Friday, July 21, 2017

Re-upping my Producer Class credentials (again)





The main reason for do-it-yourself home repair is that you can have something in your life that is unaffordable any other way. Pictured here is my new rest-and-towel-off area built on the site of one of the nastier basement bathrooms ever seen or imagined. Among its many features it has an ADA-approved low-slip tile floor, knurled, high-grip, stainless-steel grab bars, an ergonomically excellent bench, and an LED lighting system that delivers almost 100 lumens / sq. ft. It is safe, comfortable, and aesthetically quite pleasant. And best of all, it was built with some of the lowest-cost materials sold in the big-box building supply store in my little town—for example the ceramic wall tile only cost $1.52 / sq. ft. ($16.36 / sq. meter).

But for me, this sort of building is also (and probably mainly) an epistemological exercise. Building teaches many important lessons including:
  • Careful and extensive planning is essential.
  • There is absolutely no substitute for getting it right the first time
  • Inexpensive materials can be made to look spectacular if used with imagination
  • The instinct of workmanship works best with good tools
  • Nothing disrupts a time schedule like a non-standard design or application
No one changes the world quite like the builders. And when the builders got really serious about their applied art, they produced the Industrial Revolution. The greatest errors in economics stem directly from a deep ignorance of the tool-users and what their role in society really is. So I build because I never want to lose touch with these people. It is what separates the economic thinking of this blog from virtually every other economics site on the internet. Unless one categorizes Ben Franklin and Peter Cooper as economists, there are no historical examples of economists who were graceful tool-users. Of course the greatest political economist of them all, Thorstein Veblen, built simple things—which mostly proves my point about how rare it is for the tool-users to be even mentioned in economic debates.

Even so, I look at my rebuilt bathroom and am filled with the calm assurance that very likely no other political economist in history could have built it. And this fact alone significantly explains why so many got so much horribly and disastrously wrong. It is impossible to accurately explain human society without accounting for the tool-users. Moreover, tool-using constitutes a knowledge that is rarely found in books—this is something you must do.

I must admit that most of these lessons had been learned long ago. But this time around, I thought a lot about the intersection between competence and honesty. Besides cost containment, my main goal was to have a well-made outcome. Like any such project, there were many jobs I had not done before. When that never-been-done-before job appears, the most important task is to take an honest and thorough inventory of the possible assets that can bring this task to a successful conclusion.
  • Is there a Youtube of someone doing the same thing? 
  • Do I have the right tools for fabrication? 
  • Can I purchase suitable raw materials? 
  • Is the planned method within my skill set? etc.
Of course, when there isn't a relevant example to copy, you are thrown into the world of invention where all these steps must be repeated with a lot less help. In these situations where outcomes are less certain, the margin for dishonest self assessment drops to ZERO. Turns out, once again, that the most important core ingredient of competency is honesty.

Unfortunately, this will be my last such project. I recently turned 68 and physically I cannot do it anymore. Especially if only to prove an epistemological point. This project was conducted in a cellar which means everything had to be hauled down a flight of stairs. Some construction materials are pretty damn heavy and clumsy. But I DO enjoy my repaired bathroom. The details of how it was done can be found by clicking the Read more button below.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

According to the Guardian, "How economics became a religion"


If there is one position I have maintained for as long as I have been writing this blog it is that, "Far from being a science, conventional economics is just bad theology."

I grew up in a parsonage. I had religion crammed up my nose from before I could remember. I fell in love with science because it offered a refuge from that sort of thinking. In my old age, I have made peace with much religious practice—SOMEONE has to bury the dead, after all, and this is something religious practitioners do fairly well. But I certainly do NOT want religious thinking around questions that are not religious. I consider someone who would pray that their god would heal their broken brakes to be crazy.

Theological thinking applied to economics is just as crazy. And yet, we see it all the time. And this article shows that the problem has become so obvious, even The Guardian can see it. Of course, as the "left" house organ of neoliberalism, they probably aren't about to do anything meaningful about their new point of view. This probably isn't even much of a start. But as someone who has taken a great deal of flak in life for questioning the "scientific" claims of the economics profession, I do find their new awareness oddly pleasant.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

R.L. Bruckberger on American School Economist Henry C. Carey


Last month I posted a large article on American School Economist Henry C. Carey, The only economists who ever created a national economy. The article was drawn almost entirely from the 1965 Pulitzer Prize winning history book, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879, by Irwin Unger (Princeton University Press, 1964). One of the most intriguing references cited by Unger was R.L. Bruckberger.

Raymond Léopold Bruckberger was a French priest of the Dominican order. At the beginning of World War Two he requested the order allow him to join a combat unit, and served in the French mountain light infantry and commandos. After the collapse of the French army, Bruckberger became chaplain general of the French Resistance. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the medal of the Legion of Honor for his role in the Resistance. After the war, he lived eight years in the United States, researching and writing his book Image of America, published by Viking Press in 1959. Prominent American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a front-page review of the book for the New York Times Book Review, comparing Bruckberger to Alexis de Tocqueville.

One chapter of his book focuses on American School economist Henry C. Carey, and is entitled, "The Only American Economist of Importance" The title is taken from a 5 March 1852 letter by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in which they wrote that Carey is “the only American economist of importance.”

