Print Story Debt: A Pretty Good Book
Fear
By gzt (Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:37:12 AM EST) gzt, debt, rich, powerful, poor, political theory (all tags)
I'm reading Debt and I highly recommend it. It has a few prerequisites, and the more background one has, the better, but the author is very thorough, so if you lack in European history, he tells you pretty much all you need to know on that end - it's just better if you already have a framework for it. You're quite likely not to have the background in Chinese history, or Indian history, or Sumerian history, or African history, etc, so a lack of prior knowledge isn't a barrier to entry.


The book is a long reflection on the history of debt, money, and a bunch of other stuff. Here's one thing it explores: throughout history, there are two competing thoughts in most cultures. (1) You have a moral obligation to repay your debts. (2) Those in the habit of lending money to others with interest are not good people. Kind of odd, isn't it? Another thing: economists typically tell a just-so story about the origins of money. They say it developed out of barter economies because it becomes a bit clumsy to try to trade 2 sheep for a pile of candles or whatever. However, this development of money has never been seen to happen. In fact, barter economies only seem to develop when a monetary system breaks down. That is, barter comes after money. So what's really going on? It's a good question with a complicated answer, see book for details.

The author is an anarchist, but he doesn't do much to push his views. Though you can definitely tell that he would approve of the assumptions behind the "gzt political quiz" (which asks aspirants to political power which people they are planning on killing to achieve the sort of society they want).

He goes deeply into anthropological arguments, but, quite fortunately, does not get bogged down in, "Levi-Strauss says... but Levi-Strauss is wrong because...", instead writing in a readable way. There are extensive footnotes, so it remains academic even without extensive explicit reference to and discussion of the boring prior literature. As mentioned previously, the thorough discussion of the context also allows a reasonably intelligent person who is unfamiliar with the background material to follow the argument without getting lost, though, really, knowing this stuff is very helpful.

List of things that it is helpful to know about:

  • Economic history, particularly the history of money (which is apparently all wrong)
  • Particularly Adam Smith
  • Western history from Greece and Rome through modern day, including the oft-neglected "Dark Ages"
  • Western political theory, from Roman law through Rousseau/the rest of the Enlightenment, or at least Rousseau and the Enlightenment
  • African history - bonus for Madagascar, Ranavalona, etc.
  • Chinese history, particularly from 600BC to 1400AD
  • Indian history, same time period as above
  • Sumerian history
  • Religions of all the above
  • Obscure anthropology stuff
  • All of the above with particular reference to slavery and slave trade - mentioned separately because slavery is oddly not covered in detail in most general introductions to history

Of these, I really only claim knowledge of European history, religion, and political theory, a little bit of Indian religion and history, and what knowledge of Madagascar I got from the Flashman book and subsequent reading of the wikipedia articles. I found this knowledge all very helpful, but my profound ignorance of viz. China (outside of my knowledge of Buddhism) was in no way a barrier to understanding his arguments.

Side note: what's a good way of overcoming my profound ignorance of China?

I'm already a reactionary theocrat, I have to be careful not to turn into an anarchist. I suppose in a sense I might be described as one. I don't want government to be abolished, and I see the practicality, generally, of having one. I would generally vote for things that most people would describe as leading to "more government". But I don't have any romantic notions about the role of government: God is my only king, as it were, and everybody else is just a bunch of people with guns willing to shoot you if you don't do what they say. As long as they're there, I'll vote for them to do things I like and which seem to benefit people, but at the end of the day it's a social order founded on violence and the threat of violence. I'm not going to pretend that the State is somehow deriving moral authority from the consent of the governed or whatever our founding myths say. It derives its "moral authority" from guns, and typically guns wielded by those doing the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of poor.

If you're looking for a quick read, though, I think you can get by with reading the first and maybe the last chapter. The first is sort of a quick intro, the last is about the last 40 years of debt. The first chapter is pretty much the only place where he editorializes, and it makes sense there, the rest is scholarly.

Anyway, my favorite relevant line of Scripture is, "He hath filled the poor with good things and the rich He hath sent empty away." Yea, verily.

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Debt: A Pretty Good Book | 42 comments (42 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
So, what ever happened... by ana (2.00 / 0) #1 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:10:33 AM EST
to the sin of usury?

I now know what the noise that is usually spelled "lolwhut" sounds like. --Kellnerin

seriously! by gzt (2.00 / 0) #2 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:30:43 AM EST
It's kind of a big one. He'll get to it later in the book.

