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.

I asked Professor Gosse to supply some more background on these 1930s radicals. How spontaneous were these protest activities? In other words, would they have occurred without the organizing of groups like the Young Communist League ? And are there any historical connections between these groups of the 1920s and 1930s, and the various populist organizations of the late 1800s, such as the Grange, the Farmers Alliances, the Greenback Party, the People’s Party, and the Non-Partisan League? Professor Gosse's reply is immediately below. Note that this radical organizing only became effective when it began to include women.
The Unemployed Councils tapped into a great deal of spontaneous, urgent anger and outrage, but they were an organized and directed effort by the CPUSA. My article "`To Organize in Every Neighborhood, In Every Home': The Gender Politics of American Communists Between the Wars," Radical History Review (Spring 1991), 109-141, explains how the Party changed its strategy in early 1930 because of bottom-up pressure to stop focusing just on the (male) workers and look at families.  They took off like a rocket because the party had all these dedicated cadres in place, including women, who finally found the right thing to do (as in fighting evictions, demanding more “relief”).  I would not say there were many connections to the populists of various sorts you have named, because those were based in the rural heartland, whereas the Unemployed Councils were rooted in dense urban ethnic neighborhoods in places like Detroit, Chicago, the Bronx etc.  They did draw on existing traditions of working-class activism that predated the CP, especially among Jewish women.  The IWW also had developed what I would call a “familist” practice during its big strikes in the early ‘Teens, which may have influenced the CP.
I do not know much about Townsend. Was he a leftist radical? I do not know. Judging from the brief profile in Wikipedia, I doubt it. He and his employer, Robert Clements, just appear to have come up with the right idea, with the right pitch, at the right time.

I do not think it matters much, because as Professor Gosse notes, the influence of the unemployed movement, and the Townsend movement, were easily dwarfed by the massive increase in labor activism that a forgotten section of New Deal legislation set in motion.
…. the original NRA [National Industrial Recovery Act] legislation pushed through Congress in the famous "100 days" of Roosevelt's first term contained an obscure provision that acted as a catalyst for an unprecedented grassroots awakening of America's workers. Clause "7A" of the legislation establishing the NRA specifically guaranteed employees the right to organize. Never before had Congress taken such an unequivocal stance in favor of labor. Across the country desperate workers took this not as a vague sop to the AFL [American Federation of Labor]—as originally intended
—but as an explicit endorsement of unionization. The phrase "the President wants you to join a union" was taken up and repeated by organizers, and even found its way onto posters.
Spurred by the NRA, workers flooded into the AFL from 1933 on. In many cases, the Federation had nowhere to put them. The AFL only recognized workers who possessed a specific craft or recognized job title (like boilermakers, machinists or brewery truck drivers). Unskilled or semiskilled employees in large factories had to be grouped into temporary "federal locals," while the Federation tried to figure out which craft union could take them. But this institutional roadblock did not matter in the end, as workers kept striking and forming ad-hoc union locals in textile mills and steel factories, assuming that the labor movement wanted them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. 
By 1934, this bottom-up insurgency assumed a scope that to some suggested revolutionary possibilities. Workers seemed almost anxious to walk out, and refused to back down in the face of massive repression. 1.5 million struck that year, despite the fact that unemployment in some urban centers approached half of the workforce. Though labor battles took place in all parts of the country, three local strikes served to underline the new dynamic--the "general strikes" led by unabashed radicals in three industrial centers, Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.
First, what is a general strike? A strategy well-understood in Europe and Latin America, where it has sometimes been used to bring down governments, a general strike means that all workers in a city, region or even a whole country stop work. Obviously, this constitutes a great threat to authority in general, and has vast potency as a tactic. For a variety of reasons, however, there have been few general strikes in American history, and even those few (as in Seattle in 1919) did not last long.
Things were different in 1934. In Toledo, a key center of auto parts production where a walk-out could close down much of the industry, the strike began in the Auto-Lite factory and spread throughout the city when strikers were killed by National Guardsmen. Organizers from the socialist American Workers Party played a major role in making the strike general. In Minneapolis, an armed confrontation developed between the city's teamsters, under the leadership of dissident Marxists from the Communist League of America, and the city's businessmen and mayor. Again, street battles led not to the strike's collapse but to the shutdown of the city's business as a whole. Finally, in the most spectacular instance, San Francisco's longshoremen struck, led by an Australian named Harry Bridges, who was very close to the Communist Party. The dockworkers faced down machine guns along the Embarcadero, suffering many casualties, but won their point. In each of these cities, the workers and their unions won major victories—even if only the right to have a union, and attempt to bargain. The biggest effort of the year, however, was a brief general strike of more than 300,000 textile workers in mills stretching from New England to Georgia, which ended in a crushing defeat. The combined effect of this unprecedented militance demonstrated the potential of the most exploited employees and the great obstacles facing the trade union movement
I asked Professor Gosse to again expand a bit on the groups involved. Was there coordination between the general strikes? Why was the strike of the textile workers defeated, while the general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis succeeded? Is the lesson that, given the communications technology of the time, a nation-wide strike was vulnerable to repression, while large strikes confined to local areas were not? His reply is immediately below. Note how fractious the radical left was at that time—I don’t think the left in USA is any closer to unity today.
No, there was no coordination, and more’s the pity.  Each of these famous strikes was led by a different group of Marxists, and they did not get along.  The orthodox Trotskyists (who soon became the Socialist Workers Party) organized the Minneapolis teamsters.  A.J. Muste’s Workers Party had a concentration in Toledo, and led that.  The Communist Party (CP) was key to the San Francisco strike, and eventually to many of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)’s big strikes and organizing drives. But the level of sectarian rivalry and hatred was very intense between the CP and the others.  Once the CP adopted the “popular front” line in 1935, they were open to cooperation, so that Communists and old-line Socialists did ally in the CIO for a while but the general pattern is one of estrangement between “Stalinists” and “anti-Stalinists."  Very unfortunate, a history I hope we do not ever repeat.

