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“The Dunning-Kruger effect is the hemophilia of dynastic capitalism”*…

Espen Gleditsch, Thanatos. From the exhibition “On the Whispering Wind, QB Gallery 2023. Photo credit: Tor Simen Ulstein.

Anyone too scared to say Thanatos, Elizabeth Schambelan argues, might wind up with Theranos

… Melinda Cooper thinks family capitalism is a useful term for comprehending our circumstances. The historian Steve Fraser proposes dynastic capitalism, which has a stronger sense of occasion. Either phrase seems like it could appease the nomenclatural martinets among us, the ones who think neo-feudalism is almost as vulgar a term as fascism, and that vulgar rubrics must be avoided as we strive to come to grips with such classy phenomena as private submarines that vaporize on their way to James Cameron’s favorite place, state officials obsessing about high school athletes’ menstrual cycles, children getting chemical burns while working the graveyard shift in slaughterhouses, and Sam Bankman-Fried paying somebody 700 million dollars to introduce him to Orlando Bloom. But I digress. With respect to family or dynastic capitalism, there is an incredible moment in The Inventor, the HBO documentary about Elizabeth Holmes, when one of her investors—the famous venture capitalist, the one in the cowboy hat, if that narrows it down, whose name is escaping me—defends his choice to give her millions of dollars by noting that one of her grandfathers ran a hospital and the other ran a bank (or something to that effect), “so you see, she came by it quite naturally!” Another of the VCs in the documentary is wearing a tie covered in Bitcoin logos, and says he invested in Theranos, Holmes’s company, because Holmes was friends with his daughter, and that if his gut cosigned, he’d be willing to invest in “a guy and a dog, or two girls and a cat,” though presumably only if at least one member of the team could claim friendship with his child or his labradoodle. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the hemophilia of dynastic capitalism. The dynasty is perhaps best understood expansively, as encompassing friends, and relatives’ friends, and loyal retainers with up to four legs, but nevertheless insular and exclusive, rarely open to true upstarts. Entrepreneurship in this system is a euphemism for a set of favors dispensed from above, from a consortium of patrons that might or might not include the innovator’s literal daddy.

Several years ago I read about a scientific study indicating that one out of three people have no internal monologue, no inner homunculus to offer a constant stream of unsolicited opinions and irritating queries. My guess is that a disproportionate number of dynastic scions enjoy this enviable yet hazardous self-congruence. There is no still small voice to muse, “Hmm, does Theranos sound kind of sinister” or “Does OceanGate sound like a Daytona Beach water park that opened in 1995?” Both Holmes and Rush evinced blasé contempt for regulatory agencies and accrediting organizations, because they stifle innovation, are run by bureaucrats, etc. And if a bureaucrat hadn’t shut Holmes down, Theranos would still be operating little slices of purgatory in Walgreens stores across the land. Holmes called them “wellness centers,” which is a weird name for a place where a person with syphilis has a thirty-five percent chance of getting a false negative on their syphilis test. Rush had a similar rhetorical bent. He said there were sensors all over the Titan to provide real-time monitoring of “hull health,” as if the hull were living tissue and the submersible perhaps a gigantic kernel of corn, which for all I know is the vibe his marketing team was going for—organic and plant-based, if a bit high-carb. More to the point, calling the sensors hull-health monitors is like calling a fire alarm a building-health monitor, except in this analogy if the fire alarm goes off, it means the building and everyone in it will cease to exist in two milliseconds.

I do think Holmes is a useful comparanda for Rush, but of course, she’s not the only one. Maybe she’s on my mind simply because of that recent profile that offered real-time monitoring of the health of her ability to gull journalists. Or maybe it’s because Theranos, the word, is a kind of twisted emblem for an entire ethos. Even if she never voiced it to herself, Holmes knew what the real namesake of her company was. I’m not the first person to comment on the similarities between the two words. The differences are typical of what is called taboo deformation—little changes to phonemes that permit a dangerous word to be safely said aloud. Persephone’s name was perilous to utter because she was queen of the underworld, so people used variations like Persephassa. Anyone too scared to say Thanatos might wind up with Theranos.

