Wendell Berry is Still Insane

The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.


But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.


When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it?


Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change. Change of course is a constant of earthly life. You can’t step twice into exactly the same river, nor can you live two successive moments in exactly the same place. And always in human history there have been costly or catastrophic sudden changes. But with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call “revolution” for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution. We have had in only about two centuries a steady and ever-quickening sequence of industrial revolutions in manufacturing, transportation, war, agriculture, education, entertainment, homemaking and family life, health care, and so-called communications.

Probably everything that can be said in favor of all this has been said, and it is true that these revolutions have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain. It is also true that the industrialization of everything has incurred liabilities and is running deficits that have not been adequately accounted. All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.


But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.

– from the National Endowment of the Humanities “Jefferson Lecture” by Wendell Berry

Dear Mr. Berry,

I don’t like your writing and I’m sure if you bothered to read my blog for more than five minutes, you wouldn’t like mine. But the last time I tried criticizing your writing I caused quite a bit of a stir, at least for this little blog, because I hadn’t familiarized myself with your work. I promised that the next time I wrote about you I would read some of your stuff. It is just over a year later and while I haven’t read any of your older work, I just had the opportunity of closely reading your recent lecture, delivered as part of the award of receiving the “Jefferson Lecture” from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH says the award “recognizes an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions to the humanities and who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broadly appealing way.” It is also “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Looking over previous recipients, I don’t see too many affirmative action inclusions and in general, most folks who got the award (e.g. Saul Bellow, Leszek Kolakowski, Bernard Lewis, Don Kagan, Tom Wolfe, Leon Kass) are indeed impressive public intellectuals.

Judging you, on the other hand, from the quality of your lecture, not so much.

In fact, I’m going to break one of my newer vows to myself to try and be more civil with my erstwhile interlocutors and keep describing you as insane. How else can I describe someone who remains committed to the radical destruction of Western civilization? Make no mistake about it — I quoted big sections of your lecture for a reason — I wanted folks to read you in context. This might be my favorite part: “All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans.” All preceded by what might go down as the most famous weasel words spoken by someone who is supposed to be a public intellectual: “and it is true that these revolutions [meaning the industrial revolution and modern capitalism] have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain.” Look, I’m not even a libertarian utopian and yet the sheer numbers of people who have been healed and helped and been given hope thanks to the wonders of the industrial revolution is mind-boggling. There is probably only one graph anyone needs to see to change their mind — it is the graph that proved Malthus wrong:

"The Great Divergance"

Read Greg Clark Mr. Berry, you'll actually learn a thing or two about human flourishing.

I went through this ’round and ’round with your defenders the last time I posted about you, and most of them basically told me I was reading you out of context or that you just wanted Western man to appreciate “limits” and/or the costs as well as the benefits of industrialization. It turns out I was exactly right about you. You are radical down to your bones and your jeremiad given in Washington is totally fact free. Another favorite from what I quote above is this:

“At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature.”

Not a single fact to be found in all that gaseous prose. I’d like to give you (and all my readers) a homework assignment — go to this wonderful website hosted by the Pacific Research Institute and get acquainted with some of their work. Their best writer is Steven Hayward who has been preparing the Almanac of Environmental Trends for years, has this to say in their latest edition:

As Figure 1 displays, the reduction in air pollution is comparable in magnitude to the reduction in the welfare rolls, and greater than the reduction in the crime rate—both celebrated as major public-policy success stories of the last two decades. Aggregate emissions of the six “criteria” pollutants1 regulated under the Clean Air Act have fallen by 53 percent since 1970, while the proportion of the population receiving welfare assistance is down 48 percent from 1970, and the crime rate is only 6.4 percent below its 1970 level. (And as we shall see, this aggregate nationwide reduction in emissions greatly understates the actual improvement in ambient air quality in the areas with the worst levels of air pollution.) Measures for water quality, toxic-chemical exposure, soil erosion, forest growth, wetlands, and several other areas of environmental concern show similar positive trends, as this Almanac reports. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the environment have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that these kinds of improvements will be experienced in the rest of the world over the course of this century. We’ll examine some of the early evidence that this is already starting to occur.

