The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Policy

And Here I Had Some Faint Hope for Biden

After the election, Senate minority leader Schumer noted that Biden, using an administrative order, could wipe $50K worth of student debt off every student loan debtor. Coming from someone so senior, this seemed like a serious proposal. It was hard to believe Biden would do something like that (after all, the bankruptcy bill that made discharging student loans in bankruptcy was his baby), BUT he does need a win and Schumer isn’t exactly a radical left-winger.

So I held out some small hope Biden might actually do it; something wide-based which would make a huge difference in people’s lives. Something BIG and GOOD.

But Biden is a means-testing, caviling centrist to his core, apparently unable to even conceive of broad based popular actions:

President-elect Joe Biden affirmed his support for erasing some student debt “immediately.” The provision calls for the federal government to pay off up to $10,000 in private, nonfederal student loans for “economically distressed” borrowers.


This is okayish, and it will help some people, but no one is going to be singing Biden’s praises to the heavens. He was offered an easy win, with party centrist support, and he refused to do it.

It’s good politics, it’s good economics (it frees up a ton of demand), and it’s morally the right thing to do.

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But, and this is important, Biden almost certainly doesn’t believe that. He believes in the sanctity of debts, that the government should knee-break (errr, “enforce”) for private lenders, and that only the most desperate or the richest Americans should get help from the government.

This is how he has acted throughout his career. This is what he thinks is right, and proper, so it is what he is doing. The idea, pushed by many liberals, that he could be pressured to implement or champion left-wing policies once he was elected was always ludicrous. Even more ludicrous were the comparisons with FDR. FDR was already a left-winger when he became President; as governor of New York, he had run the most aggressive relief program in the US.

When FDR said “Make me do it” what he meant was that he already wanted to do it, but needed public pressure and support. It was his way of saying “Make a lot of noise and demands, I want you to.”

Biden doesn’t want to do left wing populism. He never has during his career and he’s not going to change.

Again, that doesn’t mean he won’t be better on some things (Iran, national parks, Covid), just that he’s not going to govern the way progressives want. In Biden’s case, you truly WILL have to make him do things, like gays forced Obama to support them by both donation-striking and getting in his and his wife’s personal space, and making their lives uncomfortable.

Since most progressives aren’t willing to do that (gays remember AIDS and know their rights and power are a matter of life and death), very little will be gotten from Biden that is good. He is going to have a ton of pressure on him from the right, as well, and in his career he has shown much more willingness to give the right what it wants than the left. This, again, is because he actually believes the right is legitimate and that the left isn’t.

It’s going to be a long few years, though, given his frailty, we may wind up talking about President Harris.

Take care of yourselves, and don’t expect big help from the new administration.





Italy has essentially “caved” on its threat to run a high budget deficit and confront the managers of the Eurozone.

The Italian government will trim its deficit target for next year in its latest proposal that seeks to avoid European Union sanctions for violating the bloc’s budget rules, the Ansa news agency reported.

“We have reached agreement on everything,” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said after a lengthy budget meeting in Rome Sunday night. The budget would be “within limits that should please the EU.”

In a previous Brexit thread, the idea that Italy was about to confront and maybe start the process of leaving the Eurozone due to the budget conflict was bruited about. I laid out the main path by which this could occur in a comment:

Right now, the main issue is Italy, and the deciding questions are:

  1. Whether the Five Star/Lega Nord government is really going to escalate the budgetary conflict with the Commission.
  2. Whether, in doing so, they will force the Commission to back down.
  3. Otherwise, whether the resulting conflict will cause them to back down.
  4. If they don’t back down, whether the Greece-like economic consequences will cause them to lose popularity.

The path to an EU breakup is charted with: (1) yes; (2) no; (3) no, and; (4) no. So far we are getting (1), maybe, and (2) no.

Italy has already departed this path at step (1), and with a non-buffoon “clever” right-wing agitator in the driver’s seat like Matteo Salvini.

The Role of Character and Ideology in Prosperity

(First of two collections of important articles published 2014 or earlier. Read the second.)

