The Debt Limit fight is a Coup

We’ve been hearing about the debt limit for months, but familiarity makes it sound sort of normal.  That is spectacularly wrong.

We all know it would be a disaster for this country to foreclose on its debt.  That would not only have massive economic impact, beyond that it would undermine international confidence in the United States for any of its commitments.  That the Republican Party is playing chicken with those consequences shows just how divorced it is from the well-being of the country.  What’s not to like about a forced recession in a Democratic President’s election year??

However even that doesn’t do justice to what is going on.  The issues under discussion are not merely financial.  McCarthy is going after specific parts of the Biden legislative agenda with his own alternatives.  The debt limit fight is an effort to replace our Constitutional form of government with a new Republican agenda forced upon the country at gun point.  That is not an exaggeration.

The Debt Limit fight is a coup.

Democracy is Not Natural

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy that undermines much domestic and foreign policy.  One way to put it is that democracy is seen as a kind of natural way for societies to organize themselves.  What could be more normal than a bunch of people getting together for mutual benefit?  Just get rid of the autocrats, and the people will rule.

Unfortunately it’s the autocrats who are natural, and democratic societies are fragile, rare, and in dire need of careful cultivation.

For starters we can go back to the classical Greek models.   Democracy in Athens was both a sham and a disaster.  The Athenian democracy was created by Pericles as a way of wresting power from aristocrats.  Under its auspices he ruled with enormous personal power, and when he died things went to hell quickly.  The chaos led first to an authoritarian takeover (stopped only by the army) and then to the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars.  Plato, writing later, dismissed democracy as nothing more than a prelude to dictatorship. 

As another example, a whole raft of new democracies were created in eastern Europe in the wake of World War I.  By the end of the 1920’s every single one of them was a dictatorship.  Once you’re in power there’s no reason to give it up.  And without a broad societal commitment to democracy, there’s nothing to prevent that.  Hitler of course was installed by a democratic election, and the conversion to dictatorship followed quickly and easily.

In the US today we’re so accustomed to this idea of democracy as normal, that we’re unprepared for today’s anti-democratic Republican party.  Since we don’t even ask why democracy is good, the question “why should we give up when we’re winning?” has no answer. Republicans today and their Supreme Court are unapologetically all about winning and maintaining power indefinitely. We’re surprised how easy it is to subvert our institutions, but that‘s what happens if society is not prepared to fight.

There are in fact a strong arguments for democracy.  We can look today at what goes on in China and Russian.  With authoritarian leadership you can never correct disastrous mistakes or deal effectively with corruption.  Further, autocrats once installed are beholden to no one. Rule of law goes out the window, so there is no protection from the rich and powerful. As we’ve pointed out here before, the enemies of democracy are no one’s friends. One problem is that people tend to think that the status quo is permanent, since they’ve always lived it.  So real consequences tend to come as a surprise.  Think of Brexit and the Supreme Court Dobbs decision.

Democracy is important, fragile, easily lost, and very hard to recover.  The powers that be (e.g the ever-present Koch organization) will always want to stand above rule of law.  They have enormous powers to sway the population, and once the population loses interest it’s hard to keep them out.  It is everyone’s responsibility to stand up for democracy.  There’s plenty of publicity these days about the threat to democracy in Israel, but the threat is just as real here and now.  It may take the same kind of mass movements to fight it.  As we all know the Supreme Court already has an end to democracy on its docket, and we can expect to hear about it in June.

Finally it’s worth recognizing that this same misunderstanding of democracy contributes to foreign policy goals that are to say the least delusional.  Most countries are corrupt dictatorships, and they’re going to stay that way.  Further our own attempts at state building (as in Iraq or Afghanistan) will continue to fail in chaos and corruption, because belief in self-evident democracy means there is no recognition of the magnitude of the job (or our own contributions to the problems). In one of Elena Ferrante’s novels she speaks of the power of expectations in controlling behavior—you cannot suddenly have democracy and the rule of law if that’s contrary to the everyone’s experience: 

“It was a world of favors, of services exchanged for other services, of debts contracted and debts called in, of concessions obtained and never returned, of pacts that could be broken and others that held until death. It was a world based on friendships and animosities, on associations and affiliations, on old enmities and new alliances. How could one change that world? By oneself, no one could. There was only one possibility: to become part of it, accept its conditions, go along with it to survive.”

Our biggest responsibility to the world is to build a working democratic society.  At the moment that’s a tall order, but that’s the job we’ve got.  In this juncture in history the US and EU are critical–the West is on the line to show it is a model that can be believed in. That’s not self-evident.

