Saturday, June 03, 2023

Are we worse off than Bronze Age peasants? Maybe.

Indrajit Samarajiva ( watching How to Get Rich on Netflix:

Americans think they’re kings, but they’re really a nation of debt peons. They have even less hope of amargi (return to mother, or debt forgiveness) than a Bronze Age slave. Those poor saps at least got debt relief every new ruler or so. Westerners live under one constant regime of usury and all they can choose is the color, red or blue.

All of this is outside the ambit of Ramit’s show, and that’s fine. I wanted to hate the show because A) the title and B) because most popular media about ‘personal finance’ makes it all about personal responsibility for what is fundamentally societal failure.

There’s one season where a young, orphaned man (Frank) in $200,000 of student loan debt is going through a pile of snail mail that he’s been afraid to open. It’s people offering him loans, credit cards, and various forms of debt. This is just a motherless child that is constantly preyed upon by rich usurers, and he’s expected to think his way out of it, and bear the burden of failure alone?

The very existence of student loan debt is crazy, the idea is that someone at 17 or 18 makes this decision that makes them a debt slave for life? It’s entrapment. In the Bronze Age children were taken into slavery for debts and we think that awful, but that’s what the American education system has become. And in the Bronze Age they at least got amargi now and then, debts were forgiven. Today the average American dies in debt, and then the usurers come and prey on their children. It’s no land of the free. It’s a nation of debt slaves with strong mythology, that’s all.

I say that it’s fine for the show to not address this, because Ramit’s general point is A) about just helping these people and B) helping them talk about money with each other. One couple remarks that they didn’t think this would be couples counseling, but it really is. Money (and financial ‘infidelity’) is one of the biggest pressures in marriage and money can be very difficult to talk about. I am much poorer than my wife and this used to be a problem until we had health problems that put everything in perspective. But we still struggle to talk about money without getting huffy. Whereas we have a culture of sharing to fall back on, what I observe on the show is that western couples have it twice as hard.

Within marriages they have separate finances, where one couple is earning $150,000 and the other hustling for $30,000 and they still split the bills. Or where one is drowning in debt that the other could pay off and they just don’t

People have so internalized capitalist individualization that it has consumed the very idea of marriage and family. People live in what looks like families, but maintain the rigid division of capitalism within their own households. And they carry so much shame with them about money that it gets in between what should be a sacred bond.

One gay man within a marriage said that he felt like he wasn’t contributing, and refused to take help by saying it was better for him to ‘learn’ by paying usurers. It’s sad how much people have internalized systemic abuse. They’re victims of predatory money lenders who think it’s their fault. Another couple — also making $150,000 plus — frets about being able to ‘retire’ their house-cleaner mother who’s still working two jobs well into old age. She came from Colombia to find a better life for her family, and this is somehow it. That man says he was ‘lucky to be born here’, but was he? This is the traumatized tale of the immigrant, where America and the historical White Empire destroys countries, and then the scattered refugees are supposed to be thankful for the opportunity to serve as debt slaves within Empire’s household. People always talk about migrating for a ‘better life’ but the real question is why was life made so bad that they had to move in the first place.

Now this son of an immigrant takes a month-long Italian vacation after promising his mother she could retire in two years. But as Ramit told him, he could retire her now. The toxicity of the individual is such that he’d rather go on vacation and buy a multi-family investment property than let his mother move in and take care of her.

I feel inclined to judge him, but after watching the show I actually don’t. He is just prey to a bad culture, not a bad person. The family has been destroyed so thoroughly in the West that even filial piety is considered another consumer choice, not a dharmic duty. What a deeply fallen world.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Robin Hood (1922)

Paul Halsall, a benefactor of humanity, has updated the list of medieval movies he long ago posted at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The updated version is a lot bigger than the original and very well organized.

One particular listing caught my eye: the one for Douglas Fairbanks' lavish version of Robin Hood. Fairbanks was not only the star, but the producer and the chief scriptwriter:and the full title of the movie is Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. The movie is out of copyright and this allowed someone to post it on YouTube.

