May 7, 2008

Mama Obamanomics

Barack Obama spent the mid-1980s trying to politically mobilize the black poor in Chicago, giving him, presumably, lots of first-hand insight into their problems. Yet, the 163 pages he devoted to his community organizer years in his 1995 autobiography, published at the height of the debate over welfare, are strikingly lacking in insight.

For example, he only mentions the world "welfare" twice, both times in neutral to positive contexts. Similar terms such as "food stamps" and "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" aren't mentioned at all. The notion that "welfare ... did create some perverse incentives when it came to the work ethic and family stability" (to quote from Obama's 2006 campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, of which he says "This book grew directly out of those conversations on the [2004] campaign trail" -- i.e., he's playing back what he heard from voters) simply never comes up in Dreams from My Father.

So, if welfare wasn't a problem, according to Obama, what was?

I apologize for quoting another slab of Obama's 1995 prose, which was carefully engineered to be unquotable, but it's interesting to see the influence on him of what appears to be his mother's worldview (as exemplified by the title of her 1,067 page anthropology dissertation "Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds"):

As we walked back to the car, we passed a small clothing store full of cheap dresses and brightly colored sweaters, two aging white mannequins now painted black in the window. The store was poorly lit, but toward the back I could make out the figure of a young Korean woman sewing by hand as a child slept beside her.

The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms. I’d always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Rose-land, Rafiq and Mr. Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was torn? How long might it take in this land of dollars?

Longer than it took a culture to unravel, I suspected. I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River, joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turn out to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Some would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.

If only Andrew Carnegie hadn't put all those black peasant blacksmiths out of business ...

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


J said...

Steve, You left the heavy stuff to the end. Is this the man who is going to lead America into the coming century of competition against nations obsessed with hi tech, like China, Corea, Japan, Germany?

Anonymous said...

>>>>they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens, into a deeper despair.

Thanks for the economic lesson, Barack. I kind of thought people generally moved from subsistence to better and better jobs. I guess evil capitalists hold jobs like my polygamous sect leader holds women: to be dealt out to some, and withheld from others. I thought economies can expand to accommodate more people, more effort, more output. But, alas, it is a zero sum game, controlled by the central authorities.

Unknown said...

I believe that there used to be a black craft tradition that has almost disappeared.

I remember black cooks, both in hotels and in the homes of the rich. Perhaps there is a remnant at the great resorts in West Virginia. I've seen some exquisite cuisine there.

When I first moved to Northern Virginia in the 60's, blacks had a traditional lock on masonry, concrete, and tile work. They worked hand in glove with the white carpenters, electricians, plumbers. Today, Hispanics have completely replaced them.

But very little in the way of "artistic" crafts as you seem to suggest.

Anonymous said...


Steve, I'm looking forward to a Sailer review of Iron Man. I think it's pretty clear that the "Obadiah Stane" character and the Stark Industries "Jericho Missile" is a Jewish caricature played by Jeff Bridges. He resembles a much bigger Sam Zell. It looks like Hollywood has figured out that American triumphalism plays better when the enemy is Jewish. Or maybe I'm just a little over sensitive.

Anonymous said...

Obama's on to something--at least on a very general level. What he's noting is the transition to industrialization and the transition to a service economy and "information society" are difficult; there will always be people who are left behind. I guess that you could say that they are dislocated and become angry and bitter. Without having read Obama's autobiography, the question I have is what he does with this observation? It's great that he can empathize, but what will or can he do with that great brain of his to lift the people of Altgeld (or Indonesia) up?

Grumpy Old Man said...

You're being a little hard on the lady.

Capitalism is revolutionary and it does unmoor people from their traditions. "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Broadway?" and all that.

By eroding traditions and social deference, it does cause losses as well as gains.A lot of anthropology types are overly nostalgic for a romanticized traditional culture, but the issue is real nevertheless.

Unknown said...

Actually, reading this particular passage makes me want to vote for him.

It shows unusual insight and sensitivity.

Imagine Hillary writing something like that. Unimaginable.

Gotta give the guy something. He understands the relationship between small c culture and lived life.

Luke Lea said...

So then Steve, is Obama offering real insights into real problems or not? The guy seems pretty intelligent to me, and a much better writer than you let on, long sentences or not. The only thing that is missing is any clue to a solution to these problems. But in this he is hardly alone. What is your "citizenist" solution to the problems created by trade and capital mobility in a world of rich countries and poor ones? A new protectionism? Income redistribution? What?

Anonymous said...

This isn't that related to this particular post, but I know that Steve is endlessly fascinated with Obama so...

I met a woman who gre up with Obama. She went to the same private school that he did and her sister was in the same class as him (the woman I know was 2 years younger).

She is a co-worker of mine from a West Coast office. I asked some simple open-ended quesions about him: What was he like? Anything interesting about him? That sort of stuff.

She said that they all knew each other because of tennis. After class, everyone would play tennis. It was just where everyone would hang out. It would only be later that he would start to take up basketball, and then drop the tennis almost completely.

She said that since he was one of the few black kids at the school he was VERY popular (the emphasis is mine, though she did say "very").

She said that he was nice, but that there was nothing particualr about him that would make you think he would one day run for a major political office.

Also, she said that no one called him Barack and that everyone called him Barry.