What To Do About TikTok

It seems to me that the discussion of TikTok is distorted by the kind of xenophobic paranoia that frequently gets in the way. It’s not that there isn’t a problem, it’s that the real problem is not solved by a fixation on nasty foreigners.

There are two frequently discussed problems (that often get confused with each other):

  1. We’re giving a whole lot of information to TikTok that could be used by the Chinese government for nefarious purposes.
  2. The Chinese government could use their state-sanctioned control of TikTok to propagandize to TikTok’s base of customers.

The first point is pretty close to nonsense. Monumental amounts of information on the American population are already being collected, organized, and merchandized by companies who do this for a living. The last time I looked at this issue, more than ten years ago, you could already match what TikTok knows. Today it’s far worse. We need legal controls on information gathering. The fixation on TikTok for this issue is a distraction.

The second point is a more serious issue, as we’ve had more than enough experience with the coercive effects of social media. The problem, however, is that the dangers from TikTok are not an awful lot different than the dangers from good old American social media. There’s nothing that stops the Chinese government from putting propaganda on TikTok, but we’ve already had the Russians (and the Koch people) doing the same thing on Facebook. Unless we put up legal barriers to deliberate manipulation, social media are for sale to the highest bidder. Banning TikTok is just plain not the issue. (To my mind, any network operator that selects content for unsolicited distribution to users should be legally responsible for that content.)

You can even say flatly that the reason there is such bipartisan agreement on banning TikTok is that it is a handy way to make it seem that you’re doing something about a serious problem–without upsetting the real perpetrators much at all.

Bach as Dramatist

The ideas here are based on a small amount of data and are undoubtedly well-known in some form to many people.  However they don’t show up in the usual discussions of Bach, and they certainly don’t seem to have influenced performances on recordings.

I’m been playing some pretty basic Bach—three-part inventions (in D and B flat) and a Well-Tempered Klavier I fugue (in B flat).  What is striking is that all of these pieces are in a very specific form you could call Bach’s sonata form.  I’ll say a little about the specifics in a minute, but the important thing is that it is obvious that Bach wants those pieces to be played in a way that reflects this clear dramatic structure.  No one would ever play Mozart or Beethoven without respecting the dramatic structure those composers have set up, frequently based on their own versions of sonata form.  However for some reason pretty much no one does that with Bach.  Is there a concern about “authentic performance”?  How can it be inauthentic if it is clearly intended?

Bach wrote for a harpsichord, so he didn’t have dynamic variation to use in performance. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t build drama.  Tempo variation and ornaments were parts of his language, and he undoubtedly used them to the same ends.

Bach’s sonata form is in five sections:

  1. Entry of the voices
  2. Limited development based on the fugal subject as presented and transitioning to a strong cadence in a new key—as an end to the exposition.
  3. Development section proper, with a clear departure point and free use of any pieces or rhythms of the fugal subject or other features of the exposition
  4. Recapitulation in the subdominant as a clear contrast with development.  In all three pieces Bach goes to some pains to emphasize the recapitulation event.
  5. Transition to the tonic as if anything a bigger event, followed by a short kind of victory lap

All three cited pieces do this exactly.  The fugue even goes one step farther.  Bach actually marks each transition point with a rhythmic figure (four 16th notes with a break after the first) that occurs nowhere else in the piece. And the chord progressions in the transitions to the subdominant and tonic are such that Bach is practically waving his arms to get our attention.

I think you can make a case more generally that people pay too much attention to the “horizontal” structure of Bach’s music—the intricacies of multi-voice writing—and not enough attention to the “vertical” structure—the musical events created by all the voices acting together.  That overemphasis on the “horizontal” leads to performances where the sole objective seems to be making sure the fugal subject is heard clearly regardless of whatever else is going on.  In the extreme such performances can amount to little more than the same thing played over and over again in different keys—because that’s just about all you can hear. It’s strange that this persists in an era fixated on historically correct performance, since it is patently inauthentic for keyboard!

Another side of the same thing is in the comment you sometimes hear about how amazing it is that that real emotional music emerges out of all that complicated polyphony.  I think that point of view is wrong.  Bach wanted to produce music, and the complicated polyphony was his language to produce it.  He manipulated that language the same way any other artist manipulates his medium of creation.  Bach’s ability to master polyphony is jaw-dropping, but that doesn’t mean he regarded it as the primary objective.  Bach wrote music; an overemphasis on “horizontal” structures in the music misses Bach’s point.

There’s a quote from Beethoven (that I can never find) where he described Bach as a genius in chains.  That’s a little bit wrong, because for Bach those chains could be managed like the air he breathed.  What’s really wrong though is to believe those chains are the main point.

Attached is a far from perfect version of the fugue. Hopefully it can still give an indication of what I mean.

