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 Coronavirus Message for Climate

Since the coronavirus is at the top of everyone’s consciousness, there has been a lot written about what the coronavirus experience has to say on a great many issues.  After a while you start to get numb.  However for climate change the parallels are so explicit and telling that they need to be emphasized.  The argument in this piece is not new, but it’s worth spelling out in detail.

The coronavirus shows just how hard it is for us as a country—or as a world—to act ahead of a disaster even when the evidence is clear.  We were unprepared when the crisis came, because we just didn’t want to believe it could happen.  Our reluctance not to believe was of course encouraged by players (foreign and domestic) who felt there was something to be gained by delay.

The result is measured both by the numbers of dead and by the economic consequences of the drastic measures taken to stop the exponential growth of cases and deaths.  In the US that means on the order of 200,000 deaths and the worst job loss since the Great Depression.  The weeks of delay made this situation exponentially worse.  You can argue about the details, but there is no question that failure to act early cost us dearly on both counts.  We’ll muddle through, but badly wounded.

The parallels to climate change are explicit—but for climate the muddling through is no sure thing.  There are two primary points:

  1. CO2 in the atmosphere just adds up—which means that whatever problems finally force us to act will keep getting worse until we can manage to stop fossil fuels completely.  In other words from whatever time we recognize a crisis, we will be locked-in for many further years of worsening crisis.
  2. That’s even worse than it sounds because—as with epidemics—there is an exponential growth aspect here too.  To see this we can start with the example of hurricanes.  For hurricanes, the damages in the wind-speed categories are such that each step makes the previous look trivial.  In other words, as wind speed grows in a regular, linear way, damage goes up exponentially.

This isn’t just a matter of hurricanes; it’s typical for damage.  For floods you go from marginal areas affected to major cities.  In any category you can think of, damage goes up exponentially.  The bottom line is that for all those years of lock-in, every additional ton of carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere will pack a wallop.  This is the stuff of nightmares.

The latest climate report gives us the timescale.  To avoid catastrophic consequences CO2 production needs to drop 45%  by 2030 and reach 0 by 2050.

We couldn’t get ourselves to believe the coronavirus would really happen, and climate disaster is even further from our past experience.  So the tendency to disbelieve is even stronger.

There are plenty of well-connected, interested players out to convince us to wait.  The oil companies and their allies are doing quite a good job of it.  Pence and Pompeo (among many others) are Koch organization soldiers in a Trump organization out to sabotage all efforts to control climate change.  Another indication of oil company power is Harvard University’s recent announcement of a commitment to fight climate change—by making their investment portfolio carbon-neutral starting in 2050, the year when the scientists say we need to be done!

That’s where we are.  Climate change is the coronavirus on a bigger scale.  It’s much more dangerous and with even more powerful forces out to convince us to wait, and wait, until it’s too late to matter anymore.  We’ve been warned.

Warren’s Medical Plan Competes with Climate Action

Nursing Stock Images NIH

“Patient Talking With Doctor” by NIHClinicalCenter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is nothing complicated about this conclusion, but we ought to be clear about it.

Warren got herself boxed-in on medical care.  She repeatedly said she wouldn’t raise medical “costs” for the middle class, but other candidates and the press accused her of using “costs” as a smokescreen to hide taxes.  That forced her hand—to defend herself she had to make medical care free, a position quite different from where she started.  The middle class would pay neither premiums nor taxes.

That meant coming up with an awful lot of money.  The Warren proposal is a highly optimistic exercise in finding taxes and cost-savings to make it fly.  As opposed to all the other proposals—which involve some form of participant contribution—this one takes all the participant payments from general tax funds.  And it needs so much money you have to say that the well is now largely dry.

That has consequences for everything else.  For climate this is particularly sensitive, because there is every reason to believe that current cost estimates are decidedly on the low side.  What’s more, the costs included in the Inslee climate plan (which Warren now supports in principle) come to $9T over ten years, whereas the taxes from Warren’s own climate plan only cover $3T.   The rest is yet to be done.

