If there is one reason, philosophically, that libertarianism has become laughable to me in my later years, it is because of the delusion of money. Another one of those if I had a nickel moments is the one were a libertarian spouts off about taxes being theft, or the poor stealing from the wealthy, or some other expression that lets the hearer know that they think money belongs to them. That money can belong to any one person rather than to the group that makes exchanges in the currency as a whole.
When I reply, explain Libertarian Socialism then, they short circuit like a drone android calling for Norman. Libertarian Socialism, a political movement that dismisses notions of taxes as anything other than the monetary recapturing tool that it is, sees Guaranteed Minimum Income as a necessary function of living in large groups. Discovering what money is and what its functions in human society are has lifted a veil from my eyes. I have struggled with how to present the conceptualization that seems so clear to me in a way that will be understood by others. Understood by others who have not dropped their preconceived notions about money on the wayside. Understood by them and not simply have it rejected out of hand.
I can tell you for certain that the Nolan chart and all it’s minor variations don’t deal with the reality of economics; and consequently, they do not measure economic freedom as they claim to do. This fact makes all libertarian ideas that deal with economics flawed at the precept level, shattering the entire structure of libertarian philosophy. Shatters any philosophy that includes the ideals of money as an individual possession. You cannot define libertarianism as different than the same flawed left/right and/or liberal/conservative political lines without a measuring stick that is separate from social freedom, and economic freedom enables social freedom more than any other kind of freedom one can imagine. The two go hand in hand. Understanding what money is, conceptually, is the first step to understanding how the systems we live in can be improved.
Money is not a thing; or rather, money isn’t just one thing. Money is not a possession, although physical representations of money can be possessed. Money is not a commodity even though it is currently traded like a commodity. If I had the last glass of water you could have all the money in the world and you couldn’t buy that last glass of water from me. That is the difference between a commodity and a currency. Money isn’t even a set value as my previous writing on the subject of money skims over. So what is money?
I’ve been bashing my head against this wall and several others for the last decade and more. It’s part of the overall arc of EPHN, my languishing work on Emergent Principles of Human Nature. The work languishes because I lack the depth of knowledge to deal with the questions posed by writing the work, not by my ability to express the ideas contained within it. The accumulation of information takes time, and so the work languishes, in a general sense. At the same time, my understanding grows about certain subjects that interest me, and one of those subjects is the delusion of money.
Money = lubricant
Any mechanical part that moves in relation to another part of a mechanical construct, like a motor or an engine, has to be protected from the friction present when any two parts come in contact. This protection can take several forms, and even several forms at the same time. Motor oil. Hydraulic fluid. Ball bearings. Grease. Money is like these things in many ways. It reduces the friction between one side of the economy, supply, and the other side of the economy, consumption.
If you provide sufficient funds to each household to allow them to meet needs you will see how much of each product needs to be produced based on the value assigned to the product by the consumer. Thusly, money eases the acquisition of goods and services for the people who need them. Without money we are forced to barter one good for anther one, and that system has never functioned in a way that the average human found acceptable, which is why we invented money in the first place.
Then you, the money issuing authority, sit back and wait. You wait to see where the money goes. When you notice that money is pooling in areas and not being spent, you tax those pools that don’t enhance the economy, the economic backwaters that don’t serve the purpose of lubricating the system generally. You tax them because money hoarding is a corruption of the intent of the system. Money is for spending not for hoarding. Property is what you keep. If you want to hang on to wealth, invest it.
Money is a Contract
It is an agreement between the people who are giving over goods or services and the people receiving said goods or services, that the compensation will be in X currency at a particular value. But it is more than that, too.
The disconnect over the subject of money really isn’t the fault of libertarians themselves. Classical economics deals with the individual rational actor the homo economicus as he is occasionally referred to. Economics was setup at the outset to create the delusion of the supreme individual modifying the market with his rational demands. This has proven not to be the case, and most economists who come from the Chicago school are caught up in the delusion. Capitalism, as classically taught, was at war with a socialism that eschewed profit. The Marxist utopia of communism. Like most utopias, Marxist communism is a dystopia that we would be better off not pursuing. However, in a general ideological sense, capitalism and socialism aren’t even in conflict. Authoritarianism and democracy are in conflict, and authoritarianism is in ascendency.
