Covid-19: The Good and The Bad

There’s a lot of talk about whether the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to a better world or a worse one. I’ve seen plenty of opinions on both sides. No one knows for sure, but let’s take a look at some of the evidence.

Good: Health care tied to your job is widely seen as a disaster. This system was absolutely cruel, insane and counterproductive from the start; a historical accident due to temporary World War Two wage restrictions and previously high unionization rates.

Now, with unemployment soaring while a pandemic is ravaging the country, the sheer insanity of tying health care access to your job is being seen as the abomination it is by increasing numbers of people. I don’t see how anyone besides anti-government zealots and outright social Darwinists can defend it anymore.

Surveys have shown that a vast majority of Democrats and Independents, and even a slight majority of Republicans favor some sort single-payer health care system not tied to employment. It seem like that is finally winning the intellectual argument. Will this finally be the impetus that makes it inevitable? If not, what will it take???

Yet the Democratic Party has put their thumb on the scale for a candidate who has expressly said he would veto Medicare for All even if it somehow got through Congress. It pulled out all the stops to prevent the only candidate running on a health care reform platform from gaining the nomination for president. But how many times can it do this in the face of widespread public support for the policy? How long can the “good cop, bad cop” two party duopoly hold off this desperately needed reform in order to keep the money spigot from health care profiteers flowing? How long can the U.S. hold out being the only rich nation on earth that lets thousands of its citizens die or go bankrupt every year due to health care costs? Forever???

In addition, the federal government is claiming that it will pay health care providers directly for Covid-19 treatment. The question will increasingly be: why stop there? Why keep people from going broke over Covid-19 virus treatment, but allow them go broke if they get anything else like cancer, or Lyme disease, or some other unexpected malady? Hopefully more and more people will begin asking this question.


Good: this will change how a generation thinks about politics.
The generation that came of age during the Great Depression had no time for the bootstraps myth or lectures about “personal responsibility” from the wealthy and their toadies. They knew how unpredictable and fickle unregulated markets are. They saw with their own eyes people who worked all their lives going hungry, losing their homes and suffering. So will this generation.

It’s a cliche about the Baby Boom generation, but in my experience largely true: they grew up in a time of unprecedented affluence thanks to a system managed by government that they largely dismantled. They repeatedly voted for their own selfish interests above the national good. They pulled the prosperity ladder up after themselves and left future generations to drown. They outsourced their thinking to Fox News and wholly bought into the world view espoused by billionaire-funded right-wing think tanks. Having achieved prosperity largely thanks to hidden socialism, they left future generations to deal with capitalism with the gloves off.

Every toxic idea in the country right now is sustained by the older generation. It’s not even close. Look at the age breakdown of those who voted for Biden versus those who voted for Bernie. Look at where the majority of Trump’s support is. It’s heavily concentrated in the over-50 age cohort. And the older you go, the stronger the support. OK Boomer.

https://twitter.com/floridamanic/status/1248681990016073728

And the idea that the younger generation will somehow morph into conservative Republicans as they get older and amass wealth? Forget about it. First of all, they’re not going to amass wealth. That was clear even before Great Depression conditions, thanks to stagnant wages and high education costs. And the healthcare industry will siphon off a large chunk of that wealth, making sure that it doesn’t trickle down to younger generations through inheritance (unless you’re in the top ten percent). The financial industry will take much of the rest.

Plus, a lot of those people are going to be downwardly mobile as they get older, not upwardly moble. I know I am. I’ve made less and less money with each job I’ve held in the last decade, rather than more, and I suspect I’m not alone. Besides, why would someone who believes that health care is a basic human right suddenly change their views because they turn 40, have kids or buy a house? It doesn’t make any sense.

The Great Depression and WWII changed the way we talked about the economy: left to its own devices it would wreak havoc on people’s lives (massive unemployment), “heedless self-interest [is] bad economics” (FDR), and governments can effectively pursue the public good (defeat fascism, provide economic security). As the memories of that era faded along with the social solidarity and confidence in collective action that it had fostered, another vernacular took over: “there is no such thing as society” (Thatcher) – you get what you pay for, government is just another special interest group.

Another opportunity for a long-needed fundamental shift in the economic vernacular is now unfolding. COVID-19, along with climate change, could be the equivalent of the Great Depression and WWII in forcing a sea change in economic thinking and policy.

The Coming battle for the Covid-19 Narrative (VoxEU)

I’m not a big fan of historical determinist literature like “The Fourth Turning” that are often touted by futurists. But a valid point that books like that make is that generations are shaped by the historical circumstances they have experienced. We’ve had a generation that has been shaped by terrorism, endless foreign wars in the Middle East, blatant government corruption, decreasing living standards, a financial panic that devastated the global economy, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable housing and rampant homelessness, and now a global economic depression caused by a pandemic worsened by forty years of anti-government neoliberalism. They are angry and desperate. They’ve seen the world disintegrate in front of their eyes. They’ve endured extreme suffering. Their hopes and dreams have been dashed forever. There’s no way they are going to vote for the status quo when they gain the reins of power (assuming voting is allowed, however, see below).

Bad: the end of democratic elections. I live in Wisconsin. Perhaps you’ve heard about what happened here this past Tuesday. I’ve seen reports on it all over the world:

Wisconsin is the first state in three weeks to hold a primary with in-person voting since stay-at-home orders swept the nation amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Badger state imposed its own lockdown on 25 March. All other states have postponed their primary season elections or moved entirely to postal votes while the country remains in the throes of its health emergency.

Wisconsin has recorded more than 2,500 coronavirus cases and 92 deaths.

On the eve of the election, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court blocked Governor Tony Evers’s last-minute executive order to suspend in-person voting.”No Wisconsinite should ever have to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and being safe, secure, and healthy,” the governor said.

But the Republican-controlled legislature immediately took Mr Evers – a Democrat – to the state Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 4-2 majority. That same day, the US Supreme Court intervened, barring an extension of postal voting. Pollsters expected a lower turnout on Tuesday to benefit the conservative judicial candidate – who was endorsed by the president – for the state’s highest court.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52208440

This past Tuesday I didn’t vote. I couldn’t vote. Normally, I would walk to the pavilion in the park next to my house to vote. When I go after work (because we don’t get time off to vote in the U.S.) I often to have to wait in line (queue), but it’s not too extreme. Even in busy election, it usually takes less than half an hour.

This past election, polling stations in the city of Milwaukee went from 180 to 5. Five, in a city of over 500,000 people. And people had to maintain six feet of distance while waiting in line. If everyone eligible to vote had done so, lines would have stretched to the Illinois border, and polls would still be open a week later.

Waiting in line for Wisconsin voting from gifs

And the usual workaround of mail-in or absentee voting didn’t work. Personally, I don’t even know how to do any of these things. I guess I’m supposed to request a ballot weeks ahead of time. I know I don’t get one automatically. But how was I to know that any of this was going to happen?

And from what I’ve been hearing, even the people who requested mail-in ballots didn’t get them in many cases. And attempts to extend the deadline for mail-in votes were quashed by the state supreme court and upheld by the national supreme court.

[T]he Badger State was turned into a civic punchline by its Republican legislature, which used the COVID crisis for a power grab. With the country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and the state already under a stay-at-home order, Wisconsin’s lawmakers refused to reschedule the primary, essentially smothering the turnout for the sole purpose of re-electing a single key judge to the state supreme court.

Not everyone thought this was prudent. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, sought to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format and extend balloting until May 19, which would keep people from breathing on each other at polling stations.

So the GOP legislature went to court. And after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a lower court opinion that had changed the date and extended the absentee ballot deadline — with Trump’s appointments casting the deciding votes, mandating that the show go on — the State of Wisconsin put the lives of their voters at risk and held the primary as scheduled.

You probably saw what happened next: Workers at hundreds of polling stations were no-shows, and lines became intolerable — and more dangerous — in the most urban venues. Milwaukee, which has 330,000 voters and the state’s largest minority population, opened just 5 of its 180 polling sites, with wait times averaging 2 hours. Green Bay had only 2 polling places, downsized from 31.

Welcome to Wisconsin, where democracy goes to die (NJ.com)

It’s disenfranchisement of voters on scale beyond that of even the most corrupt third-world kleptocracy. And it happened in America, the supposed “leader of the free world.” And it was officially sanctioned by the Supreme court. Imagine if this had happened in Russia or Venezuela.

Trump Adviser Caught on Tape Discussing ‘Aggressive’ Voter Suppression in 2020 (Rolling Stone)

This may very well be the beginning of the end of elections in the United States. There’s already massive disenfrahisement due to the disproportionate influence rural areas have over urban ones, and outdated institutions like the electoral college. And even though Democrats won the most votes for the Wisconsin state Senate, thanks to gerrymandering, the Republicans hold a supermajority despite receiving less votes overall.

Bad: Increasing government control over our movements. I see Edward Snowden is warning about governments using the pandemic to build “an architecture of oppression.” I think that’s a valid concern. The excuse that we need to monitor every last citizen 24 hours a day in order to ensure public health may lead to widespread monitoring of people’s movements to an unprecedented degree. Chinese-style monitoring of the citizenry may become the norm the world over. That should give us serious pause.

Can you imagine a world where you won’t even be allowed to leave your house without a special permission slip from government, or where you are forbidden from having a second person in the car with you when you go for a drive on penalty of a fine? Well that’s the reality right now in Spain. If you had told me that this would happen before the pandemic, I would have thought you were crazy or paranoid. Now it’s real. In Italy drones are taking people’s temperature and issuing fines.

Italy was the first Western democracy to enter a national lockdown in the face of a disease that has officially killed more than 18,000 in the Mediterranean country and nearly 100,000 worldwide. It is now one of several European nations using police drones to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable — and almost certainly unacceptable — just a month ago.

And now there’s talk of people having to carry around some sort of paper around validating that you were vaccinated or had already had Covid-19 in order to travel or to attend certain public events in the future. That’s a scary world to live in. It’s also ripe for abuse. What else might those papers say about who can travel and who can go outside, I wonder? Will we be greeted by that sinister phrase from the days of the Iron Curtian, “papers please” everywhere we go now? Will this be just an accepted part of everyday life around the world?

I’ve even heard talk of people’s home thermostats and cell phones monitoring their body temperature at all times and relaying that information to the government. Again, this will be portrayed as necessary, and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t necessary right now. But at what cost do we superempower governments to do things like this? And what is the cost if we don’t?

Good: increasing labor unrest among the lowest-paid tier. There’s a lot of unrest among workers in the country who are deemed to be “essential” and yet not given the necessary protective gear to do their jobs safely. That is, some of the lowest-paid workers in the country are risking their lives and the lives of others (many live with older adults, for example) for a pittance.

This is resulting in widespread outrage, as it should. Thankfully, some workers are fighting back.

Across the United States, we are seeing workers walk off the job in wildcat strikes in response to the employers’ failure either to shut down the workplace or to make it safe. The strikes are too few to call them a strike wave, but we should be aware that on their own initiative workers are taking what practically is the most powerful action they can: withdrawing their labour. The strikes are taking place in both the private and public sector, in both unionised and non-union workplaces large and small.

Wildcat strikes across the US as pandemic spreads (Red Flag)

It’s disorganized now, but after taking everything dished out by the rich and corporations for years, it looks like workers may finally be fighting back. Just being told to “get a better job” rings hollow when there are no jobs to be had. Minimum wages are not enough to risk the lives of your parents and elders.

It’s become clear that things like mandatory paid sick leave are necessary for the good of everyone, not just the workers themselves, and that private corporations won’t provide this stuff unless compelled to do so by the state. Libertarian notions of “individual contract negotiation” by workers are increasingly seen as the bullshit they are.

Bad: a surfeit of labor leading to lower wages and more inequality. When unemployment is sky-high, it exerts downward pressure on wages.

After the Black Death, wages and living standards went up due to the shortage of necessary labor. In this crisis, by contrast, widespread layoffs are reducing the need for labor, while the number of people removed from the labor force through mortality is insignificant. Already in the United States, sixteen million people have been “officially” removed from the labor force (likely an undercount), against a total of two million deaths in the absolute worst-case scenario–deaths concentrated among those already out of the labor force. The official death toll right now is “only” about 100,000 worldwide.

That will strengthen, not weaken the hand of employers. That’s not good.

And employers are already becoming more brutal and thuggish. The leaked Amazon memo demonstrated the degree to which the fortunes of plutocratic billionaires are predicated on suppressing worker wages and unions, meaning that, yes, it is a zero-sum game.

There is a very real concern that wages will actually fall across the board in the years to come, exacerbating already unprecedented levels of inequality. A lot of economic forecasting I’ve read is calling for depressed economic activity for an entire decade!

We’re approaching French Revolution levels of inequality across the entire planet. How much more can we take before sometime, somewhere, we have a Storm the Bastille moment???

Bad: elimination of small and local business. It’s no secret that small and local businesses will bear the brunt of the shutdowns and be a disproportionate number of the bankruptcies that result. And large national businesses like Amazon will be the major beneficiaries. Every forecast I’ve seen has shown this. This will make the economy even more concentrated and monopolistic. It will empower capitalist oligarchs even more. The only silver lining might be that the old “anyone can start their own business” justification for employer abuse will ring increasingly hollow. But it’s certainly not a good thing overall.

Bad: increasingly authoritarian governments worldwide. This trend started well before the outbreak, of course. But there is a very real fear that the outbreak will accelerate the worldwide embrace of authoritarian and quasi-fascist governments that has going on since perhaps 2012.

This is due to the human herd instinct to rally around leaders in a time of crisis, no matter how bad or incompetent those leaders might be. From that standpoint, the crisis is actually a boon to bad and incompetent leaders. We can see this with approval ratings for Trump, for example (although they’ve recently dipped slightly).

Hungary seems to be the canary in the coal mine. Viktor Orban has passed what amounts to an Enabling Act using the outbreak as a sort of Reichstag fire. But in the United States as well, all sorts of institutions are being sidelined and disabled using the pandemic as a convenient distraction, including oversight of the vast sums money being distributed to corporations and the financial sector. The rush to embrace authoritarian and fascist leaders during the Great Depression is often cited as an example of this trend–Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, etc.

Another tactic empowering authoritarians is using the virus to scapegoat already marginalized groups in order to gain popularity:

Bad: scapegoating and xenophobia. Already there is a coordinated and concentrated effect to deflect blame from government incompetence to other parties. Who those parties are varies depending on the enemies list of the particular authoritarian leader.

Already the Republican Party in the U.S. is seeking to blame the Chinese and stoke racist fears to rile up their base. An example is a recent anti-Democrat attack ad:

At one point the ad flashes to an image of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), the Seattle-born Chinese American who also served as former President Obama’s ambassador to China.

Democrats said the image, which features Locke standing near Chinese flags, is indistinguishable from the other images of Chinese officials and was included either because Locke looks Chinese or in an effort to stoke suspicion around him because of his ethnicity.

Democrats say Trump campaign ad singles out Locke over race (The Hill)

Combine that with the pivot towards referring to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus,” or “the Wuhan virus” among Republicans. It’s clearly a deliberate messaging effort.

And I’ve been seeing a sudden and dramatic uptick of extremely virulent anti-Chinese rhetoric online in places like Reddit, which is replete with various bots, trolls, and government influencers. It’s almost like we are being primed for something…

Good: support for UBI. Support for a universal basic income has gone up since the crisis began. I’ve seen reports that Spain is planning to roll out a permanent UBI. I’d be very surprised if Spain ends up being the first country to actually do this for real, but we’ll see. I know that Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland have all flirted with the idea in the past but never had the guts to pull the trigger. Will they embrace it now?

But if a country does manage to successfully implement UBI somewhere, it proves that it is possible. Right now, the examples pointed to are all partial implementations that are nowhere near the scale and ambition of the most serious UBI proposals that I’ve seen. But I’ll be skeptical until I see it.

Officials are still sorting out many of the details. There’s no concrete start date yet, though Calviño has said that the Spanish government aims to roll out the new program “as soon as possible.” It’s also unclear what the monthly sum will be, and how it will be determined. Calviño hinted that some families might receive more or less “depending on their circumstances,” which sounds like some sort of means-testing. It’s a massive undertaking, to say the least, and many wrinkles remained to be ironed. But make no mistake: this is a huge fucking deal.

Spain’s UBI Is A Wake-Up Call For Americans (Current Affairs)

Good: public outrage over bailouts. After 2008, there was a widespread narrative that the very people who were most responsible for the financial crisis had been bailed out by the government, while people the average person was left to fend for himself or herself, often losing their home in the process. This was oversimplified, of course, but true in many ways in a broad brush sense.

Now I’ve seen much the same narrative surrounding the current series of bailouts. Trillions for companies and CEOs, with nothing but crumbs for the millions of workers suddenly laid off from their jobs through no fault of their own. An easy to fill out one-page form to get billions in government loans, with crashed web sites and busy phone lines for those trying to claim money from an unemployment system that they’ve already paid into.

And this torches-and-pitchforks outrage is going to have political consequences down the line. How many times are the people going to allow trillions of dollars of what they’ve been gaslit into believing is their “taxpayer money” to be shuffled to Wall Street and CEOs, while rents can’t be paid and food pantries are overwhelmed with demand? Is this a situation of “Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football” forever? People who question this absurd system are going to become increasingly popular in the months ahead:

“Why does anybody ‘deserve,’ using your word, to get wiped out from a crisis created like this?” replied Wapner.

“Just be clear, like, who are we talking about?” said Palihapitiya, himself a billionaire. “A hedge fund that serves a bunch of billionaire family offices? Who cares? Let ’em get wiped out. Who cares? They don’t get to summer in the Hamptons? Who cares!”

After Wapner suggested it would be “immoral” to let any company get wiped out in the economic crisis, Palihapitiya responded that “on Main Street today, people are getting wiped out.”

“And right now, rich CEOs are not, boards that had horrible governance are not, hedge funds are not. People are,” said Palihapitiya. “Six million people just this week alone basically saying, ‘Holy mackerel, I don’t know how I’m going to make my own expenses for the next few weeks, days, months. So it’s happening today to individual Americans. And what we’ve done is disproportionately prop up and protect poor performing CEOs, companies, and boards. And you have to wash these people out.”

Palihapitiya’s interview quickly went viral on social media…

Venture Capitalist Stuns CNBC By Saying We Should Let Hedge Funds Fail (Truthout)

Of course last time much of that anger ended up being captured by a well-funded and organized Right via the so-called “Tea party” movement. Will the Left drop the ball and let that happen again? The coronation of Joe “nothing will fundamentally change” Biden by the DNC does not bode well for this.

Good: low oil prices and less air pollution. I’ve written about this before, so no need to say much more. BUT

Bad: less support for renewable energy. With oil prices low, the incentive for renewables will be decreased. Government support for renewable energy will also be curtailed.

…in the new Covid-19 era, renewables are expected to waffle in the coming years since many projects also need government backing and assistance to be viable. Most Western democracies are currently burning red ink to fund their economies to get throught the Covid-19 crisis, spiking what were already hefty debt levels.

Consequently, many countries will simply be unable to afford to back renewable projects, even as both solar and wind were becoming more cost efficient, achieving economies of scale, and were increasingly being included in many countries’ power development plans.

The loss of financial support for renewables will cause them to cede their growing market share back to oil and gas producers. This will be good news for global oil majors and their price war ravaged balance sheets, and bad news for the environment and activist investor causes.

