Shifting the Overton Window

“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
–Arthur Schopenhauer

When I started this blog way way back in 2011 (whoa, has it been that long‽), one of the first things I wrote about was a series of lengthy posts about automation: What Are People Good For? I returned to that topic frequently over the years, although not so much lately. For instance, here’s an oldie from 2011: Job Myths & Realities. Here’s another: The New York Times Discovers the Jobless Future.

So, here in 2019, it’s surreal to see everything I said back then going mainstream. At least that’s what I think when I listen to independent presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has been saying pretty much everything I said back then.

Here’s one from 2016: Automation and the Future of Work: It’s Already Happened. I discussed the effect on the African-American community with Automation and the Future of Work: Black Lives Matter

Now, I don’t agree with everything he’s saying about solutions. I have certain problems with UBI, and I have different ideas about the best solutions, but that’s a topic for another post. However, it is nice to hear someone talking about these problems rather than the usual “let them eat training.” Until now, elites have stubbornly stuck to the idea that the deindustrialization worked out great for everyone, and resisted any idea that vast swaths of America have been reduced to third-world living standards outside of a handful of elite citadels and gated suburbs. The anger in the Midwest and the Heartland came as a shock to the Neoliberal cloistered class when that anger led to throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of collective governance by knowingly electing an incompetent proto-Facist grifter for president. “How could this happen?” the elites wondered? They must just all be racists.

I’ve been listening to an old interview between Yang and Ezra Klein. Klein is the poster child for the kind of coastal-dwelling hyperprivileged credential-class elite that lives in a permanent bubble. I get the feeling he’s never even been to flyover country, and would probably be more at home in downtown Kuala Lumpur than he would be in my location in Milwaukee. I’m sure Midwesterners would be as exotic to him as the headhunting highlanders of New Guinea. In the interview with Yang, he rolls out every trope in the book to deny that there’s any sort of problem with jobs or automation, including the hoary old, “we all used to be farmers, and now look at us!” trope. Get better journalists.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver also did a terrible job, rolling out the typical lazy-thinking and specious arguments against the impact of automation and deindustrialization. Sometimes YouTube comments are intelligent:

For a much better discussion, here’s a clip from the Sam Harris interview (YouTube)

I also wrote way back then about how meritocracy is a sham: Thoughts on Meritocracy. People may have thought I was harsh or talking out of my ass back then, but with the recent college admissions scandal (“Varsity Blues”), I don’t think people are as sold on the idea of meritocracy anymore. Once again, the emperor has no clothes. I think the reason that this incident worried the powers that be is that it strikes directly at the myths that are used to justify the obscene inequalities we see today.

The other “outside” topic I’ve written about over the years has been what’s often referred to as Modern Monetary Theory, or Functional Finance. Well, that used to be way out there. But now it’s mainstream enough now to engender attacks from the press. One was via Paul Krugman at the New York Times, and another from the Socialist magazine Jacobin.

Economists who have developed the MMT paradigm, especially Stephanie Kelton, Randall Wray and Pavlina Tchernva, have responded vigorously. One again, wherever you fall on this topic, I think we can agree that this debate is finally . Tcherneva responded to the attack on MMT by Doug Henwood with a piece of her own for Jacobin: MMT Is Already Helping. Incidentally, much of my writing on economic history has been informed and inspired directly by their publications.

I can’t keep track of all of these, but interfluidity has a good roundup of the MMT Wars: MMT streetfighting

Three levels of controversy over MMT (interfluidity)

Bill Black: MMT Takes Center Stage – and Orthodox Economists Freak (Naked Capitalism)

MMT is Politically Open and Applicable to Both Capitalism and Socialism (Heteconomist)

What’s wrong with MMT? (Medium)

Another fictional characterisation of MMT finishes in total confusion (Billyblog)

I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve tentatively moved into the “violent opposition” phase. And that’s the best news I’ve heard in a while. I don’t often toot my own horn or pat myself on the back (it’s not in my nature), but I hope you’ll permit me a modicum of self-congratulation that the topics that this little blog have dealt with over the years are finally being discussed in mainstream media venues.

EDIT: More good news: apparently Chicago elected six Democratic Socialists to their city council (The Guardian). Kind of ironic that they’re pulling ahead of us here in Milwaukee, where we were run by Socialist Party mayors until 1960.

8 thoughts on “Shifting the Overton Window

  1. I heartily congratulate you and, as a reference to your post on your personal troubles, offer my hope that you put your work into a book. You’ve written so much that has dramatically informed my understanding of the world, work you should be deriving income from. Even if it’s an ebook, even if you just polish up some blog posts and make them available as a pdf through patreon, I’d love to see your make some money and get some attention for your work.

    1. Thank you so much. I’m glad you’ve gotten useful things out of my work.

      I’ve been thinking about that. I may just do that. Although, I’m increasingly convinced that might finally have a true book proposal. I think combining some of the latest neurological research with Julian Jaynes’s’ ideas – which have largely (although not completely) remained dormant since their publication, would make for a great project. I’m finding a lot of stuff in both philosophy and neurobiology (particularly LSD research) that really backs some of his ideas up. The latest series of posts on recursion is part of that effort. It’s a way to combine a lot of the things I write about – anthropology, history, sociology, biology, evolution, etc. in one topic. It is intimidating, though!

  2. You’re just way ahead of the curve. 🙂
    My understanding is that money is created by banks. Does that make banks the de facto government? I’m undecided. If I default on a mortgage I get my house repossessed. What happens if a sovereign government defaults on its loan payments?
    More and more things are getting monetised and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I don’t want to live in a world where one must have money to exist. I suppose the cashless society will solve the problem of street beggars one way or another. Or will they be issued with card machines?

    1. @speedbird

      There are several kinds of money:
      – money created by central bank (government)
      – money created by commercial banks regulated by central bank

      We generally use money created by commercial banks (checking accounts). Commercial banks use money created by the central bank (bank reserves — in dealing with each other (clearing payments —

      A sovereign, currency-issuing government would never need to default on loans denominated in its own currency, since it can always create money as needed to pay off the loan. (If the loan is denominated in another currency, then default is possible and the ramifications would depend upon the legal terms of the loan, political considerations, and other factors.) In the U.S., for example, Congress routinely increases the “debt ceiling” so that the U.S. government can pay off all its obligations.

      If you want a more descriptive account of how all this happens, please see

      1. I think what I mean is, how does a currency-issuing government decide when to take loans and when to create money?

        1. Not sure, but I think it has something to do with the private sector’s desire and willingness to save. After all, that’s what bonds are – places to save money, just like a bank account but paying interest.

          1. I’m slightly concerned that my own government has been strong-armed by the banks into taking more loans than is healthy.

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