Imagine a factory assembly line running at full steam, but instead of spitting out car parts or plastic trinkets, the conveyor belt is loaded down with Jeff Bezos wannabes. That’s a disconcerting image, but it’s an accurate picture of what’s happening: society is producing too many elite people, and their decisions are causing extreme inequality, which is one of the key components of today’s sustainability crisis. Join Asher, Rob, and Jason as they struggle with elite words and phrases (who’s up for some cliodynamics?) and try to exorcise the demons of their own elitism. You’ll also hear how elites may have formulated the plot of the next Spike Lee movie, “Do the Wrong Thing.” Chuck Collins, author of The Wealth Hoarders, provides additional insights on how we can work toward a more equitable society. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Jason Bradford

Hi, I’m Jason Bradford.

Rob Dietz

I’m Rob Dietz,

Asher Miller

and I’m Asher Miller. Welcome to Crazy Town, where three middle aged white guys mansplain the apocalypse.

Rob Dietz

The topic of today’s episode is overproduction of elites. And please stay tuned for an interview with Chuck Collins.

Asher Miller

Alright guys. I want to start today’s episode with a quiz.

Rob Dietz

Awesome. I always get these wrong, but I’m gonna try much harder this time.

Jason Bradford

Take it seriously.

Asher Miller

Don’t do some kind of factor of 1000.

Rob Dietz

Pick the highest number that I can come up with. Right?

Asher Miller

So here’s the question. In 2016 – remember those days – How many candidates, like major candidates, you think there were in the Republican primaries which Trump won?

Jason Bradford

I’m gonna go with 15.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, so this is like the early time – I’m gonna go with, that’s a pretty good guess. I’m going to “Price Is Right” you like you’ve done in the past. I’m gonna go with 16.

Asher Miller

Okay. You guys are really close. So there were 17 major candidates. There were another eight who appeared on at least one state ballot. Okay? Now in 2020, how many Democrats do you think were running?

Rob Dietz

Okay. You’re gonna “Price Is Right” me? I’m gonna go 20.

Jason Bradford

Okay, that was what I was gonna pick. Oh, do I go up or down? I’m gonna go 19.

Asher Miller

Okay. There were 30 major canadites. And there were another 20 to add their name on the ballot in at least one state. So that’s 50 people.

Rob Dietz

Our listeners are fortunate they can’t see me doing my victory dance.

Asher Miller

You’re off by 10.

Rob Dietz

But still all had to do is beat Jason. Okay. That’s a lot of candidates.

Asher Miller

It’s a lot of candidates.

Rob Dietz

That’s a lot more even than like my high school student council.

Asher Miller

Right. I mean, please tell me that there were not 50 kids running for student council at your high school?

Rob Dietz

There were not. That’s what I’m saying. We got we got way too many presidential candidates.

Asher Miller

And that’s the point I wanted to bring up. Which is not actually talking about presidential candidates. But think of that as an example of the hidden driver I want to talk about today – and that is this concept of elite overproduction.

Rob Dietz

Wow.

Jason Bradford

Fantsy dantsy day.

Asher Miller

Have either of you heard that that term before?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, yeah. I remember.

Rob Dietz

I’m picturing a conveyor belt in a factory and this like plops out another elite. It’s just going faster and faster.

Jason Bradford

We are gonna get so erudite today. This is fantastic. Like, Peter Turchin brought this stuff to the forefront, I remember.

Asher Miller

Oh, so you do know.

Jason Bradford

Oh, yeah. Fascinating guy. He wrote a paper in the academic literature in 2010, basically calling out that the 2020s would be very turbulent,. And that we risk complete chaos.

Asher Miller

Yeah, he said, “Around 2020 we could see political violence.”

Rob Dietz

Well he blew that prediction, didn’t he?

Asher Miller

And of course because he made this whole prediction. . .  In fact, I talked to him about that. And he’s like, “I said the word ‘around'”. But because of that, because he said 2020, he got a lot of attention. There’s a big article about him in The Atlantic, which I think he bristled that because it’s sort of portrayed him in a certain way.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Exactly.

Asher Miller

And that’s not what he was after. This is a concept that he has, I don’t know if I would say popularized because I bet for a lot of our listeners, they’ve never heard of this concept before, but it’s a key element of the stuff that he’s been talking about.

Rob Dietz

Okay, so let’s dial this in a little bit. What do we mean by elite overproduction? I’d even like to maybe start with, what is elite? Like does elite mean you’ve got a lot of money, that you’ve got college degrees, that you’re somehow immune to the problems of everyday life? What is an elite?

Jason Bradford

You’re a hereditary badass, you know?

Rob Dietz

You mean like, I can run fast and jump high? Or that I’ve got a lot of money in my trust fund?

Jason Bradford

Royalty.

Rob Dietz

Oh, I got you.

Asher Miller

Yeah, actually, I think my son’s soccer team, they’ve had like, two levels, and one of them is elite. Which makes the other group feel bad.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. You guys are the subpar team over here.

Asher Miller

Exactly. The the non-elite.

Rob Dietz

Mediocre on this team .  .  .  The elite over here. . . .

Asher Miller

Yeah. So elite, I think, there’s not like a set definition. I think sometimes people think of elite as a very rarefied group of people. But it is more, I would say a class of people. Maybe in colloquial terms you could think of it as like the one percenter. Do you know what I mean. And maybe even the top 10%?

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Asher Miller

People that have high degrees. Think about it, Jason. You’re fucking elite, man. Got your PhD.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. I think I am the most elite in this room right now and I’m proud of it. I’ve got a deeper degree from a prestigious university in the  Midwest called Washington University in St. Louis which bills itself as the Ivy League school of the Midwest. I think that’s fancy.

Rob Dietz

Oh, well. Let’s let’s just stop you right there, Captain elite. Because I went to one of those elite Ivy League’s a real one.

Jason Bradford

Oh.

Rob Dietz

Maybe I’m more elite than you are.

Jason Bradford

What was that one called?

Rob Dietz

Well, it was called the University of Pennsylvania.

Jason Bradford

So a state school.

