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: http://attackads.libsyn.com/the-powell-memo

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]

[1] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/13/how-the-financing-of-colleges-may-lead-to-disaster/
[2] https://www.revealnews.org/article/who-got-rich-off-the-student-debt-crisis/

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 et.al. 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.

Another Long Hot Summer

I was planning to write a follow-up to the story about technology and the African-American experience that I wrote earlier this year when a funny thing happened.

The city I live in was engulfed in a series of race riots that were telegraphed around the world.

The aftermath has been especially ugly, and of course living here you are fully aware of the ugly racial politics that simmers under the surface and permeates every level of this city. Add to that the causal racism, subconscious emotional biases, rationalizing and petty tribalism that accompanies all of it.

It’s all happened before, of course.

Long hot summer refers to the summer of 1967, which began a year in which 159 race riots erupted across the United States. In June there were riots in Atlanta, Boston, and Cincinnati, as well as the Buffalo riot (in Buffalo, New York), and a riot in Tampa, Florida. In July there were riots in Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., and a riot in Plainfield, New Jersey. The most serious riots of the summer took place in July, with the riot in Newark, New Jersey and the Twelfth Street riot, in Detroit, Michigan.


It was at this time that the racial politics of modern-day America were laid down, and everything pretty much follows from that. The rise of Black Lives Matter, driven in large part by social media and the easy videotaping of arrests by cell phones, has driven a seeming repeat of those years all over again, this time with mass immigration and terrorism added to the witches’ brew.

1. The History

When you have a country where you have a large, oppressed minority population that needs to kept in perpetual servitude, you get a violent society where casual viciousness and cruelty permeates every aspect of life. This has been a distinctive feature of America since day one.

As I explained earlier, there were two Great Migrations in the twentieth century, and these have defined American History ever since. The first was essentially a continuation of the Underground Railroad where black migration was driven by the availability of low skill/industrial jobs in the North and the desire to escape the viciously racist apartheid regime instigated in Dixie in the wake of slavery’s demise (Jim Crow). This was from about the first World War to the Great Depression (1918-1929). Often times black labor was used as means of suppressing white wages, leading to racial conflict. This continued a tradition from the very founding of the U.S. to bring in immigrant/migrant labor to hold down wages, and then play off those immigrant groups against one another to keep them from uniting against the moneyed interests profiting from the situation.

The first example of this was the Bacon Rebellion in 1675. This was an alliance of bonded workers and slaves against colonial aristocrats. Alarmed by this development, the aristocrats decided that they needed to play off poor blacks and whites against one another, so gave special privileges based on race to the poor and middle-class white workers. This has been called the “Racial Bribe.”

…The alliance between indentured servants (mostly Caucasians who had under a 50 percent survival rate while enslaved) and Africans (most enslaved until death or freed), united by their bond-servitude, disturbed the ruling class, who responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705.

Bacon’s Rebellion (Wikipedia)

The second, and much larger wave, occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War. After the demise of slavery, freed blacks still needed a way to support themselves. Rather than being granted their on land to farm as reparations (“forty acres and a mule”), they were enmeshed in neo-feudal sharecropping arrangements with the white owners of the land.

Some land redistribution occurred under military jurisdiction during the war and for a brief period thereafter. But, Federal and state policy during the Reconstruction era emphasized wage labor, not land ownership, for African Americans. Almost all land allocated during the war was restored to its pre-war owners. Several African American communities did maintain control of their land, and some families obtained new land by homesteading.

Forty acres and a mule (Wikipedia)

By coincidence I ran across this excellent summary of sharecropping by economist Bill Mitchell, who makes the apt analogy in his post between that system and the system being proposed by “sharing economy” giants such as Uber (and I would add, most delivery services that rely on ‘independent contractors’):

Roger Ransome and Richard Sutch analysed the sharecropping system in their excellent 1972 historical article and concluded that (p.642):

Sharecropping allowed the exploitation of the small farmer by the monopolistic financial structure dominated by the local merchant. Unable to obtain alternative sources of credit for supplies he needed, the small farmer was forced to pledge his future crop as a lien against credit advanced for the growing season.

Under the [so-called Crop Lien System…which “was a credit system that became widely used by cotton farmers in the United States in the South from the 1860s to the 1930”], sharecroppers “obtained supplies and food on credit from local merchants … [who] … held a lien on the cotton crop and the merchants and landowners were the first ones paid from its sale.” If nothing was left over after the payments were made then tough luck. The land was owned by the former slave owner and the risk of the enterprise falls back onto the sharecropper. The crop lien system also tied the sharecropper to a particular farmer. Ransom and Sutch found that (p.642):

The crop lien bound the farmer to the merchant and restricted his options to buy elsewhere or dispose of his crop in the most advantageous manner. Through use of his monopoly power, the merchant was able to insist that the farmer concentrate on the production of cotton at the sacrifice of food for home consumption, thereby forcing the farmer to buy his provisions from the merchant. The credit prices charged for these supplies were exorbitant, reflecting not only the local merchant’s inefficiency, but his exploitative powers as the sole source of rural credit.

Ransom and Sutch quote Charles Otken who in 1894 summarised the experiences with sharecropping in this way:

This condition of affairs in the South introduced a credit system whose tremendous evils and exorbitant exactions have brought poverty and bankruptcy to thousands of families. As a policy, it is vindictive in its subtle sophistry; as a system, it has crushed out all independence and reduced its victims to a coarse species of servile slavery.

Why Uber is not a progressive development (billy blog)

So that is the background of the people fleeing to the industrial cities to seek wage labor.

After the Great Depression came the second Great Migration. Blacks who had served in the military saw witnessed first-hand the fact that they could be treated as actual human beings when they served in Europe which did not develop the institutionalized repression of blacks. As they began to demand more rights, the plantation owners decided they did not need the sharecroppers anymore and mechanized cotton production, which became possible due to technical advances and cheap fuel, depriving them of their livelihood.

