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

Review: Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs came to prominence with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which examined what made cities succeed and fail in extremely minute detail–such as how pedestrians walk on sidewalks and what makes parks safe. It’s a brilliant book, and reshaped urban planning, but I’ve always found her economic duology, The Economy of Cities and this book more useful to my interests.

Cities and the Wealth of Nations was published in 1984, and starts with the observation, and case, that the economy of much of the world seemed to have gone off track in a semi-permanent fashion: Something had changed from the post-WWII economy, something which downshifted the economy.

When I first read this book, around 1990, I didn’t think much of that position, but I now know it’s true: Between 1968 and 1980 a vast variety of economic and social metrics all shifted to new tracks; bad tracks. From inequality to wage growth to productivity to growth in the third world, it all went bad.

Jacobs thinks that the way we analyze economies is wrong from the bottom up. Nations, to Jacobs, make no sense as economic units. Canada and Singapore and Britain have almost nothing in common except the fact that they are sovereign units.

To Jacobs, as one would expect, cities are the fundamental economic unit. It is in cities that new work, new industries, are created. It is cities which generate economic forces, forces which affect non-city regions unevenly.

When you lump cities together with non city regions, economics gets ugly. Part of this is feedback: Because cities are the fundamental economic units, when they grow, they should receive the feedback of imported items growing cheaper; and when they are stagnant or shrinking, imported items should become more expensive.

Put simply, cities should have their own currencies, but don’t. They are lumped together with other cities and with non-city regions, and the import/export effects of those regions swamp what each city needs.

In sovereign areas, with multiple economically active cities, this tends to crush all cities but one: You can see this most clearly in England, which used to have many economically active cities and which, as of Jacobs’ writing, was down to two: Birmingham and London.

London, basically, drove the value of the pound. This was inappropriate to the needs of other cities and strangled them, turning them economically inert: They were cities only in the sense of their populations, they were not economically viable cities where large amounts of new work was still generated.

Large hinterland regions do the same thing: If you have a lot of agriculture or a lot of mineral resources or anything else from your hinterlands, the exchange rate will tend to be propped higher than the city(s) need, again strangling growth.

Workarounds for this are always inefficient. You can do what the US did in the 19th century and have tariffs, but that hurts agricultural and resource regions–they simply aren’t receiving what they should from their labour, and is doesn’t eliminate the multiple cities problem.

So, ideally, cities should have their own currencies, and so should non-city regions, so that everyone is getting the feedback they require (steps must also be taken to ensure that currency rates are driven almost entirely by export/import, and not by speculation or by central bank/government manipulation).

This is hard to do in the real world, for obvious reasons, but I agree with Jacobs we should find a way to do it.

Jacobs also spends a lot of time detailing how cities influence non-city regions; almost always in ways that deform the non-city regions and often harmfully.

The first of these influences are supply regions, which produce something cities want. In the modern era, the foremost of these might be Saudi Arabia: It’s rich, because it has oil, but with almost nothing else it is doomed to poverty once oil is no longer important. Economically productive cities want the oil and want nothing else Saudi Arabia produces. When those cities stop wanting that oil (or enough of it), doom will fall. (Jacob uses the example of Uruguay, which was once very prosperous, but never had economically active cities.)

The second influence is regions workers abandon–a place where everyone leaves to go to cities, because there is no work in the region. Examples are distressingly common, and all the screams in the US about immigrants are essentially about such regions in Mexico and further south–places where people can’t make a living, and have to leave.

A variation on this is clearances. New technology displaces workers out of regions. The classic case was peasants forced off their land in Britain, so landowners could enclose the land and grow crops or tend sheep for more money. But this happens all the time in the third world, where subsistence workers are forced off the land for plantations, and is a regular occurance today in China, where people are cleared out of a place so that suburbs or mines or whatnot can be built.

