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Review of Justice, by Michael Sandel

2016 December 2
by Ian Welsh
Drone

This is the best single book I’ve ever read on morality: on how we should treat each other, especially at social level.  It’s not a good book because Sandel, himself, has much that’s worth saying (though he tries at the end), it is a great book because Sandel is a great teacher of other people’s ideas, able to break them down cleanly, show the logic, and make clear both their problems and their virtues.

Sandel breaks the world’s ethical traditions down into welfare maximization, freedom, and virtue maximization, with a section trailing afterwards dealing with questions of loyalty and particularity.  As with all the books I review, I can’t do this full justice, and I urge you to read it yourself, but I’ll sketch out the basics.

Sandel starts with Utilitarianism: the principle of the most good for the most people.  Utilitarianism is a pared down system: pleasure is good; pain is bad.  We should maximize pleasure, and minimize pain, and nobody’s pain or pleasure is worth more than anyone else’s.

The obvious problem with Utilitarianism is that, in its pure form, it suggests that if a minority needs to suffer so that a majority may know pleasure, that’s acceptable.  The most good for the most people even demands it.  If I have to kill Fred, even if Fred is innocent, to save 2 other people’s lives, I do it. If I have to sacrifice an old man’s life to save a young man’s life, I do so. I do so even if they don’t consent.

Utilitarianism shares a problem with freedom traditions, as well, in that maximization of pleasure doesn’t necessarily discriminate between pleasures.  We want to be able to say that taking pleasure from the pain of others is bad: Sandel uses the example of a football player who kept dogs and made them fight himself.  The football player took pleasure in this, as a society we certainly allow animals to be mistreated (no, no, don’t pretend), so what, exactly is the problem?

We simply don’t all agree on what is good: we don’t even agree that all pleasure is good. Most people would say sadism is bad; others would say it’s ok if the victim consents; and others would say that self-harm is bad and should be discouraged or forbidden. Even if that includes drinking a lot of pop (definitely self-harm, if not as immediate as suicide.)

This leads to libertarianism, which Sandel uses as his overaching term for the idea that individual freedom is what matters most. So long as what someone is doing harms only them, it is no one else’s business AND society has no business choosing between people.  If making 10 people better off requires hurting one person, we have no right to do that if that person  isn’t actively harming them.

This isn’t an abstract question, it goes to the heart of things like taxation.  It strikes to the question of, if a bunch of people are starving, do we have the right to take extra food away from people who aren’t starving if they don’t consent.  It is as the heart of all the libertarians who scream “taxation is theft.”

There’s a deep vein of truth to liberty: “mind your own business” that cannot be denied.  The idea that no matter how much someone else thinks they know best, damn it, they should bugger off and leave us alone.  Liberty is the wellspring of individual rights, of minority rights, of “just because  the majority or the stronger wants it and thinks it is good, doesn’t mean it’s right.”

But—humans do not live alone, they live in societies, and what they do affects each other.  In fact, that you have extra food may be why those starving do not have enough (in every famine, there is enough food if there was no hoarding.)  That the law benefits the rich far more than it does the poor may well be why the rich tend to stay rich and the poor tend to stay poor.  The rules of the game, which give you your stuff, may not be fair, and if they are not fair, what right do you have to say “fuck you Jack, this is mine?”

Even more, your health and your happiness effects everyone else.  If you get sick, unless society is willing to let you suffer, everyone pays for it. (This is at the heart of libertarian objections to universal health care: you can do whatever you want, but no one else should be forced to fix your problems.)  If you have a disease, you may spread it. If you are unhappy, you will make those around you unhappy.  And while society could just let people suffer, not only is their misery often not their fault, it feels wrong to most humans.

Which brings us to Kant, who rested his defense of human rights not in the idea that we own ourselves, and no one has a right to do anything to us, but in the idea that humans are rational beings worthy of being treated with dignity.

Kant doesn’t like the idea that everything is worthy.  A libertarian, similar to a utiltarian, will say that what one person likes is their business.  Kant doesn’t see it that way. If you are not acting in a way that everyone could act without negative consequences, and if you are not acting in a way that is rational, then you are not acting morally.

Your personal preferences are a mess: they are contingent on your specific body, your specific culture, your specific time.  They cannot be universal, and they cannot be rational except in ends-means terms (if you want A, do B to get it.)  They can only be worth of respect if they are universal: usable by everyone in all times and places without negative effects.