The chief drivers of environmental improvement are economic growth, constantly increasing resource efficiency, technological innovation in pollution control, and the deepening of environmental values among the American public that have translated to changed behavior and consumer preferences. Government regulation has played a vital role, to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things regulation can be understood as a lagging indicator, often achieving results at needlessly high cost, and sometimes failing completely. Were it not for rising affluence and technological innovation, regulation would have much the same effect as King Canute commanding the tides.

Good stuff and I should note that Hayward dedicates his almanac, appropriately enough, to the late, great, Julian Simon. They both understand what you do not — that just because human beings occasionally screw-up doesn’t mean we don’t also accomplish great things.

Indeed, even when it comes to farming human ingenuity has been remarkable. Tell one of your friends to Google Norman Borlaug for you and read up a bit on one of the most important men of the 20th Century. Just think of the sheer number of people whose lives have been seriously helped by Norman’s innovations (and he got his start at DuPont — the horror of it). And then when it comes to the so-called harm we might do with modern farming techniques, I read this delightful article and discover that industrial agriculture isn’t even the threat to the environment doomsayers like you say it is — and this is the one subject you are supposedly the expert on.

Quite frankly, I don’t trust you. I’d rather get my farming advice from Blake Hurst, who seems to understand modern industrial farming just fine, and loves to work his family farm with all the benefits of modern technology. God bless him.

And what the heck do you mean by “the two great aims of industrialism” are “replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy.” Says who? This is more nonsense — the great aim of industrialization was the same as the aim of all human innovation, trade and hard work: to better our lot and improve our lives. And judging by the graph above, it has done that in countless ways that only someone blinded by ideology could ignore.

Your crazed ideas about our modern economy (which is by no means perfect, but then again ever since the Fall, nothing we humans will do on Earth will be perfect, at least we can agree on that) do remind me of someone…let La Wik help you figure it out:

[the guy who reminds me of Wendell Berry and his followers] had been evacuating captured urban areas for many years, but the evacuation of [Louisville] was unique due to its scale. The first operations to evacuate urban areas occurred in 2043 in the [Jefferson County] area and were aimed at moving people deeper into [Wendell Berry] territory to better control them. From 2046–2048, the motivation changed. [Wendell Berry] and the other senior leaders were frustrated that urban Kentuckians were retaining old habits of trade and business. When all other methods had failed, evacuation to the countryside was adopted to solve the problem.

O.K., even for me that’s a low blow. You don’t believe in violence or collectivization (just the opposite I know) and you have a deep respect and love for your fellow man, unlike the mad man I’m referring to above. But don’t you have any idea that if folks start to take you seriously then there is no way to turn back the clock on industrialization without massive human suffering (partly because industrialization does so much good, which you are foolish not to understand; and partly because most people do know this and will resist those who want to destroy the real humane lives folks have built for themselves and their families in our modern industrial world)?

I can agree with you that monopolies are bad and your grandfather was treated unjustly — free-market types like me are all for vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws. Other than that, your lecture proves once again, that when it comes to ideas about our modern world, there is no other conclusion but that you have been driven insane by your ideology and a vapid Obama bureaucrat decided to recognize your insanity. What’s this world coming to?


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28 Responses to Wendell Berry is Still Insane

  1. Lydia says:

    Great fact-full fisking, FH! Here’s another line that left me gasping: “When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves.” Tell that one to Alexander Graham Bell! Tell it to Edison. Tell it to Steve Jobs. Tell it to…well, you get the idea. That one’s so outrageous it isn’t just stupid, it’s a lie. How can anyone not know that many, many people succeed in profiting on a large scale and benefit others greatly in the process?

  2. Lydia says:

    Here’s a highly relevant post about Paul Ehrlich’s doomsaying at Secondhand Smoke:


    Complete with an appropriately titled Paul Simon song. 🙂

  3. Paul J Cella says:

    Yeah, this guy is seriously insane. Look at this:

    “Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.”

    “What we are actually teaching the young is an illusion of…purchasable safety, which encourages them to tamper prematurely, disrespectfully, and dangerously with a great power.”

    “It is wrong to assume that sex carries us into a personal privacy that separates us from everything else. On the contrary, sex joins us to the world.”

    “If you can control your own body only by destroying another person’s body, then control has come much too late.”

    “In dealing with our own fertility and its consequences, we are not just carrying on personal or private ‘relationships.’ We are establishing one of the fundamental terms of our humanity and our connection to the world.”

