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

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy –  October 11, 2020

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy –  October 11, 2020
by Tony Wikrent

Dear Readers — I had no choice but to abandon Blogger this past week. The workaround to the miserable new version of Blogger, suggested by a reader two weeks ago, simply would no longer work. So, sorry that this post comes a good bit later in the day than past posts.  


See something? Report voter suppression and obstacles to voting.

[Twitter, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-8-20]

Strategic Political Economy

“Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti of The Holy Father Francis On Fraternity And Social Friendship”

[The Vatican, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-7-20]

From the section “Re-envisaging the social role of property”:

119. In the first Christian centuries, a number of thinkers developed a universal vision in their reflections on the common destination of created goods.[91] This led them to realize that if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it. Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well”.[92] In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, “When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us”.[93]

120. Once more, I would like to echo a statement of Saint John Paul II whose forcefulness has perhaps been insufficiently recognized: “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”.[94] For my part, I would observe that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.[95] The principle of the common use of created goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order”;[96] it is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others.[97] All other rights having to do with the goods necessary for the integral fulfilment of persons, including that of private property or any other type of property, should – in the words of Saint Paul VI – “in no way hinder [this right], but should actively facilitate its implementation”.[98] The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.

The Socialist Moment, and How to Extend It

Harold Meyerson, October 9, 2020 [American Prospect]

Sanders has always made it plain that socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was his hero, but in Judis’s telling, the key to Sanders’s zeitgeist-changing success was his move away from the socialist insularity that Debs espoused. While nominally remaining a political independent, Sanders won election to Congress on a social democratic platform of greater regulation of capital, greater power for workers, an expansion of social welfare and economic rights, and a pledge that he’d caucus with the Democrats. When he began running for president in 2015, Sanders made clear his model of socialism was the Scandinavian mixed economy. But as Judis recounts, after Columbia University historian Eric Foner sent him an open letter that emphasized a more American pedigree for socialist initiatives, Sanders took the hint. As I recounted in the Prospect, in Sanders’s two speeches that he billed as his definition of socialism—one given at Georgetown University in 2015, the second at George Washington University in 2019—he cited Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King as his forebears in the struggle for socialist reforms.

Yanis Varoufakis: How Progressives Could Still Win the 21st Century
[Naked Capitalism, October 8, 2020]

NC’s Yves Smith introduces Varoufakis’s article by excerpting from Richard Kline’s 2012 essay, Progressively Losing:

In my considered view, ‘progressives’ lose because they do not have it as a goal to win. Their principal concern is to criticize the moral failings of others in society, particularly the moral failings of those in power.

At best, progressives seek to convert. In the main, they name and shame—ineffectively. American ‘progressives’ distrust political power, period, are queasy about anyone having it, and suspicious toward anyone who actively seeks it, including other putative progressives. The contest as progressives conceive it is fundamentally a moral one: they believe they are right, and want their opposition to see the light and reform/conform. Thus, they don’t frame what they engage in as a fight but rather as a debate.

By Yanis Varoufakis. Originally published at The Correspondent; cross posted from his website:

Prerequisite 3: A Shared Vision of Postcapitalism

Consider what happened on 12 August 2020, the day the news broke that the British economy had suffered its greatest slump ever. The London Stock Exchange jumped by more than 2%! Nothing comparable had ever occurred. Similar developments unfolded on Wall Street in the United States.

In essence, when Covid-19 met the gargantuan bubble with which governments and central banks have been zombifying corporations and financial institutions since 2008, financial markets finally decoupled from the underlying capitalist economy.

The result of these remarkable developments is that capitalism has already begun to evolve into a type of technologically advanced feudalism. Neoliberalism is now what Marxism-Leninism used to be during the Soviet 1980s: an ideology utterly at odds even with the regime invoking it. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991, and of financialised capitalism in 2008, we are well into a new phase in which capitalism is dying and socialism is refusing to be born.

If I am right in this, even progressives who still entertain hopes of reforming or civilising, capitalism, must consider the possibility that we must look beyond capitalism – indeed, that we must plan for a postcapitalist civilisation. The problem is that, as my great friend Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, most people find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Varoufakis’s article is another example of how the left is crippled by its irreligiosity and its lack of understanding of the United States as a revolutionary experiment in republican self government. The USA is dismissed as a legitimate model because it was sullied from the start by the compromise with slave holders to achieve union. Heather Cox Richardson is great on discussing this paradox of American history and politics, including tracing how the extractive economics of the slave holding south get transferred to the USA west after the US Civil War, leading to Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the whole assortment of conservative / libertarian sociopaths.

Overcoming this history appears to be an insurmountable obstacle for recovering the fundamental ideas of the American School, which I believe is the only way to properly formulate rules of political economy for a republic. First of all, it’s terrible history to write that Americans traditionally conceive of freedom as the freedom to get ahead economically: to acquire property, and become rich. Lost today is the idea of “competency” – that a citizen needed to make enough to be economically independent so as to have the disinterestedness to decide on public affairs. Also lost is the Judea-Christian idea that your property is not really yours, but given to you by the Creator so that you can conspire with the Creator to serve your fellow men and women and make the world a better place. [See Edmund S. Morgan, “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 3-43.]

In addition, for most of the 19th century (except in the South, then the West), there was great distrust and hostility to concentrations of economic wealth. Among the first substantive legislative acts after independence was the prohibition of primogeniture and entails.

But more fundamentally, USA republican (small “r”, not Republican Party) political economy is based entirely on Alexander Hamilton’s understanding that the ultimate foundation of a nation’s wealth is the productive power and thought of its people. So, it’s not that people are supposed to strive for riches and accumulations of property; the proper goal is increasing humanity’s ability to control and harness the forces and resources of nature. Matt Stolller and other such well-intentioned people simply don’t understand that what Hamilton does is shatter feudal economics, because feudal economics is pretty much zero-sum: for a nation to increase its wealth, it must seize from another nation, or obtain an unfair advantage in trade. Under Hamilton’s system, a nation’s wealth increases as its people develop new and better ways of doing things. I.e., science and technology.

