By J.D. Alt

Recently I came across a passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: One of the Joad-clan migrant farmer characters, upon learning that “there’s a newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres,” replies—“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read a more succinct description of the underlying reality of the income-inequity issue that has moved to the front page of our national dialog. As part of that dialog, I keep trying to frame a case for radical change that the status quo will actively embrace—for the simple reason that if that were to happen, the radical change itself would be more likely to occur—but also, I realize now, because the status quo “feels so awful poor inside hisself”, it will never embrace radical change unless it believes the change will make it feel richer—and, finally, because from my perspective MMT uniquely makes this paradoxical set of relationships possible.

My most recent attempt at this type of framing was picked up from NEP and reposted by Yves Smith on Naked Capitalism. The commentary there was fascinating and eye-opening for me. People said elegant and remarkable things, such as: “It’s a fallacy of composition to imagine that what we can’t afford individually is affordable collectively.” (From my perspective, that sentence is nearly as precise in pinpointing a fundamental “truth-confusion” as the comment by Steinbeck’s migrant farmer.) But the biggest surprise, really, was how sick everyone was of something called “GROAF”. It shows you what a neophyte I am, personally, in this whole conversation because it took me the longest time to understand what “GROAF” is—and I probably never would have gotten it had Lambert Strether not come along in the commentary and said, “Well, groaf means jawbz.” Even then it took me a second.

So, I suddenly realized, here I am framing an argument that if we use MMT principles to provide FREE universal education to every American—beginning with Pre-K early learning, and continuing all the way through college or technical/trade school—the status quo will reap huge benefits because there will be so many more successful EARNERS able to buy its products and services—in other words, suggesting that we “grow” the consumer base—only to discover that, for a lot of smart progressive people, “growth” is anathema: “GROAF, GROAF, GROAF, JAWBZ, JAWBZ, JAWBZ”—they’re sick of it!

If they didn’t want “GROAF”, I decided, what they must really want is “CONTRAKSHUN”. But I couldn’t figure out exactly what that would accomplish—educating fewer people so they’d be less capable of earning money to buy goods and services—except it would put the status quo in its place: So there! status quo, we’re going to starve your poor, selfish need to feel rich by making ourselves less educated and poorer! That makes a lot of sense.

After mulling it over, I suddenly had this thought: What all this was really about might be that there’s an important distinction between genuine “growth” and “GROAF”—and between meaningful work and “JAWBS”—and that must be what the folks at Naked Capitalism were riled up about. They interpreted what I was proposing as being insensitive to this crucial distinction. In fact, however, what I was proposing was headed in precisely that direction; I just hadn’t gotten there yet.

To illustrate where I think I was going, here is an excerpt from the novel The Architect Who Couldn’t Sing. As background, the story is about a man who was an idealistic, prize-winning architecture student, then an early volunteer to Vietnam who, upon returning from a horrific and disillusioning war experience, spends the remainder of his life hiding, and writing, in a riverbank encampment deep in the Olympic National Forest. He is tracked down and discovered by a son he was unaware he had even fathered, and the son—telling the story—slowly unravels the mystery of his father’s vision, ultimately realizing it has become his own as well . At one point, the son shares an excerpt of his father’s writing which, as the story unfolds, becomes a central theme of the vision:


It is too late, now, to save Wild Nature. What we can do, if we’re lucky, is make enough room for it to save us.

By the year 2030—the year our grandchildren will be graduating from college and beginning their young families and careers—the world population is expected to have nearly doubled to 10 billion souls. It is difficult to imagine this mass of humanity without also imagining a dense, high-rise, urban lifestyle of towering apartment blocks and skyscrapers—nature all but paved over, people living in the sky, traveling back and forth from glass-walled residential towers to brightly illuminated vertical markets and offices without ever touching the ground. The concept of vertical farming has even been seriously introduced! It is a vision in which man’s alienation from nature is virtually complete—the natural ecosystems diminished to a few verdant remnants remaining in national parks and preserves which must then be gated against an onslaught of tourists.

