Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Disposable People

Disposable people are indispensable. Who else would fight the wars? Who would preach? Who would short derivatives? Who would go to court and argue both sides? Who would legislate? Who would sell red hots at the old ball game?

For too long disposable people have been misrepresented as destitute, homeless, unemployed, or at best precariously employed. True, the destitute, the homeless, the unemployed and the precarious are indeed treated as disposable but most disposable people pursue respectable professions, wear fashionable clothes, reside in nice houses, and keep up with the Jones.

Disposable people are defined by what they do not produce. They do not grow food. They do not build shelters. They do not make clothes. They also do not make the tractors used to grow food, the tools to build shelters or the equipment to make clothes.

Although disposable people do not produce necessities what they do is not unnecessary. It is simply that the services they provide are not spontaneously demanded as soon as one acquires a bit of additional income. One is unlikely, however, to engage the services or purchase the goods produced by disposable people unless one is in possession of disposable income. Disposable income is the basis of disposable people. Conversely, disposable people are the foundation of disposable income.

Sometimes, disposable people have been called “unproductive.” It sounds harsh but it is only meant in a technical sense. In the late 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s debate raged in academic Marxist circles about the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labour. The main issue had to do with the distinction between labour that produced surplus value for capital and labour that didn’t, whether or not the product or service was useful or necessary. One further refinement had to do with whether the labour produced reproductive surplus value in the form of wages goods (or services) or machinery. In this view, labour performed producing luxury goods would be unproductive, even though it appeared to produce surplus value for the employing capitalist. In fact, though, it only assisted in appropriating surplus value produced elsewhere.

I suspect these debates could have been illuminated by Marx’s Grundrisse or even more so by the 1821 pamphlet by Charles Wentworth Dilke, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. That pamphlet explicitly excluded the manufacture of luxury goods from the process of capital accumulation and clearly explained why. The production of luxury goods destroys reserved surplus labour rather than establishing the conditions for its accumulation and expansion. Jean-Baptiste Say would have agreed:

Misery is the inseparable companion of luxury. The man of wealth and ostentation squanders upon costly trinkets, sumptuous repasts, magnificent mansions, dogs, horses, and mistresses, a portion of value, which, vested in productive occupation, would enable a multitude of willing labourers, whom his extravagance now consigns to idleness and misery, to provide themselves with warm clothing, nourishing food, and household conveniences.

So much for supply creating it own demand. 

Dilke contended that if capital was allowed to actually accumulate, the rate of interest paid for its use would rapidly fall to zero because the accumulation of capital was very limited, “if the happiness of the whole, and not the luxuries of a few, is the proper subject for national congratulation.” When that limit was reached, the hours of labour could be drastically reduced, “where men heretofore laboured twelve hours they would now labour six, and this is national wealth, this is national prosperity.” “Wealth… is disposable time, and nothing more.”

Dilke’s disposable time may well have been an oblique rejoinder to Thomas Chalmers’s (1808) concept of disposable population. Chalmers was as upbeat about the expansion of disposable population as Dilke was wary about the increase of unproductive labour. Dilke was an ardent follower of William Godwin, as had been Chalmers until he was converted by Thomas Malthus’s polemic against Godwin on population. In the Grundrisse, Marx appears to have been enchanted by Dilke’s concept of disposable time.

Nearly a century after publication of The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, Stephen Leacock’s The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice was serialized in the New York Times. At its core was the same dilemma at the heart of Dilke’s pamphlet, with all the vast improvements of productive machinery, why weren’t ordinary people better off and why were the hours of work still so long?

If the ability to produce goods to meet human wants has multiplied so that each man accomplishes almost thirty or forty times what he did before, then the world at large ought to be about thirty or fifty times better off. But it is not. Or else, as the other possible alternative, the working hours of the world should have been cut down to about one in thirty of what they were before. But they are not. How, then, are we to explain this extraordinary discrepancy between human power and resulting human happiness?

