How We Won the Cold War

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“File:Map-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg” by NuclearVacuum is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We hear every day how we need to get tough for our new cold war with China.  The unstated subtext is that threats and bluster are the “getting tough” that’s going to win. In fact we know exactly what won the last Cold War.  It’s worth paying attention to what that was.

The dynamism of our economy won the last cold war.   Our technological base reinvented itself many times over, and the top down economy of the USSR just couldn’t match it.  There were many individual factors behind the collapse—low growth, corrupt state enterprises, spending on defense, oil price collapse, Chernobyl.  But what it all came down to is that the Soviet economy collapsed because it just couldn’t find the resources to keep up.

Many factors made the difference—the historical strengths of the United States:

– A free market for new technologies.  A venture capital industry supported by anti-trust enforcement to protect new companies from powerful old ones.

– The US as world’s best destination for entrepreneurs from everywhere to realize their dreams.

– Openness to ideas from everywhere and active participation in international organizations of all kinds.

– Government support for pure research–to be on the forefront as new developments translated to opportunities.

– Expanding equality of opportunity, so ideas can come from everywhere.

The USSR had a well-trained population of elite engineers and scientists, but ultimately they couldn’t compete with the ability of the US model to reinvent itself and grow.

What can we say about the current situation with China?  There are three points:

  1. The rise of China actually followed the US model.

One part of this is familiar—China invested in its people:  education, infrastructure, health care, etc.  The regime tolerated no disagreements, but it put money (as we used to) into the environment necessary for success.

However the bigger part is less-discussed—what kicked off the Chinese miracle was an accidental surge of free enterprise.  As a weakening of collective economic control, Chinese municipalities were freed to carry out their own businesses once obligations to the state had been met.  That minor bit of freedom took over the economy.  Independent municipal businesses became dominant to the point that they dwarfed the hugely-corrupt state-run enterprises.  Municipal businesses grew into the independent private sector.

  1. Under Xi, China is abandoning that approach in favor of a return to central planning and control.

Xi is a princeling—a child of former revolutionaries brought up to believe he was born to rule.  All of his recent actions have been directed at crushing independent forces in the Chinese economy.  Appointments have been based on loyalty above all.

China is back to the old Soviet and Chinese world of massive state enterprises and a dictated economy.   That won’t change the immediate future, but we have no reason to despair of our ability to compete.

  1. Under Trump we are similarly abandoning our strengths.

Trump, like Xi, is an autocrat who view himself as the all-encompassing genius who needs to run everything.  He picks winners and losers with tariffs.  He awards exceptions to supporters.  He ignores real problems (such as Covid) that he doesn’t want to deal with.  Job appointments are based on loyalty over competence.  Every one of the listed US strengths is at risk:

– New enterprises are sacrificed to the existing powers that be.

– Xenophobia and nativism are pushing entrepreneurs elsewhere.

– Global participation is discouraged.

– Science is discredited and only mainstream technologies (e.g. AI) or Trump whims are funded. Climate change can’t even be mentioned.

– A political strategy of divisiveness means we’re fighting internally rather than drawing on everyone for progress.

 

We didn’t beat the Russians by mimicking their authoritarian control and top-down economy.  We won because they couldn’t compete with our ability to reinvent ourselves over and over again.  We have that opportunity today, but we’re losing it to the false god of dictatorship.

Democracy is not a nicety but the core of our success.

Dictatorships lose.  All-powerful leaders make disastrous mistakes that cannot be remedied.  They can ignore the well-being of the population.  They create massive corruption that cannot be contained.  All these tendencies are visible today (Covid alone shows several), and the effect is—as always—accelerating.

We still like to talk about the power of democracy and free markets, but both are slipping away.  Voter suppression is an openly-discussed goal.  Anti-trust enforcement has effectively ceased to exist.  The power of corporate lobbyists has starved the public sector (including infrastructure of all kinds) and defended the economic status quo against all comers.

Our problems today are not weaknesses of democracy but an indication of how far we’ve strayed from it.  There’s no reason to despair for our competition with China—or for the country generally.  It’s just a sign we have to get back to doing what we’ve always done best.

The Public be Damned

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“Face Mask” by shibuya246 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The logic behind medical face masks was never obscure.  When you sneeze or cough, droplets with virus are largely contained rather than spread.  That logic is clear and confirmed by statistics.