A simple calculation, however, puts the necessity for this imagined vertical density in perspective: If the projected population of 10 billion people were theoretically organized into families of three, and if each family were given a five thousand square foot “homestead” on which to subside—more than enough acreage and solar exposure to grow a subsistence diet of food—the entire human diaspora could be accommodated (with land left over for transit corridors, schools, markets and recreation fields) within the boundaries of the U.S. central plateau—the great plain, that is, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

But the most remarkable thing to imagine, were such a “World City” to be built, is that the rest of the earth could then revert to the wild ecosystems of God’s original nature: Except for strategic pockets of mining and agriculture, the West and East coasts of the United States, all of Canada, all of South and Central America, the entire continents of Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the archipelagos of Indonesia—all could exist in a state of natural wilderness, without the presence of Man.

The political discipline to create such a “World City”, of course, is impossible. Even if it were accomplished, bands of “explorers” would likely escape to colonize and exploit the new wilderness, and one could imagine world history, in an almost comical parody, simply repeating itself. (Except, that is, for one small detail which we’ll get to in a moment.) But the notion that there is more than ample room for urban growth to occur at a very low-rise densities, and (if properly conceived and organized) that such a horizontal order could make room for a vast and contiguous replenishment of our wild ecosystems—that notion is suddenly placed there on the table as a viable option for consideration.

But why should we even consider it?

The first reason is social fairness. Vertical architecture was invented by the socialists and communists to efficiently create housing for the masses. It was quickly adopted by the free-market capitalists because of its efficiency in generating profits. In each case, however, the results were unfortunately the same: the greed and corruption of concentrated wealth and, for the common man, the sorry struggle of being existentially homeless.

The second reason is that small detail mentioned earlier: in the year 2030, as it turns out, the post-industrial infrastructure and civilization we will have bequeathed to our grandchildren will begin rapidly to run out of fossil fuel. The great vertical cities we are imagining they will be living in will begin, one by one, to go dark. Human civilization will irrevocably have begun—after its tumultuous, two hundred year sprint on the adrenaline of fossil-fuels—an inevitable slide back to the steady-state of Nature herself, the state that derives its energy for work from the only source there ever was: the Sun.

I would argue that developing the micro-energy systems and new, local-based subsistence technologies that would make the World City possible—as well as the social networks and collective institutions that might enable it to peacefully thrive—would constitute a genuine “GROWTH” of the human endeavor which is qualitatively different fromthe mere “GROAF” of the status quo. Further, I’d argue that the work necessary to create the World City (or some part of it)—and to keep it peacefully operating on a sustainable basis—constitutes a daily effort that is qualitatively different from simply creating “JAWBZ”. The fact that this “growth” occurs by actually contracting the human footprint on planet earth represents a true understanding of “progress.”

Although the novel only hints at it, I imagine the real “growth industry” in the World City would be education itself—that having evolved into a society based on high-tech subsistence with a dwindling number of “JAWBZ”, we would “fill” our empty souls (rather than with the rampant, insatiable consumerism of carbon energy) with learning. Learning everything we can even after we thought we’d learned everything we could—learning way beyond college or trade school, learning how to cook French or Thai cuisines, learning how to dance (instead of just wiggling), learning how to write sonnets, deliver speeches, paint landscapes, throw and glaze and fire a pot, learning magic tricks with numbers, enough guitar chords to sing our favorite songs, how to read hieroglyphics, how to propagate orchids, how to build a telescope, brew sake, bake baguettes, build a tea-house with Japanese joinery where we can then learn to sit and be quiet for fifteen minutes each day.

I even think it’s possible, if we began immediately to build a Lifetime Educational System freely available to every citizen, that things would naturally evolve in this direction. The bit about the “successful EARNER” was just bait for the poor, empty soul of the selfish gene. But if we say that out loud, the status quo might get suspicious.

18 Responses to GROAF & CONTRAKSHUN

  1. J.D. – I recently decided to join the cause, starting a blog to reach my circle of friends & beyond. I too am looking for the grass-roots message that can begin to resonate with the masses who will never understand (or care to try) stuff like heterodox and endogenous money.

