Sinking.
October 14, 2012 9:05 AM   Subscribe

How Venice's 1% put an end to social mobility, and what the US can learn from it - SLNYTOP
posted by The Whelk (50 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Economist has a long special report and an op-ed on the same topic this week.
posted by costas at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2012


"radical centrist politics"?!
posted by eviemath at 9:43 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recently learned about the Venetian separatist movement which includes the Veneto State and Libertarian Movement parties. Reminded me of certain parties and beliefs in the USA, though they seem to have even greater popular support there.
posted by stbalbach at 9:54 AM on October 14, 2012


But...but...she said 'Marx'! Her thesis is obviously wrong, and pernicious, and she clearly loves Stalin!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:15 AM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


So Venice declined over the course of hundred of years? Why would this "self-destruction" be a problem for its 1%? Suppressing competition from the lower classes for hundred of years doesn't sound that bad considering that all powers are destined to eventually collapse.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:34 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Like FfA says, it's not obvious that Venice fell. I wonder if there's an implicit belief that an economy isn't healthy unless it is expanding?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:38 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Thomas Jefferson quote in the article leaves me pretty cold. The writer quotes Jefferson:
“We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”
Actually, the US economy, and Jefferson's personal wealth, was based on slavery.
posted by wuwei at 11:39 AM on October 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


wuwei: I also bauked at using Jefferson. The same point could have been made without calling to the authority of a man who was personally invested in the buying, selling, and breeding of human beings for slave labour - in a system of chattel slavery which was itself the most unequal society that I have ever heard of. Of course, white America could seem more equal -- you just exclude the poorest from humanity.

I'll never understand why people go to Jefferson for quotes as if he were some saint on social issues. Free speech, politics, whatever - but on issues of social equality he was such egregious hypocrite.
posted by jb at 11:54 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'll never understand why people go to Jefferson for quotes as if he were some saint on social issues. Free speech, politics, whatever - but on issues of social equality he was such egregious hypocrite.
I always thought it was that Jefferson's quotes sound great until you realise he was talking exclusively about white people.
posted by fullerine at 11:57 AM on October 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


You mean white males not white people.
posted by Talez at 11:59 AM on October 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


I always thought it was that Jefferson's quotes sound great until you realise he was talking exclusively about white people.

To be fair, hardly anyone anywhere before the early 20th C when they said "Liberty" meant anything beyond landowning men.

Well, except Socialists, but they were socialists!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:00 PM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


well maybe the same point couldn't be made bc early America wasn't as equal as Jefferson claimed.
posted by jb at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Jefferson quote sort of ruins what's otherwise a pretty good article.
posted by codacorolla at 12:14 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You mean white males not white people.
Oh My, my privilege is showing, how embarrassing.

Thanks, that was a quite ironic slice of ignorance from me there (I was feeling so smug about it too). hehe
posted by fullerine at 12:15 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


jb that's my point exactly. Early America wasn't as equal as Jefferson claimed. Neither, for that matter was the ancient Athens that so many early American leaders idolized. Athens was also built on slavery.

Most of the progress we've made in building a more equal society happened 1) after the Civil War, during Reconstruction 2) during the New Deal era until the Nixon administration.

As for continuing to build an egalitarian society, that's up to us.
posted by wuwei at 12:22 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


As for continuing to build an egalitarian society, that's up to us.

It's about time you started thinking of this as resuming building an egalitarian society, not continuing.
posted by fightorflight at 12:38 PM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I always thought it was that Jefferson's quotes sound great until you realise he was talking exclusively about white people.

Unless he was talking about the woman he apparently loved and had children with

Funny how a post about the 1% and renaissance Venice turns so quickly to Thomas Jefferson.

I wonder which modernism would vex Jefferson more, if he were alive today: How much the 1% have completely hosed everyone else, or that a self made man of mixed race background occupies the office he himself once held.
posted by Hickeystudio at 12:43 PM on October 14, 2012


There a section in the book, Why nations fail, on the same subject. Good book, I would recommend it.
posted by KaizenSoze at 1:04 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Funny how a post about the 1% and renaissance Venice turns so quickly to Thomas Jefferson.

