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

Political Concepts: Politics Itself (Ch #1)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

When I sat down to decide which ten concepts were important enough to be included in this booklet I quickly realized the first concept had to be that of politics itself. While it smacks of college essays to define terms, it’s unavoidable, so:

Politics is how groups decide what they will and won’t do, what they should and shouldn’t and do, and what is good or bad.

Politics determines who makes decisions and how; who enforces those decisions and how, and even what we should believe.

In 1959 the Sociologist C. Wright Mills published the classic book, “The Sociological Imagination.” In it he wrote:

The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a person is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a person takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesperson becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar operator; a wife or husband lives alone; a child grows up without a parent. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

Climate change, including the vast wildfires we have recently seen in multiple countries, was both caused and not stopped by political choices.

In 1970 a single job in America or much of the Western world could support an entire family. A house cost two to three times one’s annual salary. Tuition at most universities was either free or nominal. Today most young people can’t afford homes; working class jobs in major cities can barely pay for a one-bedroom apartment let alone support a family, and tuition is so high that students spend decades in debt.

This is not accidental: New Deal and post-War politics was set up to keep wages and prices for goods high, and to keep asset prices low. It systematically reduced the proportion of wealth and income the top of society controlled and increased the proportion the middle and working classes controlled.

After 1979/80, with the elections of Thatcher and Reagan, policy shifted to deliberately keeping wages lower than inflation, supposedly to “fight inflation.” Taxes on the rich were dropped radically, unearned money was favored over earned, and asset prices, like stocks and housing, were deliberately inflated. Tuition soared, free tuition went the way of the Dodo, while good jobs were locked behind degree requirements, and every generation after the Boomers was poorer than the generation before.

These were political choices: deliberate government policies caused much of this. Yes, there was an oil shock (also a political event), but how it was responded to was not predetermined, other options existed, like pushing down hard on using less energy thru changing housing and crashing renewable energy technology, but those paths were not taken, though those who remember the 70s know they were debated extensively.

Had they be taken, renewable energy would have been as advanced by the late 90s as it is today. The choice to go to austerity for the working and middle class and enrich the richest, was the choice to stay on oil and coal, and directly responsible for the onrushing climate crisis. (Let no one pretend we did not know about global warming by 1980.)

So politics matters. It exists anywhere there is more than one human: there are politics of friend groups, marriages, families, clubs, corporations and countries, as well as international politics.

Politics determines

  • Who has the good life.
  • It determines what the good life is. Vast amounts of effort went into making suburbs viable because that was the image of the good life we had after WWII. Suburbs are unproductive: there are almost no jobs, they are pure consumption, they don’t make sense environmentally or economically, instead they were a choice because we believed the single family home with a picket fence and lawn was the ideal.

  • Politics determines what sort of person is allowed the good life. The Covid pandemic has revealed that the most important people in the economy are those who actually produce and transport goods and foods; they are also among the worst paid and treated people in our societies. We don’t value them, or think they should have a good life. Doctors, CEOs, executives, lawyers and so on, on the other hand, should. They “deserve” it. (Teachers and nurses, not so much.)

  • Politics determines how you get the good life. In our society this usually means doing well in school and university, and acting a certain way. Everyone who’s worked both blue collar and white collar jobs knows that the manners and mores are very different. As for university, the richer your parents are, the more likely you are to go, and the more likely you are to make it thru. Working class Americans mostly don’t finish bachelor degrees even when they start them.

  • Politics determines hat proportion of the population does what: how many farmers there are, how many doctors, how many blue collar workers, factory jobs, rich people and so on. There are limits here: agricultural societies always have way more farmers, but within what your technology and geography allow, what people do is decided mostly politically. The offshoring of well paid manufacturing jobs from the US and Britain (which Britain is paying dearly for as I write) was a political decision. It was cloaked in “we have no choice” but there were choices; the choice of keeping those jobs in the US and Britain did not appear to the political class and the wealthy, to make as much money for the wealthy.

  • Politics determines what the physical world looks like. Vast suburbs are a choice. High rises are a choice. Endless concrete and asphalt is a choice. Ugly cities are a choice. Entire forests cut down is a choice. The very world you walk thru is a human creation, the natural world moulded by our decisions.

Politics is not all-powerful. Nature is, in the end, the final arbiter, as Covid and onrushing climate change are teaching us. Technology and geography limit what is possible.