I want to take readers through some of my previous writing on ideology and character, and how they help form the societies in which we live. Taking the time to read these articles (a short book’s worth), should vastly improve your understanding of the world and the articles to come. It should be worth your time, even if you read the articles when they were previously published, as, at the time, they lacked both context and commentary, and were not collated to be read together so that the connections were obvious.

(I have a lot of new readers, so I’m going to kick this back to the top. These are some of the most important articles I have written–Ian)

Baseline Predictions for the Next 60 Years

While not an article about ideology, the above is an article about where our current ideology and character are going to take us: To the brink of disaster and possibly beyond, while continuing to impoverish and disempower larger and larger segments of the human race. This might be a slightly optimistic piece; there’s some reason to believe our actions in the world’s oceans could destroy the oxygen cycle, and if this is so, events will be much, much worse.

What Is an Ideology and Why Do We Need a New One?

Too many people think ideologies are some airy-fairy nonsense, while they themselves are “pragmatic” men and women operating on common sense and facts. Such people are amongst the greatest of all fools: Our entire society is based on interlocking ideologies; the primary of which are neoliberalism, capitalism, human rights, and socialism. It is not obvious, nor was it obvious to most societies that have ever existed, for example, that food should be distributed based on money, nor that ideas could be property. How we organize things, our particular ideas about markets and their role, and our ideas about who should lead us, are ideological. If we want to change society, we need to be able to control markets so they aren’t producing a world that makes us sick, unhappy, and, in increasing numbers, dead.

How to Create a Viable Ideology

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We may look at current trends and realize that if we don’t reverse them–and reverse them fast–billions will suffer or die; but creating an ideology which can reverse these trends requires us to understand what makes an ideology viable and powerful. An ideology which does not create believers willing to die, and to kill, on its behalf, will lose to those that do. An ideology which cannot prevent people from selling out, from betraying, will definitely lose in the current world, where there is so much money available at the top to simply buy out (for billions) those who create something new, so that anything new can be neutralized into nothing but a monetization scheme.

Our Theory of Human Nature Predicts Our Policies

The ideas of an ideology determine how our society is run, and, of those ideas, none is more important than what we make of human nature.

A Theory of Human Nature Suited to Prosperity and Freedom

If we are trying to create a prosperous, free world, our policies must be based in a theory of human nature that is both true (enough) and which leads to policies that create widespread affluence and human freedom.

Character Is Destiny

Ideology and character are intertwined. Character determines what we do, what we don’t do, and how we do it. The character of large numbers of people determines the destinies of nations and of the world itself. If we want to make the world better (or worse), we must change our own characters. Those who fail to understand how character is created (and changed) will never change the world–except accidentally.

How Everyday Life Creates Our Character

Along with, as noted, our destiny. I always laugh at radicals who want more schooling, because schooling is where people learn to sit down, shut up, give the approved answers, and do what they’re told. Working life, as an adult, continues this process of learned powerlessness and acquiescence, and even in our consumptive and political lives we continue the trend; choosing from the choices offered, rather than producing what we actually need for ourselves.

How Everyday Life Creates Sociopathic Corporate Leaders

Those who lead our corporations control most of our lives, even more so than the government, because they set the terms by which we live, die, and can afford the good things in life. Our daily lives are prescribed by these people, from how we work to what we eat, to what we entertain ourselves with. We need, therefore, to understand the character traits for which our leaders are chosen, and how the process of choosing works. If we can’t learn to create and choose better leaders, we will never have a better world.

The Difference Between Ethics and Morals

If we want an ideology that tells us how to create both a better world and the people with the character to create that world, we must understand what sort of people they should be. To accomplish this, we must first understand how they treat other people–the people they know, and more importantly, the people they don’t.

The Fundamental Feedback Loop for a Better World

The shortest article on this list, this is also one of the most important and speaks directly to how money directs behaviour and how that directs our choice in leaders.

Living in a Rich Society

It’s been so long since parts of the West were truly prosperous that people have forgotten what it’s like, and they’ve forgotten that it creates a different type of person than a scarcity society.

Late 19th and Early 20th Century Intellectual Roots

Lived experience creates character and character feeds into ideology. It’s worth looking at how various themes of the Victorian era were created by those who lived through that time and the time that came before it.