Bruckberger inlcuded some excerpts from Carey that directly assault the key tenets of conservative, libertarian, and neoliberal economic thought. And, of course, Bruckberger frames Carey’s economic thought as being distinct from, and hostile to, today’s economic thought dominated by the British school. Contrast Carey’s belief that man’s struggle to master nature necessitates the creation of a cooperative society, with neoliberals' belief  (as per Margaret Thatcher) that “there is no society.”, only a never ending struggle of personal interests mediated by the working of markets. Carey’s belief also foreshadows Veblen’s analysis of the need for organized cooperation in the industrial processes of production. And Carey's analysis of humanity's struggle to master nature reinforces the point I have made in the past that the most important economic activity a society undertakes in the creation and dissemination of new scientific and technological knowledge. In The Higgs boson and the purpose of a republic (July 2014), I wrote:
....what is wealth? Is it really hoards of cash, or stockpiles of precious metals? Consider: Why do we have computers now, when there were none 200 or 500 or more years ago? Certainly, 500 years ago, all the raw materials that go into making a computer were available. There was lots of silicon laying around, and there was a lot of petroleum, with which to make plastics, sitting in the ground. There was the same presence of germanium and silver, and copper, and whatever else is needed to make a computer, 500 years ago, as there is today. What is so different today that we can make computers now, but could not 500 years ago? The answer, of course, is knowledge - we first had to develop, acquire, and master, the various facets of science that allowed us to make use of those latent natural resources, then apply that science to actual physical processes of production, or what we call technology. So what wealth really is, is the human power of thinking: reason, investigation, hypothesizing, testing, figuring out why things are the way they are -- and then figuring out how that new knowledge can be used to change the way things are.
In other words, the knowledge required to master nature.

One more note: Bruckberger identifies Carey as a Jeffersonian (there is an article in Bruckberger's book devoted to Jefferson previous to the article on Carey). Since Carey was a foremost advocate for the neomercantalist policies of Hamilton—a protective tariff, a national banking system, and massive government investments in infrastructure—Carey thus brings together and melds the two contending factions of early American history: Jeffersonian, and Hamiltonian.

Following are excerpts from pages 156-165 of Bruckberger's Image of America. At the end of this post are more results of an index search in economics textbooks.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tucker Carlson destroys Max Boot


Tucker Carlson used to drive me into fits of rage. So now he has a gig at Fox News and suddenly, he has almost become a voice of reason. Yesterday, (12 JUL 17) he has Max Boot on his show and proceeded to tear him a new one on the subject of foreign relations in the age of Trump. Whatever feelings I may have had for Carlson (an arrogant, overprivileged rich kid with a career path greased by well-connected parents, for example) they pale in comparison to my loathing of Max Boot, one of the nastier house neocons over at the Council on Foreign Relations whose lies have caused the deaths of thousands (if not millions) of people. As John Lennon once wrote:

There is room at the top they keep telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be just like the folks on the hill

A Working Class Hero

After Carlson got done with him, Boot was NOT smiling—even though I am certain he smiles a lot for his employers over at CFR.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Missing the opportunity of a lifetime


Former CIA Director John Brennan said today on Meet the Press, "...right before he met with Mr. Putin and talked with him at some length, which I'm glad he did, he said it's an honor to meet President Putin. An honor to meet the individual who carried out the assault against our election? To me, it was a dishonorable thing to say."

Really? The appropriate way to meet a leader of another country is to be nakedly rude—especially concerning an accusation for which not one shred of proof has been offered in over eight months? Here's the deal Brennan. Putin is the first truly democratically-elected president in a country that has existed for over 1000 years. He has approval ratings after being in office for nearly 18 years of over 80% He can conduct press conferences that last over three hours without notes. And you actually believe that such a person deserves scorn?

After somehow surviving the utter BS of the Cold War, I thought that maybe, just maybe, the lies about Russia would stop. I could even tolerate all this mega-lying about Putin / Russia if it were not for the fact that some lifelong friends believe it. There are days when I feel physically sick.

So here's to our Democratic "heroes" who are actually more ridiculous than Tailgunner Joe McCarthy ever was. The other day Maxine Waters confused Korea with Crimea. Nice to know that geography isn't a requirement for high elected office. The people who can believe in "Russia-Gate" are the same sort that believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—in fact, they are often the very same people.

We are missing a golden opportunity here folks. If we were to get serious about doing business with V. Putin, who knows how many serious problems facing planet earth could be solved.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sovereign Debt Jubilee?


Whenever someone suggest that we fund a Green "New Deal" (to use the phrase of Green Party candidate Jill Stein) a howl goes up of "you must be crazy-don't you understand the national debt is already in the $20 trillion range?" And unfortunately, that pretty much ends the discussion. And so we keep doing nothing because paying the interest on the national debt is SO much more important than doing something meaningful to save the ecosystems that make human life possible. Massive death by compound interest, anyone?

The power of creditors to force people to do very unpleasant things is really quite amazing from cultural intimidation, to evictions, to debtors prisons, to various methods of physical torture employed by loan sharks—and all to enforce a "reality" that exists mostly as a line of bookkeeping. Think about it—we have been prevented from doing things that are utterly necessary to the survival of the species because of "information" that exists as an electronic charge in the memory of some computer. This reality is so fundamentally insane that its no wonder the creditor classes must resort to their bag of cultural and physical violence to enforce their claims on your life.

The intimidation must be total because the nature of debt can be changed with almost tiny revisions in law and practice. Here Ellen Brown outlines how Japan is in the process of wiping out half of its national debts with almost invisible changes to the way their central bank operates and asks, "Why cannot we do the same thing?"

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The only economists who ever created a national economy


A couple months ago, I found online a very useful graphic of the major schools of economic thought. Take a look at it, with this question in mind: Have any of the schools of economic thought shown in the graphic actually resulted in creating a functioning national economy with a large degree of general prosperity and political freedom?

An honest, historically informed answer completely contradicts the libertarian / conservative / neoliberal hero-worship of Adam Smith. The original graphic was posted in April 2014. Four months later, the author posted a revised graphic. Note the major addition in the bottom left corner of the revised graphic: the American School of Alexander Hamilton, Henry C. Carey, and Friedrich List.
It is a very welcome addition, because the American School is the only school of economic thought that has resulted in creating a functioning national economy.

In December 1993, James Fallows rattled the economics profession with an article in The Atlantic, How the World Works:
The more I had heard about List in the preceding five years, from economists in Seoul and Osaka and Tokyo, the more I had wondered why I had virtually never heard of him while studying economics in England and the United States. 
Fallows goes on to describe the historical importance, not of British opium-trade apologist Adam Smith, but of the American School, in guiding the early industrial development of Tokugawa Japan, late imperial China, czarist Russia, Germany, South Korea, and other countries.