    I mean, who believes this crazy stuff?

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Here’s the real question for you Paul — is the Industrial Revolution and capitalism to blame for our modern screwed-up ideas about sex? I’d argue strongly that they are not. The rot began sooner and has its ultimate causes in Enlightenment notions of autonomy and liberty (maybe even earlier than that — see Feser on philosophy’s turn away from the idea of telos). I would agree with you, and maybe even Berry in his occassional lucid moments that consumer culture can contribute to bad ideas about sex; but I don’t think the solution to the problem of sexual immorality is to upend the past 200+ years of economic progress.

      • Paul J Cella says:

        The short answer is No. The industrial revolution is not to blame for screwed-up modern ideas about sex. However, a strong argument can and has been made for a shared ancestry.

        The question to ask is this, What is the ground of our political philosophy? Both modern sexuality and modern amoral capitalism share a view that the ground of our political philosophy is the libido dominandi — the will to dominate, to possess, to acquire. The break with the ancient world is noteworthy for its rejection of the idea of that human beings are bound by obligations that transcend their material existence. Both the modern sexual revolutionist and the modern amoral capitalist assert that man is a measure of all things — his will is the ground of our understanding of nature, destiny and obligation.

        Now, what about a MORAL capitalism? Well, that is rather different, isn’t it? It’s ground is the ancient right of property — be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But this charter of man’s economic liberty is subsumed within a structure of moral obligation.

        I think writers like Berry are quite right to highlight the very obvious parallels between the acquisitive impulse in sexuality and the acquisitive impulse in economics. Do I agree with everything he says? Hell no. But the mainstream Right’s insouciance about these parallels has long disturbed me.

    • Chosen Insanity says:

      For what it’s worth…I’d agree.

  4. Lydia says:

    Well, Paul, if some of the things Berry says that you disagree with are crazy and flatly false, then there’s nothing wrong with saying that. Please note that the hysterical things Berry says have _consequences_. Since our Rulers believe that they are true (or find it useful to pretend that they believe that), they take specific actions that cause real harm to real people–lots of them. Just the idea that burning fossil fuels is this huge, terrible, harmful thing has major consequences. If it’s false, it’s important to point that out. If Berry is ranting in a fact-free manner about the things FH has pointed out, then it’s important to point that out. It isn’t just some trivial, “Oh, well, he can’t be right about everything.” Come on: These rantings against the supposed *huge harm* being done by industrialism are *central* to what Berry is saying. They aren’t just little trivial foibles off to the side somewhere.

    Oh, by the way: I get a little wry when I contemplate the fact that while apparently Berry has somewhere and sometime said some negative things about abortion, it wasn’t abortion clinics in front of which he was arrested. No, it was nuclear power plants. Traffic in a topsy-turvy set of priorities much, Mr. Berry?

    • Fake Herzog says:


      What actually kind of drives me crazy (no disrespect to Mr. Berry who is the real deal) is that Paul’s description of “modern amoral capitalism” is fair as far as it goes and it is the beginning of a real argument about the use and abuse of capital and the market. In fact, Paul’s little reply to me is the beginning of a real Jefferson Lecture — but it is not remotely anything like the lecture Wendell Berry actually gave. Let me repeat — Paul’s sensible comments about the dangers of the thinking behind the “modern amoral capitalist” is NOT the argument Wendell Berry presented in his Jefferson Lecture. I quoted extensively from that lecture to show the world that Berry thinks the industrial revolution and capitalism itself (“When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves.”) has failed humanity. And it has failed on a large scale according to Berry, producing “eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness.” All liabilities — nothing on the assets side of ledger for Mr. Berry (by the way, I just noticed he includes “natural health” as if the unprecedented increase in the average lifespan of men and women and the ability of capitalist economies to treat sickness is something to quickly dismiss with a shrug).

      In short, Paul somehow finds a nugget of wisdom in Berry’s work — I read that speech and come to the sensible conclusion that we are dealing with an ideological maniac.

      • Paul J Cella says:

        So I guess I’m on the hook to supply Berry’s facts?

        How about these fact — From 1950 to 2005, as a share of US business profits finance went from 10% to 40%. During that same time we had the Great Society, various new statutory mandates for the Fed, the abandonment of the gold peg, the embrace of global integration of finance, and Too Big to Fail.