OPEC Deal Won’t Revive Ravaged Oil Prices (Asia Times)

Local pandemic chalk art.

COVID-19 Thoughts 2

Thanks for all your kind words and comments. For right now, at least, I’m all right financially, so any extra money you have lying around, please donate however you can to those who are on the leading edge of this crisis. I’ll return to this at the end.

1. Work hours

I saw an amazing statistic recently: if the average U.S. worker stayed home for two solid months, they would still have worked the same number of hours as the average German worker.

As the kids say, I can’t even…

What are all those extra hours getting us?

Germany is a rich country, after all. Despite working less hours, they are still able to extend health care coverage to all of their citizens. There are no medical bankruptcies, either. And so, I ask again, what exactly are we getting for all those extra hours?

I think you can guess the answer. Someone is benefiting from those hours, but it’s not the workers themselves.

2. Neoliberal health care

The United states has struggled with procuring adequate medical supplies and having enough hospital beds. In this, we’re not unique—many counties around the world are also struggling.

But there is a critical difference. The difference is, the United States spends almost twenty percent of it’s GDP on health care. The most recent statistics I’ve seen are 17 percent.

Put another way, more than one out of every six dollars in our economy is spent on health care. Seventeen cents out of every dollar exchanged goes to health care. Here are the 2018 statistics from the OECD: https://www.statista.com/statistics/268826/health-expenditure-as-gdp-percentage-in-oecd-countries/

No other country is even close. The next highest is Switzerland with 12 percent. And the irony is, when it comes to public (i.e. “taxpayer”) money, the spending of the U.S. and Switzerland is pretty much the same!

How does health spending in the U.S. compare to other countries?

The above page also shows that we pay *double* the expenses per capita of the OECD average.

So we should theoretically be the *most* prepared country in the world, right. Right?

Where is all that extra money going?

Clearly it’s not going to more beds, more hospitals, more doctors, more equipment, cheaper drugs, or more patient care.

No, once again, I think you can see where this is going: the only beneficiaries are a tiny sliver of well-placed elites at the apex of the system who make out like bandits, not the people whom the system is hypothetically designed to serve. Because every necessary civic function in America is based on grift (see also: education, finance).

Related, see this tweet:

Recall my post about Neoliberalism: that only markets can allocate things efficiently is the core animating idea of Neoliberalism. And that competition drives efficiency. Well, we see how well that’s working now, don’t we? Case in point: rather than a coordinated, centralized virus response across the country, it appears that states are having to bid against each other for necessary supplies in the private market:

Only a portion of the medical supplies being flown in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency from overseas are being allotted to critical hotspots prioritized by the agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The rest will resupply the private market, where competition between states and the federal government has been a source of frustration for governors trying to shore up equipment to treat patients with coronavirus, according to multiple officials.

The Trump administration has touted the incoming flights, billing them and the equipment they’re bringing in as a reprieve to states desperate for supplies. But states are not the sole recipients of the equipment, according to a FEMA spokesperson. Supplies will also be sent to the private market, where states have been in fierce competition with each other to get hold of hard-to-come-by supplies.

Only some medical supplies from overseas going directly to coronavirus hotspots (CNN)

Supplying these private sector distributors seems quite problematic for at least a couple reasons, to put it mildly.

First is that there’s no clear mechanism to allocate these supplies on the basis of need based on a coherent national plan or framework. Secondly, it opens the door to massive profiteering. Even if companies aren’t technically gouging, that’s what bidding is. And you really can’t call this a legitimate private sector market if every state is having to bid with private companies to secure medical supplies during a historic national health emergency. The private sector rationale is also undermined if the US military has taken over a significant part of the fulfillment process.

You Need to Look at This (Talking Points Memo)

This is something states have been doing with businesses and jobs since the 1980’s under neoliberalism, after all. States would compete against one another as to who could offer businesses and corporations the most tax breaks, subsidies and giveaways, along with who could legally give the least support to workers in terms of benefits and salaries. The federal government, instead of putting a stop to this race to the bottom or at least ameliorating it, just let it rip in the name of market efficiency.

Now they’re competing for masks and ventilators to save lives. Because markets.

Let me see if I’ve got this right. The Federal government essentially forces states to bid against one another, because that’s how capitalism is supposed to work (?) and then, the winning state has what it has won in the bid confiscated by the Federal government so that the supplies can be distributed by private entities because that’s how capitalism is supposed to work (?). This would seem to make the communism of the USSR look like a model of efficiency.

Gee, I wonder why:

Republican fundraiser looks to cash in on coronavirus (Politico)

How much blood will Neoliberalism have on its hands? And will anyone remember?

3. Oil

I’m really stunned right now that the price of oil may go to $0.00. That is people may pay you to take the oil off their hands. You can pump the stuff out of the ground, but if no one wants to use it and there is no place to store it, it is ultimately useless. Maybe store it underground?

This oil glut is creating a scenario where some obscure grades of oil already have actually dropped below zero. For instance, a Wyoming crude grade was recently bid at negative 19 cents a barrel, Bloomberg News reported last week.

Shrinking storage capacity means that oil producers in some cases have to pay someone just to take the barrels off their hands.

“The price is trying to go to a level to force companies to keep the oil in the ground. If it has to go negative to incentivize that behavior, then it will,”…

Subzero oil prices are certainly bizarre, but there is some limited precedence in the energy market.

Last year, US natural gas prices in West Texas traded in negative territory for more than two weeks because there were not enough pipelines to carry the gas away, Reuters reported.

The world could soon run out of space to store oil. That may plunge prices below zero (CNN)

Imagine if I had predicted back in 2008-2009 that not only would we NOT be out of oil, but that it would be practically free. That is would be at historic lows. That you practically couldn’t give the stuff away.

You would have thought I was insane. Peak Oil people would have laughed in my face.

Imagine, then, if I had also predicted that in 2020 there would be another Great Depression; that it would be global in scope; that U.S. domestic GDP would be cut in half, that unemployment levels would go to 30 percent, and that barter would make a comeback.

Those very same people would have said, “Yes, of course that’s going to happen!” That’s exactly what a lot of the Peak Oil experts were predicting would happen, after all.

But of course, none of the above was caused by a lack of oil. Quite the opposite.

And, on top of that, two of the major oil producing countries have actually increased their production, against any reasonable semblance of logic. There is a lot of speculation as to why, but from what I can tell, no one is exactly sure. The most popular theory is that Russia and Saudi Arabia want to put U.S. shale and tight oil companies out of business. These companies have apparently been unprofitable since their inception.

No one, and I mean no one, predicted that.

Nobody predicted this level of demand destruction.

And this leads us to the perils of prediction.

This was a problem I had with a lot of the end-of-the-world scenarios all the way back when they started to become popular during the first decade of the twenty-first century. A lot of Peak Oil experts and pundits were so sure they knew exactly what was going to happen. There was no doubt in their minds whatsoever. They even published books and put up web sites telling us exactly how it was going to play out.

They were wrong, of course.

Oh, they weren’t wrong about the basics. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. They won’t last forever. The earth isn’t making more of them on any timeline that would be useful to us. And our entire industrial civilization is predicated on us using vast amounts of them, without which the modern industrial way of life would be impossible. But how it played out in the real world was not linear at all from the above facts. Wikipedia summarizes:

Since the oil price peaked about US$147.50 in summer 2008 many projects have been brought online, and domestic production increased from 2009 to 2015. In 2012 the oil production of the USA increased by 800,000 barrels, the highest ever recorded increase in one year since oil drilling began in 1859. The US had recently increased its oil drilling location as it has passed Saudi Arabia and Russia. Oil-bearing shales in North Dakota and Montana are producing increasing amounts of oil. As of April 2013, US crude production was at a more than 20-year high, since the shale gas and tight oil boom; production was near 7.2 million barrels per day. Peak production was 10,044 barrels per day in November 1970. A second, but lower peak of 9,627 barrels per day was achieved in April 2015.

Now all those shale oil and tight oil extractors are going bankrupt. How will this play out? Nobody knows. According to some estimates, we may be reaching Peak Oil demand. If that’s the case, then a collapse of industrial civilization would appear unlikely. If demand continues to stay at a lower level due to a combination of societal factors induced by the pandemic such as working from home and traveling less, along with governments getting serious about reducing carbon in the atmosphere, we may have averted a crisis, even if fossil fuels are inevitably set to decline.

Oil wells responsible for almost 1m barrels a day may have already been shut down because the price of oil is now lower than the cost of shipping it, according to US banking giant Goldman Sachs, with the number of wells growing “by the hour”. This is likely to “permanently alter the energy industry and its geopolitics” and “shift the debate around climate change”, said Jeffrey Currie, head of commodities at the bank.

Demand for oil has plummeted as the coronavirus locks down people in their homes and airplanes on runways. “The virus will bring forward peak demand for fossil fuels,” said Kingsmill Bond, at analysts Carbon Tracker. This latest cyclical oil shock is hitting an industry already heading towards a structural peak created by nations committing to net zero future emissions, he said.

“As for the impact of the virus on the timing [of peak demand], it depends of course on the severity,” he said. In 2018, Carbon Tracker estimated peak demand would come in 2023 but Bond said it was possible that the crisis has advanced this by three years. “That means that peak emissions was almost certainly 2019, and perhaps peak fossil fuels as well,” he said. “It will be touch and go if there can be another mini-peak in 2022, before the inexorable decline begins.”
While the oil companies themselves have long argued peak demand is too far off to put a number on, most observers thought it would happen this decade. Mark Lewis, head of climate change investment research at BNP Paribas, agreed the crises could bring it closer.

Will the coronavirus kill the oil industry and help save the climate? (Guardian)

4. Pollution

I’ve already pointed out the benefits of the economic shutdown in terms of less pollution. While reports of dolphins swimming in the canals Venice appear to be inaccurate, all over the world the lifiting of the pollution cloud has led to a glimpse of a world with less frivolous economic activity in the name of growth for growth’s sake.

I thought this was interesting:

Jalandhar Residents Wake up to View of Himalayan Range as COVID-19 Lockdown Leaves Air Cleaner (News18)

Leaving aside the deleterious effects of particles on lung health, what is a view of the Himalayas worth? What price can be put on it? Is it worth more than the economic activities that generate all the pollution that takes away the view produce?

That’s a clunky way of saying that pollution itself is a cost. Like Herman Daly said, there’s wealth and illth, and illth needs to subtracted from wealth to get a true accounting of the benefits of growth.

And the carbon reduction we should have been doing all along has been effected by the economic shutdown:

“I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University in California, told Reuters in an email.

“Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings and loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is,” he said.

A U.N. report published in November found that emissions would have to start falling by an average of 7.6% per year to give the world a viable chance of limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5C, the most ambitious Paris goal.

“I don’t see any way that this is good news except for proving that humans drive greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kristopher Karnauskas, associate professor at the Department of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Coronavirus could trigger biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War Two (Reuters). So much for denying that humans have any effect on the atmosphere.

Of course,

…the improvements are for all the wrong reasons, tied to a world-shaking global health emergency that has infected more than 950,000 people – while shuttering factories, grounding airlines and forcing hundreds of millions of people to stay at home to slow the contagion. Experts warn that without structural change, the emissions declines caused by coronavirus could be short-lived and have little impact on the concentrations of carbon dioxide that have accumulated in the atmosphere over decades.

And:

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down industrial activity and temporarily slashing air pollution levels around the world, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows.

One expert said the sudden shift represented the “largest scale experiment ever” in terms of the reduction of industrial emissions.

Readings from ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over cities and industrial clusters in Asia and Europe were markedly lower than in the same period last year.

Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, predicted there will be important lessons to learn. “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” he said. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Monks, the former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality, said that a reduction in air pollution could bring some health benefits, though they were unlikely to offset loss of life from the disease.

“It seems entirely probable that a reduction in air pollution will be beneficial to people in susceptible categories, for example some asthma sufferers,” he said.

“It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.” Agriculture could also get a boost because pollution stunts plant growth, he added…

Road traffic accounts for about 80% of nitrogen oxide emissions in the UK, according to Monk. For the average diesel car, each kilometre not driven avoids 52 milligrammes of the pollutant entering the air.

“What I think will come out of this is a realisation – because we are forced to – that there is considerable potential to change working practices and lifestyles. This challenges us in the future to think, do we really need to drive our car there or burn fuel for that,” said Monk.

Recall item #1 above, Americans could stay home for two months and still work the same number of hours per year as the averge German–Germany being a very rich country. Of course, the Trump administration is using the crisis as an excuse to roll back environmental protections.

If there’s any future human civilization, they’ll be able to detect this pandemic in the ice cores. Speaking of which, an interesting article came out on the BBC showing that we can detect past historical events using ice cores:

Lead and silver are often mined together and in this period, mines in the Peak District and in Cumbria were among the most productive in Europe. Lead had many uses in this time, from water pipes to church roofs to stained glass windows. But production of the metal was clearly linked to political events according to the authors of this latest research.

The researchers were able to match the physical records from the ice with the written tax records of lead and silver production in England.

“In the 1169-70 period, there was a major disagreement between Henry II and Thomas Beckett and that clash manifested itself by the church refusing to work with Henry – and you actually see a fall in that production that year,” said Prof Christopher Loveluck, from Nottingham University.

Excommunicated by the Pope in the wake of the murder, Henry’s attempt at reconciliation is detailed in the ice core. “To get himself out of jail with the Pope, Henry promised to endow and build a lot of major monastic institutions very, very quickly,” said Prof Loveluck. “And of course, massive amounts of lead were used for roofing of these major monastic complexes. Lead production rapidly expanded as Henry tried to atone for his misdemeanours against the Church.”

The researchers say their data is also clear enough to show the clear connections between lead production rising and falling during times of war and between the reigns of different kings in this period between 1170 and 1220.

Thomas Becket: Alpine ice sheds light on medieval murder (BBC)

5. What Socialism is Not

I’ve seen a lot of memes arguing that the checks from the government are in some way socialism.

The government sending people money is not socialism.

It plays into this idea in America that any time the government spends money–or does anything, really–it’s somehow socialism.

That definition actually plays into the hands of the critics. It’s like the meme that we need to raise enough taxes to pay for stuff. It does more harm than good.

6. Collapse-prone

There was the the 2000 Dot-com crash, the 2008-2009 housing bubble, and now Coronavirus. By my estimation, in the twenty-first century we’ve had a major stock-market crash about every ten years so far.

Tell me again how we should put all our faith in the Market?

7. Historical echoes

When the last great economic crisis of this magnitude hit, we also had a Republican president who believed–along with everyone in his party–that the private sector was best, and that government “interference” in the economy was unwarranted, or should at least be kept to an absolute minimum. That didn’t work out well. From a Slate article review on a biography of President Herbert Hoover:

When the crash came, Hoover offered soothing rhetoric—”The fundamental business of the country … is on a sound and prosperous basis”—that in retrospect seems tone-deaf but at the time amounted to a reasonable attempt to rally the nation. Following his voluntarist philosophy, he got labor and business to agree to a program to prop up wages. He even promoted public works on a small scale.

Yet his obsession with restraint exposed his conservatism. “Prosperity,” he intoned, “cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury.” He spurned a huge relief effort for the growing ranks of the destitute, deeming reports of want exaggerated. “Nobody actually starved,” Hoover said. The hospitals and morgues told a sadder tale. Not until a year after the crash did he set up an employment commission, which, Leuchtenburg seethes, “churned out press releases with pap topics such as urging people to ‘spruce up’ their homes.” A mediocre speaker who shunned the bully pulpit, Hoover did little even to “talk up” the economy or public morale.

Hoover’s boldest stroke, the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. in 1932, was too little too late. Authorized to lend money to banks, insurance companies, and other firms, the RFC struck some observers at first as a happy volte-face for Hoover, with government now given a key role in the intended recovery. (Others wondered why bankers, but not the jobless, were now on the dole.) But Leuchtenburg maintains that Hoover enacted the RFC only when the civic-mindedness that he expected from financial and industrial leaders didn’t materialize. “Only unwittingly—by revealing the inadequacy of his voluntaristic approach—was Hoover the progenitor of FDR’s enlargement of federal authority.”

The Riddle of Herbert Hoover (Slate)

I was reminded of that once again by this comment:

Here’s the thing, tho (if I may draw a historical parallel…), this is what got Hoover kicked out of office in 32. He did the same thing Trump and (apparently) Trudeau is doing, which was asking nicely for big business NOT to fire people and to provide help when they could instead of hoarding what liquid capital that they could. With the DC police descending on the “bonus army” months before the election (Great War vets who had come to ask for their bonus they were to get on retirement early), Hoover’s goose was cooked by FDR… Unfortunately, Biden is no FDR…

He certainly is not. As I sarcastically said last week, if only the opposition party had a politician with radical populist ideas who modeled his career and governing philosophy on FDR, that would be ideal at a time like this. As for what made Herbert Hoover, a Stanford-educated engineer and philanthropist who had managed the American relief effort that provided food to starving Western Europeans after World War One so ineffective while in office:

A pro-business ideology that believed that the problem should be solved by the private sector (both business and civil society), not government. He did not want to regulate markets or corporations, pure and simple. The pro-business wing of the GOP had won out by then. While Trump is surely not a great philanthropist, he is a firm believer in the supremacy of the private sector and in government not regulating businesses at all.

While Communism seems to have died, market fundamentalism seems to keep resurrecting itself, no matter how invalidated by historical events over and over again.

Incidentally, the exact same thing as above happened during the Great Depression: see the 1933 Wisconsin Milk Strike.

8. Rising to the challenge

What could be accomplished with a Rooseveltian president:

GE already has a division of the company that makes medical equipment. But workers at the Lynn facility and other GE Aviation branches say their equipment can be retooled to make ventilators, and thanks to the years of downsizing, they have plenty of space to do it.

Similar battles are taking place at GE facilities across the country, some of which have been hit by the sweeping layoffs the company announced last week (Lynn has been spared job cuts for the time being). The nationwide IUE-CWA identified at least seven different facilities that had both the capacity and capability to make ventilators, which gives the company the option to both put laid-off workers back on the job and manufacture a product in extremely high demand by the government and hospital systems across the country.

“We’re going to get out front of this… to say you’re not going to use this crisis to line your pockets again,” Adam Kaszynski, the president of the IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn told Rolling Stone. “Workers know what to do. We have empty buildings, we have communities you can put jobs and manufacturing back into, making a product that is heavily needed by society right now.”

Kaszynski’s fear is that GE will use the crisis to shift production to non-union plants, rather than meet workers demands for a safe workplace and productive work to serve a national good. “This is disaster capitalism,” Kaszynski said. “They’re going to have to explain to everyone their vision of the world if they shift jobs out of this community.”

And for the workers that remain, the ongoing epidemic is a constant fear.

General Electric Workers Want to Build Medical Equipment to Fight Coronavirus. Management Is Standing in the Way (Rolling Stone)

Yup, we’re laying off workers that could be producing desperately needed medical equipment. If that’s not an indictment of neoliberal capitalism, then what is?

Imagine if after Peal Harbor, Roosevelt had politely asked the car manufacturers and oil plants and rubber plants and other industrial barons whether they might want to voluntarily pitch in and help the war effort, you know, if it didn’t affect their bottom line too much. That’s not what happened. If it did, we’d probably be speaking Japanese or German today, as the saying goes.

