Bernie or Bust

I need to discuss the Bernie or Bust movement now, I think, because in a few more weeks, the Donkey Party nomination will be over and either a) Bernie will be the Donkey Candidate in a “surprise” turn-around1, in which case Bernie or Bust will become a moot point, or b) Hillary will be the Donkey Candidate, in which case Bernie or Bust will throw a loud temper tantrum and then fade away — and though it probably won’t actually have much effect on the election, if Hillary subsequently loses the election, the media will pull it out and polish it up to a fine sheen as the reason for Hillary’s loss.

I recently watched Susan Sarandon’s interview with Chris Matthews; she’s a Bernie supporter, and though the interview is now two months old, she was at that time on the fence about whether she would vote for Hillary.

Much as I despise Donald Trump and everything he represents, I’m also on the fence about Hillary. I’d like to talk this through.

There are a lot of people out there who think Hillary would be a horrible President. They see the three major contenders in the race at this point as a choice among FDR, Hitler, and Stalin. If FDR is thrown out of the race, they are compelled — if they vote at all — to choose either Hitler or Stalin, and they don’t want to participate in that process.

Should Hillary be nominated, people who feel this way about Hillary probably should conscientiously abstain from voting for President. They aren’t so much Bernie or Bust, as they are Never Hillary, and probably Never Donald as well, so there’s little point in them casting a vote for President. They can write in Bernie as a protest, but no write-in candidate is going to do well. I’d still encourage them to vote for the local and Congressional races — it will make a bigger difference, anyway.

I agree with Robert Reich: Hillary is the best choice for the government we have, while Bernie is the best choice for the government we need. Because I think our government is broken, with massive corruption from legalized bribery that is driving us toward collapse as a nation, I want to see changes that Hillary will not even try to bring about.

But in simple choice between Hillary and Donald, there isn’t much contest. Donald is a pathological liar and a narcissist, and has risen to his current position on the coattails of a movement that is brutish, ugly, ignorant, and nihilistic. Because he is a narcissist, he attracts sociopaths and flatterers to his circle of power. As a narcissist, he’s easily managed by sociopaths who have power. In four years’ time, he’ll be the prisoner and puppet of the machinery he surrounds himself with; being a narcissist, he won’t even know it has happened, and won’t believe it if he’s told. That machinery will be pure evil.

But it isn’t just a simple choice between two candidates. There’s the deeper issue of how we find ourselves in this situation, and that inevitably leads us back to core defects in our election process.

These have come garishly to light in this election cycle.

The Elephant Party was taken over by a brutish mob, following a demagogue. The Party barely resisted. The candidates they put up against the demagogue were — I don’t like using the word, but it fits — pathetic: pale shadows of cartoon cutouts of real candidates, rigid ideologues preaching a failed and increasingly unpopular ideology.

This happened because the Elephant Party made a deal with the Devil back in the 1970’s, to pander for votes, and in two generations, it has destroyed the Party. It may have tarnished the brand beyond redemption: the Republican Party may well vanish in the next generation. If it doesn’t, it will have to rebirth itself.

The Donkey Party has been corrupt — meaning bought-off — for a long time: it was seduced by union money in the 1960’s, and then switched allegiance to the bankers in the 1990’s. I’m sure its love of money goes back to the beginning: it was, after all, originally the party of the Antebellum South, the wealthy Southern land and slave owners whose ancestors came to the US to get rich.

The thing is, this love of money has led the Donkey Party into a lot of stupid behavior over the years, including the widespread vote-tampering in this primary election. If Hillary had been as strong a candidate as they want us to believe, none of that would have been necessary, or even tempting. The problem was, she wasn’t a strong candidate to begin with, and Bernie became a legitimate, and then serious, threat to her campaign. The Donkey Party leadership all across the country panicked and started vote-rigging.

That was a stupid move, because we’re not living in the 1800’s any more: that kind of open-handed vote-rigging gets easily caught and exposed.

Now, in defense of the Donkey Party, I have to point out — again — that it’s a club, and neither Bernie nor the Independents he pulled into this primary are (to put it delicately) their kind of people. They gladly took our money, and our votes for one of their own, but they really, really didn’t want to put out our candidate. They thought Bernie would be a fringe candidate who would bring in a few extra bucks, and it blew up in their faces.

This brings us close to the real problem: an arguable plurality of people in the US do not have any political representation at all. It isn’t that this group can’t vote — though there is a lot of overt vote suppression — but that the entire election is rigged. We routinely are forced to choose between Hitler and Stalin. It’s how the system is set up, and it’s been that way for generations.

Even then, though it’s a horrible shock to anyone who has grown up with the idea of fair elections in a democracy, that’s still not the real problem. In fact, we can argue that rigged elections are necessary to protect us all from the mob. Even if you don’t buy that argument, our flawed system of vote-rigging has been getting by, more or less, for quite some time.

The real problem is that the Parties — the vote-riggers — have lost touch with reality in a changing world.