Leacock imagined an observer looking down from the moon on a production process that stopped short of producing enough necessities, and then again stopped short of producing enough comforts to shift, “while still stopping short of a general satisfaction, to the making of luxuries and superfluities.” Leacock was a student of Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago and was clearly influenced by Veblen’s philosophy. A passage in Dilke’s pamphlet that imagines the “last paragraph” of a future historian uncannily anticipates Veblen’s concept of pecuniary emulation:

The increase of trade and commerce opened a boundless extent to luxury:—the splendour of luxurious enjoyment in a few excited a worthless, and debasing, and selfish emulation in all:—The attainment of wealth became the ultimate purpose of life:— the selfishness of nature was pampered up by trickery and art:—pride and ambition were made subservient to this vicious purpose…

Inspired by Leacock’s Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Arthur Dahlberg’s Jobs, Machines and Capitalism was described by Louis Rich in the New York Times as “one of the most valuable, both theoretically and practically, since the writings of Veblen.” Dahlberg’s argument influenced Senator Hugo Black’s legislation for a thirty-hour work week. 

Tech Companies: Be your own town and government

I saw this bit of news on Steven Colbert’s show last night. Seems Nevada’s Democratic Governor thinks tech companies need to be their own town. The thinking is that this is a way to attract business development without spending money. What could go wrong?

From the AP news:

“Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a plan to launch so-called Innovation Zones in Nevada to jumpstart the state’s economy by attracting technology firms, Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Wednesday.

The zones would permit companies with large areas of land to form governments carrying the same authority as counties, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and courts and provide government services.”

I am surprised that a Democratic governor would think this is a good way to attract commercial development. Is he not familiar with history and the mill housing? The company stores? The lyrics of “Sixteen Tons”?

How much further are we going to push the idea that corporations are people as referred to in our Constitution. This appears to be the Republican “emergency manager” without the emergency. The layers of legalities is stunning. We would have a democracy national government on top of a democracy state government on top of a non-democracy corporation on top of a sort of democracy town government? Which state’s laws would oversee the corporation?

What is wrong with these people?

Here’s Steven.

The Dakotas already appear to be shambling towards herd immunity

Coronavirus dashboard for March 3: as good news on vaccinations accumulates, the Dakotas already appear to be shambling towards herd immunity

There is more and more good news on the vaccination front. In addition to the fact that the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine has been approved, President Biden has made use of the Defense Production Act to enlist competitor Merck in additional production of the J&J vaccine. Biden also announced that there would be enough vaccine produced to supply doses for every American adult by the end of May.


Further, the pace of vaccination has picked up to new highs since the setbacks due to recent weather, with the 7 day average just short of 2 million per pay at 1.946 million as of yesterday:


And just shy of 80 million doses have been administered – 78.6 million as of yesterday:

GOP Voting Rights Act Position Falls Apart

Tuesday brief update on Arizona and GOP oral arguments in SCOTUS.

Hardcore GOP Position For Defanging VRA Falls Apart Under SCOTUS Questioning,” Tierney Sneed, TPM

The Arizona case before the Supreme Court involves two restrictive voting practices in the state which invalidates a vote:

– Arizona’s 2016 ban on most third-party mail-ballot collection, and

– its longstanding policy of discarding a voter’s entire ballot if she casts it at the wrong precinct.

Many states have a similar rule, while in other places, an out-of-precinct voter’s ballot counts for non-local races.

Beyond the question of whether those specific policies — which the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down — should be reinstated, the bigger potential consequence of the case is whether the Supreme Court uses it as a vehicle to further narrow the scope of the Voting Rights Act.

Texas freeze; oil refining and distillate exports drop most since Harvey . . .

Commenter R.J.S.: Record drops in US oil output, US oil exports, distillates’ output on Texas freeze as US burns 15% of natural gas inventories in one week . .

