” like pottery.

These changes weakened Banda’s economy, and consequently, crippled residents’ ability to survive drought and other disasters. The region remained reliant on agriculture even after Ghana became independent in 1957.

Today, over 70 percent of residents work in farming, fishing or forestry. Because they sell much of their harvest to earn cash, families often run short of food for themselves and have to buy more at the market. If crops fail or prices rise at the wrong time, they go hungry.

In other words, the local culture had evolved over numerous generations to deal with the inevitable crop failures and shortages with minimal disruption. It also provided a wide variety of social niches, and was to some degree self-sufficient.

That local culture was stripped away, just as it was all over the world, as Polanyi describes. In its place, such economies would be “plugged in” by force if necessary, to the One Big Market. Now, the impersonal forces of supply and demand alone would dictate the underlying fabric of society. Economies would become specialized to produce export crops for distant markets, leaving them especially vulnerable to famine.

“It fits really well with the historical record,” says [Scott MacEachern, a professor of anthropology at Bowdoin College and president of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists], who was not involved in the study. “We tend to think of colonization as a fairly dry process, as essentially changes in government. On the ground, they were fantastically disruptive processes to the patterns of everyday life. So it’s entirely plausible that the decline in food security she talks about is associated with those processes.”

Free trade isn’t free after all–someone always pays.

Ancient History Roundup and More

Given the fact that we recently looked at hydraulic empires and the role they played in forming ancient economies, this article is timely. Apparently, solid evidence has been found of massive flooding on the Yellow River in ancient China. These floods were dramatic – we’re talking vast amounts of water destroying communities with regularity. Subduing the waters is tied to the formation of the early Chinese state:

Rocks tell story of China’s great flood (BBC)

Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real. (Washington Post)

The Guardian is running a series on lost cities. What happened to ancient Cahokia?

Lost cities #8: mystery of Cahokia – why did North America’s largest city vanish? (The Guardian)

Via Ran Prieur – an academic paper formalizing something I’ve often speculated on this blog over the years: competitive feasting by early “big men” led to the cultivation of cereal grains not for food, but for fermentation into alcoholic beverages which were used in the collective rituals of the ancient Near East.

A hypothesis that is attracting increasing interest proposes that Epipaleolithic populations exploited and then cultivated cereals, not primarily for food but to brew alcohol for use in competitive feasting… In this view, aggrandizing individuals used alcohol to attract people to feasts and then to manipulate them to acquire political power via reciprocal feasting debts. This “alcohol model” when combined with feasting models explicitly addresses the co-occurrence of two key Neolithic phenomena – cereal agriculture and social inequality – and is supported by a range of archaeological and ethnographic data…The purpose of this paper is to use insights from pharmacology and related disciplines to explore, in more depth, the role of alcohol and other pharmacologically active comestibles in Neolithization such as coca, poppy, and tobacco. In our view, such crops probably constituted one of the important components of early aggrandizer “toolkits” for creating differential power.

Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition

See also Ran’s page on the origins of agriculture. Wikipedia also has a good page on the Neolithic transition.

Earlier this year, the world’s oldest beer was found in China:

Archaeologists discovered ancient beer-making tools in underground rooms, that were built somewhere between 3400 and 2900 B.C. The discovery was made at a dig site in the Central Plain of China and contained  pots, funnels and specially designed jugs. Objects suggest they were probably used for brewing, filtration and storage of beer…The beer recipe was found to contain broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears and tubers….This is the oldest beer-making “factory” ever discovered in China, suggesting that these initial brewers were already using specially designed beer-making tools and advanced techniques for the creation of “liquid gold” (beer).

This says a lot about what it was like in China 5,000 year ago. For one, researchers now know that years before barley was used in food in China, it was being used in drinks. This tells us that brewing beer did not come about because people had an excess of crops and were looking for new and creative ways to use every last bit. This explains that beer was a very important aspect to ancient everyday life. Beer was so important, in fact, that crops were being planted in order to accommodate the growing demand.

5,000 Year Old Beer Recipe Found by Archaeologists (Sciencenews Journal)

We today associate China with rice, but foxtail and broomcorn millets were actually the earliest grains cultivated in ancient China:

Archaeological remains show that these millets became common in their north China heartland around 7,500 years ago. Seeds recovered from sites of different ages show signs of being domesticated and selected — namely, they got bigger and bigger over time. Human skeletons of the same age show that millets were a staple food source.

Later, these millets traveled from north China into Central Asia and Europe, and south through Thailand to India. And nomadic shepherd-farmers were instrumental in this spread, Jones says. He got a chance to see for himself how this might have occurred while in Mongolia. The herders there spend their lives on horseback, he tells The Salt, but they’ll often find a plot of land and scatter millet seeds onto it, returning after a few weeks to harvest the crop.

