The Right Wing Vision: Eugenics Disguised as Demographic Collapse

Please excuse that my posts are shorter and less developed than they used to be. But if you’re as busy and as jumpy as I am, perhaps you like this better.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty, and commentators are commenting. When I listen to the Radical Right policy programs — opposition to health insurance, opposition to unemployment insurance, opposition to infrastructure spending (including things like roads and bridges), opposition to public health regulatory frameworks, the only thing I can figure is that they are hoping for a demographic collapse. That’s right, they — by which I mean the professional politicians, not their confused, frightened, outraged victims in The Tea Party — seem intent on driving most of the voters out of their districts and states. It’s no longer fashionable — or legal — to condemn the reproductive enthusiasms of the poor, so the next best thing is to wear out the parents and starve out the children. Perhaps the poor will be so committed to demographic collapse that they’ll move out of the Red State or district to one which offers them medical options for limiting the number of their offspring.

But when I googled “demographic collapse,” what I discovered is that The Tea Party believe that the demographic collapse strategy has already been launched, and it has them in its crosshairs. And why? Because depopulation has so far been most effective in rural areas, whence jobs, hospitals, schools, corner stores, have been disappearing. So yes, there is a demographic collapse strategy underway, sweeping against poor folks of every race, political persuasion, language, ethnic heritage. 

And by “poor”, please note that I assert that the relevant level of wealth is not how much you have now, but how much you had as a child, how much you have now, and what you believe you will be able to make available to your offspring. Wealth is not a single number, it’s a generational process involving social, political, and economic capital. And if your parents had more than you have, and your kids have no hope of inheriting any from you, you consider yourself “the new poor.” If you’re in this new poor, you have good company. The natives of most Western European countries are also busy limiting the number of their offspring. The countries once made socially rich by the Enlightenment definition of humanity no longer give humanity a reason to reproduce. (And yes, I realize — and would be the first to point out — that much of this was achieved through hereditary unpaid hostage labor and decimation of original landholders; it was a definition that needed a lot of improvement.)

The very rich who have bought the services of these politicians seem to believe they have created a world in which most of their neighbors, employees, servants, and neighbors are superfluous to both their happiness and their assets. Counterproductive, even. Yet there have been demographic collapses before — most notably after either pandemics or natural disasters — and eventually the very rich, too, become its victims. “Supply-side economics” — the discredited assertion that wealth comes from having abundant resources and the inclination to transform them into something useful for someone else — has solid roots in Jewish scripture — and probably any other. When Moses took the Israelites on their unguided tour of the wilderness, God sustained their natural lifespans with unsolicited, uncultivated, untended gifts of manna, honey, and water. Jesus and Buddha both enjoyed similar unbidden generosities, which they turned into gifts for humanity. So I do not dismiss “supply-side economics” as clear idiocy: it’s something we all want to believe, not just of what God can do for us, but of what we could do, if God would only give us a little more.

And that’s where the calculation flips. Because when God gives us a little more, it only expands the economy when we share it with others, shop with it, invest it in someone else’s paycheck. If we build a factory out of robots — the current fantasy of the very rich — it’s just a toy, because whatever that factory produces has no market. Demand is what makes things happen, not supply. There is no better proof than in studying the ministry of Jesus. You may or may not believe he performed any miracles, but he sure as heck did it in response to requests, rather than as a circus act or political message. Buddha made demands on himself, but most thoroughly energized his productive capacity to answer the suffering of others.

There is a debate going on tonight about unemployment insurance, health insurance, infrastructure repair, all kinds of jobs and assets that the rich no longer wish to provide to the poor. It’s been tried before, and for the rich, it didn’t go that well. The Black Death deprived Europe’s nobility of armies to keep their serfs on the land, which allowed the serfs to develop new skills and form new cities, and by networking among themselves, build up assets in social, economic, and political currencies. And when this happened, the old aristocracy were not the beneficiaries of new riches.

But neither were the families lost in the demographic collapse.

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A More Positive View of the Problem

Yesterday’s post was so bleak, I really wanna get something positive up here now, without just going all hopey-dopey. Happily, Today’s “Here and Now” featured a scholar addressing some of the same issues from a practical point of view. Some of the same concerns — have we reached the end of work, because people are so cheap and machines can make so much profit? — came up in this article in this week’s NYTimes Book Review. This father-son team is revisiting John Maynard Keynes’ idea that by now we would all be working no more than twenty hours per week — but living more fulfilled lives. (Irrelevant complaint about this review: apparently not one of these men realize how much housework and child care an energetic woman could provide with those “extra “twenty hours.)

Both authors come to about the same conclusion: people need money to live, and employers need people to earn enough wages — or, although they don’t say this, government transfer income — to function as regular customers. Brynjolffson sums it up in the dialogue between Henry Ford and the labor leader. Ford shows the organizer a room full of machines and asks, “How are you going to get your men to make cars as well and as cheaply as these robots do?” And the labor leader answers: “How are you gonna get all those robots to buy your cars?”