What Confucius Teaches Those Who Want a Better World

Amongst those who have created powerful ideologies, Confucius is in the first rank; Confucianism has been the most important ideology of the most populous and advanced region of the world for most of the last two thousand years–or more. Confucius was very aware of what he was trying to do, had a theory of human nature, and a theory of character. We would be fools not to learn from him.

Concluding Remarks

I hope that those who are interested in creating a better world will read the articles linked above. What I’ve written amounts to a short book, and the ideas are interrelated. If you have read a few of my posts, or even read all of them, but not thought of or read them with each other in mind, you cannot have the full picture of how these ideas work together, and why the different parts are necessary.

Ideas are often destroyed in practice by those who do not understand the reasons for the various pieces of the puzzle and prescriptions. These people feel they can pick and choose without that understanding. Character and ideology and ethics and every day life are all intertwined; you cannot pick one and say,”This is supreme.” They create each other.

Of course, the above is not a complete intellectual package. Large chunks are missing. My next piece will be a review of some key economic articles, specifically concerning why the world is as it is today: Why we lost post-war liberalism, why we have austerity and neoliberalism and so-called free trade. That piece comes after this one because without understanding our own characters, the characters of our leaders, and how ideology works, we cannot understand our current circumstances.

I will then be moving on to new articles that focus on technology, geography, the environment, and their effect on societies though the ages, with an emphasis on those technologies and environments which create prosperity, freedom, and egalitarian cultures and explore why they do so. There is an important trend today, an argument, about changing our technology to improve society, but it will only work if we understand how technology changes society.

Originally published Oct 2, 2014.  Republished July 28, 2015, March 6, 2016 & October 2, 2017.

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Syria and the Cult of the Tough Decision


The chances were always high that regardless of who was elected, Trump or Clinton, there would be some kind of American attack in Syria.  However, the chances were always higher with Trump than Clinton. Yes, you read that right: It was always a lot more likely that Trump would attack Syria than Clinton would. The reason for this is that Clinton took a more hawkish position on Syria before the election. Trump took a right-populist position of focusing on domestic politics and telegraphed a Russia-friendlier course. This more or less convinced me that he was going to attack Syria at some point. Likely, Clinton would have too — but with Trump it was basically inevitable.

Running a complex industrial and military power requires a highly technical bureaucracy. That bureaucracy therefore has an ultimate veto on what is possible to accomplish that is necessarily beyond democracy. That bureaucracy has made it clear that it won’t implement policies by people it doesn’t consider to be “serious.”  The hallmark of seriousness is the ability to make the Tough Decision.


The complaint by the technocratic class against what it denigrates as “populism” is — among other things — that populism is ultimately the rejection of the Tough Decision. Left-wing populism holds that there are a lot of win-win situations where the benefits to (most) stakeholders far outweigh the costs of participation. Right-wing populism does not believe in win-win propositions, but rather that in a win-lose situation it is effortless to identify who should be on the losing side of the equation and to practically shove the loss onto them. Either way, left- and right-wing populism deny the centrality of the Tough Decision in leadership.

Clinton ran as the anti-populist candidate, presenting herself as the one who would preserve an already-great America through her ability to make Tough Decisions that distributed costs in a way that her supporters wouldn’t always like. Trump ran as a right-wing populist, explicitly riding on the feeling that there were designated “winners” who weren’t winning and designated “losers” who weren’t losing, and proposing solutions whereby this state of affairs could be effortlessly corrected. Insofar as he has attempted to make good on this aspect of this program in a public way, the system has acted against him, because all of the other entities, and that includes the House “Freedom” Caucus, believes in the Tough Decision.

Foreign policy is always the domain in which the right-wing populist can most easily exercise the Tough Decision and win back some loyalty from the managerial class. That is because, in the short run, breaking a promise on a foreign policy or military point is often the one that is lowest-cost to his principal support base. By attacking Syria, Trump proves that he can make a Tough Decision and that he can be “brought to reason” by the policy elite. Clinton would not have had to do this so soon, at least, and would thus have had the confidence of the policy elite that she would “push the button” but would merely be holding off until a strategically more optimal moment. The policy elite seems to have been afraid that Trump would never push the button. That concern has been proven unjust.

