In his Trauer und Melancholie (1917), Sigmund Freud noted that:

If the love for the object — a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up — takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes mto operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting, in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self (1957:251).

It is this definition of melancholia that came to mind while I was listening to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britain, a cascade of hauntingly tragic descents, as though the listener were eternally bidding farewell to all that she holds dear, performed on strings (see below).

I think of it now as the end of 2017 approaches and as I follow various threads on social media because it strikes me that it was both a supremely narcissistic, but also a supremely melancholic year, in precisely Freud’s sense. Perhaps what is needed is lamentation.

The interminable post-mortems — most notably and most tragically, Ms Clinton’s What Happened — bear evidence, in nearly every instance, of this dual construction: narcissism and self-contempt. As Freud points out, when some thing or person identifiable has been lost, the consequent mourning is viewed as normal and in fact necessary. Melancholia differs from this normal and necessary act insofar as it is difficult or even impossible to identify the lost object.

What did we lose? An election? Or was it more ephemeral? Many women voters took Donald Trump’s victory, and Hilary Clinton’s loss, as a personal affront to them; the contempt they continue to hold for Bernie Sanders and for Bernie Sanders voters points to the loss of something difficult or even impossible to identify. More generally, mainstream Democratic voters took 2016 as the last and best opportunity to recover what was lost in 2000; which, again, is not so much an election as much as a vision for democratic politics — born out of the humiliations of 1972, 1980, and 1984 — that has refashioned Democratic candidates into the natural allies of bankers, traders, and business leaders, of law and order (with a heart), and heirs (kind of) of the Civil Rights and Woman’s movements. The 1990s were within our grasp in 2016 — a better, (slightly) more militant, updated, feminine 1990s — but we let it slip from our hands; or, rather, it was stolen from us by voters who claimed not to have benefited from the 1990s. We lost the 1990s — and all that is wrapped up in the 1990s — in 2016.

Of course the 1990s were not only neoliberalism wrapped in a FDRish mug. The 1990s were not Ronald Reagan and not George Herbert Walker Bush. The 1990s was the expanding markets that Reagan and Bush promised but failed to deliver. They were high tech jobs (for some). They were exuberant equities markets (for some). And the profits did trickle down; they did. But they trickled . . . down. And there’s the rub.

When in 2016 Ms Clinton promised to restore the 1990s, she left roughly half of voters in America cold. Huh? There is sufficient narcissism and self-contempt here to fill a library, and then some.

The left — the real left? — the ones we gain special pleasure from calling “naive”? Where do they fit in this look at melancholia? Ok. Then where is your famous working class? Where is your organized labor? Where is your unstoppable youth-women-labor-minority-arts-university intelligentsia coalition?

To be sure these ethereal objects long ago passed from history. And, yet, their imaginaries play a powerful role in the narcissistic self-hatred cycles being traced here. Few leftists — and even fewer real leftists — have the chops to carefully, thoughtfully, and soberly sift through the empirical social, economic, political and cultural data necessary to explain (never mind overcome) the disaster of 2016. True. Failure is not evidence of falsehood. Success is not evidence of truth. And, yet, depression becomes narcissistic and self-destructive when it refuses to even consider — on principle — the evidence staring us in the face.

What Happened? cannot be recounted in a book so short on facts and so pathetically weak on methodology that it can be only described, at best, as self-defensive.

What happened? Loss. Loss of all of the objects, real and imagined, recounted here, and many more, many more. Should we allow this to drag us into melancholia; into a downward spiral — pleasurable as it might be — of narcissism and self-contempt, self- and other-hatred?

Where is the lamentation? The true and genuine sadness over what we have lost; not accusing; not finger-pointing — but real sadness; where is it?

These are my thoughts while listing to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britain.

The Great Litany: A Great Error!

I am a big fan of the Great Litany, but I find one glaring — nearly unforgivable — error in the text as sung in non-established anglican churches.

In the 1544 version of the litany the presider intoned: “That it may please thee to keep Henry the VIII. thy servant and our King and Governor”; to which the faithful responded: “We beseech thee to hear us good Lord.”

The sentiment is clear. Insofar as the whole Body of the Church of England as well as the United Kingdom find themselves represented in their Head, the King, it was appropriate to beseech the “good Lord” to “keep” His “servant” their “King and Governor.”

So, who or what is the British monarch’s corresponding member for the Episcopal service? In our service, we substitute “state” — as in “keep the state” — for Her Majesty. I am not joking. Yes, the state! Really? Yes!