Who knows what Trump thinks, but the Republican Party certainly includes people capable of understanding that sentence.  Such people had a choice.  They knew they could save the country from a serious and completely unnecessary health risk, but they chose the political opportunities of divisiveness instead.

They made that choice.  Face masks had nothing to do with how quickly we were reopening the economy.   Many thousands will die for it.

This is hardly the first case of “public be damned” behavior.  But it is a very pure one.

The Crisis of our State of the Union

Trump’s State of the Union deserves a full response.

It was bad enough to sit through the deceptions and lies in the description of the national economy—where very small actual gains (smallest annual reduction in unemployment in any three-year period since the 2008 crash; worst real wage growth at low unemployment in at least 40 years) were bought at enormously high cost (1.4T tax cut that went directly to Wall Street through artificial earnings and stock buybacks; nothing for infrastructure, education, opioid epidemic, etc.).

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However, all of that is just the beginning.  Many commentators have made that point (although many talking-head economists have done the country a disservice by exaggerating the benefits and ignoring the costs).

The real issue is that you would never guess that we live in crucial times for this country and the world.  You might expect that now I’m going to talk about climate change.   But even that is only a piece of it.  Only in the “I don’t have to care” world of today’s Republican Party is the State of the Union grounds for applause.

We are presiding over the demise of America’s promise in irresponsibility, incompetence, and simple vanity.  Let’s go down a list.

  1. Climate change

On climate change there can be no question of the urgency and magnitude of the challenge.  Science has given us a carbon budget we have to meet. The administration denies all of it and works systematically to undermine world progress.  As we’ve noted before, if we act today we have the elements of victory—but we also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.

Inaction on this subject is a grave risk to ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity.

  1. World economic order

The elephant hiding in plain sight is the growth of the Chinese economy.  We are in the process of being supplanted as the world’s largest economy, and the room for growth there is enormous—China is already our equal by some measures, but their per-capita income still ranks only as 108th!  The world is preparing a new international order, and we’re in danger of missing the boat.

We have a chance to define notions of trade that open markets everywhere and embrace standards for wages and working conditions, environmental concerns (including climate change), and human rights.  In some sense this is a necessary complement to what’s needed for climate change.  However we are losing leverage for that enterprise every day.

We’ve taken the position (without exaggeration) that God has chosen us to rule, so we should abolish all international norms that might constrain our behavior.  With the growth of China that’s a losing game.  Even today we were unable to dictate to China in our trade war, and it’s China—not us—that’s the biggest foreign market for European cars.  We’re not going to be calling the shots forever, and without rules it’s their game.  In this Trump is not defending the US interest against the Chinese, he’s defending his personal dictatorial power against the interest of the country.  We have a very limited window to take back the promise.

  1. Technology

There will always be changes in technology, but the pace of change has reached the point where we have to keep up or lose.  This affects all aspects of our success as a country:  our national income, the jobs of our workers, the strength of our military.

Instead of recognizing that reality we’ve got our head in the sand.  Some examples:

– We’ve done everything possible to discredit scientists and science generally, and for climate change and environment protection in particular.

– We’ve disbanded scientific advisory councils in government.

– We’ve had multiple State of the Union addresses where the only mention of education was vocational.

– We’ve killed net neutrality, thereby sacrificing new enterprises to the interests of the phone companies.

– On 5G and AI the government has come late to the party, without real plans.  For 5G in particular we’re actually asking our allies just to wait until we’ve figured out some alternative to Huawei.  This is worse than a failure of planning—5G applications are what’s most important, and waiting is punting that stage of technology back to the Chinese.

– More generally there’s simply no understanding of the importance of government in funding exploratory research—for technologies before the stage where private companies can run with them.  The tax cuts included a targeted punishment for major research universities.

– Finally the current rampant xenophobia flies in the face of the past and current contributions of foreigners to our technological strength.  We must continue to be the destination of choice for entrepreneurs looking to realize their visions.

We are simply ignoring the technological challenges and what has made us successful.  God only helps those who help themselves.

  1. Nuclear proliferation

This may seem a more limited issue, but that’s only because it hasn’t hit yet.  There are still only a limited number of players, largely under control.  But we’re doing everything possible to change that.