Furthermore to act on your contingent wants and desires is to be a slave to them, not to be free.  You love America because you were born in America: that’s not rational. You follow a religion because your parents did, that’s not rational.  You love sugar because your body craves it, even though it’s bad for you. That’s not rational. It’s also not freedom.

For Kant, to be free and to be just, one must act in a way that if everyone acting in accordance with your morals, the world would work well.  If your actions cannot scale to everyone without bad consequences, they are not moral.

This is a hard, hard philosophy to follow, demanding a great deal of practitioner.  And Kant never says what those rules, that morality would be, beyond a couple of suggestions like “don’t lie.”

Which leads us to John Rawls.  Rawls famous thought experiment was as follows: imagine you are creating the rules of a society without knowing your place in it.

This is reason shorn of interest. You don’t know if you’ll be male or female; black or white; born in Africa or America; in a strong body or weak; smart or stupid and so on.

Rawls believes that not knowing where you’ll be in society, or even what body you’ll have, and with how well one does being determined, in essence, entirely by genetics and position (aka. who your parents are and genetic roulette of their DNA) people will choose a society where those who don’t do well are well taken care of, one with some inequality, but not a great deal. Inequality will be justified only it makes everyone better off: if it is necessary to pay people more or treat them better to have enough doctors, do so, but otherwise, don’t.

Better treatment for Rawls, is only justified if it makes everyone better off.  This is similar to the justification for inequality in libertarianism, but not identical.  Libertarians believe that “value creators” deserve all of the value they create: Rawls thinks they should only get enough to be willing to do what they do.

Rawls contract will include rights, he expects, as well, because you don’t know if you might wind up as a minority. For sure women will be treated equally, because hey, that’s 50% of the population and your odds of being one are high.  So, equality again, or at least a guarantee of rights, because you don’t want to take a chance on grabbing the shitty end of the stick.

Rawls’s contract thus comes out to “utility maximazation, with inequality allowed only the extent it increases overall utility and with everyone taken care of to a minimum acceptable standard with basic rights for everyone, including minorities.”

Rawls contract, he thinks, comes out then to be basically a social liberal democratic state of the post-WWII (or current Norwegian kind), or perhaps to some sort of benevolent autocracy which can be challenged.  Critics find this “convenient”, I leave it up to you to decide if behind the veil of ignorance, it’s the society you would choose.

Having discussed Rawls, Sandel then turns to the specific issue of affirmative action. (Hey, he’s an academic at Harvard.)  To summarize, it comes down to “what is the mission of the university”?  If the mission is social: “to create a better society”, which is, in fact, what the charter of many universities says, then affirmative action makes sense.  If it is to create better people thru education, then exposure to people who aren’t like you is probably valuable and an argument can be made that affirmative action is justified.  If, on the other hand, it is to further educate the brightest: if it is a competition for limited spaces, then affirmative action is not justified. (Again, more subtleties in the book, read it if this gets you hot and bothered).

And semi-finally, we come to virtue ethics, which Sandel identifies with Aristotle.

People should get what they deserve and society should be run to create virtuous people.

This is most visible in competitions and in war: a medal for bravery should go only to those who have shown bravery. The gold medal should go the person who ran the fastest.  The job should go to the person who can do it best.

People should get what they deserve, and by making sure that this so, we encourage people to do what is required to deserve the rewards of virtue.

This isn’t the same as libertarianism’s “kill what you eat”.  Virtues include charity and kindness and so on.  Virtue ethics came out of the polis: the city state.  Citizens were expected to act in the interests of the city as a whole, as well as their own interests.  People wanted to live with other good people: kind, just, charitable, brave and so on.  Virtue ethics says that it is not good to take pleasure in bad things.  If you like lying, treachery, cowardice, the pain of others, and so on, you’re a bad person, and we don’t want a society made up of bad people.

So a well run society is one that encourages virtue, not just by rewarding it, but by fostering it thru the laws and thru education.  Good people make good societies, and contra Kant, there are few rules that cover all circumstances.  People will have to make judgments thru their lives about what the right thing to do, and our best chance that they will make the right choices is that they are virtuous people.

This, of course, means that we should choose as our leaders virtuous people.  (Note that virtue, in this case, includes qualities we would say make one capable, such as being energetic and brave.)  But virtuous leaders, alone, are not enough, the mass of the citizenry must be virtuous as well, or the leaders cannot succeed (and wouldn’t be chosen in the first place.)

This line of thinking has echoes in Machiavelli, who believed that Republics could only be created and maintained with a virtuous public, and in America’s founders, who believed that eventually Americans would become so lacking in virtue that only an autocrat could rule them.