Authoritarianism has been in ascendancy since Vladimir Putin started trying to dismantle the democratic West, and China decided to help him. When there is one party, and you control that party, knowing who your enemies are makes controlling that government child’s play. Consequently these rising authoritarian regimes (including the United States under Trump) have a lot of political prisoners. Removing them into the slavery of the prison system is the best way to clear your path. This is one of those facts that should have been obvious to us in the US for a very long time. We’ve been growing the prison population since Nixon was in office, and we now have the largest prison population per capita. Most of those people are there because of crimes that were invented in order to criminalize Nixon’s political opposition, and it has proven prudent for each president since Nixon to leave those people there.
Capitalism and socialism are not in opposition. Capitalism and socialism can be present in the same mixed system because they deal with different parts of human interaction. Profit is not evil. Profit, when properly managed, is the reward for the entrepreneurial spirit. Profit, when held as an inviolable sacrement, leads to worship of the wealthy, what Objectivism has turned into over the last half-century. The Trump administration is laboring under this delusion of money. This holy profit-taking. Trump has started beating the drum of red baiting. He is promoting the same old schtick that Nixon and McCarthy did so well with two generations ago. I’ve said this from the moment that he announced his candidacy and he’s proven it daily since the broken system we live in delivered him into office. Trump believes in the zero-sum game and is right now rigging it to favor the wealthy who currently own our country.
Subscribing to the delusion of money as Trump and the average American thinks of it today is to go back in time to the days of the robber barons, when monopolies ran roughshod over Americans and the the world at large, when the simple fact that you had money meant that you had the right to rule. We don’t want to go back to those days. This is why Make America Great Again is the chant of mouth-breathing idiots. The America that they think was greater than it currently is was an America where they would have died young of a preventable disease, probably at the hands of someone like Don Jr.
To paraphrase what I said to Trump Jr: Never too earlier to teach her about conservative capitalism either.
Put her in an orphanage that sells her out to work in a coal mine. Kid that size can get into spaces an adult can’t, business can find all sorts of uses for them. You don’t have to pay them. They don’t need safety equipment. You hardly have to feed them. And if they die, fuck it, you can always get more.
Meanwhile, the Robber Baron she works for gets 99% of all the candy in the world and she and all the other kids get to split 1%.
Oh, and while you’re teaching lessons, Junior, make sure she knows her lady parts belong to you.
If you combine the dollar being the world currency with the results of moving off of the gold standard as detailed in Lords of Finance you can create a money background for yourself to muse about the current perilous status of the dollar against. Or you can be like the libertarian that I was trying to enlighten today who called out for Norman before locking up in the illogic of money being a social construct. Pick one.
If you need further examples of just how confused the problem of money is, here is another one. TED Radio Hour, The Money Paradox. I did get one response from a libertarian after writing this piece. He informed me that I wouldn’t be taken seriously on the subject of money unless I looked like a rich man. People who are wealthy don’t bother with trying to look wealthy. They don’t need to convince anyone of their wealth because they are reassured that they have wealth in simply living their lives.
Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.
This article was posted when it was because of a conversation that was evolving on a Facebook group I’m part of. A conversation between people convinced that their personal beliefs are somehow manifested in a show they love, Star Trek in this instance, and then argue that their political beliefs somehow are justified in the show. Star Trek represents a post-scarcity economy, as several people went to great pains to explain during that evolving conversation. As expected, the notion that there could be a society where everyone gets enough to eat and has a place to sleep that protects them at night from predation, that notion is conceptually beyond the thought processes of your average Stormtrumper. This fact doesn’t change what the show’s creator set out to do.
This should be the question every pundit ask every Republican who won an office last night, since everyone of them swore fealty to King Trump in order to win (embroidery here) The question should be asked every time they hold a presser. It should be asked every time they are seen in public. It should be asked in front of their wives. Their children. Their families. Everyone needs to have the blatant corruption at the heart of every Republican victory last night spelled out in the most graphic, disgusting terms possible.
Trump can get away with the shit he says every day? Ask that fucking question every fucking day until they crack.
“what does Trump’s cock taste like?”
Maybe, just maybe, they’ll fucking wake up then. But I doubt it.
