Monday, May 30, 2022

The "Red" Roots of the U.S. National Security State

During the time he was drafting collective bargaining legislation for the National Industrial Recovery Act in July 1933, Leon Keyserling wrote to his father: 

Under a capitalistic society, the same people who profited by the anarchy are likely to work most of the controls, and in the same stupidly selfish and self-destructive manner. Without revolution which transfers power to the workers and sets up a socialized state, little will be gained. But the establishment of controls and the centralization of authority make the revolution more likely, because the excesses of the capitalists will become so great and their abuses so violent that the reaction will be terrific.

In February 1934, he wrote the following in a letter to his father:

I am very much afraid that the country is recovering too rapidly. A few more years of depression would have promoted violence, and without violence fundamental reform is unlikely. However, I see considerable hope in the certainty of even more serious depressions in the near future.

In yet another letter in June of that year, Keyserling elaborated on his theoretical assumptions:

...there is no chance for lasting gains to either farmer or laborer save by revolution, and the only materials for revolt are the industrial workers. The farmers in this country show not the slightest sign of class consciousness or the collective spirit. They are all individualists. Even in Russia (which was predominantly agrarian while we are predominantly industrial) the revolution was engineered by the proletariat, and after two decades has not won over the farmers.

Luckily for Leon, his letters home didn't come to light when the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated him on suspicion of having once had politically incorrect thoughts. Historian Landon Storrs quoted the previously unknown letters in The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Leftwhich chronicles the early political views and subsequent investigations of Leon Keyserling and his wife, Mary Dublin Keyserling.

To be sure, Keyserling may have been showboating in his letters to his father. Undoubtedly, whatever his political views might have been in the 1930s, they would have evolved along with his meteoric career advancement. What didn't appear to have evolved, though, was his callousness and cynicism -- no doubt fueled by his somewhat justified conviction that he was smarter than everybody else.

In spite of youthful cheerleading for a violence-inducing depression, I would grant that by the late 1940s, Keyserling's commitment to full employment as a priority policy objective was genuine. But by then the political climate was not receptive to New Deal style initiatives. Edmund Wehrle summed up the bleak situation in "‘Aid Where it is Needed Most’: American Labor’s Military Industrial Complex":

The postwar years posed grave challenges to both Roosevelt's New Deal coalition and to organized labor in general. Mainstream trade unionists and liberals demanded "full employment" policies after the war. The very term "full employment"—the call for aggressive Keynesian spending in both good and bad economic times to promote high levels of employment and economic growth—took on an almost magical connotation for laborities and liberals. But a wave of postwar strikes generated limited results and stoked public anger against labor. A conservative resurgence allowed for the passage of the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Meanwhile, President Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal initiatives to expand the New Deal met with defeat in Congress. 

In 1949, things took a turn for the worse. A sharp economic downturn spoiled the high hopes generated by Truman's surprise 1948 victory, which saw the Democrats retake Congress. By the Fall of 1949, the unemployment rate, which had remained steadily under 4% since the war, shot upwards to 8%. Organized labor had real reason to fear that much-­dreaded Depression conditions were poised to return. President Truman, in the face of the downturn, with labor's support, proposed that federal procurement and spending be directed to those areas hardest hit by unemployment. But the program, which never involved defense spending, had little support in Congress and died quickly. Hopes that the new Democratic Congress might adopt Fair Deal programs, such as public works projects and national health insurance, also evaporated. 

In the face of mounting challenges, mainstream organized labor sought, as best it could, to protect gains and meet the growing material needs of its rank-­and-­file. While dreams of expanding New Deal era programs were dead, the emergence of the Cold War—an enterprise in which the anti communist wing of American labor was an active participant—offered opportunity. Compared to the perceived threat of expanded New Deal programs, business leaders were infinitely less hostile to military Keynesianism. "Military spending doesn't really alter the structure of the economy. It goes through the regular channels.. . . But the kind of welfare and public-­works spending that Truman plans. . .creates new institutions. It redistributes income," opined Business Week in 1949. Planners in the organized labor movement, however, hoped and plotted to turn Business Week's equation on its head—to harness defense spending as a vehicle for addressing pressing economic and social problems. 


Opportunity to push ahead came in the form of the Korean crisis beginning in the summer of 1950. The expansive increase in military outlays already called for in the NSC-68 plan, drafted in part by labor-friendly Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Leon Keyserling, had won strong support in the labor movement. 

