politics


I used to do Traveler’s Guides to the US elections, but I stopped when US politics got even more depressing. However, the rise of Trump seems to demand some effort, especially since I think it’s widely misinterpreted.

trumpo

A lot of people are outraged over Trump, and for good reason: he’s a bad man. The thing is, they’re outraged for different and in fact completely opposed reasons.  Liberals hate him because he’s a blowhard racist and proto-fascist.  Conservatives hate him because he’s not extreme enough.

Now that Trump has won 10 states and has a large delegate lead, it’s evident that he’s not going away by himself. The Republican establishment is in a tizzy— today Mitt Romney is giving a speech attacking Trump. I see too much of the narrative that Trump is somehow the crazy outlier and that one of the establishment candidates would be more moderate.

This is absurd: the other candidates are even crazier and Trump’s support is greatest among (Republican) moderates. The most dedicated evangelicals, the scrap-the-gummint libertarians, the nuke-em-all neocons, all hate Trump because he is less committed to their orthodoxy than the other candidates. Very conservative and Tea Party voters prefer Cruz.

This doesn’t mean Trump is actually moderate, just a foul-mouthed Bush Sr.  If elected, he would do bad things.  But these are precisely the bad things that any Republican candidate would do, and which he would do because he agrees with the GOP Congressional leadership: pass a huge tax cut for the rich, name a neo-Scalia to the Supreme Court, repeal Obamacare, ignore climate change, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall on the border, reverse gay marriage, restrict abortion, be aggressive abroad, and return to torture.

(Whether he or any GOP president would actually be able to get those things passed is another issue.  The Republicans have 24 Senate seats in contention— won during the 2010 election, which was far friendlier to the GOP. The Democrats only need 5 seats to take control of the Senate.)

When the other candidates criticize him, it’s always from the right. Cruz has called Trump’s immigration policy “amnesty”, and he and Rubio have pledged to immediately deport DREAMers (i.e. children and students). Cruz isn’t just against illegal immigration, but wants to reduce immigration period (hey, who needs a growing economy?).  When Trump stated, accurately, that Bush didn’t keep us safe from terrorism and ignored warnings about Osama, Rubio was outraged and blamed 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Trump has claimed he could produce an Israeli-Palestinian deal, while Cruz and Rubio assert the standard GOP line that it’s impossible to negotiate with the Palestinians. They attacked Trump in the last debate for not being sufficiently callous about universal health care. Both want to reverse the Iran deal, so Iran can go back to developing nukes. For Rubio, austerity budgets and giveaways to the rich are not enough; he wants a balanced budget amendment and to eliminate the estate tax. Both of them have condemned Trump for speaking up for the non-abortion things Planned Parenthood does.

Explaining why they hate Trump, conservatives like Erick Erickson and Rick Wilson accuse him of being pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, and for single payer health. (All calumnies, but it shows what direction they’re attacking from.)

Would Trump get behind Paul Ryan’s budget? He’s less likely to do so than Cruz or Rubio; he’s really not against big government or the middle-class entitlements. Cruz doesn’t just want a tax cut; he wants a 10% flat tax and no IRS.  (I guess the tax would be implemented as a tip jar.)  Would Trump start wars? He’s the one who’s been ragging on Bush for the Iraq War; Cruz has promised to “carpet bomb” the Middle East.

Trump has burned a lot of bridges with GOP leaders, but so has Cruz, to the point that Sen. Lindsay Graham remarked, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” It would have seemed insane a year ago to predict that a GOP candidate would do well by purposely feuding with Fox News— but nobody can say Trump isn’t media-savvy.

So what’s wrong with Trump? In my sf novel, I suggested that it’s less of a problem for a conservative leader to be immoral than to look ridiculous.  Trump is ridiculous.  He’s angry and unfocused, doesn’t bother much with consistency or truth, responds to all disputes with schoolyard insults. He just doesn’t do gravitas.

The GOP establishment hates him partly because he doesn’t care much about GOP orthodoxy, and because they can’t control him. They’re not bothered by his racism— all the GOP cares about is white men anyway.  They just wish he’d learn to express it in more filtered and conventional terms.