[ Parent ]
Ignorance of China by Herring (2.00 / 0) #3 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:40:47 AM EST
specifically or ceramics in general?

christ, we're all old now - StackyMcRacky
specifically by gzt (2.00 / 0) #4 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:43:54 AM EST
I've made a few clay pots in my time, but nothing terribly fine. Mostly in the Greek style.

[ Parent ]
China by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #5 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 11:09:56 AM EST
I'd really like an answer to that question as well.  I have a pretty firm grasp of most world history with gaping holes in China and India.  What little I know about either involves their interactions with others, be it the West, the Mongols or the Japanese.  There's got to be good surveys for China, but damned if I can find them.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
I have a big hole in India, too. by gzt (2.00 / 0) #6 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 11:26:59 AM EST
Not so big, since I took a couple years of Sanskrit and had to learn a little bit in there, but it's still very sketchy outside the 600BC to 400AD era.

[ Parent ]
India by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #7 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 01:49:11 PM EST
Mine is pretty much a blank between Alexander the Great and the arrival of the Portuguese. (Other than a bit related to religion.)
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
I'm no expert by clover kicker (2.00 / 0) #14 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:18:01 PM EST
John King Fairbank by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #16 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 04:18:15 AM EST
China: A New History.

I think jump the ladder may have recommended ...

Iambic Web Certified

[ Parent ]
it's a great book by MillMan (2.00 / 0) #8 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 03:35:23 PM EST
I'll have to read it again to figure out which of his sources I want to check out for further study.

"Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in financial crises." -Krugman

anarchy by gzt (4.00 / 2) #9 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 04:15:06 PM EST
Mind you, I'd be an anarchist from the left, not the libertarian right perspective if I were to be an anarchist. I'm too suspicious of the concept of private property and too cynical about the rich to be a libertarian. But I'm not an anarchist.

Okay by Gedvondur (2.00 / 0) #10 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 04:29:52 PM EST
So trying to understand here. So he says debt = bad, and probably money = bad, yes?

Did he pose an alternative?




"So I will be hitting the snatch hard, I think, tonight." - gzt
the answer is no to both questions by MillMan (4.00 / 1) #12 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 05:01:29 PM EST
he does get into what money is, though, which requires a long history lesson.

"Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in financial crises." -Krugman

[ Parent ]
The answer is no to both. by gzt (2.00 / 0) #15 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:37:42 PM EST
He talks about what debt and and what money is. He gives you the tools to think about your relation to them and what you conclude the answers ought to be - you can certainly have your own opinions. But it does free you to think of answers besides the ones (plural) that our society currently thinks about.

[ Parent ]
Interesting by Gedvondur (2.00 / 0) #20 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 09:15:52 AM EST
Usually, books like this push you in one direction or the other.  Thanks for the review!

"So I will be hitting the snatch hard, I think, tonight." - gzt
[ Parent ]
he does have a slight push... by gzt (2.00 / 0) #21 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 09:44:21 AM EST
...in that he's an anarchist and you can tell. and I hear rumors the modern chapters are kind of bad, actually. but he lets you choose your own path. if you are interested in what he, personally, thinks, he has written a couple books on that.

[ Parent ]
but who is "rich and powerful"? by nathan (2.00 / 0) #11 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 04:52:22 PM EST
I'm not going to pretend that the State is somehow deriving moral authority from the consent of the governed or whatever our founding myths say. It derives its "moral authority" from guns, and typically guns wielded by those doing the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of [the] poor.
In the USA, the rich vote Republican... and the very rich vote Democratic. When you say the State "do[es] the bidding of the rich and powerful at the expense of [the] poor," what exactly does that mean?

that is a very good question by gzt (2.00 / 0) #19 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 07:51:35 AM EST
I don't think it's a voting Democrat vs voting Republican thing, since the major difference as far as they're concerned these days is taxation, but changing taxation alone is not really enough to address the widening gap between rich and poor in America. But anyway, that phrase is a trope that gets repeated by a lot of people on the Left and some on the Right and they all mean very different things by it - the sentiment could come straight out of Lenin's mouth or Ron Paul's mouth (okay, not straight, some rewording) and both would mean something different from some random modern left-anarchist. the State also does indeed protect the poor to some extent, and far further than they did in many past civilizations. viz: no more chattel slavery, bankruptcy is possible, nobody starves in America, K-12 education is freely available (though of varying quality), 40hr work week, etc. So I guess I'll post a diary examining that.

