Wednesday, May 25, 2022

American Impotence

"The evenly-divided Senate approved the legislation – formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – on Wednesday in an 88-11 vote, garnering strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. The House of Representatives passed it by 363-70 last week."

Do Americans really think politicians who eagerly approved a $777 billion military industrial complex bill by an 8-1 margin in the Senate and a 5-1 margin in the House will "do something" about civilian gun violence? Democrats and Republicans have their priorities on which they are unequivocally "bipartisan."

Monday, May 23, 2022

Expanding BRICS?

 Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping has called for the BRICS group to expand to include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The original group, suggested by the research department at Goldman Sachs in 2001 as a group to leading future world economic growth was Brazil, Russia, India, and China, who then decided to officially form a group, which then added South Africa in 2010. At about that time, this group that included the world's two largest nations in population and the world's largest in land area, were arguably leading the world in growth as it came out of the Great Recession.  

Their collective relatively good performance at that time reflected high commodity prices, which several of them exported substantially. As those prices fell later in the subsequent decade, several of them also saw their growth rates noticeably decline, notably Brazil, Russia, and South Africa.  But commodity prices are back up again, so this has been making them more important in the world again.

I must confess that I am unclear what criteria Xi Jinping is applying to determine this particular set of nations.  Some of them are major commodity exporters, notably Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan for oil, with Senegal a source of rare earths, a matter of particular interest to China. But this is less obvious for the others, although Indonesia certainly fits being one of the world's largest in population. Some of these, especially Kazakhstan, are involved in China's Belt and Road Initiative, but several are not particularly, and there are some large nations that are involved in the BRI that are not on this list, such as Pakistan. For that matter some people at Goldman Sachs have said Turkey should be part of the group, but it is also not on the list. It is not all that obvious what this group has in common.

Some of this may be political.  Most of these are not closely allied with the US, although several of them have condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Curiously none of them are nations ruled by a Communist party, so no Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, much less not fully communist but strongly socialist and anti-US Venezuela, which also happens to be an oil exporter. Again, there seems to be a certain degree of arbitrariness to who is in and who is not in this group.

It may be that this is not going to go anywhere. Do these nations even want to join the BRICS group? Will it still be able to be called by that acronymic name if they do?  I guess it does not cost any money or require then ro provide troops or something to do so. The group does have annual conferences, so I guess they would get to attend those. But would they want to?  I do not know. We shall see.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, May 16, 2022

What Is The Worst Part Of The Current Inflation?

 In the US we may have seen the peak of overall inflation, with the annualized CPI rate increasing at 8.3% in April, down from 8.5% in March, the highest rare of increase in 40 years. The issue has become the reported top concern of the US public, according to polling, with the hot job market apparently not offsetting the concerns that have arisen due to the emergence of this high rare of inflation.

Many factors have been involved in bringing this about: supply chain problems arising from the Covid pandemic, fiscal and monetary stimulus especially last year responding to the pandemic recession, some exercising of corporate power, the presence of more tariffs enacted in recent years, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia at the order of Putin, with this especially affecting energy and food prices. The latter two categories are what distinguish overall "headline" inflation from the more underlying "core" inflation, which also now also reflects some wage push elements as newly strengthened workers seek to try to make up for the inflation that has already occurred.

One particular item has gotten recentlyin the US, baby formula, a peculiarly egregious shortage. This has shot to the top of the headlines and moaning and wailing in the political sphere, with GOP politicians denouncing giving formula to immigrant babies in JUS government custody. As it is, this particular shortage seems to have some fairly clear causes, notably the closure of an Abbott Lab facility due to it producing toxic formula, a failure of past inspection.  The situation has been exacerbated by Trump administration's revision of NAFTA to USMCA, which included tightened restrictions on imported baby formula from Canada.  This situation may be about to resolve itself as the Abbott Lab facility is reportedly about to reopen, and the administration is apparently relaxing restrictions on formula imports from Mexico and Ireland, if not Canada apparently.

As it is, for American opinion the item that seems to get the most attention is retail gasoline prices, which indeed have reached a new all time nominal peak. While some on the Right have tried to blame much of this on Biden administration restrictions on oil production on public lands, it has relaxed most of those, with them mostly relevant for future production, not the immediate situation. The situation is clearly tied heavily to reductions in exports of oil from Russia, most of those imposed by outsiders as sanctions from nations not wanting Russian oil, even as much of it goes to other markets, although Russia itself cut off natural gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria.  

Compared to food prices, gasoline prices get more headline attention in the US, with US consumers spending on average 8 1/2 % of their income on gasoline, compared to only 6% on food on average. And gasoline prices have been moving up more sharply than food prices recently.

However, looking at the world at large, the more serious problem is food prices. This is because for poorer nations people pay much larger portions of their income on food than what we see in the US.  A recent estimate has global food prices rising on the order of 37%. This becomes a big deal even for a middle income nation like Egypt where the proportion of income spent on food is over a third.  This becomes much more serious when we look at actually poor nations such as Somalia, where the proportion of income spent on food rises to about a half.  Obviously an increase of food prices of anything like 37% in such places is a very big deal, with millions of people certainly going to suffer from malnutrition as a result.

And for the case of food it is not the outsiders sanctioning Russia that is the main source of the problem. It is Russia blockading Ukraine from exporting its substantial food production, and even damaging and blocking the actual food production itself. Reportedly 28 million tons of grain sit in warehouses in Ukraine unable to be exported, even though Ukraine's most important port, Odesa, remains under its control. But the Russian navy is blockading. The most important food items being blocked out of Ukraine are wheat, sunflower oil, and potash and nitrogenous fertliziers. It has provided 10% of wheat exports, 40% of sunflower oil exports, 17% of potash fertilizer exports, and 15% of nitrogenous fertilizer exports. 