When she said that he was very popular because he wa one of the few black kids there, I asked about the racial make-up of the school and she said it was mostly Asian and White.
She also met his Grandparents, who I believe were raising him at that time, and she said that they seemed nice.

Well, thought that y'all might be interested.

michael farris said...

Another way to understand Obama:

I often read that he's insecure about being perceived as 'black enough' by the Black community.

I don't buy it. The thing is, if you define US Black not as a racial category but as a specific ethnic group with distinctive cultural and linguistic characteristics he's no more black than John Edwards.

His attachment to the US Black community seems (from a distance) to not be so different from a college kid who goes on a european trip after graduation and forgets to ever go back to the US except for occasional tourist or family reunion jaunts.
His adult life has been much closer to his mother's than I think anyone (maybe even he himself) realizes though his exile from his roots has been in his home country.

That is, he seems an awful lot like an internal expat who's gone native.
His big racial speech sounded not so much like any real attempt at analysis or reconcialation as it did an old hand in country X teaching a poorly adjusting newcomer the ropes. "yeah, that's just the way they do things here, you'll get used to it" (while thinking: I give him another three months before he cracks and leaves)

Anonymous said...

If only Andrew Carnegie hadn't put all those black peasant blacksmiths out of business ...

Now now. I think we've about had it up to here with that sarcasm, Steven.

Seriously, you and my boss have convinced me: Obama would be absolutely disastrous in the White House with what will certainly be a Democratic Congress.

I am in a bad bracket, where I'm a net tax producer but just holding on to middle class status by my fingernails. And no, I don't have a bunch of electronic toys, leased cars, cable TV, cruises, vacations, etc. I am confident my taxes would go up and my standard of living would decrease under this left-wing simpleton.

So now that we've established that, could you be so kind as to train your glass on McCain?


Anonymous said...


What I am struck by in that long passage is how much like Russell Kirk it sounds. Its noteworthy the extent to which he dwells on the power of culture, routine, tradition and sees it as intrinsically valuable in grounding lives. That isn't your normal leftist response to romanticize tradition like that. His critique of economic development as undermining culture is a traditional conservative line as well from Kirk as much as the agrarians, etc. The key point then seems to be not in assessing the problems of "progress" but in the waythat prudence dictates one responds to it. For the leftist like Obama you get a stale Marxist materialistic response which puts faith in government collectivism. For the Kirks and traditional cons prudence leads in a totally different direction towards reducing government encroachment (often on behalf of the capitalist forces of "progress" even as much as on behalf of the socialist) and strengthening localism and social structures which protect and transmit culture.

Anonymous said...

Actually there's a deep point there. Archaeologists say that the Roman British were left poorer, after the Roman trade networks broke up, than the British had been before the Romans arrived. But then I suspect that the end of the Western Roman Empire is the best guide we have to the present way of the world.

Anonymous said...

That's the sappiest prose I've seen in a while. It is very similar to what you might read in a cultural anthropology class. So, yeah, he is his mama's boy.

Having a cultural anthropologist - or just someone who thinks like they do - running our country is a frightening prospect considering the way they run their departments in universities. For these types, politics and dogma always trump practical matters.

Anonymous said...

In other words, damn that Great Migration and those high paid war jobs, if only Unlce Rhemus had staid home on the share crop land, with his simple hand crafts and the comfort of his church.

There actually is a valid point in there, one guesses that far fewer share cropper's sons engaged in regular popping of caps in other cotton pickin asses, but I'd never expect to hear a black american politician laud the good ole days in the deep south.

Anonymous said...

Reading the above it would seem Obama is against globalization. Which means he against unrestricted immigration, yes?

Anonymous said...

I think he has a good point in the sense that globalization makes it harder to build community. And that often gives our lives greater meaning.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this right. If a peasant continues in the deepest possible poverty its OK if its some kind of "traditional" poverty. But if they work in a factory they are doomed because that factory may become obsolete some time in the future and then they will be unemployed.

Anonymous said...

As tragic as the loss of culture to globalism may be, as tragic as the prospect of one's industry becoming obsolescent or outmoded entirely may be--this critique of capitalism falls far short of convincing. This ticklish problem would be obviated if these Indonesian workers--or workers of any nationality, for that matter--took so much pride in their efforts and put more stock in their industry that they end up being more involved and innovative in order to preserve it.

Anonymous said...

This ticklish problem would be obviated if these Indonesian workers--or workers of any nationality, for that matter--took so much pride in their efforts and put more stock in their industry that they end up being more involved and innovative in order to preserve it.

You know, I bet that the stone axe guild was pissed when bronze axes came along, and the bow and arrow maker's guild was pissed when guns came along. Also, the scribes' union was pissed when the printing press came along.

Anonymous said...

What do "community organizers" do when when their jobs are shipped overseas?

How about "race-hustlers"?

What a joke these politicians are.....

Anonymous said...

A useful addition to this post would have been a quick survey of the economic situation of the average Indonesian from, say, the time Obama's mother finished her thesis until today. I doubt you'd see the arc of despair Obama imagined.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve... I read that passage and I know I will vote for Obama now. Will you go on the record and say whether you will vote for Obama or McCain?

Anonymous said...

There's a weird [but undeniable] convergence in this excerpt with some ideas which Spengler has been developing in his essays in the last few years.

If anyone is interested, I've started a thread about it over at Spengler's forum:

Obama & Spengler on Tradition & Modernity