[ Parent ]
in my view, the main way the rich hurt the poor by nathan (2.00 / 0) #22 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 10:09:42 AM EST

In America today is through indifference and the absence of solidarity, not through classical exploitation, which as you note is largely illegal today.

Until pretty recently, the only ways to get rich were as a merchant, a landlord, or a looter. (Conquering anothing country = loot + landlord, etc.) The Industrial Revolution opened up an additional route, as a manufacturer, and so far, manufacturing and industrial farming have been able to provide economic growth that has so far outstripped even our immense population growth. (The world population was 2.56B in 1950 and is about 6.8B today.)

It's hard to argue that such a massive expansion in the scale of human life consists merely of the rich parasitizing the poor. On the contrary, the main problems facing the First World poor today are unemployment and social dysfunction, not lack of access to physical resources. If rich Americans exploit poor Chinese, all levels of American society are complicit. This exploitation is what keeps middle class retirees' pension payments coming, and the benefits of cheap stuff accrue to the poor, since the rich could afford to pay $200 for a Philips microwave, but the poor really need there to be a $28 Wal-Mart model.

Since I have a high income but am significantly negatively net-worth, and don't expect to be able to buy a house until I'm 40, and don't expect ever to get much in the way of retirement income and thus to die at my desk at 77, I often wonder whether I'm rich, poor, or a little of both.



[ Parent ]
rich by gzt (2.00 / 0) #23 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 11:01:26 AM EST
the rich have assets that provide them with wealth - their money works for them. you work for money and only have liabilities. that makes you poor, or at least middle class or Not Rich. once you own enough things that make money for you (say, land that you rent, or perhaps the means of production), you become rich.

[ Parent ]
does that mean that, e.g., public employees are by nathan (2.00 / 0) #24 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 11:59:13 AM EST
All rich? At least those of them who "own" contract rights to funded pensions, cheap health care for life, effective immunity to termination, etc.? (I.e., people with good civil service jobs with FedGov or members of successful public-sector employee unions.)

More generally, by this definition, there are lots of rich people, in the sense that they own assets or entitlements that produce passive income, who are middle class. For instance, my parents have owned a rental property in my hometown since I was a little kid. They paid off the mortgage fairly recently. But it nets them maybe $8k/year, and my dad does all of the work on the property himself, and growing up, I wore $10 department-store shoes and ate store-brand bologna, etc. This seems like a clear problem with a definition of "rich" that has more to do with your sources of income than your social class or the size of your income.

I'm not saying you're wrong, but a definition of "rich" that includes retired schoolteachers and GS-9's, but excludes corporate lawyers, wouldn't feel natural to many people. Under this definition, most people will pass at some point from poor to rich, as they switch from working for money to living off of retirement investments. Also, many lower-class people are rich because their incomes come in significant part from entitlements rather than wages.

IDK, maybe IDGI.

[ Parent ]
well, I added the caveat... by gzt (2.00 / 0) #25 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 12:57:59 PM EST
..."once you own enough". a pension doesn't count unless it's big, nor does rental probably unless it provides a substantial income. I don't know where the line is, it needs to be more than $100,000 of passive income, not sure how much more.

I would presume that a corporate lawyer would work to convert their income stream into equity. I suppose it is slightly idiosyncratic, but I wouldn't call myself rich if I suddenly got a salary of $10m, not until I had funneled some of it off into some real assets. I'd be merely very high middle class because it would all be over the moment the stream shut off. People who win the lottery aren't rich, they have a temporary windfall and it dissipates quickly.

In terms of class, this is a large part of the definition of rich. A lawyer is a tradesman because he works for a living, therefore he isn't really rich. The real rich are the landed gentry with big plots of land and maybe some industrialists and merchants, though they're new money and don't quite count the same. Sure, these gentlemen can have a hobby, perhaps science or the military, and the hobby enriches them (perhaps beyond what their lands would have in the case of a lucky admiral), but they're rich because of their assets rather than the income and prizes, however high they may be. This viewpoint is exceedingly outdated, of course, and has been since the 19th century, but it informs the modern considerations.