Thus, republicanism values each human individual for their potential to contribute to the improvement of the intellectual, material, cultural, and aesthetic conditions of life. Republicanism thus frees each person from the tyranny of the market. The market can only treat a human being as a consumer, or a commodity unit of labor.

We have now reached a point — with automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence — that the productive power of labor is so great that humanity becomes more and more able to supply its needs and wants without the need for full employment. [Which is why I was very sad to see the pictures accompanying this article was of massive manual labor.] We must embrace the reality that only around 15 percent of a workforce is actually required, and work to conceptualize and build an economy in which the vast majority of people simply are not required to work. Perhaps it looks like this: no one under the age of 21 is employed, and mandatory retirement is taken, with full pay, at 45 or 50. There is universal health care, and education is paid for however many years a person works toward a professional career. People over the age of mandatory retirement serve on local, state, regional, and national boards that award and administer stipends, grants, and honoraria to artists, musicians, authors, and entertainers.

In other words, Hamilton’s vision of political economy for a republic necessarily leads to the inexorable advance of the productive powers of labor to the point that human labor itself is no longer required to provide human needs and wants. Perhaps this is a utopian ideal that will never be reached, but we have reached the point where we must contemplate an economy in which so little labor is required to provide human needs and wants, that it is no longer possible to provide everyone employment. At this point, what sense does it make to tie income so directly to employment? And keep in mind that republican political economy is fundamentally hostile to concentrations of wealth and economic power, which are always used to corrupt the polity. So, having income derived from usury, speculation, arbitrage, asset price inflation must be discouraged if not prohibited. 

This focus on increasing the productive power of labor, and ultimately freeing humanity from the need to work, I think, is how you inject a positive vision into progressive ideas and policies. This is an amazingly optimistic view of humanity and its role as co-creator of the Universe with the Great Architect of the Universe. This positive vision rings out in the speeches of people like John Quincy Adams, Noah Webster, and others. Just look for speeches given at opening ceremonies of things like the Erie Canal and the hundreds of local railroads built before the Civil War. You often also find it in speeches commemorating Independence Day.

The obvious problem, of course, is the pillaging of natural resources and despoliation of the environment. But if you realize that all environmental problems are actually, fundamentally, engineering problems, then you realize that once you destroy the dictatorship of banking and finance, you can fully — and safely — implement visions such as the Green New Deal.

What can republicanism offer the left?

Bruno Leipold, 28 January 2016 [Oxford University Political Blog]

…. the republican conception of freedom has the potential, as  Alex Gourevitch has argued (from 5:00 minutes onwards), to recapture the value of freedom from the right. In popular discourse, freedom and liberty have become nearly completely associated with capitalist freedom: the freedom to dispense with one’s property without government intervention. Socialists and progressives have instead mostly been consigned to making their arguments in terms of equality, fairness and community. Gourevitch points out, that this is a rather strange development, given that the right is historically associated with the values of order, authority and tradition. Their modern stranglehold on the understanding of freedom means that they have managed to lay claim to one of society’s most cherished values. Republican freedom however has the possibility to disrupt that monopoly on meaning.

The recovery of the republican conception of freedom is the result of the collaborative work of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. They argue that under narrower conceptions of freedom, people are only unfree when their actions are interfered with. But under republican freedom, a person is unfree if someone has the capacity to arbitrarily interfere them. Take for example a slave with a benign master (a favourite metaphor amongst republicans). The master is kind and rarely, if ever, interferes with the actions of the slave. A republican would argue that the slave remains unfree because the master retains the power to interfere. The master could at any moment have a change of heart, and that makes the slave entirely dependent on the continuing good will of the master. Worse still, the slave might even have adjusted their behaviour to meet the expectations of the master, so that we might not even witness much interference. The slave is therefore, in republican terminology, dominated  by the master (hence the term freedom as non-domination). Historically republicans like Algernon Sidney, have used this slavery metaphor (sometimes a little opportunistically, since many republicans had no objections to actual slavery) to argue that an absolute monarch makes her/his subjects unfree, because their are no limits on her/his power. People are therefore only free when they live in a free republic….

The second contribution revolves is the importance republicanism places on politics, popular sovereignty and public participation. There are many strains of socialism (from technocratic social-democracy, to Fabianism and Stalinism) that have not placed great emphasis on the idea that ordinary citizens should have extensive participation in political decision-making. There is a tradition in socialism of seeing politics as less important, irrelevant even, when compared to economics. This perhaps most clearly shown in the frequent socialist trope that once we reach socialism, politics will disappear. In contrast, republicanism celebrates the public life. For some republicans this is because public participation has intrinsic value – that it promotes people’s essence as political beings. For others the justification is instrumental – in that popular participation is the only way to ensure that a republic remains free. By combining that language of popular sovereignty with the left’s familiar call for social justice, republicanism can provide away to articulate a powerful democratic alternative.
I do not think this conception of republicanism as non-domination is powerful enough: there must also be an idea of the state as an active force in promoting the best of human nature, promoting the arts, sciences, technology, material conditions of life. For example, read John Adams’ conception of the duties of government as he expressed them in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which Adams wrote: 
“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country,and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions,rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences,commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence,public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. ”
As I argue above, in my response to Varoufakis’s article, republicanism offers a positive vision of increasing humanity’s mastery over the forces of nature, and thus increasing the material, cultural, and spiritual conditions of life, while also advancing humanity toward the goal of freedom from work. And, not neglecting our collective responsibility for ever wiser and more careful stewardship of our planet and its resources. “To form a more perfect Union….” The goal is always perfection, and humanity perfected includes humanity no longer needing to toil and labor. It may never be reached, but it is always the goal. 
There are others who are working to revive socialism and the left by infusing the idea of republicanism: 
Mehrsa Baradaran, University of California, Irvine, Law School, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Harvard University Press, 2019).
Joseph R. Blasi, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, co-author of The Citizen’s Share: Reducing Inequality in the 21st Century.
Robert Hockett, Cornell University Law School, advisor to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, “Materializing Citizenship: Finance in a Producers’ Republic” (2014, Cornell Law Faculty Publications).
Ganesh Sitaraman,  Vanderbilt University Law School, advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren, The Crisis of the Middle-class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.
Jeffrey Sklansky, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, author of The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920, and Sovereign of the Market: The Money Question in Early America.

