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

Open Thread

Feel free to use the comments to this post discuss topics not covered in recent posts.


The Politics You’ve Got


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – May 26, 2019


  1. In your book It doesn’t have to be this way

    “You love your child, yes? You would let a hundred people die to save your child?
    You are a monster.
    Most other people would.
    They are monsters.”

    Sometimes softer words are more useful – instead of ‘monster’, or ‘fool’, sometimes a term like ‘spiritually immature’ or ‘less aware’ might work better. It depends on the audience, and the rhetorical intention, of course.

    I am reminded of something I read as a teenager:

    “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
    ― Robert Ardrey, African Genesis (1961)

    When I read this now, I wonder which poets might be especially esteemed by our hypothetical interstellar audience – Dante? Shakespeare? Whitman? My distant cousin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Tagore? Rumi? James Tate?

  2. rangoon78

    Dear Ian,

    Why Mandos? Your take on politics and morality is always a balm for my tortured soul. The entity which generates posts ascribed to Mandos grates so harshly.

  3. StewartM

    Hmm, but if you then make the case:

    “Would you kill a child (yours or anyone’s) to save 100 people?” Or “Would you knowingly allow a child (yours or anyone’s) to die to save 100 people?”

    Then that gets one very quickly to a tour of Shirley Jackson’s Lottery moral landscape.

  4. Ian Welsh

    When virtually everyone prioritizes themselves and a few people over the suffering of a 100 (or more realistically, a million) other people, we quickly descend into hell.

    The willingness to make excuses for being monsters quickly damns us.

    Let us put this concretely: politicians should not be allowed to vote for war if their children will not fight.

    When they send other people’s children to fight, and make sure their children don’t serve, you are in hell territory.

    When parents fight against universal equal school funding because their children go to good schools because their schooling is paid for by property taxes, those people are evil fucks.

    And so on.

    The consequences of this sort of thinking “me first, my family second, my friends third and fuck everyone else” are why we are deep in a shithole and sinking fast.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Charley: perhaps. I think the case has been stated gently many times, on occasion even by me.

    Stating it harshly may make some people turn off, but perhaps it will get thru to others.

    At any rate, it’s a book of essays, and I wrote most of those essays many years ago.

  6. scruff

    The consequences of this sort of thinking “me first, my family second, my friends third and fuck everyone else” are why we are deep in a shithole and sinking fast.

    If I might go off on a tangent from this line, I wonder about what kind of social results we can realistically expect from the attempts to continuously expand people’s mental tribe-sizes. And I wonder if “me first, family second, friends third” is actually a result rather than the underlying operation of the mind, based in a sort of Dunbar’s number tribal programming.

    I do think that one of the reasons social ills occur is that the good emotional bonding effects of tribal relations have been all but wiped out of virtually all of society beyond core family units. In a natural tribal state, people who were not directly related as family members would nonetheless keep to a very close reciprocal almost communist relationship that would not be limited by trade exchanges, but in the modern world this kind of relationship is only common in family relationships and close friendships, and only really exists outside of those limits among very altruistic people. The tribal economic relationship is that of gifting, and the relationship beyond the tribe (the dangerous people, perhaps “our enemies”) is trade, and people everywhere are being taught to only deal with other people in terms of trade. Is it really so surprising that we end up with a social relationship that more closely approximates the way enemies treat each other, or people who are afraid of each other?

  7. Herman

    The tribal mentality is a tough nut to crack because at the level of the individual it makes sense to behave that way. You do what is best for yourself and maybe a small group of family and friends and to heck with the rest of the world. A lot of people live by that code and based on society’s standards, they are often quite successful.

    In fact, one of the things I have noticed about successful people is that they often have an almost laser-like dedication to themselves and their family. I sometimes think that maybe they have the right idea and that thinking about all of the things we discuss on this blog is a waste of time.

    When I was growing up my father and many other people (usually other men) would tell me just that. That the world is an evil place full of people who want to hurt you, so you better get tough and look out for Number 1 (you) and your close family and maybe a few friends and that is it. Thinking about people outside of your little “tribe” is a waste of time. Sometimes I think that is really good advice.