Rob Dietz

It makes it sound like a stat school. It’s the funniest thing, all the students at that school are really insecure about it. Like, it doesn’t have the same name recognition as Harvard. Therefore, I’m not as worthy.

Jason Bradford

They are sub-elite.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah

Asher Miller

I get you guys both beat because I am so elite that I need to go to one of these top  flight schools. I actually went to a top 25 liberal arts school, patting myself on the back thank you very much.

Rob Dietz

Liberal arts school? What is that?

Asher Miller

But I’m so elite that I got the most impractical degree you could possibly get. I mean, it even trumps getting a degree in philosophy. I got a degree in creative writing.

Jason Bradford

Right. I mean, you have to have cajones to think you could you could skip through life with a frickin’ Creative Writing degree. I mean, that is amazing.

Rob Dietz

Gotta go get his novels and his books of poetry and see how creative they are.

Asher Miller

They’re so elite that you can’t get them

Rob Dietz

Okay, so we’ve defined elites as the three of us morons.

Asher Miller

That I think just lowered the bar for everyone else listening. That’s elite?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, we can get we can get there.

Asher Miller

So, the idea of elite overproduction, I think a lot of people tend to think of that as competition between elite people. Because maybe there’s a limited number of positions of power. Because if there’s quote-unquote overproduction of elites, so many people  getting advanced degrees or whatever, there’s more of a competition between them for these limited positions of power. And that’s part of it for sure. But there’s more to this. I think the concept of a leader of production, which is really why I wanted to talk about it as a hidden driver of what’s brought us in the Crazy Town. And another part of the dynamic is kind of how elite overproduction feeds into, helps create. and interacts with inequality in society as a whole. So, would it be helpful if I sort of put this into context? You know, this whole elite overproduction?

Rob Dietz

I’m like the Denzel Washington of this podcast. Not not in looks not in popularity. I’m like his character in the movie, “Philadelphia,” where he’s constantly saying, “explain it to me like I’m a two-year old.”

Jason Bradford

I thought it was five-year old?

Rob Dietz

Well, I need to go back another three years then. I want simple explanations. So yes, please. That’s your invitation.

Asher Miller

Two-year old? “Daddy no like people who have noses up in the air.”

Rob Dietz

Right. Right.

Asher Miller

That’s how you want me to explain it?

Rob Dietz

I’ll probably understand it.

Asher Miller

This is not gonna work. I’m actually gonna sound like a real elite here. So Turchin’s work the concept of elite overproduction is part of I guess, a new field called cliodynamics. Maybe some people call it a cliodynamics.

Rob Dietz

I call that overproduction of elite words. Right? Can we come up with something a little simpler?

Asher Miller

It’s an interesting approach to basically looking at historical material. It’s actually kind of a big data approach of collecting lots of information from societies in recent history, all the way back to ancient history, and producing mathematical models based upon all that data. So kind of crunching it and using math in the sense to look at models of like cycles of stability and instability and looking for patterns. So Turchin and colleagues of his have been looking at. . . I think they studied like eight different societies. And there’s a whole approach being taken right now to try to collect information on others as well, looking at some of these dynamics. And they’ve seen certain patterns. And I want to point out like these two main cycles in that. One is a cycle that actually comes from a guy named Jack Goldstone, who I think had a lot of influence on Turchin. And that this idea of these structural demographic cycles, which lasts around 50 years. And that has a lot to do with like the population, how many people are in the population, the working population, labor dynamics, that kind of thing. And then this larger cycle, which I think Turchin titled “secular cycles,” which last like 2 to 300 years. So  in these 50 year windows are these dynamics that happen, these changes that happen that can lead to instability because of demographic shifts. And then over in larger cycles, you have integrative and disintegrative phases. So these phases where you have kind of a growth in a society or civilization, things integrate, there’s like prosperity that happens. And then a disintegrated phase, and that could even lead to the collapse of that.

Rob Dietz

It’s a lot of big words again, but if I’m interpreting you correctly, rather than a society just running along in some straight line, right, we’re going through cycles, where sometimes things are getting better, sometimes things are getting worse?

Jason Bradford

There’s ups and downs. And there was an interesting paper that came out a few years ago by a guy named Luke Camp, and he’s part of a very elite institution called the University of Cambridge. It is looking at existential risks and all that. And they actually found out that every civilization they could, they figured out, when do we think we it arose? And when do we think it ended? And bracketed all of that. And they said the average lifespan of civilizations is 336 years if you take all of them.

Asher Miller

So we’re fine here in the US. We’re good to go.

Rob Dietz

This is golden here. No problem at all.

Jason Bradford

Well, that seems to parallel the secular cycles of Turchin a bit, right?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. Although maybe a little bit longer. It’s good. Yeah, we’re safe. Like Asher says. Well, okay, so how does elite overproduction fit into these cycles? Like, what? How is it part of this story?

Asher Miller

So if you think about these things as phases, right. These cycles as phases? You have this, like I talked about a little bit earlier, this growth and stability phase where there’s general prosperity and opportunity across the society. There could be surplus. We’ve talked a lot about that surplus of materials. Maybe there’s relative stability in terms of like wars and conflict, you know. So there’s a population growth that happens.

Asher Miller

Like, the times are good so people aren’t worried about going off to war, or whatever? They’re just doing their jobs, nd they’re maybe having a little breathing room. So you can have a bigger family.

Asher Miller

Now, it actually, if you think of these as cycles and recognize that these have come from something else — which is usually a disintegrative phase where there might have actually been population decline. So in the beginning, as a population is growing, there’s almost a shortage of people for labor. And so there’s higher wages and more prosperity for more people in that kind of initial phase. But then as population grows, because that’s stability, that then creates a downward pressure on wages, right? There’s more people for these jobs, and then the elite in kind of almost all societies. . . At least Western societies, you do have an elite, right? We talked about that when we talked about complexity before. So they’re the ones who end up benefiting from the drop in wages, the surplus of labor.

Jason Bradford

Right, kinda like a Marxist critique of, you know. . .

Asher Miller

Yeah. And they because of all the stability and the gains that they’ve had, there are more people kind of in this elite class and they want to hold on to their their gains. So you’ve got what’s called popular immiseration for the majority of the people. Life is not as good as it had been.