Commanding Heights: PBS September 2000 interview of  John Kenneth Galbraith, September 28, 2000

Hayek and His Road to Serfdom

INTERVIEWER: In your books you like treat him [Hayek] with a sort of elegant scorn. What did you dislike about his ideas?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Oh, there’s no doubt about it, they were ideas related to the dominant business community and gave substantive thought to ignoring the poor, ignoring the unemployed, ignoring the Depression. He was above all that and arguing strenuously for what the establishment, the fortunate, found favorable.

Amazon workers march to Jeff Bezos’ mansion, calling for higher wages, protections 

[Los Angeles Times, via Naked Capitalism 10-7-20]

Economic Armageddon: The COVID Collapsed Economy

Fed Lending Saved Corporate America. It Could Do the Same for Cities and States.

[Intercept, via Naked Capitalism 10-10-20]

Doomed to fail: Why a $4 trillion bailout couldn’t revive the American economy 

[Washington Post), via The Big Picture 10-6-20]

An avalanche of U.S. grants and loans helped the wealthy and companies that laid off workers. Individuals received about one-fifth of the aid.

The Carnage of Establishment Neoliberal Economics

Are Corporations Scamming Their Shareholders? How Corporations Scam Their Shareholders and Screw Over Workers
Bruce Bartlett, The New Republic, September 28, 2020

C-suite executives use share buybacks to manipulate stock prices for their own benefit, and no one else’s….

….there’s also growing evidence that share buybacks come at the expense of long-term profitability and the economy as a whole, because they lead managers to reduce or postpone investment spending for new projects, research and development, advertising and maintenance in order to meet near-term earnings targets. Buybacks also tend to raise corporate indebtedness and leverage, which can increase bankruptcies in an economic downturn. In other words, managers are literally destroying shareholder value as a routine way of doing business. This helps explain why nonresidential fixed investment has fallen even as overall profitability has risen.

The 2017 tax give-away appears to have led to an increase in share buybacks at the expense of federal revenue and corporate investment. Pressure to maintain corporate payouts may also be responsible for larger-than-necessary layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Wealth of the 50 richest in the US equals the poorest half


New data from the US Federal Reserve, providing a comprehensive look at the wealth of the United States during the first half of 2020, show marked disparities by race, age and class. While the richest 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $ 34.2 trillion, the poorest half (about 165 million people) own just $ 2.08 trillion, or 1.9% of the entire household wealth.

For their part, the nation’s 50 richest people have a combined net worth of nearly $ 2 trillion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, representing an increase of $ 339 billion since the beginning of 2020.

Health Care Crisis

Health Care: The Best and the Rest

[New York Review of Books, via Naked Capitalism 10-5-20]

I have misgivings linking to this, because it is a review of  Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care?, by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, whose younger brother is Democratic Party oligarch Rahm Emanuel. For years, Ezekiel J. Emanuel has been promoting restrictions on life sustaining procedures, especially for the elderly, while also criticizing employment-based health care and promoting national health care to replace it. But the review itself, especially the first half, is an excellent summary of the health care issue in USA since World War Two.

“Even as the Economy Grew, More Children Lost Health Insurance”

[New York Times, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-9-20]

“The share of children with health coverage in the United States fell for the third consecutive year in 2019, according to census data, after decades of increases. The decline occurred during a period of economic growth — before the coronavirus pandemic caused broad job losses that might have cost many more Americans their health insurance. A report Friday by the Georgetown Center for Children and Families found that the ranks of uninsured children grew the most in Texas and Florida, and that Latino children were disproportionately affected. Nationally, the number of children without health insurance rose by 320,000 last year alone, to a total of nearly 4.4 million children, the report found.”

Disrupting mainstream economics

Mainstreaming MMT

[Los Angeles Review of Books, via Mike Norman Economics 10-9-20]

The meteoric rise of MMT may be surprising to its many detractors (Clintonite liberals hate MMT as much as Senate Republicans do), but it shouldn’t be. Its basic message — that the spending of currency-issuing governments is not constrained by tax income — is uniquely resonant in a moment when trillion-dollar stimulus packages and zero-percent interest rates are becoming the new normal…. This goes for other programs as well. Medicare for All? We can afford it. A multi-trillion-dollar Green New Deal? We can afford it. A guaranteed job for anyone who wants to work? That, too. And, Kelton argues, we don’t necessarily need to raise taxes to do all this. The size of the budget deficit or the outstanding public debt should not, by itself, affect the policy decisions of currency-issuing governments like the United States….

Still, many on the left remain critical of, or even hostile toward, Modern Monetary Theory. Marxists often criticize Kelton’s book, and MMT generally, for what they perceive as an abstract focus on the fiscal capacity of the state, far removed from bread-and-butter class struggles at the point of production. When MMT proponents argue that taxes aren’t necessary to finance public spending, that sovereign states can bypass the tax-resisting ruling class by simply spending money into existence, Marxists see an illusory technical substitute for both distributional struggles and broader socialist transformations in the real economy. Focusing on “tricks of circulation” rather than relations of production, MMT turns money printing into “the new Big Rock Candy Mountain” — the classic Keynesian vision of “revolution without revolution.” The most polemical line of Marxist critique goes even further, implying that the theory is a smokescreen that provides tax-evading hedge fund managers (like MMT founding father Warren Mosler) with ideological cover….