    But as Ian points out, this sort of thinking will eventually doom us all. It is one of the reasons why I am so pessimistic about our chances for fixing our problems. So many people, even people who claim to be good liberals or even socialists, have that kind of selfish mentality and it is becoming even more pervasive as society gets more cutthroat and competitive as opportunities for the “good life” dwindle.

  8. Ven

    I suspect that the tribal instinct of small groups of people, which had a supportive, beneficial purpose, just does not work at the scale of towns, cities and civilisations.

    Humanity’s pursuit of scale, whether in the form of nation-building or corporate-building, inevitably brings out the worst in humanity, causes the most narcissistic, selfish folk to get to the top, and the beneficial tribal instinct of the many becomes one of me / my group first, and of exploitation / manipulation by the elites.

    Trouble is, that now we have this scale, and this me-first civilisation, I can’t see how it can be reversed. It would need a whole mind-set change across the world of consuming and exploiting less; simpler food, simpler clothes, no air or car travel; corporates not pursuing growth and profits. Not going to happen. We are at a logical culmination of civilisation.

    As an aside, important article on how our governments consistently lie, aided and abetted by the professional middle class journalists:

    But these journalists are just another symptom of the ‘me-first’ culture – seeking to pursue a career, and so turning a blind, non-inquisitive eye to what is really going on. And this applies to all the university educated middle-managers, who go about their lives immersed in their own petty miseries and joys, believing that the purpose of life is wealth aggregation and consumption, and not willing to see the world around them; and simply trusting what ‘their’ governments and media say to them . . . Because we are a democracy, with rights and a constitution aren’t we?

    No hope at all.


    We lived that way for 95% of human existence. In small, egalitarian, collaborative groups that got each others’ backs. Then came civilization and all of that was turned upside down and yet we still have the same default tendencies we did before civilization came along. Talk about cognitive dissonance. It’s more ubiquitous these days than CO2.

    Civilization & ownership. The two go together like a horse and carriage. Or love and marriage. Ownership is the apple and Adam bit it too.

  10. So far this thought has not been connected to the downfall of US governance, a form of governing which has created a nation far more divided against itself than was the case during the civil war.

    Initially, states were divided by principles – by ideas on how government should be run. A federal legislator was guided by the principles of his constituents in legislating for the best interest of the nation as a whole.

    Today the states are divided by the notion of consumption of wealth. Federal legislators openly state that “My first responsibility is to serve the best interest of my constituents.” Voters reelect incumbents because they will better serve the purpose of “bringing home the bacon” than rookie legislators who would not know how to “work the system” in the home state/district’s favor. This creates a nation in which 485 entities are competing among themselves for the biggest slice of the collective pie, leaving nothing more than crumbs remaining to serve the common interest.

  11. StewartM

    Hmm, Ian: do you not think it’s also hell if we live in a society where we can elect to up and murder an individual if we strongly believe (as the characters in Shirley Jackson’s short story do) it will benefit the rest of us? To me, this hearkens back to the Bakunin quote on freedom and equality: “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”. You need to satisfy both conditions. My old high school French teacher (a freethinker, an open agnostic, and a public socialist in a small conservative southern town) would say “it is both wrong for an individual to oppress the majority, but it is equally wrong for the majority to oppress the minority”.

    I agree with you on our leadership making wars that they, their children, their families, and their friends are exempted from, but even preventing that hypocrisy does not fix things. There was a quote in the PBS Civil War series about Southern slaveowners, and I can’t remember which Southern politician quoted it, that most slaveowners would rather send their sons to be killed in battle than even consider willingly part with their animate “property” (plus, in fact, many served themselves in the Confederate army). Yes, it’s hypocrisy when these avoid sacrifice and service, but hypocrisy isn’t the worst evil–if they avoid being a hypocrite and willingly participate the damage done is just as bad.

