“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, October 15, 2011

pascalian peasant economics




Paul Warde makes useful distinction (in Subsistence and Sales: the peasant economy of Württemberg in the early seventeenth century, Economic History Review, 2006) between a school of the economic historiography of peasant economies that emphasized Ricardian decreasing returns and Malthusian limits to resources, and a school that emphasized a Smithian growth approach, in which the peasant’s natural inclination to barter and trade and maximize profit is merely hindered by rent seeking and anachronistic guild like institutions. One of the star representatives of the latter approach, Sheilagh Ogilvie, attacks any theory that holds that the peasant economy is somehow special, because, according to her, such a theory is founded on the idea that peasants are irrational. Her reading, then, of Polanyi style analysis is that it is deeply patronizing to peasants and blind to the way peasants were struggling to become capitalists against the dead weight of feudal institutions:

“But whether 'irrational' or 'differently rational', peasants lack the conventional economic concepts of wages, capital, interest, rent, and profit. [Ogilvie here is criticizing non-Smithian approaches] Consequently they can neither minimize costs nor maximize profits; instead, they minimize risks and seek to 'satisfice' culturally defined consumption targets.9 These theories regard peasant minimization of risk as excluding 'capitalist' maximization of profit, a distinction puz-zling to mainstream economics, which regards all economic agents as seeking to obtain the lowest possible risk for the highest possible return.”

If this were an accurate criticism of what is the dominant anthropological paradigm of peasant economies, Ogilvie has chosen the right method to smash it – finding records of peasants minimizing costs, making profits, trading, using money, etc.

But as Ward points out, this pushes the non-Smithian approach into absurdities it never articulates. Far from thinking that peasants have no conception of opportunity costs, as Ogilvie puts it, the school she attacks most harshly bases its whole analysis on the peasant’s awareness of opportunity costs.

Ward is, I think, correct here:

“Historians have not recently argued, at least for central and western Europe, that peasants did not understand profit generally. They have argued that they were not profit maximizers , or primarily motivated by profitability, a rather different position, although it is in truth rather difficult to establish if, or indeed how, peasants might have conceptualized profit or loss across a range of activities over any given period of time.”

Ogilvie, in other words, is using the evidence from the record, which amply demonstrates trading, quantifying, and wage labor, as something that demonstrates a collective social tendency on the part of the peasants to conform their economic activity to these kinds of proto-capitalist features. But she actually shows nothing of the kind, since she thinks it is sufficient to show trading in order to show all the institutionally driven activities that result from the circulation of commodities. In fact, the peasants in her example often show exactly the kind of limited good mentality that would make investment and profit maximization not only institutionally difficult, but culturally suspect.


How capitalism arrives is a question that is wrapped up with how the capitalist character is formed. It seems, in a sense, that capitalism, with its double aspect – of a certain form of production and a certain form of circulation – is boobytrapped. One must understand the mentality of the agents of circulation in order to understand the condition of the agents of production, and one must understand the limits imposed on the agents of production in order to understand the possibility of circulation. One must, then, understand not only technology, but ideology.

Mainstream economics is proud of its methodological individualism, but it doesn’t believe it. The individual, as the economists understand, does not spontaneously produce his acts. The man in an office, or behind a plow, or behind a gun, did not find his places by inventing his scene. The idea that the individual invents society is, evidently, an act that has never attributed to any individual. So the mainstream economist has come up with a wonderful concept saver: the individual, in their terms, is essentially a chooser. Goethe’s Faust cried out that in the beginning was the act – but the economist’s homo economicus counters that in the beginning was the choice. The cosmology of the preference wraps the societal world in a mystery – for one never seems to come to acts, only to choices. Every blade of wheat, every board of wood, every drop of ink, is not what it seems to be, but is instead an agglomeration of atomic choices. By some inexplicable accident, these choices also seem to be matter, and have weight and chemistry. The only thing that isn’t chosen is choice itself.

This is a rich cosmology, but not necessarily a believable one. So it is reinforced by the time honored method of scolding. If we don’t hold to individualism, all responsibility is lost, and anarchy and concentration camps are loosed upon the world.

The origin of this cosmology is surely to be found in the period between around 1650 and 1789. And it did not arise among the peasant masses, yearning to profit maximize, but among a varied assortment of clerks and policymakers. Intellectuals in Edinburgh universities and ministers at Louis XVI’s court, as well as slave traders and sugar merchants were all starting to put it together.