For thirty years the GOP has valued, above all else, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, and a non-expanding government— basically, what the rich elite want.  Cultural concerns are thrown on to attract actual non-rich voters, but tossed away when inconvenient— which is why the GOP base always hates the GOP establishment. Though Trump doesn’t leave the conservative church, he is something of a heretic.  He doesn’t care about (all of ) “movement conservativism”; he doesn’t want to drown government in a bathtub; his statements on free trade veer toward protectionism.

The GOP is torn between libertarianism, the religious right, big business, and right-wing populism. Trump is best understood as the voice of the last group. Rather like Bernie Sanders, he resonates with the many white people (the majority, really) who feel left behind by modern plutocracy.  Of course he’s a businessman himself and doesn’t promise to reduce inequality, but he speaks to people’s feelings that they’ve lost something.  Cruz and Rubio have done nothing to connect better with these people, and I don’t think Romney attacking their champion will do any good either.

It’s been a crazy year, but it’s not crazy in the same way as 2012, where the GOP electorate flirted with various not-Romneys and then selected the establishment candidate.  But if they wanted an extreme candidate, they’d’ve gone for Cruz. (And there’s very little air between Cruz and Rubio.)  They wanted a non-establishment candidate— and to the extent Trump differs from the rest of the field, it’s not that he’s crazy, it’s that a) he’s unfiltered, and b) he’s not (quite so) tied to GOP orthodoxy.

What happens now?  A lot depends on whether the GOP falls into line behind Trump or not. The party decided to have an early convention, in July, believing that the bruising 2012 fight didn’t allow enough time for intra-party wounds to heal.  That’s looking like a mistake now: is just four months enough time for Romney and other party elders, to say nothing of the other candidates, to rally enthusiastically at a Trump coronation and focus happily on Hillary?  That’s kind of their job, but (say) Romney’s speech today is going to make excruciating contrast to Romney’s speech at the convention.

(The Plan Z of the establishment, if Trump wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates. seems to be a brokered convention. Hoo boy, does that seem like a poor plan. Trump voters are supposed to fall in line and vote for Mr. Establishment after their man is robbed?  If anything could actually break the party in half, that would do it.)

Edit: Forgot to add that Trump is just an intensification of GOP strategy for the last eight years: rile up the base’s anger, encourage government dysfunction, court white men by opposing every other group, aggressively disregard the facts.  The elite doesn’t like someone doing all this even better than they can.

Also, in the GOP debate last night, the position of the other candidates was that Trump was a dishonest con man who couldn’t be trusted to be president, and that they’d be voting for him in the fall. They really deserve the drubbing they’re getting.

What’s your opinion of [Gregory Mankiw’s] response to Piketty?

—Owen

It’s very weak; it seems like he hasn’t read the book. Even skimming the diagrams would have helped.

First, he says “r < g could be [a problem]. If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate…we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g…” Yet Piketty shows that r < g was true in our world, in the postwar period— precisely the period when there was not an excess of capital; capital was at a historical low. And they were golden years, precisely because r (growth) was so high and so widely shared. (Sadly, one of Piketty’s lessons is that they were also a fluke, not easily repeated.)

Mankiw notes in passing that “the average growth rate of the U.S. economy has been about 3 percent”. Ugh, no. Krugman recently provided a chart of the last 57 years:

us-historical-growth

The average growth is more like 2%— and it’s plummeted in the last few years. Rates over 2% are generally due to high population growth or developmental catching-up; developed nations will be lucky to get 1 to 1.5% in the next century.

Next, he says that a rich person faces three obstacles to passing on his wealth:

  1. he consumes a good deal of his income
  2. his wealth is divided among his descendants
  3. governments tax estates

I don’t have Piketty at hand, but I’m pretty sure he covers all three points.

  1. He shows that capital is dramatically increasing, going back to 19th century levels and showing no signs of stopping.  So consumption does not reduce the accumulation of capital.
  2. Mankiw actually assumes that “the number of descendants doubles every generation”. Seriously, does he not remember that in developed nations population growth is negative?  Or that to have a family you have to have a couple, and thus 2 children do not double the number of wealth-holders but only maintain it? To make an error this gross is a sign of flailing desperately to avoid unwanted truths.
  3. Is Mankiw really unaware that his party is in favor of reducing or eliminating the estate tax?