I don't know what I expected I would think of the movie, but I was surprised how easy it was to like it as sheer entertainment. My wife, watching the film out of the corner of her eye, had the same reaction. It was not "good for 1922," but "good."

But regarding it as an artifact of 1922, it was very interesting. The movie had an estimated budget of about a million US dollars (how much would that be to day -- a billion?) which made even Fairbanks consider abandoning it at one point. I have to wonder how long he considered this: fifteen minutes? fifteen seconds? This was his baby!

You can certainly see where the money went. Castles are a visual theme and they are very impressive -- huge -- and probably bigger than any real 12th century castles west of Constantinople. How did they build them, and the interior palace interiors? There are a vast number of courtiers and ladies or maids, all in reasonably authentic or at least evocative and very decorative costumes. I have the feeling that the costume budget might have been enough to break the bank (:-)! Do have a look!

American politics on the state level

I'm guessing that my readers don't pay much attention to the politics of the various states of the USA. It's a safe guess since hardly anyone does. If you are an American, you can test this proposition by answering this question: who is the attorney general of your state? Then reflect on the fact that even if you are not a Texan, the attorney general of Texas may have a big effect on, say, abortion law in your state.

If you want to understand the role of the states in current American politics, let me recommend a podcast from Talking Points Memo, Laboratories of Democracy? .I consider Josh Marshall, the creator of TPM, one of the best informed and smartest political commentators around. I particularly value his historical knowlege and his willingness to compare developments and institutions around the world. This makes him a better historian of American democracy.

Yes, he is more than a journalist.

Jacques le Goff on history

The extraordinary French historian Jacques le Goff has died at the age of 90 (which age no longer seems as old as it did only a decade or so ago).

I have nothing original to say about his life and work, so I will leave that task to those who know him and it better. You can see an obituary at href=""

. The obituary includes a quotation from Le Goff on what historians (should) do. This is not particularly original but makes some good points very briefly. I occasionally want to point people with naive views of history to something better, and sure enough, here it is.

“History is not given, history is constructed by the historian. But the historian cannot do just anything. He must make his construction with the aid of materials, documents. I have personally adopted Michel Foucault’s position that documents are not innocent. Documents have been made to impress, to form thinking, they are what you might call monument/documents.

We must maintain toward these monument/documents a critical spirit; but if this critical spirit leads to a purely deconstructive “shredding” of what is being set out before us, we lose ourselves in an intellectual anarchy from which nothing good can emerge.

So I think that not only is it necessary that we be moored to documents, I think we must also remind ourselves that historical truth is not one. It is not clear. We no longer believe, like Ranke, that we can recount things such as they really happened, such as they were. But if we don’t believe that there is a historical truth, even if we approach it only through interpretations and approximations, then history, which has made a meritorious effort to be scientific… then we historians may just as well resign ourselves to writing historical novels.”

– Jacques le Goff, in an interview with Historical Reflections from 1993.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Monday, May 22, 2023

Medievalism and fakery: A review you might want to read

Just now I've been reading a review of Bak, János M., Patrick J. Geary, and Gábor Klaniczay, eds. Manufacturing a Past for the Present: Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalists Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe. I am unlikely to read the book, but just the review of this collection of essays has made me re-evaluate my understanding of history, or rather the history of scholarship.

My interest in history originated in a desire to establish and understand the true facts of history, and correcting misunderstandings in previous scholarship. In my callow youth it was easy to think that historical writing could be divided into "wrong" (or mostly wrong) and right (which established the true facts. Of course in grad school I was exposed to a more sophisticated understanding of how history in its many forms is created. .

This book made me aware of how important "forgery" has been in the overall project of history, with its focus on the 19th century, when nationalism created a need for new histories that validated claims for a new understanding of the present, which provided a basis for new loyalties and priorities. Think of Walter Scott. Sure, he wrote historical fiction, honestly labelled as such, but he created such compelling pictures of various parts of the past that anyone who knows anything about European history is still affected today. (Robin Hood; Richard Lionheart; the Crusades; Scotland.)

Many people took a different route to creating the past that they wanted: Forgery. That word strongly implies criminal activity for profit, but this collection shows how complex the phenomenon is, and how much forgery there was in the 19th century.