By the late twentieth century, the capitalist operation had become so dominant – at least among intellectuals – that historians could not believe the cosmos had ever been different. Thus, in the spirit of conquest, the historians went back to pre-capitalist societies and attempted to rescue them for capitalism. Thus, theorems of market equilibrium, or of public choice, are imposed as the real language of rationality that the peasants were, as it were, articulating in mime.

My own sense is that the peasant economies were not irrational, nor are the rational capitalist economies non-peasant – the rational economic institutions are colonized by non-equilibrium, non-growth, non-maximizing kinds of behavior, and peasant economies surely involved calculations to some end. However, instead of the models that Ward and Ogilvie use to understand rationality of peasant economics, I think one should turn to contemporaries, like Blaise Pascal, for the vocabulary of what was afoot. Pascal’s three forms of the spirit – l’esprit geometrique, l’esprit de finesse, and l’esprit juste give us a much deeper sense of what was in question, in the maintenance of the household, the community, and the person in peasant economies, than we are going to get from Ogilivie’s grid. yet historians in the 21st century, who don't yet face a powerful alternative to capitalism, are unlikely to give up the project of conquering the past with the models of the present, even if the rules they are using predict a much different past than the one that we have. Actually, they also predict a much different present, which must be adjusted, nudged, and jammed to fit into the mainstream economist's rational formats. But the present is malleable, while the past, ah, the past - the problem is that the past can't be fired.
More's the pity.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I'm gonna tell you how its gonna be...

At the moment, I presume that on inauguration day, January 19th, 2012, President Obama will hand the reins to President Romney. Romney will have a brilliant political prospect: he’ll be dealing with a Senate and House of Representatives that will be solidly Republican.


But what of the quality of life of the American public? That will have declined precipitously during Obama’s four years. The African-American community will have declined, economically, to where it was in 1990. The American middle class will have continued to lose asset wealth and income, returning to the 1995 point. The housing market will be in deep freeze. Unemployment will be around 9 percent, but in terms of labor participation, the number of Americans working will be in the 1980s levels. The environment, in the meantime, will be starting to show the first signs of its crash. We know its coming, but we don’t know how it will manifest itself – although we know that the government will respond to it in the truly clueless way that it responded to the Gulf Oil disaster, which, I have read, will result in ‘millions’ of fines for BP – instead of the billion plus that BP would owe if the Obama administration had chosen to, well, enforce the law. Perhaps the environmental collapse will be represented by a small thing – for instance, Obama’s FDA has approved sea food from the Gulf in spite of the fact that they have made a much smaller and narrower investigation of the toxins released in the Gulf than George Bush I’s FDA made after the Valdez disaster. That may mean cancers, but cancers a long way down the road. Maybe a series of birth defects, though, or something equally mediagenic. My outside bet, though, is on a negative flood: that we will have the first drought incident soon – some town, say Reno, in the West will simply run out of water. The kind of thing that the townspeople will actually have to flee.


Quality of life for the 20-29 set will, of course, continue to be grim, except for those who are the children of the wealthy. Unemployment in that demo is now at 33 percent, and it isn’t going to go down. As for the mortgage cramdown, that has been an utter failure. Luckily, Obama’s Justice department has failed so far in creating a ‘compromise’ that will let banks off the robo-signer fraud hook. Here, the weakness of the administration has actually created a vacuum that is being exploited for good – a rare instance.


Under President Romney, I think it is safe to say, some big banks will fail again. The Fed, perhaps under the same leadership, and the Treasury – under a Geithner like figure – will save the banks through massive welfare, disguised as a loan. What was broached under Bush and Obama was obviously a template for the next phase of neo-liberalism, which – in its first phase - was never about ‘shrinking the government’, and always about cementing an alliance between newly assertive plutocrats and policymaking elites. The second phase is not going to find money in some interest bearing scheme, as the debt slaves have been tapped, so the new scheme will be to use the powers of the government to create and issue money at an amazingly low price for the use of the speculators.


No man can see into the next minute, much less the next five years. But if the spirit of Christmas future is any guide, Romney, too, is destined to failure and a single term.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Radical idea: let's stop kissing the ass of the rich

In its story about a trader going to jail for inside trading, the NYT injected an explanation of the trader's status that is, well, a sort of thermostat reading of the temperature of this here plutocracy.