I am not sure who or what committee was responsible for this monstrosity, but, in no one’s imagination does a state in any way, shape, or form correspond to a monarch. The parallel is simply false. And, every time we sing the litany, the intonation of “the state” grates on my spirit as finger nails on a black board.

A “state” is parallel not to the person of the monarch, but to the institutional mechanism within which the monarch is but one cog.

So what is the parallel to the monarch in a republic? And there is your answer! It is not the mechanism, not the apparatus, not the state: it is the peopleres publica, or the republic, that most closely corresponds to the British monarch. So, please, please . . . pretty please; when we next sing the Great Litany, can we substitute Her Majesty, not with “the state,” but with the republic?

Thank you.

Barrack Obama’s Worst Decision?

Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake. . . . It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get. Ajit Pai, Barrack Obama appointed Chairman of the FCC

Uh. That would be a resounding “No” Mr Pai. If any of my students suggested or even hinted that less regulation gave rise to greater returns for the public, they would fail not simply my class, but any economics class anywhere in the world. Which may explain why an individual with a law degree and zero economic training should never be placed in charge of an institution requiring economic expertise.

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But, Mr Pai’s decision doesn’t even make common, much less, economic sense. Unregulated commerce. Try that. Unregulated highway intersections. Try that. How about unregulated currencies. Try that. How about unregulated law enforcement. Try it.

Which means either Mr Pai is stupid or he has drunk the Koolaid. Either he has zero understanding of the economics, or he genuinely believes in the self-regulating economy.

Neo-classical economists — which is to say, nearly all economists — also “believe in” the self-regulating economy. They “believe,” without doubt, that a self-regulating economy will send market efficiencies up to the top of the income hierarchy where these efficiencies perform most poorly. Mr Pai, by contrast, who is trained as a lawyer, not as an economist, believes that a self-regulating economy punishes individuals who invest their assets inefficiently — without ever asking the pertinent question: inefficient for whom? As the chair of a public regulatory agency, shouldn’t Mr Pai be interested in passing efficiencies on to the public?

Regulations, for example, undoubtedly place downward pressures on investor returns when Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast are compelled to share market efficiencies won by net neutrality with consumers. Even if we assume that investors, in the long run, make up lost returns in a marketplace made more efficient by net neutrality, in the short run AT&T’s or Verizon’s freedom to place gates and charge tolls for any web address they like; or to create artificial scarcity in bandwidth will give rise to immediate returns for investors — precisely because it generates market inefficiencies.

Mr Pai is imagining a circumstance where a smaller provider will throw the gates open and eliminate charges, offering a product that is faster, cheaper, and of higher quality than the giants. But this assumes that Disney, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and other content mega-providers will even do business with the faster, cheaper, and higher quality competitor that offers them nothing in return.

If Mr Pai is not simply a shill for the industry posing as a regulator, then he is simply stupid. If he is stupid, he should be removed and replaced — I don’t know — by any one of the hundreds of thousands of first year economics students who actually understands “basic economics.”

Of course, the same could be said of Senator Paul Ryan and his crayon and pencil, stick figure, tax plan. But that’s a different story.

The Riddle of Inflation . . . Solved

As the stock market continues to climb, media pundits — many of whom ought to know better — continue to publicly scratch their heads and ask: “Why is such splendid economic growth accompanied neither by commensurate consumer spending nor — as a direct consequence — inflation?”

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May I suggest that the media take a moment to consult — oh, I don’t know — ANY TRAINED ECONOMIST AT ANY REPUTABLE INSTITUTION?

Let us say that I tell investors: look, you can put your money anywhere you like. But it gets better. Let’s also assume that I am not going to regulate your asset choice to see whether its underlying fundamentals are sound. But it gets even better. Let us also assume that I am not going to require that asset’s board to submit meaningful reports to the SEC.

In short, let us assume that I have entirely deregulated financial markets.

But it gets better. Let us say that I now enjoy a deregulated labor market where I have made it increasingly difficult and costly for working families to organize for higher wages, more secure employment, and better benefits for myself and for my family. Let us say that I have so stacked State and Federal courts as to make it virtually impossible for working families to win decisions in disputes with their employers.

The simple production function states that  productivity is a function of the cost of labor, given some quantity of capital, over the value of goods produced by that labor, over time. We can consider the production function from any one of these three sides: lower labor (or other factor) costs; greater efficiency of capital (say, by lowering the interest rate or increasing the quantity of money in circulation up to the margin); or improving the efficiency of production (say, by adopting a more efficient technology).