If I may be excused for repeating the point, in NSC-68 Leon Keyserling had justified increased armaments spending in part on the grounds that they would "pay for themselves" through higher revenues on an expanding economy stimulated by the arms build up: 

...if a dynamic expansion of the economy were achieved, the necessary build-up could be accomplished without a decrease in the national standard of living because the required resources could be obtained by siphoning off a part of the annual increment in the gross national product.

In retrospect, that commitment to a tripling of arms spending may look like the original sin of creating the permanent military-industrial complex. But remember, "the unemployment rate, which had remained steadily under 4% since the war, shot upwards to 8%. Organized labor had real reason to fear that much-dreaded Depression conditions were poised to return."

Ironically, the purpose of  "harness[ing] defense spending as a vehicle for addressing pressing economic and social problems" in 1950 was to forestall precisely the pre-revolutionary conditions that Keyserling had longed for in 1934.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Cultural Marxism - Conservative Christian Consensus on America's Culture of Violence

Gun Culture and the American Nightmare of Violence by Henry Giroux, January 10, 2016:

Mass shootings have become routine in the United States and speak to a society that relies on violence to feed the coffers of the merchants of death. Given the profits made by arms manufacturers, the defense industry, gun dealers and the lobbyists who represent them in Congress, it comes as no surprise that the culture of violence cannot be abstracted from either the culture of business or the corruption of politics. Violence runs through US society like an electric current offering instant pleasure from all cultural sources, whether it be the nightly news or a television series that glorifies serial killers.

Mass Shootings: The Vicious Cycle Fueled By America’s Toxic Cult of Violence by John W. and Nisha Whitehead, May 25, 2022:

Ask yourself: Why do these mass shootings keep happening? Who are these shooters modelling themselves after? Where are they finding the inspiration for their weaponry and tactics? Whose stance and techniques are they mirroring?

When you start to connect the dots, they lead right back to the American police state and the war-drenched, violence-imbued, profit-driven military industrial complex, both of which continue to dominate, dictate and shape almost every aspect of our lives.

In their blog post, John and Nisha Whitehead quote the above paragraph by Henry Giroux, minus the last sentence. Remarkably, the Whitehead's Rutherford Institute is a conservative Christian 'civil rights' organization whose political stances are far to the right. Henry Giroux is a critical Marxist education theorist.

Aside from their agreement about the contribution of U.S. militarism to its culture of violence, Giroux and the Whiteheads could be considered at opposite ends of the political spectrum. "Could be considered." Actually, the political spectrum is a extremely flawed instrument for comparing political views. What is loosely represented as "centrism" in the U.S. is actually a bipartisan national security state consensus that embraces super majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.

For the moment, let's not call the national security state consensus "fascist," although there may be compelling historical reasons for doing so. Fascism has come to be associated with particular self-described national manifestations, just as "communism" has come to be associated with Leninist states. But my point in mentioning that coy non-designation is to illustrate that what is conventionally called centrism is not necessarily "in the middle" of two "extreme" ideological positions.

Actually existing centrism is itself a form of extremism. During my lifetime, the U.S. has spend over 41 TRILLION dollars on "defense." For comparison, world GDP in 2020 was around 85 trillion dollars. Those are big, unimaginable numbers. There is nothing "moderate" about them. I will say this, though: if those $41 trillion hadn't been spent on armaments and those who operate them, world GDP also wouldn't be as high as it is. Nor would carbon emission have been so high. The military-industrial complex and the economy, as it is presently constituted, are of a piece. 

Again, I must refer to my previous posts calling attention to Michal Kalecki's analysis and Leon Keyserling's "revenue siphoning" scheme.

Friday, May 27, 2022

An Army of All-American Paramilitary Death-Squad Soloists

In their 2014 Super Bowl ad (declined by the NFL), Daniel Defense, the AR-15 merchants of death, EXPLICITLY tied a 'paramilitary army-of-one' motif to its role as a military-industrial complex supplier. A man arrives home -- presumably from a tour of duty -- and enters the house past a conspicuously displayed, framed photo of him in his Marine uniform. Behind that photo is another photo with a wide frame labeled "FAMILY... they are always..." the last words are hidden behind the photo of the Marine. 

He walks into the next room where his wife is folding baby clothes and they hug. His voice over narrative: "And my family's safety is my highest priority. I am responsible for their protection."  