The next type is capital for regions without cities. Jacobs uses the example of the Volta dam in Ghana. It has a huge hydroelectric power supply, but there’s no real value to it, because there is no industry to take advantage of it. All the while, the dam itself destroys local agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Large amounts of money also often go into picturesque regions used for vacations, driving out most of the people who were there before the money arrived, distorting their economy.

Then there are places that were once cities; economically productive, which lose their productivity. Jacobs gives ancient Egypt as an example: the heart of a technologically sophisticated civilization, eventually reduced to mostly subsistence agriculture and no longer one of the beating hearts of the ancient world. A better example, I think, is Europe in the Dark Ages. When the Arabs cut off trade, Europe swiftly became a backwater hole, losing almost all of its advanced cities and spending centuries sinking into poverty before it started growing and advancing again the Middle Ages.

Economically active cities, in short, are powerful, and they often do nasty things to regions that are not cities. Even when what they do seems good, as with demand for oil, or Uruguay’s produce and minerals, it is a boon that can disappear at any time.

Jacobs points out one other thing of note: Backwards cities are best off trading with each other, rather than with the more advanced cities. This was, by the way, a more prevalent pattern in the post-war period before neoliberalism, and in that period growth was faster. The argument is simple enough: Advanced cities often don’t need the goods produced by backwards cities, but other backwards cities do.

Overall, this is an important book. One of the most important I’ve ever read. The point about broken feedback and economic units not making sense is absolutely fundamental and explains a simple fact: City states which can manage to survive the political-military environment, almost always do very well. The ideal economic circumstance is a world of city states, but we don’t have that due to military political reasons (they can’t defend themselves).

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t figure out a way to get the results of city states while allowing for defense.

To me, then, it’s a must-read book, and perhaps Jacobs’ most important.

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  1. Sanctimonious purist

    Jacobin has a whole issue out on cities right now. Some of the articles slam Jacobs for being the catalyst for gentrification. Wondering what you think, Ian.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Have not read them, off hand, doesn’t seem correct.

  3. different clue

    I will have to think and read before I can say anything about the big points of this post.

    To one specific little point . . . about all the screaming here in America over the 11 million Mexicans and some other people besides who are in this country because they can’t make a living in Mexico ( for the majority who came from Mexico) . . . . the reason they can’t make a living in Mexico is because NAFTA was negotiated and written and passed to deliberately on purpose destroy the living those millions of Mexicans used to make in Mexico. The point of de-protectionizing Mexican agriculture and forcibly dumping Midwestern petro-corporate corn onto the de-protectionized Mexican market was to starve out millions of Mexican corn-growers into abandoning their corn farms and go to work in the semi-slave-labor maquiladoras which were intended to be set up along the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border.

    Since Mulroney of Canada was equally guilty along with Reagan of America for beginning the NAFTA negotiating process, it seems to me that some of the Mexicans should go into Canada so Canada can do its share of the screaming caused by its share of the support for NAFTA. Since Canada is ten times smaller than America, perhaps Canada should take ten per cent of the NAFAstinian refugees who were driven out of Mexico by Reagan’s AND Mulroney’s NAFTA dream.

    Of course whenever I hear about NAFTA yet again I remember that it was the anti-American traitor Bill Clinton who actually got NAFTA signed and passed. And it was his filthy little twisted slime-mold wife who pledged that “when elected”, she would put Slicky Bill in charge of “America’s economic recovery policy”. Two, three . . . Many NAFTAs.
    That was part of what led me to realize that she could not be allowed to become President under any circumstance. We had to stop the Clinton before it killed again. That explains why just enough people who had voted for Obama both times turned around and voted for Trump.

    Not one more Clinton. Never! Ever! No! No more.

    Back to the sources of our economic decay: I hope Tony Wikrent has read these books or will read them and decide what he thinks about them in light of what he already knows.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Yes, NAFTA was a disaster for Mexican small and subsistence farmers and for Mexican food in general (as US companies bought them up and reduced quality and increased price.)