There are three conditions under which we might still see inflation. (1) if I win productivity increases at the expense of labor — by driving down labor costs — we still might see inflation if the decrease in labor costs are passed on to consumers in the form of marginally lower consumer prices; i.e., consumer prices lower than the decrease in wages such that the actually purchasing power of those nominally lower wages increases. Greater actual purchasing power, even if the nominal wage is lower, could give rise to inflation.

(2) the exact same results (for the exact same reason) would arise if investors determined that their capital would be more efficient — i.e., would yield higher returns — by shifting this capital from high risk/high return financial instruments to even higher return technological innovation and/or more efficient factors (i.e., labor), let us say by increasing the human capital of the labor force through superior training/education/health. In this case — again — labor would enjoy a relatively higher wage (even if its nominal wage dropped) which would stimulate higher consumer spending, which would, caeteris paribus, give rise to inflationary pressures.

Or (3) we could also imagine a new, highly efficient, widely available technological innovation — the automobile, the microchip, the steam engine — that sent ripples through the entire economy, driving down the costs of production, increasing spending and (again) irrespective of nominal wages, giving rise to inflationary pressures.

But none of these conditions is even possible in a deregulated and privatized market. Why would I plough money into manufacturing or into labor goods when these sectors consistently yield lower returns than deregulated financial markets? Why would I plough money into innovation — let us say in the energy sector — when regulatory agencies and elected officials are rewarding me handsomely to invest in fossil fuels? Why would I throw money away increasing the productivity of labor — through expanding support for public universities — when my capital is far more efficient in high risk/high return financial markets?

Yes. Some scraps will chance fall from the tables of speculators on the financial markets. Some will end up in the pockets of lucky consumers. And so some of these scraps will be spent on consumer goods. But some is a relative quantity. And we know from the facts themselves that this sum is so small as to never ever give rise to inflation.

But all of this is well known, surely by my first year students, but then why not by the financial analysts trotted out by CNN, MSNBC, and NPR, not to mention FOX. This is a no brainer, which suggests . . .


I strung our “holiday” lights last night. Across the ceiling of our living room, they really are beautiful. But they are not actually “holiday” lights. They are in fact Hanukkah and Christmas lights. They are evidence of the season of lights. Why?

I am so deeply tired of the harangue over whether I greet you with “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” in part because I know that those who favor the former do not in fact believe that December 25 celebrates Christ’s Mass — they do not believe in Masses, of any kind, for any one, including Christ! On the other hand, I really am tired of bland, consumerist, homogeneous, undifferentiated “holidays.” How wonderful . . .

So, as I strung my lights I was actually praying about the “Festival of Lights”; about light when I have no reason to expect light or hope for light; when light appears at that moment I needed it most, but anticipated it least. Surely this was the moment when our community was threatened most by the dominant Roman occupation; when our independence and freedom to be a community was least secure. At that very moment, oil that should have lasted less than a night, less than an hour, suddenly shed light that lasted an eternity. We celebrate it today. This is our Hanukkah.

But I was also praying as I strung our lights of a different, not unrelated, moment. It is the same Roman occupation, three centuries later. I am hoping for a Messiah, for a light, for a festival of lights. A child is born in Palestine; born to Palestinian Jews. It is the question all of us ask when our children our born. Is she the one? Is he the one?

For me, an Episcopalian, these two questions — one Jewish, one Christian — are not separate. My mother was Jewish (actually a Unitarian). I am Christian.

But I am now praying about the lights. I see them shining now above my living room. They tell me that the Roman occupation will end. They tell me that the suffering of our people will end. The oil is sufficient. The lights will not be extinguished.

Lights. Real lights. Real communities. Real struggles. Real futures. Real lights.

“Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?” Bah Humbug. Its all the same to me.

But lights. Real lights. Real emancipation. Real liberation. I am stringing lights in my living room. I am praying for real liberation. I am praying that the oil will be sufficient, that the lamps will remain lit, that Christ’s Mass will not be for nothing.

The End

As a historian I am intrigued by transitions. How does one thing become another? What mechanisms should I be paying attention to? Which are mere diversions?

There is the grand narrative, told by Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein or, more recently, Giovanni Arrighi, that invites us to reflect critically on the broad movements of history: the gradual shift of investment from Italy to Spain and Holland in the 17th century; the gradual shift of investment from Holland to France and England in the 18th; and the shift in investment from England to Germany and the United States at the end of the 19th century; each transition accompanied by successively more horrid wars and followed by empires whose reach extended beyond that of its predecessor. Inviting, of course, the question: what is the next transition? Who will win? Who will lose? What will the casualty count be in the next conflict? Surely more than WWII’s modest 80M.