Rob Dietz

It’s another overproduction of elite words. Popular immiseration. Can we just say that, people are sad?

Asher Miller

People are suffering.  But the elites aren’t suffering, right. They’re actually benefiting in a sense from that suffering.

Rob Dietz

They’re actually laughing at it. They’re in their tower going, “Whoa, look at the suffering.”

Asher Miller

Give them cake.

Jason Bradford

It sounds like the Hunger Games kind of situation.

Asher Miller

It’s exactly – This is where Turchin got his theories.

Jason Bradford

Okay.

Rob Dietz

Put down the bow, Jason. Put it down.

Asher Miller

But because the elites are not feeling that immiseration, and they’ve been benefiting from it, they’re not taking any action to address it. And that growing inequality eventually leads to unrest and political violence. And that could sort of actually even eventually lead to the breakdown of the society at large.

Jason Bradford

But the amazing thing you talked about – there’s four phases in this model, right? The growth phase, and the stability phase, and then the immiseration phase, and then the collapse or unrest phase. It parallels the adaptive cycle, which we talked about in previous episodes. So again, what I find fascinating is, well and Turchin is an ecologist that became this historian. So I definitely think that there’s overlap between maybe ecological ideas of cycles and cycles between the two.

Rob Dietz

Okay. I know you two elite guys can go off talking about models and cycles. And when I talk about cycles, I talk about bicycles, you know, and ride it over to my favorite spot. So I’ve got to do this again. The two-year old case. Can we just get like a real world example of a real people in a real place going through this?

Jason Bradford

Can we help? Can we help Rob out here?

Rob Dietz

Well, I want to make a suggestion. I want you to take us back to ancient Rome. And the reason I want to do that is because of the four years of Latin that I studied in high school as an elitist. A budding young elitist.

Jason Bradford

Alright. Well . . .

Asher Miller

It was very practical, right?

Rob Dietz

Let’s do this part of the podcast in Latin. Okay, here we go. Go ahead Asher, you start.

Jason Bradford

I got one Latin phrase: Semper ubi sub ubi.

Rob Dietz

Always wear underwear.

Jason Bradford

There you go. He knows Latin.

Asher Miller

That’s really disturbing. Okay, yeah. Let’s talk about the Roman Republic. So if I’m gonna channel my history knowledge here. . . The Roman Republic, it was ruled by a Senate. The people that were in the senate were obviously part of the – it was an elite class of people.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, Mitch McConnell was the executive leader.

Asher Miller

I’m sorry. But I’ve got, you know, “The Life of Brian” in my head right now. It’s dangerous. Some people will get that reference. I’m not gonna say it. But this elite class, it’s not everybody, it’s not true democracy. But there’s a Senate, there are limited seats in that senate. Okay? And there’s like these positions, even power positions within that there’s these consuls, which you can almost think of maybe the equivalent of or like a prime minister type of thing. And the Roman Republic went through this growth phase, where it was actually the growth of the Republic. In terms of its territorial expansion, you know, there’s a lot of wars and conquering and a great military. And through the process of doing that, they actually enslaved many, many people and brought them into the the Roman economy. And so when that happened, that actually depressed wages for the non elites, right? So now they had slave labor working their massive estates, you know, the elite did. And that created this growing inequality within the society. You actually had some people interestingly, who were part of the elite class, who were arguing. They’re called populares. Which I think may be the origin of the concept of a populist. Like the Gracchi brothers who argue that what they needed to do is land redistribution and actually meeting the needs of returning soldiers.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, they were also film producers, like the Coen brothers.

Asher Miller

Right. Exactly. Yeah. Their technology was not quite as advanced. And so they were championing the cause of them quote-unquote, lower classes. Of course, they had to be killed. Both Gracchi brothers ended up being assassinated.

Rob Dietz

Well hey, name a Roman leader of some sort who wasn’t violently murdered.

Asher Miller

Well, so and that’s what ended up happening was that this kind of elite overproduction dynamic ended up creating so much instability within the Republic that the Republic failed, right? That’s when Julius Caesar became the first emperor. And we had hundreds of years then of rule by Emperors.

Rob Dietz

I wonder if people around in the elite class recognize the overproduction? Like that’s why his friend stabbed him to death?

Asher Miller

Yeah, but that was only one guy.

Jason Bradford

Interesting. Well, of course, when you’re talking like that, I just keep thinking about – If you want another example, we’ll bring it home the United States. I mean, gosh, a lot of what we saw was rising population in the US and stagnating wages now. Especially since you know, the 1970’s. And a rollback of social welfare programs, progressive taxation just plummeted. And now you know, the the wealthy are keeping more of their gains than ever before.

Rob Dietz

It’s like around the time the three of us were born. I wonder if . . .

Asher Miller

It’s not a coincidence.

Rob Dietz

We’re a part of this story?

Asher Miller

Yeah. I mean, we’re the last three. We just tipped it.

Rob Dietz

That’s the way an elitist thinks. This must be about me.

Jason Bradford

But it’s almost like, you know, the organized labor sort of collapsed, right? And it’s influenced declined. You have the rise of neoliberalism and globalization where we depress wages by outsourcing to other countries, and just a whole lot of these ideas of, the wealthy, if they keep it, they’ll invest, it will trickle down. So this idiotic trickle downism. And remember that movie, “greed is good?” “Wall Street.”

Rob Dietz

Yeah. That was Michael Douglas’s sort of star turning, you know, make that speech. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

Asher Miller

And when you think about Goldstone’s theory of demographic shifts being 50 year cycles, you know. We had a period following the Great Depression through the end of the 70s, like a 50 year cycle there. And in a sense, this is a reaction to that, you know, of a pullback of social welfare and progressive taxation, all the stuff that Reagan brought us.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Well, all of that is going on. You talked earlier, Asher, about the elites actually tend to to kind of do the wrong things as the cycles are getting into this downturn phase. And you shared an article that was written by Jack Goldstone and Peter Turchin in this magazine, “NOEMA.” I have no idea how to pronounce it.

Asher Miller

NO-EMA, I think.