"Though Mr. Kimelman lived comfortably, he was hardly a Wall Street titan. In his best year, Mr. Kimelman said he earned about $400,000 and never had more than $1 million in the bank."

I love it when the plutocratic libido scratches a hole in the placid news discourse that tries to normalize it.

Compare this to Heritage Foundation's recent study of the poor, showing the American poor really have nothing whatsoever to bitch about. Here's the rundown from a Bill O'Reilly show:

"O'REILLY: The Census Bureau reports that 43 million Americans are currently living in poverty. The bureau defines poverty as a family of four earning less than $22,000 a year. But the conservative Heritage Foundation says that many poor American families have lots of stuff. Here now to analyze, Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs.

[...]

O'REILLY: Eight-two percent have a microwave. This is 82 percent of American poor families. Seventy-eight percent have air conditioning. More than one television, 65 percent. Cable or satellite TV, 64 percent -- thank God.

DOBBS: Amen, brother.

O'REILLY: Cell phones, 55 percent. Personal computer, 39 percent."

Wow, heady stuff for the poor, there. In fact, the conservative case for the poor being rich poses the question: why aren't the rich lucky enough to be poor? One would think that the logical next step would be Eisenhower era taxation, since the rich, too, I have heard, have air conditioning, tv, personal computers, and - a sad note - often only a million in a bank account at any one time.

But all mocking aside - one demand I think the 99 percent can and should agree on is: the rich should no longer expect us to continually kiss their ass.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

age of the bark beetles


Photo by Josh Haner, NYT

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.” – Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

In 1975, two years before he was tortured and murdered, Pasolini wrote a column in the Corriere della serra entitled “on the fireflies’. He begins with a question much debated on the Italian left at the time – how fascist was the ruling order in Italy? – but he quickly left the usual pro and contra behind, instead moving to a new view of Italy’s history by pointing to an unremarked moment, an unnoticed threshold. This threshold was not unique to Italy, but could be extrapolated to the the history of any capitalist or industrial country:

‘Since I am a writer and I polemicize, or at least I discuss with other writers, permit me to give a definition of a poetic-literary character to this phenomenon, which has intervened in the Italy of our times…

In the beginning of the sixties, because of air pollution and, chiefly in the countryside, because of water pollution (azure streams and limpid ditches), the fireflies began to disappear.”

Pasolini’s poetic-literary approach brings together natural and human history in one enormous stroke. The disappearance of the fireflies is not simply a fact of concern for naturalists – it is a fact that has a bearing on memory, on the bonds of one generation to the other, and even on the enormous invisible losses that come with ‘creative destruction’ and that refuse to be registered by the political forces that express themselves day after day, and now minute after minute, in the media. By noticing the fireflies, Pasolini breaks out of the parochial discourse of blame and offense in which both the hegemonic party and the oppositional movements in Italy were stuck, like flies to flypaper.

Pasolini’s words became famous, but the signal he sent out died. Nobody ever formed a firefly party. The machine did not stop. The treadmill of production and consumption continued to roll over the planet, producing the routines that make it really impossible to notice that there are no fireflies, that you can’t see the stars at night, that the elms are disappearing, that there are no bluebirds in the garden. Making it impossible to see where you live and what has changed.

Perhaps just as the disappearance of the fireflies marked a cut in the Holocene humanness of Italy, the appearance of the bark beetles mark a cut in the Holocene humanness of Americans. And perhaps, or so I, ever the exaggerator, hope, the appearance of the OWS movement marks an awareness that the treadmill is now running us into the ground.

The bark beetle has a pretty simple lifecycle. The adult beetles dig into the bark of trees, and lay eggs there, as well using the cover of the bark to survive the cold weather. Many of the pupae that hatch from the eggs die off, due to cold temperatures. Some, however, survive, enough that another generation of pine beetles will again lay its eggs.

This simple lifecycle has been sped up by the last Conquista – the conquest of the atmosphere. In terms of the lifecycle of the European movement outward, the first conquest was that of the Americas, the second the partial conquest of Asia, and the third that of Africa. The fourth seizure is of uninhabited atmosphere, which is “free”, and which has been laid claim to by Western industry and now global industry. Just as the conquest of the Americas was accompanied and made possible by a mass dying – the mass dying of the Amerindians, due to the diseases carried by the Europeans – the conquest of the atmosphere is also leading to a mass dying, from which the descendents of the Europeans are averting their eyes.