        But don’t you dare make any connections.

    • Nice Marmot says:

      Extractive, exploitative, and acquisitive sexuality and extractive, exploitative, and acquisitive economics indeed have the same ancestry: modernity’s rejection of limits and exaltation of the autonomous self, and the resulting deification of choice. Liberty without telos inevitably becomes license, whether regarding sex or money. As James Twitchell put it, “Freedom’s just another word for lots of things to buy.”

  5. Lydia says:

    I can’t resist adding, Paul: One of the reason I, for one, am insouciant in response to Berry and his ilk is because they do make their arguments in a fact vacuum and based on probably false empirical premises. After all, facts matter when it comes to questions of harm, do they not? Yet we’re supposed to listen to someone like Berry based, apparently, on his moral seriousness while not being contemptuous of the fact that this moral seriousness about the “evils of capitalism” is bolstered by a lot of unfactual baloney sausage. Well, I won’t do that. Conservatives would never be allowed to do that. If we tried to talk about the evils of abortion with as little regard for accuracy as those like Berry and company show when telling us about the supposed evils of capitalism, we would be rightly ridiculed. But somehow they’re supposed to get away with it. This reminds me of what Thomas Sowell calls the vision of the anointed, in which earnestness is supposed to be a substitute for actually having good ideas that work. Let people take your money and devote it to government projects, because they _care_ so much. Let your kids be indoctrinated into thinking the whole world is melting as a result of car driving because after all, at least then they’ll care about something.

    Berry and his followers ought to be able to man up and defend their statements rather than relying on some sort of sacred icon status. Until then, I reserve my happy option to be insouciant.

    • Paul J Cella says:

      The fact that, for instance, General Electric Co makes its sustainable profit by exploitation of bigness, above all in the commercial paper market (you think GE is an industrial corporation? think again; it’s a shadow bank), doesn’t make a dent with you, does it?

      If GE were just established as an instrument of the state, you’d be ready to criticize it; it’s the facade that TBTF banks and shadow banks are instances of free enterprise that beguiles you.

      • Lydia says:

        Paul, I’m sorry, but I just don’t see that that has much of anything to do with the statements that Berry makes that I think are insane. At all, really. Suppose everything you think about what regulations there should be on the financial sector were true. (Just for the sake of the argument.) And take a statement of Berry’s that I think insane and that perhaps you think is the same as what you’re saying, namely that “When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others,…”

        By implicature, it’s quite clear that what Berry means by that is that when people profit on a large scale, they *definitely do not* succeed for others. The parallelism he is making could not be more clear–capitalist success is purely selfish, while failure drags everyone else down. But there are many, many counterexamples to such a generalization. It is, in fact, a highly pernicious false statement and implies that all large-scale free market success is merely greed and helps no one other than the greedy individual. It feeds the envy-mongering of the left and no doubt got a lot of nods, if not cheers, from Berry’s audience. To interpret Berry as saying merely, “There are some cases where people succeed in making a lot of money while doing more harm than good to others, and when they fail they harm many other than themselves,” is simply interpretive charity taken too far. That’s just not what he means.

        Moreover, all of his hysterical statements about the allegedly devastating ecological harm of burning fossil fuels and the like have nothing to do with any extra regulations that should or shouldn’t be put on the finance sector. His is just the usual Paul Ehrlich-style environmentalist doomsaying. Why let the fact that you have some criticisms of current U.S. finance lead you to give the ecos a free pass when they tell us in stentorian tones that we’re all gonna die? It’s not as though no one has ever answered them! (See the reference above to Julian Symon, for example.)

      • Lydia says:

        Also, why try to start an argument about this issue again when you know perfectly well where I am coming from on this? I would like TBTF to be curtailed by the fact that failure is, in fact, allowed. _You_ are the one insisting that the government has to shore up these companies. I always find it rather breathtaking when somehow I’m told that I’m being “beguiled” by GE or any other company when I’m the tough guy arguing for allowing failure and you’re the one insisting that a) the government must backstop companies and not allow them to fail and therefore b) the government must more heavily regulate them so that they are, allegedly, less likely to fail.

        It’s not like we haven’t been around the barn, what?, five hundred times on these issues before. Many, many times, beginning in 2008 itself when the bailouts started. I’m just simply not going to allow myself to be painted as some sort of “big business bailout lover” who is beguiled by the siren call of GE et. al. because they are businesses and somehow I can’t bear to criticize businesses! In fact, the opposite is true.