We Can’t Afford That

Heather McGhee begins her book The Sum of Us with the question “Why can’t we have nice things?”.  And she makes clear what she means: “basic aspects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics”.

She then goes on to explore how racism has been systematically used by the wealthy and powerful to keep that from happening—which is to say how they keep that money and power for themselves.  I’m happy to promote her book, however I also want to spend a little time here on her question—on the mindset that says we can’t.

My example is Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.  I’m not going to argue the details.  What I am going to argue is the senselessness of the knee-jerk reactions, i.e. how ridiculously entrenched is the idea that we just can’t have nice things.

The cost of the program was estimated by the government accounting office as $400 B, which puts it in the same ballpark as some stimulus packages.  Virtually without exception that number was taken by the press at full face value.  This was ridiculously, “humongously” expensive.    It was going to undermine free enterprise everywhere, drive inflation, and possibly bankrupt the country.  “We can’t afford things like that.”

There are two problems with that assessment. Let’s start with the $400 B number.  For accounting reasons, it is for a program lifetime total taken over 30 years.  That reduces the average yearly value to $13 B, which is the number to compare against stimulus packages.  Except that number is itself too high.  Again for accounting reasons it assumes that all current debtors will keep paying for the full period—something that has never happened in the past.  Let’s take $10 B as a nice round high estimate, and compare it with another per-year item in the budget—the defense budget just passed.   That number is $858 B. The humungous expense is 1% of that total.  It’s not even big enough to count as a rounding error, and the inflation claim is a joke.

We’re so used to “we can’t afford things like that” that the press can’t do even that much arithmetic.

What’s more (on the free enterprise issue) that money was spent because college had become vastly more expensive precisely during the worst downturn since the Great Depression.  (And the Republican legislature refused to do anything about it—hiding behind the bogus “balanced budget amendment”.)  We like to talk about equality of opportunity.  We, the USA, pioneered high school for all.  In today’s economy college or some other form of post-secondary education has become necessary for good jobs (and bad jobs in this country won’t even get you above the poverty line!).  So we’re not talking about buying televisions on credit—we’re talking about most people’s only chance at a middle class existence.

Biden’s debt forgiveness plan does not fix everything wrong with affordability of education. And it isn’t means-tested (although people who borrow are usually not rich and means tests are almost always counterproductive).  But it is a step forward and addresses a real problem that was not caused (despite the rhetoric) by sheer profligacy.  And the most ardent critics of the incomplete solution are the people committed to doing nothing at all.

Most galling, however, is the universal knee-jerk of “we can’t afford things like that” which can’t be bothered for even a cursory look at what’s real.

Reality Check for Climate Change

There’s an important article about climate change in the latest IEEE Spectrum.  It’s only two pages long, but there is much to think about.  It is high time to recognize the reality of what we’re fighting.

The article points out that a reasonable estimate for the cost of the energy transition is $275 T.  That’s an enormous, almost unthinkable number.  It may well be right.

While the article itself is not big on drawing conclusions, it does have an important one: “because the world’s low-income countries could not carry such burdens, affluent nations would have to devote on the order of 15 to 20 percent of their annual economic product to the task.  Such shares are comparable only to the spending that was required to win World War II.”  We’ve talked about the “rest of the world” problem before, but without such dramatic support.   No one anywhere is talking about that level of effort.

In fact, as a nation, we still have the idea that climate change is a matter of every country (or state) putting its own house in order.  Once we’ve done our part, it’s up to everyone else to do theirs.  However we in the US have:

  • The highest per capita energy usage in the world.  Only Russia is close.
  • Close to the highest per capita GDP
  • Historically, still the biggest contribution to global CO2 and the climate mess we’re in

And somehow all we have to do is take care of ourselves?  And this can be handled as a small activity on the side?  There’s only one atmosphere, and with that mindset we’ll get nowhere.

Biden has finally started something, but there are still major barriers here.  Here are a few:

  • Oil company control of the Republican Party and many media outlets.  (Let’s call a spade a spade:  the Kochs—an oil services company—have complete control of the judiciary!)
  • Oil company propaganda about “individual responsibility” versus government action
  • Arrogance in the environment movement that has made climate a culture war item.
  • Splits in the environmental movement on needed electric infrastructure (supported by a kind religious faith in purely local solutions)
  • “America first” attitudes about aid to the rest of the world

Furthermore internationally the picture has continued to deteriorate:

  • Trump’s catastrophic renouncing of the Paris Agreement has been impossible to walk back.  He killed the idea of world unanimity, so cheating by Russia, Saudi Arabian and others is now the order of the day.
  • There are continuing and intensifying international fights over contributions of rich nations to the climate efforts of poorer ones.
  • Trump’s bullying view of international relations has been taken up with a vengeance by both Russia and China.  So most international discussion and cooperation is effectively dead.