Healthcare is too expensive to expect it just to fit it in.  It’s fantasy to believe it doesn’t matter.

 

Reasons For Pragmatism

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“COD Volunteers Give Back to the Community During COD Cares: Roll Up Your Sleeves Service Day 103” by COD Newsroom is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ideology can be inspiring, but it’s never the same as a plan to get a job done.  For now it’s getting in the way on many issues.  Here are a few examples:

  • Healthcare

ACA is an imperfect compromise with known issues—in part because it was a non-final version enacted in the wake of Scott Brown’s Koch-funded victory for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.  All attempts since then to improve ACA have been blocked by anti-healthcare Republicans.

That being said ACA has enabled tens of millions of people to be covered for the first time, and it is supported by a non-regressive tax—the ACA surcharge.  It also attempts to get around some of the worst problems private insurance by covering pre-existing conditions and regulating how much of premiums must be paid out in benefits.  In fact insurance profit margins in healthcare are well-below margins in every other insurance category.

The most critical issues today are to improve coverage, pricing, and the range of offerings for ACA plans.  Some of this is just a matter of rolling back Trump efforts to destroy ACA.  The rest is more complicated, but nonetheless well-studied.  This needs to happen independent of long-term plans.

“Medicare of All” is an ideological choice—to get healthcare away from the insurance companies.  It’s a good slogan but something of a misnomer, because the changes from Medicare are decidedly non-trivial.  The Sanders bill optimistically assumes all private insurance will be gone in four years, but without a real plan to make it happen.  While virtually all developed countries have some form of universal healthcare, the systems are dramatically different from country to country, and many keep some form of private insurance.  Even current Medicare has many roles for private insurance.

Focusing on Medicare for All does nothing for current problems, and puts us in an ideological battle for the future.  As Krugman recently pointed out “Not many people love their insurance companies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re eager to trade the coverage they know for a new system they don’t.”  Additionally—for current Medicare recipients—Medicare for All is easily posed as a threat to Medicare itself.  That worked (using ACA) in the Scott Brown election and could well work again.

The long-term objective is affordable, universal coverage.  And the first steps start now.

  • Climate Change

If anything should ever be non-ideological it’s climate change.  Facts are facts, and the solutions are primarily matters for science and engineering.  The main political issues are how much money to spend and who is going to pay for it.

Both sides, however, have turned this into a culture war.  That the Kochs have dishonestly challenged the basic science is by now almost beside the point.  “Bad science” is just an epithet thrown out in the culture war.

We need to stop the culture war and make sure we take care of the people who will be hurt as the economy goes off fossil fuels.  Green New Deal makes some things better and some things worse.  There’s so much political deal-making thrown into it, that it can’t possibly be viewed as anything other than a left-wing grab bag.  Maybe that helps in defeating Trump—which is of course necessary for any progress—but there are too many distractions from the climate change goal.

We need to make sure that everyone realizes that the new post-climate-change world is a good world for all—even people who want to drive AV’s and Chevy Suburbans.  And we need to commit to protect everyone—coal miners, car mechanics, people hit by carbon pricing—who might otherwise be hurt in the process.  That’s the objective.  We can refuse to play the Koch’s culture war game.

We have to get away from the notion that we need to create a kind of “socialist new man” of conservation.  We’re not repealing the industrial revolution.  We just changing the technological underpinning of how things work.  That’s not to say there aren’t other environmental issues, but they’re not the same.  We shouldn’t expect fixing climate change will put the EPA out of business.

  • Jobs

This whole area is filled with so many wrong and misleading ideologies that we can start with a catalog of wrong ideas.

Manufacturing is the basis of economic strength.

The Chinese have gutted manufacturing in the US.

Balance of payments is a good measure of economic strength.

A strong private sector will provide everything necessary for economic success.

Tariffs protect and strengthen the domestic economy.

Low business tax rates build national competitiveness.

Taxing businesses hurts everyone.

Strong unions and strong anti-trust enforcement will preserve the middle class.