The deeper disagreement is about the nature of state power under capitalism. MMT literature, with some exceptions, leans heavily on the idea of national sovereignty. Framing money-issuance as a core power of sovereign nation-states, it highlights the problems that arise when the states place “self-imposed constraints” on that power, such as fixed exchange rates, gold convertibility requirements, or dollarization. The goal is for the left to escape these false limitations and “reclaim” the nation-state, harnessing its fiscal power for progressive ends. If MMT emphasizes the unrealized potential of public finance, Marxist analysis is more concerned with the limitations inherent in the capitalist state form itself. It frames the ideological separation of the political sphere (the liberal-democratic state) from the economic sphere (the market) as a key barrier to radical change. MMT looks “idealist” from this angle because it takes the capitalist division between the political and the economic for granted, imagining that delusions and wrong ideas about economics are the only things preventing the state from correcting the injustices and antagonisms of the capitalist market. With its narrow focus on formal legal prerogatives and technical details of the monetary system, MMT loses the bigger political picture. The result is a naïve optimism about the power of enlightened policymakers to achieve outcomes that are undesirable to the capitalist class.

The War on Science and the Enlightenment

How Trump damaged science — and why it could take decades to recover

[Nature, via Naked Capitalism 10-10-20]

The Dark Side

US Politics Isn’t ‘Polarized’; It’s In Almost Universal Agreement

Caitlin Johnstone [via Naked Capitalism 10-8-20]

“Trump’s mistake by the lake: Taking his own voters for granted”

[National Journal, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-6-20]

The new Fox News poll of Ohio, showing a 5-point Biden lead, pinpointed why Trump is in so much trouble: Members of labor unions, who swung from President Obama to Trump in the previous election, have returned to the Democratic fold. Union households in Ohio now favor Biden by 8 points, 52 to 44 percent. In 2016, Trump carried that same constituency by 13 points, 54 to 41 percent, according to exit polling. That’s a whopping 21-point turnaround. Trump’s marked decline with white working-class voters is the underappreciated story of this election. It’s easy to conflate Trump’s base of hard-core supporters with the much larger pool of his 2016 voters. His base is with him regardless, but Trump won in 2016 by picking off a critical mass of onetime Democrats and independent voters in the Midwest, many of whom have since grown disillusioned with his antics. Amid their disbelief that anyone could vote for Trump without being “deplorable,” Democrats once thought these voters were lost for good [identity politics, anyone?]. They belatedly realized that tried-and-true appeals to their economic interests—centered on health care in the midst of a pandemic—still constitute an effective message in these tribal times.”

“In big states, tiny counties, Trump attacking voting rules”

[Associated Press, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-6-20]

“When Donald Trump’s campaign took issue with a new rule on processing some votes in North Carolina, it didn’t just complain to the Board of Elections and file a lawsuit. It wrote to some of the state’s 100 local election offices with extraordinary guidance: Ignore that rule. ‘The NC Republican Party advises you to not follow the procedures,’ Trump campaign operative Heather Ford wrote in an email to county officials last week. The email urging defiance was a small glimpse at the unusually aggressive, hyperlocal legal strategy the Trump campaign is activating as voting begins. Through threatening letters, lawsuits, viral videos and presidential misinformation, the campaign and its GOP allies are going to new lengths to contest election procedures county-by-county across battleground states. That means piling new pressure on the often low-profile election officials on the front line of the vote count, escalating micro-disputes over voting rules and seeking out trouble in their backyards. The local approach already is producing a blizzard of voting-related complaints. Trump and his allies have then seized on the disputes, distorted them and used them to sow broad doubts of fairness and accuracy.”

 “Trump campaign discussing plans to appoint its own state electors, no matter the results: report”

[Salon, via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-7-20]

“[i]n 2000, the Supreme Court held in Bush v. Gore that the states ‘can take back the power to appoint electors.’ … According to a Sept. 23 article in The Atlantic, campaign advisers to Trump, in conjunction with Republican state leaders, are preparing to test this theory. Sources in the Republican Party, at both state and national levels, say that the campaign is considering a plan to ‘bypass’ the popular vote results and install its own electors in key battleground states where the legislatures are controlled by Republicans. Republicans control both legislative bodies in the six closest battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Of those six, both Arizona and Florida have Republican governors. After the national election, the plan goes, the Trump campaign would cry foul about rampant fraud and demand that state legislators ignore the ballot tabulations and choose their electors directly.” • Here is the Loyola Law Review article that lays out the scenarios discussed in this article and at greater length in the Atlantic.

The Rise of Christian Nationalism in America

[Consortiumnews, via Naked Capitalism 10-7-20]

An important explanation of how the left has forfeited to the right the political necessity of defining morality. I linked to this above, as it ties in to my exploration of what republicanism can give to the left. 

America Is Having a Moral Convulsion

[The Atlantic, via The Big Picture 10-10-20]

Levels of trust in this country—in our institutions, in our politics, and in one another—are in precipitous decline. And when social trust collapses, nations fail. Can we get it back before it’s too late?



Open Thread


Are We Doomed to Live In Hell?


  1. Hugh

    Well, for once, I agree with the pope. But it goes further than property. As I say, society is mother, father, sister, brother. We wouldn’t exist without what we get from society. Even if we postulated our existence, we wouldn’t last long. We still would lack the knowledge, language, and resources needed to stay alive.

    Societal demands come first. They take precedence over our private demands and desires, including the religious ones, because unless we fulfill those societal demands we won’t exist to fulfill those private ones.

    Trump has been a narcissist and crook all his life. He’s behind. He knows it, and cheating as much as he can anyway he can is pretty much baked in.

  2. Willy

    I’d hoped that Trump would be my poster boy for the player-sociopath who cultivates mistrust so they can soften us up for divide and conquer. But apparently the cultural mistrust has gotten too bad that 40% cannot ever perceive that.

    This article isn’t about that, but explains how the collapsing levels of trust in our culture is ruining us.

    Good call, Tony.