[ Parent ]
I get to convert my income stream into equity by nathan (2.00 / 0) #27 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 01:53:46 PM EST
Basically once I pay off my education, although I can buy bits of tax-advantaged equity aimed at middle-class savers before then.

re: your 3rd paragraph, I wonder if it ever applied in America. I guess there was the planter class and the "squirearchy," but most of the famous and long-lived American fortunes came from tech, industry, finance, and railroads. American old money is Carnegie, Astor, Rockefeller, Du Post, or for that matter Singer. American new money, which is much bigger than old money, is Walton, Gates (lower upper class isn't old money,) Google, and hedge funds. This probably reflects the fact that America has a larger ratio of industrialized history:total history than any other country, even other First World anglosphere countries.

Getting back to the subject of poverty generally, in the First World, most people have to work, but also enjoy a high standard of living, even the poor (who may enjoy a decent standard of living without even having to work, in some cases.) Does the mere fact of needing your job to live make you the poor who will be filled with good things? I mean, it would be cool, but I have my doubts.

I also wonder just what we're expected to do with the poor abroad. For instance, Ethiopia's population managed to about triple during a 60-year period that included several severe and notorious famines that were palliated by the global community. Maybe just sending countires food doesn't really do much to alleviate misery in the long term - for one thing, it probably undercuts peasant farmers, turning them into beggars who need food relief.

[ Parent ]
you're right, it doesn't really apply in USia by gzt (4.00 / 1) #28 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 04:19:09 PM EST
As I said, it's a very outdated model, one that used to call America a classless society. But it is important to realize that being rich is about the accumulation of assets more than it is about cash flow. viz. Most retired football players aren't rich. A good proportion of them are poor in conventional terms, even though many have earned more in one year than some upper middle class households have in their entire working life. It is a bit of hyperbole to proclaim that there are only poor and rich, and the rich are the ones who don't need to work for a living. The rich are still the ones who don't need to work for a living and have boatloads of cash, but there are still gradations before you hit poverty. So we're all probably a bit far from being "filled with good things", alas, some further than others.

Global poverty is a difficult question and quickly leaves ideology for dealing with questions of fact, and I simply don't have the facts, beyond that in many cases, even during crop failures, famine is a political and logistic problem more than an agricultural problem. However, lacking even basic facts, I can't pontificate. I do find it plausible than influxes of government cheese might undercut poor farmers.

Anyway, I'm definitely not a Marxist in thinking about how capitalists extract value from workers. I do think it is natural that some level of income inequality should arise when we consider some of the great expansions in a lot of technology - there's a lot more room at the top. What I find objectionable is regulatory capture and rent seeking, particularly in the banking sector, as many banks have resorted looting and pillaging with the help of the government as a business model (viz: Bank of America). It is, presumably, one thing for Bill Gates to be paid well, another for the CEO of a failing "Too Big to Fail" bank which strongly lobbied for ways to make more short-term money and then making the public pay for its bad bets.

[ Parent ]
I don't think anyone likes misrule by nathan (2.00 / 0) #29 Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 10:25:33 AM EST
I do think it is natural that some level of income inequality should arise when we consider some of the great expansions in a lot of technology - there's a lot more room at the top. What I find objectionable is regulatory capture and rent seeking, particularly in the banking sector, as many banks have resorted looting and pillaging with the help of the government as a business model (viz: Bank of America). It is, presumably, one thing for Bill Gates to be paid well, another for the CEO of a failing "Too Big to Fail" bank which strongly lobbied for ways to make more short-term money and then making the public pay for its bad bets.
Wait, income inequality didn't grow out of technological advancement. That's the opposite of what happened. It's not like pre-industrial societies were more equal than First World post-industrial societies are now.

As for regulatory capture and rent-seeking, it seems like it's human nature to use wealth and power to get more of both. Since the state has vast economic regulatory powers, the ability to influence the state has great value, and a rational economic competitor has no choice but to compete in that arena. I'm sure you would agree that both the Evil Party and the Stupid Party have cozy relationships with the finance sector, if a BDSM relationship can be said to be "cozy." But the banks didn't take the money just to give it to their CEOs, and executive pay is not so much a matter of looting (obvious examples of looting aside) as an artifact of winner-take-all economics; C-level executives get paid what they get paid because it's hard to measure what they add, but they usually add something, and we only hear about the grotesque catastrophes.

