Society, Individual/Group Behavior and Private Property

I have recently been in some on-line debates on the above issue and thought the dialogue in one of them on the Real World Economics site worth posting:

Part of the Comment I was responding to:

While there may be phenomena which occur at the group level that exceed individual intentions and do not reduce to individual actions, such phenomena are not in themselves intentional, premeditated or rational.

My response:

Most individual actions are, research suggests, unconscious and not rational and even conscious ones in my experience are often perhaps mainly irrational: habitual, biased, self defeating, contrary to stated goals etc. Indeed much of individual behavior (I am in the conflict business) is indeed almost completely self defeating aka not linked to stated goal seeking. And my experience of organizations suggests that there are group intentional phenomena of enormous significance, that are unintelligible through the lens of atomistic individualism. Group think, organizational norms etc. Most people are not exactly existentialist freedom actors. They are members of herds with much social contagion. Indeed if they were not swarmy business and markets would find it hard to function. Semi-intelligent swarms is what I have seen.

There are psychological experiments on measuring a stick that show how malleable most of us are to group pressure. Which is not surprising given how much of our evolution was in hunter gatherer bands where cooperation was essential to survival and selfish behavior that you didn’t conceal, likely to get you killed or banished which was about the same. Inuit when asked if they had sociopaths apparently replied that they did but they tended to fall off the ice quite young.

And on the subject of private property some observations: 1) There was no private property before about 10,000 years ago: hunter gatherers have only a little: portable tools, weapons and minor food store owned by the band 2) For most of the last 10,000 years very few people had any private property: most lived in systems that were feudal, tribal, kingdoms, or anarchy with little private property and often no rule of law to make it stable if they had any 3) even today probably billions of people have no net private property: their debts > value of property 4) In most countries a fair % of property is state/collectively owned: Singapore I recall 80% of its land area is owned by the state and the figure is 28% in the US. Hard to imagine a society with only private property: I can’t recall one in history but open to correction.

So private property as a large scale phenomena is a century or so old. Probably too early to say how it is working out. I guess we will see how long our civilization lasts and whether private property and its externalities bring it down or help it thrive. Whether it morphs into something else or reverts to some previous state or whether it stays exactly the same: not many people having much of it. I lean morph into something else a little different, a little more constrained by societal needs or civilization collapses. But no crystal ball here. Just scenario based futuring I suppose a la Peter Schwartz.

And a footnote more widely addressed given this reply. I am also a little disappointed that in Real World Economics there is so little attention paid to economic history (I am an economic historian by training though I spent my career in business) and when there is, it is not much on the longue duree; but very recent times as the only thing of interest, though actually much of the economics profession attention span doesn’t seem even include 2008. It lives like good Zen Buddhists in the free market fundamentalist present: now and now and now. 🙂

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Beware What You Ask For: Peter Radford

Brilliant article in Real World Economics by Peter Radford on the current plutocratic mess:

This has been a long and miserable time. Deluged daily by strange and almost surrealistic gyrations in Washington I decided to sit to one side and simply watch. The spectacle of America rapidly decaying and apparently unable to prevent itself from gnawing away at its institutions is compelling. The regular attempts to undermine the credibility of everything meant to act as a bastion against tyranny is riveting. The subsequent indulgence in endless introspection about how dire our political collapse is equally absorbing.

Why add to the malaise by commenting?

It’s all out there.

A great nation turned against itself, locked in polarized paralysis it drifts buffeted by the incessant whimsy of its current leadership. That denigrates the word leadership, so I refer only to the titular head of state. He is a misogynist, a racist, a child, and an imbecile.

But he is president.

And the right wing side of our political class has gathered itself around him, disregarding his manifest faults and incompetence, in order to eke out a few long-held ideologically driven policy wins. I hope they reflect on the stain they will for ever carry, and that they are able to regard that stain as being worthwhile when set against those policy wins. 

The left wing of our politics has wandered off somewhere. Apart from one of two who try to carry forward the vision of a fair society based upon the elimination of class based privilege, the rest have disappeared into various forms of narrow minded grievance driven advocacy. They have no grand statement to make about America and its aspirations, they are content to stay small and hide behind one identity or another. This, by definition, is an exclusionary approach despite their protestations to the contrary. It is an orgy of blame-laying and recrimination that will, ultimately, simply splinter America even more than it already is.