  5. Billikin

    Not to disagree with what has been said, what of the idea that the increasing stagnation of advanced economies since the mid 20th century is in no small part the result of the diminishing returns of fossil fuel extraction? Economic growth, as we define it today, rests upon increasing energy use, and energy is becoming more expensive in real terms.

    As for having their own currencies, many cities do that already, to a limited extent, via things such as coupon books for local mercants and currencies based upon “hours”.

  6. Hugh

    I look at economy in terms of society. An economy exists to serve the needs of a society. Cities are usually the most productive centers within a society, but the society needs to be looked at as a whole and not just what is best for certain areas of it. Even if a cities approach was taken, there would be nothing to stop class differences and class inequalities from developing in urban areas, even highly productive ones, and so societal needs, even within the more limited scope of the city, would not be met.

    The problem we have in the US is that neither the political system nor the economy is run to meet the needs of society, we the people. Instead we have a system of the rich, by the rich, for the rich, a system in which people are a commodity, and not a particularly valuable one.

  7. Bill K.

    Cities, while they have the ability to attract and maintain sustainable inflows of wealth, also
    can be seen as a “microcosm” of city vs non-city regions: within a city, let’s say New York, we have contrasting economies based upon, in part, wealth and poverty.
    The sustainable flows of wealth in New York City include tourism (national and global), prominent hospitals and universities that attract educated and talented people of wealth, a component not found in the rural midwest.
    Additionally, as an example, Lexington Mass, in suburban Boston, has been attracting no less than a flood of legal immigrants from Asia. They bring with them money,wealth and work skills, adding to the general urban economy. And perhaps more importantly, that wish to raise and educate their children in Lexington’s public schools, ranked upon the top in the nation. These kids will go on to become doctors, lawyers, business people and educators …with no plans to return to China. This creates new wealth in city and suburb and far from the poverty in the coal mining region of the midwest.
    So, I guess I agree with Hugh (above) in that cities facilitate a system of black/white and rich/poor: wealth vs poverty…and as long as one is in the wealthy “side of town”, their needs are likely being met without regard to the needs of the other half: urban and rural America can coexist just fine without regard to upsetting the economic balance of the nation.

  8. Peter


    It’s been almost a generation since the displacement of marginal subsistence farmers in Mexico happened. I read an interview with one man who came to the US to work after the subsidies to small Mexican farmers were cut. He sent money back home so his children got an education so they wouldn’t have to be subsistence farmers and they are professionals now. The farmer is now retiring back to his farm to grow the local maize land race as a hobby. If this type of story is representative of many of the families affected by NAFTA then there was some progress that came out of the pain of disruption.

    Mexico has about 5 million people involved in farming, many at the small producer subsistence level who have survived the change to world market prices and they still help produce all the maize used for human consumption in Mexico.

    The production of Mexico’s staple food tortillas made from masa harina is controlled by two Mexican multinationals, Grupo Maseca and Bimbo, the first the largest baker/processor in the world. Both have penetrated the US and European markets with maize products prepared in a three thousand year old process called nixtamalization which makes vitamin B3 and proteins available. Mexico never suffered the pellagra epidemic the US South did in the early l900’s with 3 million cases and a hundred thousand deaths caused from eating too much yellow cornbread low in niacin.

    American companies such as Wal-Mart have affected Mexican’s eating habits in a negative way with the introduction of processed foods and empty calories but that has nothing to do with Mexican food quality.

  9. Jeff Wegerson

    @Billikin Increasing costs of extracting oil sounds reasonable as a contributor to stagnation. If so, then will the decreasing costs of clean energies signal a return to economic resurgence?

    Also will the ability of cities to source energy more locally contribute to their economic health.

  10. Tom

    Sums up why America is where it is. The OJ Simpson Trial was far more sinister than we knew and hid issues we never realized or addressed.