The human dimension of arcane research

From the Times of Israel:
Today, the vast majority of the geniza is digitized, allowing researchers to access it from their homes. Still, the Cairo geniza attracts a small, quirky group of dedicated researchers that often collaborate on research. “It’s a paradise for researchers, because we’re not too many, but everyone is a specialist in one topic,” said Martínez Delgado. “If you have a question, the other person will stop his work to help you, it’s really a paradise.”
If you don't know anything about the Cairo Geniza, the whole article is a good introduction. As it is for research in ancient manuscripts. I've seen an autograph copy of one of Thomas Aquinas works and just a glance taught me something important.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The face of Ukrainian resistance

I'm grateful to the Ukrainian journalists who made available this interview with the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny. He is remarkably confident of victory, attributing it to the morale of Ukranian people, and the eight years (note well!) of preparation for the inevitable Russian invasion.He credits the success Ukraine has enjoyed to the dedication of the Ukrainian people. Here are his words from my notes:
...this is what every [war] has in commmon since the professional military corps starts the war and then teachers, engineers and accountants end it. Everything [falls] on the shoulders of these ordinary people.
The whole interview.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

A Golden Age

We are living in a Golden Age.

If we look at the scientific and technological progress of our era, there is no doubt that this is true.

A tiny instance: Scientists have long been puzzled by how single-cell organisms (such as bacteria) evolved into multi-cell organisms (including any living being you can see). Thought experiments emphasized the difficulties of this transition. Then someone (can't identify at the moment) came up with the right approach and in the course of a year provoked a bunch of single-celled yeast to make that transition.

I hope that you can appreciate the brilliance (but see below) of this experiment and the potential the knowledge acquired has for further understanding of -- life.

For my purposes the proper context is equally astonishing research in any field you can name, astrophyics and medical research being just two I can name. Re: AI, Artificial Intelligence, well "it's too soon to say," to reuse a quip from a famous Chinese dictator.

Are we so smart then?

Look at the image below. It's Rembrant's famous depiction of an anatomy experiment. Anatomy was on the cutting edge of medical progress in the 17th century, and Rembrant is generally agreed to be the best painter of his time. This is what is called the Dutch Golden Age, and the Dutch are often praised for the religiously tolerant and prosperous environment that made impressive progress possible. Yet it is also true that the Dutch were enthusiastic colonizers and slavers. The Dutch colonizers took control of Indonesia, they created an empire in all but name. The Dutch at home were solidly bourgeois in their political values, using councils to restrain the power of monarchical ideals. But when they handed over power in the "Indies" to their own East India Company (VOC), the same Dutchmen built an imperial capital, Batavia, where the VOC's viceroy was treated with more than royal honors.

The Golden Age of the 17th Century, which was hardly restricted to the Netherlands (remember Galileo!) was in fact played out before a background of horrific wars, notably the Thirty Years War, when the Dutch, like many other Europeans resisted the efforts of imperial Spain to create its own empire. From the Dutch point of view, this took Eighty years.

So you see, the question of Golden Ages is a complicated one. The best one can say is that sometimes a culture is created that allows for talented (not necessarily brilliant) researchers to do valuacculture to form, in which valuable work is made possible, because they can work and work together without being prevented by the authorities.

Sometimes the authorities are even willing to fund science, and substantial progress is made. Golden Ages result.

But while some of us may enjoy the products of the Golden Age, its brilliance will not save us.

Image: Rembrant, The Anatomy Lesson.

The English band King Crimson wrote a song attempting the Dutch point of view, The Night Watch:

I'll fix links later

Friday, May 12, 2023

Hildegard of Bingen and the wildfires in Alberta

Here's an incomplete post. I hope to add to it later.

I don't know a lot about Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess who lived in the Rhineland in the twelfth century except that the word "polymath" could have been invented for her. If a subject was important, she had something valuable and original to say about it. (note to self: did she have anything to say about chivalry? Or perhaps militia?)

