Erectile alchemy and bubble addiction

12. IX 2018

Priapism, named after Priapus, the Greek god of fertility who sported an oversized, eternally-erect penis (so large, in fact, he used it to frighten away anyone who tried to plunder his gardens), is a condition that causes persistent and sometimes painful erections, which last for four hours or more without sexual stimulation. Apart from ED pills, anomalous blood flows in and out of the penis can be caused by a range of disorders and diseases, like sickle cell anemia, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and penile cancers, or abuses of certain prescription medications, alcohol, and some illicit drugs. Priapism can cause serious complications. The blood trapped in the penis is deprived of oxygen and can damage the penile tissue. An erection that lasts longer than four hours is a medical emergency. Untreated priapism can result in damage or destruction of penile tissue and permanent erectile dysfunction.

Economic bubbles have had a special place in American culture for the last 50 years. They encapsulate the essence of the ultimate male obsession: Everything has to be pointing skywards, from male reproductive organs to luxury condo towers, to economic growth, stock market charts and the yield curve. Bubbles hold the key to understanding the essence of American political conservatism and its ongoing transformation.

Behind this fetishized fantasy is the troubling decline in productivity growth (and economic potency in general), together with desperate attempts to bring back good old days, with governments ready to deliver temporary libidinal surrogates of any sort irrespective of their long-term consequences.

During the post-war decades, America, at 3% productivity growth, was open and welcoming, promising (and delivering on that promise) to enlighten and enrich the lives of anyone who took part in the great American project. The economic potency in those days was palpable. Each generation was doubling its standard of living; libidinal forces were abundant, optimism unshakeable, and belief in a better future consistently gratified and rewarded.

After years of misguided interpretation of the theory of comparative advantages, the American locomotive jammed in 2007. The America of today, with 1% productivity growth, has become a get-rich-quick-if-you-can landscape, xenophobic, polarized and libidinally disinvested, with rampant inequality and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet, where every subsequent generation is practically guaranteed to be worse off than its predecessor, and where 96% of people that are born poor remain poor. In today’s America the future looks more like a threat and less like a promise.


Productivity growth (5Y moving average) and bubble economy

The two bubbles of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which briefly interrupt the monotonic decline in productivity growth, announce the beginning of a new era. The Internet bubble is not without merit — it presents the arrival of a genuine technological innovation and a paradigm change — an entirely novel production process, and introduces cognitariat as a new social class. However, its biggest shortcomings are related to the creation of a new mindset: an overnight lottery winner as a new type of entrepreneur and a general change of direction in the political economy. The second, the housing bubble, is much closer to the traditional definition — overconsumption financed by debt. It bears direct responsibility for the utter impotence of the third, and the largest of all bubbles, the government debt bubble, and for the current predicament. Even after nearly a decade of unprecedented government subsidies and budget deficit spending, productivity growth has descended (and still remains) below 1% (the lowest post-war levels), just as it was declared that the economy was on the way to recovery in 2015. The effect of the entire $7tr bubble remains largely undetected by the basic barometers of economic wellbeing. It is precisely the extended duration of the housing bubble, mistakenly identified as a sign of economic potency, which has compromised the hopes of a robust recovery. The current flaccidness of productivity stands as a reminder of the fallacy of the underlying political economy.

Bubbles economy as an ideological core

However, despite their repeated failures, we still seem to be unable to shake off our bubble addiction. Bubbles sit at the core of the right wing populist delusion — no longer a political movement, but a state of mind. This pastoral fantasy has evolved into full-blown alchemy, which continues to insist without any base in reality and against common sense – and economic orthodoxy is reluctant to disagree — that in order to live happier and more meaningful lives and secure prosperity and a better future, all we need is a new magic pill.

Millions of angry gun-wielding Podunk residents, the excluded who represent the excess of the population and now live at or below the poverty line, have become the most vocal cheerleaders of the existing stock market bubble, disguised as the economic boom. They use it to rationalize the toxicity of their favorite ideology and see no reason to be concerned about the true source of their short- and long-term hardship and erosion of quality of life.

