Lessons From the British Election

55ddfb60723389.5a56f216db0a1

“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.

American Fascism in the World

43065391090_8a20d937be_b

“President Trump, MAGA rally, Wilkes-Barre, Penn – 1” by The Epoch Times is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As a country we normally don’t care much about foreign affairs.  We’ve had five Democratic debates with almost no questions about it.  International issues always come out low on the lists of what people care about.

However, the time has come to care.  It’s nothing new to identify the rise of fascism in this country as a problem.  But for some of the worst consequences you need to look outside the borders.

Fascism is many things but it is above all a world view.  The mother country is God-certified superior, under assault, and fully-equipped to teach everyone else a lesson.  That feels great; life is good when you’re on top of the world, and you don’t have to care.  But it is by definition blinding in its assessment of reality.

Our current foreign policy is predicated on the idea that we’re running things and can dictate to the rest of the world.   We don’t need allies or international institutions, because we can simply tell everyone else what to do.  Allies are people you shake down because they need you, and adversaries are just waiting to get defeated by irresistible national power.

That world view might have had some reality at the end of World War II (when we were sensible enough not to pursue it), but it has little to do with reality today.  The longer we resist reality, the worse for us.

First of all our military power is strictly bounded.  Nuclear weapons are such that for now no major power can be defeated.  We can’t even do anything about North Korea.  So we shouldn’t believe that counting bombs says anything meaningful.

Our economic power is also limited.  Our declared economic war on China has thus far been anything but “easy”.  There is no sign that China is ready to capitulate, and their resulting push for national self-sufficiency has many negatives for us—in particular reduced access to the markets we think we’re opening.  That’s in addition to an overall slow-down of international growth and much of the recent intellectual property theft.  The blindness of the belief in our power is such that we systematically ignore consequences.  It is truly dangerous to believe—as a principle—that we don’t have to care.

Why do we have allies?  If you believe what’s coming out of Washington, the answer is that we have allies because, out of the goodness of our hearts, we choose to defend our friends.  Since this is pure beneficence, they had better pay up and to hell with them if they don’t.

In fact (of course) we have allies to increase our strength.  NATO came into existence, so that a next world war with Russia would be fought in Europe and not here. That role may have diminished, but it’s not gone, and Europe allies are also assets in dealing with middle-eastern terrorism and with the economic strength of China.  South Korea and Japan are similarly counterweights to the rising power of China.   Again, they are the ones on the front lines.  Shaking them down increases China’s dominance in the East.

Why do we have international institutions?  Those were created by the US as a means of increasing stability (to the benefit of our economy) and of exercising power.  The UN is imperfect institution, but its role as an international forum is essential.  The WTO is the best means that exists to push for labor and environmental standards in international trade.  Make no mistake that world trade has been good for the US economy.  If it hasn’t done as much for the population as a whole, that’s because—as in many other areas—rich donors have controlled our own objectives.  That’s our problem to fix.  International institutions are the way we, together with our allies, can exert decisive power without conflict.

Fascism is a major impediment to the exercise of US power.  Relations with China are a case in point.   Nothing says this is easy, but we certainly should be playing with a full deck.  As it is, we’ve already strengthened the hands of hard-liners, and it will be work to walk that back.  That’s still worth the effort, because conflict is a good option only in fascist fantasy.  A defined “victory” is highly unlikely, and at the very least we’re talking about:  a new cold war, lower economic growth, no access to the Chinese market, an uncontrolled and expensive arms race, no leverage on Chinese behavior, a real chance of war.  Rational national interest says forget the fascist dreams, strengthen our hand, and work on a real future.

There are other aspects to this as well.  Fascism has many other destructive tendencies, we’re promoting them worldwide, and they come back to bite us.  Racial intolerance is built-in to the world view.  We’re excusing it domestically and normalizing it elsewhere.  Modi’s anti-Muslim policies would probably have happened anyway, but our influence has damped down international outrage.  Similarly we may decry China’s treatment of Uighurs, but the impact of our outrage is weakened by our own actions.

Even more important, our fascist disdain for international cooperation has seriously hobbled the worldwide effort to combat climate change.  The US-led unanimity of the Paris Agreement was the basis for the world to make progress.  Once we broke that and encouraged others to follow, it has been more than difficult to assemble the global good-will necessary to make progress.

