Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Trump as a Fascist?


Historical illiteracy is so common here in USA that it is usually a good idea to just react like the Animal House brothers who listened as Bluto ranted, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Otter turns to Boon and asks incredulously, "Germans?" Boon's response was, "Forget it, he's rolling." And mostly I can do just that. I usually only get wound up for two subjects—the misuse of the word Populism and any thoroughly ridiculous statement about WW II and the German role in making it happen.

Lately I have gotten increasingly upset by the careless comparisons lefties are drawing between Trump and Hitler. Now President Trump has a multitude of flaws but Hitler he most certainly is not. For example, from the time Hitler assumed power on 30 JAN 1933 and the opening of the Dachau concentration camp on 22 MAR 1933 was only 51 days. My guess is that the Donald will not have a full cabinet 51 days into his administration. The Nazis were highly organized and had a wide-ranging political philosophy. Where's Trump's Mein Kampf? Where is his political experience? Where is his war-hero record? Where are his willing-to-die followers?

Calling Trump the next Hitler is just plain idiotic. I wish folks would stop it because it is not at all helpful.

First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump

by STANSFIELD SMITH, MARCH 21, 2017

With the hullabaloo about Trump and fascism, it is useful to review Hitler’s first months in power, to get a sense of a real fascist regime.

Hitler came to power January 30, 1933, Trump on January 20, making easy a chronological comparison of their lead ups to power and their first months in power. The comparison shows how silly and hysterical it is to claim Trump represents fascism.

Hitler did not take power by entering into the primaries of a German version of the Republican Party. In complete contrast to Trump, he built, controlled, and ran under the banner of his own fascist party. Hitler also created an armed thug operation, the Brownshirts, to bully progressive organizations. The Brownshirts numbered 500,000 organized men by late 1932, five times the size of the German army.

Four parties contended in the German elections in the summer of 1932: the Nazis, the National Party, the Social Democrats and the Communists all of which won millions of votes.

During this election, “In Prussia alone between June 1 and 20 there were 461 pitched battles in the streets which cost 82 lives and seriously wounded 400 men.” “In July, 38 Nazis and 30 Communists were among the 86 dead.” On July 10, 18 were killed, and on July 17, “when the Nazis, under police escort, staged a march through Altona, a working class suburb of Hamburg, 19 persons were shot dead and 285 wounded.”

A world of violence and murder between fascists and anti-fascists, just in the space of six weeks, bearing no similarity to the few fistfights and the shutting down of a Trump rally in Chicago during the more than yearlong US electoral season.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Right after, in Prussia, with two-thirds of the German population, the police force was purged and Nazis replaced police chiefs. The police were then ordered not to interfere with the work of the Brownshirts. The February 17, 1933 Nazi police order stated:
“The activities of subversive organizations are … to be combatted with the most drastic methods. Communist terrorist acts are to be proceeded against with all severity, and weapons must be used ruthlessly when necessary. Police officers who in the execution of their duties use their firearms will be supported by us without regard for the effect of their shots….”
Little over two weeks in power, the Brownshirts had been handed the license to bully, beat, even kill leftists and Jews. In contrast, the two week old Trump presidency found its first anti-Muslim executive order blocked by a judge.

Three weeks in power, 50,000 Brownshirts were made part of the police. They began unauthorized arrests, broke into public building and homes and made nightly raids to seize anti-Hitler opponents. Those seized were typically put in newly set up “camps.”

On February 24 the Nazis took over the Communist Party headquarters. Communist meetings were banned, their press shut down, and their Reichstag (the German version of the US Congress) deputies arrested. Thus, less than a month in power, the Nazis had beheaded the militant left.

Here, hundreds of thousands had mobilized around the country to protest Trump’s actions, unchallenged by any sort of Trump thugs.

February 27, not a month in power, the Reichstag was torched, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. A vast national witch-hunt ensued. The Nazi’s Emergency Degree declared:
“Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”
Leaving aside that under Obama and before, the NSA already had eliminated our right to privacy, in US terms this decree would mean Trump had abolished the Bill of Rights and instituted imprisonment without trial before he had even been president for a month.

By the middle of March, Nazi thugs had rounded up tens of thousands of political opponents, liberals, Communists and Social Democrats, put them in camps, tortured them, and in many cases killed them. This even included outspoken religious leaders. In Prussia alone, 25,000 Communist, Social Democrat and liberal leaders were arrested and sent to Nazi camps.

Brownshirt thugs took over town halls, government offices, newspapers, trade union offices, businesses, department stores, banks, and courts, removing “unreliable” officials.

Here in the US, during the same time period, another judge blocked Trump’s revised anti-Muslim travel ban.

On March 21, Hitler was given a decree to arrest anyone criticizing the Nazi party, to be tried in military style courts with no jury and often with no right to defense.

On March 23, still before two months in power — as long as Trump has been President — the German Parliament approved the Enabling Act, allowing Hitler to enact laws by decree.

On April 7 all Jews were dismissed from civil service jobs.

On May 2, after the Nazis had cynically declared May Day a national holiday, all the trade union offices were occupied, with their property and funds confiscated, and trade union leaders arrested and beaten.

By June 1933, there were 2 million Brownshirts, twenty times the size of the German army, and these “brown-shirted gangs roamed the streets, arresting and beating up and sometimes murdering whomever they pleased while the police looked on without lifting a nightstick…. Judges were intimidated; they were afraid for their lives if they convicted and sentenced a storm-trooper even for cold-blooded murder.” [4]

July 14 all other political parties were prohibited, and the fascists could confiscate the property of any organization it considered anti-Nazi and could summarily revoke anyone’s citizenship.

That was fascism. Here, a great number of liberal-leftists call Trump a new Hitler, some even claiming that we live under a fascist regime. Yet Trump does not possess his own party, nor an armed fascist militia obedient to him, let alone one of hundreds of thousands. Trump has not thrown out the Bill of Rights, wiped out the AFL-CIO, sent his political opponents to concentration camps. He can’t even shut down Saturday Night Live. Trump is a billionaire racist, sexist war-monger out to salvage the US corporate empire, nothing more, nothing less.

What lies behind this hysteria about Trump fascism?

In almost every presidential election going back generations, liberal-left Democratic Party supporters label the Republican candidate with the political swearword “fascist.” Now it is more shrill. As the Democratic presidential candidates become more and more openly corporate stooges these liberal-left “lesser evil” voters must resort to painting the Republican in extreme terms to win support for their own candidate. We should just be very scared, vote Democrat, or we are doomed.

Leftists recognize corporate America owns the two parties, yet many still vote Democrat. Every four years, we must first defeat the so-called fascist, then build our movement. So is the story we are told. This strategy traps us in the Democratic Party. It has worked effectively for generations. Not only does it reinforce our domination by corporate America, but it seriously miseducates people about fascism.