(I myself would say that virtuous men and women should work for the maximum good, while encouraging virtue and safeguarding individual liberty.)

Having run thru these ethical systems, Sandel now comes to his own ideas, to my mind the weakest part of the book.  He notes our very human desire for particularity: for putting ourselves, our friends, our communities, our countries first and he believes that many of these systems do not deal adequately with these needs. Parents do have a duty to put their children first, yes?

I am reminded of a book I read a long time ago, in which an admiral, on finding out his son was in a city he felt he should bomb, bombed it anyway.  “I should be a monster indeed if I were willing to kill the loved ones of others, but not my own.”

I think, perhaps, Sandel would have done well to read more Confucian ethics, which deals with the question of family vs. society in some detail.  We almost all want particularity, we certainly act on it, but our particularity, in caring for ourselves first, our families second, our friends third, our countries fourth and everyone else last (and hey, forget animals), is at the heart of many of our problems.

Judge an ethical system by its fruits, so much as it is actually followed.  We are very aware of the evils of totalizing ideologies, but particularity, in the indifference and tribal warfare it creates, almost certainly has the higher toll of death and suffering.

And yet, you do have to care for your children first.

But, perhaps, not at any cost.

I strongly recommend this book. It will make you think, hard.  And that’s the highest recommendation there is.


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Reagan and George W Bush Changed the World More than Bill Clinton Or Obama

2016 December 1
by Ian Welsh
George W Bush

We have a problem.

Left wingers and centrist technocratic types are enamoured of intelligence. Of being smart.

Smart is all very nice. I am smart.  But smart is not a synonym for effective or competent or wise or, well, most other words. It isn’t even a synonym for clever.

George W Bush, by the time he got to the White House, was not smart.  You listen to him talk, and it’s obvious.  This is not a smart man (he was smart when he was younger, something went wrong.)

George W. Bush had his two terms, and he changed the nature of American government in ways that neither Clinton nor Obama did. Bill Clinton ran Reagan’s economy better.  Reagan was not smart. Reagan changed the nature of American government more than any President since FDR.

Bill Clinton was Reagan’s butt-boy.  Understand that. Internalize it. He ran the neo-liberal economy that Reagan had created, and yes, he ran it better than Reagan, but he was living in Reagan’s world.

Obama ran Bush’s government. He kept deporting people, deported even more than Bush. He ramped up drones. He kept troops in Afghanistan, he attacked Libya, he kept extending the Patriot Act and AUMF. He was operating in a constitutional order set up by Bush, and he never challenged it, not once.

Obama was Bush’s butt-boy.  Understand that, internalize it.

It was famously said of FDR that he had a second class mind and a first class temperament. FDR created a framework for the US that ran, substantially from 1932 to 1970 or 1980.  Even Nixon, who overturned the post WWII order, didn’t overturn the New Deal. Heck, Nixon wanted universal health care.

Every Republican President after FDR and before Reagan, was FDR’s butt-boy.  They ran the country he set up and they did it largely by his rules.

FDR wasn’t stupid, by any means, but he wasn’t as smart as Clinton.  Might not even have been as smart as Obama. But he was far, far more effective.  He got his way, he changed the nature of America and he made it stick with his enemies.

Smart is NOT a synonym for effective.

This is very important to understand when dealing with someone like Trump.

I’m going to pound this issue a bit more, in a bit more detail, but for now, stop underestimating people because they don’t have the sort of smarts you were taught in school matter, and which mostly matter because school selects for them. If you don’t, people like Trump and Bush will keep winning.


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Don’t Underestimate Steven Bannon

2016 December 1
by Ian Welsh
Steve Bannon

First I told you not to underestimate Trump (well, I’ve told you repeatedly), now I’m going to tell you not to underestimate Bannon, his chief strategist, rewarded for supporting him thru everything from Breitbart.  Here’s Bannon:

“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get fucked over. If we deliver we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”

Pretty much.  Now, it was not necessary to gut the American working class to create a middle class in Asia, there were win/win ways to alleviate poverty outside the developed world without fucking working class Europeans and Americans and so on over.  But those ways were not possible under neoliberalism.

That point is important, but irrelevant to what Bannon is saying. The way the world economy was run completely fucked a lot of people in America, the EU, Canada, Australia and elsewhere and Bannon is right that if the Trump White House can deliver for enough people, they get to rule DC and America for 50 years, like the Dems did from 1932 to 1980 (yeah, there were Republicans, they governed as Democrats.)

