All posts by Jonathan Larson

A tribute to Frank Ryan, a Producer Class HERO


Frank Ryan passed in April 2021. He was a close friend who led one of the more interesting lives imaginable. He was a builder of complex and difficult things. And he made a decent living fabricating some of the parts of our complicated existence.

For example, he made what he laughingly called "terminator" parts—titanium pieces that were used by an orthopedic surgeon to re-enforce and replace bones during a long-term research project going on over at the University of Minnesota Hospital. The surgeon would ask for Frank by name and together, they created a whole line of prototypes that resulted in a serious expansion of what orthopedic surgery can actually fix. The doc had great ideas that Frank turned into titanium parts that were often so light, they fell like a leaf if dropped.

The shop where Frank worked had an established reputation and so received every month perhaps eight metal-bending journals directed at high-end fabricators. These publications were paid for by the machine toolmakers so I am pretty sure they were just junk mail for the shop. Fortunately, someone in the administrative offices carried these magazines down to the shop floor break room. Frank would wait a few days so anyone interested could look at the articles, and then would bring them home.

Which is how I got to see them. And I thought they were absolutely wonderful. And this is where the story gets complex and fascinating. The reason I was so interested in reading journals directed at the machine-tool industry, is because I was trying to understand what had happened to the USA economy (and by extension the global economy) during the late 1970s and the 80s. The trigger for my curiosity was an argument I had in 1982 with the highest-ranking civil servant I knew in Washington DC. We were discussing the effects of the Recession of 1980-1. His take on events was that Reaganomics was going to herald a new day of economic growth and prosperity. My take was that this economic calamity had wiped out hundreds of thousands of small and mid-sized farmers and businessmen and much of the destruction was permanent.

It was about that time I discovered that the political economist Thorstein Veblen had been very careful in drawing a distinction between business and industry. I had long assumed that these two words were simply synonyms. Not so! argued Veblen. For him, industry was the organization of the community's necessary work—growing food, building infrastructure, inventing, etc. Business, on the other hand, consisted of the efforts employed by those who could not or would not do the necessary work themselves and gained their incomes through force and fraud—imperialism, rents, usury, tithes, taxation, the whole predator-class list.

The business vs. industry dichotomy is one of those ideas that once you have seen it, it is damn difficult to unsee it. Ever! Veblen's famous "The Theory of the Leisure Class" in 1899 described the antics of the Business / Leisure classes. It took until 1914 for him to describe the characteristics of the industrial classes. He called that description "The Instinct of Workmanship: and the state of the industrial arts".

The implications of Veblen's Business / Industry dichotomy were, and still are, absolutely staggering. For one thing, the numbers suggested that while the Leisure Classes were culturally dominant, the overwhelming majority of humanity had to struggle through life employed in jobs that had little status and pay. On the other hand, the industrial classes were far more accepting of science and technological advancement. They had discovered that one sure way to advance themselves out of their subservient status was to invent and build a new world. 

When Veblen was born in 1857, the vast majority of the population farmed with brute labor—harvesting wheat with a scythe or picking corn by hand. 100 years later, plumbers owned Corvettes, radio and TV allowed everyone to have their own soundtrack, and food was so plentiful that anyone remotely interested could become a food snob. And all of this was made possible by a torrent of inventiveness that allowed for the mass production of high quality metals and tools that could output products to the accuracy of microns. The Industrial Revolution was the first and only revolution that provided real material progress to folks who had previously been slaves, share-croppers, serfs and peasants. 

I learned NONE of this tale of Industrial Class revolution during my years in school. And yet when I discovered these social histories by reading Veblen and others of the era of scientific invention, I immediately believed them because of my good friend, Frank Ryan, was a living example of why they were true. 

That Frank Ryan was this production genius is one in thousands of examples for why the USA Midwest became the global heartland of invention. If he had grown up in someplace like Detroit or Chicago or Muncie Indiana, he would have known dozens of people with his eventual mechanical skills. But Frank was born in a tiny, desolate, wind-swept burg near where the Missouri River exits the state of South Dakota. And while Ole Rolvaag was correct in asserting that it was only the Giants in the Earth that could settle the brutal environments that were the high prairies, these were not the high precision skills that produced substitute human body parts. The nearest such operation was probably at least 100 miles from where Frank spent his childhood.

But Platte South Dakota wasn't nowhere. In fact, it had a lot of the same characteristics of the industrial incubators that gave us Henry Ford and the thousands of farm-kid inventors who would follow his recipe. In farm country, inventiveness is a survival skill. Being able to figure out a novel way to solve problems becomes a highly admired attribute. Frank's father was a veterinarian back before licensing procedures had been instituted. He was a vet because he successfully treated animals so it was farmers who kept him in business—not diplomas. He was successful because he was scientifically literate enough to understand causation.

Frank also grew up during the early heyday of model airplanes and apparently built a lot of them. Kits could be had for $0.10 and usually took a couple of months to assemble. Considering it took from the dawn of recorded history until 1903 to figure out powered flight, the fact that by the 1930s, models that flew were considered a children's pastime was really a stretch. For a model to fly, it must follow the same laws of nature that a full-sized airplane does. Frank never bragged about how well his models flew which suggests they probably usually crashed. Folks who build those large-scale models you see flying on YouTube are fabricated by middle-aged men (or older) with considerable skills and persistence. But simply building those $0.10 models taught a host of fabricating skills merely to get them to the stage where you could hang them from the bedroom ceiling.

And then there was the Army. Frank was hardly the first small-town kid that the military tapped to operate and maintain its technologically advanced tools of war. In fact, rural kids were considered prime recruits. Frank easily passed the Army entrance test which sought out technical skills and was told he could select any training path that interested him. He selected the skill that had the longest training. The Army got the last laugh—his training made him qualified to operate the over-the-horizon radars which supposedly gave an early heads-up on missiles launched over the North Pole. This meant he spent some long winters in places like Greenland and Alaska. Even a South Dakota upbringing does not prepare someone for the sheer brutality of a Greenland blizzard. There was a limit to how long someone could tolerate such an assignment especially since in practice, this meant that, at best, North Americans could be terrified for 20 extra minutes before their world would end.

After 7 years, Frank left the Army to join the post-war economic expansion. His military skills had no civilian application so he found himself selling temporary classrooms to frantic school boards facing the results of the baby boom. Sales gigs would become an increasingly difficult way to make a living so one day, a few years later, he walked in the door of small punch-press shop and was hired by someone who assumed that anyone with reasonable personal habits could feed one. But even in a small punch shop, there is a hierarchy of skills. By the time I met Frank in the early 1970s, he had become a premiere set-up specialist—the guy who arranges tools precisely so they make accurate parts. This was obviously a critical skill—not the least reason was the fact that even tiny mistakes could result in the destruction of $thousands worth of specialized tools. What made all this especially ironic was that those difficult jobs Frank would come to excel at, he had probably never even heard of that day when he went to work as a punch-press operator.

When I first met Frank, I took an instant liking for him—he was from a small prairie town, he understood and appreciated those rural survival skills, and most importantly, he had built flying model airplanes made of balsa and tissue—a hobby that had occupied a significant portion of my youth. He told interesting stories about the struggles to make difficult parts from a wide assortment of alloys. 

But most of all, he wanted to help me with my big problem. I had teamed up with a couple of dreamers who believed we should rehab a vacant building in a neighborhood that had deteriorated from fashionable to thoroughly dilapidated. I had built houses as a carpenter to help finance my college education and so I confidently assured them I could fix their building. It soon became apparent that the skills necessary to build tract houses did not obviously transfer to restoring late 19th-century Victorian and Queen Anne mansions. I was WAY in over my head. I had to figure it out on the fly and so I got together with Frank each night when he got off work and we would plot my next move. Frank was amazingly helpful. Not once on that project did I have to take something apart because I had taken a wrong turn.

Sometimes, I would have a project where I really needed an extra set of hands. Frank was an incredible sidekick. He would keep track of tools and materials, he would help organize the workspace, and when I needed those extra hands to guide large parts through tools, he always knew where to hold on and which way to push. One project involved making a teak room divider in a room with a 10' ceiling. It would have glass doors and shelves, it would be lit with a bulb on a dimmer, and there would be a a wooden cabinet to store the booze. No drawings had been produced so Frank had only a vague understanding how everything would go together but he soldiered on being his very useful self. The end result was stunning. The woman whose crystal collection this room divider would house showed up when Frank and I were sitting around and admiring our handiwork. She asked Frank when he actually understood what we were building. He laughed, "Oh, about 1/2 hour ago." It was at that moment when I realized what Frank had brought to my life—expert help, loyalty, trust, and understanding.

When Frank started supplying me with those machinist trade journals, he became someone who was more than an example of raising usefulness to an art form, he was making a critically important contribution to my intellectual understanding of the world. Veblen argued that the industrial classes were the numerical majority. What he left out of his argument were speculations on how amazingly stratified his giant industrial class was. Frank's magazines just exploded this point into my consciousness. Frank had more practical skills than anyone I had ever met, yet compared to the people who designed and built the machine tools he operated, he was a hobbyist. Hyper-accurate machine tools are one of the more critical elements of a science-based civilization. One of the easier ways to judge the technological sophistication of any social order is to examine the quality of their machine tools. Of course, even the finest machine tools are pretty worthless unless operated by passionately skilled and imaginative Frank.