Needless to say, so long as corporate America has the liberal-left tied to their two party system, they have no need for fascism. They need fascism only when their customary method of rule breaks down, and they face a very direct threat of losing control to revolutionary forces. The historic function of fascism is to smash the radicalized working class and its allies, destroy their organizations, and shut down political liberties when the corporate rulers find themselves unable to govern through their charade of democracy. No such problem here.

We do need to fight Trump, just as we would have with Clinton, and should have with Obama. But it miseducates people to paint Trump as qualitatively different. They all rule for corporate America, all have more or less the same program of controlling the 99% and making us pay for the decline of their system. more

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Limitations of Marginal Utility


Marginal Utility is an economic idea that unfortunately refuses to die—mostly because it does have some narrow applications where the theory works.

According to wikipedia, marginal utility is defined as:
In economics, utility is the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product, thus the marginal utility of a good or service is the change in the utility from increase or decrease in the consumption of that good or service. Economists sometimes speak of a law of diminishing marginal utility, meaning that the first unit of consumption of a good or service yields more utility than the second and subsequent units, with a continuing reduction for greater amounts. Therefore, the fall in marginal utility as consumption increases is known as diminishing marginal utility.
The problem isn't that marginal utility has no useful applications, it's that there are those who believe the concept of marginal utility can be applied to everything from labor relations to romantic decisions. The first of the economists who believed that was, arguably, an academic named John Bates Clark. He became a favorite of the Gilded Age rich for these teachings. In 1947, they began to award an economic prize named for him.
The John Bates Clark Medal is awarded by the American Economic Association to "that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge".[1] According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, it "is widely regarded as one of the field’s most prestigious awards, perhaps second only to the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences."[2] The award was made biennially until 2007, but is being awarded every year from 2009 because many deserving went unawarded.  Named after the American economist John Bates Clark (1847–1938), it is considered one of the two most prestigious awards in the field of economics, along with the Nobel Prize.
A glance at the list of winners shows that not surprisingly most of them were conservative / reactionary when they won. Clark himself was a known reactionary so why not? A couple, like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have now evolved into something a bit more progressive and interesting but were doctrinaire neoliberals when they won in 1979 and 1991.

But there was one student of Clark who was appalled with his blatant misuse of marginal utility—Thorstein Veblen. Clark taught Veblen economics at Carleton College—so of course, Veblen decided to spend a lot of his intellectual horsepower attacking the problem of Clark and his really absurd ideas about marginal utility. Below is his most famous effort.

Clark and Veblen were said to have professionally cordial interactions throughout life but as you can see, Veblen thought him completely wrong. And the reason this is interesting is that Veblen was right about this. Even more interesting, the touch of spectacular error seem to fall on those who are awarded the Clark Medal—something to keep in mind when it becomes obvious that while a Krugman can occasionally sound quite progressive, deep down he is the neoliberal swine the folks at Clark Medal so highly prized.

The Limitations of Marginal Utility

Thorstein Veblen
Journal of Political Economy, volume 17. 1909

The limitations of the marginal-utility economics are sharp and characteristic. It is from first to last a doctrine of value, and in point of form and method it is a theory of valuation. The whole system, therefore, lies within the theoretical field of distribution, and it has but a secondary bearing on any other economic phenomena than those of distribution -- the term being taken in its accepted sense of pecuniary distribution, or distribution in point of ownership. Now and again an attempt is made to extend the use of the principle of marginal utility beyond this range, so as to apply it to questions of production, but hitherto without sensible effect, and necessarily so. The most ingenious and the most promising of such attempts have been those of Mr. Clark, whose work marks the extreme range of endeavor and the extreme degree of success in so seeking to turn a postulate of distribution to account for a theory of production. But the outcome has been a doctrine of the production of values, and value, in Mr. Clark's as in other utility systems, is a matter of valuation; which throws the whole excursion back into the field of distribution. Similarly, as regards attempts to make use of this principle in an analysis of the phenomena of consumption, the best results arrived at are some formulation of the pecuniary distribution of consumption goods.

Within this limited range marginal utility theory is of a wholly statical character. It offers no theory of a movement of any kind, being occupied with the adjustment of values to a given situation. Of this, again, no more convincing illustration need be had than is afforded by the work of Mr. Clark, which is not excelled in point of earnestness, perseverance, or insight. For all their use of the term "dynamic", neither Mr. Clark nor any of his associates in this line of research have yet contributed anything at all appreciable to a theory of genesis, growth, sequence, change, process, or the like, in economic life. They have had something to say as to the bearing which given economic changes, accepted as premises, may have on economic valuation, and so on distribution; but as to the causes of change or the unfolding sequence of the phenomena of economic life they have had nothing to say hitherto; nor can they, since their theory is not drawn in causal terms but in terms of teleology.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Better than the Li-Ion Battery?


Recently I tried to write a small survival guide for finding the good stuff on the internet. I called it Epistemology in the age of "fake news." Considering I spent most of my adult life composing that little essay, that was a remarkably lame title—I tend to forget that epistemology is not everyone's pet idea and to combine that with a trendy notion like "fake news" means that I am open to any better suggestions.

But the idea of fact-bricks is sound and I just found a pretty good example of how they can be used to evaluate a news story like the one below. Essentially the news is that one of the co-inventors of the lithium-ion battery has discovered (invented) a major improvement. The new battery will replace the li-ion's liquid / gel electrolyte with glass—which would be a major improvement in safety. Lithium would be replaced with sodium which is almost infinitely cheaper and easier to access.

Cheaper? safer? Wait there's more! The new batteries supposedly will charge much faster and be three times as energy dense. This means a car with a 200 mile range with Li-ion would have a 600 mile range with a similar-sized pack of the new batteries. This last claim is the most significant and also the one that triggered my BS sensors.

Here are the relevant fact-bricks as I see them.
  1. Historically, batteries have gotten better in small steps. A 300% improvement is an enormous leap. Show me. The producer class is about demonstration.
  2. 94 year-old guys tend to be well past their significant accomplishments in life.
  3. What works in theory or even in a lab is difficult to translate into a mass-produced consumer device. And even those products that make the leap take significant time to work out the kinks—17 years for the fluorescent bulb, for example.
On the plus side.
  1. This is an example of evolutionary improvement. Basically the only kind there is.
  2. It IS possible that someone who has devoted his life-energy to a subject just might have a final creative burst in his chosen field—even at 94.
  3. Storage is the key to making solar energy useful. If the funding is there, commercialization of this technology could happen in a much shorter time-frame than usual.
My conclusion: I will withhold judgment on the validity of the basic idea but because the chemistry is possible I will continue to follow the story. I don't expect to see these batteries for sale at Costco or Home Depot in less than five years even if everything goes right.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mark Ames explains US / Russia relations


Around 1993, I met an interesting old codger who was living with his wife in a old converted one-room schoolhouse. Almost immediately he got on my good side by expressing his belief that the Vietnam War had been a vicious con on USA's young men. Not long after that, I discovered that in his younger days of employment, he had been a professor of Russian / USSR studies. Russian history is a favorite hobby but living in the middle of the North American continent, I don't meet many people who know anything about the subject. I was quite excited.