Rob Dietz

N – O – E – M – A. Too many elite words again, but I thought it was really fascinating. The article talks about the three mistakes that the elites make as they’re being over produced which is, one of them is that they keep the gains to themselves by this oversupply of labor. So like in Rome, the slaves came in, and they had a lot of labor and wages were depressed. So that means if I own the means to production, my profits go up and I tend to keep it rather than sharing it with with the wage earner. So that’s mistake #1. The second mistake they pointed out is that they make it very difficult for people in the lower echelons of society to climb their way up the ladder or even see the merit. If they have achievements, they don’t reap the benefits of it.

Asher Miller

And we should point out that there’s a a wrinkle, you know, a unique way of this also playing out here in the United States, which is racial as well. It’s not just economic class situation. It’s also a racial dynamic.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, obviously, like Rome, you think about it, it’s bringing in slaves. You know, now you’ve set up society for, you know, deliberately holding down a certain set of people. And that happened here as well. The third one is the douchiest mistake that they make, which is they keep their own taxes low. You know, they keep influencing government not to tax them. They’re basically feel like, “Hey, I earned this, I’m not part of any social contract, right?” And they just keep it all to themselves. So with those three mistakes, that’s how that dynamic of inequality that you talked about earlier rises up and takes hold of a society.

Asher Miller

And they are real, you know, bringing it back to where we are now, there are real consequences to all of this, I mean, you know, obviously, this growing inequality in the United States and in other countries which is really accelerating. In fact, it has accelerated through the coronavirus pandemic. And so there really is increasing popular immiseration, if we’re going to use that.

Rob Dietz

You see it on the streets right outside your door. I don’t know how it is in other nations, but the U.S. it’s very visible, how many more homeless people there are, people without a place to stay at night

Asher Miller

You talked about the douchiest thing being sort of like taking away taxation. That’s really upsetting for me is this the idea that elites, even progressive elites, or liberal elites, tend to fall into the silos of their own experience. So there’s a lot that’s happening. As there is this increasing inequality and suffering amongst the general population, the elites are, in a sense, fighting over things that don’t actually, in many cases, materially help those people. They’re fighting over cultural differences. And it’s not just the right who are trying to push these cultural divisions in order to maintain their power. I think the people on the left are doing that as well, in the sense of like, they’re focusing so much on identity politics and other kinds of things. Because they’re just not even aware of the suffering of so many other people because they live in their in their bubble.

Rob Dietz

Of course, that’s why you see such a rise in distrust and anger in — well, I’ll just take the United States because that’s where I’m seeing things. But the fact that the elites are paying attention to the wrong stuff, and that basically the largest classes in society are suffering. . . Well, of course, they lose trust in government. And of course, they start getting more and more deeply embedded in their own cultural views, some of which are not very friendly towards your neighbors, a lot of scapegoating going on. And you end up with the polarization that we see today.

Asher Miller

Yeah, and some of that is driven – So I think general distress. . .I think if you look at polling and stuff like that, you see that there’s been a decline in trust in institutions and a decline in social trust across society over decades in the United States. And that’s because I think people are legitimately feeling like, at least in the case of the government, that they’re not being represented, their concerns are not being represented. But it’s also being intentionally stoked, right. So I talked about the Gracchi brothers earlier. I don’t know if their kind of populism was genuine or if that was part of their attempt to gain power. But we we definitely see, like with Trump, for example, you know, a lot of populist rhetoric but it’s regressive populism. It’s basically saying, I see that you’re suffering, but it’s these people’s fault: it’s liberals fault, it’s China it’s Mexican immigrants or you know, or whatever it is.

Rob Dietz

You guys, you college elitists

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Scientists. Exactly. Total scumbags.

Asher Miller

Yeah. It’s the liberal elite that are doing this. And so that just stokes it and creates this dynamic that I think that Turchin was warning us about.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, that that’s a scary thought, right? Is that you have leaders who come in who maybe know what’s going on and recognize there’s inquality, but rather than give up some of what has filled up their coffers, they would rather just turn people into a course of scapegoating others in society. I think that maybe that’s kind of the entering of that, “the people are sad phase?” What is it? The immiseration phase?

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Well, that’s what’s crazy making about this all. I mean, this is so obvious. And there’s dozens of historic examples of what the wrong thing to do is and what the right thing to do is and to watch these clueless elites do the wrong thing. . . It just drives me nuts.

Rob Dietz

That’s a new movie that Spike Lee is producing called, “Do the Wrong Thing.”

Jason Bradford

Yeah, it’s awful. It’s just an awful watch. That’s kind of the Crazy Town side of it. Right?

Rob Dietz

No, it’s pretty horrendous.

Asher Miller

Well, you brought up these historical examples. There’s lots of examples of societies not getting it right.

Jason Bradford

Uh huh.

Asher Miller

You know, there are some examples, I think Turchin and others have pointed to as examples of sort of corrections. You know what I mean? And again, distinguishing between these 50 year cycles, and the big cycle of a society actually like kind of collapsing. And in the couple of examples that are talked about are, you know, Britain in the 1820s, in the United States in the 1930s. I think, for our listeners, people are pretty familiar with the Great Depression and policies that FDR had put in place the New Deal and other things that we are really around trying to address.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, massive redistribution of wealth.

Asher Miller

Redistribution of wealth, providing a social net, social security, and all kinds of things that we’re putting in place to get people back to work. In the 1820s, in Britain, that was a situation . . .  And it is interesting to be in a whole other conversation talking about the role that energy and industrialization has played in all this stuff. But especially in terms of a lot of the disruption that people have –

Asher Miller

Loss of jobs because you’ve got an industrial nation.