Public sector jobs aren’t real jobs, they just pull money out of the private sector.

In the future there just won’t be jobs for everyone.

From the list it’s clear this isn’t a matter of left versus right (even if you discount the lunatic fringe running things today).  The world is moving into new territory (more and more companies with 0 cost of production, tighter and more automated international links).  So the challenge is to see things as they actually are.

Ideologies can get in the way of understanding.  No candidates seem willing to talk about the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.  Unions and antitrust enforcement are still good ideas, but they buy less than they used to.   As the last of the points indicates, futurists tend to provide more ideology than reality, so nothing beats experience and pragmatism.

For ourselves we see government challenges as:

Supporting education and research to keep ahead of technology change.

Managing the continuing transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.

Taxing and regulating dynamic international corporations with monopoly power.

Building and maintaining a bigger public sector to provide necessary services the private sector won’t.

Maintaining quality of life for all who live here.

Consciously working at creating and managing the international institutions that make the world work.  We used to recognize this responsibility (and avenue to exercise power), and no one else is stepping into the gap.

Overall we need to recognize the problems we do have—not the ones of the 1930’s—and look what will actually be effective to fix them.

There are many other areas where the same kind of story plays out—where an ideological war masks a more tractable, practical problem.  I’d even put immigration in that category.

It’s hard, given the daily atrocities of the Trump era, to focus on anything less than epic changes.  But if we’re going to put the pieces back together afterwards, it’s pragmatism that will get the job done.

The Nightmare World of Our Making

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“presidential Twitter” by osipovva is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The first Democratic debate began with a question to Warren about the economy: “Since most Americans think the economy is doing fine, why do you need all those plans for change?”  She responded by pointing out that the “great” economy was primarily benefiting only a lucky few.

Even that, however, understates the issue.  It’s not just that unemployment rates don’t tell the whole story about what it means to be working for a living.  It’s that there is so much run amok with the direction of the country that the unemployment rate doesn’t begin to stand-in for the strength of the economy or the well-being of the country overall.

For that we need to pull together many strands and formulate a picture what it would mean to have four more years of Trump—the kind of world we are making.  This note attempts to make a start.  We can be explicit about many things.  Our path of decline was clear from early on, but now we have more specifics.  We should leave no doubt about the risks we run.

In doing this, one goal is to avoid what I felt was a problem with the Clinton campaign.  Trump kept talking about change, but we didn’t get across the danger in those changes: what they would mean for ordinary daily life, for the environment, for the courts, for democracy in America.  Who’s to say if that would have made a difference, but many people were certainly surprised by what they got.  If nothing else, it would have called out the risk of non-voting.

What follows is an outline with a few supporting points and references.  As noted this is a start.

More unprecedented floods, hurricanes, temperatures, etc.

By leaving the Paris agreement we broke the international unanimity that was the best chance for progress.

               Each lost year is time we won’t get back

Disdain for science and technology in government

Non-support of research and education

Ignoring climate change technologies

Choosing big, established companies over innovators (Net Neutrality)

Xenophobia and racism encourage entrepreneurs to go elsewhere

=> Lower standard of living

=> Real threat to our military security

  • Nuclear proliferation and risk of nuclear terrorism

Encouraging nuclear proliferation by statements and actions (N. Korea vs Iran)

More players means more chance of theft or sale

Belligerence normalizes nuclear weapons

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist sees highest risk of catastrophe ever

  • Back to the 19th century on woman’s rights

Roes vs Wade hangs by the thread of Roberts’ desire for Court legitimacy.

One more Supreme Court vacancy, and we all live in Alabama.

  • Erosion of opportunities for middle class life

Education—weakening of public education and more generations in debt

Attacks on unions

Healthcare at issue—ACA hobbled with no other proposal in view

Continued declines in good jobs for people without degrees

No recognition of the problems created by technology change

Cutting the safety net—If you don’t succeed you’re a loser

Conflicts stoked between races, ethnic groups, cultures

No interest in racial justice—to the detriment of all

Cruel and intentionally divisive Immigration policy

Major hit to both security and prosperity

Trade wars instead of alliances and international norms

New arms race already announced

Policy rooted in weakness—from fighting on all fronts

Conflict as the first choice— “Trade wars are easy.”