In a nutshell, the American School is the only body of economic thought which has actually resulted in national industrial development along with a large degree of general prosperity and political freedom. A partial exception is Marx, but, as Lawrence Goodwyn, the late historian of the American agrarian revolt and populist movement of the late 1800s, pointed out, no system of Marxism has been implemented without the coercive power of a red army behind it.

So why haven’t you ever heard of Henry C. Carey and Friedrich List, two of the most famous economists of the mid-nineteenth-century? They, and the American School, have simply been written out of the economics textbooks. Did you take an economics course in college, and do you still have the textbook around somewhere? Please, look in the index and see how many references there are to Henry Carey. Or to Alexander Hamilton, who, after all, is the person who designed the foundations of the USA economy—which certainly has to rank among the greatest achievements of the past millennium.  Compare what you find with the number of references to Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Summer Sacrilege


Paul Street is rapidly becoming the most interesting contributor to Counterpunch. As the USA stalls out politically over the partisan arguments concerning the legitimacy of the 2016 election, Street is suggesting that reasonable folks rethink the usefulness of all this squabbling. And maybe get back to thinking about the incredibly serious problem of climate change.

So far so good. But the one "blasphemous" thought Street has that I cannot agree with is entitled "Think Capitalogenic, not Anthropogenic Climate Change." Street wants us to believe that the root cause of climate change is, ta da, Capitalism. Well, no. The cause of climate change is too many people burning too many fires. If anything, the "cause" of climate change CAN be ascribed to Industrialization BUT Capitalism and Industrialization are two VERY different things. The confusion between the two pretty well explains why even though socialism can talk a good talk when it comes to environmental problems, it has a dismal track record when it comes to performance.

For example, when I first became concerned about environmental problems, one of the more articulate spokesmen was this guy named Barry Commoner. He had written a book called The Closing Circle. One of his brilliant insights he called the Iron Law of Non-renewable Resources—every barrel of oil (etc.) discovered and extracted only makes the next barrel harder to find and more expensive to recover. Anyone who wants to know why fracking is so expensive need only refer back to this law. But for all his genius, Commoner stumbled because of his willingness to believe that Capitalism and Industrialization were the same thing. He was an avowed Marxist and believed that Socialism would yield far superior results when it came to environmental matters. When the Wall came down and "socialist" industrialization was revealed as the utter catastrophe it was, poor Commoner, for all his genius, was tossed on the ash heap of history. Which is unfortunate, because his Iron Law of Non-renewable Resources is still perfectly valid.

One thing the "left" should keep in mind is that the "capitalism" of stock markets, monetary policy and central banks, and the rest of the activities associated with the movements of money, did NOT cause industrialization in the first place and if the past 40 years are any guide, is the leading cause of de-industrialization. This is MOST unfortunate because for all the rapacious damage that Capitalism has inflicted on industrial activity, it staggers forward in its crippled state because industrialization fills real human needs.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Glass-Steagall, now more than ever


For those of us who have watched in absolute horror as the neoliberals have retested their crackpot theories on a country too ignorant to know better, our response is usually some variation on the theme "we know how to do it better because we have already demonstrated that our ideas are pragmatically superior." Paul Roberts is another throwback to the time when industrial "capitalism" created generalized prosperity and rewarded hard work and innovation rather than the scam of the month.

In some ways, it is almost impossible to imagine that something as honest, basic, and necessary as Glass-Steagall needs to be defended. Yet it was repealed, the banking systems blew up, and the taxpayers were put on the hook to save the perpetrators of deregulatory madness. Of course, the original act was put in place to prevent exactly the problems that showed up in the real estate bubble. In a sane world, Glass-Steagall would have been reinstated in 2008. But NOOOOO! The Predators want their bucket shops because it beats the hell out of honest work. And so the USA staggers from one economic crises to another.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dylan's Nobel Lecture in Literature


"The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent. Now that the lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close," Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, wrote in a blog post.



The very idea that the Nobel folks would award their literature prize to a songwriter has been, to put it mildly, controversial. I grew up the child of a Swedish-American mother who spent pretty much all her moral energy in life trying to be respectable. And as the wife of a Lutheran preacher, she had multiple daily opportunities to practice her art. So when I think of an august group like the Nobel Literature committee, I imagine my mother times oh, 100. A group that asks regularly, "What will people think?"

Given the outcome of this little experiment, the Nobel folks will probably retreat to some known safe haven of respectability for a long time to come. Because for the serious fans of respectability, the whole idea has been a fiasco. At first, Dylan didn't even respond to the announcement of a Nobel Prize. The Swedes found this hopelessly rude. The academic writers who would have been thrilled by the honor were quick to point out that the problem was that he wasn't a "real" writer anyway. Finally, Dylan accepted with some polite PR boilerplate but he didn't promise to actually make the awards ceremony. Patti Smith was sent to cover A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall and promptly botched the lyrics. She was immediately forgiven because her rendition was so moving but I am sure the pearl clutchers were left wondering, "what else could go wrong?" Still, Dylan could collect his nearly $1 million prize if he managed to deliver a lecture within 6 months. He just made it. And the speech is remarkable.

Dylan's behavior in all this confusion needs a bit of context. Here's a guy who went to work after only one year of college. He was focused on writing short-form poetry meant to be sung, with the primary singer (himself) hamstrung by a limited range. Many considered his voice laughably unpleasant. He cobbled together a one-man-band kit consisting of a guitar and harmonica and bravely offered his wares to anyone who would listen. His words were so compelling, however, that soon A-list musicians would be covering his work. While all of this is pretty interesting, none of it sounds like the sort of thing that would be found in the CV of a Nobel winner in literature. In fact, I am certain that Dylan suspected it was all a hoax.