This morning on the CBC Radio show The Current (which I recommend highly), Matt Galloway was interviewing the author of a book on the Alberta wildfires and what they mean for our future. I didn't catch his name or the book's title, but I hope to fill them in later. Anyway, this guy approached our relationship with fire from a number of different angles, all of them interesting, many alarming, but not from a hopeless point of view.

He concluded by citing at length how Hildegard's idea of viriditas (here, green power?) is relevant to reconstruction from the damage done by these wildfires.

I told you she had something to say on just about everything!

Go Hildegard!

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

And now for the bad news -- Texas (but not just Texas)

I was just reading coverage of the recent massacres in Texas and the public and political reaction to them.

And I asked myself, how do you characteerize the state (in its various meanings) of Texas now?



Failed state?. I lean to that last one because the elected leaders of Texas feel no obligation to take preventative measures to stop the slaughter of ordinary Texans by men weilding weapons of war. All they care to offer is prescriptions for prayer for those who have already been victimized. If that's really what they think, they should resign their seats and stay home and pray. Going to church to pray, I note, might be too dangerous.

But staying home is no guarantee.

As perhaps a side isssue it really angers me that the self-appointed killers are presented as chaimpions of liberty and constitutional order. The Founding Fathers would have known what to call the present situation: "the war of all against all." And they would have done something about it. Using, perhaps, a well-regulated militia.

So much bad news -- and then there is Aoife O'Donnell

While looking at the news I ran across an NBC News story about singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donnell's latest project. I can't figure how to link to that story which concerns her tour, performing an entire Bruce Sprinpsteen album. Somehow I have not been aware of her, and of course I was struck by her amazing vocal talent. But I was struck even more by her profound philosophical stance, which justifies her Springsteen tour as part of her whole approach to music.

There is a lot of O'Donnell on YouTube. You might find it worth your while to explore that material.

Monday, May 08, 2023

The afterlife of pagan inscriptions

Anna Sitz of the University of Heidelberg has written a book, Pagan Inscriptions, Christian Viewers: The Afterlives of Temples and Their Texts in the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean>which she discusses she discusses on the podcast Byzantium and Friends. Fascinating.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Historians and Judges

I agree with the following article from Slate I have some relevant experience. As an early medieval historian I have done some text criticism. In preparation for a year-long seminar on Government By Consent, I've studied the important constitutional documents of Britain, France, Canada and the USA. I bet that is more than the US Supreme Court Justices have read. This observation is based on more than partisanism. Back when the SCOTUS was actively dealing with gun rights cases, a friend who is an expert on gunrights theory lent me some of the documents submitted to the court. I am not kidding that I was shocked by the shallowness of the pro-gunrights proponents and their ignorance of the relevant sources.
A Federal Judge Calls Clarence Thomas’ Bluff on Gun Rights and Originalism BY MARK JOSEPH STERN Federal judges are not historians, but they are increasingly obligated to play them on the bench. In his Bruen decision last June, Justice Clarence Thomas ordered courts to assess the constitutionality of modern-day gun restrictions by searching for “historical analogues” from 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified. Ever since, judges have struggled mightily with this task—in part because most have no training in real historical analysis, but also because the record is often spotty and contradictory. In light of Bruen’s maximalist language, they have erred on the side of gun owners, finding a constitutional right to buy a gun while under indictment for a violent crime, to carry a gun into airports, and to scratch out the serial number on a firearm, rendering it untraceable.

In each case, both sides presented a few scraps of historical evidence to support their positions. Judges based their decisions on those scraps without further research, following Thomas’ suggestion that they rely on “the historical record compiled by the parties.” Last Thursday, Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi charted a different course: He proposed appointing a historian to help him “identify and sift through authoritative sources on founding-era firearms restrictions” to decide the constitutionality of a federal law barring felons from possessing firearms. His proposal is the first positive development in Second Amendment law since the Bruen revolution. At worst, it will demonstrate the absurdity and impossibility of Thomas’ command. At best, it will restore sanity to an area of jurisprudence that is going completely off the rails.