Well, he was quoted in the article, and, anyway, when you think of famous Venetians, isn't Jefferson at the to of your list? They didn't call him a Renaissance Man for nothing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:12 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The article argues for a radical libertarian agenda. The state is a mechanism whereby those with power keep their riches: the banking bail-out is the best recent example in the USA. Government capture means that social mobility is hammered down by the control of the economy by entrenched interests. We must avoid this pitfall by keeping the economy open, free, and unregulated.

Nice to see such powerful support for freer markets on MetaFilter! Quite unusual, though.
posted by alasdair at 1:28 PM on October 14, 2012


We must avoid this pitfall by keeping the economy open, free, and unregulated.

I did not read it that way.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


And did ya notice that Jefferson's quote essentially stated that America had no upward mobility, but a small upper class and a massive working class with no way for anyone in the latter to join the former?

The article argues for a radical libertarian agenda. Nice to see such powerful support for freer markets on MetaFilter! Quite unusual, though.
No, we often post op-eds that are totally wrong, just not usually as subtly so.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:31 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


We must avoid this pitfall by keeping the economy open, free, and unregulated.

The problem isn't regulation in the abstract, but the practical outcome of our current regulatory environment. At the moment, regulations are written to favor the wealthy and their corporations. It's just as fair to say that regulations should be written to better distribute resources to give all working people an opportunity to sustain reasonable living standards. Regulations can aid in creating a sustainable economy - or they can create a situation where the benefits of society go to the very few and ultimately undermine the larger economy.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:50 PM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's funny how the decline of Venice coincides with the discovery and exploitation of the New World and the weakening of the Byzantine/Ottoman state, Venice's chief trading partners. I wonder if the book the op ed author is promoting makes any effort whatsoever to disentangle these processes.
posted by Nomyte at 2:19 PM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


In fairness, the author overlooks that Venice's problems were further compounded by Ezio Auditore murdering all those people that he murdered.
posted by mightygodking at 4:10 PM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hey KaizenSoze, rtfa will ya? They mention Why Nations Fail in the fourth paragraph.

Previously on the blue
posted by Gregamell at 4:44 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good article. Thanks, Whelk.
posted by homunculus at 4:56 PM on October 14, 2012


The Thomas Jefferson quote in the article leaves me pretty cold. The writer quotes Jefferson:

“We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”

Actually, the US economy, and Jefferson's personal wealth, was based on slavery.


That quote almost sounds apocryphal. It fits in so very tidily with the current conservative movement. It's easy for present day Jeffersons (like the Mittster) to proclaim things like this because they live cloistered lives.
posted by gjc at 8:01 PM on October 14, 2012


...or they can create a situation where the benefits of society go to the very few and ultimately undermine the larger economy.

A fascinating experiment. Old Austrian economists say that we should try it here now. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by ovvl at 8:22 PM on October 14, 2012


To be fair, hardly anyone anywhere before the early 20th C when they said "Liberty" meant anything beyond landowning men.

Retroactively condemning people for belong to a certain class or profession is a sign of chrono-privilege. Certainly historical figures can be viewed critically but saying that everything Jefferson said about liberty is invalid because of his slaveowning background could also probably apply to every single Framer and Founding Father.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:15 PM on October 14, 2012


And we absolutely should read literally everything they wrote fully in the knowledge that they were assholes who were entirely concerned with the preservation and enabling of their own privileges.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:08 PM on October 14, 2012


Not a bad article or anything, but I went in hoping for a full buffet of Venetian history and found only a snack table.

When is the NYT going to get a proper renaissance section?!
Come on, maybe just on Sunday?
posted by Winnemac at 10:32 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Retroactively condemning people for belong to a certain class or profession is a sign of chrono-privilege. Certainly historical figures can be viewed critically but saying that everything Jefferson said about liberty is invalid because of his slaveowning background could also probably apply to every single Framer and Founding Father.

yes, it can be said of every slave holding Founding Father -- and it should be.

And it was said at the time: contemporary critics of the revolution pointed out how the Americans decried Westminster's attempt to make metaphorical "slaves" out of them, but had no problem owning actual real slaves.