  11. someofparts

    John Michael Greer said that historically, the size of our social units leads to different types of organizing systems. For nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, epic narratives are the repository of their history and culture. After settled agriculture emerges, small towns begin to develop and religion emerges. When tribes who formerly had different founding narratives must live together, religion gives them a common belief system that a small town can share. Eventually the towns grow into cities. At that point, people from different religious traditions must live and work together, so everybody gets secular.

  12. Creigh Gordon

    One of the things we do right in the USA that Europe is failing at is fiscal transfers from rich areas (cities in the Northeast and California, mostly) to rural areas (Mississippi, New Mexico, Alaska, etc.). We used to do this more explicitly, I think. The reason there are 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks was to prevent the interests of the New York financial powers from starving the credit needs of the rest of the country, for example. This is one way to address Jacobs’ point that cities need their own currency. Not perfect, of course, but certainly saving our rural areas from even greater neglect. I had no idea Jane Jacobs wrote on this subject; I’ll have to add this to my reading list.

  13. bruce wilder

    My little hobbyhorse is how mind-numbing the big lies of neoclassical economics really are: all the conventional but essentially false talk of market economies obfuscates the interesting phenomena. Jacobs demonstrates the value of looking with intelligent curiosity.
    The politics of economics — the choosing or managing of the collective or centralized interventions that make radically decentralized cooperation work — is really hard, but it is made infinitely harder by doctrines that obscure the need to do that creative work of support and arbitration and constraint and facilitating.
    I cannot say I think Jacobs properly credits some of the key elements that make a thriving economy possible, but it is rare that anyone does. Commercial civilization requires as a prerequisite an agricultural revolution; industrial civilization requires an energy revolution. That is recognized sometimes in the abstract, but the details, for good and ill, are often overlooked in an enthusiasm for the abstracted magic of technology. The countryside matters, too. Chinese civilization died in the overcrowded rice paddies of 1500, but historians treat that epic stagnation as some mysterious disease of the spirit, rather than a shortage of surplus calories and some social mechanism similar to English enclosures to contain the effect of overpopulation. Few American economists — even specialists — credit the New Deal’s second Agricultural Adjustment Act and panoply of efforts to address problems of rural areas and farming as the most successful industrial policy in history. If anything, the convention is rote neoliberal scorn for the system of “subsidies” and general interference with the magic market. So, in our time soil erosion accelerates, the integrity of food safety erodes, obesity becomes a pandemic, etc. France, I saw in a news article the other day, has abandoned certain dairy farm subsidies in a neoliberal reform and suicide among farmers is climbing.

    The point of my digression is that only cities=productivity is the wrong takeaway from Jacobs. She gives an example of how thinking concretely about mechanisms of human interaction can help us make sense of what works for the genuine welfare of humans in the economy and economic development. We are stupid beasts, we humans, and without reflection on what our social systems are creating, our politics makes stupid collective choices. It can be as simple as people being irritated by the shortage of parking and traffic jams and air pollution and as Jacobs observed, the aging stock of structures after the neglect of 20 years of depression and war, and then choosing to trade streetcars for suburbs and commutes.

    Somehow, our politics has to find ways to engage people in thinking about the consequences of social systems, so that the state can lead society collectively a bit more intelligently than a slime mold.

    Jacobs, to me, stands for that effort to be smart, to stand up in a city council meeting and challenge the expertise of traffic engineers who have their heads up their asses, reams of statistics and a politically powerful patron with no sense of the consequences of paving over, if not paradise, community.

  14. different clue

    @Ian Welsh,

    The worst thing about the disaster imposed upon the Mexican corn farmers ( and other food growers and makers) is that it was deliberate. NAFTA was carefully engineered on purpose to achieve this result against the Mexican small farmer community. It was done on purpose to drive them off the land and into the maquiladoras. Deliberately, on purpose and with malice aforethought.