Soon the thrill of exchanging ideas was replaced by the disappointing realization that he thought USSR's conversion to "democracy" was going swimmingly, that Boris Yeltsin was a brave patriot who was doing everything in his power to prevent Russia from sliding back into Communism, and that reports of corruption could be easily dismissed as the growing pains of the new order. The fact that USA flew in 88 yo heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey to manage Yeltsin's heart treatment was simply a sign of our willingness to help. About this time someone told me not to be shocked because virtually all Russian Studies profs in USA have significant links to CIA. I have NO idea if this is true in this case but he was pretty steadfast in defending that party line. We lost touch shortly thereafter.

Of course, none of his beliefs about Russia were remotely true. The neoliberals from Harvard who landed the fat contract to re-engineer the USSR were so corrupt that eventually they lost the contract and some were charged with corruption by the Justice Department. Jeffrey Sachs, the wünderkind who had caused major disasters in Bolivia and Poland led their charge. The most serious results of this economics of Predation was that average male life expectancy dropped from 64 to 57 between 1990 and 1994.

Mark Ames, who was living in Moscow during this chaos, relates the story of what happened in the video below. The numbers of those in the USA who know this story is essentially zero. And yet, since the outcome was the rise to power of Vladimir Putin—the current public enemy #1—this is NOT a trivial story. It is also a story that virtually every Russian knows in great detail.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Epistemology in the age of "fake news"


Being accused of peddling fake news by the New York Times or the Washington Post is like being called smelly by a hog.
Me

I love the internet. Never before in human history has it been so easy to access accurate and helpful information. And when folks assure me that 99% of what is on the internet is pure BS, I can only smile and say "but the good news is that the remaining 1% is so vast and comprehensive it defies meaningful comprehension." Of course that leads to the BIG PROBLEM: How does one tell the difference between the 99% BS and the 1% good stuff?

Not long ago a bright young man asked me that very question with a look of panic on his face. What good is an infinity of information without an accurate way to tell which factoid will lead to a lifetime of confusion and wasted effort, and which will assist in finding answers that make life's journey more understandable, fulfilling, and productive?

Quite honestly, I was taken aback by his excellent question. Mostly it's because I almost never think about it anymore. My "rules" for separating the wheat from the chaff were formulated one summer night over 35 years ago while driving a sports car on some moonlit back roads at extralegal speeds. A college roommate who had gotten a philosophy degree was along for the ride and we were discussing the essential failures of philosophic thought. His take was that the big-name philosophers all tried to create a huge, all-encompassing world-view. The problem with this approach is that as humanity acquired more information, these newly discovered details tended to rip huge holes in some grandiose descriptions of how the world works. Poor Aristotle—his sweeping philosophy that acted as a lodestar for the last 2300 years has been filled so full of factual holes that nothing is left. Even his logic, which is still taught, has been made hopelessly obsolete. So the question becomes, "when you cannot even trust Aristotle, how exactly do you find your way?"

Like a lightening bolt it came to me. Instead of searching for the big answers, why not concentrate on those little answers that cannot be refuted. Think like a builder! Treat your irrefutable facts like bricks or timber. They may be plain and simple yet with enough of them, you can build a beautiful and mighty structure. Even better, if you are sure about the quality of the parts, the likelihood increases dramatically that the final edifice built from those parts will be sound. Moreover, if someone comes to you with an idea that contradicts one or more of your fact-bricks, you can be certain that the whole idea is nonsense and will fail.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Shell knew about climate change


Because I have been known to hang out with lefties, my position that the oil guys are not the enemy is quite a minority one. Part of this is personal—I have relatives who have devoted their careers to the difficult proposition of finding, transporting, refining, and selling the most interesting fuel source humanity is ever likely to find. In Tioga North Dakota, I went to high school with the children of the geologists and engineers that found oil in DEEP locations and ran the local refinery. So I KNOW these people are not monsters. I also know they are not stupid. My two lab partners in high school chemistry were sons of working refinery chemists and were amazingly comfortable and graceful around the subject.

There are two blindingly obvious truths associated with the oil business.
  1. The modern world is so reliant on liquid fuels that if one major oil company shut down for a month, there were be lines and buyer's panics like in 1973. If ALL of them shut down, life as we know it would come to an end. We NEED these folks.
  2. Of course we need to prepare ourselves for the end of the Age of Petroleum by building systems that do not need oil. This will be harder and more expensive than almost anyone admits. This absolutely necessary project will be most certainly powered by liquid fuels. We need petroleum to build the society that does not need it.
See. Making an enemy of the oil business is not only stupid, it demonstrates amazing ingratitude for some of the people that keep the rest of us alive. And here is a remarkable demonstration of my basic point. In 1991, Shell produced an accurate and informative film on the dangers of climate change. My guess is that if the crazy neoliberal political-economic zeitgeist had not been in its ascendency during that exact moment in history, Shell might have led the march into the post-petroleum economy. But the Euro was approved at Maastricht in February 1992 so neoliberalism was nearing one of its greatest triumphs. Unfortunately, neoliberalism is perfectly incapable of financing the kind of economy that can build the infrastructure necessary to eliminate the need of fossil fuels. So Shell went back to business as usual. Not very brave or imaginative, but under the circumstances, absolutely understandable and predictable.

‘Shell knew’: oil giant's 1991 film warned of climate change danger


Public information film unseen for years shows Shell had clear grasp of global warming 26 years ago but has not acted accordingly since, say critics

Damian Carrington and Jelmer Mommers, Tuesday 28 February 2017

The oil giant Shell issued a stark warning of the catastrophic risks of climate change more than a quarter of century ago in a prescient 1991 film that has been rediscovered.

However, since then the company has invested heavily in highly polluting oil reserves and helped lobby against climate action, leading to accusations that Shell knew the grave risks of global warming but did not act accordingly.

Shell’s 28-minute film, called Climate of Concern, was made for public viewing, particularly in schools and universities. It warned of extreme weather, floods, famines and climate refugees as fossil fuel burning warmed the world. The serious warning was “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990”, the film noted.

“If the weather machine were to be wound up to such new levels of energy, no country would remain unaffected,” it says. “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”


Saturday, February 25, 2017

How the radical left shaped the New Deal


Last Sunday there were dueling diaries that reached the recommended list on DailyKos: History Tells Us The Extreme Left Cannot Beat Trump and What History Really Tells Us About Defeating Trump.

I did not agree with either one.

