Thursday, March 4, 2021

Disposable People

Disposable people are indispensable. Who else would fight the wars? Who would preach? Who would short derivatives? Who would go to court and argue both sides? Who would legislate? Who would sell red hots at the old ball game?

For too long disposable people have been misrepresented as destitute, homeless, unemployed, or at best precariously employed. True, the destitute, the homeless, the unemployed and the precarious are indeed treated as disposable but most disposable people pursue respectable professions, wear fashionable clothes, reside in nice houses, and keep up with the Jones.

Disposable people are defined by what they do not produce. They do not grow food. They do not build shelters. They do not make clothes. They also do not make the tractors used to grow food, the tools to build shelters or the equipment to make clothes.

Although disposable people do not produce necessities what they do is not unnecessary. It is simply that the services they provide are not spontaneously demanded as soon as one acquires a bit of additional income. One is unlikely, however, to engage the services or purchase the goods produced by disposable people unless one is in possession of disposable income. Disposable income is the basis of disposable people. Conversely, disposable people are the foundation of disposable income.

Sometimes, disposable people have been called "unproductive." It sounds harsh but it is only meant in a technical sense. In the late 1950s, '60s, and '70s debate raged in academic Marxist circles about the distinction between "productive" and "unproductive" labour. The main issue had to do with the distinction between labour that produced surplus value for capital and labour that didn't, whether or not the product or service was useful or necessary. One further refinement had to do with whether the labour produced reproductive surplus value in the form of wages goods (or services) or machinery. In this view, labour performed producing luxury goods would be unproductive, even though it appeared to produce surplus value for the employing capitalist. In fact, though, it only assisted in appropriating surplus value produced elsewhere.

I suspect these debates could have been illuminated by Marx's Grundrisse or even more so by the 1821 pamphlet by Charles Wentworth Dilke, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. That pamphlet explicitly excluded the manufacture of luxury goods from the process of capital accumulation and clearly explained why. The production of luxury goods destroys reserved surplus labour rather than establishing the conditions for its accumulation and expansion. Jean-Baptiste Say would have agreed:

Misery is the inseparable companion of luxury. The man of wealth and ostentation squanders upon costly trinkets, sumptuous repasts, magnificent mansions, dogs, horses, and mistresses, a portion of value, which, vested in productive occupation, would enable a multitude of willing labourers, whom his extravagance now consigns to idleness and misery, to provide themselves with warm clothing, nourishing food, and household conveniences.

So much for supply creating it own demand. 

Dilke contended that if capital was allowed to actually accumulate, the rate of interest paid for its use would rapidly fall to zero because the accumulation of capital was very limited, "if the happiness of the whole, and not the luxuries of a few, is the proper subject for national congratulation." When that limit was reached, the hours of labour could be drastically reduced, "where men heretofore laboured twelve hours they would now labour six, and this is national wealth, this is national prosperity." "Wealth… is disposable time, and nothing more."

Dilke's disposable time may well have been an oblique rejoinder to Thomas Chalmers's (1808) concept of disposable population. Chalmers was as upbeat about the expansion of disposable population as Dilke was wary about the increase of unproductive labour. Dilke was an ardent follower of William Godwin, as had been Chalmers until he was converted by Thomas Malthus's polemic against Godwin on population. In the Grundrisse, Marx appears to have been enchanted by Dilke's concept of disposable time.

Nearly a century after publication of The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, Stephen Leacock's The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice was serialized in the New York Times. At its core was the same dilemma at the heart of Dilke's pamphlet, with all the vast improvements of productive machinery, why weren't ordinary people better off and why were the hours of work still so long?

If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?

Leacock imagined an observer looking down from the moon on a production process that stopped short of producing enough necessities, and then again stopped short of producing enough comforts to shift, "while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities." Leacock was a student of Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago and was clearly influenced by Veblen's philosophy. A passage in Dilke's pamphlet that imagines the "last paragraph" of a future historian uncannily anticipates Veblen's concept of pecuniary emulation:

The increase of trade and commerce opened a boundless extent to luxury:—the splendour of luxurious enjoyment in a few excited a worthless, and debasing, and selfish emulation in all:—The attainment of wealth became the ultimate purpose of life:— the selfishness of nature was pampered up by trickery and art:—pride and ambition were made subservient to this vicious purpose…

Inspired by Leacock's Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Arthur Dahlberg's Jobs, Machines and Capitalism was described by Louis Rich in the New York Times as "one of the most valuable, both theoretically and practically, since the writings of Veblen." Dahlberg's argument influenced Senator Hugo Black's legislation for a thirty-hour work week. 

At the core of Dahlberg's theory was the observation that, as machines replaced human labour in core industries, more and more workers were reabsorbed into "miscellaneous" employment, providing services and manufacturing goods that were not spontaneously demanded. They became disposable people in disposable jobs. Demand for these goods and services had to be artificially created through advertising, gratuitous product differentiation, built-in obsolescence, and salesmanship. Consequently, the bargaining power of labour was weakened, and capital was empowered to take a larger share of national income. The goods and services this higher income group were then encouraged to consume with their expanded incomes became increasingly frivolous, as did the new investments available to absorb the rest of their income. Eventually higher income earners would spurn the unappetizing new consumption and investment opportunities and hoard their excess income. Economic recession would ensue.

As had Leacock, Dahlberg cited the example of the First World War as an episode in which a shortage of labour imposed an unaccustomed discipline of efficiency on capital. They both argued that a permanent shortage of labour could be achieved through reduction of the hours of work. Such a shortage would lead to greater industrial efficiency, less waste, higher wages, more leisure, and, ultimately, the elusive goal of social justice.

The chance that Dahlberg, Leacock, or Veblen would have read The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties is slim but not impossible. Herbert Foxwell mentioned the pamphlet in his introduction and bibliography to August Menger's The right to the whole produce of labour (1899). In Veblen's " The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers" he mentions "Foxwell's admirable Introduction to Menger." More probable is some familiarity by Veblen with William Godwin's views on leisure, possibly through the unlikely intermediary of Harriet Martineau's writing. In Society in America, Martineau wrote the following tribute to Godwin, leisure, and… disposable time:

The first attempt to advocate leisure as the birthright of every human being was made now some half-century ago. [Godwin's Inquirer] The plea then advanced is a sound one on behalf of other things besides philosophy, literature and scholarship. Leisure, some degree of it, is necessary to the health of every man's spirit. Not only intellectual production, but peace of mind cannot flourish without it. It may be had under the present system, but it is not. With community of property, it would be secured to everyone. The requisite amount of work would bear a very small proportion to that of disposable time.

Leisure as the birthright of every human being? Harriet Martineau? Disposable time?


Sunday, February 28, 2021

On Golden Idols

 IN Exodus it is reported that while Moses spent time on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, the people of Israel down below got tired of waiting for him and so constructed at least one, maybe more than one, as silver is mentioned along with gold, statue to be worshipped, with the golden idol, usually claimed to be of a calf, the most notorious.  When Moses returned with the Commandments he was wroth with anger and denounced them for this perfidy, and Exodus reports that Yahweh destroyed this idol, turning its gold into "dust" or other kinds of small particles depending on the translation, and then a part not usually discussed forced the people who had worshipped this golden idol to drink a liquid containing this dust. Of course one of the first commandments forbade the making of "graven images," with this golden calf or whatever and any silver idol being clear and prime examples of what was clearly forbidden.

So it is ironic that at a conference heavily attended by religious right fundamentalists who most certainly know this passage a golden looking statue of our most recent president has been publicly displayed. The group doing so apparently had a panel not open to the media, although QAnon believer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was seen entering the location of the panel when it was held.  I saw on the internet a photo of a man bowing in front of this absurd statue and placing his hands on it in a clearly reverential way.  I have also read of a man in India who made a statue of our former president and was outright fully worshipping it as a god.  That reportedly healthy middle-aged man recently keeled over dead from a heart attack.  In any case, at CPAC in Orlando we pretty clearly have people worshipping a golden idol, one depicting a living man who does not seem even remotely worthy of a thread of respect, much less worship.  All this in advance of him making a speech that many people see as him solidifying his apparent dominant control over the current opposition political party in the US.

I do not want to go on about this too much, but even though now the Dems control, just barely in the Senate, both the White House and both houses of Congress, clearly the GOP is in position to possibly retake control of onw or both of the Congressional houses in 2022, and even possibly reelect the former POTUS, or is not him then somebody who has been worshipping his golden statue or at least figuratively doing so.  His critics appear to be being purged from the party, or at least isolated.

