Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In a Time of Limits

When the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the newly founded American republic in the early years of the nineteenth century, he encountered plenty of things that left him scratching his head. The national obsession with making money, the atrocious food, and the weird way that high culture found its way into the most isolated backwoods settings—“There is hardly a pioneer's hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of  Shakespeare,” he wrote; “I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin”—all intrigued him, and found their way into the pages of his remarkable book Democracy in America.

Still, one of the things de Tocqueville found most astonishing bears directly on the theme I’ve been developing over the last several weeks here on The Archdruid Report.  The Americans of his time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it.  Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves. De Tocqueville wrote:

“Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association. I have come across several types of association in America of which, I confess, I had not previously the slightest conception, and I have often admired the extreme skill they show in proposing a common object for the exertions of very many and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”

The types of associations de Tocqueville encountered used an assortment of ingenious legal structures borrowed, for the most part, from English common law.  Those of my readers who dislike the role of corporations in contemporary American life may be interested to know that the distant and much less toxic ancestor of today’s corporate structure was one of them. A corporation, back in those days, was not a privileged legal pseudoperson with more rights and fewer responsibilities than a human being.  It was simply a group of people who set out to accomplish some purpose, and got a charter from the state government allowing them to raise money for that purpose by selling shares of stock.  Most had single purposes—building a hospital, say, or a canal—and limited lifespans, defined either as a fixed number of years or until the purpose of the corporation was completed.

Making money was sometimes an object in such exercises, but by no means always. Members of a local religious community who wanted to build a new church, for example, would very often do that by organizing a corporation to raise money for the construction costs.  Each member would buy as many shares as he or she could afford, and fellow believers in neighboring towns who wanted to support the project might also buy shares to chip in.  When the church was finished, the corporation would be wound up, and thereafter a portion of the income from tithes and donations might be set apart to buy back the shares a few at a time; on the other hand, the members of the congregation might consider themselves well repaid when they filed into a new building on Sunday mornings. It was a remarkably effective means of local microfinance, and it paid for a huge number of civic improvements and public amenities in the young republic.

Not all associations that directed their efforts toward the public good in this way were corporations, and I hope I may be allowed a personal reminiscence about one of the others.  I think most of my regular readers know that I’m a Freemason. Yes, I’m quite aware that this makes me an object of vilification across most of the further reaches of contemporary American political life; no, I don’t particularly care, though it tickles my sense of absurdity to be accused to my face now and then of being one of the evil space lizards David Icke rants about in his books. In the town where I live, the various Masonic bodies meet in a large and lovely century-old building—which was, by the way, constructed by the sort of building corporation described earlier in this essay—and share certain projects in common. This year, I serve as the secretary to one of those, the Masonic Endowment Fund. Half a century ago, it had a different and more revealing name:  the Masonic Relief Fund.

Here’s how it functioned back in the day. Donations from living members, bequests from dead ones, and a variety of fundraising activities kept the Fund supplied with money, which it invested, and the interest from those investments went to help Masonic brothers and their families who fell onto hard times.  The members of the Relief Board, who were appointed by each lodge or other Masonic body, investigated each case and then started writing checks. 

Elderly brethren still recall the days when a long hard winter meant that the poorer families in town would run out of money for coal well before spring, and those who had a family member in the Masons could count on the truck from the local coal firm making a delivery anyway.  Groceries, visiting nurse services, school expenses, funeral costs—the Relief Fund covered all those and much more.  Everyone in the local Masonic scene supported the project to whatever extent their means allowed.  Partly that was because that’s what you do when you’re a Freemason, and partly it was because everyone knew that, however well off they were at the moment, some unexpected turn of events might leave them in a situation where they had to rely on the Fund for their own survival.

The Fund no longer buys truckloads of coal for poor Masonic families in the winter, and the reason for that is a microcosm of the impact of empire on American communities. In the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s, government welfare programs took the place of the Masonic Relief Fund and its many equivalents in the lives of the local poor.  Requests for help slowed and then stopped, and the Relief Board found itself sitting on an increasing pile of money that no one seemed to need any more. After much discussion, and by vote of the Masonic bodies that funded the Board, its name was changed to the Masonic Endowment Fund and its income was put to work paying for improvements on an aging Masonic building.

The same thing, often in much more drastic terms, happened to many other voluntary organizations that once occupied the roles currently more or less filled by government social welfare programs. In 1920, for example, something like 3500 different fraternal orders existed in the United States, and around 50% of the country’s adult population—counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way—belonged to at least one of them. Reasons for belonging ranged across the whole spectrum of human social phenomena, but there were hard pragmatic reasons to put in a petition for membership at your local lodge of the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, or what have you:  at a time when employers generally didn’t provide sick pay and other benefits for employees, most fraternal orders did.

If you belonged to the Odd Fellows, for example, you went to lodge one evening a week and paid your weekly dues, which were generally around 25 cents—that is, about the equivalent of a $20 bill today. In exchange, if you became too sick to work, the lodge would give you sick pay, and if you died, the lodge would cover the costs of your funeral and guarantee that your family would be taken care of.  If, as often happened, the husband belonged to the Odd Fellows and the wife to the Rebekahs, the women’s branch of the same organization, the family had a double claim on the order’s help.

Here again, I can call on something more personal than the abstract facts that can be gotten from old history books. My paternal grandfather’s father was a city police officer in the wide-open port town of Aberdeen, Washington, and an Odd Fellow.  In 1920 he was shot to death in the line of duty, leaving a wife and thirteen children. The Aberdeen Odd Fellows lodge paid for his funeral and then took care of his family—his children until they reached adulthood, his widow for the rest of her life. It’s not an accident that my grandfather, when he was in his twenties, became a founding member of a community service organization, Active 20-30 International.

In 1920, Odd Fellowship was at the peak of its size and influence, and ranked as the largest fraternal organization in North America.  Today, it’s a faint and flickering shadow of its former self.  When welfare programs and employer-paid pensions came in, the core function of the Odd Fellows and a great many organizations like it went out by the same door.  So, in due time, did most of the organizations. We once had a thriving Odd Fellows lodge here in Cumberland; the building is still there, with the letters IOOF in mosaic work on the front step, but the lodge is long gone.

Now it’s only fair to point out that the shift from private relief funds to government welfare programs had certain definite advantages. The voluntary associations that handled relief in the pre-welfare era—fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, religious bodies such as churches and synagogues, and the like—had limited resources, and usually conserved them by limiting their relief payments to their members, or to other narrowly defined populations.  To return to a point made earlier in these posts, the relief organizations of an earlier day had to treat their resources as a commons that could be destroyed by abuse, and so they put a variety of limits on access to those resources to make sure that the people who got help actually needed it, and weren’t simply trying to game the system.

The deep pockets of government  in an era of national expansion made it possible, for a while, to ignore such factors.  The new social welfare programs could reach out to everyone who needed them, or at least to everyone whose claim to need them advanced the agenda of one political faction or another.  The resulting largesse was distributed in various amounts all over the class spectrum—welfare for the poor, a dizzying array of direct and indirect federal subsidies for the middle class, ample tax loopholes and corporate handouts to benefit the rich—and did a great deal to fund the lavish lifestyles Americans by and large enjoyed during their nation’s imperial zenith.

That’s the kind of thing a society can do when it can draw on half a billion years of stored sunlight to prop up its economy, not to mention a global empire that gives it privileged access to the energy, raw materials, and products of industry that a half a billion years of stored sunlight made possible. Whether or not it was a good idea isn’t a question I particularly want to discuss at this point. It’s far more important, it seems to me, to recognize that the welfare states of the late 20th century were the product of a vast but temporary abundance of energy and the products of energy; they did not exist before that glut of energy arrived, and it’s thus a safe bet that they won’t exist after the glut is gone.

I think it’s at least as safe a bet, mind you, that nobody in America will be willing to face that fact until long after the abundance of the recent past is a fading memory.  The last decade or so of bickering in Washington DC is more than adequate evidence of the way the winds are blowing. Republicans talk about jobs, Democrats talk about justice, but in both cases what’s going on is best described as a bare-knuckle brawl over which party’s voting blocs get to keep their accustomed access to the federal feeding trough. Choose any point on the convoluted political landscape of modern America, and the people at that position eagerly criticize those handouts that don’t benefit them, but scream like irate wildcats if anything threatens their own access to government largesse. 

I suspect, for what it’s worth, that the last US government handouts to be paid out will be those that prop up the lifestyles of the American middle class: the financial aid that keeps middle class families from having to shoulder the whole cost of a college education for their children, the social security and medicare that keeps them from having to foot the whole bill for their old age and that of their parents, the galaxy of programs intended to make it easier for them to afford homeownership, and all the rest of it. Programs that benefit the middle class disproportionately already make up the largest share of US federal entitlement programs, dwarfing the 2% or so of the federal budget that goes to the poor, or the 5% or so that counts as corporate welfare, and that figure is a fair measure of the political clout the middle class can wield in defense of its privileges.

It would be pleasant to suppose, as the United States slides down the trajectory of imperial decline and the number of Americans in serious trouble increases, that middle class voters would recognize the severity of the situation and support, say, means tests on middle-class welfare programs, so that those who don’t actually need help can be asked to step aside in favor of those who do. I hope none of my readers plan on holding their breath and waiting for this to happen, though. Quite the contrary:  as economic contraction accelerates and energy and resource shortages bite harder, the fight around the feeding trough will just get worse. I doubt many of the combatants will take enough time from the struggle to notice that, in the long run, it’s a fight with no winners.

In the time of limits ahead of us, no country on earth will be able to afford a welfare state of the kind that was common in industrial societies over the last century or so. That’s one of the harsh realities of our predicament.  National economies powered by diffuse renewable energy sources, bound by strict ecological limits, and forced to cope with the cascading instabilities of a damaged planetary biosphere, simply won’t be able to produce the surplus wealth needed to make that a possibility. Methods of providing for urgent social needs that worked in the days before the economy of abundance are another matter, and for this reason it makes sense to suggest a revival of the old American custom of forming voluntary associations to fund and manage public amenities.

There are at least two important advantages to such a project, and both of them take the form of lessons that Americans once knew and are going to have to learn again in a hurry. The first is that a private association doesn’t have the luxury of pretending that it has limitless resources.  Currently some 60% of Americans receive more in the way of financial benefits from government than they pay in taxes.  Conservative pundits like to insist that this means the well-to-do are getting robbed by taxation, but the facts of the matter are considerably more troubling: the gap in question is being covered with borrowed money—which means, in an era of quantitative easing, that it’s being paid by printing money.  That’s a recipe for massive economic trouble in the short term. A private association, by contrast, can’t print its own money, and if its members vote themselves more benefits than the treasury can pay for, they will discover promptly enough why this isn’t a good idea. 

That’s the first advantage. The second is closely related to it.  The benefit funds of the old fraternal orders and their equivalents across the spectrum of voluntary associations learned two crucial lessons very early on.  The first was that some people are solely interested in gaming the system for whatever they can get out of it, and are unwilling to contribute anything in return.  The second is that allowing such people to get their way, and drain the fund of its resources, is a fast road to failure. The standard response was to limit access to the benefit fund to those who had contributed to it, or the organization that sponsored it, at least to the extent of joining the organization and keeping current on their dues.

That’s why the Masonic Relief Fund here in Cumberland only bought coal for those poor families who had a family member in Freemasonry, and why so many of the comparable funds operated by other lodges, by churches, and by a range of other social institutions in the pre-welfare days had similar rules.  The reasoning involved in this custom is the same logic of the commons we’ve discussed several times already in this series of posts. A relief fund is a commons; like any other commons it can be destroyed if those who have access to it are allowed to abuse it for their own benefit; to prevent that from happening, limits on access to the commons are essential.

There were also organizations that existed to provide help to people other than their own members, and in fact most of the old lodges directed some part of their efforts to helping people in the community at large—as indeed most of them still do.  Here again, though, access to the limited resources that were available was controlled, so that those resources could be directed where, in the best judgment of the sponsoring organization, they would do the most good.  Nineteenth-century talk about “the deserving poor”—that is, those whose poverty was not primarily the result of their own choices and habits, and who thus might well be able to better their conditions given some initial help—is deeply offensive to many people in our present culture of entitlement, but it reflects a hard reality. 

Whether the habit of throwing money at the poor en masse is a useful response to poverty or not, the fact remains that a post-imperial America on the downslope of the age of cheap energy won’t have the resources to maintain that habit even with the poor it’s already got, much less the vastly increased numbers of the newly poor we’ll have as what’s left of our economy winds down.  Those who worry about ending up destitute as that process unfolds need to be aware that they won’t be able to turn to the government for help, and those whose sense of compassion leads them to want to do something helpful for the poor might want to consider some less futile response than trying to pry loose government funds for that purpose. 

In both cases, the proven approaches of a less extravagant time might be worth adopting, or at least considering. It’s fair to admit that the voluntary associations central to those approaches won’t be able to solve all the problems of a post-imperial society in a deindustrializing world, but then neither will anything else; they can, however, accomplish some good. In a time of limits, that may well be the best that can be done.

160 comments:

John said...

I agree with much of this. I'm on the board of our local water system which serves 100 and some households who share and jointly own this commons. We're under no illusion that this commons is unlimited, and we limit access to it to our members. Works well.

But how do you limit access to the air or the oceans?

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Was there a relationship between the decline of monasticism and the rise of these fraternal orders, I wonder?

John Michael Greer said...

John, a screwdriver isn't useful for pounding nails, and a social technology useful for solving local community problems isn't necessarily going to work for other things on other scales. That doesn't make the social technology we're discussing useless -- and it fascinates me that one of the standard responses to the discussion I've been trying to start is to drag in something that local action can't do anything about, as though that erases all the things that local action can do something about.

Jeffrey, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for sheer historical perspicacity. Yes, the fraternal orders emerged right around the time monasticism in the West dropped out of the social role it had kept since the end of the Roman world -- and in fact the basic organizational forms of the fraternal orders are derived from medieval religious confraternities, which themselves drew heavily on monastic models.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

I've found an effective use of funds --entrusted to my lodge for the relief of the poor --to be the paying of legal and filing fees for who need chapter seven bankruptcy relief.

The debts discharged are always greater than the amount the trust pays out out. A break with the past is sometimes the greatest relief.

Grebulocities said...

I wonder - what is the typical age structure of traditional fraternal organizations these days? Are there significant numbers of 18-50 year old members, or do the majority of fraternal organizations contain mostly older people?

Also, I just checked the local library's Web page and it appears we have American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities by Mark Tabbert. Do you have any opinions on this book or any similar books?

Leo said...

Assoications sound like low-tech form of Kickstarter.

Family helps also good, like Godparents as well. My Grandfather took over my Granduncles business when he died and got the family through

Renaissance Man said...

I seem to recall an adage "if you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last" which describes the behaviour of groups about to lose their funding vis a vis other groups and hence politics in general.
No one, it seems, really voluntarily wants to give up a place at the trough, as long as there is a trough.
Me, I'm working to build a better trough (or go back to one) or at least a feed bucket -- so to speak.

Librarian of Hillman said...

Thanks--this is actually something I can and will print out so that my (Republican, "conservative" 72 year old) father can read it, because impossibly enough, I believe we'll both agree with you!

My father is sadly a prisoner of bad cable TV pundits, who only complain and scape-goat, but never offer workable solutions, and it strains our personal relationship, as you might well imagine.

What a pleasure to find some critique which includes a reasonable suggestion, rather than staying stuck in the 'blaming' phase (not that it is not useful to understand how things get the way they get, but by itself, that's not enough, as you clearly know and demonstrate.)

I wonder what new associations will step up over time, probably it will be different everywhere?

I'm in Pittsburgh, not too far from you (and my father and I hunt down around your area) and here in the city I've been so happy to see new groups appear over the past 5 years or so--mostly youngish people, often working to promote very practical missions like urban gardening, composting, rain-barrels, re-purposing, etc., and usually incorporating some element of getting inner-city disadvantaged, or school children in general, involved in learning skills and getting a new perspective on taking personal responsibility for producing essential goods (like food) or services.

We always have The Power, just sometimes we need someone to remind us of that. Your blog never disappoints!

Yupped said...

Thanks JMG. Your response, to a commenter a few weeks ago, that you consider your political philosophy to be somewhat "Burkean conservative" was interesting, and I've seen a lot of that coming through in these more recent posts.

The "little platoons" approach has much practical appeal in difficult times, allowing for small scale solutions to arise and work with the facts on the ground. Very different from the top-down solutions we have all come to expect. When I was much younger, fashioning myself as a young socialist in 1970s England, these ideas seemed so old-fashioned, a relic of Tory England, very inefficient and un-modern. Now of course it seems so obvious that a social fabric with lots of small, interlocking organizations, and a fair dollop of disensus, is much less brittle than the centralized collosus that we've built over the last few decades.

I also expect we'll see a widespread return of multi-generational families/homes, with people combining to look after each other under the same roof. I wonder whether some of the political, communication and give-and-take-skills necessary to make these smaller social and political organizations work were incubated in the multi-generational family setting?

John D. Wheeler said...

Are you planning on talking about the medieval guild system at all, with the apprentice - journeyman - master system? Do you think that is a pattern worthy of reviving?

YJV said...

I started off reading this post and feeling very uncomfortable as your rationale was very libertarian and involved the use of the word 'private'. I then realised that you were talking more about common ownership rather than necessarily individual.

Coming to think about it this whole situation is similar to what happened across Asia, where the community based organisations died out when many governments decided that massive state planning was the answer to the vast problems around.

Nevertheless, the facts that you present do make some sense.

Unknown said...

I belong to a German American society which sometimes still helps it's poorer members out of a jam (sudden illness, scholarship funds, student exchange programs, etc.) but not on the scale it has historically when new immigrants had enormous problems settling in a new country. The society has evolved into more of a social club and may be said to be dying as there are now much fewer new immigrants from German speaking areas of the world. However, the society retains a vigorous democratic form which is interesting to see in action. The members have various sub-clubs to brew beer, make wurst, sing German songs, teach German, keep a cultural and historical museum, folk dance, play card games, hold Oktoberfests, Faschings(sort of a German Mardi Gras), "Christmas in Germany" festivals, etc.