Once I had become acquainted with the nearly limitless possibilities and crazy difficult problems that could be solved by the nearly miraculous tools available to humanity, the question then became, "Why are we not creating this available utopia?" And I became fixated on expanding Veblen's class theories because it provided a believable answer to the question "Why are modern societies run by people who have NO IDEA how their world actually works?" Veblen's social theories provide a brilliantly simple response. The highest goal of the Leisure Classes is a life of uselessness. The highest goal of the industrial classes is usefulness. So while a Leisure Class occupation like politics has, if anything, deteriorated in the last 150 years (think Abe Lincoln to W. Bush) the Industrial Classes have invented miracles (like the progress from the telegraph to the satellite-based Internet). So it turns out that folks determined to live useful lives WILL significantly outperform the people determined to be absolutely worthless.

Soon I would write a book inspired by my new insights into Frank's world. When I had a first draft, I showed it to to him. He was absolutely delighted and read it in three days. We got together and he began to read some of the passages that truly amused him. A couple provoked genuine belly laughs—some a giggle. I was flattered beyond words that he thought I had captured the world-view of a prime set-up man.

Frank lived an important life. Everything that is truly amazing about this country was the result of the hard work, inventiveness, and determination of men like Frank Ryan. Folks like him still exist—though there seems to be fewer of them these days and their social situation seems nearly hopeless. 40+ years of USA de-industrialization will do that. So here's a toast to a Producer Class hero. R.I.P.

So what does a true Producer do when he retires? Why build a ridiculously complex trimaran, of course.

Nerdgasm—Thoughts on Tesla’s Battery Day

Like many, I was looking forward to what Elon Musk would say about what is easily the most critical and expensive part of building an electric vehicle—the batteries. The presentation was literally breath-taking. Several times I found myself holding my breath as I tried not to miss any important details. Musk and company had gone to great lengths to simplify their descriptions of what they were attempting. Unfortunately for me, I hadn't taken a Chemistry course since 1966 so I found myself fishing in some forgotten waters. Fortunately, it was easy to watch repeats on YouTube so eventually the requisite understanding returned. (I needed four tries ;-)

There is really no sustainable energy future without effective storage. Anyone who has ever lost their electricity knows that life gets extremely difficult VERY fast. Yes, I know humans survived without electricity in hazardous places such a North Dakota in winter. But those people were unusually hardy, strong, and clever. Even so, preparations for winter began the first days of spring. If you had trees, you chopped wood. Trees are stored energy. Unfortunately, there aren't many trees in North Dakota. Fortunately, there are energy sources that will sustain human life up there—lignite coal and then after the 1950s, oil and natural gas. Now that burning fossil fuels has become a big no-no, North Dakota also has abundant wind power but harnessing it as a practical matter requires storage.

Energy storage has been the big scary boogieman since the invention of fire. We like to treat the problem socially the same way we treat hauling out the trash and for many of the same reasons—it is UGHLEE. Clear-cut forests, oil refineries and tank farms, and the like smell funny and in myriad ways are offensive if not serious health hazards. Storage is especially tricky when the energy is electricity. Electricity moves at roughly the speed of light. With tiny exceptions, therefore, electricity must be used the instant it's produced. While this nearly instantaneous speed is easily electricity's most useful characteristic, it seriously hampers more widespread adoption of renewable energy.

The best and most useful way of storing electrical energy is by using batteries. This option has earned its important status because the alternatives don't work very well, if at all. Some proposed building huge flywheels. This scheme never got off the drawing boards because of the problems building a wheel precise enough to store massive amounts of energy. Bearings large enough to support a large flywheel at even slow rotational speeds were probably physically impossible. One scheme—pumping water into an elevated reservoir only to be released when the grid needs more electricity has several working examples operating in Norway. But these are only possible due to Norway's unique geography. There are also supporters of compressed air. Big money has been spent trying to make hydrogen the default storage medium. But in end, the most useful and reliable method of electrical storage is still the humble battery.

But just because batteries work, after a fashion, that doesn't mean they don't have serious problems. They are heavy, and expensive, and don't store all that much power. They are an environmental headache from mining to disposal. Lots of money and brainpower is being directed at solving those problems. There has been a lot of chirping about the potential for a solid-state battery while Samsung has made them a company goal.

But Tesla has a different sort of problem. They must use a technology that already exists at scale which means lithium-ion. So their solution is to throw resources and effort into production innovation—they intend to make terawatts of these things, after all.

In the early days of industrialization, folks who could create factories and make them run smoothly were called "millwrights"—a prestigious occupational category. Now the term has fallen into serious disuse as more and more companies that make complex products tend to outsource difficult tasks. Tesla and Musk has made a public declaration that they do NOT intend to follow that path. Instead they intend to employ the method used by most early industries—vertical integration. If someone is building a product that has not been built before, this is the only choice. If the tools of production cannot be purchased, the only alternative is to make them yourself (or find someone who can make them for you).

Musk most certainly did NOT invent vertical integration. In fact he has a ways to go before any of his manufacturing facilities equal the sophistication of Ford's River Rouge (Model A-1927) or Willow Run (B-24 bomber—1942). But while Musk did not invent vertical integration he is most certainly a true believer in its principles. This is his presentation for battery day.

Elon Musk


Reaction to the Elon Musk / Drew Baglino presentation fell into two main categories—the disappointed and the breathless. The investor classes were the most reliably disappointed. It wasn't flashy enough. It didn't introduce a new model of something. The promised new product timelines were often in the range of 2-3 years, NOT next quarter. The unearned-income crowd considers descriptions of the nuts and bolts of technological innovations to be a snoozefest—especially at the level of battery day.

On the other hand, the folks who stayed awake in science classes had what one wag called a nerdgasm. That's what it felt like to me. A friend called two days after battery day and less than one minute into the conversation he asked, "What's up with you? I haven't heard you so happy in 35 years." Guilty as charged.

There are several main reasons Tesla's battery day was so appealing.

It was strategically solid. The Tesla scheme requires the least amount of social change. I am a HUGE fan of high-speed rail and live on what would be an important link if USA built up its passenger-rail system. However, I am reasonably certain USA will never build such a system for the simple reason that the cities we have in USA were built during the age of petroleum and individual transportation devices. Cars and filling stations can serve such cities—light rail, buses, etc. cannot. The roads are built—assembling the land for dedicated high-speed rail alone is an unimaginable nightmare. The zero-carbon transportation future will be a function of electrifying the existing infrastructure. The success of this venture will be a function of how efficiently we can convert the internal combustion transportation system into an electric one.

The devil's in the details. Instead of chasing a breakthrough such as a solid-state battery, Tesla chose to chase smaller production upgrades. The reason this works is that it addresses a host of problems that needed attention anyway and if there are enough "small" improvements, they are likely to add up to breakthrough numbers.

Borrow, steal, copy. The example that made me giggle was the admission that Tesla had learned a LOT from the food-packaging industry—specifically bottling. This technology has been around for awhile. The all-aluminum beer can has been around since the late 1960s and it is still used as an example of metal-forming sophistication. The amount of pure genius expended on food packaging is usually beyond belief. So it not surprising that kind of genius could accelerate battery assembly speed by 7x.

And on it went—one technological triumph following another. Elon and Drew just rapping like they were sharing a barbecue. No notes or teleprompters—just a sound industrial pragmatism on an intense search for what will actually work in the real world. The biggest advantage the Producer Classes have is that they can subject their theories to real-world testing pretty easily. Objects that cannot perform are culled pretty quickly. Industrial pragmatism turned up past 11. 

Elon Musk often claims that manufacturing doesn't get nearly the appropriate amount of respect AND has vowed to make Tesla manufacturing world-class. Apparently he learned some important lessons trying to make the Model 3 assembly line work. In a few 120 hour weeks, Musk discovered why "millwright" has been the most difficult job humans do.

The People, NO—Thomas Frank’s new book on anti-Populism

Thomas Frank is a brave man. He has decided to discover how the political movement of Populism has been degraded into a term of slander. This is a project long overdue because only a tiny fraction of those who use the term populism have any idea that this was once a fiercely debated set of ideas passionately believed by many people struggling to solve extremely difficult problems. In my experience, most people worldwide with a university education believe that a populist is an ignorant hick who is terrified of learning and modernity—a bad person to be shunned.

Like Frank, I believe that is a terrible, historically inaccurate, lie. Unfortunately that's the conventional "wisdom". Correcting this terrible ignorance requires far more patience than I have. When confronted with people with fancy degrees from name colleges who wrongly use the word populism to demonstrate their intellectual horsepower, I find it difficult to contain my rage. The reason is that their definitions of Populism bears almost zero relationship with the historical movement that invented the term. Frank got a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago so believes that these rotten examples of useless protoplasm can be reasoned with. The People, NO doesn't pull many punches. It is lovingly crafted—a graceful result of thousands of hours of hard work. Whether that is enough to change any minds...we'll see. But we can hope because real Populism is probably the only system of organized thought that has any chance of addressing the serious problems facing humanity these days.