[ Parent ]
My comments on inequality... by gzt (2.00 / 0) #30 Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 10:39:39 AM EST
...were more a consideration of the last few decades rather than industrialization. Though, hey, I'm not an economist, I'm not fully aware of the complex forces driving the differences between the top 5 or 1% and the bottom, say, 50% these days, I'm only aware that they're widening and some people don't like that.

Perhaps I should've broadened my example beyond the C-suite, as their compensation is a drop in the bucket, especially at a bank. The problem with "obvious examples of looting aside" is that there are quite a lot of prominent examples of looting, looting which bones entire economies.

[ Parent ]
looting the company to pay the CEO by nathan (2.00 / 0) #31 Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 11:37:55 AM EST
Is something that usually happens when management takes control of equity; in large public companies, it is rare (though absurdly high C exec pay is not rare, of course.)

The recent financial crisis is not about "looting which bones entire economies." I mean, Spain doesn't have a 23% unemployment rate because Lehman had too much exposure to subprime mortgages. Since the 80s, the USA has lived on credit, and with a financial crisis, that credit is no longer available, so the American standard of living is declining. But worldwide, there are many overlapping crises with distinct causes: structural shifts in production worldwide, structural demographic shifts including the unprecedented collapse in fertility (not just in the First World, but also in Japan, Taiwan, Iran, etc.), and more generally, the fact that highly optimized systems are vulnerable to slight changes in their environments.

If I thought that it was simply a matter of hanging the bankers, I'd be out there with a rope. But bankers are just chasing profits. Why do we need banks to make profits? (Not an idle question - we could always nationalize them and run them like a utility. There were consumer 'banks' of sorts even under Communism.) We need the financial sector to make profits so that it can pay its investors, whether individuals directly investing, or e.g. the Teacher Retirement System of Texas...

[ Parent ]
doh by nathan (2.00 / 0) #32 Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 03:20:18 PM EST
On reread, it seems I implied Japan was not part of the First World. I hereby apologize to the fine nation of Japan, the Japanese people, and people who like anime.

[ Parent ]
pre vs post industrial societies by lm (2.00 / 0) #33 Fri Mar 23, 2012 at 04:57:57 AM EST
``it's not like pre-industrial societies were more equal than First World post-industrial societies are now.''

Really?

I think through most of human history (and pre-history), technology can be shown to have widened the possible gap between the extremely rich and extremely poor. I think it was Rousseau that first pointed this out with his distinction between natural inequality and artificial inequality.

By nature, in most ways, few people are equals. As technology and society develops, the potential to extend that equality increases. Hence, the gap between a homeless peasant and a duke in medieval Europe does not have the potential to be as wide as the gap between a homeless citizen and Warren Buffett. Take even the most exceptional of pre-industrial wealthy persons (the Pharaohs of Egypt, Emperors of Persia, et cetera). The gap in wealth between those persons and rural slaves in the same nation is not as wide as between the poorest person in the US and the likes of Bill Gates.Or even go to Baathist era Iraq and compare the poorest person in Iraq to Saddam Hussein. The ancient powers-that-be would have envied Hussein's wealth.


There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
gzt was comparing the landed aristocracy to by nathan (2.00 / 0) #34 Fri Mar 23, 2012 at 10:49:44 AM EST
E.g., Warren Buffett.

I'm not sure that Rousseau is a good source for anything at all. He seems to me to be something like the Ayn Rand of his time: a mediocre thinker but a rhetorician of real though narrow gifts, whose main support came from malcontents among the moderately educated middle class. A man who so perfectly captures the spirit of the age is rarely a transcendental man. One thinks of Stanley Loomis's famous psogos in Paris in the Terror: "'Man is born free and everywhere he is in irons.' This, his most celebrated statement, is characteristic of Rousseau. It has a ring about it that stirs the heart as it pleases the ear. The fact that it is not true, that mon on the contrary is born into almost complete dependence on other and must remain so at least until [adolescence], is a fact that one hesitates to introduce in the face of Rousseau's ringing assertion to the contrary... It is possible that property owners on the Lake of Geneva might have found 'nature' refreshing; it is doubtful that the inhabitants of Africa, Asia and the two continents of the New World would have found it so...", etc.

Rousseau aside, while there is potentially more inequality today, there is not actually more inequality unless that potential is realized. In medieval Europe, wealth didn't just buy you a castle rather than a hovel, but a higher class of legal and social rights, and in some countries, the power of high and low justice over other people who were literally your chattel property. If we lived in an age of technological feudalism where there was serfdom, no welfare state, and Bill Gates simultaneously enjoyed all the luxuries of the modern age, I would agree that there was more inequality, and there is definitely more global inequality today than there was in the medieval era (since some people are still hunter-gatherers, etc.)