The most damaging thing about this, even if the Dems are able to hang on to power over the next few years, is that even the possibility of him or somebody following his views returning to power at all in the foreseeable future means that the damage he did especially to US foreign policy and commitments is difficult if not impossible to overcome.  I already have concerns about some overly hawkish tendencies in the Biden admin, but if even in areas such as rejoining the Paris Accord or negotiating with Iran or China or allies, other nations will no longer be willing to accept commitments made by this president or his admin because they might be so easily overturned after another election, well, this is serious harm and damage.  It means that while maybe parts of the post-WW II era that Trump overturned needed changing, those parts that were benevolent may not be able to be restored.  We shall be stuck drinking a fluid made of gold dust instead.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Has Elon Musk Damaged His Portfolio By Buying Bitcoin?

 After tweeting repeatedly for some time about bitcoin and the originally satirical degecoin, both of which have gone up massively in the past year, on Feb. 8 Elon Musk put his money where his mouth had been and had his Tesla EV company buy about $1.5 billion in bitcoin.  The immediate aftermath of this was a substantial surge of the crypto from somewhat over $40,000 to somewhat over $50,000.  This seems to have inspired several other major established corporations and entities to also announce they would be holding bitcoin as part of the asset portfolios, along with renewed discussions of more official cryptocurrencies possibly being issued by various central banks (commercial banks have for some years used XRP for transactions amongst themselves, but somehow it has not increased nearly as much as bitcoin or some of the other top cryptocurrencies for reasons I do not understand).

Anyway, it may be that instead of being a brilliant move that establishes the legitimacy and long term value of bitcoin once and for all, despite the massive amounts of electricity used in the mining of it, way more than for other leading cryptocurrencies, it is not out of the question that this may prove to have been its peak.  Bitcoin has been noticeably sliding in recent days, although it is still just above $50,000, which might prove to be a new floor, given all the corporate backers it seems to have picked up.

However, even if bitcoin does not collapse, Musk appears to have damaged his portfolio in the near term rather badly with this move.  After Tesla stock rose 700% last year, putting Musk ahead of Jeff Bezos as the world's wealthiest individual bordering on $200 billion, Tesla stock has fallen 22% since Musk made his bitcoin move.  This has cost him about $30 billion, more than wiping out the $ 1 billion or so he reportedly made directly from his bitcoin deal.  Maybe bitcoin is not a bubble about to crash, but it does seem that Tesla's stock got way overdone, and now people are tying the value of its stock to the volatile movements of bitcoin.  Musk may yet come out of all this a way big winner, but as of now, he is taking a pretty big hit.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, February 18, 2021

We Need a Plan for Militias

 A social trend can lie dormant for years, gradually expand and then suddenly explode as if following a hidden exponential growth curve.  Revolutions work this way, and so do religious cults.  Most of the time the curve is nipped in its early phase, but not always.  It isn’t a good idea to assume a fringe movement will always remain fringe.

Which brings us to the topic of right wing militias, people who carry assault rifles, study military tactics, go target-shooting in the woods and live in an end times epistemological bubble.  They’ve been around for decades, occasionally getting in the news, and gradually getting more numerous and influential.  Read this recent report in the New York Times, which documents the mainstreaming of armed freelancers aligned with the Michigan Republican Party, and ask yourself whether we are approaching an inflection point.

So what would a counter-strategy look like?  I don’t think an attempt to suppress all extreme right wing thought and expression would work—it’s too unfocused—and in any case empowering the government and tech monopolies to carry it out would be suicidal for free thinkers of any sort.  The answer has to center on the militias themselves.

I suggest gun control legislation at the state and national levels that explicitly targets militias.  The idea is that it would be a felony to use firearms for any political purpose, where “use” means carry as well as pull the trigger.  No arms at demonstrations or rallies.  No armed political meetings.  No “second amendment solutions” to political conflicts.  I’ll leave the legal language to the lawyers.

Simply discussing such an idea would drive the militia folks crazy.  It’s their worst nightmare, liberals taking their guns away to prevent any resistance to their politically correct tyranny.  They will fulminate and foam, waving their guns in our face.  Let them, and let their threats of violence be a reason for suppressing them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Is China Committing Genocide In Xinjiang?

 On the last day it could, the Trump State Department officially declared that the Peoples' Republic of China is committing "genocide" in Xinjiang Province against the mostly Sunni Muslin Uighr minority, the previously dominant group in the province. New SecState Antony Blinken has publicly stated that he agrees with this judgment.  However, reportedly the State Department is reviewing this decision, as it is doing with many other parts of US foreign policy, including such things thought to be fairly straightforward such as rejoining the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran that Biden ran on rejoining and should. So whether or not this last minute action by Pompeo at State remains official or not is up in the air at the moment.

There is no question that the PRC's policy towards the Uighurs is simply awful, not remotely defensible.  Ir involves having large numbers of people in reeducation camps as well as lots of torture. This is combined with the more general program of simply having Han people fully dominating the province, which parallels a similar program in Tibet, although somehow currently the central government is not engaging in quite as unpleasant programs regarding the native ethnic Tibetan population as is happening regarding the Uighurs.

Which brings us to this question of whether or not the indubitably bad things the central PRC government is doing to the Uighurs constitutes genocide or not. Prominent comparative economist, Gerard Roland, who knows a great deal about China and is at UC-Berkeley, has put up a post on Facebook arguing that it is not. His argument is that the true meaning of the term involves actual killing, a systematic effort to actually kill off members of a group, with what happened in the Holocaust and more recently in Rwanda, being prime examples.  If this is the criterion then, no, for all of its horror, what is happening in Xinjiang is not genocide.  Roland argues that the term should not be watered down from its more horrific meaning, with indeed genocide something that does happen and can happen again.  So it should be saved for those fully true cases.  I happen to agree with this.

The argument for why the term is appropriate takes the form of saying that trying to exterminate a culture deserves to have the term be applied to it.  That is not a completely ridiculous argument.  And it does seem that the PRC central government is certainly out to massively damage and reduce Uighur culture, although perhaps not completely eliminating it.  I know that they do have Uighurs represented in national bodies, who show up in ethnic clothing, and so on.  So I do not think they are out to completely obliterate the culture.  But it is clear that Uighurs will be expected to acknowledge the dominance and superiority of the central government rule and culture.  But it does not seem that there is a move to completely end the culture, and more importantly, for all the camps and torture, no effort to actually physically elminate the Uighurs by killing them.

I understand that the Biden administration faces a difficult decision about what line to take with China.  Relations have deteriorated between China and the US and also with many other nations.  I do not wish to go through all the issues that are out there, but while Trump engaged in a lot of unnecessarily aggressive actions, such as his trade war, it is also the case that China has engaged in various actions that have made its neighbors less happy with it, such as aggressive actions on borders and claims on territories legally belonging to other nations.  There are clearly grounds for the Biden administration to take a less friendly position than was taken during the Obama administration.  But there are many areas from dealing with climate change to dealing with terrorists and also the pandemic where there are grounds for cooperation. By all reports Biden seeks some kind of reasonably balanced approach. That will be hard to achieve, and there will be hard decisions coming up, such as whether the US will lead a move to boycott next Winter's Olympics in Beijing over the Uighur issue.  Clearly the prelude to that and some other issues will be how this review about the genocide question is resolved.  I understand many will be unhappy and critical, but I hope that they undo this last minute Trump admin decision.

Barkley Rosser 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Normalizing Foreign Trade Relations

 The Biden admin has not yet made moves to undo elements of Trump's trade war, and some parts of it may not get undone, perhaps especially some directed at China.  But at least one move towards normalization with the rest of the world has just happened as the Biden admin has agreed to let the individual nominated to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO) take office. This is Ngosi Okunjo-Iweala, not only a woman, but a former Finance Minister from Nigeria.  She had previously been blocked by the Trump admin, with Trade rep Robert Lighthizer claiming she had "no experience in trade relatrions at all." The Trumpers supported a former South Korean trade minister who negotiated a trade agreement with the US in 2018, but others did not do so.  The Trump admin had also blocked appointments of new judges to adjudicate trade disputes at the WTO, a more general move to essentially declare the WTO to be useless and no good in pursuit of an "America First" policy.

As it is, Okunjo-Iweala has a PhD in economics from MIT and long experience in negotiating several trade agreements along with having had a record of combating corruption in Nigeria as Finance Minister.  Aside from obvious possible sexism and racism in opposing her, according to the WaPo story on this the real reason for Lighthizer's opposition to her was based on her supposedly being too close to former US Trade rep Robert Zoellick of the Obama admin, a pretty petty reason in the end.