Other wars too?

  • Weakened environmental and other standards

Air and water

Workplace safety

Food safety

  • Bubble economy based on debt

Good times prolonged by deficit-funded stimulus

Proven recipe for cycles of boom and bust (back to the 19th century here too)

No Republican history of help during downturns

  • Undermining of democracy in the US

Increasing government by fiat (“executive order”)

Restriction of voting rights

Politicization of the Justice Department

=> Democracy is not a luxury—it made us what we are.

 

Unity and Divisiveness

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Newspapers are filled with discussions of our political divisions and whether we can ever return to unity and shared national values. Many of those discussions are quite philosophical.  This one is not.

The first thing to note is that divisiveness is hardly surprising when the two strongest political forces in the country are actively inciting it:

– The mainstream Republican Party is at this point inseparably intertwined with the Koch organization for both money and organization.  There is no secret about the Koch organization’s objective.  They want to return to a world where their ultra-rich members run the country, pay minimal taxes, and do anything they want.   Consequently they want minimal government with defense and very little else—no regulation, only basic education, no social services.   Since those are not necessarily popular positions, the Kochs have been systematic about divide and conquer, using the Tea Party and later Trump as front men to stoke culture wars.  Pence, Pompeo, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are examples of Koch people.  These are the people behind the scenes in the famous NYTimes op-ed piece.

– Trump is a populist front for the Kochs, but with his own objectives as well.  For Trump divisiveness is the name of the game.   It’s his people against the enemy with a siege mentality to build loyalty among the followers.

 

The conclusion from this is that the polarization of attitudes is not entirely—or even primarily—a matter of differing philosophies.  What you have on one side are the self-serving programs of the Koch organization, together with justifications their think tanks have concocted to sell them.   On the other side is a set of attitudes—starting with democracy and including even an immigration proposal—many of which were shared by both parties until the Koch people bought the Republicans.

As noted, Trump and the Tea Party are populist fronts.   Contrary to what you read every day, the Tea Party was not a spontaneous movement; it was created and funded by the Koch organization.  Its prominence, and the prominence of its message were only possible because of the level of funding.  The Tea Party presaged Trump in the “true-believer” attitudes of the members.  The Kochs had studied techniques of the communist party (of all things) to understand how to sell the message of secular paradise.

Trump is a step beyond.  For one thing he has brought the cult of personality to the cult of secular paradise.  For another he has added his own program to the program of the Kochs.  In so doing, he has become a complete mask for what is going on.  His tariff program—no matter how ill-conceived—really sounds populist, and his culture war persona is impeccable.  He’s always in the news.  The Kochs were undoubtedly delighted to see their tax program go through as his achievement.

If Trump really does make himself a dictator the Kochs may get more than they bargained for (and we get to live with it), but for now—despite tariffs, racism, and scapegoating—he’s their guy.

 

So going back to the question of divisiveness, where exactly do we stand?   Support for the Koch-Trump program is of two sorts:  there are those who really do benefit (some level of rich), and there are Trump’s true believers.  Many articles have remarked on the strength of the reciprocal love that binds the latter group with Trump.   Not an easy thing to address.

Why did these people buy in from the beginning?  Lots of reasons have been presented:  economic factors, racism, cultural conflicts, or simple non-homogeneity of the population.  While there is plenty of evidence for the non-economic reasons, it makes sense to focus on the economic ones to start with, because those create an environment where the other evils can flourish.  People fighting over scraps are unlikely to play nice.  It’s true that polarization is self-sustaining once it starts, but addressing people’s concrete problems always has to be a first step.