The displaced sharecroppers migrated to the Atlantic Seaboard, the Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes regions to seek work in the factories. The West Coast, formerly agricultural, had industrialized as part of the War effort, and was the hub of the newly-minted aerospace industry, which was busy churning out airplanes both for the military and the building out of the new global jet travel industry. The main hubs here were Inland Empire and the southern areas of Los Angeles, and the East Bay cities like Oakland, where aerospace manufacturing was located.

Then automation cleaned them out too. I’ve referred before to the letter sent to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 warning of the dire consequences of automation (note: I frequently lump outsourcing factories and automation together because they are both means to the same end). That letter in the mainstream media narrative has been laughed off as chicken-little style alarmism. Everything went fine, goes the narrative; we just created more jobs than ever before for everyone who wanted them, and life just went on with no trouble.

Tell that to the residents of inner-city ghettos.

Just four months after that letter, the first Civil Rights bill was passed into law. It was signed in the teeth of an automation revolution which was to decimate the low-skilled factory jobs that African-Americans relied upon. The jobs moved to the suburbs or overseas. The new, smaller, automated factories were built on cheap, suburban land and accessible only be the newly-constructed freeways. Land use patterns balkanized the suburbs.

Several things happened simultaneously to create the ghettos.

1.) African-American neighborhoods were torn down to build freeways. These destroyed neighborhoods which were very similar to other ethnic enclaves of times prior. They were segregated, but nonetheless functional communities, with meeting places, face-to-face interactions, viable institutions, and a cross-section of different classes. Bronzeville is a primary example of this in Milwaukee–destroyed (as were other gems such as Milwaukee’s little Italy) in the service of freeways which drained jobs, money and population from the city.

Syracuse, New York…had big dreams of becoming an East Coast hub, since it was close to New York City, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Boston. (In the early days of the car, close was relative.) Use federal funds to build a series of highways, planners thought, and residents could easily get to the suburbs and to other cities in the region. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a Syracuse that you could easily leave by car? And, if they put the highway in just the right place, it would allow the city to use federal funds to eradicate what they called a slum area in the center city.

That neighborhood, called the 15th Ward, was located between Syracuse University and the city’s downtown. It was predominantly African American. One man who lived there at the time, Junie Dunham, told me that although the 15th Ward was poor, it was the type of community that you often picture in 1950s America: fathers going off to jobs in the morning; kids playing in the streets; families gathering in the park on the weekends or going on Sunday strolls. He remembers collecting scraps from the streets and bringing them to the junkyard for pennies, which he would use to buy comics.

To outsiders, though, the 15th Ward was the scene of abject poverty close to two of Syracuse’s biggest draws—the university and downtown. They worried about race riots because so many people were crowded into the neighborhood and prevented from going anywhere else. They decided that the best plan would be to tear down the 15th Ward and replace it with an elevated freeway.

The completion of the highway, I-81, which ran through the urban center, had the same effect it has had in almost all cities that put interstates through their hearts. It decimated a close-knit African American community. And when the displaced residents from the 15th Ward moved to other city neighborhoods, the white residents fled. It was easy to move. There was a beautiful new highway that helped their escape.

The Role of Highways in American Poverty (The Atlantic)

2.) To replace these neighborhoods, cities built “housing projects” which had the effect of concentrating poverty into specific geographical areas. If you concentrate something it becomes more intense, unlike diluting it.

3.) The factories locked their gates and became shuttered, abandoned, boarded-up hulks rusting in the rain and crumbling under the freeze-thaw cycle into dust.

4.) Economic activity moved away to the suburbs leaving a black hole of blight.

The black ghetto in prewar America was a place of deep poverty and…the product of relentless discrimination in housing and employment, which continued after the war. But it was also a place where African American culture thrived, a “city within a city,” in their words. By the 1960s, when Kenneth Clark focused on youth delinquency in Harlem, northern ghettos had grown, and the departure of middle- and upper-income black Americans—and jobs—had begun. A “tangle of pathology” rooted in a sense of powerlessness, Clark argued, now eclipsed cultural vigor and autonomy. That sense of impotence, he emphasized, was well founded: Forces outside the ghetto had begun to erode the black community. Vibrant neighborhoods were razed to make way for highways and public-housing projects, turning the ghetto into a subject colony.

The Destructive Legacy of Housing Segregation (The Atlantic)

5.) A series of blatantly discriminatory housing practices were erected to prevent black people from moving away from the ghetto. These are too numerous to go into, but include things like redlining, blockbusting and contract buying:

Contract buying sprang up in Chicago after the federal government effectively refused to insure mortgages for the vast majority of black homeowners, even as it was insuring the mortgages of white homeowners, and encouraged banks to redline black and integrated neighborhoods. The import of mid-20th century housing policy — along with private actions (riots, block-busting, contract lending, covenants) — has been devastating for African Americans.

Buying on contract meant that you made a down-payment to a speculator. The speculator kept the deed and only turned it over to you after you’d paid the full value of the house — a value determined by the speculator. In the meantime, you were responsible for monthly payments, keeping the house up, and taking care of any problems springing from inspection. If you missed one payment, the speculator could move to evict you and keep all the payments you’d made. Building up equity was impossible, unless — through some Herculean effort — you managed to pay off the entire contract. Very few people did this. The system was set up to keep them from doing it, and allow speculators to get rich through a cycle of evicting and flipping.

The Ghetto Is Public Policy (The Atlantic)

Blatant housing discrimination was slowly chipped away by concerted government action over the years. The sporadic nature of this change had a perverse effect, however. As discriminatory practices fell, the blacks who left the ghetto were typically the most educated, highest achieving ones, leaving the remaining ones with no good influences or role models. This reinforced the social pathologies of those left behind. It became a classic feedback loop. The isolation caused social pathologies to metastasize. As that happened, the social problems caused the area to become more isolated. People who could afford to move out did so, leaving behind the most destitute, whose poverty was then reinforced by living and growing up around people with the same social dysfunction.

The need for low-skilled labor slowly evaporated from the American economy after 1964. There were still jobs left in construction and food service, but construction was mainly located in the suburbs where downscale whites (and later Latin American immigrants) were preferred hires over blacks. White people deny this history. For them, it just didn’t happen.

Then came the riots.