Yet after 40+ years of Neoliberal conditioning that has convinced us that the most terrifying words in English are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” (an actual quote from Ronald Reagan), Americans can’t even conceive of another way of doing things. It is the private sector that runs the government, not the other way around. And all the private sector cares about is profit. So much for the idea that we are advancing as a society. In many ways, we’ve regressed.

9. Bottom-up collapse

The polemical writer Umair Haique has been writing up a storm recently. Unfortunately, only a limited number of articles can be read on Medium, but this one about bottom-up collapse is interesting.

Haique argues that what’s causing collapse is the destruction of the lowest strata of societies and ecosystems by superpredation from above. Once the scaffolding goes, those that think they are above it all soon find themselves temporarily suspended in midair, like Wile E. Coyote.

Everywhere we look today, we see bottom-up collapse — savage, violent, runaway predation, which causes the bottom to be depleted, which causes the middle to implode, which takes the top away with it, too.

When we deplete the bottoms of systems, which are also their foundations, whether in natural systems, or human, socially-constructed ones, like economies — we unleash second and third order effects, which we don’t often anticipate. (Sure, people like you and me might point them out — but who’s listening to us?) Those effects are things like what happened in America and Britain — growing poverty didn’t lead to people making sensible choices, it led to people being blinded by rage. In just the same way, the collapse of insects and glaciers doesn’t just exist in a vacuum — the second and third order effects mean runaway extinctions, nonlinearities, accelerations, discontinuities…

The Age of Collapse (Medium)

On a related note, this comment from Reddit makes much the same point. We are trying to save the roof, while letting the foundations crumble.

This pandemic has laid bare the absolute truth that our society, economy, and civilization as a whole functions from the bottom up, not the other way around. We have been sold this top down, trickle economic bullshit for centuries. But what’s keeping us from completely falling off that cliff we are looking at right now? All of those “burger flipping” and “unskilled” folks who have no other choice but to keep working. But they don’t deserve to make enough to support themselves? THEY are disposable?

Business will recover as long as people have money to spend. It doesn’t matter how much money we pump into failing businesses if there is no market for their product. It is known that putting money into the hands of people who need to use it greatly increases the velocity of every dollar. But we still sit here talking about writing blank checks to corporations that haven’t learned a thing from the last 2 recessions. Corporations that will just turn around and reward their executives, while raising prices and laying off workers. They will continue buying back stock with cash reserves, and leveraging artificially high stock prices to acquire more debt in order to continue the cycle. Rinse and repeat.

It’s true, societies function from the bottom up, not the top down. One of the factors in the Secular Cycles model takes into account predatory elites. When elites are able to prey without constraint; when they are able to channel so many of society’s resources to themselves that average people can’t even reproduce themselves, that is a factor in societal collapse. You enter the phase of declining living standards and stagflation.

Yet despite this, elites still feel themselves invulnerable to pressure from below. They’ve got money coming in directly from the government and people with guns guarding them, after all. But how long can society withstand the forces that are causing it to crack? Ian Welsh points out:

The vast spread of guillotine memes over the past 4 years should alarm our elites, but they still mostly seem to feel invulnerable and are still working to preserve their position in the system rather than fix the system and the society. You can see this in how Democrats are standing up a clearly senile Biden and denying the peasantry health care, even in the face of pandemic.

Why Western Elites Are So Incompetent and What the Consequences Are (Ian Welsh)

10. Personal

Thanks for all your kind words. I can’t say everything is fine; I would be lying. But it’s the weekend, at least.

A recent study found that people’s happiness and life satisfaction hit rock bottom at the age of 47 (47.2 to be precise). Guess how old I am.

‘Out of nowhere I felt really sad’: readers on how they felt at 47 (Guardian)

I also noticed that around this time is a pretty common age for people to make that decision: List of suicides on the 21st century (Wikipedia)

Maybe that’s why I feel like checking out right now. Add to that the fact that you’re pretty much locked-in to whatever you life is at this point, whether for better or worse. When I look back and reflect on my life, I realize I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Not a single moment. Not at all.

It’s like sitting through a movie that’s absolutely unbearable. Take your pick–The Room, Leonard Part Six, Glitter–if you are suffering watching a movie that you absolutely can’t stand, wouldn’t you walk out? Wouldn’t you leave. Wouldn’t you be, in fact, better off leaving? Why not?

I mean, life’s a lot of pain and sorrow. The endless competition for jobs, the constant need for money, bill collectors hounding you, the pressure to perform at work, worrying about an accident or bankruptcy taking everything, and so on and so on. Add to that the loneliness and complete social isolation in my case.

Where’s the joy? Where’s the happiness? I know haven’t found it. It’s just work ’till you die. There is no turning point. There is no happy ending. Like the awful movie, it doesn’t get better as it goes on; only steadily worse.

What are signs that someone is secretly unhappy? (Reddit)

Anyway, those are where my thoughts are at these days.

I had thought of putting up a Patreon earlier this year, and I may do that once this is all over. But for now, a lot of people are hurting financially more than I am. One of the advantages of wanting to move is that I have been squirreling away money for years for just that purpose. It should be enough to survive, at least until this blows over in six months or whenever.

BONUS:

Seen while taking a walk through the park next to my house. Not sure the context here, but I hope it’s a medicine chant for us all.

Ideas About the End of the World

1.

I’ve maintained for years, and am on record as saying that the amount of jobs that are truly necessary to keep society running is probably only about 25 percent, and the rest is useless busywork that exists for no other reason than the fact that we must earn a paycheck to justify our continued existence on this planet; i.e. be economically useful to someone else in order to survive.

Events of the past few weeks have mostly borne that out, although maybe that number may be closer to 50 percent. Perhaps 75%. It is certainly less than 100%.
It’s a really grim way to run an experiment, and I would never wish it to happen the way it did, but there it is.

What this means is that much of the amount of economic activity that is going on most days is counterproductive and useless.

If we only need 75% of the economic activity that goes on, we should share that activity among 100% of the workforce. That means people will be able to work a lot less.

What we shouldn’t do is just toss 25% on the unemployment lines and tell them to go fend for themselves.

In other words, it’s not the work that’s necessary but the jobs.

And the only point of the jobs is to make sure the people who have them can pay for food and shelter (at least).

This is insane! There’s got to be a better way.

It reminds me of the dystopia envisioned by Nick Bostrom:

Bostrom [raises] the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves…

The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And [Allen] Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.

Meditations on Moloch (Slate Star Codex)

Perfect description of late-stage capitalism, don’t you think?

2.

And who are the most important people?

It’s not the celebrities and CEOs. It’s not the “visionary” entrepreneurs. It’s not corporate executives. It’s not the Wall Street financiers, hedge fund managers, bankers, and other assorted “Masters of the Universe” (who are busy scheming up ways to profit off the crisis). It’s not even most of the vaunted Professional Managerial Class (PMC).

No, it’s the people who we’ve always known are the backbone of society: food service workers, grocery store clerks, shelf-stockers, truckers, doctors, nurses, technicians, farmers, butchers, factory workers, delivery carriers, etc.

It’s they who make society run. The people who keep the lights on and food on the shelves. The people who keep order and make sure the sick and injured are treated.

It’s the people who’ve seen their wages stagnate for a generation.

It’s the people whose productivity has soared during that time, yet have seen none of the economic gains.

It’s the people who get the lowest pay fewest benefits in our society, because we say the only things you are entitled to are what you can claw free from the impersonal “free” Market, and nothing else.

In America, the idea has developed over the past few decades that the Ayn-Randian-styled “makers”—the wealthy investors, entrepreneurs and CEOs—are the source of all our wealth and prosperity, while the rest of us ninety-nine percent are merely parasitical “takers” who sponge off their “greatness.” It’s become an article of faith among many segments of society.

This should kill that idea dead forever. Dead, permanently. Bereft of life. Off to join the choir invisible.

In fact, it is the CEOs and financiers who are parasitical on their workers, just as Marxists described. If they “went Galt,” no one would notice. In fact, we might even be better off. Of course, some executives are running critical businesses. But their role as paid managers is still the most critical aspect of their jobs.

It is workers who make society function, not executives, financiers and CEOs. Period. If there are water drinkers and water carriers, the CEOs and the investor class are the drinkers, and the farmers, nurses, shelf-stockers, truckers and technicians are carrying the water for the rest of us. It’s about time they get what they deserve–a bigger share of the pie.

David Graeber noted that under modern capitalism pay and benefits seem to be inversely correlated with how essential your job is to keep society functioning.

Instead, it is the Bullshit Jobs that get the highest pay and benefits (most of which are probably being done from home now). It’s time that came to an end.

In California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and elsewhere, state governments have rolled out increasingly strict orders to enforce social distancing and close all businesses except those deemed “essential” or “life-sustaining.” While these lists vary from state to state, each includes grocery stores, laundromats, restaurants (serving takeout and delivery), factories that produce foodstuffs and other products, gas stations, pharmacies, and hospitals.

What do all of these businesses have in common? They rely on the labor of low-wage workers who, in many cases, toil without benefits, unions, and workplace protections. Public workers are still on the clock, too, cleaning our streets, delivering our mail, and making sure we have access to utilities and other social services. While many government workers have unions, they are often accorded the same lack of respect as their low-wage, private-sector counterparts.

But imagine a global pandemic without postal workers or UPS drivers getting us our messages and packages; without cashiers and stockers keeping grocery stores up and running and full of food; without care and domestic workers providing life-saving medical and emotional support to some of society’s most at-risk people; without utility workers making sure we have a supply of water, electricity, and gas; without laundromat workers enabling us to clean our clothes, towels, and sheets; without sanitation workers collecting our trash and slowing the spread of germs…

…what does it say about our country when the jobs that are most critical to sustaining life at its basic level are also some of the lowest paid and least valued? Grocery store workers and first responders are exposing themselves to a massive health crisis in order to keep the rest of us functioning as normally as possible. Many of them work for minimum wage or close to it — and without health benefits — meaning that they could contract coronavirus and get stuck with either a massive bill or no health care at all. Meanwhile, with many school districts closed indefinitely, parents are missing the critical and challenging work done every day by nannies, childcare workers, and educators of all kinds.

These workers have a right to higher wages, full benefits, health and safety guarantees, and strong unions — just like every other worker.

Workers are More Valuable Than CEOs (Jacobin)

3.

A lot has been written about how ideas previously unthinkable are now considered within the bounds of possibility.

One often-mentioned idea is that of the Universal Basic Income (UBI).

It turns out that society goes on functioning just as well even if a lot of us just say home (as I noted above).

Why not pay people to do that? Why not take all the excess drivers off the road, remove all the excess pollution, alleviate all the excess stress?

We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that every job is necessary simply because it exists. That has been proven to be false.

If society can by on a lot less people working, why shouldn’t it?

And we should find a way to take care of those not working, rather than throw them under the bus. That could be UBI or a Job Guarantee. And it certianly should include working a lot less.

Universal health care, paid sick leave for all, vacation time for all, universal basic income—it’s time these get on the radar. Finally, proponents have more than enough information to insist on the need for them. Maybe it’s time for unions and labor militancy to finally make a comeback. It’s about damn time.

Workers at McDonald’s, Waffle House and other fast-food and retail outlets have gone on strike today across Durham and Raleigh in North Carolina in protest against unsafe working conditions, lost hours and pay cuts.

The workers are demanding increased safety protocols and payment for lost hours as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fast-food companies have been designated as essential services and can remain open, but the strikers say they have treated their workers as anything but essential, failing to protect them against infections and laying them off as soon as they are not needed.

“Frontline workers like us are getting hit the hardest right now,” said Rita Blalock, a McDonald’s cook in Raleigh. “McDonald’s is calling itself an “essential business’ but isn’t providing us with the essential protections we need to be safe at work.”

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2020/mar/27/coronavirus-us-live-news-trump-stimulus-vote-house-thomas-massie-latest-updates?page=with:block-5e7e46fe8f081e5eda238394#block-5e7e46fe8f081e5eda238394

Yet as might be expected, the minions of Kochenomics are arguing that now is in fact the perfect time to lower minimum wages!

Most likely, we should lower current minimum wages. And that is all the more true, the more you have been worrying about coronavirus risk and Trump’s poor performance in response. These are all very simple points, I am tempted to say they are “not even Econ 101.”

Minimum Wage Hikes are a Much Worse Idea Now. (Marginal Revolution)

What an utterly nihilistic, morally bankrupt, sociopathic philosophy. These people really do deserve to be up against a wall.

4.

Will this event finally be the wakeup call that MMT is fundamentally correct?

It damn well should.

How can anyone seriously still continue to assert that taxes fund government spending???

The U.S. government just somehow came up with two trillion dollars in spending! The Fed is injecting, by some estimates, a trillion dollars a day in liquidity and credit to keep Markets afloat.

Where did that money come from? Are they checking the government’s vaults and balance sheets? Are they making sure that the government has enough money stashed away somewhere in its accounts to pay for all of the things that they are proposing? Are they rummaging through the couch looking for loose change?

Are they going to have to wait until April 15th when all the taxes come due to see whether or not we’ve taken in enough revenue from the public to “pay for” all of the things the government is proposing to deal with the ongoing crisis?

Are they going to drastically increase taxes right now in the midst of a pandemic in order to “raise” all the money necessary to accomplish these things? With unemployment at record highs, where are the incomes and private-sector profits supposedly needed to fund all these government initiatives going to come from?
Aren’t we told by the usual choads that the government needs to get money from somewhere “out there” in order to pay for its operations? Doesn’t the government have to “steal” money from private enterprise to do anything at all?

Is the government going to borrow the money from people who somehow magically have money right now available to lend to it? Are they going to borrow money from China—the very place where the virus originated?

Of course not!

All the above notions are absolutely preposterous. Yet we’re constantly told by craven politicians and the corporate media that taxes fund government spending; that the government is just like a household; and that we always need to balance our books.

As I’ve said, when it comes to bailing out the rich and powerful, there’s always an infinite amount of money. When it comes to helping the average American, well then, Howyagunnapayforit?

For example, when it comes to a universal health system in America that will save money and lives in the long run, what do you hear? Howyagunnapayforit?

What have we heard over and over again any time Bernie Sanders mentions doing anything at all? Time and time again, Neoliberal Democratic candidates wagged their fingers at us and assured us that we can’t afford all this “free stuff.” In fact, most of the Democratic candidates explicitly ran a platform of preventing giving the American people the same benefits that that citizens of every other industrialized nation enjoy. Now those very same Neoliberal Democrats are writing blank checks to corporations and the rich along with the Republicans they supposedly “oppose.” Socialism for the rich and “rugged individualism” for the rest of us.

It’s time for this charade to end.

The idea that we are somehow “broke” or out of money is another fairy tale that deserves to die, stone cold dead.

Taxes don’t fund government spending, and the government is not like a household.

Maybe people will finally get the message.

4.

The only thing that matters is resources. Real resources. Money is simply a tool for utilizing resources. That’s what it’s for, not sitting in the accounts of billionaires and bankers, idle. Or inflating the value of choice real estate, yachts, and rare artwork.

No amount of money in the world can get you a respirator when you don’t have one. No amount of money can conjure a vaccine where none exists.

For too long, we’ve obsessed over making the numbers go up, and neglected real resources that money is supposed to enable society to produce—health care, infrastructure, education, etc.

A lot of times MMT gets criticized for being obsessed over money printing in the absence of real resources. But the exact opposite is true! MMT recognizes that is only the resources that truly matter, not numbers on a spreadsheet, and that money is a tool for utilizing real resources, whether those are respirators or solar panels. In fact, MMT is the only economic school of thought that seems to pay attention to real resources above everything else.

5.

Given the fact that we’re entering a dark period very similar to the Great Depression and World War Two, it sure would be nice if there were a transformative political candidate running for office at this time who based his entire career and political ideas on those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Too bad there’s no such political candidate like that running right now.

Oh, wait a minute, of course there is!!!

Circumstances just keep slapping us upside the head telling us to change course and vote for Bernie Sanders. Will the Democratic voters listen? Even the proverbial “suburban soccer mom” who is the Dems’ idealized voter is not immune to Coronavirus and health care bills.

We need transformative change. If this isn’t a sufficient wakeup call, then what will it take???

Seriously, what will it take????

AHIP confirmed that out-of-pocket expenses for the treatment would not be waived, and could cost patients thousands of dollars. The average amount for someone admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, a respiratory condition that many coronavirus patients are facing, was $20,000 in 2018 for patients covered by private insurance, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Peterson.

That could leave many people falling back on the age-old American dilemma: get healthcare or lose all financial security. And it could leave physicians finding loopholes and workarounds to stay afloat.

“Insurance companies are not beholden to the patient, they are beholden to the shareholder,” Hollander said.

US private health insurance companies clog system amid Covid-19 pandemic (Guardian)

Mass Job Cuts Across U.S. Threaten to Leave Millions Without Health Insurance (Bloomberg)

Teen Who Died of Covid-19 Was Denied Treatment Because He Didn’t Have Health Insurance (Gizmodo)

And yet, health insurance industry profits are higher than ever:

But remember, Bernie is “extreme” and Joe Biden is “electable.” *Sigh*.

5.

Is there anything more ghoulish, more horrifying, than calls to sacrifice human lives for the sake of “the economy?”

Yes, the economic devastation could claim more lives than the pandemic. But that’s up to us. It’s a choice. We have control over the economy. We have no control over the virus.

The rules of money are entirely arbitrary. Money is IOUs enforced by the rule of law. That’s it. Those relations that give rise to money can be conjured, extinguished, and renegotiated. There is no fixed “lump of money” in the world. Claims are not sacrosanct. It’s a game with rules made by us, and they can be altered or changed by us at any time.

Yet people are told they must get “back to work” to make sure that the stock market and economic indicators go up.

Trump seems to have channeled Lord Farquaad: “Many of you will die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

I’ve even seen people making an analogy I’ve often made: the Market as a god who demands human sacrifices.

The health of “the economy” is more important than the health of the actual people in it! It’s insane!

The coronavirus crisis in the United States is only just beginning. But it’s not too early for some Americans to flout social distancing and isolation guidelines and return to work, according to some executives.

Dick Kovacevich, the former CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo, told Bloomberg News that healthy workers under the age of 55 should return to work in April if the outbreak is controlled, saying that “some may even die” with his plan.

“We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” said Kovacevich, a current executive at Cisco and Cargill. “Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.”

‘Some may even die, I don’t know’: Former Wells Fargo CEO wants people to go back to work and ‘see what happens’ (Business Insider)

A lot of people like to scream from the rooftops and wave the bloody shirt over how many people Communism has killed. But I wonder if the victims of Coronoavirus will be added to the body count of laissez-faire capitalism. Don’t bet on it. The argument was disingenuous from the start.

Now is the time to renegotiate the social contract.

6.

Those of us who remember the fears over Peak Oil are surely reeling from the irony that, even as the worst-case scenario of economies collapsing, mass unemployment, shelves stripped bare of goods, hoarding, ATMs not dispensing cash, people stockpiling firearms, soldiers patrolling the streets, and potential rationing, the price of oil is at an all-time low!

In fact, it’s so abundant that they’re literally running out of places to store the stuff.

Who saw that coming in 2008? We were looking for collapse in the wrong place all this time.

7.

And this apocalypse was totally, 100% predictable.

“Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened,” Trump said.

In fact, the US intelligence community, public health experts and officials in Trump’s own administration had warned for years that the country was at risk from a pandemic, including specific warnings about a coronavirus outbreak.