It is also interesting to be a part of a membership based on volunteer labor to make all of this activity possible. The meetings are based on the Robert Rules of Order which are, for the most part, followed. The leaders are elected by the membership and are often rotated as the officers often tire due to intense involvement and hard work. If things get bad enough before this institution dies, I can see it has the structures needed to return to it's original fraternal purposes even without the influx of new Germans.

For the last couple of years, I have been reading your blog and I really enjoy your large perspective. Thank you.

Odin's Raven said...

The state (Henry VIII or French Revolutionaries) stole the wealth of the monastic orders that had provided charity and gave it to the ruling class.

Now it supports it's owners and parasites by taxation and inflation. These intend to be the last to starve.As poverty encroaches, it seems unlikely that the power of the state will allow other people to retain sufficient resources to finance much of a revival of charitable institutions. They'll find ways to tax and steal it. ('Morton's Fork' may be revived - if you've got money you can't have been paying enough tax or you are well able to pay more.) They also hate to be shown up as incompetent, and they loathe people who show independence of their control.

You might have to do good by stealth, if you're still free and able to do so.

mallow said...

I despair when I think about how the 'deserving poor' will be defined. In 19th century Ireland that was a front for bigotry and racism used to prop up the British imperial wealth pump and it was ugly. After independence it was a euphemism for those who obeyed the moral diktats of the Catholic church. Now there's a common train of thought that the poor are almost by definition undeserving as they've failed in some way to obey the discipline of the economy - it's assumed they must have been careless or lazy or greedy etc.

Seems to me like those making the decision, whether it's the state, a landlord, church or just members of a voluntary association who have a job and income, always have an incentive to limit the category of the 'deserving' in callous and arbitrary ways. To use it to control the morals of the poor by punishing the sinners, to extract more labour from them, to push them out to another area to be someone else's problem.Or just to choose those most similar to them who they can identify with best or those who somehow allow them to maintain their belief that it could never be them who ends up poor. The idea of your neighbours deciding whether your family gets help that could mean the difference between life and death based on their judgment of your character makes my blood run cold. I guess that's unavoidable though.




Richard Larson said...

I am not a member of any organization, and when my name does appear on a role, like some wilflife fund, maybe a fishing organization, I don't renew. I have been a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian. And the churches? I have been in all of them around here! But none of them get any donations from me anymore.

Not sure why there is no interest to get involved, perhaps because none of them really need my help as you have touched on. No doubt most of these just want mostly money.

This is a really nice post that highlights how people use to help each other in person, in the past, and perhaps, may treat each other after the system collapses.

JMG, you could be happy to learn I have been cultivating friendships with people who are happy and have little to do with the system, as it is, but I think would be highly skilled in a world without these energy resources. People with far less prejudices than you can find down at the various lodges, who might have a hard time adapting.

But I could be wrong. :-)



Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

JMG, the conventional historical view, at least on the Left, is that federal relief, Social Security, jobs programs, and the other national social welfare programs that originated under Franklin Roosevelt were responses to the fact that the Great Depression had exhausted the local resources that had traditionally provided help to the poor.

There had been previous panics which caused much suffering, but the Great Depression was longer and deeper. Is this not so?

With one third of the population out of work for extended periods, and massive deflation, the churches, fraternal organizations and local governments were overwhelmed; they did not have enough money to keep people from starving and losing their homes.

Herbert Hoover, FDR's predecessor in the White House, had run a very effective relief program in Russia after the Great War. He knew how to do it but was ideologically opposed to federal intervention either to improve the economy or to help the unemployed. That's why he wasn't reelected.

One can make the case that once the crisis was over, these federal programs should have been scaled back or terminated instead of being made permanent. Instead, they were expanded after WWII. Indeed, conservatives did argue that position and a few still do, although not very consistently.

I agree that we can't afford to carry on this way, and that neither national party is doing much to scale back federal expenditures. The availability of wealth to redistribute is a positive feedback loop that breeds corruption, overwhelming every attempt at reform.

Unknown said...

Thank you for making my dear departed fathers motivations clearer. A mason all his adult life, I have always struggled to make the link between him and the monsters Icke and his ilk demonise

Mark Hines said...

John, Excellent post. I believe the Mennonites and Amish have been doing the same thing with their Mennonite Relief Fund. Also, the traditional Barn Raising was also a sort of group relief where everyone pitched in to rebuild the dairy farmers barn after a fire or other natural disaster.
A local church in our are has a weekly event for needy people to get free clothing and food donated by the community.

As government disintegrates these kinds of associations become more important.

Nestorian said...

Could you say some more about the origin of your statistics? When you say that only 2% of the budget goes to the poor and 5% goes to the rich, how exactly are these categories defined?

Are we to infer that the remaining 93% goes ultimately to the middle class? How then is the meaning of "middle class" bounded off from "poor" and "rich"?

Carly said...

My father and grandfather were Mason's, my sisters and I were in Job's Daughters and Rainbow. Mom was in Eastern Star. Just the thought that these organizations are so evil is absurd!

I miss the community building these organizations saturated my youth with. We raised money for the Masonic homes, had picnics and car washes to help support our brothers and sisters, aged and young. Raised money for the Shriners and helped at the hospitals. It brought the old and young together in a way that never happens now. We learned respect and that you could count on the "elders" to guide and help you out. I often wish we could go back to that.

When my father died we had no money. The brothers at his lodge did a Masonic memorial service for him and our family. They provided food and the use of the building free of charge. He had been ill a long time, but was a lifelong member of his lodge. I only recognized one of the men doing the service, but they all did such an honorable, meaningful thing for a man they did not know.

How can we get back to the "we" from the "me" we are stuck in?

Scott said...

This gets to one aspect of what we might face in the decades ahead that make me more worried in general than you seem to be (I have been reading your excellent blog for quite a while now) - we have a enormous number of people on food stamps, medicaid, medicare, social security, etc - and when that money stops flowing in their direction, well ... the mind can come up with some scary scenarios - and these scenarios could last for years and become the totality of our reality in the near future.

I wish I didn't worry about this, but I do.

Allie said...

Hi JMG, great post. I very much enjoyed it. Also enjoyed your chat with JHK on the Kunstlercast recently.

Anyways, I wanted to share with you and your readers an interesting co-operative association based in the UK, Local United.

http://www.localunited.net/

From their homepage:

Diffusing practical initiatives in response to climate change and peak oil.

Local United is a membership association of existing and aspiring social entrepreneurs, it is constituted as a Society for the Benefit of the Community and is also a registered co-operative.

What this means is Local United provides a hothouse to inspire, enable and promote social ventures to move communities more rapidly towards a low-carbon future by building sustainability businesses across all UK sectors.


I'm sure you and a lot of your readers may already be familiar with them. I have seen them linked over at Resilience.org. I wanted to share their site since they are closely related to the sort of associations that you mentioned in this post and they focus on building and spreading local resilience in the face of climate change and peak oil. They aren't waiting on the UK government to give them handouts or take the lead addressing these issues.

I would recommend checking out their "Action Packs" page on the site. Lots of great guides and starter packs for local community led food and energy systems and initiatives.

Cheers!

John said...

JMG -" as though that erases all the things that local action can do something about." Now really, if I thought that I wouldn't be acting locally.

But seriously, how to scale this up to tackle for example global warming? Where the whole planet is the in group. Or just assume it's going to happen and focus on local adaptation?

Mark Boenish said...

I don't mean to get all apocalyptic, but I think the Arch Druid is missing one important point here. The 19th century fraternal orders were the products of an expanding economy in much the same way as the 20th century welfare states. When people see the common 'pie', and their own incomes, growing they can easily be convinced to contribute a small percentage to a common fun to help out.

How well will this work when the 'pie' is obviously shrinking? Call me a misanthrope but I fear much of the redistribution of wealth in the future will be done at the point of a gun.

Sandra Cass said...

JMG

Most interesting issue you have brought up here. Our church Sunday School class has recently talked about how we can help people when all the government help falters when the government has to face up to completely bankruptcy.

What we studied was the old medieval confraternities - they provided many of the services you mentioned, feeding the poor, providing for burials, etc. All of that was long before there were government programs to do that.

My understanding was that there were thousands of confraternities across Europe.

Twilight said...

As I read this I was thinking about the situation that existed during the time when the Great Society programs were created. This was one of the periods of great stress as you have identified (I forget the terminology you've used at the moment), where the nation held together but only barely, and was greatly changed in the event.

These older, localized social safety structures were not the cause of the failure, but they were overwhelmed by the scale. Whatever the causes of the depression (I'm avoiding getting into that here), we were at that time still a nation with a lot of energy resources, including fossil fuel energy. To hold it together required committing some of that energy to support those the previous system had failed, and the nation that emerged was then much different from what it had been before. Just as the nation that emerged from the Civil War was much different than what it had been.

I guess in both cases continuing the project required making a step change in complexity and centralization of power, which could only happen with the energy resources to support it, and each time there was an increase in per-capita energy available to the population. I'm not sure the voluntary associations would have worked with that new, more complex social organization. However, now that this process is running in reverse we will need to shed that complexity and they may eventually become a useful model again.

My concern is that we still have that complexity and the voluntary associations are no longer established, and it is more than likely that we'll have a situation where they will be overwhelmed even if they were (like the Great Depression). It will be mighty tough to re-establish such things in that environment.

Andy Brown said...

This is off-topic, but your reference to the freeloader problem is interesting in relation to what's left of the labor unions. The current effort to destroy unions is focused on "right to work" laws, which essentially allow workers to gain all the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement, but don't allow the union to collect any dues from them. It's obvious (based on who is backing this) that this is not about doing workers any favors, but about making it impossible for unions to sustain themselves.

Wullow said...

As I understand it, fraternal orders also existed to provide medical care for their members by contracting with physicians. I would not be surprised if the insurance industry had a part in their disappearance.

Andy Brown said...

The destruction of voluntary associations - and the kind of social practices and economic cross-hatching they represent - was probably necessary in order to transform people from citizens and community members into the atomized consumers we have today: whose political and economic power is nothing more than making the selection between Brand X and Brand Y.

Joseph Nemeth said...

This is pretty much how Social Security runs.

You don't qualify until you are "vested," which takes ten years of pay-in.

Payout is indexed by total contributions.

Fraud - gaming the system - is policed, and carries criminal penalties in addition to losing benefits.

Income is from dues - FICA taxes on wage income - and distribution is to members - FICA taxpayers. The rich don't pay for Social Security (unless they have wage income) and taxable wage income is capped at just over $100K, meaning every wage dollar you make over the cap is FICA tax-free. Investment income isn't taxed at all.

Funds are carefully managed. The "Social Security is going broke" howl in MSM is pure disinformation: it's actually a Grover Norquistian partisan scuffle over a 2% increase in FICA taxes to offset a shortfall two decades distant, largely due to the size and longevity of the Baby Boom generation. And the REAL issue is the attempt to get the multi-trillion-dollar Trust Fund into the stock market, so that it can become part of the US internal wealth-pump.

The real problem with Social Security is that our government is breaking down at about the same rate as our economic system, both due to the expectation of exponential growth in a physical world with limits. The government is now solely dedicated to grandstanding for the next election cycle rather than making the minor functional adjustments that any working system needs, and the slow-failing economy is gradually robbing Social Security of dues-paying workers. No fraternal organization would survive this twin curse, either.

The advantage of diverse fraternal organizations is that you would not expect them all to fall into corruption, stupidity, and hard times all at the same time. This disadvantage is that each one is much more fragile, with smaller risk pools and much less money.

Ultimately, this discussion needs to turn to our modern obsession with living forever, which lies at the root of our sense of entitlement. There used to be an expression out here, "dying with your boots on." They used to call pneumonia "the old man's friend." The Lakota said, "Today would be a good day to die," and the ancient Celts (and Vikings, and Saxons, and you-name-it) found the idea of dying in bed abhorrent.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

Don't forget cooperative associations. Coming from a Scandinavian heritage (particularly those of Norwegian descent) and living in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas), I'm used to seeing the remnants of cooperatives all over the place. Most people today only run into a food co-op. But there is a rich history of local people forming cooperative banks (precursors to credit unions of today), cooperative dairy creameries, cooperative rural electric associations, cooperative telephone companies, cooperative feed stores and general stores. Same idea. You became a member and funded the start-up of the enterprise by your membership, and then became a loyal customer afterwards. At least once a year, and sometimes quarterly, there would be association meetings where decisions were made by members of the association. This needs to come back again.

kollapsnik said...

I wonder if Transition Towns can somehow morph into something vaguely reminiscent of the old fraternal orders...

Harlan Bjornstad said...

Over the past few months, I've been talking with one of my good friends about some of these issues

One of the things that he says bothers him about themes of self-sufficiency--is how, as he puts it, "fascist" it all sounds to his ears. It's as though alarm bells go off in his brain, he says, whenever he imagines letting go of the big dream of economic stability and social justice guaranteed from DC. His worry is how will we feed the hungry? How will we make sure that people aren't taking advantage of the weak?

And of course it's to his credit that that it's OTHERS he worries about here first, not himself.

But as you I think would point out John, all this is a cause for DESPAIR ONLY IF we insist on saying that the only alternative to the present structure is "hey everyone, you're on your own. Better have a better weapon than the guy next door."

But there's no need to do that. No need to give up on caring for one another.

We can still do what in fact our species is really pretty good at, and in fact seem to have evolved to do: band together in common concern and affection with those we have some actual daily contact with, and then (tight-knit, hard-nosed, doughty)face that common reality together.

So I'm going to talk about this post with my friend.

rabtter said...

What puzzles me is that the fraternal organizations are demonized by fundamentalists and some political factions.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@rabtter -- Fundamentalists demonize everything. Why does this surprise you?

More seriously, competition. If the Masons have a better benefits package than the Odd Fellows, and both have better packages than the Baptist Church, where do you thing the memberships will go?

Steve in Colorado said...

The thing is, if I describe to my radical Left friends (most of my friends) a type of society in which people themselves "form an association" when they want to do something like create a hospital or a school or a book distro, they'll respond enthusiastically. If I go on to mention that half or most of the members of this society belong to fraternal associations (I'd call them "collectives") that provide for their members ("according to their needs") and also undertake charitable work in the community, they'll exclaim "Libertarian Communism!" and point to the relevant passage in Kropotkin.

If, on the other hand, I suggest that these things were aspects of the United States of the past, they'll probably call me a racist.

Funny how that works.

Of course, I'm aware that the fraternal associations, local planning boards, and so forth that you describe are in no way identical to Kropotkin or anyone else's idea of socialism or communism. But I think that there is a certain family resemblance there which may be helpful in selling these ideas to Leftish people (of course, there's a lot to appeal to Rightish people too; I think it's all a matter of framing.) Communes and utopian societies seem, to me, to be not entirely different from monasteries, or from the fraternal orders you describe. And I also think it's worth pointing out that, during the 19th Century, when the reach of the federal government was significantly less than today, communistic and utopian experiments of many different varieties flourished. Most failed or changed, to be sure, but that doesn't mean the idea is a failure anymore than the fact that most businesses and churches from 1875 are no longer around refutes the idea of business or religion! I have a book on the topic-- a survey of dozens of communal societies, written in 1875-- that opens by suggesting that the point of communal societies is "to enable at least the more intelligent, enterprising, and determined part of those who are not capitalists to become such, and cease to labor for hire." I think that idea will have as much relevance for our de-industrial future as it did for the pre-industrial past.

Scott Sammons said...

Dear JMG, I was going to leave a more topical comment. Upon reading your guidelines, I am so thrilled with them, I just wanted to say your ideas are even more vital to this nation than I originally thought. As this is off topic, no worries if it gets deleted. Keep up the great work!

Joel said...

>those whose poverty was not primarily the result of their own choices and habits, and who thus might well be able to better their conditions given some initial help

That doesn't necessarily follow: there's a yet-harder reality.

There are people whose choices and habits accumulate wealth, but who cannot reasonably be expected to better their conditions given some initial help, because much of the wealth they accumulate is systematically taken from them.

I think what most offends liberals is that some people who meet the first part of your definition of "deserving poor" are categorized as undeserving because they don't meet the latter part of the definition.

To take an extreme example, starving people deserve food, even those whose warlords are willing and able to steal any food aid. I guess it's best to address the power structures that prevent aid from working, rather than providing goods, indirectly, to warlords. I guess in the long run, such leaders will find their subjects starved out of existence, whether or not food aid is available now. It's just offensive to hold the starving people responsible, when so much of their political situation is dictated by much larger power struggles.

Things don't go to such extremes in the US very often, and who holds power isn't often so clear, but I still think pragmatic decisions about how to apply charity will be made more clearly if people's circumstances aren't conflated with their character.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

We have a bike co-op in my neighborhood. I was a member one year, but haven't been involved for a number more. I still know a few people in it, and as Spring roles around it might be good to get my bikes fixed up there again. The bike co-op is basically a garage that members who pay have access to, along with a plethora of old bicycles to recycle for parts or build new bikes up from. And they have some skill-sharing workshops and group rides.

Which brings to my mind the idea of a contemporary guild. As far as I know guilds were voluntary organizations and associations. Combining the benefits of a voluntary association with a trade or craft beneficial to the livelihood of people as we careen down the slope is something I for one am definitely interested in.
Bike co-ops, or guilds, for transportation...Membership libraries to preserve knowledge -with money from dues to add to and maintain the collection, etc.

onething said...

While I sympathize with Mallow's worries regarding self righteous small groups' allocations of charity, I must say that there are way too many people who do game the system, and who care not at all about larger issues or principles. This seems to be particularly true in my state, where it is easier to get on disability and some people move here just to get onto it. I found out that this is a source of resentment among my coworkers who all seem to know multiple people on welfare, young women about 20 years of age who have two and three and four children, different fathers, living on welfare and medicaid. And I do mean white people. Plenty of people are collecting disability checks who, if you met them somewhere, you would have no idea they are disabled.