Millets, Jones says, make a perfect bridge between nomadic life and settled agriculture, because they have a very short growing season – just 45 days, compared to 100 or more for rice – and need very little attention, ideal for nomadic horsemen on the go. “They’d tread the seed in with their horses’ hooves and off they go,” Jones explains, “maybe leaving a couple of teenagers behind to keep an eye on it.”

Meanwhile, in other parts of China, local rice, and wheat and barley from the Near East, were being further domesticated. Roaming shepherds and herders from different regions would have encountered each other, exchanging grains and advice on how to grow them. Evidence of this knowledge-sharing shows up in the archeological record between 2,500 and 1,600 years ago, when “crops that have been there for thousands of years start moving around all over the place,” Jones says. Millets moved into the Fertile Crescent, where wheat and barley were predominant, and wheat and barley moved into northern China.

At the same, Jones’ research shows, agriculture in China moved out of the foot hills — where individual farmers could control the flow of water — and into the valley bottoms.  And as crops grew more diverse and moved downstream, farmers had to work together to manage their increasingly complex agriculture — a need that encouraged settlements and community-building.

Millet: How A Trendy Ancient Grain Turned Nomads Into Farmers (NPR)

Related: are sexual attitudes in China linked to cooperation required in rice cultivation?

For centuries, rice plantation has been prevalent in some provinces, while wheat agriculture has dominated others. The “rice theory” suggests that in China people who grow rice and those who grow wheat may think differently.

I found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi.

A major difference between rice and wheat plantations is the different levels of irrigation required. Rice paddies require a high level of irrigation, while wheat plantations require a substantially lower level. For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone.

The need of cooperation for the production of food—a necessity for survival —in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance, which makes social marginalization less likely. In contrast, the same senses of interdependence and mutual understanding may be less valued in wheat-growing regions because people do not have to rely on each other for subsistence.

My research suggests that the tolerance of non-conventional sexual behaviors borne out by this need of interdependence in rice-growing areas is key to the liberalization of sexual attitudes.

Are Chinese Views on Sex Linked to the Crops They Grow? (Newsweek) Warning: ad-intense site

A good Reddit AskHistorians comment on: Why did the Australian Aboriginals never progress past hunter/gatherer tribes? Of course, “progress” is highly a matter of perspective.

Slaveholding plantations of the nineteenth century used scientific management techniques. I wonder what this tells us about Latifundia—the plantation system that dominated agriculture in the late Roman Empire. Was it really as “stagnant” was we have been led to believe?

Caitlin Rosenthal pored over hundreds of account books from U.S. and West Indian plantations that operated from 1750 to 1860. She found that their owners employed advanced accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves. After comparing their practices with those described in the account books of northern factories, Rosenthal concluded that many plantations took a more scientific approach to management than the factories did.

Speaking of which, the late ecologist Edward Goldsmith wrote a fascinating essay on the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire:

The fall of the Roman Empire: A social and ecological interpretation

More evidence for drought being the major factor in the collapse of the Lowland Classic Maya:

As it turns out, water reservoirs can actually provide substantial relief during short periods of drought. In the simulations without reservoirs the Mayan population declines after a drought, whereas it continues to grow if reservoirs provide extra water. However, the reservoirs may also make the population more vulnerable during prolonged dry spells. The water management behaviour may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow. This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs.

The demise of the Maya civilization: Water shortage can destroy cultures (EurekaAlert!)

Here’s an older article that describes the changing monsoon cycle as the cause of the demise of the ancient Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley.

Sprawling across what is now Pakistan, northwestern India and eastern Afghanistan, the Indus civilization encompassed more than 625,000 square miles, rivaling ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in its accomplishments. In its bustling hubs, there was indoor plumbing, gridded streets and a rich intellectual life.

Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, who used irrigation systems to support crops, the Harappans relied on a gentle, dependable cycle of monsoons that fed local rivers and keyed seasonal floods.But as later generations would discover, it was what the researchers call a “Goldilocks civilization.” After about 2,000 years, the window for agricultural stability closed again.

As time passed, the monsoons continued to weaken until the rivers no longer flooded, and the crops failed. The surplus agriculture was longer there to support traders, artists, craftsmen and scholars. The Harappans’ distinct writing system, which still has not been deciphered, fell into disuse. People began abandoning the cities and moved eastward toward the Ganges basin, where rains were more dependable (though not dependable enough to sustain urban metropolises). The civilization dispersed, fracturing into small villages and towns.