Isolated, impoverished and unemployed, preyed upon by police forces and the financial industry, and with few other options, blacks lashed out en masse. The nation erupted in race riots throughout the 1960’s, and some of these were so bad that it seemed the nation might not survive. It is difficult for those of us not born in that era to understand the fear that such people must have felt. No doubt the reactionary politics and racial resentment so typical of the Baby Boom generation was forged during those years of turmoil. The suburbs became their refuge and bulwark, a parallel economy where they could be safe from the rioters, as well as the forces of globalization and automation. Or so they thought.

In the period leading up to the riots, police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality. Unemployment and poverty were also very high with the traditional manufacturing base having been fully eroded and withdrawn from the Northeast US by 1967. Further fueling tensions was the final decision by the state of New Jersey to clear a vast tract of land in the central ward of its tenement buildings displacing thousands, to build the new University of Medicine and Dentistry facility.

[M]any African Americans, especially younger community leaders, felt they had remained largely disenfranchised in Newark despite the fact that Newark became one of the first majority black major cities in America alongside Washington, D.C. In sum, the city was entering a turbulent period of incipient change in political power. A former seven-term congressman representing New Jersey’s 11th congressional district, Mayor Hugh Addonizio (who was also the last non-black mayor of Newark) took few steps to incorporate blacks in various civil leadership positions and to help blacks get better employment opportunities. Black leaders were increasingly upset that the Newark Police Department was dominated by white officers who would routinely stop and question black youths with or without provocation. Despite being one of the first cities in the U.S. to hire black police officers, the department’s demographics remained at odds with the city’s population… Only 145 of the 1322 police officers were black (11%), mirroring national demographics, while the city remained over 50% black.

This unrest came to a head when two white Newark policemen, John DeSimone and Vito Pontrelli, arrested a black cabdriver, John Weerd Smith. After signaling, Smith passed the double parked police car, was then pursued and pulled over by the officers. He was arrested, beaten by the officers and taken to the 4th Police Precinct where he was charged with assaulting the officers, and making insulting remarks. Residents of Hayes Homes, a large public housing project, saw an incapacitated Smith being dragged into the precinct, and a rumor was started that he had been killed while in police custody (Smith had in fact been released in the custody of his lawyer). When police rushed out of their station wearing hard hats and carrying clubs, people began to throw bricks, bottles, and rocks. At least five police officers were struck by stones, according to one policeman. Some residents went to City Hall and shouted angry protests. After midnight false alarms caused fire engines to race around a six block area along Belmont Avenue in the ghetto area. Looters smashed windows, and threw merchandise onto sidewalks. According to police, liquor stores were the main target of looters.

1967 Newark riots (Wikipedia)

It’s no coincidence that Richard Nixon ran on a “law and order” platform in 1968 and made it the cornerstone of his campaign. He was appealing to whites using the same rhetoric you hear today with dog-whistle phrases like “silent majority” and promising to put down the riots and keep blacks in their place. With his election, two things happened. The Republicans transformed into a white ethnic party. And the policy towards the black underclass would now become based around a policy of heavily militarized internal police forces and mass incarceration.

The drug war was initiated at this time as a pretext for this action, as John Erlichman admitted out in an interview:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news…”Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did…”

Nixon aide: ‘War on Drugs’ created to target ‘black people,’ anti-war protesters (UPI)

The whites who fled to the suburbs carried with them a profound racial grudge and a newly-found visceral hatred of the Federal Government spurred by Civil Rights that led to the creation of the modern Republican party as we know it out of the previous incarnation of more moderate business-friendly Rotarian-types. That fresh hatred was successfully exploited by the business community in the funding of innumerable think-tanks, foundations, publishing houses, Web sites, university grants and scholarships, and news outlets, all devoted to the idea that government was bad and should be dismantled in favor of the “free” market. The next Republican president elected after Nixon proclaimed such bumper-sticker bromides as:

1.) “Government is the problem, not the solution,” and

2.) “The scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

Reagan also touted Cadillac-driving welfare queens, as well as a host of other dog-whistle words and phrases such as ‘state’s rights’. Occasionally, racial appeals would be more direct, such as the infamous Willie Horton ads deployed by George Bush Sr.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”


Suburban white Americans ate this stuff up. The race riots had radicalized them. What once was confined to the racially-tinged politics of the South went nationwide as whites flocked to the Republican banner. At the same time, politics became more about cheering for your “team” than any sort of consideration of individual candidates’ abilities or honesty, or sensible, rational debates about public policy. Politics became identity politics due to race, beginning the nation’s sad slide to third-world status.

With this ramping up in the name of law-and-order, conditions in African-American ghettos became ever more oppressive, in ways that have only recently come to light:

The Ferguson Kleptocracy (Marginal Revolution)

Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison (Marginal Revolution)

Ferguson judge behind aggressive fines policy owes $170,000 in unpaid taxes (The Guardian)

Ferguson lawsuit sues city over alleged jailing of people too poor to pay fines (The Guardian)

The blacker a city is, the more it fines its residents (especially black ones) (BoingBoing)

…The 13th Amendment to the Constitution bans slavery except for those convicted of crimes. And it gives the local and federal governments the authority to impose “slave” laws for convicts, of all races. This allows state governments and the feds to practice “convict” laws against everyone convicted. Such “laws” legalize the practice of refusing shelter or housing to convicts, preventing them from voting or running for an electoral office, and keeping them off jury duty. They also limit convicts’ right to public education, bar them from buying weapons for self defense, deny them public benefits (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), outlaw guardianship and executor/executrix rights, reject employment, and more.

Bear in mind that there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated. An educated guess places twice that many as having been released, or on parole or probation, because convict laws remain in effect. And don’t forget the collateral miseries that befall families, who can lose their houses if a son or daughter violates a “convict” law…Black men represent 14 percent of the USA’s general population and 40 percent of its prison population.

The new Jim Crow inherits the “racial bribe” from slave days (Freedom Socialist Party)

2. Milwaukee

It is well-known that Milwaukee is one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, by many measures THE most segregated. It’s not as well-known why.