The two of them then walk over and peek into the baby's room. Baby is awake so they enter. Baby smiles as Dad reaches down to pick her (signified by a pink blanket) up. "And no one," his narrative continues, "has the right to tell me how to defend it."

"So I've chosen the most effective tool for the job." The screen changes to a black background with a gray silhouette of an AR-15 and the Daniel Defense logo. A different, corporate voice takes over the narrative, "Daniel Defence," the voice intones. "defending your nation. Defending your home," as those words appear on the screen.

The YouTube copy of the ad has had 341,665 views since it was posted to the company's channel on November 27, 2013. The 353 comments are almost all positive.  On May 16, eight days before a gunman murdered 20 children and two school teachers with one of Daniel Defense's commodities in Uvalde, Texas, the company tweeted the following message, since deleted:

The text is from Proverbs 22. I won't bother scrounging through Proverbs to show that the passage is not about teaching a toddler how to use an AR-15. There is no point agonizing about the obscenity of the juxtaposition of small child and murder weapon. It is a minor obscenity compared to the immense obscenity of the elected representatives who appropriate money to pay the company that promotes that message.

Are the Republicans culpable? Yes. Are the Democrats absolved of complicity? No.

As the Daniel Defense video makes abundantly clear, the rationale for self-appointed vigilante violence is directly linked to funding of the "support our troops" military-industrial complex.

Regardless of what their rhetoric is on "gun control" super majorities of both parties -- 84% of Senate Democrats and 92% of Republicans -- voted to bestow $778 billion on the military-industrial complex. That's why its real name is the military-industrial-congressional complex. You can bet your bottom dollar some of that money went to Daniel Defense

Some of the money DD receives from taxpayers pays for lobbying to make sure they continue to get more money from taxpayers. Some of that money goes to lobbying to insure that their gun sales to child murderers are not impeded. And some of goes to marketing their "most effective tool for the job" to 18-year old psychopaths as a way to protect their second amendment right to slaughter schoolchildren.

"And no one has the right to tell me how to defend it." If Fox News hosts tell me night after night that the great replacement is a threat to my family's safety no one has the right to tell me how to defend it. If I am seething with rage at a world that doesn't even let me have a safe family no one has the right to tell me how to avenge the wrongs I feel I have suffered.

A story about the Daniel Defense tweet and the use of their product in the Uvalde massacre appeared in the Guardian earlier today:

The Uvalde attack is also not the first time that Daniel Defense weapons have been involved in a mass shooting. Guns manufactured by the company were in the arsenal of the gunman who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 in Las Vegas in 2017.

Months before that attack Daniel Defense had acknowledged the impact of high-profile shootings on gun sales.

“The mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012 drove a lot of sales,” Daniel told Forbes. “That was a horrible event and we don’t use those kinds of terrible things to drive sales but when people see politicians start talking about gun control, they have this fear and they go out and buy guns.”

In the aftermath of Uvalde, gunmaker stock prices have risen, reports Fortune. Shares of Sturm, Ruger & Company rose by about 5.8% and Smith & Wesson is up 10%.

Daniel Defense released a statement after the shootings in Uvalde saying: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic events in Texas this week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and community devastated by this evil act." 

Punctuation And The Second Amendment

 For most of American history since the Second Amendment was adopted the courts interpreted it as tying the second portion of the amendment to the first part of it. Thus the "right to bear arms" was tied to the need to establish a "well-regulated militia." The "state" was seen as individual states, and the modern national guard was seen as the descendant of this militia, especially given that the Founding Fathers supposedly did not see a permanent standing military body being something the national government would maintain.  There have been debates about what these state level militias were supposed to do, with many arguing they were a sop to southern states who wished to be able to put down slave uprisings. But they could also be used by the national government for national purposes, with in fact George Washington using them to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. In any case, to the extent this right to bear arms was tied to this matter of being able to maintain a well-regulated militia, it clearly made this right not absolute and thus all forms of gun control constitutionally acceptable.

This long-established precedent was upended in 2008 when the Supreme Court made a decision written by the late Justice Scalia known as District of Columbia versus Heller, which ended DC's right to ban handguns. This hellish Heller decision determined that the right to bear arms was a fully distinct and all-but absolute right of individual people, even as it declared that there might still be some exceptions.  Somehow the criteria for these exceptions was left somewhat vague, although laws against civilian ownership of machine guns remain in place, and it seems that restrictions on ownership by felons and people sufficiently mentally disturbed are allowed, so some cutoff involving public safety is still there.