An Ancient Civilization Upended by Climate Change (NYTimes) Interesting that the NYT closed down its green blog a while back. Uncomfortable conclusions?

In eastern North America, the advent of farming was preceded by a population boom, according to a new study.

Another thing I’ve speculated on over the years: North America was populated along the coast instead of following a corridor between the glaciers. I suspect many places on earth were colonized via boats along the coastline rather than overland.

Reddit – what sounds like a bullshit fact but is actually true? Top comment: “We had 50% less people in the world when JFK was prez”

Will skyscrapers outlast the pyramids? (BBC) Of course not. Our drive toward maximum “efficiency” will see to that.

Remarkably, Cleopatra lived closer in history to today’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – than she did to this monumental tomb. When the last mammoths died out, it was already 1,000 years old…

In fact, the impressive age of the pyramids is no accident. The ancient Egyptians believed the afterlife would last forever and took great pains to ensure their tombs would too. Pyramid design evolved over thousands of years, as they experimented with the materials and architecture that would live up to their ambitions.

“They were always saying this is a construction ‘for eternity’; ‘for ever and ever’ creeps into their vocabulary constantly,” says Redford, who currently works at Penn State University, Pennsylvania. They were so confident in their abilities, many pyramids were named with the suffix “of millions and millions of years”.

Despite their efforts and hyperbolic claims, the Egyptians didn’t really know what they were doing – and this may have been a distinct advantage. To make up for gaps in their understanding of the laws of physics, early pyramids were heavily over-engineered. They knew about columns, for example, but didn’t know that they could support a roof. They always added extra walls just in case.

Another explanation is sheer size. Take the Great Pyramid. It’s less a building than an artificial mountain, made of nearly six million tonnes of solid rock. Five millennia is no time whatsoever when you consider the limestone had been lying in the ground for 50 million or so.

Modern skyscrapers, in comparison, are positively flimsy. It took just 110,000 tonnes of concrete and 39,000 tonnes of steel to construct the Burj, which is more than six times the height of the Great Pyramid. “They designed these buildings to last forever – nowadays that’s not a priority. We’re designing practical buildings to be lived in,” says Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who worked on the Shard in London.

It reminds me of a great quote I once in reference to planned obsolescence: “Anyone can build a bridge that stands up, but only an engineer can build a bridge that barely stands up.”

To cope with the unemployment levels of the Great Depression, the United States sent many Mexican immigrants (and even some American citizens) back to Mexico to ensure adequate jobs for Americans.

With a scarcity of jobs during the Depression, more than a million people of Mexican descent were sent to Mexico. Author Francisco Balderrama estimates that 60 percent were American citizens.

America’s Forgotten History Of Mexican-American ‘Repatriation’ (NPR)

Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It’s Happened Before (NPR)

The “always plentiful jobs” orthodoxy spun by capitalist economists flies in the face of over 200 years of economic history (1811-2016). If immigration doesn’t hurt jobs, then why does literally no country on the face of the earth with a functioning economy have true open borders (no visa requirements, no restrictions on non-citizens, etc.)?

More evidence for Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis:

Large human brain evolved as a result of ‘sizing each other up’ (PsyPost)

Survival of the most Machiavellian certainly seems to be the order of the day in corporatized America. In market-based societies, it is evolutionarily highly advantageous to be a sociopath.

Must-see video that’s been making the rounds about why trains are so bad in America. Not mentioned is the fact that anything besides the private automobile is seen as helping poor people and minorities, and the related idea that anything that costs tax dollars is bad (roads are supposedly paid for by “user fees” – yeah, right).

Is our society beset by the “Behavioral Sink?” This comment by the mysterious Reddit Accountt1234 makes some interesting and disturbing points: Gazing into the behavioral sink.

Two political scientists look at failed states and conclude that “…failed states are not the exception but the norm in human history.”

Failed states seem a novelty only in relation to the bipolar world of the Cold War, …But failure has a long lineage. According to Charles Tilly, in early modern Europe, the very birthplace of the (Weberian) state, “the substantial majority of the units which got so far as to acquire a cognisable existence as states [from 1500 to 1850] still disappeared”

Failure is even more prominent in pre-modern times. While the rise of the homo sapiens occurred 200,000 years ago, civilisations emerged as recently as 6,000 years ago, and only in half a dozen selected world regions. Before the rise of Mesopotamia and Egypt, economic stagnation and conflict had been endemic. Moreover, civilisations were far from irreversible outcomes. By the end of the Bronze Age, major Eastern Mediterranean civilisations had collapsed under the pressure of invasions by less developed societies, the ‘Sea Peoples’. The re-emergence of a civilised order in Mediterranean Europe had to wait for another 500 years. The Roman Empire, the peak expression of the new order, also fell prey to invasions from the Goths, Huns, Vandals and other barbarian tribes.