There is no center of gravity, no central coalition, no recourse for compromise. There is them, there is us, and a chasm in between.

Yes, I am exaggerating, but this is the way it feels.

And, I think, this unraveling was inevitable.

It began decades ago under Reagan when he launched his campaign in the deep south to summon up the latent racist demons that still motivate white voters in those parts. Why did he do that? Cynical vote grabbing. Why would a Republican from California not announce his campaign in his home state? Why provoke by going to the epicenter of segregation and racism?

To win votes. To encourage the tide turned by Nixon with that same exercise to keep on rolling.

We live with the consequence today: the extraordinary homogeneity of the southern states aligned strongly with the Republicans acts as a bulwark against social progress. Indeed it encourages social regression.

Meanwhile the cities and the coasts tilt ever more towards the Democrats. Why? Because the steady social and demographic change taking place there is played to by the identity policies of grievance. Plus, and leftists everywhere need to confront this, globalization and automation have thrown off great benefits to the educated class that now dominates the policy thought of the left. It is little wonder that the Democrats lost ground in the old industrial states, they have no empathy for the decline of industry. They live in the thrall of the wonders of hi-tech. They have become oblivious to the hardships of technological change.

The entire nation appears unable to enter into conversation about how to deal with change. Especially technological change.

I am tired of being told that our workforce suffers from a “skills deficit” and that ever more education is the solution to the apparent bleakness of the substitution of ignorant labor by clever capital. How, pray tell, is a midlife worker with a family, home, and lifestyle to maintain to take time off for, or afford, his or her continuing education? Especially given that our centers of education are so resistant to technological change and productivity improvement that they are increasingly expensive. And, especially given that the dominant stream in policy making nowadays is adamantly opposed to state driven solutions to anything, let alone the provision of adult education.

Those who glibly ply education as the solution to the problem created by the technologists — they are generally technologists also — utterly miss the point. Education is massively time consuming and expensive. Who will pay for it in future, surely not taxpayers?

Which raises the tax reform bill.

It was totally unnecessary. The economy is chugging along well. We do not have an issue of wealth creation. We have an issue of wealth distribution. The answer from the right is to overheat the economy in the hope that some crumbs might fall to the working people integral in the creation of that wealth. The answer from the left is … well apart from the one or two carrying the old fashioned torch for workers, the answer is to indulge in grievance driven identity politics.

Gun control is another sure sign of the weakness of America. The pathetic response to each and every massacre is to offer “prayers”, which by all available empirical evidence are worth absolutely nothing, and then to capitulate to the insane zealotry of the National Rifle Association, whose paranoia is a classic example of extremism run amok. There is no reason to hope that America will solve its gun addiction. It will tinker with a few very peripheral laws and then claim victory. Until the next massacre, whereupon it will offer up copious prayers.

All this malaise, the decline, the polarization, and the ineptitude of the current administration compiles into a single story: the inability of the nation’s elite to identify and keep pace with the social ramifications of its own advocacy of change.

On one side the elite lauds change and the enormous efficiencies we reap from new technologies; on the other it resists building the state driven institutions to mitigate the social costs of that change. Its inability to conceive of and then execute a sensible health care policy is a classic example of this dereliction.

Despite all this I am emerging optimistic.

Our decline could be temporary and simply the result of the current regimes total incapacity.

But there are preconditions for renewal.

One is that the old policy center, the failed suite of ideas that led to the decline, must be replaced.

Second is that new leadership has to emerge on both sides of the political divide.The continued domination of the left by the aging cohort that came of age under Clinton and who thus are to blame for the demise of left wing politics is absurd. And on the right there is a crying need for someone who can advocate conservatism without falling immediately into some dystopian hatred of the state. None of the younger faces who were rolled over by Trump are worthy of future consideration, although I expect them all to be on parade in 2024.

Third is that the ironclad grip on policy of corporations and wealthy individuals must be broken. Until then we cannot have democratic policy making on behalf of most Americans.

This last is the most difficult to imagine coming into being. Contemporary America is a haven for plutocrats. They are over-represented in politics. They are coddled by the Supreme Court. They are pandered to by politicians. Why would they surrender their grip on power?

Perhaps, and this is probably me dreaming, they will realize that self interest requires them to relinquish some power.