We’ve not only presented the world with the contrast in our treatments of North Korea and Iran, we’ve argued specifically for nations to do what it takes for their own defense.  We’ve eschewed the sort of international cooperation necessary to prevent new entrants.  And we’ve given Saudi Arabia nuclear material and technology without asking any questions at all.

The only reason we were less worried about this in the past was that world leaders had all recognized the nature of the threat.   We’re no longer keeping our eyes on the ball.  Nuclear technology gets ever easier.  As more entrants join the nuclear club, it gets harder to control their behavior and prevent the further sale of nuclear technology to third-parties of whatever ilk.  The North Koreans have done it before.

The clock is ticking.

  1. National ideals

It’s shocking how shallow the support for democracy has turned out to be.  In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” many people had to die for the dictators to take over.  The reality was much easier.

Democracy is not a luxury.  It is key to what made this country what it is.  We were never perfect, but we were much more a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” than had ever existed before.

We’re losing all of that right down the line:

– We’ve reversed our progress in expanding suffrage, and are now looking for reasons to block people from voting.  The Citizens United ruling put rich people and corporations in control of elections.  Deliberate voter suppression by state governments is stated Republican policy.

– Support for public education is declining, and funding is still below 2008 levels.

– Upward mobility is now below that of most other developed countries.

– The religious right is in charge of what happens to women’s bodies.

– We’ve lost the social cohesion needed for big national efforts.  The President no longer even pretends to represent the nation—he’s a warlord who delivers spoils for his supporters.

There are plenty of historical examples of how hard it is to reclaim democracy once it’s gone.  If we’re going to have the strength of a country by and for the people, things had better change fast.

 

We live in a crucial time.  On one hand we could even see massive destruction of humanity; on the other we could see an unprecedented level of international cooperation as a precursor to a very prosperous and peaceful world.

One thing we can’t do is ignore the reality of our time.  We can’t afford the “I don’t have to care” puffery of this criminally fictitious State of the Union.

Lessons From the British Election

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“Boris” by Raymond Wang is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

There is no way to avoid talking about the horrors of the British election.  With the confirmation of Brexit and the triumph of Boris Johnson, we have all stood witness to the disgraceful demise of a nation now left only with dreams of past glory.

For us though the important question is about what it means for our own election.  On that point the discussion has been generally limited to one question:  Does it say we should worry about the Democrats going too far to the left?  That one is hard to decide, since Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn was so unpopular for his own sake. 

However, that being said, there is still much to discuss.   We propose three points:

  1. Catastrophes not only can happen, but will happen if we don’t watch out for them.

The Democratic debates thus far have played out largely as conflict between the center and left wings of the party.  That means essentially all of it has been fought in the never-never land of post-Trump.  That’s not the same as working on viable strategies to win.

This will be a very tough election, fighting the Fox News, the Electoral College, incredible amounts of Republican money, and all the (legal and illegal) powers of incumbency.  Most candidates have done a reasonable job in providing position papers for what they stand for.  They need to tell us how they’re going to win.

  1. We need to recognize that the electorate isn’t convinced of the urgency of change.

In Britain, Corbyn’s big socialist revival was not so much wrong as a non sequitur.  What actually was all this trying to solve?  Why was it an argument for change?  It was ultimately a declaration of irrelevance.

We have a similar problem.  The very first question of the very first debate has never been adequately answered.  Elizabeth Warren was asked (more or less): “Why are you proposing all these changes when—by all polls—the vast majority of Americans think the economy is doing fine?”  That’s a question for all Democrats—what is it that’s so bad that we need change?

Warren’s answer—about radical inequality—was nowhere near strong enough.  It essentially said that all those people who answered the polls were just wrong.  But no one else has done better.  Healthcare was a great issue for the midterms—that’s something broken that we’re going to fix.  But it’s not enough to unseat Trump.  Impeachment doesn’t touch peoples’ lives directly—it’s about an abstraction called democracy.  Even climate change comes across as an abstraction, although it’s part of what’s needed.  Democrats need a short, clear reason why people need to worry that there is something that needs fixing.

That’s a bar to be passed before we can begin to get traction with specific plans for change.  Until then, like it or not, “fundamental structural change” will be a negative.

  1. We have to keep this a referendum on Trump.

Corbyn pretended Brexit wasn’t the main issue and went off with his own program.  The public was unwilling to follow.

Regardless of how broadly we see the issues, this election is about where Trump is taking the country.