But within those limits, politics is the most immediate and powerful force in our lives. We pretend that what happens to us is “individual” but it isn’t: even that which seems most clearly individual isn’t.

Warren Buffet, the billionaire, has noted that in a different society or time his abilities would not have been rewarded as they have. Absent basketball, there would be a lot fewer rich 7 foot tall men in America. The nerdy abilities that made Bill Gates rich would not have been rewarded nearly so heavily had he been born even 20 years earlier, even his ruthlessness would not have had so high a reward.

Most of successes of members of the GI, Silent and Boomer generations would have been impossible had they been born as members of the Lost Generation, even assuming they didn’t die in World War I or the great Flu pandemic right after the war. In fact, many would have lost all in the great crash of 29 and the Great Depression, and never recovered.

Equally today’s rich are still rich because in 2008 the Federal Reserve and other central banks created as much money as necessary, and guaranteed their losses. This was a political decision, and it occurred because the rich controlled the central banks, the politicians, and were willing to do anything to ensure they did not lose everything, which they would have, since even those who had “won” had lost. (If your uncle bet you a a million dollars, then goes bankrupt, you do not get a million bucks.) Not a single major US bank or brokerage would not have been forced into government control if the Fed had not bailed them out.

While this was hailed as “saving the economy” and in a sense it was, it also made sure the rich maintained political control and could continue to impoverish the working and middle class. It meant no FDR and no New Deal was possible this time.

In the 1960s married women could not have their own bank accounts without their husband’s permission. American blacks could not sit at the front of buses. Most schools were segregated. In the 19th century women couldn’t vote. When the US first came into being men had to have a certain amount of property or they couldn’t vote.

Before World War II far more women worked in the US; it was a political choice to drive women out of the workforce and prefer men to the extent America did in the 50s and 60s.

It’s all politics; all the way down.

There are other forces, even human forces, to be sure, but politics has the most immediate effect on our lives of anything humans have control over.

Politics matters, so now let’s look at how and why it works.

Next: Legitimacy

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 14, 2021


Legitimacy (Political Concepts Chapter 2)


  1. Mark Pontin

    Ian: ‘While this was hailed as “saving the economy” and in a sense it was, it also made sure the rich maintained political control and could continue to impoverish the working and middle class. It meant no FDR and no New Deal was possible this time.’

    Yup. And nothing could have spelled out more clearly to the vast mass of Americans that they were living under a kleptocracy.

    It may be that future historians will look back and decide that how the US elites handled the GFC — itself totally a result of their own greed, arrogance, and stupidity — was one of those “we had to destroy the village to save it” moments in history because it brought on the collapse of the US polis.

    I mean, consider the utter top-to-bottom corruption and criminality involved in the government and the financial classes cooperating to FORGE over a million chain-of-title in order to foreclose on somewhere between one million to ten million homes. If you and I did it we’d spend years in jail. That was the so-called ‘robosigning’.

    Think of the amorality involved in giving sub rosa permission to the TBTF banks to repair the balance sheets by laundering global drug cartel money, which meant that the banks got actively involved in profiting from bringing more drugs into the US.

    There was more. Nothing could have signaled more clearly that the US was a kleptocracy — and a stupid, incompetent one. The rapid collapse of the US’s global standing subsequently has been the result.

  2. Hugh

    The GFC was as criminality goes much more entertaining than that. Mortgage originating companies went bankrupt. Their paperwork went to landfills. Among that paper were a lot of deeds. There are almost no deeds going back into the 1990s and because of all the trading back and forth on them between banks and various other entities which are actual legal deeds. The banks set up MERS an electronic mortgage registry. Problem was under property law every one of those transfers should have been physically recorded on the deed and a fee paid to the county recorder. This meant they were hopelessly incomplete. That was important because these were thrown together to form trusts, and these trusts had closing dates after which they could not be modified or corrected in any way. Those trusts formed the basis for all the CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) you heard about at the time. The trust held the “deeds” and the promissory notes of the mortgages made up the tranches of the CDOs. That is the mortgage was financialized with the deed and promissory note parts of the mortgage divorced from each other. That was actually one of their selling points. The buyers didn’t have to deal with actual ownership of a property. It was all about the note. Then CDS bets were written off them, etc. and when everything hit the fan, there was the rush to foreclose. But legally nobody had any legal standing to foreclose on anybody, no matter recourse or non-recourse states, another level of legal hijinks. The reason is that the trusts held the deeds such as they were but not the promissory notes. The CDO buyers didn’t actually own the deeds or any particular deed. So they had no standing to foreclose. And the deed holders didn’t have the promissory note, so had suffered no litigable damage. Almost none of the foreclosures were actually legal but the courts let them happen anyway. Good times, at least for the haves.