Federal judges are not historians, but they are increasingly obligated to play them on the bench. In his Bruen decision last June, Justice Clarence Thomas ordered courts to assess the constitutionality of modern-day gun restrictions by searching for “historical analogues” from 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified. Ever since, judges have struggled mightily with this task—in part because most have no training in real historical analysis, but also because the record is often spotty and contradictory. In light of Bruen’s maximalist language, they have erred on the side of gun owners, finding a constitutional right to buy a gun while under indictment for a violent crime, to carry a gun into airports, and to scratch out the serial number on a firearm, rendering it untraceable.

In each case, both sides presented a few scraps of historical evidence to support their positions. Judges based their decisions on those scraps without further research, following Thomas’ suggestion that they rely on “the historical record compiled by the parties.” Last Thursday, Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi charted a different course: He proposed appointing a historian to help him “identify and sift through authoritative sources on founding-era firearms restrictions” to decide the constitutionality of a federal law barring felons from possessing firearms. His proposal is the first positive development in Second Amendment law since the Bruen revolution. At worst, it will demonstrate the absurdity and impossibility of Thomas’ command. At best, it will restore sanity to an area of ff the rails.

Reeves’ order is bracingly honest about the sorry state of Second Amendment jurisprudence today. “The justices of the Supreme Court, distinguished as they may be, are not trained historians,” he wrote. Federal judges “lack both the methodological and substantive knowledge that historians possess. The sifting of evidence that judges perform is different than the sifting of sources and methodologies that historians perform. And we are not experts in what white, wealthy, and male property owners thought about firearms regulation in 1791.” Putting oneself in the mindset of rich, white men in the 18th century requiring training and practice. “Yet we are now expected to play historian in the name of constitutional adjudication.”

To illustrate his point, Reeves wrote that while historians still fiercely contest the theory of an individual right to bear arms, that right remains the law. He quoted the academic Patrick J. Charles, who wrote that advocates of this theory “broke, and continue to break, virtually every norm of historical objectivity and methodology accepted within academia.” Charles’ complaint could be applied to a huge amount of pseudo-originalist legal theory. As he explained: “Minority viewpoints are cast as majority viewpoints. Historical speakers’ and writers’ words are cast in terms outside the bounds of their intended context or audience. The intellectual and political thoughts of different historical eras are explained from modern vantage point. Historical presumptions or inferences are sold as historical facts.”

Bruen exemplifies these problems. Thomas adopted a tendentious and selective reading of the record, endorsing a false narrative shaped by Republican-allied academics funded by gun rights groups like the NRA. He started with the false premise that the Second Amendment created an individual right to bear arms—a right that the court established for the first time in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller—which scholars have comprehensively debunked using originalist tools. He then manipulated or ignored long-established limits on concealed carry to conclude that such restrictions are not rooted in American history.

By appointing a trained historian, Reeves could avoid these pitfalls. He would, indeed, stand a better chance of lighting upon the truth. Even as it may be mandated by Thomas’ Bruen opinion, any such undertaking remains fundamentally misguided: Renowned historian Eric Foner recently dismissed the “foolish” belief that the Constitution has “one original meaning,” since it always meant “different things to a lot of different people” who were involved in its ratification. But a historian will at least get closer to a plausible interpretation than Thomas. And if the whole undertaking fails to produce a good answer, it will have demonstrated the absurdity of defining rights on the basis of history alone.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Thus sayth THE SCOTSMAN...

... about Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence A dazzling work of story-telling genius...this book would do instead of food and drink. Everything you need is in there...

Amazing facts -- South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol, president of South Korea, dropped in at the White House the other day. President Biden teased him a bit and asked him to play the South Korean's favorite song, American Pie, a Baby Boomer anthem baed on events that a disillusioned Baby Boomer might think were unique in human history. Biden urged Yoon to play American Pie on a guitar which turned out to be signed by the songwriter, Don McLean.

Any questions?

Friday, April 21, 2023

The Gospel of Thomas

I have been watching Bart Ehrman, author of the book Misquoting Jesus and several others, and his podcasts on the textual criticism of the New Testament. I have more than a little familiarity with textual criticism, which might be defined as the investigation of the history of ancient and medieval texts to answer such questions as who wrote a given text, when, and what sources the author used.

