Radio 3 Series Next Week on Paul Robeson

Radio 3’s The Essay next week is doing a series of programmes on Paul Robeson. The show’s called ‘The Essay: Paul Robeson in Five Songs’, and is on from Monday to Friday at 10.45 pm. The short description of the series by David McGillivray on page 122 of the Radio Times runs

The turbulent life of Paul Robeson, the American performer whose career was shamefully curtailed by racism and anti-Communist hysteria, is reflected in five of his songs in a series of essays through the week. His was one of the most magnificent bass baritone voices of the 20th century, and the story behind his biggest hit, Ol’ Man River, is told by his granddaughter tomorrow [Tuesday]. Robeson’s most sustained success in films was in the UK but mostly the roles offered him were demeaning and he turned to political activism. The trade union ballad, Joe Hill (Friday) provides a melancholic epitaph.

Here are the blurbs for the individual episodes by day.


No More Auction Block

The life and struggles of New Jersey-born bass-baritone singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) are explored through five of his songs. Robeson’s signature performances include Show Boat and Othello, but spirituals defined his early career, and in 1925, Robeson and his accompanist Lawrence Brown turned them into “art music”. In this first installment, scholar and professor of black music Shana Redmond explores the ways in which Robeson’s performances of No More Auction Block map his own struggles.


Ol’ Man River

Susan Robeson explores the personal and political aspects of the song that is forever identified with her grandfather  – Ol’ Man River, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein expressly for Robeson for their groundbreaking 1927 musical Show Boat. But the singer would not wrap his unique voice around it  until the following year in the London production. He would have a lasting and complex relationship with the song, especially as a black superstar performing for white audiences. “My grandfather transformed Ol’ Man River from a song of submission and despair into a song of resistance.”


The Canoe Song

Paul Robeson and film should have been a perfect fit. The 20th Century’s first black superstar had presence, voice and fierce intelligence that projected from the screen. British audiences adored him, but for Robeson cinema was a constant betrayal of his political idealism. Matthew Sweet considers the confusing threads that make up Zoltan Korda’s 1935 Empire flag-waver Sanders of the River, which still hummed to the astonishing power of Robeson’s voice in the Canoe Song, prompting British audiences to declare him as “our Paul”. 


Zog Nit Keynmol

When Paul Robeson stood before a Moscow audience on the evening of 14th June 1949 in the Tchaikowski Hall, few expected to hear him perform the Yiddish Partisan song Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say). His rendition of this fierce anthem of defiance, composed in the middle of Nazi slaughter, was thick with emotion, and at the end the crowd either fiercely applauded or booed. Robeson had sung for those he knew were already murdered, imprisoned or facing death as a new wave of Stalinist repression against Soviet Jews was underway. Nigerian-born actor and singer Tayo Aluko explores Robeson’s torment and contradictory emotions that make this performance so dramatic.


Joe Hill

London-based cultural historian Marybeth Hamilton summons up the ghosts of both Earl Robinson’s 1936 song Joe Hill – about the Swedish-American labour activist – and Paul Robeson as she explores the ways Robeson was so completely erased from culture and memory for many Americans. “If any one song in Robeson’s repertoire sums up those histories of denial silencing it is Joe Hill.

Paul Robeson – one of the left-wing giants of the 20th century. I had a very left-wing aunt, who was a massive fan of Robeson. She would have loved this. I also wondered if all the Israel-critical Jews smeared and vilified by the Israel lobby shouldn’t sing Zog Nit Keynmol. From what I gather from reading David Rosenberg’s and Tony Greenbstein’s blog’s, the greatest resistance against the Nazis, including the Warsaw ghetto, came from the anti-Zionist Bund. The Zionists all too often made deals with the Nazis, as when the Zionist newspaper, the Judischer Rundschau, praised the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and urged its readers to ‘wear your yellow stars with pride.” Or when Rudolf Kasztner, the head of the Zionists in occupied Hungary, cut a deal with the Nazis whereby tens of thousands were deported to Auschwitz in return for a few being allowed to emigrate to Israel.

The Four Horsemen of Capitalist Decay

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/03/2020 - 3:24am in

image/jpeg iconfour_horsemen.jpg

Capitalism – the current social system based on private property, wage labour and production for profit – is at a turning point. Day by day it becomes clearer that the existing relations of production have become fetters preventing humanity from addressing the urgent problems facing the whole planet. Unable to resolve its own contradictions, capitalism is instead hurtling us towards barbarism.

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Farage and Charlie Kirk Stir Up Racial Tensions with Accusations of Chinese Responsibility for the Coronavirus

As if the disease itself, and the fear and uncertainty caused by the measures by the measures countries all across the world have been forced to adopt to combat the Coronavirus aren’t enough, certain figures on the British and American political right have decided to make the situation worse by throwing around groundless accusations about responsibility for the outbreak. Nigel Farage, owner of the Brexit Party Ltd, and the odious Charlie Kirk, have declared that the Chinese are responsible for it. Zelo Street put up a piece about this latest revolting development, as Benjamin J. Grimm, your blue-eyed, ever-lovin’ Thing used to put it, yesterday.

Almost predictably, it appears to have begun with a comment Trump put out over Twitter. In flat contradiction to everything he had previously said, Trump declared that he had always taken ‘the Chinese virus’ very seriously. One Twitter commenter, who went by the monicker of BrooklynDad_defiant, told Trump that the disease was called the Coronavirus or Covid-19 if he found the first name too difficult. He was endangering Chinese-Americans, and had dismissed the virus as a hoax, claimed it was down to zero and that it had been contained. None of this was true.

Then the Fuhrage decided to put his oar in. He tweeted that corporate America was standing with their President in this emergency, unlike the UK, and that Rishi Sunak’s relief measures were in line with those of France. Which ignore the fact, as Zelo Street reminded us, that the French government isn’t offering loans to help out businesses. And then Farage went to his default position of blaming foreigners, and claimed that the Chinese were responsible. He tweeted “It really is about time we all said it. China caused this nightmare. Period”. And then followed this with “It is time we all challenged the Chinese regime. Enough is enough”. He followed this up by retweeting an approving tweet from Charlie Kirk, the poster boy for the right-wing organisation, Turning Point USA, who said

“In the age of Trump -we’ve learned that the media is hellbent on spreading disinformation and lies. So if we don’t speak the truth, who will? [Nigel Farage] is right and its time we all listen: China caused this pandemic. They should be forced to pay”.

Zelo Street remarked about this display of racism that Farage and Kirk wouldn’t know the truth if it kicked them squarely in the crotch. They are good, however, at screaming ‘liar!’ and ‘Fake news’ at media organisations they dislike in order to rile up their bases. The Sage of Crewe concluded

‘The situation with Covid-19 is serious. It is serious enough that no responsible politician should be going anywhere near leveraging it to whip up the mob.

That Nigel Farage is doing just that tells you all you need to know about where he’s at.’

He’s exactly right, as he began the article with a quotation from the South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha on the Andrew Marr Show, expressing her concern about a rise in racially motivated attacks on Asians in other countries in response to the crisis. She naturally wanted governments to crack down on it, because it was helping the spirit of collaboration the world needs to combat the crisis.