Bannon’s problem is simple enough: Trump doesn’t really believe. Oh, he doesn’t not believe either, Trump doesn’t have firm beliefs of most any sort, except that Trump is the best and that he wants people to adore and cheer him.  Trump’s picks for the cabinet are the same old, same old—Goldman Sachs for Treasury, etc… and his tax cut program, whether Bannon understands it or not, will undercut any long term prosperity for the working and middle class. If his health secretary gets to end Medicare, that will also be a disaster.

Doing that stuff will deny Bannon his 50 years.

But it won’t deny Trump his 8 years, because all that is really required in the US (or Europe) for what feels sort of like prosperity for a while, is to simply stop insane austerity policies and to use the muscle both areas have to insist on jobs.  You can cut worker’s rights at the same time, and it’ll work for a while.  Hitler wasn’t an economic genius, and he gutted workers rights.  But he did end idiot austerity and most workers were better off for a time.  It’s a wasting strategy, Hitler needed war for his economy, but it works for a time.

In more immediate terms, Bannon, for all he is decried as a racist, is the person you want to win most of the Trump White House fights, at least if you care about ordinary people, because he’s the guy who wants ordinary Americans to do well, and he knows he needs Hispanics and Blacks to get jobs too.  Contrary to what mainstream economists (over 90% of whom, I remind you, did not notice the housing bubble) say, Trump can use tariffs to bring a lot of jobs back.  The manufacturer of iPhones (FoxConn) has already said, sure, they’re willing to build them in the US.  They aren’t going to kiss a market like that goodbye.

But Trump’s tax cutting instincts work against this.  Cutting taxes for corporations isn’t as effective as tariffs, because corporations already pay very low taxes, and multinationals pay damn near none, since they play various jurisdictions off against each other.

Bannon will also need easy money from the Fed, and need to direct that money to where he wants.  Trump will get to replace most Fed governors, fairly soon, so he can certainly have a compliant Federal Reserve.  Bear in mind that the Fed gave away trillions of dollars, and was giving away tens of billions a month for years.  That money is an available slush fund for anyone smart enough to use it to do more than bail out bankers.

Bannon, I suspect, is smart enough.  80 billion a month can buy a lot of jobs if you use it effectively, which Obama’s Fed never did.

So Bannon is a key man in the White House. If you’re a partisan Democrat first and don’t give a fuck about the working class and middle class, especially in flyover country, then Bannon needs to lose his fights, because if he wins them, Trump gets elected again (though, as I note, I don’t think Bannon gets his 50 years, unless he’s far more clever even than he’s so far indicated (not impossible)).

This is going to be a very interesting White House and administration, just because Trump does not have decided views on a lot of issues. Who wins the internal fights will determine the entire course of Trump’s presidency, and may well determine America’s (and the world’s) future for decades.

Place your bets and don’t underestimate these people.


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Maybe It Is Time To Stop Underestimating Trump?

2016 November 30
by Ian Welsh
Donald Trump

I keep seeing people talking about how stupid Trump is.

It is certainly true that Trump is not book-smart.  He probably wouldn’t score well on an IQ test.

But by now, it should be clear, except to functional idiots, that Trump is very good at getting what he wants.

This is a man who shits into a gold toilet.  Who has slept with a succession of models.  Yeah, he’s a sleazy predator, but he gets what he wants.

He won the primary and the election. He won the election spending half as much money as Clinton did. Yes, she won the popular vote total: that’s irrelevant.  He won where he needed to win to get the Presidency.

He played the media like a maestro, getting a ton of coverage, of the subjects he wanted covered when he wanted them covered.

People laugh at him saying he would have won the popular vote too, except for fraud, but that idea is now out there and those who want to believe it have seen it repeated in the press.  Even those outlets who said it wasn’t true repeated it, and Trump’s followers don’t trust the press.

Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, ran his paid advertising and also decided where the campaigns efforts should go.  He fine targeted ads, and he went for places Trump could win with the least money and effort.

Trump says he hires “the best”.  I dunno, but his daughter married someone scarily competent, and Trump had the sense to trust him, take his advice and get out of the way and let him do his job.

Trump just convinced Carrier to keep some manufacturing jobs in the US (by bribing them with tax cuts, it seems).  That sort of high profile personal intervention will be remembered, and has already said to his followers “I’m delivering for you”.

Trump is clearly a very flawed individual, with really questionable morals and ethics, but he isn’t incompetent by any useful definition of the word.  He may well wind up betraying his followers, certainly many of his cabinet picks are of deeply dubious individuals who favor policies which will hurt the working and middle classes.