Waiting for packages was a well-practiced skill of my youth. It was an unavoidable hazard of my small town life. I wanted to read Thomas Frank's latest book on the history of Populism, The People, NO, badly enough to go through the rituals of preordering and I still had a five-week wait. The reasons I wanted a first crack at this book include:
  • I have tried to read everything Frank has written ever since I got hooked by reading his The Conquest of Cool. Frank's writing is graceful, accurate, nuanced and complex without lapsing into pretentiousness. In Conquest, he tries to explain how and why the political and cultural passions of the 60s quickly faded into a costume show. As a survivor of the antiwar movement, I had seen multiple examples of exactly that phenomenon including in myself—long hair, bell-bottomed jeans, Red Wing work boots, army surplus shirts, etc. I was especially impressed when he wrote, "If I got it wrong, remember, I wasn't there." Yes, but he still got it very right. There's a lot to be said for diligent research.
  • Kansas is Frank's home. Over the years he has reminded us that historically, the Sunflower State can lay legitimate claim to having birthed the People's Party. And even though I have spent most of my life in Minnesota, Kansas has played an out-sized role in developing my own Populist inclinations. My father came from Kansas and his father farmed his whole life. My great grandfather came to Kansas from Sweden in 1873, the very year the USA would return to the gold standard after the Civil War—triggering the nasty agricultural depression that would essentially last until the outbreak of WW I. But he had two years of horticultural studies at the University of Lund so he not only survived, but had six 160 acre farms to distribute to his children after my great grandmother died during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Meanwhile, my mother's parents were struggling to keep their tiny farm alive in central Minnesota. This grandfather was a voracious reader and spent a significant fraction of his meager disposable income buying the Appeal to Reason and later, the Little Blue Books, both published in Girard Kansas.

So, if Frank had anything to add to my incomplete knowledge of Kansas Populism, I wanted badly to read it. And sure enough, when it arrived I blazed through it in one sitting. Two days later, I would re-read it at a more respectful speed mostly because The People, NO followed a POV that I have pretty much ignored in my quest to understand the history of rural progressive movements. For instance, Franks cites numerous examples of known intellectuals dismissing Populism because (as everyone "knows") farmers are just a bunch of ignorant hayseeds. Where I come from, we just call such folks "cityots"—the kind of people who assume milk comes from convenience stores.

The natural conditions that faced farmers in pioneer Minnesota were extremely difficult. We found this out between 1990-1995, when the Minnesota boyhood home of political economist, Thorstein Veblen, was restored to match photographs taken in 1892. What was discovered was a masterpiece of a home necessary to cope with a harsh environment, and the isolation of few neighbors, that was built by his father Thomas using only hand tools. For example, a well was found under the kitchen which eliminated the need to go outside for water (it usually gets to -30° a few times each winter.) There was a large loom room used to provide the family's need for clothing. Thomas would experiment with cross-breeding until he had produced a strain of Merino sheep that could survive those cold winters. He would also raise flax so that they would have linen work clothes and extra-strong thread to hold everything together. He built his wife a magnificent loom—unfortunately, his hand tools proved insufficiently accurate enough to build a well-balanced spinning wheel so he had to import one from Norway (This is a tiny fraction of an amazing tale of survival at the edge of a wilderness. See more )

Of course, not every Norwegian immigrant would build three farms in USA AND father two Ph.D. college professors and a half-dozen other accomplished college grads. But he wasn't especially rare either. My Kansas grandfather was not only a solid citizen with local community clout, a 35-year deacon in the local Lutheran church, he played a cello in his town string quartet and manged to get a college education for his two sons during the depths of the Great Depression—a Lutheran clergyman and a multi-patented chemical engineer.

The relevance of Veblen to the agrarian radicalism that was manifest in the People's Party formation is that he is an almost pure distillation of how the Nordics viewed their economic dilemmas. Already in 1867, The Grange was founded in Minnesota by an agrarian philosopher named Oliver Kelly. His organization encouraged his Patrons of Husbandry followers to regularly gather to exchange best-practices information. The Grange was more a fraternal organization that had a few radical tendencies so as economic conditions deteriorated for farmers after the reintroduction of the Gold Standard in 1873, more aggressive organizations began to replace the Grange including the Greenback Party—the brainchild of Peter Cooper who had masterminded Lincoln's decision to finance the Civil War with Greenbacks.

Former Congressman and Lt. Governor turned Grange traveling lecturer named Ignatius Donnelly switched his efforts to the Texas-based National Farmer's Alliance—a precursor to the People's Party in the 1880s. In 1892, he would author the preamble to the People's Party Omaha Platform—arguably the most famous and important political document the Populists would ever have. After the loss in 1896 to the massively funded William McKinley, the People's Party would sputter and run out of gas. Even so, Donnelly would be their vice-presidential candidate in 1900. He lost but in 1901 McKinley died at the hand of an assassin only to be replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. Donnelly would also die in 1901 so the last great link in Minnesota to the People's Party was severed. But by then, the political arguments of the Pops were pretty well known and were soon absorbed by several of the follow-on movements.

The most obvious starting point were the Progressive Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt was was already making noises as a "Square Deal" Reformer in 1901 and would become the head of the Bull Moose party in 1912 because his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, was not nearly progressive enough. Roosevelt was beloved in Minnesota. He was famous for actually trying his hand as a working rancher in North Dakota after graduating from Harvard. That the ranch actually worked at some level cemented his tough-guy image for the rest of his life. And yes, when the faces of the four most significant presidents were chosen for Mount Rushmore, the folks from neighboring South Dakota just HAD to include TR.

Minnesota also had a running head start on Progressive Republican thought because Robert La Follette was a towering political figure in next door Wisconsin. He spent his whole career tinkering with the ideas of Progressivism. His last campaign was as the Presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1924. His lifelong pet project was his beloved University of Wisconsin which he insisted have a branch no further than 50 miles from any citizen of the state. The main campus in Madison would be walking distance from the capital building itself.

The Republican Party was created in Ripon WS as an abolitionist organization thanks largely to the efforts of Wisconsin's numerous 48ers—the revolutionaries run out of Germany in the repression following the Revolution of 1848. Wisconsin had just become a state in 1848 so these folks, many with advanced educations and political organizing skills, would become important political actors almost immediately on arrival.

Many settlers in Minnesota had first tried settling in Wisconsin. The Veblen family had tried to create two different farms in Wisconsin before moving to SE Minnesota. When Thorstein Veblen discovered he could not get a job as a philosophy professor even with a Ph.D from Yale, he relocated to Madison to soak up the UW intellectual scene while deciding what to do next. And when La Follette would visit Minnesota, he was welcomed by large and enthusiastic crowds.

Between TR in the White House and La Follette making big noises next door, Minnesotans took a political breather. But the problems of farmers and factory workers didn't go away as the 20th century began. The state had begun to adjust to its latest immigrants and since Minnesota's greatest attraction was its rich black soils, many would try their hand at farming. The largest group were the Germans. In the little town where I grew up and attended school K-10, those Germans had actually come from Russia where they had gone to farm at the invitation of Catherine the Great. They left Russia when Alexander II began to change their arrangement in 1874. Since nearly all the people in my home town were practicing Mennonites, the change they refused to tolerate came when the new Tsar started drafting their young men into his army. They came to Minnesota carrying with them their amazing skills, work habits, and Hard Red Spring Wheat which could be successfully grown in cold weather climates. They organized their work and social lives around their faith and for the most part, shunned politics. And while the Mennonites formed but a small slice of the German-speaking farmers, Germans were amazingly quiet considering they formed the largest ethnic minority in the state.

Minnesota politics would belong to the Scandinavians. When they were not politically organizing, they organized cooperatives. And like in Scandinavia itself, their culture was heavily influenced by their Lutheranism and their extensive experience with cooperatives.

The Norwegians were often apolitical but a subset of their tribe followed a religious leader named Hans Nielsen Hauge. Hauge was the Peitist's Peitist who believed that the Church of Norway was hopelessly corrupt (which they probably were). State churches often get that way. In North America, the Hauges would become influential enough to eventually have their own Lutheran Synod. But far more interesting were his economic ideas. He believed that common folk could advance their and their community's interest through a combination of thrift, hard work, and initiative, and these teachings led to the new rise in Norwegian economics some years after national independence in 1814. In this matter Hauge was but one of several contributors, but he was one of the most influential – especially so in the way he combined economics and Christian morals: modesty, honesty and hard work among them. In 2005, the Norwegians founded a Hauge Institute to study and promote his economic ideas with headquarters in Bergen.

While there were plenty of Hauges in Minnesota, the greatest of the Norwegian-American contributors to Populist thought was, of course, Thorstein Veblen.

The Danes also had a religiously guided social and economic movement inspired by Nikolaj Grundtvig. He eventually became a Lutheran bishop and wrote over 1000 hymns. But he was perhaps best known for founding the folk school movement which taught young Danes not only practical skills such as increasing agricultural efficiency but their cultural history (how did Vikings become Scandinavians?) Danes in Minnesota opened a handful of folk schools but the most famous one in USA was in Tennessee called the Highlander Folk School. It helped educate Rosa Parks.

Alvin Hansen was the son of Danish immigrants who farmed near Viborg South Dakota. After graduating from nearby Yankton College, he would pursue an economics graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying at the feet of the towering progressives Richard Ely and John R. Commons. He got a job at the University of Minnesota in 1919 and became a full professor by 1923. He was wildly popular and soon added several important books to his CV. In 1937, he took his act to Harvard where he taught a small army of New Deal economists. He was often labeled "America's Keynes" though in fact, he was far superior intellectually to the more-famous currency speculator from Cambridge.