She isn’t alone in these fears. A few days ago I received a message from the anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, describing what they were going to do as a response to the virus. They aren’t just trying to help combat the virus itself, as very many other organisations and charities are also doing, but are trying to expose and tackle the way the crisis is being exploited by Fascist groups. The email said of this part of their work

For example, we’ll be releasing new content on how extremists use the messaging app Telegram to promote terrorism next week. At the same time, we’re adapting our work, conducting research on how the far right are responding to COVID-19 and any way in which they may be weaponsing it. Because of the nature of the virus we are also increasing our research into conspiracy theories. We hope that these areas will allow us to counter how forces of hate are seeking to use this global pandemic.

Now you would have thought that Trump would have been more careful before he blamed the Chinese for the virus. I can remember how George W. Bush during his tenure of the White House 12 years and more ago made an official apology to Japanese-Americans condemning their internment during World War II. It was an apology Japanese-American activists like Star Trek’s George Takei had fought long and hard for. The last thing Trump should be doing is trying to reopen old wounds about his country’s treatment of Asian Americans, and no politico on either side of the Pond should be trying to stir up racial tensions at this time anyway.

The Chinese Communist regime is responsible for any number of atrocities and horrors, from the invasion of Tibet, the genocide of the Uighurs, the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and the mass deaths of the Cultural Revolution. But it is definitely not responsible for the Coronavirus. The Chinese have made massive efforts to contain and eradicate it, even isolating the province in which it emerged, Wuhan. I’ve also heard nothing to suggest that they have been nothing but entirely collaborative with other nations in the global attempts to combat this disease.

I think Trump called the Coronavirus the ‘Chinese disease’ simply out of stupidity and laziness. He couldn’t remember, or couldn’t be bothered to remember, what it was really called. But Farage and Kirk just seem to have blamed the Chinese out of sheer racism.

This is immensely dangerous, when people are as isolated, vulnerable and fearful as they are now, and Farage and Kirk are to be condemned for their inflammatory, bigoted remarks.

Reply to Troy Vettese’s “Against Steady-State Economics” 1

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/03/2020 - 3:00am in

By Herman Daly

Steady staters are used to being attacked by right-wing neoliberals. Attacks from left-wing neo-Marxists are new and require a reply. To put the matter simply, Marxists hate capitalism, and they mistakenly assume that steady-state economics is inherently capitalist. Vettese is a Marxist; ergo, Vettese hates steady-state economics.

To spell this out, let’s begin by giving Marx due credit for emphasizing the reality of class exploitation under all heretofore existing economic systems, including especially capitalism, although excluding future idealized communism. Communism arrives after the Revolution in which the dictatorship of the proletariat seizes control of the enormous powers of capitalist production. With overwhelming abundance, bourgeois man is freed from scarcity-induced greed and acquisitiveness, giving birth to the “new socialist man” and the Marxist eschatology of heaven on earth.

Karl Marx

Marx noted injustices of capitalism and predicted political crises, yet failed to foresee limits to growth. (Image Source, Credit: John Jabez Edwin Mayal)

History has not been kind to this Marxist fairy tale, except for the part about inequality under capitalist growthism (the part which doesn’t take a Marxist to recognize). Socialist growthism also had serious problems but let’s leave that aside. There is, however, a new problem with growthist economies that Marxists did not foresee in their eagerness to appropriate the abundance that capitalism historically created. Growth in a finite and entropic world now produces “illth” (depletion and pollution) faster than wealth, thus becoming uneconomic growth and threatening the overwhelming abundance required for the advent of the new socialist man.

This unexpected emergence of uneconomic growth, plus the economic failures and enormous political repressions of 20th-century communist states (not to mention the intellectual discrediting of dialectical materialism and historical determinism) has left the poor orphaned Marxists without an ideological home. As their red house collapsed, the green house down the street began to look attractive. After all, the greens do recognize major problems with capitalism, the big enemy, even if they are problems that Marxists have failed to recognize. So, these Marxists paint themselves green and hyphenate their name, calling themselves not eco-Marxists but, less specifically, “eco-socialists,” hoping to appeal to reasonable leftists in addition to fellow neo-Marxists. They aim to revive moribund Marxism by usurping the place of ecological economics.

Many greens, eager for allies, welcome the eco-Marxists and accept the red cuckoo eggs deposited in the green nest in the hope that the hatchlings will be more green than red. Steady-state economists certainly need friends and allies, but reading Vettese has reminded me of an aphorism my mother taught me: “Better alone than in bad company.”

Specifically, Vettese has deposited three Marxist cuckoo eggs in the steady-state nest: (1) Markets are bad; (2) Central planning is good;2 and (3) “Malthusianism” is wrong as demonstrated by Julian Simon. This is an odd collection of eggs that demonstrate the confusion of Vettese. If one accepts Simon’s view that there is no need to stop the drive for endless economic growth, then whence the necessity to abolish markets and establish central planning? The confusion hardly stops there. Let’s consider each egg in turn.

(1) Markets are All Bad

The Market with a capital “M” is indeed a poor master and should be demoted to “markets” with a small “m” which can be good servants. Marxists tried to completely abolish all markets, along with money, in the early days following the Russian Revolution, and they attempted instead the direct physical requisitioning of resources and goods by central planners. This was the period of War Communism. It was a failure and was soon replaced by Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which restored significant reliance on markets, although not The Market. Today all countries, including the remaining communist ones, rely on markets to a significant degree, usually constrained by elements of collective action. Indeed, socialist-economic theorists, such as Oskar Lange in his On the Economic Theory of Socialism, have long shown how markets can serve collective goals as well as individualistic ones.

So much for the 20th-century economic history ignored by Vettese. What about 21st-century economic policy? Ecological economists recognize that we live in a capitalist market economy, like it or not. It is our historically given starting point. Trying to wipe the slate clean with the bloody shirt of Revolution is a very bad idea. Instead, it’s better to restrict the individualistic-capitalist market by two collective limits. First, given that the market does not count the cost of economic growth displacing the very ecosphere on which the economy (and life itself) depends, we must impose macro constraints on the size of the economy. Second, because a capitalist market economy generates extreme inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, a direct solution is to constrain the inequalities between minimum and maximum incomes, supplemented by wealth and inheritance taxes. Do eco-Marxists advocate limiting the range of income inequality by a maximum as well as a minimum income?

Graph of distribution of wealth within the market

How do we change these statistics? Through a bloody revolution? Or with policies conducive to a steady state economy? (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Credit: Guest2625)

A specific policy for achieving both limits (before they are self-limited, that is) is the cap-auction-trade approach to conserving and allocating basic resources. Vettese totally opposes cap-and-trade auctions because they make use of markets. He can almost be heard complaining, “How unfair of the auctioneer to sell to the highest bidder instead of my more deserving nephew! Putting a price on the free gifts of nature is crude and immoral too!”

While Vettese appears to be advocating for a more ethical use of basic resources, he fails to recognize that free gifts can also be scarce and require rationing. These preciously purist sensitivities lead Vettese to oppose any use of markets. No markets mean no exchange, no prices, no need for money, no specialization, and no division of labor. Well, who is going to abolish markets and centrally plan the production, allocation, and distribution of everything? Not Troy Vettese and his fellow pretenders who don’t have a clue, but “the new socialist man” who is still being materialized in the Marxist dialectical womb of history!