The cult of the Tough Decision is killing the world. It is not merely a fetish of a generation of technocrats but deeply engrained into the psychological structure of our society. It stems from a couple of inoffensive common-sense pillars:

  1. There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
  2. You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

Both of these are narrowly true. Every “free” lunch requires at least some effort to go and obtain it. (1) is merely a recognition that all things have an up-front energy cost. (2) is merely a recognition that once you’ve made a choice, the world changes such that the very same choice is not available a second time in its exact original form. In present-day psychology, we exaggerate these to mean that not merely is there an up-front cost to everything, but it is highly likely that most up-front costs outweigh the benefits — and that there are no win-win situations, because the up-front cost of most choices must result in a major stakeholder losing out.

This exaggeration of common-sense wisdom has come in its most exaggerated form of the fetishization of abstract intellectual exercises from economics and game theory. These exercises are concentrated in the political and managerial elite, but they are constantly reflected in popular discourse and media culture. It is propagated by often very well-intentioned people who would like to make the world better.

Its results are particularly damaging to left-wing populism, because left-wing populism is founded on the existence of low-cost, self-replenishing free lunches — repeated win-win situations. (As opposed to, as I said, right-wing populism, which rejects either the low-cost or the self-replenishing part.) The existence of these free lunches probably sounds like an absurdity even to readers here. Admittedly, they seem to be vanishing quickly, but they are not all gone. Single-payer universal health care in a developed country is one of these free lunches, where the principal payers of the monopsony cost (medical services providers of various sorts, including large organizations) can afford the cost without true suffering.

In a twist of fate, Trump was one of the popular purveyors of the Cult of the Tough Decision in his reality show career. Reality TV, of the “voting off the island” genre, is all about making someone cry in public as a designated loser, and then self-back-patting that it was a responsible or necessary or realistic choice. It is a genre that is emblematic of our era. So it should surprise no one that Trump returns to the ontology of public action that worked out so well for him.

The Philosohy of Populist Change

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

Will the next generation of leaders be any better than the ones we have today?

Well, we can guarantee that they won’t be better if we don’t make sure the ideas for better solutions are around.

Milton Friedman and the neo-liberal operatives were very much correct: When a crisis hits, you can only prevail if you already have in place your ideas for the solution. Much to our horror, we have seen that this neo-liberal “shock doctrine” does, in fact, work.

Which is why Ian’s attempts to reformulate a moral, humanistic philosophy for political economy is so important.

(This piece is not by Ian, it is by Tony Wikrent.  I (Ian) don’t agree with everything here, but it’s an important post, and thus has been elevated from the comments.)

My approach has been different: Point to the founders of the American republic and emphasize those aspects of their philosophy for political economy we no longer follow, and, indeed, barely even tolerate today. For example, it was generally accepted through most of the first century of USA’s national existence that gross inequality of wealth and income was a danger to the experiment in self-government.

One reason I favor my approach is that, in the end, who you have to convince, above all, are the military and the police; a revolution only succeeds when the people in charge of suppressing dissent begin to refuse to do so. And I simply do not believe that you are going to convince American police and military that Marx or Mao or whoever is the answer. On the other hand, they just might be convinced that the original ideas of the American experiment in self-government have been trampled on and subverted by TPTB – including (most especially) the “vast right wing conspiracy” which has been funded and built up by the wealthy since their opposition to FDR and the New Deal.

A second reason I favor my approach is that the historical record is very clear that socialism, Marxism, communism, and so on DO NOT WORK. It pains and troubles me greatly to see, in reaction to Obama’s failure to deal with Wall Street since the crash of 2007-2008, a resurgence on the left of these failed ideologies. My guru here is Lawrence Goodwyn, the author of what is far and away the best history of the populist movement. What makes it the best? Goodwyn fully understood the Greenbacker critique of the U.S. financial and monetary systems that powered the extraordinary political success of the populists in the 1880s through 1910s. In December 1989, Goodwyn gave a speech at a special event in St. Louis on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the populist People’s Party “Sub-Treasury Plan” for financial reform, Democratic Money: A Populist Perspective.  After dissecting how TPTB have left no room for serious discussion of a truly democratic system of money, credit and exchange, Goodwyn observed:

There is another society in our time — what we call “the East,” what we sometimes call “actually existing socialism.” For about 40 years, since Stalin imposed this system on whole populations, an idea floated around in people’s heads over there, in “the East.” The idea was, “We will try to create some space where we can talk to each other and affect the world we live in. To do that, we’re going to have to combat the leading role of the Party. We’re going to have to find some way to get around the fact that all the social space in society is occupied by the Party.”