The point of elections is not to give the people control, but to give the people voice. It is the job of the elected officials to listen to that voice: not to pander to it, nor to “help their constituents” line their pockets, but to pay attention to what is really going on in the country. That’s what representation means.

What’s perfectly clear right now is that they are not paying attention. They are paying attention to the money, and nothing but the money. As the money leaves the middle class and goes to the rich, the government has become an oligarchy. The unrepresented masses are getting restive.

The dysfunctional political parties are creating a disgruntled mob.

So let’s bring this back to the Bernie or Bust movement. A lot of people wouldn’t vote for Hillary on a bet. That’s fine — then they shouldn’t. But if the Donkey Party nominates Hillary, a lot of people who don’t really have such strong feelings about Hillary herself, will still want to punish the Donkey Party for being a Jackass. They want to confront the Jackass Party with an existential crisis, by pulling out their financial and political support. They want to make Hillary lose, to punish the Jackass Party for their failure to listen.

I know: I feel that way, too. But it’s the wrong way to go about this.

It’s time to form a new political party. One that will kick the Jackass Party from here to the moon, and give it a real existential crisis, and nightmares, and weak bowels. We need a true and enduring threat to their oligarchy and their corruption and their smugness. We need a party that offers us the kind of government we need, not the broken and out-of-touch kind we have.

Let’s call it a Progressive party.

In that context, we have to ask the question. If Hillary is nominated for the Jackass Party, which will aid the most in supporting the creation of a Progressive Party? President Hillary? Or President Donald?

Arguments can be made for either approach.

Electing President Donald will, if we survive the experience, unite a lot of people with a common enemy, but I think it will strengthen the Jackass Party in the end. And we might not survive the experience.

Electing President Hillary will buy time to set up a political party that has some clout. It will give people four (or eight) more years to see the flaws in the Jackass Party and its candidates’ policies. We still might not survive the experience, because our continuing out-of-touch oligarchy is actually destroying the country by inches: but I think we probably have eight years left.

I’m still waiting to see what happens at the Jackass Convention. The superdelegates should promote the stronger candidate, and that’s Bernie. I suspect they won’t. If they do nominate Hillary, I’ll probably vote for her. Just to buy some time.

But I’m good and ready to put the Jackass Party out of business. Who’s with me?

Feeding the Poor

Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store, and on my way from the parking lot to the front door, I was approached by a young man who asked me for money.

We have a substantial homeless population in the area. I’ve never gotten a convincing answer as to who these people are, though there are many opinions and theories. They could be homeless people from San Francisco. They could be the home-grown poor. They could be part of the itinerant population of illegal pot-harvesters in the area. There are some theories about how this is the only county in northern California that is “soft” on the homeless, so they come here because they get free stuff. There are other theories about mental patients from Ronald Reagan’s war on mental health care back in the ’80’s, still wandering the streets like zombies. There are still other theories about other counties actually busing their homeless problem here. Some of the homeless are clearly mentally ill: they walk down the street shouting angrily at people who aren’t there — or at least, who aren’t visible to me. Others look healthy and capable.

This young fellow was one of the latter. He said he was trying to raise $60. It was a complicated tale he tried to spin in the twenty seconds between me and the door, involving some official social program in Ukiah that had put him up in a hotel south of town that cost $60 a night to stay in, that he somehow had to come up with. He said that he had most of it, but he needed another $22.

I’ve been around long enough to not really believe anyone’s story on first hearing, especially when he’s asking for something. I knew I didn’t have any idea what the kid really needed the money for.

But it touched me that he was so specific. Twenty-two dollars. Not twenty. Not fifty. It wasn’t a sob story about getting back to his dying maiden aunt in Oregon, or how he hadn’t eaten in a week, or how he was a homeless veteran. It was a simple financial goal, to have a roof over his head tonight, and he said he was close to reaching it.

Doubtless a con, I thought. He’s figured out that people fall for the old I’ve-got-a-financial-goal approach. And this business of being in a program that sends him out, unsupervised, to drum up sixty bucks by begging stinks like bullshit. Just give him the brush-off.

The angel on the other shoulder whispered, What a fine Republican way to look at this. Congratulations! Why don’t kick him, while you’re at it, and scream, “Get a fucking job!”

The heart has its reasons. I stopped, pulled out my wallet, and handed him a twenty.

He thanked me, politely and sincerely, and then he said there aren’t many people like me around: most people would give him a quarter, or a small handful of change, or a dollar. He said it was hard to come up with sixty bucks, begging: an all-day, exhausting effort. When someone like me came along, it really, really helped.

I’ve been thinking about that interaction on and off all week.

UnknownEveryone cites the old metaphor about teaching a man to fish. If I knew how to fish, I could probably teach someone, and yes, that would be better than giving him a fish.

The problem is, I don’t know how to fish.

Yes, I know how to fish, that thing with the pole and the hook and the bait — at least well enough to get good and wet and come back to a cooler full of beer and brats without too much more injury than a sunburn and a rash of mosquito bites. I can even make up stories about how much I enjoyed every hot, itchy minute of it. But if I actually had to live on the fish I caught, I’d starve to death. So no, I don’t really even know how to fish.