    The answer would be a Hard Repeal of NAFTA and total permission for America and Mexico to re-protectionize their national agriculture sectors. That way the Mexican corn grower would no longer have petro-corporate Midwestern subsidy corn dumped on THEIR market, and the American vegetable grower would no longer have corporate globalonial wage-slave-labor Mexican vegetables dumped on OUR market. Rural social viability could be restored over the next few decades in both countries separately and apart from eachother.

    The longest range goal should be food justice and food soveriegnty for every country.
    Free Trade is the New Slavery.
    Protectionism is the New Abolition.
    Free and equal Protectionism for All. Free Trade for None! Abolish Free Trade.

  15. Peter

    @Jeff W

    The cost of extracting oil is important but not as important as the price of oil. The crash in oil prices has driven producers to dramatically reduce the cost of fracking tight oil.

    I keep reading about the low cost clean energy that’s coming but never seems to arrive while the clean energy already available depended on huge taxpayer subsidies to attract investment and would stop dead without continuing probably never-ending subsidy. Big Green loves this protected position and people like Elon Musk will continue to have their business plans subsidized by taxpayers.

    New York State is pushing clean energy and has stopped fracking and blocked new gas pipelines. This could lead to power shortages especially in NYC because solar and wind are intermittent power sources requiring rapid-start gas fired power plants to back them up.

  16. different clue

    (Separately and off topic) . . .

    Naked Capitalism remains valuable even though it now has no comments function. Their most recent post is about the problems inherent in big internet on-ramps setting themselves up as arbiters of what is real news or not, or what even is and isn’t data. I don’t know if I can copy-paste from this Resort Hotel Computer, but I will try.

    ( no , just doesn’t work. Or maybe I’m just too dumm to work it).

    It shows yet again why somebody should try and craft a better search engine which permits actual searches. Somebody might also craft a better social networking platform than facebook.
    They could make it so much better than Facebook that people would actually pay to subscribe, join and use it. That way it could be commercial-free and have zero need to sell data to data-buyers. If the users would have to pay to use, they would not themselves be the product. They would be paying users.

    It could call itself Shinola Search and Social. Or it could call itself something else if the word Shinola is now to backward and obsolete for the Youngers to know what it means.

  17. bruce wilder

    @ Creigh Gordon

    Really not trying to pick a fight, but this abstract cliche about fiscal transfers is an example of neoliberal propaganda. It is true as far as it goes, but its abstract formula obscures a plain view of the way the actual system has operated for the last 30 years to strip-mine the industry of the Great Lakes region and funnel resources to the centers of financial rent-seeking in NYC and DC. You are not suppose to notice how monetary and financial policies work to make those transfers. Pay no attention to the reform of bankruptcy or the repeal of usury. Do not look at globalization and out-sourcing as the products of predatory finance; think of them as mysterious and impersonal forces of advancing modernity; pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, don’t you love your iPhone?

  18. nihil obstet

    The physical, political, and social infrastructure more effect that it’s getting credit for here. I note that Ian summarized Jacobs and commented, “backwards cities are best off trading with each other, rather than with the most advanced cities. This was, by the way, more the pattern in the post-war period before neo-liberalism, and in that period growth was faster.” Did neo-liberalism do anything that affected that pattern? Like say, deregulating airlines, so that it’s a pain in the neck and the balance sheet to get from one middle-sized city to another? As corporate decision makers rank their personal comfort as the number one factor in business decisions, the middle-sized cities get killed.

    Or how about banking? The banking bailout of 2008-09 make New York even wealthier while something around one third of small banks around the country went bankrupt. There’s a significant lack of context if New York is simply seen as growing because it’s a major, rich city which is really its own economic unit.

    Major cities may become rich by being centers of strong economic improvement through communication and innovation. But once the process starts, they continue at the expense of other regions because rich people can get the government to make their lives better at the expense of everyone else. They dismantle the systems that distribute the source and fruits of activity, and where they find it desirable, create new ones that favor them.