He proceeds to argue against Piketty’s capital tax, again ignoring that we already have capital taxes (we call them property taxes), as well as Piketty’s argument that an enormous virtue of a tax on wealth would be making wealth visible. Mankiw is pretty sure that great capital is fine, but we can hardly know for sure since capital is so easy to hide.  Before Piketty’s research people mostly focused on income because we actually have data there. Without Piketty would it have been widely realized that there is no country where capital, as opposed to income, is widely distributed in society?  The Nordic countries come close to a fair distribution of income, but they are still highly unequal in the distribution of capital.

Finally he moves on to some moral arguments.  He says “Piketty writes about such inequality as if we all innately share his personal distaste for it.” And at least Mankiw is up front about being in favor of inequality!  He certainly doesn’t have to share Piketty’s morals. But the same can be said for the rest of us about Mankiw’s morals!  Mankiw writes about inequality as if we all innately share his personal enjoyment of it.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with the present state of plutocracy, but, well, he’s certainly in the 10% who gains enormously from it. For the 90% of Americans who don’t, we’ve been watching for 35 years as the gains of productivity no longer lift us up, but go only to the 10%.  Morally, he’s just wrong: it’s immoral to make the lives of the majority of the population crappier.  And intellectually, he’s ignoring Piketty’s carefully accumulated evidence that the situation is getting worse.  Is there really never a point where the rich have accumulated so much that it’s slightly bothersome to Mankiw?

And pragmatically, he’s a shortsighted fool.  Short-changing 90% of the population works only so long as the 10% have a really good story to fool the majority with. Maybe in 2014, when he wrote the paper, he could be satisfied that the Republican con was working.  Surely it’s a little harder to think so in 2016. A huge swath of Republican and Democratic voters are rejecting establishment answers— Trump and Sanders both speak to the people who feel they’ve been left behind by the 10%.  Is Mankiw happy with either a populist-nationalist or a socialist reformation?  And if inequality continues to rise, does he think the popular response won’t get far worse?

 

 

Cartoons are universal… sort of. They often have words in them that need to be translated, and a context, and a cultural tradition. Here’s a cartoon by the French cartoonist Cabu:

cabu

They’re listening to the Marseillaise, with its bloody lyrics: “May impure blood overflow our furrows!” Sarkozy, in the center, pointedly adds “Unemployed and immigrants, you’ve been warned!”

Cabu was murdered by terrorists yesterday, for making cartoons like this.

I find this shocking and insane. I love French comics; I have a page on them. One of the cartoonists on that page is Wolinski… I didn’t have a very high opinion of him, but he was murdered as well, and I feel personally affronted. I had one of his books, and ran into some of the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists back when I was reading Fluide Glacial. Here’s a cartoon from one of the other victims— Charb, the editor:

charb

The guy is saying “I’d hire you, but I don’t like the color of… um, your tie.”

What’s almost as upsetting is the victim blaming I’m seeing in many places. They deplore the shootings, but after all, weren’t the victims being unwise, being offensive, mocking religion, distributing “hate speech”, being racist, upholding the power structure, maybe even being “neo-Nazi”? It’s left-wing gotcha culture at its most unattractive.

Note, many of these same people would be offended if anyone suggested that Trayvon Martin was holding that pack of Skittles in a threatening manner. Generally when people are murdered in cold blood, you don’t second-guess the victim, at least for a few days. Hell, even if the victim was a criminal, he’s dead now, what other punishments do you want to apply?

Neil Gaiman takes a hard line free-speech position: you have to support everyone’s right to produce offensive speech, because if people can silence the kind you dislike, they will inevitably also silence the kind you like. He’s mostly speaking about the law, but let’s be honest: the only reason some people, left or right, can’t use the law to shut down free speech isn’t because they lack the will, but because they lack the votes.

For radicals who think Charlie Hebdo went too far, I’d like to ask two questions.