Markets are necessary for allocating goods but not sufficient. In addition to offering macro policies to correct the market’s scale and distribution failures, steady-state economics also emphasizes that many goods can be physically non-rival and legally non-excludable. Yet market allocation works only for rival and excludable goods. In other words, non-rival and non-excludable goods cannot be efficiently or fairly allocated by markets and require planning and collective action at a more micro than macro level.

(2) Central Planning is Good

Macro limits on scale and distribution require considerable planning. Micro intervention in the allocation of non-market goods takes even more planning. Given all the economic planning needs, why bother to defend any role at all for markets? Why not centrally plan production and distribution of everything “for the good of society” as advocated by Vettese? First, remember the failed Soviet experiment with War Communism and collectivization of agriculture. Second, consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine the consequences of rival market goods (food, clothing, and shelter, plus a whole lot more) being freely distributed, according to the will of the citizens, as eco-Marxists envision. The democratic will of the citizens is to be expressed by voting. One decision concerns the amount of steel to produce. Citizens place their votes, but their collective decision leads to another question: How much of that steel will go to the production of, say, wood screws as opposed to a million other uses? The citizens vote again, and more subsequent questions arise: Of the wood screws, how many will be round-head, flat-head, slot-head, or Phillips-head? How many cadmium-plated; how many chrome-plated? Also, some screws are made of brass or aluminum, not steel. And for each type of screw, how many of each length and diameter? And who shall receive how many of each type? The citizens robustly and democratically vote again and again as conditions change, although most are unaware of the myriad special uses of different types of screws and may not even know which end of a screwdriver to hold.

Meanwhile those people who actually use screws and know their uses are unable to “vote” with their money in markets, and are thereby prohibited from conveying reliable information to producers about the mix of the infinitely many types of screw that would be most needed and most profitable to produce. Instead we have citizens spending absurd amounts of time “democratically” voting, mostly about things they don’t understand, while those with the most information about actual use-values of screws are “disenfranchised” by the absence of markets.

Ironically, eco-Marxists claim that in a planned economy, use-value, not exchange value, would be the only criterion for the production of goods and services. Use-value as judged mostly by non-users—what could possibly go wrong?

With so much effort wasted on attempting to plan the allocation of market goods, there will be little capacity left to plan the use of true public goods or to avoid the tragedy of the commons resulting from open-access exploitation of rival but non-excludable goods (such as oceanic fisheries). The larcenous market enclosure of non-rival goods, such as knowledge and information, will be difficult to avoid as well. Eco-Marxists expect that as the transition moves forward, more goods and services critical for meeting fundamental human needs would be freely distributed according to the democratic will of the citizens effected by the central planners.

Carbon emissions

Vettese may oppose cap-and-trade auctions, but what is his solution for addressing resource scarcity? (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: Bernard Bradley)

Without markets (that is to say without supply and demand, prices, and yes, profit), there could be no self-employment. No one could identify a needed good or service and make a living by taking the initiative to provide it. Everyone would be a salaried employee of the state, giving the state monopsony power in the labor market and stifling initiative.

Most objections to market allocation would disappear if the underlying inequality of wealth and income distribution were limited by cap-and-trade auctions or ecological tax reform. Opposition would also dwindle if the throughput of energy and materials was restricted to an ecologically sustainable level. Instead of correcting excessive throughput and distributional inequality—which of course get reflected in distorted market prices and allocation—eco-Marxists attack market allocation itself, as if underlying sustainability and equality problems could be solved by breaking the mirror that reflects them.

What are the eco-Marxist policies for directly limiting throughput and distributional inequality? If they don’t like cap-and-trade auctions, distribution limits, or ecological tax reform, then let them suggest something better. However, preferably not the Revolution, the Singularity, the Rapture, or the advent of the New Socialist Man.

(3) Malthusianism is an Evil Fiction

Thomas Robert Malthus and markets

Thomas Robert Malthus: His thesis was “false” according to Vettese. (Image Source, Credit: Popular Science Monthly Volume 74)

Marx’s hatred for Malthus is well known and prevalent among Marx’s disciples as well. For all his faults, it is hard to find a historically more influential figure than Thomas Robert Malthus. In addition to his enormous impact on Marx, Malthus was a key influence on Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin as they independently developed their theories of natural selection. Malthus’ theory of under-consumption also greatly influenced John Maynard Keynes’ theory of unemployment. Not to mention the whole neo-Malthusian birth control and planned parenthood movement. For Vettese, however, Malthusianism is merely the “false” idea that resource scarcity and overpopulation are real. For Marx poverty was caused only by class exploitation, and he rejected any cause stemming from nature as undermining the call for Revolution. Marx’s anti-Malthusian denial of natural resource limits and demographic pressure continue in Vettese and the faithful band of eco-neo-Marxists.

Curiously Vettese’s modern anti-Malthusian champion is the late Julian Simon, a staunch neoclassical economist of the most cornucopian variety, who vigorously opposed environmentalism. This third cuckoo egg (which is contradictory to the first two, as noted earlier) seems to have hatched prematurely and will likely get kicked out of the green nest, exposing Vettese as more red than green. Vettese accuses steady-state economists, specifically me, of having ignored Julian Simon’s critique: “Moreover, the neo-liberal Julian Simon developed a powerful critique of environmentalism in the 1980s, which Daly has not responded to” (p. 35). Actually, I published critical reviews of two of Simon’s books, and I do not have space here to repeat my response, so refer Vettese back to what he overlooked.3

An Issue of Representation

I’ll conclude with one last point, quite distinctive from the preceding. Vettese has taken me as representative of the entire field of steady-state economics. That is not fair to the many scholars whose steady-state findings have been quite independent of mine. Indeed, some of these scholars may sometimes call themselves “eco-socialists.”

Furthermore, given the central role of the steady state economy in ecological economics, Vettese’s attack on steady-state economics (were it successful) would also stain the broader field of ecological economics.

However, I am afraid that I have also treated Vettese as representative of eco-Marxists in general. That is not really fair to other Marxists or eco-socialists of various stripes, some of whom (John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, for example) I have benefitted from reading, regardless of differences.

1 Vettese, T. 2020. Against steady-state economics. The Ecological Citizen 3:35–46.

2 On these two points Vettese is clear and emphatic: “…the only way to stop the drive for endless economic growth is to undo the necessity to participate in markets. That is, the conscious political control over production and distribution through central planning is the only way to stop and reverse capitalism’s ceaseless incorporation of the natural world” (pp. 37-8).

3 Daly, H. 1982. Review of The Ultimate Resource. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 38(1):39-42.
Daly, H. 1984. The resourceful earth. Environment 26:25, 27-28.

Herman DalyHerman Daly is an author, professor emeritus, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. He currently serves as the chief economic advisor for CASSE publications and projects and is on the CASSE Board of Directors.

The post Reply to Troy Vettese’s “Against Steady-State Economics” <sup>1</sup> appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Deputy Leadership Contender Richard Burgon Warns Abandoning Corbynism Could Destroy Labour

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/03/2020 - 10:30pm in

Monday’s I, for 9th March 2020, carried a piece by Hugo Gye, reporting that Richard Burgon, one of the contenders for the deputy Labour leadership, had warned that the party could be destroyed if it abandons Corbynism. The piece ran

Labour could stop existing altogether if the party abandons the “pillars of Corbynism”, the deputy leadership contender Richard Burgon has warned.