The Finns tended to be the hard-core leftists. Finland was in the grip of a cultural uprising in the late 19th century. She had been ruled by outsiders for hundreds of years—first the Swedes and then the Russians. Many of the Finns had grown increasingly resentful of their second-class status and began to demand reforms such as making Finnish the official language of the university system. In 1899, Jean Sibelius wrote his stirring national hymn to independence called Finlandia. Actual independence wouldn't happen until 1917 when The Russian Revolution would cause them to lose their grip on Finland. In the meantime, Finns had to make survival decisions. Would they stay and hope that independence would bring material improvements? Would they copy their big neighbor and install a Marxian government? Or would they just choose to emigrate? Many did but since Finns were not so big on farming and most of the super-prime agricultural land in Minnesota had been claimed, they went to work in the mines of NE Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Mining by its very nature is a brutal occupation. In fact, throughout most of history, mining was done by convict or slave labor. Cecil Rhodes, the guy who organized the massive material plunder of South Africa was reported to have said that the most essential piece of equipment for running a mine was the machine gun.

In 1910, Arvo Kustaa Halberg (Gus Hall) was born into one of those radical Finnish families on the Mesabi Range. The family had 10 children. His father had been black-balled for participating in an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) strike so they teetered on the thin edge of survival. The IWW was very important to Finnish culture—in fact, the weekly IWW paper headquartered in Duluth was also printed in Finnish.

At 15, Hall would leave home to work in a timber camp. Two years later in 1927, he was recruited to the CPUSA by his father. Hall became an organizer for the Young Communist League in the upper Midwest. In 1931, an apprenticeship in the YCL qualified Hall to travel to the Soviet Union to study for two years at the International Lenin School in Moscow. Hall ran for president four times — in 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1984 — the last two times with Angela Davis as his VP running mate.

That leaves the Swedes who came to dominate important state offices representing both Republicans and Democrats (as well as the the very Populist Farmer-Labor Party in the 1920s and 30s.) The story is long and interesting with some towering politicians but arguably the most interesting was Charles August Lindbergh, a lawyer from the 6th congressional district and one of the founders of the Farmer-Labor Party. If the Swedes had a ringer, he was it.

In 1808, a boy named Ola Månsson was born in Smedstorp, Sweden, a small town in the southern agricultural province of Skåne. Through his marriage to Ingar Jönsdotter, who brought in a substantial dowry, and his own hard work, Månsson became a well-to-do farmer and in 1847 was elected to the Swedish Riksdag of the Estates, representing the farmers' estate. He also worked as a bank director. When accused of bribery and embezzlement, Månsson changed his name to August Lindbergh. He left his wife Ingar Jönsdotter and their seven children, and fled to the United States with his mistress (a Stockholm waitress, Lovisa Jansdotter Carlén) and their illegitimate infant son Carl in 1859. Lovisa became Louisa and little Carl became Charles August (our budding Minnesota congressman).

Yes, there are Swedish women who could cause a member of the Riksdag to take such a rash step away from a respectable life but since young Charles would grow to be an extraordinarily handsome man, we can assume she was a stunning beauty. But just because Ola Månsson / Lindbergh was no longer a member of the Riksdag representing Swedish agriculture during the political upheavals of the late 19th century did not mean he had forgotten the life lessons of his political career. Charles apparently soaked up everything his father could teach him and when the time came, he attended the University of Michigan Law School—probably the best such institution anywhere close to Minnesota. He established a law practice in Little Falls and would spend considerable time and energy representing farmers in disputes with lenders.

In 1906, Charles A. Lindbergh would be elected to the US House of Representatives as a Progressive Republican. He was extraordinarily diligent and would become best-known for his opposition to the USA entry into WW I and against the establishment of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. He believed (correctly) that the Federal Reserve was unconstitutional. In 1917 Lindbergh brought articles of impeachment against members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, including Paul Warburg and William P. G. Harding, charging that they were involved "... in a conspiracy to violate the Constitution and laws of the United States ..."

Taking on both the war-mongers and the bankers turned out to be (not surprisingly) political suicide. He would never win another election. This was not for lack of effort. In 1918, Lindbergh would become one of the founding members of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. He would die from brain cancer in 1924 while campaigning for Governor as a Farmer-Laborite.

(Oh, and Congressman Lindbergh would father a son in 1902, Charles Jr., who would become at the age of 25, the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris in a custom-built Ryan monoplane, built to his specifications, on a mission planned to the last detail by the young pilot. Like his father, the Lone Eagle was tall and incredibly handsome and soon would become the first global superstar.)

The Farmer-Labor Party was really an odd combination. Farmers were largely self-employed owner-operators and were largely at the mercy of the bankers and monetary policy. The laborers were also at the mercy of these forces but probably didn't know it because they were mostly at the mercy of their factory-owning employers. Labor could strike—farmers could not. My grandfather, who had moved to Lindbergh's congressional district in 1921 to become a farmer after spending his first 22 years in USA as a union steelworker in Chicago, had become an enthusiastic Farmer-Laborite but would insist to his dying day that labor and agriculture had nothing in common. He had a point. The Laborites were an outgrowth of the IWW, were largely Marxists in philosophy and eventually Trotskyites, and were concentrated in urban areas. The farmer's side were an outgrowth of the Jeffersonians, the progressive agricultural organizations, the Populists, and most recently, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) which had in 1916, taken over the government of North Dakota.

Minnesotans liked to claim they were the country's most successful true Populists (Because the F-L Party largely dominating Minnesota politics during the Great Depression, it was one of the most successful statewide third party movements in United States history and the longest-lasting affiliate of the national Farmer–Labor movement. At its height in the 1920s and 1930s, party members included three Minnesota Governors, four United States Senators, eight United States Representatives and a majority in the Minnesota legislature.) And they would be right...except for the spectacular success of the North Dakota Nonpartisan League  (NPL).

In August of 1913, Arthur C. Townley was a successful farmer with a huge acreage of flax nearly ready for harvest near Beach North Dakota. Within minutes, a freak weather system (either hail or an early snowstorm) had wiped out the "Flax King of the Northwest". Townley was a man not inclined to go into a corner and sulk and after a trip to Bismarck, North Dakota's capital, he hatched a set of ideas that would make ND arguably the most Progressive state in USA with new institutions that other states are trying to imitate to this day. (See the partially successful efforts to bring state-run public banking to California organized by Ellen Brown—a big fan of North Dakota's State Bank.)

Townley's plan would prove be a masterpiece of agenda-driven politics. It worked like this:

  • Townley created a set of demands that addressed the big complaints of ND farmers:
  • The NPL, born in 1915, united progressives, reformers, and radicals behind a platform that called for many practical changes, ranging from improved state services and full suffrage for women to state ownership of banks, mills and elevators, and insurance.
  • The NPL dispatched agents trained to explain their new agenda across the state. These agents consisted mainly of young farmers who thoroughly understood the problems faced by anyone who tried to make a living growing food in ND. They charged $2.50 to new members of NPL.
  • Armed with this list of potent activists, the organizers approached folks running for office who were told that it made no difference the political party they represented, they could only get votes and other political support if they pledged to support the NPL agenda.
Using this method, the NPL basically won the 1916 election even though it required until 1919 to enact their whole program. Their most ambitious goal, the creation of the State Bank of North Dakota, required at least 15 more years to overcome the organized objections of private banking interests.

Business vs Industry—Veblen's class distinctions between elites

Populist is easily the most misunderstood and misused political term in existence. Anyone with a high-end USA education usually means it as a drive-by slur meant to sum up in one mega-sneer their open contempt for people who are the "hayseeds" of the social order. The myth to be defended is that the predators who run things know what they are doing and any serious deviation from their classical / neoliberal norms will plunge us all into the abyss.

The defenders of the neoliberal economic order have many valid reasons to be worried about Populism. Historically, it is a political movement of the people who actually run the real economy—farmers, builders, tradespeople, etc. They are the essential workers—Hillary's "deplorables." Or as Gene Wilder (Jim) explained Rock Ridge to Cleavon Little (Sheriff Bart) in Blazing Saddles, "You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons."

It turns out that the citizen-builders may be politically naive and so caught up in their honest and rational world that they often become the easy prey for the practitioners of force and fraud who devote their lives perfecting the various lies necessary to keep their schemes afloat. But morons they are not. Not. Even. Close.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen, a lowly assistant professor at the newly opened University of Chicago, would publish perhaps the most important book on Political Economy ever written. Entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class, (TOLC) Veblen would utterly destroy the smug idea that the people who did the community's necessary work were, you know...morons. In his world, the people who sought to achieve status with open displays of waste represented such a significant fraction of the population, they should be considered culturally dominant. Chapter titles include: Conspicuous Leisure, Conspicuous Waste, and of course Conspicuous Consumption—some of the strategies used by our would-be rulers to prove that their social uselessness is actually a virtue AND a sign of high status. The main reason TOLC has never been out of print since 1899 is that it is still intellectually relevant. The insights are just easier to see because the worst excesses of Leisure Class status seeking and emulation have been amplified by advertising and "industrialized" by sophisticated communication advances such as radio, TV, the Internet, and smartphones.

It took until 1914 for Veblen to publish the bookend to TOLC entitled The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. Unlike his original masterpiece where absolutely deadpan factual descriptions of Leisure Class antics can often provoke genuine laughter, his description of the producing class celebrates some rarely mentioned insights and is as serious as a heart attack. They include:
  • Like the Leisure Classes, the Industrial Classes also stratify. As there is a huge social and economic gap between the predations of a pickpocket and a hedge-fund owner, so there is a gap between a strawberry picker and Tesla's senior engineer for battery development—even though both are clearly members of the Industrial Class.
  • The advances of the industrial classes are derived from advances in efficiency and accuracy. Both are extreme manifestations of the virtues of honesty and trustworthiness. The more honest the culture, the more sophisticated the technology.
So why is this even interesting—not to mention important?
Veblen's context

Anyone who has attended a Veblen conference will soon encounter a serious chin-stroking session whose purpose is to address the question, "What were the sources of Veblen's ideas?" If there are academics in the house, the answer is usually some variation on Immanuel Kant (because he was the subject of Veblen's Ph.D. thesis at Yale) or Charles Sanders Peirce (the father of Pragmatism who taught Veblen during his brief stay at Johns Hopkins).