    I decided to take the angle of money belongs to the people. Our money, like our government, should be “of” the people and “for” the people. A very American idea, and perhaps one that can connect even with conservatives.

    Feedback is welcome!

  2. I see it more likely we will be building a Lifetime Entertainment System as so many of the recently touted new businesses, (Facebook, Apple, Google, Netflix) are, to me, solidly in the entertainment business, not in education.

    Google does have its scanned books section, but that is somewhat buried under their toolbar – more, so one could view Google Books as much less used than their more entertaining web search/news business.

    One can see people learning new things as they get interested in a new hobby, but I believe POE (pursuit of entertainment) is on most citizens’ agenda.

    And as you are mentioning novels, isn’t entertainment for the masses what Huxley’s Brave New World suggested would be the future?

    For significant change, I believe we will need a far more radical government to pull the people away from the center toward a more sustainable existence . But after observing Reagan, Bush I/II, Clinton, Obama, I can’t see this happening.

    Perhaps the human species will behave like any other species in their ecosystem.

    The biological imperative of all species seems to be to grow their numbers, and their ecological footprint, until a limit is reached.

    One primary difference is that most species do this while confined in a local ecosystem, so it is not a world wide impact when a limit is reached.

    But with humans, it is very possible the entire world will be involved in the ecological limiting of human growth, aka “Climate change”.

    The late Garrett Harding ( who originated the term “Tragedy of the commons”) wrote of economists that believe there are no limits that can’t be handled by capital and were suspicious of terms such as “carrying capacity” (“The Ostrich Factor”, 1998).

    Expecting low ecological footprint “learners” to scale up in numbers significant enough to be consequential in the human climate change problem is unrealistic and exceedingly unlikely in my view.

  3. Right, J.D. MMT is not groaf-jawbz. That is old “Keynesianism” . (I had the same problems understanding.) MMT is jawbz-groaf. More precisely, jawbz- almost certainly groaf, especially at the institution of a JG and full employment = cessation of national self-sabotage.
    But intrinsically, MMT is not pro-groaf or de-groaf, but a-groaf, and has been since Minsky, as he notes in Stabilizing an Unstable Economy. The main thing is for the country to fulfill its moral responsibility to individuals to offer everyone employment – and notice how preposterous the idea that anyone could be hurt by this by any measure which anyone dares openly declare. But noting that “groaf” is the natural result when you institute a JG, and for a good long time after, is noting that the JG and full employment will pay for themselves and more – as Keynes’ old-fashioned good sense declared.

    What all this was really about might be that there’s an important distinction between genuine “growth” and “GROAF”—and between meaningful work and “JAWBS”

    Yes, but too many of the jawbz-groaf-mockers there remain trapped in insanestream economics. Mocking the JG, calling it make work, saying citizens dividends, BIGs are better is both extolling magical thinking
    AND thinking that ONLY capitalists (who never have such ridiculous notions – how do you think they got rich?) – ONLY capitalists can provide “real jobs”, “meaningful work”. That somehow “the market” and its capitalists are “natural” and “real” and that “government intervention” like the JG is “make work” – a jawb for the sake of groaf.

    When the truth is so simple – we always just decide collectively what to do and what not to do, and what and how to reward individuals. That the government, the most powerful actor, cannot but do this always for the society as a whole, because it is the gorilla in the room. The only serious, reasonable, consistent viewpoints are to see it all as “make-work” ( “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go”) – or none of it.

  4. allcoppedout

    My original plan on groaf-jawbs (Lambert gets a star for ‘jawbs’) was to start a USUK Oafs’ Party. We would attract every lout, boor, barbarian, Neanderthal, churl, clown, gawk, hulk, bumpkin, and yokel not digging peat for whiskey stills, with promises of free drunkenness and education that wouldn’t hurt. The idewba would be to send them to all red-blue party conferences and photo-opportunities. There they would do Morris dancing, chant groaf-jawb ditties and act as cheerleaders. And they would practice fawning devotion to the red or blue . Away from conference, but preferably in front of cameras, they would commit vandalism and acts of gross rudeness. The idea, of course, is to make the public realise only oafs and their cousins could possibly believe in red or blue and groaf-jawb echo-nomics. Whilst the Oaf Party would register only votes from psychopaths, the electorate would flood to our independent candidates promising zero banker tolerance and green restructuring. Cal’s 7 Dwarfs’ derivative would be sung in celebration after the vote was counted, led by Michael Hudson, primus interpares of the Independents.