This certainly does not mean that everything the WTO does is great.  The entry of China into it two decades ago was followed by serious loss of jobs in manufacturing in the US.  This should have been offset by policies within the US, not trying to keep China out of global trade agreements.  I do think it is reasonable to try to have a set of global rules about trade, even though we know that these get violated a lot, and enforcement of them may get spotty or biased.  But having such a set of rules looks to me better than not having any, which seems to have been the position of the Trump admin.  As for the China issue, well, the damage was done long ago now and China is in   Time to move on.

Anyway, this may not be a big deal, but it does signal yet again a willingness by the new administration to reengage with global organizations to try to achieve common goals, with the this following the reentry into the Paris Climate Accord and the WHO. All of these may be flawed, but improving them is going to be achieved by being in them, not standing outside whining and pushing obviously super nationalist agendas from the US.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, February 12, 2021

Fucking With The Football

 That would be the nuclear football, the one that a President of the United States can use to destroy all human life on the planet with by pushing some buttons.  It turns out there is a second one, a backup, one that is kept near the backup President. That would be the Vice President.

So CNN has put out a report that Tyler Cowen has picked up on and put as one of his daily news stories on Marginal Revolution, although barely commented on and not getting much attention on most media. The story in fact sort of does not quite play up how serious it is.  It focused on how people at DOD did not know how serious the situation was, without in fact playing up how serious it was.

The problem is that while there has been a lot of attention paid to how former President Trump continued to tweet negatively about his own VP, Mike Pence, even after hearing that Pence had been evacuated from the Senate chambers with a mob having entered the Capitol.  Trump's concern was how Pence had let him down by not engaging in an unconstitutional act to try not to recognize the certified state electoral college vote results. This tweet was read to the crowd outside, and the mob chanted over and over "Hang Mike Pence!"  We have now all seen this.

But probably the most dangerous part of this whole episode, I mean even probably worse than that Trump might have overturned the election and turned the US into a lifetime dictatorship run by him, is that when the mob was within 100 feet of Pence, the backup nuclear football was with him, carried by a Secret Service agent.

Now, if the mob had been a bit faster and caught Pence, certainly that Secret Service agent would have resisted vigorously, probably to the extent of giving up his life. But if the mob had succeeded in obtaining that nuclear football, well, maybe there are limits on the ability of a random person getting that object that keep them from destroying all human life on this planet.  But even short of that, there is no doubt that one of these people could have brought about very serious trouble.  This story needs more reporting, not how mean Trump was not to stand up for his VP who was following the law to certify the electoral college votes that would bring about the end of Trujmp's presidency.

Barkley Rosser

Impeachment: What’s the Message?

The mantra of the moment is that impeachment is not a trial and shouldn’t be governed by the same rules that apply to a court of law.  True, but that means it’s really a political event, where the verdict matters less than the message.

What’s coming through the media reporting is “Trump incited a riot.”  Well, he did, more or less, but that just means he’s a bad person.  It’s not news that Trump is a pretty nasty role model, and I fear the reaction of many people will be that the campaign to impeach him for it is just more of the same.

I would have preferred a different message: America needs to protect its democracy from the refusal of political leaders to accept defeat.  Around the world we see many countries where elections settle nothing.  Defeated parties routinely claim the election was rigged and only they have the right to hold power.  Street violence accompanies voting.  Military coups occur regularly to impose temporary stability.  The reason we should impeach Trump is to draw a line against this development in the US.

If that’s the message, the key evidence is not a single speech on January 6 or even the rhetoric leading up to it.  Rather, it was the drumbeat of assertions that the election was stolen without evidence to back them up.  After all, if the election had been stolen and the proof was in front of us, it would have been justified to throw sand in the gears of the system in any way possible up to and including an occupation of the Capitol building.  The crime was systematic lying, of a sort that, if not identified and rejected, will lead to a breakdown of democratic power rotation.

Now I can understand why Democrats might be reluctant to make this case, since it implicates not only Trump but much of the Republican leadership as well.  That would make it impossible to pick up the votes they need for impeachment, but they are unlikely to get those votes anyway.  If the real goal is to do everything possible to reverse the descent of America into a country where any political defeat threatens to be permanent and triggers violent resistance, then that’s what needs to be said.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Is Bitcoin Really Real Money? Ontological and Epistemological Questions

 The movement to make Bitcoin into a de facto form of money has taken a step forward when Elon Musk declared that he would be purchasing over a billion btc.  Some are claiming that Musk did this to pump up an alternative asset because Tesla stock is overpriced and may fall hard soon.  But who knows? Anyway, although btc fell today, it has reached dramatic new highs well over $40,000, with various people calling for it to go to $100,000. Many respectable financial advisers seem to be changing their tune, shifting to maybe one should hold a percent or two of btc along with gold in the non-income-earning part of their portfolios. Gold has remained flat just above $1800, and btc is the "new gold.  But is it (or any other cryptocurrency) really real money?  That is the ontological question of money.

So what is the ontological nature of money?  We know there are debates over which of the standard textbook functions is the most important, with use as a means of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value the standard list. Some emphasize one over another. MMT advocates emphasize the unit of account function, especially when that unit of account is used to pay taxes.  In that view this is the ontological foundation is the declaration by a government that something must be used to pay taxes, with this also resolving the epistemological issue assuming the government has sufficient existing credibility and communications skills as well as enforcement capability to enforce making its citizens actually pay their taxes using the established form of money.

As of now no government mandates taxes be paid in btc, any more than that former official form of money, gold, is so mandated.  We do see gold being held in large amounts by many central banks, with them even occasionally using it to make transfers between each other (and XRP is used by many commercial banks to carry out interbank transactions), but nobody uses any cryptocurrency or gold to pay taxes.  Currently taxes are all paid in pure fiat currencies backed only by the word of the governments involved.

Among non-MMT economists many probably think the most important role of money is the main medium of exchange.  Again, gold is not so used, and even when it was an official money, it was only infrequently used in actual transactions because it has always been scarce and highly valuable. It was only used for high value exchanges.  Bitcoin was initially set up to be a widely used medium of exchange, and gradually more and more entities will accept payments in bitcoin, and some will accept a few other cryptocurrencies.  However, apparently it is rarely used for these established venues. By most accounts its main use as a medium of exchange is by criminals attempting to hide their activities.  This could change, and maybe Elon Musk's move will push it over into wider use.  But it has not happened yet.

As it is the ontological reality of a medium of exchange is ultimately subjective.  It does not matter what a money is "backed by" (and btc is not backed by anything, even a government, while gold is supposedly what some monies were backed by in the past). In fact the ontological reality is that a medium of exchange exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy: people accept it because they believe others will accept it.  If they all believe it, it is real.  The epistemological problem is solved when people find that they can use it.  For btc, maybe people believe it, but it still does not get used much. 

Of course this self-fulfilling prophetic aspect of money is the key to the literature dating to Allais and Samuelson using overlapping generations models that show how a fiat currency with zero "fundamental value" (defined by the value of what it is backed by) can have a stationary positive value that persists.  It is a stationary bubble that is rational because of the overlapping generations, so there is never a need to have it get converted into its fundamental in the lifetime of anybody.  The bubble can just be passed on to the next generation of sucker believers, who are in fact not suckers because they can get to pass it on themselves.  Nobody ever has to "face the music."

Actually this matter of being a self-fulfilling prophecy applies even to the unit of account/usable to pay taxes also ultimately depends on such subjective prophecies. These do not seem like this because governments may be able to have armed police come to arrest you if you do not pay.  But their willingness to do that depends also on the broader public accepting that the government in question has legitimacy and exists. If people stop believing in the government, it ceases to exist, and its money becomes valueless, see the former Confederate States of America, whose money does have value as a collectible, but cannot be used to pay taxes or pay for groceries.

Of course the matter of being a store of value is a function that pretty much any asset can play, land, bonds, famous paintings, etc.  No doubt this function is now being performed by btc and gold. But in the case of cryptocurrencies there is a problem that is the high volatility that they have been experiencing.  That there has been a lot of increases in them, especially btc.  But we have also seen rounds of collapse.  There is all sorts of excitement by many for btc, with Musk's call further encouraging this.  But it remains the case that these do not have the stability of other things, even gold. If it crashes like Gamestop, Elon Musk will not step in to save it, although the Bank of China might step in if gold were to fall below $1000/oz as some claim is something the bank would, although that has never been promised.

In short, the ontological reality of any form of money is actually a social reality, a matter of people believing that other people believe something, rather like the famous beauty contest of Keynes.  This makes the epistemological question being a matter of ascertaining what those beliefs are and how solidly people believe them.  Bitcoin may have become somewhat more real as a possible quasi-money, but for now it remains mostly an asset but not a full form of money.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, February 8, 2021

Pushing Back For Democracy Around The World

 Given the massive impetus the presidency of Donald Trump gave to authoritarian and anti-democratic forces around the world, it is worth seeing that his defeat in a democratic election, despite his efforts to illegally overturn it, seems to have been followed by some outbursts of pro-democratic demonstrations in parts of the world, even as we saw a major setback for democracy in Myanmar with the military coup there.