This idea would float around kitchen tables on the Baltic coast in the 1950s and 1960s. And workers in shipyards would say to each other, “We have got to create a trade union independent of the Party.” Now that is an unsanctioned idea. And they knew it was frightening even to say it out loud; you’d only say it around the kitchen table, around carefully selected brethren and sistren. And the idea would go away, because it was unsanctioned. But then there would be another horrible accident in the shipyard, another insane adjustment of work routines, and the idea would come back, simply because it was the only idea that made any sense. “Work organized by the Party is insane, Poland is insane, our social life is insane. We’ve got to have a union free of the Party.”

Over 35 years of self-activity the world has not known about — any more than the world knew very much about how the Farmers’ Alliance organized Populism — they found out how to do it. And in 1980 they did it. There’s a certain logic in history every now and then. The single most experienced organizer in the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, who spent 12 years organizing and brooding about a union free of the Party, who had gone to jail scores of times in the decade — learning each time a little bit more about how power worked in his society — the one single most credentialed worker with other workers based on his own activity, is Lech Walesa. There is every now and then a certain justification in history.

Because that movement existed, even though it was repressed by the government after 15 months, it sent a wave of hope across Eastern Europe. What Solidarnosc combatted, by its simple existence, was mass resignation. This resignation was the dominant political reality in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland until the shipyard workers of Gdansk became the nucleus of a mass movement, one of those rare moments in human history when people get back in touch with their own subjectivity. That is to say, they don’t lie in public. They say what they mean. And they try hard to say it clearly. They’re not trying to make a speech, they’re not trying to be an orator. They’re trying to be clear, like two people in a marriage struggling not to be political with each other but to be honest. One of those rare democratic moments when reality is projected.

Because Solidarity stayed alive during the years of martial law, and because a man named Brezhnev who put down Solidarity passed off the stage of history and another man named Gorbachev who would not put down Solidarity came on the stage of history, the leading role of the Party this very week is going into the dustbin of history all over Eastern Europe.

You especially need to read the speech if you are wondering what the Greenbacker critique is, the truly “American” response to concentrated economic and financial power. But the important thing for me is that after Goodwyn gave us an incredible educational tool in his history of USA populism, he then turned his attention to the Communist bloc of Central and Eastern Europe and, in Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland, showed us that the same problems arose in both settings, and the same populist solutions prevailed.

Well, to be accurate, let’s modify that to “almost prevailed.” In the USA, the populist insurgency actually elected dozens of populists to Congress, including a handful of Senators, hundreds of state legislatures, and a few governors as well. Out of that, we got the first regulations on railroads, on food production, on pharmaceuticals, the only state bank in USA (North Dakota), state and federal crop insurance, among other things. Even the Federal Reserve system was made possible by the populist insurgency, though it was not really their design. They wanted something very different, but it was the populist insurgency which generated the general clamor for reform of the financial and monetary systems after the panics of 1901 and 1907.

Instead of what they wanted, the populists got the monstrous Federal Reserve – even further removed from democratic control under the rubric of preserving the independence of the central bankers – because the populists’ core Greenbacker critique had been fatally devastated by their 1896 compromise with William Jennings Bryan over his position on silver coinage. This destroyed the populist movement during the 1896 campaign. The story of that destruction, by the way, is one of the most important case studies for those interested in the subject and Goodwyn’s is really the only solid history of which I know.

The last great surge of populist success involved the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota in the years just before World War I. At that time, the ideologically weakened populist movement was pretty much eradicated by the anti-German hysteria deliberately whipped up during the war. Chris Hedges provides the history in the opening chapters of his book, Death of the Liberal Class.