There's a very good reason that in the past women were strongly stigmatized for bearing children out of wedlock. It was called morality, but the real reason is that a woman who becomes pregnant without a man committed to her is about to become a huge burden upon her family and community. Plenty of adequate people make mistakes, especially when they are young, but there is also a subset of people who do not show any sense of personal responsibility for their lives, don't "grow up" and give back.
There's also a tremendous number of people in the medical system, some with insurance and some on the dole, who have terrible health and absolutely zero interest trying to understand anything they could do about it, but when it comes to payment for the thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on their care, they have no skin in the game. Well, other than their actual skin that is! About which for some reason they are utterly passive.

I wonder how all this will play out, and I wonder too, how this nation went from a place of good food to one in which people don't even know the difference between real food and fake food.

JMG and perhaps Kollapsnik seem to think that the oil nonavailability will be even across the board. But when I see the actions and attitude of the government, it seems to me that once the game is up and the problem is out in the open, that the various enforcement agencies will have all the oil they need for some time to come. But that will probably not extend to the fake food industry, as it requires too much of the energy pie.
Perhaps the deserving poor and the nondeserving poor will sort themselves out as people get back to the land and agriculture.

vera said...

I would love to hear about books on the history of the Masons; a while back I tried to find one without success. I am also puzzled by the prestige of the historical lodges -- both Mozart and emperor Joseph II belonged -- and why people sought to belong to them then, and what changed later. The earlier history might explain some of the hatred of the conspiracy-minded.

A very inspiring post, JMG.

ecoreality said...

We've been struggling with this very issue. As a BC Cooperative Association, we manage our own commons. But it has proven very difficult to get people to join in that commons, by helping to finance it.

For whatever reason, North Americans would still rather pay $500,000 for their own five acres than to pay half that for a share in a much larger property, with many more amenities. Go figure.

Steve Morgan said...

It's intriguing to see the way tools are used differently by different groups for their unique purposes. Your comments about corporations brought to mind something that at first blush looks like a paradox: how the pseudopersons you mentioned are so vilified because by and large they are wielded as commons-exploiting devices, privatizing profit for shareholders while generally pillaging everyone and everything else. Yet the same tools in other hands put to other ends have done wonderful things to promote and preserve the commons on many scales. Of course it's not a paradox at all; rather it's an example of dissensus at work. That it seemed a paradox at first is much more revealing about my own mental furniture than anything else.

I've been thoroughly enjoying this series, JMG. It brings to mind an image of you as a ruinman of historical ideas. You look to me much like a skilled tradesman who's found a long disused workshop from a cottage industry that's fallen by the wayside, sorting through tools, materials, and spare parts to see what they were or could be used for again. I'd guess you take no small pleasure in sifting through the old workshop of American history in this way. If the way you've made me reevaluate my own habits of mind about things is any indication, I'd say you're doing it justice.

ChemEng said...

I am setting up a series of Sunday School classes at my church on the topic of Mediaeval Christianity.

I would like to know more about what Sandra Cass has prepared regarding medieval confraternities.

Is there some way that I can contact her?

Lee Wilder said...

I dislike the terms "deserving" and "nondeserving" poor... "willing to act" and "content with increasingly small amounts of aid" might be more accurate, if wordy. Y/N/other suggestions, everyone?

Reading this made me remember that I need to finally join up with that local bike co-op, and a few things I'd been puzzling over finally clicked together.

I'm yet to encounter a self-defined professional activist who really wants to bother with all the work of building something that would do things the government does already. Nearly everyone I know talks a big game of interdependence, and yet almost no-one wants to put in the effort that needs to exist outside of theory.

It's tremendously frustrating, and I can't help but think that it's due to the concept that exclusive groups are [COLD PRICKLY!!!] and not to be encouraged. Which, in turn, is tied to the whole "You showed up? YOU GET A TROPHY" mentality that struck me as spectacularly stupid even in grade school.

mallow said...

onething - that's exactly the kind of attitude that worries me. You've unthinkingly described the pregnant woman as the burden, rather than the baby, and the father is left out of the picture entirely. The assumption is that it's the woman's responsibility to take care of the resulting baby and the father is effectively let off the hook. The stigma was always applied to the woman rather than the man because of sexism, but people don't even notice that, let alone consider other ways of dealing with that kind of issue. It's not just self righteousness that concerns me, it's people's blindness to their own prejudices.


Robert Mathiesen said...

Bravo, JMG!

Most of my male ancestors in the later 19th and earlier 20th century belonged to one or another of the fraternal organizations, and their wives to the related female auxiliary organizations. These organizations took care of their own poor, sick and elderly just as you have described, and did so in exemplary fashion. In addition to aid given to needy families, the Freemasons also maintained Masonic Homes for the elderly or disabled, which -- at least in my own relatives' experience -- provided care to a very high standard.

Some of the commenters asked whether all this depended on cheap energy and a growing economy. Of course it benefitted from these things, but I do not think it depended on them. Even when the economy was bad (as it was during the Depression, for instance) the fraternal orders kept their charitable activities going by means of lots of self-sacrifice on the part of individual members, who willingly cut back on their own consumption of food and fuel to help their less fortunate fellow members. It just came down to character and the practice of virtue -- a pair of old-fashioned concepts, to be sure, but concepts well worth cultivating, especially as our age grows darker.

These things -- character and virtues -- are exemplified over and over again in the stories and histories that underlie Masonic initiations and other lodge rituals, and this counts for far more than *direct* teaching. Any rituals has a powerful impact on the people who enact it over and over again, and lodge rituals are no exception. Without their rituals and initiations, no fraternal organization would ever have become more than a mere social club, or a self-promoting charitable association most active when times were good and the economy was booming.

Our society is contemptuous of "mere" ritual, as it is of "mere" fantasy and "mere" imagination. That is possibly the most serious of its several errors in judgement. There is nothing "mere" about either ritual or fantasy or imagination!

Among the many books that I would like to see survive the coming hard times are not only good textbooks of such things as geometry and grammar, but copies of Robert's Rules of Order and of a variety of lodge ritual manuals. (It would be even better if the lodges themselves can survive the coming hard times, but failing that, if their rituals at least can make it through the centuries, they will be able to serve as templates for new fraternal orders.)

vera said...

Folks, here is a link to Paula on Mythodrome who just posted on the community financial corporation that might be part of the puzzle.

http://mythodrome.net/revisiting-catherine-austin-fitts-solari

Helix said...

Re: "... I doubt many of the combatants will take enough time from the struggle to notice that, in the long run, it’s a fight with no winners."

I agree with JMG up to this point. However, I don't think it's at all given that there won't be any winners, at least in anything shorter than the very long term.

The medieval era is our current best example of what happens when empires hit the skids. People of means or in positions of authority lay claim to whatever resources remain -- especially productive land -- thereby forcing those who are not as well positioned into economic subjugation. The power and authority of the U.S. Federal Government seems to me to be an ideal instrument through which the powerful could bring about this condition.

The medieval era was not a pleasant time for the 99%. As Thomas Hobbes described it: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. And it lasted for a thousand years.

JMG's vision of a democratic, relocalized future is an attractive one, even if it means a harder life for most people. Unfortunately, historical examples run a bit thin. What one finds instead is a progression to authoritarian rule, with a small cadre of elites living very well indeed off the sweat of their subjects, with a legal and moral code that justifies and enforces all of it.

MilesL said...

You have mentioned the topic of the skills it takes to work together, yet I have not seen specifics. What ideas do you have to teach a new generation the old skills of how to work together? Perhaps it deserves a post of it's own.

The skills and mentality it takes to work together seems to have become lost. I am a Mason myself and do not see these skills being taught. It is my opinion that when the baby boomers skipped joining Fraternal and other organizations (Me generation and not wanting to do what their parents did) they created a gap. Now that "younger" (X & Y Generation) people are joining these older groups, seeking these skills, they have disappeared. (This also answers a comment above. Many Lodges only have older members. Far more have a mix as younger generations have begun to join for a variety of reasons.)

The remnants of what used to be are still there in these organizations, but many things have fallen away. Too many things lost. Any ideas or resources are greatly appreciated. I am positive that these are needed in any of the kinds of organizations you or the comments mention.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful essay, JMG. Thank you for this! The story of your ancestor who received help reminds me of the sad story of Mrs. A. J. Young, whose family picture I found on www.shorpy.com. I visit that site every day and am haunted by some pictures. Evidently I'm not the only one, as another reader saw the picture of a mother with her 9 children and did some research to find out what happened to them. This poor woman was widowed, with 11 children, total. She was driven to take them to an orphanage. Go here to see their heartbreaking pictures, taken by Lewis Hine, and the story written by Joe Manning. I send prayers to this poor family, what some might call the "deserving poor."
http://www.sevensteeples.com/youngfamily1.html

phil harris said...

JMG
I am convinced by your arguments, if I understand them correctly, for collective action (decision taking, responsibility, democratic procedures, ‘Roberts’ Rules’ etc.) at the appropriate level, from local-to-Federal in the case of the USA. Regaining active participation at the local level would help popular comprehension and help legitimise the necessary structures up to the Federal level. Conflict resolution would be an experience of daily life, as would accountability for decision taking.

I have one or two questions regarding ‘fraternal orders’ in the USA. (BTW, Kier Hardie early Scottish Labour Party had a definition of Socialism: “Fraternity based on justice.”)
How did your fraternal organisations fare in the New Deal era?
My second is really an observation: I understand that by the time of Lyndon Johnson the great exodus of the American middle-class to the suburbs and to petroleum prosperity was well under way. The concept of looking after other people and taking responsibility for neighbourhood affairs, apart from protecting property values, does not seem very likely in the new suburbs? (Here in Britain we saw a brief resurgence of personal and collective action and automatic taking of responsibility during wartime in the pre-petrol London suburbs; but it did not last long. I saw some of the last practical civic and personal measures in the remaining 19thC poorer areas of Edinburgh in the early 1970s. These admirable Scottish self-help and civic structures did not survive ‘modernisation’.)

Again here in Britain, assuming you are correct and even here ‘we’ do not find ourselves in the ‘Dark Ages’ for a good while yet, I still have hopes that we preserve British medical services based on the understanding that these are available to everybody, free. These services have been allocated according to medical need, however undeserving the recipient, and have included the criminal, or even the plutocrat if he has his emergency away from his de-luxe private health care. I base my hope on the fact that our national system was founded at a time immediately after WWII when the country was broke, the imperial wealth pumps no longer worked, and we had hardly begun the petroleum age. Per person purchasing power was a small fraction of what we have now. If we could afford it then, we should be able to afford it for a while yet! There is however a serious attempt underway just now to dismantle the old ways – and with no political mandate for such dismantling – but I am still hoping. I am old enough to remember what our NHS did for the whole tenor of life in UK back in my childhood.

best
Phil

Rita said...

@ mallow--You accuse onething of putting the burden of care for babies on the mother. But historically there was no way for an unmarried woman to reliably identify the father. Sure, the kid might look like the milkman, but unless the milkman steps up to the plate there was no way for society or the law to enforce the responsibilities of fatherhood in the absence of marriage. Our current situation in the USA completely reverses this. With DNA testing fatherhood can be established by court order and the father can be forced to contribute to the support of any child he sires, regardless of marital state. Having no garnish-able income is the only escape. Our official mores have not changed to reflect this new reality.

Mark Douglas said...

Thank you for the excellent thought provoking article.

John Michael Greer said...

Bro. Harry, that sounds like a very good approach! Kudos to you and your lodge.

Grebulocities, depends on the lodge. These days, there are quite a few younger men and women joining lodge organizations. As for books on Masonry, I don't know the specific one you mention; there's a lot of crap out there. Christopher Hodapp's Freemasons for Dummies is a good basic introduction.

Leo, got it in one.

Renaissance, exactly. As I commented in a previous post, the only way to win is not to play the game.

Librarian, I've been saying for some time that the Rust Belt is where the next America is going to be born, and it's good to see Pittsburgh stepping up to the plate. By all means share this with your grandfather.

Yupped, that's a fascinating supposition. Not sure how to test it, but it's certainly plausible.

John, where do you think the Freemasons got their three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason?

YJV, "private" doesn't necessarily mean "owned by an individual;" it just means "not owned by a government."

Unknown, good heavens, keep that order going! Get out there and interface with high school and college German classes, community groups, anything that will get the name out there and catch the attention of potential younger members. We Masons have learned that a lot of young people are desperate for the kind of community and activity that a fraternal order can provide, and lederhosen and beer steins can't be any more campy than some of the things that have a place in Masonry. Make the effort, and I predict you'll find people ready to listen to your message and build a gemütlich future for the order.

Raven, it's fascinating to me how many people like to insist that any good venture must inevitably be destroyed by their favorite bogeyman -- in your case, the state. It's an interesting habit, and will get a post one of these days.

Mallow, if there isn't enough in the way of resources to go around, someone's going to have to decide who gets help and who doesn't. It doesn't have to be your neighbors, but it's going to be somebody, and some thought about how to make that process as fair as possible would be appropriate now.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, since you don't belong to a lodge, I'm curious as to your insistence that you know how much prejudice can be found among its members. That in itself speaks of a curious prejudice, one not to be found within lodge doors!

Unknown Deborah, I'm not at all sure that the Great Depression was that much worse than the Long Depression of the late 19th century, and the latter was the heyday of American fraternalism; furthermore, the collapse of American lodge organizations happened after 1960, not in the Great Depression. I suspect that there's been a fair amount of ex post facto justification woven into current narratives.

Unknown, glad to hear it. Icke and his peers are just the latest in a long string of hatemongers who've learned that it's more lucrative to fling smear stories about people who are doing good in the world than it is to do some good themselves.

Mark, exactly! I spoke of the Masons and the Odd Fellows because I have personal experience of the ways they do things; plenty of churches and other community organizations had their own ways of helping.

Nestorian, now go back and read my post, and you'll find that I said that entitlement payments for the poor amount to around 2% of the budget, and payouts that can be classed as corporate welfare are around 5%. That doesn't mean the rest of the budget goes to the middle class, because the government budget includes a lot more besides entitlement payments. Honestly, a little reading comprehension would help!

Carly, are you a member of your local Eastern Star chapter? That might be a good start.

Scott, remember that they're not all going to be cut off at once. It'll be a gradual process -- and in fact it's been going on for years now.

Allie, interesting! Good to see someone trying something along these lines.

John, er, please go back and read my response. Perhaps I need to be even clearer: this specific approach can't be scaled up to solve that specific problem. That doesn't mean the problem is insoluble; that means that a different approach needs to be used.

Mark, as I mentioned to Unknown Deborah a while back, the heyday of American fraternalism was in the Long Depression of the late 19th century, so your basic supposition is incorrect. It's precisely when times are hard that mutual aid organized through voluntary associations makes the most sense.

John Michael Greer said...

Sandra, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for paying attention to history. The confraternities, by the way, were the template for the medieval guild system, out of which Freemasonry and several others of the older fraternal orders emerged.

Twilight, the fraternal orders did fairly well during the Depression, so long as they were smart enough not to invest their benefit funds in the stock market. It was the Great Society programs of the 1960s that crushed them. Again, I'd point out that the bitter Long Depression of the late 19th century was the heyday of American fraternalism, so hard times aren't an obstacle -- quite the contrary, they help convince people that mutual aid is a good idea.

Andy, not so off-topic as all that. The point of right-to-work laws is to make it impossible for unions to protect their commons, and so force a tragedy of the commons on them.

Wullow, in the US the American Medical Association had a huge role in ending the arrangements by which lodges hired physicians to provide their members with health care. Because the lodges put yearly contracts out to bid, and held physicians responsible for incompetent care, "lodge practice" (as it was called) held down health care costs and made it impossible for inept physicians to make a living. For both those reasons, it was intolerable to the AMA, and they put years of litigation and lobbying into the task of destroying it.

Joseph, well, to my mind it's a bit more complex than that. As presently constituted, most people in the Baby Boom generation can expect to get back quite a bit more money from social security than they paid into it. That's a major problem; of course you're quite right that all the solutions proposed to solve that problem are worse than the problem.

Kevin, that's another good example.

Kollapsnik, let's talk about that at Age of Limits! The short answer is yes, but it's going to require replacing some dysfunctional but popular organizational forms with others that work.

Harlan, exactly! Do you remember my post a couple of years back on binary thinking? The binary that says "the only alternative to massive government programs is a Hobbesian war of all against all" is as common as it is unhelpful. If this post can help your friend get untangled from that binary, I'll be delighted.

Rabtter, it's fairly simple: Freemasonry is always hated and feared by totalitarian movements. That word "totalitarian" has a specific meaning, by the way; it refers to any organization that claims authority over every part of its members' lives, and leaves no private sphere in which people can make up their own minds without asking permission from the state, the church, or what have you.

To be a Freemason is to define such a private sphere -- to say to the world, "this part of my life doesn't belong to the church or the state or anyone else, only to me, my brother Masons, and deity." Totalitarians can't stand that. That's why Lenin, Hitler, and the Ayatollah Khomeini all banned Freemasonry immediately after seizing powerm, and why those extremist branches of Christianity that insist on the right to tell the whole world what to do in every aspect of life, however private, hate and fear Freemasonry as well.

Richard Larson said...

Prejudice in terms of being reliant on this system. Nothing intended otherwise, you have done a good job of describing a good organization.

Although I am not a member of a lodge, I do know a few men by the Masonic symbols on their car. One of them I have talked to a few times over the years as he was a city councilman (very, very Republican). I even asked him about the organization because of your posts - I can go there and check it out if ever I were to change my attitude about living and dying alone.

Todd S. said...

I've been fascinated with the promise of mutual aid societies for some time now. My own research into them - in their contemporary forms at least - leads me to believe that we'll need some new ones though rather than just resurrecting the dead or perpetuating the already living. Nearly all of the ones I've come across exclude people like me from membership: people who don't believe in a single, omnipotent Creator. Even the Masons, the last time I checked, required you to profess belief in a single Creator (regardless of what you name it).

dowsergirl said...

I had never heard the term "gaming the system" before, but I see it in action all the time. Us librarians are called dry bartenders, and we know way more about people's private lives than is comfortable.

On another note, our community is forming a food co-op, and it took us forever to get enough people invested at $200 per founding member to get it off the ground. After three years of fund raisin, we are now building a centrally located green building. I can't wait!