Take, for example, the current pressure being heaped on big business to disassociate itself from the NRA. As companies play and ever increasing role in setting the shape and form of society, displacing along the way our moribund government institutions, and as they thus sieze political power, they become targets for democratic feedback. They expose their decisions to public scrutiny and resistance. They can no longer simply hand over large sums of money to buy off politicians. They can no longer simply encourage the debasement and corruption that such money produces. Now they are on the political front lines.

This is an irony of plutocracy and corporatism.

Instead of being background actors, big corporations are now recognized for what they are: policy makers. They cannot be voted out of power, so they are beyond the reach of democratic control. But their profits are vulnerable.  They can be made accountable through the bottom line.

Economists have long misundertood the duality implied by this. They have long argued that consumers are exquisitely rational in their economic actions, but are extraordinarily inept in their political actions — markets are efficient because of the former, governments are inefficient and self-dealing as a result of the latter. Economists thus imagine consumers and voters to be two separate and discrete groups. The one paragons of enlightened calculation, the other steeped in ignorance and backwardness. We all suffer, according to economists, from some peculiar split personality disorder.

Yet the willingness of voters-as-consumers to identify corporations as the center of policy and consequently the targets of democratic pressure belies the split personality argument. Consumers have realized their power. They can vote through consumption patterns. This recognition of the reality of our political center of gravity is a source of encouragement and optimism.

Big business through its corruption of politics, through its money support of politicians, and through its willingness to seize power to bend policy in its self interest, has been recognized for what it is by voters. It has become the de facto responsible party for the shape, tone, and success of society. The successful engulfing of society by the market puts market actors in the political hot seat. Thus the continual struggle between capitalism and democracy has moved out of the old and increasingly irrelevant political forum and back where it started: in the workplace and in the marketplace.

Corporate management was too clever by half. Now it must wonder what it asked for.

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Conflict Book Review: Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War it Starts: Harlan Ullman

Good book review of an interesting book: in today’s UK Financial Times:

The man who coined the ‘shock and awe’ strategy explains the US military’s dismal record.  Washington thought Vietnam would be the next communist domino to fall. People who knew it understood this was a war of self-determination.  How long does it take for the US military to admit defeat? The answer is forever, according to Harlan Ullman.

Today there are US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan who were one year-olds when the war began. Yet the Taliban is no closer to being banished than it was in 2001. Indeed, it occupies considerably more of the country today than it did two years ago. In the meantime, the US presence has fluctuated from a few thousand troops to more than 100,000 and back again. Each president thinks he has found the key to winning the conflict. Every time, the key breaks. Yet the Pentagon refrain continues: “Give me the tools and I will finish the job.

If there was a president who might have resisted the “deep state” it was Donald Trump. He campaigned against America’s endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He won the mandate to say “no” to the Pentagon. Yet, in power, Mr Trump has given the Pentagon everything it has requested — and more. For the first time in modern US history, military commanders have discretion to make large battlefield decisions without civilian approval. Last year, the Pentagon took advantage of its new latitude to drop the “mother of all bombs” — the largest non-nuclear weapon in history — on an Isis-occupied warren of caves in eastern Afghanistan. “We have the greatest military in the world,” said Mr Trump. “We have given them total authorisation and that is what they are doing.” Alas, Isis is still there.

Ullman’s subtitle is a pardonable exaggeration. Occasionally the US wins wars it did not start — such as its 1991 liberation of Kuwait. For the most part, though, he is right. From the deadly stalemate in Korea in 1950 that holds to this day, to the Vietnam war, the second Iraq war, and Afghanistan, the world’s greatest military has a poor record. Individual battles are no problem. There is not an army in the world that could stand up to the Americans in a fair fight. But winning wars is a different matter. What is the problem? Ullman is a good person to answer the question. Having fought in Vietnam as a Swift Boat captain, he is a veteran of the US’s most costly defeat. He is also a respected military strategist on the Washington scene. As an instructor at the Naval War College in the 1990s, he coined the strategy of “shock and awe” that was put to devastating use in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. As a friend and sometime adviser to figures including Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defence, and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, Ullman understands their weak spots.

He has three explanations. First, the US keeps electing poorly qualified presidents. Second, they keep making strategic mistakes. As Mr Trump is showing, the less experienced the president, the more likely they are to take advice from the military. But the Pentagon should not be entrusted with strategic decisions. That is the job of the civilian who is elected to be their commander-in-chief. Just as often, presidents invent their own blunders. John F Kennedy’s presidency was almost upended when he took the Central Intelligence Agency’s advice to launch a botched invasion of Cuba. George W Bush thought that Iraq’s defeat would deflate tyrants everywhere. Barack Obama believed the Taliban would fall for his “Hello, I must be going” temporary surge in Afghanistan.