  3. S Brennan

    Sometimes the overwhelming banality of the propagandist is so far beyond the pale that it’s…actually funny !

    “On October 5th, The Atlantic, a pretentious American popular ‘big think’ magazine (selling 552,242 copies per issue), headlined an 8,500-word essay from the New York Times columnist and PBS News Hour commentator David Brooks, “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion: Levels of trust in this country — in our institutions, in our politics, and in one another — are in precipitous decline.” This article documented that levels of trust in America have plunged; distrust has soared not only between people but against virtually all institutions. Brooks devoted the entirety of his essay, however, not to that well-established fact (which was documented, actually, not by Brooks himself, but by a linked squib that the magazine’s editor added to his lengthy blab), but he devoted it instead to paraphrasing other writers who are favored by the U.S. Establishment, such as Samuel Huntington, Alan Wolfe, Francis Fukuyama, Sisela Bok, Robert Putnam, and Zygmunt Bauman; and, at the end (after all of that Establishment ‘wisdom’), Brooks closed his commentary with 1,300 words on “How to Rebuild Trust,” which finally ended the article with only a one-sentence proposed answer to this “How”: “Trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts — by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned.” His pompous answer came from out of nowhere — not even from his ‘sources’ — because his article hadn’t been saying anything about that, hadn’t said anything at all about it. His proposal was totally unsourced, instead of a conclusion from his lengthy prior blab. In other words: Brooks didn’t have any idea, whatsoever, as to why this “collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust” has occurred in America. At the end of his 8,500 words, came that utter cop-out.

    How much time are people wasting, to read such stuff? But it’s typical, not a bit abnormal, for ‘Big Think’ media. Vacuous speculative commentaries, which don’t deliver on their promises, are the routine in such media. Truthful, and reliably sourced, analyses, appear there almost never. The function of such billionaires-controlled media is to add yet further to the prestige of their selected team of propagandists (by referring to them as being sources of ‘wisdom’, or by interviewing them on their TV shows). It is indoctrination, not information, that they actually purvey.

    Basically, the public who buy this sort of pretense are paying to be gradually lobotomized and robotized. No billionaires will hire writers to think deeply about — and pay people to write or say — anything deep…

    Mr. Brooks certainly isn’t out to stir any waves, or rock any yacht. So, he has to stay on the safe side — the side that’s safe for the ultimate paymasters. This excludes a writer’s getting into what really has caused America’s collapse. If the public will buy such Establishment pablum, then the public, and not the owners of those huge media firms, will be taking all of the losses — and not only on investments, but on everything. And this is what is actually happening in America…”

    -Eric Zuesse – October 11, 2020

  4. Willy

    So since it was “David Brooks”, he got it all exactly backwards and trust in America is actually on the rise?

  5. Hugh

    The lower 80% of the population has been lied to for the last 50 years and seen their standard of living drop and the stability in their lives disappear while it’s business, very good business, as usual for the top 20%, and the top 1% are winning serial lotteries no matter how much they screw up. For some reason this leads to a decline in trust. More trust not to mention a few guillotines would be a good thing I would think.

  6. If we might put on a tinfoil hat for a moment or two, Willy, take a step back, follow the money, give thought to the much ballyhooed (((deep state))) and wonder if not some grander game were at play. I’ve mentioned before the similarities of where this is going with a plot line in one of Frank Herbert’s books – an administrator so loathesome as to unite the population in welcoming his successor as a messiah. Disaster Capitalism writ in the fifties. What if Trump is the Deep State disrupter? Wall Street’s Beast Rabban? Joe Biden the messiah? These people play a longer game than Joe Sixpack – note Opus Dei and the Handmaidens.

    As I’ve noted before, just as though at the time George W Bush was the Worst President Ever the Cheney Administration accomplished everything it set out to, the McConnell Administration has accomplished everything it set out to. Trump has been the distraction.

  7. Willy

    Zuisse’s main point wasn’t (IMHO) very well presented in what you quoted. I’m reading that Brooks may seeing all the right effects, which so many others are also seeing, but ruins it all by proclaiming all the wrong causes, and worse, the wrong solutions.

    This seems a better quote to present here:

    Deceiving the public can be essential to the people who hold the real power. But, how long can it continue to succeed? Maybe for as long as bigotries, of all sorts, can be increased, or at least maintained. Perhaps, if bigotries could end, then the deeper problem could finally be addressed. However, if bigotries continue, then there either will be no revolution at all, or any revolution that occurs will be misdirected and thus fail to solve the problem. Every aristocracy, throughout history, has been protected by one or another type of prevalent bigotry. It deflects the public’s incoherent rage, to the wrong targets. Furthermore, once a given aristocracy are overthrown, will it be replaced by another aristocracy, or instead by an authentic democracy? Replacing one aristocracy by another solves nothing. But that’s usually what happens.

  8. bruce wilder

    oh, come on, Willy

    this David Brooks writing for Mrs Steve Jobs’ hobbyshop

    gaze at this sentence and wonder at the cluelessness: Why, though, is trust eroding in the United States in the absence of an economic crisis or other kind of catastrophe?

  9. nihil obstet

    From your comment on Varoufakis’ article: The USA is dismissed as a legitimate model because it was sullied from the start by the compromise with slave holders to achieve union. I would argue that we have become so concerned with the morality surrounding the history that we ignore the continued economic assumptions.

    The British colonies that became the United States were guilty of two great evils: slavery and the genocide of the native peoples. For the European settlers, this meant virtually free labor and virtually free land. We still suffer from the belief that someone else will do the unpleasant work for low pay. It’s all right for immigrants, because their hard work allows their children to go on to professional jobs, lifted by the new wave of immigrants. When economic times get tough, we don’t welcome immigrants any more, but those jobs are filled by happy people who would otherwise be marginal — teenagers in their first jobs and the elderly supplementing their retirement. This is all justification for workers to get poverty wages. It keeps us from understanding what wage slavery is and kills solidarity.

