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The Right Stuff: What Prosperity Is and Isn’t

2017 October 25
by Ian Welsh

Is a society prosperous when everyone has an abundance of goods, the usual definition of prosperity? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but no time to enjoy them? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you’re sick? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you live in an oppressive society? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods but are desperately unhappy and feel you’ve wasted your life?

This falls flat: more goods don’t necessarily make us better off, nor more services. More foods that make us sick aren’t better. More health care doesn’t mean we’re healthier, it often means we’re sicker. More prisons mean our society is producing more criminals and more crime.

Just increasing economic activity doesn’t make people better off. It doesn’t increase prosperity.

Perhaps the best example is the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture. It would seem self-evident that learning how to grow more food would make us better off. In fact, however, moving from hunting and gathering to agriculture lead to worse lives for most people. People were shorter in most agricultural societies, which indicates worse nutrition. They suffered more from disease and had far more chronic health conditions. Most people also had less free time and didn’t live as long as the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.

Nor was this a short term decline, it lasted for thousands of years. Height is a good measure of nutrition, and we are still not as tall as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Pelvic depth, which measures how easily women give birth has never recovered. Median lifespan was not higher for around 6,000 years. And even after it recovered, it declined again in large parts of the world. Members of the Hellenic world, from 300 BC to 120 AD, had longer lives than westerners before the 20th century.(1)

Our lives can get worse, and stay worse, for hundreds or thousands of years, despite having more goods.

If prosperity means having more stuff, but being sicker and dying sooner, do we want it?


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A better definition of prosperity is about having, not more goods and services, but the right goods and services in the right quantity.

We should want goods and services that make us healthier, happier, smarter, more able to do great works and to live well. Instead of more work, we should want right work, enough work to make the right stuff, but not so much work we have no time for our loved ones, friends and doing the activities we love, whatever those might be. And, as much as possible we should want health instead of medicine and low crime rather than prisons.

All other things being equal more productive capacity is better. The more stuff we can make, in theory, the better off we’ll be. But in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

Part of the problem is due to hierarchies and inequality. Inequality is undeniably bad for us. The more unequal your society is, the lower the median lifespan. The more unequal the society, the sicker, in general. More heart attacks, much more stress. The more unequal, the more crime. These links are robust.

The links run two ways. On the one hand, humans find inequality stressful. The human body, if subject to long term stress, becomes unhealthy and far more likely to be sick. People who feel unequal act less capable than those who feel equal. This is true for the rich and powerful in unequal societies and the poor. Everyone suffers. Though the poor and weak do suffer more, even the rich and powerful would be healthier and live longer in equal societies, most likely simply due to the stress effect.(2)

The second part is distribution, or rather, the question of who gets to decide the distribution. The more unequal a society, the less stuff the poor and middle class have, comparatively. Some technologies tend to lead to more inequality, some tend to lead to more equality. In most hunter-gatherer societies there isn’t enough surplus to support a class of rich powerful people and their servitors, in particular their servitors who enforce the status quo through ideology or violence. With little surplus, there is equality. This doesn’t mean hunter-gatherers live badly, most of them seem to have spent a lot less time producing what they needed than we do, they certainly didn’t work 40 hour weeks, or 60 hour weeks, closer to 20. (3) The rest of the time they could dance, create art, make love, socialize, make music or whatever else they enjoyed.

Agriculture didn’t lead immediately to inequality, the original agricultural societies appear to have been quite equal, probably even more so than the late hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. But increasing surpluses and the need for coordination which arose, especially in hydraulic civilizations (civilizations based around irrigation which is labor intensive and require specialists) led to the rise of inequality. The pharoahs created great monuments, but their subjects did not live nearly as well as hunter-gatherers.

The organization of violence, and the technology behind it is also a factor. It is not an accident that classical Greece had democracy in many cities, nor that it extended only to males who could fight and not women or non-fighting males. It is not an accident that Rome had citizenship classes based on what equipment soldiers could afford: the Equestrian class was named that because they could take a horse to war. It is not an accident that the Swiss Cantons, where men fought in pike formation, were democratic for their time. Nor is it an accident that universal suffrage arose in the age of mass conscription.

When Rome moved away from citizen conscription to a professional army it soon lost its liberty. As we move away from mass armies it is notable that while we haven’t lost the vote, formally, the vote seems to matter less and less as politicians more and more do what they want no matter what the electorate might want.