Nevertheless, in spite of the ongoing spate of mass shootings, rumor has it that the SCOTUS may be about to further restrict the ability of governments to control guns, with a New York law allowing for regulation of who can openly carry guns in public possibly about to be declared in violation of the Second Amendment. This would constitute an extension of this noxious Heller decision rather than a move to increase the ability of governments in the US to exercise more gun control, something widely and strongly supported by the public, including conservatives and Republicans supposedly.

As it is, the way I see it, the matter comes down to one of punctuation.  Is the latter portion of the amendment a subordinate clause to the former part or not? Heller seems to say that it is not, thus making the right to bear arms disconnected from the matter of needing a well-regulated militia. The amendment is in fact a single sentence, so the punctuation used becomes critical. For the latter part not to be a subordinate clause, it would need to be separated from the former part by a semi-colon. But it is not. In fact what one finds in the amendment is four commas. The latter part is subordinate and tied to the former part. It looks that the Founding Fathers did intend the right to bear arms to indeed be tied the matter of maintaining a well-regulated militia and thus not a stand-alone semi-absolute right.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, May 26, 2022

And Babies?

Uvalde = My Lai. This is not hyperbole. War crimes are an inevitable byproduct of war. Mass shootings are an inevitable byproduct of militarism and a militarized culture. 

The same political process that led to and perpetuated the war in Vietnam continues to perpetuate the slaughter of innocents in American schools, supermarkets, nightclubs, subways, and synagogues.

It is not just the "extreme right" doing this. It is the cultural consequence of the political aspects of full employment. It is the result of the pursuit of full employment through a perpetual war economy, as Michal Kalecki warned about 80 years ago. I posted Kalecki's Political Aspects of Full Employment to EconoSpeak in 14 installments 13 years ago. If anybody wants to argue "we're not really doing that," please explain to me what the meaning is of $780 billion defense department appropriations.

Seventy-two years ago, Leon Keyserling's contribution to NSC-68, which advocated the tripling of U.S. military spending, consisted of arguing that the increased spending would pay for itself through additional tax revenues that could be siphoned off from an economy whose growth would be stimulated by the armaments spending that the additional tax revenues would pay for. A perpetual motion machine!

I'm sure Keyserling's scheme had nothing to do with Kalecki's critique. But just to be sure, I would recommend that folks read Kalecki and read the sources on Keyserling and NSC-68 and think about the immense military expenditures and the associated deficit spending so crucial to keeping the economy growing and then explain to me why there is no such thing as "military Keynesianism."

If we admit that military spending has a stimulating effect on the economy and admit that such spending also molds the economy in certain guns v. butter directions, then it has to be asked, why should we assume all this militarism and militarization has no effect on the culture? Support our troops! But don't just support our troops -- applaud our invasion of Iraq. But don't just applaud our invasion -- wear the camo, buy the gear, wave the flag, drive the pickup, shoot the gun... 

And babies?

In a speech he never gave 70 years ago, General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower mused about the consequence of the view that prosperity depended on arms production:
There is in certain quarters the view that national prosperity depends on the production of armaments and that any reduction in arms output might bring on another recession. Does this mean, then that the continued failure of our foreign policy is the only way to pay for the failure of our fiscal policy? According to this way of thinking, the success of our foreign policy would mean a depression.

Ike's speech was pre-empted by the scandal that forced Dick Nixon to go on national T.V. to deliver his famous "Checkers" speech. Ike's invocation of foreign policy failure as the price for economic prosperity overlooked the other half of the equation, as Kalecki had defined it. 

It wasn't simply that deficit spending on the military was acceptable to big finance and industry. More fundamentally, they objected to deficit spending that underwrote the social wage and thus undermined their domination of workers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

American Impotence

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2022

Expanding BRICS?

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

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

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

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

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

Barkley Rosser

Monday, May 16, 2022

What Is The Worst Part Of The Current Inflation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Goats and Dogs: Eco-Fascism and Liberal Taboos

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Malthusianism Of Benjamin Franklin And The Abortion Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barkley Rosser

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Passing Of Axel Leijonhufvud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, RIP, Axel, a very special economist.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, May 6, 2022

Remember the Sabbath Day... keep it holy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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