Two exceptions were Dwight Eisenhower, who had been commander of US forces in Europe, and George H W Bush, who had been head of the CIA. Bush Senior wisely stopped the 1991 invasion of Iraq long before it reached Baghdad. Bush Junior was clearly not paying attention.

Ullman’s third explanation — that American forces lack cultural knowledge of the enemy — is where he is most scathing. “Ignorance of the local situation is . . . embedded in our decision-making DNA,” he writes. “Too often, American leaders have believed that the enemy is always thinking as we do.” Perhaps the best example of this was seen in Vietnam. Washington thought it would be the next communist domino to fall. People who knew the country understood this was a war of self-determination. Ullman’s thesis can be boiled down to one phrase: too much muscle; not enough thinking. He recommends a “brains-based” approach. That would be a good place to start. Intelligent volunteers should begin by reading his book.
The writer is the FT’s Washington columnist and commentator

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Russia, America and the Contest of Sick Systems: Gideon Rachman

A stellar article in today’s UK Financial Times by Gideon Rachman: the Last Man Standing Theory:

Internal resilience, not external strength, will determine the century’s power struggles.

What was Vladimir Putin thinking? Viewed from the west, the Russian president’s decision to authorise an undercover campaign to destabilise the US presidential election looks risky, even bizarre. But, viewed through the prism of Russian history, the idea that a foreign intelligence operation could wreck the political system of an adversary is unremarkable. The birth of the Soviet Union, the state that Mr Putin once faithfully served, was midwifed by such an operation.

During the first world war, the Germans facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia, knowing that the Bolshevik leader advocated peace between Russia and Germany. The aim was to destabilise the Tsarist regime, and to knock Russia out of the war. It succeeded brilliantly. A century later, Mr Putin got behind the campaign of Donald Trump for reasons that were not a million miles from the German motivation for backing Lenin. The Russian president hated the sanctions imposed on his country after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. He associated this policy with Hillary Clinton. And he knew that Mr Trump supported rapprochement with Russia.

There was also a broader lesson that Mr Putin could draw from history, but this time from the Soviet Union’s death, rather than its birth. Throughout the cold war, the Soviet bloc and the west had prepared for military confrontation — a climactic tank battle across the plains of central Europe, or even a catastrophic nuclear exchange. But in the end, victory and defeat were decided with scarcely a shot being fired. The Soviet system collapsed internally. The crucial variable was not the military strength of either side — but their internal resilience.

In a similar way, the power struggles of the 21st century — between the US and Russia, as well as China and the EU — are more likely to be determined by domestic resilience than by external strength. Until recently, this would have been a contest that the US was supremely confident of winning. After all the great strength of the west is meant to be the legitimacy and stability created by democracy as well as the superior economic performance. “Freedom works” was the confident boast of former US president Ronald Reagan.

The issue of hidden problems applies particularly to China which these days is a much more plausible rival to the US than Russia But in the Trump era, the idea that the US system is inherently more stable than its rivals can no longer be taken for granted. The hatreds on both sides of the US political divide are so strong that even mainstream journals such as the New Yorker and Foreign Policy have run articles on the possibility of a second American civil war. (The experts polled by Foreign Policy came to a consensus of approximately 35 per cent.)

The Russian response to accusations that they deliberately sought to widen these divisions inside America — when it goes beyond simple denial — is twofold. First, they argue that Russia is simply responding in kind to decades of US-led efforts to destabilise foreign governments that it dislikes. Second, they point out that American democracy must be in a pretty parlous state if it can be seriously undermined by a Russian operation with a supposed budget of a mere $1.25m a month.

There clearly is some truth to both arguments. A US democratic system that has twice recently elected the presidential candidate who received fewer votes (in 2000 and 2016) can hardly be argued to be in robust good health.

But another lesson of the cold war is that America’s openness means that its problems are on display. By contrast, the tightly controlled Soviet system convinced some gullible outsiders that it was a model of economic and technological progress. As a contrast, there was a tendency to overestimate the weakness of the west — and to fail to spot the rottenness in the Soviet system. Something similar could be happening now. It is hard to miss the dysfunction of Mr Trump’s America. But the internal weaknesses of its international rivals might be even more serious — but harder to observe.