  19. A1

    Ian – excellent review of Jane Jacobs – I agree she gets the urban economics bang on. I think she gets her urban planning wrong though. Mixed use is wonderful in certain areas where you have small industries and small professionals. With increasing scale even white collar industries become unsuitable for mixed use.

    Regardless of how much I like meat I don’t want to live beside the rendering plant, and as much as I like Apple I would not want to live across the street from the new HQ. IMHO Cities should provide a wide variety of housing . I for one don’t want to live in a multi family unit and that should not be penalised.

    One other thing Jacobs gets at is many of the functions Cities used to provide are now provided by malls. The mall will manage the main street like the City used to but can’t or won’t. Things like snow removal and policing as well as managing the retail mix are things Cities used to try to do but don’t so developers have stepped in to fill the void.

    With the continuing death of retail it will be interesting to see how this goes forward. Vibrant high streets like Jacobs likes and vibrant shopping centres don’t happen by either accident or market forces alone.

  20. bruce wilder

    (Separately and off topic) . . .

    @ different clue

    NC is really only works on the basis of having a narrative of political economy founded on a deeper analysis. Everyday is another chapter in “Imperial Collapse Watch” or “Guillotine Watch” or other more neutral topics on which the principals nevertheless are weaving a sophisticated and analytic point of view. They have drawn a supportive reader base, who expand on those narrative interpretations. People being human, paranoia and apocalypse are never far off horizons, but they do a better job of typically arrogant centrist academics of staying sufficiently cynical and in reality.

    Comments are a critical part of the feedback loop and also the frontier where the site confronts the crazy being fomented in the world at large. I do not doubt the emotional costs of “moderating” the unconscious made manifest in open comments is high. They need some inlet — I hope they see that soon.

  21. Richard

    @Billikin: Power usage in first world countries actually peaked a decade ago and has been falling ever since.

    The unsubsidized cost of producing energy from solar and wind is actually below coal now, comparable to nat gas costs, and solar costs are still falling dramatically:

    This is a field where you have to update your data every couple of years because the costs of solar power are falling that fast.

    As for the issue of intermittency: Giant batteries. Like dammed up reservoirs. When you have excess power, use it to move water in to the upper reservoir from the lower reservoir. When you need power, open up the dam to get hydroelectric power.

  22. Hugh

    The NY Fed is about as big as the other 11 regional Feds combined. New York is definitely a financial center but I think we should look at wealth transfer more in terms of class and less in terms of geography. New York (and Washington) are where the mechanisms of transfer are located but it is still the rich are getting richer no matter where they happen to reside.

    On the OT, NC is going full on FDL. It lucked into a community which supported it and gave it prominence. Its principals (Yves and Lambert) grew increasingly out of touch with that community and eventually threw it under the bus. In doing so, it went from being something special to being just another blog. It did a pretty good job as a links aggregator, but most of its other posts have been so so for a while. All of this equates, I think, to fewer visits, less time per visit, less support, and less prominence. The Age of Trump should have been a Golden Age for such a site. Instead the opposite has been true.

  23. realitychecker

    @ Hugh

    Totally with you on this one.

    No blog post covers all the possible angles and insights re a given topic. A commenting community that includes a critical mass of knowledgeable people provides endless opportunities to explore and illuminate the shadowy, tangential, and esoteric details that further true context and deeper understanding of the instant topic.

    FDL had the best such community I have ever seen. I always knew I was going to learn from reading the comment threads, and quickly learned which handles were most likely to be bringing additional understanding. Here, we seem to have only a dozen or so such voices, unfortunately, but they are a treasure, and really enhance the value and power of what Ian writes, IMHO.

    The personal stuff that some folks find so distracting is a small price to pay for preserving the ability of the knowing ones to share their special insights. But that personal stuff also serves an important purpose, to demonstrate to the dreamier among us that we are working with very flawed material in our efforts to improve society.

