Wednesday, May 03, 2017

a poet’s economics

John Crowe Ransom’s long-lost book, Land!, was written in the early 1930s, when fifteen million people, almost a quarter of the nation's working population, were unemployed, the dust bowl was still a reality, and the New Deal not even an inkling (hint: Herbert Hoover was still President.)

At the time, this poet’s prose-work on economics must have seemed oddly conservative and paltry. The book, a plea for a return to the family-based economy that had fueled Southern agricultural traditions for decades, was rejected by several of Ransom’s publishers, and, seeing no possibility of shepherding it to print, the author ultimately jettisoned it as well. He threatened to burn the typescript, and most scholars assumed he had followed through on his promise.

Now, Ransom’s 85-year-old cri de coeur has been found in the archives and released to the world by the University of Notre Dame Press and Front Porch Republic. Despite its age, you might say that Land! has landed at just the right time. This three-generation-old work is exceedingly present tense. What Ransom articulates seems less a retreat to Eden than a critique of capitalism that would appeal to the inner anti-Davos protester in all of us: an indictment of a system that values accumulation, shareholder profit, and the pursuit of maximum gain over autonomy, self-sufficiency, and solidarity.

“Nobody at this moment will deny that our capitalistic economy suffers from an organic defect,” Ransom writes. While “capitalism is an economy of investments measurable by money, and of returns also measurable by money,” he calls for a rival system – “an economy in which money plays a subordinate and occasional part, or into which it even fails to enter.” Ransom calls this system agrarianism, but it could also stand for the future envisioned by many who think globally and act locally – fair trade rather than free trade.

Ransom comes at economics from the bottom up. For him, what people feel is more important than what shareholders earn: “Surplus of production, fierce competition, crowded occupations: the condition is so prevalent that it forms for a sort of economic atmosphere; we feel it and breathe it everywhere we go.”

He honors the free market’s achievements, but chafes at the inequities built into the system: “Capitalism has performed wonderful feats in the production of useful commodities, which is good; but it has conferred the ownership and direction of the producing tools upon a comparative few, which is bad,” he writes. The conundrum, he adds, is that “the thing which is bad has been the precise means of obtaining the thing which is good.”

Ransom points out that entrepreneurs continually fail to invest in growth at times when nations need it most. Big businesses, he notes, “never work so hard to cut down labor requirements as during hard times. And this reduction is in each case permanent. Labor is forever dispossessed of that much of its specific occupation, and can only live in hope that some other need for it will turn up.”

He sends up the god of efficiency with a farmhouse adage: “If you try to make money on the farm, you will go broke; but if you try to make a good living on the farm, you will make money.” You can automatically update this mantra for the gig economy by noting just how many start-ups have gone bust because they sought to scale before they knew exactly what their business was and how to sustain it.

Ransom also implicitly challenges Schumpeter's notion of “creative destruction” (though the phrase was coined ten years after he quit work on Land!) by asking just what makes the destruction creative. “For what purpose is the new capital entering the new industry?” Ransom queries, and offers a devastating answer: “To reproduce itself, of course.” Creative destruction may create more capital – but it doesn’t necessarily yield more jobs, higher wages, better possibilities, improved lives. Uber may have upended the taxi biz by reducing the friction in all the transactional aspects of hailing a ride. And it may have made some early investors a trunk-full of cash. But has it helped society in any meaningful way?

Though it was written just a decade and a half after the Russian Revolution, Land! offers a refreshingly non-ideological impression of Marxism. “Karl Marx was evidently a man sensitive to the iniquities of the industrial-capitalistic revolution, Ransom writes, but at the same time sensitive to the technical superiority of its processes and its products, else he would not have tried to conserve them.” Marxists, Ransom continues “do not propose sabotage and destruction, they want to preserve the whole magnificent productive plant that constitutes our national wealth, modifying only the distribution of its ownership, responsibility, and income.” While this might seem a revolutionary act, Ransom suggests that it’s primarily a “moral or psychic” subversion rather than an economic upheaval. “There is no great surface difference between what we call our capitalism and what they call their socialism,” he writes, adding that if the communist revolution would come to pass, “we shall not be exchanging capitalism for socialism, but individualism for socialism.”

Ransom is not a policy wonk, and this leads to some serious lapses in his treatise. For instance, it seems odd that a book called Land! would ignore the one federal law that actually promoted Ransom's favored agrarian republic -- the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered every American the chance to purchase 160 acres of the public domain at a reasonable price. Further, I would have liked to have seen some concrete proposals about redress for the millions of farmers who had been turned into tenants or sharecroppers through foreclosure or bankruptcy (at the height of the Depression, more than half of all American farmers no longer held title to the land they tilled.) And Land! also fails to reckon with the manner in which the self-reliant Southern plantation culture in which Ransom clearly feels at home (he was born and raised in Tennessee) skews right wing and racist (see Nixon's Southern Strategy). Indeed, in this slightly more self-aware time, Land! might be read – unfairly – as a veiled justification for Southern complacency in the face of rural poverty and an argument for land remaining in the hands of the select few who have always had it—namely, white people. Finally, Ransom's analysis of the sins of the market centers on overproduction – hardly a key concern these days.

