The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Maiello's picture

    Our Narrow Focus on Subsistence and Working for the Economy

    There are two pieces in the Times today, separated by the chasm of sections and seemingly unconnected, that to me tell and interesting story.

    The first is a piece of analysis that wonders how it could be that the backwards people of Grimsby, England could have voted for Brexit, in support of a fishing industry that has been in decline for 25 years. There are other businesses, the author points out, that could support the economy better than commercial fishing could. These Brexit voters are compared to coal workers in the U.S. They are die-hard sentimentalists who have romanticized a dying occupation in the face of economic change. The author focuses a bit more on what people should want and what the economy has offered, than what these people do want and why. It's pretty clear that these people, and by extension, all people, work for the economy, not the other way around.

    Over on the op-ed pages, there's a piece about the failure of the global human rights movement, as exemplified by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, where a Yale historian argues that the focus has been almost entirely on imprisonment and torture rather than economic justice. "Even as more activists have come to understand that political and civil freedom will struggle to survive in an unfair economic system, the focus has often been on subsistence," writes Samuel Moyn. Bitingly, he says, " human rights activism made itself at home in a plutocratic world."

    The result, says Moyn, is that after decades of human rights rhetoric, people are out there voting for would-be dictators, nationalists and extremists, as if all the chatter of the Davos class has somehow missed everyone else.

    In my lifetime, human rights and a sort of internationally agreed upon global capitalism have always been sold as part of a package. The reduction of extreme poverty through trade is a poignant example.  Is it an economic miracle, as many have suggested, or the low hanging fruit of "subsistence" politics?

    While the displaced fishers of Grimsby merit unfavorable comparison to coal workers, my immediate association was to the financial crisis, where many a think piece was published about the inability or unwillingness of displaced construction workers to become home health aides, using an entirely different set of skills, for which they might have no interest whatsoever, at a lower salary than they were accustomed to earning.

    What are human rights, anyway, if there is no right to tell the economy that you don't like the choices offered and where you can't credibly demand a better deal? I guess none of this is profound or surprising, though I do think it's funny that the paper has run both these stories at once -- one scolding Brexit voters for their sentimental attachments while another posits that the divide between human rights and economic fairness has turned human rights into something of a hollow ideal.



    Amnesty report: Capitalism accused of human trafficking, ethnic cleansing, forced migration, environmental devastation, war, poverty, disease, and America's Funniest Home Videos.

    The choices offered are the ones the economy will support. In other words the ones other people will pay enough for to support those doing the work. In America some have these weird nostalgic feelings for coal miners, in GB  apparently they have similar feelings for fishermen. Why protect people fishing for food? There was once a thriving whale oil lamp industry before we had kerosene for light. Shouldn't those whale oil producers have been protected? There's lots of different groups that would like their most desired occupation subsidized in some way.

    It seems to me that some people are saying they don't like the work other people are willing to pay for. They want to do work that no longer exists or that other people are no longer willing to pay them to do. Look, I don't like the choices I've been offered. What I'd like to do is play music. I was a decent player but not good enough to make a living as a musician. But if there was no recording industry there would be increased demand for live performances. I, and many other musicians, would move from a world where we aren't quite good enough to one where we are lower tier live musicians.

    I support all sorts of ideas to make people's work less onerous and more remunerative. But in the end the jobs available in a society have to make economic sense to that society.

    The choices offered are the ones the economy will support.

    This is only somewhat true, though.  Since the economy is influenced by international agreements, I think you could also argue that the choices offered are the result of choices made, often without the consent of those affected.  People still fish for food, for example, just not out of this particular British fishing town, and this is partly the result of trade agreements made on behalf of people who would rather fish for themselves.

    edit to add: This was meant to be in response to ocean-kat's response to Michael just above.

    I took Michael to be raising the issue of whether society exists to serve the economy or whether the economy, notwithstanding its high importance, needs to serve society.  

    I come from the view that there is a difference between an economy and a society.  These two folks, pushing back hard on the dominance of market fundamentalism in recent decades, have it right, as I see things: (Robert Kuttner on the 20th century Austrian economist Karl Polanyi):

    The private sector economy is best thought of as embedded within a society or other social grouping.  It co-exists, in modern times in societies such as ours, alongside other institutions such as families, the public sector, the independent sector (including religious and cultural institutions, associations including membership organizations, foundations, nonprofit organizations, etc.), the legal system which establishes the often invisible or taken-for-granted parameters for the economic system, media, the political system, etc.