The issue of hidden problems applies particularly to China which — these days — is a much more plausible rival to the US than Russia. Modern China presents an impressive face to the world. But it is also expert at repressing discussion of threatening internal problems — from regional tension in Tibet and Xinjiang, to weaknesses in the financial system. The news that the Communist party intends to abolish term limits on the Chinese presidency — clearing the way for Xi Jinping to stay on in power indefinitely — underlines the danger that one-party rule can slip into one-man rule. That is not a model that has worked well for China in the past.

President Putin also intends to stay on in power, and will win another stage-managed presidential election next month. But his effort to reassert Russia’s role as a world power is likely to be undermined by the same weakness that did for the Soviet Union: an economy that is too small and inefficient to sustain Moscow’s global ambitions. And both Russia and China face long-term demographic problems. Mr Putin knows that Russia has grave internal weaknesses. But he also can see that the US has serious problems of its own. That is why he has adopted a strategy that some analysts call “last man standing”. Its bleak aim is to play up the weaknesses of the west, before Russia’s own weaknesses overwhelm Mr Putin.

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The US Has Reached the Last Stage Before Collapse: Corrupt Decadence by James Traub

  Brilliant Article from James Traub in today’s Business Insider which I print in full: essential reading and also, as well as an indictment of corrupt conservatism, an equal indictment of  the lack of new rejuvenating ideas for reform from Progressives who haven’t had a new economic policy strategy for nearly 5 decades:

  • In this op-ed, James Traub argues that America has become “decadent and depraved.”
  • He explains what decadence means, and how it’s tied to corruption.
  • “Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse,” he writes.

In The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon luridly evokes the Rome of 408 A.D., when the armies of the Goths prepared to descend upon the city.The marks of imperial decadence appeared not only in grotesque displays of public opulence and waste, but also in the collapse of faith in reason and science.

The people of Rome, Gibbon writes, fell prey to “a puerile superstition” promoted by astrologers and to soothsayers who claimed “to read in the entrails of victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity.”Would a latter-day Gibbon describe today’s America as “decadent”? I recently heard a prominent, and pro-American, French thinker (who was speaking off the record) say just that.

He was moved to use the word after watching endless news accounts of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets alternate with endless revelations of sexual harassment.

I flinched, perhaps because a Frenchman accusing Americans of decadence seems contrary to the order of nature. And the reaction to Harvey Weinstein et al. is scarcely a sign of hysterical puritanism, as I suppose he was implying.And yet, the shoe fit. The sensation of creeping rot evoked by that word seems terribly apt.

Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption— the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning.

We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a “public” and hold our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.

We cannot blame everything on Donald Trump, much though we might want to. In the decadent stage of the Roman Empire, or of Louis XVI’s France, or the dying days of the Habsburg Empire so brilliantly captured in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, decadence seeped downward from the rulers to the ruled.

But in a democracy, the process operates reciprocally.

A decadent elite

A decadent elite licenses degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders. Then our Nero panders to our worst attributes — and we reward him for doing so.

“Decadence,” in short, describes a cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder — the Donald Trump in us. It is the right, of course, that first introduced the language of civilizational decay to American political discourse. A quarter of a century ago, Patrick Buchanan bellowed at the Republican National Convention that the two parties were fighting “a religious war … for the soul of America.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) accused the Democrats of practicing “multicultural nihilistic hedonism,” of despising the values of ordinary Americans, of corruption, and of illegitimacy. That all-accusing voice became the voice of the Republican Party. Today it is not the nihilistic hedonism of imperial Rome that threatens American civilization but the furies unleashed by Gingrich and his kin.

The 2016 Republican primary was a bidding war in which the relatively calm voices — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — dropped out in the early rounds, while the consummately nasty Ted Cruz duked it out with the consummately cynical Donald Trump.

A year’s worth of Trump’s cynicism, selfishness, and rage has only stoked the appetite of his supporters. The nation dodged a bullet last week when a colossal effort pushed Democratic nominee Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s Senate special election.

Nevertheless, the church-going folk of Alabama were perfectly prepared to choose a racist and a pedophile over a Democrat. Republican nominee Roy Moore almost became a senator by orchestrating a hatred of the other that was practically dehumanizing.