Despite these shortcomings, in its central tenet, Land! remains remarkably au courant. As I was starting in on this essay, a colleague tweeted about an article on efforts to increase the food supply in Africa. Despite the undeniable importance of smallholder farms economically and for food production on the continent, the economists interviewed trashed Ransom’s agrarian ideal. A program that invested in small farmers, they insisted, would be doomed to failure. Rather, they advocated consolidation to achieve economies of scale. Or, as the reporters summarized it, “a virtuous cycle in which better-equipped, better-capitalized farmers buy out their neighbors, some of whom become laborers and some of whom find jobs in cities.”

It's astounding that, in 2017, economists (and reporters) are still trying to convince us that it's virtuous to force the global majority to give up autonomy and self-sufficiency for a life of low pay and a home in a shantytown.

Ransom freely admits his book goes against the grain. “I am justifying a movement that does not yet exist on any conscious or concerted scale,” he writes early in Land!. And with Donald Trump and his fellow faux-populist oligarchs ensconced in Washington, Ransom's vision of striving smallholders – stable, self-sufficient and sometimes even making a profit – may seem further off than ever. But Ransom says he’s not waging war against the obscene excesses of commercial culture but fighting for individual hearts and minds. “The villain is generally called ‘capitalism,’” he asserts, but “the piece is not a tragedy. I would not want to put my villain to death if I knew how. I propose to rescue some unfortunate people from his clutches and then leave him to his own devices.

Most activists would shout him down on this, arguing that it's naïve and even dangerous to believe that you can change the system by leaving it to its own devices. The empire, they know, always strikes back.

Still, one of the key takeaways from reading Land! is how much better off we'd be if more poets wrote economics (though please, let's not talk about the opposite externality--if the economists applied their invisible hand to free verse.) With poets in charge of finance departments and treasuries, I can begin to imagine a joyous noise as millions of acts of rural and urban resistance collide to form a global sound cannon that could blow the sagging system away.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rate Your Mother™

transcript of a robocall I received yesterday shortly after speaking with my mother:

Hello. This is a message from your mother. Your mother has authorized rate your mother™ and to contact you to take a short survey about the service she provided you in your most recent phone call. To take the survey now, press 1 or just stay on the line. If you’re busy and want to take the survey later, please press 1 or stay on the line anyway.

Thank you for agreeing to take the rate your mother™ and survey. All answers to this survey are confidential and will not be shared with anyone other than your mother. To start the survey, press 1 or just stay on the line.

·        Using the numbers on the keypad on your phone, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the least and 10 is the most, please tell us how useful your mother was in the last phone conversation you had with her.

·        Using the numbers on the keypad on your phone, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the least and 10 is the most, please tell us how responsive to your needs your mother was in the last phone conversation you had with her.

·        Using the numbers on the keypad on your phone, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the least and 10 is the most, please tell us how sympathetic your mother was in the last phone conversation you had with her.

·        Using the numbers on the keypad on your phone, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is absolutely not and 10 is most definitely, please tell us if you would call your mother again for any reason.

·        Using the numbers on the keypad on your phone, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is never and 10 is always, please tell us if you would recommend anyone else to call your mother if they are in a situation similar to the one you are in.

Thank you. This completes the rate your mother™ and survey. Your answers have been shared with your mother and will help her in her desire to serve you better. To see how your mother stacks up in the rate your mother™ challenge, please visit or use the rateyourmother app for iOS and android.

Rate your mother™ and are wholly-owned subsidiaries of RYMJOB Productions, Inc., a Delaware corporation. Participation in any rate your mother™ and survey does not entitle you to any other services from rate your mother™, or RYMJOB productions. Rate your mother™, and RYMJOB productions are not responsible for any actions your mother may take after receiving the results of this survey or any other surveys.

Your mother thanks you for participating in this rate your mother™ and project.

If you want to call your mother, press 1. If you don’t want to call your mother, press 1 anyway. I’m sorry, I did not understand the last response. If you want to call your mother, press 1. You will now be connected with your mother.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Simone Weil replies to Donald Trump

The list of obligations towards the human being should correspond to the list of such human needs as are vital, analogous to hunger.

Among such needs, there are some which are physical, like hunger itself. They are fairly easy to enumerate. They are concerned with protection against violence, housing, clothing, heating, hygiene and medical attention in the case of illness. There are others which have no connexion with the physical side of life, but are concerned with its moral side. Like the former, however, they are earthly, and are not directly related, so far as our intelligence is able to perceive, to the eternal destiny of man. They form, like our physical needs, a necessary condition of our life on earth. Which means to say that if they are not satisfied, we fall little by little into a state more or less resembling death, more or less akin to a purely vegetative existence.

They are much more difficult to recognize and to enumerate than are the needs of the body. But every one recognizes that they exist. All the different forms of cruelty which a conqueror can exercise over a subject population, such as massacre, mutilation, organized famine, enslavement  or large-scale deportation, are generally considered to be measures of a like description even though a man’s liberty or his native land are not physical necessities. Every one knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a man’s life without injuring his body. They are such as deprive him of a certain form of food necessary to the life of the soul.

--Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Friday, January 20, 2017

inaugural doggerel

Slumping bumpkin country
plumped for something that went thump
on the stump
as American as pumpkin pie & dry-aged rump steak,
grumpy crumpet trumpets blaring that women are
crumpled strumpets and it’s ‘great again’
when stumpy fingers are going bump in the night
and being ‘huge’ on the web like Kim’s sump pump rump.
Dry hump jumping, lumping in the ring
to take a dump on voters, ‘so sad’ clump of chumps,
humping himself, no ump, top the white supremacy dump
with liberty and gumption for all.