When this strain of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was identified in Wuhan, China in early January, health experts immediately cautioned that it could turn into a global health crisis.

“This was foreseeable and foreseen, weeks and months ago, and only now is the White House coming out of denial and heading straight into saying it could not have been foreseen,” Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told CNN on Sunday.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2020/mar/26/coronavirus-us-live-house-vote-2tn-stimulus-package-bill-senate-news-updates-trump?page=with:block-5e7d272b8f0878a2a48ab0ad#block-5e7d272b8f0878a2a48ab0ad

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”

How the Pandemic Will End (Atlantic)

Which raises the question: what about all the other crises coming down the pike that are totally, 100% predictable? What about them???

The biggest one is, of course, climate change. We’ve been warned for decades that this is coming. It’s effects are being seen right now. Yet the political class is still in denial.

Another one I’ve seen much more often due to empty shelves is food security. This has exposed just how fragile our food system is.

This week, it’s become clear to many Americans that this highly consolidated, monoculture-based food system is at least somewhat fragile—and thus dangerous in times of calamity. Diversity should not just extend to the types of things we grow in the U.S., but also to the sizes and sorts of agricultural entities we represent. This hodgepodge—farms, dairies, ranches, slaughterhouses, packing and distribution facilities, grocers and markets, delivery services and roadside stands—could offer us elasticity and strength. If Costcos and Wal-Marts are able to bear the brunt of the nation’s panic right now, good for them. But if we could relieve some of that pressure and uncertainty by bolstering local markets and farm sales, it would both increase Americans’ peace of mind and help build resiliency into our food system.

Yet here in the U.S., we’ve used federal dollars to weaken this sort of food system. We’ve encouraged agricultural consolidation since the last century, urging farmers to “get big or get out,” fostering homogenization in the array of foods we grow and the types of farms and agribusinesses we represent.

Imagine, in contrast, the comfort in knowing that five miles from your house, there’s a farm that will deliver a box of vegetables to your doorstep. (And that it is only one of several local options to choose from.) Imagine if, rather than depending entirely on a local supermarket’s freezer section (and thus also on a slaughterhouse hundreds of miles away) for your meat, you already had a half-cow in your freezer right now. Imagine if you could swing by the farmers’ market this Saturday, enjoy some fresh air, and pick up eggs, milk, and butter that had passed through only a few pairs of hands. Many of these markets work to provide fresh local produce to food stamp recipients, so that the food is not too cost-prohibitive. Most depend entirely on a local customer base to flourish and thrive.

Our Monoculture Food Supply is a Potential Coronavirus Calamity (The American Conservative)

It’s not just grocery shoppers who are hoarding pantry staples. Some governments are moving to secure domestic food supplies during the conoravirus pandemic.

Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest shippers of wheat flour, banned exports of that product along with others, including carrots, sugar and potatoes. Vietnam temporarily suspended new rice export contracts. Serbia has stopped the flow of its sunflower oil and other goods, while Russia is leaving the door open to shipment bans and said it’s assessing the situation weekly.

To be perfectly clear, there have been just a handful of moves and no sure signs that much more is on the horizon. Still, what’s been happening has raised a question: Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows?

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security (Naked Capitalism)

For years, many of us have been touting the need to downscale and relocalize our food supply and make it more resilient. We can’t rely on the “3,000-mile Caesar Salad” anymore. We’ve also been calling for a drastic rethink of how we do agriculture.

It also turns out that moving our entire industrial base to the Global South to save money wasn’t such a great idea after all. It turns out the the long, fragile, fragmented, just-in-time supply chains don’t work when there’s a global calamity. And there’s bound to be a whole lot more of the them in the future.

Instead, we spent the last few decades listening to the economics priesthood touting the money calculus. As if the money calculus were more “real” than actual goods.

A large body of evidence is beginning to accumulate showing how climate breakdown is likely to affect our food supply. Already farming in some parts of the world is being hammered by drought, floods, fire and locusts (whose resurgence in the past few weeks appears to be the result of anomalous tropical cyclones). When we call such hazards “biblical”, we mean that they are the kind of things that happened long ago, to people whose lives we can scarcely imagine. Now, with increasing frequency, they are happening to us.

In his forthcoming book, Our Final Warning, Mark Lynas explains what is likely to happen to our food supply with every extra degree of global heating. He finds that extreme danger kicks in somewhere between 3C and 4C above pre-industrial levels. At this point, a series of interlocking impacts threatens to send food production into a death spiral. Outdoor temperatures become too high for humans to tolerate, making subsistence farming impossible across Africa and South Asia. Livestock die from heat stress. Temperatures start to exceed the lethal thresholds for crop plants across much of the world, and major food producing regions turn into dust bowls. Simultaneous global harvest failure – something that has never happened in the modern world – becomes highly likely.

In combination with a rising human population, and the loss of irrigation water, soil and pollinators, this could push the world into structural famine…

Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation (George Monbiot, The Guardian)

A sharp economic downturn was inevitable even before this crisis hit. Everyone knew we were in a bubble, and bad debts had not gone away after the last crisis.

Let’s not forget about antibiotic resistance. That’s not gone away, either.

And Peak Oil isn’t gone forever. The laws of physics have not been repealed. It’s yet another “slow moving catastrophe” that’s totally predictable but we’re not prepared for.

8.

When did political conservatism become denialism?

It seems like leaders on the Right all over the world tend to downplay the potential risks of absolutely everything. We’ve already seen it with climate change. Now it’s the same thing with the pandemic. Right-wing authoritarian leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro were busy denying that there was anything to worry about, and that it was just a media fabrication (“fake news”):

The federal government led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been trying to downplay the severity of the threat facing the country ever since experts around the world first sounded the alarm about the highly contagious virus in early January.

So far, the president has claimed that the disease is just “a fantasy” and “a little flu”, accused the media of fuelling hysteria by reporting on the death toll in Italy, encouraged – and even attended – a series of pro-government street demonstrations across the country and supported religious leaders who refused to close down churches and evangelical temples in response to the pandemic.

When it was revealed that at least 23 members of his entourage have been infected with the virus, he not only refused to remain in isolation, but made a point of shaking hands with his supporters and taking selfies with their mobile phones. The president later claimed that he tested negative for the virus, but refused to make the results of the diagnostic test public.

Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 denial will devastate vulnerable Brazilians (Al Jazeera)

Meanwhile, Trump’s response:

1. Call it “fake news” or a hoax.
2. Worry about the Dow Jones.
3. Openly contradict the experts.
4. Promise unrealistic solutions.
5. Set a totally unrealistic, arbitrary date for business as usual.

And right-wing media in this country have been collectively downplaying the virus since it first emerged on the radar. “It’s nothing, just the flu, go about your business as usual,” was the unified message. Either that, or peddling outrageous conspiracy theories about government bioweapons, or how it was all a manufactured media ploy to bring down Trump. Even on the national level, “Red” states are flouting reasonable precautions, while politicians in “Blue” states are doing everything possible to contain the spread and take care of their people.

It’s like the entire modern conservative movement is just an exercise in denial.

And notice how any warnings about potential problems on the horizon are dismissed as “Leftism” in the popular press. Whether it’s food security, climate change, peak oil, political authoritarianism, emerging diseases, antibiotic resistance, or what have you–the people who have been banging the drum about these issues for years are dismissed by right-wing corporate media as “liberals” and “leftists.” The only threat the Right take seriously is terrorism.

So the new definition of “Leftism” is living in reality, apparently. And Right wing “conservatism” is denying potential crises, even as they manifest themselves in real time. I wonder, what exactly are the conserving?

It’s tempting to see this as a modern phenomenon, but as viewers of The Crown might recall, during the Great Smog of London while thousands of people fell ill from air pollution and many died, Winston Churchill dismissed it all as simply “the weather.”

Despite his initial insistence that the crisis was a freak natural occurrence unrelated to human actions and beyond the capacity of policymakers to influence, Churchill quickly acknowledged that the fog covering London in December 1952 was made more intense, and a danger to health, because of the coal smoke it contained. And it was rising coal consumption that provided the final ingredient in the coincidental combination of factors that caused this tragedy.

In 1952, Britain was only gradually recovering from the destruction and debt burden of the Second World War, and many essentials, including coal, remained rationed. Yet just before the notorious fog disaster hit London, Churchill’s government had announced that the poorest and most polluting grade of coal (known as “nutty slack”) could be obtained without ration coupons. Spurred by official advertising that encouraged people to stock up on fuel and burn it without the constraints that rationing had imposed, consumption shot up.

Lessons from London’s 1952 fog could save millions today (Climate Home News)

Why did it finally end? Thanks the dreaded “Leftism” and eeevil “big government”:

UK’s Clean Air Act was really the first sort of overarching federal legislation in the world where you had a government, not just local government or state government, that placed some pretty restrictive rules on industry and on local citizens, and provided subsidies so that Londoners could begin to convert from coal-burning fireplaces to smokeless fuel, which is very expensive. It really was a blueprint for other nations to follow.

It was the pioneer effort that was really only brought about because of Norman Dodds and many people from the Labour Party, who pushed the issue so far and forced the British government to finally act. This was a systemic problem that no one really took seriously in the government because it was just something that was always there and the government was bankrupt.

In 1952 London, 12,000 people died from smog — here’s why that matters now (The Verge)

Churchill’s attitude towards starving people wasn’t all that different, either:

More recent studies, including those by the journalist Madhushree Mukerjee, have argued the famine was exacerbated by the decisions of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet in London.

Mukerjee has presented evidence the cabinet was warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.

Rice stocks continued to leave India even as London was denying urgent requests from India’s viceroy for more than 1m tonnes of emergency wheat supplies in 1942-43. Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.

Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study (Guardian)

Again, will these deaths be attributed to capitalism? Or is it only communism that can kill people?

Bolsonaro urges Brazilians to get back to work, says concern over coronavirus overblown (France24)

When will we learn???

9.

What is it with the Democrats’ obsession with means testing?

Why must every program come with strict controls to ensure that just a small, tightly targetted sliver of society get any kind of government benefits? Controls that almost certainly ensure that a significant portion of people who need those benefits will not get them? Controls that ensure the people using the program can be depicted as needy “scroungers” receiving “handouts,” giving the perfect ammunition to those who want to strip away such benefits?

Unless that’s part of the plan.

The Democrats are a morally bankrupt party. They need to go. They only survive because any alternative has been suppressed. The two-party duopoly is an abomination. Our ineffective and dysfunctional government has been exposed to the world for all to see. Of course, under neoliberalism, that is by design.

[Senator Chuck] Schumer, who famously pegs his policy positions to appeal to a fictitious Long Island family that almost certainly would have voted for Trump, was by no means the only national Democrat to respond to broad upheaval with this kind of meticulously hedged and carefully tranched language: If you fit into social unit x, then you will be eligible in some circumstances to receive benefit y.

When the House was debating a bill that would have provided immediate cash payments to Americans harmed by the indefinite shuttering of much of the economy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pumped the brakes. Her aim was not so much to ensure that the maximum aid would reach the greatest number of people but to guard against the prospect that too much federal support might reach insufficiently vulnerable people with untoward quickness. “The Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded [unemployment insurance] and direct payments,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff tweeted, “but MUST be targeted.” When Pelosi introduced her plan on Monday afternoon, the benefits were immediate, but also tiered and conditional—more an interest-free loan than an emergency cash disbursement.

…Senator Kamala Harris, whose dud presidential campaign has lately become a slightly more plausible vice presidential one, took the opportunity to reheat her LIFT Act, which would direct preposterously insufficient payments to a narrow subset of Americans who were neither too rich nor, not a little nauseatingly, too poor. (Harris later deleted those tweets.)

When the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination finally weighed in on the ongoing negotiations over the scale and targeted reach of a bailout at week’s end, it was to ask that the nation’s reigning plutocrats be mindful in processing the bailouts they were about to receive…

All the while, the Republicans did what Republicans do—sought to direct whopping no-strings-attached funds to powerful interests while effectively removing all nonwealthy people from the equation, pausing at regular intervals to laud the integrity and handsomeness that their forgetful and vinegary president had brought to duffing every single aspect of the governmental response to the virus.

The Democrats, in response, did what they generally do. They made clear that they were disappointed in the Republicans; they advocated for something vague and qualified and means-tested that might benefit some people in a clever double-banked fashion; they made sure that it would not arrive too soon, or too generously…

America’s Diseased Politics (New Republic)

10.

And speaking of pollution, the lack of pollution during the shutdown is a vivid example of how we would all be better off if there were a lot less economic activity going on than there is now.

In fact, there will be lives saved from the lack of pollution as surely as there will be lives lost due to the pandemic. Once the pandemic is at heel (if it ever is), will we go back to business as usual? Or will we scale back the useless economic activity we now know is unnecessary (point #1) and enjoy the benefits of cleaner air and bluer skies going forward?

This is something degrowth advocates have pointed out for a long time now. Now we’re being forced into degrowth situation in a way we were not ready for and did not choose. Nonetheless, we are able to observe its effects.

Growth for the sake of growth has always been a mad philosophy. Growth produces pollution which eats away at the benefits. It provides diminishing returns–and we’ve long soared past that point. Now we have hard evidence to point to.

Coronavirus: Lockdowns continue to suppress European pollution (BBC)

Air pollution plunges in European cities amid coronavirus lockdown (Jerusalem Post)

The swans and fish returning to the canals of Venice show us what kind of world we can have, if only we can choose it.

As I’ve maintained for years, what we need more than anything else is not flashy new technology or rockets to Mars, but lifestyle changes.

11.

We’re seeing the results of 40+ years of Neoliberal philosophy of starving the state. I’m hardly alone in making this observation.

The enitre Neoliberal project was designed to establish the supremacy of markets and private wealth over the state and the public good.

Is there a chance this could be “Neoliberalism’s Chernobyl” as Michael Brooks put it? Is it possible that this will finally expose this bankrupt and failed philosophy for what it is?

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

How the Pandemic Will End (Atlantic)

Perhaps this crisis will show us the need for competent, collective governance when it comes to certain issues we will be facing in the years ahead. Maybe the “starve the state” headlong rush toward Neofeudalism will finally be halted.

We can only hope people will see the light.

12.

Finally, some personal notes.

After spending the last two and a half years dealing with the fallout from my mother’s death, I thought I had finally put it all behind me. I had spent years getting rid of stuff (turns out I should have held on to the toilet paper), sold the house, and filed the final tax returns.

I was hoping I could finally escape the miserable frozen wasteland that I’ve been trapped in my entire life.

That’s all gone now. All my hope and dreams are dashed.

Imagine you have been held in Siberian prison camp for forty years. The only thing that kept you going was the knowledge that someday your sentence would end and you would be released. It was the only hope you had. It was the one thing that kept you going, against all the day-to-day misery. Then, when the day of your release finally arrives, the warden informs you that your release has been denied, and that your sentence is now for life.

What would you do? Would you give up hope? Would you kill yourself?

Here in Wisconsin, social distancing is just our everyday way of life. I’ve been completely and totally socially isolated for a long time. I mean, it comes in handy during times like these, but it’s kind of like a living death. Most days, I’m just so lonely I want to die.

I have no family. No relatives. I don’t have a single friend in the world.

I guess the only friends I have in the world are you, dear reader. And I don’t get to meet or interact with any of you. I don’t even know who you are.

I guess I’m fortunate in not having to worry about anyone else, with only myself to take care of. Yet the thought nags: why not check out? Why deal with any of this suffering? Why not just end it all? No one would miss me, after all. Literally no one on earth would care. The thought of being trapped here the rest of my life has had thoughts of death going through my head continuously. It could all be over so quickly. It’s just so much easier…

And yet, I know that so may people are suffering all over the world. So may people are so much worse off than I am. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps you’ve lost your job. Perhaps you have a health condition that makes you vulnerable to the virus. Maybe your housing situation is precarious.

It feels selfish to revel in my problems when there are so many worse off that me. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable.

I guess that means I’m in dark place and struggling. But we all are, right now. It’s so hard to live with uncertainty. So much grief in such a short span of time. I debated mentioning this. But I might as well be honest–what have I got to lose?

Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night.” When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief (Harvard Business Review)

13.

Back before everything fell apart, I was working on my long-promised book. It was more a test run than anything else. It was intended to be roughly based on H.G. Well’s An Outline of History, updated with the latest information we know about history, anthropology, and human evolution. Sort of that crossed with Hariri’s Sapiens, crossed with Turchin’s Secular Cycles, crossed with Diamond’s Collapse. It was intended to be a “Big History” book looking at the entire scope of humanity through the lens of geography, demographics, social psychology, economics, climate, and energy, rather than just events, names, dates and places. And yes, disease was one factor.

The first chapter was a gallop through human evolution. Near the end of it, I had planned to write this conclusion:

With the rise of humans to the top of the food chain, mankind’s predators now boiled down to just two. One was the microscopic bacteria and viruses which became more common and abundant due to humanity’s changed relationship with the natural world; specifically the keeping of domesticated animals and the switch to living in large, sedentary social communities. These micropredators would kill far more humans that anything else before them. The other predator that man had now worry about due to these large social grouping was his fellow man. Together, these twin predators—macro and micro—would shape the forces of history from this point forward.

Stay safe, and be well everyone.
-CH

Random COVID-19 Thoughts

I’ve been spending the past week dying of COVID-19.

Okay, it probably was the standard flu. Even so, it was surreal to watch the entire world being brought to its knees by pandemic disease while you’re on your sickbed feeling like you are literally dying. It really makes one rethink their priorities.

Meanwhile the presidential contest has degenerated into a race between a functional illiterate versus an actual dementia patient.

At least this will finally demonstrate to all Americans what a ridiculous farce the Presidential race is. As I always say, the first step to reform is for people to quit believing in the status quo.

It also demonstrates to Americans how much the political parties and the media are there not to facilitate the people’s will, but to subvert it. The Democratic Party has fought much harder against Bernie Sanders and his campaign than it has against Donald Trump and his supporters.

Anyway, I don’t quite know what to say that hasn’t already been said. So here are just some random thoughts.

Neoliberal globalization has been dealt a serious blow. Outsourcing all your manufacturing and being dependent on supply chains stretching across the world was a bad idea that many have been warning about for a long time. Finally we are able to see why.

Opinion: Moving Our Pharmaceutical Factories Overseas Was A Huge Mistake (Buzzfeed)

Furthermore, the downsides to the whole Neoliberal project of shrinking the state are becoming increasingly apparent.

The stock market meltdown shows the absolute folly of trusting everything to gamblers’ bets the anarchic Market.

The fact that we have entered a quasi-feudal society again is becoming clear. I saw a good Twitter post. The headline was “Amazon and Gates Foundation may team up to deliver Coronavirus test kits to Seattle homes.”

To this, someone commented, “How do you find out who your feudal lord is if you don’t live in Seattle?” Someone replied “Somebody needs to put up findmyfeudallord.com in a hurry.”

Of course, this is supposedly in jest, but it’s no joke! We are entering the era of Neofeudalism just as climate change and pandemics continue to bite. This is what happens when you shrink the state and allow everything to be controlled by private power in the name of empowering the Market.

For context, here is good Stack Exchange conversation on Feudalism: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/14997/has-feudalism-been-a-programmed-event-for-nations-in-the-past

People are increasingly cognizant that they are already living in a feudal society. And the only candidate willing or able to reverse this trend has been apparently dealt with by the mainstream media and the Party establishment. This only guarantees that all the urgent social problems will continue to fester and get worse, with no real solutions for another four years.