It turns out that blacks arrived much closer to the automation-suburbanization-deindustrialization revolution here than in most other cities. The primary reasons were because 1.) There were plenty of jobs in the metropolis of Chicago just 70 miles to the south, and 2.) There were enough European immigrants and poor whites to fill the unskilled labor pool, This delayed arrival meant that no black middle class had even a chance of forming and blacks went straight to the ghetto without passing ‘Go’ or collecting $200:

Among U.S. cities, Milwaukee has long been an outlier. In the late nineteenth century, it was the most foreign city in the country: By 1890, a mere 13 percent of its inhabitants were the children of American-born parents. For most of the period between 1910 and 1960, the city was governed by Socialist Party mayors. And, as the twentieth century wore on, Milwaukee stood apart for another reason: It remained remarkably and stubbornly white. The Great Migration that had brought some six million African Americans from the South between 1910 and 1930 and in a second wave around World War II transformed just about every major city in the North—except Milwaukee. Few migrants made it past the great sponge of Chicago, in part because there wasn’t a plentiful supply of jobs to entice them:

Milwaukee’s labor market was then amply filled by European immigrants and workers from the declining timber and mining industries up north. By 1960, blacks made up nearly a quarter of Chicago’s population and nearly 30 percent of Detroit’s and Cleveland’s. In Milwaukee, they accounted for less than 10 percent of residents, the smallest proportion of African Americans in any of the 15 largest cities in the country.

It wasn’t until the ’60s that African Americans started to drift into Milwaukee in large numbers. For the next 20 years, the city offered safer streets and better schools than Chicago, and its industrial base was faring better than in many other urban areas. By 1990, Milwaukee’s black population had shot up to 30 percent. Today, it stands near 40 percent, while Hispanics make up another 17 percent.

This delayed arrival would prove highly consequential. Not long after a substantial African American community took shape, Milwaukee’s industrial base began to collapse and its manufacturing jobs disappeared. This left almost no time for the city to develop a black middle class or a leadership elite. Within short order, Milwaukee had some of the most glaring racial disparities in the country. Today, it has the second-highest black poverty rate in the United States, and the unemployment rate is nearly four times higher for blacks than for whites. The city had never been exactly welcoming to African Americans—its tight-knit enclaves of Germans, Jews, and Poles had fiercely resisted housing and school integration. But the decline of the black ghetto so soon after many of its residents had arrived made it easier for white Milwaukeeans to write off the entire African American community, or to blame it for the city’s troubles. White flight, like the Great Migration, came late to Milwaukee, but it came fast and fueled with resentment. Between 1960 and 2010, the population of the three formerly rural counties around Milwaukee County (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, or the “WOW” counties, for short) nearly tripled, to 608,000.

Scott Walker’s Toxic Racial Politics (The New Republic)

This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the city. Here it describes how containment is a very intentional policy enforced by Republican politicians supported by suburban whites:

Wisconsin is run by Gov. Scott Walker, the union-busting conservative Republican. His support base is the Milwaukee suburbs he used to represent as a state legislator. For more than 20 years, he has fought proposals that would make it easier for city residents to get out there.

Walker and other suburban politicians have fended off proposals for an urban-suburban light rail line. They have eliminated or shortened regional bus routes, by one estimate cutting off access to “at least 40,000 jobs” over six years. Last year, it took a lawsuit from a black advocacy group for Walker to agree to set aside $14 million, in a $1.7-billion highway renovation project, to fund three new bus routes to suburban job centres. Temporarily.

Black people, even middle-income black people, can’t just move close to the jobs. For one, they often can’t get mortgages they should qualify for. Milwaukee, Levine said, still has one of the country’s widest racial gaps in loan-denial rates. Well-off blacks are turned down about as often as very-low-income whites.

Black renters face even greater obstacles. Proposals for affordable suburban housing have drawn vitriol from white homeowners. Even when it’s pretty housing.

New Berlin is a tidy city of 40,000. Between an empty swath of “AVAILABLE BUILDING LAND” and a neighbourhood of cookie-cutter houses with two-car garages, there is a new brown-brick lowrise complex that looks like a condo at a ski resort.

It cost the city’s white mayor his political career.

The mayor, Jack Chiovatero, came out in support of a proposal for the rental development in 2010. He soon found his car windows shot out, a sign reading “n—– lover” on his lawn, and a deluge of angry voice mails. “Our city is filled with prejudice and bigoted people,” he lamented in a leaked email. He apologized, then flip-flopped to oppose the project; New Berlin voters still tried to recall him from office, then defeated him in the next election. The complex — which ended up being filled mostly by white people — was approved only after President Barack Obama’s Justice Department sued the city for discrimination.

‘Back in time 60 years’: America’s most segregated city (The Star)

Most articles about Milwaukee’s racially tinged politics emphasize not only the ultra-white suburbs, but also the outsized role talk radio plays in radicalizing them:

Over time, the two [radio talk] shows became known by a single name: “SykesBelling.” In the halls of the statehouse, Milwaukee City Hall, and area county governments, elected officials, particularly insufficiently conservative Republicans, lived in dread of denunciations by the hosts and the tsunami of angry calls from listeners that would follow. Sykes is credited with, among other accomplishments, having blocked public funding for needle-exchange programs and having helped drive into bankruptcy an urban mall after harping on security issues there. In April 2013, he played a clip of “It’s Free (Swipe Yo EBT),” a viral video produced by a right-wing activist in which an African American woman raps about liquor stores where one can allegedly use a food-stamp card. Returning to the same theme later in the year, Sykes declared, “The number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits— welfare—now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers.” No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics….

Milwaukee Burning (Philly.com)

Even the high-speed rail line was opposed because it might give black people chance to get out of the inner-city. This was never stated by Walker himself, only telegraphed through media surrogates.

Over the past few decades, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee has developed into the most bitterly divided political ground in the country—“the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” as a recent series by Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Thanks to a quirk of twentieth-century history, the region encompasses a heavily Democratic and African American urban center, and suburbs that are far more uniformly white and Republican than those in any other Northern city, with a moat of resentment running between the two zones. As a result, the area has given rise to some of the most worrisome trends in American political life in supercharged form: profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, a parallel-universe news media. These trends predate Walker, but they have enabled his ascent, and his tenure in government has only served to intensify them.