I am not a historian, but I have read a lot of American history. I am, after all, a frigging book dealer, so I should read a lot of books, right? And I don’t think it is conceit on my part, as I shuffle past the three-score mark in this mortal veil, to assert that I know a bit more about American history than a lot of other people appear to know.

For example, neither one of the two dueling diaries mentioned what, to my mind, is the obvious role played in American history by the leftist populist movements of the late 1800s. Nor did either of the diarists discuss the crucial role of the radical left in shaping the New Deal.

I was going to write a comment outlining some of what I knew, mostly by cutting and pasting from a diary I posted in December 2015, but realized there was not enough detail there about what I wanted to write about. So I went traipsing down various corridors of The Tubez, and came upon a truly wonderful article by Van Gosse, a history professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn. Professor Gosse co-founded Historians Against the War in 2003, and focuses on the African American struggle for full citizenship since the American Revolution, the New Left as a "movement of movements," and the Cold War in Latin America. The article by Gosse I found is entitled, What the New Deal Accomplished, and I will excerpt liberally (ha-ha) from it.

Even better, Professor Gosse has agreed to be my first subject of an interview-by-email, an approach I’ve been cogitating for quite a while now.

In What the New Deal Accomplished, Professor Gosse writes:
Three movements stand out as directly influencing the key New Deal programs. First was the radical movement of the unemployed which surfaced in early 1930. Through "hunger marches," constant lobbying and local protest, it forced the issue of relief for the unemployed onto the national policy agenda. Second was the movement to provide pensions for the aged, led by a California doctor named Townsend, which made the idea of universally-available government pensions so popular that Democrats adopted it. Finally, and most important, was the movement for industrial unionism embodied in a new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Professor Gosse then proceeds to examine each of these three movements, beginning with the unemployed.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

India's war on cash: who and why


On 8 November 2016, the government of India announced its intent to demonetise large denomination currency. It is one of the most baffling economic actions taken by a government in recent memory, but a few weeks ago, the Indian news website Scroll carried an excellent three part series explaining what was going on and why. It seems some economic ideologues have joined forces with large financial institutions to force demonetisation on the citizens of India. What could go wrong?

Note the role of Harvard economics high priest Kenneth Rogoff, the deficit scold whose April 2013 book warning that disaster inevitably resulted when a nation surpassed a specific ratio of debt to GDP, was found to contain computation errors.

Understanding demonetisation: The problem with the war on cash Force marching unprepared citizens towards a cashless utopia that has little space for the informal sector is callous and indefensible.

Part I: Understanding demonetisation: Why there’s a war on cash (and you are in the middle of it)

Part II: Understanding demonetisation: Who is behind the war on cash (and why)

Part III: Understanding demonetisation: The problem with the war on cash

Another Indian news source described the "bewildering pain and desperate hope" the real economy has been plunged into after two months of demonetization. The article includes timetable of demonetization in India.
Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) firms have reported lower sales, especially in rural areas. Some 90% of the FMCG market in India comprises small mom-and-pop stores, heavily reliant on cash sales. And 60% of small traders have already seen a drop in sales post-demonetisation, according to market research firm Nielsen.

In rural areas, where internet penetration is limited, cash is often the only mode of payment. People in the hinterlands have struggled to access cash—there are 7.8 bank branches per 100,000 persons in rural India—and this, in turn, has affected wage and loan disbursal in these areas.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Mark Blyth refuses to let Democrats off the hook


Mark Blyth is a Scottish political scientist and a professor of international political economy at Brown University. Blyth first came to my attention when his prediction of Trump's electoral victory, and how it was tied to the vote for Brexit, was widely shared after the USA election.

I very rarely urge people to watch an entire video. This is that rare one. Blyth is merciless in his critique of the Democratic Party's acceptance of neoliberalism, and absolutely refuses to let the Democrats escape their responsibility for Trump's being elected because of that acceptance of neoliberalism.

This was part of a panel discussion, Trending Globally: Politics and Policy, held by the Watson Institute on January 25, 2017.



Update (JL, 21 FEB 17)
Anyone who has tried to watch this YouTube lately has discovered it has been taken down and replaced by the following message: "Mark Blyth--"Liberalisms' g..." This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Watson Institute, Brown University. Anyone who actually got to watch the video will probably agree that this is quite a loss. Blythe analysis was accurate, sophisticated, and nuanced. One would think that the Watson Institute would be thrilled to have this thing go viral.

But they are not and my only speculation is that the Watson Institute is run by establishment Democrats who are anything BUT thrilled to see an analysis that is quite critical of their efforts.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How the Dutch build a tunnel under a highway in one weekend

Ingenious!

Once Wall Street and the City of London are forced back into their proper role of subservience to the rest of the economy, we are going to be doing a LOT of this kind of work. Think of building rail mass transit systems in Los Angeles and Mexico City and Cairo and Lagos and all other cities, with the same densities of route miles and stations as the systems in Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo.



Here is a nice list, for North America only, of Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2017. This is probably around only one or two percent of what we will end up doing in the next half century.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Well, that was interesting—Trump takes on the establishment


When during his inaugural speech, Donald Trump came out swinging at the political / economic establishment that has created and enforced the neoliberal Washington Consensus for at least 35 years, one could almost hear the gasping and pearl-clutching in the formerly smug and self-satisfied salons where the rich go to celebrate their brilliance. Mostly, because he was attacking the very schemes that had enriched them.

And let's not forget that neoliberalism is also a theological belief system. One must block out a serious chunk of reality to come to the conclusion that the neoliberals have good ideas. And the best way to do that is worship at the "commandments" of free trade. The most faithful are given prizes, mislabeled Nobels, by the Swedish Central Bank. And in their further delusions, they call what they do "science." For this crowd, what Trump said was blasphemy—a good sign that he was boorish and ill-mannered. Claim you want to renegotiate NAFTA on the stump in some rust-belt ghost town is one thing. Actually promising to do the unthinkable on the Capital steps is a bridge too far (gasp, clutch).

The inaugural address quote below was taken from an interesting article on Populism and Trump. The definitions of populism are all over the map these days so it is best not get too strict about definitions (too Protestant!). Just so you know, my definition of Populism grew out of an effort to understand the implications of the Peoples Party of 1892. They were the first people to call themselves Populists so they pretty much define the historical origins of the movements that were spawned by the educational efforts of the People's Party (and ITS precursors.)
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.

“…At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.

“But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We are one nation – and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

“We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon. 

“One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.
President Trump

You are 70 years old. You have an amazingly beautiful wife. Your kids seem capable of taking over the family business. You have a tricked-out 757-200 so you'll never fly coach again. Your meals are prepared by award-winning chefs. And while your digs are WAY too garish for my taste, they are very nice and probably well-built—and you have more than one.