He also encountered William Graham Sumner who was his doctoral adviser at Yale and while the two maintained a respectful relationship and Veblen took to calling himself an evolutionary economist, he was a lifelong critic of Sumner's Social Darwinism and so this link is generally perceived as negative. In fact that was Veblen's pattern—most of the people Veblen encountered in his pursuit of the "higher learning" turned out to be intellectual opposites. John Bates Clark, the man who introduced Veblen to economics at Carleton College, spent significant intellectual energy trying to debunk Institutionalism—the school of thought Veblen helped co-found. Veblen returned the favor by trashing Clark's pet idea—The Theory of Marginal Utility—at every opportunity.

And no, Veblen was never a Marxist. But academic conferences usually cough up a few Marxists who believe the following:
  • Veblen and Marx were both strong critics of "capitalism."
  • Both used class analysis in their critiques
  • Because Marx preceded Veblen in the chronological order, it is appropriate to think of Veblen as Marx Jr.

The problem with this line of "reasoning" is that it mimics the let's-worship-the-gods strategy so beloved by the Leisure Classes. Fundamentalists by their very nature retard growth in all sorts of forms of understanding. Marx's economic theories were based largely on David Ricardo's so are not especially sophisticated. Therefore, people predisposed to quoting Marx tend to get a LOT of economic analysis wrong—often murderously wrong. Comparing Veblen to Marx because both were Political Economists is a little like comparing an ox cart to a cargo jet—both may be means of transporting goods but that is where the similarities end.

Veblen vs Marx
Epistemology—why learning methods were extremely important

Veblen was in many ways, the leading intellectual for the Populist movement. Marxists, at least back in 1968 when I got sucked into those all-night sophomoric debates over grand political theory, would pretend to identify with the working class. Yet mostly they ridiculed the backwardness of the proles and thought of themselves as virtuous missionaries tasked with bringing Marxian theory to their poor dark souls. Not surprisingly, the real working classes absolutely despised these posers. In May 8, 1970, an anti-war demonstration in New York was set upon by construction workers. The ensuing brawl, called the hard-hat riot, lasted two hours. The Marxists pretty much gave up on the working classes after that.

So back to where did Veblen get his ideas? They were an extremely accurate and scholarly manifestations of Minnesota Populism combined with Wisconsin Progressivism. There really IS a difference between getting your worldview while reading in the British Museum Library (like Marx) and forming one while participating in nation-building at the ragged edge of civilization. BIG. Huge. Veblen and Alvin Hansen were prime examples of the "sons of the pioneers" economists.

What makes Veblen especially fascinating is that he understood from life experience that while the producing classes had spent most of history at the bottom end of the social order, the order was changing dramatically. The enemies of the Producing classes could claim that Producers were morons but as they increased their abilities by incorporating the 19th century explosions in science and engineering, that slander became increasing absurd. In Veblen's world view, the Leisure Classes were ridiculous in spite of their educational credentials. (See Veblen's destruction of the pretensions of the University of Chicago in his 1918 masterpiece called The Higher Learning in America. Review.) By contrast, the "morons" had figured out mass-produced steel, radio, electric illumination and thousands of other examples. Turns out there's nothing average about the "average" man. The Producers have created new elites—the scientifically and technologically literates and the world they have created. Interestingly, Frank's central theses is that the anti-populists have barely changed their critiques since 1892. The leisure classes are like that—they rarely improve unless one is willing to argue the George W. Bush was an improvement over Lincoln.

Why is this important?

Perhaps the central criticism of the Populists was their persistent refusal to accept the expertise of their "betters." Of course, how could it be otherwise? The basic thrust of the Pops was that those in power were doing it wrong—and those in power believed things that were making the lives of the Producing classes absolutely miserable. Ergo, the whole point of Pop political organizing was to overthrow ruling / Leisure Class expertise.

Of course, the elites were not "failures"—they were conducting class warfare. This was the heart of Veblen's class analysis. The Producing Classes were responsible for organizing the community's necessary work. The Leisure Classes made their living off the labors of the Producers. The Leisure Classes seized their wealth through the time-honored methods of force and fraud including warfare, slavery, the Gold Standard, and usury. IF the Leisure Classes allowed the Producers to keep more of the community's income, their own income would drop—theoretically to zero. So the destruction of the Populists was necessary for Leisure Class survival.

Frank cannot avoid the subject of elite "failures". In some ways, that is the whole point of The People, NO. He provides a raft of examples but perhaps the most amusing is his example of a 2018 work citing the dangers of populism. As an example of goofy squared, he mentions Yascha Mounk, the Johns Hopkins professor who claimed in his 2018 book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It which tries to explain the causes of the latest populist rise and investigates how to renew liberal democracy. His latest book has been translated into eleven languages, and hailed as one of 2018's Best Books of the Year by multiple publications, including the Financial Times. On Pg. 114, Mounk claims that the first significant populist was a right-wing Austrian politician named Jörg Haider who was most prominent in the 1980s and 90s. Good grief—getting your facts wrong by 100 years is NOT good form.

For me, the ugliest example of elite nonsense during my life was provided by Robert Strange McNamara. the head of the Department of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was an intellectual prodigy who would earn a Harvard MBA 1939 and then would become a Harvard professor in 1940. During WW II, following his involvement there in a program to teach analytical approaches used in business to officers of the United States Army Air Forces, he entered the USAAF as a captain in early 1943, serving most of World War II with its Office of Statistical Control. In 1946, Tex Thornton, a colonel under whom McNamara had served, put together a group of former officers from the Office of Statistical Control to go into business together. Thornton had seen an article in Life magazine portraying Ford as being in dire need of reform. Henry Ford II, himself a World War II veteran from the Navy, hired the entire group of 10, including McNamara. The "Whiz Kids", as they came to be known, helped the money-losing company reform its chaotic administration through modern planning, organization, and management control systems. The "whiz kids" may have "saved" Ford but the introduction of Leisure Class MBA types into the automobile industry would cause severe long-term problems that would eventually cripple car-making in USA. In Detroit, folks tended to divide MBAs and traditional management into "Bean Counters" and "car guys". As the bean counters gained influence, the cars became cheap and nasty. McNamara's claim to fame as President of Ford was the Falcon. "Cheap and nasty" is a compliment for the vile pile of junk that was Falcon.

When he became the Secretary of Defense, he would bring his bean counting ideas to war fighting. The obsession with body counts in Vietnam came from his core belief that if you cannot count something, it doesn't exist. This belief turned the Vietnam War into a war crime. Of course, McNamara wasn't the only mega-fool in this effort. David Halberstam would critique the experts who authored this disaster in his seminal 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest.

The Producer-Class Merger

The DFL was created on April 15, 1944, with the merger of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the larger Farmer–Labor Party. Leading the merger effort were Elmer Kelm, the head of the Minnesota Democratic Party and the founding chairman of the DFL; Elmer Benson, effectively the head of the Farmer–Labor Party by virtue of his leadership of its dominant left-wing faction; and rising star Hubert H. Humphrey, who chaired the Fusion Committee that accomplished the union and then went on to chair its first state convention.

By the party's second convention in 1946, tensions had re-emerged between members of the two former parties. While the majority of delegates supported left-wing policies, Humphrey managed to install a more conservative ally, Orville Freeman, as party secretary—who became Secretary of agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Some Farmer–Labor leaders such as Benson moved to the Progressive Party. Hubert Humphrey did many things to destroy the central ideas of the Farmer-Labor Party. He could give amazing speeches on the importance of farmers, but when it came to legislation, he favored the interests of the grain traders. He was a loyal supporter of his patron's ideas as formulated by Dwayne Andreas of Archer-Daniels Midland. The best example of this partnership was the Food for Peace legislation.

The Democratic Party convention of 1948 devolved into an angry mess. Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis gave his landmark civil rights speech which caused the walkout of the Dixicrats led by Strom Thurmond. There went a significant fraction of the "New Deal" coalition. President Truman had a very unenthusiastic following who blamed him for everything from the nuking of Japanese cities, the creation of the national security state with the formation of the CIA, and creation of the Cold War.

My father absolutely loathed Truman who he called a "cheap mobster" because of his ties to the Pendergast Gang in Kansas City. Both parents were absolutely NOT going to vote for Thurmond as they both had a history of civil rights activism. The Farmer-Labor dead enders supported Progressive Party Henry Wallace, the former Agriculture Secretary and Vice President for FDR. So in the election of 1948, my parents voted for Wallace. I was born in July of 1949—something my mother would mention whenever I tried to brag about my radical credentials during my anti-war years in the late 1960s. She would actually giggle about supporting Wallace as a radical AND quite lusty choice.

When the votes were counted in the little town where my father was the young Lutheran clergyman, the published results indicated that Wallace had only gotten two votes and my parents knew who those two were. This example demonstrated (again) that the Lutheran clergy were often (a lot) to the left of their congregations and that party politics would be debated only within our home.

Even so, my father was quite political. In the spirit of the "Cooperative Commonwealth", he had a sermon where he asserted that Jesus was the first Cooperator. In 1957, he strongly backed the integration of Little Rock schools and gave several sermons on that dilemma. And he was always on hand to support farmers who were losing their farms as a result of policies advocated by Republican reactionaries such as Eisenhower's assistant Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz.