We're not talking about anti-semitism in medieval Europe - not to justify that in any way, but it was not under debate like slavery was in the late 18th century. Abolition was already a strong movement; Wilberforce was his contemporary and the British slave trade was abolished during Jefferson's presidency. Jefferson was not just on the wrong side of history, he was on the wrong side of the politics of his time.

like I said above, I don't care about quoting Jefferson on things like taxes, government economic policy. But when it comes to issues like equality or social structure -- well, no one quotes Henry VIII as an authority on good marital relations, do they?
posted by jb at 10:56 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


I missed the connection between Venetian elite keeping out newcomers and USA rich people not paying taxes. Or rather, not paying _federal_ taxes.

I think the ruling elite (if you want to call them that) are widening the gap by pulling down the lower middle classes by excessive social grants.
posted by wrm at 12:22 AM on October 15, 2012


Downton Abbey Economics
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:55 AM on October 15, 2012


And we absolutely should read literally everything they wrote fully in the knowledge that they were assholes who were entirely concerned with the preservation and enabling of their own privileges.

I dunno. Yes, there is a huge and obvious disconnect between the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers and their slave-owning. However, they did not set up a new aristocratcy but as a bourgeoise republic which left the door open to more egalitarian developments. More or less the reverse of the Venetian "closing."

It's also a bit off the mark to compare British and American Abolitionist movements. Ending slavery in Britian was easier, since slavery and its critical economic impact (without slave cotton, there would have been no Industrial Revolution) has been conveniently outsourced to the colonies. Plus, the British had cheap Irish labor to depress wages (so they didn't need slaves for that), although that was more an 18th C issue, I think.

So, yeah, we need to study the incongruities of the Founding Fathers and reject the American hagiography. But it's a bit reductionist to say "they were all assholes," too, since, from one view, that can be the short summary of all history....
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:11 AM on October 15, 2012


"Excessive social grants."

*snort*

That must be it on your planet. On Earth, however, things don't work in this opposite manner.
posted by lackutrol at 5:03 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


GenjiandProust: cotton may have come from the American states, but the British colonies which relied most heavily on slavery all remained within the Empire (Jamaica, Demerara, etc - their ratios of slave to free were much higher than the American slaves and part of the reason they did not rebel with the mainland colonies - they feared a free rebellion would quickly lead to a slave rebellion). Abolishing the slave trade in 1807 affected all of the rich and politically significant slave-owners of these colonies, who remained British citizens.

I didn't say that "they were all assholes", but that quoting Jefferson on matters of social equality is questionable. Quoting him on free speech, on government financing - that wouldn't twig anything.

But as wuwei puts it very well above, Jefferson's ideal American society in which the rich could not oppress the poor and the poor were free and could demand good wages for their labour did not exist at all. It's a myth that he told himself and the world, by conveniently redefining the poorest Americans as chattel.

Which is very pertinent to the discussion: ignoring slavery distorts the history of inequality, just as ignoring the capital and raw materials produced by slaves and their contribution to economic growth in Britain distorts the British industrial revolution.
posted by jb at 6:42 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


What I'm getting at is that Jefferson's concepts of social equality and liberty were constrained by the cultural blinders of his time. The blinders that affected all men and caused them to exclude slaves, non-whites, women, and foreigners. Yes, we should be aware of those blinders, but I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and think everything he said about equality is invalid just because his concept of equality was different. Couldn't we simply take his concept of equality and swap it with our own, while still salvaging what he said? I think that is possible.

That Jefferson's vision of America was some sort of bucolic agrarian utopia should be held suspect, since he was a weird southern aristocratic idealist in that. We live in Hamilton's vision anyway.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:44 AM on October 15, 2012


I didn't say that "they were all assholes", but that quoting Jefferson on matters of social equality is questionable. Quoting him on free speech, on government financing - that wouldn't twig anything.

Well, I was quoting Pope Guilty, who did call them assholes, but -- I think the point is we should respond to Jefferson's words and take them at face value as ideals toward which we might work -- he describes a sort of universal liberty, so why don't we pursue universal liberty?