Fred Baum said...

I just wanted to say thank you for writing the words "deserving poor" in public. That's heresy where I live, and yet I think it's a very worthwhile, if complicated, concept.

At one end of the extreme is the point of view that says "if you are poor, it's not your fault! some rich person is taking advantage/keeping you down/etc."

At the other end I hear "if you're poor, it's obviously because you are lazy. you have nobody to blame but yourself."

Somewhere in the middle is where I see many of my neighbors.

Some are capable people who aren't working at all because they aren't hurting enough to have to do so. At least not yet. Some are waiting for a job "worthy" of them (for a long time) while others cover their expenses.

And then there others who are the working poor, working at minimum-wage type employment, 25 hour a week gigs, etc. while trying to find something better. They're out there working, day after day, even if it sucks sometimes.

I know who I'd rather support and encourage financially to help make ends meet. But as I say, that's heresy in these parts.

Mary said...

JMG, you mention that 2% of the federal budget goes to the poor and 5% to corporate welfare. And that the portion that goes to "middle class entitlements" dwarfs those figures. What is the percentage of "middle class entitlements?" Can you link to the source for those figures (or the subfigures that add up to them?) What do they include other than Pell Grants? Inquiring minds want to know! thanks, Mary

onething said...

Oh, Mallow,

It was not without thinking that I described the pregnant woman as a burden. She and the baby will both be burdens, especially if she does it again. No, the father is not off the hook - there were shotgun weddings after all, but I am referring to situations where the guy skips town or is out of the picture one way or another. That he is a scoundrel does not change the burden he leaves behind. And when a woman finds herself in that situation, that it is unfair does not change the fact that it is she and her family who will have the responsibility.

Of course it is true that patriarchy and sexism led to a very unfair double standard, but I am suggesting that the moral onus that was placed upon women was in fact not so much religious as financial in origin.

I'm not so sure about being blind to prejudice - I was discussing irresponsibility. The man who leaves a pregnant woman is irresponsible, and the woman who carelessly lets herself become a burden is irresponsible. By no means am I suggesting that every unwed mother is irresponsible, but simply that a nonwealthy society without welfare and food stamps waiting in the wings, will naturally warn their girls very strongly not to become pregnant, and be considerably more annoyed when they do.

I hope that in the ecotechnic future, we will have access to birth control.

Leo said...

The fraternities would also be good to help preserve democracy and the basics of our liberal societies (free religion, equality etc). I remember the reason that Freemasons were excommunicated was that they supported popular sovereignty. Or, the church can't choose and dispose of civic leaders. Nasty habit of Christianity is that it becomes politicized. I guess its an element of revealed religions, since they also hated it for religious indifference.

It would work against secular ideologies just as well.


latheChuck said...

Perhaps slightly off-topic, but here are a couple of thoughts regarding our current Federal government budget kerfluffle (from my perch near Washington DC).

A friend of mine, retired from the Office of Personnel Management, told me a few years ago that federal employees would be "safe" as long as there was a general sense of economic crisis, because to cut back on government spending would deepen the crisis. But when the economy recovers, the cuts will come. Well, the stock market's been rising for some months, unemployment is stable or falling, and housing is stable.

But we know that the long-term outlook is bleak, especially in the face of rising medical costs and other entitlements. Social Security is either in fine shape, or utterly hopeless, depending on whether you believe that there will be enough federal income to redeem the IOUs currently in the SS account. Let's suppose that the Powers That Be all know that entitlements MUST be cut. They also know that "the anonymous federal employee" is not thought to be a model of self-sacrificing efficiency nor a hero to the taxpayer. So they put on a big show of conflict to enable "devastating" cuts to spending on federal employees and contractors this year, paving the way to entitlement cuts in the years to come. Numerically, we're nearing the point at which every federal government employee could be laid off and still we would need to borrow more money to pay the entitlements, so a 10% cut in employee pay is little more than a symbolic gesture. But the symbolic gesture may be a necessary prelude to serious action.

DickLawrence said...

JMG,
here in New England, practically every town once had a 'Poor Farm' or 'Town Farm', of which most are gone by now but their former existence is confirmed by the town road having the same name. I am certain there's a long and instructional history lesson in these one-time farms, as their is in your histories of fraternal organizations, but I haven't attempted the research yet.

I do hope you'll comment on such town-operated farms at some time in the future, as I think there's a similarly illuminating story.

thanks & warm wishes,
Dick Lawrence

Hal said...

After Katrina, when Federal and state governments were still trying to figure out what had happened, and Brownie was still getting attaboys from his boss, and, I must add, the national-level nonprofits like the Red Cross were bungling everything, churches and a few small, non-hierarchical groups were on the ground, feeding people, helping people dig out, and providing medical attention. A lot of these were larger regional churches such as the Baptists and Christian Life ministries, but an amazing amount were small churches and other groups and even families and individuals all over the country that just got together, loaded a truck with food, water, blankets, diapers, and maybe a generator or two. They then sent the truck, be it a pickup or a tractor-trailer rig, along with a few volunteers to claim a parking lot somewhere and set up, or find a going recovery camp and join in.

I still get a lump in my throat when I think of a couple of meals I ate, provided by Organic Valley, cooked by Rainbow Family travellers and Seventh-day Adventist who had joined to serve people in one particular camp. FEMA was also there, providing forms to fill out for "emergency aid."

A lot of what the churches and other groups did was certainly based on a ridiculous unsustainable paradigm: plastic disposable everything, air-conditioned tents, noisy generators and bright lights all night. I'm not saying it can be a model for facing disaster in a scarcity-limited world. But the basic self-organizing structure that formed, leaves me with at least a somewhat positive outlook.

Now, if various governmental agencies hadn't been there, such as the highway depts and military to clear roads and get the help in, it would have been a much harder time and help would have been a lot slower coming. But I think we already know the future is guaranteed to be harder.

Hidden Author said...

You treat all who draw on government money as if all are equal. It seems to me that those who chipped into Social Security and Medicare all their lives deserve what they get while those who want something for nothing should be the ones to bear the costs of declining revenues.

Doctor Westchester said...

As a new member of a fraternal order, I think one order of business going forward is for the surviving ones to morph back to doing the range of roles they once held!

As for as a discussion at the Age of Limits on how Transition can benefit from older traditions, obviously I have a huge interest in that as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, I wonder what would happen if you pointed out to your friends that their blanket condemnation of everything that ever came out of American culture before their time is simply one of the ways that they're being kept from learning the lessons and gaining the benefit of more than two centuries of radical experiments and innovative social ventures right here in the US.

Scott, thank you!

Joel, yes, I expected to get some pushback on that point. Do you remember the discussion of binary thinking a year and a half ago on this blog? Democrats like to insist that everyone who's poor is poor because somebody is oppressing them, Republicans like to say that everyone who's poor is poor because they're immoral. In this way the fact -- and it is a fact, of course -- that poverty has many causes, and some people are poor as a result of circumstances beyond their control while others are poor because of their own choices and habits, gets lost in the resulting bickering. I suggest a willingness to look past the reflexive habit of binary thinking is called for here.

Justin, I consider the creation of private community libraries, which are supported by dues and donations and so don't have to depend on failing government funding, to be one of the major tasks of the next decade or so. As you work in the library field, that might be a goal to consider!

Onething, no, I don't think that oil availability will decrease evenly across the board. Where on earth did you get that idea?

Vera, thank you. There are a lot of very bad books on Masonry; the book I mentioned earlier, Freemasons for Dummies by Chris Hodapp, is a useful exception, and can point you to other books.

Ecoreality, have you asked people who've decided not to buy into your project what made them back out? Might be useful information.

Steve, thank you! I tend to think of myself in slightly less exalted terms, as a dumpster diver in the back alleys of Western history, pulling things out of the trash and seeing if they're still in working order.

ChemEng, I don't have any way to contact commenters, I'm sorry to say. Still, there's quite a bit of historical research on the old confraternities, and it shouldn't take you much time to get the basics.

Lee, a group that's not "exclusive" -- that is to say, one that has no boundaries, or none that can be enforced -- is begging for the tragedy of the commons, and normally gets it in short order. I'm sorry to say that very often, the people who object most heatedly to group boundaries are the ones who want to exploit the group's resources without contributing anything. Yes, that can and does include some self-described activists.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I thought you and your readers might be interested in Robert Putnam's books Bowling Alone and Better Together. Bowling alone chronicles the decline in all forms of social capital in the USA since 1960 from fraternal orders to bowling leagues. The title comes from the fact that bowling attendance has increased in absolute terms while league participation is down in absolute terms. The second book is a survey of institutions in America that have bucked the trend and managed to create social capital and powerful democratic structures that accomplished meaningful goals on the very local level. My favorite is the Dudley Street Neighbourhood Initiative which managed to get eminent domain rights allocated to the neighbourhood association.

I have a theory about the decline of empires, industrial civilization, nobility, etc. All of them rose to prominence on the basis of some merit and fell due to a lack of it. At its most basic the theory goes like this: hardship necessitates practice. Practice develops mastery. Mastery makes life easy. Easy living is bad for you. Ben Franklin put it well when he said "To be thrown upon one's own resources, is to be cast into the very lap of fortune; for our faculties then undergo a development and display an energy of which they were previously unsusceptible." Modern American's are a point in case. We used to be industrious, frugal, and self-reliant and now we are lazy, dependant, spendthrifts.

We owe our present national character to fantastic gifts our forefathers gave us. In 1950 we were producing and consuming half of the world's oil supply and we were the undisputed military, economic and political master of the globe. Two generations later we are heavily in debt and from manufacturing to governance we are incapable of doing anything for ourselves. Spoiled children.

Of coarse one can't help who one was born to any more than one can helped how one was raised. This segues nicely to the favorite bogeyman problem; the neighbours or government or capitalists that you distrust were born to and raised by your neighbours and capitalists and governments. We are all human and if we weren't deeply flawed we wouldn't be facing the long descent that you all come here to read about. Any solution to our problems has to work with those deeply flawed human beings. That is, of course, the basic challenge, how to make a system work with when working with human beings. The basic flaw of the favorite bogeyman argument is that jerks and slackers come from some opposed ideology but jerks and slackers come from being human. We have to find a solution that works tolerably well in spite of our shortcomings.

Thanks,
Tim

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, I want to do what I can to make sure that at least some organizations that use fraternal ritual and democratic process make it through the next round of crises; I think it'll be much easier for people in the future to make use of those if there's a living example or two to work with. It's a challenging project, but I don't think it's a hopeless one.

Vera, thanks for the link!

Helix, Hobbes wasn't talking about the Middle Ages when he wrote that. More generally, it might be helpful if you learned a little basic Western history, rather than simply rehashing a set of currently popular and wildly inaccurate prejudices about the Middle Ages.

Bro. Miles, that's a huge topic, and one that would take much more than a single post. I'll put some thought into it, and see if there's something I can say about it down the road.

Unknown, thanks for the link.

Phil, the fraternal orders by and large came through the New Deal in very good shape; I'm not sure if you knew this, but Roosevelt himself was a Freemason, as well as a member of the Elks, the Grange, the Knights of Pythias, and several other fraternal orders. He was quite the joiner -- a lot of successful people were in those days. As for the suburbs, there are a lot of Masonic lodges in the suburban belts around large American cities, so I'm not sure how much of a problem that was.

Mark, thank you.

Richard, I'd encourage it. I'm very fond of my own solitude, but it's pleasant to get together with brethren now and again.

Todd, that's true enough. No reason why atheists couldn't found their own lodges, with their own utterly rational ceremonies, benefit funds, and the rest of it; just about everybody else did so at one time or another.

Dowsergirl, congratulations! I hope the co-op thrives.

Fred, exactly. The insistence by the two main parties that all poor people must be defined according to a single stereotype isn't helpful.

Mary, for heaven's sake, it would take you less time to look up those figures than it took you to type and post your question. I also cited three forms of middle class welfare other than Pell Grants in my post, you know.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, religions vary drastically in their ability to handle Freemasonry. Most kinds of Christianity are fine with it -- a lot of my lodge brothers belong to one or another church in town. I've also met Masons from plenty of faiths outside of Christianity. So, no, it's not a generic feature of revealed religion.

Chuck, that seems entirely possible. I think, though, we're also reaching the point at which it's beginning to sink in, even inside the beltway, that business as usual isn't going to be sustainable for much longer. More on this next week.

Dick, hmm! I know very little about those. I'll look into it.

Hal, a bunch of the churches here in Cumberland sent people and trucks full of supplies down to Louisiana after Katrina hit, and also sent people to help in the wake of Sandy. Expect to see more of that, particularly as the ability of government to respond to disaster winds down.

Hidden Author, as current figures go, most people who go on social security in the next decade will receive much more in the way of payments than they put into the system over their working lives. That's what makes it one form of middle class welfare.

Doctor W., exactly. I'll talk with the Age of Limits people about having a talk and workshop on the subject.

Roger Bigod said...

Marrow,

It varied with time and place. There's a 5-10 page summary on laws related to sexual behavior in Colonial Virginia. As the law reads, bastardy and adultery were illegal. But for bastardy only males were prosecuted, and only if they were making no effort to provide child support. Given that the state and local governments had no apparatus to enforce child support and the reluctance of courts to supervise injunctions with a duration of years, it looks like a stopgap to use criminal law to carry out a social welfare function.

Adultery was prosecuted only when the parties made it a public matter, as when a wife and her lover went put of their way to call attention to their relationship and humiliate the husband. Although it would be a century or so before Brandeis used the phrase "right of privacy", the theme appears to be that if you kept the proceedings in the bedroom, the law would't take notice.

The book is by an academic historian, Cynthia Kierner. It concerns a scandal involving members of the prominent Randolph family, one of who unwisely got herself impregnated by her brother-in-law. She lived under a cloud for many years until the richest man in New York, Gouverneur Morris, made an honest woman of her. Gouverneur got around. He performed the unglamorous but necessary scut work of arranging financing for the American Revolution and served as Ambassador to France during the Terror, not a job for a scardey-cat. In between, he showed up for some high-level discussions of applied political theory in Philidelphia. Since he took the best set of notes, they let write up the working draft of their conclusions. We've all read many of his sentences, the most famous one of which begins "We, the People".

So girls, if you do some unwise things and get a bad reputation, there's hope for getting a respectable guy. But it doesn't always turn out this well.

Second Wind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent Pavard said...

As I understand your post, it is asking which system is the most efficient in dealing with the rationing of the commons in a time of energy constraint. But I think for some domains like education or health care the need for rationing the energy input doesn’t imply so much need for rationing the overall services output on the contrary to other kind of commons.

For example , what is the energy content of a doctor ?

If you live in the U.S, you can add the energy content of a high-tech medicine campus with a gym of 10 000 seats and a BMW, a mac-mansion, vacation in the Bahamas for every physician ... etc. I understand that if you live in the U.S. you can have the impression that if energy availability decreases, there will not be enough doctors for everyone.

But if you think about what is the minimum energy input for a health system ? Some physician and nurses to feed, whatever roofs under which you pile the sick, and some laboratories where to manufacture some vaccines and a dozen of the most needed molecules. You can go without most of other licenced drugs or high-tech placebo.

This is why some poor countries can achieve results in terms of health almost as good as in the US at a fraction of the cost.

To summarize, the "energy content" of a physician is directly proportional to the "energy content" of the average lifestyle while the service he provide doesn’t depend of it. When we say proportional, it can be five times in the case of a elitist health care system which limits the number of physicians, but it can be just one time in a system where physician are happy with an average life style.

All I want to say is that if there is a rationing of the number of doctor or services strictly by lack of resources, this is when you can not feed more mouths than those who work in the fields. In this case, hairdressers will have disappeared long before the doctors. But one can argue that in the case of a long decline in the availability of energy, we start from such levels that we will still have enough energy for centuries to have a significant portion of the population available for anything other than working in the fields.

So, if there is nevertheless a rationing, it is more caused by internal locking in the system. The type of locking described by Tainter when he describes the way in which the elite is resisting any questioning of the status quo that has benefited to them until then. If the doctors’ “guild” prefer to remain few and well paid, we can call this an artificial rationing. In this case there is a multiplier effect to rationing : something which should sound like : "we can’t have a a space as comfortable as it used to be" can become "we can’t provide care to everyone."

Imagine a society where resource availability decreases by x%. One can imagine several ways of resolving it. The more common way is when everyone clings to its portion of resource and then it has to give way somewhere. In this case the strongest minority will maintains its share and the majority of the population will see its share of resource fall for much more than x%. The second way which more difficult is when everybody manage to deal with a decrease of its share of x%.

For me, it does not necessarily invalidate your argument for a more localize and cooperative way to deal with the commons, but I don’t think the question is that of the limits on access to resources” or that of the too deep pockets of the government, or that welfare is not possible in an energy constraint world.

I think the argument is rather that maybe a more local system will manages the decrease of x% more equitably while the status quo will lead to an artificial rationing of more than x%.

PS : I hope that this post is not too long and that
my English is not too difficult to read as it is not my mother tongue

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thank you, this was a very illuminating essay.

Historically, weren't the middle class the merchants, guild masters, artisans etc? They would have been proportionately a very small collective of the population. To my mind the current mass of middle class is simply unsustainable.

I don't really worry about such things as nature will sort it all out in the end.

By the way, one of the interesting side effects of your weekly posts is that they challenge peoples sense of entitlement and this in turn makes it smaller. This is a good thing.

Interestingly too, whilst two commenters responded saying that their children are getting enough socialisation skills through home schooling, no one took on the Cherokee challenge. The challenge was to think about why schools are segregated according to age as no where else in society does this occur.

I think by and large we've been programmed to think that centralised is better. It always makes me laugh when I hear people in the US talking about socialism (or communism) without actually understanding what they are talking about or how either system applies to their own lives.

Who knows?

Chris

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The Fellowship of Humanity in Oakland, California has an interesting history. http://humanisthall.net/HISTORY_fp.html

Founded in the late 1930s as a church of secular humanism, it went through a period of being primarily a meeting place for socialists and communists. More recently it has gotten back to being an alternative church for non-theists which seeks "to expand the philosophy/religion of Secular Humanism to incorporate a spirituality and ethics appropriate not only to Humanists but also to all those seeking to save life on Earth."