But this metaphor isn’t about fishing, it’s about surviving in our modern US society. And I don’t really know how to do that, either.

The truth is, I’ve never had to struggle to survive. It’s partly this thing that racial minorities in the US call “white privilege.” It’s partly that I was raised in a stable middle-class family during that brief period in US history when stable, middle-class families were common, with enough to eat, enough to take an annual family vacation, enough for piano lessons, swimming lessons, and summer camps. It’s partly that I was fearsomely school-smart in that brief period of US history when public education was valued and funded and offered career paths. It’s partly that, pretty much by accident, I picked up some mad skills in software design and development, and then sleepwalked into that brief period of US history when those skills were not only in demand, but proved — unlike almost every other profession in the country other than larceny — to be relatively recession-proof.

Now, I have a killer resume, top-game skills, experience, strong personal references, and that white privilege isn’t going anywhere soon.

What if I had none of that? What if I’d never had it? What if it all became somehow worthless?

I don’t know this young man’s story. Abusive home? Meth problem? Mental illness? Police record? Running from bad people? A trust fund baby who spent it all on whores and whiskey and is now flat on his face in the gutter?

Or maybe just an ordinary guy who lost his job, his family, and his home.

What would I do in this young man’s shoes? I wouldn’t even know how to beg. I’d probably die of hypothermia before I starved. If flu didn’t kill me in the first year, depression would.

My so-called “survival skills” in the modern world are the lucky product of privilege and leisure, useful only in a profession that is the product of privilege and leisure, in a society that is the product of privilege and leisure.

I don’t know how to catch a fish — I buy my fish at the grocery store. I can’t teach someone else how to catch a fish if I don’t know how, myself.

What I can do is give someone who asks for help, twenty bucks to buy a fish.

A Working Man’s Lament

This last year at work has been difficult.

I’ve reached an age where new things come to me with … greater difficulty. I’m still doing just fine, but I can see the shape of the road in front of me.

I pretty much stopped playing the piano in college, in the 1970’s. We bought a piano in 1982, and I played it from time to time, but I didn’t really pick it up again until the 1990’s. I was horrifically rusty: my fingers were weak, and slow, and I had no fine control. I decided to see if I could bring any of it back, and I did, and actually surpassed my earlier skill by quite a bit.

It was very hard work. But I also noticed something — memorizing new music came harder, and didn’t stick as well. That was in my 40’s.

I started doing contract software work in 1996, where every job required that I learn new things. One of my first gigs required me to dig into the interrupt structure for both HP-UX and Windows NT, and write a hardware driver for a new PCI board that would be used in both HP-UX and Windows NT systems. I was pretty familiar with the Amiga OS internals — they were a freaking work of art, by the way — but I’d never even seen NT or Unix drivers before, so I had a vertical learning curve.

But I was good, and I knew it, so I just dug in and got the job done.

In 2005, I started doing bits of contracting work with SGI, and eventually joined SGI as an employee in the spring of 2012. By that point, I’d already rewritten a major piece of the software product I was working on to multi-thread the code for performance, and I understood it pretty thoroughly.

Last spring, I left SGI to work for Cray. I had to learn an entirely new business environment, at the same time I was learning the Python language (and style) and a completely new product development process that was new to Cray as well, on top of learning (or inventing) ways to do things that no one at Cray knew how to do. It was kind of fun, and kind of nightmarish at the same time, because we had an impossible schedule to meet. I again noticed that climbing the learning curve was harder than it had been in the past, just as it had been on the piano. There were days I felt like I was pushing on a wall.

Then, at the end of last year, Cray squashed the entire project I’d been working on, and transferred all of us to other projects. Now, I’m working in the Linux kernel, in C again rather than Python, and the learning curve has been brutal. I’m just starting to become productive, in my fifth month.

I’m still ahead of the normal curve: they tell me that this particular product takes something like six to twelve months for newcomers to become productive, and I’ve found footholds after only four. So I’m not contemplating an old-age home any time soon.

But it’s been difficult. I would even say, painful. I’ve had days I’ve had to quit at three, because I could no longer focus.

I’m not looking for sympathy. My career is just like this, and has always been like this. It pays well, and I’m used to it. When I can’t do it any more, I’ll have to quit. I’ve always known that.

What brought on this posting was something in a comment that Bernie Sanders made, while speaking in coal-mining communities in West Virginia:

“In my view, we have got to invest $41 billion rebuilding coal mining communities and making sure that Americans in McDowell County and all over this country receive the job training they need for the clean energy jobs of the future.”

Clinton is singing much the same tune. All these politicians make it sound so damned easy. Just throw some money at a retraining program and declare “Mission Accomplished!”

The principal difficulty that an old (human) dog has with learning new tricks is not wrestling with less flexible brain matter.

It’s the loss of dignity.

The US doesn’t do dignity to begin with. We call our next generation a bunch of spoiled brats. We call our elders useless burdens. Our poor are parasites, and our sick should just get with the program and die, already, and stop wasting so much of our precious, precious money.