    Not only the private sector economy but any of these institutions can become overly dominant relative to the others and their logics, or can run off the rails, impacting society.  A society's health or even existence can come into question if destructive processes are not eventually arrested and adjustments made.  This goes for government and the processes associated with who has power and who doesn't and how power is used, political parties, and other institutions.

    The private sector economy excels at meeting the demands of those who have access to the resources that create demand.  That should not be mistaken for excelling at meeting the needs of a society or other social grouping, certainly not by itself and without other thriving or at least functional institutions existing alongside it. 

    Bla bla bla.  You get the idea.  

    P.S. What Kuttner and Polanyi were writing about is consistent, I believe, with the line of thinking expressed in one of Robert F. Kennedy's great quotes, about GNP as a measure of what we value and of what we believe to be valuable, at

    Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. 

    Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

    It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

    It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

    Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

    It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

    And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

     But in the end the jobs available in a society have to make economic sense to that society.

    If by "economic sense" you mean sense in line with market demand, it depends on what you mean by "market demand".  Many public sector purposes, and jobs that go with them, are pursued with the use of tax dollars precisely because they are considered valuable (by someone with decision-making authority, at least), and would or might not otherwise be addressed if left to private sector dynamics alone.   

    Theoretically tax expenditures in a democratic society are a manifestation of market demand. Tax payers especially on the local and state level are choosing people to allocate tax dollars and can vote them out if they disagree with their decisions. It can argued that too many people are making foolish choices that harm them. But that doesn't change the fact that voters can determine tax dollar allocation with their vote.

    Paul Waldman, WaPo column today:


    Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently asked:

    Kirsten Gillibrand@SenGillibrand

    If Republicans could give $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest among us, why can’t we invest a similar amount in a guaranteed jobs plan for regular Americans who are unemployed and willing to work to better their local community?

    11:41 AM - Apr 17, 2018

    And Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has introduced a plan for a three-year pilot program testing out a job guarantee in 15 communities around the country.


    But there are liberal skeptics, too. For example, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research warns that the size of the program — potentially employing at least 10 million people — would create an enormous bureaucratic challenge, noting that the federal government would have to oversee employment of a workforce that is more than five times its current level. If the jobs are genuinely guaranteed, what do you do with people who don’t show up, or are incompetent? Can they be fired? The proposals suggest that the cost of a truly full job guarantee would be at least half a trillion dollars a year. What sort of tax increase would be necessary to pay for it?


    We should also note that there are policy compromises that could address some practical objections. The liberal Center for American Progress has proposed “A Marshall Plan for America,” which would create an estimated 4.4 million jobs at a cost of $158 billion a year. It would still be a large public investment in employment, but would be more manageable than some other proposals.


    We could end up debating something people refer to as a “job guarantee” that is actually something short of a guarantee, in much the same way as many use the term “single payer” to describe proposals that aren’t actually single payer. Even so, all this shows that the Democratic Party is now home to some extremely ambitious proposals, not only from people like Sanders but also from what you might consider more mainstream figures like Booker and Gillibrand.


    I understand that the times, the issues, the context, are all different from when this was last something that was considered, in the 1960s, or done, in the 1930s, at the federal level (a guaranteed income proposal was considered during the Nixon Administration, as many here know).  There may be some history worth knowing and reflecting on--here, for example: 

    Even someone such as yours truly who wants a more active and competent federal government in many areas just about quakes at the notion of the federal government attempting to manage a workforce more than 5 times its current level.  Something with a scope closer to that in the Center for American Progress concept, scaled up intelligently, is highly appealing to me as an avenue worth developing and probing.        

    I am not suggesting that this sort of thinking speaks to more than a few of the issues you raised in your post, Michael.  But it does strike me as pertinent.   

    Jared Bernstein short Q&A in WaPo today on federal public jobs creation measures:

    He favors the Cory Booker pilot program, embracing the "let's figure out what works before trying something at larger scale" argument.


    Finland ended its Minimum Universal Income pilot after 2 years. Some think it should be extended, should have had more resources, etc., but one of the big takeaways is "it ain't that easy", so yeah, try-before-you-buy. The first version of Hillarycare was weighted heavily towards the then-trendy new HMOs. 20 years later something else is the rage. We're learning all the time (as well as pushing back against those who really do want to just ruin stuff).

    Jared Bernstein, WaPo yesterday, "Swing back, sweet pendulum!", at:

    "Clearly, 'we’re not them' is a strong selling point, but not strong enough. On economic policy, Democrats need a positive agenda" is the theme.  He elaborates and offers some of his thoughts on what this might look like, in outline form.