But that doesn’t make him incompetent, that makes him—a politician and a sleazy, but very good, salesman.

Trump’s opposition will continue getting their asses handed to them if they keep assuming that he’s a boob, or that he can’t take good advice. He’s a very savvy operator, and the people he trusts most, Bannon and Kushner, are extraordinarily competent men who have proved their loyalty.

What Trump doesn’t have is very firm policy opinions, and wonkish centrists and lefties think that makes him stupid, and that that type of stupid is the same thing as incompetent.

Trump stands a decent chance of juicing the economy even as he chops away at is remaining underpinnings through his tax cuts. If he does so, he will be re-elected.

I’d be careful betting against him.


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The Cycle of Civilization And The Twilight of Neoliberalism

2016 November 29
by Ian Welsh
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Many mainstream pundits now admit that the rise of the right wing populism is due to the neglect, over 40 years or so, of many people, leaving them to rot, even as the rich got richer.  Four decades of stagnant wages, soaring housing prices, shitty jobs and so on have left people willing to vote against the status quo, no matter what they’re voting for.

This is all very nice. It is even a good thing.

But the warnings were given for decades too. I very well remember warnings about rising inequality as early as the mid-eighties, and doubtless some were warning sooner and I missed it due to my youth.  And the people making them often said “this is bad because it will lead to the rise of very bad people, like in the 30s.”

Yeah.

Learning after reality hits you in the face with a shovel, repeatedly, is good, but it’s not as good as avoiding getting hit in the face with a shovel.

Of course, the problem is that elites, “pundits”, only got hit in the face with a shovel recently.  The last 40 years may have been a terrible time to be a peon, but they were the best time to be rich, or a retainer of the rich, in modern history. Maybe in all of history.  Yeah, Babylonian Kingdoms and Roman Emperors were richer, but what you could buy with it was limited (though sex, food and the ability to push other people around are the basics, and have always been available.)

So, the people with power saw no reason to stop, because the policies were making them filthy rich and impoverishing people they didn’t know or care about. Heck, impoverishing ordinary people was good, it made services (and servants) cheaper.

For quite some time I pursued a two-prong (worthless) strategy.  I told the people being fucked that they needed to fight back and scare the shit out of the elities or the elites would keep hurting them.  And I told the elites that as much as the peons seemed to be willing to take it and take it, eventually they would rebel.

Neither strategy worked, and even though the peons are now in revolt, they are backing policies which may help them somewhat in the short run, but which will be bad for them in the middle term—at least so far.  (I have some hope that the left will win some in Europe.  Spain’s leftists and Corbyn are the most promising signs so far.)

This is, really, just the normal cycle of history.  There are bad times, and people eventually learn from them, and create good times, and the people who grow up in good times are weak and don’t really believe the bad times can return, so the bad times return, and the bad times make people at least tough and sometimes get them to pull together, and then they create good times.

Sometimes that cycle breaks down, usually because the bad times make people meaner and more desperate and break them down rather than bring them together, and then you get dark ages.  Other times the good times last for a few generations, not completely destroying the virtue of the people and their leaders immediately, for reasons I’ve touched on in the past and will discuss more in the future (you can read Machiavelli in the Discourses if you need a fix now.)

Unfortunately, while this is the normal cycle of history, and is usually yawn-inducing if tragic to those caught in it, we are also at a point where we’ve done so much damage to our ecosystem that we’re in the middle of a great die-off, and we have climate change which, I suspect, now is not just beyond stopping, but which has his the exponential self-reinforcing period of its growth.

On the bright side (sort of) the technology which let us dig this hole gives us a better chance of digging out, but only a chance.

This is where we are at, and the hysterical reaction of many to Trump and to Brexit is a bad sign, because it hasn’t even begun to get really bad yet.  It is going to get so much worse than this that people will look back to the reign of Trump as good times.

This is what we sowed, it is what we are going to reap, and it is what we are going to have to eat. It’s just that simple.

None of this means there is no hope.  Some stuff will work out startlingly well, as was the case with America and FDR in the 30s.  Some stuff will be far worse than any but the most realistic thinkers are willing to contemplate, and in the middle of this it will still be possible for many to be happy, to find love and to live satisfying lives, just as it was during the Great Depression and World War II.

It’s a weird metaphysical question “could this have been stopped” and I’ll leave it aside for now. If we believe in free will, and if we want to have some hope that the future won’t follow the same pattern till we drive ourselves extinct, let us hope that it could have been stopped, not for what it says about the past, but what it says about the future, and about humans.