Their ignorance is not merely the absence of knowledge, but an outcome of cultural and political struggle. The current political economy has morphed into agnotological[1] capitalism – the systematic production and maintenance of ignorance as a major feature that enables the economy to function by allowing the creation of bubbles. In its background there is a programmatic effort to eliminate the potential for dissent. This effort relies on the creation of systemic unknowns where any potential “fact” is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value, which renders engagement with the conditions of reality contentious and a source of confusion. In this way, participants in bubbles remain unaware of the imminent collapse until after it has happened.

Erectile alchemy

Bubbles are economic erectile pills — false signals that something can happen out of nothing. They have a special allure, in the same way Ponzi schemes do – when easy money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale. Economic bubbles have become a juncture where erectile fantasy has become the main cultural dimension. The surge in transient virtual wealth they create is the extended erection we read about on ED pillboxes. The duration of extended bubbles is their most troubling aspect; the longer they last, the bigger the damage they create. So, why does the obsession with bubbles still persist?

According to medical statistics, priapism brought on by erectile dysfunction drugs is extremely rare — more than 100 million erectile pills are sold every year with fewer than 100 cases of priapism reported; that is less than one in a million. However, it is quite possible that there are many more cases of extended priapism caused by the ED pills than medical statistics show. They are just not being documented. If anything, the warning itself could be seen as a clever advertisement incentivizing the users to look for those “gold nuggets” that would trigger one such episode. Why not? Who would complain about having too much of a good thing? “If I get a four-hour erection, I’m not calling a doctor, I’m calling my friends”. Reporting protracted erections would be the most un-American thing to do.

And this is the actual point where the erectile fantasy of bubble economy will meet its maker. Do we not need libido first? Erection will come by itself after that. Or will it? This issue is, and will remain, the central theme of the ongoing political struggle for decades to come. The future of our civilization depends on its outcome. Pills, no matter how different and potent, will never work in the long run, and they have consequences.


[1] The concept of agnotology was first introduced by Robert N. Proctor as the study of culturally induced ignorance, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. In his book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, Verso (2013), and numerous interviews and essays, Philip Mirowski argues usefulness of agnotology for explaining the post-2008 socioeconomic transformation. This paragraph is largely a summary of his thoughts on the topic.


5 thoughts on “Erectile alchemy and bubble addiction

  1. disperser

    Disclaimer: not an expert on anything other than looking at things and reading stuff.

    Decades? Is the implication that we’re heading the way of Greece, Italy, et al? It looks like we are, but I keep hearing we’ll “take steps” or the market will “self-correct” . . . except I don’t see it.

    To my untrained eyes, no administration will want to own a correction so increased debt looks to be the way of the future. I can’t look at interest rates without encountering predictions ranging from runaway inflation to negative interest rates.

    No one had the guts to make the hard choice when the cost was lower. Now, it seems the cost (political and otherwise) is even greater with powerful individuals facing greater stakes.

    I’m one of those “savers” who’s basically losing money as I look for places to invest and seeing nothing but risks that don’t seem to materialize because steps are taken that, while bad for the future, “help” in the short run.

    Again, I’m probably naive, but I don’t see the engine for a correction. Rather, I see the engine of doing whatever it takes to keep from having a correction. I suspect we have lots of room to dig an even bigger hole . . . I just hope I’m gone by the time it caves in on itself.

    Sorry . . . just frustration born out of ignorance, I’m sure, but also in trying to weigh expert opinions versus political and fiscal realities. Financial movers and shakers are mostly playing with other people’s money so their motivation and opinions are skewed by a seeming lack of concern for the individual investors. Regulators seem influenced by politics and partisanship and also a seeming lack of concern for the individual investors . . . because they play with other people’s money.

    . . . perhaps I’m just cynical; cynical in a way I wouldn’t be if I won the lotto or had many multiples of the money I think I need to carry me into the future. Then, I probably wouldn’t care about any of this.