Power matters for prosperity, the more evenly power is spread, the more likely a society is to be prosperous, for no small factions can engage in policies which are helpful to them, but broadly harmful to everyone else. Likewise widespread demand, absent supply bottlenecks, leads to widespread prosperity as well.

In the current era we have seen a massive increase in CEO and executive pay, this is due to the fact that they have taken power over the primary productive organizations in our society: corporations. The owners of most corporations, if they are not also the managers, are largely powerless against the management. It is not that management is more competent than it was 40 years ago, at least at their ostensible job of enriching shareholders, it is that they are more powerful than they were 40 years ago, compared to shareholders and compared to government.

Because increases in the amount we can create do not automatically translate into either creating what is good for us, or into relatively even distribution of what we create, increases in the amount we can create do not always lead to prosperity, and certainly they do not have to lead to widespread affluence. Productivity in America rose 80.4% from 1973 to 2011, but median real wages rose only 10.2% and median male wages rose 0.1%.(4) This was not the case from 1948 to 1973, when wages rose as fast as productivity.

Increases in productivity, in our ability to make more stuff, only lead to prosperity and affluence if we are both making the right stuff, and we are actually distributing that stuff widely. If a small group of individuals are able to skim off most of the surplus then prosperity does not result and if a society which is prosperous allows an oligarchy, nobility or aristocracy to form, even if such an aristocracy (like our own) pretends it does not exist, society will find its prosperity fading.

Creating goods that hurt people is not prosperity either. At the current time about 40% of all deaths are caused by pollution or malnutrition.(5) If someone you love has died, there is a good chance they died because we make stuff in ways that pollute the environment, or because the stuff we make, like much food, is very bad for us. Being fat is not healthy, and we have an epidemic of obesity. Even when we do not, immediately, die, we suffer from chronic diseases at a rate that would astonish our ancestors. As of the year 2000, for example, approximately 45% of the US population suffered from a chronic disease. 21% had multiple conditions.(6) Some of this is just due to living longer, but much of it is due to the food we eat, the stress our jobs inflict on us, and the pollution we spew into the air, land and water.

We should always remember this. Increases in productive capacity and technological advancement do not always lead to welfare and when they do, they do not have to do so immediately. The industrial revolution certainly did lead to increased human welfare, but if you were of the generations thrown off the land and made to work in the early factories, often 6 1/2 days a week, in horrible conditions, you would not have thought so. You were in virtually every way worse off than before being thrown off the land, and so were your children. A few industrialists and the people around them certainly did very well, but that is not prosperity, nor is it affluence.

Prosperity, in the end, is as much about power and politics as it is about technology and productive ability. The ability to make more does not ensure we are making the right things, or that the people who need them, get them. Productive capacity which is not shared is not prosperity.

Originally Published Jan 31, 2014.


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41 Responses leave one →
  1. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 31, 2014

    In other words; sufficiency/sufficient. You seem to shy from that word. In its very definition are many answers.
    It’s a good word and very deep if one cares to look.
    But, sufficiency has been beaten out of our vocabulary. Your example of hunter/gatherer societies knew sufficiency, as did the indigenous peoples of North America (and most continents). The earliest records of American colonization by the English attest to the massive granaries and seed stashes of the North Eastern and east coast native nations.
    These were, by any definition, very wealthy people who fully understood sufficiency, if not the word.

  2. stirling permalink
    January 31, 2014

    He means more than sufficient

  3. Ian Welsh permalink
    January 31, 2014

    I want abundance

  4. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 31, 2014

    stirling
    January 31, 2014
    He means more than sufficient
    ~~~~~~~~~~~
    Wow, you’re back. Congratulations on your hard work and continued progress.
    And so it begins…
    Sufficient is abundance, when it’s properly understood and implemented.
    You want abundance, and I see that is precisely what is wrong with today’s America (if not the world).
    I wonder how many humans would be happy, healthy and well with sufficient?
    If I misunderstand then please explain your idea/understanding of the difference.
    I see abundance as an extension of greed as opposed to an acceptance of the natural cycle of the life lived.
    I guess, for me, it’s a question of the meaning of our life lived and what it’s importance is.
    I’m wondering if we’re speaking the same language, the same vision, the same hope for the future? After all, isn’t this what it’s all about? The future?
    We haven’t got much of one as far as I can see…

  5. Dan H permalink
    January 31, 2014

    Sufficiency and abundance have both been very warped by our society. I also think self sufficiency is a better term than just sufficiency for what you’re getting at. Without going off into libertarian madness, self sufficiency revolves around molding your own abundance through personal power and responsibility. What has been done to farmers globally is the starkest example I see of the evil of this system. Self sufficiency has been legally regulated out of existence, and enforced financially.