People can’t, and won’t, live like that. Force people to live without dignity, and a fair number will pick up a gun, put it in someone’s face, and say, “Respect me!” Some will point the gun at their own heads and pull the trigger. Still others will slide into addictions, or just curl up into a hopeless depression and die by inches.

People seek dignity where they can. And a lot of us seek our dignity in our work — assuming we have work, and can convince ourselves and others that we are good at it. It’s one of the few places in the US we can find any dignity at all.

When you take away a coal miner’s job, and offer a “retraining program,” you do two things.

First, you declare that the old job is no longer worth doing. You also call into question whether it was ever worth doing. It’s the same problem that returning soldiers face, when people line up and scream “baby killer” at them. It calls into question the value of their service, and leaves them with not so much as a fig leaf of dignity.

Second — and worse — you invalidate all of their accumulated expertise and experience. These are miners who know things about mining that are never written down in any book. They are men who have accumulated this knowledge through pain and effort, and they are now de facto experts in their field. Smart young miners look up to them for that experience. They share a professional camaraderie and mutual respect among their peers. Their wives, girlfriends, children, and relatives, look up to them for their position, their dedication, their hard-won wisdom as miners. They have dignity.

Suddenly, with a twist of a pen, they’re back in school, not really even an apprentice to their new trade. They’re all the way back in junior high school shop class, learning to … well, what is it, exactly, that we’re going to retrain these miners to do? Stamp ashtrays out of sheet metal? Make cabinets? Put labels on cans? Oh, no, that’s right, we’ll keep them in “the energy sector,” like there’s any crossover whatsoever between coal mining and wiring up solar panels.

Their dignity is gone, taken from them. They need to work hard to become an apprentice again. And if they don’t make the cut, competing against all those young kids with flexible brains and a long career path in front of them, rather than behind them — well, they are just one more useless burden thrown on the stack of obsolete, old-folk deadwood, a burden that we’ll all be better off without when they finally … well, you know.

Speaking of that, will you be needing your government-subsidized shared apartment next month? We’ve got a new batch of oilfield workers coming in and we need some beds for them, and as you know, funds are really, really tight.

If you want to personally contemplate what this is like, Mr. Sanders, or Mrs. Clinton — and I’d recommend it as an exercise — consider the idea that the United States has just been abolished, and you, as lawmakers, can keep working if you accept retraining in the new form of government, which is an imperial bureaucracy. By the way, you’ll need to learn Mandarin. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention — your money isn’t any good any more, either. If you don’t want to work for your living, we’ve got some government-subsidized housing for you, and food stamps.

You’ll have to take a roommate, though, because we don’t have much space and, as you know, funds are really, really tight.

All Signs Fail

Unknown-1I’m a little irritated by all the media chowder-heads who are calling for either Bernie or Hillary to concede the race to the other.

If we’re going to do it that way, then let’s give up this ridiculous, expensive election process altogether and let the pundits and pollsters decide. Better still, let’s bring back the old practice of reading goat entrails, or rolling the Holy Dice — or my favorite, urticariaomancy, prognosticating the future based on patterns of hives and pimples.1

As the famous and well-loved Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.”

So just suck it up, media chowder-heads, and wait for the fat lady to sing. 2

It’s worth quoting another old adage my father used to repeat: “All signs fail in bad weather.”3

These pundits and polsters tout their mad predictive skills. X has correctly called every nomination in the last fifty years. Y has infallibly predicted the presidential winner for the last thirty years. Any candidate who gets Z, has never failed to win the election. Yada, yada.

Every one of these signs probably works just fine in fair weather. Except, of course, when it doesn’t, but we always ignore those cases, because hey, we predicted rain, and it turned out to be a nice day, so what’s your problem? But does anyone in their right mind want to call 2016 a normal, fair-weather election?

Is Hillary going to get the nomination? Then she has to earn it.

Is Bernie going to get the nomination? Then he has to earn it.

Right up to the bloody end, until the echoes from the fat lady’s last note die out.

Even if we wanted to call it early, these primaries are not a democratic process. They are a process by which a tiny minority of “political players” around the country choose a candidate to represent their Party, which is a private club that can set any rules it likes for membership and candidate selection.

There’s a Communist Party out there. There’s a Green Party. I’m sure there’s a Naked Druids Party. There’s probably a Ban Kitten Pictures On Facebook Party. Each Party makes its own rules for membership, and has its own rules for candidate selection. Each state has various rules for registering a Party to appear on the ballots, but the Parties themselves are self-ruled, and need not be democratic.

What distinguishes the Donkeys and the Elephants from all the other Parties is that they are enormously larger, well-established Parties with plenty of inter-state coordination throughout all fifty states. One of the ways they’ve garnered widespread support is by implementing certain “democratic” processes within their Party structure — that is, they make a big effort to look and feel like mainstays of democracy. They aren’t. They’re clubs, and they are not bound by democratic principles: they are bound by their Party rulebook.