    And we still believe that everyone who is deserving deserves a residence that they own — “the American Dream” is an artifact of the native American nightmare.

    The effect of the history goes beyond the obvious need to expand the ideas of what moral examples have been available from American politicians and writers since the beginning.

  10. Willy

    bruce wilder,

    Answered above. Just because Brooks sees the deforestation but blames the trees, doesn’t mean that halfway there isn’t still halfway there. How do you propose getting proper blame the rest of the way, to the woodcutters?

  11. bruce wilder

    Willy, arguments like those of David Brooks are nine-tenths hypnosis: they lull the reader into a nodding trance and a train of suggestions follow.

    The antidote is you wake up.

    Obama/Hillary/Biden were actually neocons.

  12. Hugh

    David Brooks speaks for the common people. I think he met one once, or imagined he did.

  13. Willy

    Alright, the game’s over, my team won, and now can I check back to see what you guys have come up with. bruce, that quote was from Uri Friedman, wasn’t it? Two years ago. Could that clown be on the path towards actually figuring it out? Sometimes the sheltered ones take a while to come around.

    So I’ll pull a few Brooks quotes from the article in play:

    ”Donald Trump is in the process of shredding every norm of decent behavior and wrecking every institution he touches.”

    “…he undermines the basic credibility of the government and arouses the suspicion that every word and act that surrounds him is a lie and a fraud.“

    “Finally, he threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our democracy in November and incite a vicious national conflagration that would leave us a charred and shattered nation.“

    “Trump is the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought him to power and make him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will not disappear if he is defeated.”

    “When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”

    “We were naive about what the globalized economy would do to the working class, naive to think the internet would bring us together, naive to think the global mixing of people would breed harmony, naive to think the privileged wouldn’t pull up the ladders of opportunity behind them. We didn’t predict that oligarchs would steal entire nations, or that demagogues from Turkey to the U.S. would ignite ethnic hatreds.”

    Sounds reasonable? Yes? No? There’s a lot more, but who cares when it’s David Brooks doing
    the writing. Wasn’t he that guy who folded to Milton Friedman after just one debate? So then Eric Zuesse comes along and hammers Brooks for ending with this limp ‘ray of hope’ summary:

    “Trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts — by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned.”

    Zuesse (he’s that guy who wrote “They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records”) retorts:

    Deceiving the public can be essential to the people who hold the real power. But, how long can it continue to succeed? Maybe for as long as bigotries, of all sorts, can be increased, or at least maintained. Perhaps, if bigotries could end, then the deeper problem could finally be addressed. However, if bigotries continue, then there either will be no revolution at all, or any revolution that occurs will be misdirected and thus fail to solve the problem. Every aristocracy, throughout history, has been protected by one or another type of prevalent bigotry. It deflects the public’s incoherent rage, to the wrong targets. Furthermore, once a given aristocracy are overthrown, will it be replaced by another aristocracy, or instead by an authentic democracy? Replacing one aristocracy by another solves nothing. But that’s usually what happens.

    So are you guys even reading this stuff? I thought mine was the only lazy ass in the house. Uri rationalizes, Brooks capitulates, then Zuesse summarizes. Last minute touchdown. A truly American team effort?

  14. Hugh

    “We were naive.”

    Coming from David Brooks who arrogantly promoted every neoliberal project and whom some of us have been criticizing for more than a decade because of that yes-man promotion, that Ah gosh, “we” just wuss naïve rings pretty hollow.

    I mean it’s good for Brooks to be changing his positions, if he is, but that has got to be one of the lamest and least insightful reasons for why he unquestioningly adopted them in the first place. Not to mention that he built a lot of his career and earned a lot of money on regurgitating the talking points of the Establishment powers that be. I would like to see him reflect on why he was hoodwinked when so many of us weren’t and where he is on his whaling away on those of us who got it right. It’s not part of our age, I know, but I would trust Brooks more if there were an apology in there somewhere.

  15. Ché Pasa

    Trump could have been prevented from ascending, and he could have been removed from office once installed at almost any time along the way, but he wasn’t. Why? He’s deeply unpopular, obviously quite ill (even without COVID), unstable, and wildly corrupt. His incompetence is legendary. He surrounds himself with sycophants even more corrupt and incompetent than himself, he rules as a gangster would, and he builds a cult following based on lies and bigotry.

    He’s been protected and indeed promoted all his life by some shadowy “interests” (of which the Russia Thing is a symbol) regardless of (because of?) his failures and lunacy. He’s the raw reflection of his class. They love him and they hate him and they can’t live without him. He dominates the media because he has always made them lots of money (it must be true; he says so.)

    From a purely political standpoint, he is a shiny object distraction. Nothing positive gets done for the masses while he’s around waving his arms and posing for the cameras. And that’s the point, isn’t it? The absolute lies of all the wonderful populist things he’s been doing for the Little People are obvious. None of it is true, but it doesn’t matter, because, like Harold Hill or “Q” he makes just enough people believe his lies and frauds to maintain the fiction — even though the reality is increasingly catastrophic. Useful, no?

    We won’t come out of this phase of our history stronger and better. Many of us won’t come out of it at all. And that, too, is the point.

    Trump enfuriates and entertains us while policies are enacted and enforced that will destroy what’s left of our rotten institutions, reinforce the power while reducing the size of the ruling class, and kill off the surplus of everyone else.

    We may have to endure another period of civil war, or at least the threat of it, to consolidate the new authoritarian future, but even that is useful to our overlords who will see it as “cleansing.” How often has the same pattern emerged as the Old Order is swept away all over the world? How many times has the same pattern been induced in other countries by our vaunted three-letter services? It’s our turn now, and there’s no going back.

  16. Ten Bears

    Had the Dems not chosen to ignor the tens of millions of voices shouting at the tops of their lungs Don’t Do It! and run Hillary Clinton Trump would not have made it past the first debate.