“From the mountainous Southwest deep into Texas, wildfires raced across parched landscapes this summer, burning millions more acres. In Colorado, at least 15 percent of that state’s spectacular aspen forests have gone into decline because of a lack of water.
The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees.”
The natural history of the Americas and the political history of the moment are, it seems, joined in ways that are a mystery – or rather, that are made a mystery. We actually register these things, but out of the corner of our eye.

And this is the political party we need to form: a corner of the eye party. A firefly party. An aspen party. The treadmill of production is deafening, but perhaps we can plug our ears enough to look around. Look around and recognize that the unemployment we face and the massive inequality of wealth that has seized the developed world with the implacable and mechanical force of a bark beetle infestation and that infestation itself are all parts of one thing: the politics of the Holocene. These are the stakes. And if we lose the Holocene to the hedge funders or the coal plants or BP, we lose everything.

“But for the natives…God’s hand hath so pursued them as, for three hundred mile’s space, the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox, which still continues amongst them. So as God hath hereby cleared our title to this place…” John Winthrop

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

smash the revolving door - another demand for the OWS crowd!

The Democratic party is supposedly divided between a rightwing faction and a liberal faction. In reality, the Democratic party, like the GOP, is in thrall to the revolving door faction. The revolving door Dems found their emblem and hero in Peter Orszag, the Obama advisor who, going from strength to strength, helped plan Obama’s “pivot” to the issue of the deficit before launching a career for himself in the financial world that Obama’s Treasury and Obama’s appointee to the head of the Federal Reserve so amply supported with 16 trillion dollars in loans over the last three years.

Orszag, though, is easy pickings, an amoral DLC-er who pathetically wowed the kids hired to fluff for Obama in the press – people like Ezra Klein – because he had that shark vibe and was reportedly good with the babes – wow! How neat! It is hard to take the likes of him seriously, given the likes of those who take him seriously.

The revolving door is a term that helps us understand the government/corporation complex as one big building. It involves SEC enforcers who go on to become Goldman Sachs shills, and then sometimes even go back to the SEC, where they become ever more valuable by diverting or blocking enforcement until they go out again. It involves Congressmen, Senators, and their aids, who go from legislating energy policy to shilling for Nukes. The revolving door zone is the shadow government that operates much like shadow finance – it is where all the disgusting bits are stuffed. You as the voter want the Public Option, and vote for the candidate who promises it? Tom Daschle, as the big Pharma lobbyists, tweaks your desire and out comes – crap mandatory private insurance accounts for the middle class!

The on and on goes on and on, we can rock this way to the break of dawn…

So lets examine a bit of the career of Rob Cogorno, a true poster boy of the Obama era. As his peppy bio tells us at the Elmerdorf/Ryan site:

“With experience at the center of the major public policy fights in Congress over the last fifteen years, Rob Cogorno brings an unparalleled expertise in the legislative process to Elmendorf | Ryan. In particular, Cogorno offers clients a singular understanding of the complex dynam- ics in the House of Representatives and the House Democratic Caucus that ultimately shape legislative decisions for the two parties on both sides of the Capitol.”

Bringing experience – how delightful! What is this entity to which he has brought his experience in ‘shaping legislative decisions”?

Here’s a little hint, from a Reuters story:

“Expert network firm Gerson Lehrman Group has hired a Washington lobby firm with close ties to the Democratic party as it braces for fallout from a U.S. insider trading investigation, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Gerson Lehrman, the largest of a group of firms that specialize in matching hedge funds with industry consultants, began interviewing lobbying firms a few weeks ago and selected Elmendorf Ryan in the past few days, said these people, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to disclose the information to the media.
The hiring of Elmendorf Ryan comes as federal prosecutors in New York have charged at least eight people associated with a rival expert network firm with giving confidential corporate information to traders and analysts with hedge funds.
The unfolding investigation has caused some hedge funds to scale back their use of expert network firms.”
The strong ties with the Democratic party are the result of the firms close association with some of the sterling losers of the past twenty years. You remember the clueless opposition that, during the Bush years, proved that the worm doesn’t necessarily turn? This is where they ended up! The firm is headed by Dick Gephardt’s former top aid, Steven Elmendorf. And as you’d suspect, Rob Cogorno also used to work for Gephardt. You see, times have changed since old soldier’s fade away – now they fade into fat jobs with lobbying firms, and so do retired or defeated Congressmen. Congress is now something like a prep school for the real money –a fact well known to all Congressmen and their staffers. Thus, even before you make the leap for the revolving door, you want to show that you are a player. This is the ‘experience’ you can bring to K street.