The Farmer-Labor Party pretty much died in the election of 1948. We still call the Democratic Party in Minnesota the DFL, but there is almost no one who still remembers what the F-L stands for. Humphrey purged all the Marxists during the McCarthyite era which removed both intellect and muscle from the labor wing. Guys like Lindbergh were long gone. The rural population continued to shrink because almost all jobs are less strenuous than farming. Lot of really smart farm kids in Minnesota became doctors, engineers, and inventors, etc. The people who stayed in farming joined niche organizations such as Farm Bureau (well-to-do Republicans) Farmer's Union (the default farm organization in North Dakota) and my personal favorite, The National Farmer Organization (mostly struggling young farmers).

My NFO experience was a real accident. When I was in Junior High, I became fascinated with building flying model airplanes. The BIG problem with this hobby is that building models is governed by the same aerodynamic laws as real planes. The outcome of this problem is these models are really only successfully built by skilled adults. So I talked six other kids into forming a club and went looking for adult supervision. The guy we found was beyond perfect. He was a licensed pilot with a commercial rating. He owned 1/4 of a Mooney Mk. 20. And he built really spectacular models and flew them well. His day job was signing up members for the NFO.

When he discovered I was interested in his sales pitch, he decided to see if he could get me to understand it. And so I learned the NFO position on banking and monetary policy and soon discovered that these subjects were central to virtually every discussion of agricultural economics I would hear in my youth. I heard them in barber shops and church basements. I heard them in the stands at fast-pitch softball games. A few years back I read that the Bank of England had published a paper on fractional reserve banking that exactly mirrored the official NFO position I heard in 1963.

And then came the recession of 1981-2. The Federal Reserve System led by Paul Volcker decided that the best way to fight inflation was to raise the prime rate to 21.5%. Many sectors of the economy were sent reeling but here in Minnesota, the small and medium-sized family farms were essentially wiped out. Some had been operating successfully for four generations. Even the best-managed farms could not withstand 21.5% interest. Yes indeed, monetary policy was a matter of life and death.

Predatory monetary policy made my grandfather's life extremely awful in the 1920s and 30s. This made him angry and bitter and made my mother's life sad and miserable. When she graduated from the eighth grade with seriously good grades, her father could not afford to send her to high school, a pain she felt for the rest of her life. She was often in rooms where she was the best read, best qualified, and the most poorly educated. Her mother was ground down by overwork and eventually became so homesick, she would cry herself to sleep. In 1936 she died from a botched gall bladder surgery but a better diagnosis was that she died from a broken heart. This misery took place in a poorly heated house in one of the colder parts of Minnesota. (For a much better description of northern rural living conditions, read Ole Rolvaag's  Giants in the Earth). 

Mother's younger brother was so desperate for a little spending money that he joined the National Guard because it paid $1 a month. When the Japanese attacked in 1941, he was one of the first sent to the Pacific where he spent the whole war. He managed to escape injury but returned with a nasty drinking habit. During his occasional dry periods, he taught himself computer programming and calculus but would eventually die in a corner of the Salvation Army in Chicago.

The Little Blue Books

Frank's descriptions of the anti-Populists are often tragic and depressing. But anyone who doesn't know the history of the real Populists should consider his work required reading. Even though The People No can easily be read in three hours, I would NOT recommend it because there are hundreds of deliciously well-crafted sentences that should be savored and will likely be missed in a hasty reading. I would quibble about some small things like the casual treatment of Minnesota and North Dakota in his telling of Populism's effect on Progressive politics in USA. I think his descriptions of the anti-Pops is pretty bloodless considering the immense suffering and damage they caused the honest and inventive nation builders whose hard work they plundered and destroyed.

When my mother informed me that my grandfather, who only had a fourth-grade education but was still fluent in three languages, had learned the skills necessary to be good at specialty metalwork and operate an independent farm, was also an enthusiastic reader of the Little Blue Books, I was determined to read some of them. I met a guy who had collected them whenever he found them at garage and yard sales. He had around 2000. Some were duplicates. Some were damaged. Some looked like they had never been opened. I had no idea which of them my grandfather had read so just started reading those I thought would have interested him. After reading about 400, I decided it was statistically likely I had read some of the same books my grandfather had. What an experience! These were sophisticated books covering difficult subjects and my grandfather was reading them in his second language. Wow, just wow!

So I just assumed that Frank would cover this literary output of the publishing house in Girard Kansas. He did, but he makes us read to almost the last pages of his book. Thankfully, his descriptions of the Little Blue Books were lovingly accurate. 

Thank you Thomas Frank!

Too much spare time under quarantine??


Someone just figured out that it was possible to build a GOOGOL:1 gear reduction set using 186 Lego gears. Think of it this way. For every person you know who cannot add or explain the difference between a million and a billion, there is likely someone who does this sort of math for FUN. (Bell-shaped curve and all ;-) For extra fun, open this in YouTube and follow the comments. There's a bunch of math nerds out there!

Unfortunately, math nerds can only help a little with a problem like the Covid19 outbreak. In order to do good science, we need rigorous methods of collecting data—something made functionally impossible without widespread and highly accurate testing. We don't even make generic Advil in USA anymore. Those mass-produced accurate tests?—WAY harder. A safe and effective vaccine?—may never happen. Even treatments to control symptoms are still only in the imagining stage.

What this means is this is a disease that we are just going to have to learn to live with. Unfortunately, the folks in the businesses of managing meaningful social change such as political leaders are almost entirely populated by scientifically and mathematical illiterates who believe that major human problems are best addressed by scolding. It may be possible to organize a kindergarten that way but a global infectious pandemic?—probably not.

Jamie Galbraith explains his interesting life

Watching the career path of James Galbraith has been a minor hobby of mine ever since I discovered that my interest in economics was directly related to how many of his father's books I had read. The fascination with whatever Galbraith's economics was called was based in my mind on the fact that papa John Kenneth (Ken) Galbraith grew up on a working farm in Ontario and entered the economics profession through the door of agricultural economics. He gave speeches for the Farm Bureau when starting out.

I believed this was important because:
  1. I trust the intellectual habits and practices of those really smart farm kids. Farming is an Ur profession. Providing for the community’s nourishment is a LOT harder than it looks. It is the basis of civilization itself. Out of this scramble came the people who literally built the country. And they created social structures as enlightened as any in human history.
  2. Yea, for the home team. While I envied the childhood of James and wished I could have sat in a corner as JKG discussed the affairs of the world with the best educated economic minds of his generation, I could not. Northwest North Dakota is a LONG way from Harvard. What I could do, however, was recreate the education the farm kid from Ontario got watching his parents and neighbors as they sought to invent a way to get farming to pay the bills out at the thin edge of civilization. Products of this struggle have a reality base that informs the rest of their thoughts. Done right, the resulting thinking can be quite spectacular.
And so, while I avidly read JKG’s books and articles and tried very hard to emulate his thought processes, I was really interested in Jamie’s life because, after all, he is only three years younger than I. If the economics that JKG and friends had been perfecting since the earliest days of Roosevelt’s New Deal was to survive, the next generation of economists would have to learn the institutional practices that actually pushed forward the project of eliminating grinding poverty while attempting to overcome the Great Depression. It is not beyond reasonable speculation that JKG would want at least one of his sons to follow in his intellectual footsteps. And so Jamie would become the crown prince of JKG’s explanations for how the American Industrial System actually worked.

If you read James’ memoir below, you will see that he got a training that was the product of JKGs best ideas. Harvard AND Yale. Professors with international reputations and probably a friend of the family. A “visiting scholar” appointment at Brookings when it was still relevant. And finally he wound up at University of Texas—Austin. This school had enthusiastically embraced all the neoliberal rationalizations in its school of economics so of course, young Jamie would not be welcomed there. However, UT-Austin had long been home to the best Institutionalists in the land led by the spectacular Clarence Ayres. Their wisdom was no longer welcome in the economics department either but they knew a fellow creature of the New Deal so gave him the job of Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The career contrasts between JKG and James are extremely interesting. JKG was by the end of the 1960s arguably the most famous face the economics profession would ever have. His books were read in dozens of countries. He wrote for Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine. He taught at Harvard and had acolytes all over the world. His 10-part video series on economics called The Age of Uncertainty (some episodes can be found on YouTube) was co-produced by the CBC, BBC and PBS. His breed of economic thought was accepted as the rational middle because the practitioners had done a mostly excellent job of running things—post-WW II reconstruction being the best example.

By comparison, James had a modest career that was useful. The man did not waste his life. But he was not the titan like his father—mostly because he had about 1/100 the opportunities to do a good job. In my humble opinion, the factor that explains this most simply was the change in zeitgeist. The economic theories of JKG had ceased to be cool. Where I come from, the enlightened, passionate Keynesians who had run the economics department at the University of Minnesota since the glory days of Alvin Hansen in the 1920s had long since forgotten the reason why Hansen was so enthusiastic about activist government economic intervention. Where he came from (Viborg South Dakota) such economic policy was literally a matter of life and death. This passion also informed JKG.

But Jamie did not grow up on a working farm, he grew up in a splendid home large enough to entertain a steady stream of guests eager to swap ideas with the leading light of what was coming to be called Keynesianism. Jamie's childhood economic demonstrations taught him that economics was this delightfully difficult problem to be solved, not a dangerous test against arctic-like winters and you must be clever enough to still have food in the spring.