  6. Ian Welsh permalink
    January 31, 2014

    Self-sufficiency is a different matter, and that is something I talk about extensively in the book I’m writing. The more dependent you are, the less power you have, and the more you eventually have to settle for whatever those with power will give you.

  7. hvd permalink
    January 31, 2014

    This, of course, was the consistent theme of Joe Bageant and which he believed was the root of a good deal of right wing anger regarding FDR and the squeezing of self sufficient farmers into a money economy and dependency.

  8. hvd permalink
    January 31, 2014

    I should have added after FDR: and liberalism generally which they believed had the consequence of squeezing self sufficient farmers into a money economy and dependency

  9. S Brennan permalink
    January 31, 2014

    “FDR and liberalism…squeezing self sufficient farmers into a money economy”

    Shucks…and all this time I thought it was, deflation of commodities [low prices for grains, meat & produce], overhanging farm credit, a decade of drought and the resulting dust bowl…instead it was price support policies that helped many keep their farm that made farmers seeth at the government…who knew huh?

  10. January 31, 2014

    Every day I am amazed at what we have become. Cars. We are cars. Great giant critters rolling over the scarred landscape, killing the air, killing the culture, killing hope. The bigger the car, the prettier the car, the faster the car the better. There is not another way to get from here to there.

    No mass transit to be seen. Or when it is built, like in my community, it has no feeder lines. Consequently, the trains are mostly empty as they speed past the cars with only the driver waiting at stop lights.

    Cars are not abundance. Cars are the death of any hope of community. They separate us. We sit in traffic among other citizens and listen to music that numbs us. Cars are small portable living rooms that kept us secure from intimacy. We move from our car to our other living space and sit on a couch to observe the world through the lense of television.

    I have a car. What can I do?

  11. hvd permalink
    February 1, 2014

    S Brennan

    I was not criticizing either FDR or liberalism. However, Bageant felt that the crux of a great deal of right wing anger arises from the belief that they were driven from the eden of self-sufficient farming outside the money economy and into the hell of a money economy (taxes, accounting, the breakdown of the self-sufficient community, etc.) by FDR and liberalism. There is some truth in that view. Which is not to deny the truth or validity of the TVA, farm supports, etc.

    History is often selective. For the folks from the Appalachians who Bageant believed are the source of a lot of right wing sentiment, drought was not much of an issue, but the encroachment of Washington through taxes etc. forcing them into the money economy felt like an attack on their self-sufficient farms and communities. Many of them, he argues, felt that what they got (electricity, public services etc.) were not worth the loss of autonomy. Unfortunately this sentiment which I understand and which is not untrue, is taken advantage of by the likes of the Kochs and the corporatists who want that autonomy entirely for themselves.

    This I think is part of the puzzle that Ian is struggling with and that is at the center of a lot of the discussions here. What are the appropriate trade offs between autonomy (of individuals, of families, of communities, of nations) and interdependence and the benefits of scale? Put another way how do you provide for self-sufficiency and abundance? Particularly in a world where it is easy to take advantage of decent and true enough sentiments. How do you build an ethic and world view that permits decent enough people feeling decent enough thoughts to see their commonality of purpose? It is not the one or the other, my way or the highway.

  12. hvd permalink
    February 1, 2014

    The community that Bageant writes about started out as subsistence farmers (and importantly hunters) living in a subsistence community composed of kith and kin. All obligations and responsibilities in that community are deeply understood and could and would be met through ones own labor (the investment of ones life as it were). They understood that there was a greater sovereign out there to whom they owed only their lives (labor) in a time of national need like war.

    That is the accounting they understood. To the extent things were monetized they were monetized in terms of life expended (favors given, shared experience, perhaps with a little bit of interest (there’s a wide range of meanings for that little word)). But the liberal state (and I mean liberal in the U.S. sense) requires that taxes be paid and that they be paid only in legal tender (greenbacks). You can’t pay in kind. The accumulation of legal tender requires that you no longer live as a subsistence farmer. You must create surplus (beyond your own and your community’s needs) to trade for this “money.” This isn’t something that you understand or agree to, particularly when the “value” of the “money” is decided on elsewhere.
    And even more so when every transaction you are involved in within your community is required to be figured in terms of this “money” so that the surplus can be taxed. This feels profoundly wrong to you. It does to most people. And for the most part you are continuously “ripped off” by the gummint and corporations and “those people” who actually understand money and want to be involved in this creation of surplus.