  3. Mark Pontin

    @ Hugh —

    Oh, re. the foreclosures, I was giving the tl ;dr version. I know all that — and there’s even more chicanery you didn’t get into.

    The US government setting up the BTF banks to make profits off selling drugs to the losers in the GFC so they then die “deaths of despair” is the part that continues to fascinate me.

    Because there’s a certain appalling thoroughness to closing the circle, as it were, by so exploiting even the human wreckage left behind the initial kleptocratic smash-and-grab while not leaving any potential money on the table. The British empire sold opium to the Chinese masses to exploit China, American elites did it to their own people.

    They’re still doing it, by the way. This from 2019 —

    ‘With Three Felony Counts Already, Did JPMorgan Chase Really Need to Own a Ship Containing 20 Tons of Cocaine?’

  4. Mark Pontin

    Hugh: ‘Problem was under property law every one of those transfers should have been physically recorded on the deed and a fee paid to the county recorder. This meant they were hopelessly incomplete. ‘

    It wasn’t so much mortgage companies going broke and notes going to landfill, though there was some of that.

    It was that with MERS the banks wanted the profits from holding and trading the paper, but didn’t want to be on the hook for paying municipal and country taxes, and any demands for physical maintenance of the properties.

    So they simply didn’t pay and didn’t complete chain-of-title.

  5. Hugh

    Yes, it is hard to give a quick rundown of all the frauds and criminality that produced the GFC. That’s because they were perpetrated at every step of the process from hello at one end to the CDOs cubed, synthetic CDOs, and CDS at the other end, and the whole foreclosure fiasco beyond that, and the bailouts beyond them.

  6. Bazarov

    Concerning politics and its definition, I’ve always found Bertrand Russell’s cheeky definition in “In Praise of Idleness” interesting:

    “First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.”

  7. different clue

    How many people who think they “own” the house they have “paid off the mortgage on”
    really don’t own it in any legal sense because there is no deed anywhere related to it?
    Is such a thing even possible?

    If it is, is there a way to retro-deedify those owner-dweller houses in such a way as to re-fix in time and space the legal fact of their legal ownership? If it even matters?

  8. Mark Pontin

    different clue wrote: ‘How many people who think have “paid off the mortgage…” (haven’t) because there is no deed anywhere related to it?Is such a thing even possible?’

    Yup. It’s very possible. And certainly there were cases of people who’d paid off their homes who found themselves thrown into the foreclosure mills after 2008.

    After all, the vast project of ‘foaming the runway’ for the US financial class and financial elites required throwing approximately 3.7 million American homes into foreclosure. Inevitably, therefore, ‘mistakes were made’ — to use the passive tense — and the fairly heedless mass forgery of fake documents of chain of title ended up including some people whose homes had been paid off.

    Some of them fought back successfully. Some presumably didn’t.

    David Dayen has a book, CHAIN OF TITLE, which covers a lot of the gory details and that I’ve had sitting on my kindle for several years without having had the heart to read.

  9. Ché Pasa

    As we see from this discussion of the GFC, we the rabble had essentially no influence on the course of events following 2008. Decisions about what to do had already been made, and there was little or nothing we could do about it, despite our constant yammering and raising of alarums. It simply didn’t matter. Our financial overlords would be made whole, more than whole in many cases, and we would be left to pay the bill or perish. Period.

    A series of political decisions were made well outside our view by people we often had no knowledge of — to make whole the gambling losses of the Overclass and to reduce many millions of Americans to penury — and to blame them for it. Ha! Let them eat cake indeed.

    We could easily see the results, but we couldn’t see the sausage making — at least not most of it — so we blamed the most prominent political face (Obama’s) and struggled on as best we could, or in too many cases members of the rabble perished.

    Decisions are still being made outside our view, deeply corrupt and Overclass-serving, and we blame this or that political face (Manchin and Sinema for now, Biden of course tomorrow or Friday when BBB fails to pass) and we struggle on.