Asher Miller

Right. And we had that in the United States. But they had that in Britain in the 20s, you know. From the early, early parts of industrialization. And they were in a situation where things could have gotten really rough. And by the way, less than 30 years later, in 1848, there were revolutions all over Europe. It didn’t happen in Britain, right. And it was partly, at least the theory goes is that they had done some correction in the 1820s. So there are some examples of –

Rob Dietz

Well, that’s really well and good from a historical perspective. But what if we take this today, and I’m thinking of an analogy, let’s say the elites are like, the pilot of a jet liner, okay? And they’re trying to run. The jet liner is like society, or the economy or, you know, the kind of broad thing that they’re guiding. So they enter one of these cycles where there’s a lot of turbulence, right? And so the pilot, if they do the right thing, maybe they can correct for that turbulence. And that’s what happened in 1820s, in Britain. Or the 1930s. FDR was a pretty good pilot. But let’s bring this forward to today. And let’s say that turbulence is far, far worse because of the overshoot situation that we’re now in. lI feel like the pilot may struggle to find any sort, of course correction to actually keep that plane from breaking up. What do you think about that?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I mean, that’s absolutely right. What can you do in a situation when you’re in this overshoot? You know?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, like, let’s say there’s not the surplus that you had in the 1930s.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I think you’ve got to redistribute wealth. You’ve got to stabilize. I think progressives often make the mistake of thinking that if you if you redistribute wealth, then you can go back to the age of growth. And I just think we’re past that now. And I think that’s probably what leads to the difference between the sort of 50 year cycles on one hand of sort of stabilizing, versus when things actually kind of end up falling apart? Because the biophysical field is no longer able to support the civilization at the size it is. Right?

Asher Miller

It’s an interesting question I haven’t seen really discussed much, which is, what happens when secular cycles meet adaptive cycles right now? And how do we think about this in the context of elite overproduction and these dynamics of inequality in the context of overshoot, and an inevitable ratcheting down? And maybe another way to say it is, what happens when even with redistribution, with the right policies, with a correction for sort of this elite overproduction, we have increased popular immiseration. Because there are fewer resources, there’s going to be dramatic impacts from climate changes. We’re going to be paying the bills for a lot of stuff that’s happened over the last couple centuries.

Jason Bradford

I feel like this is what gives me all this anxiety. Like I could see what we need to be doing. We need to be reforesting like crazy, converting our agriculture to more regenerative practices, weaning our whole society off the fossil fuel dependency, getting local economies together, making sure there’s a social safety net so people can be flexible and train up for the new things that we need to do. And I’m worried.

Rob Dietz

I don’t think you have this right. So as an elite, I think the solution is I’m gonna have to murder at least one of you, possibly two. And then hold whatever wealth I get from that.

Jason Bradford

Okay.

Asher Miller

Yeah, well, what you’re describing, Jason, sounds really hard. It’s just a lot easier to go in the bunker.

Rob Dietz

Alright. Let’s hit that bunker.

Asher Miller

Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial “Do the Opposite Segment” where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of Crazy Town.

Jason Bradford

Hey, you don’t have to just listen to the three of us blather on anymore.

Rob Dietz

We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration. Hey, guys, I’d like to share a review that we received on iTunes, you want to hear it?

Jason Bradford

Do it.

Rob Dietz

Alright, this is from Jeff1534. Hopefully, that’s not a robot or the year he was born. Okay. So Jeff1534 says, “These are the environmental conversations, we need to be having. A pure dose of reality.”

Jason Bradford

Okay, and he goes on.

Rob Dietz

No, that’s it.

Jason Bradford

Oooh pithy. I like it.

Rob Dietz

Jason, you are a pure dose of reality. Or a pure dose of something, anyway.

Asher Miller

It’s not saying reality is a good reality. It’s just reality.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, no, seriously, Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to review. We really appreciate that. And it feels good to hear from some listeners. And if Jeff inspires you, please go over to iTunes and rate us and review us and maybe we will read yours next time.

George  Costanza

Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

Jerry Seinfeld

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Rob Dietz

Okay, if we’re gonna be like your buddy, George Costanza, then we got to figure out how to do the opposite when it comes to overproduction of elites.

Asher Miller

So that that means taking some elites out? Is that what you’re . . . ?

Rob Dietz

You know, this is not an 80s action movie, Asher. You can’t just grab a bunch of weapons out –

Asher Miller

We need a disclaimer. Melody’s gonna come in and be like, “the producers of this podcast do not –

Rob Dietz

advocate violence.” No, I am not talking about going out and harming our elite brethren out there. No, but it’s about breaking out of the elite silos and trying to realize when your cultural worldview is kind of towards this elitism. So what I mean by that – I feel like in coming up, even as young as a high schooler, there was always this idea of the trades in the agricultural like, “No, stay away from that stuff. You want to you want to rise up and go to some elite college and have some elite desk job.”

Jason Bradford

“. . . and you can get you can get fat and unhealthy.”

Rob Dietz

But even if you wanted to become a lawyer, it doesn’t mean then that you have to look at as this class thing like, that’s elite and being a plumber is somehow not.

Asher Miller

I think it goes back to some of the things we’ve talked about before, which is the silos. I mean, whatever society decides they want to classify as elite, imagine being a farmer suddenly becomes elite. You reward people that way. It’s about understanding the reality of people whose experiences are different, especially ones that are economically not as advantaged. Right? And that means, it’s really easy to fall into those silos because you spend your time with people that are in the same economic class or whatever reality that you’re in.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. And the less interaction you have among people who are doing different jobs or having different ways of making a living.

Asher Miller

Yeah, it’s just . . . My problem is, I don’t want to have any interaction with anybody.

Rob Dietz

Elite . . .

Asher Miller

Including the two of you guys.

Jason Bradford

How do we un-elite ourselves, I guess, is the question.

Rob Dietz

That’s a great verb, Jason.

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Asher Miller

The other thing. . . And again, this is maybe being a little bit repetitive in terms of things that we’ve spoken about before, but I think it’s really important. Which is, collectively agitating for progressive economic policies and tempering of elite power and leadership without advocating for particular politicians or for particular policies, necessarily. There are organizations that have been working – our colleague and friend, Chuck Collins, at Institute for Policy Studies, who runs a website called inequality.org.

Rob Dietz

Right, which is highly in favor of more inequality, right?

Asher Miller

Yeah, that’s what they’re all about. Chuck is hitting his head right now.

Jason Bradford

Dammit, Rob, don’t you know what I do?

