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The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good

David Leonhardt, New York Times
UNDERNEATH the misery of the Great Depression, the United States economy was quietly making enormous strides during the 1930s. Television and nylon stockings were invented. Refrigerators and washing machines turned into mass-market products. Railroads became faster and roads smoother and wider. As the economic historian Alexander J. Field has said, the 1930s constituted “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.”

Economists often distinguish between cyclical trends and secular trends — which is to say, between short-term fluctuations and long-term changes in the basic structure of the economy. No decade points to the difference quite like the 1930s: cyclically, the worst decade of the 20th century, and yet, secularly, one of the best.

It would clearly be nice if we could take some comfort from this bit of history. If anything, though, the lesson of the 1930s may be the opposite one. The most worrisome aspect about our current slump is that it combines obvious short-term problems — from the financial crisis — with less obvious long-term problems. Those long-term problems include a decade-long slowdown in new-business formation, the stagnation of educational gains and the rapid growth of industries with mixed blessings, including finance and health care.

Together, these problems raise the possibility that the United States is not merely suffering through a normal, if severe, downturn. Instead, it may have entered a phase in which high unemployment is the norm.

David Leonhardt is The New York Times Washington bureau chief
(8 October 2011)

Adjusting the economy to the new energy realities of the second half of the age of oil

David J. Murphy and Charles A. S. Hall, Ecological Modelling (scientific journal) via Google Docs
Our research indicates that, due to the depletion of conventional, and hence cheap, crude oil supplies (i.e. peak oil), increasing the supply of oil in the future would requiree exploiting lower quality resources (i.e. expensive), and this will more likely occur only at high prices. This situation creates a system of feedbacks where economic growth, which requires more oil, would require high oil prices that will undermine that economic growth. We conclude that the economic growth of the past 40 years is unlikely to continue unless there is some remarkable change in how we manage our economy.
(Article in Press – October 2011)
Suggested by William Ryerson.

The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy

John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review
It is no secret today that we are facing a planetary environmental emergency, endangering most species on the planet, including our own, and that this impending catastrophe has its roots in the capitalist economic system. Nevertheless, the extreme dangers that capitalism inherently poses to the environment are often inadequately understood, giving rise to the belief that it is possible to create a new “natural capitalism” or “climate capitalism” in which the system is turned from being the enemy of the environment into its savior.1 The chief problem with all such views is that they underestimate the cumulative threat to humanity and the earth arising from the existing relations of production. Indeed, the full enormity of the planetary ecological crisis, I shall contend, can only be understood from a standpoint informed by the Marxian critique of capitalism.

A common weakness of radical environmental critiques of capitalism is that they rely on abstract notions of the system based on nineteenth-century conditions. As a result many of the historically specific underpinnings of environmental crises related to twentieth- (and twenty-first) century conditions have been insufficiently analyzed. Marx’s own indispensable ecological critique was limited by the historical period in which he wrote, namely, the competitive stage of capitalism, and thus he was unable to capture certain crucial characteristics of environmental destruction which were to emerge with monopoly capitalism. In the following analysis, therefore, I will discuss not only the ecological critique provided by Marx (and Engels), but also that of later Marxian and radical political economists, including such figures as Thorstein Veblen, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Allan Schnaiberg.

Marx and the Capitalist Raubbau

It is seldom recognized that Marx’s very first political economic essay—“Debates on the Law on Theft of Wood,” written in 1842 during his editorship of Rheinische Zeitung—was focused on ecological issues. A majority of those in jail in Prussia at that time were peasants arrested for picking up dead wood in the forests. In carrying out this act the peasants were merely exercising what had been a customary right, but was disallowed with the spread of private property. Observing the debates on this issue in the Rhineland Diet (the provincial assembly of the Rhineland), Marx commented that the dispute centered on how best to protect the property rights of landowners, while the customary rights of the population in relation to the land were simply ignored. Impoverished peasants were viewed as the “enemy of wood” because the exercise of their traditional rights to gather wood primarily as fuel for cooking and warming their homes transgressed the ownership rights of private property holders.2
(September 2011 issue)
Long, complete article. -BA