So when it came time to write a speech outlining the effects of literature on his work, Dylan looks like he was forced to fall back on material he learned in high school—Moby Dick, the Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front. There are damn few high schools that teach such books anymore and the number of students who actually learn them is probably close to zero. Fortunately, Dylan's father had moved the family to the small mining town of Hibbing Minnesota where he was enrolled in arguably the nicest public high school on the planet. In 1918, the owners of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine discovered that downtown Hibbing was sitting on an extremely rich seam of high-grade iron ore. It would have to move. To grease the skids, the town was offered a large cash payment which the mostly immigrant miners decided to spend on a new high school. They would eventually spend over $4 million (an incredible number in the 1920s) on a magnificent structure that still inspires awe. But the high school was to be more than a beautiful building, it was supposed to be a place where even poor children from mining families could get an elite education if they just did their homework. So while Dylan got by on his high school education, what an education it was. (We even know the name of his high school literature teacher, B.J. Rolfzen)

What is noteworthy about Dylan's choices is that in many ways, they are category killers. He says of All Quiet on the Western Front, "After reading it, I never wanted to read another war novel. I never did." This partly explains why the Nobel Committee awarded their prize to a "mere" songwriter—much of what passes for literature these days is irrelevant tripe in the form of academic navel-gazing. Too many categories have been killed long ago. Sometimes I wonder if the same cannot be said for the subject of economics—guys like Veblen and Keynes did some serious category killing in their day. It's hard to point to anyone currently writing who has anything new to add.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is clearly an award Dylan did not need. Even the $million payoff is a rounding error for someone who has sold over 100 million records, and the honor pales next to the dozens of awards for his music. But even though this was probably all just annoying for him, he managed to put together a speech both meaningful and profound. He didn't have to do it but for those of us who appreciate his cultural contributions, I am glad he did.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The European Left sells out the Greeks


Watching the American Left slide into irrelevancy at best and utter insanity at worst is certainly distressing but it is hardly surprising. The signs of extreme forms of neoliberalism were already abundantly apparent in the Democratic Party in the 1970s when Jimmy Carter, a mostly unknown peanut farmer / nuclear engineer became President of the United States with the help of David Rockefeller and the Council on Foreign Relations / Trilateral Commission. Carter's Vice President, Walter Mondale, was such a drooling stooge of the establishment that in his presidential run in 1984, he managed to lose debates to Reagan—a guy who was already visibly suffering from dementia / Alzheimers. Mondale couldn't really debate Reagan because on the big issues of economics and foreign policy, they agreed. Of course Mondale didn't go quite as far as 1988 corpo-dem candidate Michael Dukakis who declared, "This race isn't about ideology, it's about competence."

Of course, the left actually did have a granola version of what they believed on hand for such an occasion. They may have thrown in the towel on economics, by gum, but they still had the culture wars to win and food to complain about. And in these arenas, it is hard to argue against their success. For me, this was personal. My political roots were in the Farmer-Labor Party. Their goal was to get a better economic arrangement for factory workers and small farmers. In my mind, if you gave up the economic arguments, you pretty much lost the reason for having a political party.

Oddly enough, I pretty much expected the USA Left to sell out their economic principles. Watching the European Left sell out is much harder to understand. When I first encountered Europe's Left it was in 1970. I was pretty much welcomed because of my anti-Vietnam War activism but when the subject changed to economics and social policy, I felt pretty much lost. Everyone I met who called themselves a Lefty was FAR more theoretical than I was or will ever be. The way I saw it, people who had invested so much time and energy developing their complex theoretical positions seemed highly unlikely to abandon them. I returned from that summer of passionate debates in youth hostels determined to get my theoretical ducks in a row.

So I read some Trotsky, a bunch of Gramsci, etc. Basically what I discovered was that even though these authors could inspire something that resembled revolutionary ardor, none seemed to address the issues that so dominated my early political consciousness—interest rates and usury laws, the creation of money, the regulation of "natural" monopolies, etc. So as we can see from today's brilliant take-down of the modern "Left" by one really furious Greek, we have reasons aplenty to be furious over what has happened to that poor little country. Even IF the Left could awaken some old revolutionary ardor, they are theoretically ill-equipped to comment on such issues as IMF structural adjustments in the age of electronic money—and the rest of the horrors visited on the world's poor.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The ruinous history of free trade, Part 1

November 6, 1860. Abraham Lincoln has been made President by a 39.8 percent plurality of votes. The Democratic Party had split in two over the issue of slavery expansion during its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina in late April. Almost exactly one month after the election, Robert Barnwell Rhett, publisher of the Charleston Mercury and the most open proponent of secession, walked along Meeting Street, almost to the southern tip of the peninsula Charleston is built on. He stopped at a house and knocked on the door. Now that secession was being planned, Rhett had come to talk with the Consul of Great Britain, Robert Bunch, about the “commercial prospects” of the South.

Once the two men had exchanged carefully courteous greetings, Rhett got right to the point.
Rhett asked Bunch how he thought Britain would act if ships arrived in its ports that came from the seceding states but did not have clearances from the customs collectors of the Federal government—assuming, of course, the Federal government didn’t object to their sailing and wasn’t going to “coerce the Seceders back into the Union.”
Rhett had represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate in the early 1850s, so the British consul addressed Rhett with the honorific. “Is that what you believe will happen, Senator?” Bunch asked. Rhett replied:
“The course most likely to be pursued by the President is that he will not acknowledge the right of a State to secede as an abstract question, but practically, he will not interfere with it for doing so…. Foreign nations would be at perfect liberty to consider secession as an accomplished fact and to use their own discretion as to recognizing or making treaties with the new state.”
Bunch answered that he could not provide an official reply, since her majesty’s government had not yet provided him any instructions on the matter, and in fact had probably not even considered the issue yet. Bunch then slyly provoked Rhett by noting that most foreign governments, including his own, would take their guidance from whatever position the President and the Congress of the United States settled on.