When they meet at their Convention, they can change their rulebook. That is, in fact, how the highly undemocratic superdelegates were born, and it’s how superdelegates may go away this summer. However, whether the Convention changes these rules — or selects their candidates — using a democratic vote of conventioneers, or through single combat in a public arena, or by the Party chair’s decree after a thorough scrutiny of goat entrails, the matter is entirely up to the Party rulebook. Which can change.

In the end, Parties select their candidates to represent the Party in the general election, by whatever process they’ve decided upon. The different Parties’ candidates are then elected by — supposedly — popular vote: as ratified by the electoral college second-guessing the fraud-ridden results of a gerrymandered, racially- and economically-disenfranchised electorate, and possibly overridden by a partisan Supreme Court, but let’s just ignore all that for now. Separate issues.

Here’s the thing about US political Parties. None of the Parties other than the Donkeys and the Elephants plays to win the general election. It would take an even stranger year than this one to put a third party candidate in the White House. Third-party candidates know this (unless they’re crazy, which some of them are), and they play, not to win, but to make a statement.

But the Donkeys and the Elephants do play to win. In fact, nearly everything else about these two Parties is negotiable: winning is not negotiable. It’s the only thing they really care about.

So when the Convention gathers, its job is to pick winners.

Look at why the Donkeys have superdelegates. They say, “Remember McGovern.” They aren’t talking about a common criminal, like Richard Nixon, or an international war criminal, like George W. Bush. They are talking about a candidate who committed a truly heinous offense: he lost the election — badly. ::shudder:: They created superdelegates for the express purpose of preventing the idiot masses from ever nominating another loser.

Look at the Elephant Party this year. They’re going to nominate and support Donald Trump. If I understand this correctly — meaning, the Elephant Party rulebook — they don’t have to do this: under the circumstances, they could simply refuse to nominate anyone. Of course, that means they would concede this election cycle to the Donkeys, and that is the one thing they won’t do. Instead, they will put Elephant lipstick on the pig, print up lawn signs, and do everything in their power to put this nasty, narcissistic bully in the White House. If they succeed, they’ll have a big party with champagne, and then go home and hang themselves in despair.

The same rules apply to the Donkeys. They’re out to win. Period.

The Donkeys have a different dilemma than the Elephants this year. They have two very solid candidates. Despite the Internet bullshit flying around, both are experienced, smart, and (relatively) honest politicians. Despite the other Internet bullshit flying around, they are not interchangeable “liberals” — they have very different politics.

None of that matters.

The problem at the Convention is that they need to pick a winner. And that’s where it gets complicated.

The sad truth is that Hillary Clinton is not winsome to the US electorate.

This is one of the main things that Bernie’s campaign has brought out.

Last September, when Bernie threw his hat in the ring4, practically no one had even heard of the man. On the first Super Tuesday on March 1, Bernie was still an almost complete unknown, nationally.

By contrast, Hillary was well-known, nationally and internationally. She’d already schmoozed and won over the Donkey superdelegates, long before the primaries started. She had the full support of the Donkey Party machinery. Everyone knew she’d be the Donkey Party candidate in 2016.

In the last two months — two months — Bernie has gone from zero name recognition to being internationally recognized, and has almost tied for actual (non-super) delegates with Hillary. In nearly every state where Hillary has won the primary race, she has done so by a small handful of hard-won percentage points, in some cases (Arizona, New York) augmented by what appears to be outright voting fraud on the part of the Donkey Party. In a few states (Nevada, Missouri) her reported win was flipped to a loss after the state Party convention. Bernie has also eked out a couple of close wins, but in other states, he’s won by landslides. I’m sure that more than one March primary voter has reconsidered their vote for Hillary, now that they’ve heard of Bernie, but of course it is too late. I think it is fair to say that if Bernie had had today’s name recognition back in February, the Party would now be pressuring Hillary to concede.

She simply isn’t winsome.

Everyone has a theory about why this is true. It’s patriarchal misogyny. It’s Benghazi and Whitewater and e-mails. It’s her dishonesty. It’s her honesty. It’s her politics. It’s her screechy voice. It’s Bill and Monica. It’s her hair. Yada, yada.

Why Hillary isn’t winsome is a matter of opinion. But that she isn’t, is an unfortunate fact. The evidence is that a late-arrival, previously-unknown, grumpy old democratic socialist Jew from Brooklyn came within reach of beating her to an uncontested nomination, and is now forcing her into a contested nomination. If she were winsome, he wouldn’t be there — he would be down in the single-digits. Hillary would have finished mopping the floor with him back in March. Based on conventional punditry, she should have finished mopping the floor with him back in March.

She didn’t. She’s actually struggling to hold her lead. She isn’t winsome.

I don’t hold that against her as a personal flaw, given that the Elephant Pig is winsome to the US electorate. Somehow. God help us.

But it is a glaring candidate flaw.

This is the dilemma the Donkey Convention will face this summer. They need to pick a winner. And that is going to be a tough choice for them. Bernie is the stronger candidate with the public, and against the Elephant Pig. But they have a huge political investment in Hillary. Who will win?