Indeed, one of those pushbacks has been in Myanmar, where various groups have gone into the streets to protest this coup. I fear they will not succeed in reversing it, at least not immediately. But the generals have not gotten away with doing this without pushback and clearly will have their hands full hanging on to power.

Another location has been in Russia, where Trump's old boss, Vladimir Putin, after giving himself a de facto lifetime appointment (or at least until 2036) has been facing large demonstrations since the return of Andrei Navalny from Germany, where he recovered from Putin's effort to have him poisoned. Putin has tried to ridicule the accusation by Navalny regarding this matter, saying that his people would have succeeded in killing him if they were really doing it. But, of course, they failed, and it clearly was Putin's people, as the complete lack of any investigation to find the "real" killers made clear.  Large numbers have been out in many cities, with an apparent new atmosphere by a new generation, who do not seem as subservient to Putin as their elders.  However, apparently Navalny's people have called off further demonstrations for the near future.

Finally we have a major uprising by students at Bogacizi University in Istanbul against Erdogan appointing a flunky of his to be Rector.  I am not sure if those are continuing, but they at least went on longer than anybody expected, with Erdogan duly embarrassed.

No, I am not expecting any of these to lead to the downfall of any of these regimes in the near future, just as the ongoing demonstrations in Belarus have not yet dislodged Lukashenko.  But I am glad to see at least some like among those who oppose these dictatorial regimes at this time. I like to think that the victory of Biden over Trump may have given support to many of these who have stood up in their nations to oppose further manifestations and assertions of power by their dictatorial leaders.

Barkley Rosser

Barkley Rosser

Karl Marx/Benjamin Franklin Mashup

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, in that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Remember that time is money. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. 

He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent or rather thrown away five shillings besides. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. In short, the way to wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality.

Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. 

Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets (necessary expenses excepted) will certainly become rich; if that being who governs the world, to whom all should look for a blessing on their honest endeavors, doth not in his wise providence otherwise determine. Without industry and frugality nothing will do, and with them everything. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time (real wealth), but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Summers and Ricardo

I share some of Summers' concerns about the magnitude of Biden's proposed stimulus.  The comparison to the January 2009 situation is marred by the fact that we are not now in a Demand-deficient Keynesian-style recession as we were then. What's holding back output now is clearly pandemic-induced supply constraints. 

On the other hand, if the Ricardian Equivalence theorem holds, perhaps some non-negligible portion of the transfer component of the stimulus will be saved. (Even borrowing-constrained individuals will save some of a big-enough transfer.) 


 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Doing the world a favor. For Michael.

 

I did indeed post Dilke's work. Then I reposted it. Then, ten years later, Contributions to Political Economy reprinted Dilke's pamphlet, along with an essay about it by Giancarlo de Vivo. And forthcoming in the next issue of CPE is my article on the "Ambivalence of Disposable Time." Thank you, Michael, for asking me to do the world a favor. Rest in Peace.


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

RIP MIchael Perelman

 I have just learned that old friend Michael Perelman has "passed quietly in his sleep" (not reported of what) on September 21, 2020, having been born on October 1, 1939, so just shy of his 81st birthday.  I knew Michael for a long time and considered him a personal friend, although it has been some time since I have seen him in person.  He long had an active internet list and was officially signed on as one of the people who could post here on Econospeak when it started, and I remember him in fact posting a few times in the early days, but then stopped.  He was always insightful.

Michael received his PhD from the Agricultural Economics and Natural Resources Department at UC-Berkeley in 1971, where his major prof was George Kuznets, younger brother of Nobelist Simon Kuznets. Michael then taught for 47 years at Chico State University in California where he was widely praised as an excellent teacher.  Among his students was Mark Thoma who apparently was strongly influenced by Michael and who would later run the widely respected and busy blog, Economists View, no longer functioning unfortunately.

He was definitely of a heterodox and progressive position and active in URPE, someone who took Marx seriously while not necessarily buying into all things Marx advocated.  He wrote 19 books, which I shall list below, although I am missing the year for one of them.  As can be seen they covered a wide range of topics.

I would note a few of them that I think are the most important.  Probably the one with the biggest splash was his 2000 The Invention of Capitalism: The Secret History of Accumulation, in which among other things he revealed a lot of dirt on Adam Smith.  Another was his1987  Karl Marx's Crises Theories: Labor Scarcity and Fictitious Capital, of especial interest now with all the wild speculative bubbles we are seeing with "fictitious capital" Marx's term for asset values above their fundamental due to speculation. Then there is his 2003 The Perverse Economy: The Impacts of Markets on People and Nature, in which he attempted to reconcile Marx with environmentalism, although I think he made the fuller version of this argument in some articles. Along with Paul Burkett, he noted that while Marx did not see see land creating value, he was it as containing wealth and wrote quite a bit about the implications of the work of the German organic chemist, von Liebig, developer of the famous "Libig's Law of the Minimum," an important idea in both ecology and agricultural economics.

Below I list his books:

Farming for Profit in a Hungry World (1977)

Classical Political Economy: Primitive Accumulation and the Social Division of Labor (1983)

Karl Marx's Crises Theories: Labor Scarcity and Fictitious Capital (1987)

Keynes, Investment Theory and the Economic Slowdown: The Role of Investment and q-Rartios (1989)

The Pathology of the U.S. Economy: The Costs of a Low Wage System (1993)

Critical Legal Studies (with James Boyle, 1994)

The End of Economics (1996)

Class Warfare in the Information Age (1998)

The Natural Instability of Markets: Expectations, Increasing Returns and the Collapse of Markets (1999) [also an excellent book and well-timed]

Transcending the Economy: On the Potential of Passionate Labor and the Waste of the Market (2000)

The Invention of Capitalism: The Secret History of Accumulation (2000)

The Pathology of the U.S. Economy Revisited: The Intractable Contradictions of Economic Policy (2001)

Steal this Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity (2002)

The Perverse Economy: The Impacts of Markets on People and Nature (2003)

Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in a Corporate Society (2005)

Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology (2006)

The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology the Next Great Depression (2007) [another well-timed one]

The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (2011)

Information, Social Relations and the Economy of High Technology (date unknown)

I shall miss him.

Barkley Rosser


Friday, January 29, 2021

Is China Now Number One?

 Actually I think focusing on such questions can be a not very useful exercise, but here I am asking it anyway.  As it is, indeed the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) is indeed Number One on a number of important grounds, although probably the bottom line is that the world is now dominated by a G2, the US and China, with it unclear which is Number One overall.  What has happened is that up until quite recently there was no question: the US was Number One as it had been for a long time.  That is not the case now.

Probably the most important fact lying behind PRC moving into a possible Number One position is that it indeed does have in real PPP terms the world's largest aggregate GDP, probably on the order of 30% higher than the US's, with this gap continuing to grow.  Most people are unaware of this, and it is hidden by the fact that the US continues to be Number One on nominal GDP, which gets constantly reported in the US media with no commentary or recognition of the situation regarding PPP GDP.  As it is this complicated situation signals the likely current quasi-equality, because indeed nominal GDP is important as it reflects the ability of a nation to assert itself globally.  But PPP does show how much it is really producing. And, assuming current trends hold, PRC probably will surpass the US even on nominal GDP within the next several years, almost certainly before the end of the decade.

Another important matter is that sometime in the last few years China replaced the US as the world's leading financier of development. Indeed, the PRC has accepted this role in a coordinated plan of action, its Belt and Road Initiative, which has come under some criticism by some nations for various reasons, including that it is an effort to achieve a dominance over the nations involved in this.  But whatever the truth or falsity of that, this initiative is indeed leading to large scale infrastructure expansion in many nations that will aid their future economic growth.  The US is not remotely providing such aid, and also is not going to be doing so.  This places China in a very important position regarding the world economy, a position once held by the US.

Of course there are some areas where the US is still ahead. One involves military.  China's military is growing and expanding, and it probably has the ability to cause US forces more damage in a conflict than many might expect, such as the ability to knock out an aircraft carrier and compete seriously in cyber and space warfare.  But the bottom line is that if there were a full-blown war, the US continues to maintain an overwhelming edge.  But let us hope we do not have to see such a test, although such comparisons are obviously important.

Certainly there are many other areas where the US retains the edge, even as PRC is rising in many of them. So in the crucial area of scientific and intellectual developments there is rising competition, but the US continues to broadly have the lead, even as China is taking it in various areas, some of them quite important, such as developing solar energy technology.