One thing going for change is that the ideology of private sector salvation has now had a chance to show its true colors.  The tax cuts did not get turned into bonanzas for employees; instead they got turned into this dramatic and revealing chart:

stock buyback2c

Furthermore healthcare was a fiasco, and even climate change is emerging as a threat.  The tariffs only sound good—more people buy and build cars than make steel.

The only way any of that matters is if the Democrats do take the House.  If that happens, the Democrats have a chance to show that they can produce solid programs for real problems.  Healthcare was well-chosen if we can get our act together and really do it.  The opioid crisis is still untouched.   It would be nice to produce a jobs program that can get people out of Walmart.  The Republicans have tried to poison opportunities with the tax cuts, but we’ll have to figure a way out.  The ACA tax might be a model.

So the message is that the way back from divisiveness may be more ordinary than it seems.  Stop calling people names and figure out ways to make visible progress.  That may even lead to forced cooperation between parties.  Even if nothing gets implemented, it will be clear what could be.

And someday there may even be justice for the Republican Party’s prolonging the pain of the 2008 crash, so they could deliver the Koch tax cuts!

Kavanaugh Nightmares

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This subject is too painful to talk about but too painful to leave alone.  A few points:

– The fundamental danger of the Kavanaugh appointment was of course clear from the start—it was clear from the moment that Kennedy announced his retirement.  One way or another we were going to get a Supreme Court majority for authoritarian control of the country.   Since the Supreme Court enforces the Constitution, this is the fox in the hen house.

– The Kavanaugh hearing made matters worse in two ways.  The idea that law-giving on abortion and contraception might be determined by a perpetrator of sexual assault was bad enough, but additionally we were given the spectacle of Kavanaugh’s unhinged rant about liberal conspiracies with the implied threat (now soon to be realized) of revenge.  The final act, with Collins presenting the Party’s carefully-crafted whitewash of the whole affair, was an apotheosis of hypocrisy.

– The press has thus far, as usual, attempted to normalize the situation.  The word “conservative” is a handy tool in this effort.  As if these people represented an ordinary, conservative political wing rather than a takeover of the country to subvert democracy for the foreseeable future!  Even the focus on Roe v Wade has this effect, by making it sound like the problem is limited to a few specific issues.

Instead this takeover of the court will pervade all aspects of society.  Here are a few more examples of what may be in store:

  1. Essentially all regulatory agencies risk shutdown. The new “conservative” mantra is that delegation to regulatory agencies is unconstitutional, i.e. any regulation has to be a law passed by Congress.  Since that is as a practical matter unworkable, none of it can happen.
  2. The 14th Amendment can be weakened out of existence (the Constitution only exists as interpreted by the Court), limiting the ability to address racism or LGBT issues.  This is a stated “conservative” objective.
  3. Selected portions of Medicare, Social Security, and other aid programs can be eliminated as unconstitutional. This works directly to the Koch organization’s goal of drastically cutting government to reduce their taxes.
  4. Basic problems of the society can become unaddressable. Education, student loans, healthcare, opioid crisis, etc. can be made untouchable by any future Congressional effort.
  5. Fundamental free speech rules can become unenforceable. Trump could be able to shut down the NY Times or Washington Post on whatever pretext he chooses.
  6. Rule by Presidential fiat can become the norm, as only the Court can challenge it. With the example of the current trade wars, arbitrary control of the US economy will erode its strengths for all of us.

That’s what’s looming for the not-so-distant future.  It doesn’t change our immediate goals, as the mid-term elections are now more important than ever.  But it will be a tough battle, and the unprincipled savagery of today’s Republican Party has been vividly on display.

The Trade Wars Are a War on Trade

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The impending trade war with China has already generated the drumbeat of preparations for a real war:  “cheating”, “usurping”, “impoverishing”, “existential threat”, …  Of course with Trump you never know what’s just posturing, given how quickly the North Korean “rocket man” became “very honorable”. So there’s hope that the Chinese trade war will somehow wind down.

But even if it does, we have to recognize there is now a real, ongoing threat to international prosperity.  Trump is attacking the system of fair trade that underlies the world’s rise in prosperity since the second world war.  His notion of sovereignty means he refuses to acknowledge any limits (international or constitutional) on his ability to use trade as a weapon.  That is new, and if it wins we all lose.