Scott Walker’s Toxic Racial Politics (The New Republic)

The Republican party in Wisconsin is animated by hatred and resentment of minorities. This is all under the surface. It’s one of those truths that “everyone knows” but no one will admit. Occasionally, however, the truth comes out:

In April 2010, Walker’s former deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch received an emailed joke from a friend about someone whose dogs supposedly qualified for welfare because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddys are.”

Rindfleisch wrote back: “That is hilarious. And so true!”

The emails are around four years old but were disclosed for the first time Wednesday as part of an appeal by Rindfleisch of her conviction for campaigning while being paid to do work for Milwaukee County taxpayers.

Many of the issues at play in those emails, such as a secret email system, were already known in whole or in part. But the racial statements are new to the public.

In another email, sent in July 2010, Thomas Nardelli, Walker’s chief of staff for Walker at Milwaukee County, forwarded Rindfleisch and others a joke about someone who has what he calls a “nightmare” about turning into a black, Jewish, disabled gay man who is unemployed.

“Oh God, please don’t tell me I’m a Democrat,” the email concludes.

In the unguarded emails, other vulnerable groups also came in for criticism from Rindfleisch. She predicted that news coverage of harm to patients at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex wouldn’t move voters because “no one cares about crazy people.”

Newly disclosed emails reveal racist jokes by Scott Walker’s ex-aides (JSOnline)

I live here and I can tell you from personal experience this is spot on! Interestingly, Republicans who are furious about Hilary’s secret email server have spent years defending Scott Walker’s.

In Milwaukee, it became a  well-known, if never spoken out-loud secret that areas outside of the inner-city were “sundown towns” Police forces had a “wink-wink” carte blanche to do “whatever it took” to preserve “law and order” i.e. enforce segregation and put down insurrections in the ghetto. Milwaukee’s lily-white police force adopted a code of omertá under it’s notorious police chief Harold Breier, who was appointed in the riot year of 1967. America’s police state was well under way.

3. The Underlying Cause

Why was the above necessary? Simply because you had too many workers for the jobs available. African-Americans have become a “surplus population.”

The need for unskilled labor has by-and-large already been eliminated from the workforce. Let me say that again with no equivocation so that it sinks in:

The need for unskilled labor has largely already been eliminated from the workforce.

Want proof? According to Richard Serlin’s blog (citing statistics from from MIT economist Michael Greenstone and Brookings senior fellow Adam Looney):

1) “Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men [age 25 – 64] without any formal labor-market earnings for an entire calendar year rose from 6 percent to 18 percent.”

2) “The percentage of men working full time [age 25 – 64] has decreased from 83 percent to 66 percent over the same period.”

3) “Nonemployment for an entire calendar year among men without high school diplomas [age 25 – 64] increased by 23 percentage points (from 11 to 34 percent) and among those with only a high school degree by 18 percentage points (from 4 to 22 percent)”.

4) “One way to untangle the two phenomena is to examine the median earnings among all working-age men – this time including those who earn nothing at all. What appeared as stagnant earnings for workers is really an outright decline in wages for the median men of working age. The median wage of the American male has declined by almost $13,000 after accounting for inflation in the four decades since 1969…Indeed, earnings haven’t been this low since Ike was president and Marshal Dillon was keeping the peace in Dodge City.”

5) “Consider just men between the ages of 30 and 50, a group for whom retirement is rare. The median earnings of all men in this group declined by 27 percent between 1969 and 2009, which is nearly identical to the 28 percent decline for those who are 25 to 64 years old.”

6) “Surely, the most astonishing statistic to be gleaned from the trend data is the deterioration in the market outcomes for men with less than a high school education. The median earnings of all men in this category have declined by 66 percent [not a misprint] [from 1969 to 2009]. At the same time, this group has experienced a 23 percentage point decline in the probability of having any labor-market earnings. Roughly 10 percentage points of the 23 percentage points is attributable to the fact that more men are reporting disabilities, even though work in physically demanding jobs has been declining for many decades. Men with just a high school diploma did only marginally better. Their wages declined by 47 percent and their participation in the labor force fell by 18 percentage points.” (page 13)

Robot/AI revolution decimating employment and wages, not just could it happen, has it largely happened already? Surprising data (Richard Serlin)

The only reason jobs were increasing at all during this period was the entry of women into the workforce, which increased the supply of workers, and thus lowered their value. Initially, these positions were treated as “second income” jobs, which also aided in lowering pay, as well as being disproportionately in lower-paying service jobs to begin with. Yet the effects were felt across the population.

Now, it’s true that all of these statistics are just for men. The total number of jobs has increased, due to women entering the labor force en masse, and the population increasing. Still: The total labor force participation rate, which considers all of this, has declined in the last 15 years from about 67%, where it was throughout the 1990’s, to about 64% (from the Current Population Survey).

Male and Female Prime-Age Employment Rates Since 2000 (Brad DeLong)

I submit that the reason these shocking statistics have been absent from the national discourse is because they have been primarily visited upon the black community, who could then be simply written off and ignored, since most white Americans considered them to be “lazy” anyway.

To cope with this destruction of good-paying jobs, we turned to a systematic policy of militarized police and mass incarceration. The United States incarcerates more of its own people than any state in the history of the world. Even if all nonviolent drug offenders were freed, we would still have the largest prison population of any major industrialized nation.

Everything just worked out OK???

The Black community were the sacrificial lambs offered up on the altar of globalization and automation. They also became the scapegoats for everything wrong with the country. The third-world workers took the jobs African American depended on, rendering them redundant to the economic order. Note that all during this time, economists and the media were insisting that none of this was having a negative effect on the workforce, even as the ghettos spiraled into post-apocalyptic hellholes. Yet this has been ignored since the 1960’s!

In the eyes of whites, it wasn’t joblessness and segregation but the poor character of blacks which was to blame, a sentiment which remains to this day. As I pointed out in my previous post, blaming problems with employment and the failure of the Market on “poor character” has been the standard tactic going all the way back to the Irish Famine in the 1840’s, and it is very deliberate. These days, descendants of those famine survivors are busily and eagerly demonizing a new set of scapegoats further down the food chain.