    The consequences of this sort of thinking “me first, my family second, my friends third and fuck everyone else” are why we are deep in a shithole and sinking fast”

    I heartily agree with that sentiment. The problem lies with our circle of concern, of people dividing the world into “us” and “them”. With our rich, the most extreme cases, from everything I’ve read and heard they don’t even care that much about their offspring–hugging the kids when picked up in the limousine is just a photo-op moment, they quickly ditch them off to private schools, tutors, and nannies. Spouses too are disposable if a better ‘opportunity’ comes along (look at John McCain, that wonderful human being we are all told about, who ditched his first wife Carol–‘damaged goods’ from a car wreck, for a poster girl with money who funded his political ambitions). In the hunter-gatherer societies refers too, such Ayn Rand archetypes who take and never give often do get ‘offed’ by the decision of the community.

    Aside from such cases, the problem is that people outside our group aren’t fully human or like us. This is most obvious on the political right, but is not limited to it–there’s lots of anti-immigration talk on the left that that obviously doesn’t give a crap about these people or their plight, plus some of the anti-free trade talk whose only concern is bettering the lot of people here (I’m for tearing up the free trade treaties too, but am mindful it has to be in a win-win way). With the most pressing problem of humanity today being climate change, we simply cannot seal ourselves in our own nations and think that focusing on making things better locally will save us while the rest of the world blows up around us.

    I also would say–it helps if you actually make friends with some of these “not us” people.

  12. About Joe Biden. I\’m skeptical of him because of what I know of Delaware. Delaware is friendly to the credit card companies. Biden has represented Delaware in the Senate for a long time and might have helped with getting Delaware set up to give the credit card companies a place to operate with relative impunity. What does Biden\’s voting record show in regards to credit card companies?

  13. scruff

    I want to clarify some of my concerns about tribalism, because I’m not saying that all tribalism is bad (or good), or that tribalism itself is inescapable.

    There are positive, eusocial effects to the underlying tribal circuitry in our heads. I’ve been part of a wilderness skills school which took most of its behavioral cues from Native American traditions around building connections between people and effectively forming a tribe. I came to this place with few friends or social skills, and after just a few months I had some very strong social bonds to 30 other people I’d never met before. None of them were my family, and only a few were what I would consider close friends. Still, we had a relationship in which if they needed my help, I would help them without expectation of recompense, and that was true in reverse as well. Even those people whom I did not particularly like as friends I loved (as a verb, not an emotion) because they were now my tribe.

    One of the things that happens to us in our society is that we face a forced generalization to the way we identify tribe-members. Now you don’t have to recognize an individual’s face anymore to know that they are supposed to be “part of your tribe”. Oh, you’re American, too? Great, you’re part of my tribe! I don’t know that that sort of generalization can always work, but I think it’s a good enough idea that we should be trying it. The problem as I see it is that we’re not really going all in on it. Trade is what you do with people you don’t love as tribe members. When you love people as tribe members, you gift, and if they gift back, that’s great but it’s not required.

    What I think we’re facing now is a set of contradictory social impulses. The messages are: (1) These people are part of your tribe (which means you gift to them, you take care of them), and (2) Whatever these people want or need from you must be purchased with something of equal value (ie – trade, which means that these people are not part of your tribe). IOW, although society is nominally utilizing the eusocial effects of tribal programming, it is also and deliberately destroying those inborn eusocial associations.

  14. nihil obstet

    “me first, my family second, my friends third and fuck everyone else” is preached as doctrine for the elites, and evil for the peasants. Here on Memorial Day weekend, we’re all supposed to be grateful to the men and women who were killed “for our freedom”. If teachers aren’t wonderful, caring people who spend their own money for the children, they’re greedy insensitives who do things like demand raises, and even worse, form unions!

    Meanwhile, the rich and their toadies hail every corporate financial fraud that gives a big payoff.

    We live in a propaganda state. The extent to which many people still value the welfare of others, despite the effort to make them identify with their betters and join in the disciplining of their peers is actually somewhat heartening.

  15. Herman

    @Bill H,

    I disagree. Politics is much more ideological now than in the past. At the federal level pork barrel spending has actually been reduced. Earmarks were banned in 2011. This has made American government more dysfunctional since it eliminated one of the tools that legislators used to get things done. For example, LBJ used the promise of a NASA research grant for House Republican leader Charles Halleck’s district in order to help get the Civil Rights Act passed. Jonathan Rauch mentions this story in his excellent article on why American politics is so dysfunctional.