Jamie's also suffered wrong intellectual turns even (or especially) considering his gee-whiz educational paths. Economics was changing through the addition of computing power. The math geeks would pose the big questions for the high-powered mainframes to crunch and suddenly, the great mysteries would be revealed through the statistical wisdom of regression analysis. Analysis as modeling guided by machine-perfect math sure sounds like a good idea.

Personally, I was not impressed. I wasted much of my youth building model airplanes and learned a profound lesson. The reason that model airplanes don't look or fly like real airplanes is that all sorts of problems are introduced when you try to scale the outcome. There are guys who want their scale models so authentic, they even want the rivets in the right place. Unfortunately, if the rivets get too small, they no longer can work as fasteners so they are reduced to decoration. Worse, there are physics problems that cause small airplanes to fly differently than large planes. For example, the governing bodies who make the rules for judging scale models have modified those rules so that models are still considered authentic even if the tail surfaces are oversized. Why? Because a WW II fighter with accurately-sized tail surfaces will barely fly—if at all. Oh those Reynolds numbers.

Then there are the problems of predicting behavior using mathematical formulas. Try, for example, to animate the walking behavior of a small toddler in a 3D animation. Using math formulas to predict such random behavior is virtually impossible. In fact, realistic cartoon behavior is really only possible if one puts markers on a real child, let him walk across the floor, take those marker locations and attach them to the model and animate the result. And yet, there are economists from around the world who actually believe they can predict large-scale human motion like market behavior with a few elegant math formulas. I am reminded of that arrogance when I watch just how difficult it is to make a self-driving car. And this is an EASY problem. There are states in USA that issue driver's licenses to 15-year olds.

When Jamie Galbraith lists the learning experiences that were mostly a waste of time he includes learning matrix algebra. (See paragraph #4 below.) So essentially he learned the same lessons as I only in a Harvard classroom. Unfortunately, this mislearning sunk the whole econ profession for at least 50 years. Worse, because this mislearning was so difficult and time consuming, other necessary things had to be dropped. The most serious is the fact that one can now get an advanced degree in economics without knowing the history of the subject. It's no wonder that economists have gotten almost everything wrong for the past 50 years.

So here's to James K. Galbraith who devoted his life to recreating the methods employed by the economists who guided the industrialized west to the greatest prosperity in human history. Historians are important too.

James Galbraith’s memoir of lifelong struggles to make economics a force for good

James Galbraith, 06/01/2020

Economics is sometimes portrayed as a contest between saltwater and freshwater, between the coastal pseudo-Keynesians and the Great Lakes neo-Walrasians, between the flaws-and-friction model-builders and the free-market hard-liners. As evolutionists know, both habitats are fairly sterile. Evolution occurs in the backwaters, in the mudflats, bogs, lagoons, cypress swamps and wetlands, in the shadows of perpetually endangered habitat. In this article I will sketch my personal journey through the backwaters. Intellectually they are my home, as they have been for every other recipient of the Veblen-Commons prize, with just one exception.

The exception was my father, who lived and worked on high ground, which he reached out of nowhere or more precisely Southern Ontario and Giannini Hall, by a unique combination of gifts including practical knowledge of price control and strategic bombing, the principled and imaginative use of state power under emergency conditions, and surpassing grace in command of the English language. But the high ground was barren ground. John Kenneth Galbraith’s influence spread around the world but it could not take root at home.

My father’s lasting gift to me has been a solid sense that an economist is either a practical player in policy battles or nothing at all. Economics is not a theology of the human condition. Nor is it a branch of pure logic, however much the attempt to make the notion into grist for undergraduates may warm academic seats. Catherine the Great had it right in 1765 when she chartered the Free Economic Society of Russia, suppressed in 1917, revived in 1982 and of which I’m the only known American member, and endowed it with the logo of a beehive and a one-word motto: “Useful.”

At Berkeley in 1969 one lecture, by Abba Lerner, did not deflect me from French literature and the anti-war movement. Then at Harvard I took my first economics course from Wassily Leontief, from whom I absorbed a fascination with hierarchical category schemes and matrix algebra, two misleading guides to the field, which spent thirty years in remission before breaking out to decorate a research agenda. I also became, uselessly, an expert on the production of ammunition for the Vietnam war.

In a year at Cambridge I saw Sraffa on his bicycle, absorbed enough capital theory to be inoculated against production functions, skirted the theatrics between Hahn and Robinson as much she inspired reverence and terror, drew close to Kaldor on the eve of his great last stand against Thatcher and monetarism, was amused by the geometric pyrotechnics of Richard Goodwin, entranced by the beautiful matching of Sraffa to Keynes in Pasinetti’s lectures, and admired Adrian Wood’s quasi-Galbraithian theories of profit and wages. Adrian, my tutor, to whom I owe a deep debt, also sensed the barrenness of high ground, and soon gave it up for the World Bank and China.

Henry Reuss extracted me to Washington in June 1975, just in time for two great events. One was the invention of the Conduct of Monetary Policy hearings, soon re-christened Humphrey-Hawkins, the first formal and regular congressional oversight of the Federal Reserve. They were my baby for five years, and they led to the “dual mandate” – full employment and price stability – the most Keynesian and most successful charter of any central bank. The other was the New York City financial crisis, the dawn of disaster capitalism, three weeks into my Hill career. I was thrown into it at 23 and never emerged, a life-long ambulance chaser of debt debacles.

Of my PhD years at Yale, 1976-1979, little comes to mind – routine drill on dying topics, logic-chopping whose flaws I already understood. Sid Winter generously lent his protection. With help from Lucy Ferguson, for a dozen years my wife, I explored numerical taxonomy and applied it to budget expenditure categories in a thesis only one person ever read: Paulo Du Pin Calmon, now of the University of Brasilia, who became my first PhD student and would help launch the inequality project. Otherwise I diverted myself, a week each month, by going back to Washington and the Banking Committee to skirmish with the resident monetarists and to harass the central bankers, from Arthur Burns to Paul Volcker, and eventually to Maryland for a year, marked most by a first major paper, a comparative institutionalist study of credit and industrial policies in France, West Germany, Great Britain and Sweden, published by the Joint Economic Committee in 1981.

Then the Revolution came. A dog’s breakfast of damaging dogmas – supply-side economics, monetarism, deregulation and privatisation, each among the rising academic doctrines of the previous decade, softened in ultimate effect only by an aggressive tax-cut and military Keynesianism. The problem of the early Reagan revolutionaries was not that they were academically disreputable as many claimed, but that they actually weren’t. At the Joint Economic Committee we fought them all, cooks and bakers in the front lines, backed by stalwarts like Bob Eisner, Walt Rostow – and also great luminaries, Tobin, Leontief and Klein, who appeared together in 1982. The New York Times ran their picture on the front page with a caption, but no story; I was shattered until my Republican colleagues emerged from their offices, one by one, to offer strictly professional congratulations. A policy triumph followed: the collapse of monetarism, and a political triumph, 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms, aided by ten percent unemployment. It was enough to stall the revolution, for a time.

Thereafter the economy recovered but the damage was done. The rise of finance and technology, disinflation, globalisation, debt peonage and the decline of industry, the rise of bicoastal inequalities, and the rusting away of the Midwest, giving rise first to Clinton and then to Trump – for all of these the course was set by Reagan and Volcker in the early 1980s. And the dogmas too morphed and lived on, shapeshifting zombies reinvented as exportable commodities in the form of the Washington Consensus, inflation targeting and neoliberalism, each eventually squeezed dry of doctrine until only the policy shells remain – tax cuts, central bank independence, fire-sale privatisations, deficit – and debt-aversion, all too useful to require the foundation of thought.

I came to Texas as the Old Institutionalists – Ayres, Gordon, Marshall – were fading out. Yet their ethos lingered even if few could detect it. For me the path forward lay in merging Institutionalist mesoeconomics with Keynes’s monetary-production economic space-time, modelled on Einstein – a thought planted by Skidelsky at Rostow’s poolside – and the lot with Leontief’s matrix-sensibility, eigenvectors and eigenvalues complete, to complement neoclassically-inflected econometrics with a non-parametric paradigm revealing the half-hidden structures in economic data. Peter Albin caught the gist and urged me forward. All this was far beyond my abilities but somehow just the right group of students coalesced at just the right time – from China, Portugal, Korea, Mexico, and later on Spain, Belarus, India, Sudan, Colombia, Argentina, France, Poland, and Iran.

Two currents emerged from this work. One applied numerical taxonomy to time-series vectors, notably wage change, reconstructing industrial and national-income classification schemes to distil the underlying structural affinities revealed by co-evolution through time. Steven Weinberg told me this was “cladistics.” We combined it with the extraction of discriminant functions – eigenvectors and eigenvalues complete (!) – which isolate and rank the dominant forces of economic change in each place and time. A referee reported that “economists do not use these techniques.” Seismologists, I later learned, had worked them out to distinguish earthquakes from nuclear explosions.

The second current was the measurement of economic inequalities from administrative statistics – payroll and employment records, mostly – using a generalised entropy measure, the between-groups component of Theil’s T statistic. The advantages of this Institutionalist approach are depth, range and precision, with results that largely mirror the best household surveys but with dense and consistent matrices of measures, suitable for panel analyses using standard techniques, from which time-and space patterns emerge with great clarity, showing on a global scale how debt and exchange-rate crises and regime changes drive inequality up, and how better export prices, lower interest rates and sustained social-democratic growth can bring it down. After an early presentation to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia John Archibald Wheeler came up to encourage me; my circle back toward economic space-time was complete.