Is this the beginning of the end for Neoliberalism? Is COVID-19 the thing that finally shows just how bankrupt a philosophy it is?

Will America learn anything from this? If history is a guide, probably not.

How does one write about collapse when it’s happening all around you in real time? Just read the headlines!

Anyway, I find myself unable to type anything or formulate thoughts for some reason today, so I’ll leave it there. Perhaps the flu has permanently scrambled my brain. I’ll outsource my thoughts to this column, which sum them up pretty well: There are things that scare me more than Donald Trump (Medium)

Back before I got deathly ill and could stay wake more than a few hours a day, I was writing a long series of posts debunking all the ridiculous Federal Reserve conspiracy theories. Since it’s mostly written, I’ll probably roll that out soon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish it, though.

Of Course Billionaires Shouldn’t Exist

There’s apparently a row over whether billionaires should exist. That is, whether or not billionaires should be a thing in our society.

What a stupid question. Of course billionaires shouldn’t exist! But the reason has nothing to do with Socialism.

Rather, under a properly-functioning free-market capitalist system, billionaires shouldn’t exist. And that would have also been the opinion of the “Classical Liberals” so favored by the Right these days: Adam Smith, David Ricardo. Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and so on.

Billionaires are a sign of market failure.

Let me say that again: billionaires are a form of market failure! You cannot simultaneously be both pro-Market and pro-billionaire.

I’m amazed at how few people get this!

In a truly competitive market, excess profits would be competed away. Someone would come along and undercut outsize profits. That’s exactly how the Classical Liberals assumed free markets would work. In this, they saw markets as instruments of greater equality, not inequality, and certainly not as a way to construct a new and improved aristocracy even more powerful than the old one.

The Classical Liberals wrote in opposition to the main power centers of their day: aristocratic government and chartered monopolies like the East India Company. They didn’t see the purpose of their writings as defending privilege and power. One can dispute the end results, but that was not their goal. Quite the contrary. The idea that a single, solitary individuals would possess more wealth than the kings and pharaohs of old under a functioning free market system would have been unthinkable to them.

In their time, much of the national wealth was monopolized by a landed aristocracy who gained their wealth through disproportionate ownership of the country’s productive land. The other major source of wealth came from large joint-stock companies that were granted royal monopolies due to their political connections. Yet another source of unearned wealth came from the holders of bonds (gilts)—essentially loaning money to the state and getting the government’s tax revenues funneled to them via interest payments.

Classical English Liberals felt that competitive markets would do away with a good portion of the unearned and unproductive wealth common in Great Britain at the time. They believed that “free and open” markets would channel wealth and activity to more productive ends. That is, they would break up large pools of wealth and unproductive money. The kind of obscene fortunes that they saw in their day would no longer be possible thanks to competition, they assumed, and that British society would become more equal than it was under landed aristocracy, not less. We can dispute their logic (and I have issues with it), but I think we can safely say that this is what they believed, rightly or wrongly.

An inherent part of their conception of free markets is the possibility of failure. Unproductive or inefficient businesses would be competed away, they assumed, and the fortunes earned through such activities would disappear. But that is not the case today. Billionaires have so much money they can literally never lose it! That’s not capitalism, that’s aristocracy. I read recently that someone like Bill Gates literally cannot give away money to his pet causes fast enough to reduce his fortune even if he tried. In fact, he’s grown wealthier even while giving away billions.

The important point about [Adam] Smith’s system, on the other hand, is that it precluded steep inequalities not out of a normative concern with equality but by virtue of the design that aimed to maximize wealth. Once we put the building blocks of his system together, concentration of wealth simply cannot emerge.

In Smith, profits should be low and labor wages high, legislation in favor of the worker is “always just and equitable,” land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws should partition fortunes, taxation can be high if it is equitable, and the science of the legislator is necessary to thwart rentiers and manipulators.

Political theorists and economists have highlighted some of these points, but the counterfactual “what would the distribution of wealth be if all the building blocks were ever in place?” has not been posed. Doing so encourages us to question why steep inequality is accepted as a fact, instead of a pathology that the market economy was not supposed to generate in the first place.

Contrary to popular and academic belief, Adam Smith did not accept inequality as a necessary trade-off for a more prosperous economy (LSE Blogs)

Yet today the people who call themselves the heirs to “Classical English Liberals” emphatically defend the existence of billionaires and extreme inequality at every turn. Such people are not pro-market or pro-capitalism as they like to portray themselves; they are simply pro-wealth, or—to use a less complementary term—bootlickers. They are not defending capitalism or Markets; what they really are defending is oligarchy, power, privilege, and hierarchy. As Corey Robin opined, “The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,” with all the soaring rhetoric about markets and freedom being just a smokescreen and a cover for defending hierarchies and power imbalances. Their defense of billionaires is proof positive of this. This is true of presidential candidates as well.

The existence of obscene fortunes and extreme inequality are not a sign of capitalism’s success; they are a sign of capitalism’s failure.

This is pointed out by Chris Dillow:

“I don’t think anyone in this country should be a billionaire” said Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle yesterday, at which the BBC’s Emma Barnett took umbrage. The exchange is curious, because from one perspective it should be conservative supporters of a free market who don’t want there to be billionaires.

I say so because in a healthy market economy there should be almost no extremely wealthy people simply because profits should be bid away by competition. In the textbook case of perfect competition there are no super-normal profits, and in the more realistic case of Schumpeterian creative destruction, high profits should be competed away quickly.

From this perspective, every billionaire is a market failure – a sign that competition has failed. The Duke of Westminster is rich because there’s a monopoly of prime land in central London. Would Ineos’ Jim Ratcliffe be so rich if pollution were properly priced, or if his firm faced more competition?

The Right’s Mega-Rich Problem (Stumbling and Mumbling)

How is this rectified? How do they square their supposed love of fair competition and free and open markets with the presence of outsize fortunes?

They don’t.

And the sad thing is how many people buy into their nonsense. Everyone seems to think that a defense of billionaires is a defense of capitalism.

It’s not. It’s the opposite.

What is a billionaire?

Billionaires are only made possible through monopolies and tollbooths. Period. And such monopolies are more possible than ever before thanks to technology.

This is argued by Matt Stoller, an expert on monopolies, in a post entitled, What Is A Billionaire?:

Most people think a billionaire is someone with a lot of money, a sort of Scrooge McDuck who goes swimming in a pool of gold coins. And why wouldn’t we? The name billionaire has the word billion contained within it, so clearly it means having a net worth of at least ten figures. And in a sense, that is technically true. But if you look at the top ranks of the Bloomberg billionaire index, you’ll notice that nearly all of the leaders are people who own a corporation with substantial amounts of market power in one or more markets.

Billionaires use market power to extract revenue the way that a tollbooth operator does.
If you want to drive on a road, you have to pay for the privilege. It costs the tollbooth operator nothing, he/she just has a strategic chokepoint for extraction. Billionaire Warren Buffett, for instance, has such a ‘tollbooth’ strategy for investing, though he uses the term ‘moat’ because it sounds charming and quirky rather than rapacious.

Put another way, the Bloomberg billionaire index isn’t a list of the most important Scrooge McDuck’s, it’s a list of the biggest tollbooth operators in the world.

What he’s saying is that one becomes a billionaire only by short-circuiting the competitive market economy. Then their profits cannot be competed away. Only by gaming the system can one “earn” over a billion dollars. No one person is that valuable.

Stoller goes on to elucidate the operational tactics used by both Bill Gates and by his predecessor John D. Rockefeller, and finds that even though the industries are radically different, the techniques of short-circuiting and circumventing market competition are the same. Whether it’s horizontal and vertical integration, or using market influence to price out rivals, or exclusive contracts, the techniques are the same regardless of industry or time period:

In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software. IBM had been under aggressive antitrust investigation and litigation since 1967, so when it built a personal computer, it outsourced the operating system – MS-DOS – to Gates’s company and allowed Gates to license it to other equipment makers. (Gates’s upbringing didn’t hurt; the CEO of IBM at the the time knew his mother.) Such a relationship with a vendor was a shocking change for IBM, which had traditionally made everything in-house or tightly controlled its suppliers. But IBM treated Microsoft differently, transferring large amounts of programming knowledge to the small corporation. IBM also did this with the microprocessor company Intel, which IBM protected from Japanese competition.

And yet, in 1982, the Department of Justice dropped the antitrust suit against IBM, signaling a new pro-concentration framework. Bill Baxter, Reagan’s antitrust chief, did not want to bring monopolization suits, and did not. The new fast-growing technology space of personal computers would be a monopolized industry. But it would not be monopolized by IBM, which had kept control of the computing industry since the 1950s, because IBM’s corporate structure was now skittish about the raw use of power. And it would not be monopolized by AT&T, which was kept out of the computing industry by a 1956 consent decree that lasted until 1984. Gates, in many ways, had a greenfield, an environment friendly to monopoly but one in which all the old monopolists had been cleared out by antitrust actions.

In the case of Amazon, even though it theoretically has competition, through vertical and horizontal integration it can effectively control online e-commerce to a large degree. The result is a fortune greater than that of entire nation-states controlled by a single individual. One hardly imagines that Adam Smith would approve.

I read an interesting concept, and I forget where it came from. It was that networks are natural monopolies. This explains things like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. It’s entirely possible that the online world, due to features inherent in the technology, simply cannot be regulated by normal competition the way the market for goods and services can. Yet all our theories pretend that it can. It’s delusional.

Under these scenarios,’ profits’ are really a form of tribute (or perhaps plunder). In fact, we really shouldn’t even use the word ‘profits’ to describe them (just like we shouldn’t use ‘trade’ to describe global wage arbitrage).

And there are many more examples of competition being limited by deliberate legal policy. Much of Microsoft’s profits come from the fact that other people can’t copy their software—which they’ve arbitrarily labeled “piracy”—without facing legal repercussions enforced by the state and its legal system. In that sense, outsized fortunes are a consequence of laws, and not a feature inherent to technology:

…inequality is not in fact driven by technology, it is driven by our policy on technology, specifically patent and copyright monopolies. These forms of protection do not stem from the technology, they are policies created by a Congress which is disproportionately controlled by billionaires.

If the importance of these government granted monopolies is not clear, ask yourself how rich Bill Gates would be if any start-up computer manufacturer could produce millions of computers with Windows and other Microsoft software and not send the company a penny. The same story holds true with most other types of technology. The billionaires get rich from it, not because of the technology but because the government will arrest people who use it without the patent or copyright holder’s permission.

This point is central to the debate on the value of billionaires. If we could get the same or better technological progress without making some people ridiculously rich, then we certainly don’t need billionaires. But in any discussion of the merits of billionaires, it is important to understand that they got their wealth because we wrote rules that allowed it. Their immense wealth was not a natural result of the development of technology.

Farhad Manjoo promotes billionaire ideology in proposal to get rid of billionaires (Dean Baker, Real World Economic Review)

Baker has also pointed out that outsized salaries in many fields are determined by limiting competition though things like wildly expensive education and licensing requirements, which are ultimately determined by the government. Doctors and lawyers do not have compete against the wage rates in India or China thanks to the legal system, for example. Everyone else, however, is required to compete against the entire world for jobs.

On a global level, most billionaires are not the result of “hard work” or doing things beneficial for their society:

The vast majority of the world’s billionaires have not become rich through anything approaching ‘productive’ investment. Oxfam has showed that, approximately one third of global billionaire wealth comes from inheritance, whilst another third comes from ‘crony connections to government and monopoly’.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

And the monopolies that allow billionaires to exist are not good for the economy as a whole. In fact, they are highly detrimental, as Chris Dillow further points out:

What’s more, monopoly pricing is a form of tax – a tax which often falls upon other, smaller businesses…In this sense, not only are billionaires a symptom of an absence of a healthy competitive economy, but they are also a cause of it: their taxes on other firms restrict growth and entrepreneurship…

Tories are wrong, therefore, to portray attacks on the mega-rich as the politics of envy. It’s not. The existence of billionaires is a sign and cause of a dysfunctional economy…

In fact, logically, it is rightists who should be most concerned by the concentration of wealth. We lefties can point to it as evidence that the system is rigged. But Tories should worry that it undermines the legitimacy of the existing order not only because people don’t like inequality, but because it slows down economic growth and so encourages demands for change.

Furthermore, their existence is detrimental politically:

Controlling society’s wealth effectively gives the wealthy the right to plan economic activity. Billionaires – and the people who manage their money – determine which governments can access borrowing, which companies deserve to grow, and which ideas should be researched. This gives them an immense amount of political, as well as economic, power – allowing billionaires to provide favours to those politicians who helped them get rich in the first place.

Ultimately, the monopolisation of society’s resources by a tiny, closed-off elite means that most of society’s resources are used for dirty, unsustainable and unproductive speculation.

Why on Earth Shouldn’t People Be Able to Be Billionaires? (Novara Media)

In fact, the proliferation of billionaires in the developed world has accompanied a period of slow growth and stagnation, not rapid growth. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, yet still fails to sink in, America’s fastest period of growth came when there were fewer billionaires and tax rates ranged from 50 to 90 percent. There is no evidence that the proliferation of billionaires has benefited society as whole. And now, billionaires are attempting to buy political offices outright, making a joke of democracy.

People defending billionaires are only defending raw power, not capitalism, not democracy, and certainly not free markets.

Stoller concludes:

[Billionaires] are not people with a bunch of dollar bills stacked to the moon, they are (largely) men with a strategic position of power protected by public laws and rules. They aren’t better or smarter than anyone else, they are simply politically adept and in the right place at the right time. There’s no reason we have to enable such people to run our culture. At the end of the day, tollbooths are nothing but bottlenecks on a road on which we would otherwise travel faster and more freely.

What is a Billionaire? (Matt Stoller)

So, should there be billionaires? The answer is no. And you should believe that if you consider yourself a libertarian free marketeer or a democratic socialist. Anyone asserting anything else is just a bootlicker or a toady.

Addendum:

Here’s a good piece explaining how billionaires are basically mad kings:

…one of civilization’s great challenges stems from millionaire rhyming with billionaire. In holding them in the same linguistic corner of our minds, we conflate them, yet they’re so mathematically distinct as to be unrelated. A millionaire can, with some dedicated carelessness, lose those millions. Billionaires can be as profligate and eccentric as they wish, can acquire, without making a dent, all the homes and jets and islands and causes and thoroughbreds and Van Goghs and submarines and weird Beatles memorabilia they please. Unless they’re engaging in fraud or making extremely large and risky investments, they’re simply no match for the mathematical and economic forces—the compounding of interest, the long-term imperatives of markets—that make money beget more money. They can do pretty much whatever they want in this life, and therein lies the distinction. A millionaire enjoys a profoundly lucky economic condition. A billionaire is an existential state.

This helps explain the cosmic reverence draped over so many billionaires, their most banal notions about innovation and vision repackaged as inspirational memes, their insights on markets and customers spun into best sellers. Their extravagances are so over the top as to inspire legend more often than revolution…

The Gospel of Wealth According to Marc Benioff (Wired)

One of the most potent demonstrations that the modern-day rich are mad kings, comes form the story of Adam Neumann of WeWork. This is the impression I got from the Behind the Bastards podcast on Neumann: The Idiot Who Made, and Destoryed, WeWork (Podtail)

Counting Jeff Bezos’s fortune using 1 grain of rice = $100,000 from r/nextfuckinglevel

The Disingenuous Arguments Against Universal Health Care

Of all the arguments against a universal health care system, such as Medicare for All, surely the stupidest one is the concern over the fact that some people might lose their jobs.

When have politicians in America ever given a shit about eliminating working-class jobs?

The only time that I can think of is when the profits of some wealthy special interest group are being threatened.

Let me repeat: when have we expressed concern over the elimination of working class jobs in the modern era, in the media or elsewhere? Nowhere, for as long as I can remember.

It’s just never happened. Why now?

Where where these concerns over jobs when the industrial Midwest, where I live, started bleeding jobs, and continued bleeding jobs for over forty years? Where were they then?

No, when industrial workers and people who wear hard-hats to work and carry lunch pails lost their jobs in the Heartland, the answer from politicians and the media was just to suck it up and deal with it. It was to let them fall back on their own resources. It was to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Their answer at every turn was every clichéd variant of “let them eat cake”: more education, retraining, the “service economy,” and more recently, the “gig economy” (“drive for Uber…”)

They just didn’t care.
During the forty years of jobs losses that decimated entire communities and reduced large swaths of the country to the living standards that rivaled those of developing countries for squalor, the politicians and the punditocracy just didn’t give a rat’s ass. They told us that those people deserved it. That they were stupid and racist. That they should have hit the books and studied harder. That they should have moved to New York or San Francisco. That government help would simply “encourage dependency.”

They told us that globalization was just an impersonal force of nature that no one could control, certainly not the politicians from both parties who were helpless in the face of it (even while signing trade deals). Kevin Williamson famously told us that these communities deserved to die. And he wasn’t alone, he was just the most blunt about expressing the belief embraced by the entire Neoliberal professional managerial class.

But NOW they’re just SO CONCERNED that some people might be out of a job if all of us have access to decent health care.

For Christ’s sake!!!

And what’s even more disingenuous is that for years, those of us concerned over job losses due to rapidly advancing automation and outsourcing were lectured by the brain geniuses of economic “science” about the so-called “Lump of Labor” fallacy. We had it thrown in our face at every turn. We were lectured like children by the armchair geniuses who hung out on Internet forums: “Don’t you know about the LuMp oF lAbOr FallAcY, haR Har!” We were told that automation always creates more employment, not less. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, or thinks that circumstances might be different this time, “just doesn’t understand economics” they said. After all, all those agricultural workers eventually found jobs didn’t they?

And now, some of those exact same shills are arguing that we need to keep the most cruel and inefficient health care delivery system in the entire world going because it might cost jobs? Jobs that solely exist because of rampant inefficiency and bloat? That it’s more important to preserve these Bullshit Jobs rather than having an efficient health care system that actually delivers care without bankrupting people? Really? In other words, they are arguing that the Lump of Labor fallacy suddenly becomes true when it comes to preserving health care office jobs, and not for any other part of the economy, apparently.

So we’re supposed to care about workers who owe their jobs to health care bloat after forty years of telling manufacturing workers to go fuck themselves. Sorry, not buying it. The truth is, the Lump of Labor fallacy is just another pseudo-scientific, selectively applied economic bullshit concept used to justify the interests of the powerful and to intellectually bully critics.

Truly, this shows the absolute moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Neoliberalism, and the libertarian bias of economics more generally. It also shows the sheer desperation of the sociopaths who are trying to defend this indefensible and inhumane system that kills people.

The fact that we need to have bloat and inefficiency to ensure that enough people have jobs (if that is, in fact, true) is the most damning indictment of modern American capitalism that I can imagine. If we can’t create enough jobs that really need doing that create actual value for people, then we need to rethink how our entire economic system is put together from the ground up. We need to start reducing working hours and sharing the work. And we need to make a decent standard of living less dependent on the whims of capricious employers whose only goal is to fatten their profits, regardless of the what it does to the living standards of the average person.

If that’s Socialism, then sign me up.

How about this: maybe we should have a fair and efficient government-run universal health-care system AND help those people who have been displaced from jobs. Maybe we can help hurting workers in a way we DIDN’T do for all of those years when we threw manufacturing workers under the bus.