    By now it should be pretty starkly obvious what Our Rulers want: to be rid of us first of all, and to compete among themselves for whatever they can seize of what remains of terrestrial habitable zones. They will rid themselves of us by pitting us against one another, all against all in an Ultimate Survivor game. It’s long been a Hollywood staple. Well, now it’s to be real life.

    Our politics, I think, is not capable of dealing with this situation positively or productively for the vast majority of people.

    But maybe I’m wrong…

  10. Z

    In regards to the drug money being run through the banks, this is one area that I think the banks have been over-blamed for because there’s no way they could crack down on that without stepping on the toes of the CIA and their operations since they are partially funded by the CIA’s involvement in the illegal drug trade.


  11. different clue

    @Mark Pontin,

    So the question arises . . . if someone clearly owns the home they live in, with zero mortgage left to pay, but no courthouse deed exists because MERS and such, can such a homeowner circle back around and force a new Courthouse Deed into existence?

  12. Mark Pontin

    @ different clue —

    IANAL, and I dunno. I take it this is beyond idle curiosity?

    I can glance through Dayen’s CHAIN OF TITLE over the next few days, because like I say some people did successfully fight foreclosure actions bought against them with robosigned documents after 2008. Also, only about 10-20 percent of homes went through MERS and you can look up on the internet whether a specific home did; I remember that I looked up my own place (can’t remember how and it hadn’t) before I walked away from it.

    Beyond that, there are things I know because I’ve read a lot and there are things I know — and that you can only know — from talking to people involved in that particular scene and/or being involved yourself. This seems like one of those things where one would actually need to go around and interview some specialist lawyers to be sure.

  13. Hugh

    I know someone who received a legal document from the bank holding their mortgage in place of the deed, which the bank said they didn’t have. I never saw the document but the bank, they would, said it was as good as.

  14. different clue

    @Mark Pontin,

    If I ever “buy” a house, I would like to be able to show that I really “own” it in such a way that a FIRE sector conspiracy would find it harder to steal than the average house.

    And in the broader sense, people who “own” their houses and yards may well want to turn their houses and yards into at[least-partial Survival Doomsteads. But if their houses and yards can be stolen at any moment by the FIRE conspiracy, will they dare to make that physical survival investment?

    If millions of people want to shrink the upper class economy from the top down, and want to outfit their houses and yards for partial subsistence as their role in that effort, they will want to know that their houses and yards won’t all be stolen.

  15. different clue

    @Mark Pontin,

    On the cheery side, it sounds like the ownership records of a number of houses weren’t
    all MERSed up to begin with. So those houses might have a degree of immunity to FIRE-itis.

  16. Trinity

    Che, you aren’t wrong.

    “one would actually need to go around and interview some specialist lawyers to be sure.”

    George Packer did do this, in the Tampa FL area, and published it in his book The Unwinding. It’s a little dated now, but is focused on the early teens, the aftermath, iirc.

    Ian, one could almost (but not quite) replace the word “culture” for “politics” in your chapter. This led me to thinking about the difference, and the answer came pretty quickly: “power over others” is on the political side. And of course, culture is nothing more than “what we do”. There’s some power for cultural icons, but it usually fades as people grow up and out of a fad, but they still never have power over an entire population as they do in politics.

    We can’t change politics because we don’t have any power, but we can control culture (“what we do”), although the will to change what we do isn’t there yet for everyone. And every year they are making it almost impossible for us to find alternatives (and not by accident, I think). I’m thinking especially of monopolies, and favorite targets of my ire are cable and internet providers, as they have managed to ensure they have a monopoly in almost every single county in the US. They literally can and do charge whatever they want, a captured market. They can nickel and dime us to death, invent fees on the fly, break their apps with every update, they don’t have to care. (I hope no one chimes in here and says they are just incompetent. I’m hoping the use of that phrase to explain their behavior has ended permanently.)

  17. Yves Webber

    I hope no one chimes in here and says they are just incompetent. I’m hoping the use of that phrase to explain their behavior has ended permanently.

    Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

  18. Hugh

    The modern formulation is never attribute to incompetence what can be explained by malice.

  19. Z

    Being extremely competent at being “incompetent” in ways that benefit the purveyor can also often best be characterized as malice.


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