    I’m actually rather serious about this, though not as a practical strategy. An animation could make the point. We have to shift the ground of public habit The very idea we can go on groaf-jawbing our way to planetary disaster can’t morally hold, yet who isn’t promising this? We could even, in principle, set up a new voting system to show what people would vote for, given the chance to engage a bit of education. This would combine three aspects of new technology:
    1. education
    2. ability for agile, big-data monetary and wealth distribution practice (transparency, honesty, Cantillon problems)
    3. a virtual voting world that might become real

    Policy would be to green the world and change economics into can do support of this. Currently, MMT and heterodox economics is still too functionalist for me and thus not likely to address power issues well. In a sense we have all been slaves and might not handle freedom well. Biology more than suggests we will have trouble doing our own leadership, not forming default hierarchies and agreeing on who does what work. There is already sign of people in this particular club resenting ‘unlicensed brainwork’ (an old Marxist problem in my time) and believing they can influence the establishment ear. My guess is this is the circular road to business-as-usual without some more radical ideas on action.

  5. Jamie Alexander

    It’s either growth or contraction – its all make work or none of it – these are false dichotomies.

    I love MMT and am thrilled to have stumbled onto it about two years ago. MMT has made a light in the darkness for me as concerns the “meaning” of money and how the monetary system works. Yea!

    But long before I stumbled on MMT I read Herman Daly. I came at MMT, not from a mainstream, neoclassical economic platform, but from a cogent critique of that platform that starts with the recognition that “land” abstracted is not land in real life. I was an ecologist (armchair) before I became an economist (armchair). MMT may indeed be a-groaf rather than pro-groaf, but I think what the peanut gallery wants from it, is a clearer statement on the limits and sustainability of human activity, writ large. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but having glimpsed a radical path of change that puts ‘optimal’ above ‘maximal’, the jg does indeed seem like “settling” for a lesser solution. Would we be better off with a jg in place? I think so. Could we, with a jg in place, still eat our grandchildren? Sure.

  6. Well GROAF is new to me too. But very few discussions of Growth make a simple distinction – between QUANTITY and QUALITY. We must reduce the quantity – of material throughput, monetary turnover. But we can still increase the quality – of life.

    The living world has been surviving on roughly the same quantity of material (100% recycled) for billions of years, but has nevertheless great increased its quality – i.e. diversity and sophistication of forms, including us.

    • allcoppedout

      Spot on Geoff. I’d guess, like me, you see this as an obvious point and wonder how it seems so easily hidden in the main debate. The point (trivial in some ways) of “groaf” is the “oaf”. Who but oafs could be swayed to vote by the ‘we’ll bring groaf-jawbs promisers’? To any scientist the burn-poison the planet stuff is obvious and it’s pretty obvious society is being poisoned as well through inequality. The groaf-jawbs liturgy should be attracting violent egg-throwing by now and instantly mark any puppet mouthing it as unelectable. Yet the opposite is true and will be as we approach UK elections next year

      So how do we turn the argument to quality or collect enough egg-throwing oafs who have seen the light? To you and I a greener world, probably much changed from this one is attractive. So why not for voters? I think we are coming at this issue all wrong – a familiar thing we hear as scientists, but not much understood more widely. There’s a lot more to say.

    • allcoppedout – I think if most people heard what you’re saying they’d come to see the sense of it. But we can’t be heard through the deluge of mainstream media nonsense. So the challenge is to expand the audiences of alternative outlets. Difficult, despite claims about the “democracy” of the web.

  7. We repeatedly forget that we’re a product of Nature and hard-wired to pursue both Individualism and Mutualism. These two fundamental dispositions result in endless conflicts. We can only hope to reduce these through increased education which is targeted to provide us with the analytical tools to create restraints to provide a better balancing of our dispositions.