If anybody is still using these arguments, including any media pundits or politicians, you know that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt shills, and you shouldn’t listen to anything they say. That goes especially for the Neoliberal Democratic candidates, many of whom stealthily profit off of the suffering of their fellow Americans.

This post makes much the same point with perhaps a slightly less outraged tone: Our Current Healthcare System Is a Bad Jobs Guarantee (Mike the Mad Biologist). What I favor is replacing the bad jobs guarantee provided by our health care system—one which leads to bankruptcy and premature death—with a good jobs guarantee—one that actually improves the lives of American citizens. And yes, we can afford it.

As I’ve often pointed out, we already have  a socialist program that provides education and training to people from blighted rural and urban areas of the country—it’s called the U.S. military. We just have to pretend it’s something else. And don’t forget how many indirect jobs are created by the government military spending gravy train. Without that, the U.S. economy would likely be a wreck. And we already have a de facto UBI as well—we just call it disability benefits and pretend it’s something else.

Maybe we should just stop pretending we have a true “free market” economy (if we ever really did), and just create those programs for real. You know, drop the pretense and quit pretending. Just a thought.

Finally, shoutout to a couple of underdogs who came out big winners in Nevada this weekend: Tyson Fury and Bernie Sanders. It’s a great day. Congrats to both!

Fun Facts

Vegetarianism is such an old concept that up until 1850, vegetarians were called Pythagorean because the cult of Pythagoras was entirely vegetarian.
https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/evolution-vegetarianism/

Rio averages 24 shootouts per day. Large hours-long gun battles often don’t even make the headlines.
https://theintercept.com/2019/12/16/brazil-bullets-guns-ammunition-analysis/

A Quarter of the World’s Pigs Died Last Year in China
https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/01/links-1-4-2020.html

Indian housewives hold 11% of the world’s gold. This is more than the reserves of USA, IMF, Switzerland, and Germany put together.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n8278

The World’s 500 Richest People Increased Their Wealth by $1.2 Trillion in 2019
https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/12/worlds-500-richest-upped-wealth-by-usd1-2-trillion-in-2019.html

CEOs make more in first week of January than average salary
https://theconversation.com/ceos-make-more-in-first-week-of-january-than-average-salary-pay-ratios-are-the-solution-128950

Meth use is up sixfold, and fentanyl use has quadrupled in U.S. in last 6 years.
https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2020/01/03/Meth-use-up-sixfold-fentanyl-use-quadrupled-in-US-in-last-6-years/1971578072114/

More and more Americans are drinking themselves to death. A new study finds there were around 72,000 alcohol-related deaths among people over the age of 16 in 2017—more than double the number of similar deaths recorded two decades earlier.
https://gizmodo.com/alcohol-is-killing-more-americans-than-ever-1840862638

The number of Americans drinking themselves to death has more than doubled over the last two decades
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-number-of-americans-drinking-themselves-to-death-has-more-than-doubled-2020-01-08?mod=mw_latestnews

The US suicide rate has risen 40% over 17 years, with blue-collar workers at highest risk.
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/23/us-suicide-rates-rise-40percent-over-17-years-with-blue-collar-workers-at-highest-risk-cdc-finds.html

The healthcare industry’s bureaucratic administrative costs set Americans back $812 billion in 2017, or just under $2,500 per person.

34 percent of all U.S. costs related to ‘doctor visits, hospitals, long-term care and health insurance’ essentially came from paperwork.
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/akwgvz/us-healthcare-industry-creating-an-endless-shitstorm-of-money-grubbing-bureaucracy-and-paperwork-study-finds

An estimated eight million people in the U.S. have started a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for their own or a member of their household’s healthcare costs.
https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/19/barbaric-8-million-americans-have-been-forced-start-crowdfunding-campaigns-cover

The poorest 20% of Americans spend a third of their income on health care.
https://www.salon.com/test/2020/01/27/among-poorest-20-percent-of-americans-one-third-of-income-goes-to-health-care-study/

1990’s most obese state (Mississippi) had at the time a lower rate of obesity than what the least obese state (Colorado) had by 2010
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/us-obesity-trends-map/

Exposure to toxic chemicals, especially flame retardants and pesticides, resulted in more than a million cases of intellectual disability in the United States between 2001 and 2016.
https://nyulangone.org/news/flame-retardants-pesticides-overtake-heavy-metals-biggest-contributors-iq-loss

The number of drug-associated deaths in 2016 was 2.2 times bigger than previously recorded, adding more than 60,000 deaths onto the currently accepted figure.
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3a8bd9/opioid-crisis-death-toll-twice-as-high

New hospital-based data show that homelessness is increasing, despite official estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that state a substantial decrease in homelessness. HUD’s numbers, which are the primary driver of public policy, may be seriously flawed.
https://today.uic.edu/new-hospital-based-data-contradicts-hud-estimates-on-homelessness

The share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2019, with faster growth in professional occupations and high-wage cities.
https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/01/credentialism-run-amok.html

US drinking water is a “toxic soup” of “forever chemicals.”
https://boingboing.net/2020/01/22/us-drinking-water-is-a-toxic.html

Humanity Has Killed 83% of All Wild Mammals and Half of All Plants.
https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/humans-destroyed-83-of-wildlife-report/

In 2019, more Americans went to the library than to the movies.
https://lithub.com/in-2019-more-americans-went-to-the-library-than-to-the-movies-yes-really/

Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form
http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2020/02/americans-who-havent-read-book-in-past.html

America sacrificed 3.7 million jobs as a result of US-China trade deficits since China joined the WTO in 2001, with 3/4 of the losses taking place in manufacturing positions.
https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/01/us-loses-nearly-4-million-jobs-to-china-since-wto-entry.html

Wisconsin has lost 818 dairy farms, or 10% of its dairy farms. In the last decade, the state has lost 44% of the farms.
https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/columnists/darvin-bentlage-new-u-s–canada-mexico-trade-accord/article_4f4d98f6-a5eb-537b-9451-0d4a41e1406c.html

Thirty percent of student debtors are enrolled in Income-driven repayment plans
https://www.condemnedtodebt.org/2020/02/urban-institute-thirty-percent-of.html

US student debt is larger than the whole economy of Belgium
https://journalistcorner.news/2020/02/21/student-debt-in-the-us-is-1-5trn-what-are-the-democratic-candidates-plans/

Stay in school kids:

The definition of Irony (screencap from Vox):

Making Architecture Work Again

It’s not often that questions of architectural style make the news. I suppose I should at least address this topic, if only because I am an AIA member, and this is the only field I have actual qualifications in.

According to an exclusive report by Architectural Record, the predictably named “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order would seek to reposition classically inspired architecture as the country’s default public building style. The shift comes in opposition to the longstanding style agnosticism displayed by public buildings in recent decades following the creation of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture directive crafted in 1962 by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Moynihan’s directive—which states that “The development of an official style must be avoided” and that “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa”—has resulted in a wide ranging set of innovative public building projects that embrace contemporary design strategies and material approaches, including the SOM-designed New United States Court House in Los Angeles, Morphosis’s San Francisco Federal Building, and the United States Courthouse in Austin, Texas designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

The history is pretty unequivocal on this issue. Fascist and authoritarian regimes have customarily been backward-looking and historically have had a fascination with distinctive architectural styles, typically favoring classical and rationalist styles as representations of order, strength, and power. Mussolini had an entire suburb built in Rome to demonstrate his own favored style of architecture which hearkened back to his obsession with ancient Rome. It’s still there:

Begun in 1936, the EUR project was to become the site of the 1942 World’s Fair, an idealized Fascist wonderland complete with stately rationalized architecture that was designed to pay tribute to both the glorious past and future of the Roman Empire. Designed under the initial direction of Italian architect Marcello Piacentini, the original structures of the EUR district were all built of limestone, tuff, and marble. Their simplified neoclassicism is evident in both their traditional materiality and their more overt stylistic themes, which included the use of columns, arches, and classic Roman statuary, the combination of which made for a magnificent city within a city.

Rome’s Fascist-Era EUR District in the Heart of the Eternal City (Skyrise Cities)

Hitler (who once flirted with architecture school), was also an enthusiastic fan of specific types of architectural styles, which he patronized during his regime. His plan for Berlin featured the vast Germania dome (the Volkshalle), which was intended to be large enough to have its own weather patterns (although I’m pretty sure that’s apocryphal). Fascist regimes in general tended to heap scorn on anything that remotely smacked of “modernism,” which was depicted a decadent and leftist (and often Jewish).

Wikipedia even has an entry devoted to fascist architecture:

When Mussolini took office, he took on the role of bringing about fascism and idealism to replace democracy in Italy. He utilized all forms of media along with architectural identity. The new modernist style of architecture was one way to help build his vision of a unified fascist Italy. When Mussolini called for a fascist style of architecture, architects used the style to imitate that of imperial Rome and to bring historical pride and a sense of nationalism to the Italian people. Fascist architecture was one of many ways for Mussolini to invigorate a cultural rebirth in Italy and to mark a new era of Italian culture under fascism.

Similarly, once Hitler came to power in 1933 and transformed the German Chancellory to a dictatorship, he used fascist architecture in the form of Stripped Classicism as one of many tools to help unify and nationalize Germany under his rule. Hitler had plans to rebuild Berlin after the axis powers won World War II under the name Germania, or Welthauptstadt Germania. Hitler had his favorite architect, Albert Speer, design this new metropolis using fascist architecture design.

Fascist Architecture (Wikipedia)

The fascists actually preferred a form of stripped classicism and architectural rationalism rather than the pure classical Greco-Roman style that is invoked by the new executive order. Interestingly, one of the major influences on fascist architecture was the prominent Franco-American architect Paul Cret, who designed, among many other things, the Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington D.C.

So there’s a bad precedent here. One wonders if the new executive order will incorporate the theory of ruin value (Ruinenwert), which, given the state of the United States these days, might actually be a good idea.

Hitler accordingly approved Speer’s recommendation that, in order to provide a “bridge to tradition” to future generations, modern “anonymous” materials such as steel girders and ferroconcrete should be avoided in the construction of monumental party buildings, since such materials would not produce aesthetically acceptable ruins like those wherever possible. Thus, the most politically significant buildings of the Reich were intended, to some extent, even after falling into ruins after thousands of years, to resemble their Roman models.

Ruin Value (Wikipedia) Where I live in the Postindustrial Midwest, a good portion of the buildings are ruins already. Detroit, once one of the richest cities in the world, is famous for them, with entire books published about them.

What I’m wondering is, why the sudden interest in architecture? Prominent politicians have avoided sticking their grubby fingers into the subject before, at least not in the present era, as far as I’m aware. After all, the Republicans have held power, more or less, since 1980 (at least ideologically). Yet there’s never been any interest in controlling architectural styles under any previous regime—Reagan, or either Bushes. Why now?

For centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to glorify their regimes, often while also dismissing modern architectural styles as lowbrow, cold, or weak. The current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.

Last week, the trade magazine Architectural Record obtained a copy of a draft executive order from the White House, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that would require newly built or upgraded federal structures to hew to “the classical architectural style.” It doesn’t strictly specify what the “classical” style encompasses, but it cites the infrastructure of “republican Rome” as its inspiration…

As many critics of the draft order have pointed out, while there is much to appreciate in classical and neoclassical buildings, admirers of these styles have long included authoritarians who see these schools as embodying the glory of the state. Adolf Hitler notoriously held a fascination with classical architecture, as did other fascist leaders of his time. When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did “fascist architecture,” or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.

“Classical” Architecture Is Just One Way Tyrants Build in Their Own Image (Slate)

To me, this is all part of a new turn in Republican rule, alongside their use of blatant agitprop and attempts to transform the U.S. into a de facto one party state.

It further cements the transformation of the Republican Party into one mainly preoccupied with cultural issues more than anything else. Rather than a pro-wealth, anti-worker, economically-oriented party as it has historically been, the new Republican Party centers itself mainly around cultural issues: anti-egalitarianism, an obsession with strength and might, contempt for institutions and the rule of law, opposition to modernism, hatred of intellectuals and intellectualism, and a disdain for social movements like feminism and gay rights; combined with strident ethno-nationalism. The non-ideologically-based pro-wealth, anti-worker party is now the mainstream Democrats (as demonstrated by their extreme opposition to the Sanders candidacy). The Republican Party is now something else entirely, something possibly new in the American experience.

With its pivot towards white identity politics and socio-cultural issues, it aligns with many of the other right-wing movements which are achieving power simultaneously all across the globe, in a sort of real-life domino effect: Poland, Hungary, Russia, China, Brazil, the Philippines. Many other countries are on a similar trajectory: India, Italy, Australia, the U.K., etc. It’s not too much to say, I think, that the vast majority of the world’s population right now lives under at least a quasi-authoritarian regime, and it’s only getting worse as the twenty-first century unfolds.

And unlike their erstwhile twentieth-century counterparts, these regimes show no signs of burning themselves out anytime soon.

Online, traditional architecture enthusiasts, white suprematists, and other groups have aligned their shared passions for classical aesthetics with sordid nationalist politics to consistently weaponize classical motifs under a variety of nativist mantles. Increasingly, classical orders, fluted columns, and dentilled cornices have come to symbolize not simply solid, timeless architectural motifs but also the “Whites Only” idealized version of the past these groups seek to celebrate today. As in other facets of federal policy, President Trump’s long-running embrace of nativist politics is, with the potential executive order, gesturing toward and growing to absorb these discourses into the country’s legal and regulatory apparatuses.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

The order also uncomfortably evokes the standard-issue reactionary weltanschauung, which has persisted since at least the late nineteenth-century: that the decadent Postmodernists and the Marxists (or the Postmodern Neo-Marxists) are engaged in a vast conspiracy to undermine society’s core values. This aligns itself with the Reactionary Right’s embrace of conspiracy theories more generally.

…for the social conservatives of Architecture Twitter, that brutalist buildings still stand is testament to the West having lost faith in itself. Last year, ArchitecturalRevival, one of Twitter’s most popular architecture accounts with more than 40,000 followers, was accused of promoting white nationalism under the guise of appreciating “cultural tradition,” “beauty” and a “hyperborean worldview.” These terms, while seemingly innocuous, were, according to the New Statesman, used by Twitter accounts that regularly post content rife with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda. While ArchitecturalRevival hasn’t formally apologized or addressed the retweets, the British architectural magazine Archinect reported that in 2017 the account tweeted, “Where there is ugliness, we will bring beauty. Where there is chaos, we will bring order. Where there is vice, we will bring virtue.”

Other traditional architecture accounts that mostly share pictures of old gothic cathedrals and European baroque structures also have been called out for promoting alt-right and far-right figures who use terms like “traditional” to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content. For example, TradWestern Art has tweeted, “Reading Nietzsche followed by Evola can cure you of atheism,” while claiming that modern architecture is eradicating “white identity.” And MagicalEurope, a 50,000 follower-strong account that posts pictures of “traditional European culture,” has gone as far as to suggest that Turkey isn’t a real country, in an attempt to downplay the influence of Muslim architects in European traditionalism.

How the Alt-Right Infiltrated Architecture Twitter — And Turned Notre-Dame Into a Political Lightning Rod (Mel Magazine)

The impetus for this appears to be an organization called the National Civic Art Society:

It’s true that modernism abounds in D.C. Standing on a street corner near the National Mall, there’s actually a mishmash of architectural styles. Let’s talk about three of them: In the distance, the gleaming white pillars of the U.S. Capitol dome, the kind of classical architecture the president’s order favors. Closer in, there’s a towering, steel-mesh scrim that’s part of the Eisenhower Memorial, a contemporary design by Frank Gehry which is under construction. Right behind the scrim, there’s the beige, boxy, concrete-heavy Department of Education, a Brutalist building — the style a lot of people love to hate.

Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society is one of them. He looks at this entire vista with disgust. “From where I’m standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. dome,” he says. “That is not what our founders had in mind. This is a new reigning orthodoxy of modernist, Brutalist, postmodern design.” (Brutalism was a popular movement with architects beginning in the 1950s, but it’s mostly fallen out of favor.) The Society led a six-year campaign against Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial, which forced the architect to make some changes to his orginal design.

‘Just Plain Ugly’: Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture (NPR)

Once again, we’re playing out the passion play of the 1930’s and the run up to World War Two in almost excruciating detail, just with the players changed.

Now, long-time readers know I’m highly critical of modern architecture. And I stand behind that criticism. I think it’s important and necessary not to become a hermetically-sealed echo-chamber. The fact is, we as a profession have often failed to listen to the public, and assumed the role of elitist aesthete taste-makers. We have discarded millennia of good design in favor of novelty and abstract theories. It is true that the public have voted with their feet and dollars to embrace traditional neighborhoods and rejected much of what has been built after World War Two (which was driven mainly by developers, not architects). The places most visited by tourists are, by-and-large, places where modern design is largely absent, such as Paris and Venice.

America’s Favorite Architecture (Wikipedia)

This post provides a good criticism of the way America has built since the Second World War:

Much of the rest of the world takes for granted architectural principles of how to build life-affirming human settlements. These principles evolved over thousands of years, and it’s no accident that so many cultures reached the same conclusions. Urban Europeans, and indeed Armenians, are accustomed to vertical growth, mixed-use development (shops on first floor, apartments above), sidewalks, plazas, public squares and street cafes. These are the fixtures amidst which your halcyon childhood days played out, where you walked hand in hand with your first love, where you met friends for coffee, and hopped the train to work. It’s the corner with the pastry shop, it’s the supermarket down the street, and the bench in between.

Few people can prepare themselves for the degree to which Americans have, in the last half-century or so, taken this entire corpus of human experience and thrown it completely into the trash, with the exception of a few older cities–not the places where the majority of Americans live. What has replaced it is a surreal moonscape. For those accustomed to the traditional urban civilisation, the primary question in America is: where do I go? What do I do? Looking around leads to an intangible but intense realisation of emptiness.

Suburbia is both a cause and an effect of the destruction of civic and community life in America: there’s increasingly little to come home to, and vanishingly little to go out to. This has real effects. Your children will have nowhere to play, as there is no courtyard full of friends; they will depend on your willingness to drive them (sometimes quite far) for prearranged “play dates”. You will not take leisurely strolls to admire the scenery, for there is neither admirable scenery nor anywhere to stroll. It’s likely that you won’t even know your neighbours. You certainly can’t venture downstairs for lettuce or milk; strict zoning codes have ensured that only residential structures can be built where you live, and you’ll have to drive a few miles to reach the commercial zone, where the grocery stores are.

What Armenians should know about life in America (Likewise A Blog). See also: Why suburbia sucks

That gives me an opportunity to post this important post, which I have struggled to find a place for:

The Rise of the Architectural Cult (Nikos Salingaros)

Nikos Salingaros is reviewing a book entitled Making Dystopia by James Stevens Curl, a prominent British architectural historian. At the outset, Salingaros (himself an author of several books, some in my library) states the premise:

Architecture shapes human society and drives much of its commercial and economic engine. The inhabited world is covered with giant glass skyscrapers, factories, museums of contemporary art, concert halls, university buildings, and houses. In Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl argues that the preferred style in which many new buildings are created is ill adapted to the human senses, generating a permanent condition of stress from our environment.