Trump functions as the impudent id of this culture of mass contempt

Of course he has legitimized the language of xenophobia and racial hatred, but he has also legitimized the language of selfishness. During the campaign, Trump barely even made the effort that Mitt Romney did in 2012 to explain his money-making career in terms of public good. He boasted about the gimmicks he had deployed to avoid paying taxes.

Yes, he had piled up debt and walked away from the wreckage he had made in Atlantic City. But it was a great deal for him! At the Democratic convention, then-Vice President Joe Biden recalled that the most terrifying words he heard growing up were, “You’re fired.”

Biden may have thought he had struck a crushing blow. Then Americans elected the man who had uttered those words with demonic glee. Voters saw cruelty and naked self-aggrandizement as signs of steely determination.

Perhaps we can measure democratic decadence by the diminishing relevance of the word “we.” It is, after all, a premise of democratic politics that, while majorities choose, they do so in the name of collective good.

Half a century ago, at the height of the civil rights era and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, democratic majorities even agreed to spend large sums not on themselves but on excluded minorities. The commitment sounds almost chivalric today. Do any of our leaders have the temerity even to suggest that a tax policy that might hurt one class — at least, one politically potent class — nevertheless benefits the nation?

There is, in fact, no purer example of the politics of decadence than the tax legislation that the president will soon sign. Of course the law favors the rich; Republican supply-side doctrine argues that tax cuts to the investor class promote economic growth.

What distinguishes the current round of cuts from those of either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush is, first, the way in which they blatantly benefit the president himself through the abolition of the alternative minimum tax and the special treatment of real estate income under new “pass-through” rules.

We Americans are so numb by now that we hardly even take note of the mockery this implies of the public servant’s dedication to public good.

Targeted tax cuts

Second, and no less extraordinary, is the way the tax cuts have been targeted to help Republican voters and hurt Democrats, above all through the abolition or sharp reduction of the deductibility of state and local taxes. I certainly didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan, but I cannot imagine him using tax policy to reward supporters and punish opponents.

He would have thought that grossly unpatriotic. The new tax cuts constitute the economic equivalent of gerrymandering. All parties play that game, it’s true; yet today’s Republicans have carried electoral gerrymandering to such an extreme as to jeopardize the constitutionally protected principle of “one man, one vote.”

Inside much of the party, no stigma attaches to the conscious disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. Democrats are not “us.”

Finally, the tax cut is an exercise in willful blindness. The same no doubt could be said for the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, which predictably led to unprecedented deficits when Republicans as well as Democrats balked at making offsetting budget cuts.

Yet at the time a whole band of officials in the White House and the Congress clamored, in some cases desperately, for such reductions. They accepted a realm of objective reality that existed separately from their own wishes. But in 2017, when the Congressional Budget Office and other neutral arbiters concluded that the tax cuts would not begin to pay for themselves, the White House and congressional leaders simply dismissed the forecasts as too gloomy.Here is something genuinely new about our era: We lack not only a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or a collective mode of reasoning toward the truth.

A thing that we wish to be true is true; if we wish it not to be true, it isn’t. Global warming is a hoax. Barack Obama was born in Africa. Neutral predictions of the effects of tax cuts on the budget must be wrong, because the effects they foresee are bad ones.

It is, of course, our president who finds in smoking entrails the proof of future greatness and prosperity. The reduction of all disagreeable facts and narratives to “fake news” will stand as one of Donald Trump’s most lasting contributions to American culture, far outliving his own tenure.

He has, in effect, pressed gerrymandering into the cognitive realm. Your story fights my story; if I can enlist more people on the side of my story, I own the truth. And yet Trump is as much symptom as cause of our national disorder.

The Washington Post recently reported that officials at the Center for Disease Control were ordered not to use words like “science-based,” apparently now regarded as disablingly left-leaning. But further reporting in the New York Times appears to show that the order came not from White House flunkies but from officials worried that Congress would reject funding proposals marred by the offensive terms.

One of our two national political parties — and its supporters — now regards “science” as a fighting word. Where is our Robert Musil, our pitiless satirist and moralist, when we need him (or her)?

A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics become morally and intellectually corrupt

A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics, which is to say its fundamental means of adjudication, becomes morally and intellectually corrupt. But the loss of all regard for common ground is hardly limited to the political right, or for that matter to politics.