He claimed the party risks being wiped off the electoral map unless it continues to embrace an “anti-establishments” stance. He suggested that Jeremy Corbyn lost the election because his team ran a campaign which was too conventional, with mass rallies replaced by press conferences.

Mr Burgon has been endorsed by allies of the leader including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, is trailing far behind Angela Rayner in the most recent poll. In an interview with I, he insisted he had a chance of victory: “I think we can still win. The poll at the beginning of the contest shows a very different picture from the most recent opinion poll.”

The Leeds East MP promised to uphold “the three pillars of Corbynism” with pledges to expand internal democracy, commit to public ownership of industry and give members a veto over military action.

He said: “If Labour departs from being anti-establishment, I think the Labour Party could die.”

“There is no reason for any party to think it has an automatic right to exist and be successful. The only party in a way that has that right it the Conservative Party because the Conservative Party is attached to the ruling elite, the establishment.

“It could be the case that the devastating defeat that we suffered in 2019 is the start of something worse if we don’t draw the correct lessons from the election… What happened in Scotland in 2015 could happen in other parts of the country as well.”

Aksed what Mr Corbyn did wrong in the election campaign, Mr Burgon said: “We allowed the imagery of a our party in the 2019 election to become more conventional and less anti-establishment. In 2017 there were plenty of images of Jeremy speaking to big crowds outside, and that seemed to be replaced in 2019 more by images of Jeremy announcing policies in front of red screens to rooms of journalists.”

In fact the Tories were on the verge of breaking up after they suffered a series of election defeats by Blair. There was even talk of rebranding the party as ‘The English Nationalists’. Blair was successful in defeating them, but the cost was the loss of Labour’s traditional membership.

Regarding the reasons for the election defeat, I think the single strongest reason was Brexit. There were other factors – the message was confused and Labour weren’t successful putting it across, and the smears against Corbyn personally were extremely successful.

But Labour’s policies were popular. And despite the vicious Tory smears, they weren’t Communist or Trotskyite, just traditional, centre-left Labour policies before Blair decided that Thatcherism was the way forward. And Corbyn’s policies – for a strong welfare state, strong unions and workplace rights, a nationalised NHS and utility industries – are the only things that can restore this country and give back its working people their dignity and prosperity.

Anything else will just lead to more grinding poverty and disaster. Except for the Tory rich.

Telegraph Journo Embarrassed by Sargon and Robinson’s Free Speech Organisation

As we know, embarrassing the Tories is good and righteous work. So Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, the man who broke UKIP, deserves especial congratulations for making the Tories uncomfortable over the whole question of free speech. He didn’t do it intentionally. It’s just that they found the similarities between Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and a rival right-wing organisation founded by Sargon and the islamophobic thug Tommy Robinson far too close for comfort.

Last month the Spectator’s vile Toby Young announced that he was founding the Free Speech Union along with a load of other rightists. This was going to defend those expressing controversial opinions from being silenced and kicked out of their jobs. The Heil on Sunday quoted Tobes as saying

“People who become the target of ‘Twitter storms’ after making controversial remarks will be defended by a new body called the Free Speech Union. The organisation will ‘stand up for the rights of its members to tell the truth in all circumstances’. The union has been set up by the journalist Toby Young in response to police investigations into a string of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ triggered by outspoken comments”.

“If someone at work writes to your boss to complain about something you’ve said, we’ll write to them, too, and explain the importance of intellectual tolerance and viewpoint diversity. If self-righteous social-media bullies pick on you, we’ll return the fire. If someone launches an online petition calling for you to be sacked, we’ll launch a counter-petition. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders must band together too.”

The organisation has a Latin motto, which runs something like ‘Audi altri partem’, which I think means ‘Hear the other side.’

However, it’s not a union, but an incorporated, whose five directors are all spokesmen for the right. They include Young himself, Prof Nigel Biggar, who defends colonialism, Douglas Murray, who has islamophobic opinions, and Radomir Tylecote, who was suspended from the Treasury for writing a book against the EU. And their record of defending their opponents’ right to express their opinions is actually very poor. Zelo Street in their article about the wretched union quoted Paul Bernal, who tweeted

“As Toby Young should know, your commitment to free speech isn’t shown by how well you defend those whose speech you agree with, but how you defend those whose speech you don’t. When his ‘free speech union’ talks about the excesses of the Prevent programme, then see”.

The Street himself commented that it was just free speech for the right, and a way for Tobes and co. to complain about how unfair the world is.

Unfortunately for Tobes’ outfit, Sargon and Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the EDL, have launched their own right-wing free speech organisation, the Hearts of Oak Alliance. And the similarities between the two concerned Tory feminist academic Zoe Strimpel to write a piece for the Torygraph on the first of this month, March 2020, complaining about this fact. Strimpel’s a Cambridge graduate with an M. Phil in gender studies. She’s the author of a series of book on men’s psychology, feminism, dating and romance. She began her article with the statement that her circle of friends has taken on a left-wing hue. It includes many Labour supporters, against whom she has to defend capitalism and Zionism. Well, at least she said ‘Zionism’, rather than accuse them once again of anti-Semitism. She’s upset by them chuckling off her fears about the erosion of free speech and thought, which, she claims, is under attack by a visible machinery of censorship in offices, the cops, universities, arts and online. She cites approvingly a report by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, which advised universities to guard against being the voice of critics of those, who despise the supporter of the traditional values of patriotism, family, faith and local traditions. They have to be willing to represent and not sneer at those, who feel justifiable pride in British history, culture and traditions.

However, she was worried whether it was possible to defend free speech, without sullying the cause with too many real thugs, who wanted to get as close as possible to inciting actual violence under the guise of expressing their democratic rights. Was it possible to challenge the climate of intimidation, snide snitching, and mendacious and manipulative accusations of hate-mongering, racism and making people feel ‘unsafe’, without being a magnet for the alt-right? She agreed to become a member of the advisory board, but has her reservations. She’s uncomfortable about Sargon’s and Robinson’s organisations, because of Sargon’s own anti-feminist, misogynistic views. Sargon was, she declared, far right, a thug, who called feminism ‘a first world female supremacy movement’, and ‘all kinds of blokeish’. He’s also the man responsible for sending that Tweet to Labour MP Jess Philips, telling her that he ‘wouldn’t even rape her’.

She concluded her article by stating that the aims of Tobes’ outfit were perfectly legitimate and free speech is under threat. But it was ‘just a shame that in defending those who ought to speak freely, one has to defend those, who – in an ideal world – wouldn’t have anything to say.’

Sargon was naturally upset at this assault on his character. He therefore posted a piece up on his YouTube channel, Akkad Daily, on the 2nd of March defending himself from her attack. He didn’t deny he was anti-feminist, and defended his own comments on this. But he roundly denied being a thug and far right. He was, he repeated, a Lockean classical liberal, and believed in precisely the same values as those Policy Exchange’s report claimed were under attack.