The situation regarding wheat is especially dramatic, one of the world's most important food commodities. On top of this war situation, drought has hit wheat production in India hard, the world's second largest producer.  It has now banned exports. The upshot is that wheat prices have now reached an all time nominal high.  Both Egypt and Somalia consume large amounts of wheat, nearly all of which they obtain via imports.  It is the food situation that is the most damaging to the world at large from the current inflation, not energy or baby formula.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Goats and Dogs: Eco-Fascism and Liberal Taboos

UPDATE (May 15, 2022):
When remembered at all, Edward Abbey is mostly thought of as an environmentalist and anarchist but there is no gainsaying the racism and xenophobia on display in his 1983 essay, "Immigration and Liberal Taboos." The opinion piece was originally solicited by the New York Times, which ultimately declined to publish it -- or to pay him the customary kill fee. It was subsequently rejected by Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Mother Jones and Playboy before finally being published in the Phoenix New Times as “The Closing Door Policy.”

Various white nationalist blogs applaud what they view as Abbey's foresight and forthrightness regarding immigration, presumably oblivious to how those views relate to his ideas about wealth inequality, industrial development and authoritarianism. Conversely, Abbey fans on the left who seek to insulate his nature writing from the taint of his anti-immigrant bigotry ignore the way in which, as Michael Potts put it, "a xenophobic and racist image of the immigrant as pollution... map[s] cultural and ethnic prejudices on to an idealised landscape." (Dumping Grounds: Donald Trump, Edward Abbey and the Immigrant as Pollution) Abbey's admirers on both the right and the left thus resort either to blinkers or lame apologetic to redeem him for their political preferences.

My interpretation is that Abbey was a curmudgeon and contrarian whose intended target was liberal hypocrisy. Immigrants were merely "collateral damage" of his colorful diatribes. In the pursuit of being provocative, though, he revealed more than he bargained for about his prejudices. It is precisely this flawed complexity, though, that makes Abbey's writing a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the dire social hieroglyphics of our time. Presumably, Abbey did not think of himself as racist. He was indignant when accused of racism. But the institutions of the society he grew up in transmit racism in their DNA.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Malthusianism Of Benjamin Franklin And The Abortion Issue

 Thomas Robert Malthus may well have been the least favorite economist of Karl Marx. Basically Marx did not like him because he saw Malthus as blaming poverty on the poor themselves, their inevitable sinfulness that led them to constantly reproduce themselves excessively when things started to get better, thus leading to population pressing against the means of subsistence.  Malthus recognized that people could act to reduce births even while still having sex, but as an Anglican priest, he considered such actions to be "vice," which he added to his list of war, famine, and pestilence as limits to population, with those being the first three of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse, the fourth being death.

However, in a more extended discussion of Malthus in the second volume of his Theories of Surplus Value, Marx also took Malthus to task both for making intellectual mistakes and for drawing on the work of earlier thinkers without properly crediting them. The main error was his formulation in the first two editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population, first edition published in 1798, of a "geometric" growth of human population supposedly conflicting with a supposedly "artithmetic" growth of food supplies.  By the term "geometric" he meant exponential growth while by "arithmetic" he meant a linear growth process.  The problem is that exponential or geometric growth is the general law of growth of all populations, including those entities that are the sources of food for humans.  The supposed linear or arithmetic growth law is false.  By his third edition Malthus corrected his error, falling back on Ricardo's law of diminishing returns in the face of limited land as the reason for why food supplies cannot grow exponentially.

Maex noted that the most important two people who preceded Malthus in formulating his atgument, with neither making the intellectual error Malthus made, were James Anderson, but before him Benjamin Franklin, who wrote the seminal essay Concerning the Increase of Mankind in 1751, although it would not be published until 1755 in England. Franklin was the first person to lay out the correct exponential law of population increase as a general law. It is a hard fact that Benjamin Franklin that was the first formal formulater of the Malthusian doctrine.

Franklin was the original Founding Father, indeed the only one of them internationally known prior to the American Revolution. He was most famous for his scientific study of electricity. But we know of him being an inventor of many things, both objects such as his stove as well as organizations such as postal service and lending libraries. He also invented the United States of America, at least as an idea. He did that with Albany Plan of Union he proposed in 1754, which became the basis for the original US government structure, the Articles of Confederation. He proposed it at the beginning of the French and Indian War at a conference with representatives of all the 13 colonies, but it was not accepted.  Its inspiration came from Franklin's interactions with the confederacy of he upper New York State Iroquois Indian tribes, who banded together to support each other against the more numerous Algonkian tribes who surrounded them.

Unsurprisingly, Franklin's concerns about overly rapid population growth probably came from his own personal experience of being the 15th child born in a family that had 17 in all (from two wives for his father, Josiah Franklin). He was personally aware of how having too many children could put make it hard for a family to feed its children, not to mention drag down the general standard of living of a family.

Thus it is also not surprising that Franklin supported letting women choose to end pregnancies at their will. In 1748 he issued an American version of a longstanding English book, The Instructor, a book mostly devoted to mathematical instruction and other basic education. To it he added a medical pamphlet written in 1734 by John Tennent of Virginia. It included a set of detailed instructions of how to induce an abortion, with the suggested abortifacient being the plant angelica, long known to have this ability. It had long been used in Britain, where it was widely accepted as legal when used prior to the time of "quickening," when fetal movement begins, usually about 15 to 20 weeks into pregnancy.  However, Franklin did not add any such rule forbidding its use to any period of time. The language in his work referred to the procedure as dealing with the "misfortune," that clearly an unwanted pregnancy. in his Autobiography to a Dutch widow who was able to continue to manage her business because of her "education" in these matters.