Curl has several goals in this scholarly, well-documented book:

  • Demonstrate that contemporary architectural culture, with ideological origins in the 1920s, has created a dystopian environment for users.
  • Explain how a tiny group was able to impose on the world an architecture of abstraction that is, as Curl sees it, devoid of sense.
  • Show that three key figures—Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—insisted upon the global homogenization of architecture and ignored local conditions of climate, culture, and evolved traditions.
  • Document how biological aspects of architecture necessary for healing environments, such as ornamentation, the human scale, a sense of enclosure, positive tactile qualities, and complex color harmonies, were expunged.
  • Examine the historical, political, and psychological reasons why people have accepted shaping our environment in this manner.

Why would architects in the 1920s turn their backs on vital mechanisms for connecting humans to the world, necessary to ensure long-term mental and physical health? It is certainly true that the neurological mechanisms for relating to our environment were unknown back then. Curl argues, in addition, that a small group of architects sought to achieve fame by promoting a novelty that turned out to be counterintuitive and dangerous. He devotes roughly the first 200 pages of his book to documenting how this agenda was implemented.

Curl also addresses topics such as the science of design, cults and substitute religions, and how totalitarian systems arise. The book starts as architectural history and becomes an indictment of a movement. The contemporary built environment, dictated primarily by style, lacks key geometrical features that human biology craves. Scientists, who should have been the first to notice this discrepancy, unwisely or naively left the shaping of our world in the hands of the architects.

The Rise of the Architectural Cult. Do read the whole thing-it’s worth it. As someone who has actually been through an architectural education program, I can attest to the cultist nature of architectural instruction (complete with sleep deprivation).

In a follow-up letter to the review, Curl himself writes:

Modernism in architecture, for the first time in the history of the world, succeeded in imposing one manner of building globally, no matter what the climatic conditions, local requirements, and skills available. It ignored context completely, because the past was of no value to its perpetrators. When drawing boards and T squares were consigned to oblivion, practitioners programmed computers to produce structures that conformed to the latest fad, such as Derrida-inspired deconstructivism—a topic on which Saligaros has written intelligently and with devastating accuracy—and curvy parametricism. Buildings became stratospherically costly and alien to humanity, considering neither environmental nor human needs. One can hear very clearly the sibilance of banknotes cascading into grasping paws, the oily squelch of palms being greased, the click of computer keys as eyewatering sums are transferred from one account to another, and the dim murmurings of hagiographers, critics, and journalists as they establish a consensus of approval for the inexcusable (and presumably gain materially for so doing).

Architecture, a public art, matters to us all. Questioning its qualities should not be the preserve of a small coterie of self-appointed professionals, propped up by pseudoscience and browbeating any dissent. Real scientists should start to examine the claims of starchitects and their followers—probing, dissecting, and then demolishing the pretensions, obfuscatory language, and arrogant disregard of everything except celebrity and money that are characteristics of this group. Since the modernist movement gained control, chaos has been produced where once was order. That state of affairs is revealed in my book…

Building Bad (Inference Review)

I’m reasonably confident in saying that Salingaros’ criticism (and Curl’s) is not based in white supremacy. So It’s important to note, if there is any doubt, that criticism of modern architecture does not make you a white supremacist! That’s not what I’m saying. Not at all.

Additionally, criticism of modern architecture is hardly an exclusively right-wing reactionary position. For example, this article, Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, appears in the journal Current Affairs, a notable Left-wing publication.

The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture”—which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture—is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.

Another thing you will often hear from design-school types is that contemporary architecture is honest. It doesn’t rely on the forms and usages of the past, and it is not interested in coddling you and your dumb feelings. Wake up, sheeple! Your boss hates you, and your bloodsucking landlord too, and your government fully intends to grind you between its gears. That’s the world we live in! Get used to it! Fans of Brutalism—the blocky-industrial-concrete school of architecture—are quick to emphasize that these buildings tell it like it is, as if this somehow excused the fact that they look, at best, dreary, and, at worst, like the headquarters of some kind of post-apocalyptic totalitarian dictatorship.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture (Current Affairs)

Current Affairs’ founder and publisher (and co-author of the above piece), Nathan J. Robinson, is the author of a recently published a book entitled Why You Should be a Socialist. So, again, hardly a right-wing reactionary. In another piece, The Power of Anarchist Analysis, he writes of contemporary architecture:

It’s funny, it seems like this should be a comparatively uncontroversial one, but I get the most hate mail when I write about architecture, which only encourages me (as a stubborn anarchist) to be more provocative. To me, it is obvious that something has gone deeply and troublingly wrong with built spaces. They are not just undemocratic but they also do not provide feelings of aesthetic bliss. Architectural consensus is actually more rigid than the consensus you’ll find almost anywhere else. If you try building something like this or this or this you will be laughed at. There is a dogma that buildings must look “like their time,” which is used to mean “you must design things that look like the things that are currently designed.” A minimalist aesthetic is enforced and nobody is allowed to produce anything that looks like it could have been erected before 1945. You only very rarely see truly interesting new experiments (like New Andean architecture in Bolivia).

The Power of Anarchist Analysis (Current Affairs). Unfortunately, I find his examples of “good” architecture to be rather treacly (Thomas Kincade meets The Hobbit). But the point still stands.

He also recently wrote a piece critical of contemporary healthcare architecture.

Why are hospitals so unpleasant? I mean, yes, obviously, they’re full of sick people and much that is painful takes place in them. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? Hospitals are harsh places. The lighting is harsh. The bureaucracy is confusing. The furniture is uncomfortable. There are often few windows. They are not beautiful places. They are certainly not welcoming.

A Healing Place (Current Affairs)

It appears that hatred of modern and contemporary architecture is the only thing that the left and the right can agree on.

So we architects have accomplished something, it seems.

***

We separate church and state, as John Michael Greer has pointed out numerous times, not to protect the state, but to protect religion. In the same way, a separation between the government and architecture should be observed to protect architecture. Sure, the profession has stumbled. But the answer is not top-down control, or the establishment of a singular “official style” determined by the government. Nor does the answer necessarily have to be backward-looking classicism, or any historical style.

The answer should be rediscovering the timeless values of design. That’s not the exclusive property of any single style. And while it may make sense to have stylistic restrictions in a city like Paris, imposing them over the whole of the United States, with all its diversity, is foolhardy. It will mire the United States endlessly in nostalgia, forever trying to invoke its past glories while it deteriorates in real time.

Critics speak out over the draft federal architecture mandate (The Architects Newspaper)

Now, I have no problem with classical architecture. But I do have a problem with the government telling us how to build. I am against the politicization of architecture. This is America. It goes against our values. As Moynihan’s statement aptly put it, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” Whatever the failings of contemporary architecture—and, as I have noted, there are many—this principle should be maintained. I am 100% with the AIA on this.

And, I must note, it’s amusing to see all the “anti-statist” Libertarians suddenly embracing this. Apparently, top-down imposition from the Federal government is okay as long as it is in cultural matters and not economic ones. If government dictates something that they agree with, suddenly Libertarians reveal themselves as closet statists.

Finally, to condemn all contemporary architecture with such a broad brush is the provenance of absolutist thinking. Look, we’ve moved beyond Brutalism. We don’t worship at the altar of the International Style anymore—contemporary modern architecture embraces location and context . It learns from the past. A lot of contemporary modernism has incorporated principles of form, space order, and proportion once again, along with comfortably incorporating  modern building materials and techniques. It’s just not noticed as often by the general public. Just like we notice car wrecks and shocking news stories, we are hard-wired to pay disproportionate attention to ugly buildings, and ignore all the instances of good ones. For example, Santiago Calatrava’s art museum has become one of the most beloved spaces in my city, drawing tourists from all over the world. Bare-bones budgets and a penny-pinching mentality are far bigger threats to architectural beauty than architects are; something we often fail to properly acknowledge.

There must be some sort of middle ground that allows us to point out the failings of modern architecture without embracing some kind of nostalgic European ethno-nationalism. Some sort of middle-ground between dismissing all our critics as unqualified philistines, and believing that Modernism is a vast Marxist conspiracy to exterminate an imaginary Christian West.

But in these extreme times, I doubt it.

BONUS:

For some enjoyment of actual classical architecture, check these out:

This is a reconstruction of ancient Rome that was done in a software called Lumion. I became aware of this program while looking for a good rendering engine:

See ancient Rome brought to life through SketchUp and Lumion

And:

For 13 years, this photographer has been building an incredible 3D digital model of Athens (BoingBoing)

The Origin of the Factory 4

We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about how the factory system was born on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and how that system was gradually imported back into Europe, becoming the basis for the industrial revolution.

The dramatic glut of raw materials flooding into Europe called forth means of mechanization and intensification of production that were simply not called for before. This was accompanied by a population explosion, and a vast increase in the money supply—first through silver and then through paper.

While the Caribbean plantations depended on slavery, this was not viable in Europe. Instead wage labor increasingly became the norm, eroding the independence and moral economy of the yeoman peasantry. The landed aristocracy became displaced by an ascending aristocracy of industrialists and financiers. Noblesse oblige was supplanted by maximizing profit.

Because of the nature of factory production, economic activity became much more concentrated in urban areas than it had been before. This caused a vast flood of people into industrial cities, which led to the characteristics we mistakenly attribute to ALL historical urban areas: overcrowding, pollution, filth, disease, social maladies, etc. Certain industrial cities in Western Europe became super-sized almost overnight.

I’d like to conclude by noting that this method of working has never gone away. All of the subsequent reorganization of labor was based on the labor intensification methods originally developed under slavery, which were then directly to applied factory production.

That’s right, the methods we all labor under today were originally all developed to organize and manage slaves.

In essence, we are still industrial workers today. Now, you may say, ‘Hold on, that’s not right! I’m not an industrial worker; I work in IT, or healthcare, or finance, or construction, or whatever…’ But it doesn’t matter what industry you ostensibly work in, we are all laboring under the same industrial system developed on those plantations centuries ago.

The factory system is the basis for all modern work. Selling our precious time on earth in exchange for for money is the way all of us need to make a living nowadays (except the lucky few born rich, or who own sufficient income-generating assets).

So too, is submitting yourself to harsh worker “discipline.” Our bosses basically exert a level of control over us that even the most sociopathic dictators in history were never able to accomplish. We accept this state of affairs because, we are told, it is “only” within the confines of work life. We accept that “freedom” is only something to be experienced outside of the walls of the office park or cubicle. And because we are free to theoretically choose a new master at any time, we told that we have historically unprecedented “freedom.”

Yet that’s not even a fraction of the amount of freedom people enjoyed in ancient times. Everyone except slaves, that is.

That’s why it’s called wage slavery.

There were institutional barriers in the past to be sure—serfs, for example, couldn’t leave their place of residence. But there was no direct supervision of everything one did on a daily basis. There was no one looking over your shoulder. There was no one telling you to work harder, work faster, or else. There was no one telling you to not show up drunk or to pee in a cup. There was no one telling you when to go to the bathroom (something even slaves did not have to endure). That is only a modern phenomenon! Our ancestors experienced a level of freedom and autonomy that we can only dream of in our modern world.

And yet Capital-L Liberalism portrays itself as the epitome of freedom! What a fucking con!

And then that profound loss of freedom was covered up by retconning history.

In a post I wrote several years ago, Modern Work Patterns Make No Sense, I pointed out that keeping employees noses to the grindstone was necessitated by the introduction of machines in production: every minute those machines were not running was theoretically a loss of profit. That led to a time-centric, intensive work pattern that did not exist before. Prior to that, there was no such thing as a “weekend,” and many languages still do not have a word for it. I quoted historian Emma Griffin on the In Our Time podcast:

“…Traditionally people are paid for making things according to how much is made. So a shoemaker gets paid for his shoes when he’s made his shoes and is not really paid for his time—he’s paid for what he actually accomplishes. In the factories that logic doesn’t really work because the employers have spent money invested in very expensive machinery, and that means they’ve got to keep the machines running all through the week, as long as possible. So they’ve got to get workers to the factory early in the morning, they’ve got to get them working intensively throughout the day, staying until late into the evening. And that’s a very different kind of working pattern that’s being introduced. So instead of people dovetailing working at home with managing a cotton garden or something, now they’re going into the factories. And it’s the beginning of modern working patterns that we’re familiar with, where we’re effectively paid for our time rather than what we manage to get done.”

And this system persists today, despite us living in an age where machines make practically everything we need, and increasingly provide services as well (or allow us to provide our own services). I pointed out that we still stubbornly retain this archaic work pattern, despite it’s inefficiency, and despite the extreme stresses it places on individuals:

As Emma Griffin points out, those work patterns make sense when you work in a factory where every second the machine isn’t running it’s a loss of profit. This is also why agricultural societies have always been more leisurely than industrial ones—working harder won’t make the plants grow any faster, after all; once the land you’ve got is seeded and watered, it’s several months minimum before you harvest your crop with little to do but pull weeds and wait. By contrast, a machine never gets tired, and you will give out before it does, hence the Stakhanovite working hours of the early Industrial Revolution (only ameliorated by brutal strikes where workers often sacrificed their lives in a hail of government-sponsored gunfire).

But in case you haven’t noticed, not a lot of people are working in factories anymore. Yet, bizarrely, the entire structure of society is designed as if we do! We all get into our cars and head to work at the exact same time every day (causing epic traffic jams), and file home at the exact same time (causing yet another traffic jam). We all work Monday-Friday (with a few exceptions). During that time we’re chained to a desk for eight hours regardless of what we actually accomplish. It doesn’t matter if there’s four hours of work to do or forty – we’re parked there whether we like it or not. But there is no spinning machine, no power loom, no drill press, no drop forger. No machine at all except sometimes a computer which can go anywhere and work anytime

What’s more, the coercive aspect of work has never gone away. It’s just accepted as “normal” even though it’s historically novel. Of course, as social beings embedded in webs of relationships, it’s not like we ever had true absolute freedom (or would even want such a thing if we could have it). But being forced to have work extracted from you for hours upon hours a day, every single day, for our entire life with only a couple of days to ourselves—that was something new and unusual. Employers became a kind of “private government” that dictates every aspect of over a third of your waking life:

In “Private Government,” [Elizabeth] Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system—a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.

Are Bosses Dictators? (The New Yorker)

That similarity between the level of control employers have and the control governments have over convicts and prisoners is echoed by Lewis Mumford in describing the foundation of the factory system (see the previous post on “the minimum of life”):

The quintessence of this minimum of life was achieved in the prison. Indeed, one might without much exaggeration say that housing reform was preceded by prison reform, as John Howard preceded Shaftesbury; and the prisons embodied most of the negative improvements that were introduced for the benefit of free citizens of the non-criminal classes, in the factories and tenements. The factory maintained the coercion of the prison: the enforced silence, the repetitive routine, the lockstep, the constant surveillance of the foreman or jailer: often enough a formidable prison wall  would be around the structure, too; and the new housing quarters, with their closely calculated number of cubic feet of air and square feet of window space, cut off from sight of grass and flowers by the dusty paved courts and the dustier streets, could not have been more adequately designed if the sole object of the building were punishment.

The speculative spread of the industrial town meant the growth and spread of a dreary prison environment. The reward an honest man got for a faithful day’s labor was not measurably different from that which a more erring member of society got as punishment: indeed, the “freedom” of the first was another name for anxiety and insecurity and fearful humiliation. A minimum of life: malnutrition at every level. Mumford; The Culture of Cities, pp. 179-180

You would think this idea would be obvious to everyone. We are bossed around and told what to do almost every moment of the day as a very basic condition of our existence! If you don’t like it, you can go starve or be homeless. And this is portrayed as “freedom.”

In America, this shift occurred somewhat later than in Europe. The transition occurred from 1890 to the 1920’s—only 100 short years ago; an eyeblink in historical time. The handicraft, artisan, and the agrarian household economy all perished and were by-and-large absorbed within large bureaucratic corporations. The traumatic effects are still being felt today. William Grieder describes the change in his mammoth history of the Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple:

By 1900, only four in ten American workers were still on farms. A few decades earlier, the figure had been eight in ten. The economic dimensions of America’s transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, the rapid and dramatic shift of population from rural to urban, were well understood. The emotional transaction was not. It left a deep cultural imprint of contradictory memory and emotion, still visible in popular values, a painful nostalgia for something that was lost and also a sense of liberation from old burdens.

Everything changed, even the language. In the Populist era, when the grassroots speakers appealed to the “producing classes,” they were speaking of farmers and factory workers, individuals who made things with their own hands, the “bone and sinew of the nation” in Andrew Jackson’s rhetoric. In twentieth-century usage, “producers” were no longer people; the term now meant those anonymous corporate enterprises that controlled most output, distinguished from their employees, the “workers.” In 1900, a rural census taker in Pennsylvania innocently listed all of the farmers in his district as “unemployed,” since all of them worked for themselves, not for someone else. p. 287

With loss, however, there was also reward. Millions of American families willingly traded roles in life: they ceased to be the independent yeomanry of American tradition, self-reliant and proud and skillful in the practical arts of self-sufficiency. They became, instead, employees and consumers. They went to work for someone else, usually a corporation, and their labor produced wages—pieces of paper in place of the “real things” of country life. The energies of individual expression, once devoted to daily survival, were diverted instead to consuming—buying things and using them, things made by others in some distant place.

Both new roles—consumer and employee—made people more dependent on the abstractions of the money system than they had been as self-sufficient farmers, producing real goods. Money belonged to the city and its complexities. Country people, as they were drawn closer to the ancient mystery, were uncomfortable confronting money. Money was the everyday symbol of what they had given up. Grieder; Secrets of the Temple, p. 288

It’s no wonder than that right-wing authoritarian movements always invoke a “back to the land” ethos that portrays a nostalgic and  idyllic version of rural life as the thing they hearken back to, and demonize cosmopolitan city-dwellers and their deviant lifestyles as the source of all the nation’s problems. From Maoism, to Hiter’s fascism, to modern European right-wing parties (Poland, Hungary) to Putinism, to Trumpism, it’s been a consistent feature since the rise of the factory system. So, too, is a deep distrust of money and finance (even when the authoritarian leaders themselves are in the metaphorical bed with the bankers and financiers).

The connection between industrial work and slavery was even more illuminated with the coming of the “scientific management” techniques of industrial engineering, with its time and material studies. This article goes into great detail about how the methods of industrial engineering in the twentieth century came directly out of the supervision of slaves in the American South. They were then applied to nominally “free” industrial workers in the industrial North.

In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself…Writing in 1918, historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips acknowledged the parallels between scientific management and slavery. As Daniel Joseph Singal notes, when Phillips described the sophistication of southern management strategies, he liked to reference a series of articles in the Southern Planter by H. W. Vick, whose “analysis of stance and movement” resembled some of the most advanced industrial studies of his own time.

Perhaps Phillips’s own rosy views of slavery enabled him to see these connections. One of the most influential historians of slavery, his work was infused with racial bias. He famously characterized slavery as a kind of “school” for the enslaved, and his descriptions of the interactions between planters and their slaves bear striking similarities to the ways Taylor described the ideal interactions between managers and workers.

In 1911, during the many months of congressional hearings on scientific management, Taylor attempted to distance his system from that of slavery by describing it as a school for workers who did not know how to work: this “is not nigger driving; this is kindness; this is teaching; this is doing what I would like mighty well to have done to me if I were a boy trying to learn how to do something. This is not a case of cracking a whip over a man and saying, ‘Damn you, get there.’”

How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management (Boston Review)

This brutality is still observed daily in the warehouses of Amazon, where the taskmaster is often an algorithm, even more inhuman and impersonal than a slave driver, and not subject to pity.