    Makes me think of the wisdom of the people of Britannia of yore:

     ~ If wishes were horses, beggars would ride ~

    Got over their skis with Brexit, no? all they needed was a bit more independence for refound glory? seems they forgot to check with their colonies to remember the fixings Liz & Vicky used to prepare their global banquet with - hard to find those ingredients in the kitchen these days, looks a bit more like pared down French lean cuisine these days for everyone - scrumptious, but not quite as filling nor fattening.

    funny you should mention the colonies and independence/individualism, as after that one popped into my head, I went looking to see if there was some even more appropriate olden tyme King's English adage using fish or fishing.

    And I didn't find any, what I continually came across with various searches instead is  (Henry David) Thoreau's supposed Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

    Which would be something quite apropos to say to the Grimsby fishermen and apply to some of Michael's questions. But then everyone going off to their own Walden Pond as it were to find zen is certainly not an an answer for the problems of the world today, as romantic and appealing as it may be, at least not until the world population is drastically reduced.

    Then my train of thought got waylaid: oh I should suggest Thoreau for Wolraich as inspirational on reaction to the Industrial Revolution and mid-19th century world angst.

    And then that there is the whole new world vs. old world thing there and here.

    BUT then I found a scholarly page saying the Thoreau fish quote is not a real Thoreau quote, it is a major paraphrase of one of his diary entries and he was really talking about loving nature in that and nothing else. So all my thoughts about dismissal of Protestant work ethic et. al. are not there. (Though the change from the 18th century world most certainly still is.) And even if they were, what the heck, this is a guy who could afford not to work, not the usual situation back then nor now...and it's individualism and anti-unity, even the colonies found power through coalition...

    And then: where is a Dickday quote when you need one about rambling too far and too large and finally not making sense, sounding like you are a stoner on a bender?

    So I went back to my original if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

    And it seemed even more profound than before.

    And even if they were, what the heck, this is a guy who could afford not to work, not the usual situation back then nor now...

    I'd say one change between then and now is that we now expect everybody to work but we no longer need everybody to work. How many jobs are pointless?  The village no longer suffers if one or a few people don't "pull their own weight."  Technology has freed most people from the communal obligation of work but our morality hasn't quite caught up.

    I was thinking about that, with all the recent talk about the Wayback Machine, we here at Dagblog have Dickday as our wayback machine. I wouldn't have it any other way - he's our Web 0.9 when everyone's burning for Web 3.0. They don't know what they're missing.

    Here's another piece along these lines, though the author doesn't know it:

    Our columnist wonders why leaders of countries with generally strong economies are unpopular.  He doesn't entertain the notion that the benefits of a generally strong economy are often not widely shared enough to make people happy.


    The columnist seems to define a strong economy by GDP, growth, and unemployment rates. Many of the jobs disappearing in the modern economy were relatively high paying middle class jobs. Many of the jobs replacing them are lower paying jobs. Someone who was making $20 an hour isn't going to be happy working for poverty wages. Just having a job isn't enough. Low unemployment as a metric to define a "strong" economy is to simplistic to understand what's happening now.

    Would you accept lower SNAP benefit applications as a sign of an improving economy? When people go to work, even poorer paying work, they produce for the economy and stop taking and earn something for themselves. Without full employment first it's difficult for workers to drive demand for better wages and the lower wages may be initially helpful in bringing some of the better jobs back to the country.

    SNAP enrollment is decreased because Trump is letting immigrants starve.

    Groups that help low-income families get food assistance are alarmed by a recent drop in the number of immigrants seeking help. Some families are even canceling their food stamps and other government benefits, for fear that receiving them will affect their immigration status or lead to deportation....Officials at Manna Food Center in Montgomery County, Md., report that about 20 percent of the 561 families they have helped apply for food stamps, or SNAP benefits, in the past few months have asked that their cases be closed.


    Illegal aliens have no right to seek US welfare of any type while legal immigrants need not fear deportation for taking assistance. Unless some immigration activists are spreading lies among this population to cause trouble and confusion there is no reason for this claim to be true.

    Easy for a member of the Trump Adoration Mob Bubble to condescendingly dismiss.

    If Trump upends the immigration rules the bigots will cheer Trump with stormy applause.