And, yes, the British banned the Transatlantic slave trade, which was a good thing, but they did nothing to free those already enslaved, which meant they didn't really abandon any economic advantage....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:32 AM on October 15, 2012


To try to drag this post back from the terrible Jeffersonian abyss, are there other cases where the elite of a society, in an effort to lock interlopers out of privilege, shut down the processes that kept the society flourishing?

Mike Duncan in The History of Rome podcast, makes the case that the Italian elite of Rome finally drew the line at letting the Germans fully incorporate in the Empire. Unlike earlier crises, where, for example, the Illyrians pulled Rome's fat out of the fire, the Germans were blocked from the highest offices, which made pulling pieces off the Empire more attractive than trying to save the whole thing (under their rule).

Anyone else?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:07 AM on October 15, 2012


The French Revolution?

A traditional analysis of the French Revolution - and why Britain was remarkably undisturbed by revolution through the 18th, 19th century - would say that the British placed fewer barriers into moving into the elite. That said, the French barriers were a lot more porous than they appear at first glance, and measures of social mobility find similar levels. But there was at the time the PERCEPTION that the British aristocracy/elite was more open than the French (or other European nobilities), partly due to the fact that though the British titled nobility were few and few titles were granted, most of their privileges were shared with all landowners of a certain size. A gentleman was anyone who could live like a gentleman, and anyone had the vote who had enough land.

But this is really a political example, not an economic one.

For economics, I think colonialism might offer some good examples. In settler colonies, elites were interested in sharing the benefits of growth with a much wider section of the population than in the non-settler colonies. I once read a very interesting article comparing New Zealand and Ghana, which were not dissimilar in population, climate, economics in the late-nineteenth, early 20th centuries. But the New Zealand government, whether colonial or independent, actively invested in local development and welfare -- supporting producers, improving education, supporting the expansion of local manufacturers to process raw materials there rather than elsewhere. Whereas the colonial regime in Ghana was only interested in the production of raw materials for export, and not in promoting local economic development or social welfare. New Zealand isn't the richest first-world country, but today it is substantially richer than Ghana.
posted by jb at 11:42 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Liberty" means a different thing to "freedom". From this article:

Like an English lord unfettered from the Magna Carta, nobody had the authority to tell a Southern gentleman what to do with resources under his control. In this model, that’s what liberty is. If you don’t have the freedom to rape, beat, torture, kill, enslave, or exploit your underlings (including your wife and children) with impunity — or abuse the land, or enforce rules on others that you will never have to answer to yourself — then you can’t really call yourself a free man.

When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:58 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So Venice declined over the course of hundred of years? Why would this "self-destruction" be a problem for its 1%?

Aristocrats want their children and grandchildren to enjoy the same wealth and social standing they enjoy. If they ossify the economic system, they guarantee their children a larger piece of a smaller pie.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:42 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330.

Very astute. Some scholars say that this epidemic of low social mobility soon after 1330 might have reduced the European population by nearly half. We saw a similar pattern in Europe during the 20th century. Economic inequality got so bad that Europe's population was distressingly smaller in 1950 than it had been in 1930.
posted by dgaicun at 2:23 AM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Economic inequality got so bad that Europe's population was distressingly smaller in 1950 than it had been in 1930.

Subtle.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:12 AM on October 18, 2012


Moyers & Company: Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland on the One Percent’s Power and Privileges
posted by homunculus at 12:53 PM on October 21, 2012


Book Excerpt: Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats
posted by homunculus at 7:03 PM on October 21, 2012


“We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. [...]

gjc: That quote almost sounds apocryphal.

It's from Jefferson's letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper dated September 10, 1814. Here's the text, and here's an image of the letter from the Library of Congress; the quote starts at the bottom of that page.
posted by stebulus at 9:19 AM on October 26, 2012


(And, by the way, that letter goes on to consider slavery explicitly, paying lip service at least to the desirability of eliminating the institution, and comparing the condition of slaves in the US to the condition of poor laborers, and of conscripted soldiers and sailors, in the UK. I doubt his comments on this topic will be seen as praiseworthy, but it's not quite right that Jefferson was just ignoring the issue entirely. Not in this letter, at least.)
posted by stebulus at 10:03 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


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