We need only think of the ever-unfolding narrative of Harvey Weinstein, which has introduced us not only to one monstrous individual but also to a whole world of well-educated, well-paid, highly regarded professionals who made a very comfortable living protecting that monster. “When you quickly settle, there is no need to get into all the facts,” as one of his lawyers delicately advised.

This is, of course, what lawyers do, just as accountants are paid to help companies move their profits into tax-free havens. What is new and distinctive, however, is the lack of apology or embarrassment, the sheer blitheness of the contempt for the public good.

When Teddy Roosevelt called the monopolists of his day “malefactors of great wealth,” the epithet stung — and stuck. Now the bankers and brokers and private equity barons who helped drive the nation’s economy into a ditch in 2008 react with outrage when they’re singled out for blame.

Being a “wealth creator” means never having to say you’re sorry. Enough voters accept this proposition that Donald Trump paid no political price for unapologetic greed.

The worship of the marketplace, and thus the elevation of selfishness to a public virtue, is a doctrine that we associate with the libertarian right. But it has coursed through the culture as a self-justifying ideology for rich people of all political persuasions — perhaps also for people who merely dream of becoming rich.

‘The last stage before collapse’

Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse.

The court of Muhammad Shah, last of the Mughals to control the entirety of their empire, lost itself in music and dance while the Persian army rode toward the Red Fort. But as American decadence is distinctive, perhaps America’s fate may be, too.

Even if it is written in the stars that China will supplant the United States as the world’s greatest power, other empires, Britain being the most obvious example and the one democracy among them, have surrendered the role of global hegemon without sliding into terminal decadence.

Can the United States emulate the stoic example of the country it once surpassed? I wonder.

The British have the gift of ironic realism. When the time came to exit the stage, they shuffled off with a slightly embarrassed shrug. That, of course, is not the American way. When the stage manager beckons us into the wings we look for someone to hit — each other, or immigrants or Muslims or any other kind of not-us.

Finding the reality of our situation inadmissible, like the deluded courtiers of the Shah of Iran, we slide into a malignant fantasy.

But precisely because we are a democracy, because the values and the mental habits that define us move upward from the people as well as downward from their leaders, that process need not be inexorable. The prospect of sending Roy Moore to the Senate forced a good many conservative Republicans into what may have been painful acts of self-reflection.

The revelations of widespread sexual abuse offer an opportunity for a cleansing moment of self-recognition — at least if we stop short of the hysterical overreaction that seems to govern almost everything in our lives.

Our political elite will continue to gratify our worst impulses so long as we continue to be governed by them. The only way back is to reclaim the common ground — political, moral, and even cognitive — that Donald Trump has lit on fire.

Losing to China is hardly the worst thing that could happen to us. Losing ourselves is.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.”

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“The Doomsday Machine” by Daniel Ellsberg

Well the bad news: I just finished probably the most disturbing book I have ever read: Daniel Ellsberg’s “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner”.

It’s main findings: (My own from his: we are lucky still to be here given all the near misses he describes and the madness of the very clever and the current nuclear weapon system)
1.The USA had, well before Trump, and still has a First Use policy for nuclear weapons: US policy is not simply the threat of retaliation.
2. The Russians have their Perimeter defense system that automatically launches a full scale nuclear attack on the USA, if Moscow is destroyed by a nuclear weapon; and one reason for this is the insane policy that the US military keeps talking about of decapitation: trying to kill the Russian leadership to make a nuclear attack by them harder, but instead makes it more automatic.
3. The use of nuclear weapons in the US is delegated way down the military command (the President’s nuclear football etc. is bs theater) and there is very little in the way of physical systems to prevent their use by a lone mad man, and in effect the US has a human rather than fully automated Perimeter defense system of its own that any nuclear attack on Washington would likely trigger massive retaliation almost automatically.
4. Even a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would start a nuclear winter for several years killing 2+ billion people, and a full scale US-Russia nuclear war would trigger a much longer one that would last perhaps a decade of Ice Age conditions and most of the human race would starve to death
5. No one is much bothered by all this. Too scary to solve?
6. Ellsberg suggests that ending the Doomsday Machine is technically very easy: the US adopts a No First Use policy, and in agreement with the Russians gets rid of its land based missiles and relies on sub based missiles and both sides get rid of a lot of nukes to end the risk of nuclear winter. And yep the Russians destroy their insane Perimeter system.