This pushed Rhett to go directly to the heart of the matter, according to Bunch’s biographer:
[Rhett] expected the cottons states to form a Confederacy within the next sixty days, and he wanted to make it clear that “the wishes and hopes of the Southern states centered in England”; that they would prefer an alliance with her to any other power; that they would be their best customer; that free trade would form an integral portion of this scheme of government, with import duties of nominal amount and “direct communication by steam between the Southern and British ports.”
This conversation was communicated by Bunch to his superiors in the Foreign Office in London, and are part of the original documents used and quoted by Bunch’s biographer, Christopher Dickey, in his book, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South (2015, Broadway Books / Penguin Random House, New York, NY, pages 179-184).

Monday, May 22, 2017

If China Can Fund Infrastructure With Its Own Credit, So Can We


The basic truth about money is that it doesn't matter what it is made of compared to what are the mechanisms for making it valuable. Money that can be traded for necessary items such as food and energy is always valuable. Money created to fund human inventiveness also falls into this category. Which is why people who understand this know that so long as it is spent to create necessary items such as infrastructure, the amount of money that can be created without triggering inflation is nearly limitless. The key is spending the new money right away on the products of human genius and hard work.

And so we see that China could build 12,000 miles of high-speed rail in a decade (among a host of other major infrastructure projects) without becoming Zimbabwe. If China had created a massive pile of new money and used it to fund a massive global shopping spree, the outcome would have been dramatically different.

Here's to Ellen Brown who has rediscovered the arguments for why massive amounts of fiat money CAN (under the right conditions) lead to massive increases in prosperity. And because climate change can only be meaningfully addressed by massive amounts of new and significantly redesigned infrastructure, and since this project is absolutely necessary for continued human life on earth, Brown is addressing THE most important topic in all of political economy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Doomsday’ seed vault meant to survive global disasters breached by climate change


Those of us who live in the frozen north tend, I believe, to understand more of the nuances and implications of climate change. We burn FAR more than our share of fuels, we are the folks who made industrialization happen, and even the slowest among us understand that without fuels, the cold will kill us very quickly. The overwhelming majority of the land on earth is found in the northern hemisphere so not surprisingly, most of the more dramatic manifestations of climate change happen where we cold-weather fire-starters set up our civilizations.

But even assuming that, the two stories below are amazing. One concerns how melting permafrost in Norway is threatening the seed vault that was supposed to protect the plant genetics of the planet for "eternity." The other concerns the likelihood that a failed Gulf Stream could leave Europe with the charming weather of North Dakota.

In all fairness, because we cold-weather denizens use an outsized share of carbon fuels, we should be threatened by most of the big climate-change disasters. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we would be just the folks to tackle a solution for such possible catastrophes. Unfortunately, the culture of the North is a shadow of what it was just two or three generations ago.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

USA auto sales drop for four straight months


Probably the main observation from my Chicago trip was the seemingly huge mismatch between the purveyors of high quality goods at amazingly reasonable prices presented with all the élan the marketing geniuses can muster and the lack of shoppers buying these offerings. There is something definitely weird about the economy that does not seem to be showing up in the big-time statistics such as unemployment and inflation. Yes, there are those who watch retail sales who see some major-league catastrophes but because retailing is so hopelessly overbuilt, these same folks seem to still be overlooking the more general collapse of purchasing power.

And as if on cue, we are seeing the end of the major USA auto boom that has been driven by low interest rates, cheap fuels, and a wide selection of well-built vehicles. Well, interest rates are still low, the cars are still excellent, and fuels are quite cheap yet sales seem to have hit a wall. Apparently the folks who could buy a new car have bought that car with a five year warranty and payment schedule. So this sales slump could last awhile.

There is also an institutional reason why car sales might never see another 17.55 million unit sales year like 2016 again. Electric cars. Compared to electric cars, the  internal combustion (ICE) vehicle suddenly seem hopelessly complex and unreliable. A well maintained 10-year-old EV is a new battery pack and tires from being essentially a new car. A brushless electric motor has almost nothing to wear out and EVs do not even need gearboxes and exhaust systems. But because going electric involves a bunch of lifestyle changes, it is unlikely there will be a massive boom in EV sales even when the day arrives when EVs have become superior in every objective category for a buy consideration.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What Exxon-Mobil knew


The story of what the oil companies once knew and promoted on the subject of climate change is deep and complex and for me, endlessly fascinating.
  • I find that the scientists at big oil knew a very great deal about climate change and their role in it as early the 1980s not the least bit surprising.
  • What I find less believable is the notion that big oil spent big money to broadcast their enlightened views on climate change. I know of no one, including me, who has any recollection of those efforts. Like most, I thought climate change was a theory discovered by the heavy hitters at NASA as a spin-off of the explorations of Venus and its CO2-rich atmosphere. My views are a lot more nuanced and complex since James Hanson's testimony in 1988 but the extent of the scientific understanding of big oil is still news to me.
  • The really big story (from my perspective) are the events that made the oil companies change course so dramatically. What happened in those momentous years of the late 1980s—the fall of USSR and the Berlin Wall and end of ideological competition to the most grotesque forms of Robber Baron capitalism? the ideological triumph of monetarism and neoliberalism? the examples of "problem-solving by mandate" in the automobile industry and against Dupont and their Freon? 
  • What made their road from enlightened to irresponsible so short—was their institutional mandate for business-as-usual so powerful?
  • It is possible that even big oil, with all its resources, really did not know what to do about so massive a problem as climate change?
What? It's a damn shame the oil companies did not act to change the world as mandated by their own scientific research. It would have been most interesting to watch them try!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dying Days of Liberalism: Max Forte nicely summarizes Tom Frank's Listen Liberal

Well, of course it would happen that a few days after posting I have yet to see a decent summary of Thomas Frank's new book Listen Liberal, I find one.