  • Did Diane DiMassa also go too far with Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist? The title is pretty descriptive, but to refresh your memory, she has scenes where the title character goes out murdering and castrating random men.
  • Did these Muslim satirists also go too far by mocking and satirizing ISIS? Are you really maintaining that everyone, including Muslims, has to pull their punches to avoid offending jihadists?

Here we’re likely to get a lecture about “punching up” vs. “punching down”. Now, on the whole, “don’t punch down” is great advice. Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very clear in all cases who’s up and who’s down. In this particular case, I remind you, the cartoonists were firebombed, then murdered. I think mocking armed thugs is always “punching up”. It took courage for Charlie Hebdo to stand up in the face of very real violence, just as it takes courage for those Muslim writers and comics to stand up to ISIS.

So far I’ve been concerned to defend anyone’s right to free speech, even if we don’t like them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, I’d go much further: these were the good guys. They aren’t racists and neo-Nazis; to say so is profoundly ignorant and hateful.

I chose the cartoons above to help illustrate this. They both poke fun at xenophobes, racists, and right-wingers. Cabu invented the trope of the “beauf”, more or less the French equivalent of Archie Bunker. Wolinski was deeply influenced by the May 1968 movement and was for some time staff cartoonist for the left-wing L’humanité. They loved to make fun of the French right-wing. Don’t be one of those people who get all upset with an Onion article not realizing it’s satire. Some people have defended Charlie Hebdo as “attacking everybody”, but that’s a misrepresentation. They felt that nothing was sacred, but their particular target was always authority figures, particularly reactionary ones.

When it came to caricatures of Muslims, their targets were not Muslims, or Islam, but jihadists— the people who’ve killed thousands of Muslims, the people who bombed their offices, the people who finally murdered them. This collection from Vox should make it clear— e.g. Charb’s cartoon “If Muhammad returned”, showing the Prophet being executed by a jihadist. One of the stories teased on that cover is also relevant: “French Muslims are fed up with Islamism.” Charlie Hebdo was perfectly able to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists.

But weren’t those caricatures ugly and nasty? Yes, like all their cartoons. French humor isn’t American humor. It’s closest to our ’60s underground cartoons (like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton– and DiMassa fits into that line as well), but that element is far more mainstream in France. The Charlie Hebdo style is vicious, dark, deliberately provocative and obscene. And if you’re shocked by it, they’ll double up and do it some more.

To anyone who thinks that art they don’t like must be suppressed… I really wish you’d think about that, in the light of this attack. These people were suppressed. They were shot down with machine guns. Oh, you didn’t want to do it that way, but how did you want to do it?

But but but solidarity with Muslims… yeah, yeah, did you ask any Muslims what they thought? Here’s an interview with an Algerian cartoonist, Ali Dilem.

It’s joking around. There’s nothing nasty about it. It’s not weapons that we’re carrying; we’re not there to do evil. When there were drawings on Muhammad, I was one of those who defended the Danish cartoonists, saying that there’s no need to cut people’s throats because they drew a caricature. There’s things in life that are a little more serious than that. Here [Algeria], there have been massacres, including in editorial offices. In the paper l’Hebdo libéré, people killed the editorial staff in 1994. I knew that they were capable of that, of such an extremity. But to hit cartoonists like Tignous… you can’t hurt someone like Tignous. Cabu, he’s the one who made me want to take up a pencil, who made me dream of being a cartoonist.

He goes on to say that he tries never to enter the premises of his newspaper… for fear of a similar attack. He’s been put in jail for his cartoons.  He knows what dangers he’s risking. But he’s going to go on cartooning.

Some important nuances and caveats:

  • Some reactionaries will blame the attack on all Muslims. They’re idiots, feel free to mock them. Charlie Hebdo would have.
  • It’s not the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to manage global geopolitics. They publish cartoons, for god’s sake. Grave-minded politicians who lecture them to be careful can spend their time far more constructively.
  • I’m by no means saying you can’t criticize artists. Criticism is not silencing, especially where the point is that we want additional viewpoints. Though I think ignorant dismissals of Charlie Hebdo are offensive, there’s a place for an informed critique. And a time, but that time is probably not this week.
  • European societies are not so good at assimilating minorities. (By this I mean that the majorities are messing up, not the minorities.)  They should do better, but Dilem’s advice is on point: cartoonist behavior is very low on the list of things that need to be taken care of.