Sargon is indeed far right. He’s a libertarian, who would like everything privatised and the end of the welfare state. He’s against the European Union and immigration, and is bitterly critical of feminism and affirmative action for women and ethnic minorities. And yes, he is an islamophobe like Robinson. But in very many ways he and Robinson are absolutely no different from Young and his crew. Young is also far right. He’s a right-wing Tory, who attended eugenics conferences whose members and speakers were real Nazis and anti-Semites. And Young also is all kinds of blokeish as well. He’s posted a number of tweets expressing his obsession with women’s breasts. Way back in the ’90s, he also wrote a piece for the men’s magazine, GQ, about how he once dressed up in drag in order to pose as a woman, because he wanted to snog lesbians in gay clubs.

And it’s not just the people in the Free Speech Union, who have no real interest in free speech. Neither does Conservatism or Zionism. Thatcher tried to pass legislation making it illegal for universities to employ Marxists. A week or so ago, Turning Point UK announced that it was launching a British version of its parent organisation’s Professor Watch, a blacklist of university lecturers, who dared to express or teach left-wing views. And anti-Zionist and Israel-critical bloggers, like Tony Greenstein and Martin Odoni have described how Israel’s super-patriotic supporters, like Jonathan Hoffman, don’t want to permit free debate about Israel and its barbarous treatment of the Palestinians. Rather, they turn up at pro-Palestinian meetings with the intention of heckling, shouting down and otherwise disrupting the proceedings. They also seek to use the law to suppress criticism and factual reporting of Israeli atrocities as anti-Semitism.

Now there are opponents of free speech on the left. But Stimpel, as a good Tory, doesn’t want to recognise that it exists on the right. She’s embarrassed that supporting right-wing speech also means supporting extreme right-wing figures like Sargon and Robinson. But she doesn’t recognise, because she can’t afford to, that Sargon and Robinson aren’t actually much different from Toby Young, Douglas Murray, Radomir Tylecote, Nigel Biggar and the rest. In fact, there’s little difference between the two groups in fundamental attitudes.

It’s just that Sargon’s a little more extreme and doesn’t have a column in a major right-wing newspaper or magazine.

Cartoon: Paul Staines – Reefer Madness

Galactic Greetings, and welcome to another of my cartoons satirising the Tories and their appalling members. The target of this one is Paul Staines, the founder and head honch of the Guido Fawkes political gossip and smear site. And the film the cartoon’s inspired by is the old stoner favourite, Reefer Madness. This was a propaganda movie put out in the 1950s to warn people off cannabis. I think its plot is about a bunch of people smoking weed, losing their minds through its powerful intoxication and murdering each other.

I don’t condone the use of illegal drugs, but thousands, probably millions of people in this country ingest it or some form or other, and definitely don’t suffer those ill effect. Like any drug, it does have its dangers. There is, apparently, such a thing as cannabis psychosis, where very heavy users of the drug have damaged their brains. And I have been told of instances of violence inflicted by those damaged by such drug use. But for most people, the effects are probably those described by a chief of police back in the 1980s. The government then was considering decriminalising it. They asked the good rozzer what he thought of it. He declared that he’d tried it once, and all it did was make him giggle. This is probably all it does to most people, who use it. Hence the film is now chiefly watched by stoners for camp laughs, because it’s so hilariously, massively wrong.

I’ve no objection to the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal use. I’m not happy with cannabis consumption at the moment because it’s illegal, and so in the hands of criminal organisations who can be extremely dangerous and violent. At the same time, I’m afraid that if it was made legal, the kind of people who are attracted to it because it’s forbidden fruit would move on to harder, more dangerous drugs, like heroin and cocaine. And these are already a far too big problem.

Staines is a suitable target for jokes about drugs, because he was part of a libertarian organisation, the Libertarian Alliance. The Libertarians, apart from believing in the complete destruction of the welfare state, absolute unregulated private industry and the privatisation of the NHS, also advocate the legalisation of recreational drugs. Staines himself was into Ecstacy. This was the drug of the ’90s rave scene, in which Staines was also deeply involved, helping to organise many of the musical gatherings. See his Wikipedia entry: The French philosophical feline, Guy Debord’s Cat, found this piece by Staines explaining his support for recreational drugs in an essay he wrote for the Libertarian Alliance.

A lot of my Thatcherite/Libertarian friends get very suspicious when I tell them about the love and peace aspects of taking Ecstasy. To them love and peace equals hippies equals leftist. The feeling of unity and shared enjoyment to them smacks of collectivism, not the rugged individualism that they favour. But the drug actually removes inhibitions, liberating your mind from petty concerns. You feel a sense of solidarity, but it is totally voluntary, there is no coercion. Libertarians are opposed to coercive collectivism, but if I as an individual choose to enjoy a collective experience because I want to, than that is up to me. I suspect that a lot of right-wingers, Conservative, Thatcherite or Libertarian, cling to their inhibitions and are actually afraid of letting go. Many Conservatives by their very nature fear the dynamic. They are wary of the unusual and prefer tradition, stability and the conventional. The idea of losing their inhibitions to the extent that they might say or do something embarrassing horrifies them.

Some people, particularly those of a Conservative inclination, have an irrational dislike of drugs, often based on what they believe or know about drug addicts. Somehow drug pushers are evil, akin to poisoners. A lot of drug pushers are unpleasant, but that is because it’s an illegal business, and criminals are often unpleasant, violent people. Some drug dealers I know are ruthless, dishonest, dangerous psychopaths, while others are honest, peace loving, fair minded people who just happen to be in a business of which the majority of people are said to disapprove. If alcohol or tobacco was made illegal a similar situation would arise with them. Most British Conservative groups are not at all sympathetic towards legalising drugs, the Committee for a Free Britain being the only one that has come down in favour of decriminalising drugs. This might have something to do with the fact that during my time at the Committee for a Free Britain we got through quite a lot of the stuff.

At the same time, Staines’ own political sympathies were also with the authoritarian extreme right. While a member of the Federation of Conservative Students in Hull, Staines wanted to form an alliance with the BNP. He disagreed with them on immigration, but that was his only point of difference with them. He did, however, share their goals of a return to leadership, the abolition of the welfare state, and the elimination of communism in Britain – in the mass media, education and the trade unions. This was also when the FCS supported apartheid in South Africa.

He was also a member of the Campaign for a Free Britain, which was funded by Rupert Murdoch. This used to have as speakers at its conferences such delightful figures as Adolfo Calero, one of the leaders of the Nicaraguan Contra death squads. According to Wikipedia, he also used to write reports on human rights violations by the Sandinistas. Staines’ political sympathies, therefore, a very definitely Fascistic.


This is why I’ve shown Staines with cannabis leaves, smoking a reefer, along with a giant toadstool. It’s fly agaric, whose white spots contains a powerful hallucinogenic used by Siberian shamans. And the face in the stalk is that of Guido’s latest junior teaboy, Tom Harwood. He’s there because he’s a member of the Fawkes massive, and, at least in the photos put up by Zelo Street, looks either stoned or colossally thick. And as Staines is so far right-wing, it struck me that if he was on hallucinatory drugs, he’d see Hitler. According to the late drug guru, Terence McKenna, people using DMT, a powerful psychoactive used by South American shamans, commonly see entities he calls ‘the machine elves’ during their trips. I’ve replaced them with the Grey aliens of UFO lore, who to me represent much the same thing. And as Staines is a Fascist, they’re wearing World War I-style German spiked helmets. Because Staines was a passionate member of the rave scence, he and they clutch glow sticks. The trouble is, the Greys’ large eyes look a little like the aviator spectacles used by American cops. This makes them look like they’re an extraterrestrial tribute band for Village People. Which is a terrifying thought.