    I think most of us fit in this category. We just want to expend our lives productively as we see fit without all of this extraneous accounting which we really don’t understand. But this doesn’t create abundance. There is room in this world for folk music and art and other “excess” things. And you may be willing to create a little excess to exchange for things that you can’t produce locally. But then you always end up dealing with folks who assign the value to things because they understand “money” and you don’t. But this does not provide for the abundance that results in the benefits of electricity, good sanitation, etc. It does not provide for the things cities create. The political tension is palpable. The book “Debt, the first 5,000 years” by David Graeber is a good description of all of this.

    Money for most of us is talismanic. We don’t understand it and it represents life expended.

  13. February 2, 2014

    Fantastic discussion – I especially like the highlight of the tension between autonomy and abundance. My first thought is that this tension is a result of the monetized, capitalistic arrangement. The archetypally true communal arrangement would de-commoditize those things which are human needs (food, water, healthcare, shelter, etc.) and be perfectly happy to express their autonomy in other ways (e.g., arts, crafts, special skills that build social capital.)

    As for abundance – in communities like these abundance is a great danger encouraging population growth. Historically it has been handled by basically throwing a huge party and having fun using up the extra stuff (like harvest festivals.)

    Mary Mac, your car rant struck a chord in me.

    I have a car. What can I do?

    Obviously, only you can answer that, but allow me to share my experience, the good and the bad.

    I stopped driving in 1997 (at age 40.) It was pretty smooth at first – I was walking distance from work, and in a community that had groceries and restaurants, etc., also in walking distance. The only “bad” was I stopped being free enough to just drive anywhere – it required more planning and a curtailing of my expectations of what “freedom” means.

    It did get bad. I had to change jobs and ended up with an hour-and-a-half city bus commute each way. Plus you had to shoot for an earlier bus than necessary because sometimes it didn’t come, meaning I was at the office 1/2 hour early most days. So I went from working 8 hours a day to “working” 11 1/2. A “good” from this is that I developed a rather resigned patience.

    And it got worse. When I became unemployed, job searches were a real bear, as you can imagine. Realistically, you couldn’t do more than a couple of interviews a day, and few potential employers are impressed that you will be relying on public transportation in a city that only reluctantly provides it (Phoenix – that hour-and-a-half commute was partially because using a connecting bus is a real crapshoot in this town.)

    But here’s the takeaway – I’ve learned to adjust to the limitations of not having a car like a “normal” American. I’ve removed an enormous expense from my life (besides the obvious car payments and insurance, there is a whole world of contact with authorities that simply went away once I stopped exercising my driving “privileges.” This was surprisingly unburdening.) Another unburdening was the loss of the anguish expressed in your question: “What can I do?” I’m no longer part of that problem, and I look pretty good in the mirror because of it.

    Good luck with your journey.

  14. S Brennan permalink
    February 2, 2014

    It seems the Germans have found a solution to consumerism straight from Milton Friedman’s playbook:

    Tax the the living shit out of consumption;

    All profits to multinational corporations are to remain untaxed;

    And keep in place, taxes on wages…which is not how the 1% of society gets paid for it’s “labor”.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/02/wolf-richter-wonder-german-workers-drag-retail-sales-much-economy.html

  15. erichwwk permalink
    February 3, 2014

    I see it much as hvd does when he emphasis the the liberal state ” requires that taxes be paid and that they be paid only in legal tender (greenbacks). ” Thank you, hvd.

    Any attempt to address social injustice and oppression w/o addressing the issue of how to reform the US debt money and the taxation system works will fail.
    “A HREF=”http://forusa.org/blogs/ethan-vesely-flad/john-swomley-leader-dies-95”> John Swomley’s book “HREF= “http://bit.ly/1fpmuQQ”>”The Politics of Liberation”:

    “The primary problem is not that there are oppressors and the oppressed; it is that there are entrenched systems of oppression that continue to function long after the immediate oppressors die or are killed. Liberation then means the destruction or the transformation of systems such as those that maintain the arms race, imperialism, racism, sexism, and monopoly capitalism. these systems cannot be mad tolerable. They require drastic but nonviolent change. ”

    Liberation politics is a politics NOT relying on achieving a position in government (electoral politics) nor bargaining or compromising with those who hold such position. A politics of liberation is concerned with empowering people, rather than substituting an “enlightened leader” for an oppressor, gaining little of value, and more likely, even setting the movement back.