In the meantime. The weasel will try to squirm out of harm’s way. The OHM has already signaled that he’ll play ball with the Democrats. Nothing doing. Not unless he turns states evidence on all his Russian contacts, fires all his children, divests from all his businesses. And when I say “divest” I mean sell to the highest bidder with all proceeds going to pay off the design and construction professionals he’s screwed over the last forty years. He has to agree to replace his entire cabinet with people who will not attempt to undermine their departments. Essentially he has to agree to congressional oversight of everything in the presidential administration and he loses control of the military. He has to rubber-stamp everything the congress sends to him and he had to tell all his supporters how much they’ll love it.
Oh, and he also will have to insist on IRS prosecutions for the entire DeVos family.
If. If he does all of that, he can stay president for two more years. No running for re-election either. Take your pension, sit down and shut up after January 20th, 2021. If he doesn’t go for all of that, the anal probes start moving in on January 20th, 2019. Or he could just quit now and take his chances. It’s all up to him now. Let’s see which way the weasel runs.
I spoke too soon. Ann Coulter and the Joey Goebbels of AM radio, Rush Limbaugh, scared the Orange Hate-Monkey into demanding congress do his bidding. Build my wall with your money since Mexico won’t pay for it! Unsurprisingly the answer from Nancy Pelosi and her majority of the House has been no. Also unsurprisingly, the art school turtle, Mitch McConnell, refuses to do anything unless the OHM tells him to. The standoff cannot last, and the OHM will not be getting money for his wall from the Democratically lead house. They know what kind of thief he is already. If the shutdown doesn’t end in less than a month, I predict impeachment hearings will begin to be discussed seriously. The only thing standing in the way of the government reopening is the idiot sitting in the White House not doing the job he was elected to do. Time to fire him. #ImpeachTrump
It is not only in the housing market and mortgage market where we observe these effects. Take the stock market. Financial crisis clearly affected returns to your personal portfolio. And our calculations suggest that a person who was about 30 when, say, in 2008 the financial crisis hit will drastically reduce her inclination to be a stock market participant. And it will take about 30 years until this effect is not detectable anymore in the data.
As if 2008 was the only crash Americans who are alive today have been through. I remember black Monday. Even though I remembered that crash, I still stupidly invested in the stock market in the 1990’s. That lead to my being caught up in the .com crash. It infuriates me that they call that crash a bubble, as if it was self-revelatory that the markets would crash that time, when in fact there was no more warning that the whole market would reset that time any more than there is warning any other time the markets crash. There are only warnings if you are paying attention to the details. If you have enough money to pay people to mind the details for you.
There were warning lights all over the boards in 2007 leading into 2008. Ask any of the analysts featured in The Big Short, if any of them will talk to you. The real estate bubble not only didn’t fully deflate after the slaughtering started on September 14th of 2008; not only did it not fully deflate, the same people who cashed in before the last crash are already re-inflating that bubble to make more money off of it. And so it goes, round and round and round. Inflate. Short and deflate. Rinse and repeat. For the the wealthiest 1% it is just a game. They have money to burn and if they lose a few millions here, a billion there, what do they care? It passes the time. So what if a few of the little fish jump out of windows or die in poverty?
I will never invest in the stock market again. That is what I learned dabbling in the stock market. Investing is for wealthy people and I will never be wealthy. The markets are rigged to favor the wealthy, this is patently obvious. Insider trading gets you a slap on the wrist, and that’s what the wealthy do. They exploit information asymmetry, one of the baseline benefits of wealth, the ability to buy the latest information and the best people to make that information tell you what you need to know. Most Americans, most people, will never be wealthy. It is time Americans learned this lesson and structured their society accordingly.
Most of them, most of us, will die poor. We have the ability to make poverty something other than a slow, miserable death sentence. If we’re smart we’ll set that system up, replacing the one we have now.
The catastrophe that was hurricane Irma [and hurricane Maria]’s impact on Puerto Rico has now been exacerbated by the catastrophe of American disdain for the brown-skinned, this disdain having taken the form of the sitting President of the United States. Readers of the blog will know my preferred tagline for him, but it bears repeating that he is the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) which is my shorthand for the accumulated ire of white America that he embodies, and an accurate descriptor of how he is seen by outside observers.
Threatening to nationalize the NFL (socialized football) over a completely made up issue, players taking a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick; who was excluded from playing football this year in retaliation for exercising his first amendment speech rights during the games last year, a subject I talked at length about in Disrespecting the Flag.