After World War II it was easy to believe fascism was something special with roots in German or Italian culture.  We now know better.  It is a tendency than needs to be fought everywhere.  It is a mindset that takes over from rationality and hurts most severely those who fall prey to the disease.

We’ve had more than enough of it already.  For our own sake we’d better learn to fight back.

The End of Democracy

14387714597_9d026aa844_b

“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.

Depression:  Yes or No

Donald Trump inherited a country on the upswing.  Unemployment was low and decreasing, and GDP was growing at a healthy clip.  The following charts show remarkable continuity.

unemployment_ratedomestic_product_growth

However we’ve let that continuity hide a more sinister reality.  The $1.5 T tax cuts represented a huge transfer of the wealth of the country to the rich investors of Wall Street.  The money did not go to wages (which have only barely kept pace with inflation), nor to business investment (no significant rise), nor to bonuses (negligible one-shot deals).  It went to artificially-enhanced corporate earnings that turned into stock buy-backs.  A double win for Wall Street.

There are a lot of things that could have been done with that money, but now that it has gone into stock prices, it’s not coming back.   In fact, chances are that it’s gone for good.

1929 was a long time ago, so the world has had plenty of time to think about it.  A major factor in the crash was that inequality had risen to the point where it undermined continued growth.   Speculation pushed stock values to a point that was not sustainable by the buying power of the population.  Furthermore, the Depression was caused not just by the crash, but by mismanagement of the economy by the business-fixated Republicans in power.

Let’s tick off the items.  We have inequality that has now reached levels unheard-of since the roaring twenties.  We don’t have wild speculation on Wall Street, but we do have stocks pumped up to artificially high levels by the dual effects of enhanced earnings and corporate stock buy-backs.  Trump is still working on schemes to push Wall Street higher.

Two questions:

  • Is it sustainable?

As corporate profits move back down to reality, it seems pretty clear that once again domestic buying power isn’t going to do the job.  Foreign markets might have offered some hope, but there the trade wars get in the way.  That’s why the market has gone up and down with rumors of a China deal.  However, much damage there has already been done.  Trump wants another tax cut before the election—an admission of where we are.  So the answer to the question is simply “No”.

It’s a matter of time until all that money that pumped up the stock market is gone.  Poof.

  • What’s going to happen?

It’s hard to predict what’s going to pop the bubble.  In 1929, reality just set in.  That may be the case today, but there are plenty of other possibilities:  wars (particularly in the Middle East), climate catastrophes, unanticipated tariff effects, debt crises elsewhere.  Election of a Democrat won’t do it (no matter how many times Trump says so), because the problem is beyond party.  No one, Republican or Democrat, can keep pumping debt-funded artificial profits into the stock market forever.

It’s what happens next that matters.  Democrats understand the importance of stopping contraction by supporting the population.  That’s what kept us all out of depression in 2008.  Republicans didn’t understand that in 1929 and hadn’t learned the lesson in 2008.  Trump himself has done everything possible to weaken safety nets for the benefit of Wall Street.  He’ll do everything he can to protect businesses from the “losers”.

So the 2020 election is simple.  Depression:  YES or NO?

Thinking About Manufacturing

There seems to be a lot of confusion about manufacturing.

We’ll start with a few slogans that pass for generally-accepted truth:

  • Manufacturing is the core of the US economic base.
  • Restoring manufacturing is key to the viability of the US working class.
  • The Chinese have gutted manufacturing in the US.
  • The continuing decline of manufacturing is another indication of the failure of Trump’s economic policies.

One indication that something might be fundamentally wrong in all of that comes from looking at trends in the service and manufacturing sectors over the past twenty years:

mfg_in_gdp_wbsvcs_in_gdp_wb

To say the least, it looks like there is something more fundamental going on than politics or even globalization.   Manufacturing has been declining relative to services for many years and in a big way.  It’s not just because of China, and it’s not even just in the US:

mfg_in_gnp

The US has been undergoing a massive migration from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a services economy. One problem is that we don’t really have a good vocabulary to talk about that situation.  The term “services” goes from McDonald’s to Google.  But in any case manufacturing is no longer the core of national economic success.  Think about television.  The sets have become so cheap that only huge volumes can cover the low margins.  But every major company you can think of wants to get into content to run on those sets.  There are hardly even any DVD’s manufactured for that stuff anymore!