  24. different clue

    @Bruce Wilder,

    When I am back home at my homebase computers which let me copy-paste, I will copy-paste something Yves Smith wrote very recently which gives pause for concern over just how she and Lambert Strether do or don’t see the future of “comments” on their blog.

    @Bruce Wilder,

    Separately, years ago I read Charles Walters’s book Unforgiven! Both there and in political-economic articles and editorials in his Acres USA paper, he wrote about the Agricultural Adjustment Act and especially about the Steagall Ammendment added to that Act. As I understand it, the Steagall Ammendment was made functionally possible by the Nazi German submarine blockade around America which provided a kind of inadvertent unintended “protectionism” for American Agriculture. This made it possible to enFORCE the criminalization of underpricing for several agricultural commodities and products listed in the Steagall Ammendment. This allowed for keeping money-flows throughout the society, from rural to urban, broad-based and flowing enough that taxes could keep being collected for the tax-supported component of War Funding. Do you know anything about the Steagall Ammendment and if so could you tell us what you know?

    And I wonder what Tony Wikrent knows about all this too. ( Tony Wikrent was just beginning to comment at NaCap and now comments are shut down. A responder to his comment about something had real difficulty understanding Wikrent’s comment. I never got around to encouraging Wikrent to keep commenting over the years to come, citing my mentioning of Frederick Soddy over several years before anyone else began mentioning Frederick Soddy also).

    (The anti-Russian sanctions of today provide a sort of inadvertent protectionism to the Russian agriculture sector and as such provide a very interesting real-time experiment in what a country can do for its agriculture behind a protectionist wall if it takes the opportunity to do so.)


    Yes, I have read about nixtamalization. It reads something like “making hominy” from corn as practiced by the Indian Nations of North America. It also reminds me of some of the Soutwestern Tribes and Nations who mix culinary ash into their corn meal after grinding but before cooking . . . the bright blue Hopi piki bread being an example.

    So what I wonder is this: can you or anyone else here who knows tell us whether soaking corn seeds and letting them sprout till the root-tip and embryo leaf is just emerging will mobilize and available-ize nutrients just like lime or ash treatment does?

  25. Peter


    Cooking the corn kernel in an alkali solution produces a number of chemical reactions that result in a food that civilizations could be built upon. Untreated maize is a poor nutritional staple that still causes health problems in Africa and even China. If hominy had been used to make cornbread in the US South there wouldn’t have been an epidemic of pellagra.

    The adding of lye during food preparation is for flavor enhancement, used like salt that was often a rare commodity. A Mexican worker at a local restaurant was fired for adding a dash of kitchen cleanser to the chile stew.

    Hominy won’t sprout because the germ is killed by the nixtam process but it doesn’t need to. I think the sprouting of untreated maize is called malting and is part of the brewing process used to make ethanol for our cars and moonshiners.

  26. Jeff Wegerson

    @Billikin @Peter @Richard
    Richard has it right about the current un-subsidized costs of clean energy being comparable to coal already. And remember, fossil has huge subsidy dependencies,

    As for load and peaking needs, with smarter and smarter grids pulling from a wide enough net wind tends to be blowing somewhere. For peaking, solar tends to coincide with the afternoon cooling and industrial peak needs. And, of course, as Richard says battery tech is ramping up with a lot of development tech in the pipeline.

    Base load as an issue is discussed less and less these days. Capitalism’s penchant for over building will dove tail nicely with that approach to base load questions anyway.

  27. different clue


    So, the question is: does early-stage malting of the corn, to where it is just beginning to sprout, mobilize the same locked-up nutrients that nixtamalization mobilizes? If one were to eat the sprouted corn instead of just going on ahead to ferment it? Does anyone know? Has anyone looked into this?

  28. different clue


    For intermittent surplus solar/wind power, “giant battery” could also take the form of hydrogen storage if the hydrogen could be stored.