  6. Fake Herzog says:

    I can’t speak for Lydia, but I’m happy to have an argument about the dangers of TBTF or what you like to call finance capitalism. But do you really think that these problems are inherent to capitalism itself or rather, that we can’t enact laws to modify the flaws with the problems with capitalism as it’s practiced today? I would argue we can. In which case we are then arguing about practical matters related to the reform of our current system — sort of like arguing about labor laws at the turn of the 20th Century. But you and I are NOT arguing about what Berry is arguing about, please keep that in mind.

    • Paul J Cella says:

      But do you really think that these problems are inherent to capitalism itself or rather, that we can’t enact laws to modify the flaws with the problems with capitalism as it’s practiced today?

      I don’t know. Am I making a critique of “capitalism itself” when I say that banks should be returned to their New Deal arrangement of commercial and investment quarantine? Am I attacking “capitalism itself” when I call for private ownership of the major securities firms?

      I know for certain that I believe in private and varied property. I know for certain that I believe in free enterprise. But I have strong criticisms of what we’ve got. So this race to the abstraction bothers me.

      Saying a man accused of insanity is not, in fact, insane, but rather wrong on a number of things, is certainly a lower bar than saying a man accused of insanity is in fact all right about everything, no?

      • Lydia says:

        “a man accused of insanity is not, in fact, insane, but rather wrong on a number of things,”

        It’s the _way_ he’s wrong, Paul, that supports the stronger statement. I’m surprised you can’t see that in this speech itself. FH analyzed it quite well in the main post. Look at the sweeping statements, the utter one-sidedness, the breathtaking, virulent attacks on economic success, the outright falsehoods (e.g., when it comes to dismissing the value of industrialization to human health). It’s just weak beer to call this merely “being wrong on a number of things.” If a sufficient number of people with a sufficient amount of power think as Berry thinks, they will do _enormous_ harm. And in fact we need only look at the actual anti-human proposals of the environmentalist lobby, not to mention the OWS crowd (who would adore Berry’s speech), to see that they are _trying_ to do enormous harm.

  7. Paul J Cella says:

    It seems I’m limited in my capacity to respond directly to Lydia’s comments. I’ll start a new thread.

    I’d say that I regard Berry and your average goldbug/austeritist as comparatively wrong, in equal degree though different details, on political economy.

    By the principle established here, I should call both Berry and McGrew insane. But I won’t call either insane, for the simple reason that neither is.

    • Lydia says:

      Uh, whatever–I’m not sure where “Austeritist” comes into this. Some connection between Lawrence Auster (of all people) and goldbugs? I can’t recall his ever mentioning it.

      I myself doubt very much that I am proposing policies that are dreadfully harmful. Yet I know what policies the environmentalists are _definitely_ proposing (because they make no secret of it) and some that they already have in place, and they’ve harmed lots of people. The deaths in Africa from malaria caused by the DDT ban alone are numbers that cannot be attributed to any policy I have ever recommended.

      Please recall that I am the person who constantly says that I *do not know* exactly what course of action we should now take and that I realize that it may be a cruel fact that our economy is now addicted to the print-borrow cycle so that to attempt to break out of that with any suddenness would “kill the patient.”

      There is simply no parallel here to things like carbon credits, bans on products like DDT that are helpful to man, pressure on third-world nations not to develop first-world sewage systems, refusing to develop America’s own oil resources, taxation to punish making “too much” profit, and on and on and on–all of which the Berrys of the world are doing and recommending. (So let’s have no talk about “abstraction.” The issues here are all too concrete.)

      I can’t help wondering what, precisely, you think I am proposing that is comparably insane. Let me reiterate: I think I have some idea of a real problem in our present economic set-up, and yes, it’s related to both fiat money and the ever-increasing national debt. However, I don’t know what to do about it. I just think it would be helpful for us to recognize that there is such a problem.

      If you can make that out to be comparable to the enviro-hysteria and anti-industrialism being peddled by Berry, then I don’t know what to say about that. I really do not know what to say.

      • Paul J Cella says:

        “Austeritist” was my feeble neologism for a someone committed to austerity as an economic policy. (Of course, we must distinguish what sorts of austerity are recommended — both spending cuts and tax hikes are regularly conflated.)