Today I watched his podcast on the Gospel of Thomas, then read a translation.

Anyone who can explain why a translator of Charny's Questions might find this interesting respect? Yes.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Umair Haque: Why everyone but economists knows the economy sucks.Why the numbers understate how much economic pain people are really In — And Why It Matters

Why the Numbers Understate How Much Economic Pain People Are Really In — And Why It Matters We’re at one of those strange moments. Another one. I’d sum it up like this. Everyone but economists think the economy sucks. Ask an economist, and you’ll get an answer a little bit like this: “Things aren’t so bad! They’re getting better! Inflation’s falling! See — look. What are you people so upset about?” Meanwhile, ask the average person, and they’re incredibly pessimistic.

The American public continues to rate the U.S. economy in mostly negative terms in March, with 83% describing current economic conditions as “only fair” or “poor.” Just 16% consider them “excellent” or “good.” Furthermore, 72% think conditions are getting worse, while 23% say they are improving. Why the disconnect? Ask the economist again, and they’d probably tell you that people are overreacting, suffering a hangover from the last couple of years, that it’ll take them some time to catch up, emotionally, to economic reality. But is that really true? Or do people have a point here that economists — and politicians — aren’t really hearing?>

There’s a wrinkle in this story my fellow economists are telling — three, to be precise. That narrative is now what it so often is. Everything’s going back to normal. Nothing to worry about here. And the main line of evidence used to support it is inflation — beginning to fall. It’s now around 5% — that’s not so bad, is it? And yet people clearly don’t feel as if inflation’s falling very much.

So what gives? There’s inflation — and there’s inflation. What’s happening is that economists are often looking at “core CPI” — but that, crucially, excludes food and energy. LOL. Food and energy. You know, the basics. When we look at broader measures of inflation — that don’t exclude the necessities — a very different pattern emerges. One that’s much more dire, in fact. And explains why people are so pessimistic. That pattern loo

ks like this. Prices are beginning to fall in some ways. But when it comes to the basics, the necessities? Prices are still skyrocketing. Fast. Hard.

Let me give you two examples.

Food? It’s not rising at 5%. Its inflation rate is still 10%. Then there’s shelter. It’s not “disinflating” — it’s rising in a straight line. Not at 5%, but 8%. Now. An economist might look at these numbers, and make a big mistake. Average them. Against each other, and against other kinds of goods in the economy. But a person doesn’t think that way, because their household finances don’t work like that. When the price of food is rising by 10%, and the price of shelter is rising by 8%, suddenly, in real terms, you’re almost 20% worse off than you were a year ago.

Let me make that point really, really clear. Economists average, but people have to add. Add up all these costs. An economist can look at inflation rates across different kinds of goods, average them, to arrive at a figure of 5%, and say — why, that’s not so bad! What are people so worried about? They are making a category error. People’s finances don’t work like that. When you have to pay 10% more for food, and then another 10% more for shelter, you’re not averaging. Those costs are additive. You are 20% worse off — and it feels, now, as if you’re balanced on a knife edge.

This is exactly we see very real danger signals pulsing through the economy. Personal debt levels are soaring. People are using buy now, pay later schemes for…necessities. Delinquencies are beginning to rise. People are struggling to bear all these costs. And economists are not really doing a good of understanding what the economy is actually like for most people. People aren’t experiencing anywhere near a 5% inflation rate. If they were, they’d breathe a massive sigh of relief. Instead, they’re experiencing runaway inflation, at life-shattering rates.

10% more for this basic, 10% more for that one. It all adds up pretty fast, and before you know it? You feel poor, even if you’re making what used to be considered a pretty healthy income. So how much worse is it for people right at the average? Or below it? That’s half of society. How are they affording double-digit rises for multiple kinds of basics? When you’re paying 10% more for this kind of basic, and then 10% more for that one — it’s cold comfort to hear someone say, “but so what! Look, at least the price of this kind of thing — clothes!! — is only rising by just 3%. So on average, it’s not so bad!” You’re not averaging. You’re trying to make ends meet, and those costs add up. And incomes that aren’t rising anywhere near as fast. Know anyone that’s gotten a 20% raise in the last year? That’s going to get another 20% this year? I didn’t think so. Nobody’s income is rising fast enough to keep with what the reality of inflation is experienced as — not just averaged away as.