The nation naively thought that the creation of a massive militarized internal police force to suppress a large portion of the population somehow wouldn’t effect it. Yet it transformed the nation. It transformed America into a militant police state, particularly, but not exclusively for black citizens.

But the underlying problems never went away. They just festered under the surface, waiting for a match to set them alight again. It turns out that criminalizing poverty doesn’t make it go away. And it’s expensive.

It’s pretty clear from the vitriol directed against Black Lives Matter that the Republicans are still seen as the party to keep blacks in their place. It’s widely known that Donald Trump based his acceptance speech on  Nixon’s Law and Order speech. I found it amusing in the wake of that  speech how many media outlets bombarded us with mountains of statistics  telling us about how the crime rates are actually at historic lows.

As if it was really about “crime” in the first place. As if reasoning and statistics ever mattered to a frightened electorate. Are the media that naive, or do just they think we are?

Do they really not know what’s going on here?

If you read the comments online, you can see that white people pretty much  consider African Americans as little more than animals in need of corralling. There are constant references to Obama desiring “race war” and  somehow inciting the riots. Supposedly George Soros is single-handedly funding BLM to destabilize the United States. Either that or the violence was deliberately staged by Democrats to elect Hillary Clinton (despite such race riots clearly favoring Trump). Video of blacks baying for whites’ blood and calling for violence in the suburbs went viral on the internet and were circulated enthusiastically and obsessively in right-wing internet media. These were claimed to be “censored” by a news media that is controlled by “Leftists” and “Liberals.”  And, of course, there is plenty of fetishistic gun-stroking. Clearly, there is no logic or rationality at work here.

And that explains much of this election. It’s pretty much a replay of 1968 all over again.

1968 and all that: how Donald Trump channels the spirit of a most violent year (The Guardian)

The reason I write so often about this is because it illustrates so much about
where we are headed. What has politics in the era of 1967-2016 taught us about the effects of globalization and automation on the population?

1.) Surplus populations will continue to be isolated and marginalized–and
it won’t just be based on race.

I find it exceedingly amusing that the same people who stockpile weapons to protect themselves from the “tyranny” of a government that is supposedly out of control condemn African Americans for rioting, and loudly cheer on the government forces riding in in tanks and firing tear gas to put them down. I guess their definition of tyranny is simply taxes that are too high on white people. In any case, these riots show what is in store for any group that gets out of hand and decides to embark on a course of action besides self slaughter.

2.) People redundant to the economic order will be eliminated. This will be wither direct or indirect.

In the case of African-Americans, its was very direct. The ghetto is basically an open-air prison, as we saw above. A very specific policy of predation and incarceration was pursued leading to the wholesale cultural collapse of the black community and the social pathologies which characterize it today. It may be beyond saving.

In the case of the white community it is more indirect. It’s often been said that white people don’t riot. That’s true: because of their culture they internalize their failures and self-destruct instead, which from the perspective of the ruling class is much less messy and more convenient. Poor whites have chosen to eliminate themselves from society via suicide or addiction, placing the fault on themselves in their hyper-individualist culture where the individual alone is responsible for their own failing and socially isolated from those around them. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the increase of the white mortality rate parallels that of the outbreak of the deadly disease AIDS in the 1980’s.

The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans…

“Wow,” said Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”

“Stunning” Rise in Death Rate, Pain Levels for Middle-Aged, Less Educated Whites (Naked Capitalism)

When pundits blamed white people for a ‘culture of poverty‘ (The Week)

It’s likely that individual fault will continue to be seen as the root cause of larger and larger portions of the population being made redundant and eliminated. The birth rate in America is at historic lows for these reasons. We’ve seen that riots do no good. A lot of older white voters are turning to Trumpism, more out of hatred of out-groups than any plan to make things better for themselves or their children. It’s likely that race-baiting and identity politics will continue to be highly effective means of keeping the population isolated and divided until the United States ceases to be an effective nation-state, which we are perilously close to already.

There’s always some sort of rationalization for people in the pecking order to justify the treatment of those below them. At different levels of society, the rationalizations may be different, but they are always there nevertheless. It is the most effective form of social control ever devised.

The problem is, with the need for labor ever-diminishing, and with an overpopulated third world able to supply more than enough employees for the rest of time between outsourcing and immigration, there is no incentive for the leaders of wealthy industrialized nations to do anything but feed their populations into the meat grinder of globalization and keep them distracted and at each other’s throats. Either that or ineffective palliative measures which will only help individuals and not solve the large problem (more education, start-ups, etc.). Elites in these societies are protected by their police and surveillance states and have more in common with each other than they do their own citizens. The only options are a slow liquidation of internal populations with all of the political instability and rioting that entails, or some sort of black-swan like collapse event. Neither outcome seems desirable.

After all these words I’m still not sure if I’ve said what I want to say, nor do I have any solutions besides declaring this former British colony a failed experiment and starting over from scratch.

The Philosophy of the Market

Some additional loose ends on TGT:

1. Markets and Energy

I’m sure readers are well aware of the overlap between the rise of the self-regulating globalized Market as described by Polanyi and the expansion of energy use supplied by increasing exploitation of fossil fuels. The explosion of energy production is what made the global self-regulating market a possibility. This allowed self-sufficiency to be cast aside, and enabled the growth of a global monetary economy based on debt. The expansion of industry also provided plenty of jobs for the newly commoditized labor. What fascinates me, though, is the overlap between free market ideas and energy usage. According to Polanyi, market ideas became predominant after 1820, and accelerated after 1830. As we can see from the chart below, this tracks pretty closely to increases in fossil fuel use:

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/03/12/world-energy-consumption-since-1820-in-charts/ (Our Finite World)

Now, what will happen as exponential growth comes to an end? As so many people have pointed out, the Market is dependent upon permanent growth. This is why such a novel system could never have come into place before it did. The problem is, it cannot be sustained. Additionally, the current distribution of wealth rests upon the idea that in a growing economy, ownership of wealth is not a zero-sum game. That is, massive the amounts of wealth accruing to the one percent are a driver of even more wealth for the rest of us! This was always a dubious proposition, to put it mildly, but in a low/no growth world, it is demonstrably false. Certainly this growth contributed to the “Hundred Years’ Peace” as surely as haute finance.