    The oppressed cannot possibly be “prosperous”.

  16. erichwwk permalink
    February 3, 2014

    Apologies for the faulty HTML code. One more try

    “A HREF=”http://forusa.org/blogs/ethan-vesely-flad/john-swomley-leader-dies-95″> John Swomley’s book “HREF= “http://bit.ly/1fpmuQQ”>”The Politics of Liberation” :

  17. Jordan permalink
    February 4, 2014

    This is good, but do you have resources to expand on what you’ve said.

  18. realitychecker permalink
    October 25, 2017

    Even as a teenager, it was obvious to me that since there are so many humans and a limited amount of resources, it had to be immoral to waste resources or to consume more than I needed.

    Thus, I early developed a personal concept of “enoughness,” and have lived accordingly, creating a small consumption footprint.

    Worked out reasonably well for me, I never felt deprived by having “enough,” but I guess the math was too complicated for most of the rest of the world.

    Enoughness. Pass it on.

  19. realitychecker permalink
    October 25, 2017

    I would also say that Ian is correct that we evolved in environments where we only had to work approximately 4 hours/day to meet our basic needs, and the rest of our time was our own to sleep, play, socialize, and sex.

    I have always thought that all we have done since is substitute various ‘plastic’ rewards for those original natural ones, and have increasingly found those plastic substitutes to be less personally psychologically satisfying than the original natural ones. No surprise there, IMO.

    And now, we are settling for little plastic screens the size of playing cards as the substitute.

    How low can we go? How unsatisfying does it all have to get, before we get it?

  20. Hugh permalink
    October 25, 2017

    In other words, it is not about quantity of stuff but quality of life. Most people given the choice between stuff and leading a meaningful life would choose a meaningful life. And a good chunk of that meaningfulness has to do with building and maintaining a society we can all be proud of.

  21. October 25, 2017

    Live simply, so others may simply live.

    Cliche, but I picked it up back in the hippie days and have never really aquired more than I need. That as product of fifties promiscuous pregnancies and sixties serial Southern California divorce I never really had the opportunity to aquire a great deal is moot in the generally accepted vernacular. It wasn’t all that difficult to reject my parents generations’ aquisitive consumerism.

    Ironically I was mostly raised by my atheist socialist college educated grandparents, and it was they who impressed upon me the improbability of stuffing a camel through the eye of a needle. Had a merchantile out on the Oregon High Cascade with a sign on the wall: In God We Trust, all others pay cash. Proved to be both blessing and curse, that.

  22. nihil obstet permalink
    October 26, 2017

    As I keep repeating, we live in a propaganda state. The primary propaganda is the advertising, which says over and over, “Your life is dull and boring and unsatisfactory. Buy this product or service and you will be better and happier.” Spend an evening in front of commercial tv and see how depressed you feel, and then realize that that’s how many Americans spend most of their evenings. And now, of course, companies can use social media to create the desire to be hip through consumption.

    It’s time for my periodic recommendation of Adam Curtis’ four part documentary The Century of the Self, about how elites chose to create desire as a means of social control. The YouTube linked to has put all four together into one video.

  23. highrpm permalink
    October 27, 2017

    self-reliant. possessing the life skills to pay one’s own way. without resorting to collecting unearned income. (a healthy society might disallow unearned income as it should disallow pit bulls and grizzly bears as pets.)

  24. Steeleweed permalink
    October 27, 2017

    It wasn’t so much FDR per se that gets the blame. Joe Bageant was born into what he called a “labor economy”, a more-or-less self-sufficient community, not all that different from what had been working quite well for several thousand years, as he pointed out.
    His memoir describes – and laments – the forced transition to a “money economy. He blamed the drive to provide labor for WWII combined with Big Ag making subsistence farming untenable via government rules and control of the external market. Rural people have – for good reason – traditionally resented and distrusted ‘city slickers’. That predates Andy Jackson and any elite (determined by money/power but identified by education) was considered the enemy of the ‘working man’ whether that elite wore a GOP or Dem label.