Our approach to inequality has proved impossible to ignore entirely – it’s easy, cheap, accurate and replicable. It can be applied to many problems; most recently Jaehee Choi and I have shown how US states with the greatest increases in inequalities drift toward Democrats in presidential elections. But the larger point is the relocation of distributive analysis from labour markets and micro theory to macroeconomics on a global, interdependent scale, driven by structures of financial hegemony and power. Once again extracting information from matrices, this empirical and descriptive work yields a merger in practice of Keynes, Minsky, Galbraith père and Pasinetti, with distributive dynamics and a potential to unify economic analysis under an Institutionalist, Post Keynesian, Structuralist, MMT common front, buttressed by evidence and an expansive research agenda. Charles Saunders Peirce on Kepler comes to mind, that his gift to astronomy lay in impressing on men’s minds that the thing to do was to sit down to the figures and work out what the places of Mars actually were. Once again, the mainstream turns a deaf ear, to this day the macroeconomics of inequality – let alone the global macroeconomics of anything – does not exist in the JEL classification codes.

A further and ongoing evolutionary development is an elaboration, with Jing Chen, of the biophysical principles that must underpin a unified, reconstructed economics as they do every living and mechanical system. Only through this lens can economics understand scale, duration, resource costs, climate change and above all the essential role of regulation, without which mammals die, machines break, companies fail and banks and financial systems melt down. Our metaphors are already biophysical, somehow our thought and teaching and research should begin to catch up.

Still and finally, at least for now, an economist must be useful. For an academic like a politician this means taking your chances as they come along. In 1989 I helped to trigger debt default and the Brady Plan in Brazil, making of Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira a lifelong friend. From 1993 to 1997 I was of some use as Chief Technical Adviser for Macroeconomic Reform and Strengthening Institutions to the State Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China, my advice was largely to steer clear of Western economists and above all, not to open the capital account. Those results speak for themselves. Economists for Peace and Security kept me busy for twenty years. In 2015 I joined Yanis Varoufakis in Greece’s struggles against debt peonage and neoliberal austerity; we continue to work together on Democracy in Europe, the Green New Deal and the Progressive International. In 2017 I lectured in St Petersburg on the pragmatic economics of John Kenneth Galbraith, on the centennial of the storming of the Winter Palace and the 50th anniversary of The New Industrial State.

And when Bernie Sanders who does not need my advice becomes President next year, I’ll throw in with him for what it may be worth. I have hopes for a better world, free of imperial delusions, maximally demilitarised, authentically democratic, not too unequal, working together on common problems, saving the planet for a while longer. Well, anyway, one can dream.

Thank you very much.

Remarks by James Galbraith on receiving the Veblen-Commons Award of the Association for Evolutionary Economics. More information.

The Dismal Forecasts of the Dismal Scientists

How economists keep getting things wrong and not learning from their mistakes

by James K. Galbraith
January 10, 2020

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
(Richard II, Act III, Scene 2)

So it was in San Diego in early January at the annual meetings among the gathered economists, dismal professionals to a man and (occasional) woman. The New York Times on January 8 aptly summarized the concerns: high deficits and public debt, low interest rates, trade wars, and slow productivity growth. According to the Times, these warnings were echoed by economists from the World Bank, the Federal Reserve, from Washington think tanks and, of course, from Harvard.

Beneath the ominous prognoses lie two impulses. One is the natural human desire not to be embarrassed—yet again—by failing to have warned that things may go bad. The academics quoted in the Times were in several cases architects of past disasters, or at best blind and mute as disasters approached. It would not do to have the same said again, and if a disaster does not occur, few will remember the warnings. The other impulse is intellectual inertia: The economists, like France’s Bourbons, learn nothing and forget nothing; they cast their omens in terms of parables read in textbooks many decades back. To change ideas now would call into question the very foundation of their careers.

Thus we read that trade wars are bad for growth. For a country running a large deficit, the opposite is actually true: Tariffs divert demand from imports and so support domestic expansion, unless the retaliation against exports is even more extreme, which has not been the case. Economists cannot admit this because they are tied to the doctrine of comparative advantage and the virtues of free trade, textbook principles at odds with the whole history of successful industrialization and development, including in the United States.

Low interest rates are said to be a risk because some day they will end. But the Federal Reserve has been trying to raise rates—or at least talking about it—for almost a decade. Every move in that direction brings financial turmoil, here or in the wider world, and the Fed backs off. The reality, at last bleakly admitted by the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, is that low interest rates are locked in—in technical terms, by the shallow yield curve. That is, you can’t raise short-term rates without pushing them up above sticky long-term rates, which is perhaps the world’s most reliable recipe for credit market chaos.

But if the likely permanence of low interest rates were fully admitted, then the Congressional Budget Office would have to revise its forecasts for future interest rates, which have for many years projected that they would rise far above current levels. And lowering those forecasts would, to a large degree, make the scary projections of high future federal deficits and rising debt ratios go away. This would undercut the third pillar of the pessimistic case, already weakened by devastating criticism of its feeble theoretical foundation and flawed empirical support. And yet, amazingly, there at the meetings was Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff yet again, preaching to a large crowd about the public debt.

The Times accurately notes that economists are coming around to the view that even under the best conditions economic growth will remain slow—a position argued at book length by yours truly five years ago, but never mind. Part of my argument in The End of Normal concerned the fourth pessimistic pillar, slow productivity growth. I argued that in our age of technological upheaval capital goods have become cheap, therefore business investment as a share of total output has declined, and so the economy relies more than ever on the strength of consumer demand, bolstered by credit cards and student and automotive debt. The evidence since then bears this out. Alas, this means that otherwise worthy calls for new spending on brick-and-mortar infrastructure and on research and development bear no relation to the supposed problem of low productivity growth.

Recessions happen not when public deficits are large and interest rates low, but when the private sector takes on more debt than it can handle and interest rates rise.

In reality, as an unquoted presentation at San Diego by modern monetary theorist Randall Wray of the Levy Economics Institute showed, recessions happen not when public deficits are large and interest rates low, but when the private sector takes on more debt than it can handle and interest rates rise. This is what happened in the late 1990s and in the mid-2000s, in the run-ups to the NASDAQ crash and the mortgage debacle. It hasn’t happened this time—yet. So far this recovery, thanks to federal spending and to tax cuts, however regressive, the overall private sector in the United States is still solvent. It is so precisely because private saving and public deficits are mirror images, and because lower import prices and surging onshore energy production have kept the trade deficit under control as the economy grew. And while household debt has grown, lower interest rates have kept the burden of that debt manageable, so far.

Does all this mean there are no downside risks? Alas not. It means only that you won’t learn about them from brand-name economists who never outgrew their textbook models. A new paper, “Into the Abyss,” by an obscure young Finn, Tuomas Malinen, should however be considered for a prizewinning doomsday scenario.

Malinen is a financial economist, which means he studies a sector that most mainstream economists pretend doesn’t exist. What he finds, in a nutshell, is over-leveraged banks and hedge funds propped up with increasing desperation by central-bank operations in the repo market—overnight repurchase agreements for Treasury bills—which is today the major source of central-bank liquidity for the financial sector. The over-leverage is the result of inveterate speculative reach-for-yield, an instance of Hyman Minsky’s rule that stability creates instability, and that safe financial practices naturally degrade into Ponzi schemes. On top of this, securitized corporate loans (CLOs) have begun to look shaky, and could lose value massively in a downturn affecting corporate profits.

Those financial losses would in turn trigger bank failures, perhaps starting with Deutsche Bank, a vast operation with, Malinen says, “it is rumored” over $30 trillion in derivatives contracts—a nominal value roughly 40 percent larger than U.S. annual GDP. A failure at DB would quickly lead to bank failures throughout Europe, in countries that lack the will or the capacity to offset the calamity with the vast increases in public spending and reduced tax burdens that would be required, alongside other emergency measures such as capital controls. He further argues that China would be unable to pick up the slack—a point I’ll dispute in a minute.

Malinen has a free-market streak, and his main scenario leans toward an Andrew Mellon–style mass liquidation, followed by recovery of the survivors. He would prefer this, for all the carnage, including physical death and destruction, to a “Green-Left fascism, suppressing both individual rights and unpopular economic activities.” Even if it were true that “Nature could be saved … but at the expense of humanity reverting to slavery and oppression.”

This seems a bit over the top. Europe may well be at extreme risk as Malinen fears; the experience of Greece in the financial crisis shows that the financial and political leadership of the European Union is ruthlessly self-protective and predatory; there is no accountability for the suffering caused or recourse for the victims. China is, however, different. The government may be authoritarian but it responds quickly—and massively—to crisis because otherwise it would not survive. Financial analysts have a bit of a blind spot with respect to China; many see that country’s banking sector through Western eyes. In reality, China’s banks are backed by the government and protected by capital controls, making them essentially inseparable from the Chinese state.

And in the next crisis, the United States may finally be moved to free itself from the deadweight of mainstream economic thought, to retire a worn-out generation of policy advisers, and to move on with the great social, economic, and environmental project known as the Green New Deal. There is a history of radical experiment and popular mobilization in this country, from which democracy emerged stronger, not weaker, than it ever was before. And for many Americans, to escape from the debt trap and from domination by bankers and billionaires into a world of work and public purpose would be the very opposite of slavery and oppression. A better word would be liberation, along with a new freedom, and a new hope. more

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a professorship in government at the University of Texas at Austin.