    Rauch convinced me that many of the populist reforms that Americans have supported to clean up politics have made things worse. The old system was actually closer to the corrupt system most people decry today but it worked better and people were happier with it because it produced better outcomes and better served the citizenry than today’s highly ideological, polarized system.

  16. bruce wilder

    “me first, my family second, my friends third and fuck everyone else”

    It seems to me that a decent society does not require converting everyone who might be selfishly focused into an idealistic humanitarian saint. It only requires sufficient enlightenment to recognise that “me and mine” are someone else’s “everyone else” to “fuck” and prosperity and even survival in a world of mostly strangers requires a truce on principles of reciprocal fairness.

    Those principles of reciprocal fairness are abstract, while focused selfishness can operate with local knowledge so to speak and concrete experience under one’s own recognizance. The political difficulty arises when the abstract principle must be elaborated into a fetter constraining the “freedom” of the selfish actor.

    Adam Smith famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Unfortunately, he did not inquire sufficiently into what constrains the butcher, brewer or baker to conform in their practices to methods that insure food safety. I would hope that a spirit of benevolence toward strangers plays a part and if not that, a keen awareness that the baker must eat the butcher’s meat and drink the brewer’s swill. But, I also know more than a spirit of good will or an awareness of mutual vulnerability is necessary as a matter practical effectiveness. And, in a system of society, some resources must be devoted to some mix of altruistic punishment, arbitration of conflict and enforcement of rules against cheaters.

    Thinking along these lines, I realize that ethics, morality and law necessarily become complicated and less than unambiguous. What I never quite grasp is why so many people seem to think they will do well or better in a society where the “freedom” to act as a predator on others is increasing. This is where I welcome Ian’s moral clarity as an antidote to uncritical cant. But, still it remains a mystery: where you are cheating others, surely you are being cheated; where you are poisoning others, you are being poisoned — are people really so stupid to not see that? (Apparently many are.)

    Any kind of system where one class is not subject to the same rules as the rest can be especially vulnerable to the breakout of the sociopathy otherwise held in check by the minimal enlightenment of reciprocal considerations, though I will submit that a breakdown in the extent that people share a practical understanding of their own political economy as a reliable system can also become a serious problem: the iron law as political sclerosis as institutions lose their purposes and become sinecures for their apparatchiks.

    (The above is just me thinking these ideas thru aloud; really not trying to troll anyone. Do not know why I feel I should say as much, but I have been misunderstood before.)

  17. StewartM

    Walter Shafer:

    How do you think Senator Credit Card acted?

    Oh, and Ian:

    When parents fight against universal equal school funding because their children go to good schools because their schooling is paid for by property taxes, those people are evil fucks.

    I’m in full agreement with you on things like this; but these things don’t allow either killing or allowing other people to die or be tangibly harmed. To me this is akin your position on torture–killing one person to save 100 is like torturing one person to save 100. Some things you just don’t want to do, and that’s a line I don’t want to cross.

    I will also say that one of the most disturbing things that has happened in US society is our soldier-worship nihil obstet rightly mentions. We would rather have 100,000 of “their” babies die or be maimed than have a single hair harmed of our own precious men and women in uniform. This is why I also don’t favor removing statues of R. E. Lee, for all his historical shortcomings and the evil his cause represented. Lee is important because while he thought his soldiers the best in the world and always spoke admiringly of them, he drew a line with civilians. When civilians in the 1863 Gettysburg campaign took pot shots at his soldiers, he just took their guns away. Soldiers were soldiers, and the chance of being killed or maimed is included in their job description, while civilians are to be spared to the greatest degree possible.

    By contrast, with Grant, and Sherman, and our military leadership since then, we’ve increasingly allowed enemy civilians to be targeted. We lost something when we lost Lee. (Though it’s not just Lee, the reason I favor someone like Gouvenor K. Warren over “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” Phil Sheridan is Warren’s remark that the problem when fighting Indians was that you inevitably a number of women and children could be shot, whereupon you found out they weren’t howling savages, just women and children. Regrettably, the wars against Native American groups the US army made a habit of not distinguishing much between ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’).

  18. nihil obstet

    @bruce wilder

    You’ve been commenting some really good stuff, here and on other posts. Thanks.