2. Institutional Blindness

Conventional economics tends to emphasize the growth and development of institutions, specifically pro-capitalist institutions like absolute ownership of private property, low taxes on wealth accumulation, commodification of land and labor, usury, limited government, and the elimination of tariffs and trade barriers, as the source of our modern economic growth and prosperity. This is the thesis promoted in all economics textbooks and by economic historians like the previously cited Douglass North.

But what if causality is reversed? what if the use of fossil fuels is the root cause of modern prosperity, and we’ve been misattributing it to capitalist institutions that actually cause more harm than good? In essence, this would make economics into one giant Cargo Cult. By convincing us that the wealth-concentrating institutions of capitalism are the root cause of modern living standards, economists prevent any attempt at reform by telling us that we will fall back into the Malthusian Trap by modifying them. But what happens when these aristocratic pro-capitalist institutions run up hard against hard limits thanks to fossil fuels and other environmental limitations? It seem like this is a driver of modern Neofeudalism. Economics is dedicated to furthering this misunderstanding through its dissemination of simplistic libertarian propaganda under the guise of legitimate scientific inquiry.

3. The Irish Case

One thing I was very surprised at in TGT is the lack of mention of the Irish Potato Famine (an Gorta Mór). My guess is that scholarship on the famine was lacking in 1944 when TGT was written. Not only does it back up Polanyi’s thesis, but from a historical standpoint it shows the first attempt at forcibly imposing a market economy upon a pre-market social structure based on the theories of market liberals like Adam Smith. The tragic results of this free-market “experiment” by the English rulers of Ireland was mass emigration and the deaths of millions of people. To this day, Ireland’s population has not recovered. This article tells the story:

Both authors [John Kelly and Tim Pat Coogan] describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.

Ireland still functioned as a basic barter economy—few hands exchanged money and the peasant population relied on their potato crops, which had failed. But rather than provide aid and establish long-term goals for recovery, Trevelyan and his cohorts saw a chance to introduce radical free-market reforms. As Mr Kelly notes, Trevelyan sent his subordinates to Ireland equipped with Adam Smith’s writings, like missionaries sent to barbarian lands armed with bibles. One absurd project to introduce a money economy was part of the public works scheme. Peasants were hired to build unnecessary roads in order to earn money to buy food. But wages were often not enough to match the high food prices enforced by Trevelyan as a measure to attract imports to Ireland, especially from America.


There was plenty of other food to eat besides potatoes, but in an economy where prices were set by “free and open” markets, the people could not afford to buy any of it. To cover up this tragic failure, the Irish themselves were blamed for their own plight: viciously demonized as lazy, morally inferior cretins having too many kids, and ridiculed for their manners, speech and dress:

The belief that the famine was God’s intention also guided much of Britain’s policy. They viewed the crop failures as “a Visitation of Providence, an expression of divine displeasure” with Ireland and its mostly Catholic peasant population, writes Mr Kelly. Poverty was considered a moral failure. Within a few years Irish immigrants flooded the port cities of Liverpool in England, Montreal and Quebec in Canada and New York. The emigrant was considered an object of horror and contempt, as Mr Kelly writes: “pedestrians turned and walked the other way; storekeepers bolted the door or picked up a broom; street urchins mocked his shoeless feet, filthy clothing and Gaelic-accented English.” Throughout the book, Mr Kelly bemoans the tragic effects of human folly, neglect and Victorian ideology in causing the famine and its aftermath. He rejects the charge of genocide. Tim Pat Coogan, however, takes a more radical view in “The Famine Plot”.

His most compelling argument for British negligence is in the final chapter, in which he recalls the xenophobic images and words commonly used to caricature the Irish in Victorian England. Trevelyan and other architects of the famine response had a direct hand in filling the newspapers with the “oft-repeated theme that the famine was the result of a flaw in the Irish character.” And Punch, a satirical magazine, regularly portrayed “‘Paddy’ as a simian in a tailcoat and a derby, engaged in plotting murder, battening on the labour of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,” explains Mr Coogan. The result of such dehumanising propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.

Sound familiar? It’s been the “free market” playbook ever since!

Note that the “Starving Irishman” of the nineteenth century was the precursor to the “Starving African” of the twentieth, and both were blamed on out-of-control reproduction and laziness rather than free market ideas. Note also that out-of-control reproduction and starving masses were not a fixture of Africa or India before colonialism. That’s because before the global Market, people’s breeding habits were adjusted to be in line with the prevailing local conditions. Once you start dumping massive amounts of low-cost subsidized grain from overseas on these countries, reproduction swells to the point where everyone becomes dependent on those imports. Thanks to these massive inflows of imported resources, population outstrips the local carrying capacity.

This is a good thing from an industrial standpoint, because it means lots of cheap labor for the factories and sweatshops, and the more desperate the people, the cheaper the labor. That’s why leaders always favor overpopulation–it provides cheap labor, and they can insulate themselves from its ill effects thanks to Market mechanisms (cheap labor provides high profits for you to provide plentiful resources for yourself and your family in a Market economy). The problem is, a spike in food prices causes catastrophe for everyone else. While the movement of grain around the world has indeed alleviated more famines than it’s caused so far, it’s led to tragic overpopulation and sporadic outbreaks of hunger.

4. The Ideological Underpinnings of the Market

Another thing to note is the development of an ethos that supports the market ideology. It at this time that the philosophy of “self help” becomes a critical feature of capitalism. That is not a coincidence! This phrase–Self Help–was actually the title of the first book outlining this philosophy for British audiences around the time of the Irish Famine by the perversely-named Samuel Smiles. It was called “The Bible of mid-Victorian liberalism.”