Anyway, here’s the cartoon. I hope you enjoy it, and hey, don’t have nightmares!

It also struck me while drawing this that if you wanted to nobble Staines, with his history of raves and drug use all you’d need to do is put on one of the bands associated with the scene, like Inspiral Carpets or The Shamen. Then before you know it, the flashbacks would start and he’d be out there in a warehouse on his own, waving glow sticks around while singing ‘Es are good! Es are good!’

































One Man’s Bliss Is Another’s Nightmare

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 04/03/2020 - 6:25pm in

MSNBC host Chris Matthews predicted that if socialism ever came to the United States, talking about Bernie Sanders, capitalists would be hung in Central Park and that he might be one of them. Would that necessarily be bad?

Turning Point UK Preparing Anti-Academic Witch Hunt

There’s some areas of the American right still pining for the days of the McCarthy witch hunts. And unfortunately, it looks like they want to export them to these shores as well. Turning Point UK is one of them. If you don’t remember, Turning Point UK is the British spawn of the American Conservative outfit, Turning Point USA. Founded by the repulsive Charlie Kirk, who ‘LIVES AS A CAPITALIST EVERY DAY’, as he shouted at the Young Turks’ Cenk Uighur, this is supposed to be dedicated to inspiring young people with right-wing ideals, turning back the evil tides of liberalism, socialism and so forth. Its British branch got off to a notoriously bad start when Candace Owens, another prominent American rightist, told the assembled faithful at its inauguration that Adolf Hitler wasn’t really a nationalist. She declared that what he did would have been all right if he’d stuck to his own country, but he wanted to make everyone German. This was the opposite of nationalism. This was the opposite of history and morality, as was soon pointed out to her. TPUK have kept a quiet profile since. So much so that it has been suggested that the outfit is no more than a trick to part elderly American Conservatives from their money through encouraging them to donate to it, so little has it actually done. Unfortunately, it still seems to be around and making a nuisance of itself. Zelo Street has posted a couple of articles about the organisation posting attack ads libeling former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey as anti-Semites, terrorist supporters and claiming they aid paedophiles.

And now Zelo Street has also reported that one of its scummy number has announced on Twitter that they want to import their parent organisation’s campaign of blacklisting left-wing academics. TPUSA has a ‘Professor Watchlist’ of academics they claim have a ‘left-wing agenda’. One critic, the Skeptical Seventh, has said of this that “They must know that what they are doing will lead to people being harassed, being shut down … It is undermining academic freedom, which is ironic for an organisation that claims to be in favour of free speech”. Yes, but for them it’s a case of free speech for me, but not for thee. However, the Beeb reported that it had been told by Dominique Samuels, one of the TPUK’s influencers, that they wouldn’t be introducing that policy over here.

This has been flat-out contradicted by the odious Darren Grimes. Grimes was upset when Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer at Cambridge, tweeted a particularly apt quote from Lord Macauley to describe Priti Patel. She said:  “We should acknowledge, as we look at Priti Patel, that there was one very successful cultural eugenics project: ‘We must at present do our best to form…a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’”. This was too much for Grimes, who didn’t recognise the quote, and ranted  “This person is a lecturer at Cambridge. Is it any wonder our students are churned out of these university factories like hard-left, braindead sheep when this is what is teaching them?! What a truly bloody horrendous thing to think, never mind tweet”. Gopal herself was highly amused by Grimes’ reaction. She said “Before I withdraw again for a bit, I thought I should share my enjoyment of Mr Grimes’ condemnation of Lord Macaulay’s  ‘truly bloody horrendous thing to think’ … The great thing about British far-right is their complete ignorance of their own history &  literature”. Macauley’s comment demanding the anglicisation of Indians is notorious. It frequently appears in textbooks as an illustration of the hostile attitude of the British colonisers to their subject peoples’ indigenous cultures.

The TPUK twitter feed then joined in with the ominous statement “Our uni campuses are overrun by leftist lecturers who teach their overt political bias as objective truth. This is not ok. The fight back begins now. Introducing ‘Education Watch’: Documenting University Lecturers’ Political Bias”.

This is, as Zelo Street has commented, the right using the false assumption that not only do they have the right to their own opinions, but also their facts, to start a witch hunt. And as Grimes was at the launch of Toby Young’s wretched Free Speech Union, it also shows that’s a sham as well.

Paul Bernal, an associate professor of Law at UEA, commented: “Can I just ask, what do the thought-police *want* us lefty academics to teach our students? Obviously facts are out. Analysis is against the law. Nothing foreign. Nothing expert”.

Tim concluded his article on this latest right-wing assault on free speech with the observation that TPUK were obviously trying to whip up hate and harassment because they were so desperate for the publicity. And so he was sure that they would be condemned by all good Conservatives.

Let’s be clear what Turning Point are demanding – the harassment and purging from academic of lecturers, whose politics they disapprove of. This is a feature of just about every totalitarian regime and movement. The Italian Fascists did it. The Nazis did it in the ‘coordination’ of the universities, which saw Jews and Marxists purged. The Communists did it. And it got really unpleasant in China under Mao during the Cultural Revolution, when children were called upon to denounce their parents and teachers. The BNP or National Front also tried something like it in Britain in the 1980s. They urged nationalist schoolchildren to write to them informing on ‘Communist’ teachers. They would then send a couple of their thugs round to assault them. TPUK haven’t called for having them attacked, but this is what such a list would lead to.

As for this wave of left-wing lecturers churning out a generation of impressionable kids indoctrinated with cultural Marxism or whatever, this is, in my opinion, somewhat of an hysterical overreaction. Yes, there are outspoken left-wing academics, and always have been. But there are also Conservatives and all shades of political opinion in between. And, with a few obvious exceptions, such as those calling for sectarian or racist violence and hatred, for example, they should all have the right to teach what they believe to be objective fact. Because this is what democracy and freedom of speech means.

Freedom of speech and conscience means putting up with speech, ideas and opinions of which you don’t necessarily approve. It certainly does not mean tolerating only those opinions that you share. That, whether done by the left or the right, leads to intolerance and persecution.

And in the intellectual context, it also means the massive impoverishment of national culture. As a result of the Nazi purges of the universities and the arts, German culture suffered immensely. That of other countries, particularly America, benefited immensely, as talented scientists, mathematicians, writers, film-makers and artists took sanctuary on the other side of the Pond. It’s been said that if the Nazis hadn’t taken power, and pushed their greatest minds abroad, the 20th would have been hailed as the German century rather than the American.

This is what Turning Point would like to do to America, and which their equally idiotic counterparts on this side of the Pond would like to do over here – a stifling, stagnant, impoverished culture in order to enforce their own intellectual agenda.


What if the Government is Just Another Firm? (Part 2)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/02/2020 - 6:49am in

Governments are different than firms, right?

Perhaps not.