I close this by noting that the leaked draft of a possible SCOTUS ruling to undo Roe v. Wade written by Justice Alito contains a misleading characterization of the legal status of abortion in colonial period.  He cites the work of earlyi 1700s legal theorist, Hale, who supposedly opposed abortion. But Hale only opposed it after the time of quickening, a point not noted by Alioto. This was indeed the British common law view of Britain at the time, and this was the general rule in the American colonies, although in fact they had no formal laws regarding abortion at all. The first of those in the US was not until 1821 in Concecticut, which in fact codified that old British rule, of only forbidding after the time of quickening.  It would only be late in the 1800s that more severe laws came to be passed in the US forbidding abortion, something that almost certainly would not have been approved of by the primordial Malthusian ultimate Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Passing Of Axel Leijonhufvud

 On May 5, Swedish economist Axel Leijonhufvud died at age 88. I only met him once when he attended a seminar I gave in Trento, Italy a decade ago. I always admired his work and felt lots of sympathy with it, and I think he liked what I had to say at least in my seminar that day.  He was someone who stood outside of orthodoxy while not being clearly tied to any particular school of economic thought.  However, he did manage to be respected by many economists, including even by some that to me his views look like they should not like him all that much, such as some of the rational expectations new classical economists like Thomas Sargent.

It may be that I am also someone being taken in by a clever economist who could make himself look like he agreed with one.  Thus, I see many of his most famous ideas as being consistent with Post Keynesian views of macroeconomics that I tend to support, even though I know that he never allied himself at all with any of the branches of that school to my knowledge, and for some reason he was not particularly picked up on by most Post Keynesians either.  Yet his most famous work, his 1968 On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes looks highly Post Keynesian to me, and actually that book did get some citations by some PKs.  it sharply criticized the by then standard Hicks-Hanson ISLM model as representing Keynes's thought and also criticized the idea that unemployment in Keynes's view is due to downward stickiness of wages. 

So what did Axel say Keynes said was the issue? he accurately focused on Keynes's analysis or information and uncertainty. He emphasized that Keynes saw the economy as not being in equilibrium states but in a constant state of adjustment that involves trying to deal with trying to get correct information. He did not see any convergence to equilibrium out of this, but he would pose in a later article ("Effective Demand Failures") that economies stay within "corridors" most of the time, even if they do not zero in on particular equilibrium points or paths. Again, this all looks way more PostKeynesian than New Classical. Why have the latter liked him more than the former maybe?

A further development from this is that for a period of time while he was at UCLA he became involved with computational economics.  This was tied to the idea of how economies carry out these efforts to process information and go through dynamic adjustment processes. This sort of thing more closely tied to many of my concerns over time involving nonlinear dynamics, an area where I think he thought well of some of my work at least a bit.

BTW, in a 2009 Cambridge Journal of Economics article he followed through on his own work by declaring that the Great Recession in fact was a case of the economy blowing outside of its corridor and linking this to the work of Keynes himself.  I completely agree. Very wise observation, Axel.

I also note his 1973 satirical article, on "The Life of Econ," which is what many economists know him best by, maybe the best satirical article ever written about the economics profession.  It posed itself as an anthropological article about this weird tribe, the "Econ," and their sub-groups and hierarchies.  He ends up mocking the effort to constantly develop new "modls" and how these must pass muster with the "math-econ" priests.  The article remains as relevant today as it was then, as well as being hilarious.

Anyway, RIP, Axel, a very special economist.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, May 6, 2022

Remember the Sabbath Day... keep it holy.

In The Big Lebowski, Walter Sobchak does not f***ing roll on Shabbos. Why not? The Old Testament gave two rationales for observing the Sabbath. The first, in Exodus, was that God created the earth in six days and on the seventh, He rested. Deuteronomy gave a different rational: 

And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Reading Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism in the early 1980s, I became convinced that the story about the golden calf and Moses's two forays up Mount Sinai suggested that the second set of tablets could not have contained the same text as the first. Thus the original set would have contained the "authentic" covenant, which Moses broke and thus, according to Freud "has to be understood symbolically: 'he has broken the law.'"

A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the original text has been scraped off so the parchment can be reused for new writing. Metaphorically, it also refers -- after Thomas De Quincy's image -- to memories that have been effaced and overwritten with new material. Julia Kristeva's concept of intertextuality presents a similar relationship between an influential text and subsequent adoptions and adaptations, which consequently have an "ambivalent" relationship to the prior text.

The story of the Ten Commandments could thus be read as a story about a palimpsest or an intertext in which the authority of the "last word" should not be assumed naively. This interpretive susceptibility is reinforced by the existence of an oral tradition alongside, and presumably preceding the written testaments. I used to think Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which to some extent he no doubt was. But he also "wrote down" a substantial legacy of inherited oral poetry.

One would have to be extremely erudite -- and fluent in Hebrew at least -- to have anything new to say about Exodus, the Ten Commandments or, specifically, the fourth commandment mandating observance of the Sabbath. Or, rather, anything new to say about what the texts really mean. What I offer is simply an interpretation of how they reflect on the present.

First, I assume that the scriptures reflect accumulated historical cultural experiences not all of which is applicable or relevant to contemporary life but some of which is very relevant. My focus on the Sabbath commandment is based in part on its enduring appeal but also on its affinity with particular modern perspectives and dilemmas. 

Several authorities have commented on the fourth commandment as a hinge between those commandments that have to do with God and those dealing with community. Remembering the Sabbath addresses both. It is also the first commandment -- and one of only two -- that expresses a positive prescription rather than an injunction. The other positive commandment is the fifth, to honour your father and mother. The rest is all "don't do this, don't do that."

Simply put, resting from labour is how one worships God. 