  17. bruce wilder

    Ten Bears beat me to the punch in expressing my usual reaction: the loss of trust originated in a betrayal of trust (duh) and has continued into the crescendo of untrustworthiness that is Trump because the friggin’ Democrats moan and groan but absolutely refuse to offer any alternative to indifference and continued corruption and betrayal. But, really, it is not “the Democrats” alone, but pretty much the whole establishment, in whatever domain — the media establishment, the finance establishment, the so-called intelligence community, . . . name your poison. Across the board, the credentialled and the comfortable are just worthless.

    As Hugh said, it is that bitter, poisonous irony of David Brooks bemoaning “the loss of trust” in liars and fools like himself with so little, grudging, self-excusing acknowledgement of his own responsibility, his own bad judgment — it just leads me to despair. These people are as impervious as any ancien regime Bourbon, except they not only learn nothing, they barely remember anything either.

    The military-industrial complex that cannot win or even end a war, or sail a warship without having run over by a commercial vessel. The Foreign Policy Blob™ — the name is a fair assessment of its “thinking”. Boeing and the FAA. The public health establishment that has bungled Covid-19 into a great depression without actually containing the contagion — the WHO can barely bring itself to admit to aerosol transmission or the efficacy of masks even now! The Climate Change movement that has reduced itself to co-branding feel-good b.s. with fossil fuel companies.

    Yes, Willy, David Brooks blaming the trees for deforestation does get us a bit of the way down the road toward acknowledging the loss of the forest, but it doesn’t get rid of David Brooks. David Brooks is an inherent piece of the problem. We’ve been waiting for a full generation now to see incompetent pundits, politicians, economists, “experts” turned out and a reform of institutions — finance, universities, military, industry, business — and all we get is Bigger plus robots and algorithms.

    In 2006-8, we should have seen a 180° turn from the disaster-inducing policies of Clinton-Bush and what we got was . . . Obama and crickets. It shouldn’t take Mandos to tell us that Obama had plenty of apologists. Because, you know, “bigotries”! And, we are still being told that Trump appeals to racists and white supremacists and that’s all you to know — shutup, shutup, shutup!

    Now, with no prospect of reform in the Democratic Party, we are waiting for Pelosi and Biden and Schumer to simply die from old age, ushering in Hitler recast as a woman of color — won’t that be grand?

  18. bruce wilder

    NC ran a Paul Jay interview with Rana Foroohar and Mark Blyth recently, and buried in it is a Blyth-nugget that is worth paying attention to, I think.

    Blyth recalls the great crisis of capitalism of the 1920s and 1930s:

    “. . . much of the European elite and much of the American elite wanted some form of authoritarianism, fascism, suppress the resistance and rebellion amongst the workers and other parts of the population that were dispossessed by the crisis.”

    “Biden claims he wants to be the most progressive administration since FDR. I don’t see that in what he’s really proposing as a policy. But that said, where are the American elites on this? The financial the tech elites?

    “These are really smart people. Frankly, they’re a lot smarter, I think than their counterparts in the 1930s’. They’re very informed. The leading ones got there because they were the best, at more or less what they do, even if what they do is not so good. But they’re smart.

    “Do they get that this is not the same kind? This isn’t just about a business cycle; this is about several existential problems.” . . .

    “the obvious conclusion from everything Larry and BlackRock says about climate is you need serious government intervention. But that’s the one thing they don’t want.”

    Rana Faroohar reinforces the point:

    Corporations are always kvetching that, oh, we need the government to train up a better 21st-century workforce, and then we could create jobs. Oh, we need the government to do something about climate, and then we’ll have certainty, and we can invest.

    Guess what? You’ve been cutting the tax share of the government, of the public sector by offshoring and optimizing, as they say, taxes in a global race to the bottom as the private sector has gained power and wealth relative to the public sector for four decades now. So you have tied the hands of the politicians. You decimated the middle class, which would elect better politicians. So here we are. . . .

    do the elites get it? Yeah, they absolutely get it. And let me give you a couple of examples. They get it, and they think they’re going to be able to weather the storm.

    You know, Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Google, wrote a book with the head of his think tank a few years back. And the book, basically reading between the lines, said, you know what, they try to put a sunny slogan on it. But the message was technology, this tech revolution we’re going through, which is as Niall Ferguson has written, it’s kind of like the advent of the printing press. It makes things better ultimately, but you get 150 years of religious wars before that. That’s what Schmidt said in his book with Jared Cohen. He said, look, tech’s going to make things better in the long run, but in the short run, things are going to be really crazy. There’s going to be huge nationalism, conflict. They didn’t come out and quite say it this way, but this was the upshot. But the idea was in their minds that the biggest companies, the Googles, the Facebook’s, the Buydo’s, the Alibaba’s had become so big that they were like the East India Company now. They are sort of sovereign international states that float above the nation-state, . . . and that they actually kind of formed their own consensus. You know, you’ve got the Washington consensus, maybe the Beijing consensus. We don’t quite know what that is yet. And then you got the Facebook consensus and the elites essentially, I think, believed that these corporations now have so much control and big tech does have way more control even than big finance did because it can actually influence our behavioral patterns because of surveillance, capitalism, and algorithmic behavioral manipulation.

    They have so much control that they believe that they can move the levers now and simply weather the storm and come out to the other side of it. So that’s where they are.

    And here’s where Blyth went:

    Didn’t Eric Schmidt ever read Keynes: “in the long run, we’re all dead”? The long-run is a succession of short runs, which, if they are shitty enough, ends up, it sums to a not long run. So that’s an incredibly dangerous way to think about it.

    “. . .I used to do . . . finance conferences with big finance. [so I] have 25 of them in the room, all of . . . the big money in the room and I would say the following, talking about politicians and the quality of political capital, ‘it’s gone down over time, and that’s a big problem’

    ” ‘So how many of you folks would let the people that you [put in office to] run countries by funding them, run your money and your firm?’ and they would all burst out laughing. And then when the laughter died down, I would say, and now you can tell me what’s funny about that because ultimately your firms are dependent on the governments of those countries, the policies that they provide. And it was almost a moment of shame where they went. . . . this points to something that our Marxists colleagues have known for the longest time that while it’s irrational for any individual capitalist to maximize their short-run interests, it’s collectively suicidal.”