It is highly pertinent to ask here: Why weren’t the socialists and communists wiped out along with the populists during the war? There are, I believe, three reasons. First is not really a reason; the fact is, the socialists and the communists were also attacked. Especially targeted, I believe, were the networks that had been established by the European revolutionaries who had fled to America after the failed revolutions of 1848.

A digression here. These networks of 48ers were integral to the electoral successes of Lincoln and the Republican Party. They also were integral to the success of the Union on the fields of battle. There is a new book out, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War, by Don H. Doyle, which details how crucial was the role of the European revolutionaries who remained in Europe, in saving the Union during the Civil War. The story starts with Queen Victoria, who detested the American experiment in self-government and, after some hesitation and misgivings, then British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston finally decided, in September 1862, to dispatch a British army and fleet to Canada. This would create the northern half of a pincers to choke the American republic; the southern half of the pincers were the French and Spanish forces which had already landed in Mexico and the Caribbean, with British assistance, in December 1861 through January 1862.

At this crucial point–just when the British oligarchs thought they could finally get away with crushing the obnoxious experiment in self-government–the Union Army won at Antietam. When news of the victory arrived in Europe, massive pro-Union demonstrations erupted. These demonstrations were led by supporters of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s fight for Italian unification and independence, the most militant manifestation of the general, European progressive, anti-monarchical sentiment at the time. On October 5, 1862, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many garbed like Garibaldi’s red shirts, filled Hyde Park, London, and elsewhere in England. Palmerston quietly abandoned his preparations to militarily assist the Confederacy.

But let’s return to the crushing of American socialism and communism, and what I believe was the second reason it was not as thorough as the annihilation of the populists. It was not until after the Bolsheviks seized Russia that socialists and communists in America could be painted by opponents as “the Bolshevist menace.” The crackdown of socialists and communists thus became particularly severe near the end of World War One and after. Lasting, of course, through the 1920s and 1930s, right up to today.

But for me, the most important is the third reason. The socialists and communists who survived in the USA, I believe, were allowed to survive, because they were funded and controlled by what used to be called The Eastern Liberal Establishment. This is a point about which many on the left get hysterical. But the facts are detailed in Caroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. And if you don’t want to take the time to wade through that massive tome, just look into Corliss Lamont, the major funder of American socialism in the 1960s, note who his father was, and don’t shy from doing the math of putting two and two together.

What about the European revolutions which overthrew the socialist states in the 1980s? The great promise and hope there was crushed by the adoption of Western neo-liberal capitalism. Which, not surprisingly, since it is funded and promoted by a bunch of rich pricks, ended up, when applied to Russia, Hungary, Romania, etc., creating a new oligarchy of rich pricks. And this should be an abject lesson for the left of the point I am making: When a crisis hits, you can only prevail if you already have your ideas for the solution in place. The crisis in the 1980s hit in Central and Eastern Europe and the only ideas ready for use were those of Milton Friedman and the other amoral pigs of the Chicago School. There should be no wonder or shock at the results.

OK, so socialism and communism may not be any better than capitalism in preventing the rise of a repressive, authoritarian political regime. But what about the “tool kit” of Marxist class analysis? Isn’t that valid, even useful? Well, since you ask, I’ll answer: No. I’ll even explain why.

Marx believed that classes were defined by income and ownership. While he engaged in some sociological speculation about how people change as incomes rise, he was mainly concerned with how the rich exploit the poor. The problem is, the really important class division in society is between producers and predators – the Leisure Class, as Thorstein Veblen termed it – and there are a lot of producers that end up being included and condemned in Marx’s capitalist or owner class.

The implications are pretty damn important. Lenin’s and Stalin’s determination to annihilate the krulaks in Russia was one result. But the krulaks were the backbone of agricultural production, they were the producers. Oppressing and dispossessing the agricultural producers resulted inevitably in a catastrophic collapse of agricultural production. So you get the famines of the 1920s and 1930s, which, it should be noted, only made it easier for Western elites to portray the Bolsheviks in the worst possible ways.

Marxist class analysis also is not much help when it comes to climate change, because all of Marx’s classes use energy. Just look at the sources of carbon in rich versus poor countries. What spews more carbon per economic activity: heating a home and cooking meals in a rich, Western country using electricity or even natural gas from the grid? What about cutting down trees and burning them in a poor country?