    Some time ago in a NaCap thread, someone claimed that one of the mid-size oil companies was researching if anything could be done with the final petcoke left after every liquid, gum and tar had been sweated out of the oil. They found that activating it “like charcoal” could fill it with trillions of micropits and micropores. Hydrogen gas would attach to numerous holding sites along the carbon pore surfaces. The hydrogen would pack in almost as dense as if it were liquid but at room temperature and pressure. It became a paraliquid. It could be loaded onto the activated petcoke and stripped back off over and over and over again.

    If that is really true, then surplus solar/wind electricity could be used to electrolyze water and put the hydrogen into vast tanks full of activated petcoke for storage. It could be let back out and burned to turn turbines or whatever other method one wanted to extract its combustion energy back out of it and convert the harvestable-after-losses portion into electricity to send back down the grid. That too would be performing essentially the giant battery function to smooth out the intermittent surplus and shortage of solar/wind power.

  29. Mel

    One thing about Naked Capitalism, is that the comments we saw were the *good* comments. The alleged nasty workload would be due to the comments they had to delete — the ones that we never read.

  30. Peter

    @Jeff &Richard

    There is no argument about the fact that the solar panel industry has matured and followed the same cost reduction curve that is seen in the flat-screen TV business. Most of the easy process savings have already occurred so squeezing out more savings won’t be easy. The same is true for the instillation side of the business who have developed best practices to control their costs.

    It’s difficult maybe impossible to make a direct comparison of the costs of solar/wind compared to coal/gas. Do you include the cost of new gas fired generators needed to integrate solar/wind into the hybrid system being built? If solar is so affordable now we shouldn’t need the 30% federal tax credit that ends next year. The solar industry will be lobbying heavily for its extension because they know that without it sales will plummet.

    With todays lower system costs and subsidies the roof-top systems are only affordable for the more affluent home owners who can take on more debt. Even if these Chinese sweatshop manufactured solar panels last their projected 25 years they are not renewable, they must be replaced so all the pollution/cost involved in their manufacture will be repeated.

    There is no viable affordable new battery technology on any horizon, it appears to be wishful thinking hoping to pass by the limits of Li batteries sometime in the future. The water storage and regeneration schemes are already in use but they add considerable cost to the electricity they produce because of pumping energy requirements and losses during generation. With most of the large scale solar projects planned for desert areas of the West perhaps mirage lakes could be used for a storage scheme.

  31. S Brennan

    In spite of claims to the contrary, the nation state isn’t going to disappear, beecause city states are to easily crushed economically/militarily.

    For ordinary people, a return to BILATERAL trade negotiations is the best that can be hoped for. Trade blocks of equal status countries make sense only when their status is truly equal.

    Bilateral trade/tariffs are complicated and ever-changing, requiring agility out of businessmen, they favor those who do not place too much capitol away from it’s source, they force retaining capability and punish overseas, extended, single-source production. In short bilateral trade employs more people [it’s complicated] and forces diversification of resources throughout the planet, it also engenders creativity since markets are more diverse, leaving greater space for low entry level entrepreneurs.

  32. Billikin


    “Power usage in first world countries actually peaked a decade ago and has been falling ever since.”

    That’s consistent with the rising cost of fossil fuels. And with economic “secular stagnation”.

  33. Richard

    @Peter: I’m leery of the argument that all efficiency gains in solar have been squeezed out. Mainly because solar power seems to be following a version of Moore’s Law as well, and computing power never reached what you call a mature state.

    In any case, Jacob’s idea of cities as economic engines is neat, but as @Brennan said, eventually, empires and nation-states crush all because they can project military might. Singapore and a relatively unfettered HK has only existed for a few generations. The city-states of classical Greece, the Hanseatic League, and Renaissance Italy may have been the best places to live in their region and time at their peak, and they all lasted far longer than Singapore and HK, but their peak didn’t last.

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