  25. Barry permalink
    October 27, 2017

    “The primary propaganda is the advertising, which says over and over, “Your life is dull and boring and unsatisfactory. Buy this product or service and you will be better and happier.” ”

    To add to this, pay attention to how often advertisements depict your life being made unsatisfactory by your own children, family, home, or people around you and then offering their product as making you happier than other people do.

  26. Herman permalink
    October 27, 2017

    In addition to advertising, social media promotes unrealistic expectations and endless competition between users to see who can come up with the best curated life. This causes more unhappiness and depression as people compare their real lives with the “perfect” curated lives they see on social media.

  27. October 27, 2017

    Pitbulls and grizzly bears are great pets.

  28. realitychecker permalink
    October 28, 2017

    Pit bulls, anyway. 😉

    Interesting week we’ve had.

    I await the headline that tells us that it was actually Hillary who pissed on Obama’s bed in Russia lol.

    How can anybody look to the Dems as the good guys anymore? “Suckers” doesn’t cover it anymore.

    I would like to see all these liars hanging or headless. That would be the stuff that dreams are made of.

  29. Noirette permalink
    October 28, 2017

    The ultimate shame, horror, is that the ‘economy’, that is exchanges that lead to profit as well as oppression and murder in various forms, has become the be-all, end-all of societal organisation.
    —-
    Aka, if no profit in it, forget it. If genocide and carpet bombing lead to ‘profit’, well, so what. A nail-salon that charges too much – wonderful… Exploiting, harming, ripping off others, is the name of the game.
    —-
    No other considerations are of any value, and those who promote ‘alternative paths’ are easily -sometimes rightly- dismissed as cranks, idiots, scammers. Politics is today concerned in first place with ‘the economy’, nothing else (say…) Everything hinges around dollars, pounds and pence, etc.
    —-
    While the ‘profits’ (i.e. the rich getting richer, big corps ruling the roost, corrupt gvmts, the world-MIC, ressource wars, etc.) are dependent on exploitation of the ‘poor’ (workers, servants, slaves, paid officials, etc.) in some measure, and everything should be done to resist that, the no. 1 exploitation is of the environment, fossil fuels, rare metals, water-ways, forests, nature, as the source of big bucks. Depletion looms.

  30. Peter permalink
    October 28, 2017

    @Steele

    I don’t know why Bageant would idealize what he calls the labor economy which for many people meant grinding poverty and nothing to leave their children but a future of being dirt poor. The smallholders in farming could never produce enough surplus to prosper and only those farmers who could grow their business and produce enough surplus could build a good life in the money economy.

    Subsistence farming helped to settle the frontier but it was not a tenable lifestyle once the area was settled and one bad harvest could mean starvation and ruin. There was no logical reason for the government to support this poverty perpetuating lifestyle when more productive farmers could be assisted in growing more needed commodities for market.

    Farming is agrabusiness and 85% of our 14 billion bushel corn harvest is produced by large family owned farms and many of these people trace their history back to the origonal settlers who were able to grow their farm businesses and leave a business for their children to prosper in the money economy.

  31. Willy permalink
    October 28, 2017

    Corn farmers also are tops in government subsidies.

  32. October 28, 2017

    You are mistaken, Peter, fifteen percent of the harvest is from large family owned farmed, not eighty-five percent, which are owned by international indisrial agricultural coroporations who draw greater profit milking the taxpayer for government subsidies than growing corn.

  33. Willy permalink
    October 29, 2017

    Our modern aphorisms need serious tweaking. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is far too vague. “Beware the devil who uses good intentions” is closer to reality. I’m thinking that if those little quotes were more accurate, we’d have fewer lazy fools freely repeating “do gooder” slamming crap instead of doing the work of trying to understand all the details.

    As always, the establishment made full use of farming subsidies originally intended to stabilize that business.

  34. Hugh permalink
    October 29, 2017

    Most corporate farms are corporatized family farms. Corporatization is usually done for tax and estate purposes. About half of farmland is rented out, at least in a big agricultural state like Illinois. Renting gives flexibility and can be cheaper than buying and paying taxes on land.

    A big canard is that low estate taxes are needed to protect family farms and keep them “in the family” across generations. Estate planning turning family farms into corporations or trusts has been used for decades to get around estate taxes, and, even here, the need to apply such methods only applies to larger multi-million dollar farms.