We need a well-defined Trump story to challenge Republican claims of a great rebirth of the American economy.  Even on trade they’ll do what worked for George Bush on Iraq—we’ve been through all the pain, don’t miss out on the rewards!

That means we need to show what four more years of Trump will actually mean.  And how to meet the real challenges for our future.  It seems helpful to think in terms of personal and national issues for the voters:

Personal well-being

Healthcare (complete failure of vision)

Decline in good jobs (manufacturing, good jobs in general)

Education (no initiatives, no funding)

Income inequality (all growth for the rich)

Guns (unsafe to be in school!)

Climate change (what world for our children?)

Women’s rights trampled (bodies owned by the government)

Worse life for everyone but the protected few

National well-being

Eroding technology dominance (science marginalized)

New businesses sacrificed to old (Net Neutrality)

Losing out with climate change denial (ceded primary position to China)

Weakness with China and North Korea (situation is worse than ever before)

Nuclear proliferation (a danger in all directions)

Racism and divisiveness undermine our strengths (just what Putin ordered)

Demise of democracy (our major source of prosperity and power)

=>  Welcome to the Chinese century

 

That’s where we’re going.  For our own dreams of past glory.

The End of Democracy

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“STATUE OF LIBERTY” by airlines470 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Who knew it would be so easy?  In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” he needs real violence for a fascist takeover of the country.  In fact it took almost nothing at all.

We were lulled into complacency.  The institutions setup at our founding had lasted hundreds of years.  They weren’t perfect, but at least we had regular changes of power.

It turns out there was much we overlooked.  It’s easy to make a list now:

–  The Constitution functions only as it is interpreted by the Supreme Court.  A Court majority willing to exercise power can do almost anything.  For starters:  corporations are people; the first amendment precludes any control of money in politics; voting rights are not guaranteed.  Appointments are for life, and reasons for decisions are arbitrary and non-reviewable.

– The President and Senate have complete power over lifetime appointments of judges.  There are no controls on job requirements or procedures for appointment.

– The Attorney General is a creation of the President and can interpret laws in any way that the Supreme Court allows.  He, together with the Court, can quite legally be the President’s enforcer.

– Going one step farther, the impeachment process has laid bare the biggest threat of all, that there is no Constitutional check on a President whose party controls the Senate and will support him as a matter of principle.  Who is left to enforce the law?  In such a case the Constitution becomes a dead letter, supplanted by the whim of the dictator.

There is an old and probably apocryphal story that the mathematician Kurt Gödel, on reading the Constitution to prepare for his US citizenship interview, told Einstein that he was shocked to discover a path for a fascist takeover.  Einstein told him to shut up and get on with it.  It seems Gödel was right.

However institutions are only a part of what we missed.  Apparently the founding fathers were well-aware that in human history democracies have been rare and short-lived.  However as creatures of the Enlightenment, they were rather optimistic about the workings of the human psyche.

With that too there is much to go wrong.

– It turns out that people aren’t terribly rational.  They are intensely tribal and unwilling to change opinions based on facts.  Both advertising experience and economic theory have shown that there are many techniques to successfully manipulate opinions.  Two examples:  the brain confuses ease of access with truth, so that repetition works great; people process issues in bunches, so that opinions about abortion translate conveniently to opinions about tax rates.

– It turns out that even perceptions of factual reality are easily manipulated.  We no longer directly perceive reality; reality is what we glean from the information streams around us.  In the US we already made a terrible mistake (deliberately pushed through under Reagan) to remove the fairness doctrine on television—clearing the way for Fox News and other propaganda channels.  Now we have an even more serious problem with social networks.

– Finally and most fundamentally we’ve misjudged people’s commitment to democracy and fairness.  What we’ve found is that there may have been a commitment out of habit, but it was no more than skin deep.  If you can be sure of winning all the time, why even consider giving it up?  Democracy is just one more item on the list of things where “I just don’t have to care.”

Is there a way back?

Based on history, it seems we need two things:

– A unifying figure as President, to function as a creature for change.  It helps if the person is not too directly tied to factions.

– A renewed commitment to the non-legal underpinnings of democracy.   That is, to the unstated rules of cooperation that made democracy work for 200 years.  Much as you might like to, you just can’t legislate everything.

We like to think about Athenian democracy as a model (ignoring that Athens was in fact a quite unrecommendable imperialistic power).  After the rise of demagogues, they did in fact take the first step back, but they never managed the second.