        If Berry has embraced the environmental ideas you’ve mentioned, he’s making a mistake. Similarly, it would be a mistake (in my view) to adopt harsh austerity measures. I’m especially disinclined toward tax hikes; but I’m skeptical that spending cuts will get us very far unless they are part of middle-class entitlement reform.

        Sometimes austerity also means tighter money (see Germany) which I think would also be a mistake. I don’t dismiss goldbug arguments completely, but I think a radical revision of the Federal Reserve to prevent the kind of ad hoc activity we saw during the 2008 acute crisis would be very unwise.

  8. Lydia says:

    I can only say that the kinds of economic and environmental ideas strongly suggested by Berry’s rhetoric in this speech–the extreme politics of envy, among other things–are sweeping and severely destructive. The hatred for the successful, painting them in cartoonish terms as merely succeeding for themselves, tells us very much the kind of leftist economics we are talking about, and what that would mean for America. The anti-industrialism itself suggests a strong inclination to tear down something that has been very beneficial but that Berry sees as only bad. This is serious stuff.

    I’m pretty stunned to think that you consider my inclination against government spending, my criticism of bailouts, and my hope that we can find some way of putting the brakes on a cycle of spiraling debt and on-going inflation to indicate similarly destructive plans. Obviously, I would like to see these things as a road to an *economically* stronger America, not because of some non-economic or anti-economic ideology. Such an equivalence is simply astonishing.

    • Paul J Cella says:

      The equivalence lies in this: I disagree with both views but do not regard them as insane. Moreover, there is definitely something of value in them, which is why I would object to calling Berry or, say, Jim Grant (famous goldbug) insane.

      The argument here is that we should treat Berry the way elite economists tend to treat goldbugs (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-02/gold-standard-for-all-from-nuts-to-paul-krugman.html). It’s this stridency that I object to.

      • Lydia says:

        Paul, let me point out that the author of that very interesting article is arguing that goldbugs may not actually be nuts precisely because their ideas may actually have some economic value, their ideas may not actually harm the economy as others have suggested. In other words, it’s an economic argument.

        But frankly, the policies suggested by the anti-fossil fuel crowd do not have as much that can be said for them as far as (cough, splutter) economic benefit! And certainly the policies suggested by the claim that industrialism has been terribly harmful and only marginally beneficial are obviously _severely_ harmful. So, too, the (frankly, Marxist) policies suggested by the statement that when someone succeeds economically he is _merely_ succeeding for himself.

        This isn’t just a matter of the moderate choosing to be nice to the extremists. There are actual questions here with actual answers. There is nothing good to be said as far as actual economic harm vs. benefit for the policies Berry’s rant is suggesting.

        Yeah, yeah, that means I’m an extremist and you’re a moderate. But I just really have to notice that not a word you have said here has really shown you grappling with *what Berry is actually saying in this speech* and with what it implies.

  9. Paul J Cella says:

    1) My father spent his entire professional life in the fossil fuel industry (out West). He’s a much more committed free marketeer than me. But he saw that business from the inside and he’d be the first to acknowledge the callousness and occasional villainy that characterizes it.

    And then there is the finance arm of natural resource extraction. Don’t even get him (or me) started. Look up “Continental Illinois.” That bailout was undertaken by Reagan’s administration. Nicole Gelinas begins her narrative in her excellent book After the Fall with that squalid episode.

    These sectors of our economy emphatically must have careful scrutiny and a healthy skepticism of their claims. They are not wanting in motives to oppress, deceive, monopolize, corrupt and ruin.

    Really, the Big Sad Oil and Energy Extraction Times Blues is a tiresome song if ever there was one.

    2) The race for bigness — larger, more complex, more integrated firms — in finance has been a stupendous calamity. But we must keep in mind that the whole point of having a TBTF securities trade is to facilitate this hugeness. Bailout is a necessity of globalization. Global counterparties must be preserved. Hell, half those counterparties are unambiguous agents of the state — like China’s banks and sovereign wealth funds, the Gulf states’ funds, the favored banks in Europe, etc. — so even if our securities houses were suddenly cut loose from TBTF* it probably wouldn’t change world finance. (Did you know that numerous Eurozone banks are all much much bigger than even our biggest US bank?)