I’m sorry to speak ill of the dead and the recently incarcerated, but I just don’t have the energy for taboo deformations of my sentiments. I’m tired of the sensation of gradually sinking through an abyssopelagic murk where light is a memory kindled by queasy blips of bioluminescence. Lanternfish have bio-lamps attached to their heads by slim appendages; the orbs hang directly in front of their open mouths, attracting prey. But at least lanternfish aren’t pompous megalomaniacs who arrogate the right to steer us all into darkness and then expect to be thanked for letting us exist in the sickening phosphor of their tiny little privatized suns. That’s more than can be said for our era’s plutocratic class, as apotheosized by an unhinged emerald-mine heir who looks like he’s had a marginally successful face transplant—a chilling visage, once mystifying to me in its peculiar lifelessness, finally explicable as the mask of a psychopomp who’s here to usher all of us to the chthonic depths whence came his wealth and ego. On the scale of self-awareness, Stockton Rush was a veritable Socrates compared to the space captain who is currently the world’s richest man. As for the scale of the damage wreaked by each entrepreneur’s risky business—I am not going to engage in that calculus. It is hard to take much satisfaction in the knowledge that chaos agents are vulnerable to the chaos they create. I don’t think I could rejoice in mortal comeuppance even if the most richly deserving person were on the receiving end, and even if the circumstances were less horrific than what befell those aboard the Titan, and even if it really were comeuppance instead of the mere illusion of it. If there is going to be justice it will have to be in life, since death by definition just evens out the scales. Theranos is coming for us all…

Eminently worth reading and pondering in full: “Little Privatized Suns,” from @ESchambelan in @nplusonemag.

Via Ingrid Burrington‘s (@lifewinning) glorious newsletter, Perfect Sentences.

* Elizabeth Schambelan


As we reevaluate our esteem of estates, we might recall that it was on this date in 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force (though it remained legal in the possessions of the East India Company until the passage of the Indian Slavery Act, 1843).

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”, 1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign (source)

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”*…

The image above captures the received wisdom about extreme poverty and the way that it has declined over the last couple of centuries. But Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel would have us take a longer view, suggesting that the story is neither so simple nor so laudatory as we might assume…


• The common notion that extreme poverty is the “natural” condition of humanity and only declined with the rise of capitalism rests on income data that do not adequately capture access to essential goods.

•Data on real wages suggests that, historically, extreme poverty was uncommon and arose primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism.

• The rise of capitalism from the long 16th century onward is associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality.

• In parts of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, wages and/or height have still not recovered.

• Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.

Capitalism and extreme poverty: A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century.” By way of context, Hickel is a “degrowthadvocate. In any case, the data is arresting– and surely worth pondering.

* Confucius


As we dig deeper, and lest we think pre-capitalist life was Edenic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1381 that “boy-King” Richard II met with the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt (AKA Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion or the Great Rising), which had arisen for a variety of reasons, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s and the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War.

At the meeting, Richard acceded to some of their demands– most notably, the abolition of serfdom. But after he had the opportunity to gather his forces, he put the rebellion down, rounded up the leaders (some of whom were executed; others imprisoned)… and re-instituted serfdom.

Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles (source)

“Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity”*…

Brad DeLong elaborates on Jonathan Kirshner‘s bracing review of Martin Wolf‘s important new book

Jonathan Kirshner: Rigged Capitalism and the Rise of Pluto-populism: On Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism: ‘The middle third of this book, “What Went Wrong,” should be required reading…. When it comes to solutions, unfortunately, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism comes up short. Wolf, ever measured, is convincing in making the case for reform over revolution…. Yet it is disheartening that the sensible, reformist agenda of reasonable, practical measures that Wolf outlines already seems beyond the capacity of our politics…. Massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism”… [which] unleash[es] forces… [that] render liberal democracy unsustainable…. corruption, arbitrariness of justice, and fear for future prospects are poisonous to the body politic…. Its final sentence, “If we fail, the light of political and personal freedom might once again disappear from the world,” reads less like a call to action and more like an epitaph…

Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism and Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation are, I think, the best books on theDover-Circle-Plus societies current Time of Troubles. And there is no clear way through.

It was James Madison who wrote, in 1787:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths…

And the death of real democracy does not have to be accompanied by the end of the form. The classic example here is the Jim Crow U.S. South from 1876-1965. It was less than half as rich as the rest of the United States for almost a complete century. It was ruled by an oligarchy uninterested in economic development and very interested in corruption. The oligarchy its power by focusing the electorate on the necessity of keeping the Black Man Down, and tarring anyone who wanted a government that was less corrupt or more pro-development with being a negro-lover. That it held rocksolid from 1876 to 1965 shows that the future of anything we could call prosperous democratic capitalism is not assured…

Bracing: “Pluto-Populism,” from @delong.