Of course one can get pedantic about exactly what one must do or must not do to rest. Such an exercise comically makes rest itself into a specialized kind of labour. I much prefer Charles Wentworth Dilke's early modern approach to disposable time:

After all their idle sophistry, there is, thank God! no means of adding to the wealth of a nation but by adding to the facilities of living: so that wealth is liberty-- liberty to seek recreation--liberty to enjoy life--liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time, and nothing more.

Dilke's pamphlet provided an important piece of the scaffolding for Marx's mature critique of political economy, which he repressed in Capital. A few select remnants are there if you look for them, though. 

In the Grundrisse, Marx had proclaimed that "The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time." In Capital, the order is reversed and presented explicitly from the perspective of capital, "the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labour power, that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labour time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital." 

Enjoyment of life and improving the mind are dismissed (by the capitalist) as "moonshine":

Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) -- moonshine!

The above is one of two allusions to the Sabbath in Capital. The second also decries hypocrisy of (Christian) Sabbath observance:

In England even now occasionally in rural districts a labourer is condemned to imprisonment for desecrating the Sabbath, by working in his front garden. The same labourer is punished for breach of contract if he remains away from his metal, paper, or glass-works on the Sunday, even if it be from a religious whim. The orthodox Parliament will hear nothing of Sabbath-breaking if it occurs in the process of expanding capital.

With regard to both disposable time and the Sabbath, Marx alternated between indignation at the hypocrisy of supposedly "Christian" capitalists and sarcastically parroting the capitalist perspective. Nowhere in Capital did he make the case for free time on its own merits. Instead, Marx quoted a resolution he drafted for the International Working Men's Association advocating the limitation of working time as a "preliminary condition" for all "improvement and emancipation." That resolution paraphrased a very similar sentiment expressed in 1848 by the factory inspector, R.J. Saunders, which Marx also quoted.

What's the difference? In terms of hours on the clock, working less is the same as not-working more. There is, however, a spiritual difference, as Walter Brueggemann has suggested:

Rest, it is clear, is just as important as work. Indeed, it would seem that the definition of work ought to be secured by reference to rest, rather than the other way around. Work is a cessation from rest, a claiming of time for the maintenance and preservation of life that is characteristic of life outside the Garden of Eden.

Work is a cessation from rest. In a footnote, Marx ridiculed Nassau Senior's abstinence theory of profit (the forerunner of "opportunity cost") with a litany of abstinences:
It has never occurred to the vulgar economist to make the simple reflexion that every human action may be viewed, as "abstinence" from its opposite. Eating is abstinence from fasting; walking, abstinence from standing still, working, abstinence from idling, idling, abstinence from working, &c.

Again Marx appropriated the language of his opponent to criticize his opponent but in the process demotes Dilke's benedictory "liberty to enjoy life" to the dismissive "idling." As already mentioned, in the Grundrisse Marx had adopted Dilke's formulation of wealth as disposable time to argue that all wealth rests on disposable time. Conversely, wealth enables "abstinence from working." 

The only question is who does the work and who gets the wealth. That question is answered by capital's formula of value and socially necessary labour time. "Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" Moses and the prophets appear twice in Capital. The second time is in reference to the law of supply and demand:

What then becomes of the ten commandments, of Moses and the prophets, of the law of supply and demand, if in Europe the "entrepreneur" can cut down the labourer's legitimate part, and in the West Indies, the labourer can cut down the entrepreneur's?

Marx's paternal and maternal grandfathers were both rabbis, with rabbis going back to the 15th century on his father's side. He has been accused of antisemitism for his essay "On the Jewish Question" in which he characterized the "real Jew" as a huckster and worshipper of mammon:

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew.

Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.

Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.

Marx indeed employed clichéd antisemitic tropes, just as Moses symbolically "broke the law" when he smashed the original set of tablets. His alibi, though, could be that he was equally contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Sabbatarian Christians in their selective enforcement of laws against (Sunday) Sabbath-breaking.  

Whether ironically or not, Marx was in fact invoking the commandment against worshiping other gods or idols. In section four of chapter one of Capital, Marx explains the "secret" of commodity fetishism. It is instructive to read it as a Midrash on the same commandment.

Hiram Erastus Butler was publisher and editor of The Esoteric, in which Mayer May's essay on the Sabbath was published in 1897. Butler was a follower of Madam Blavatsky's Theosophical Society until sometime in the 1880s when he went off in his own (odd) direction. He founded a Utopian community in Applegate, California that maintained a printing press to produce his books, pamphlets, and The Esoteric. He also expounded a simplified system of astrology called "solar biology"

From what I can gather from his writings in The Esoteric, Butler sought to ground his theories about sexual regeneration, aesthetics, astrology, etc. in biblical texts. Whatever his myriad occult eccentricities, Butler wrote at least one passage that I find quite profound:

[W]hatever a man trusts in as a means of deliverance from any of the ills of life, whether as a means of supplying the needs of the body, of gaining honor, the respect of his fellow man, or health — it matters not what it may be in which a man trusts, that, in so far as he trusts in it, becomes his god.

This was a summary of Butler's exegesis of the second commandment (first in some numbering) against having other gods. Butler argued that traditionally this commandment has interpreted as being directed solely against pagan gods but in fact everything that appears powerful manifests a spirit and thus can become a god: money, sex, fame, erudition, position, Satan, Congress, the Supreme Court... anything whatever.

Human Rights, Gross Domestic Product, religion, history, progress, the proletariat. Any other thing than God you trust in as a means of deliverance from any of the ills of life becomes your god. That is something to think about. 