Asher Miller

I tried to explain this to you like you were a two-year old. It didn’t work. There are progressive tax policies, there are things that are really around political reforms, you know, to talk about elites. I think it’s a complaint that people from all kinds of political persuasions have that our representatives don’t understand the reality of most people out there. So maybe it’s about electing people who actually have lived experience.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Which could help, you know, with campaign finance reform. And opening up politics to more regular folks. That would be great. And I do think you’re right. There’s actually a cultural problem we have. And I think there’s also a cultural shift going on where a lot of people are really interested in more of these trade jobs and having a livelihood that is more tactile and tied to real things.

Rob Dietz

You see both going on. Like I think you’re right, Jason. And I think I’ve heard a lot of younger people thinking about farming, or thinking about getting into the renewable energy sector, stuff like that. But then you also have all these news stories of elites, whether they’re actors, or they’re venture capitalists, who are buying their children’s way into these elite universities, and all that scandal.

Asher Miller

Well, so if we’re going to say do the opposite, then don’t send your kids to Ivy League school.

Jason Bradford

Never.

Rob Dietz

That’s right. Stay away from them. Especially not those Ivy’s of the Midwest or the Ivy’s of the South.

Asher Miller

Chuck Collins is the director of the program on inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he co-edits the website inequality.org. He is the author of a number of books on inequality, including “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.” Chuck’s latest book, which just came out in April, is called, “The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.” He also happens to do a mean impression of Bernie Sanders. Maybe sometime we can get him to do it. And he recently moved full time to a small farm in Vermont. I’m guessing that’s after he read Jason’s Futures Rural paper, I’m sure. And he sits on the board of Post Carbon Institute. So I consider Chuck a friend, and an advisor, and I guess sort of my boss. Don’t let that get to your head, Chuck. So avid listeners of the podcast will recognize Chuck because he joined us in person no less, that was pre-pandemic, back in Episode 10 of the podcast. For an episode called “Tackling Inequality in the Economy: One Pair of Lederhosen at a Time.” You’ll get the reference if you listen to it. On that podcast, he shared some of his personal history, which I think pertains to this conversation right now. And he talked to us about addressing inequality on a finite planet. So Chuck, thanks for coming back and visiting us in Crazy Town.

Chuck Collins

Great to be back in Crazy Town.

Asher Miller

So on this season of the podcast, we are talking about hidden drivers that are moving us to the precipice of environmental and social breakdown. Or you know, hidden drivers that are keeping us from acting collectively in ways that actually help. In this episode, Rob, Jason, and I talked about elite overproduction. And that theory is essentially that competition in power seeking among the elite in societies tends to lead to growing inequality and eventually to sociopolitical upheavals. In many societies that they’ve tracked, it can lead to, actually a collapse of society. And we talked about how this dynamic may actually be playing out, or will be playing out in the context of ecological overshoot. So Chuck, I want to have you on because you’ve worked for decades to tackle the inequality crisis in the growing influence of the very, very wealthy. You’re also someone who grew up in and then walked away from living kind of in an elite bubble. So I want to get your thoughts about what we can do collectively to combat the influence and the overproduction of elites. I think it might be useful actually to share sort of a framework that Peter Turchin put out. He’s the originator of the theory of elite overproduction. He talked about, in a paper that he wrote, which we link to in the show notes, about the three cardinal sins that elites commit. So I thought maybe we could tackle those one by one. How does that sound?

Chuck Collins

Yeah, that sounds good.

Asher Miller

Okay, so let’s start with the first one. And again, I’m going to quote Peter here: “First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves driving up inequality.” He must be making this up, right? Because we haven’t seen that at all?

Chuck Collins

Well, yeah, that’s kind of what we’ve been living through for a couple decades, clearly. You know, on the one level, we see like the gap between CEO pay and worker pay keeps growing. It was maybe 42-1 in 1980. Now, it’s like 320-1. The productivity gains, you know. The economists look at the return to labor. You know, ow much goes back to workers, how much goes to capital? A lot of the gains are flowing to capital where wages have been sort of stagnant or fallen. So another way of saying, workers haven’t shared in the productivity gains of the last 40 years, which have been huge, right? Just think of the internet and the productivity of . . .

Asher Miller

Technology, automation, all that.

Chuck Collins

Yeah. Yeah. And I think part of it is, I think that Peter’s theory is right, which is you see the rules governing the economy. You know, tax policy, trade policy, whether wages are lifted up or down, are kind of tipped in favor of the haves, of asset owners, at the expense of people who work for wages. And then I would say even in the last 15 years, there’s now a cycle of, you know, used to be sort of income inequality. Now, it’s like, wealth inequality. Where wealth and power use their influence to rig the rules to get more wealth and power. So it becomes kind of like a compounding cycle. And that’s where I think that first cardinal sin is accurate.

Asher Miller

And it’s not just changing the rules. It’s just almost the physics of, if you have capital, and you invest in things – we’ve seen this, I guess it is the rules a little bit in the sense that we’ve changed, like the Fed has changed policies in terms of interest rates, and things that tends to drive capital towards investing in assets, right? Like the stock market? And so people who were able to invest in the market are just making huge gains.

Chuck Collins

Yeah. And then you see this expansion of what economists call a rent seeking. It’s the whole idea that you’re going to keep extracting fees and value from the real economy. So capital wealth, and we ordinary people, we experience it as getting nickel and dimed every time you turn around. Oh, you know, my credit card fee is higher, my cell phone bill has another little fee there. Oh, you know, my bank fees are you know. . . We’re just like, everywhere being squeezed harder. You use the internet in this way, you pay a fee, and that all that money is like rent going to owners of big corporations and really the owners of capital.

Asher Miller

And this has just accelerated rate with a pandemic. You feel like there’s just an acceleration generally happening right now?

Chuck Collins

Yeah, I mean, I would say the new physics of inequality is accelerating advantage for the top and kind of compounding disadvantage for say, the bottom 60%. You know, I think we went into the pandemic where 40% of the bottom population was literally the precariat. No financial reserves to speak of, very diminished access to health care and sort of social supports, and have come through the pandemic probably more precarious. And I think we’re about to see a whole new wave of evictions and foreclosures and consolidation. You know, you see these big private equity companies buying up rental housing, knowing people need to live somewhere. And so we’re going to own these – We’re going to buy up at foreclosure everywhere these rental housing, and rent it back to people and make a lot of money.