I’ll write more soon about our current period, best called The Twilight of Neoliberalism. For now, gird your loins. There will be ups and downs, but basically, it’s going to get worse. Find the happiness you can in the middle of it, and don’t let your happiness or well-being rest on geopolitical events you cannot control as an individual.


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Castro’s Legacy

2016 November 26
by Ian Welsh
Fidel Castro

Castro has died at age 90.

Despite squeals the bottom line for Castro is that he made the vast majority of Cubans better off, and even after Soviet aid was cut off, Cuba under Castro was able to recover.  Cuba, like all nations, suppresses some political dissent, but it has a far smaller percentage of people imprisoned than the US, and those prisoners are treated far better than American prisoners.  Human welfare statistics are high, including lifespan, infant mortality, education and so on.

One can qualify Cuba’s success, but it is, overall, a success, especially compared to most Latin and South American countries.

As for Castro himself, he outlived pretty much all his enemies and many of their children, and died in bed.  Can’t ask for much more than that as a revolutionary leader.


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Review of “The Economy of Cities” by Jane Jacobs

2016 November 24
by Ian Welsh

jane-jacobsI read this book in the early nineties, along with its companion, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”. It struck me then as profoundly important and still does today, perhaps more important than “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, the book which Jacobs is better known for and which has become seminal for much of modern urban planning.

Jacobs was an autodidact, and quite willing to challenge the status quo thinking based on her own investigation and research, and the Economy of Cities is perhaps the most striking example of this, with Jacobs starting the book by saying that agriculture was created in cities, not in the country.

Jacobs definition of city is as follows:

A settlement where much new work is added to older work and this new work multiples and diversifies a city’s division of labor OR a settlement where this process has happened in the past.

If a lot of new work is being created, a settlement is a city. If the work is not being added, it is not a city, though there are cities which had this process in the past, in which it has largely stopped.  Appropriately, Jacobs, publishing in 69 spend a lot of time discussing how this process had stopped in Detroit, the results of which are now clear to see.

Jacobs observes that the countries with the most advanced cities have the most advanced agriculture, and that the productivity of agriculture, in modern times and those times we know of, lags the productivity of cities. She uses as an example Denmark, which had backwards agriculture until Copenhagen began developing due to selling to London, and replacing imports by making those imports in London.

Likewise, refrigeration was developed in cities, factories started in cities and moved to the countryside, electricity started in cities and on and on. Industries: work, is created by cities and when it is codified enough to be vertically integrated within a single organization, it is then moved to the countryside.

Given this is the case for new work today, and in recorded history, Jacobs asks, why do we assume it was not true for the invention of agriculture?

Archeologists in Jacobs time didn’t agree, and they don’t agree today, but I’m not sure they were right, snf a lot hinges on that definition: settlements where a lot of new work is being added.

Still, there is some archeological evidence: as my friend Stirling Newberry once pointed out the vast walls of stone age settlements, for example, make no sense as defensive measures: they cover too wide an area for stone age settlements to actually man them.  But, if you’re breeding crops, they make perfect sense: you need your new species to be protected from windblown seeds.

Still, whether Jacobs is right about agriculture in specific is less important than that she is right about what cities are today and on the historical record: places which new work is created.

But—not all cities, not forever.  Like Detroit.  A city starts by exporting something and importing what it needs. It then replaces those imports by making them itself. Jacobs gives many examples, from medieval Europe to Los Angeles after the war.  As it replaces imports, it creates new work and a vast ecosystem of suppliers of services and products. It also frees up money to buy new imports, which, in turn, it can then replace.

Because new work arises on old work, the more work you have in a settlement, the more likely it is for new work to arise.  New work doesn’t arise on the entirety of an old business, though, it arises on part of it. So the bra was the invention of a dressmaker who shut down her dress making business to concentrate on bras, which she had previously made one at a time and given to customers who bought dresses.

A startup business needs suppliers: it needs sources for everything it doesn’t make itself. When Ford, famous for the assembly line, made cars successfully, he did it by buying all the parts from other Detroit businesses and just putting them together. Only later did Ford start making everything internally.  (One of Ford’s suppliers were the Dodge Brothers.)

A new business can’t do everything a business requires: accountancy, sales, making every machine for manufacturing itself. So a city with a wide variety of work makes it possible to add new work.  The cities which are most productive of new work (but not most efficient) are cities like Detroit before the success of the auto industry: full of small businesses, none of which dominate the city.