    Again, sorry . . . just ranting even as I realize there’s no answer. Also, to make it clear, not in any way directed at you. Screaming into the wind, as it were.

    P. S. nice tie-in to priapism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. notesfromdisgraceland Post author

      What is inevitable cannot be prevented, but can be postponed. This describes the mode at which both US (and developed) economy and politics have been operating for quite some time. And this will continue for exactly all the reasons you listed. To make a change, you have to make a number of concessions to those against whom the change is aimed. So, change at the end is impossible. It will have to happen by allowing the system to collapse under its own weight — an autoimmune reaction. We are seeing some hints of that already.

      Y, I think we are talking about two to three decades before things sort out. We are somewhere near the bifurcation point from which we can reach at several different destinations. And there will be resistance to each possible path, so it will take a while, back and forth between those three alternatives, until one of them proves superior and is “selected”. This will feel like a noisy status quo.

      In the meantime, debt will continue to accumulate everywhere and US is not an exception in that respect. However, as its debt increases, US creditors (e.g. China, Europe, Japan, but also domestic bond owners) will require access to US politics (as collateral, of course). They will continue to be the force of resistance to change. So, no big correction, and no crash landing (for the US), but some turbulence of varying degree, and problems for the rest of the world. of course, as long as US dollar remains the reserve currency and no one asks for payout on their debt.
      It is difficult to see how inflation will materialize in this configuration. Wages are either stagnating or declining. And this will not improve with further automation and declining need for labor. Low rates and disinflation is a more likely scenario. This is, of course, assuming our crazy guy doesn’t is not allowed to do anything super crazy (which cannot be guaranteed a priori).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. disperser

      Thanks for that; that’s exactly what I see but lots of talking heads are making predictions one way or another and I always wonder what they’re looking at that I don’t see.

      . . . excepting, as you say, the crazy guy as a great unknown . . . but, in that regard, I’m more concerned about a Civil War; perhaps not in actual armed conflict, but essentially the same in tone and function. We almost have that already, given the tone of most “discussions”.

      One side note: given our leader’s animosity toward trading partners, doesn’t it make sense the rest of the world might take the long view and work to give the US what it apparently wants . . . isolation?

      Right now the US is the gorilla, but if I were China and Europe and anyone else, I’d be looking to form other trading relationships and down the line to reduce the leverage the US currently commands. Perhaps it’s simplistic, but no one likes to be bullied; I’d take my lumps but at the same time plan on changing the dynamics. Then again, I try to plan ahead.

      Again, thanks for the response.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. notesfromdisgraceland Post author

    I see our leader as a champion of status quo, just a noisy one. He is there to deliver more of the same, while not making it too obvious. The biopolitical paradigm of distraction can only be maintained if the underlying structures remain hidden from view. The power relations can never be revealed. That is why he is ALWAYS (without an exception) on the wrong side of the argument — this is how focus remains on his misbehavior and not on what is happening behind the screens. Such a consistency cannot be accidental, only programmatic and a result of disciplined execution. What is effectively happening is deregulation, dismantling of the welfare state and other government institution so that budget deficit spending can be used to finance lower taxes etc. This is not new, but a turbo version of what we had before.

    Regarding the foreigners, they do not have total freedom in choosing the sides. The logic is: If I lend you $100, it is your problem, but if I lend you $1 million, then it is my problem. This is what the US with its multi-trillion debt and strong army is to the foreign creditors.

    Y, I agree that the current instability smells of a Civil war (albeit between uncivilized people). This is the last resort that the far right could pull if their attempts to legitimize their agenda fall through. They are rapidly arming police with combat weapons and provoking a reaction that can be used as an excuse to deploy these forces. I think it is important not to take the bait and respond to the current identity politics in the way that would play in their hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. disperser

      Thank you for the interesting take on those points. I’m not entirely convinced across the board but can’t find enough to debate nuances that at the core a matter of perception and interpretation.

      I suppose all one can do is keep pointing out the dangers and hope enough people listen.

      I appreciate you taking the time to respond as few people these days are willing to engage with strangers. Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person


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