Interestingly, while campaign finance reform has a strong claque among editors, who love to opine about it partly because it is a freebie – nothing is ever going to get done, as everybody knows – the revolving door culture is never discussed in terms of ‘reform’. So in 2008, the Politico could put in this announcement about Rob Cogorno and everybody in the know politely applauded:

“Cogorno joins Elmendorf
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has shuffled his staff a lot lately, starting with Rob Cogorno.
Most recently, Cogorno was the floor director to Hoyer in both his majority leader and Democratic whip offices, until Cogorno recently joined Elmendorf Strategies.
Prior to working with Hoyer, Cogorno was the research director and appropriations policy adviser to then-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), where he developed floor strategy for the consideration of all appropriations bills and was Gephardt’s chief liaison to the House Appropriations Committee.
“As a counselor to House Democratic Leaders Steny Hoyer and Dick Gephardt, Rob has been at the center of every major public policy fight in Congress over the last 15 years,” said Steve Elmendorf, founder and president of the firm. “Rob brings an unparalleled expertise in legislative process to Elmendorf Strategies, offering our clients a singular understanding of the complex dynamics in the House of Representatives and the House Democratic caucus. Those dynamics ultimately shape legislative decisions for the two parties on both sides of the Capitol.”
Elmendorf’s prose here has all the charm of the smell of a nasty aftershave lotion clinging to a cheap suit. More interesting is the fact that such parasites on the Republic can strut their stuff as though this were normal business. It isn’t. It can be changed. There is no way the ‘singular understanding’ of a Rob Cogorno should be used to help Gerson Lehrman skate around an investigation. We would be up in arms if suspected bank robbers were able to make donations to the Judge Retirement Fund before trial, but we let such stinky business transpire in the supposed halls of power. Our halls of power. We shouldn’t. No top aid should be able to work for a lobbying firm for a goodly period of time – say five years – after he leaves the aid business. And for Congress folk, the period should be longer – ten years at least. Election to public office shouldn’t be a preface to gorging on the gravy train.

Let's pour rat poison in the gravy train. And if that means we can't get 'qualified' people to advise us on legislative policy - if that means the plutocrats don't have their clawprints all over the legislation meant to rein them in - all the better. .

Monday, October 10, 2011

What is the natural economy



Historians who try to describe the rupture between capitalism and pre-capitalist modes of production face a dilemma. The predominant narrative that describes this rupture places capitalism in a teleological position vis-à-vis what came before it, and this makes it hard to describe pre-capitalistic economies in their own terms. This is especially true in as much as the clerks who existed in these pre-capitalist economies did not conceptualize the economy in the same way that economists conceptualize economies. The grounding condition for economics as a science is a recognition of economics as a social fact – and this conditions indissolubly binds together economics and capitalism.

Even anti-capitalist economics, given its most systematic form by Marx, often falls prey to the teleological assumption that history slouches, inevitably, towards capitalism – although Marx backed away from that interpretation, as is clear from the letters he exchanged with Russian populists, where he confines the history he sketches in Capital to Western Europe, and declines to provide a ‘general philosophico-historical’ theory – in other words, Marx quits the universal history business. But universal history, disguised as the World Market, had by this time has armed itself with gunboats and penetrated into Chinese ports and taken up machetes and gone into Congolese jungles. The world market, celebrated in the Communist Manifesto, was not giving a-capitalist societies much choice in the matter.

In Germany, the attempt to find terms with which to conceptualize pre-capitalist systems revolved around the idea of the “natural economy.” This would be an economy dependent on in kind exchange – barter. It was an economy in which credit was not developed, and money was treated with suspicion. It was an economy, moreover, pervaded by a non-individualistic mentality. The latter is what makes it natural, because it takes the dynamics of the household – whose “naturalness” was assumed by Aristotle, but of which the wild varieties of form were known to the 19th century sociologists – and projects it upon the world.