The Fellowship of Humanity doesn't seem to have current ties with other Humanist churches or societies.

When not using the hall for their own activities, they rent the place out to all sorts of community organizations.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

One of the things that I've also noticed is that people consider "help" to be only provided in a monetary form.

Fraternal orders can also possibly offer assistance in other forms which - I would argue - would be more valuable than money.

I reckon that it is a safe bet for me to say that: the rate the US government is currently printing money means that at some point in our lifetimes, the currency notes themselves won't be worth much more than heating bricks!

At that point social currency and networks will be worth more than what people currently believe them to be worth.

I think I may have told you that I joined another small community group. I almost fell over laughing because there is a small agitating minority in the group that wants to expand both the size of the group, its catchment area for members and the activities.

You know, I was at the last meeting and asked the individuals responsible for the agitation why they wanted to do this. I never got a straight answer out of them. I pointed out that maybe they should focus on getting the fundamentals sorted (as per the groups Charter) before undertaking such actions.

I suspect they do such things because they are either : bored; hooked on the growth model; or like change for the sake of change? Or maybe it is a combination of all three?

I saw the same thing going on in the last community group I was involved in too. I just don't get it...

Regards

Chris

wvjohn said...

This weeks blog brought to mind a book which I first read in the 70s - David Rothman's Discovery of the Asylum. It discusses, among other things, the idea that society has a specific moral responsibility to provide alternative institutional structures for criminals, the mentally ill, and the destitute. I was in law school at the time and it was a revelation that the current prison system was was a very recent development, arising after the civil war, and, at least in theory, it had a very different stated goal than the mass incarceration idustry of today. Local poor farms where people worked the land in return for limited shelter and food have been replaced by governmental subsidies, not to the indigent as the primary beneficiary, but to the slumlords who participate in the subsidy programs. This, in turn, decreases the local housing stock and drives the rental prices of modest housing beyond the means of the working poor.

Your efforts to remind us that history has confronted time and time again what we view as "unique" contemporary social problems are greatly appreciated.

Odin's Raven said...

Another 'commons' needing management is road use. Here's an article with videos about driving in Russia, showing that the concept of 'rules of the road' can be ... flexible!

Driving

Twilight said...

"the fraternal orders did fairly well during the Depression, so long as they were smart enough not to invest their benefit funds in the stock market. It was the Great Society programs of the 1960s that crushed them. Again, I'd point out that the bitter Long Depression of the late 19th century was the heyday of American fraternalism, so hard times aren't an obstacle -- quite the contrary, they help convince people that mutual aid is a good idea."

I don't doubt that the fraternal orders may have done well, but then this narrative is not quite complete. The Great Depression combined with the dust bowl overwhelmed whatever relief systems may have existed at that time.

Whatever they may have become later, the Great Society programs were created to address a crisis where the scale and the sheer number of desperate people threatened to rip the country apart. They were welcomed with great relief by most of the population. So what happened with the established associations and support structures that were in place at the time?

Note that I'm not disagreeing that such systems make sense – just because they may not be able to create utopia on Earth is no reason to say they don't work. I just think there is a bit more to the story about how and why they were supplanted. I suspect that the energy of fossil fuels drove the creation of other, more complex and centralized systems, and these in turn caused crises that were beyond the ability of locally funded relief systems to deal with. So they were replaced by another centralized system.

Nestorian said...

There is no need to chide me for my lack of reading comprehension. My point was that your description of the basis for your figures was incomplete - which it is: No source is provided, definitions of the categories are lacking, definitions of what constitutes a payment to each of the categories is lacking, etc.

The bottom line is that I find it very hard to believe that the wealthy and the poor receive 5% and 2%, respectively, of the total federal budget. That may be true if you understand these shares narrowly in terms of DIRECT transfer payments, subsidies, etc., - though I find even that claim dubious.

In the end, though, a full reckoning of the allocations must take into account INDIRECT means of benefiting from government largesse as well. For example, it is mostly the wealthy who own shares in large defense corporations such as Raytheon, Dyncorp, Lockheed-Martin, etc. Any portion of the personal wealth accrued on this basis, whether as capital gains, stock dividends, or bond interest, ought to count as an indirect government transfer payment to the rich. Any salary their middle class employees receive ought to be counted as government transfer payments to the middle class.

The notion that these constitute indirect government transfer payments is predicated, of course, on the notion that defense is largely parasitic on the rest of the productive economy. As such, those who benefit financially from defense are essentially the recipients of government handouts.

When these sorts of considerations concerning what constitutes an indirect transfer payment enter the picture, the accounting of who, in the end, gets what from the government among the rich, middle class, and poor, becomes much more complicated than it may be at first glance.

But, as I say, I am skeptical even of the 5% and 2% claims that seem to entail direct transfers of wealth to the rich and poor, and I would be interested to know what the basis of these figures is.

Robert Mathiesen said...

JMG wrote:

"Robert, I want to do what I can to make sure that at least some organizations that use fraternal ritual and democratic process make it through the next round of crises; I think it'll be much easier for people in the future to make use of those if there's a living example or two to work with. It's a challenging project, but I don't think it's a hopeless one."

I, too, think that's one of the best gifts a person can give to the future right now; it's a challenging task, but far from hopeless.

This summer, when I'll be in Portland (Maine), I plan to look into the Mechanics' Institute there, and report back. It may be one of the very few Mechanics' Institutes in the nation to have survived largely intact.

The whole tradition (of voluntary local associations to achieve some common purpose on a local scale) is still alive here in Rhode Island. In recent years the board of trustees of the Providence Public Library, facing debt, decided to close all the neighborhood branch libraries and convert much of the central library (which has a beautiful old building) into a money-making function hall. (Despite its name, the Prov. Public Library is wholly independent of the city or state government.) Almost out of thin air a voluntary association, the Providence Community Libraries, quickly took shape and has now acquired all the old branch libraries with their collections intact.

ViewFromHere said...

Great article that makes me think of 2 things: 1) War and Peace and 2) my small town.

In War and Peace, the main character/hero(in my opinion) is a Mason and believer. He is dismayed with the level of collections among his brother Masons. It's a nice insider look at the organization. But W&P reveals the ethnics and ideals of the Masons from the inside. Very nice.

The other is my small town. We have a masons lodge remaining on main street. It is the lovliest of the few buildings still standing. Our town of 400- isolated on the northern prairie- doesn't have a Mason group today, but their legacy I believe continues. When a 'contributing' member of the community is in need, we rally around. Here's a recent view of that: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/draeg001/regionalpartnerships/2011/04/when-good-things-happen-to-goo.html or if you don't post link, JMG, you can google Big Stone County When Good Things Happen to Good People

Ceworthe said...

The description of corporations sounds somewhat like the crowdsourcing efforts on the web for projects that are two risky, unusual or "out there" for banks and credit Unions to fund. I would imagine that it would be wise for anyone to join a lodge, grange or similar group or form one asap, so that there are the funds available for when the economy slips further.
There are groups like unions and AARP, both of which I belong to, but the future of the unions in particular is fragile. Better to spread one's memberships around.
Cultivating the ability to go along to get along and the ability to reflect on which fights one really wants to engage in, in such groups would be key. We as a society are hampered in a way by our emphasis on individualism. When resources are scarce, cooperation and getting along with neighbors are key.
I would imagine there would be a need for poor houses and "state farms" for those who were not connected to a group, or who have mental or substance abuse issues that interfere with the ability to get along and contribute in a group.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I also wanted to mention the other voluntary organization I am a part of, besides the Mercantile Library: the local community radio station. Listener/member supported, volunteer run, and also not part of the NPR "network"...true local radio. Of course we exist in FM ghetto, the far left of the dial (though the political spectrum runs the gamut). Membership based and operated media venues -and I do hope radio will exist far into the future- is definitely worth supporting. Entire subcultures of musicians have been built around some of the more diverse programs on the station, like Art Damage where I got my start. A good community radio station can really help to establish and create culture. Of course, as the station is run by the board elected at our annual meetings, it has the same problems and issues as any other group operating through those means. What I've noticed however is that the people who complain the loudest about the politics at the station are the ones who are least involved aside from their respective programs. If they really wanted to change the way the station is run -and there have been many boards and many variations of change- all they have to do is step up to the plate with their time and sweat equity. Still this is just one example of a good alternative to clear channel.

Maria said...

Excellent post, as always, JMG.

OK, ok, I give. The thing that has caused me the greatest heartburn over the past several months of reading your essays is the idea of community, of joining things. And it's not just you -- conversations and situations are contriving to force me into unpacking the issues and beliefs I've held onto since childhood.

Fine. I will stop fighting and do the work. (If you are imagining a 10-year-old stomping her foot right now, you've got the correct mental picture.) :)

vera said...

More book recommends will be much welcome, JMG. Will check out the Dummies book.

Just wanted to add that if we talk about "deserving and undeserving poor" then we also should talk about "deserving and undeserving rich." "Hard work and bad luck" vs "bad choices" among the poor translate into "hard work and good luck" vs "parasitic skimming and gaming the system" among the rich.

Juhana said...

In Nordic countries welfare state is probably better build than in any other part of the world. Many believe that relatively monolithic ethnic and cultural background combined to historically strong central governments of these countries has a lot to do with this success. But even here high point of state welfare has been reached. We live in the world of growing demand for inputs and diminishing returns when it comes to welfare systems. Unfunded liabilities are just too great. Mathematically thinking, we are f**ed.

Coming from working class background, I get no ideological satisfaction from this observation. System just does not work as well as it used to work. Growing number of people are gaming the system, just as you described. The rest are coming more cynical about whole system. When faith dies, systemic collapse follows. Not immediately, but it comes.

In Old World we have two delusional political belief systems competing for highest power right now. Other believes that bureaucratically controlled, nationless welfare state saves the day. Their straw man is somekind evil ubercapitalist conspiracy lurking like Great Old Ones from Lovecraft novels behind every economic misfortune. Bourgeois rising from city of R'lyeh and all that. Other belief system rallies its troops around some fantasy construct called "free trade". Historical fact that there has NEVER been truly free market does not bother these troops at all. Their straw man is mythic regulator beast, whose artificial limitations prevents heaven on Earth happening.

It is horrendously obvious that when ship is not only without captain, but position of captain is fought over by two lunatic coxswains, the ship is doomed. Question is just when exactly that ship is going to Davy Jones' Locker. As high priests of these belief systems are stumbling from one abysmal failure to other, we ordinary folks have to find some reliable support groups to cushion that sinking for ourselves. Brotherhood organizations from old times are not bad place to start with.

I believe mindblowingly rapid expansion of gang culture into Western society is first symptom of this new feudalism. From what I have read about USA, gang culture has changed all functions of society in inner cities from 60's onwards; that is very rapid pace for as big historical change as that is. Same thing is happening right now in Western European cities also, with even more distinct ethnic and religious dividing lines between turfs. What an enormous change, this rebirth of warband culture inside heartlands of modern civilizations.

There is one common feature in successful grassroots communities. They must organically grow from society surrounding them. When people establish "ideal" communities from some abstract philosophical standpoints, they just learn hard way how perfectly imperfect human being is. I believe over there in USA amish communities are doing just fine, while hippie communities of swinging 60's are dead, boring and prehistoric memories for newer generations. That is how it goes. If you have to build co-operative the way writers imagine utopist communities in sci-fi literature, you have already failed. It is better just give it up and drink couple of beers while watching football than waste your time.

Loyalty is scarcity resource in our hedonistic times. It cannot be bought, and to work as it should be it has to work both ways. And religion is ALWAYS stronger bond that some philosophical blathering. If your group is honestly religious, with roots anchoring it to existing traditions, your community has survival chances at least.

onething said...

John Michael,

Wherever did I get the idea that you think oil availability will be evenly spread? Well, now, I am not sure how to answer that! It's a vague impression I get from descriptions of the collapsing world that doesn't seem to include much intervention into people's lives, although you do mention the possibility of war, which of course would mean the govt/military sequestering the lion's share of what's left on that terribly wasteful activity.

I imagine the uber rich living in compounds with their own everything, including power sources and lots of security.

Helix said...

My apologies to readers for my misquote of Hobbes above, as pointed out by JMG. Hobbes was referring to life in conditions of anarchy rather than to life in the medieval period by this quote.

There was an original point that I was trying to make in that post, which I hope was not lost in the confusion.

bcwoodcarver said...

the poor let someone or something control their lives. For the circle of poverty to be broken the poor (and not so poor)must gain control of their own life.

Dan L. said...

"Currently some 60% of Americans receive more in the way of financial benefits from government than they pay in taxes. "

If you look more closely at the study you'll see that about 3/5ths of the amount paid out is through Medicaid and other health-related programs. It strains credulity to believe that 60% of the country is currently on Medicaid.

In reality a relatively small number of people in each quintile is pulling down a fairly substantial amount of money as a result of catastrophic health problems.

This is indeed an unsustainable situation but the 60% statistic is quite misleading as it relies on spreading these Medicaid payments around a population that isn't actually receiving them. If the payments were spread evenly among people in the three lower quintiles this would not be misleading but this is simply not the case.

Joel said...

>a willingness to look past the reflexive habit of binary thinking is called for here.

I couldn't agree more!

That's why I was a little distressed by the assertion that ineffectiveness of charity implies that the problem is rooted in the character of the recipient. I just wanted to float the possibility that while it might be a problem of morality, it also might be a problem of circumstance.

I was very careful to avoid absolute statements, not only because it would've made me vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticism I was raising, but because I've seen and experienced enough poverty to know that it tends to be a result of multiple factors.

You're right that I don't prefer to explain poverty as moral, but that doesn't warp my behavior. When I refuse to give my neighborhood crack addict the $5 he asks for whenever we meet, it's because of his habits and his choices as much as my own lack of $5.

I'm also aware of other ways that charity can go wrong, though, and I think it's important to regard those in the decision making process, too. I'm distressed that Walmart employees draw so many government benefits: I think this aid isn't helping, but rather, it's depressing the market price of their labor. This isn't a moral failing of any Walmart employee, but rather is a consequence of the fictitious person of Walmart having no soul and therefore no morality.

A logical framework that parses the working poor as "undeserving" just because they're beyond help would seem to contain an error.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, your theory isn't a new one -- people have been pointing out for several thousand years that civilizations rise out of hard work and hard lessons well learnt, then lose interest in the work and the lessons, and fall. Still, that it isn't new doesn't make it less relevant.

Second Wind, Icke claims that the people he doesn't like -- for example, the current queen of England -- are evil space reptiles who thirst for human blood. That's hatemongering. (It's also psychotic, but that's a different point.) I didn't say, by the way, that Icke had called me an evil space lizard; it was some of his followers that called me that to my face.

Vincent, that's quite true, and it's one of the reasons I've been proposing all along that it's possible to have a society with relatively complex technology on a renewable basis. The difficulty in getting from here to there is that all our infrastructure, and all our institutions, presuppose the current extravagant use of energy and raw materials. Getting alternative structures built in time involves substantial costs and faces all-out resistance from those -- for example, the current US medical industry -- who profit from the status quo.

Cherokee, yes, the middle classes in pre-fossil fuel societies usually amounted to around 10% of the population at most. I hadn't thought of describing our present situation as Peak Middle Class, but it's a valid way to look at it.

Unknown Deborah, thank you! I hope my atheist readers are taking notes.

Cherokee, another possibility is that the people in question are interested in building a little empire for themselves, and see growing the organization as a way to do that. I've seen that in process a few times.

Wvjohn, exactly! Thank you.

Raven, thanks for the link.

Twilight, I think you're getting your chronology screwed up. The Dust Bowl was in the 1930s; the New Society programs were in the 1960s. American fraternal lodges did quite tolerably well during the 1930s, 140s and 1950s, so it's not accurate to insist that the Depression and the Dust Bowl took them out.

Nestorian, this is a blog post, not a 600-page doctoral dissertation, and Blogger doesn't do footnotes. You could have gotten the details yourself in less time than it took you to post your comment; if you'd like to do so, here's a good place to start.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, that's excellent news! Getting libraries into the hands of voluntary associations in the community, who aren't dependent on tax revenues, is a crucial step. I'll be discussing Mechanics' Institutes in at least one upcoming post, by the way -- that's a tradition that, to my mind, offers huge possibilities for the future.

ViewFromHere, thank you.

Ceworthe, exactly. The other great benefit of involvement in such a group is that once you learn how it's done, you can do the same things in other contexts.

Justin, another excellent example. I'd like to see more interfacing between the alternative broadcast radio scene and the ham radio community -- there's a lot of common ground in terms of technique and technology, and my guess is that connections between the two could become the seed for the long-distance communications and media net of the future.

Maria, excellent. As we used to say back in the day, 'tis an ill wind that blows no minds.

Vera, you're absolutely right -- there are deserving and undeserving rich as well. It has a good deal to do with the old but by no means outworn concept of noblesse oblige -- the principle that those born into privilege owe the community more than others, and so need to contribute more to the community than others.

Juhana, you've just earned tonight's gold star, for the Lovecraft reference. That's a glorious image.

Onething, I expect to see fuel and a lot of other things rationed by price and by political connections, and the tighter supplies get, the more extreme the divergence between those who have access to them and those who don't. As for the notion of the very rich huddling in their guarded compounds, it's a common fantasy, even among the rich -- and nobody seems to think about the guards, who aren't themselves rich, and can take everything for themselves by the simple expedient of pointing their assault rifles at their erstwhile employers and letting off a burst or two. That's always the problem with trying to hide behind a Praetorian Guard!

Helix, good. Now do some reading on medieval history, and find out just how inaccurate your characterization of the Middle Ages was.

John Michael Greer said...

Woodcarver, that's an oversimplification. Some of the poor didn't have any choice in the matter.

Dan, interesting. I'll take a second look at the studies.

Joel, when I cited the 19th-century phrase I didn't express unreserved approval of it; I simply noted that it expressed a hard truth, which is that some people can be helped and some can't, and that some members of the latter category can't be helped because of their own behavior. That can be expressed in the language of morality, which was a language that people in the 19th century found congenial and useful, but it can also be expressed in terms more congenial and useful to people today. I'm less interested in the terms than in the insight that lies behind them.