We’ve talked here before about software.  All of the leading high tech companies (including Apple) are software companies.  Software companies produce product without manufacturing.  And that’s only one of the reasons such companies can be very profitable:

– They typically sit on top of the value chain (or even, like Facebook, have only software as output)

– They tend to have monopoly power (because dominant players can afford to spend more on R&D)

– They tend to have high barriers to entry and effective customer lock-in

The world economy today has increasingly many highly-profitable dominant software companies.  Some like Google produce software; others like Apple rely on a world-wide agglomeration of highly-competitive businesses producing to their specs.  Our current national success is that we have lots of them.  Our military strength depends on their technology.  The Chinese are sensible enough to understand that’s where they want to be too.  Even in biotech—where there has to be manufacturing—you’re still talking about largely high-skilled operations in companies with a large emphasis on R&D.

 

It’s a little strong to say it, but it’s closer to reality than most of what we hear:  mass employment in manufacturing is like mass employment in agriculture—it has had its day.  The migration is as extreme as what happened a hundred years ago.  And we’re better off thinking about the consequences than blaming it all on the Chinese or trying to outdo each other with promises to make it go away.

That point of view is widely held (based on the figures), but somehow it hasn’t managed to penetrate public discussion.  That’s not surprising for the Trump people, since they’ve been making it all up from the beginning.  For the left it’s different.  Traditional socialism has always had an industrial flavor that is hard to give up.  Unions and trust-busting are good, but they won’t bring back the past.  Forcing businesses that take federal research money to do manufacturing here will help some but not enough to reverse the trends.

(For the left, one particular paper has been frequently cited to show manufacturing job loss is reversible.   That paper concluded that the large manufacturing job losses from 2000 to 2010 were not due to automation here.  However, for its purposes it only examined companies that remained here and checked how many robots they had.  Nothing was said about the reasons any single company had left.)

The question then is what we should do.  The key is to start considering what we see around us as reality:

  • A long-term trend of decline in manufacturing
  • Very profitable, highly technical, non-manufacturing monopolies
  • Complete neglect of domestic services for the public good

We’ve talked about those trends here before.  As we’ve noted, some of the monopoly power is structural, so it’s not clear how far we’ll get with breaking them up.  However, monopoly power means companies are far from cost-sensitive, so the last thing we need to give them is more tax breaks.  On the contrary what’s crucial is learning to tax them, and we’ve got Apple as proof of how tough that can be.

In this picture the public sector has two important roles:

  1. Preparing the country for success in the world economy. That means infrastructure of all kinds, including education and child care as much as roads and bridges. The private sector won’t do it.  But—with an appreciation for the role of government derived from the second world war—we used to do a better job of it ourselves.
  2. Making sure the wealth of the monopolies gets translated into benefits for the population. This is another case where the private sector can’t act for its own good. Henry Ford famously wanted his employees to be able to buy his cars, but that’s certainly not the ethos of today. This doesn’t mean free money, it means employing people for the unfilled tasks needed for the public good.

We need the public sector to be the means of addressing the country’s unmet needs with resources from gilded-age inequality.

It’s worth pointing out that we have been wasting resources on a spectacular scale.  Under George W. Bush we fought a $3T war with no identifiable benefit and underwent a privatization effort (including tax cuts) that ultimately produced a near-depression.   Under Obama the Republican Congress shut down government, retarding recovery and preventing the public sector from doing any of the jobs just described.  Under Trump the primary achievement has been another $2T of tax cuts, with a jump in inequality and a deficit big enough to prevent any of the infrastructure work from getting done.  That the tax cuts went straight into stock buybacks is a clear indication of irrelevance.

It is instructive to think back to the time when the country underwent the last such a drastic economic change, when we went from an agrarian to an industrial society.   People had a hard time then thinking about it.  They got tied up in an irrelevancy—the silver monetary standard—and it took a long time before the real problems of corporate power and inequality were addressed.  A contemporary Henry Demarest Lloyd expressed his frustration this way: “The free silver movement is a fake. Free silver is the cow-bird of the reform movement. It waited until the nest had been built by the sacrifices and labor of others, and then it lay its own eggs in it, pushing out the others which lie smashed on the ground.”