I am thinking about this today because all the news is Trump and Brexit — which is all so much “Tweedledee and Tweedledum.” It is not that wealth has vacated the scene. Far from it. Investors may still be seen boarding jets in New York, landing in Hong Kong, or boarding jets in London and landing in Dubai. The world of investment has not changed dramatically. And, yet, where they see our future has changed. They are no longer investing in industry — not in the US, not in the UK. Those ships have sailed. And the fact that the US commands the largest nuclear arsenal or that it has more troops garrisoned in more places around globe cannot change the patterns of investment. As surely as the Genoese sent their money to Amsterdam and Barcelona; as much as the Dutch plowed their capital into France and England; and as much as savvy British investors buttered their bread in Germany and the United States; so US investors are now using the US merely as a convenient tax haven, a transit point for higher returns elsewhere in the world: China, India, South America, even the EU.

So, while as a citizen of the US I have some longing for the “Good old Days” when US firms ruled the roost of industrial manufacturing, when union wages were high, job security certain, and the future bright, I entertain few illusions about what the future holds. The image fixed in my mind is of Satan seized by an Angel, tossed into the pits of Hell.

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Cecil Collins, The Fall of Lucifer, 1933.

The fall will be violent — is already violent. Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, will lose their lives. Our environment will be sacrificed. The lives of families escaping from environmental degradation, famine and war will be sacrificed. Whole futures of whole generations are on the chopping block.

And, yet, from a Braudelian point of view, we are simply witnessing a quasi-natural transfer of power — always violent, always destructive — from one hegemon to another — China, the EU, Russia, it hardly matters. In the long run, this is what the world order looks like. It looks like the end.

But, it is not the end. After the millions have been eulogized and narratives of their death historicized; after the disappearance of shorelines and cities has been normalized; after “the dust settles,” so to speak, we will awaken to a world where the US and the UK are peripheral, as peripheral as Genoa or Barcelona or Amsterdam. Mere ciphers in a world that has become something new.

The Miracle of Christmas

I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t thought or more often uttered something along these lines: “Imagine if someone from [long ago] stumbled upon our world. They would feel [that we are gods; that we are magicians; that we are miracle-makers].” But what if we have this all backwards?

I am thinking about miracles at this moment because Christmas is coming. In the Christian calendar, God is about to enter Creation (not for the first time, nor for the last) in the form of a human being. It is a miracle.

Image result for painting jesus and mary late medieval

So I am imagining someone from our time suddenly stumbling into Palestine, into Bethlehem, and being told — perhaps by a shepherd — “Over there. In that stable. A young girl is giving birth to the Creator of the World.”

The German sociologist Max Weber wrote of our age as an age of “rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, . . . the ‘disenchantment of the world'” (“Science as a Vocation”). That kind of says it all. To be sure, first century Palestinians were rationalists. Like us, they too tried to fit unexpected events into the world that made sense to them. And all evidence suggests that they enjoyed and practiced intellectual sparring. Finally, at least for the scientifically sophisticated — the Stoics — there was no small amount of disenchantment. “Let us see how we can fit all things into the grand cosmic order.” None of this is disputed.

But we send rockets to the Moon. They did not. We splice genes. They did not. We split atoms. They did not. All of this is conceded.

And, yet, perhaps only as an exercise, let us see if we can imagine the kind of world that must exist for men and women to experience the divine presence in a vulnerable, crying, fece-covered, needy, physically constrained, mentally underdeveloped newborn child.

“That was all a story,” you say, “made up to make Jesus’ birth fit into first century interpretations of Jewish prophecy.”

Well. Ok. Then imagine the kind of world that must exist for prophets to imagine the divine presence in a vulnerable, crying, fece-covered, needy, physically constrained, mentally underdeveloped newborn child.

The point is, we — today — cannot. Think. God. That. Way.

But it gets worse. Far worse. This vulnerable child, which late first and early second century Christians will confess as God; this child, once a grown man, will undergo death. “Impossible,” you say. Gods do not die. Gods are impassible. Gods are all-powerful. “Even though I am an agnostic (leaning towards atheism), even I know that Gods do not die.” End of story.

I am going to leave Easter to its own season. Today, however, I am contemplating the birth of God to a young couple in ancient Palestine. I am wondering about the kind of world that would to exist for this to be even possible. And I am thinking that, were men and women of first century Palestine to enter our world they would be struck less by our gadgets and technology than by our complete lack of wonder.

Today I am thinking of the miracle of Christmas.