 

We start by quoting a position from the Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s on the trade negotiations with China.

“During negotiations with China, the Administration’s objective should be to secure lasting economic reforms that will curtail China’s unfair trade practices and allow U.S. businesses to compete on a level playing field. Negotiations that focus on temporarily reducing the trade deficit would make this a wasted effort. Working in coordination with our allies, the U.S. should set deadlines on those economic reforms and outline the consequences China would face if reforms aren’t made. This approach will provide an opportunity for the Chinese to produce results and for the Administration to protect the interests of U.S. businesses and workers effectively.”

The important thing about the quote is that it sees the problems with China within the context of internationally-defined fair trade.  And it emphasizes the importance of working with our allies to make the system successful.   That’s as opposed to “reducing the trade deficit”—which seems to be at the top of the administration’s list both for China and for Mexico, Canada, and others.  (This is despite the fact that our balance of payments deficit with China has decreased greatly from peak, is not a financial problem, and is not the reason for the stresses on the American middle class.)

It is important to recognize that regulating deficits is worse than “wasted effort”; it actually subverts the real objectives of fair trade.  Not only does it make China responsible for something it doesn’t completely control (we’re the ones pumping up the federal deficit), it is a rule we would never accept for ourselves.  The whole idea of fair trade is that it should be a system of known rules by which everyone can play; here we’re just imposing whatever we think we can get away with.

The quote is of course coming from businessmen, but the issue is one for everyone.  The downsides of international trade exist, but most cases the problems are of our own doing.  Further the most effective way to impose standards for labor and environmental issues is to work through the definition of fair trade.

We have already sinned against WTO fair trade once, by invoking “national security” as a blanket excuse for unilateral tariffs.   We are going beyond that here by setting rules for others we have no intention ever to obey.

 

The second example is the administration’s other major issue in the Chinese negotiations: “Made in China 2025”.

For high-tech, China today is primarily building products for western companies.  Generally most of the intellectual content and profit goes to the parent company (e.g. Apple) as the top of the heap.  Unsurprisingly, China would like to move up the value chain to get more of the benefit.  Also, China today sources most of the IC chips in the products it builds from other countries—a fact that China views as a risk to its success.  Made in China is the plan to move up.

Made in China 2025 covers just about any technical field you can think of (except AI, with its own plan), and the government expects to spend money to make progress happen.  As an idea, this isn’t terribly different from what is going on in many other countries (see here for a summary of national spending on AI).  But the Trump administration has decided that the whole idea of Chinese government involvement in technological advancement is suspect.

While Mnuchin and others use the language of fair trade to attack the Chinese plan, those attacks have lacked much specificity.  And in fact if the administration is worried about abuse, they could take the whole affair to the WTO.  What makes the case even weirder is that, as we know, the Trump administration has proposed severe cuts in US government funding for research in essentially all fields, claiming the private sector does it better.

So one has to conclude that what is going on is trade warfare pure and simple.  The Trump people (with their zero-sum view of the world) are afraid the Chinese might catch up, and their goals is to throw as many nails on the road as possible to slow them down.  That’s what passes for economic policy.

This is arrogant foolhardiness of the sort the world hasn’t seen since the geniuses of the Iraq war.  As many have pointed out, the companies most hurt will be American.  And the message for the rest of the world is clear.  The US, with quite a lot to gain, has decided it doesn’t need free trade.

The end here, as in our last piece on trade, is constitutional.  It becomes more urgent each time.

Normally, without the seldom-used national security ploy, tariffs are a matter for Congress.  When Trump got away with it on the aluminum and steel tariffs it was a scary first step.  We’re now fighting a whole trade war with China, and no one is questioning that it can be done purely by fiat.

So we no longer need to argue about whether Trump will or won’t try to make himself a dictator.  Unless something happens, he is already in position to wreck our economy all by himself.