AgedSpirit said...

Hi JMG,

Excellent article this week. Thanks.

Two relevant items:

First to the poster who asked about the history of poor farms: A commercial venture here in Oregon, McMenamin's Brothers Brewery, have been buying up old historical buildings and turning them into charming outlets for their beers, wines and distilled spirits. One such is the old poor farm at Edgefield. They have published an informative pamphlet on the original operation of the farm and it's various changes up to the present. It's a excellent introduction into how the poor farm system worked, at least in this case. It probably varied from place to place. Easy to find online.

Second, JMG, you will be pleased to know that a tired and failing old Grange in the Applegate (not far from your prior stomping grounds) was quickly seen as an opportunity and snatched up by a group of young farmers. Still in it's first year it has what I guess are common birthing pains. But the simple fact that the young CSA and farmer's market growers of this area understand the value of this association is most encouraging.

Addendum: I read here much and comment rarely. To all of you who have so much to share in the comments I want you to know they are read and appreciated. Keep it up.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

This is a shameless plug for my latest video article which is an update at the farm here:

Late summer farm update

It has been a trying summer on a weather front and it is still far from over.

The weather up in the North of the continent has turned strongly monsoonal and the effects of this are starting to reach all the way down to the South of the continent here with a build-up of heat during the day and then clouds in the mid to late afternoon and well into the evening.

So far here, it has been dry lightning storms – which are a disaster - but hopefully we'll get some rain soon... We're now down to about 26,000 litres (about 6,850 gallons) of water left!

Regards

Chris

Second Wind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

We're just about to break heat record here:

Melbourne on target for February heat record

Not good...

Chris

Leo said...

@ Cherokee Organics

I remember someone talking about the origins of education system, which was factory organisation. so the segragation comes from the basic idea of dividing goods up along some line of refinment, so they pick age and have you go through school in a set way. like you'd process wool through set stages. (the guy talking about this was criticing it because while it works for materials, not for humans)

Twilight said...

Yes, you were writing Great Society (and so was I), but I was thinking New Deal. Meh, I sure flubbed that one! Nevermind......

Helix said...

Regarding JMG's reply to Hidden Author "... as current figures go, most people who go on social security in the next decade will receive much more in the way of payments than they put into the system over their working lives. That's what makes it one form of middle class welfare."

Before I begin, let me be the first to say that I'm pretty pragmatic about Social Security. We can afford what we can afford and no more, and that is the key point on which the future of Social Security must turn.

Having said that, I take issue with the oft-stated comment that retirees will take more out of the system than they put in to it. While this statement may be true in nominal dollar terms, this is not the correct way to calculate contributions and withdrawals. Just as Social Security's expected shortfall is always brought back to a "net present value" ("NPV")figure, so an individual's contributions should be calculated in NPV terms as well. For those who aren't up on this term, NPV attempts to account for the time value of money. Inflation, of course, is a prime component of any NPV calculation. A dollar in 2013 is a far cry from a dollar in 1970.

I did an NPV calculation for my own contributions and found the NPV value to be almost 2.5 times the sum in nominal dollars. (I used the CPI to convert contributions in past years to NPV.) When I compared this NPV value with the value that I would be expected to draw out given an average life expectancy (as an NPV value, of course), the figures matched almost exactly.

I guess the Social Security Administration does have a few Actuaries on its staff after all;)

Before I get flamed for this post, let me reiterate that I don't believe that I either deserve or will receive payments that match my contributions. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program, and I suspect that we simply won't be able to afford to pay future retirees the NPV of the contributions they made over their working lives. Such are the times we live in.

But the often-made claim that retirees draw out more than they contributed, and that Social Security is thus a form of middle class welfare, doesn't appear to be justified when one actually does the math.

geovermont said...

I was wondering when de Toqueville would come up in this series of posts. For some years now I've been very intrigued with his observations of how the citizens of the U.S. had a tendency to form an organization to solve a problem.

Now Justin Patrick Moore has mentioned the fascinating idea of forming a private lending library to share and preserve the sort of knowledge that will be needed as we move into this uncertain future. This is really clicking with me. I suppose it's worth attempting to get some of the existing libraries to take this on as part of their mission, but it will be a tough sell to many of them. Here in Vermont we have many excellent if tiny libraries and some may embrace it enthusiastically (and will probably tell us that they've been trying to do this all along!) However, my local librarian keeps telling me that she has to get rid of one book for every book she takes in. So, if it turns out that the existing libraries are not up to this function, we should work to establish libraries dedicated to just this sort of preservation of useful and critical knowledge.

I'm used to thinking of a library as a relatively large entity, but a few hundred volumes on a limited range of subjects could serve an important function, as long as it is kept in a safe location and properly curated. In recognition of the mission of preserving the books, it could be organized such that it is easier to add a book to the collection than to permanently remove one (I have to think about that--space will always be an issue).

And this idea ties in with the ongoing discussion of the concept of the common. This idea of making the books part of a common seems very powerful to me. Otherwise, any individual's collection is all too likely to be dispersed as they age or die.

John Michael Greer said...

AgedSpirit, that's very good to hear. Thank you!

Cherokee, if I knew any good incantations for rain I'd send 'em to you.

Second Wind, like all other human beings, they're a mixed bag, but some of them have indeed done a lot of good. Prince Charles comes to mind -- a longtime supporter and proponent of ecological causes and organic farming, as well as the preservation of traditional wisdom. He's certainly accomplished more good in the world than, say, David Icke.

Still, your question is irrelevant, because even if you really, really dislike what somebody is doing, making up nasty stories about how they're really evil alien space lizards who drink human blood is hatemongering. It's also evidence of mental illness, but as I mentioned earlier, that's another issue.

Cherokee, stay cool!

Twilight, not a problem; I miss details now and then as well.

Helix, that's interesting indeed. If you have the chance to point me to some sources on how NPV is calculated when we're talking about the future, I'd be grateful.

Geovermont, I hope you decide to take up the challenge. This is a massive issue -- I'll be discussing in a later post just how crucial it is -- and whether something is done about it or not will depend entirely on whether individuals feel passionate enough about it to do something.

godozo said...

Deserving Poor and Undeserving Poor. Reminds me of an interesting chapter in Chicago history...

When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) started during the Great Depression, it started with the idea that all worthy poor people should get decent housing. That meant the poor had to meet certain criteria – couldn't be a drunk (probably no drinking at home), had to have a job or actively looking at one, pass an interview process as well as an application, and learn to tolerate people unlike yourself (as you'd be living right next door to them at CHA housing. Whites lived with their next door neighbors being black, and blacks lived with their next door neighbors being white). In short, the poor people wanting to move in had to prove themselves as Deserving the help.

And as for those judged Undeserving? There were plenty of slums, SROs and low-rent motels in which they could drink themselves into a stupor, try to find a husband for their multiplying one-parent family, or struggle to meet rent while avoiding work.

So what caused the change? A change at the top, during WWII. The new guy felt he couldn't in his right mind refuse anyone an available apartment if they were poor, so soon enough the CHA began to go downhill as drunks and other lowlifes were allowed to live on CTA property. This, of course, came before Project Towers, the Great Society, the abandonment of the city by Industry and the post-Carter Ghetto Malaise (which worsens with every year).

It will be interesting to see if the concepts of "Deserving Poor" and "Undeserving Poor" make their way back into public discourse. Right now it seems that the only concept that has any traction is "The Poor as Undeserving (by dint of asking for help)."

Helix said...

JMG, In the case of Social Security, NPV contributions just come down to past contributions stated in today's dollars. Take the case of $100 contributed in 1970. The CPI was 38.8 (average) that year. In 2012, the CPI stood at 229.6, nearly a 6-fold increase. So the $100 contribution in 1970 dollars is equivalent to nearly $600 in 2012 dollars.

The idea is to quote all past SS contributions in today's dollars. You really have to do it this way because there's no way that a $100 contribution in 2012 compares to a $100 contribution in 1970. Total them all up to get the value of a person's total contributions in today's dollars.

For withdrawals, take the monthly benefit and multiply it by the number of months a person is expected to collect the benefit. For a person who has reached the full retirement age (66), the life expectancy from that point is a few months shy of 18 years. Men and women are lumped together for this calculation because the law prohibits different benefits based on gender. You don't have to worry about cost of living adjustments for this calculation because they are always equivalent to the same amount of money in today's dollars.

While I have not yet reached full retirement age, I am close enough to get a pretty good fix on the total conributions and the dollar amount of the benefit. In my case, a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates I will pay in about 1.5% more than I will collect in benefits, assuming average life expectancy. I suspect that the 1.5% covers the cost of administering the SS program, although I am not sure of this.

Obviously, if one dies before reaching retirement age, it's all gravy for the SS program -- or rather for the US Treasury.

All this assumes that the CPI is a reliable guide to what's happening to our money over time. Opinions vary on this issue, but it is the measure that the Social Security Administration uses, so I used it also.

phil harris said...

JMG
Like you I was grateful for @Helix gracious acknowledgement of your correction concerning Hobbes’ quote. (The oft quoted ‘Hobbesian’ world view of uncivilised humanity: “life … nasty … brutish … short” did not refer the Middle Ages.) Thanks to you both.

However, just in case there might be a connection, I mention that I have long struggled with the ‘Christian’ view that ‘original sin’ requires that every infant needs to be instructed top-down and trained early to moral values and obedience against its ‘natural’ inclination. I have seen many a self-fulfilling series that followed from this notion and generally with very poor outcomes in what actually turns out a very dubious moral universe, despite our ‘best intentions’.

I also congratulate @Helix on his calculation of social security payment and his receipt of NPV adjusted benefits (net present value calculation). As a retired government scientist in the UK I have a very reasonable work pension alongside my very modest ‘universal’ State Pension. These are both paid out of current taxation. One of the reasons I am keen on people paying their taxes /;-) and on a fair distribution of the tax burden, but I fully expect a reduction in our purchasing power (wife and I) as the years go on.

Whether I made a net welfare contribution during my working life is hard to assess. Aggregate conventional prosperity hardly depended on my ‘hard work’, though I tried hard to make sense of my work, but, for good and ill, depended mostly on the way our society extracted ‘work’ from firstly coal and later more effectively from oil and NG. (My first job was digging trenches by hand for the building of a primary school in England in 1959. I rode to work on my bicycle. My parents’ house was heated with coal/coke, cooking was by coal-gas, and electricity from coal-fired power stations.)

I guess in economic terms it does not matter much whether it is taxpayers or me who spend the largesse, as long as the ‘energy wheel’ goes round. If we all in future extract far less, i.e. ‘net’, from the energy wheel, then so be it. Generally the lower income groups are more generous than the better-off, so I expect to be fed and both ends kept clean, while I complete my personal cycle.
best
Phil

PS JMG your book “Not the Future We Ordered” has this second arrived from Karnac books. The extraordinary postal system still works for now!

PPS Our thoughts go this weekend to Chris @Cherokee Organics, his neighbours, record temperatures and depleting water supply. Not good portents.

mallow said...

Oh onething, I'd like to see you tell my pregnant Danish friend that she was a burden. Let's just say you'd need to be able to run pretty fast.

Rita, no that's not what I said. In some societies the burden of care for the baby would be with the whole community, not just the mother and her nuclear family. Or the baby might be adopted by the father's family, another unrelated family or distant relatives or given to the care of some religious organisation which in turn might be supported by the whole community. In other societies the father would be pretty unarguable because they're small enough that everyone would know who was partnered with whom, whether married or not. The way things were historically in the US and other western countries doesn't reflect the only options.

Roger, I'm not sure what that has to do with what I said. Of course the way these things are dealt with varies. And I doubt there are many girls reading this blog. Most under-18's are probably far too busy out there getting bad reputations and/or looking for respectable boys to make respectable girls of them.

JMG, you're right. I should put my constructive hat on and read up on how those kinds of system can be structured as fairly as possible. People just drive me too insane to want to bother sometimes. Must find constructive hat...

ViewFromHere said...

Geovermont-- re: libraries. There are some efforts to use libraries for seed saving and exchanges. That is a great and novel use. Richmond CA is doing just that now and has resources so that other communities/libraries can do the same.

Also, near here the library system has collection focused on sustainability that can be accessed throughout the state. The items can be found here:

John Michael Greer said...

Godozo, thanks for the story. Of course that's another way to draw the line: will helping this person, in this way, make it harder to help other people in the same way?

Helix, many thanks for the details. I'll look into it further.

Phil, I'm not a great fan of the theory of original sin myself, though I don't find any more value in the equal and opposite theory that every child is born virtuous and just needs to follow its natural inclinations. Another unhelpful binary! I'm glad to hear that Not The Future We Ordered is out -- I'll be interested to hear what you and others think of it.

Mallow, oh, granted, it's an effort!

John Michael Greer said...

Second Wind (offlist), you asked your question and you got an answer. If you want to keep on parroting Icke's hate speech, do it somewhere else.

gwizard43 said...

One hiccup I foresee for this proposal (and it's a proposal I've been championing for some years now, for all the good its done, so I am strongly in favor of such a civil society approach), is that, back in the heyday of fraternal and other mutual aid organizations, there was no income tax, and so that substantial portion of income that now goes to fund the various Ponzi schemes like social security in the US, as well as paying interest on the debt, the military, etc, is no longer available to voluntarily contribute to lodge dues.

Perhaps in the days to come, until that aspect can be worked out, some form of trade or services barter may become an element of these sorts of social support systems.

In fact, this is already arguably happening via time banks and LETS (local exchange trading systems), which do not look quite like the old lodge systems, but do overlap to some degree in terms of the functions you are describing.

As with so many other aspects of what's to come, it may be less a case of resurrecting readily recognizable systems from the past, and more a case of newly evolved systems that include some elements that are recognizable, and some that are not.

Plus c'est la change, plus c'est la meme chose?

jeffinwa said...

Hi JMG,
"a dumpster diver in the back alleys"

And a very good one!

My wife and I managed to support ourselves for a summer in Newport Beach, CA back in the day by collecting discards in alleys and selling at swap meets before taxes and regulations killed it.

Contracting directly with physicians for group care; what a brilliant idea. No wonder the church of the AMA shut that down. Coming aback soon I hope.

Thanks again to you and everyone here for this corner of light.

vera said...

Cherokee, my take on your challenge is this: keeping kids away from older kids makes control much easier. If various ages are together, then older kids teach younger ones (which can make the teacher insecure, showing the s/he is not needed so much, and that peer teaching works often better than authoritarian teaching) and also the older kids empower the younger kids because they are more savvy to the system, and that could breed uppitiness and alliances (and we know how authoritarains hate those...) What do you think?

phil harris said...

JMG
You replied:
Phil, I'm not a great fan of the theory of original sin myself, though I don't find any more value in the equal and opposite theory that every child is born virtuous and just needs to follow its natural inclinations. Another unhelpful binary! I'm glad to hear that Not The Future We Ordered is out -- I'll be interested to hear what you and others think of it.

I am not a fan of binary thinking myself. I am not sure what constitutes successful infant rearing, nor what breaks the chain. More extreme notions of the universe seem to arise after the events; a cosmology of good and evil; the true self and the false self; David Icke’s mental health, which can’t just be a personal issue. I will stop – I am just musing! I don't subscribe much to Progress in human morality via civilisation. It is / was always very hard-work being human but some accounts of our remnant HG ancestors suggest they put a very high value on making it work from one generation to another - of course never perfectly. Heart-rending stories are in Hugh Brody (anthropologist) The Other Side of Eden of gently brought up Inuit children, for example, and their rendition to colonial schooling back in the day.

First chapters of your book “Not the Future We Ordered” are very promising: splendid brevity when laying out issues and the myth of progress. Hope others get to read and comment!
best
Phil

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thank you for your thoughts.

Hi Leo,

Makes sense.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The crows are circling around the carcass:

US governors warn of havoc from budget cuts

My favourite quote was Govenor Jack: "Deficit reduction should not be accomplished simply by shifting costs from the federal government to the states or by imposing unfunded mandates. States should be given increased flexibility to create efficiencies and to achieve results."

I strongly suspect that the man is confusing noise with logic. I don't often listen to politicians as they have difficulty communicating with the same language that everyone else uses.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

The whole middle class welfare thing is a big problem here too.

A good example are the Tax concessions (ie. this refers to favourable tax treatments or giveaways) for owner occupied housing and superannuation which now account for AU$115bn or 7.5% of GDP this year.

These are really significant numbers and they mostly end up in the hands of the middle class or wealthier Australians. The reason for this is because the tax giveaways relate to housing and superannuation (which is the compulsory retirement savings here) and the older and wealthier you are, the more that you benefit from these giveaways.

By the time I get to the age of 60, tax free superannuation will be a very distant memory.

Treasury takes aim at super perks

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Helix,

I've just arrived at your comment.

It is certainly some clever mathematics, well done.

However, I'd be less interested in those calculations and more interested in what happened to the money paid in taxes over the years.

According to wikipedia: "the excess is invested in special series, non-marketable U.S. Government bonds, thus the Social Security Trust Fund indirectly finances the federal government's general purpose deficit spending."

You know, over here superannuation (which is a scheme run for a similar purpose although it can be controlled by individuals and other entities) can only be invested in arms-length investments and not used as working capital in a business.

Your system is akin to leaving the kids in charge of the cookie jar!

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Helix,

Don't get me wrong, as I'm not having a go at your maths. Perhaps I hadn't explained myself fully either.

You are faulty in your logic because you use the economic indicator CPI in your calculations.

The problem with using this indicator is that it has been altered so many times over the years that it is simply not comparable from one year to the next. Production of the indicator itself is subject to a great deal of political pressure. It is indicative, but not directly comparable.

It also completely ignores the build-up of debt within an economy. The US currently has special and unique privileges in relation to its ability to print money, but the longer they spend at this activity, the riskier it becomes.

Your social security funds are tied up in this economic mess and whilst I don't know the future, my gut feel says that it won’t end up well at all.

On the other hand it could defy history and surprise us all too! Who knows?