Needless to say the last four years has seen the US shooting itself in the foot on all this during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.  "America First" led to America Second or worse.  Angering allies and simply removing the US from so much going on in the world and violating treaties, left China as the relatively responsible party at the global level, and while China has engaged in hostile actions towards some neighbors, at the global level it looks more responsible than has the US, although this latter may be changing with the change in administrations in the US.

Anyway, clearly these two nations are global level competitors, with a long run trend tending toward the advantage of China, at least as it seems now.  But let us hope this relationship can be managed without actual war breaking out.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Oregon Republican Party Issues a Condemnation

 You have to read it to believe it.  An excerpt:

Whereas history tells us that after George Washington appointed Major General Benedict Arnold to command West Point, Arnold conspired to surrender the fort to the British; and

Whereas the ten Republican House members, by voting to impeach President Trump, repeated history by conspiring to surrender our nation to Leftist forces seeking to establish a dictatorship void of all cherished freedoms and liberties....

Whereas there is growing evidence that the violence at the capitol was a “false flag” operation designed to discredit President Trump, his supporters, and all conservative Republicans; this provided the sham motivation to impeach President Trump in order to advance the Democrat goal of seizing total power, in a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag....

That we condemn the betrayal by the following ten Republican members of Congress who voted in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi to support a second sham impeachment....

Wow.  Benedict Arnold, the Reichstag Fire: they sure know their history.  And I like the false flag bit: the people who gathered outside the capitol were patriots defending their country against a monstrous conspiracy to undermine democracy and impose tyranny, but the ones who actually went into it were Antifa rabble.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Is Biden Going To Blow Reentering The Iran Nuclear Deal?

I certainly hope not, but it is not out of the question.  There is a serious split within the new Biden administration over how to approach getting the US back into the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, which, just for the record, the US withdrew from even though it was the US that had violated it by not fully withdrawing economic sanctions against Iran, a decision made during the Obama administration that negotiated the deal, while Iran was not in violation and continued to adhere to it for quite some time after the US withdrew to condemnation by the other parties to the deal, which included western European nations as well as Russia and China.

Throughout the campaign Biden expressed an intention to get back into the agreement.  But some of his foreign policy appointees have raised conditions for doing so that might delay or even block doing so, with such a delay dangerous because in June there will be a presidential election in Iran where most are forecasting that current President Rouhani, who negotiated the deal and supports the US reentering will be replaced by a hardliner who may well simply oppose the deal.  There is a not very large window for doing this.  It is pretty obvious that this looks like extending the nuclear START with Russia: it should simply be done without demanding special favors or actions from Iran, just START is likely to be extended as is, with Putin apparently accepting Biden's offer for a simple five-year extension.  But then, Russia is much more powerful than Iran is.

Who  wants to hold things up?  Apparently Biden's incoming SecState Blinken and his National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan.  Both want Iran to get itself back into obeying the accord before the US makes any moves to lower economic sanctions.  On top of that, Sullivan wants Iran to agree to additions to the agreement to limit its ballistic missile program, items never in the original deal, even if it has been a source of anger by regional allies opposed to the deal like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.  The latter would certainly delay any resumption of the deal past the June election and outright kill it, while the former very likely would.  It looks pretty obvious that the US needs to offer some sort of simultaneity of reducing sanctions as Iran moves to ending the uranium enrichment activities it started up after the US withdrew.

There is reason to be hopeful that these hawkish proponents of making it hard for Iran to allow the US back into the deal may get ignored.  The most important is that reportedly Biden has appointed Robert Malley as the special negotiator on this matter.  Malley's publicly stated views are not in agreement with the ideas of Blinken or Sullivan and he seems to support something more like a simultaneous move on both sides to put it back into functioning.  The others are the presence in the administration of people who negotiated the original deal: Wendy Sherman as Deputy Secretary of State, and although a bit more distant, John Kerry, now to be leader on climate issues in foreign policy.  I would expect them to side with Malley on this matter, and I hope Biden will ignore these people who seem to be pushing ideas that could lead to a failure to achieve possibly the most important foreign policy move Biden needs to make, or at least undoing possibly the worst foreign policy move Trump made.

Barkley Rosser 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Why Has AMLO Delayed Congratulating Biden On His Inauguration?

 Maybe he has now done it, although I have been unable to find any reports of him doing so.  But almost alone among world leaders, I think joined only by Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Mexicos's President known as "AMLO" did not basically immediately congratulate Joe Biden on his inauguration. Even very pro-Trump Brazilian President Bolsonaro did, expressing a hope to have good and beneficial relations between the US and Brazil, and although it was rather perfunctory and unenthusiastic, so did Russia's President Putin.  But nothing out of AMLO, at least not right away. 

Supposedly he somehow thinks that Biden is going to be less friendly than Trump.  The one report I saw on this said that he views Trump as having taken a "hands off" approach with him, although I remember Trump making demands that he crack on migrants passing through Mexico from Central America with threats of tariffs at odds with treaty agreements.  This is hands off?  Anyway, somehow he supposedly thinks that Biden will interfere in Mexican affairs and try to tell him what to do, although I am completely unaware of a shred of evidence that Biden has said anything at all that would suggest that, although it is possible that he has and I simply have not been aware of it.

I posted here awhile ago about how it seemed that AMLO was favoring Trump, visiting him in the White House in September and making highly favorable comments. At the time I speculated that this might because he shares some authoritarian tendencies we have seen in Trump, with those only having become much clearer with his serious effort to overturn the US presidential election. Does AMLO's delay in congratulation Biden mean that AMLO approved of these actions by Trump?  I do not know, but this adds to my concerns about AMLO.  I was criticized by some commenters for making this point about AMLO, who is mostly a political progressive and certainly has carried out some progressive policies in Mexico.  But I see nothing good for people in Mexico in having their president alienating the incoming US president for what appears to be no good reason whatsoever.

Barkley Rosser

Extending START

 It is not a big headline story among all the other things newly inaugurated Joe Biden is doing, but it is being reported that despite a generally more hostile approach to Russia, he has agreed with what Russian President Putin has said he wants, which is to simply extend the current nuclear weapons START agreement for five more years. It is possible that out of annoyance with Biden Putin might somehow at this point create a roadblock for this very important decision, but given that the existing treaty expires on Feb. 5, there is not much time to come up with an alternative, and I think that Putin understands the importance of this matter and will hopefully agree to this, even if it might have been good to make some changes in the agreement. 

I note that when this annoucement came out, the newly no longer in office negotiator with the Russians on this issue for now former President Trump, someone named Billingslea, whom I had not previously heard of, publicly criticized this move, claiming that it showed "very poor negotiating skills" on the part of the income administration.  Of course, he had been trying to negotiate a renewal of this agreement for the last couple of years and had failed, with the deadline for renewal now only a couple of weeks away.  Apparently he had failed both by insisting that China be included, which did not wish to be, and also making various demands on the Russians that they were not willing to go along with.  So their record on this was not all that much better than their effort to get Iran to go along with a supposedly better nuclear agreement than the JCPOA that the Trump administration withdrew from without any justification, but with the claim that so withdrawing would lead to a better agreement.

As it is, apparently there are some Republicans in the Congress who think it would be great to get out of the START agreement, just as Trump ended other agreements with Russia.  They think a new nuclear arms race with Russia would be a good thing.  This decision by the incoming administration also is at odds with the more hawkish views of one of its incoming members at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, who apparently supports a much shorter renewal period for the treaty.  This is the sort of thing that is why I posted here when I learned of her appointment that this was one appointment being made by Biden that I did not approve of.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Don't get too close!

 

Politico on Fauci:


One day into the Biden presidency, the longtime infectious disease expert described it as “a refreshing experience.”


Shouldn't we have a disease expert who is not infectious?! Just sayin'.


At any rate, I realized yesterday that I have been in a foul mood for 4 years.  No longer!  We have finally rid ourselves of a Horse's Ass and replaced him with an actual President.

Monday, January 18, 2021

This MAGAzine of Untruth

With two days left in Trump's term, the cultural Marxism myth that inspired the Oslo and Christchurch terrorists has become official White House dogma.

Will North Korea Explode After Biden Becomes President?

 This is what was forecast in a column in the Washington Post by Victor Cha. He sees a combination of economic collapse, massive spread of Covid-19, and a standard desire when a new US president to enter office to be behind a possible outbreak of military assertiveness, possibly exacerbated by a much more serious collapse of the DPRK economy and society.  I suspect this is overdone, but there are definitely some major problems going on there, with much of the new attention on this coming out publicly as a result of a major address by Kim Jong Un at the 8th (only?) Korean Workers' Party Congress, where he openly admits failures to meet Five Year Plan targets for almost everything and calls for a massive tightening of policy with a reassertion of stricter state control of the economy.