Was the labor leader right? The Times thinks there’s something to it. Turns out they need working Americans to buy all that stuff we pay them to make for us. Now that we can’t pay them for it, they’re feeling stuck.  Maybe even a little interdependent.

Do We Need Another Black Death?

Wat Tyler’s Rebellion — an obscure trivia question, something for crossword puzzles and Jeopardy. Don’t repeat my mistake, and confuse it with the Diggers of Elizabethan times, despite the similarities. Because Wat Tyler’s Rebellion teaches what Occupy movements have to learn.

You might have seen — might even own — the tee-shirt that says “Black Death World Tour.” In 1347, the population of England declined by about 40 per cent. According to Norman Cantor, quoting Michael Hatcher, the labor shortage didn’t begin to affect wages until the second generation. The Statute of Laborers, 1351, begs to differ: Parliament moved immediately to suppress the wage increase that supply and demand would force into effect. Cantor summarizes this generically, rather than pointing out the immediate suppression of market forces.

What made the wage level of 1346 so attractive to employers? Well, despite the almost total lack of medical care as we know it, the spread of competent farming, coupled with some good climate years, had generated a huge labor surplus. Landlords were able to bind peasants and employers to bind workers at low wages, because all these poor folk felt lucky to have even minimal food and shelter. Supply and demand in this case benefited the employers and landholders. Plus, given the excess population, they could afford their own private police forces (all those dashing knights, swearing fealty to “my lord”) to keep the more ambitious potential fugitives in line. Black Death eliminated the surplus on which personal excess depended.

Thanks to medical care — which might become more widespread if Obamacare or something like it prevails — food lunches, even those bags of groceries you drop off at the local food shelf or, conversely, stand in line to receive — the current American laborer lives in 1346. It’s probably worse now than it was then, due to our longer span of life — which, again, is rising more greatly. I have to laugh at the Greedy Class: if they knew what was good for them, they’d be sending Obama so much money he’d send it back!

So how do we, the 99 per cent, avoid the fate of Wat Tyler? You might not recall that his rebellion was suppressed and its leaders executed in nasty ways. I laugh at all the Facebook posts about police oppression against Occupy: you folks have no idea what state-suppression can mean. Tyler was run through with a sword as he approached King Richard II, who then promised peasant leaders a full hearing. Once they settled into his presence, he had them arrested, and some were hung. Apparently not drawn and quartered, as would have been done in Elizabethan times. Ah, progress.

Despite this setback, supply and demand prevailed: wages rose over the next century, as did the first independent middle class. For a readable account of such a family, try this life of Geoffrey Chaucer,
which I found to be a real page-turner that completely derailed my aspiration to read The Canterbury Tales. What Professor Howard makes clear is that Chaucer’s economic and political rise was no isolated incident. The Black Death had reconsolidated scattered family wealth and made a talented local youth a good investment for ambitious aristocracy. Not only did the smaller population open a path for him, but the clearing was wide enough to be seen from inside the royal household itself.

But, again, we live in 1346, not 1351. The wage level we want to restore grew not from supply and demand but outright class warfare between unions and corporations. But even then, recent medical advances have increased survival rates from warfare, childbirth, workplace accidents and ecological degradation. Have you ever noticed how many young men in early US history died from misadventures with farming tools? Do you notice the way folks in other countries still suffer and die –especially children and elderly — of bad water, bad air, landslides, heat waves, deep freezes, floods that for us are just Weather Channel “Send Us Your Photo” ephemera?

That’s the real problem, and no, I don’t know the answer. All I know is that the switch from unionism to universalism isn’t going to happen without a return to the kind of nasty class warfare that names and condemns greed, that distinguishes between the desperate acquisitive energy of folks trying to escape poverty and celebrate newly-won comfort, as compared with folks who want their kids to think of work as something their social circles give them to play with (which lets everyone deduct all the parties, horses and club memberships from their taxes).

Supply and demand, at this moment, is not the laborer’s friend. In earlier eras, social pressure forced women back into unpaid marital and parental roles, and that helped (especially since hiring females is a great way to maintain low wage averages). Racial and ethnic prejudice, tight borders for labor or capital — those are other avenues often pursued. Which are we going to choose? How are we going to combine them? These days we reward members of affluent families for unpaid “community service” and delay our children’s earning years with “internships,” but these do not remove them from the job market: they remove jobs from the realm of pay and make the pressure worse.

I’ve been pondering this one for over a year, and come up with no ready answer. But the first step is to understand what we are up against, and what has worked before. The only thing that restores wages is a smaller pool of laborers. Even then, the only thing that gets employers to pay them is blood-soaked class warfare.

This is not what I advocate. Mao tried it and within three generations, the problem is back, big time. But what can we do instead?