Bill Gates may live in a $100 million dollar house with a solid gold toilet, and when he gets sick he no doubt gets the very best doctors and the very best care, and if he wanted to, he could walk around in a jacuzzi suit full of caviar and 100-year-old Armagnac. But this is mostly access to luxury goods. Even homeless people have access to food and health care (via the ER,) and are entitled to social supports that can get them into group homes or assisted living or w/e where they have indoor plumbing and the other basics of industrialized life. In short, the gap between the medieval homeless and the modern homeless is much larger than the gap between the duke and Bill Gates.

As I'm sure you know, the pre-industrial French canaille was so malnourished that, by the time of the French Revolution, the average man was about 5'3" in modern units. The officer class was physically distinct from enlisted men. Today, we have used our technology to close the nourishment gap and to significantly narrow the shelter, education, and opportunity gaps.

Compare these Americans to the glossy old-money WASPs of their day. (I particularly like the residents of Pie Town, the children doing farm labor, the cotton-field workers - probably at risk for hookworm, working barefoot - or the girlie show strippers with their battered faces.) I don't know anyone who looks like that today.

[ Parent ]
Even homeless people have access to food by lm (2.00 / 0) #35 Fri Mar 23, 2012 at 09:24:39 PM EST
Well, some of them. Others starve to death or die from extreme cold or heat because they aren't living in shelters.

Granted, in the US poverty isn't as extreme as in other countries. But it can still be far worse than you seem to allow for.


There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
according to the WHO, by nathan (2.00 / 0) #36 Sat Mar 24, 2012 at 10:31:20 PM EST
In 2004, 120 Americans died from "lack of food." Since 2,397,615 Americans died that year, that's about  0.005% of American deaths. Granted, most of those people were probably homeless, so among the homeless (about 1/5 of 1% of the population at any given time) the death rate from starvation is probably much higher than among the none-homeless. But, while every death from starvation is abominable given modern conditions, I'm confident that death by starvation is not widespread or a major social problem in the USA today.

[ Parent ]
Sure, and therefore, we can ignore it by lm (2.00 / 0) #37 Sun Mar 25, 2012 at 07:36:27 AM EST
I kind of like that idea. If we ignore the data points we don't like, then we can carve out the distinction we want without worrying about whether it fits the actual day. Rather than talking about the actual gap between the least well off and the most well off, we can arbitrarily exclude those that fall outside the boundaries we would like to see.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
you seem mad at me by nathan (2.00 / 0) #38 Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 01:16:53 PM EST
And I'm not sure why, because what's at stake is a fact question: is the gap between rich and poor bigger or smaller now that it was before industrialization? My view is that the gap is obviously smaller because we have leveraged technology to virtually eliminate starvation and homelessness, the two worst things that chronically afflicted large numbers of poor people before industrialization. It's true that we haven't completely eliminated them, but most of those suffering them today are entitled to help, and are unable to exercise their entitlements for reasons that are not poverty per se, like mental illness, bureaucratic error, threats of violence, etc.

I live in a bad part of Chicago (there are two transient hotels within 1 block of my house) and, as far as I can tell, even can collectors and unemployable drug addicts have roofs over their heads and enough food to keep them alive. I don't know what proportion of people starved to death throughout Europe in 1600, but I bet it was more than 0.0005%. From my POV, the gap between starving to death and not starving to death is obviously greater than the gap between living in a $100 million house with access to modern medicine (Bill Gates) and living in Eszterháza Palace surrounded by tens of thousands of peasants whom you literally own but dying of cancer at 69. (Adam Smith said that middle-class Englishmen were better off that African kings who "had absolute power of life and death over thousands of naked Savages," or something like that, but that hardly describes the situation of early modern aristocrats.)

[ Parent ]
you read too much into a terse reply by lm (2.00 / 0) #39 Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 06:05:22 PM EST
Sure, I'm trying to point out absurdities in the points you're making. I'm not quite certain how one makes the leap from that to being angry.

And, well, 'virtually eliminated'? I read that as 'kind of, sort of, but not really.' The numbers may statistically approach zero, but that's a side issue that dehumanizes those who are not numerically significant to be counted.