    • Schofield – In the Tao view, competition and cooperation are not opposites in conflict, they are polarities to be balanced. Cooperation pervades the living world just as much as cooperation. Humans are highly social. As such, we all need to balance our need for individual expression with the needs of our group, from which we benefit too. This balancing is what makes life unpredictable, and rich. The 20th century ideologies (all cooperation or all competition) are both pathological. We need to embrace our complex nature.

      Oh and “hard-wired” is a bit too strong. We all can choose to transcend our fears and act out of love.

  8. J.D.,

    As always, I enjoyed reading your post. Some aspects of it reminded me of a post by Bill Mitchell, which I discussed in a June 2012 blog post entitled “MMT & the New Economy Movement: A Macro-Micro Marriage?”

    In that post I suggested combining the ecologically sustainable, humane and democratic microeconomic perspective espoused by New Economy advocates like Gar Alperovitz with an MMT-informed macroeconomic policy and effective reform of our political system:

    “I’d suggest that the New Economy and MMT perspectives be presented to the American people in a unified way as an alternative to the economic and institutional models that dominate our economy and political discourse today (e.g., overemphasis on and excess control by the financial sector; large-scale crony capitalism under the guise of “deregulation;” privatization of profit and socialization of risk and environmental damage; misguided and cruel support for fiscal austerity during a deep and extended recession).

    And I’d go a bit further in my call for solidarity. I’d also add to it a focus on eliminating the money-based political corruption destroying the health of our democratic republic, along the lines of what’s being proposed by Larry Lessig…”

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  10. Marty Heyman

    Jawbz is just Jawbz. Nobody wants them. But you have to have a jawb to pay off the debt that’s built in to the pursuit of “the dream.” Growf is Contrakshun. All the real assets and real production is being stripped out and shipped to low-wage labor colonies leaving the homeland an increasingly empty and helpless relic. Apparently, the plan is, and has been, to hollow out every strong sovereign nation, turn all national governments over to weak and corrupt colonial satraps and let the rich run the world from their gated communities. Or maybe Mars.

  11. Would we be better off with a jg in place? I think so. Could we, with a jg in place, still eat our grandchildren? Sure.

    Bravo, Jamie Alexander. I don’t write that to express opposition to a JG regime – far from it. But I do like how succinctly you cautioned against viewing a JG as a cure-all – not that I even necessarily think that anyone is. I just think people could, and, more likely, those opposed to a JG would tend to assume that those in favor of it must see it as a cure-all. Best to prevent the former and push back against the latter.

  12. Susan Truxes

    A horizontal world contained in one world-city, leaving the rest of the planet to once again become wilderness. That architect was a virtuoso. Our dear leaders aren’t gonna touch this. So a preemptive change to MMT is the best tool for bigger change – the best tool we have – because it eliminates national debts by simply not incurring them. And it’s gonna be expensive. No other system of exchange can come close to the efficiencies MMT can achieve. And rightly so because trade, exchange, has been the driving force of profit and accumulation. With MMT we cut out that old, fat middleman and exchange directly: money for a better world. Maybe it won’t be a world-city, but we can approach ideas like that. And do it for a very long time. Like at least this entire century.

  13. “Groaf” has generally been defined as an increase in “I,” though largely unconsciously.


    “Our species’ negative impact on our own life-support systems can be approximated by the equation I=PAT. In that equation, the size of the population (P) is multiplied by the average affluence or consumption per individual (A), and that in turn is multiplied by some measure of the technology (T) that services and drives the consumption. Thus commuting in automobiles powered by subsidized fossil fuels on proliferating freeways creates a much greater T factor than commuting on bikes using simple paths or working at home on a computer network. The product of P, A, and T is Impact (I), a rough estimate of how much humanity is degrading the ecosystem services it depends upon.”–Paul and Anne Ehrlich

    Seeing “groaf” for what it is–and re-framing it–is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for genuine progress. In a nutshell, re-framing could legitimize fewer hours of work for higher pay as “T” improves, generate full employment, substitute of quality of life for quantity of “goods” (materialism), etc.