If one industry or company becomes too successful, they make a city efficient and the small suppliers die off.  Jacob gives as examples Manchester (the heart of early British textile manufacturing), Detroit and Rochester. In all three cases, successful mono-business strangled the prerequisites for new businesses to arise. In the case of Rochester, Kodak was extraordinarily vindictive in stopping anyone from leaving the company and starting a new one.

This leads to an aside, for the modern reader, that one of the reasons for Silicon Valley, famous for its startups, often created by people who just left another company, is that California law makes non-competes illegal. If you want to be “the next Silicon Valley” and you allow non-competes, it isn’t going to happen.

Which comes to the more basic point that people have to be able to start new businesses. Where they can’t, for whatever reasons (water carrying slaves in Rome are one example Jacobs uses) then new work can’t be created.  This strikes at the heart of questions of credit, of centrally planned economies vs. decentralized ones, at the massive loss of regional banks in the United States (large banks are worthless for starting new local businesses, as a rule), and so on, and Jacobs has a long section on credit for new businesses, using as one of her examples, the tech boom in Boston after WWII: in large part the result of a single bank starting up which wound up specializing in funding such businesses.

This summary can’t really do justice to the book, and it’s worth your time to read. Jacobs, in this book, says she felt that America was just beginning to slow down, which proved prescient; and in her next book “Cities and the Wealth of Natons” she declared it had happened. The archeologists may disagree with Jacobs about agriculture, but the economic macro-data is clear: the earliest you can see the US slowdown is about 1968, when she would have been writing the book, and by 1980, when her next book came out, it was clear.

Although Jacobs was writing before the internet and before just in time shipping and near global supply networks, her book is interesting to read in light of these developments: her conditions for creating new work and why cities are required, make it possible to say “can those conditions now be met without living in a city.”

The answer would seem to be “if I can order all the parts and services I need from anywhere in the world, why not?”

But—but, the fact is that the center of world manufacturing is now in a few cities in China. For example, the foremost electronics manufacturing center is Shenzen, and if you want anything made it can be made there, because, well, all the suppliers are there.

So, while the internet and global (fast) supply chains seem to suggest that perhaps cities are not so needed, yet, a few cities still seem to be the places where most of the new work is happening for particular industries.

This book really does need to be read with “Cities and the Wealth of Natons”, it’s really part one of a longer book, which sets up the macro-circumstances under which cities can keep the necessary conditions for growth and also deals, in detail, with the effect of cities on non-city areas.  That book I will review at a later date.


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Marine Le Pen and the problem of nationalist politics in Europe

2016 November 22
Francois Fillon

(This post is by Mandos)

Now that French politics are heating up, and France is increasingly likely to put up a Thatcherite against the Front National in the upcoming presidential elections, folks, particularly non-Europeans, might start to wonder what exactly is wrong with the Front National if the worst sort of neoliberal is representing the system. Fillon embodies the worst of Thatcherism while simultaneously embracing a reactionary cultural politics. That said, it’s still likely that left-wing French voters will hold their nose and vote for him over Marine Le Pen. Americans especially, after they read the differences in what they stand for, may be aghast in incomprehension at this, because on paper, MLP is in many relevant dimensions better than Fillon.

The problem with the FN is not really MLP herself, and relative to their own politicians, even the left-wing ones, American left-wingers will find in MLPs own program lots to like. I find her domestic economic program and objections to the European system to be mostly in the right direction, even if I don’t necessarily agree with her on how to fix the European-level issues.

The actual problem is one of political context. MLP is only the tip of an ultra-nationalist iceberg that has historically sought a confrontation with France’s large Arab Muslim/North African minority whose presence is a direct result of French colonialism. FN supporters wish to direct and control the inner cultural and religious life of the minority community without concomitantly doing anything about the sources of discrimination, etc., provoking counter-reactionary tendencies (e.g., alienated youth joining ISIS or putting on niqabs or whatever) in the minority community, in a cycle of escalation that could make the occasional American race riot seem like a kaffeeklatsch. Even Trumpist America just believes in more reactionary policing.

But aside from that, MLP has successfully and perhaps even genuinely practised a strategy of dédiabolisation, ie, adoption of what would in other circumstances be a mainstream left-wing program and distancing from some of the more virulent elements of her party, including the very public shunning of her own father, the party’s elder statesman and nationalist ideologue.