In Part 1 of this series, I argued that when it comes to size, governments behave like they’re ‘just another firm’. In this post, I’m going to extend the evidence. I’ll first show you that as economies develop, governments get bigger. Then I’ll explain this trend using the ‘government-as-firm’ model.

Schrodinger’s government

Before we get to the data on government size, let’s ask a simple question: is big government necessary for economic development?

Neoclassical economists answer no. They think that ‘perfect competition’ is the best way to achieve growth. So what’s the role of government? In neoclassical theory, government is like Schrodinger’s cat — it both exists and does not exist. Government (implicitly) exists because ‘perfect competition’ requires property rights. And who enforces these rights? Government. At the same time, government does not exist, in neoclassical theory, because perfectly-competitive markets are supposedly ‘self-correcting’. So there’s no need for government intervention.

Confused yet? You should be. The neoclassical treatment of government makes little sense as a scientific theory. But it makes perfect sense as an ideology. Its purpose is to discourage public central planning. Here’s how Paul Walker puts it:

[T]he “perfect competition” model … has its intellectual origins in the eighteenth-century debate between free traders and mercantilists. This debate wasn’t about competition, in any meaningful sense … it was about the proper scope of government in an economy.

… The central question of the debate was, Is central planning necessary to avoid the problems of a chaotic economic system? Adam Smith famously answered no.

With this history in mind, let’s return to our question: is big government necessary for economic growth? Neoclassical theory answers no. Instead, it claims that smaller government is better for the economy. If this is true, then governments should shrink as the economy grows.

It’s politics, stupid!

The flip side of Schrodinger’s government is the political view held by some social scientists. In this view, the size of government stems mostly from politics.

There’s an obvious truth to this approach. The big government of the Soviet Union obviously stemmed from communist politics. And the (comparatively) small government of the US stems from free-market politics.

But is political ideology the only determinant of government size? I’m skeptical. Yes, politics matter. But there are limits to putting ideas in action. Think of it this way. An ant can’t will itself into becoming an elephant. Likewise, I’m skeptical that an undeveloped society can will itself into having a big government. Physical constraints make this impossible.

But maybe I’m wrong. If I am — if government size stems from politics alone — then the size of government shouldn’t relate to economic development.

Government size: the evidence

So we have two different predictions for how government size should relate to economic development. If neoclassical theory is correct, government will get smaller as the economy grows. If the political view is correct, government size won’t relate to economic growth.

Both predictions, it turns out, are wrong. Governments don’t shrink with economic growth. Nor is government size unrelated to economic growth. Instead, as the economy grows, governments get larger.

Figure 1 shows this trend. Here the vertical axis shows the government’s share of employment in a given country. The horizontal axis shows energy use per capita. Energy use serves as my measure of economic development. (I don’t use the standard measure of economic growth, real GDP, because it’s fatally flawed.) Each squiggly line represents the path through time of a country.

Figure 1: Government share of employment vs. energy use per capita. Lines represent the path through time of a country. I’ve labelled select countries with their three-digit code. Data for government employment comes from ILOSTAT series GOV_LVL_PSE (all public sector employees). Data for total employment and energy use come from the World Bank series SL.TLF.TOTL.IN and EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE, respectively.

Looking at Figure 1, you can see that as energy use increases, governments get larger. So our neoclassical prediction — that government should get smaller with economic development — is wrong. Governments get bigger with economic development.

What about the political view of government? It appears to be partially true. Yes, economic growth correlates with government size — something that’s unexpected if politics alone shape the size of government. But that doesn’t mean there’s no role for politics.

To see how politics affect government size, we’ll have another look at the data in Figure 1. This time we’ll distinguish between two types of countries:

  1. Those that have never had a communist government
  2. Those that have had (or still have) a communist government

Figure 2 shows this distinction. Unsurprisingly, communist countries tend to have larger governments than their non-communist counterparts.


Figure 2: Politics and government size. I distinguish here between countries that have had a communist government (red) and those that haven’t (blue). Lines represent the path through time of a specific country. I’ve labelled the (once) communist countries with their country codes. Communist status comes from this Wikipedia page.

Let’s pause, for a moment, and discuss the history that’s on display here. Figure 2 shows the collapse of the Soviet Union in action. The data begins in 1990, just as the Soviet Union crumbled. Newly liberated countries like Ukraine (UKR), Estonia (EST), and Maldova (MDA) appear in the data.

These former Soviet-block countries begin with nearly 100% government employment — a remnant of their communist past. But over the next decade, the governments in these countries shrank drastically. And as they did, energy use plummeted. You can watch this happen in Figure 2. Former Soviet states start at the top of the chart and then move down and to the left. Most other countries move up and to the right. History in action.

Back to our question. Do politics affect the size of government? The answer is yes. The evidence in Figure 2 proves the importance of politics. But this evidence also shows something unexpected. Government size increases with energy use independently of politics.

This fact isn’t easy to see in Figure 2. To make it clearer, I’ll smooth the trends between countries. Figure 2 plots the trend for communist countries and the trend for non-communist countries.

Figure 3: Trends in the size of government. Here I’ve taken the data from Figure 2 and plotted the smoothed trend within communist and non-communist countries. (For the math people, the trend is a locally estimated scatterplot smoothing of the raw data.)

What do you see in Figure 3? What I see is two versions of the same trend. In both communist and non-communist countries, governments get larger with economic development. I’m still marvelling at this result. It’s compelling evidence that something besides politics shapes government size. For some reason, the size of government is connected to energy use.

So what causes the trend? Why does government get larger with economic development? This is a difficult question to answer. But what we can say is that government is not alone. As energy use increases, all institutions get bigger.

Economic growth = bigger institutions

One of the exciting things about doing social science is discovering that your own family history fits into a bigger trend. My maternal grandparents were self-employed farmers. My parents are retired teachers who worked for a small school board. And me? I’m a PhD-trained political economist who hopes to someday work at a university.

What you see, in my family history, is tendency for each generation to work for a larger institution. You’ll probably find something similar in your own family history.

This trend towards bigger institutions, hinted at in family histories, is visible in more rigorous statistics. As Figure 4 shows, the average size of firms tends to grow with economic development.

Figure 4: Average firm size vs. energy use per capita Data for average firm size comes from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Data for energy use comes from the World Bank series EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE.

So government isn’t alone in getting bigger with energy use. As societies develop, all institutions get bigger.

Does this trend help us explain the size of government? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that placing something in a larger trend helps us model it. No, in the sense that observing a trend doesn’t explain why it exists.

Let’s use animal abundance as an example. Across all life, there’s a trend between organism size and abundance (see Part 1). Small organisms are ubiquitous. Large organisms are rare. This trend allows us to predict the abundance of an organism from its size. But the trend doesn’t tell us why the organism has the abundance it does.

The same is true of government. Knowing that government is riding a larger trend doesn’t tell us why governments grow with economic development. But it helps us model this growth.

The government-as-firm model

Governments, I claim, are like whales.

Let me explain.

As the largest animals on Earth, whales are exquisitely different than other animals. Yet when it comes to predicting abundance, these differences don’t matter. Whales are ‘just another animal’. Their abundance is predictable from their size alone.

I propose that the same is true of governments. Because they’re the largest institutions, governments are exquisitely different than other institutions. Yet when it comes to predicting government abundance, I argue that these differences don’t matter. Governments are ‘just another firm’. Their abundance is predictable from their size alone.