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  15. allcoppedout

    There is another associated oaf phrase – ‘getta job’. I remember being able to join a line outside a factory and more or less start after handing over my name and address and making my mark.
    Yves’ describes her NC blog as economics/political science. Her right and accurate. Yet I can teach a series of university modules called ‘management and organization behaviour’ in (at least) 2 entirely different ways. The mainstream is based on (utter rot) like the Hawthorne “experiments”, “scientific management” (ho ho ho – Taylor probably had OCD), Herzberg’s ludicrous lack of empiricism and largely US pop psychology (Maslow stripped down to the pyramid and evangelical “excellence”). Teaching will be regurgitation of standard texts that haven’t changed, other than in fashion, since the 50’s. If Max Weber gets a mention, it will be through ‘charismatic leadership’ as “having charisma” (forgot who came up with insanestream, but boy is that right). One might, instead, teach such modules on the basis of Critical Theory or continental philosophy. The standard text here was written a dozen or more years ago by Jackson and Carter. Under this method the insanestream is little more than establishment propaganda. , In practice, one finds oneself earning your £40 an hour teaching the insanestream, while writing papers for conferences and journals in the critical stream (‘Organization’, ‘Standing Conference On Organization Studies’ blah, blah).

    The same is true of economics and political science (and even psychology and sociology). Most of what is taught is insanestream. There are roughly 4 paradigms in social thought – radical humanist (freedom, subjectivity), interpretive (control, subjectivity), radical structuralist (freedom through objective theory) and functionalist (control through objective theory). Functionalism is the dominant educational form.

    NC strikes me as shaking free from functionalism – but then we’d have had to have missed school and standard jawbs not to have been filled with the stuff. Travelling the Soviet Block before and after 89, I was impressed how little the insanestream there had sunk in, other than in fear of the terror. One group told me they had been present in these classes, but that didn’t mean they were listening. Then they pointed to one of their own and said he’d been teaching them. He said everyone knew he didn’t mean any of it. His apparatchik jawb had shifted to an entrepreneurchik jawb.

    Functionalism has problems with how people really think and feel. Such can never be data to the functionalist. Data comes from polls, archives, institutionally produced numbers (often wrongly called statistics) … all of which can and have been bent. We are often stuck arguing with this stuff even if we have ‘radical humanist bent’. It was there for us to soak up, whether in a Soviet or ‘free-world’ classroom.

    How else could groaf-jawbs survive even as a false political promise without massive indoctrination and manipulation on what can be accepted as “data”? I haven’t seen anyone on NC or here (odd troll maybe) who doesn’t believe the planet is being burned and poisoned. I would say there is still little sign that such is key economic data. Austerity here is seen as useless and cruel. There is wide acceptance that genuine growth can come by recognising the neurosis of groaf. Plenty have said no one really wants to do jawbs at all – we are forced into such to survive.

    Coming round to planet, land and sea protection is a paradigm shift from functionalism. This is hard for us to grok because we were educated to be functionalists. This involves a very unitarist notion of argument, itself a fallacy. The ‘Singing Architect’s’ vision of a green future is worth making. The job in ‘strategic organisation’ for people (instead of ‘management’ – try an etymology of that term – the best I found is ‘the handling of horses’) is to put up the vision and work the steps back to how we change from now. I’d say the most difficult part of this is recognising how disgusting now is and how we hide that in functionalist education.

    One level functionalism misses is that we are all affected less by, say, Putin in charge, than noisy, criminal neighbour (there are groaf-jawbs style promises on this that don’t work either). Make that Mugabe and one would probably welcome the noisy neighbour as a relief!

    And imagine what you’d be doing living in a ‘Singing Architect Paradise’ .. and work out that might involve a totally different notion of groaf the echo-nomists chant or assume darkly in argument. I’d suggest one of the things we should be doing in such paradise is a share of the jobs no one really wants to do. Those of us who make the claim most learning is experiential should gather why.