So why in god's name do you want to spend your declining years picking fights with the establishment? Why do you want to get into pissing matches with media monopolies? Why do you want to take down the cultural insanity represented by mindless Russia-bashing? I mean, do the math—figure out how much money has been spent to demonize USSR / Russia over the years and decide if any cultural meme is more deeply embedded. You had trouble selling steak—selling the idea that we should be allies (again) with Russia will make that problem seem trivial. Anyway, you get the idea. This is a life considerably more hazardous and uncomfortable than being a wealthy property developer with a trophy wife.

Yes I know—silly questions. The country was founded by revolutionaries who in many cases were extremely successful. Jefferson had nice digs (Monticello), Washington was a very successful property speculator, Franklin was a rich celebrity writer / scientist / inventor who spent a lot of his energy chasing women, etc. They also had more comfortable things to do than to pledge "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" (final sentence of the Declaration of Independence) to a revolution that most certainly meant death if they failed. So history does hold examples of people who risk a lot for ideas.

And who knows, maybe your motivations are not exactly lofty. Perhaps it is something merely annoying like the fact that USA airports don't seem so nice compared to well, almost anywhere else in the world. Not only does your airplane not get petted properly, but its just plain embarrassing to folks who believe the USA should be good at things—especially things associated with aviation. Or maybe it's just a need for attention. But it's who you are so lets work with that.

The other night, I saw a brief interview with Melania. She claimed that 10-year-old son Barron liked to build things, then take them apart so he could build something else. She called him "little Donald" because of that. I got pretty excited. I know kids like Barron exist because I was clearly one of them myself. Finished projects rarely lasted more than a week because the whole point of construction sets is construction (well, duh!) So if you want to keep playing, you must simply move on to the next project. And if indeed you are like that yourself, you possess an important quality that this nation desperately needs.

So from one compulsive builder to another, I think we should discuss how you could end up on Mount Rushmore.

The MOST pressing problem facing humanity is climate change. Yeah I know you have called it a hoax. But you have also made some more enlightened comments that have been caught on tape. Besides, we all saw how well you got along with Elon Musk and he is arguably the most articulate spokesman out there when it comes climate change. Perhaps you liked him so much because he is also a serious builder.

Climate change is an interesting problem. It's a problem defined by what Musk deems his intellectual lodestar—physics first principles. Climate change is a fact whether anyone believes it to be true or not because it conforms to the laws of physics first principles. But those who seemingly cannot understand physics first principles do not understand the nature of the problem so resort to pseudo-religious responses. Think about it. They have meetings. They pass laws mandating better outcomes. They try to raise our awareness of the serious nature of the problem in the hope that their rah-rah speeches will inspire their listeners to change. And the CO2 levels climb.

There are a lot of ways that humans produce CO2 but far and away the most important is our all-time favorite invention—fire. Yes there are frivolous uses for fire—example, a 757-200 with only one important passenger. But by far, the biggest uses of fire are for heating our homes, growing and preparing our food, commuting to work, etc. We live in a world that was designed and built to run on fire. And because of climate change, this world can no longer exist. The world's infrastructure is, with a few exceptions, obsolete. Hopelessly obsolete.

Replacing the global fire-based economy with a renewable-energy economy will be, by FAR, the greatest building project in human history. And anyone who can pull this of will be remembered as the greatest builder in history. Mostly, it must be a builder who isn't afraid of big numbers. So think about this one—the serious people who have tried to assemble an honest bid for this project seem to believe it will cost $100 TRILLION spread over 30+ years. So that's the price tag for actually Making America Great Again.

Just a reminder, $1 trillion spent on salaries will create 20 million $50,000 / year jobs for one year. You think that creating that many jobs for people who would love to build the new and improved America will satisfy your supporters? I do.

So we have a BIG problem that can only be solved by builders with vision and imagination. The planet is awash in people who would love to be part of some global-scaled project that makes their world a better place—many are unemployed and most of the ones with jobs are underemployed. So we have projects that clearly need doing and people who want to do them. So what's the hold-up? That's easy. We cannot seem to figure out where the $3-4 Trillion a year will come from.

And here is where your expertise is really needed. Anyone who has ever financed a big real estate project has dealt with the moneychangers. After watching them create almost unlimited amounts of money to finance such utterly useless ventures as mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the crash of 2007-8, it must be blazingly obvious that there should never be a shortage of money because the ability to create it is infinite.

So what is needed is for the moneychangers to get on board with the biggest project in human history. Get the big hedge funds guys, the TBTF bankers, the Fed, and whoever else is relevant in one room and say "I am going to need at least $3 Trillion per year to Rebuild America. It is your job to ensure that the money is there when we need it. If you cannot do this job, I will institute plan B—take the ability to create money away from you and return it to where the Constitution explicitly claims that power should reside—with the Treasury Department of the US government. You can play or watch—it's up to you.

And hey, if you fold in the great climate-change question into the bigger project of rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, you don't even have to take a public stand on the issue. I think the questions you really want to ask your self are these: Do I want to go down in history as the greatest builder of all time? or; Do I want to be known as the builder who when faced with the largest development opportunity in human history, chose to take a pass because upscale hotels and golf courses are much more your speed?

The ball's in your court, Mr. President. Do you want to remembered as a great man or as one of history's sad jokes? You may be some ways from sinless perfection, but you are gifted in the very skills most necessary to build a better future. That's close enough. In fact, there are deeply religious people who believe you are an answer to their prayers.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Government should “vindicate the oppressed, and restrain and punish the oppressor…”


What can be more appropriate than posting an old sermon on a Sunday? The sermon below was delivered to commemorate the new 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the achievements of John Adams of which he was most proud.

The sermon was delivered by Congregational Minister Samuel Cooper, pastor of the Brattle Street Church in Boston. Congregants of this church included some of the most influential people of the American Revolution, such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and John Adams.

Reverend Cooper was also a co-founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The creation of the American republic was a culmination of the Enlightenment in both politics and science, and it was so manifestly self-evident that government should actively support and promote science and the arts that there was no debate about the issue in the founding era. (See, for example, my July 2014 story, The Higgs boson and purpose of a republic.) The attacks on science by our present day Republicans and conservatives would have shocked and horrified the parishioners listening to Rev. Cooper in 1780. It is especially distressing to consider certain evangelical denominations today and how they have rejected science and reason and embraced instead a "literal interpretation of the Bible" that is dangerously manichean. Rather than delight in the works of the Creator, they have chosen to wallow terror-stricken in the dark of myth and superstition.