We’ve been a much more successful democracy than they were, but we’re now at the same juncture.  The 2020 election is perhaps our last chance.

This is not just about an abstract idea of democracy.  With Athens it was the end of economic dominance and everything they stood for.  Same for us too.

Fixing Capitalism

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California Bank” by waltarrrrr is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a lot of talk these days about fixing capitalism.   However, there’s a problem with much of it—there are so many things to fix that it all becomes a daunting task.  The point of view here is simpler.  There are a great many things that aren’t happening, because capitalism just doesn’t do them—and we can start by making sure those get done.

At its source this problem comes from our being force-fed the wildly radical idea that the private sector—capitalism—will solve all problems by itself.  So even when we realize that capitalism needs to be fixed, we tend to be overly concerned with all the patches.

However, even Adam Smith had no delusions about the limitations of capitalism.  As he pointed out:

  1. The private sector will not police itself.

On the contrary it will do everything possible to corrupt the free market with monopolies and government influence: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  We’re used to hearing “private sector” and “free market” used almost as synonyms.   In fact, as Smith recognized, the free market is an ideal that can only be achieved when government holds the private sector accountable.

  1. The private sector will not provide the environment for its own success.

Smith even advocated a government program of universal literacy, quite a stretch for the eighteenth century and a pointer for us today.  This is a serious matter, because it shows how dangerous it is for the economy to punt everything to the private sector.

  1. Much of what is needed for a successful society is simply out of scope for the private sector.

Capitalism will not provide any service where there is no competitive advantage in doing it.  Public health and welfare, environmental questions, basic science, etc. are all out of scope.

Fixing capitalism strictly speaking deals only with the first category.  No amount of fixing is going to make capitalism deal with the rest.  Those issues are ours to solve.

It’s instructive to think about needs in each category.

 

  1. Policing the private sector

Monopolies are still with us and have become an increasing problem due to technology changes and weakened anti-trust enforcement.  The same is also true of corruption due to business influence on government.  These days no one even apologizes for it.

This is particularly true in the financial sector where banking, for example, has evolved into speculative gambling with losses covered by the FDIC.  You can even argue that the financial sector overall has evolved in directions that make it predatory on productive business.  After decades of Republican-inspired hands-off attitudes toward business, there is no shortage of serious issues.  However fixing all of them makes progress look far away.

Taking a step back, there is a single biggest problem:  legal tax evasion.  This is a gating item for so much progress that it just has to be dealt with.  Even before Trump’s tax cuts (and despite nominal tax rates), American companies paid the lowest effective taxes as a percent of income of any developed country.  That was largely a result of multinationals’ ability to move income to tax shelter countries—reducing rates or hiding income entirely.  Apple is only one egregious case.  The recent tax cuts made matters worse with drastically-reduced business rates, arcane rule changes for overseas income, and the new pass-through income treatment.  That pumped up the deficit—thereby hobbling government’s ability to respond to the serious sins of omission in categories 2 & 3.

What’s more, despite the insistent propaganda, taxes are actually not a primary issue for American competitiveness:

– Many studies have shown that in most industries today business profit levels reflect monopoly power to set prices well above historic levels of margin.  That’s a trend we can expect to continue.  In other words, businesses have considerable financial room to pay taxes.

– Further, as frequently noted, the savings from the tax cuts went primarily into stock buybacks.  That is companies decided the best thing to do with the tax cut money was to give it back to their investors in higher stock prices.

Conclusion:   Get the private sector (particularly large multinationals) and its investors to pay taxes.  Then work through all the rest.

 

  1. Providing the environment for economic success

If taxes aren’t the issue for American competitiveness, what is?  As we’ve noted here before, what makes for success is the technological advantage that has kept us in many areas on top of the heap.  That supports both our standard of living and our military strength.

Our technical dominance is based on three factors:

i. The dynamism of our economic system in generating new products and technologies.

ii. Broadly-based government support of research and education

iii. Remaining the preferred destination for entrepreneurs and other ambitious people from everywhere to realize their dreams

Let’s look at the current status of all three:

i. Unchallenged influence of big companies on government has favored established companies over new entrants. In part this is an anti-trust enforcement issue, but it has many other aspects.  The demise of net neutrality is one highly-visible example.