The danger you run with movements in Europe with left-wing dirigiste economic programs and nationalist cultural politics is that they will find it hard to follow through on the former and be forced to rely on the latter. This is likely what will face an MLP presidency:

  1. The Syriza problem: upon winning power, MLP will be faced with the problem that in order to implement her economic program, she will have to counteract European systems, particularly in the Eurozone. These systems have been tested against Greece, in that they are designed to punish deviants in a manner that maximizes short-term economic damage to the victim while minimizing short-term damage to or even benefiting the countries applying it (i.e. Germany). Even if there is damage done to the Eurozone as a whole by the confrontation, there’s considerable willingness to accept it in the short run to preserve the system in the long run (Americans underestimate this).
  2. The Syriza/Brexit problem: disengagement from Euro systems requires massive technical knowledge and specialized staffing, which both the Greece and the UK have discovered. The problem is, as Greece especially discovered, the people who have this knowledge and ability are almost completely Europeanists and convinced neoliberals. Since the Brexit-UK is still very neoliberal, they may be able to get over this problem eventually, but France will not, if the purpose of leaving the EU or Eurozone is to implement a economic-nationalist policy.
  3. Parliament: The most likely outcome in which MLP wins the presidency is still likely one in which she does not control the Parliament, meaning, she will have a confrontation with Parliament that will likely frustrate her ability to bring any of her economic program at all. This is a problem that Trump likely shares to some extent, even if the Republicans control Congress. In this way, she would be forced to rely on cultural-nationalist politics of her movement, which at the grassroots are still very reactionary.

That is the problem. What the FN says is in many ways less important than how they got there. Many left-wing French have basically no home in French politics, because they know that on winning power, the FN will have to abandon the key elements of its economic program, while using the reactionary parts to stay in power. Think of the FN as somewhere between Syriza and (ironically) the Turkish AKP. My real-life left-wing French acquaintances believe that this condition risks leading very quickly to, effectively, civil war. Even if a crisis of this nature is eventually averted, the outcome would be a re-legitimization of the very systems in Europe alleged to be failing, a confirmation and return to the consensus of Europe.

You can think of all of this, from Greece onwards, as a stress testing of the European system, and despite its economically inhumane outcomes and appearance of further instability, the system is proving resilient to nationalist attack. The loss of the UK is acceptable, as it was never properly integrated, and continental politicians believe that they can inflict sufficient cautionary pain and humiliation on the UK while removing an obstacle to further integration. It could be that Le Pen has the skills to buck the trend. It would be a huge risk.

I am starting to think that their strategy is probably correct relative to their aims (whether their aims are good is another matter, although they genuinely believe they are). Nationalist politics as resistance to neoliberal economic ideology at the European level is certainly not a sure-fire success, and I still agree with Yanis Varoufakis’ approach that requires pan-European solidarity to confront and reform pan-European systems, as difficult as that may sound. And there’s a reason why people in Europe are still afraid of the sort of cultural nationalism that the FN represents.

Trump on his Transition

2016 November 21
by Ian Welsh

Folks on the left really should watch this. It doesn’t sound insane, even if I disagree with parts.  Note that I don’t disagree with parts, for example, killing the TPP trade deal.

And France Moves Hard Right

2016 November 21

Here we go again:

Fillon, who has said he will cut public sector jobs and rein in

Francois Fillon

Francois Fillon

government spending, won 44 percent of votes in Sunday’s first-round of voting for the center-right’s nomination. He faces a second-round vote against another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, who trailed him by 15 percentage points.

Polls had him in third place. He came in first. Maybe pollsters should stop polling till they figure out how they keep getting it wrong. Customers might wish to demand refunds.

Fillon thinks Thatcher is the best thing ever and wants to cut 500,000 government jobs.

A neoliberal’s neoliberal, in other words, who is also socially conservative.

Assuming he wins the nomination, he will likely wind up head-to-head against the neo-fascist LaPen.

Here’s how that works.

If Fillon wins, his policies will hurt the French so much that LaPen will likely win the next election.

If LaPen wins, well, LaPen wins.

The left is not a factor because Hollande has betrayed everything they stand for and alienated the left wing base completely.

Frankly, France should leave the Euro at the very least and quite possibly the EU. They are not winning from it any more.  Since only LaPen will say that, since the left continues to insist on irrelevance to real problems, LaPen is the future, whether Fillon wins this time or not.

This is the twilight of neoliberalism. As I have said for many years, what follows will be an age of war and revolution. This is where neoliberal policies inevitably led, and we are now on the leading edge of the new era.

There will be a chance to do the correct, kind things starting in 4 to 8 years when the weight of demographics favors young people enough. In the meantime, the old will simply have to age out of politics.


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