He’s also gone into a full-court press promoting his latest version of Reaganomics, another piece I’ve been writing on but isn’t finished yet. At the same time as drumming up hatred for the press, for football players who have political opinions, and promoting giving himself a tax cut while claiming he isn’t doing that, the OHM is also stripping the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of every dollar he can take away from it administratively, since the House of Representatives and the Senate will not cut their own throats at his insistence and pass legislation ending the ACA, more commonly known as Obamacare. They’ve gotten the feedback from their constituents. People are scared of losing their medical coverage, and with good reason. A reason that the OHM will make perfectly clear over the next few months, which is yet another article that I’m working on at the moment now that the other shoe on the subject of health care appears to have dropped. Too much bullshit in the air, not enough time to write the words to describe it before it lands on all our heads.
All of this is going on while people are dying in Puerto Rico for lack of supplies that the OHM and his Republicans allies in congress could fix if only they cared about the welfare of the citizens of the United States,
Puerto Rico is not a state, true, but Puerto Ricans are American citizens all the same. I know that the average white guy can’t tell the difference between Mexicans and Indians (natives of India, not the Americas. Stay with me here) even when they speak, but it is a demonstrable fact that Puerto Ricans are exactly the same kind of Americans as any redneck you could pull out of his truck in any Southern state. My apologies for lowering the social status of assorted brown-skinned people with that off-hand comparison.
Their status as American citizens is easily demonstrable because the law that made them citizens carries the same name, Jones Act, as the law that is being used to kill them with thirst, heat and hunger now, Jones Act. The first Jones Act, more properly known as the Jones–Shafroth Act (so much more illuminating with that name) set up the governmental authority that runs Puerto Rico to the current day. We made them citizens, we gave them government like ours, and we have controlled that island nation ever since.
We control it because of the second Jones Act, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which forbids ships that are not American ships crewed with American crews from moving freight between two American ports, functionally making it impossible to get supplies from the mainland US to Puerto Rico now without breaking the law.
If you want to send a bunch of oranges by truck from Florida to Baltimore, no one cares who made the truck. Or if you want to fly computer chips across the country, it’s fine if the plane is made in France. But if you want send cargo by ship, there’s a law that the ship has to be American made.
The OHM did waive the Jones act requirements for ten days, but those ten days have come and gone. It takes a lot longer to purchase the goods, fill the ship and move it to Puerto Rico than a ten day waiver will allow for. It was a meaningless face-saving gesture that allows the OHM to point to something and pretend that he cares. He doesn’t care and neither does his supporters who have attacked me more than once for defending Puerto Rico on different social platforms. I can’t repeat the things that they’ve said about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans largely because I delete their offensive comments when I can and block the speaker when I can’t.
The US and the world have forgotten about Puerto Rico, ravaged by two successive hurricanes and a month later still largely without power and running water. They have forgotten but the fact that this suffering goes on largely unreported says more about Americans and their leader than any of us are comfortable admitting. We are happy to profit off the sick, the suffering of other people. Puerto Rico’s largest problem is the fact that the government there was lead down the same golden path as Greece was, with one major difference. Greece was allowed to re-negotiate their debts and will probably be given another chance to do it again. Puerto Rico is being held to account for every dollar they borrowed by greedy Wall Street bankers, and the OHM is more than happy to side with Wall Street when there is money to be directly stolen from poor, suffering brown-skinned people.
Pundits asked each other for eight years is this Obama’s Katrina? And each time it was shown that they were wrong. They were wrong because, as many flaws as there were in the Bush II (W) administration, W was capable of learning where he messed up, and Obama continued the progress that W had started with FEMA and the federal government writ large. Disaster after disaster, Obama and the federal government got better at coping with the problems, which is the way it should be.
After an earthquake shattered Haiti’s capital on Jan. 12, 2010, the U.S. military mobilized as if it were going to war.
Before dawn the next morning, an Army unit was airborne, on its way to seize control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince. Within two days, the Pentagon had 8,000 American troops en route. Within two weeks, 33 U.S. military ships and 22,000 troops had arrived. More than 300 military helicopters buzzed overhead, delivering millions of pounds of food and water.