    I feel very confident, based on my own extensive study and the patient instruction of several friends who know this stuff well, in saying that the critique of bigness in industry rings emphatically true on matters of finance. I won’t go farther than that (although keep in mind that, as I said above, a firm like GE is not so much an industrial firm as a huge shadow bank), and so I distance myself from Berry’s more generalized assault on corporate bigness.

    There you have it, Lydia: two factual engagements with Berry’s argument (with my own twists).

    * As I’ve said before, if you really do want to cut the big US securities firms loose from TBTF, what you need to do is MAKE THEM GO PRIVATE. Let the partners’ own homes and boats and everything else be ultimately on table. Skin in the game, baby. That’s the true sentinel against bailout.

    • Fake Herzog says:


      Two quick comments in response:

      1) You say, “These sectors of our economy emphatically must have careful scrutiny and a healthy skepticism of their claims.” Terrific — you and I can have a reasonable argument. But let me go into ‘broken record’ mode and remind you once again, you are not in the same intellectual playground (if I can mix metaphors) as Wendell Berry. In his speech he is dismissing any and all positive contributions of the modern energy industry (and presumably the modern finance industry) and argues that what he calls “corporate industrialism…has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society.” This is a guy who thinks that gas-powered tractors are bad for farms. I submit you have no common ground with this man and all people of common-sense and good will have no common ground with such a radical ideologue.

      2) Berry’s speech never once mentions “bigness” — only once he mentions profiting on a “large scale”. The rest of the speech generically refers to industrialism, coporate inustrialism, capitalism, etc. In other words, Berry’s critique is broad-based and indicts everyone — from the family farmer that uses pesticides and gas-powered tractors, to the small businessman that relies on the internet and ships his goods via trucks to the next State over to the Doctor practicing modern medicine — all are part of our modern capitalist system and they all come under criticism by Berry. He is the one who says “[n]o amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it” can do any good. He wants to tear it all down…in other words, the thoughts of a madman.

      • Paul J Cella says:

        I distance myself from Berry’s more generalized assault on corporate bigness

        My normal check of sanity on any critic of capitalism comes down to this question: “does he affirm the institution of private property?” Berry not only talks the talk on that, he walks the walk. So these insinuations of Marxism really fall on deaf ears.

        Re-read the first dozen or so paragraphs of that speech. Insanity? Really? There’s no reason to be so strident. I can’t understand it.

        (Also, nothing is more sane that taking shots at Duke University. The place is a factory for hidebound Leftists made more self-righteous by their pitiful imitations of Yankee excess.)

  10. Nice Marmot says:

    Interesting discussion. I’d simply interject that W.B’s understanding/defense of private property is not fundamentally different from that of other Southern conservatives/agrarians. If you read Weaver’s chapter on private property in ‘Ideas Have Consequences’ or Allen Tate’s essay on it in ‘Who Owns America?’ you will find very similar views. In fact, the agrarians’ antipathy towards industrial corporate ownership is precisely because of their high view of private property, as both Weaver and Tate make clear in their respective essays. W.B. is quite clear on this as well in several of his more strictly agrarian essays. The agrarians and Southern conservatives see corporate ownership as abstract and thus “ineffective” and “dispersed.” (Tate) As a result, they believe that increased corporate/industrial ownership tends toward collectivism, in that as corporations get larger and more powerful, the state increasingly sees the need to step in and control them. Thus state power and corporate power grow together increasingly intertwined and eventually you’ll have a sort of merger of the two into some type of “state capitalism.” Which of course is really no better for the small individual property owner than state socialism.

  11. Lydia says:

    By the way, a little reality check on what it means in concrete terms to scream, as Berry does (yeah, he’s strident, so I’ll be strident) about the supposed evils of fossil fuels:

    “The study, conducted by José Tapia Granados and Edward Ionides of U-M and Óscar Carpintero of the University of Valladolid in Spain, was published online in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Policy. It is the first analysis to use measurable levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide to assess fluctuations in the gas, rather than estimates of CO2 emissions, which are less accurate. “If ‘business as usual’ conditions continue, economic contractions the size of the Great Recession or even bigger will be needed to reduce atmospheric levels of CO2,” said Tapia Granados, who is a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research.”


    And I, for one, am clearly talking about exactly the same subject Berry is talking about.

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