All signs fail in bad weather.

I have no idea how they’re going to make this choice, nor what choice they will make. And shhh… don’t tell anyone, but the pundits don’t have a clue, either.

Until the conventioneers choose, we all have to wait for the fat lady to sing.

The End of Capitalism

Unknown-2In a previous post, I offered a simple and flexible definition of capitalism:

Capitalism is the idea that ownership, in and of itself, entitles the owner to the work of others, combined with the idea that ownership can be bought and sold.

I then noted that capitalism expects sustained exponential economic growth, which cannot be supported in nature. This unrealistic expectation is disguised by ignoring or denying the following principle:

Wealth is never created or destroyed. It is only moved and transformed.

Capitalism’s success over the last five centuries has been based, not on creating wealth, but on transforming natural wealth — usually irreversibly on any human time-scale — into human wealth.

Economists have long dismissed the entire natural economy, the source of all human wealth, as an unquantifiable “externality.” Economists don’t even think about what happens when our exponential appetites come up against the finite boundaries of the physical world.

So I’d like to talk for a moment about yeasts.

Yeasts are fascinating little beasts, with two distinct metabolisms; they can switch between these metabolisms depending on their environmental conditions.

The aerobic metabolism is used when the yeasts have plenty of oxygen in their environment. They eat sugars and oxygen, excrete CO2 and a small amount of complex organic chemicals, and produce more yeast cells.

The anaerobic metabolism is used when the yeasts become oxygen-starved, but still have food to eat and space to expand into. In this case, they continue to eat sugars, excrete CO2 and large amounts of ethanol as a waste product, and the yeasts stop reproducing.

Capitalism likewise has its aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms.

Aerobic capitalism occurs when capitalist enterprises have access to plenty of resources, and demand for the goods or services is strong. Growth potential in an aerobic business is exponential.

Anaerobic capitalism occurs when access to resources, or demand, or both, are restricted. Growth potential is now limited to sub-exponential growth, or no  growth at all.

Every successful business goes through aerobic and anaerobic stages.

My first job out of school was with the Gates Corporation R&D division.

Gates was founded in 1911, and the Gates Story is told as a typical Horatio Alger story. Charles Gates Sr. drifted into Denver, Colorado in 1911 with a mere $3500 in his pocket (actually, quite a lot of money in 1911, but let’s ignore that), bought the Colorado Tire and Leather Company, started selling a single, innovative product for the newfangled horseless carriage, and created a billion-dollar multi-national corporate behemoth within his lifetime.

By 1982, when I started working, Gates’ growth had slowed to 1% annually, and in Ronald Reagan’s Morning In America, this was deemed an unacceptably low return. Gates expanded its profits by purchasing other companies, notably the Uniroyal Power Transmission Company, and by closing the Denver manufacturing facility to reduce costs.

In 1996, Gates was purchased by the British firm, Tomkins, and in 2014 it was sold to The Blackstone Group, which (basically) buys companies and sells them off in pieces for salvage profit. There is still a “Gates” brand of product out there, manufactured somewhere by someone — a brand-name is one of the more profitable items of salvage from company — but the exponentially-growing company that Charles Gates Senior founded is gone.

This is a very normal progression for capitalist businesses.

Let’s look a this process in a little more detail.

When a new demand appears in the marketplace, lots of companies compete to satisfy that demand. These businesses are all aerobic, and they expand rapidly. If the demand is huge — say, for cars — and they run out of natural wealth — say, steel — then they create a voracious market for steel  that funds new technologies and legal excuses and even military excursions to transform more natural wealth into steel, faster, more cheaply, and (usually) more destructively. So long as the businesses all remain aerobic, there will be a lot of competition, technological innovation, and exponential economic growth.

Then the businesses saturate their market, meaning they’ve essentially satisfied all of the paying customers: I’ve already got a car, you talked me into buying two more, but dangit, I really don’t want a fourth one — I’ve got no place to park it. It’s also possible to reach a hard limit on natural resources, in which case the dynamics are a bit different, but that doesn’t happen much in the modern world. It is almost always the demand that tops out.

What happens next is called “the shake-out,” where smaller competitors are forced out of business. The larger companies — the ones that will eventually survive the shake-out — start to invest in targeted marketing, service plans, and economies of scale that allow them to lower production costs. They pass all of these benefits to their customers.

These strategies are not intended for the good of their customers — they are intended for the destruction of their competitors. More specifically, the big companies are trying to exponentially expand their slowing demand, and the only way to do that is to take out their competition, and eat their slice of the demand-pie.

The business has started to go into its anaerobic metabolism.

The shake-out eventually takes the entire industry down to a small handful of major companies that service all of the demand. Think the Big Three automakers in Detroit, Coke and Pepsi, Microsoft and Apple. Sometimes geography or government regulation will partition the markets, such as for airlines, allowing a larger absolute number of competitors to co-exist. But within any “free” segment of that market, you end up with an effective monopoly or duopoly. These can vie for “market share” with advertising, marketing gimmicks, or enhanced services, but they are essentially all fighting for a fixed pool of consumers, and any gain by one company is a loss for the others.