First, a tip of the hat to Yves at Naked Capitalism, for linking to Canadian anthropology professor Max Forte's Donald Trump, Empire, and Globalization: A Reassessment, which is a very long but excellent and important article. Because of its length, I will plug it again in another post on Saturday, so people can wade into it over the weekend.

For now, let me point you to Forte's much shorter January 2017 posting, The Dying Days of Liberalism How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

Forte is professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec, and is a member of the Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA), the trade union body for full-time faculty, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). His two writings I have perused so far are wonderful essays combining the knowledge and methodology of several disciplines, making for some of the best political economy I have read in a while. And, as I wrote at the beginning, his article includes an excellent summary of Listen Liberal:
....Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to “The Theory of the Liberal Class,” which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam’s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, “a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it”.

Rather than focus on “the One Percent,” Frank asks that we look critically at “the Ten Percent,” which includes “the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status,” from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are “qualified” to govern and “knowing what you’re talking about”. Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: “The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise” (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize “courtesy” with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the “knowledge economy” and “education” as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is “inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public” (p. 24). Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an “enlightened managerial class” of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank’s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).
I want to emphasize "Inequality is essential to professionalism." It goes a long way in explaining why the devotees of identity politics came unhinged over Bernie Sanders's campaign; they are now vehemently arguing "Minorities are sick and tired of being told that economic equality will fix all the racism, sexism and the social injustices in the world" as someone commented in a recent posting of mine on DailyKos.

On pages 32-33 of Listen Liberal, Frank writes:
There is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The very idea contradicts the ideology of the well-graduated technocrats who rule us…. Leading members of the professional class show enormous respect for one another—what I call “professional courtesy”—but they feel precious little sympathy for the less fortunate members of their own cohort [such as] colleagues who get fired, or even for the kids who don’t get into “good” colleges. That life doesn’t shower its blessings on people who can’t make the grade isn’t a shock or an injustice; it’s the way things ought to be.
Frank identifies the terrible consequences this professional class ideology has for liberalism and democracy. One important consequence is that professionals hold the traditional Democratic Party base—organized labor and the working class—in low regard, bordering on contempt. This contempt surfaces over and over again when a professional class twit points to industrial automation as being the cause of lost jobs, absolutely refusing to even discuss the result of the disastrous policies of globalization and free trade. Here, for example, is the founder of DailyKos a few days after the November 2016 election: Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for. Here is an investment advisor who is a minority, indulging in some particularly cruel class consciousness: We are going to outsource your job. And there is Hillary Clinton's use of the label "deplorables" to describe her opponent's working class supporters.

This contempt for the working class, Frank writes, has been documented in study after study of the professional-class. For the professional class, unions, factory work, farm work, and most any blue collar occupation “signify lowliness, not status.” This was well understood by Thorsten Veblen: at the very beginning of his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (And Frank named his first chapter “The Theory of the Professional Class”), Veblen writes:
the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed ; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches… the upper classes are exempt from industrial employments, and this exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank…. Manual labour, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood, is the exclusive occupation of the inferior class.
Frank continues:
Professionals do not hold that other Democratic constituency, organised labour, in particularly high regard. This attitude is documented in study after study of professional-class life. One reason for this is because unions signify lowliness, not status. But another is because solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies. The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn’t require specialised training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.
The result is not pretty. As Forte writes near the beginning of his essay:
Liberal democracy has been reduced to a shell, more a name than a fact that deserves the name. For many years, liberalism has been liberal authoritarianism or post-liberalism or neoliberalism, with a high elitist disdain for democracy and a fear of the masses everywhere. Promises of inclusion, fairness, and welfare, were replaced by sensitive-sounding rhetorical tricks and tokenism. Moral narcissism, virtue signalling, identity politics, and building patchwork quilts of diversity were the order of the day....

...It’s not a small thing that has fallen here, not merely the defeat of Hillary Clinton and Americans rejecting Obama’s “legacy”. We are dealing with a series of institutions, an expert class, and a network of political and corporate alliances, that is being shaken beyond repair. We are in the earliest days of a historical transition, so it’s not clear what is coming next, and the labels that have been proliferating demonstrate confusion and uncertainty—populism, nativism, nationalism, etc.
....liberalism will not disappear outright, and not instantly. Ideas don’t ever really die, they’re just archived. [Emphasis mine.]

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The origins of the Democratic Party's looming catastrophe

It is becoming a constant struggle to combat despondency, as I watch USA Democratic Party leaders shuck and jive, wriggle and squirm, to avoid having to accept any responsibility for their disastrous and destructive neoliberal economic policies of the past half-century. It's a tragedy having Donald Trump as President, with reactionary Republicans in control of the House and Senate. But having Democrats unwilling to address their own role in creating the widespread misery and discontent that is fueling political populism, thus crippling their ability to oppose Trump and the Republicans, is a catastrophe. Because without the Democratic Party in USA renouncing neoliberalism and putting forward a grand vision for a $100 trillion rebuilding of the world economy to stop global climate change, that political populism has no where to go except to the right.

The origins of the Democratic Party's insouciance today is the Party's response to the Republican victories of 1968 and 1980. The latter was an especially severe blow, because the common wisdom held that the Republican Party was on the verge of extinction because of the Watergate scandal. Democratic control of the Senate with 61 seats, flipped to Republican control of 53 seats. The Democratic majority in the House was reduced from 292 Representatives to 242.

The Democratic Party leadership responded to these electoral disasters by abandoning their traditional alliance with organized labor and beginning to shun the working class--explicitly The future of the Party, they declared, lay in embracing instead the rising new “professional class.” This is abundantly documented by Thomas Frank in his most recent book, Listen Liberal. A shorter summary is by Matt Stoller in The Atlantic this past October, just before the election: How Democrats Lost Their Populist Soul. Summaries of Stoller’s article are available on DailyKos here and here. There are a number of reviews of Frank’s book available with a search of the InterTubez, but I have yet to read one that is a truly adequate summary. The book is just too chock full of details, names, and dates, and it packs a wallop. Anyone still thinking in terms of Hillary versus Bernie should be shamed into silence if they manage to read the entire book. Unfortunately, I think most Hillary partisans will find the book much too painful and discomfiting to read in its entirety.