The natural economy is associated with the historical school in Germany, but in the contemporary study of peasant societies, it is associated with theory of A.V. Chayanov, the economist who wrote a very influential book about peasant economies that was re-discovered in the 1960s – although Chayanov himself was not, for by that time his bones had long decayed in some Gulag camp. Chayanov infused it, as well, with suggestions from Rousseau’s brilliant reconstruction of the primitive economy in the Discourse on Inequality. Rousseau’s keen sense of the function – the necessary function – of idleness, revery and sleep in the existence of his primitives finds its economic language in Chayanov’s thesis. This is how how Charles Perrings, in “The Natural Economy Revisited”, describes it:

“He proposed … that the objectives of the head of such a household are qualitatively different from those of a capitalist enterprise, in that the former seeks not to maximize either output or profits but to balance the marginal utility of income and the marginal disutility (the drudgery) of the work of all members of the household. In general, he claimed, the intensity of labor expended by members of the household is inversely related to its productive capability, implying a sharply declining marginal utility of income in excess of that deemed
"necessary."

On the other hand, there is a line of French anthropological thought that dismisses the concept of the natural economy. Marcel Mauss, for instance, in his essay on the gift, writes that this category deforms the notion of the gift and counter-gift that forms the economic background, in his view, of not only primitive, but also modern societies. From the German historicists to Chayanov, there is an insistence on the supreme value of utility as the basis of all calculation, even if these calculations are not made with well defined units.

Mauss summed up his comparisons and analyses of various rites and customs of gift and counter gift in a last chapter that reads like a blast at utilitarian economic thinking and its projection upon all forms of human activity:

“These facts respond as well to a crowd of questions concerning the forms and reasons that one names so inappropriately exchange, the barter, the permutatio of useful things, that following the prudent Latins, who were following themselves Aristotle, a economic history puts at the base of the division of labor. It is something other than the useful that circulates in these societies of all types, the most of which have already been illuminated. Clans, ages and generally sexs – due to the multiple relations to which contacts give rise – are in a state of perpetual economic effervescence and this excitement is itself very little material; it is much less prosaic than our sales and purchases, then our wages of service or our plays on the stock market.”

Mauss, I think, is approaching economics not through the calculation of advantage as the economists see it, which is even prevalent in the historical school’s nostalgia for a natural economy, but instead as a form of life in which advantage encloses qualities and adventures that quantity does not cover.

It is against this background that I’d like to look at a controversy in the historiography of ‘peasant economies’ and proto-industrialisation in an upcoming post.


the golden bullet proof golf shirt

In the 1990s, Thomas Friedman wrote a book that, in a sense, was the founding document of neo-smarm – a pundit style for the end of history crowd. It was called the Lexus and the Olive Tree, or something like that, and it was littered with phrases that are instantly bullet point-able - amply demonstrating the difference between the art of the epigram and the banality of the sound byte. Neo-smarm is neo-liberalism that has kicked off its shoes, and Friedman is its master.

I mention this not to attack the latest Friedman column – who cares about the latest Friedman column, or the one before that, or the one before that? Rather, it is to borrow a phrase from his book that struck me at the time. Friedman coined the phrase ‘golden strait-jacket’ to refer to the ‘de-politicizing’ of economic decisions. By de-politicizing, he really means the segregating of political decisions from the will of the people, as evidenced in elections and other such Christmas ornaments. . Not that Friedman was opposed to democracy, now – he loved the use of democratization. For him, day trading ‘democratizes’ the stock market. In fact, any popular consumerist fad immediately gets the “democratizing” label from Friedman, who’d like the producers of wealth to confine their politics to the consumption of brands. Meanwhile, the smart guys in the room, in Treasury, the Fed, and the board rooms of the great and good banks, make all the macro economic decisions for us. Cause they have the models, you see.

Since Friedman’s paen to the end of the business cycle, we’ve had – the business cycle. The first one whipped the butt of NASDAQ, and the second one whipped the butt of about every American corporation, including the business of shopping malls, from which Friedman’s wife, and Friedman, derived their considerable wealth.