Asher Miller

Okay, so let’s go on to the second one. So why don’t we just actually lay out this sort of – to see if, if you concur with these three cardinal sins. Then maybe we could talk about, well what do we actually do about them? So the second one, and again, I’m going to quote here, and I actually found this one kind of interesting. It wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to my mind. But I’d be curious to hear your take on, especially considering your life story. So quoting, “Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves in their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who’ve already succeeded.

Chuck Collins

Yeah, you know, actually, I see a lot of signs of this. And in some ways, it’s less even the top 1%, or the top 1/10th percent, which I think, they’re really the drivers of extreme inequality. But in this case, the top 10% sort of elites or upper upper middle class. And actually, there is an economist Richard Reeves, who wrote a really interesting book called “Dream Hoarding,” which is about what he calls opportunity hoarding, among these elites. And there’s a number of signs. One is, the growth of kind of professional associations that kind of make their members a protected class. They’re kind of like, you know, you think of the American Medical Association, but you can pretty much think of anything. . . You know, lawyers, real estate appraisers. All these groups that sort of create scarcity, drive up costs that become kind of a privilege protected class in a meritocratic society. We got our training, so now, you pay us. But there’s all these other examples that Reeves gives of kind of opportunity hoarding where crowding out spots in higher education, elite higher education being a really important ticket to economic advancement. Or, snob zoning in affluent residential areas where, okay, you know, we got our house now our job is to keep other people from buying houses in our community, keeping our home values up, and keeping other people out. And then, you know, just what sociologists call the intergenerational transmission of advantage. You know, how do you help your kids get a leg up in a competitive society. Whether that’s LSAT, you know, test score tutors, or unpaid internship. There are 101 ways that families just tilt their heads.

Asher Miller

Paying people to take tests for your kids, right?

Jason Bradford

Yeah. At the extreme level.

Asher Miller

Or pretending to play sports and getting a scholarship?

Chuck Collins

Yeah, exactly. So, you know, and all this kind of hoarding is happening at the same time that we’re reducing public investments in access to student loans, are making it harder for people to get their first time homebuyer loan. Things that previous generations benefited from public investments that helped them kind of get a rung on the ladder of opportunity. And now they’re sort of pulling the ladder out from under people. So lots of examples, I think, fall in that opportunity hoarding, protecting things for your progeny, tough luck for the other kids, you know?

Asher Miller

Okay, now, the final one, and again, I’m quoting. “Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services, and fast rising government debts.” Well, I don’t think we need to talk too much about the evidence of that. It’s interesting. I’d be curious to hear your take on it right now because this is an issue that’s seems to be heating up with proposals by the Biden administration to pay for some of their big plans right now. That includes increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

Chuck Collins

Yeah, I agree. This is the most sort of obvious one. That the very wealthy, the top 1/10th,  1% has done a really good job driving down their taxes. Kind of almost making taxation voluntary for the super rich. You know, only the little people should pay taxes, even had a Trump administration person talking about the estate taxing saying, “only morons pay the estate tax.” So it’s what one legal theorist calls high wealth exceptionalism. We should have one set of rules for us and one for everyone else. But I think the good news is, people are kind of coming around to the fact that okay, we need to restore progressivity in the tax code. Wealthy people should pay their fair share. And actually there’s a new push to even like enforce the rules, retool the IRS so they can monitor the shell games of the super rich and enforce the existing tax laws. So, you know, there’s an estimated trillion dollar a year tax gap now, which is the gap between what the system should collect and what it actually is collecting. And most of that’s very high wealth tax avoidance. And in the book I wrote, “The Wealth Hoarders,” there is this wealth defense industry. Those are the folks who are paid millions to hide trillions. The lawyers, the estate planners, the accounts, who basically work overtime to help the super rich game the tax code down. So that is clearly happening in our society, and actually, again, accelerating in my observation.

Asher Miller

Right? So obviously, all this is just plain wrong. I mean, morally reprehensible stuff. On some level, you can also say it’s understandable, like, for example, if people want to make sure that the kids can benefit or whatever. But I think what’s interesting for us, like on this podcast explore, is just, what is the implication of all this on our ability as a society to get through? One is to avoid maybe these cycles of collapse that are brought about by inequality. But the others, how do we deal with it, as we’re coming into a time where we’re dealing with real resource constraints and climate change and other issues? And I’d love to hear your thoughts about like, what listeners can do, either individually or collectively around these things? Because it seems like we really need to tamp down, right, on these? Reverse these trends. Reverse the influence of elites and the overproduction of elites. So what are your thoughts around – in any of these three areas? The things that we can be doing?

Chuck Collins

Well, in some ways, it’s continuing the discussions about inequality. Things have really shifted in 10 years. You know, the US particularly has a very high tolerance for inequality. When people feel that the rules are fair, and everybody has a shot to become rich, we kind of all buy into the social mobility. But clearly, these trends that we’re talking about, people are waking up. The whole idea that the economy is rigged to benefit the super rich, that there is a sort of populist groundswell. Policies like Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to levy a wealth tax on people with 50 million or more, that is a wildly popular idea. So I’m actually starting to think we have a shot at a whole bunch of policies that could reduce this concentration of wealth. Begin to sort of turn the corner, enforcing existing laws, shutting down some of these tax loopholes, working cross borders to prevent corporations and rich people from playing countries off against each other. You know, the rest of the world is interested in shutting down this hidden wealth system as well. The other thing I see are cracks in the system. I see wealthy people who are saying, “Hey, look, it’s not in my interest to think so narrowly about my self interest.” They’re going to their wealth defense industry people and saying, you know, “I hear you’re trying to build up a dynasty of wealth for my unborn great grandchildren. And I want to move my money now to invest in a livable planet, fund campaigns, fund organizing, to address climate catastrophe. And you’re locking me in to this long term, ridiculous scenario.” And even people within the wealth defense industry who are like, “Whoa, I’ve given my whole life power, all my life energy, to a system that’s bringing us to the brink.” So, even the supposed beneficiaries now are seeing the irrationality of the system. So I think there’s a potential to crack it. And help maybe avert some of the absolute worst potential outcomes where the rich are just holding on, building missile silos, building mountain resorts, investing in security forces. You know, that sort of thing. The worst aspects of what we’re describing here could be averted by bold policies to reverse inequality and cracks within the elites themselves.