Indeed, a major reason I decided to post these long excerpts from Cooper’s sermon is because it stands as a stinging rebuke to Republicans, conservatives and libertarians of today. The emphasis added in bold are mine. I think it important at this time, with a unpopularly elected narcissist in full control of the executive, and conservative ideologues in control of the legislature, to insist that a government, any government, is supposed to “vindicate the oppressed, and restrain and punish the oppressor….”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why Republican Tax Cuts Always Cause A Financial Crash


One of the centerpieces of Trump’s economic plan is to, once again, try the Republican experiment of cutting taxes. Now, I know it is hard to argue against cutting taxes, but Democrats have really dropped the ball by not pointing out the amazing historical fact that every single time the Republicans have cut taxes, a financial crash and economic depression followed within a few years. This time, Trump wants a trillion dollar increase in spending on infrastructure that will boost the economy. But increased infrastructure spending will probably not make this experiment work better, because it does not address the microeconomic factors which cumulatively cause Republican tax cuts to create macroeconomic disasters.

There have been three grand multi-year national experiments with Republican / conservative tax cutting over the past century. All three experiments resulted in the average American becoming poorer, the real (industrial) economy in tatters, and spectacular financial crashes.

Tax Cut Experiment Number 1

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding proposed ending the wartime excess profits tax which had been imposed during World War I. When Harding died during a speaking tour in California in August 1923, Calvin Coolidge became President, so it was Coolidge who actually signed into law the Revenue Act of 1924, which lowered personal income tax rates on the highest incomes from 73 percent to 46 percent.

Two years later, the Revenue Act of 1926 law further reduced inheritance and personal income taxes; eliminated  many excise imposts (luxury or nuisance taxes); and ended public access to federal income tax returns. The tax rate on the highest incomes was reduced to 25 percent.

The result was a speculative frenzy in the stock markets, especially the application of structured leverage in what were called at the time "investment trusts." In September 1929, this edifice of false prosperity began to wobble, and finally crashed spectacularly in October 1929.

Coolidge did not seek re-nomination in 1928. Faced with a wildly gyrating stock market, a worsening collapse in farm incomes, and faltering industrial orders, the new Republican President, Herbert Hoover, responded with more tax cuts.  Personal income tax on income under $4,000 was cut by two thirds; personal income tax on income over $4,000 was cut in half. The tax rate on corporations was cut by a full percentage point.

How did the economy respond to these tax cuts? It sunk further and faster into the First Great Depression.

Tax Cut Experiment Number 2

In 1981, Ronald Reagan reduced the top marginal income tax rate, which affects the very wealthy, from 70% to 50%. In 1986, Reagan convinced Congress to reduced the top tax rate yet again, to 28%. Contrary to the Reagan /  Republican / conservative argument that the tax cuts would pay for themselves by boosting economic activity, the budget deficit and federal debt exploded. Federal government debt grew from 33.3% of GDP in 1980 to 51.9% at the end of 1988.

Reagan's tax cuts failed to revive American industry, which was also being hammered by the Reagan /  Republican / conservative blind faith in free trade. A number of American industries actually disappeared. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the American textile, apparel, and footwear making industries had been reduced to less than one tenth the size and sales they had  just two decades earlier. During Reagan’s tenure, the U.S. lost its trade surplus in consumer electronics, and began to also lose its advantage in industrial electronics.

Meanwhile, the average American family began working more hours to maintain its standard of living. The phenomena of latch-key kids took hold as mothers sought jobs to help keep their family afloat. Wikipedia notes that the number of Americans below the poverty level increased from 29.272 million in 1980 to 31.745 million in 1988, increasingly slightly as a percentage of total population, from 12.95% in 1980 to 13.0% in 1988. The number of people in poverty under the age of 18 increased from 11.543 million in 1980 (18.3% of all child population) to 12.455 (19.5%) in 1988.

The most important industry of all, the machine tool industry—which is needed to make all other production equipment—slipped into a death spiral from which it has never really recovered. At the beginning of the 1980s, the ten largest machine tool makers in the world were all American. By 1997, only one of the top ten was, and it was ranked seventh by sales. In 2009, China became the world’s largest producer of machine tools.

In industry after industry, under Reagan, the U.S. lost its world lead: steel, auto, printing equipment, construction equipment, farm equipment, power generating equipment. Only the aerospace industry, the key component of the American empire’s military-industrial complex, managed to maintain its world lead.

Oh, and the banking and financial sector? In October 1987, the worst stock market crash since the First Great Depression shook Wall Street.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rex Tugwell of FDR's Brain Trust: The New Deal in Retrospect


Rexford Guy Tugwell (1891-1979) was an economist and one of the most important and innovative members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Brain-Trust. Tugwell studied economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania under Simon Patten, at the time one of the leading economists in the USA and one of the last great economists to emphasize the difference between productive economic activity, and economic rent seeking. Patten was a founder of the American Economics Association.

This was decades before Wharton was infested by neoliberalism and became an MBA mill.

This account by Tugwell provides an excellent short history of the pre-war Roosevelt administration. I greatly wish I had been aware of it nine years ago, in time to have posted it during Obama's first campaign. It would have served as a signpost to an alternative to neoliberalism, which Obama unfortunately followed steadily as he moved from one accommodation with Wall Street to the next. In addition to my reading of countless articles these past 8 years, I have read Obama’s two autobiographies, Plouffe’s book, and the biographies by Halperin and Heilemann, Remnick, and Alter, and the excellent book detailing the influence of Wall Street by Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. One thing that strikes me is that neither Obama, nor Plouffe, nor anyone else close to Obama, ever spoke of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal as if they were actually familiar with them or wished to emulate FDR. I suspect they have never studied Roosevelt and the New Deal, at least not with the goal of learning how to govern as well and as dynamically as FDR did. Obama and his team certainly never discussed the heroic measures Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins took to get millions of people a paying job so they wouldn’t starve in the winter of 1933-34.

Suskind’s book is excellent for seeing Obama and his advisors in relation to the financial crash. They were complete dolts: never saw it coming, and had no idea why it had happened. (And it is an outright lie to argue no one saw it coming; there were many economists, including Dean Baker, Gerald Epstein, Michael Hudson, Thomas Palley, and Nouriel Roubini, who rejected the neoliberal infatuation with big banks and finance and were fully aware of reality.) According to Suskind's account, Obama knew far more than the people around him, but only because he had become friends with Robert Wolf of UBS, and Wolf was giving Obama detailed accounts of what was happening in the financial markets. Otherwise, Obama would have been as surprised and lost as everyone else.

And I would also point to the stark contrast between Roosevelt's Brain-Trustcomprised of men such as Hopkins, Tugwell, and Marriner Eccles, who truly were able to "think outside the box"and the sly but slack-minded devotees of neoliberalism Obama surrounded himself with. Who did Obama select as his advisers? "Getting Timothy Geithner and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers working in harness is Obama's single biggest post-election victory," E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post three weeks after the November 2008 election. It does not even require the perspective of a few years to see that the difference was neoliberalism and the acceptance of it by Obama's team; all the people who warned—as early as the first half of 2008that Obama was picking an economics team philosophically and intellectually incapable of steering the nation to safety away from the status quo, based their warnings on the Obamians' devotion to neoliberalism. Naomi Klein began her June 2008 warning with this telling quote from Obama himself: "Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market."