No two disasters are alike. Each delivers customized violence that cannot be fully anticipated. But as criticism of the federal government’s initial response to the crisis in Puerto Rico continued to mount Thursday, the mission to Haiti — an island nation several hundred miles from the U.S. mainland — stands as an example of how quickly relief efforts can be mobilized.
By contrast, eight days after Hurricane Maria ripped across neighboring Puerto Rico, just 4,400 service members were participating in federal operations to assist the devastated island, an Army general told reporters Thursday. In addition, about 1,000 Coast Guard members were aiding the efforts. About 40 U.S. military helicopters were helping to deliver food and water to the 3.4 million residents of the U.S. territory, along with 10 Coast Guard helicopters.
Leaders of the humanitarian mission in Haiti said in interviews that they were dismayed by the relative lack of urgency and military muscle in the initial federal response to Puerto Rico’s catastrophe.
When the OHM took office, all the progress enacted by Bush II and then Obama on disaster relief through FEMA and other agencies stopped. The progress stopped cold and then went into reverse. With his gutting of the executive offices under his control, and his unwillingness to take the job of president seriously outside of his weekend golf game where all the deals happen, there is no one left to take the helm. At least Bush II didn’t brag about how good he did post-Katrina. Didn’t chastise the poor and destitute of New Orleans for asking for relief. The OHM dares to insult and scorn anybody and anything, and Republican boot-lickers in the House and Senate are all too eager to let him do whatever he wants.
If you vote for a Republican in the next election you will be supporting this hateful process and this lack of progress, too. Food for thought.
Since I wrote this article there have been several podcasts that I’ve listened to that deal with the continuing issues in Puerto Rico. I’m going to append them here, as well as any informative news articles I run across dealing with the subject. I’m also going to move the article up in the timeline so that it will be at the top of the blog when new information comes in.
One hundred days later, More Puerto Ricans have done without power, subsequent to hurricane Maria, for longer than any other storm in US history since the introduction of electricity into the US.
The outages have proved deadly, with people unable to use lifesaving medical equipment like dialysis machines, and they’ve contributed to Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 64.
As we’ve reported here at Vox, the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher, a development that has prompted lawmakers to ask for an audit. BuzzFeed also reported that there have been more than 900 cremations across the island since the hurricane without medical examination.
And electricity may not be restored fully in Puerto Rico and the USVI until May, since emergency managers are still reeling from the devastation across the United States in 2017, spreading thin reconstruction supplies like utility poles and power lines across all disaster areas spanning from California to Florida.
In the podcast The1A, Months After Maria, it was reported the official death toll from the hurricane remains at 64; however, statistical analysis reveals that about a thousand additional deaths occurred due to the continuing power outages on the island since the hurricane struck. This was also reported in depth on LatinoUSA,
In a sign that FEMA believes the immediate humanitarian emergency has subsided, on Jan. 31 it will, in its own words, “officially shut off” the mission it says has provided more than 30 million gallons of potable water and nearly 60 million meals across the island in the four months since the hurricane. The agency will turn its remaining food and water supplies over to the Puerto Rican government to finish distributing.
Some on the island believe it’s too soon to end these deliveries given that a third of residents still lack electricity and, in some places, running water, but FEMA says its internal analytics suggest only about 1 percent of islanders still need emergency food and water. The agency believes that is a small enough number for the Puerto Rican government and nonprofit groups to handle.
The governor of Puerto Rico finally caved under pressure and asked George Washington University to do an independent study of the death toll resulting from hurricane Maria. The resulting figures were accepted as the actual death toll due to the storm’s impact.
2975 deaths is getting into 9/11 territory. It is worth noting that this is just the Maria death toll. This doesn’t include the deaths from the hurricane that swept across the island just before Maria. The Orange Hate-Monkey has not apologized for his lies relating to the human cost of Maria on the island, nor has his administration relaxed regulations to allow Puerto Rico to fully recover from the storm that struck Puerto Rico almost a year ago now.
I’m listening to Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World on Audible right now. I remembered reading this commentary on the celebration of stupidity somewhere online before deciding I needed to at least read the book once. The Facebook memories for today included a paragraph or two on the subject. Ah, memory hole plugged. I knew I’d read that somewhere before.
I started that status entry with,
It is a point of pride to me that I couldn’t sit through Dumb and Dumber. I never bothered to watch Beavis and Butthead; as in, ever watch. I know one joke from that series. I remember it only because I am unable to forget it.