Chris

Juhana said...

I began to read this blog because I felt JMG's perspective to ongoing slow crash of industrialized civilization is wider than most writers have. Kind of grand narrative point of view. No doubt author has his own mental prison cell inside his head, like all of us humans have, bounding him to certain preconceptions. Still it seems that window view from that cell is quite panoramic and wide.

Things lead to unintented results. By reading this blog (and couple of others) I found out, to my surprise, how f***ed up political system of USA is right now. Seeping through from blog texts and commentaries likewise is picture of deep dysfunction. These writings tell to me that political landscape of your home country is shattered beyond repair, and escape velocity is throwing people from all brands to more extreme ends of political spectrum. Feeling of hate behind written lines is so deep you can almost touch it. When I wrote first to this blog, some commenters automatically connected me to extreme forms of politics, just because I defended role of Christianity as defining narrative of descendants of (Old and New) Rome. This just tells how deep prejudices are around there, straw man images are imprinted strongly into cultural subconscious of your country.

It is obvious that this kind of hate climate leads sooner or later to bloodshed. Democracy needs all factions willing to compromise. In that quality it resembles any successful, long marriage. Hate does not belong to recipe, unlike disagreements. With my limited skills in English language I have understood that JMG tries to heal this political climate of USA at local level. You kind of try to be traditional healer for local community around you, and to spread the word also.

Anglo-saxon world is quite a mystery for me. I have been around, but not in your sphere. Can someone recommend nonpartisan book about recent political history of USA? I want to understand why nation which was known for its common sense and down-to-earth attitude (in good way) for a long time has become place where conspiracy theories fly around and people from all political spectrums practically wear folio hats on their heads.

Your country has been stable, democratic nation from 18th century onwards, interrupted only once by civil war. This stability is amazing accomplishment. What a heck have you been doing around there to destabilize this solid foundation this badly? Peak cheap oil and wealth pump economics do not explain everything.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Social Security also pays benefits to orphans and to workers who are disabled before they reach retirement age. That might be where Helix's spare 1.5 percent goes.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

One Jewish interpretation of the Garden of Eden tale is, "Kids, if you aren't willing to follow the rules of this house, you are old enough to go out and earn a living."

Original Sin isn't part of Judaism. A Talmudic view of human nature is that people are born with an inclination to good and an inclination to evil. In the average person, at birth the two inclinations are of equal strength. Life experience, including moral instruction, habit formation and societal rewards and punishments, will strengthen one inclination and weaken the other; it can develop either way.

"Good inclination" and "evil inclination" may also be understood as "inclination to empathy and altruism" and "inclination to selfishness" or "id". The sages remark that the human race would not survive if the evil inclination were entirely absent from us.

Isis said...

Cherokee, age segregation mirrors an assembly line. Every product (in this case, child) goes through the same process at the same pace. Of course, humans being humans rather than cars, you'll never quite achieve the same level of standardization as you might in a car (or toy, or underwear) factory. However, it's as close as you can get given the (non-standardized) input.

This is also an excellent way to train people to jump through hoops, a very important skill in a highly industrialized and bureaucratized society. You move at a pre-established pace (possibly with a little bit of tracking, so that some students are taking regular courses and others are taking the honors version) regardless of your abilities, needs, and interests. The fact that 9th grade math will bore the [unpublishable word] out of one 9th grader and completely overwhelm another is, for the purposes of bureaucracy acculturation, just as it should be. Trains kids to put up with largely incomprehensible and nonsensical bureaucracies. For what it's worth, I don't think anybody actually intended it this way. More likely, the school system was designed by bureaucrats who didn't know any other way.

Rocco said...

JMG,
During my years I have occasionally come across some odd stuff, and some of it has held my attention for varying amounts of time. But I feel fortunate not to have encountered some things not worth considering. The aptly named Icke person fits into the latter category. Unfortunately, as of this week, I have now heard of him, thanks to your blog. I suppose that awareness of this or that nut-job is, however, better than blithe ignorance, so I do not hold this against you. My continuing best regards to you for your excellent series of essays.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Juhana

I'm old enough (70) to have seen this unwillingness to compromise grow and spread in its current form. Around 1955, when I was about 13, in my public school in Berkeley, California there was a state-mandated course in civics, taught from a small green pamphlet published by the California state government. It emphasized the necessity of making distasteful [and even immoral] compromises for any democratic government to work. I put "and even immoral" in square brackets because that part was not explicit, but implicit: the prime example used in our class to show the political necessity of immoral compromises was the well-known compromise about slavery and the counting of slaves embodied in the United States Constitution. It was emphasized that there would have been no United States without accepting that compromise, or something quite like it and equally immoral by our present standards.

Our own teacher softened the blow of this hard datum to our young and tender sensibilities somewhat by making a hypothetical argument that there might not be any such thing as "natural rights" (or even a natural, universal morality) at all, but that all these things might be nothing other than temporary and transient social or political constructs. This possibility did indeed soften the blow, at least for me and many of my classmates.

Fast-forward some 10-20 years, to the decades when the counter-culture, as it was called, was in full bloom in the United States. It was an era preoccupied with arguments on morality and ethics (on the right and on the left side of politics alike), especially as applied to the treatment of the oppressed. What had begun as a struggle for the "civil rights" (so called) of Blacks in the 1950s soon developed into a more general crusade for a moral and ethical social order. This was something that felt quite new go most of us at the time, though I later learned that it did have deep, if thin and obscure, roots in earlier US history.

The little green pamphlet on civics was soon retired, and it soon became utterly impossible to use the "slavery compromises" of the Constitition as an effective argument for the necessity of political compromise. (Within the last few weeks the President of Emory University found out the hard way that it is still impossible and even dangerous to use this example in arguing for the necessity of political compromises. He did so, and his academic career now seems to be over.)

One must never, it soon came to be widely accepted, compromise at all on any moral or ethical issue whatever, no matter what goal the compromise might further. Wrong was wrong, and that was an end to any possible argument! Or so it seemed to me at the time.

And as the '70s gave place to the '80s and the '90s, somehow more and more issues came to be couched in ethical or moral terms, and thus placed beyond any possibility of political compromise. By now, almost all significant national issues are so couched, and compromise is not to be had on any important matter at all.

And thus we came to our present impasse.

I should add that this is specifically United States history, thought it has had an impact on the rest of the English-speakign world and beyond. Never forget, please, that the United States was largely populated by people who had left Europe precisely because they hated, feared or despised its then current forms of government and politics. These European forms of government and politics were often effective, of course, and thus they had to be used used, but that did not mean that they were widely respected. There was always an effort to overturn them (if one was radical), or to recast them into a supposed older, nobler form (if one was less radical). Hence the constant use of Ancient Roman republican government (often only as Livy had presented it) as a model for the United States.

Roger Bigod said...

mallow,

I was responding to this:

"You've unthinkingly described the pregnant woman as the burden, rather than the baby, and the father is left out of the picture entirely. The assumption is that it's the woman's responsibility to take care of the resulting baby and the father is effectively let off the hook. The stigma was always applied to the woman rather than the man because of sexism..."

You're correct that historically the social stigma has attached to the woman, unless the she was underage or the male abused a position of responsibility for her protection.

But in at least the case I mentioned, examination of all the cases indicates that criminal prosecution for bastardy was carrying out a function that we'd now handle with an order to provide child support. It may have had the effect of stigmatizing a father who evaded responsibility as well. It would be interesting to know how other jurisdictions handled the situation. If Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" is an accurate reflection of the times, the Puritans went in for public shaming, at least in the 17th Cent.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Juhana -- no one has written The Decline and Fall of the United States Empire yet, and they won't for several centuries. At this point in time, you won't get your wish -- there is no non-partisan "book" describing what you see. Perhaps you should be the one to write it, if you have the passion for it.

In the meantime, if you ask twenty US Americans what's going on, you'll get at least thirty different opinions -- not one of them objective as seen by any outsider.

I suspect what you describe is merely part of the collection of general symptoms that accompany imperial collapse.

One of the key points, IMO, was the collapse of the USSR: it created a major political discontinuity with the past, and the US has not adapted well. But that's my non-objective opinion.

dltrammel said...

LOL, here's imagining that a century from now that there will be buildings across the country (and in others) with "Green Wizards" set in stone at their entrances. And that they are an intrigual part of their community.

BTW everyone, we've finally gotten some software set up on the Green Wizard.org site taking care of our spam problem and we ask that if you hesitated to register and post to us over the Winter because of that, to come back. Spring is coming and we are about to discuss what to plant. We can only grow if YOU step up and join the conversations.

(As always if you have ANY problems with your registration, please email me at random(no space)surfer200 at you know where yahoo.com, please include the word Greenwizard in the email so I can spot it in my spam file if it gets there, lol)

Some recent posts that could use everyone's opinions:

-"One Family's Journey to Less Energy Use"

-"Owner Beware Foreclosure Might Still Screw You"

-"One Homemaker's Take On Money"

-"Is There Such A Thing As Eco-Friendly Cat Litter?"

-"Popular Mechanics Free Archives"

and especially

-"10 Things To Get Started As A Green Wizard"

Fellow moderator and green wizard sevenmmm challenged me to come up with 10 things that a budding Green Wizard could do to start their long journey towards sustainability and living in a collapsing civilization. Please make your own suggestions or just comment on what is posted.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The question of whether people pay in to Social Security more, less, or an equal amount (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than what they draw out is one question. Helix's method of calculating that seems reasonable to me, although I haven't checked the numbers.

Whether there will be enough money in the system to pay promised benefits in the future is a different question requiring a separate calculation.

Unlike private defined-benefit pension systems, in which contributions are invested to generate future income, SS payroll tax is not set aside. Most of the money is paid out immediately to current retirees. Some is set aside (at least as a bookkeeping entry) to deal with demographic fluctuations, but it isn't invested in anything that produces income.

This has nothing to do with whether people pay in over their working life as much as they expect to collect. It's the ratio of payroll tax-paying workers and employers in any given year that matters. If a lot of workers and employers are supporting a handful of retired people, they can contribute a pittance and the system breaks even. Conversely, if a small workforce is supporting a huge population of elderly Boomers, they can be taxed to starvation levels and the system still runs short of money.

If the ratio of workers paying in rises relative to the number of current retirees, whether from more people entering the workforce or more people dying before they are old enough to qualify for benefits, the system is easily currently solvent.

Conversely, if the size of the workforce paying into the system shrinks in relation to the size of the population collecting benefits, the system may run a deficit.

At present Social Security is running a surplus because only a few of the Baby Boomers have reached retirement age and applied for benefits. Most are still working and paying payroll taxes. Boomers are a much larger group than any of the generations born before them, older generations whose survivors are currently receiving payments, so plenty of money is coming in to cover those payments.

However, as more Boomers reach retirement age, the number of people eligible to collect payments will for a while rise faster than the size of the younger workforce paying in, because Boomers are a larger cohort than their juniors and have proved to be a fairly healthy, long-lived group. Most are are living long enough to collect from the system for many years. Because there are not sufficient younger people employed when and after the Boomers all hit retirement age, a deficit is projected.

(continued in next post because of length cap)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

(ways to deal with projected Social Security deficits)

When such a demographic imbalance looms, there are a variety of ways to keep the system solvent. Some of them were successfully implemented the last time Social Security was overhauled about twenty years ago.
Here's a list of every solution I can think of:

1. Increase the size of the workforce paying in. Achievable through full employment, increasing the youthful population through immigration or a higher birthrate, lowering the death and disability rates for people in their earning years, expanding the categories of employment subject to payroll tax, or cracking down on people working off the books.

2. Raise payroll taxes. Raise the rate on employees, employers or both, or eliminate the current cap on taxable wages so that every dollar earned is subject to payroll tax.

3. Reduce people's eligibility to collect. Require more years of employment before one may receive minimum benefits (currently ten years), raise eligibility age, raise age for getting maximum benefit.

4. Reduce the size of payments. Current proposal is to tinker with the formula for cost of living increases.

5. Tax the payments received by some or all of the recipients, to collect some of the money back. Usually this is proposed as a tax on the SS pensions of the wealthy.

6. Instead of relying solely on employment taxes to fund Social Security, support it with other tax revenues.

7. Abolish Social Security altogether. The problem with this is that people will refuse to pay taxes to support current retirees if they have no prospect of receiving anything themselves in the future.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Juhana,

Please realize that there is a faction of extremists in the US that does advocate second-class or non-citizenship for those who are not in their approved brand of Christianity, so your original comments may have been mis-identified as coming from that group. Your subsequent comments have of course dispelled that false impression.

What a fascinating question - is there a good non-partisan recent history of the US that explains the poisoned political atmosphere? No one book specific to that topic comes to mind. However, I would caution you that there have been deep divisions within the US in the past, and these often get papered over in the history books, so the current division you see is not necessarily a new phenomena, although it may spring from new sources. The violent labour struggles in the early 20th century and the attempted fascist plot in the 1930s are two often-neglected counterexamples to the stable republic narrative, for instance.

Personally, I would argue that a lot of the current paranoia and mistrust comes from the fact that there's been a distressing lack of openness about certain events since our ascent to world empire after World War II. The political assassinations of the 1960s are a prime example; whatever were the actual causes and guilty parties, I would argue that lack of a full accounting was quite damaging to the integrity of the political system. Furthermore this leads to people projecting the blame on their perceived political enemies, and to very unhelpful extreme binary thinking (e.g., there was no conspiracy, the government is telling the full and complete truth about the lone nut versus it was a massive government conspiracy). Realize also, these events take place against a background of creeping executive-branch police power and seeming continual war.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Vera,

I don't have the experience in such matters which is why I asked the question. However, would this situation that you describe also be a problem outside of school in other situations? Also, I was wondering how this would have shown up in one room schools? Dunno, but good thoughts. Thanks.

Hi Isis,

Very interesting. Your comment mirrors Leo's. Also the hoop jumping metaphor is very real and I unfortunately have firsthand experience. They are used extensively as barriers to entry. Does a general practitioner handing out scripts really need a perfect exam score before being allowed to study medicine at university? Or does restricting entry, create an economic scarcity thus increasing salaries? Interesting stuff and thanks for the reply.

PS: I loved statistics at university scoring a high distinction, but year 9 maths, I almost failed because it bored me silly...

Hi Juhana,

Thaumaturgy is perhaps at the core of your question. How else can people earning an income of $150,000/year feel poor and thus entitled to welfare?

There was a very timely article in the paper here about how most Australians consider themselves to be in the middle class and so any attempt to rein in middle class welfare is an attack on everyone. Fascinating thought and well worth taking the time to read:

Whatever happened to the middle class

There is a lot of soul searching going on here about middle class welfare as the government has finally acknowledged that they cannot pay for it now or into the future when it shall get far worse. The problem is, where do you cut and mostly so far they have gone for soft targets. Anyway, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them and the opposition here has no better ideas / vision than the present incumbents.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thought you might enjoy this charming anecdote invoking thoughts of the tragedy of the commons. I heard about this incident second hand, but it does mirror my earlier experience with the uninvolved community here.

The story goes that at the community meeting and information session about the large bush fire in the Eastern end of the mountain range, a community member stood up and said something along the lines of - to members of the local volunteer fire brigade - , "why didn't you put the fire out earlier. It was very inconvenient as we had to get up regularly in the middle of the night and check the Internet to see what the status of the fire was."

I'd like to say that I'm making this stuff up, but I saw similar responses from people at community sessions after the Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009.

What they never realise is that the volunteers regularly undertake 12 hour shifts using basic equipment in difficult and often very dangerous conditions where they may be seriously injured or killed.

Anyway, you can tell I'm stuck inside on another 35 degree day here. It is now officially the hottest February here on record. Well done.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and everyone,

Despite the heat today, I just received 5mm (1/5th of an inch) of rain and I'll tell ya, I've never been happier for it to rain before. What a relief...

Regards

Chris

jollyreaper said...

One detail that can't be overlooked is the catty, clique nature of local associations. This goes for churches, clubs, etc. There's in-groups and out-groups and those on the outs can be excluded from benefits. And it becomes so easy to apply personal standards of morality to the failings of others. You're poor because you're gay or I find untrimmed beards disgusting or your politics are all wrong. You are not deserving. Being gay is a choice just like being poor. Make better choices. Deep sigh.

This is one of the blue collar critiques of unions, the cliques. Management has great power. Workers can only negotiate as equals if they work collectively. As individuals they will be defeated in detail, divide and conquer.

However, the union itself suffers from the temptation towards abuse that all power carries. Parasitic management, just as with the owners. Just as anything manmade needs to be maintained and repaired since simple use incurs damage, all human institutions need similar attention and care.

sgage said...

@ Brother Kornhoer said...

"Please realize that there is a faction of extremists in the US that does advocate second-class or non-citizenship for those who are not in their approved brand of Christianity, so your original comments may have been mis-identified as coming from that group. Your subsequent comments have of course dispelled that false impression."

The irony, of course, of Christians claiming to be a persecuted minority ia that a) they're not a minority, and b) unless you fall all over yourself trumpeting your Christian bona fides, you have virtually no chance of being elected to public office in this country at the national level.

Well, some Jewish people get elected. But run for office as a druid (just for example), or even worse, an atheist (godz forbid!), and you can just fuggedaboutit.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Overnight, it rained again and we received a further inch of rain. WOO HOO!

Cyclone Rusty in the north west of the continent spun off a tail of moist air and that tail is still wagging here. YAY!

Hi Deborah,

I agree that there are plenty of options for addressing the social security issue.

The problem is that in addressing the core issues of the program - i.e. the unfunded obligation - any incumbent government will have to reduce the entitlements paid to a certain group or class of people (or across the board) or increase the amount paid in by other groups or class of people.

As a complete guess on my part, this would not receive bipartisan support and why should it when the disaffected bloc can be counted on to support the opposition party at any future election.

This is a tragedy of the commons.

I reckon - at another guess - the strategy that will be followed will be:
- Increase immigration of younger workers;
- Increase the birth rate of the existing population;
- Do nothing - There is no incentive for the problem to be addressed as it is a problem for the future; and
- Continue printing money.