We have something of that problem today.  The long-standing decline in manufacturing is a continuing but unacknowledged reality.  Instead we spend our time blaming it on the immigrants, or the Chinese, or the elites, or some combination of everyone else.  Until the blame game stops we can’t begin to decide how our economy really needs to work in the world we’ve got.  For climate actions we worry about coal miners, but there are many others in the same boat.  There is an international aspect too:  we’re too busy looking for villains to spend time on making the system work for global prosperity.

For our part we think it’s time for the public sector to come in from the cold.   In any case it’s time to stop talking about free silver.

 

 

 

Don’t Pretend This Election is Normal

30230113486_48fec5499d_z

On the economy:  We’ve embarked on an unprecedented binge of deficit-financed stimulus in good times.  In just the past fiscal year the deficit ballooned by an extra $300 B, far more than foreseen.   That’s a great stimulus for the election, but it will be a long, cold winter.

Erratic tariff policy is already causing layoffs and market swings, with the major impact delayed until after the election.  George Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs cost 200,000 jobs;  this time effects will go much wider.  And there is no pot of gold from these trade wars.

Finally we’re setting ourselves up for the very considerable economic consequences of ignoring climate change.

On personal welfare:  Last year’s attack on ACA showed no commitment to do anything serious about healthcare—other than remove the progressive tax that funds it.

The huge business tax cuts have produced no wage increases beyond inflation (and no jump in business investment either).  Further those tax cuts have left no room for education, infrastructure, or social services, leading to recent plans to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Supreme Court justices were chosen to fight unions and satisfy the moral pretensions of the evangelical right.  Roe v Wade is only the beginning.

On freedom: We’ve had ongoing and increasingly brutal attacks on truth and the media.  Trump’s attempts to control the FBI have not succeeded, but by all accounts a win in the mid-terms means replacing Sessions with a more obliging alternative.  We’re reached the stage where we actually have to worry about the Justice Department!

On democracy:  It needs to be emphasized that the Kavanaugh appointment completes Trump’s control of government.  With a committed majority on the Court and capitulation by Republicans in both Houses of Congress, there is effectively no check on what he does.  We haven’t had time yet to understand how bad this is going to be.  Even Constitutional limits only work if the Court will enforce them.  Without a Democratic majority in the House, there is nothing protecting the nation from whatever comes into his head—trade wars, real wars, silencing of opposition, personal vendettas, whatever.

Our founding fathers chose democracy for a good reason.  They knew all about one-man rule.  Democracy is inherently fragile, but that’s what made us what we are.  We need to preserve it.  VOTE.

Thinking Back to the 2008 Crash

DSCN9758

There have been many articles recently reviewing what happened in 2008 and how things have evolved since then.  It’s a good thing we’re thinking about it, but there seems to be a tinge of inevitability to our memories, as if it was all a fact of nature and we need to understand the science of how things turned out as they did.

That’s wrong.  Blithe confidence in deregulation caused the crash.  The Koch-controlled Republican Party chose—with unconscionable cruelty—to prolong the pain of the downturn, so as to get a new President who would deliver massive tax cuts for the ultra-rich.  (Remember the “balanced budget amendment” and compare with the current deficits.)  And they have placed in power and continue to support a person who in their own words “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”  It’s a good idea to think about the crash.

Despite the much-discussed topics of globalization and automation, we are not living with unsolvable acts of God.  And there are no secret demons running around hidden in the depths of the administrative state.  Dramatically rising inequality—and the decline of the middle class—is not an accident, but a chosen result.  The deep divisions that exist in our society are not an accident, but a chosen result.  Follow the money.  Divide and conquer is nothing new.

This country has dealt successfully in the past with industrialization and massive immigration.  And was stronger for both.  And we were able to share that prosperity more broadly than it had even been done before.  We can do it again.  The current, hard-won worldwide prosperity should be good for everyone if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

This isn’t going to be easy.  The current inhumane, anti-democratic Supreme Court will be around for a long time.  The much-encouraged divisions in the society will not heal easily.  But we can start by heeding the recent advice of John McCain and vote out this cult that can’t even be called conservatives.  Democrats have a great variety of people running in this critical election.  Breadth of opinions is a good thing.  Belief in democracy is a requirement.

This needs to be done.  What we do matters everywhere.  We are the leaders of the free world, and that leadership is dearly missed.