And yet, the golden strait-jacket survives and flourishes. Its biggest fan is the President. And its effects are strewn across the Great Recession. What other democratic society would look at the destruction of the wealth of the middle class – the destruction of 12 trillion dollars in their assets – and decide to loan, at less than one percent, 16 trillion dollars to the investor class? The answer is no democracy would do that. For that, we need a golden straight jacket.

It has taken some time, but the rest of the populace, it now appears, understands that golden strait jackets are really made of another material – one excreted, I believe, by mammals.

And so, as the golden straitjacket evolved, so did the bullet proof golf shirt. Via a fascinating article on couture for the plutocrats in the New Yorker by David Owen, it appears that Colombians, after having to undergo the violent wars of the 80s and 90s that pitted a pathological guerilla left against a pathological paramilitary right and both against a pathological network of cocaine cartels, have emerged from that din and casualty count with some innovative ideas about safety. Just as Big Pharma learned from the dime drug dealer how to market its anti-depressants and other various pills, so, too, from the world of kidnapping and drive-bys has emerged a cottage industry for protecting the plutocratic gut from the hollow tipped bullet.

The man the article centers on is a designer named Manuel Cabellero, who demonstrates his product by shooting the visitor: “the founder and chief executive of a company that makes "specialized personal protection," and when he shot me I was wearing one of his products, a black suede jacket with lightweight bulletproof panels in the lining. The company, which is called Miguel Caballero, makes fashion-oriented body armor, and sells it mainly to executives, celebrities, political figures, and others who have security concerns but don't want to dress like members of a SWAT team.

Popular items include a three-button blazer, a V-necked wool sweater, a Nehru vest (for customers in the subcontinent and, conceivably, for anxious idolizers of Sammy Davis, Jr.), and a polo shirt, which, because of its extra bulk, may usefully promote a compact golf swing. Caballero also makes bulletproof camouflaged hunting clothes, to protect hunters from misdirected shots fired by their companions--an eventuality that he referred to as "a Dick Cheney accident."

Are we all seeing ‘growth industry” here? We should be. As from the American ashes there begins to grow an American third world culture, I do not think the plutocrats are going to be able to do without the third world billionaire’s accessories, among which are the four car squadron (which I have seen, negotiating the streets of Mexico City), the bodyguards and bodyguards of bodyguards (the latter selected to stop the first line of bodyguard if, as it sometimes turns out, the first line gets the idea to kidnap the body they are guarding) and the appropriate security procedures. The age of the golden bulletproof polo shirt is definitely here.

“When he started making bulletproof garments, nineteen years ago, his customers were almost exclusively Colombian--a reflection both of the small scale of his original enterprise and of the turmoil in the country at the time. Today, ninety-eight per cent of his production is for export. He has dealers in two dozen countries and customers in more than fifty, and he has a retail boutique in Harrods, where some of his golf shirts sell for the equivalent of about twelve thousand dollars.”

Twelve thousand dollars is a significant sum. How significant? According to a recent probe into the underbelly of the wondrous neo-liberal age prophecied by Tom Friedman: From Andy Kroll in Tom's Dispatch

“According to Census data, between 2009 and 2010 alone the black poverty rate jumped from 25% to 27%. For Hispanics, it climbed from 25% to 26%, and for whites, from 9.4% to 9.9%. At 16.4 million, more children now live in poverty than at any time since 1962. Put another way, 22% of kids currently live below the poverty line, a 17-year record.

America’s lost decade also did a remarkable job of destroying the wealth of nonwhite families, the Pew Research Center reported in July. Between 2005 and 2009, the household wealth of a typical black family dropped off a cliff, plunging by a whopping 53%; for a typical Hispanic family, it was even worse, at 66%. For white middle-class households, losses on average totaled “only” 16%.
Here's a more eye-opening way to look at it: in 2009, the median wealth for a white family was $113,149, for a black family $5,677, and for a Hispanic family $6,325. The second half of the lost decade, in other words, laid ruin to whatever wealth was possessed by blacks and Hispanics -- largely home ownership devastated by the popping of the housing bubble.”

So, we can evaluate the golf shirt as double the wealth of a median Hispanic family. Fun, eh?

“I had heard that President Obama, during his Inauguration, wore clothing made by Caballero. Neither Ballesteros nor Caballero would say anything about that, but they did tell me that the company's customers include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Prince of Asturias, a Thai princess, and the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Panama, and Malaysia.”