See also: Kishore Mahbubani‘s “Democracy or Plutocracy? – America’s Existential Question” (source of the image above).

Thomas Frank


As we get back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Depression Era bandits Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by police and shot to death in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut (Champion) Barrow were a criminal couple who traveled the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. The couple were known for their bank robberies, although they preferred to rob small stores or rural funeral homes. Their exploits captured the attention of the American press and its readership during what is occasionally referred to as the “public enemy era” between 1931 and 1934.

The 1967 hit film Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles, revived interest in the couple, who were treated somewhat sympathetically. The 2019 Netflix film The Highwaymen depicted their manhunt from the point of view of the pursuing lawmen but received mixed reviews.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–34 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout (source)

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”*…

Three considerations of Gary Gerstle‘s important new book, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era: First Robert Kuttner ponders why Democratic presidents embraced an economic credo that annihilated their own public philosophy and its appeal to the electorate…

Beginning with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a succession of Democratic presidents joined Republicans in turning away from the New Deal model of regulated capitalism toward what has come to be known as neoliberalism. The neoliberal credo claims that markets work efficiently and that government attempts to constrain them via regulation and public spending invariably fail, backfire, or are corrupted by politics. As public policy, neoliberalism has relied on deregulation, privatization, weakened trade unions, less progressive taxation, and new trade rules to reduce the capacity of national governments to manage capitalism. These shifts have resulted in widening inequality, diminished economic security, and reduced confidence in the ability of government to aid its citizens.

The Republican embrace of this doctrine is hardly surprising. Given the lessons learned about the necessity of government interventions following the 1929 stock market collapse and the success of the Roosevelt administration as a model for the Democratic Party, the allure of neoliberalism to many Democrats is a puzzle worth exploring.

The term “neoliberalism” itself is confusing, because for at least a century “liberalism” in the United States has meant moderate left, not free-market right. Neoliberalism in its current economic sense draws on the older meaning of liberalism, which is still common in Europe and which holds that free markets are the counterpart of a free and democratic society. That was the claim of classical liberals like Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson.

Only in the twentieth century, after the excesses of robber-baron capitalism, did modern liberals begin supporting extensive government intervention—the use of “Hamiltonian means” to carry out “Jeffersonian ends,” in the 1909 formulation of Herbert Croly, one of the founders of The New Republic. This view defined the ideology of both presidents Roosevelt and was reinforced by the economics of John Maynard Keynes. In Britain, the counterpart in the same era was the “radical liberalism” of social reform put forth by the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George.

The term neoliberalism also gets muddled because some on the left use it as an all-purpose put-down of conservatism—to the point where one might wonder whether it is just an annoying buzzword. But neoliberalism does have a precise and useful meaning, as a reversion to the verities of classical economics, with government as guardian of unregulated markets…

Free Markets, Besieged Citizens

Brian Kettenring worries (with Gramsci, as quoted in this post’s title above) that the transition to what’s next could be treacherous…

In a contest among global models, one option is the state-authoritarian capitalist model represented by China. A second one would be a neoliberalism retooled for the 21st century. But because neoliberalism has failed on its most central promise (growth) and other important tests (climate, inequality, and race), it is increasingly marginalized, if still persistent in the public imagination and the structures of important national and international institutions. A third option—which seems ascendant—is the ethno-nationalism of Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and company. The economic track record of ethno-nationalism in power has often proved anti-neo-liberal—especially on trade, but often on public investment, the social safety net, and even industrial policy—but that hasn’t foreclosed tax cutting or deregulation. And while the racialist and exclusionary politics of ethno-nationalism are disqualifying, its record of governance is, with some exceptions, poor.

None of these geopolitical arrangements will serve America or the world well in the third decade of the 21st century. For those who share Gerstle’s critique of neoliberalism, the task is to chart a fourth way that is inclusive, sustainable, and consonant with strong democratic governance and pluralistic societies. At present, this fourth way appears to be the harder road. That said, Rise and Fall offers guidance for how it might still win the day. 

Gerstle reminds us that geopolitics can have unpredictable economic side effects. The war in Ukraine has accelerated inflationary dynamics in the global economy, increasing the price of everything from energy to wheat. It’s too soon to assess the long-term consequences of the Russian invasion. Still, one optimistic reading of the potential by-products of the war might be accelerated investments—at least in Europe—in the green energy sector…

Neoliberalism Is Dying. What Comes Next?