The pundit pages are pretty boring this week, as they contemplate the big non-news of the GOP midterm victory. This was exactly as predicted, so there’s no tasty pundit juice to be wrung out of it. The Senate seats that were up for grabs were mostly Democratic, many in red states that temporarily swung that way in 2008.

Then there’s the turnout issue, seen in this chart from here, to which I’ve added the 2014 data in a near-seamless fashion:

2014-turnout

For the last half-century, as much as 20% of the electorate stays home during the midterms. This used to not matter much, but as it happens the people who don’t vote as much (especially the young) skew highly Democratic, and the people who vote all the time (especially the old) skew Republican. You can ignore any pundit who makes a big deal of the Message Of The Election without mentioning this huge factor.

I had a frustrating conversation with a friend recently, who expressed discontent with both parties, mostly for doing nothing about the economy. It’s frustrating because it’s a false equivalence. The ongoing recession is GOP policy. At the state level, where they’re mostly in control, they implemented harsh austerity measures: i.e., they fired lots of state workers, making things worse. At the federal level, they tried to do the same thing, and were able to do on on a smaller scale. They have consistently prevented more infrastructure spending or any other stimulus, refused to continue long-term unemployment benefits, opposed Obamacare (a huge boon to entrepreneurs, the unemployed, and the poor). All out of spite because Obama beat them twice.

Oh, but they want to reduce the size of government? Piffle. During the recession in 2002, what did they do? Implement an austerity program? Of course, not, they spent money like it was water, because there was a Republican president.

Oh, but Obama is to blame somehow? What is he supposed to have done? He can’t pass laws. He can’t make Boehner pass legislation. Even Boehner can’t get his party to pass legislation. When one party is committed to pure obstructionism, our system lets them obstruct to their heart’s content, and a large fraction of the press and public will assume that the other side must be at fault. And the GOP will keep doing it, because to them 2010 and 2014 mean THEY ARE WINNARZ.

What happens now? On the macro level, my guess is: not much. The GOP could show that they have a reasonable governing agenda… but any success they’d have would be shared with Obama, so they won’t do that. The safest thing for everyone is to punt to 2016, and I expect there will be a lot of drama but it’ll come down to that.

(Of course, we now have the prospect that the Supreme Court could remove millions of people’s insurance. So maybe something significant will happen: the GOP will get a chance to just fuck over millions of people. How proud they’ll be!)

I don’t write much about politics any more, because a) there are pundits who have the patience to do it much better, and b) it’d mostly be like this: frustration that a radical party is tearing the country apart in a fit of fury.  About all one can do is take a grim amusement from the absurdity of the drama itself.  From that perspective, 2015 should be entertaining– I have a feeling Boehner and McConnell are going to be not-entirely-covertly at war.  Plus, filibusters!

Events in the Ukraine had me wondering about fascism, and I remembered your essay on Bush. I went back to it, and read through nearly all of Neiwert’s essay you linked. It’s interesting to read material a decade on from those events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was a different time.

Both your piece and Neiwert’s extended essay haven’t aged very well, no offense. We know Bush fizzled out as Iraq devolved into genocidal bloodletting and he lost serious alignment with the far right wing before the end of his second term. Frankly, coming from the extreme right background I have, I was never very worried about a Bush dictatorship. I guess my reasoning was something like, all my childhood I’d heard horror stories of how Clinton was going to hold onto office, and now as a much more liberal adult, I couldn’t put any weight to the liberal fears of a similar thing happening with Bush.

Anyway, we know Bush let his hubris and idiocy destroy the right tidal wave. But how do you view the danger of right-wing American fascism today?

It’s been 6 years of increasingly bizarre conservative extremism. It’s been easy to pass off as racists and old people, but Neiwert’s essay in particular has me wondering if this is mistaken. Certainly, it’s hard to downplay the real world successes of the extreme fringe, and the rightward track of the Republican Party is hard to ignore. And the fact that Tea Partiers and militia men are still around suggest to me that this isn’t as fringe as we on the liberal side of things would like to believe.