Given the size of the problem and the limited time available, where do we go from here?

One recent answer came in a set of climate scenarios coming from Princeton University.  They claim that they have evaluated a comprehensive set of climate control approaches, but all of their options end up with a huge role for carbon capture. Maybe they were influenced by oil company money, but in any case they have given up on the energy transition itself!  And carbon capture on that (unproven) scale would end up in the same $275 T ballpark.

So the conclusion, I’m afraid, is that we can’t rule out geoengineering.  However distasteful and risky that may be, we’d better find out as much about it as we can   It is a fact (however often denied) that we don’t have all the technologies we need, and we’ve done a bad job with the ones we do have.  We may well have to buy time until we’re better able to cope. 

But given the uncertainties in geoengineering effects, we had better make sure that anything we put into the atmosphere will be back out in a matter of months–so we’re not stuck with a global disaster of our own making. And we’d better recognize that geoengineering has a drug-like dependency:  we can never get off of it until all that extra CO2 has been taken back out!

Call to Action

Democrats must challenge Republican lies about inflation. The Republican message is simple: “Inflation is caused by Democrat’s unrestrained spending. Elect us and we’ll stop that and fix it.” Both parts of that message are lies.

Inflation is everywhere in the world and we’re generally on the good side of average. That last Covid payment is not what turned the world upside down. We’re still fighting the product and labor bottlenecks that persist. Republicans haven’t proposed one single bit of a plan.

Furthermore, as several authors have pointed out, Republicans are anything but a safe choice. We’re not talking about the old conservative Republicans. These are Trump’s burn down the house people. With the debt ceiling blackmail, Republicans are going after Medicare and Social Security with a threat of liquidity collapse if they don’t get it. We’re going to outdo the British Conservatives with Liz Truss!

Finally it needs to be recognized that the Republican argument on inflation is just a rehashing of the usual Republican program of presents to the rich. Inflation is the lastest bogeyman to say we can’t have public services or anything else that rich people don’t want to pay for.

A Message for Democrats Now

It has become clear from all polls that the key issue for voters in this midterm election is inflation.  That’s a difficult issue for Democrats, so we have tried to make it something else:  January 6, the Supreme Court, etc.  The time has come to realize that all of that has failed.  That’s particularly scary, because all of the crazy people we helped nominate in Republican primaries now stand a good chance of being elected—because voters view Republicans as better for the economy, regardless of how crazy a particular candidate may be.

So there is no substitute for taking on inflation as an issue.  It’s not as if we have no answer for this, but the time to act is now.  Please, please contribute to this.  For what it’s worth l give a few points here.

  • Current inflation is not something created by the last stimulus checks. 

Inflation is a worldwide phenomenon, and we are actually at the low end in the Western World.  It is the worst in 40 years, because we haven’t had anything like Covid for many decades.  Even today we have many categories of manpower shortages (e.g. women who can’t work because daycare centers were closed by Covid) and product shortages (e.g. in electronics) as well as changes in demand patterns (e.g. in real estate).  Energy prices are being manipulated as we resist Russian aggression in Ukraine.  We have been working to deal with all of this.  There is no simple case where none of it would have happened.   Further, since Republicans are pretending they can blame everything on Democrats’ spending, they have no plans to make any of it better.

  •  There isn’t any inflationary profligate spending in the rest of the Democrats’ program

Republicans are rushing to take responsibility for results of the infrastructure bill—even in many cases where they voted against it.  Most of the population recognizes that the climate measures are absolutely necessary.  For student loan debt, many people seem to have been confused by the $400 B figure attached to the program.   In fact this is an accounting issue, where the number is spread over decades, without any significant near-term or per year effect.   It should also be noted that college tuition costs essentially doubled starting in 2008, so there is an issue to be addressed.

  • The current Trump Republicans are not the fiscally conservative, reliable Republicans of old.  They are ready and willing to sacrifice all of us to the wild idea of the day. 

The now-serious debt ceiling blackmail is a case in point.  Republicans are ready to throw caution to the winds—in a very precarious world economy.  Massive cuts in Medicare and Social Security would be on the block in such an effort.  And forcing a US default in today’s world would create a liquidity crisis to make the Liz Truss affair look like nothing at all.  Trump Republicans are also ready to tank the economy if they think that will help elect their hero in 2024.

One British observer described similarities across the Atlantic: “Like the Republicans in the United States, the Conservatives are detached from reality. In a generation, they have become a party of monomaniacs, incompetents and ideologues.” We shouldn’t be laughing about Liz Truss here.