Morover, in some places in Appalachia and the badlands, you'll find families where the difference between starving to death and having food is quite small. It is true that much of that is by choice, if these folks would just give up their traditional ways of life and trust the government, everything would just fall into place.

Well, except for those nations where the same technologies are used to brutally put down the people such as in North Korea.


There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
I guessed either 'mad' or 'contemptuous' by nathan (2.00 / 0) #40 Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 06:55:10 PM EST
Since those are the two stances most consistent with short, dismissive posts that are couched in terms suggesting the other person is stupid.

If you want it to be "contemptuous," OK, that's cool. Either way, you evidently think it's appropriate to adopt a professorial tone, making snarky comments like "Well, except for..." and "it can still be far worse than you seem to allow for..." and "If we ignore the data points we [i.e., you] don't like..." This kind of diction is condescending. I'm not an ignorant fool and I'm not your student. I've done my homework, I've provided citations (which you haven't,) and I'm trying to be polite, and if you can't conceal your disgust and exasperation, I don't want to talk to you.

And, well, 'virtually eliminated'? I read that as 'kind of, sort of, but not really.' The numbers may statistically approach zero, but that's a side issue that dehumanizes those who are not numerically significant to be counted.

It's not "dehumanizing" at all to point out that starvation has gone from a threat to most people to a threat to almost no people. And it's certainly not "dehumanizing" to point out that no one starves any more simply from being too poor to obtain food, since society provides many means to obtain free food. People used to live on the edge of famine and now they don't. I think that's progress and I think that, considering the historically unmet needs of the poor, creating food security for them was the most immediate way to improve their lot.

I granted in my original post that "there is definitely more global inequality today than there was in the medieval era (since some people are still hunter-gatherers, etc.)" But my point was always that the fraction of people in Western countries at risk of starving to death has declined precipitously since the early modern era, and I don't think you've rebutted that point by pointing out that it's not literally true that no one starves to death in America today.

The original issue was whether we have narrowed the gaps between the standards of living of rich and poor in some meaningful way. If you want to argue that we haven't narrowed these gaps as to food access, you need to show more than just extremely rare cases of starvation in modern society (occurring about as frequently as death by lightning.) To carry your burden, you need to show that the rich enjoy better standards of nutrition relative to the medieval rich than do the modern poor relative to the medieval poor. I don't think this is possible, because the majority of the modern poor are well-fed, while the medieval poor were chronically undernourished, stunted, and physically distinct from the aristocracy, just as the Third World poor often are today.

I also think that the shelter, education, opportunity, and health-care gaps are also narrower than they were in the middle ages, but of course, on any of these points, I am open to any evidence that you care to bring.



[ Parent ]
I'm not going to play this game any more by lm (2.00 / 0) #41 Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 07:06:48 PM EST
Critique my tone all you want. I apologize if I've offended you. Perhaps your critique is spot on and I ought to block off time to examine how words that fall from my keyboard come across at the other end of the Internet.

I had thought I was merely disagreeing. But I suppose YMMV.


There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
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I apologize if I've offended you as well. by nathan (2.00 / 0) #42 Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 07:32:25 PM EST
And also if I've made you feel that I'm playing games. If you would like to re-engage on the substance of the discussion at some point, I will do my best to be civil.

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VS2FP by infinitera (2.00 / 0) #13 Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 05:30:40 PM EST
This is a good review, thanks!

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

It looks good by Scrymarch (2.00 / 0) #17 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 04:30:53 AM EST
Reviews like this both make me want to read it, and give me pause ...

http://codeandculture.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/how-the-poor-debtors/

Particularly stuff like six errors in one sentence.

Iambic Web Certified

yeah that apple sentence made me cringe by gzt (2.00 / 0) #18 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 06:56:08 AM EST
the author of the review suggests stopping at 365, i haven't quite gotten there yet, so i suppose my review should be takne cum grano salis.

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huh by R343L (2.00 / 0) #26 Wed Mar 21, 2012 at 01:27:13 PM EST
That gives me a little pause. The comment thread linked from it is pretty great and I like the tone of that site's comment community a lot. Not that I need another site to read.

That said, the description here and elsewhere (in the graph of links followed from yours I ran into a rebuttal the author posted on one of the big conservative blogs that was very good) made me check it out (Kindle lending! Yay!)

So far pretty good, but I'm only ten pages in. :)

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." -- Eliot

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Debt: A Pretty Good Book | 42 comments (42 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback