Category Archives: Books

Wealth of Nations Synopsis

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Adam Smith’s landmark book, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a 500-plus page treatise on economics, oft cited bur rarely read, except by economists and masochists like me.  If you can overlook Smith’s sing-song style, his tediousness, repetition, generalizations, vague and archaic terminology, and inconsistent reasoning, the book is worth reading, especially as a social history.  It is important to recognize that Smith writes as a spokesman for the monarchy and the wealthy stock holders, landowners, and mercantilists who made the book an immediate hit and won him a position as Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His “commercial society” has enshrined him as the “first modern economist,” or “father of modern capitalism.”

A confluence of factors contributed to the conditions of Smith’s time.  The “industrial revolution” began in Britain with the invention of the steam engine in 1712, first used for pumping water out of coal mines.  Other inventions quickly followed, eventually leading to the growth and dominance of the British Empire, through manufacture, trade, and colonization. Another feature of 1700’s Britain involved war and military conquest.  As an island nation, with England, Scotland, and Wales united as the United Kingdom, or “Great Britain,” in 1707, it developed its sea power and had established dominance in the seas and in trading routes by the time Smith wrote Wealth of Nations.  Competition with other powers brought war and its heavy costs.

Wealth of Nations refers repeatedly to the “late war,” which presumably was the Seven Years’ War, fought between 1756 and 1763.  One of the book’s primary aims appears to be exploring the various modes of taxation the king could use to pay debts from that war.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution was bringing a rapid shift in social and cultural dynamics, as Great Britain went from predominantly agrarian, rural society to one of urban and industrial predominance.  The textile industry was probably the first to be affected in a major way, with the invention of the spinning jenny–“jenny” is a nickname for “engine”–by Englishman James Hargreaves in 1764.

The iron industry also underwent fast transformation, and with it, the transportation industry.  Communication and banking adapted accordingly.

Because industrialization necessitated large capital investments, business ownership shifted from individuals to groups, including partnerships and corporations.  The banking industry grew by leaps and bounds after the Bank of England was first chartered in 1694.  The London Stock Exchange boomed after the Seven Years’ War.  The government became increasingly dependent on it to finance wars.

Like many of his contemporaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, he was fascinated by machinery and its commercial potential.

In the first pages of Wealth, Smith presents the plan for the book, summarizing that the real wealth of a nation comes down to the “annual produce of the land and labor of the society.”

He then distinguishes between towns and agriculture and glorifies machines for facilitating division of labor, thus efficiency and productivity.  He uses pin-making as an example, with speed of production due to division of labor the only criterion.

Smith claims farmers are lazy, because as one-man operations, they waste time changing tasks, whereas a group of men in a “workhouse,” each doing one small task repeatedly, are able to produce much more in the same time period.

He says “Cochin-china” is one of several Asian countries that have sea access as well as extensive canals inland, but most of their trade is internal.  He wonders why they have not sought to trade outside their own countries.

Wealth emphasizes the enduring value of labor, despite the fluctuations in metal money.  The discovery of gold and silver in the Americas caused a glut in Europe that reduced the value to a third of what it was before.  A man can only do so much labor, but that labor holds its value through all the ups and downs of markets.

Wealth gives a multiplicity of examples of how labor costs rise and fall in relation to cities versus rural, or demand—such as North America, where labor was in great demand and food relatively inexpensive—and how much a laborer must be paid to sustain himself and children to replace him.  Since 50% of children die before reaching adulthood, says Smith, we need to calculate the cost of feeding four children in every family.  Smith acknowledges that all the laws favor the employers, should the laborers strike for higher wages.

While he presses the point that nothing happens without labor, Smith is happy to squeeze the laborer into a bare subsistence wage, better to keep him working hard to make ends meet.

He cites numerous examples of relationships between labor and stocks. New land, like the colonies, attracted lots of stock capital because it was cheap, full of natural resources, and soil was rich.

Early on “corporations” restricted competition, with the king’s (or queen’s) support.  Smith says 5th of Elizabeth formalized the “Statute of Apprenticeship” that restricted practice of craft or trade to those who had apprenticed seven years.  Church wardens, mandated by the king to provide for the poor in their parishes, did everything possible to keep the poor from moving in.

Corn was the major food crop in Europe.  Smith says tobacco grows well enough in parts of Europe, but it is illegal because it’s too hard to tax individual farmers, so tobacco is imported from (primarily) Virginia and Maryland, warehoused, and resold at profit.  Sugar is in great demand, and is very expensive, imported from Caribbean colonies.  In “Cochin-china” sugar is no more expensive than ordinary food crops and is cultivated alongside them and apparently not exported much.

Labor and landlords benefit from policies that also serve the public.  Stockholders, however, are loud, moneyed, and invested in reducing competition, so they generally work against the public good.

Smith explains how money is not the same as circulating capital.  It is the “wheel” of the economic engine but has no intrinsic value.  A coin is not used up when it is exchanged for goods or services, so the same coin, each time it changes hands, buys its face value for the purchaser, who gets his coin’s “worth” in product.

He also writes about the banks, primarily of Scotland, that used paper money promissory notes in excess of gold deposits for lending.  80% paper to 20% backup.  Merchants could also get lines of credit, so were encouraged to accept that bank’s paper in trade, to promote it to friends and associates, and to spend it.  However, paper was no good in foreign countries, so gold was exported to import foreign products.

“No equal capital puts into motion a greater quantity of productive labor than that of the farmer,” says Smith.  Also, farms stay put, like retail shops, and can’t be outsourced.

He discusses how the American trade is financed by merchants in Great Britain.  He uses the example of hogsheads of tobacco from Virginia and Maryland as commodity money that is bought in excess by England and resold in other places.

But the “great commerce of every civilized society” is between country and town.  In fact, the home trade, by far the most important, was considered subsidiary to foreign trade, based on Man’s book, England’s Treasure in Foreign Trade.  Smith says the mercantile system works in many ways against the enrichment of the country.  It selectively encourages exportation and discourages importation.

He says it is a mistake to politically favor exports over imports.  Restraints on imports consist of high duties and absolute prohibitions.  Exports were encouraged by “drawbacks” (tax relief), “bounties (subsidies), advantageous treaties, and the establishment of colonies.  Smith is down on bounties.  He specifically mentions corn, because it, to him, is the commodity by which the price of everything else is measured.

He claims restraints on importation and prohibitions may be good for the home manufacturers but not for the population or the economy as a whole.  The famous “invisible hand” comes up on page 300, in which Smith mentions the folly of “statesmen” who try to control private enterprise.  He says the market will determine what is needed without government help.

Merchants and manufacturers derive the most benefit from monopolies, says he, whereas farmers and populace derive little and undoubtedly lose by them.  Corn merchants benefit more from subsidies than corn farmers.

The notion of “balance of trade” is “absurd,” and he enumerates reasons.  Smith also states that it is silly for nations to try to improve their wealth at the expense of other nations.  This leads to hostilities rather than friendly exchanges.

Smith asserts again that all wealth comes from the land, with farmers the most productive workers and everyone else subsidiary.  Those who bring raw materials to more useable form, like wool manufacturers, do not add as much value as the farmer does by cultivating the land.

Smith cites the duties of the sovereign.  He claims the sovereign does not have the duty or right to regulate commerce.  At the same time, he says the king’s first duty is to protect the country from other governments.

He makes the case for a standing army and says this is the only way the sovereign can maintain peace and order.  Now “civilized” societies can conquer “barbarous” societies, which don’t have the advantage of gun power.  He believes, therefore, that gun power equals civilization.

Smith mentions highways, bridges, navigable canals, coinage, and the post office as public institutions that facilitate commerce.  Post offices everywhere, he says, are valuable revenue sources for the government, with steady and immediate cash flow and low maintenance costs.

Obviously, a glaring inconsistency in Smith’s premise is between his views on free trade and his belief in the importance of a standing army.  Here we have our pseudo proponent of free trade justifying forts and garrisons in foreign countries to protect merchants’ stores.  Where these countries do not allow forts, it has been necessary to send ambassadors.  Smith believes most ambassadorships were created to protect trade.

He goes into “regulated companies,” which are open to anyone with the money, willing to submit to the rules, and trading his own stock at his own risk.  These are opposed to “joint stock” companies, which sound like publically traded companies today.  Pooled resources and pooled profits.  He says only four types of joint stock companies seem valid.  He cites:  1. The banking industry; 2. Fire and sea-risk insurance companies; 3. Canal or navigable channel companies; and 4. Those bringing water by pipe or otherwise to a great city.  He notes the Bank of England doesn’t have exclusive privilege, except that no other bank in England can employ more than six people, and the Bank of England lends to the sovereign.

The last hundred pages of the book are devoted to taxes and other potential sources of revenue for the commonwealth or sovereign.

He floats the concept of a central bank, calling it a “public bank to support public credit, and upon particular emergencies to advance to government the whole produce of a tax, to the amount, perhaps, of several millions, a year or two before it comes in.”

Smith asserts the king should be wealthier than anyone, with grand style and pomp to support his “dignity.”

He distinguishes between direct and indirect taxes, saying the former, as on land, are easily assessed.  Tax on interest or money is difficult to calculate without extraordinary “inquisition” into every man’s private circumstances and “would be a source of such continual and endless vexation as no people could support.”

“There is no art which one government sooner learns of another, than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.”

Wages on the “inferior classes of workmen” are regulated by demand for labor and the price of provisions.  As taxes on labor go up, wages must go up more, to cover the additional tax.  Manufacturers can pass these costs on to the consumer, but farmers’ landlords must absorb them.  This leads to a decrease in the demand for labor.  “Absurd and destructive as such taxes are, however, they take place in many countries.”

Smith goes into government jobs, which are much sought after, because they are highly paid and carry perquisites (perks).  Taxes on luxuries do not raise the price of other commodities, but those on necessities do, so should not be taxed. He mentions alcohol taxes as by far the most productive.

Excise taxes are generally on home goods destined for home markets and imposed on only certain items of the most general use. Excise laws discourage smuggling more effectively than customs laws.

He acknowledges that poor people, because there are more of them, consume the most, not only in quantity, but in value.

He mentions that war has required even the most frugal republics to contract great debts to maintain independence.  He says it is incorrect to assume money lent to government increases capital, because it is generally wasted, and that money would otherwise be spent on productive labor.  Also, foreigners often buy in.

“When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.”

Wealth ends rather abruptly on the subject of public debt, saying that when it exceeds taxpayers’ ability to pay with reasonable measures, government uses unreasonable measures, such as issuing interest-free bonds for immediate expenses, or interest-only bonds that are never intended to be repaid.  He says this has “enfeebled” multiple governments.

When governments reach the point where they can’t pay the debt, they either inflate the currency or declare bankruptcy.  He says the latter is more honest, but says the entire system of debt-backed government is “pernicious.”

My take is the tradition of monarchs and overlords has led to societies in which unearned wealth is glorified and held in high esteem.  The most highly respected and emulated are those who have done the least to acquire what they have, in general terms. The very idea, The Wealth of Nations, presumes the nations own the individuals who live within their borders.

 

 

 

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Like a Sphere in Flatland

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A man in my e-mail group asked to be excluded from my responses.  He said I was “negative” and “liberal.”  I had merely mentioned I don’t believe in war, that it is barbaric, institutionalized murder.  I said I don’t believe in standing armies, either.

It really hurt my feelings that he called me “liberal.”  Liberals don’t like me, either.  In fact, on the political continuum from the various “ism’s” at the extremes and including “liberal” and “conservative,” I don’t fit anywhere.  I feel like a sphere in Flatland.

For those who haven’t read this charming classic satire, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott (1884), it is well worth reading, and only 160 pages.   In it, narrator A. Square describes a planar world in which the social hierarchy is determined by how many angles you have.  When Lord Sphere makes himself known to A. Square, he is incredulous until taken on a visit to “Spaceland.”  His attempts to convince his fellow Flatlanders of the existence of a third dimension only gets him in trouble, and he ends up in jail for his lunacy.

Another image, maybe more appropriate to the linear liberal-conservative standard and its limitations, is of trying to assess the validity of a book by the scientific method.  The scientific method is the holy grail of modern scientific dogma, but it is limited by its linear approach. Scientists believe this makes it superior to other methods of assessing truth.

The scientific method presumes cause and effect, yes-and-no, good and bad, right and wrong.  It sneers at extraneous information, abstractions, symbols, and patterns. Logic is linear:  words must come out in sequential fashion.  Those who relate this to the left brain–the seat of verbal thinking and expression in most people–claim superiority of this hemisphere because of its lock-step method of reasoning.  The right brain is associated with symbols, patterns, dreams, and appreciation for art and music.

However, the brain is wired such that incoming sensory information travels through the thalamus, the pain center, then through the limbic system, the emotional center, before it reaches left or right brain.  In other words, every thought is colored by physical and emotional input before it becomes conscious.  Even the most logical and rational analysis is founded on emotional bias.

The scientific, linear mode presumes to be objective, insofar as is humanly possible, yet the choice of study subject is based on emotional factors.  The idea that artificial intelligence, with its binary code, can eventually surpass the human brain’s abilities discounts the spontaneous creativity of the right brain and its symbolic language of patterns and associations.

The recent preoccupation with what’s called “fake news” shows how easy it is to confuse the “rational” mind.  Misinformation, propaganda, distortions, opinion, gossip, libel, and slander have always been around.  Assumptions presumed to be factual have fallen apart over and over in light of new evidence.  The earth used to be flat, remember, and the sun revolved around it.  Now there’s a widespread concern that people don’t know whom or what to trust, with “trust” seemingly synonymous with blind faith in the source.

What is truth, after all, and does it matter?  If this trend leads to a greater tendency to question authority or formerly trusted sources, or to more critical thinking, it might result in the revolution in consciousness that some people imagine.  We will not achieve it through the scientific method, which requires an artificial situation that attempts to reduce variables to one.  In life there is always infinitely more than one variable to consider.  Thus, trying to place anyone on a linear political scale reduces her dimensionality to a pitiful caricature, but we see it all the time:  the blacks, the women, the illegals, the racists, the poor, the 0.1 percent, and on and on.  The so-called advocates, whether members of the identified group or not, posture themselves as knowing the condition, needs, and wants of the group.

Labeling of groups dehumanizes them, clumps them into an agglutinated mass of undifferentiated genetic material that serves only to concentrate emotion into an identifiable target for support or attack.  Advocates tend to use that emotionally laden grouping to promote their agendas, which may be personal or may be backed by yet other groups.

I can only know my own truth, and even that changes moment to moment or as soon as I turn my head.  Truth is a slippery little rascal.  Like a sphere in Flatland, or a book whose value defies the scientific method, I can see from above or below the plane, or even with the plane, but at least I know the difference between a line and a circle.  The scientific method might judge based on emotionally based standards of comparison, but patterns make no judgments and have no beginnings or ends, no cause-and-effect, and reveal no ultimate truth.

My dislike for war, and for fighting, compels me to avoid arguing, recognizing as I do that my choice is emotional, as is my detractor’s.  Energy goes out of me when I’m drawn into conflictual situations.  I believe this happens with others, too, but I could be wrong.  The relentless focus on competition and struggle, on differences cemented by stifling labels, only feeds the problems, generating parallel, linear, universes with no spherical perspective.

Who Owns the Land?

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I’m so glad authors like Fred Pearce are paying attention.  I’d never heard of Pearce until his book, The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, jumped from the library shelf into my hands.  Published in 2014, the book reads like a world-wide travelogue, except the sights are disheartening.  Until the end, it made me wonder if every plot of arable soil on the planet has been razed, plowed under, polluted, and subjected to rampant, monolithic, mechanized agriculture for export.

The Land Grabbers premise is that “soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab.”  The super-rich, would-be rich, and governments are scouring the world looking for productive investments; and land—especially arable land—reigns supreme.

In chapter after chapter, the reader learns of how formerly communal land has been privatized, with drastic changes in ecosystems and eviction or undermining of subsistence-level, indigenous people.  In the first chapter, we learn about government “villagization” in Ethiopia, the collecting of dispersed populations like the farmer/fisher Anuaks and the livestock herding Nuer into state-designated villages, ostensibly to provide better services, like schools, hospitals, and water wells. But locals claim the government is stealing their traditional lands to turn over to foreign agribusiness.

The second chapter takes the reader to the Chicago Board of Trade, the home of commodity trading.  We learn commodity speculation in 2008 may have contributed to the sharp spike in worldwide food prices that year.  The food price bubble was first noticed in early 2007 in Mexico, where the cost of tortillas quadrupled in two months.  Subsequent months brought food riots across North and West Africa.  In Egypt, the world’s largest food importer, bread prices tripled.

Pearce says grain shortages could not be blamed, since grain production was up five percent that year.  However, at least one-third of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock.  Also, 2007 saw a boom in the biofuels industry, and was the year the ethanol mandate was passed in the United States.  The US earmarked half of its corn for ethanol, diverting surpluses from export markets.

In Saudi Arabia, fear of dependency on food imports prompted billionaires to pump water from a mile beneath the desert to irrigate wheat and grazing grasses for dairy cattle.  Within a few years it had depleted four-fifths of its underground water reservoir–formerly the size of Lake Erie–and realized this tactic was unsustainable.  It turned to acquiring large tracts of land in foreign countries, especially impoverished Muslim countries in Asia and Africa.  Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries are also acquiring foreign farmland or concessions to produce food for their people.

The book repeats the story of dispossession in South Sudan and Kenya. In South Sudan the new government has promised vast tracts to Arab interests, with land rights signed over by questionable spokesmen for the people, without surveys or other demarcations showing where the properties begin and end.  Tradition has it that whole communities must participate in communal land decisions, but purchasers find ways around this.  In several cases, the land has been leased out with great promises of agricultural development, but nothing has been done on the ground.

There’s the story of the American Christian evangelist who made his money running private prisons in the US.  He has leased 17,050 acres in the Yala swamp in Kenya.  It drains into Lake Victoria.  Calvin Burgess claims he has permission to drain the swamp, clear the papyrus and cultivate, primarily, rice for export.  He sees his huge agribusiness as a means to bring Christianity to the poor, as well as drag them out of poverty.  His farm is named “Dominion.”

Locals tell a different story.  Before Burgess, everyone had cattle and used the swamp, taking papyrus as needed to make mats, baskets, roof thatch, and other useful items.  Now, because Burgess has raised a weir several feet, the swamp overflows and floods regularly, destroying locals’ crops and bringing crocodiles and hippos to their front doors.

Pearce describes the general political scenes in several African counties, including Liberia.  Liberia had recently emerged from a 14-year civil war.  I read about the Firestone rubber “fiefdom” in Liberia since 1926.   “International law” favors the investors; and investor claims supersede individuals, communities, and countries.  I have to wonder who is the arbitrator of “international law.”  UN “peace keepers” dominate in Liberia.

Pearce writes a lot about the palm oil industry, which has grown exponentially over the years.  It started back in the early 1900s, with the tyrannical King of Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but later came under the control of the Lever Brothers, and then Unilever.

Also in Africa, the grabbers have claimed large concessions to create hunting reserves, “eco-tourism,” including safaris, and conservation areas that have squeezed indigenous Massai tribes and run them off traditional lands.  This in Tanzania, primarily, but also in Kenya.  I guess they have had domestic cattle for centuries, in concert with wildlife, yet moderns believe the two are incompatible and want to remove the people and their cattle from their traditional lands.

We learn about the Inner Niger Delta, in Mali, which is being dried out by irrigation rights upstream.  Here four foreign concessions have been given enormous prior claims on Niger water, complete with canals.  Two are for sugar cane—British and Chinese—which is a huge water hog; one is a US concession for rice; and the fourth, possibly the largest, is for food for Libya.

In the Ukraine, the story is similar to the others.  Individuals form companies, get investors, buy or lease large tracts of land with grand plans to grow this or that.  In the Ukraine or Russia, a number of formerly collective farms have been abandoned.  There are many household farms, but the people don’t have the money to grow for more than their own needs.

The cerrado in Brazil, and the chaco in Paraguay both hosted indigenous tribes.  Now the tribes have been squeezed, killed, compromised, or absorbed, and the foreign investor mono-agriculturalists are encroaching ever closer, destroying biodiversity, rendering many species extinct, obliterating and polluting habitat.

The conservationists are either weak, compromised, or circumvented.  In South America, the main industries are cattle ranching, sugar for ethanol, and soy, but also other grains like corn and wheat.  Rubber.

In Sumatra and Papua, New Guinea thousands of acres of rain forest and peat bogs have been destroyed, for two Chinese-owned paper mills.  Once again, locals who depended on the forest for rattan and rubber, as well as fishing and shrimping have been displaced, in some cases violently, and their water polluted.  Their government has favored foreign investors over them, despite presumed legal protections. The IMF was happy to advise the Sumatra government to give away even more forestry concessions to bail out the Chinese paper mills when there was a recession in Asia.

Overall, the book gives an impression of the sheer size of the earth, and its many and varied lands.  But the land grabber strategy seems similar the world over.  The international concerns are deeply intermingled, with lots of names, re-names, countries, and corporations, hedge funds, pension funds, and university endowments involved.  Tax havens.  Companies awash in subsidiaries, controlled by individuals and families, with holdings in multiple countries, and assisted by weak or corrupt governments, rape the land, displace subsistence locals–who generally have depended on communal sharing of resources, like forests and rivers–turn them against each other and the police/government against them.  They bring in bulldozers and chain saws to replace rotation farming and biodiversity with mono-agriculture for export.

It’s enough to make me a Communist, if it would mean a return to communal land holdings.  Reading The Land Grabbers reveals the de facto pervasiveness of communism, in the shared, or communal land sense.   It is the undercurrent that modern property-owning society is built on.   That land grabs are happening all over the world to so many indigenous and until now isolated people shows how the perpetrators have depended on the isolation to pull the same stunt over and over.

I liked the way The Land Grabbers ended.  Pearce claims most of the world’s food is still produced by smallholderrs.  Most land is still held and used in common.  In Africa a half-billion smallholders produce 90 percent of the food.  Pearce writes that in India large dairy cooperatives have propelled the country from 78th to first in the world in milk production.  The coop provides for daily milk pickups from the members.

Bottom line is all is not lost.  Pearce says that despite myth, smallholders take better care of their ecosystems than large mechanized industry.  They farm every corner of their small spaces, use crop rotation, animal manure for fertilizer, expand and contract grazing and growing spaces depending on need.  They grow diverse crops and have animals, like cows, goats, and chickens.  The idea of “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t hold.  Without written rules, communal holders manage to work out among themselves fair balances so that land does not become over-grazed or reduced to desert.

After reading The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, I believe more strongly than ever that no one owns the earth.  The earth owns us.

 

 

Who are the Savages?

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This isn’t a book review about Savages, by Joe Kane, published in 1995.  This is an attempt at a synopsis, although such a meaty and universally relevant book is hard to encapsulate.

On the surface, it is a travelogue, depicting the author’s extended visit to the Amazon rain forest, where ancient meets modern in dramatic but understated violence.  In 1991, Kane, a journalist originally working for an environmental group in San Francisco, came across a plea for help from members of the “savage” Huaorani, indigenous clans of Ecuador, primitive jungle dwellers who live off the land and are known as fierce warriors who have never been conquered.

The mysterious letter claimed DuPont-owned Conoco was trying to destroy their land and way of life.  At issue was the massive development of oil fields in the Amazonian jungles by many oil companies, but especially by Conoco.  Maxus Energy Corporation, which was slated to develop “Maxus Block 16” on traditional Huaorani land, also becomes a major player in this book’s drama.

Author Kane wanted to discover for himself what the Huaorani were like and how they lived.  He writes about befriending tribal leaders/members, and hiring one of them, Enqueri, as a guide to Maxus Block 16, deep in tribal lands but slated for oil drilling and exploration, if the Huarani could be appeased. The story delves into the author’s encounters with other locals, the military, the oil company representatives, government officials, missionaries, environmentalists, and the land itself.

Savages becomes a personal story about the Huaorani, especially members Moi, Enqueri, Nanto, and others who are fighting for their land and traditional ways, but they are forced by inevitable change to adapt, each in his own way. Kane describes his first, danger-fraught trip by truck, canoe, and foot through the jungle, with nothing but a machete for defense, and virtually no clothes.

He provides entertaining but respectful cameos of the individuals and Huaorani settlements.  He emphasizes Huaoranis’ resourcefulness, their ability to go without food for days, to build leak-free shelters out of palms within minutes, and their bountiful good humor in the face of adversity.  Deemed savages by some, because of their reputation of vengeful killings of invaders, the Huaorani that Kane depict come across as lovable and kind, well adapted to the jungle but sadly naïve about the world beyond their territory.

Kane describes multiple instances in which his jungle-bred friends collapse in laughter.  They spend afternoons in communal bathing, playing and flirting.  Sharing food is a sublime act of generosity, because for them, it is feast or famine.  They adore their children.  The Huaorani can also stand motionless, without expression, for hours, observing everything.

The story offers adventure deep into the Amazon rain forest and shows its contrast with the new age of oil exploration and development by the generic “Company,” which includes Shell, Texaco, Conoco, and most egregious, Maxus Energy Corporation. The author reveals the horrific degradation of the land caused by the “Company.”  The Huaorani refer to all non-clan members as “cowode” or “cannibals” who have brought roads, pipelines, colonists, oil spills, overflowing toxic waste pits, oil in the streets, towering flames of natural gas, and the pervasive smells of petroleum.  The Company has clear-cut vast acreages of jungle.

The Company has led to poverty and disease like never before, but it has also brought gifts, jobs, and schools.  The missionaries have in some ways run interference between the Company and the local populations, but they have imposed their own agendas, and have convinced younger generations that tribal ways are evil.

Since 1970, the national debt of Ecuador has gone from $300 million to $35 billion, the opposite of what the oil extractors promised, yet the Ecuadorean government—like so many other governments—has played along and accepted enormous debt in the peoples’ name.  They have looked the other way as filth replaced natural wonders and pristine natural habitat.  As Ecuador sank ever deeper into debt, oil prices declined, and oil companies claimed costs were higher than expected. They assured the government that clean-ups were being handled and going well.

The trajectory of the book shows how the natives are killed or absorbed, killed by disease from infection, toxic waste, contaminated drinking water, malnutrition, and all manner of accidents.  The author specifically mentions malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, as well as fungal infections.  He also describes the toxic effects of crude oil and cleaning up oil spills for slave wages by hand.

But the gifts were seductive, and the jobs attracted those who wanted a more modern life.  Food like rice, salt, a kind of Kool-Aid, and lollipops, as well as tools, outboard motors and gas, began to creep into the jungle to take their places alongside the traditional manioc and monkey meat.  The Huaorani wanted schools and health care, which the missionaries and oil companies promised to provide.  Kane mentions the double-edged sword of literacy.  Children were taught by missionaries to read (the Bible), but not to write.

The story hasn’t ended, but the fate of this hitherto isolated culture seems destined to change, and to change dramatically.  At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, because it’s too late.  Huaorani children are already forgetting the history of their clans, or they are being taught it was a “savage” one well left behind.

But, still, the book raises the disturbing question: “Who, after all, are the real savages?”

 

 

 

 

 

Oil Glut

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By Katharine Otto, January 20, 2018

Tracking history through personal time shows how my interests evolve.  In January, 2008, I was reading Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the 1926 novel he wrote about the oil industry.

In January, 2018, ten years later, I have read the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan, by Ron Chernow, published in 1998.  This book goes into detail about Rockefeller’s childhood, personal life, his creation of Standard Oil and business methods, retirement, and philanthropies.  It gives short character sketches of most of the people associated with Rockefeller.  It makes an attempt to reconcile the strange mixture of rapacious greed and Baptist charity that coexisted in the man.

I didn’t know it then, but the novel Oil! was probably based on the true story of Standard Oil and the way it destroyed, compromised, or bought out its competitors.  The monopoly was dissolved in 1911 when the US Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Chief Justice Edward White gave the company six months to spin off its 33 subsidiaries.

If the purpose of breaking up Standard Oil was to destroy the monopoly and allow for competition, the plan backfired.  The same insiders controlled stock in all the subsidiaries, Chernow notes, and in the decade after the decision, the total value of the assets quintupled.  Rockefeller, who had a quarter of the stock in the parent company, and received the same amount of stock in all the subsidiaries, went from being a mere millionaire to a having net worth of  $900 million, and thus became the richest man on the planet.bkschertitan1998

In 2018, the largest oil companies in the world are Standard Oil descendants.  Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon; Standard Oil of New York evolved into Mobil; Standard Oil of Indiana became Amoco; Standard Oil of California was renamed Chevron;  Atlantic Refining morphed into ARCO and eventually Sun; and Continental Oil became Conoco, now a unit of Dupont and Cheeseborough-Ponds, according to Chernow.  British Petroleum later took over Standard Oil of Ohio.

Also in the past year, I have been reading about the divestiture of fossil fuel stocks from a number of pension plans in various countries, including the US and UK.  The Norwegian central bank has recommended similar divestiture from its sovereign wealth fund to avoid too much dependence on oil in its portfolio.

wsjoslooil111717This leads me to believe the industrial age, with its over-reliance on fossil fuels, specifically oil, has peaked, and we are on the path to some new paradigms regarding energy and its use.  I’ve speculated about what sells oil and realized war, international shipping, airplanes, plastics, trucks and automobiles provide some of the largest markets.  In other words, the “global economy” depends heavily on oil and will for the foreseeable future.

To reduce dependence on fossil fuels requires a longer and broader perspective than we have considered so far.   The drum beat for “growth” and “progress,” and for the “global economy,” American dominance, and “jobs,” presumes a continuation along the paths we have taken so far, yet they have led to world-wide malaise, toxicity, and conflict.  Will more of the same be better?

The US dollar lost 95% of its value between 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed, and 2010.  More money isn’t necessarily better, and it leads me to wonder if the frenzy over money, from individual to international levels, misses the crucial issues.  They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but worry over money buys only pain.  They also say money is a symbol for energy, but energy blocked or misdirected, like money, festers and ultimately damages the host. Is more energy better, if it causes destruction?

Oil is the new gold, in today’s economy.  Oil may be more useful than gold, but the way it is used leads me to question whether we are wasting or misspending our energy and resources to acquire only excess, pollution, and trouble.

Oil has become so integral to our 21st century lives that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It’s also hard to imagine the pristine conditions the planet enjoyed before humanity started extracting that gooey black stuff from under the ground and spewing its spent components in the air, dumping it in the water, and spreading it over the land.

Does “the economy” really need to grow, or does it need to retract a little and engage in some self-reflection, to appreciate and make better use of what we have?  Will the “growth jobs” of the future concern themselves with cleaning up the ocean gyres, planting trees, and making re-usable shopping bags?  Are American citizens and taxpayers under any real obligation to support wasteful government mis-spending of empty money that rightfully belongs to the unborn?

Anyone who supports return to a healthy planet should consider how our national policies create artificial markets for fossil fuels, global warming, and planetary suicide.

Thoughts on Utopia

I picked up Thomas More’s classic book, Utopia, the other day.  Publsished in 1516, the book describes what More conceived of as an ideal place.  The word “utopia” is derived from the Greek, and means “no place.”

Thomas More was trained as a lawyer and worked in government service under King Henry VIII of England.  As most people know, King Henry was desperate for an heir to the throne, and his wife, Spanish Catherine of Aragon, was barren.  King Henry wanted an annulment, but this was denied by the Roman pope.  To obtain his desire, King Henry had Parliament pass a law in 1534 declaring King Henry the supreme head of the Church in England.  This eventually became the Anglican Church..

Thomas More was a devout Catholic and refused to accept King Henry as the head of the church.  For this treason, he was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by the king in 1535.

The book, Utopia, opens with More involved in a conversation with one Peter Giles, and a traveler, Raphael.  At the time, More is on the king’s business in Antwerp.  Raphael proves to be well travelled, having visited many known and unknown kingdoms and other territories.  He shows a familiarity with many forms of government and impresses More and Giles with his comprehensive knowledge and understanding.  Giles naturally asks him why he does not enter the service of some king, as an advisor, as he could be quite useful.

Raphael refuses to consider the idea.  He says kings have advisors who are jealous of each other and of new information.  Also, kings want wars to expand their power and influence.  Working in the service of a king would amount to slavery, and Raphael prefers his freedom.

The subject of thieves comes up, and Giles notes that thieves are being hanged on a regular basis, yet there is no reduction in stealing.  Raphael says hanging for thievery is unjust, a punishment far in excess of the crime, and that the plague of thievery is created by society.  He notes that wars, for one thing, produce a multitude of maimed and mutilated former soldiers who are unable to work and have no other means of supporting themselves.  Wealthy landowners, who keep many idle hangers on, only like the healthy ones.  When their lackeys become sick, they are tossed out, with no place to go.  Add to this the fact that kings keep standing armies, even in times of peace, in order to keep prepared for eventual war.  These soldiers are not trained in any other livelihood so are without recourse should anything happen to interrupt their military careers.

Raphael goes on to say that the problem is rendered worse in England, where the wealthy have commandeered large tracts of land for the grazing of sheep.  Formerly agricultural land is fenced off, with whole towns being displaced from their former livelihoods involved in agriculture.  These people have no place to go and no alternative sources of income, so they are forced into thievery to survive.

This is prelude to the rest of the story, about the ideal civilization of Utopia, but what strikes me is how little has changed in 500 years.  Wars and displacement continue to be the primary causes of poverty, with the corporations and governments commandeering large tracts of land for such things as dams, airports, and power stations.

Ongoing discussions about the increasing disparity between rich and poor neglect to consider the most fundamental, root cause of poverty, as prominent today as in Thomas More’s time.  War and displacement debilitate the most vulnerable members of society and lead, ultimately, to the crime and violence we see in the US today.  While we don’t have actual war on our turf, we are involved in wars around the globe, to expand our US economic empire, while neglecting problems at home that are destroying the fabric of the society in which we live.

One would think we would have learned something in the past 500 years.  At least we don’t hang people for thievery, which may be a step in the right direction.  Should we begin applying our vast resources to constructive rather than destructive activity, we may begin to revitalize our debilitated national spirit and make a justifiable claim to being a civilized society.

October, 2007 Memories

 

In October, 2007, I had just retired my state medical and DEA licenses.  The practice of medicine was ruining my health and attitude.  It had become too hostile and dangerous for this wimp of a psychiatrist.

I spent the next few months reading.  These journal entries are the result.

MY GRANDFATHER’S SON, CLARENCE THOMAS, 2007
Monday, October 1, 2007 – I went to B&N hoping to buy a copy of Clarence Thomas’ book, My Grandfather’s Son, which comes out today.  Jonathan, my B&N employee friend – the coin-collector customer-service-book-orderer, a 20’s something kid who agrees with me so is very intelligent – told me B&N only ordered 12 copies of the book.  Corporate B&N in New York “didn’t know Clarence Thomas was from Savannah.”

Well, Jonathan, you and I both know that’s a lie, but we’ll pretend they don’t want to undersell his book in his home town.  He’s much too credible.

Sure enough, B&N’s 12 copies sold out in about ten minutes.  They had to rush order 40 more copies.  Should be here in 2-3 days.  400 more copies would be more cost-effective.  They can save on UPS shipments.

Apparently B&N’s entire marketing department missed the 60 Minutes interview with Thomas last night in advance of this pub date.  60 Minutes interviewed him right here in Savannah.

Is B&N trying to lose money?  I would sell its stock real quick-like if I had it, and I would buy copies of Thomas’ book, instead, from another distributor.  What is B&N trying to hide?

Thus do I think like a free market capitalist.

THE ROBBER BARONS, MATTHEW JOSEPHSON, 1934

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 – I’m reading in The Robber Barons, about Jay Gould, the money churner and asset plunderer par excellence.  Gould was a master manipulator, but anyone who refused to play his games could have stopped him.  He used Vanderbilt’s and others’ spite towards him to play out his line, then reeled in the big fish over and over.  How many times do people bite before their mouths are full of holes and they are still starving?

I’m getting an explosion of awareness regarding American history.  Why has this become my latest passion?

I see the patterns set in motion long ago, in the history of human beings as we remember them, and in America.

The American history most astounds me.  Lincoln essentially bought political favoritism by giving the West, the Louisiana Purchase, away to friends, political donors, and corporate railroad interests.  Thus did he finance his war on the South.

I’m seeing Lincoln and Wilson as ego-driven megalomaniacs, not the great liberators their handlers claimed.  They got us into two of the bloodiest wars to date, and the third great liberator, Roosevelt, got us into World War II.

I haven’t appreciated the intensity of my feelings for peace.  What I’ve believed was my own violent nature is merely the reflection of a world so foreign to me that I had to identify with it to understand it.  Once identified, I can forgive it, or so I hope.

Vis a vis The Robber Barons, I don’t understand sleazy business practices.  I read, astounded that taxpayers have allowed these people to get away with such cruel dishonesty for so long.  We have the veneer of civilization, but the viciousness has only changed garments and venue in time.

Jay Gould must be the idol of today’s Wall Street.  This is why product quality has plummeted.  Gould, et al. paid more attention to stocks than to managing tangible assets, and today’s brokers are doing the same.  They have even less connection with the corporations’ tangible products than before.  They deal only in electronic stock certificates, used in place of currency for the insiders.  It’s a method for selling other people’s and taxpayers’ productivity.  The companies’ products and services are only excuses for selling stock and feathering government pension and benefit nests.

Through all these wars and contests, who has benefitted, I wonder, as I sit in my lofty 21st century perspective.  I have the advantage of history to guide me.  For all of recorded history, war and fighting don’t work.  The fruits of victory are spoiled by the fighting.

ROBBING HOOD

Monday, October 8, 2007 – When you rob from the perceived rich to give to the perceived poor, you are still a thief.  You set up a race to the bottom, because everyone vies to be the best thief.

What happens when everyone is equally poor?  Leadership loses its relevance, and it’s every man for himself, unless he can learn to cooperate with those around him.  This is genuine leadership.

Now government robs from the poor to give to the rich.  This is easily camouflaged, because there are so many more poor people than rich people.  Cumulatively, poor people consume much more food, energy, clothes, and other tangible products and pay more in taxes than the rich, who reap the bulk of the profits from taxpayer-funded infrastructure.

BURNED-AT-THE-STAKE LIFE

Tuesday, October 9, 2007 – I’ve been thinking about my friends’ attitudes, which they revealed over the years I went the psychiatry route.  They seemed to think I defected.  I was merely exploring my own consciousness through the medical model.  They hurt my feelings most by making no effort to understand my point of view or to give me credit for the history we shared.

They seemed so afraid I would abandon them that they pushed me away.  I had to go deep inside myself to find companionship.  Here I make friends of ghosts, memories, my cat, plants, and the few people who accept me at face value or who must deal with me.

I feel like a witch appearing to burn at the stake, shackles melting in the heat, but who emerges triumphantly from the blaze.

“I’m only waiting for the chains to melt, Assholes, then we’ll see who can take the heat.”

The witch got a little burned in the chastening, admittedly, but she’s walking, talking, and breathing fire.  She cackles.

Smell that?  They piled hemp on the logs, this time, so the burning was more enjoyable.

I have internalized the sacrificial heat, contained and controlled it, practicing using the dragon’s fire to advantage.  Sort of.  Burned the tips of my first and second fingers the other day.

However, burning witches is a waste of time and resources, and it distracts everyone from doing anything useful.  It pollutes the air and puts everyone in a bad mood.

bkswildrey1927

 

THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, THORNTON WILDER, 1927

Saturday, October 13, 2007 – I started one of Mama’s books, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  Published and printed in 1927, the book has thick pages, almost like cardboard.  I have avoided it, thinking it a war novel, but I was wrong.  It’s about a 100-plus-year-old, hand-made bridge across a deep gorge between Lima and Cusco, Peru.  Set in 1714, it tells the imagined lives of the five people who fell to their deaths when the bridge finally gave way.  I’ve read about Dona Maria, the sad, alcoholic, rich mother, whose adored daughter had repudiated her, married a rich patron of the Spanish court, and moved to Spain.

Now, I’m reading about Esteban, whose identical twin brother, Manuel, died, leaving him half alive and desolate.

THE CREATURE FROM JEKYLL ISLAND:   A SECOND LOOK AT THE FEDERAL RESERVE, G. EDWARD GRIFFIN, 1991-2007

Saturday, October 13, 2007 –  So far, The Creature from Jekyll Island is astounding.  It is so clear, concise, well researched and documented, reasonable, and logical that I’m amazed it hasn’t made a larger splash.  Perhaps the time wasn’t right.  It’s a sleeper and about to come into its own.

Griffin writes about the history of money and defines terms.  He mentions tobacco as commodity money. So are shrimp, eggs, and any food, and that’s the bottom line.

He discusses the gold standard, says there were only about three examples of “honest” money in the world:  Ancient Greece, the Byzantine Empire – which lasted 800 years on the gold standard – a bank in Germany before Napoleon plundered it, and maybe one in Amsterdam.

By “honest money” Griffin means money which is 100% backed by solid deposits, like gold.  He says fractional reserve banking, which is lending more money than you have in deposits, against deposits that already belong to someone, is dishonest, because the banks have no right to do that.  Why have a bank store your money if it’s not safe there?  If I want to lend money, I can do it and keep the interest.

Fractional money eventually disintegrates into fiat money.  This usually seems to happen to finance wars.  The author doesn’t specifically state the latter, at least not yet.  He says fiat money has zero percent backing, and that’s what the US dollar has become, fiat money.

Seems funny in light of all the political debate about international currency.  I don’t know if any international currencies are backed by gold or silver, so they are all equally worthless, according to Mr. Griffin.

SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Tuesday, October 16, 2007 – We all know quantum theory turns the “scientific method” on its ear. If it works in sub-atomic physics, it works in life, because we are all composed of those electrons they study.

Now, if the experimenter influences outcome by desire or expectation, there is no way the scientific method can be valid.  Experiment design alone can determine outcome, as any drug study shows.

Now that we’ve established that the “scientific method” is a crock, a sacred cow that needs to be broiled and served up as steaks, for the mastication and nourishment of truly progressive science, we introduce the quantum leap from the scientific method, which is the fact that human beings, by the power of their will, have the ability to influence destiny!

DIAGNOSIS:  TESTOSTERONE POISONING

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Genetics:  A sex-linked condition, like hemophilia

Epidemiology:  Found almost exclusively in males

Presentations:

Sadistic type:  Bullies

Masochistic type: Cons

Other:  Disputed

Treatments (Experimental):

Death: Not politically correct

Funded by costs

Not economically sound

Prison camps:  A better idea, but still must house and feed

Not economically sound

Castration:  The nation is almost equally divided on this one.  A growing contingent claims testosterone poisoning is a medical illness, with castration the treatment of choice, worthy of insurance funding.  It is believed Leydig and other testicular cells could be recycled into pill form and scientific research.  Many female scientists have already applied for research funding.  A particularly elated female researcher said no man has had the balls to apply, so the women have an open field on government contracts.

THE RAIN FALLS ON ALL

Friday, October 19, 2007 – I dyed fabrics last night, noticing how cotton or silk, sewed with polyester thread, doesn’t dye right, because the polyester doesn’t absorb dye.  It also melts at lower temperatures, which makes garments with polyester thread hard to iron.

As I do things like this, I think about world politics, and how they affect daily life.  We are being socially engineered to use man-made products in lieu of natural ones, because our textile mills and cotton are going to China.   Meanwhile, China exports acrylic – a petroleum product – to the US, complete with the overhead of packaging, transportation, import and export taxes, and distribution.  Machine-made polyester is considered a cheaper improvement, but it doesn’t wear or last like natural fibers.  To me, plastic clothes reflect America’s cheap, plastic attitudes.

It’s raining.  The rain is natural and impartial.  Governments come and go, but the rain falls on them all.

ON MEDICAL LICENSE RETIREMENT

Monday, October 22, 2007 – Other people are more upset than I am about retiring my medical licenses.  This shows how over-rated the license is.  Once I explain my rationale, no one challenges it. I’m becoming convinced this is the most powerful statement – nay, indictment possible regarding the health scare/snare racket.  If the system has become so bad that I am afraid to practice within it, that must be truly scary, indeed.

From my perspective, malpractice has become entrenched, subsidized, mandated, and legislated to the point where the risk to me is too great to continue.  Only by retiring my medical licenses do I make my stance definitive, direct, and consistent with my beliefs.

DIEBOLD

Monday, October 22, 2007 – My psychodrama continues.  I removed stuff from the safety deposit box today and put it in a safer place than bank with a Diebold key.  It makes me nervous that Diebold has the contract on voting machines, bank safety deposit boxes, and bank ATM’s.   Call me paranoid.  No, it’s not a conspiracy.  Anyone can buy Diebold stock, I suppose.  I should check it out.

THE “CONSPIRACY THEORY” AND LIZARD WISDOM

Monday, October 22, 2007 – People like Hillary Clinton scoff at “the conspiracy theory.”  My sister mentioned it today.  It is they who imagine such grandiosity.  I merely think the politicos’ behavior is stupid and counterproductive.  That there are so many people being stupid, incompetent, paranoid, dangerous, and dishonest doesn’t necessarily make it a conspiracy.  It merely means the planet is overrun with idiots.

This is something lizards understand.  On my way to run errands, I had a conversation with a lizard on my back door.  He was too close to the hinge for my comfort.  I stopped to caution him – her, I think, although she was large.  I told her she needs to be more careful.  I mean well, but I’m clumsy, and when I get agitated, I’m dangerous.  I’m also noisy, so she needs to stay out of my way if she doesn’t want to get hurt.  I watched her listen.  She tilted her head this way and that, eyeing me from different angles, while spread getaway style along the bottom edge of a step.  My head was sideways, watching her, studying the wide blue eye shadow that ringed her eye.  Such wisdom in animals’ eyes, if you look closely.

According to the World Book encyclopedia (2005), lizards are 65 million years old.  Cockroaches are 250 million, birds 213 million, cats 55 million, dogs 34 million, man two million years old.

I told the lizard this hanging out on back doors is a bad idea. I killed one of her relatives by accident the other day. He got caught in the screen flange.  It devastated me, because I figure these lizards are Lizardo’s relatives and descendants, and they are watching out for me.

As I got in the car, I saw a second, smaller lizard on the porch, also watching me.  I hope he/she was listening.

Of course they were.  That’s how they have survived so long.

Then, as I leave, I startle three deer in the woods, a doe and two fawns.  They stopped to watch me, and I told them how much I love them.  It worries me that Carol is clearing out so much of the underbrush, because the deer have fewer and fewer places to hide.

LET ‘EM FAIL

Wednesday, October 31, 2007 – Status post a trip to Cutter’s Point Coffee, where I read a Wall Street Journal scarfed from an outside table.  I’d also purchased the USA Today and Savannah Morning News from the news boxes in front of CVS/Piggly Wiggly, so I was saturated with more current events than I knew what to do with.

The Fed meets today, and Wall Street is all aflutter.  The presumed crisis is most amusing to me.  These idiots will not see that it is not my crisis but theirs.

What they perceive is a crisis, I see as blessed relief from Yankee oppression and aggression.  Let the markets fail.  It’s high time they did.  Get outside before the skyscrapers collapse.  The penthouses have the farthest to fall.