Two new phrases: Omnicide: destruction of the human race.

And SAD: Self Assured Destruction.

And a nice quote:
“Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Also see:


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Karl Polanyi in Six Points by Asad Zaman

This is close to how I see economic history and our own situation. A brilliant summary by Asad Zaman in Real World Economics at

Polanyi’s six points:     The analysis of Polanyi’s Great Transformation can be summarized in the six points listed below.


    1: All societies face the economic task of producing and providing for all members of society. Modern market societies are unique in assigning this responsibility to the marketplace, thereby creating entitlements to production for those with wealth, and depriving the poor of entitlement to food. All traditional societies have used non-market mechanisms based on cooperation and social responsibility to provide for members who cannot take care of their own needs. It is only in a market society that education, health, housing, and social welfare services are only available to those who can pay for it.

    2: Market mechanisms for providing goods to members conflict with other social mechanisms and are harmful to society. They emerged to central prominence in Europe after a protracted battle, which was won by markets over society due to certain historical circumstances peculiar to Europe. The rise of markets caused tremendous damage to society, which continues to this day. The replacement of key mechanisms which govern social relations, with those compatible with market mechanisms, was traumatic to human values. Land, labour and money are crucial to the efficient functioning of a market economy. Market societies convert these into commodities causing tremendous damage. This involves (A) changing a nurturing and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth into a commercial one of exploiting nature, (B) Changing relationships based on trust, intimacy and lifetime commitments into short term impersonal commercial transactions, and (C) Turning human lives into saleable commodities in order to create a labor market.

    3:  Unregulated markets are so deadly to human society and environment that creation of markets automatically sets into play movements to protect society and envirnoment from the harm that they cause. Paradoxically, it is this counter-movement, this opposition to markets, that allows markets to survive. If this was not present, markets would destroy the society and the planet. For example, the Great Depression caused the collapse of many free market institutions, and the government stepped in to prop them up and substitute for them. Similarly, only massive government intervention save the world from a major economic crisis following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007. This protective, anti-market, move allowed capitalism to survive. This is called the “Double Movement” by Polanyi, who says that the history of capitalism cannot be understand without looking at both sides — the forces trying to liberate markets from all regulations, and the forces fighting to protect society from the harmful effects of unregulated markets.

    4: Certain ideologies, which relate to land, labour and money, and the profit motive are required for efficient functioning of markets. In particular, both poverty, and a certain amount of callousness and indifference to poverty are required for efficient functioning of markets. Capitalist economics require sales, purchase, and exploitation of labor, which cannot be done with creating poverty, and using it to motivate workers. The sanctification of property rights is another essential feature of markets. Thus, the existence of a market economy necessitates the emergence of certain ideologies and mindsets which are harmful to, and in contradiction with, natural human tendencies.

    5: Markets have been fragile and crisis-prone and have lurched from disaster to disaster, as amply illustrated by GFC 2007. Polanyi prognosticated in 1944 that the last and biggest of these crises in his time, the Second World War, had finally killed the market system and a new method for organising economic affairs would emerge in its wake. In fact, the Keynesian ideas eliminated the worst excesses of market-based economies and dominated the scene for about 30 years following that war. However, the market system rose from the ashes and came to dominate the globe in an astonishing display of power. This story has been most effectively presented by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

    6: Market economies require imposition by violence — either natural or created. As noted by the earliest strategists, deception is a crucial element of warfare. One of the essential ingredients in the rise of markets has been a constant battle to misrepresent facts, so that stark failures of markets have been painted as remarkable successes. There are a number of strategies commonly used to portray an economic disaster as progress and development. Without this propaganda, markets could not survive, as the forces of resistance to markets would be too strong. For example, a fundamental message of modern economics textbooks is that capitalism has created tremendous wealth and unprecedented progress. In fact, notwithstanding capitalist propaganda to the contrary, this growth has been extremely costly. We have sold planet Earth and the future of our children, and are celebrating the proceeds without taking into reckoning the costs. Accounting for the costs of destruction of environment, animal species, and human society, shows that that costs of growth have been far higher than the benefits. See “Evaluating the Costs of Growth” (September 21, 2014). Real World Economics Review, issue 67, 9 May 2014, page 41-51.. Available at SSRN:

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