A family member loved the show back in the day, and he and another friend enjoyed pretending they were Beavis and Butthead and would do that skit repeatedly until I gave up and laughed. Gave up and laughed, against my better judgement.
Stupidity is not funny. Stupidity is dangerous. Ignorance gets people killed. All. The. Time. Not knowing that your pool is the most dangerous place in your yard is what kills children every year. I stood outside on the deck in my backyard waiting for my now-crawling son to fall in the pool, and after he did fall in the pool I jumped in fully clothed to pull him back out. This was the third person I had saved from drowning in my life, the only time I knew that what was about to happen would happen. I knew that the baby would explore his world. I knew he would not know what to think of this thing called water and edge and pool. I knew he would probably fall in, and I watched to see if he did. When he did I was prepared to pull him out immediately, and the scare kept him from ever going near the pool again unless we were present and teaching him to swim. He swam like a fish at two or three, I don’t remember when exactly he took to water, but he was probably swimming better than he could walk for most of his childhood.
Knowing he would fall in allowed me to save his life and turn the unknown danger into a teaching moment that he carries with him to this day. Knowledge is power.
I don’t find stupid people amusing, I find stupid people threatening, and for very good reasons. Stupid drivers get other people killed. I see it pretty much every time I drive. Stupid people on their way to painful, deadly futures in their cars, and they’ll probably take someone else with them when they do that one stupid thing that gets them killed. Stupid voters elect poor leaders. It is not for nothing that MAGA=Misguided Appallingly Gullible Americans, this assertion is demonstrable, repeatedly. Stupid voters elected the Orange Hate-Monkey. The OHM himself acknowledges this with his damning with faint praise comment “I love the poorly educated.” Stupid leaders destroy entire nations. The OHM and his willful ignorance, his flock of the willfully ignorant in tow, are burning this country to the ground as I type this out right now. The idiots will not know they’ve destroyed the country until it is too late to save it from them, but they might as well be covering everything in gasoline and lighting the match themselves. Destruction is just about that certain.
I will not laugh at the OHM or his followers. They aren’t funny. They are threatening my life and the lives of my children, and I won’t allow those threats to go unanswered. There will be consequences for the two years of the OHM’s rule, one way or another. The stupid who voted for him need to feel this pain themselves, like discovering you are immersed in a liquid that you didn’t know was there, and no one told you how to swim before you fell in. They need to recognize danger and avoid it in the future. How will this lesson be taught? That is a very good question.
A link to the radically expanded Facebook status. Laughter is a Suicide Pact is a paraphrasing Niven’s puppeteer Nessus from Ringworld.
The gross domestic product is a measure of all the goods and services an economy produces. For the second quarter of this year, the U.S. economy grew at a stellar rate of 4.1%. Today on the show, we take a deep dive into everybody’s favorite economic indicator: How is it measured? Why is it so high? Will it continue?
For what it was worth, it serves as a decent primer on the GDP. However, the hosts of the show left out the problems of too much growth, which is what the fed was responding too when they raised interest rates recently. Here’s hoping that the Fed acted severly and quickly enough to stop that scenario.
As several people pointed out on Facebook, the growth rate was over 4% several times during the Obama administration. So, not unheard of and not nearly as impressive as the OHM was making it out to be. Additionally, the cautions that were mentioned at the end of the show are well founded. I certainly wouldn’t be counting on this growth rate continuing. Too many indicators pointing in other directions.
There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump (OHM) supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.
I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.
But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things the OHM says is causing poverty; and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?
No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?
All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Mythsbrought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.
…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,
James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States.
His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…
…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.
As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple…
…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity.
Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work.
The above hits the high points of that Freakonomics episode, without getting into the meat of it, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,
In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.
This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.
As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.
The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is; I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.
“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”
The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.
I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.
Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?
The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations now. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.
Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.
We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.
Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.”
Personal responsibility or paying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way. Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.
While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.
The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. This was important above all things; maintain the illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status. That illusion kept me working.
Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the peirced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty that has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,
Listening to the people who attempt to defend their affinity for the Orange Hate-Monkey in the podcast isn’t helping. Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years. The fact that the researchers on this podcast are so divorced from the truth of the matter, that the reality-disconnected people they have been interviewing actually turned out to be the ones who had the last laugh, that they got their American Psycho candidate on a collision course with the White House, in the face of the researcher’s own blithe belief that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency, isn’t helping with the surreality of this moment in time.