Asher Miller

A lot of this seems like it comes down to political engagement. And we’ve got representatives in Congress, and typically people that are appointed in the White House that are part of an elite class. Whether they’re part of the 1% or you know, 1/10th of 1%. There may be a part of that 10% that you’re talking about, people with elite education and such. So, it seems like we have to maybe one, elect people who actually understand what the material conditions are like for the majority of Americans. And two, have to really petition and basically challenge them to enact policies in the right direction. Or even, as you said, ensure that we’re actually funding the IRS to do its job and those kinds of things.

Chuck Collins

Yeah, I mean, I think in addition to just having elite people who are currently in Congress, I think that the political system has obviously been captured by big money. And big capture doesn’t mean the rich always get their way. But it means they are in a position to block a lot of the needed changes and reforms. I mean, obviously, we see this with the fossil fuel industry. Their goal over the last couple decades has just been able to effectively stymie and block the kind of transformations that we need to do. Similar with the super wealthy elite. They invest in gridlock. And that’s where we as individuals and individual voters, and politically engaged people can say, “Look, are you working for that 1/10th of 1%?” It’s not even the 1%. It’s like, are you with the 99.9%? Are you with the super rich? The billionaire class. And I actually think it’s useful to talk about the billionaire class who have seen their wealth surge during the pandemic. And kind of build that populist framework, that narrative, that this is really undermining the quality of life for everybody.

Asher Miller

Yeah, and I also think it’s interesting. You were talking about the risks of these sins and what they lead to, especially looking at historical examples, which is what Tuchin has done. How that often leads to political upheaval and violence and even collapse of societies. On the one hand, that can lead these elites to run for their bunkers. On the other hand, maybe it helps people understand that it’s in people’s self interest to regulate some of this stuff. My last question for you, Chuck, is just, is there anything you’d say, you know, a lot of our listeners, I include myself in this, are part of an elite population of people. And just in the sense that maybe we’re highly educated, we’re privileged to have some measure of economic comfort. What can we do to check our own eliteness, I guess you could say?

Chuck Collins

Yeah, you know, in some ways I think it’s very important to start with the stories we tell ourselves about our own circumstances. Because there is such a powerful, dominant cultural mythology. I call it the myth of deservingness. You know, everyone is where they deserve to be. And if you kind of look at the world through that lens, you say, “Well, I’m here because I worked hard. And I applied myself. And kind of the meritocratic story, I’m here because I worked hard. And those other people over there, are in that disadvantaged circumstance, because, you know, they didn’t work as hard, or they didn’t apply their skills and intelligence, or they made bad decisions. You know, I think it’s so important to take those narratives and disrupt them. Really look at the ways in which advantage works, how multiple generational advantage works, as well as disadvantage. Don’t continue to use the stories about individual solutions and individual success narratives. You hear people say, “if only people”  – you know, grit, or even we hear the word resilience. “If people had more resilience and grit. Or they had better financial literacy tools. Or if they had the ability to save money and postpone gratification. Or maybe if that billionaire over there funded more scholarships to help those promising individuals and you just . . . ” That individual narrative, versus understanding that these are multi generational systemic structural inequalities, that individuals benefit from these systems of advantage. And I think then the other part is just to commit ourselves to policies that raise the floor, and that create real opportunity for people, you know. Do what some of the Nordic countries do. Have a real social safety net, have access to health care, have access to lifelong learning without going into debt. Things that actually help non rich people have good lives, and have the same opportunities that the rich have in this society. So de-mythologizing and then standing up for policies that brought an opportunity and address extreme inequality and poverty.

Asher Miller

Well said. Let’s hope that this is a moment, and as you said there are cracks in the system. Unfortunately, these are moments born out of a lot of pain. But I think we at PCI have long talked about the fact that crises and we’re gonna have lots of them, create opportunities. Hopefully this is an opportunity to address that.

Chuck Collins

I think the pandemic is a great wake up call, an opportunity that it’s a shared experience that we’ve all had, and is the basis upon which to push this program for sure.

Asher Miller

Well, thanks, Chuck. And I want to encourage folks to check out Chuck’s work at inequality.org and check out his latest book, “The Wealth Hoarders. Thanks so much, Chuck.

Chuck Collins

Thanks, Asher.

Rob Dietz

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town.

Asher Miller

This is a program of Post Carbon Institute get more info at postcarbon.org

Jason Bradford

We got a really good sponsor for today’s program, and they’re gonna offer a discount for anyone who was able to listen to our show and get through it and all the bullshit we had.

Rob Dietz

That’s a nice discount. I mean, anybody who makes it through that?

Jason Bradford

Well, what’s ironic is that it’s called “Delite” and it’s about deprogramming the elites who have a shit ton of money.

Rob Dietz

Oh, yeah, yeah. You were gonna go to Harvard. You thought you were gonna be on the fast track after your Ivy League education. But really, you’re just –

Jason Bradford

– an asshole. Yeah, yeah. So that’s the problem with all this is you think that spending a lot of money on something means it was worthwhile. And no, no, you’re just an asshole.

Asher Miller

Right? So “Delite,” what they do is they over the course of what I think it’s like 12 weeks. They they basically break you down –

Asher Miller

Yeah, right.

Asher Miller

– anytime you say something stupid or elitist? They slap you.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, it hurts. I mean, it’s a real negative reinforcement, right?

Asher Miller

But eventually, by the time you’re out of the program, you’re an actual normal human being.

Jason Bradford

Oh, and then apparently the people that have come out of this are just super nice and down to earth and –

Asher Miller

Just don’t raise your hand very quickly. . .

Rob Dietz

I made it through the episode and I used my discount to sign the two of you up.

Asher Miller

Oh, no.

Jason Bradford

This is gonna hurt, man.