I have double checked this by checking on the North Korean Economy Watch blog, which has an extensive report on Kim's speech, and also seems to avoid the hysterical edge that Cha takes, although with the departure of his pal, Trump, along with all his internal problems, I can imagine Kim may well be tempted to stir up some sort of trouble.  Anyway, some details.

Indeed, targets for almost everything have not been met, ag production, manufacturing, and more.  The one manufacturing sector that seems to be holding up, and was described as "the core industrial sector," something I have not see claimed before, is the chemical industry. Apparently it is doing so well there is almost no use for some of its output, although what is useful is going to be fertilizer and other inputs to agriculture.

Both the blog and Cha noted a major collapse of international trade, with trade with China down 70%, Cha's leading evidence for a more general collapse, although the blog does not seem to be quite as dramatic about economic collapse and does not suggest that some broader or bigger one will happen, much less some major social upheaval as Cha argues. The blog notes that one failure of the plan has been that there was a goal to diversify trade away from such a focus on China, but that has not happened at all.  This in effect pushes the DPRK back onto its traditional juche self-sufficiency ideological schtick.

There has been apparently a major crackdown on a lot of private businesses, which are now a much larger part of the economy than many realize.  This is where Cha forecasts an upheaval, suggesting many North Koreans will resist being forced to turn over foreign hard currency for worthless North Korean won. The blog notes foreign currency traders have been especially hard hit in arrests.  It also says that there is a push for more local control of a lot of the private firms, which are especially prominent in ag and food.

There is however, along with the chemical industry hanging in there, plans for more development of nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems, with ICBMs capable of hitting the entire US now being developed.  This is another development that has Cha worked up.

The blog also notes that there seems to be a renewed emphasis on control of "cultural production" and other such matters, all going along with the general tightening and move toward orthodox views.  Indeed, the blog says this is the end of hopes many had that market experiments and other loosenings that went on early in Kim's regime now seem to be seriously over.

Not clear what is going on with Covid-19, although part of the trade decline with China is due to DPRK sealing off borders seriously.  They claim no cases, but Cha thinks the place is overrun with it.  The blog reports nothing on this front.  Whatever is going on is being kept secret.

Probably is hyperventilating and things will not be as bad in North Korea as he predicts, with Kim hopefully not going completely gonzo.  But it does seem likely that the incoming Biden admin will face some sort of unpleasant challenge out of there, quite likely pretty soon, which may be quite difficult to deal with.  Welcome to the White House, Mr, Biden!

Barkley Rosser

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Rescuing Disposable Time from Oblivion

Two hundred years ago this February, Charles Wentworth Dilke anonymously published a pamphlet titled The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, deduced from principles of political economy. Four decades later, Karl Marx would describe the pamphlet in his notes as an "important advance on Ricardo." In his preface to volume two of Capital, Friedrich Engels described the pamphlet as the "farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat" and credited Marx with having saved the pamphlet from "falling into oblivion." 

In the 1960s and 70s, Marx's notebooks from 1857 to 58 were published in translation as the Grundrisse, a section of which – known as the "fragment on machines" – became the subject of much enthusiastic commentary and theoretical controversy. Some of the most evocative and heralded passages of the fragment dealt with the concept of "disposable time," which Marx had adopted, with citation, from the anonymous pamphlet. But Marx's rescue of the pamphlet from oblivion was far from convincing. With few exceptions, the discourse on Marx's fragment on machines ignored The Source (pun intended) of Marx's category of disposable time.

For Marx, disposable time referred not only to time off work for rest and recreation but more crucially to an explosive contradiction at the heart of the capital accumulation process. Continued accumulation required both the continuous creation and appropriation by capital of ever more disposable time. Marx's fragment on machines was received as prophetic when the translations appeared. It was as if Marx had been anticipating precisely this time -- when automation, computerization, and robotization seemed to either herald "the end of work" or threaten universal precarity. Nevertheless, The Source and Remedy continued to languish in obscurity – if not total oblivion. Few copies and no translation of the pamphlet were to be found in the archives of libraries. Eventually, a microfilm copy of the pamphlet became available in the 1970s as part of the Goldsmiths'-Kress Library of Economic Literature. The full collection of old documents cost around $200,000 in 1978 dollars – the equivalent of $800,000 in current dollars. 

In 1999, I posted the first 6 pages of the pamphlet to the TimeWork Web. Five years later, I uploaded a PDF of the full pamphlet to the website of B.C.'s Work Less Party. By 2010 a copy was available on the Marxists Internet Archive. Regardless, Marx scholars continued to ignore the pamphlet, aside from the occasional mention that it was cited by Marx. In 2019, however, the journal Contributions to Political Economy reprinted the pamphlet along with a descriptive essay by Giancarlo de Vivo. This year, my essay commemorating the bicentennial of the pamphlet's publication, "The Ambivalence of Disposable Time: The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties at Two Hundred," is forthcoming in that journal. I am hopeful that the scholarly neglect of the pamphlet will soon end.

In my essay, I document specific links between the pamphlet's advocacy on behalf of disposable time and William Godwin's exaltation of leisure in his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its influence on morals and happiness and especially in his 1797 book, The Enquirer: reflections on education, manners and literature. In a later book, Thoughts on Man: his nature, productions and discoveries, Godwin confirmed and clarified his earlier ideas about leisure.  

While documenting the connections between Godwin's writings about leisure and Dilke's disposable time, an intriguing thought occurred to me. Godwin had been trained as a minister in a strict Calvinist sect and had retained his intellectual orientation as a "Rational Dissenter" long after leaving the church. His discourses on leisure and on occupations ("vocations") can plausibly be regarded as a secular and modernizing reformulation of Calvin's doctrine of the calling. I ran this conjecture by a leading Godwin scholar who found it entirely plausible and consistent with his own writing on Godwin's secularization of religious motifs. "The Calvinist doctrine of the calling," observed William Stafford in 1980, "can be discerned just below the surface of Political Justice."

The continuity between Godwin, Dilke, and Marx raises startling questions about the elective affinities between Marx's class struggle, Godwin's perfectibility of private judgment, and ultimately Calvin's doctrine of Grace. In terms of political activism, the Marx-Dilke-Godwin-Calvin connection suggests possibilities of immanent critique and direct challenge to the proverbial "work ethic" and its deviations: Carlyle's "gospel of work," Carnegie's "gospel of wealth" and, finally, the blasphemous "prosperity gospel" of latter-day television evangelism. One of my long-running frustrations with ecological economics and the degrowth movement has been its default treatment of work-time reduction as primarily a work-sharing strategy. I have nothing against work-sharing, but my complaint is that it is about the fourth best reason for reducing working time. The top priority is emancipation from social domination through taking back disposable time. Second is the elimination of uncompensated overwork. Third is elimination of the bargaining disadvantage that long hours of work impose on labour. Instead of contesting growth economics on the tilted playing field of the quantity of GDP, attention to the redemptive doctrine of disposable time could help us, in the words of Artemy Magun, to "understand rationally the crucial elements of the religious world-view that have been ignored by modern science, but which nevertheless are highly relevant to orientation in the contemporary world."


Friday, January 15, 2021

Happy Birthday MLK!

 While the official holiday is coming up on Monday, today is the actual 92nd birthday of the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Happy birthday, MLK!

More than most this is one where if he were alive he would be especially pleased and proud.  Ten days ago a successor to him and his father as a minister at the famous and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Raphael Warnock, was elected to represent the state of Georgia in the United States Senate, something he could only dream about.  Obviously there are many other dramatic things going on at this time, including the fact that Rev. Warnock's election was part of a change power in the Senate and Washington more generally, with the Senate coming under actual physical attack the day after the election, nine days ago, an attack that also market an unprecedented display of the Confederate battle flag for in the Capitol building.  However, all that looks to be working out well.  MLK would be pleased and proud.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Weirdest Thing about Claims of Electoral Fraud

Imagine that, on the eve of a national election, a candidate is far ahead in all the polls and seems to be cruising to victory.  Then the results come in, and the unthinkable has happened: the candidate has lost handily.  Your first instinct would be to take a look at how the election was carried out and the votes tabulated to see if everything was kosher.

But that’s not what happened in November 2020.  In case you forgot, here’s 538's final forecast from November 3.  The actual results were a big setback for the Democrats on all fronts, House, Senate and President.