Its core philosophy was that poverty and misery can only be caused by “poor character,” and that giving assistance to poor people will only make them degenerate and ultimately worse off, while suffering will spur them to “self improvement.” He gives numerous examples of early inventors and industrialists who were born poor but pulled themselves up by their bootstraps by virtue of thrift and industriousness. “Hard work,” business acumen and entrepreneurship are lionized.

Furthermore, He also argues that a nation’s character is nothing more than the aggregate of the character of the individuals of that nation. Thus, giving help to the poor and downtrodden will invariably drag down the character of the entire nation! I encourage you to read it’s nostrums to see the beginnings of modern-day “Conservative” philosophy. It begins (emphasis mine):

“HEAVEN helps those who help themselves” is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience.  The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength.  Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.  Whatever is done _for_ men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.

Even the best institutions can give a man no active help.  Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition.  But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct.  Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has usually been much over-estimated.  To constitute the millionth part of a Legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man’s life and character.  Moreover, it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of Government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection—protection of life, liberty, and property.  Laws, wisely administered, will secure men in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, whether of mind or body, at a comparatively small personal sacrifice; but no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober.  Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.

The Government of a nation itself is usually found to be but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The Government that is ahead of the people will inevitably be dragged down to their level, as the Government that is behind them will in the long run be dragged up.  In the order of nature, the collective character of a nation will as surely find its befitting results in its law and government, as water finds its own level.  The noble people will be nobly ruled, and the ignorant and corrupt ignobly.  Indeed all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a State depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men.  For the nation is only an aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of the personal improvement of the men, women, and children of whom society is composed.

National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice.  What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man’s own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved.  If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.


So the answer to the starving victims of the Irish Famine, as certainly it is for the denizens of American ghettos, Appalachia, or the Rust Belt today, is simply to “help yourself.”

This was the introduction of “individualist” philosophy – society and its basic institutions are irrelevant; you are a lone individual and are able to accomplish literally anything through dint of sufficient will and hard enough work. Markets rely on this philosophy as surely as they do on prices and profits. Any failures of the system can be pawned off on individual fault and thus the system cannot fail the people, it can only be failed by the people themselves. It’s also the introduction of the apotheosis of hard work and self denial as the foundation of everything that’s good, and the idolization of the wealthy as “great men” who got where they are by working harder than everyone else and who pull society forward toward constant and neverending progress. From chapter 10:

Any class of men that lives from hand to mouth will ever be an inferior class.  They will necessarily remain impotent and helpless, hanging on to the skirts of society, the sport of times and seasons.  Having no respect for themselves, they will fail in securing the respect of others.  In commercial crises, such men must inevitably go to the wall.  Wanting that husbanded power which a store of savings, no matter how small, invariably gives them, they will be at every man’s mercy, and, if possessed of right feelings, they cannot but regard with fear and trembling the future possible fate of their wives and children.  “The world,” once said Mr. Cobden to the working men of Huddersfield, “has always been divided into two classes,—those who have saved, and those who have spent—the thrifty and the extravagant.  The building of all the houses, the mills, the bridges, and the ships, and the accomplishment of all other great works which have rendered man civilized and happy, has been done by the savers, the thrifty; and those who have wasted their resources have always been their slaves.  It has been the law of nature and of Providence that this should be so; and I were an impostor if I promised any class that they would advance themselves if they were improvident, thoughtless, and idle.”

Prior to works like this, individualism was not the guiding philosophy for the economy nor for society itself (remember, they were embedded), Christian charity was. That needed to die in order for the traditional structures of reciprocity, redistribution and householding to be replaced by the impersonal Free Market.

The indifference to the suffering and destitution of those living under the market’s ministrations is crucial to its continuance. The “cult of individual failure” is how this is propagated (read any comments section on the Web). Note how much this philosophy underlies our own attitudes in America toward the poor: they deserve it, it’s their own fault, they are inferior, etc. Only when a majority are made suddenly destitute, as in the Great Depression, does this philosophy fall out of favor.

Eat to much sugar? Obese? It’s your fault for not having enough self-discipline, despite subsidized prices and billions of dollars in advertising put in your face daily. Drink too much? It’s your fault, not that of your genes. Can’t afford a house in an urban area? It’s your fault for not studying hard enough or picking the wrong major. Can’t feed your family? It’s your fault for having children you can’t afford; children are not a blessing, they are a luxury good. Live in an economically depressed area? Just hop in the U-Haul and move, you lazy bum! It allows indifference to the Market’s faults. The Just World/Self Help/It’s Your Fault philosophy is a critical underpinning of the self-regulating market economy. The wholehearted (cold hearted?) embrace of this doctrine is a hallmark of those who support conservative political philosophies (Republicans and Libertarians in the US and Tories in the UK).

It’s a short leap from that to full-bore Social Darwinism. It’s no coincidence that this philosophy, too, appeared under specific economic circumstances, namely the dislocation after the Panic of 1873, which was called the Great Depression at the time (later renamed to the Long Depression). This was also a period of unrestricted free trade and its correspondent extreme wealth and income inequality. At this time, Darwinism was pressed into service to explain how this was the “natural” order of society:

Social Darwinism is a name given to various theories of society which emerged in the United Kingdom, North America, and Western Europe in the 1870s, and which claim to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. According to their critics, at least, social Darwinists argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. Different social-Darwinist groups have differing views about which groups of people are considered to be the strong and which groups of people are considered to be the weak, and they also hold different opinions about the precise mechanisms that should be used to reward strength and punish weakness. Many such views stress competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism…

In 1883, [William Graham] Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification. According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.


Meet the man who invented the GOP’s defense of the wealthy—in 1883. (Slate)

Note that our circumstances are very similar to those of back then. The underpinnings are the same – the futile attempts to create the Global Self-Regulating Market. This time the dollar unites the world instead of gold, and just as precariously. Just as back then, there is a “double movement.” Back then it was populists like William Jennings Bryan and the Progressive movement. Today is it Sanders, Trump, Occupy, the Fight for Fifteen, the Five Star Movement Nuit Debout, the Igninados, etc. And, like then, the wealthy and powerful are using Social Darwinism to justify the current state of affairs, this time tastefully rebranded as the “Human Biodiversity Movement.”