I should reiterate that I don't take the Exodus story literally. But I do take it seriously. It is a myth that presumably attempts to convey some momentous cultural experience. When I review the scholarly literature, I have to admit to doing so with preconceptions. Everybody has preconceptions but some of us conceal them under a cloak of "objectivity" (which is itself a preconception).

My preconception is the suspicion that the cultural history behind the Sabbath commandment has something to do with a labour revolt against oppressive working conditions, possibly combined with the discovery of a hygienic increase of productivity associated with regular rest periods. Scientific management meets the Judean People's Front trade union movement.

Most of the scholarship is intentionally dull and inconclusive. Nothing to confirm or deny my prejudices. Erich Fromm's 1927 essay, "Der Sabbath" is different. In the 1950s and later, Fromm followed up that essay with sections in books that toned down his originally wide-eyed, oedipal Freudianism but retained the central thesis: that rest from work was originally not for the sake of labourers' physical or motivational recuperation but for a respite from the subjugation of nature:

In contrast to the concept of work today, which contains a psychological moment (fatigue, aversion) and an economic moment (a commercial purpose), the Jewish concept of work indicates something specific about the relation between man and nature. The person who performs "work" is not someone who toils or creates economic value, but rather is someone who has an effect on nature in a constructive or destructive sense, that is, someone who changes nature in its substance.

So the rest from labour is really directed at the land instead of the labourer. Of course, we can add that people are also part of nature and that work subjugates and modifies the worker, too. Fromm's perspective on the Sabbath dovetails really nicely with Walter Benjamin's essay that I cited in my last post:

The earliest customs of peoples seem to send us a warning that in accepting what we receive so abundantly from nature we should guard against a gesture of avarice. For we are able to make Mother Earth no gift of our own. It is therefore fitting to show respect in taking, by returning a part of all we receive before laying hands on our share. This respect is expressed in the ancient custom of the libation.... If society has so degenerated through necessity and greed that it can now receive the gifts of nature only rapaciously, that it snatches the fruit unripe from the trees in order to sell it most profitably, and is compelled to empty each dish in its determination to have enough, the earth will be impoverished and the land yield bad harvests.

Fromm's ecological theory of Sabbath should trigger an earthquake. It is not simply that it provides a compelling perspective on environmental protection but it does so within the context of a cultural practice that has been sustained for 2500 years. The poet, Ahad Ha'am said: "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." Might not a renewed, secular understanding of Sabbath keep the earth? 


coda: Benjamin's One-Way Street was published in 1928. He wrote it mostly during 1925-26 and began the section on German inflation, which concludes with the above excerpt, in 1923. One wonders about any encounters between Fromm and Benjamin.

Gershom Scholem was a close friend of Benjamin and an acquaintance of  Fromm. He wrote in Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship that the two "later became colleagues at the Institut für Sozialforschung" and mentioned Fromm in a 1931 letter to Benjamin but says nothing about any direct interaction between them. 

Fromm's future wife, Henny Gurland, was a member of the party that included Benjamin and attempted to cross from France into Spain in 1940. It was Gurland who reported Benjamin's apparent suicide in a letter to Adorno that Scholem reproduced in his book.

Finally, in his The Revolution of Hope (1968), Fromm rebuked Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man as exhibiting hopelessness and cited that Marcuse's two concluding sentences without mentioning that Marcuse followed those sentences with a citation from Walter Benjamin: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”

UPDATE, May 12: In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay mentioned that Fromm and Benjamin had never met. This information probably came from an interview with Fromm. Jay also referred to Benjamin's interest in Fromm's writing on Johann Jakob Bachofen's theories about matriarchy. Two of Benjamin's essays reference Fromm, "Johann Jakob Bachofen" (1935) and "A German Institute for Independent Research" (1938).

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Major Economic Confusion

 Anybody confused by recent economic reports is not alone. The BEA has just reported a totally unexpected decline in real GDP for the first quarter of a 1.4% annual rate.  At the same time layoffs have reached a half century low and employment continues to rise.  How can we have an apparently beginning recession with the hottest job market in decades?

Probably this has to do with the sources of the reported decline, which may yet get revised upwards.  Consumption and investment have continued to grow.  There is a small decline of government with the end of the stimulus and a small decline in exports, half of that being in petroleum products that tend to have not lots of labor input.  There is s somewhat larger decline in inventories, which does not necessarily imply a job loss.  Indeed, that is likely to lead to rising inventories pushing growth up in the second quarter. The largest part of the decline, clearly responsible for the net negative figure, is imports. While these can lead to a decline in employment if they displace consumption, they have not done so yet, so not leading to unemployment. This looks like how we can have this anomalous result.

As it is, basically nobody is forecasting that second quarter will be a net negative, which would give us the old textbook definition of a recession.  Inventories are likely to turn around in particular.  Exports of petroleum products are likely to rise with the surge of LNG going abroad now.  The decline of government stimulus is over. If recession comes it will have to be a decline in consumption with consumer sentiment declining or maybe a decline in residential investment, this quite possible as mortgage rates rise.  

This data is certainly confusing, and certainly contributing to the sharp drop of the stock market yesterday after a week of mostly declines already, But there is evidence that the public was already pretty confused previously, some of this reflecting clearly politically biased reporting. So, even though GDP grew at 5.7% last year, the highest rate since "Morning in America" 1984, and job growth was the largest ever for the first year of a presidency, fully 29% of the population recently declared that we have been seeing job losses, with only 31% somehow aware that we have seen job gains, with many declaring the economy "bad," although that is explained by the public listing inflation as their biggest concern. But how people can turn stories about "worker shortages" into job losses is beyond me.

I also observe that people worried about "worker shortages" are also likely to be worked up about blocking illegal immigration, so consistent.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

You're Fired! No, I quit!