However, the key to understanding why the embrace of a “post-industrial” new “professional class” was such a disaster eludes both Frank and Stoller. First, no modern economy can ever be truly post-industrial. Modern standards of living would simply collapse without the products of industrial mass production. Just think of what would happen if there were no longer so simple a thing as medicine bottles. How would you store and distribute anti-biotics? Pain relievers? The special medications that today keep hundreds of millions of people alive, who a century or two ago would quickly expire because of their illness or disorder? I’d be willing to bet that without continued production of the trillions of medicine bottles each year, about half the human population would die off within five years. The really sick thing is: there are many so called “liberals” and “progressives” who think such a die off is not such a bad thing.

Second, the embrace of one specific class or another directly violates the republican (small “r”, not Republican Party) political economy of the U.S. republic, which is founded on the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare. It is this Constitutional mandate that sets the USA apart from and above all other governments before it—monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, and dictatorships. It is what is supposed to distinguish the USA economy from the mercantalist economies of old Europe: all economic activity is supposed to strengthen not the state and the elites who control it (as was the case with mercantalism), but the entire nation—all the people. (And note that conservative and libertarian scholars explicitly attack the General Welfare principle for being the bedrock of the “nanny state.” The Confederacy that split the Union and fought to preserve slavery copied the U.S. Constitution, but deliberately removed any mention of the General Welfare—and conservative and libertarian scholars have written that this was an “important improvement.”)

This second point also directs us toward the reason why many people make the oversimplified argument that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, which is implicit in the results of the Washington Post /ABC News poll conducted in mid-April 2017 which that 67% of Americans think Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of average citizens. Embracing one specific class or another—for the Democrats, the “professional class”; for the Republicans, “entrepreneurs” or “job creators” or whatever—must be accompanied by the belief that the prosperity of that favored class will “trickle down” and “lift all boats.” Broken down in this way, it is easily apparent that Democratic economic policies are not that different from Republican economic policies. The major differences between the two parties is in their approach to how much of a social safety net there should be to alleviate the poverty that inevitably results from deindustrialization and an abandonment of the principle of promoting the General Welfare.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Has Putin driven Western politicians insane?


One of the sadder and more crazy outcomes of this fall's election is the Democratic Party's decision to blame their defeats on the Russians. That we are seeing McCarthyism II and Cold War: the next generation only this time perpetrated by so-called Liberals actually makes me feel sick at times.

I confess that I happen to feel a strong affinity for Russia and its people. Reason A is that as someone who grew up in arguably the coldest state in the continental USA, I have a highly developed sympathy for those who must cope with the nastiest of winters. Cold changes you.

After a short trip to Leningrad in 1972 where I learned a few of the incredible stories of what that city was willing to suffer to save itself during their Great Patriotic War (WW II), I determined to actually learn some of the history of this sprawling and nearly uninhabitable land populated by some of the most courageous humans to have ever walked the planet. Once you open that door, you have stumbled into an infinity of tales of heroic struggles against not only a harsh climate but murderous invaders, evil Tsars, serfdom, Marxist-Leninist crackpots, etc.

Fortunately, it isn't all tragedy. Perhaps my favorite story is about how Anatoly Tarasov figured out how to build an ice hockey program out of the ruins of WW II. Hockey is crazy difficult and very expensive yet out the ashes of near total national destruction, Tarasov invented a version of the game that even today is easily the most exciting to watch.

And these are the people we are supposed to hate. And lie about. And threaten with more warfare (as if the Russian people haven't suffered enough war at the hands of folks like Napoleon and Hitler.) This time though, the Russia-bashers have decided to make it personal. This time we are supposed hate Vladimir Putin above all. This is what makes Cold War II so surreal. The Russophobes would like to topple Putin but are confronted with the fact that he is wildly popular in Russia—mostly because he is arguably the best leader they have ever had (with the possible exception of Peter the Great.)

Hillary Clinton seems to hate Putin with the fire of 1000 suns. She is convinced he cost her the election. She has even called his election meddling an act of war. She is convinced that he hates her. And on that point, she might be right.

Putin has many reasons to detest Ms. Clinton. But in my mind, the one at the top must be her comparison of Putin to Hitler. Putin was the child of two people who actually survived the siege of Leningrad—a siege that killed his older brother.

Now I am pretty sure that Putin understands that virtually no one in the United States of Amnesia has any idea of how horrific the siege of Leningrad really was. After all, MOST 'Merikuns have no idea that Russia even fought in the Second World War. But for those fools, please be reminded that more Russians died due to that siege than all the USA, Brit, and French casualties of WW II combined. Many are buried in St. Petersburg's Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. According to their official records, from September 4, 1941 to January 22, 1944, 107,158 air bombs were dropped on the city, 148,478 shells were fired, 16,744 men died, 33,782 were wounded and 641,803 died of starvation.

My guess is that as a son of St. Petersburg / Leningrad, Putin has a much clearer idea of the savage nature of Hitler's Nazis than a moronic twinkie like HRC. Apparently, one of the joys of being a Wellesley grad is that it entitles you to compare anyone you don't like to Hitler. Actually knowing some history is not required.

I believe MOST of this Putin-bashing is a nasty combination of fear and impotence. Putin is an amazing fellow. The Russians have PLENTY of experience with shit leadership so when someone like Putin comes along, they respond to the difference. He could win all elections until he dies. He has lavish approval ratings—he may be the most popular politician on earth. The people who think just a few more $ to the NED will bring down his government are quite insane. So not only can Putin thumb his nose at the neocon plotters, he drives them further insane because there is nothing they can do about it.

He is also an excellent example of what happens when someone in the old USSR educational system religiously did his homework. Compared to the dim bulbs we have in USA politics, he so outclasses them intellectually, he almost seems like he is from a different planet. And he sort of is. Bright guy, highly motivated, with a hyper-elite education.