And this article from the New York Times makes the case that the unique brutality and sociopathy of the American style of Capitalism comes directly out of the slavery system used on the plantations of Dixie. The techniques of the plantation economy—particularly the techniques to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of one’s employees—were applied directly to Northern industrial workers. These techniques then inserted themselves into industrial capitalism more broadly (e.g. office work), which lead to the particularly vicious exploitation and lack of worker rights seen in modern-day America’s brutal version of winner-take-all capitalism (ironically justified in the name of “freedom”):

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.

When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.

Planters aggressively expanded their operations to capitalize on economies of scale inherent to cotton growing, buying more enslaved workers, investing in large gins and presses and experimenting with different seed varieties. To do so, they developed complicated workplace hierarchies that combined a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations. Rosenthal writes of one plantation where the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else, and plantations pumped out not just cotton bales but volumes of data about how each bale was produced. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.

Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points…

The uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations predates industrialism. Northern factories would not begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. As the large slave-labor camps grew increasingly efficient, enslaved black people became America’s first modern workers, their productivity increasing at an astonishing pace. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3 percent a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked not 25 percent or 50 percent as much but 400 percent as much cotton than his or her counterpart did in 1801.

In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation (New York Times)

Today, we’ve completely capitulated to this system; unable to imagine anything beyond it. But it might be helpful to know where and when it started, and how it became the norm we all live under. It might also help to remember that there was once a time when we didn’t all live this way, and that was for most of human history.

The Origin of the Factory 3

Before I move on to the final part, I just want to make a quick point about how the process of industrialization contributed to our overly grim views of the past, especially with regards to cities.

Typically, when you hear discussions about what city life was like the far distant past, here is what you hear:

Super-crowded. Filthy. Stinky. Excrement and garbage piled up in the streets. Water swimming with disease. Narrow streets. Ten people to a room. Dark. Rats everywhere. Nobody bathed.

Basically, people shitting in their own nests. This is especially true with respect to medieval times, according to the stereotypical view.

The irony is, all of these stereotypes actually come from the early Industrial Period! In the medieval period before 1500, the population was much too small and too rural for any of this cartoonish picture to be true. Medieval cities were not hyper-dense or exceptionally filthy. There was not rubbish in the streets. People did not live crowded into dank cellars. Construction techniques forbade buildings over 4-5 stories high in most cases, apart from cathedrals and some government buildings. More to the point, there was simply no logical reason to crowd people together in this manner.

That came much later thanks to industrialization.

In his book The Culture of Cities (1938), Lewis Mumford wrote lyrically about the medieval city and how pleasant it must have been for the inhabitants. He concluded:

In sum: as far as usable open spaces go, the medieval city had as its foundation and through most of its existence a far higher standard for the mass of the population than any later form of town, down the the first romantic suburbs of the nineteenth century. p. 44; (emphasis in the original)

The size limitations on the medieval city, as well as the practical limitations of transporting sufficient food and goods to the medieval city, capped the size at a reasonable number of people. When that was exceeded, new cities were formed rather than engendering urban gigantism or sprawl:

As long as the simple wooden palisade or masonry wall sufficed for military protection, the wall was no real obstacle to town extension. Technically, it was a simple matter to tear down the wall and extend the city’s boundaries once the inner spaces had been filled up. Florence, for example, enlarged her wall circuit for the second time in 1172, and not more than a century later built a third circuit that enclosed a still greater area. This was common practice in the growing towns up to the sixteenth century.

The limitations on the medieval town’s growth were rather of a different nature: limitations of water supply and local produce: limitations by municipal ordinance and by guild regulations which prevented the uncontrolled settlement of outsiders: limitations of transport and communications which were overcome only in the advanced eotechnic* cities that had waterways instead of roadways for traffic, such as Venice.

For practical reasons alone, the limitations of horizontal expansion were speedily reached. In the early centuries of city development, between the eleventh and the fourteenth, as in the seventeenth in New England, the surplus population was cared for by building new cities, sometimes close by, but nevertheless an independent and self-sufficient unit. The medieval city did not break through its walls and stretch over the countryside as an amorphous blob.

At all events, the facts are plain. The typical medieval town ranged in size from three or four hundred, which was frequently the size of a fully privileged municipality in Germany, to forty thousand, which was the size of London in the fourteenth century: the hundred thousand achieved earlier by Paris and Venice was highly exceptional.

Toward the close of the period, Nürnberg, a thriving place, had in 1450 about twenty thousand inhabitants, while Basel had around eight thousand. Even on the fine soils of the lowlands, supported by the technically advanced and capitalistically exploited textile industries, the same thing holds: in 1412 Ypres had only 10,736 inhabitants, and Louvain and Brussels, in the middle of the same century, had between 25,000 and 40,000. As for Germany, town life was concentrated in some 150 large cities, of which the largest did not have more than 35,000 inhabitants.

All these statistics, it is true, date from the century after the Black Death, which in some provinces carried off half the population; but even if one doubles the figures the towns themselves, in terms of modern population massings, were numerically small. In Italy alone, partly because of the early rise of capitalism there, do these figures have to be increased. The phenomena of overcrowding and overbuilding—as well as indefinite suburban expansion—did not come until the capacity for building new cities had, for reasons to be discussed in the next chapter, greatly diminished. pp. 58-60

So the overcrowding and squalid conditions that we associate with cities were not characteristics of the city throughout history. They were characteristic of a very particular period in history: the early modern period when the factories came to Europe. This was then retconned back into the past. Then it gets uncritically repeated until it’s the thing that “everybody knows” is true.

One of the reasons America is so anti-urban in its outlook is that many of its major cities were established during the industrial revolution. In fact, they were established expressly because of the industrial revolution—they were located on canals, waterways, near coal and mineral deposits, etc. Later, the railroads would be the main driver of urban locations as the country spread westward. Thus, all of America’s cities expanded due to industrialization, unlike the great cities of the ancient world. This made them historically unique.

This gave Americans the perception that cities were—indeed, that they had to be—filthy, overcrowded and disease-ridden slums where the air was thick with soot.

But that was a consequence of the city becoming the center of the factory system; before that, cities were fairly livable. After that, they became the hellscapes of critics’ imaginations (“dark Satanic mills”). The enclosure movement dealt the final death blow to the rural way of life, and desperate women and children flooded into the cities to find work. In the early days of the factory system, women and children were actually the most desirable workers from the capitalist perspective—recall that it was women who had done much of the weaving in the home during the days of the putting out system. Women and children could be paid less, and the children’s small stature meant that they could go all sort of places grown men couldn’t get to (plus their tiny bellies required less food).

The thing is, people fled to cities that were nowhere near big enough to accommodate them. They changed too fast!  And this is still true today. Houses don’t just magically spring up in response to people moving to an area; they take a long time to finance and to build, and someone has to pay for them. That someone is not likely to be recent arrivals, who probably have little else besides the shirts on their backs. “The Market” will not solve the housing crisis today any more than it did back then.

This mismatch between cities that were designed for a relatively small number of inhabitants and the nearly-overnight metastization of cities due to the factory system was the cause of so much misery and desperation. Add the filth and soot pouring out of coal-fired power plants thanks to steam power and you’ve got the vision of the city that supposedly existed for all of time but was really a product of the nineteenth century: overcrowding, squalor, inequality, misery, disease, poverty, pollution, and premature death.

Mumford terms this “the insensate industrial town,” and he described it as a vision of urbanity that cared only about production, and not human needs or livability, in contrast to earlier urban forms, such as those of the Middle Ages. In the chapter with that title, he describes what happened when the factory system arrived in Western Europe from the sugar plantations of South America and the West Indies:

In the first stage of the factory system in England, water power was all-important: hence the woolen industry tended to spread through the valleys of Yorkshire, where such power was abundant. Even in the Manchester region the cotton manufacturers were often attracted at first to the open country by cheap land for their huge plants, a docile working population, and easy access to power: so, too, in New England.

It took the better part of a century before all the agents of agglomeration were developed in equal degree: before the advantages offered industry in the towns counterbalanced the lure of independent organization in separate factory villages, sufficient to make the former the prevailing mode. Once these agents played into each other’s hands, the attractive power of the city became irresistible; and the cities came to absorb an ever larger share of the natural increase in population.

By the end of the eighteenth century most of the necessary conditions were satisfied in London, Paris and Berin: hence the ability to pile people into these throbbing centers was limited now only by the human tolerance for an obnoxious environment.

Unfortunately, on this score, human being show qualities that remarkable resemble those of the pig: give a swine a clean sty on hard ground with plenty of sunlight, and they will keep it remarkable clean: pit them in the midst of muck and putrescence underground, and they will accommodate themselves to these conditions. When starvation and homelessness are the alternatives, there is apparently no horror to which defeated men and women will not adapt themselves and endure.

Apart from the incentive of profit, industry itself, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, became an active factor in urban agglomeration. Eotechnic* industry has, in the nature of things, been decentralized: wind power and water power caused its spread along the coast lines and rapid-flowing rivers; the unit of production was necessarily limited in size, and only in a minor degree was there any advantage in the concentration of a single industry or plant. Despite occasional large munitions factories and textile plants, the small workshop was the typical unit.

The use of Watt’s steam engine as a prime mover in the seventeen-eighties changed all this. Steam worked most efficiently in big concentrated unit, with the parts of the plant no more than a quarter of a mile from the power-center: every spinning machine or loom had to tap power form the belts and shafts worked by the central steam engine. The more units within a given area, the more efficient was the source of power: hence the tendency toward gigantism in textile factories, which covered a large area and were usually five stories high.

Big factories, such as those developed in Manchester from the eighteen-twenties onward—repeated it in New Bedford and Fall River—could utilize the latest instruments of power production, whereas the smaller factories were at a technical disadvantage. A single factory might employ two hundred and fifty hands. A dozen such factories, with all the necessary instruments and services, were already the nucleus of a considerable town. p. 158

This is why population became so concentrated. But we weren’t ready for it. Cities hadn’t been designed just to shove in the maximum amount of people in a tight space, as we saw from Mumford’s description of the human-scaled medieval city, above. The infrastructure simply wasn’t there.

And, as Mumford notes, once the railroads were added to the mix, this further increased the concentration of the county’s population in a few urban centers, mainly in lowlands where coal could be easily shipped. This also explains why no industrial cities are found in Europe’s mountainous regions, which remained fairly pristine:

If the steam factory, producing for the world market, was the first factor that tended to increase the area of urban congestion, the new railroad transportation system, after 1830, greatly abetted it. Power was concentrated in the coal fields. Where coal could be mined or stored or obtained by cheap means of transportation, industry could produce regularly throughout the year without stoppages through seasonal failure of power. In a business system based upon time-contracts and time-payments, this regularity was highly important.

Coal and iron exercised a gravitational pull on many subsidiary and accessory industries: first by means of the canal, and after 1830, through the new railroads. A direct connection with the mining areas was a prime condition of urban concentration: to this day the chief commodity carried by railroads is coal for heat and power.

The dirt roads, the sail power, the horse-power of the eotechnic* transportation system had favored a dispersal or population: within the region, there were many points of dual advantage. But the relative weakness of the steam locomotive, which could not easily climb a grade steeper than two feet in a hundred, tended to concentrate the new industrial centers on the coalbeds and in the connecting valleys: the Lille district in France, the Meresburg and Ruhr districts in Germany, the Black Country of England, the Allegheny-Great Lakes region and the Eastern Coastal Plain region in the United States. p. 159

Thus, industrialization was the driver of urban gigantism. And everything in the new industrial town was subordinate to production and profit. In a sense, the entire city became a plantation writ large:

The factory became the nucleus of the new urban organism. Every other detail of life was subordinate to it. Even the utilities, such as the water supply and the minimum of governmental buildings that were necessary for a town’s existence often, if they had not been built by an earlier generation, entered belatedly: an afterthought. It was not merely art and religion that were treated by the utilitarian as mere embellishments: intelligent administration was in the same category. p. 161

The overcrowded, dirty, filthy city teeming with paupers happened during this era, not before. The next hundred years were a reaction to this state of affairs. And it was not the “natural” working of capitalism that ameliorated such conditions, it was aggressive pushback from the ground up, even to the point of workers risking their lives. Mumford notes of these conditions:

In both the old and the new quarters a pitch of foulness and filth was reached that the lowest serf’s cottage scarcely achieved in medieval Europe. It is almost impossible to enumerate objectively the bare details of this housing without being suspected of perverse exaggeration. But those who speak glibly of urban improvements during this period, or of the alleged rise in the standards of living, fight shy of the actual facts: they generously impute to the town as a whole benefits which only the more favored middle class minority enjoyed; and they read into the original conditions those improvements which three generations of active legislation and massive sanitary engineering have finally brought about. pp. 164-165

After describing the horrors of the industrial town in painstaking detail, and backed up by numerous facts and figures (which I encourage everyone to read), Mumford concludes:

Considering this new urban area on its lowest physical terms, without reference to its social facilities or its culture, it is plain that never before in recorded history had such vast masses of people lived in such a savagely deteriorated environment. The galley slaves of the Orient, the wretched prisoners in the Athenian silver mines, the depressed proletariat in the insulae of Rome—these classes had known, no doubt, a similar foulness; but never before had it so universally been accepted as normal—normal and inevitable.

The point becomes all the more appalling when one realizes, not only the absolute unfitness of this environment for human life, but its extraordinary quantitative multiplication. In 1850 there were but six towns with over one hundred thousand population in the United States, and but five in Germany. By 1900 there were thirty-six such places in the United States and thirty-three in Germany. (pp. 197-198)

This horror was then retconned onto the past in order that people forget what life in cities was once like.

Today, of course, “dirty” industries have mostly been outsourced to developing countries with lax environmental laws and dirt-cheap labor. Much of that labor comes from the exact same source as it did in the 1800s in Europe and America—farmers displaced from their rural land and thrown onto their own devices to make a living. This allows us to wash our hands of the whole situation.

And, remarkably, this is touted by Neoliberals as the main evidence for progress! Neoliberals have enthusiastically praised sweatshop labor:

The Reason Sweatshops are Good for the Poor (Reason Magazine)

[Steven] Pinker uses an argument that is frequently used to defend sweatshop labor: “The appropriate standard in considering the plight of the poor in industrializing countries is the set of alternatives available to them and when they live,” he writes. This is what gets you articles like “the feminist side of sweatshops” and Nick Kristof’s defense of sweatshops as a “dream,” because “in the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.” If working in a sweatshop is better than the presently-existing alternatives in a given place, then it is Good.

But that’s not true: The women who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory may have taken the best jobs they could get, but that doesn’t mean their working conditions weren’t outrageous. Sweatshops are bad because there is no reason the world has to have sweatshops in it. Adding strong labor protections to trade agreements is a perfectly feasible thing, it’s just that hardly anybody with political or economic power cares much about the rights and well-being of people in other countries.

The World’s Most Annoying Man (Current Affairs)

Nathan Robinson is echoed by Lewis Mumford:

Perhaps here we have a key to the essential human achievement of the new urban culture: it worked out a minimum of life. There have been periods in the past that exhibited greater animal ferocity, gashing or burning the flesh of people who had sinned against the prevailing moral code or theological beliefs. But the nineteenth century, smugly conscious of its new humanitarian principles, converted such outright brutalities into a slow quiet process of attrition and inanation. A minimum of schooling: a minimum of rest: a minimum of cleanliness: a minimum of shelter. A gray pall of negative virtue hung over the urban improvements of the period, and it highest boast was the expansion of these minimum conditions and these negative gains…

In the routine of Coketown’s life, what respite existed from the monotony of subdivided occupation: from the warped, one-sided attempt to drive human energies into a single channel: mechanical production: financial gain? after his weekly spree into the tavern or the brothel, the worker returned to the factory or mine more cheated, more defeated, more empty of life, than ever. pp. 179-180

We, today, are all the children of this warped environment. We just think it’s normal.

In fact, industrialization always requires concentrated violence (direct or indirect) and centralized state action to clear the peasantry from the land; there is nothing “voluntary” about it, as this post from Branko Milanovic shows. He notes that historically in places where the peasantry was not forcibly  removed from their ancestral lands, they did not voluntarily form an industrial proletariat. These countries did not industrialize as rapidly, indicating that moving to the factories in overcrowded cities was not done by “choice” (emphasis mine):

In a society where 90 percent of the population lives in the countryside and all farmers cultivate their own (small) landholding, and there is no landlessness, how do you industrialize?

All the contemporary evidence points to the fact that peasants were not at all keen to move to cities and work for a wage. Since there was no landlessness very few people were pushed by poverty to look for city jobs. Political parties which strongly (and understandably) represented peasantry further limited mobility of labor by guaranteeing homestead (3.5 ha of land, house, cattle and the implements) which could not be alienated, neither in the case of default on the loan nor in the case of overdue taxes.

This situation was very typical for the late industrializers in South-East Europe. Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia were all overwhelmingly agricultural with small peasant landholdings and no landlessness. All displayed slow or arrested capitalist development and half-hearted urbanization. The reason was simple: farmers had no incentive to move from being self-employed to being hired labor. And who would prefer to switch from being one’s own boss and dependent perhaps only on the elements to become a hired hand, working six days a week all year round, in “satanic mills”?

The issue is noted by Francis Fukuyama (among others) in “Political Order and Political Decay”. He explains slow industrial development in Greece (and he could have readily added Serbia and Bulgaria) by political clientelism which in his views stemmed from premature democratization, that is, before programmatic and not clientilistic political parties could be formed. But he fails to see the economic origin of the problem: lack of incentive to move to cities.

The question is, how do you industrialize under such conditions? Reluctance of peasants, whenever they had their own land, to become industrial workers has been discussed (Gerschenkron, Polanyi). In England they had to be literally chased from land through enclosures; in France, the process was much more overdrawn and took a century; in Germany, Poland and Hungary, large estates owned by nobility and consequent landlessness did the job. In Russia, it was bloody and occurred through forced collectivization…

The process whereby agricultural economies industrialized was wrenching. The displacement and unhappiness of the population dragged into industrial centers through either empty stomachs or outright terror was incomparable in its human costs to today’s similar transfer of labor from manufacturing to services (or to unemployment). The transformation in the underlying economic structure is never easy but it seems to me that the one from the fresh air and freedom of own farm to being a cog in a huge soiled machine of industrialization was the most painful.

The plight of late industrializers: what if peasants do not want to move to cities? (globalinequality)

While it may be the case that today’s transfer “from manufacturing to services (or unemployment)” may not be as wrenching as the original extermination of the old peasantry according to Milanovic, it is almost as assuredly leading to another age of mass die-off.

But I guess according to Neoliberals’ omelette ethics, that’s just the price of progress.

Next time we’ll look at the fact that the factory system never went away (even if manufacturing did) and how we all work under its dictates.

* The term eotechnic comes from Mumford’s division of technological society into three historical phases in his previous book, Technics and Society (1934):

Looking back over the last thousand years, one can divide the development of the machine and the machine civilization into three successive but over-lapping and interpenetrating phases: eotechnic, paleotechnic, neotechnic…While each of these phases roughly represents a period of human history, it is characterized even more significantly by the fact that it forms a technological complex…Speaking in terms of power and characteristic materials, the eotechnic phase is a water-and-wood-complex: the paleotechnic phase is a coal-and-iron complex, and the neotechnic phase is an electricity-and-alloy complex. (pp. 109-110; emphasis in original)