The common denominator of successful societies, from early civilisations to modern states, is the dual ability to produce surplus (prosperity) and to protect surplus (security). Contemporary cases of state failure are just instances of the large class of societies that failed to produce surplus and protect it. The class is so large that it actually accounts for about 98% of the human timeline, and covers no less than a fifth of the contemporary world.

The perennial nature of state failure, as well as the exceptional character of state formation, is rooted in a simple but powerful paradox. Every society in the process of development faces a fundamental trade-off between prosperity and security. The efforts of a society to create wealth will undermine its own sovereignty if the new prosperity attracts predatory attacks from rival groups (either inside or outside the social territory).

In a recent paper, we introduce the ‘paradox of civilisation’ to characterise the dilemma shared by thousands of early agrarian settlements prior to the rise of pristine civilisations in Sumer and Egypt, hundreds of ports, cities, and villages in Medieval Europe and post-colonial Latin America, and current attempts at reconstruction in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Most of these societies, during most of their existence, were trapped between two bleak alternatives. On the one hand, the dangerous option of ‘self-defeating prosperity’, i.e. investment efforts that would induce predatory attacks, and on the other hand the safer but stagnant option of ‘backwardness by design’, which would prevent predation at the cost of keeping economic activity close to subsistence levels, hence shutting down the path toward civilisation.

The reader will have no problem in finding cases of self-defeating prosperity in history books, which are replete with examples of productive polities that, at different stages of development, fell prey to the voracity of economically simple but militarily aggressive societies. By contrast, cases of backwardness by design are ‘dogs that didn’t bark’. Their aborted development implies scarcity of historical traces…

Failed states and the paradox of civilization (VoxEU)

Someone on Reddit posted this paper from historian of technology Lynn White Jr., (PDF) who wrote extensively about how technology transformed the social structure of the Middle Ages:

Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in “advanced” societies; hence, any change in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plows, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it. Thus, cross- plowing was needed and fields tended to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near East and Mediterranean, this worked well. But such a plow was inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe. By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that crossplowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.

In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?

This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them–plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.

These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny–that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.

This mental change was borne out in the history of the period, as Brian Fagan writes in The Great Warming:

The scale of deforestation during the warm centuries is mindboggling. In AD 500 perhaps four-fifths of temperate western and central Europe lay under forests and swamps. Half or even less of that coverage remained by 1200, and most of that clearing took place during the Medieval Warm Period in a massive onslaught on the environment…Stripping Europe of its primordial forests was an act thick with cultural, economic, and political overtones. The farmers who cleared the forest deprived themselves of the safety net that a Scandinavian proverb called “the mantle of the poor.” Forests provided building materials, timber, firewood and game, medicinal plants and food, and browse and grazing for farm animals. The medieval farmer used more iron than ever for axes, plows and weapons–the metal smelted with charcoal from the forest. Great trees provided timber for cathedrals and palaces, for ships and humble structures like mills. Water mills were the new machinery of the age, as were windmills constructed almost entirely with wood. There was so much demand for timer for windmill vanes in Northamptonshire, England, in 1322 that complaints arose about deforestation. By the twelfth century, forest use was subject to intricate regulations that covered everything from grazing rights to firewood collection. Many different stakeholders including the crown and the nobility, as well as humble folk, had rights in the forest, such as the right to hunt, to graze animals, and to use clearings. For example, many English peasants had the right to acquire construction timber and firewood, deadwood that was knocked or pulled off trees, “by hook or by crook.” The dense trees and undergrowth were a means for survival. Increasingly complex regulations surrounded the forest and the right to use and clear it, which involved balancing royal privileges and landowners’ rights against the long-established economic needs of the peasants.


Four hundred years of rapid population growth and relatively plentiful food supplies , or unbridled forest clearing and fast-growing towns and cities: Europe was a very different continent at the end of the warm period. By the late thirteenth century, however, Europe was facing serious economic problems, for population growth had outstripped the previous jumps in agricultural production. By 1300, much of the population was worse off than it had been a century earlier, as inflation undermined wealth and the upper classes placed ever greater demands on the commoners. The farmers responded by taking up marginal lands and by other shortcuts such as shortening fallow periods, which, in a time of relatively predictable summers, may have seemed logical ways of boosting crop yields. Inevitably, farmer’s indebtedness to landholders increased, while economic uncertainty also struck home in cities, where the vagaries of the wool trade and other industries could wreak havoc, and military blockades were a fact of life.