 So, Russia has stopped selling natural gas to Bulgaria and Poland because they refuse to pay for it in rubles, but they both say that they do not want Russian natural gas anyway!

Barkley Rosser

In Ukraine, Use the Weapon the Russians Can’t Match

It’s nowhere near as expensive as it sounds, and much more humane: offer every Russian soldier who defects $100,000 and the right to settle in any EU/North American country of their choice.  It might not work, especially if Russia uses deadly force against soldiers who lay down their arms or violent reprisals against their families back home.  But if a large enough portion of their troops accept the offer, the Russian war effort would be crippled.

Of course, Putin will claim that this is an inducement to the worst sort of betrayal, selling out your country’s fundamental values and interests in exchange for a bribe.  If this were really what’s at stake in the war, he’d be right.  But if not just a few, but thousands, including whole units, opt for the deal, it sends the message that Putin’s war aims are hollow.  Of course, defectors can send that message directly as well, for instance through social media, and it would take a much higher level of repression than today’s to block it.

Too expensive?  Way cheaper than war in every way.  As an upper bound, consider that if 100,000 troops defect—which would likely end the war on the spot—the cost would come to $10 billion, far less than what will be spent on arms and lost through death and destruction.

Note that this is a weapon only the West can wield, since Russia can neither afford such largesse, nor would settlement in Russia be as attractive.

The one big disadvantage with this approach is its intrinsic injustice: Russian soldiers get this deal, but not Ukrainian ones.  Giving the same bounty to Ukraine’s troops would be much costlier in relation to the value of outcomes achieved, and there’s the additional problem of extrinsic incentives crowding out intrinsic ones: soldiers who fight for cash are less likely to display the same courage or take the same initiative as those who fight for a cause, or simply for each other.  (The dreadful record of mercenaries hired to fight the US war in Iraq makes this clear.)  As a substitute, I recommend that any announcement of bounties to Russian soldiers be accompanied by a credible pledge of even greater funds to rebuild Ukraine after the war.

Bribery is an unsavory basis for public policy, but murder and mayhem on an industrial scale is far worse.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Channeling Great Grandfather Mayer May


Mayer May was born in Bavaria in 1848 and immigrated to the United States in 1869 when he was 21 years old. Bavaria had universal military conscription at age 21. I was born in 1948 and immigrated to Canada in 1967 to resist the draft.

Over the years, I have experienced intense fascination regarding certain topics. For example, in the early eighties, I was intrigued by the story of Moses at Mount Sinai and was convinced that the second set of stone tablets must not have contained the same text as the first because there were abundant clues in the book of Exodus that they weren't the same.

I was very attracted to the writings of Walter Benjamin, whose "Program for a Proletarian Children's Theater" was the focus of the last chapter of my Master's thesis. The last numbered paragraph of the selection "Imperial Panorama" in Benjamin's One-Way Street has become my philosophical credo. It begins:
The earliest customs of peoples seem to send us a warning that in accepting what we receive so abundantly from nature we should guard against a gesture of avarice. For we are able to make Mother Earth no gift of our own.
In the mid-1990s I embarked on a life-long investigation of working time and free time, which remains the central focus of my scholarly research. One investigation I did in the late 1990s I called "Sabbath of the Land or Utopia of Work?" referring to the sabbatical and Jubilee provisions in Leviticus 25.

While researching my great grandfather's life, I have found one essay that he wrote, "The Gamble Discovery," published in The Esoteric: A Magazine of Advanced and Practical Esoteric Thought, in which he refutes the argument of Reverend S. W. Gamble of Kansas that the Jewish Sabbath, established in the Bible was not fixed on a Saturday. Following May's essay the editor adds further remarks that touch on the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee.

As I rummage through these relics from more than a century ago, I get a sense of many of my intellectual affinities were transmitted to me as a family inheritance but only recognized by me as the "resonance" of a particular idea or theme. 

I have had the title "Channeling Great Grandfather Mayer May" at hand since before I posted my previous installment on the "Legend of Rabbi Moses May" but I have been procrastinating until tonight when I stumbled across the above article, "An Insulting Lawyer."

Friday, April 22, 2022

Happy Earth Day!

 Happy Earth Day!

Yes, today is the 53rd Earth Day.  I participated in the first one, when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin on April 22, 1970, just as the environmental movement was really getting going.  There were observances elsewhere around the US, but Madison had pride of place as the person most responsible for getting Earth Day going was then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was also one of the first senators to oppose the Vietnam War.  Those were the days. While we face an increasing problem of mounting global warming and cutbacks of environmental regulations and enforcement in various areas, much has been achieved, with substantial reductions of various kinds of pollution around the world in the slightly more than half a century since Earth Day began to be celebrated.  There is much still to do, but there is also much to celebrate. Air and water quality are much improved in places ranging from Gary to Cleveland and on.

As I was in very leftist Madison back then, I remember what may now seem ironic.  There was considerable unhappiness on the part of many on the Left there at the time of that first Earth Day celebration.  April 22 also happens to be the birthday of Lenin, and that one was his centennial birthday. Proper communists or strong socialists were supposed to be remembering him and honoring him on that particular day by focusing on opposing the Vietnam War and battling for workers' rights rather than calling for limiting automobile emissions, with some even claiming that this celebration was a plot by Richard Nixon to distract us all from the Vietnam War.  As it was, the Kent State killings would happen only a about two weeks after that first Earth Day, so indeed the anti-Vietnam War movement was near its peak.

It is rather curious that now many on the Right have come to be overtly anti-environmental. Climate change is supposedly a hoax.  Greens are "watermelons," green on the outside but red on the inside, in this case the old meaning of red as meaning leftist socialist rather than US Republican. The environment is increasingly becoming yet another issue where partisan divides and false narratives spouted on Fox News and various social media make it hard to even have reasonable discussions of these issues.