I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time my mom made the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.
So mom remarried. He was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.
Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.
The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.
When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.
For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.
This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,
Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.
…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.
It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.
I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.
I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.
In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?
With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.
Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility that happily ever after might ever occur.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.
It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.
In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.
With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.
Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.
In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.
It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.
There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.
Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.
Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.
When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.
With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly. We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real.
The take away from BBC Business Daily, Being Watched at Work is that studying work habits and office design yields a much better outcome for workers; so long as the watching is not obtrusive and that your employees do not feel that they are being treated as suspects in a crime. Several of the new technologies are being used in very questionable ways, and yet paying attention to how ideas are generated is important if you want your business to succeed.
We called it “Lunch and Learn” at Graeber, Simmons & Cowan. The two stints I did as a line draftsman and architect at that architecture firm were some of the best years I spent in the field. Sitting around the conference room table hashing out how to use the tools we were given, and what the future of technology offered to the field. A twelve seat table beats a four seat table, every time.
This episode of Freakonomics comes with a pre-made rebuttal that I was disturbed to discover that Dubner didn’t cop to at some point during the lengthy interview segments. That perfectly reasonable rebuttal takes this form; Since the pharmaceutical industry sets the value of their products independently, and since the vast majority of their generosity is quantified in the value of in-kind charitable donations of their drugs, their charity is really of their own creation. Large or small, high price or low, they dictate what that value is and they expect us to thank them for their generosity.
As if they couldn’t just alter the price of all the drugs they make to make them affordable in the eyes of every person who needs them, while at the same time not bankrupting the people who have to pay for their drugs out of their own pockets. Heaven forbid they not milk every available dollar out of every unsuspecting customer while at the same time giving away a product at something closer to its actual value. This was a point that Dubner did make during one of the connective segments, but he never actually goes on to fully explain, that the value of in-kind charity is completely within the control of the manufacturer, rendering the reported numbers essentially meaningless.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I don’t want any of the Big Pharma conspiracy fantasists or the naturopathy profiteers they go to to think that I’m somehow on their side in this argument. The fact of the existence of the identifiable label Big Pharma Conspiracy proves that the pharmaceutical industry is unjustly vilified in the general public. It’s just that their insistence that they aren’t profiting to a maximal amount at the expense of the general public rings a little hollow when their prices are so demonstrably fluid in value.
Does society exist? Most anarchists and conservatives would say it doesn’t. I present a counter-argument.
When was the last time you stalked prey, ran it down and then ate it? That’s not a realistic question, is it? I mean silly, right? I’ll skip over asking if you’ve crafted your own weapons with which to hunt game, I know most people have not and the creation of the most basic tools an individual can make is a skill that vanishingly few people can exhibit. When was the last time you planted seeds, watched them grow, and then harvested the crop? Well, all of us have probably tended a garden in our lifetimes. Agriculture is in just about everybody in some way. There is something real about digging in the dirt and watching plants grow. Something very zen and rewarding about the entire process. However, gardening is definitely not the same as growing everything you need to survive all by yourself year in and year out.
Why am I asking these questions? Because that is what it means to be truly self-sufficient. To be able to produce the food you require independently. To be able to create all of the tools and clothing you require to survive in any climate in any region of the world. If I were to ask you about building your own shelter, even fewer people would understand just how difficult that process and others are. They would be clueless as to just how many people are required to create the many things we take for granted. Take for granted (i.e. an entitlement) especially in the US and other developed countries.
I have heard the challenge, repeated many times over my years in libertarian circles, to prove the existence of society. It is almost a mantra to some individualists, and I know there are survivalists out there who are convinced they could live on their own indefinitely. Some of them even can do it, I’m sure, but the number of people who could do it are a fraction of a percentage point of the entire human population. That is a pretty steep hill to drop off of, if the lights just go off one night and never come back on.
Coming from the other direction, the number of people the Earth could support if everyone had to live a hunter-gatherer life is probably less than one billion people. I haven’t seen anyone do a back of the envelope calculation on that in several years, so my number is off I’m sure. The point is that the number of people the world can support in a primitive lifestyle is smaller than the number of people our established technology can support. The systems built and maintained over centuries by people who just want to see their children have it easier than they did, to be able to survive without having to claw their way through every day wondering if they’d make it through the next day.