We need $100 trillion in investments over the next two decades to entirely replace fossil fuels. Of what use is Marxist analysis in getting that done? But Veblen’s producer / predator analysis – that the major struggle in modern economies is the one between industry and business – is immensely valuable. Consider the capitalists who want to build the 1.7 billion home solar power systems we need; Good – even if they are still capitalists. What about capitalists who want to stymie the move to renewables, like the Koch brothers, in order to continue profiting from fossil fuels? Or capitalists who want to identify and buy up emerging companies in renewables and add them to their already immense corporate empires, such as General Electric, and cartelize the industry? Bad.

Now, there are a lot of people on the left who try to avoid the opprobrium of an open embrace of socialism or communism, most often by arguing that the American republic was intended, from its very beginning, to be anti-democratic and tilted in favor of the owners of property. This, of course, is the analysis of Charles Beard in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Since I’m already jabbing at many leftist sacred cows, I might as well jab at this one.

I wonder if these people have actually read Beard. According to Beard’s Interpretation, there were two basic interest groups: “…the merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers and their professional associates” comprised one group. The other was “… the non-slave-holding farmers and the debtors.” This grouping commits the very same error Marx does: It does not distinguish adequately, as Veblen does, between producers and predators. It is simply too crippling a mistake to lump money lenders, security holders, and financiers in with manufacturers. I will also note here that Beard’s analysis of Alexander Hamilton is completely at odds with the negative way these people portray Hamilton.

And I’m absolutely certain those people who champion Beard’s analysis have never read Beard’s later work, The Economic Basis of Politics, which Beard himself considered more important because it addressed the great misconceptions that had arisen concerning his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. To quote from the introduction to a 2002 republication of The Economic Basis of Politics, by Clyde Barrow:

…Beard (1945, 62) concludes that “modern equalitarian democracy, which reckons all heads as equal and alike, cuts sharply athwart the philosophy and practice of the past centuries.” These themes are woven together in Beard’s claim that the central problem of contemporary political theory, as well as the motor of contemporary political development, is the contradiction between the ideals and institutions of political democracy and the reality of economic inequality (i.e., classes)…. The fact that neither capitalism nor communism had solved the problem of class conflict led Beard to the “grand conclusion” that it was Madison’s economic interpretation of history rather than Marx’s, that had withstood the greatest test of modern political history. Madison was correct to the extent that he identifies the problem of regulating class struggle, rather than eliminating it, as the central problem of political statesmanship and constitutional development, regardless of the mode of production or any particular distribution of wealth. There is no end to class struggle and, therefore, no end of history (or politics)….

Screw you, Francis Fukuyama, and your neo-liberal sugar-daddies.

As I argued a few days ago, the only power we have is the power of ideas. If you want the next generation to be better, give them better ideas.

Spare Me The Tears: Liberal Activists Aren’t Showing Up For Obama and Democrats Because of Democratic Decisions

Robert Reich seems to think left wing activists can’t organize, as evidenced by them not doing really coming out for Obama’s health care “plan” (whatever that is).  Since left wing activists put together massive marches against the Iraq war, for example, it’s nonsense that they can’t do it.  So why haven’t they?

Our real activists, as a group, believe in single payer.  They are not going to march, or even show up at Townhalls in large numbers in order to push some wishy -washy bill that has a public option which sucks wind (and none of the bills have a good public option.)

Obama and Democrats deliberately demotivated the base by telling them that single payer was off the table, arrested them when they dared insist on talking about it, and disrespected them in every way possible.

Of course the activists aren’t showing up.  Who the hell would expect them to?  If Obama or Democrats in general want activists, who by definition are hardcore people who actually believe in liberalism to show up and fight for them, they need to offer liberalism, not warmed over centrist pap.

Republican activists are worked up, and liberal activists are demotivated, and that’s a direct result of Democratic decisions.  I’m tired as hell of hearing activists being blamed for decisions made by craven, triangulating politicians.

Message to Obama and other Democratic leadership: Stand for actual liberalism; for actual workable policy; and activists will stand with you.   Liberals and progressives stand with liberals and progressives.

That isn’t you.

So quiver alone, until you find the courage to have some convictions.

