Jerome Liebling May Day Union Square Park New York City 1948
Dr. D. peels the American political onion to get down to what it’s all about. I’m impressed. He explains America better than just about anyone. Turns out, there ain’t much left. So yeah, what happened?
Dr. D: The news cycle runs so frenetically it’s easy to lose track of the bigger tide. Let’s go back a week and look at something the Automatic Earth has been talking about since the beginning.
This weekend at a speech in Mumbai, Hillary Clinton said:
“If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. …I win the coast….I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”
There are many ways to look at this: for one thing, by number, over 90% of the counties are Red. Yet over 50% of the population is concentrated in the cities and Blue counties. Clinton officially won the popular vote. Yet the United States has always had a geographical Electoral College system. A compromise of representation between small, weak states and strong, large states, and the rules of the 2016 campaign were no mystery or surprise. Yet that’s only the middle-sized picture.
The Big Picture is Mrs. Clinton saying she’s representing the important people, the right people – even the working people – and that 2/3rds of those people live exclusively in Blue districts on both coasts. While this is arguably true, it wasn’t always true. NYC or San Francisco have always been important, but from their founding until now, places like Dayton, St. Paul, Pittsburgh, or New Orleans were considered vital, important places, places where their own specialty happened: tires or flour, steel or shipping, lumber or mining.
What Happened? In a way the election was a referendum on “What Happened?” What happened to my community, my country, my area, and all the vital work those long-abandoned areas used to do, what happened to the massive GDP those areas used to contribute, and the answer is simple:
An organism contracts from the periphery to the core.
There’s a lot in that statement. As it took decades, even a century to happen, you can see which peripheries were sacrificed first and next, who had power, who didn’t, and how long they could maintain it; and that’s interesting, because it was not East or West, white or black, rural or urban as they might have you believe. There are as many hopeless, abandoned people in Baltimore as there are in Billings, Montana, possibly more, and possibly started far sooner. But if it’s not ethnic or geographical, then what is it?
An organism contracting from the periphery to the core is a consequence of centralization.
The Automatic Earth began with discussing the shrinking of the country, of industrialization, in terms of who would receive the ever-dwindling supplies oil and energy, the infrastructure and attention, but that is not necessarily a function of practicality. It is more often a function of political power, and we largely have a political problem and not a practical one.
The Core has been using their power to attract and concentrate more wealth and more power to themselves and their areas until most of the nation’s wealth and power are concentrated in Clinton’s 2/3rds of GDP, the sub-10% of the counties. All top 10 richest zip codes are now in one region: the Washington D.C. area.
Economic wealth and power is used to expand political power, further extracting the wealth of the Periphery to maintain the lifestyle of the Core. While this may seem a practical strategy, it isn’t. At one time the Periphery was creating maybe 2/3rds of the wealth of the nation, costing nothing, and that was with no more infrastructure than remains today.
So when those places are idled, 2/3rds of the nation’s GDP also vanishes, and while the Core can maintain their lifestyle by cannibalizing the remaining energy and attention, the entire nation they are part of only becomes far poorer. So far from the concentration of power making them stronger , it’s making them weaker , as they have a fraction of the former wealth and ability, cohesion and cooperation, men and materials to draw on.
This leads to the problem she highlights, which is social and political fracturing. With a majority of the wealth pulled to the Core, the Periphery withdraws its economic and social consent in a sense of unfairness that is only validated by further extractions, concentrations, and non-cooperations.
This can make it more difficult to run even the Core economy as disagreements develop between Core vs Periphery or entitled vs disenfranchised peoples even within the Core itself, leading to a difficulty maintaining compliance, resource supplies, disagreements on how to allocate wealth, support infrastructure, and so on.
This may seem an engineering issue, but this is also Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies”, where cultures weather many storms, many expansions and contractions, but what causes “Collapse” is the attempt to maintain expensive infrastructure built up during the good times, at the expense of one portion of society. If compromise can be reached, Society survives.
If a compromise cannot be reached and the Core attempts to force its will via social and military force, the price of compliance becomes too high and fails, and with it, the cooperation, the social contract that makes a people or a nation one unit. It fractures, and when it does, those pieces break up and become, as he says, simpler, Less Complex societies. Less specialized, less concentrated, and less centralized, or by our modern pejorative view, “Primitive.”
As our American society has measurably less energy since 1974, we have seen the re-allocation and distribution of that energy ring-fenced into an ever-dwindling core of fewer counties, and fewer participants in those counties, and like other complex societies, we have been socially fracturing since that time as well, as fewer and fewer within the system benefit from it.
There’s much more to unpack in this, but let’s just ask some questions:
• What makes a “Core”? What constitutes the “Periphery”?
• Since the Periphery has and could contribute a majority of overall GDP, what inspires the Core to sacrifice it rather than expand their wealth through it?
• As a metaphor for a bodily process, a biological “contraction” occurs during emergencies such as starvation, freezing, or flight. But would the body really survive if it crippled the legs, lost its fingers, or its hearing to save itself? Contrarily, would the body survive and function if the brain, liver, or heart swelled to 3 times their original size?
• What is the resource load of a brain or stomach that is 3x larger than necessary?
• Since from an engineering perspective all parts of a machine must be in working order for it to work at all, what impractical, non-engineering priorities must be established to cause the core and periphery to become so mismatched?
• How are those impracticalities decided? How are they maintained?
• Is the deciding and maintaining of inequity and non-function a benefit to the Core? To the Periphery? Both? Neither?
• Once the Periphery has been sacrificed to the Core, what must happen for them to be re-joined and freely cooperate again?
• Can this be done? What would have to be sacrificed that wasn’t sacrificed before? By which side? One? Both?
Mrs. Clinton’s idle quote has meaning. If her places are “optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” then logically the other , the 90% of Red America is “pessimistic, oppressive, racist, dull, lazy, and backwards.” “Deplorable,” if you will. Aside from how this doesn’t seem to be a good pitch to win votes among 90% of voting counties, you have to ask, “How did they get this way?” and “What is your plan to gather your countrymen and make them optimistic, productive, and to work again, and thus help all?” Yet oddly, that was her opponent’s slogan.
If she’s not asking the question of how to include and elevate everyone, isn’t she really saying “I’m in favor of further enriching my Core at your expense”? And while historically that is indeed a common response to dwindling energy, Tainter warns it may also be one that can collapse both the economy and the society.
Since large, concentrated societies contract to the Core to protect themselves and their critical assets, those in the core historically won’t offer time or resources to help anyone but themselves: the army, the police, the roads, the tax officials. When that is true, you may want to localize, decentralize and maintain your own Core, with your own people, at home. This re-localizing will re-establish the balance of power in the Periphery where most people live.