Let me make that even more concrete. What other forms of inflation don’t these “core” numbers — which first exclude necessities like food and energy, and then, even when and if they include them, average them away, which creates a statistical illusion, because, well, the price of luxuries rising more slowly is cold comfort when you’re skipping meals to make ends meet, which 39% of Americans now say they’ve done to be able to make house payments? Consider what you might call the Feeconomy.

It’s now the subject of jokes. Go to a hotel, and there are “resort fees,” even if, LOL, it’s just a bland corporate hotel in the sticks, or worse. Order some food, and — Jesus, why does my pizza cost $50? — the fees are more than the food. The fees become more absurd by the day. “Convenience fee,” “processing fee,” “order fee,” “inactivity fee,” “administrative fee,” fees for paying the fees. How much do those add up to? The answer to that question is: a hell of a lot. We know that, because corporate profits are at their highest point in…history…ever. That’s not because people are happy to pay a fair price to get a great deal. It’s because corporations have learned to add these absurd fees to everything, in increasingly exploitative yet unavoidable ways. They did that as a form of risk-shifting: the fees effectively become a fixed cost that consumers have to pay. When Covid was snarling supply chains, this made a lot of sense — for corporations. It passed risk on to people — there’s the variable cost, the food, hotel room, whatever, and then the fixed one: the fees. Double whammy. That tactic has worked incredibly well, because now, like I said, corporate profits have skyrocketed to their highest point in history. But inflation statistics don’t really capture any of that. They look at prices. Not fees. But by now, what do we know? The fees can often be as much again as the good itself. You know it, because you’ve lived it.

Now imagine what that means at an economic level. Inflation’s understated. By how much? Maybe twice as much in some crucial areas. Because fees double “prices,” which are what “inflation” looks at — but at this point, they’ve just become another form of price increases. This is why inflation’s soaring in another sector — not coming down, but a straight line going up: services. Those fees are often concentrated in the service sector of the economy, hence, there is where you can see inflation rising. But the Feeconomy is hardly exclusive to services, and so inflation numbers are understating, by up to as twice as much, in many sectors, how hard people are being hit by rising prices. So now let’s come back to the average person. There they are. 10% for more this basic — food. 10% more for that basic — shelter. On top of that, fees have now become their own kind of inflation, maybe adding another 10% on top of all that. The average person’s now looking at a 30% hit. That’s horrific. Nobody, really, short of someone who stumbled into or inherited serious wealth, can manage that, especially not in a short period of time. And none of that’s really abating. Worse, there’s some economist, who’s averaged away the pain you’re feeling, created a statistical illusion — and then ignored whole categories of it — telling you that everything’s fine, and you’re the crazy one. No wonder people are so pessimistic. What this kind of game does? Economists not really understanding that the lived experience of an economy isn’t statistical illusions? All it does is undermine faith and trust in institutions themselves, because people think — rightly — that institutions and leaders are completely out of touch with their lives. That benefits no one, in the end.

There’s one basic that’s “fallen” in price recently — energy. I put it in quotes because the price of energy is of course a manipulated thing. OPEC’s already announced cuts, which means, of course, energy prices will rise. Meanwhile, of course, hello, there’s climate change, which I’ll come back to. So people don’t feel as if prices for basics like these are falling — they just feel that they’ve become volatile. And that’s true.

You’d have to be pretty naive, these days, to think that energy prices are going to fall, over the long run. By now, I suspect, most people are making the link between climate change, and rising energy prices. So while they might welcome a temporary respite, they also know that’s all it is. They expect higher energy prices over their lifetimes, and they’re right to. And that brings me to the heart of the issue, which I want to explain — but it’s a little subtle and complex, so bear with me. All the above is subject to a kind of fractal effect. Why don’t people feel good about the economy? Because necessities — which “inflation” measures often simply ignore, or undercount — are skyrocketing in price the most frequently and the fastest. But even among those, it’s the most basic necessities that are themselves rising in price fastest and hardest.