That’s what’s so bizarre about the claims of Trump, Hawley, Cruz et al.  They did way better than the polls said they would.  It’s as if the Democratic bust of 11-3-20 disappeared down a memory hole.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

 From about the age of 8-12 I read a lot of sci-fi.  Along the way I stumbled across Robert Heinlein, in particular his novel The Day After Tomorrow, initially published as The Sixth Column.  It was so crudely racist I avoided from then on anything with Heinlein’s name on it.

The plot went like this: The evil PanAsians have conquered America and set up a vicious tyranny.  A few scientists, holed up in a secret lab in the mountains of Colorado, have discovered a powerful weapon that can turn the tide.  They’ve tweaked it so it can kill only “Asians”, leaving white people unaffected.  How to organize a nationwide resistance that can take advantage of it?

The PanAsians, to pacify their subjects, have permitted religious activity to continue, so the scientists organize a new religion.  They use their skills to perform “miracles” that suck in the ignorant masses.  Meanwhile, a cadre is secretly recruited who use the religion as a front in order to disseminate the new weapon and train an underground army who know how to deploy it.  

The crisis arrives when the time comes to kill all the Asians, but it turns out that one of the inner group is a “good” Asian who will be killed as well.  If that’s your idea of a moral dilemma, you’re a lot more twisted than I was when I was hitting double digits.

Later, as I became more politically aware and started noticing the emergence of a cult of William F. Buckley acolytes at my high school in Wisconsin, I could see that Heinlein was on to something.  No, not that we needed a weapon of racist annihilation, but that the conservative mood had an underlying narrative:  We who have discovered the truth are smart, but most people are stupid.  You can tell them almost anything and they will believe it.  By taking advantage of their dumb credulity, smart conservatives can rule.  Incidentally, the same background narrative lurks in the world of Ayn Rand; self-conscious Objectivists are the intellectual elite and their success depends on dropping their scruples about misleading the easily herded crowd.

You might think of it as a form of vulgar Straussianism.  High Strauss holds that the need for virtue is the perennial truth at the heart of philosophy, but most people are not virtuous.  To avoid the wrath of these lesser souls, philosophers have been forced to speak in code.  (Yes, this is a cartoon version, but since we’re talking about the dumbing down process, that’s OK here.)  The vulgar version replaces virtue with smarts.  Most people are stupid, and if smart people treat the masses as if they were smart too they will talk over them and fail.  The path to success is speaking in code, making up lies for the gullible but signaling to those capable of discerning the inner truth that the movement is for them.

(Incidentally, this parallels in certain ways the Leninist strategy of front groups and cadres.  It may be that the Right picked up this trope from their nemesis; I recall Ayn Rand saying this explicitly, although I don’t have a citation.  Can someone help me out?)

Movement conservatism in America cultivated this two-tiered philosophy for decades before Trump came along.  Recall the fictitious stories Reagan told to goose his political career?  Conservative insiders knew they were made up, but that was fine because what difference does it make whether what you say to stupid people is true of false?  They will swallow what you give them if you appeal to their hopes and prejudices.  Do you really think the core neocons of the W Bush era, some of whom actually studied under Strauss, really believed in the Saddam-has-weapons-of-mass-destruction fairy tale?  They weren’t dumb enough to fall for it; on the contrary, they thought they were smart enough to concoct and exploit it.

Which brings us to January 2021.  Movement conservatives realized they could assemble a useful nationwide army of “election-truthers” by creating a myth about millions of fake votes, a vast conspiracy of treasonous or even satanic election officials, etc.  They were sure the stupids, or at least enough of them, would swallow it whole, so why not?

Take Josh Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale.  Is he dumb enough to actually believe what he’s saying?  It’s possible—lots of dummies in those fancy schools—but I wouldn’t count on it.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 he knows exactly what the game is and thinks throwing meat to the stupids is how smart people win.

Just to be clear, for the record, I don’t think most people are stupid, but I do think most of us come to our beliefs through a social process in which the balance of evidence and logic play at most a supporting role.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

An Appointment I Disapprove Of

 While many of them could be more progressive, given that Biden himself is largely a moderate making moderate nods to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in his appointments, I have largely been not too dissatisfied with appointments made so far by President-Elect Biden.  My only surprise is that a bunch of people set their pants on fire over the appointment of Neera Tanden as OMB director while barely a squeak has been heard about the appointment to NEC Chair of total Goldman Sachs flunky, Brian Deese.  Actually, I do not think there even should be an NEC, which essentially replaced the CEA as the policy shop, with it usually being run by Wall Street types who are not even professional economists.

But now Biden has appointed somebody I find really objectionable and even worrisome.  This is Victoria Nuland as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of policy, a pretty important post.  She has been the State Dept previously, where she engaged in all sorts of obnoxiously and dangerous neocon activities.  I mostly think Biden has pretty good instincts on foreign policy, not a hawk and pretty knowledgeable.  But Nuland has been associated with pushing support for Sunni extremists against Assad in Syria and encouraging overly vigorously various actions in various places that I do not or have not approved of.  It may be that she is a sign of being anti-Putin, which she certainly is, in contrast to Trump, of course. But appointing her may be overdoing it. There will need to be some negotiations over strategic nuclear arms, and I know there are other areas where US and Russia have common interests, even if indeed the US needs to hold Putin's feet to the fire on many issues.  But Biden did not need to appoint somebody so over the top and hawkish as Nuland to achieve that.

Barkley Rosser

Getting the Shakespearean Part Right

 At his rally before the invasion of the Capitol, Trump said to his minions:

And after this, we're going to walk down and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down--

We're going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we're going to walk down to the Capitol.

But then he ducked back into the White House to watch the whole thing on TV.  That’s how you know he’s Richard III and not Henry V.

Post-Putsch: Why There Should Be Consequences for Enablers of the Capitol Invasion

 I usually find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald, but not today.  GG has posted a heartfelt warning against overreaction to the attempted fur-and-horn putsch at the Capitol Building Wednesday.  He says the mob trampled on symbols of state power but otherwise did little of consequence, and vilifying them and their supporters will lead to repressive overreach, just like we saw after 9/11.  Cool it, says Glen.

Actually, I agree with one piece of this, the use of the “t” word, terrorism.  No the mob was not a terrorist brigade; it was mostly unarmed and did not commit mass or random violence to induce passive cowering from the rest of us.  There was minimal effort to locate and assault politicians; the intent was mostly to physically prevent the certification of the electoral college votes that would legally end any opposition to the replacement of Trump by Biden.

But that’s why the invasion mattered.  Repeat: it was an attempt to physically prevent the winner of an election from taking office.  This is where GG misses the point in his narrow comparisons of body counts and weapons supplies.

Yes, it was confused and amateurish, much like the president whose bluster it expressed.  But the danger of mob violence is not so much what the mob does as what the police do.  If the police (and military) go over to the side of the mob, the mob wins no matter how disorganized or ill-equipped it is.  

That’s not a threat when the mob represents the Left, but it is always a risk when the mob comes from the Right.  And in fact we did see a softness on the part of many (but not all) Capitol police officers who fraternized with the invaders and forgot (or “forgot”) the part of their mission that was about protecting not only the building, but the political leaders inside it.  It is extraordinary that senators and congresspeople were not warned about the breach until their own chambers were under attack.  The unwillingness of Trump to call out the National Guard makes it clear that the Guard was unlikely to be so accommodating, which we can take as reassuring news.  Nevertheless, we should never forget that the threat of right wing putschists is never just a product of their own arms or numbers but always comes down in the end to whether the armed protectors of the state will resist or join them.

So this is why I disagree with GG about the importance of this event: it was very important.  Its purpose was to prevent the winner of an election from taking office, and it is only because Trump’s popularity among those with badges, stripes and guns is not stronger that we could view the invasion as almost a joke and not something far worse.

Because the attempt to overturn a democratic election is so serious, its suppression justifies exceptional measures.  Of course, Trump should be denied any media platform from which he can be excluded.  Of course, other politicians who gave support to this putsch should be expelled from office.  This should take place immediately, understood as a response to this specific episode and not as a precedent for all dissent or demonstrations.

Longer term, we need to give urgent attention to the characteristics of our political and communication systems that nurtured the Trump disaster.  For starters, no private corporation should own the platforms over which most people receive and send communication, except perhaps in the limited role of common carrier.  The rules by which such platforms function should be publicly set for the purpose of enhancing real democratic discourse.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Call Republican Senators immediately!

 Tell them to find 16 colleagues, enough to constitute a credible threat of conviction if he is impeached, and make him resign.