At this point, pretty much the only way for the dominant companies to expand further is to diversify, by buying other companies, which may or may not have anything to do with their core business. Most of the largest multi-national companies today are merely holding companies that take profit from all of their holdings, in a very pure exercise of capitalism: they have bought the ownership rights, so they are entitled to a cut of the profits. Whether they provide any real benefits to the businesses they suck profit from is at best arguable; but as I’ve pointed out before, capitalism has nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with ownership.

Here are a few stark contrasts between aerobic and anaerobic businesses.

Aerobic businesses create jobs. Anaerobic businesses eliminate jobs.

During the aerobic phase of a business, the quickest way to expand your business is to employ human labor. You can even offer travel expenses, signing bonuses, a company car, or free lodging and whiskey — the contribution of each person more than pays for such trivial expenses. You are always looking for more people.

Once the business becomes anaerobic, companies turn to cost-cutting, automation, outsourcing, offshoring, layoffs, and budget cutbacks to maintain growing profits.

It’s worth noting that people — employees — are considered financial liabilities for any business; it’s a universal accounting practice. Let this sink in: employees are liabilities. A company always improves its financial standing by reducing liabilities, such as by laying off workers.

The only way to change this — the only way to make employees into assets — would be to allow the company the right to buy and sell their employees as capital assets, just as they would buy and sell their office furniture. Last time I checked, this was called slavery.

Aerobic businesses grow by expanding to meet demand. Anaerobic businesses grow by cannibalizing other businesses.

A business that buys another business in a merger shows paper growth: it’s a simple matter of paying less for the acquired company than it is worth (on paper), resulting in immediate profits. You also get a new set of customers, a new stream of income, and a new source of ongoing profits. If those profits aren’t as high as you’d like, you can cut the least profitable portions of the new business, and sell those off for salvage, which is additional short-term profit. In the worst case, you sell off the entire acquisition for salvage and force all its old customers to use your product instead.

This is a great strategy for eliminating competition. Very large companies can even purchase another company at a loss, simply to capture their competitor’s customers and eliminate the cost of competing with them.

Most employees in a merger are kept for a short period of time, during which they are assured and reassured that their jobs are safe, after which they are let go. Mergers are job-killers. It’s just business.

Vulture capitalism and mergers became one of the main sources of “economic growth” in the 1980’s, but it was not actual economic growth at all: one company grew, another company disappeared. Stockholders profit, but the economy as a whole remains the same, or even shrinks a little because of the inevitable layoffs, which destroys demand across a wide range of businesses.

Aerobic businesses represent a tide that lifts all boats. Anaerobic businesses represent a wave that beaches all but the largest yachts.

Aerobic capitalism views a “rising tide” of capital growth as a bunch of tiny toy boats in a bathtub, where the “magic of wealth creation” is the spigot that keeps pouring more financial syrup into the tub. This syrup forms a growing heap right under the spigot, where the ownership class moors its boats, and provides a smaller but still-growing puddle even at the far end of the tub where the non-owners (the scum) live. Aerobic capitalism doesn’t expend much thought on where the money comes from: it presumes that the spigot is simply “creating wealth” through “the magic of the marketplace,” and will continue to do so forever.

In anaerobic capitalism, the spigot is shut off, and the “rising tide” is produced by pumping the financial syrup from one end of the tub to the other: it lifts some boats while forcing others to beach themselves on the bare porcelain. The art of being an anaerobic capitalist is being far enough from low end of the tub that you stay afloat, even as the pile of syrup grows higher and narrower, and the expanse of bare porcelain broader.


This last contrast — the “rising tide” contrast — is particularly important at this moment in history.

Capitalism goes into anaerobic behavior when faced with the need for growth, without adequate opportunity for growth. Successful capitalists switch from exploiting natural wealth, to exploiting human wealth. We see corporate acquisitions instead of business expansion, corporate reduction of head-count, benefits, and pay rather than increased production, increased use of debt to finance operations, and outright fraud. The overall result is that the fiction of economic progress through wealth creation becomes straightforward wealth concentration, leading to an increasingly stratified society based on growing extremes of wealth and poverty, based in turn on the principle of the rich stealing from everyone else.

This kind of runaway wealth-gap is not isolated to capitalism: it’s common in human societies, and it is typically a precursor to some kind of dramatic social readjustment. The immensely wealthy who live at the top of the pyramid are incapable of sustaining their wealth without the support of the rest of society; the rest of society cannot support itself, because it is trapped in maintaining and increasing the wealth of the few at the top. The poor eventually break under the burden of maintaining the wealthy, and then the whole system collapses.

What’s notable about this is that the wealthy almost always remain clueless right up to the end. As far as they are concerned, everything is working just fine: their portfolios are increasing right on schedule. The rising grumble they hear from the lower classes is dismissed as the work of rabble-rousers, general laziness, and moral decay among the poor: nothing that a few lashes, jail terms, hangings, or a bit of real hunger won’t cure, and right bloody quick. Why in my day, we worked thirty-hour days, and we liked it….