  19. StewartM


    The lower 80% of the population has been lied to for the last 50 years and seen their standard of living drop and the stability in their lives disappear while it’s business, very good business, as usual for the top 20%, and the top 1% are winning serial lotteries no matter how much they screw up.

    Correct, but the truth is even worse. 95 % of the population lost ground to Reaganomics. Even the 80 %-ers and 90 %-ers lost ground.

    The reason why so many of the 80 %-ers still support Reaganomics is akin to why union “Reagan Democrats” voted conservative Republican over the past 50 years. They think that they are still members of the ‘club’, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It’s also why poor Southern whites still supported slavery in the antebellum South, despite it offering no direct advantage to them (they aspired to be planters too!) and possibly why African-Americans voted for Biden over Sanders (well, isn’t Micheal Jordan also a billionaire–$1.6 billion? Can’t they become billionaires too one day?).

    Sometimes, false hopes are a destructive thing.

  20. Plague Species

    Excellent synopsis, Ché.

  21. Willy

    I’m not very good at continuing to read a writer who’s proven themselves a dupe, though the critique of dupes is occasionally interesting. To be honest, I read the article without catching who the writer was. Imagine my confusion when I scrolled up. Did he always know, but couldn’t afford to care because he’s gotta pay for his daughter’s wedding somehow? Are his editors/handlers having to change their editing/handling because of reader inertia?

    My take is that most of these people now know. Some care but can’t afford to show it lest they wind up flipping burgers out in the wilderness. Others like Trump, know full well but don’t care because they need the grift to keep the family businesses afloat.

    As for the still-brainwashed, I’d let them have their Qanon, racism and Pope hatred, but strangely, when the video of them at their worst goes viral, they suddenly issue profuse denial-apologies that sound like they were written by socially ethical lawyers. It seems that everybody is just trying to preserve their own personal economics. Everybody knows what happens to martyrs and whistleblowers these days.

  22. Willy

    Of course I’m excluding the Candice Owens and Dave Rubin’s of the world from that last paragraph. There’s still money to be made from “dupes and donors” for the telegenic.

  23. different clue


    Ran Prieur on his blog has expressed his own version of the hope you expressed way upthread . . . about what Trump represents and makes possible. And Ran Prieur feels a whole lot less forlorn about it than what your comment seems to read.

    I will go ahead and copy-paste the relevant paragraphs.

    ” October 9. Wading back into the swamp, today I want to make a reality-based case for Donald Trump. But first, the anti-reality case: that Trump is a man of high character, a skilled entrepreneur, who has come to Washington to clean up corruption.

    The reality is just the opposite. He’s probably the most immoral president since Andrew Jackson; if he’d taken the money he got from his dad and just put it in normal hands-off investments, he would have more money than he has now, so he’s not even a good businessman; and more than any recent president, he uses the office to serve his friends ahead of serving the whole, which is the definition of corruption. His followers exclude the overwhelming evidence for these points, by saying that everything in the mainstream media is a lie orchestrated by shadowy elites.

    If Trump is really an enemy of the super-rich, why hasn’t he called for mass cancellation of debts? He himself has huge debts, and he’s had them cancelled many times in the past by declaring bankruptcy. Debt cancellation was a big part of ancient agrarian cultures, whose patriarchal and xenophobic values still echo through the Republican party. I’ll make a pledge: if Donald Trump will just tweet two words, “fake debt”, I’ll vote for him. He won’t, because he’s an authoritarian, who believes it’s good and right to leverage power over others into greater and more secure power.

    The reality-based case for Trump is to accept all this, but flip its meaning, by supposing that he is serving America, not on the level of politics, but on the level of psychology. In that case, the worse he is, the better he is.

    You have to admit, Trump has made America more alive. He’s made us less comfortable, and more alert. CNN goes on about his lies, and they’re not wrong, but what they’re missing is how much hidden stuff he has brought into the open, especially the mental weaknesses of his followers, and the structural weaknesses of our democracy.

    Trump did everything he could to help COVID-19, because the harder the virus hits us, the more we have to learn to be adaptable — which we need to learn, because our civilization is collapsing.

    Trump is a controlled burn of a system with too much dead wood. He’s a vaccine to strengthen us against future dictators. He’s a shaman who has exposed our poor reality creation hygeine. He’s an auditor who came in to see how much bad shit he could get away with, and it’s way too much. If you get mad at him, you’ve missed the point. Trump is the big bad wolf, who blew down our house of straw, and now we’ll have to build a house of sticks. ”

    Here is the Ran Prieur blog site for anyone interested.

  24. Willy

    Hopefully Ran Prieur has ideas about how to rebuild. I’m not enough of a historian to give good examples about how it’s been done in the past, in such massive culturally reforming ways. All I’m really good at, at that level, is reminding people how bad it can get if you allow the wrong people to gain unchecked power.

  25. different clue


    The very most recent as-of-today page on Ran Prieur’s blog has some links to articles which might be just that kind of “how to rebuild what” type of thinking you are hoping for.

  26. different clue

    Here is a possibly hopeful entry from Ran Prieur.

    And a preview of the coming tech crash, a Hacker News thread, Ferrari is bricked during upgrade due to no mobile reception while underground. Basically, the car has a built-in thing that can disable it, but the thing to un-disable it is not built in, but requires a fully functioning technological civilization. So, if products that are easier to brick than to unbrick reach a critical mass, then a single breakdown can cascade to brick them all.

    If various scattered nucleii of non-rich people can figure out how to build long-term survivalism without the very highest technology, those people will have nothing to lose from a total brick-out of all the high technology at once. They might even want to figure out how to trigger it into happening.

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