OTOH, there has also appeared a dark side of the environmental movement, still small, but unpleasant. This is the environmental fascism movement that uses concern about environmental quality to oppose immigration to the US.  This movement tends to align itself with openly racist elements that also drive the anti-immigrant movement on the Right. While this may seem to be an unpleasant new phenomenon, among the criticisms by leftists back in 1970 of environmentalism was the reliance on Malthus by many environmentalists, who was indeed a reactionary, with many arguing that the move to limit population growth was a racist effort, which it probably was for some involved in that.  It remains an unpleasant fact that Hitler was an advocate of conservation, which he associated with his emphasis on "blood and soil," and that among his followers were students of students of Ernst Haeckel, the man who coined the word "ecology." Needless to say, the environmental movement needs to resist this potential tendency.

Anyway, for today, have a Happy Earth Day!

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Legend of Rabbi "Moses" May

Rabbi Mayer May

Sandwichman's maternal great-grandfather, Rabbi Mayer May, was rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon from 1872 to 1880. According to newspaper reports, on October 1, 1880, Rabbi M. May was involved in an altercation with A. Waldman, during which he fired two shots from a pistol, neither of which struck his assailant.

The incident occurred on Front Street, near the Esmond Hotel where U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes was staying during his historic 71-day tour of the West. 

For some years, Rabbi May had been embroiled in doctrinal disputes with some members of his congregation as he tried to introduce the Reform Jewish prayer book, which several Orthodox members resisted. Waldman was one of the dissidents and had leveled charges of impropriety and immorality at May, who in turn called him a liar.

Reportedly, Waldman came up from behind May one day, grabbed his coat, spun him around and punched him several times in the face, breaking his glasses. May then pulled out his revolver and, being semi-blinded shot twice in Waldman's general direction. Both men were arrested but only Waldman was charged with assault. Presumably, May's response was deemed self defense.

Following the incident, Rabbi May submitted a letter of resignation to the congregation in the interest of restoring peace and dignity. A little over a month later, the rabbi's house burned down. May was away from home at the time, but according to reports "his wife and children barely escaped with their lives." 

The house was located at the corner of Twelfth and Main Street. This is significant because the 1880 census shows Mayer May, a "minister," and his family, including my grandfather, Angelo Mayer May, living on Main Street in Portland. Many stories identify "Rabbi Moses May" as the rabbi involved in the incident. However, the only Moses May documented to be living in Portland any time near the event is listed in a commercial directory from 1885 as a peddler.

There are two secondary sources that report about the incident involving Rabbi May. "The War on the Willamette," published in 1958, is mainly a compilation of three newspaper items from the time, with a very brief and general introduction. The rabbi is identified in those news reports simply as "M. May." The second, "Mayer May: Pioneer Portland Rabbi," published in 1989, contains much more contextual information about Rabbi May's family and subsequent career, including interviews with two granddaughters, one of whom was my mother.

The name "Rabbi Moses May" appears to be a misinterpretation of a phrase in one of the newspaper accounts given in the 1958 article:

Waldman annoyed him continually, interfering with him and wishing him to teach the religion of Waldman instead of that of Moses, and because he did not has been trying to ruin him by setting adrift reports about his moral standing, which the Rabbi characterized as false, shameful, and hollow.

The Moses in that sentence is clearly the man who spoke to a burning bush, led the Jews out of Egypt, and received the commandments on Mount Sinai -- not the studious immigrant from Bavaria who fired two ineffectual shots from his pistol at a tormentor on Front Street in Portland in 1880. Nevertheless most recent stories about the misidentify the principal in the latter incident.

Temple Beth Israel in the 1800s

Even the website of Congregation Beth Israel of Portland lists "Rabbi Moses May" as rabbi from 1872 to 1880. But a video celebrating their 150th anniversary includes a photograph of my grandfather, Rabbi Mayer May, with a confirmation class. Page 207 of Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West also includes the same photo, with the caption, "Rabbi Mayer May and his confirmation class in Portland, Oregon, 1878; courtesy, Oregon Jewish Historical Society, Portland." The main text on the same page, however, refers to "teacher and cantor, Moses May" who "was hired to serve as acting rabbi at Beth Israel." 

For a while, as I was researching this story, I suspected that maybe Rabbi May changed his first name following the shooting incident. But the June 1880 census records contradict that theory. I have ordered my grandfather's birth certificate from 1879 and his sister's from 1872 (presumably) for further confirmation.

After resigning his ministry and losing his home, Mayer May moved his family to The Dalles, Oregon for a couple of years until taking up another ill-fated position as rabbi in Waco, Texas. After initially making a good impression, Rabbi May started preaching incoherent mysticism and was referred to a physician for mental illness. 

The malady appears to have been temporary as the family soon returned to The Dalles and then moved to San Francisco, where Mayer May established a solid reputation and career as a teacher and principal of the Free Religious School of the Jewish Educational Society of San Francisco.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Obsolescence of Nostalgia

As the crow flies, it is around 200 kilometers from Michilimakinac, where Kandiaronk's Wyandot people settled in 1671, when he was around twenty years old, to Tehkummah on Manitoulin Island where Isabel Paterson was born 215 years later. 

It gets even cozier because the Wyandot had been displaced from the south shore of Georgian Bay by the Iroquois Five Nations, who around the same time also displaced the Oddawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi people from Manitoulin Island. The latter three tribes formed the Council of Three Fires, which also relocated to Michilimakinac and formed alliances with the Wyandot and other tribes.