It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about Mitt Romney carping about the 47%, Marie Antoinette advising the poor to “eat cake,” or Nero enjoying music in his garden while the poor parts of Rome burned. It’s the same pattern.

Our global capitalist economy is following that pattern faithfully.


Of course, predicting exactly when and how capitalism will end is a fool’s game. Accurate data is mixed with lies and fraudulent accounting. More importantly, we have seven billion people trying to fix, break, and game the system, all at the same time. Even if we had perfect data, we could not predict the precise unfolding of events.

This is one of the reasons I try to stick to the overall process, such as the collision between exponential growth and a finite world. It’s obvious that capitalism will end. It’s not obvious when it will end, or exactly how. In fact, I could argue that capitalism has already died, and been revived, several times.

Karl Marx predicted the end of capitalism in the mid-1800’s, and any one of the banking collapses in the late 1890’s could have spelled the end of capitalism.

But capitalism didn’t die. Various financial fixes kept the system going, and led to the vast speculative financial bubble of the 1920’s, the “Roaring Twenties,” taken as evidence of the triumph of capitalism.

It was easy to see the final, bitter end of US capitalism in the bread-lines and homeless migrations of the early 1930’s — a little later than Marx thought it would happen, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was a suitably catastrophic ending, even by Marxist standards.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. The democratic socialism that followed the Great Depression of the 1930’s did not outlaw capitalism, as the Soviet model of Communism did — instead, the New Deal allowed a heavily-taxed, heavily-regulated form of capitalism to survive. The massive government spending on infrastructure through the CCC and WPA programs, heavy expenditures in science and technology, and (of course) continuing to expand the US military under Cold War justifications, combined with the complete disappearance of competition from war-ravaged Europe, allowed US capitalism to draw new breath on its deathbed. As a bonus, this government spending spree created an entirely unexpected new market: a vastly-expanded middle class, which created the consumer mass-market.

By the 1970’s, even regulated capitalism was in trouble again after having completely saturated the US consumer market, despite the invention of television advertising, suburban envy, and the throwaway society. It was easy to see the end of capitalism in the runaway inflation of the late 1970’s.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. Capitalists turned to creative accounting, corporate mergers, and debt to keep the system running. None of that actually helped the economy, any more than the financial tinkering had done in the late 1800’s. So it would have been easy to predict the demise of capitalism by the early 1990’s.

But capitalism didn’t die. The entirely unexpected computer boom brought a giddy decade of capitalist profits — Moore’s Law combined with a slightly elevated tax rate and Al Gore’s public funding of the national (public) Internet backbone, plus a lot of creative government accounting to hide the effects of inflation. That boom came to a sudden end in the tech bubble collapse of 2001. It would have been easy to write the epitaph for capitalism, right there.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. Aggressive deregulation, financial speculation, and massive fraud through the first decade of the 2000’s supplied a way to keep the corpse inhaling and exhaling a little longer.

We’re currently in a cycle of enriching the ultra-wealthy by sucking money out of the poor through a combination of underreported inflation, outsourcing labor, personal debt (particularly educational debt), and outright financial fraud — a cycle which bounced hard in 2008, but is still in progress after a direct government bailout that further impoverished the poor by spending tax money to pay off bankers’ gambling debts, which are again accumulating. It would be very easy to predict the demise of capitalism in a flaming Wall Street catastrophe before 2020.

But then, we have renewable energy development right around the corner, and the potential magic silver bullet of LENR, either of which could afford capitalism the burst of pure oxygen needed to extend its life yet again. Or, should Bernie Sanders successfully kick off his political revolution and his movement transform government over the next decade, we just might see a revitalization of the consumer mass market through a kind of New Deal redistribution of wealth.

So predicting the precise end of capitalism is, as I said, a fool’s game.

However, it’s worth noting that when capitalism died in the 1930’s, the natural world was in, at most, mild danger from human activity — something easily handled by creating a few national parks and wildlife refuges. When capitalism went back into the hospital in the late 1970’s, we had nuclear armageddon hanging over our heads, acid rain, DDT, and superfund cleanup sites. As we approach 2020, we have global CO2 buildup from human activity, sea level rise, widespread genetic tampering, and biodiversity depletion at a rate that’s being called the Sixth Great Extinction.

The natural economy we depend on — the fundamental economic externality that economists won’t even talk about, much less quantify — is growing increasingly fragile as capitalism continues to destructively convert natural wealth into human wealth. Capitalist enterprises on the whole are slipping into anaerobic behavior: almost all of the top companies on the Forbes lists are either in the financial sector, or are multinational holding companies. Given the degree and ubiquity of fraud already involved in keeping up the appearance of solvency, I suspect the true end of capitalism — with no subsequent zombie revivals — is pretty near.

In a future post, I will offer a few constructive thoughts on where we can go from here.