In a saner world, we would have leadership that recognizes the opportunity to collaborate with such a gifted leader to solve some crazy-difficult problems. If we cannot get along with the best leadership Russia has to offer since Peter the Great, perhaps its our fault and not his.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Springtime in Chicago


Tony and I had a good reason to meet in Chicago last week. This is his home town and he offered to give me the "deindustrialization tour" of the Second City. So on a splendid spring day he drove me around while I observed. Not surprisingly, some parts of Chicago have absorbed the economic shock of globalism / neoliberalism far better than others.

Some observations:
  • The number of places to buy or eat good food seems limitless. The large ethnic populations like the Poles or Italians have their own supermarkets with an astonishing variety of offerings. While all this abundance of good eating appears to herald prosperity, the fact was that none of these establishments had many customers. The restaurant / supermarket business seems hopelessly overbuilt.
  • Even the high end retailers along the Miracle Mile seemed to lack sufficient customers.
  • Chicago built some pretty amazing public venues in recent years. One spanking new convention center looked to cover at least 5 city blocks. My guess is that the supply of convention space wildly exceeds the need world wide.
  • Considering all the talk of corruption in the Chicago construction business, some magnificent building has been done (see below). This pretty much validates Veblen theories in his Instinct of Workmanship.
  • The detritus of the South Side steel industry is gone. In its place are large empty fields covered in a lumpy soil that because it is spring, had a pretty good cover of grass. Some of the old industry remains. The Ford Torrence plant was still loading new Lincolns into rail cars. A solitary (but huge) Cargill grain elevator was still operating near the lakeshore—when we drove past it was maybe two miles away separated by a large expanse of grass waving in the wind. If you held your head so you could not see Lake Michigan, it looked astonishingly like North Dakota. One attempt at redevelopment produced a flat and treeless golf course with a overbearing clubhouse built on a hill that was probably the remains of a slag heap.
  • The South Side of Chicago where the housing is, is a scene of near hopeless devastation. Both the housing stock and people appear extensively damaged. The neighborhood businesses are in the beauty salon/tattoo parlor/small markets variety. The auto repair business seems safely in the hands of people advertising that they are Mexicans. Even though it was only 5:30 pm., many of those on the streets looked like they had gotten a head start on being wasted for the evening. Whatever it was, it conveyed an expression of profound aimlessness. What was so distressing was that this urban damage went on for miles.
  • Tony could not resist taking me back to the motel by way of Wrigleyville—the neighborhood surrounding the stadium where the long-hapless Cubs won the World Series of Baseball last fall. This is the North Side, home to an astonishing number of what we used to call Yuppies, and NO, I have no idea what supports such lifestyles. After eating at a sports bar maybe 50' from the entrance to the bleacher section of Wrigley Stadium, we found ourselves blocked in by a police SUV. I cringed a little but soon discovered the young cop was admiring my 21 yo Lexus. In my 67 years on earth, I have never been so kind and gracious to a cop before.
  • Tony stopped at one more sports bar because he has known the owner for years. There we got to watch the Preds-Blues game along with a handful of still-disappointed Black Hawk fans. In spite of the fact that Tony claims this bar serves one of the best pizzas in Chicago, it was also suffering from too few customers.
Chicago's economic ennui is likely shared across the world. But one thing is still abundantly clear—this was once a city of energy, distinction, and vast industrial power. This was a city built by folks of great imagination. Deindustrialization is the proximate cause of the widespread destruction of this city. But more importantly, most of the destruction demonstrates a failure of imagination. Of course, it requires SOME imagination to build a golf course on a slag heap but compared to what was once there, it demonstrates the imagination of a child playing grown-up. In my darker moments I am convinced that we are doomed because we have passed "peak imagination." I hope I am wrong.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tesla's growing pains


From 1974 until 2007, I drove a Saab. My last one had 296k on the odometer when it was destroyed in a tennis-ball-sized hail storm. So I know about driving a car from a niche manufacturer—it's an interesting trip. In 1974, Saab built arguably the most interesting car on the planet—roomy cabin, great driving position, a fold-down rear seat (which allowed me to avoid the dreaded pickup truck even during a major rehab project), good—if not great—mileage, four-wheel disc breaks, great suspension for bad weather and roads, and the big deal—front-wheel drive. In 1974, there were a tiny handful of cars with front-wheel drive and Saab's was easily the best.

Saabs are still being made by a Chinese company. And of course, they are FAR from the most innovative on the planet. In fact, almost every car maker makes some version of the Saab 99. Most are cheaper. Many are better built—the Toyota Camry, for example. It is quite easy to see a quite similar future for Tesla. Yes, Elon Musk has provided the world an enormous gift when he showed the rest of us how to design and build the very cool electric car. But this is manufacturing and there are others who have been making cars a whole lot longer than Musk and are perfectly capable of reducing Tesla to an interesting historical detail.

Toyota could easily build a line of fine electric cars but so far, their big bet on hybrids has seemed to be paying off. They have also built a fuel-cell car so even their electric experiments have avoided the big battery packs. Volkswagen, on the other hand, bet big on "clean" diesels and have clearly lost that bet. They have a huge market in China which is mandating large fleets of EVs. The latest Geneva Auto Show saw Volkswagen's thinking on what their EV fleet will look like—and it just sparkled with innovative thinking. It is very possible that we have already seen "peak Tesla"—the era when the company was redefining parts of the transportation infrastructure may already behind us. From now on, Tesla will be trying to survive in a market where their competitors got his message and will now compete on execution—cost, build excellence, customer support, etc.

But right now Musk hopes to keep building the best cars. And as he is finding out, manufacturing is a LOT harder than it looks. Personally, I think Musk belongs on Mount Rushmore for what he has already accomplished. But the truth be told, he is going to find the going a lot harder when folks like VW start selling an electric Microbus.