  35. Peter permalink
    October 29, 2017

    @Hugh

    These corporate structures are necessary for many reasons as these farm businesses became large often diversifed operations and needing larger investments. The senior farmer would maintain the largest share of the value of the farm business along with control as a family farm.

    When the senior farmer dies the value of his share of the business would be subject to estate tax before his heirs could take ownership and that could mean breaking up the whole or part of the farm business to pay those taxes. This could open up the farm to sale to investors foreign or domestic and it would no longer be a family farm.

    This happened to a farmer friend of mine who helped his father develop and expand a small acerage into a very productive farm estate. He built a beautiful all solar home for his family on the property but when his father died suddenly the estate tax bill was impossible to pay without selling the farm. He recieved a large check from the housing developer who bought the property but had to leave behind the family farm he worked to build for 40 years.

  36. Peter permalink
    October 30, 2017

    The repeating theme in these posts about the paleolithic being a better time for humans than the neolithic may be beause that earlier time seems to be the perfect expression of communism and equality. It did allow and may even have forced humans to spread acrosss the globe folllowing their animal food sources. This went on for about a hundred thousand years until women developed agriculture probably because they were tired of wandering and draging their children through the wilderness to be eaten by sabertoothed tigers.

    Paleolithic humans were more robust than the civilized people who followed them because of natural selection and diet, the weak and infirm did not survive only the ones who could keep up the wandering survived. There must have been great advantages to a settled agricultural lifestyle because the transition happened quickly in the old world and a few thousand years later in the new world when they developed agriculture. I doubt that many if any people returned to the hunter gatherer lifestyle after the transition even though they continued to hunt and gather.

    The health and stature of humans may have suffered but populations increased dramatically because natural selection was no longer the controlling factor. Humans had begun the process of manipulating our enviornment to fit our needs.

  37. realitychecker permalink
    October 30, 2017

    IIRC, the number of families subject to breaking up family farms due to estate tax demands has been cited as being only between 80 and 100 families.

    IOW, not much tail to wag the dog for allowing all the multi-billionaires to escape the estate tax bite.

    Can anybody confirm or refute that number?

  38. Peter permalink
    October 30, 2017

    @RC

    I don’t know if your numbers are accurate but if they are per-year they certainly add up over time. This problem probably doesn’t resonate with people who have no connection to the land or family businesses but i think it is important to keep local people not absentee landloards operating our farms.

    The billionaire class is another story with their wealth gathered through speculation and rent seeking but even some of them built productive businesses with their families. Most of the wealthiest of this class seem content to give away most of their wealth providing for their heirs futures as custodians of these charities or through other means.

    Are you following the Mueller inditements today? The conspiracy against the US charge seems a bit hyped but Manafort is in big trouble. This is still a snowflake witch-hunt with the inditements not connected to Trump, his people, the election or the Russians just Ukraine and it’s not even recent history. Mueller has nothing showing Trump colluding with the Russians because it never existed in the real world only in the fevered mind of the Red Queen who actually colluded with the Russians on the U1 corrupt deal.

  39. Willy permalink
    October 30, 2017

    Someday they’ll have a contest to come up with a better term than “rent seeking”. Crapitalism? In other news, Amazon continues to open brick and mortar bookstores. (WTF?) Part of the charm may be in directing your very own frenzied fulfillment and sortation worker with the point of a finger.

  40. different clue permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Better term for “rent seeking” ?

    How about “toll-gating”?
    Or “chokepoint extortion”?
    Or some other word that someone else might offer?

  41. Willy permalink
    November 1, 2017

    Those might work. If I’m at a family gathering where half the people present will be Faux News wingnuts, the term “rent seeking” probably won’t resonate. A few may even think it’s some sort of liberal trick, inspired by Satan. At which point I might as well be talking like Gollum.

    I think the definition of rent-seeking is taking in more money than is actually earned, in a truely competitive economy. Like Comcast does with its commercial heavy cable TV and crappy service where there is no other cable provider in the area. Or Mylan with its Epipens. Or my local big city medical clinic which gives out morphine and no ER diagnosis for eleventy thousand dollars. Or fully licenced journeyman plumbers and electricians required by state code to replace a simple garbage disposal. Or Olympic paints replacing an excellent wear stain product with a crapweasel fluid a third as good then blaming the EPA for VOC restrictions, yet ignoring the sum total math of all VOCs over time. Oh crap. I’m going off again.

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