    "A draft executive order apparently under consideration by the Trump administration could have widespread chilling effects for legal immigrants"  link

    and the wait for green cards

    Also, legal qualified immigrants living in the US legally, often must wait for over 10 years for a green card, due to

    Read this, Peter, then talk to us about how less people on SNAP means an overall improved economy.

    eta a quote:

    It’s really — I mean, food stamps have grown to the point where they’re sort of an economy unto themselves.

    So, the 1st of the month is usually when people get their benefit. And for those people, the end of the month is a countdown to the 1st. Their refrigerators are getting more and more empty, they have less and less. The 1st comes, and they want to shop as quickly as they can.

    So, in grocery stores across America, a lot of stores say they might do 20 percent of their business for the month just on that 1st day. Then the rest of the month is a slow trickle down. So it’s not just money that’s coming to these people who are on the food stamps, but entire towns are now dependent on the 1st of the month as sort of an economic boom.


    Good report.

    For perspective on Trump GOP priorities, the entire federal expenditures on SNAP, are $71 billion/year, less than half of the GOP deficit busting tax cuts.

    The unfunded GOP tax cuts, 90% for foreign investors, corporations and the rich, and 100% of of which is added to our enormous deficit, is $150 billion a year, $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

    SNAP benefits are paid on a schedule keyed to the first letter of the applicants last name so your little first of the month buying spree story is bogus. The next factually flawed idea is that if people lose their SNAP benefits they stop eating or buying food. Most of the people liable to lose their benefits have income and can buy their own food but qualify for SNAP assistance. They may have to alter their buying habits and reduce their expenditures for beer and lottery tickets while getting the nutrition the need.

    The only reason I'm responding to this comment is to express my total and complete disgust with it.

    It's probably healthy to feel a little shame/disgust for parroting misinformation. The retail grocers have been partners with the USG since food stamps were used to replace the commodities program. They recieved the benefits of increased business for their handling of the dual currency food stamp scheme and did this for decades. What they also did was market to these customers to encourage them to spend this free money on more prepaired and junk foods where profits are much greater than the component foods used to make meals at home.

    Then you must spend significant amounts of time feeling shame/disgust as you quite often parrot misinformation. SNAP benefits are administered by the states. The date benefits are available is not federally determined and many states send out the benefits on the first day of the month. It's possible that in the state you live in the payments are spread out over the month as there are a few states that do it that way. Though that's not the most common system in most states. Some states spread out the payments over the first ten days of the month based on the last digit of your SS number. Some over the first three days. Some states send out all benefits to recipients on the third or fourth day of the month. Information about how each state makes it's benefits available is found here.

    I'm guessing you lived in some state that sent out the payments over the month and you heard some rumor about it. You then simply assumed that's how every state did it. You never checked to see if the rumor was true or if other states did things differently. That's generally the level of thought and evidence behind everything you  post.

    What they also did was market to these customers to encourage them to spend this free money on more prepaired and junk foods where profits are much greater than the component foods used to make meals at home.

    Studies have shown that SNAP users basically buy the same things as everyone else.  Grocery stores don't "market" specific food types to SNAP users, they simply accept the cards for payment.  Rules of what can and cannot be purchased are strict and built-in - many of which seem foolish (soda and chips are okay, but no hot food) until you consider the far too many "food deserts" in this country where fresh produce, juices and meats are hard to come by and fantastically priced if found.  You should like the idea of hot food being disallowed, Peter, since that means no pizza delivery or Micky D's - right?  Who cares if the folks have no access to a stove, oven or microwave ... they can still buy their kids a beer and a lottery ticket.

    Imo less snap applications likely means an improved economy as it likely means the major reason is lower unemployment. The economy has been improving for at least eight years since the recession that began in the last year of the Bush administration. But that doesn't mean the economy is strong. Many of the metrics used to define a strong economy are flawed or don't get into the depth of what's happening as we're entering the Age of Robots.

    'Improved' is a better description while strong is too subjective. It seems that most sectors are improving except possibly the old brick retail. The economy may have stabilized in the last eight years but it was stuck in stagnation until these last couple and now we are seeing real growth.

    Stagnation, eh... man crush some?

       And then there's the drop in unemployment. Yearly drops were greater during the Obama years then in  the Trump years. By far most of the recovery from the Great Recession happened during Obama's presidency.

    Trump and the Republicans looting of the nation's Treasury with $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for the rich has two objectives:

    1) Further enrich themselves and their rich donors immediately with the tab left for the middle-class and their kids to pay off.

    2) Crash the main street economy and sink the stock markets with the exploding deficit induced rising interest rates so the idle rich can buy up more distressed real estate, stocks and property as the economy seizes up and prices plummet.


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