Wordsmith that I am, I call this hypothesis the ‘government-as-firm’ model. Here’s what it looks like:

Figure 5: The government-as-firm model

In this model, we assume that human institutions become less abundant with size. Small institutions are ubiquitous. Large institutions are rare. Next, we imagine that most of these institutions are business firms. But above some size threshold, firms turn into ‘government’. In short we model government as the n largest firms.

Predicting the growth of government with energy use

On the face of it, the government-as-firm model has nothing to do with energy. Instead, it tells us how the size of government relates to the size of firms. But it’s easy to bring energy into the equation.

To do this, we first use the government-as-firm model to predict how government size grows with firm size:

average firm size ⟶ government size

Then we use the empirical trend in Figure 4 to predict how energy use grows with firm size:

average firm size ⟶ energy use

Lastly, we combine these two models. Presto! We can predict how government will grow with energy use. [1]

So let’s get to the predictions! Figure 5 shows the international trend between energy use and the size of government. The black points are the same data as plotted in Figure 1. (For clarity, I haven’t connected the points within each country.) Behind the real-world data, I show the predictions of the government-as-firm model. As you can see, the predictions are not bad.

Figure 6: The government-as-firm model vs. real-world evidence. Here I’ve plotted the empirical data from Figure 1 as black points. (For simplicity, I haven’t connected the dots between countries.) The colored points show the government-as-firm model. Color indicates the number of ‘firms’ in government, the model’s sole parameter.

What’s with the rainbow in Figure 5? Color shows the model’s sole parameter — the number of ‘firms’ in government. I’ve modelled government as the n largest firms. Since the number n is arbitrary, I let it vary. The rainbow in Figure 5 shows this variation.

I treat the number of ‘firms’ in government as a political preference. Here’s an example. In right-leaning societies, services like healthcare are provided by the private sector. So healthcare institutions are ‘firms’. But in left-leaning societies, the same services are provided by government. So healthcare ‘firms’ become healthcare ‘government’. The idea is that leaning left means adding ‘firms’ to government. And leaning right means taking ‘firms’ away from government.

With our model in hand, let’s reflect on the empirical evidence. First, we know that regardless of politics, governments get bigger as energy use increases. Second, politics shift this trend up or down. Communist politics shift the trend up, making governments larger. Free-market politics shift the trend down, making governments smaller (see Figure 2).

So what does our model say about these findings? Governments, the model suggests, get bigger with energy use because they’re riding a more general trend. All institutions get bigger as energy use increases. So in this respect, we can treat government as ‘just another firm’.

Politics then shift the energy-government trend up or down. Communist countries add firms to government, making government larger. Non-communist countries take firms away from government, making government smaller.

Whether we’re interested in (a) the bigger trend, or (b) how politics affects this trend depends on our world view. I’m a big-picture guy, so I like to focus on the bigger trend.

On that note, let’s look at the overall trend between government size and energy use. It’s the blue curve in Figure 7. Next to this real-world trend, I’ve plotted the best-fit government-as-firm model. In this model, government consists of the 87 largest ‘firms’. To get a sense for how the model works, I’ve added inset plots that illustrate the government-as-firm model as a landscape. Black pyramids are firms. Red pyramids are government. As energy use increases, firms tend to get larger. Government rides on top of this wave.

Figure 7: Government size vs. energy use — real-world and modeled trends. The blue line is the smoothed trend for the raw data plotted in Figure 1. The red line is the smoothed trend for the best-fit model (in which government consists of the top 87 firms). (For the math people, the trends are a locally estimated scatterplot smoothing of the raw data.) The inset plots illustrate the government-as-firm model as a landscape. Black pyramids are firms. Red pyramids are government.

Looking at Figure 7, you can see that the government-as-firm model isn’t perfect. It overshoots the real-world data for large energies. But discrepancies aside, it’s surprising that such a simple model can predict anything about government size.

Think of the complexity of human societies. Think of the vitriol of politics. Think of the endless debates about what government should do. Our model suggests that at the largest scales, none of this matters. As societies develop, governments behave like all other institutions. They get bigger.

Beyond politics

I’ll close on a philosophical note. It’s comforting to think that the size of government is determined largely by politics. It gives us a sense of agency. If we collectively want bigger (or smaller) government, we can have it!

The government-as-firm model rains on this parade. It suggests that politics, while important, are subservient to a larger trend. As societies develop, all institutions get larger. Government just rides this wave.

This idea is chilling because it constrains our agency. Sure, hunter-gatherers can try to create big governments. But the evidence suggests that they’ll fail. Conversely, industrial societies can try to shrink their government to the size typical in agrarian societies. But the evidence suggests that they’ll fail. As the Rolling Stones put it, “you can’t always get what you want.”

While this limit is chilling, in the grand scheme of things it’s not surprising. Look at the animal world. There are limits everywhere. Ants, for example, can’t evolve to be the size of elephants. Why? Because ants have a passive circulatory system that wouldn’t work when scaled to elephant size. Likewise, elephants can’t evolve to be the size of ants. Why? Because below a certain size, warm-blooded animals can’t maintain their body temperate. An ant-sized elephant would die of hypothermia. [2]

When we look at the biological world, then, we see limits everywhere. So it’s unsurprising that we find limits within human society. Our body has limits, and so do our institutions.

So why can’t undeveloped societies have large governments? Probably because if they tried, they’d starve. I’m not joking. Governments, as a rule, don’t farm. So their existence depends on farmers producing a surplus. If you try to build a big government on the backs of subsistence farmers, you have a problem. The farmers can feed themselves, or they can feed government bureaucrats. Either way, somebody starves (usually the peasants).

Framed this way, it’s unsurprising that the history of communism is tied to starvation. Think of Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine caused by Stalin. Think of the Great Chinese Famine caused by Mao. These famines occurred as communist governments aggressively expanded, but farming productivity didn’t keep up. And so peasants starved.

It’s easy to understand why undeveloped societies can’t have big governments. But why can’t developed societies have small governments? This is harder to answer. My own view is that we need larger institutions to cope with growing complexity. But Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have a very different view that’s worth reading.

Regardless of why governments grow with economic development, we have a simple model that can explain how this happens. Assume that government is ‘just another firm’.


[1] Details of the government-as-firm model. I model the size distribution of firms with a power-law. I then simulate the growth of firms by lowering the power-law exponent. In the model, ‘government’ consists of the n largest firms. I predict energy use per capita by plugging the model’s average firm size into the regression on real-world data shown in Figure 4.

[2] As warm-blooded animals, elephants need to keep their bodies above the ambient temperature. But below a certain size, they can’t do this. Why? Because heat loss is proportional to surface area, while the ability to generate heat is proportional to volume (mass actually, but mass scales with volume). Thanks to a quirk of geometry, the ratio of surface area to volume explodes as objects shrink. This means that heat loss grows relative to heat generation. So below some critical size, warm-blooded mammals can no longer maintain their body temperature. For more details see:

Ahlborn, B. (2005). Thermodynamic Limits of Body Dimension of Warm Blooded Animals. Journal of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics, 25(1), pp. 87-102

Further reading

Energy and Institution Size. PLOS ONE. 2017; 12(2):e0171823.

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