One of the threads that I am weaving derives from David Graeber's and David Wengrow's account of how Kandiaronk's (or Kondiaronk's) criticisms of European customs became the basis for the Enlightenment critique, which was subsequently blunted by Turgot's theory of four evolutionary stages of society and Rousseau's ambivalent recuperation of the Noble Savage. Graeber and Wengrow got their argument from Ronald Meek's 1971 account. 

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, commonly known as Turgot maintained in his 1750 lecture that there were four economic stages of society: hunter-gatherers, pastoral, agriculture and finally commercial society. Nearly 200 year later, Isabel Paterson described the "only four general ways by which human beings can exist" as the following:

(1) The savage society, or "snatch economy," of wandering hunters who live by the bounty of nature, on what they can kill or pick up.

(2) The pastoral nomad society, wandering herdsmen who live in the main off their tame animals.

(3) The agricultural society, in which men have learned to get most of their living from cultivated crops.

(4) The industrial economy, ranging all the way from handicrafts to high-speed, high-energy motor machine production; and requiring a general exchange system.

By 1948, the four-stages myth had become canon. It was also amplified by social Darwinism as practiced by Herbert Spencer and his American disciple, William Graham Sumner. Sumner's doctoral student, Thorstein Veblen, adopted Sumner's perspective of social evolution but jettisoned the laissez-faire component of his teachings. 

Paterson may or may not have read Sumner but she was friends with Stuart Chase, a follower of Veblen and a casual associate of the Technocracy movement inspired by Veblen. It would have been easy for her to reverse engineer Sumner's position by fusing laissez-faire economic doctrine to Chase's and Veblen's social evolutionary perspective. Technocracy without the altruism.

As so often happens, my something-completely-different dive down the Ayn Rand/Isobel Paterson rabbit hole has started to converge chronologically and thematically with my previous progressive/planned obsolescence thread featuring Herbert Marcuse, Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, Christine and J. George Frederick, et al.

Marcuse adopted his persistent (albeit analytically shallow) obsession with planned obsolescence from Vance Packard, whose inspiration was... Stuart Chase's The Tragedy of Waste. While Paterson's and Ayn Rand's individualist vision was grounded in nostalgia for a mythical 19th century American heroic inventor/businessman type, Marcuse's hopes for liberation dwelt on a resigned anti-nostalgia for the mythical 19th century class-conscious revolutionary proletariat. 

While Paterson and Rand were idolizing mythical productivist heroes, actual businessmen and women like the Fredericks, Paul Mazur, and Edward Bernays were laying the foundation of a consumer society. They saw the barrier to economic dynamism as insufficient demand, not excessive government.

I was unable to find any commentary on Rand by Marcuse. Rand, however, had a few choice words for Marcuse:

When every girder of capitalism had been undercut, when it had been transformed into a crumbling mixed economy—i.e., a state of civil war among pressure groups fighting politely for the legalized privilege of using physical force—the road was cleared for a philosopher who scrapped the politeness and the legality, making explicit what had been implicit: Herbert Marcuse, the avowed enemy of reason and freedom, the advocate of dictatorship, of mystic "insight," of retrogression to savagery, of universal enslavement, of rule by brute force. 

Note the "retrogression to savagery" trope -- the ghost of Turgot. In a sense, Marcuse and Rand were looking glass images of each other, each trapped in their adjacent funhouse mazes of obsolescence and nostalgia, a trope handed down from Turgot to Spencer to Sumner to Veblen... and Chase... and Packard.

The function of the four-stages myth was to deny the critique of social hierarchy. The illusion of a "progressive" stage theory leads back into the maze it is trying to escape from.

Is there a way out of that maze? I think there is -- at least intellectually. The way out -- and forward -- involves revisiting the "second storey" under historical materialism that Georg Simmel constructed and re-examining Marx's scaffolding for the Grundrisse that he dismantled in the published volume one of Capital. It seems to me that there is a way to contend with the gap between objective culture and subjective culture, collectively

Friday, April 8, 2022

Asymmetric Whining

 This is not news, but yet again we see the old phenomenon of people whining a lot when something gets worse but then saying nothing when it gets better.  The latest example of that involves gasoline prices.  They were rising and got into the range of near real highs seen in times like 2008, 1981, and 1918.  But now they have slid backwards, down in the neighborhood of 20 cents per gallon where I am.  Crude prices are down as well, with WTI having gotten near $120 per barrel it is now below #100 per barrel again.  But am I hearing anybody cheer or say, "Wow! That's great!" No.  Of course it can be said that the prices are still pretty high, and still way above where they were a year or two ago. But the crickets going on with this are noticeable. Oh, there was the interview Donald Trump just made with the Washington Post that appeared in today's edition. But he was spouting outright falsehoods unsurprisingly, that crude prices have reached an all time high along with retail gasoline prices, neither of which is remotely true.

Of course, it can be noted that this may not continue. Almost certainly a major factor in this decline is the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with a less publicized release from the IEA reserves as well.  Both of these are planned to continue for several months, with several states also temporarily suspending their gasoline taxes as well, just to add to this movement.  The upshot has been both declining crude prices as well as declining retail prices. The lockdowns in China associated with the pandemic outbreak there also happens to be fueling a reduced demand, and also probably something on the order of two thirds of Russian oil exports are still happening in one direction or another, despite the sanctions.  So oil and gasoline prices have gone down, but there is reason to believe that some of the reasons for this may go away in a few months, so maybe getting too positive about it all is not reasonable.

As it is, we have already had some asymmetry of whining. This has involved people getting all worked up about the rise of inflation while somehow not being favorable about what appears to be one of the hottest job markets ever. Indeed, if anything the latter has led to people whining because it is hard to get people to do some services.  They see the dark side of even what is mostly a good thing.  But this asymmetry of being more upset about things that are getting worse rather than being pleased about things getting better is a deeply entrenched human characteristic.

Barkley Rosser