In contrast to Obama's complete devotion to the status quo of neoliberal economics, Tugwell links Roosevelt directly to the progressive economic populism of "Ignatius Donnelley, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, Sockless Jerry Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Lease Farmers’ Alliance, the Grangers, and the Populists in the Midwest and the South." Tugwell also identifies the key difference between Roosevelt and the preceding Republicans who had steered the country into the Depression: the belief that the "federal government had a direct responsibility to the people for their welfare." The rejection of this belief is why political rule by Republicans always results in financial crashes and  economic disaster.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The new economics of solar power


My partner in life likes to watch the British costume dramas that are so popular on PBS. Not that long ago, she started watching a 6-part mini-series called Wolf Hall. This is another retelling of the rise of Henry VIII, only this time through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell—who is usually cast as a petty schemer in this sordid tale. I am not certain why the Brits are so fascinated by the story of the founder of the Church of England who was in fact, a serial killer. But they are. So this vile little tale has been made into so many films and television specials that to make another version, they needed a new angle. So Cromwell as a good guy was their gimmick of choice.

In this market, the over-the-air high-definition broadcasts by PBS have easily the best pictures available—just short of blu-ray in fact. So when partner began to rave about the picture quality of Wolf Hall, I became curious enough to watch a couple of episodes. The great advantage of the latest video gear is its ability to capture high-quality shots in low light—something that was being employed to full advantage. And the makers of Wolf Hall have not missed a trick and they do it so well, it looks effortless instead of the product of years of perfecting highly sensitive light capture. The interior shots look realistically dark and foreboding without any noticeable noise or loss of detail.

After drooling over the amazing photography for awhile, I soon snapped back to the reality that I was watching, once again, the ugly story of Henry VIII and Cromwell. The photographic reality only enhanced the shallow, vain, arrogant, and violent stupidity of the British upper classes. But while I was fuming about wasting some more of my remaining life on earth on the story of these truly vile creatures, I noticed something that almost inspired hope. The high video quality also showed some seriously fine details of that era's buildings.

So the lesson of the evening was that even though politicians and the members of the upper classes may be relentlessly stupid and boring people, the Producers of Henry VIII's day could make things that can still take your breath away. And the reason this gives me hope is that even though we elected a climate-change denier as President this late in the game, it probably won't matter. And the reason it won't matter is because solving climate change is a Producer Class assignment and as we can see, the Producers are still making miracles happen. Elon Musk has now demonstrated that electric cars can be objectively better than any fossil-fueled IC vehicle, and soon it will be obvious that solar is the low-cost energy option. Turns out you don't have to be concerned for mother earth, or lobby for new carbon taxes, or have your awareness raised. All you need to be is cheap. And that most of us can master. What follows is a Bloomberg account of the new economics of solar power.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On the cultural aspects of religious practice


Last Monday, I finally got to see the Martin Luther / Reformation exhibit that is currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  We had tickets a few weeks back but we rescheduled due to weather concerns—something that just happens in Minnesota. In the meantime, the book describing the importance of the collection had arrived and I made a stab at reading it. There were few surprises as I have been seriously pursuing the question, since the 1980s, of how the various state (Lutheran) churches of the Nordic countries influenced their uniquely progressive political and social development. The motor for this passion is self-discovery—as the son of a Lutheran clergyman who was also an agrarian progressive, I was taking on two targets simultaneously. Besides, the question IS interesting—how and why did the Nordic nations become models of enlightened social and political organization? This question is especially interesting since the starting cultural / religious position was Viking.

The short answer is that for the most part, the state churches stayed out of the way. Lutherans never persecuted science—in fact, the reason Descartes died in Sweden is because he was offered shelter from religious persecution. When Sweden decided to get out of the war-making business in 1814, the Church of Sweden quite quickly fell into line. The Church was a supporter when Sweden decided to create their welfare state—although by the 1930s, the influence of the church was mainly confined to rural areas where the clergy taught the principles of petty piety.

But there were parts of Dr. Martin's cultural uprising that provided a solid base for social expansion. The most notable was his insistence that believers should be able to read and understand their sacred documents. In honor of the 500 anniversary of Protestantism, the Germans have recently published a new edition of Luther's translation of the Bible. Apparently, the "improvement" of the latest version is the inclusion of more 16th-century text. (Fans of the King James Bible will understand.) It is almost impossible to overstate the social transformation that came to a culture when reading became an act of the new faith and debating the finer theological points a demonstration of one's serious intent. The highlight of the show at MIA was the Luther Bible with Cranach woodcut illustrations. This Bible first appeared in 1534 but the one on display is from 1541—87 years after the publication of the Gutenberg Bible (1454).  Not surprisingly, the Luther Bible is absolutely gorgeous viewed simply as a printing project—by Luther's time printing was pretty well understood.

The MIA show is something of an odd duck.  Lutherans have not normally junked up their churches with paintings and statuary. That sort of art was put aside from the very beginning. Trust me, Cranach the Elder may have made clever woodcuts for printing, but no one will ever confuse him with Michelangelo (who was working at the same time.) Lutheran Churches can be stunningly innovative, very modern, and often beautiful. (Some favorites include the Rock Church in Helsinki, the Gruntvig Church in Copenhagen, the Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter MN, and the Saarinen church in south Minneapolis.) If you follow the links, you will notice that most of these churches brag about their acoustics. Which leads to the subject of "Lutheran" art.

When the big churches of Northern Europe switched from Catholic to Protestant, the remodeling job followed a standard procedure. 1) Remove the painting and statuary, the stained glass windows, and bejeweled relics, 2) Paint the interiors white (mostly) because the new faithful would have to read during devout observances so bright interiors were important; 3) Build a fancy new pulpit because the sermon was now the centerpiece of the service; and 4) Install a gigantic pipe organ because music was now a highly approved practice of the faith. Luther himself wrote music. Besides, it's great fun to sing along to a big organ shaking the rafters.

The economic role of the pipe organ industry that sprouted in the wake of the Protestant Reformation cannot be overstated. The precision necessary to make those things work was phenomenal. Not surprisingly, any region that made pipe organs could easily understand the important parts of industrial technology. Other regions had other technological precursors of course, and the pipe organ shared the limelight with printing, but if the goal is precision manufacture, it's hard to beat pipe organs for a starting point.

If music and singing was Lutheran art form #1, printing was certainly #1A. Without printing, the Reformation was roughly as possible as Amazon.com without the internet. Printing runs second only to music because calling printing an art form is a bigger definition stretch. That said, most of the books on display at MIA were stunningly beautiful.