  19. Willy

    …where you are cheating others, surely you are being cheated; where you are poisoning others, you are being poisoned

    Ah, but the good ole Lord shall preserve me from all evil, he shall preserve my soul (not to mention the devil made me do it and thank god there’s the godless left to blame).

  20. MojaveWolf

    An intersection of Art & Politics –SPOILER ALERT FOR THE END OF GAME OF THRONES!!!
    (the tv series, not the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, which GRRM is unlikely to EVER finish, so this is the only ending we shall ever get, major Alas!)

    Before getting to the spoilery part, I just read today that one of the two showrunners on the Game of Thrones TV show was the son of a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, and his dad also helped devise various programs and policies for one of the Bush administrations, I forget which.

    Now, this is hardly his fault. But apparently he also expressed an identification with Tywin Lannister (Tywin, NOT Tyrion), and defended the Red Wedding as being totally appropriate tactics in time of war. These things are his fault and frankly horrifying .

    Many people have noticed a drastic decline in the series once it passed the books (and one book, A Feast for Crows, was mostly ignored in its entirety by the series), and many theories have been devised as to why, from basic incompetence on the part of the showrunners to a misunderstanding by the showrunners of what made ASOIAF work so well in the first place.

    And these things may have something to do with it; probably so, in fact. But I think the politics/worldview are relevant here:

    I’m now going to try and speak as vaguely as I can, but




    Spoilers FOR HOW IT ALL ENDS





    Own Risk


    So, maybe one character fell victim to a family history of insanity, and maybe not. Certainly, it wasn’t set up well (they managed to make her annoying, and a bit callous, and many stupid decisions were made, but she was hardly insane, or more callous or stupid than everyone in the series over the last few seasons, and most of the greatest stupidity came listening to the suddenly stupid Tyrion), but insanity was pretty much the only possible explanation for why she suddenly killed all the innocent commoners who had nothing to do with any wars other than bad luck to be in the middle of one, when her entire past was predicated on raising up the oppressed and freeing slaves.

    But this apparently wasn’t all the showrunners had in mind, as seen in the truly stupid and horribly offensive and just plain evil bad wrong “persuasive” speech given by Tyrion, combined with her own later speech, in which we learn that people who want to liberate people from oppression and have the horrible temerity to think they know right from wrong are, in fact, inevitably going to become Hitler.

    This was probably the single most offensive thing in the entire show, running slightly ahead of Varys’ “it is better if the ruler has a cock because the people would rather be led by a man” (also in the last season).

    (For the record, it was only the most offensive, not the most stupid. That goes to the bizarre line, also from a sequence unrelated to the books, of “you want the nice girl but you need the bad pussy” which came out of nowhere, had no point, and was just . . . so bizarrely out of place I don’t even . . .)(also in the running for “most stupid” was whoever came up w/the “good” character’s battle tactics; apparently in the minds of the people running this show, being on the right side = stupid, and only evil people can think properly when it comes to tactics, which . . . suddenly makes sense given the red wedding comments)

    If you have a “greed is good” mentality, combined with a bit of personal sociopathy, suddenly, uplifting the downtrodden becomes a horrible frightening sign of impending disaster that must be murdered. A belief in right and wrong, likewise. Doing things for reasons other than immediate personal gain, likewise.

    Clearly, this is a great way to ruin art, but what does any of this have to do with politics?

    Well, IF all the people running the DNC and pushing Biden are sociopaths who view a sense of mercy and kindness and desire to help those in need as horrifying signs of impending murderous dictatorship, made even worse if you actually believe in concepts like right and wrong and think you can tell a meaningful difference, then their absolutely frantic desire to stamp out Bernie, Tulsi or any signs of leftist policy or anti-war-profiteering suddenly makes perfect sense.

    By those lights, Bernie, Tulsi and us silly posters here are just a taste of power away from murdering all the people just like ourselves in the name of liberation! With the possibility of also killing people like them ! (as opposed to the sociopathic oligarchs who run things now, who already murder for the sake of profit, and profit they don’t even need, which is only just and fair and I suppose divinely ordained)

    I’m not quite sure what the other lessons here are, but I’m sure some more exist.

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