On this issue the interest of big business is strongly opposed to what makes for long-term national success.

ii. The administration is actively hostile toward science, government-sponsored research, and broad-based education. This is shown in purging of scientists from government agencies and restricting their influence on public policy.  One obvious example is in climate change.  Also the new tax law punished major research universities with a targeted tax.

Public investment in research had a major role in the prosperity of the 1950’s and 60’s and kicked off the opportunities of internet today.  The same kind of public investment has remade China as a technology powerhouse.  But our dedication to research has eroded over time:

R_D_spending

Instead we’re waiting for the private sector to do the job, which by definition means catch-up.

The story for education is similar.   In the 1950’s and 60’s we were expanding educational opportunities to whole classes of people who had never before had the chance.   Now we rank far down on the list for upward mobility.  Sudent loan debt tells the same story, and that’s only about the people DID go to college, not about the ones who were deterred by cost and DIDN’T.  Finally, educational funding in the states has never recovered from the 2008 crash.

It’s worth mentioning in passing that the value of research is not only for international competitiveness.  Basic research is part of the global project of raising human standards of living. Even when one worries about national competitiveness, progress is generally so international that openness is the ante for remaining at the forefront of progress.  Current policy to restrict international participation of US scientists weakens the country in the name of national security.

iii.  As a final point we need to emphasize the critical role that foreigners and their children are playing in maintaining our national strengths.  Many studies have shown their role both in starting new companies and in supplying the technical underpinning that makes for success.  As Steve Bannon noted (for his own purposes) such people represent more than half of Silicon Valley activity.  Google (cofounded by a foreigner) and Apple (by the son of a foreigner) are only the most obvious examples.

The current xenophobic backlash is wildly off-target.  Particularly with the weakened support for research and education, those are the people keeping our place in the sun.  (To be clear, an immigration plan that only accepts people with degrees is no counterweight to the nationalist, nativist rhetoric.)

Conclusions:

– This area has got to be fixed or we risk losing our standard of living and dominant role.  These are traditional US values and as important as ever for US success.   It we’re worried about competing with Chinese, this is where the battle will be lost or won.

– If we can get our act together, items i and iii should remain as our advantages going forward.  So we shouldn’t be defeatist about a future that is in our hands.

 

  1. Spending for the common good

This has been a bastard child for so many decades now, that there is much that needs to be caught up.  Here is one short list:

– Infrastructure (Much discussed, but with more sides to it than you might think.  See here for a good overview.)

– Climate change (Evidence has become incontrovertible, but we still need a real plan.)

– Universal health care (Needed not only as a benefit but also as an enabler for equal opportunity.)

– Opioid crisis (Much discussed, but with radically inadequate funding)

– Environmental protection (Not a luxury)

– Transitional assistance (Helping people through changes—from technology, globalization, etc.)

There is enough essential work here to pose a major challenge for government.  We need to confront the unmet needs of the society, then we need concrete plans, and finally we need to manage major operations with competence and integrity.  Despite the propaganda there is nothing unusual about effective, government-sponsored work.  However as with any other enterprises, this needs to be scrupulously well-run.  Just because good people are running it doesn’t mean there is less risk of corruption.  We have to get serious about public enterprise.

That means we have to get past the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong about working for the public good.  That’s after all nothing more than the other side of the “private sector will solve everything” coin.  We live with the continued juxtaposition of vast under-employment (3.7% unemployment doesn’t change the good union jobs replaced by Walmart) together with vast unmet needs that the private sector won’t address.  We’ve got to take the initiative to match one with the other.  This is not “make work”.  It’s essential work that isn’t getting done, because the private sector won’t do it.

Until we take that initiative, it’s hard to assess where we are as a society.  Public enterprise helps in many ways.  It helps with inequality and the middle class.  It helps with leverage for workers and standards for employment.  Many public sector jobs of their nature will be hard to outsource.  It makes no sense to talk about abstractions such as Universal Basic Income until we see how things shake out in a fully-functional economy.  The future may be less strange or scary than it seems.  (This isn’t just about public sector employment; work done by the public sector helps other trends as well.  Even in Silicon Valley each job in tech creates 4.3 other jobs as well.)

Conclusion:   We need to create the full-scale machinery for government service to do what the private sector won’t.

 

It’s always hard to foresee the future.  I remember when I was in high school, Prince Philip gave a commencement address at UCLA in which he spoke (as world expert!) about leisure.  Already then he was thinking that machines would take over work, leaving as us all to spend the rest of our lives at the beach.