The third manifestation of Lutheran art didn't really surface until the 20th century. Scandinavian Modern was largely a social democratic movement that claimed everyone was entitled to have beautiful things. And that the best way to accomplish this goal was factories that mass-produced goods would hire artists to ensure that these goods were as beautiful as possible while still being inexpensive due to mass production. Beautiful things for everyday use. Luther would have so approved—he was very democratic. Industrial design may not have been a Lutheran invention, but Lutes seem to be especially good at it.

And of course, the highest flowering of Lutheran "art" are the successful societies. Any movement that starts with the sentence, "Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light" should logically end with societies where corruption is almost unheard of. The top three countries in the Transparency International's corruption index are Denmark, Finland, and Sweden—countries that have been constitutionally Lutheran for centuries. Technological sophistication is utterly dependent on honesty measured in Ångstroms. Turns out honesty has measurable economic value. And the best form of honesty comes not from people who feel forced to be honest, it comes from people who have fallen in love with the truth—and the methods for finding truth.

I am happy I got to see the collection of early Lutheran artifacts at MIA. I am not sure an art museum is an appropriate venue for these items because of the frosty relationship Protestants had with art in general, but whatever. I still believe if you really want to see Lutheran art in all its glory, watch a Christmas concert from St. Olaf College (or Luther, or Concordia.) These things are run every year on PBS.

Of course, the real reason why any of this is still important is that the same value set (universal literacy, honesty, precision, and a love of beauty) that made the Lutheran nations so successful will be necessary to create the sustainable future. Not surprisingly, those nations already lead the way in implementing a Green agenda.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump and the Art of the Strongman

The elites who run the Democratic Party in USA are making two grievous errors. 1) They are seizing on any number of external reasons for why they were routed in the November 2016 elections. Not just for the White House, but in the Senate, Congress, and at the state level. 2) They are constructing a false image of Donald Trump that insists Trump is an narcissistic bigot and is therefore incompetent. It is dangerous to suppose that narcissism and bigotry necessarily result in incompetence. So far, I would say that Trump has been brilliant and ruthless in telling people want they want to hear and appealing to the worst demons of their nature, in order to achieve his political goals. Ian Welsh has been attracting much criticism for his honest appraisal of Trump, and his warning to take Trump very, very seriously.

Democrats are especially going to find it difficult to respond to Trump effectively as Trump demonstrates the fallacy of many neo-liberal economic assumptions and policies, such as free trade.

Trump and the Art of the Strongman

by Ian Welsh
January 6, 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017

HAWB – Creating America’s Amber Waves of Grain - How America Was Built




It wasn’t really the “captains of industry” like Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. And it certainly wasn’t the filthy rich financiers of Wall Street like J.P. Morgan or Walter Wriston or Jimmie Dimon. If you want to know the story of how America was built, look at the scientists and the engineers. Like the virtually unknown and forgotten researchers and agronomists of the United States Department of Agriculture. America’s amber waves of grain from sea to shining sea is the story of these government employees as much as anyone else’s.

From the 1840s to the 1930, US production of wheat more than tripled in productivity. This remarkable progress is usually attributed to the replacement of animal power by mechanized agricultural equipment: the thresher, the binder, steam and then gas tractors, and the combine.

But this is actually only half the story. The other half involves the patient and methodical search and breeding of wheat strains to meet two goals. First, to find cultivars of wheat more resistant to diseases and pests. Second, to expand the areas in which wheat could be grown by finding varieties better suited to the harsher climates and conditions of the Great Plains and Pacific Coast states.

This work was largely accomplished by scientists, agronomists, and breeders working in the laboratories and experimental farms of the United States Department of Agriculture and the various state universities which had been established by federal land grants. According to economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “biological innovations roughly equal[ed] the importance of mechanical advances.” [1]

This history contradicts  the conservative mythology of brave private entrepreneurs triumphing over the deadening hand of government interference in the economy. The discussion and debates in the Constitutional Convention of May 1787 show that “the Founders fully intended to create a national government with broad and far-reaching powers to ensure that all economic activity was channeled and directed to national development and the promotion of the general welfare.”

The history of agriculture in America shows how mundane, practical politics is steered to achieve the explicit Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare:

May 1862: An Act of Congress creates the Department of Agriculture:
There shall be at the seat of government a Department of Agriculture, the general design and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture, rural development, aquaculture, and human nutrition, in the most general and comprehensive sense of those terms, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.
July 1862: The Morrill Land-Grant Act grants 30,000 acres of federal land to each state to fund the construction and  “endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts….”

March 1887: The Hatch Act provides funding for the states to create and operate agricultural experiment stations for scientific agricultural research.

May 1914: The Smith–Lever Act of 1914 provides federal funding for each state to create a cooperative extension service, sending agents of the land-grant universities to every county of every state to disseminate and help apply the latest advances in agricultural science.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Good tidings of great joy, which shall be to ALL people



Christmas as the divine reminder of the value of equality:

Luke 2:
[8] And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
[10] And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
[11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
[14] Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

So, when the Lord finally decides to make the big PR announcement, She doesn’t pitch it, like a Lexus or Mercedes commercial, to the people who can afford a big celebratory binge. She doesn’t announce it first to the three wise men who had been sent by rich kings able to give some of the most expensive gifts in the world. She has Her angels go and talk to the people on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, some poor guys working outside at night.

This foundation story means that Christianity, no matter how much it would be corrupted (see, for example, Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2015) would be a religion that affirmed the value of all people, not just the leaders and elites. In fact, Christianity was first the religion of slaves in the Roman Empire. Two millennia later, when the world finally began to seriously attempt to eliminate slavery entirely, it was radical Christians who led the Abolitionist movements around the world.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Revenge of the electric car


This documentary on the resurgence of the electric car is fascinating and extremely well done. The highlight of this doc is that it demonstrates the sort of person it takes to push a new idea into production.  It follows Robert Lutz at GM as he green-lights the Volt, Carlos Ghosn at Nissan as he bets significant company resources on the Leaf, and of course, Musk at Tesla.  The videographers are there at critical times such as when GM declares bankruptcy and Musk is down to his last $3 million (which is essentially zero in the car business.) It is must watching for anyone remotely interested in the complexities facing anyone interested in electrifying the transportation fleet. Spoiler alert—it will be a BIG job. And yes, it will only succeed if real Producers win the day.  In Detroit, Producers are called "car guys" and the Predators are called "bean counters." Lutz should know—he wrote the book.

It also covers the fallout of the financial meltdown of 2007-8—a pointed reminder that no matter how clever, car companies are in the economic hands of people who do nothing but manipulate money. Whether these manipulators are are honest or fraudulent is pretty much irrelevant because when they screw up, they can take some brilliant projects down with them.

A direct link to the Youtube page. This thing runs 90 minutes but yes, I have watched the whole thing.