I read a brief extract of the minutes from the recent Federal Reserve meeting and I had the distinct impression - and I could well be wrong - that they were not sure about the impacts of their current policies. They voted to continue them though (11 for and 1 against – I think).

Years back we faced similar dilemmas Down Under and the treasurer of the time (Peter Costello) famously said, "have one child for the mother, one for the father and another for the country". At the same time and for many years afterwards, there was a massive advertising campaign (mostly guerrilla and indirect marketing) about the same issue. Was it coincidence, maybe? Was it effective, you bet!

Immigration was increased massively too.

Thaumaturgy is both real and used. Just from personal experience, I’m noting that there are very few people who question their own or others motivations. Reflection is a worthwhile activity.

Regards

Chris

Renaissance Man said...

JMG - Yes, that is one of my all-time favorite essays that sums up a lot in a short space, viz., the decline of quality in goods that permits only a small increase in apparent price which allows false illusion of low inflation to keep everyone in love with the system, the complete failure of mainstream economics to deal with limits to anything, the standard mainstream political game of buying off discontent through excess abundance (still enthusiastically embraced), &c.,.&c.
I opt out by buying from small, local producers whose prices are astronomical compared to the stuff in stores, but which I consider only a fair and true price. I would love to pick up and take off to the boonies, but I have a niche trade in IT, very well paid, but not transferable. My current option is either hone craftsmanship skills over the next few years to the point where I might be able to move to some place with a future besides disintegration and collapse. I wish I could take up a trade, that the guild system existed and functioned as it was supposed to. Adam Smith wrote his work and observed the corruption of that system. However, no one really wants to hire a 50 year old apprentice and I'm not even sure how long I still have to be able to do a trade anyway.
As for people associating in groups, I notice that there are mutual-support craft organizations forming and developing. From what I do see, there is something of a resurgence, definitely in the production of hand-crafted saddles and blacksmithing. They hold conventions and have memberships in organizations and I suspect it might be a small step from there to mutual-support organizations like the Kiwanis or the Lions Club.
Consequently, some people are turning craft hobbies into part-time jobs, which sometimes become full-time. I suspect the precursor to re-localization is happening and there is an organic small-economy sprouting in the cracks between Monsanto and WalMart. There are a lot of crafts are being preserved by people as hobbies. I know hand-knitting has never enjoyed as much popularity as it has lately (almost everyone I know knits), which has given rise to a whole industry around to support that, with specialty wool shops, classes, and local farms raising specialty wool animals, such as Alpacas, and so on. Leatherwork is enjoying a resurgence, and there are blacksmith conventions where everyone trades knowledge and ideas and techniques. I know that since the second world war, (ironically thanks to MacArthur) Japan has a strong guild of sword-makers who freely share every thing they know, in contrast to times past when craftsmen kept trade secrets jealously guarded.... much like big industry does today.
As an aside, in Germany, at least until 1980 when I lived there for a year, they still used that system as it was supposed to be used. Germany has always had the iron and steel industry as a source of national pride, and their educational system was divided into three streams, early on, with children being separated out at age 10 for either trades, managers, or university doctorates. The trades would go to class during the morning, then apprentice at some production firm in the afternoon. They still had journeymen, who would do the more skilled work in the production places, but they would then move on after a few months and "journey" to the next shop to pick up whatever tips and improvements they could. After a few years, they would become masters and either be employed as senior skilled work at concerns or run their own businesses. It was alive 30 years ago, but I cannot say what the past years of economic upheaval have wrought and there is a very, very high unemployment rate there.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Deborah Bender,

An excellent summary. But the problem isn't Social Security. The problem is old people.

We've been through dotage with both my parents, and now we're going through it with my wife's father. Dotage: senile dementia. Popularly known as Alzheimer's. But it's broader than that: it's the whole collection of disabilities that come with age. As a society, we've learned a lot about nutrition, fixing the human body, and eradicating disease, and have done a great deal toward making work less mortally dangerous.

The result is a huge increase of people who outlive their productive years. You cannot put them to work. Once they tip into dementia, they don't even serve as repositories of wisdom, or "deep memory." They lose control of their bowels, and must be bathed. Sometimes, they need assistance to eat. They lose the will to engage in social activities. Sometimes they go mad and howl.

Solutions to this problem are much more difficult than doing an actuarial analysis of Social Security, and are made even more difficult by soulless calculations of profit and loss in some misguided "economic theory of nations." Here are the possible solutions:

1. "Bring outcher daid!" From the Monty Python skit in The Holy Grail. Look the other way while adult children "put down" their useless elders. A variant could empower agents of the state to do this on an impartial basis, perhaps the third time they lose their car keys.

2. Start a national program (and perhaps religion) to promote voluntary suicide, and provide easy access to suicide assistance and lethal drugs. Count on people to take care of themselves when the time comes.

3. Bring back smallpox or plague and let "acts of God" take care of this the way it has traditionally been done. A variant could be cutting off all medical care for anyone over the age of, say, eighty, so that "nature can take its course."

4. Ignore the problem as a "personal issue," and let families try to cope with it on their own. That's how it's done in Colombia, where my wife's father lives: old age is managed with personal wealth, then family support, and then the street. We're currently engaged in trying to keep Papito off the street.

5. Recognize the fundamental problem we've caused by promoting longer, healthier (physical) lives, and take it on as a problem of commons, with solutions like Social Security. Or, as the national system breaks down, more local equivalents.

This idea that "we can't afford to provide entitlements" is bunk, because if we don't provide for our elders -- and trust me, it's bloody expensive to care for those who pass into dotage -- we have to start killing them. We can look the other way while someone else clubs them and pretend we didn't do it, but I, for one, have never found that sort of self-deception very workable. Nor am I personally happy with a solution of homicide when the only issue with providing a comfortable close to a too-long life is -- remind me again? -- oh, right, "excessive taxation." That is, interfering with the private wealth machine. Which "creates" all that wealth for what purpose, again? I keep forgetting if "we" win a toaster oven, or a new iPod.

We're currently wasting 15.6% of wage income to care for our elders. We need to add 2% to make Social Security viable for the next 75 years. And that's apparently "too much." It leaves me speechless.

dltrammel said...

(Deborah Bender) said:

"JMG, the conventional historical view, at least on the Left, is that federal relief, Social Security, jobs programs, and the other national social welfare programs that originated under Franklin Roosevelt were responses to the fact that the Great Depression had exhausted the local resources that had traditionally provided help to the poor.

With one third of the population out of work for extended periods, and massive deflation, the churches, fraternal organizations and local governments were overwhelmed; they did not have enough money to keep people from starving and losing their homes."


I highly recommend people take the time to watch Ken Burn's PBS mini series "The Dust Bowl" which covers the two decades of the Midwest Dust Bowl and the Depression for an amazing look at that time. The depth of misery and perseverance the farmers in that area, and the way the government reacted to the times is very enlightening.

It was also a bit scary too, when you consider the way industrial agriculture is destroying the land, and the worry that a second dust bowl might arise.

dltrammel said...

Juhana I would recommend John Dean's "Conservatives Without Conscience" for some insight into how the current political landscape evolved.

Its not an attack on conservatives but more a fascinating peek into authoritativeness in people and their relationships with the community around them.

Once you know how to look behind the curtain at what motivates a large segment of the US population, rather than the 30 second sound bites you hear on some news (make that entertainment) networks, I think you'll have a better idea on how we Americans got ourselves into this mess.

Kirk Waln said...

It's interesting to me that the decline of Fraternal organizations you describe could equally well describe the decline of volunteer organizations. What is it about our culture, now, that kills fraternity and volunteerism? The welfare state and crony capitalism are symptoms of the disease but not the cause.

jollyreaper said...

With regards to elder care, coworker was talking about the situation another branch of the family went through. Four sisters raised their kids and got old. First three had the same pattern of being shoved off to a home while their kids absconded with the money. It was a short decline and death after that. The fourth fears the same. But, as it turns out, they were terrible parents and the kids are living as they've been taught. Sad, really, but it's the circle of strife.

Helix said...

@Cherokee Organics,

There's no question that the CPI has been manipulated over the years to suit political agendas, one of which has been to deliberately minimize cost-of-living adjustments of Social Security benefits. If one compares the "official" CPI figures to, for example, the major commodity indices, one observes a wild variance between them, with the CPI uniformly coming out on the bottom.

This actually results in Social Security recipients receiving far less in payouts than they contributed during their working years on a more realistic constant-dollar basis. I used CPI to calculate the value of contributions and benefits only because that's what the Social Security Administration uses. One could use the figures produced by, for example, John Williams at Shadowstats.com for a truly depressing (or enlightening?)exercise. I can do this calculation if readers are interested.

The original claim, however, was the Social Security was a form of middle-class warfare given that retiress would draw out far more in their retirement than they contributed during their working years. This is simply not true on a constant-dollar basis.

My view is that the greater issue for Social Security is what we can realistically and reasonably afford. I personally think two things should happen: 1) the cap should be removed. As it is, the cap on the payroll tax makes the entire US income tax code hugely regressive. If you want to talk about class warfare, here's one of the major battlefields. 2) The formula for benefits needs to be adjusted to the current economic conditions in the country. Social Security should pay out what it takes in over the long term and no more. It's a pay-as-you-go program where current workers pay for current retirees. If current workers are having to deal with economic hardship, seniors will have to deal with economic hardship also. Otherwise, "generations warfare" enters the discussion.

As to what happened to the money? Well, it went into the general fund and was spent, just as any other tax revenue. It's pretty clear to me that a lot of it was wasted on unnecessary wars, pork for special interests, and a huge buildup of unneeded, unwanted, and oppressive Federal programs. It is a sad comment on our times that "the land of the free" has been reduced to just another slogan by an onerous burden of regulations.

But I also believe that that which is unsustainable will eventually stop. And so I meditate on the musings of people like JMG, who have done some serious thinking about what life might require as that happens.

cyloke said...

JMG

I just have to ask because you've stated before in the comments section but are you going write a post up on Burkean Conservatism?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Helix,

Thanks for the reply and I respect your point of view as you make some valid points.

From your reply, I'm assuming that the benefits paid to beneficiaries of social security are annually adjusted for cost of living increases using the CPI as a reference.

If this is the case then your assertion that you as an individual will pay in more to the fund (and utilising NPV calculations) than you will receive based on an average life expectancy is incorrect.

There are several issues which you are rolling into a single issue and this is where the error occurs.

Firstly, it should be acknowledged that increases in the CPI are not reflected in the returns on any investment.

Secondly, applying the CPI as a factor with which to annually increase benefits paid to social security beneficiaries is a politically motivated response. It has nothing to do with the returns of the actual investments held which may be earning nothing, going backwards or even only increasing a little bit.

Thirdly, the official interest rates from the Federal Reserve, where the investment is held are at or near zero, so any increase in benefits paid to beneficiaries over and above investment returns comes from capital funds (i.e. amounts paid in by people).

It may be of interest to you, but this is one of the indicators of a Ponzi scheme. I'm not suggesting that the fund is that, but it is indicative of one.

Regards

Chris

PRiZM said...

While these are certainly not fraternal organizations, there are some associations and movements that are helping to organize people locally to help their neighbors, and perhaps these will become precursors to new organizations which we will need as the Long Descent continues. Slow Money is one example of a movement trying to reinvest money in ways to benefit local economies, particularly related to local food. It may interest some to listen to an interview with a founder of the movement, Woody Tasch. http://www.ediblecommunities.com/radio/kitchen-sync-with-kate-manchester/episode-102-kitchen-sync-with-woody-tasch.htm

Adrian Skilling said...

Very good to see an elaboration of some previous posts on this topic. Of course a great advantage of the fraternal social safety net is that:

1. The people in need have a personal relationship to the order so its less easy for them to take advantage
2. Judgements can be made to the specific case

Both 1 and 2 do not apply in the government model. It requires a large amount of box ticking and rule which can't apply well to all circumstances. Of course the problem with judgements is that they might be prejudiced - swings and roundabouts.

In the UK universal benefits are now being means tested but not without a battle from the middle classes (as you say).

Hal said...

The question being discussed on SS funds raises a question I have asked in the past as a result of other posts here. That is, just what exactly is wealth, as far as storage of value is concerned?

Put another way, people always talk about how the SS trust was raided for the general fund, but seriously, what else could have been done with this surplus of wealth collected from workers? Piled coins and cash into a giant Scrooge McDuck vault? Paid off the national debt? Invested it in the stock market? (Don't laugh, there has been a movement afoot to do just that for as long as I can remember.)

Or maybe buy apartment complexes in Florida and warehouses full of Ensure, cat-food and Spam for the retirees?

If "capitalism" is the "ism" of capital, and capital is accumulated wealth, and accumulated wealth is an illusion, then how can we talk about doing anything over a longer term than the illusions hold? IOW, is there such a thing as planning past the horizons that our business-as-usual models hold?

Other than building "green wizard" skills and hoping you hit the lottery with your progeny?

HA! Verification is oldrTs!

onething said...

Joe Nemeth,

There should be a midway point between clubbing our elders and the ridiculous expense in caring for people who can no longer eat, bathroom themselves, or know where they are. Most people would prefer not to be kept alive once they have become sufficiently debilitated anyway.
The problem, it seems to me, arises because families are now being asked to play God in ways that were never options before. When do you cut off medical assistance? Plenty of people become "DNR" but it is usually done almost as part of the dying process, when the person can be expected to live only a short time. In other words, very late in the game. A lot of adult children just don't feel comfortable cutting off more (expensive) medical procedures. It feels like a decision to end life, whereas in my opinion we have already extended that life a few times over, and it is a matter of stopping to interfere. However, that is not the way most people see it.

It isn't always clear even to medical personnel. You can solve a physical problem and sometimes a person gets a long time of quality of life, and sometimes they just nickel and dime their way down like a used car that won't stop breaking down.

When my grandmother was 100, and had lost her marbles some 8 years back, when she got pneumonia my uncle said no to antibiotics. So he let her die. A lot of people don't think of that sort of thing. And even a DNR can get antibiotics, they just won't get CPR.

By the way, I am having extreme trouble with the word choice thing. Even when I see it clearly and input it carefully, it says I got it wrong.

Unknown said...

(Bender)

@onething--make sure to distinguish capital letters from lowercase, rs from ns and ms, gs from ss.

When I'm not sure, I hit the crescent shaped refresh icon as many times as necessary to get one I can read.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Cherokee Organics--From your recent post, it looks as if you haven't taken in what Helix and I wrote about how Social Security is financed.

There are no actual investments. Most of the money taken in during one fiscal year is immediately paid out to retirees. If there is a surplus, it's held, but not invested in anything that would pay significant interest.

Obviously Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme, or it would have collapsed already instead of paying out as promised for more than seventy years.

Ponzi schemes give the highest returns to early investors, because they are pyramids. They are mathematically impossible to sustain, because the numbers of current investors must be many times larger than the number of payees. They collapse when you run out of investors.

Social Security payments are capped at or near a level that is sustainable from projected revenues, based on actuarial tables. People are required by law to pay in to the fund and the amount they pay in is predictable within broad limits.

Currently SS has two problems. The short term one, which is fixable, is that the rate of growth of the workforce has slowed down, owing partly to a slower rate of population growth and partly to the recession. The generation just getting to retirement age is outsize compared to younger generations who will have to pay their pensions. The numerical disparity is orders of magnitude lower than any Ponzi scheme, and can be dealt with.

The longer term problem is that the growth of the U.S. economy has slowed down and may, if JMG is right, reverse. Social Security has never yet operated in an economy or a population expected to shrink over the long term. Payment schedules are predicated on historical growth rates. If overall employment falls, and the people who are working are getting paid less, there won't be enough money coming in to pay out promised benefits.

Medicare will run out of money sooner than Social Security, because the cost of medical care in the U.S. has been rising much faster than inflation for a long time, and still is rising. This is a systemic problem. The right-wing solution is to give vouchers for medical care and expect that the free market will bring medical costs down to a level that the vouchers will cover. This only works as well as the market works.

Captcha agesroc

Nestorian said...

Thank you for the suggested google search term. I must point out, however, that when a writer makes a claim, then the burden of backing up the claim if one of his interlocutors raises a question about it falls on the writer, not the interlocutor. That is a basic rule of reasoned and civil discourse.

Moreover, I do not think it too much of the interlocutor to ask to be referred directly back to the original source of the claim employed by the writer. Otherwise, the interlocutor is likely to be led astray from what occasioned the exchange in the first place. If the writer is unable to do so, the proper response is simply to acknowledge this, and not to impose a burden on the interlocutor that he does not bear.

phil harris said...

@Cherokee
Thanks for your concern for UK floods.

Personally we are well above any flood although a few cottages and businesses near us are at risk. Farming round here was badly affected last year by both drought and floods. Without (very) big machines to snatch harvests and meet sowing-window deadlines, it would have been a disaster. Grain harvests in UK were well down and poor quality. Farming is a very small part of GDP these days, but our North Sea bonanza is winding down although any small new production is greeted as if it solved a problem. Coal is long gone. (Coal was a very big net exporter around the zenith of the British Empire, circa 1913.)

UK 2012 had 2nd wettest year on record, but as the scientists at the Met Office say: "There's evidence to say we are getting slightly more rain in total, but more importantly it may be falling in more intense bursts - which can increase the risk of flooding. ..." You can say that again! And there has been plenty of recent building on flood plains at risk - 1.3M people have signed up to get a personal electronic flood alert from the authority that looks after that bit of the 'commons'.

I guess we have seen nothing yet - the signals of climate change are only just beginning to appear out of the 'noise' of weather variation.
best wishes for autumn!

Phil H

onething said...

JMG,(or anyone)

You didn't answer my question. I can't understand how you came to the conclusion that the domestic production line relates to the right side of the graph, while the other two lines relate to the left side.

Did the original author of this graph provide that explanation?

Donna Barr said...

Oddly enough, we've figured out how to hook up comicons with the Lion's Clubs - specifically to help save a badly-damaged resource area (trees and fish are not toys, people). It starts at the "comicon" links at http://www.donnabarr.com And if you have any business-y minded people, I, as Chief Peon, for the second year running, am in the black. Ya'all come!