That’s certainly not what happened, but there’s still something to be said for the positive spin.  Historically technology and even globalization have been good for living standards, except where societies have chosen to deny the benefits to large segments of their populations.  Both domestically and internationally we have every opportunity to do this right.  We can either organize our economy–and the world order–so that all can benefit, or we can go down in flames of our own making.

Let’s Just Do Immigration

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Now that Trump has decided that the target for the total number of immigrants is unchanged, why don’t we just fix immigration:

  • Family unification is a good thing, but it has taken too much of the total, now 70%.
  • It’s sensible that some fraction of immigrants should get in based on special capabilities or other demonstrable merit.  (It’s worth noting that the current system is actually not so bad in that respect.)
  • It’s also sensible to have some fraction of immigration that is not so constrained.  You never know who’s going to be a hero, and diversity has value.  Moreover past immigrants mostly came from places where they were denied opportunities for such merit.  So a lottery system has value too.

As a default, divide it up 1/3 for each and call it even.  Otherwise negotiate the limits for a while and then call it done.  (As an interesting variant, Canada handles family unification with relationship points in the merit index.)

Additionally:

  • We need to settle DACA once and for all, because there is no value to anyone in not doing it.  Since we’re talking about merit, these are upstanding, fully-adapted, English-speaking contributors.  And their number, compared to Trump’s new annual totals, is on the order of 1%.
  • For the rest of currently undocumented immigrants, we had a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013.  That can still be a basis for work.  These people are almost all working and paying taxes.

This isn’t so hard.   It only takes the will to do it.

There remains the question of enforcement.  For that, the problem is that we’ve been postulating solutions without any serious analysis.   Politicians shouldn’t be arguing about this.  (Border control was never wild about the wall until they were told they”d better be.)  There needs to be an independent assessment of how money should be spent to enforce the law.

However one thing that is definite is that there is no excuse for mistreatment of desperate people looking to escape overwhelming problems for themselves or their families.  We can’t satisfy them all–immigration law is there to say who gets help–but that’s no excuse for treating them all as criminals or worse.

 

The Unreceived Message of the College Admissions Scandal

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The message of the College Admissions Scandal is not that there is cheating in college admissions.  As one commentator put it: “This Just In: Rich People Game College Admissions for Their Kids (Stop the Presses!)  . . .Are we shocked—shocked?”

This scandal, like each of the innumerable articles about helicopter parents, shows how desperate parents are to protect their kids from the vast inequities of the educational system (and what comes afterward).  The real scandal is that the college admissions game really matters.  So the main message isn’t about Harvard, it’s about PUBLIC education.

This country used to care about public education.   It created the GI bill.  It vastly expanded the state university systems.  It showed the rest of the world what broad access to education could do for prosperity of a country.

Then, as a conscious goal of the Koch organization and the new Republican Party, we lost it.   Education has been a major victim of the drive for lower taxes on the rich, and the 2008 crash brought this to crisis levels.  Funding for schools has never recovered.  Rises in state tuition fed the student loan debt crisis.  K-12 school funding collapsed to the point of nationwide teacher strikes.  We even have Koch-funded propaganda attacking the whole idea of mass education.  Trump’s first State of the Union address pointedly talked only about welders and vocation education.

Public education needs to be first-rate.   We didn’t achieve it for everyone in the 60’s, but we showed it could be done more broadly that ever before.  Other countries, following our lead, are now well ahead of us for both education and (as a consequence) upward mobility.

Fixing education is not a trivial matter, but it mostly depends on a commitment to doing the whole job.  There are a number of aspects:

– Money

Money doesn’t solve things all by itself, but we’ve got to stop believing it doesn’t matter.  Raising tuition and fees defeats the whole purpose.

– Value teachers

Teachers, rather than consultants and administrators, should be prime contributors to the direction of the system.

– Common core

There need to be clear national standards of what we are trying to achieve.  However, that should still leave room individual teacher creativity.

– Graduation rates

We need to understand and counteract the current declines.

– Full range of institutions

All types of student objectives should be supported with traditional universities, community colleges, and vocational institutions.

 

Above all we need to fight the current ethos of superheroes and losers, and recognize that the strength of the country is in providing everyone access to the tools to succeed.  That’s why education matters.