And L. Benjamin Rolsky considers the moral– and spiritual– baggage that it carries…

… A moral code accompanied the neoliberal order to protect itself against its worst excesses and moral failures. Many Americans were perfect matches for neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial politics, its promises of unbridled freedom once remade in the image of homo economicus; many were not. For Gerstle, the neoliberal order produced two interrelated modes of citizenship within the body politic: conservative neo-Victorianism and liberal cosmopolitanism. The former encouraged self-discipline in the name of market austerity and the proverbial Christian family. The latter privileged diversity, self-expression, and socioeconomic mobility. As Gerstle describes, “It celebrated the cultural exchanges and dynamism that increasingly characterized the global cities — London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Toronto, and Miami among them — developing under the aegis of the neoliberal order.” This much is most certainly true circa 1975: the beginnings of neoliberalism’s deregulatory ascent.

Within the same moment, however, neoliberalism would also help give birth to additional forms of religiosity including the “Prosperity Gospel,” replete with global communication networks, acts of spiritual exuberance, and larger-than-life television personalities. While this tradition of health and wealth dates back to the late 19th century, it found its domestic stride in the United States within the postindustrial conditions of the neoliberal order in the 1980s and 1990s. The fact that prosperity gospel healer Paula White-Cain has rekindled her relationship with former president Donald Trump’s communications team speaks to the intimate relationship between neoliberal success, political freedom, and spiritual prosperity in American political life — especially in 2022.

The rise and fall of the neoliberal order has curtailed some religious ideals and formulations in the name of neo-Victorian morality, but it also cultivated equally powerful forces that promised to liberate true believers from their respective experiences of spiritual captivity. Until such forces of neoliberal freedom are understood and diagnosed as complex forms of economic captivity themselves, there is no telling how much longer the neoliberal order can remain fractured yet deeply informative of our collective political imaginations…

Religion of the Market: On Gary Gerstle’s “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order

How neoliberalism rose, fell, and what might replace it: @rkuttnerwrites, @bkettenring, and @LBRolsky on a powerful new book by @glgerstle.

* Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks


As we compose our selves for change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that Bob Dylan was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival during his first public performance with electric instruments (and a band that included Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper)… The cat-calling began with his opening number, “Maggie’s Farm,” and continued through three more songs, after which Dylan left the stage. As a peace offering to Pete Seeger and other aggrieved organizers, Dylan returned later to do two acoustic numbers… but the die was cast; thereafter, his career was electrically-powered… and both folk and rock music were forever changed.


“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”*…

The story of how Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher, pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, and humanist, came to be the avatar of unrestrained capitalism…

How is it that Adam Smith in America wound up as the poster child for the “stark utopia” of the free-market order? How is it that he is the guy who is taken to have said that a good society is one in which all of the social power you exercise to command the work and attention of others is mediated through the market? A market society is one in which all the social power one exerts to attempt to command the aims of the work of society is deployed through your effective demand—and so is equal to your wealth times your personal intensity of desire that some commodity be made for your personal use. This is a fine thing to do, but only if the only end of society is to produce commodities for its individuals’ personal utilization, and only if the societal value placed on the happiness of an individual is proportional to his wealth.

But that is simply not the case…

Brad DeLong (@delong) considers (his one-time student) Glory Liu‘s (@miss_glory) Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism: “The Adam Smith Americans Have Imagined.”

See also: “The misunderstood Adam Smith gets both credit and blame for modern capitalism” (source of the image above)

* “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations


As we read more closely, we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that a critic of the industrialization rationalized in part by the revisionist understanding of Adam Smith’s thought, Theodore John (“Ted”) Kaczynski was apprehended. From 1978 to 1995, he had killed three people and injured 23 others in a nationwide bombing campaign against people he believed to be advancing modern technology and the destruction of the environment.

A math prodigy, Kaczynski had begun a career as a professor of mathematics at Berkeley– but abruptly resigned and retreated to rural Montana… from whence he waged his domestic terror campaign and where he wrote his manifesto, the essay Industrial Society and Its Future.

Kaczynski was the subject of the longest and most expensive investigation in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation up to that point. The FBI used the case identifier UNABOM (University and Airline Bomber) to refer to his case before his identity was known, which the media turned into the “Unabomber.” In 1995, Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times and promised to “desist from terrorism” if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto. At the urging of Attorney General Janet Reno, the Post did. Kaczynski’s brother David recognized the prose style and reported his suspicions to the FBI, which led to Kacynski’s arrest.

Kaczynski—maintaining that he was sane—tried and failed to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers because they wanted him to plead insanity to avoid the death penalty. In 1998 he struck a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.


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