The question of marginalization is seemingly obvious, but by 2016 there will have been 8 years of contentious Democratic rule, an economy that hasn’t fully recovered, potentially unpopular wars in Syria and Iraq, a devolving (and increasingly fascist) climate in Europe, and the potential for a Clinton candidacy. These are all things which could push the electorate towards the GOP.

Is that GOP more likely to move further along Paxton’s five steps of fascist movements than with Bush? Violence was the missing piece for both you and Neiwert, and that hasn’t exactly changed, but a lot else seemingly has.

—Matthew

I think you’ve put your finger on a paradox: the right has become crazier and crazier, and yet the threat to democracy seems less. There were some worrying moments in 2009— wingnuts fantasizing about military coups or assassinations.  But they turned their attention to winning the House in 2010.

So, the basic answer to why they haven’t turned to violence is that they haven’t needed to. They have the House and a good chance at picking up the Sentate this year. They have 29 Republican state governors, 28 state legislatures, and 5 of 9 Supreme Court justices.   They can’t get everything they want, but they can bust unions, shut down abortion clinics, punish the electorate with austerity measures, stop gun laws, restrict voting rights, and obstruct a liberal agenda in Congress. 

As you say, times change— ten years ago they not only held the whole federal government, but it seemed (to them and to their enemies) as if they might be settling in for a long haul of governing.  But the demographics, and their own zealotry, makes that seem less and less likely. Their message is out of date and they’ve systematically outraged every constituency but straight, old, white, Christian males.  And yet there’s nothing pushing them to change in the short term. I don’t see how they can continue on this path for twenty more years… but they can easily keep going as they are for five or ten years.

I’m not too worried about the other things you mention. I don’t think Obama has any intention of restarting the war in Iraq. European politics never affects the US.  And though a Clinton presidency looked in 2008 like it would be horribly contentious, well, that’s business as usual today. 

But 2016 will be interesting. The GOP generally nominates the most centrist guy they can find— though they hate themselves for doing it. But do they have any non-crazies left?  

Edit: Forgot to add that though the vehemence of the extreme right always seems surprising, actually it’s been that way forever. You can easily recognize the Tea Party and the birthers in Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“.

Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy list changes over time, but the style remains. 

When I hear about libertarians who want to seastead, the jokes, like the sea-waters bursting a wall built by sub-minimum-wage contractors, just flow.  It’s impossible not to think about Rapture.

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Leading the world in waterproof neon tubing

Nonetheless it’s interesting to read Charlie Loyd’s take on the idea. Loyd lived for years on a geographic anomaly– Waldron Island, in the Salish Sea between Washington State and Vancouver. The island has no stores, no public transport to the mainland, and about a hundred residents. So he groks the appeal of isolation (and islands).

At the same time, having actually done it, he’s aware, unlike the Randian isolationists, of just how much he depends on a vast interconnected human community. When you’re the last link in the supply chain– when you have to physically haul your water and groceries and gas out of the boat– you become more aware of what a complex monster it is. Randites don’t realize that they already live in Galt’s Gulch– that they live in a highly artificial island where the people who build and maintain it have been airbrushed out of the picture.  Moving to a physical island would actually decrease their isolation; they’d be confronted by their dependence on a billion other people.

He talks a fair bit about Silicon Valley dudebros, and it makes me wonder if anyone has attempted to correlate political views with code quality. Of course, you can despise people and write good code… indeed, development is an excellent field for people who hate people!  But can you despise community and write good code? I’d suspect that a Randite can only thrive as a lone hacker, or as undisputed tech god. It’s hard to see how a person who doesn’t respect the community can re-use code, or write good check-in comments (or comments designed to help other people at all), or worry about maintainability, or create a user-friendly UI, or write a really flexible API, or even fix bugs filed from outside Dev.  To do all those things well requires empathy– the ability to see things from another point of view, to value other people’s work and time, to realize that not all users of your product are fellow devs.

 

This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.

barter

Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

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