What do I mean by that? Think of food. It’s not gourmet pates and pink food coloring that’s soaring in price. It’s cereals, grains, meat. The most basic of the basics. We are entering a new economic age. And it’s not going to be a good one. Why is this weird fractal effect happening? Not just necessities soaring in price, but the most basic of basics even within necessities? Because this is the reality of the Age of Extinction. The planet’s hit its limits. The mega-scale impacts of climate change are here. We begin to experience them every day — from new variants of a pandemic that, no, hasn’t “ended,” to mega-weather, to rivers running dry. Our supplies are out of juice. At the most basic level. Crop failures are already hitting double digits in many regions, seasonally — that’s why prices of the most basic of basics, like cereals and grains and meat, are rising fastest. What happens when the water runs out? To all the stuff that’s made from water now running out?

We are entering a new economic era. And in it, the old method — “the price mechanism” — is shuddering. Like a patient having a heart attack on an EKG. For a reason. It is telling us something. Our civilization’s ability to supply itself has hit its limit. We are now entering the greatest supply shock in human history. We have little to no inkling how we’re going to supply ourselves with the basics at a civilizational scale…in maybe even as rapidly as a decade. Water, food, energy — all that’s made from, with, of them. Prices are soaring, skittering, skyrocketing, exploding to send us this warning.

We face two futures. One, we invest, and learn to supply ourselves with basics again — in clean, green, often circular, “closed-loop” ways. So far, we’re not even remotely close. That’s the greatest project of reinvention in human history, because right now, our Industrial Age economy doesn’t do it for anything. Not one thing, in our vast, pulsing economies. Two, the price mechanism goes on breaking down. The end of that road is Soviet style rationing — which, of course, is already here, in many ways, here and there, for water, for vegetables, for shelter, and so forth.

As insurance and banking systems fail, unable to bear the costs of bad debts and stranded assets — think of uninsurable houses plunging off a seaside cliff, and now think of how fast sea levels are, gulp, actually rising, not to mention the temperature — our ability to govern an economy like this, with “prices” at all, will begin to fail in catastrophic ways.

Usually, that sort of thing’s accompanied by hyperinflation, fascism, and social implosion. The kind of good news is we still have a little bit of time to choose. The bad news? It’s just a handful of years now, and, well, this pain? This pessimism? It’s just a small taste of the dystopia that awaits if we continue doing…not nearly enough. This isn’t really “inflation.” Wrong way to think about. It’s an economy rapidly, suddenly, having something very much like a heart attack. It’s muscle weakened. It’s changing — and not in a good way. It’s becoming one that’s running out of basics, on a dying planet. Hey, at least now you know.


Monday, April 03, 2023

Rewriting history

I am tempted to say that Pope Francis' repudiation of the doctrine of discovery is a rewriting of ALL of history; let's just say he has opened the door to a tremendous rewriting of history, ESPECIALLY world history. The repudiation is a data point of great importance, whatever you think of its substance, which will have to be taken into account in any large-scale history. Some people I know and respect will scoff and probably say something about revisionist history. To which I have to respond, What do historians do if not revise our understanding of history?

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

One true century?

I was listening to CBC 1 -- or something equally intelligent -- and someone said that an invention we all take for granted in the development of modernity was invented "in the middle of the 14th century." Like a flash I was back in the fourteenth century debate. Was, despite the wars and the plague, uprisings and so forth, "the one true century?" I was introduced to this debate by well-educated re-enactors who just loved the clothing and the armor of the period. I was just about ready to throw in the towel. I was one of the people who always told these people, "What about the wars, the plague, etc?" But it seemed that I was regularly running into "in the middle of the fourteenth century." And then I remembered that the wars, the plague, etc. were still real. (The best short discussion is Nicholas Wright's Knighs and Peasants: The Hundred Years War in the French Countryside. You can love pretty armor (I do) without forgetting the other stuff. One reason