US oil data from the US Energy Information Administration for the week ending February 19th indicated that because the big drops in our oil exports and our oil refining associated with last week’s freeze off were greater than the big drops in our oil production and oil imports. We had a small surplus of oil left to add to our stored commercial crude supplies for the third time in the past fourteen weeks and for the 13th time in the past thirty-seven weeks. Our imports of crude oil fell by an average of 1,299,000 barrels per day to an average of 4,599,000 barrels per day, the largest drop in 32 weeks, after rising by an average of 41,000 barrels per day during the prior week. Our exports of crude oil fell by a record average of 1,548,000 barrels per day to 2,314,000 barrels per day during the week, which meant that our effective trade in oil worked out to a net import average of 2,285,000 barrels of per day during the week ending February 19th. Occurring were 249,000 more barrels per day than the net of our imports minus our exports during the prior week. Over the same period,  the production of crude oil from US wells decreased by a record 1,100,000 barrels per day to 9,700,000 barrels per day, and hence our daily supply of oil from the net of our trade in oil and from well production appears to total an average of 11,985,000 barrels per day during this reporting week… 

Manufacturing and housing – turn even hotter

Two leading sectors of the economy – manufacturing, and housing – turn even hotter

Last month I wrote that both the manufacturing and housing sectors were “on fire.” If anything, this month they turned white hot, with both construction spending and ISM manufacturing data at levels not seen in years.


The overall ISM manufacturing reading rose from 58.7 to 60.8, tying the highest reading since the Great Recession, and indeed since 2004. The even more leading new orders subindex also rose from 61.1 to 64.8, not quite as high as readings earlier in autumn 2020:

Good decision, big institutional problem on minimum wage work-around

From WAPO:

Senior Democrats are abandoning a backup plan to increase the minimum wage through a corporate tax penalty, after encountering numerous practical and political challenges in drafting their proposal over the weekend, according to two people familiar with the internal deliberations. . . .

Economists and tax experts have said that the tax outlined by Sanders and Wyden could be easily avoided and difficult to implement, with large corporations able to reclassify workers as contractors to avoid potential penalties. “I would be extremely nervous about trying out a brand new idea like this with virtually no vetting,” Jason Furman, a former Obama administration economist, said on Twitter on Friday.

The good news here is that the Democrats care enough about policy – or perhaps political blowback – that they decided this idea wasn’t ready for prime time.

But there is another story here that is less visible but more important. The institutional capacity of Congress is so limited that Democrats didn’t have a well-vetted tax proposal waiting in the wings when, predictably, Senate Parliamentarian ruled that a straight-up minimum wage increase could not be passed in reconciliation.

How is a Congress that lacks the institutional capacity to vet a relatively simple tax proposal like this supposed to tackle an issue like climate change? My sense is that the Democrats know this is a big problem, but increasing spending on Congressional staff is a political liability, so . . .

From My Wandering Internet Reads

Just something a little bit different today that I found while reading techie stuff. The hurting of a person as described by one care giver.

There is nowhere Black people can go to not be inside a carceral gaze or at risk of experiencing police brutality. …And we, in healthcare, have to [start] building that sanctuary for folks as their human right.— Rhea Boyd1

A Perspective; “Without Sanctuary,” S. Michelle Ogunwole, M.D, New England Journal of Medicine

On an otherwise routine day in 2014, I walked into my hospital as a new internal medicine resident to find a patient I would never forget.

Ms. A. was the first patient with sickle cell anemia I’d treated. She was 28 like me, tall like me, Black like me. But there was one notable difference between us: she was admitted for a vaso-occlusive crisis and needed care, and I was the doctor assigned to care for her.

In the mornings when I prerounded, our conversations often drifted from pain management to ordinary things, like the misery of being trapped under the hair dryer at a Black salon, or our shared love of the chopped and screwed hip hop that originated in our home state of Texas. It struck me then that in another world, Ms. A. and I could have been friends.

But in this world, I was a doctor tasked with helping her navigate her health crisis. And in that pursuit, I fell short. Even in her hospital room, where Ms. A. came to find healing and relief, she could not escape White supremacy, police violence, or White indifference. Like many Black people in the United States, she had no sanctuary.2