Update: a friend tried to tell me otherwise, pointing to rallies of 1,000 to 2,000 over the last weekend.  My answer:

Ah, then the majority of people at town halls are and have been supporters of the public option, yes?  You’re out-numbering and out-organizing the right wing, yes?  You don’t need liberal activists who favor single payer.  That’s /so/ good to know.

So very glad to hear it.  Not what I heard from Eric Massa, for one, at NN09 “90% of people at my town halls are against heatlh care reform”, but perhaps since then you’ve turned things around.

And of course, you are having huge rallies, right?

You will excuse me, however, if rallies of 1,000 or 2,000 people don’t impress me.  How many people came out to protest the Iraq war, for example?  (Answer, even in the US, rallies of 100,000 to 200,000.  Even in later years 10 to 20K was not uncommon).

Where are the activists?  Why are the unions having to carry this?  Why are your rallies an order of magnitude or two lower than rallies for another big cause that occurred recently?

So yes, I think I’ll say that the activists are not showing up.

Good Policy Rule #1: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Good policy is pretty easy to create, and it’s also easy to recognize, but very few people know how to do either, because we so rarely see good policy in the real world. Almost every policy which comes out of Washington, and most other capitals, is sold as doing one thing, but is actually written and designed to serve the interests of those players which have bought various politicians. So, as a result you wind up with “stimulus” bills which don’t include food stamps and unemployment benefits or you wind up with tax “reform” which makes the tax code more complicated and gives most of the tax cuts to the rich. In fact, it’s very rare that any major bill either does what it’s supposed to (No Child Left Behind, for example, has almost certainly done more harm to American education than good) or if it does, that it does it in a way that is efficient and effective. Medicare drug benefits, which were designed to make drug and insurance companies money, not to deliver cheap drugs to Americans, are an excellent example.

Each post in this series will discuss one rule for judging or creating policy. We’ll start with the simplest rule of all:

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Sometimes another country, or a state or city, has already solved the problem, or has solved a large chunk of it. The prototypical example of this is health care. Every other modern (and some 3rd world) country in the world has universal, usually single payor, healthcare. Most of those systems produce as good or better results than the US on almost all metrics.

And these countries pay, total, about two-thirds of what Americans pay per person, for health care that covers everyone. A side effect is that GM and Ford price in $1,500 of insurance costs into every car, while Toyota avoids that expense, and continues to eat Detroit’s lunch. Meanwhile, 50% of all bankruptcies in America are caused by health care costs. There is virtually no downside to universal healthcare, even for the very rich (the very rich will always have private clinics. They did even in the USSR.) Every health expert who isn’t paid not to know this, knows that universal care is cheaper, and better.

We know it works, because it has worked in every 1st world nation which has tried it. The reason the US does not have universal healthcare, ironically, is the huge amount of money that could be saved—5.3% of the US’s total GDP. That’s a heck of a lot of money, and a lot of people are getting very rich off of it. And those who make a killing use the money to buy lobbyists and politicians and make sure that 50 million Americans don’t have insurance, another 20 million or so are underinsured, that 50% of all bankruptcies are caused by health expenses, and that US healthcare metrics continue to lag other first world countries. They stop real reform because the pain and suffering and financial devastation of all those millions of Americans is earning them a lot of money. Making a “killing” isn’t exactly a metaphor when it comes to US healthcare.

So we know one big, simple way to fix US healthcare and it doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, but simply learning from what others have done.

But healthcare isn’t the only place where this works—one could, for example, look to how other countries handle, say, drug use, and learn some lessons. Or look to their prisons. Or figure out how much smaller countries than the US are able to have effective militaries without spending 50% of the world’s military budget.

This is simple stuff, the basic rule is familiar to anyone who’s ever wanted to learn how to do something and gone to find out how other people do it, looking in particular at the people who are best, then copying what they do and making minor adaptations to your own situation. When I want to learn how to cook something I’ve never cooked, I look it up. When I want to buy a new car, I look up reviews. When I want to build something, I find out how others who have built something similar did it.

So the first rule of making, and recognizing, good policy is just common sense. Learn from others.

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

(Originally published June 17, 2008, at FDL.  Never did write the others in the series, may take it up.)

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