The nine-to-fiver who complains about the cost of his latte has no clue, none at all, just how many people who had to labor to get him his coffee with milk in a container that he could just throw away when he’s had enough caffeine to keep him alert. And he gets that tasty beverage in exchange for a promissory note, a debt instrument, money, that the retailer then passes back down the chain eventually to the field workers in a far away country that actually touch the soil and grow the coffee that he thinks he paid too much for.
All of this, the high numbers of people, the ease of access to goods and services, the ability to do some task divorced from producing sustenance for yourself directly and still be fed, clothed, sheltered? All of it is evidence of society. Money is evidence of society, all by itself. Money is a socialist system, a system that exists because there are others to trade with in the first place. Without the group’s agreement, you’d still be running down prey like your ancient ancestors did, and hoping that the animal didn’t injure you before you killed it.
Watching the seventh season of The Walking Dead, I was struck by the notion that the entire group still wears clothing that doesn’t visibly disintegrate when they move. Seven years on, they still aren’t spinning and weaving thread and cloth. Patching shirts and jackets. For that matter the vehicles still run after being essentially without maintenance on the side of the road for years. Gasoline still burns even though (as anyone who has experience with small engines can attest) you’re lucky if you can get a lawn mower engine to start after it’s been sitting idle through one winter. Lucky to get it started because the fuel itself is unstable and will degrade over time. Rick and Carl and the rest of the crew? They’d be walking or riding horses everywhere by now because the fuel to run modern vehicles can’t be easily created without a vast infrastructure of technology that very few people understand.
That’s television, you say? Of course it is. It’s fantasy. And so is the notion that any of us are truly self-sufficient. None of us can replicate even the most simple of machines that we rely on daily, and yet we delude ourselves into thinking that we are capable and independent. Rational actors on a vast, mathematically predictable stage. That ability to delude oneself in that fashion? That too is evidence of society. Flat Earthers are a modern invention, and absolute proof of society’s existence. You don’t question that the Earth is round when you watch the people who will bring back your dinner tonight sail over the horizon to catch fish. The curvature of the Earth is as evident as the gnawing hunger in your belly.
I first thought about writing a post like this one after listening to this episode of Freakonomics,
I was inspired by the complexity of the process of creating one of the oldest tools modern man utilizes, the simple wooden pencil. As the episode goes into, the pencil is hardly simple at all. It took generations of tinkering and tweaking to create the object that you and I think of as a pencil when we say the word “pencil”. This TED talk portrays the complexity of the subject more quickly,
Unfortunately the video is hosted on Facebook only. I apologize for the cludgy video interface design that comes along with that; the parts that aren’t directly copied from YouTube, I mean. Modern technology is so much not like the pencil. Facebook’s baldly abrasive and ham-handed attempts to acquire all internet traffic for itself are a hallmark of poor design, but that is a different subject for some other day. The subject for today is how the simplest of objects that we take for granted, a toaster, a pencil, are beyond the ability of any one person to put together and have work properly. So much for the dreams of rugged individualism and self-reliance. Would you mind passing me that cup of tea, please?
The triumphs of the free market are actually nothing like triumphs of the free market. They are products of society, government and business working together. This is the part of the human equation that most individualists simply cannot wrap their minds around. None of us get exactly what we want. Not even the wealthiest of wealthy men gets exactly what they want out of life. To the extent that anyone’s needs are met it is done through cooperative effort. Like-minded people working together for a common goal. The most that any individual can do by himself is survive, and that only for the brief instant that their life contains. If that’s all you want out of life, survival, then you really are a pathetic creature. I grieve for you.
Here’s some evidence of the government funding that Mazzucato’s talking about. DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, created during the Cold War to keep American technology ahead of the Soviets, has over the years produced several kinds of missiles and airplanes as well as the first computer mouse, miniature GPS receivers, HD displays, and a digital personal assistant. ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, founded under George W. Bush, has funded a variety of energy projects, including battery-storage tech; the Department of Energy, starting in 1978, invested more than $130 million studying the extraction techniques that have come to be known as fracking. And the National Institutes of Health has helped fund the vast majority of all new drugs approved by the FDA.