You've Already Seen These Questions

  1. Why is it that no existing society, nor society that ever existed, has arrived at universal prosperity, considering that in all times, and in all societies, excepting only the very barbarous, a few years would naturally have led to it?
  2. How is it that notwithstanding the unbounded extent of capital, the progressive improvement and wonderful perfection of machinery, canals, transportation, and all other things that either facilitate labour or increase its produce; that the population instead of having its labours abridged, works more hours per capita than it did years ago?
  3. Why has society never arrived at the enviable situation of universal abundant leisure, although so immediately within its grasp?


Thursday, January 7, 2021

An Attempted Autogolpe

Not an attempted coup d'etat, as many are saying in the media.

I must credit Juan Cole with making aware of this useful term, which apparently comes out of Latin America.  According to Cole, a coup attempt traditionally involves military and also is directed at overthrowing a leader in power.  What happened yesterday in the Capitol did no fit either of these criteria.

But it does fit an autogolpe very well.  This is a self-coup, if you well, a situation where a leader, especially one who is about to be removed from office, acts to overthrow the established rules to remain in power, usually assuming authoritarian power in doing so.  This certainly looks like what Trump was trying to do, but failed to achieve.  So it was an attempted autogolpe.

Barkley Rosser 

These Questions are HUGE!

  1. Is there any means of adding to national prosperity other than adding to the facilities of living?
  2. What is liberty?
  3. What is wealth if it does not add to liberty?
  4. Who should determine how individuals dispose of their free time?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Thoughts on the Invasion of the US Capitol

 It’s all happening as I write, but here are a few reactions:

1. Fortunately we see Q-Anonics, Loud Boys and other right wing crazies invading the Capitol Building and not Black Lives Matter or the Left.  Think how many lives would have been lost if it had been the other way around.

2. It will be interesting to see how deeply investigators will delve into the lax security preparations for today’s senate meeting.

3. In the end, it all comes down to one question: where do the loyalties of the police and armed forces lie?  That is always the bottom line, but we can go for decades without confronting it directly.  When the left challenges state authority the issue is never in doubt, at least in the U.S.  When the challenge comes from the right we have to hold our breath.  There were video images a few moments ago of police gently escorting Trumpists out the door and down the stairs with no apparent thought to arresting them.  This indicates at least some softness toward the cause on their part.  On the other hand, I don’t expect there will be military or police resistance to the eventual securing of the building.  If the folks in uniforms were to go over to the other side, that would be the end of the political order.

This has happened in the past.  The end of Reconstruction was marked by white mobs that assaulted elected Black officials and were backed by “law enforcement”.  That was a counterrevolution that succeeded.  Around the world it has been a general rule: civil rebellions succeed if and only if the police and military are turned or at least neutralized.  It all comes down to that and always will.

4. Invading and shutting down the capitol makes sense if you think that a demonstrably fraudulent election has been imposed on the public.  If crooked election officials had doctored the results, those trying to stop the process would be heroes.  Actually, I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which people meekly assent to real evidence of stolen elections.  What makes today a travesty is that there isn’t a shred of evidence to support allegations of fraud; it is a product of cynical disinformation sponsored by people who believe honesty is an unnecessary constraint on attaining and exercising power.  Anyone who has propagated this disinformation is responsible in part for what has now happened: an insurrection is the predictable end product of widely-disseminated claims of electoral fraud.

The same goes, incidentally, for those purveying baseless claims that the coronavirus is a hoax imposed on us by Bill Gates, George Soros and their puppet Anthony Fauci.  If there really were a fake public health crisis seized on by governments to permanently regiment their citizenry, storming state capitols would be justified.  Disseminating disinformation along these lines is assuming responsibility for potential insurrectionary responses or violent attacks on public health and other officials.

The heroic defense of democracy and the fascist putsch take the same form, invading and occupying places of government and disrupting its operations.  The difference depends entirely on whether the motives derive from genuine evidence of wrongdoing or cynical, power-hungry bullshit.

Yes, More Questions

  1. If the whole labour of the country was just sufficient for the support of the whole population; would there be any surplus labour or capital accumulation?
  2. If the whole labour of the country could raise as much in one year as would maintain the population for two years, would the country cease working for a year, would the surplus be left to perish or would the possessors of the surplus produce use it to employ people on something not directly and immediately productive, for instance, the erection of machinery?
  3. If surplus produce from the first year is invested in machinery or other productive capital in the second year would the annual output in the third year be the same as, less than, or more than that in the first year?  
  4. If the whole labour of the country could raise as much in the third year as would maintain it for two years plus the addition output enabled by machinery would they cease working for a year, would the surplus be left to perish or would the possessors of the surplus produce use it to employ people on something not directly and immediately productive, for instance, in the erection of more machinery, etc.?


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The End Of The Embargo Against Qatar

 Yesterday Saudi Arabia announced that it is ending the embargo/boycott of Qatar, and though reportedly the UAE leadership is not entirely happy with this, they are going along with this as are the other nations involved in this, Bahrain and Egypt. This had begun in June, 2017, reportedly with the encouragement and initial support by Trump and Jared Kushner, with them buying into it as part of an anti-Iran alliance, given that Qatar was accused of having dealings with Iran, with which it shares a major natural gas pool in the Persian Gulf. It took Trump and Kushner a few months to realize that the very important al-Ubeid air base used by the US was there, so they shifted to trying to end the boycott, which involved a set of 13 demands that Qatar was not remotely going to follow, including shutting down al-Jazeera. It looked for awhile that the quartet, or some of its members, might invade Qatar, but then Turkey sent a bunch of troops to Qatar and in various ways began supporting it.  Probably the greatest cost to Qatar of this whole mess was not being able to use the airspace of these nations.

In the immediate news reports Jared Kushner is being credited with having worked this deal out, which really is not so much a deal as simply a full cave by the Saudis, although apparently what the quartet gains is that Qatar had been bringing complaints to the WTO about all this, and these complaints are now withdrawn. I guess Kushner gets some credit for playing a role in undoing something ridiculous that he played a major role in getting put into place initially. He has also been the major player in getting the recognition deals cut between Israel and two of these, UAE and Bahrain, as well as Sudan and Morocco.

However, Juan Cole and other sources say that what really lies behind this move is the Saudis seeing the Biden administration coming in and recognizing that Biden does not at all approve of a lot of things they have been doing, including the assassination of WaPo journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some other human rights violations especially against female womens' rights activists, and the awful war in Yemen, which it must be recognized was supported to some degree by the Obama admin, but has gotten much worse since.  Supposedly the Saudis are scrambling and want to "clear some plates off the table" before the Biden admin gets in, and this also explains the Saudis quickly recognizing Biden's victory over Trump, even as some other foreign leaders held off doing so for some time.  They know they are in deep doo doo with Biden and those around him, and really do need US support.

An aspect of this is that is may be that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has for at least a moment lost some power.  Supposedly it was his father, King Salman, who has been the main mover on making this deal.  In any case, it looks like a good thing, whatever it is really behind it.

Barkley Rosser

Zooming in on the Defects of PowerPoint

 I’ve just finished several days of staring, hour after hour, at the year’s economics meetings via Zoom.  What really struck me, beyond the content of the talks, was the way Zoom exacerbates “death by bullet point”.

PowerPoint’s capabilities encourage speakers to load up their slides with lots of text and graphics, which then leads the audience to glue their eyeballs to the slides and not the speaker.  This defeats the core purpose of public speaking in the post-Gutenberg era, which is to use the audience’s engagement with the speaker as a vehicle for communicating thoughts and feelings that the written word, even accompanied by pictures, can’t express.  The worst scenario, which all of us have experienced way too often, is when a speaker crams lots of text in tiny fonts into each slide and then reads it word for word.

As a teacher, I deliberately tried to upend this tendency without abandoning PowerPoint altogether.  I constructed very simple slides with as little text as possible, using very large fonts and relying on spatial organization, like lists and things pointing to other things with arrows to give listeners a sense of the ongoing structure of my presentation.  Sometimes I would insert charts or tables, but usually with only two or three headline quantities or relationships, easily seen in brief glimpse.  I wanted students’ attention to be focused on me, not my slides.

A few of the speakers I saw this week had the same strategy, but it was defeated by Zoom.  The standard Zoom screen gives you a tiny speaker window next to a massive space for slides; the main effect of PowerPoint minimalism was to produce a screenful of whitespace.  You could barely see the speaker even if you wanted to.

Why isn’t the ratio of screen space devoted to slides versus speaker image customizable?

More Questions?

  1. What would be the ultimate effect on interest rates of a perpetually increasing accumulation of capital?
  2. What would be the logical social response to a situation in which the interest rate on money is effectively zero?
  3. What was the principal intention and object of the early political economists?
  4. What effect does the detail of figures, the jargon of political economists, or the complexity of existing institutions have on the accumulation of capital?