Whether a nationwide coordinated effort was possible is an interesting question.  Certainly, once the CIO was formed, there was considerable national coordination, but even then, each union had its politics and internal tensions:  the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (later USW) was very different than the UAW which was in turn different than the Electrical Workers or the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and behind all of them was the United Mine Workers (which effectively founded the CIO), under the personal control of John L. Lewis.
San Francisco Longshoremen march on strike, 1934

I asked who wrote, inserted or lobbied for Clause "7A". Professor Gosse replied thatMy presumption is that to the extent the existing hidebound AFL was attached to the Democratic Party, this was just a gift to them, no more, but with huge unanticipated consequences.”

The sudden labor militancy of 1934 had two important effects. First, it led directly to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935. This Act is also known as the Wagner Act, since its author was U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner, a New York Democrat who was born in the Rhineland-Palatinate of Prussia (now part of Germany) in 1877, and immigrated to the USA with his parents in 1885.

Was there any connection between the Wagner family, and the German revolutionaries of 1848? This question remains unanswered at this time.

The Wagner Act guaranteed the rights of workers to form and join labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and engage in collective action including strikes and boycotts. Previously, these rights had been repeatedly denied by a number of court decisions, in a legal climate that has become known as the Lochner Era. The Wagner Act also created the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to conduct and enforce elections for unionization of a workplace or company, and require employers to engage in collective bargaining with any labor unions thus formed.
In early 1935, no serious observer could envision anything but prolonged, bitter and bloody class struggle, escalating in ways that most feared to imagine, unless something was done. That is what the general strikes, the spontaneous insurgency overwhelming the old-guard AFL, and the failed textile strike all implied. In that context, Senator Wagner (only reluctantly backed at the last minute by FDR) proposed a way out of a terrible impasse, a new social contract—not out of sentimental liberal idealism, and certainly not because of secret revolutionary tendencies, but simply because something had to be done. The Wagner Act, the NLRB and a new government-regulated and enforced right to collective bargaining was a compromise, then, but one that established not just organized labor—still very weak—but more importantly, America's immigrant-based working-class as a serious political actor.
That last sentence leads us to the second important effect. The strike wave of 1934 transformed the labor movement itself, by eclipsing the power and influence of the craft unions and the American Federation of Labor, which had dominated organized labor for decades, and which were generally amenable to laissez faire capitalism, and unwilling to organize workers at giant industrial companies such as the steel and auto makers. New, more militant labor organizations, most notably the Congress of Industrial Organizations, would come to the fore, and become the foundation of the new ruling political coalition being forged by Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.

In his article, Professor Gosse explains that before the 1934 strike wave,
…. the union movement was isolated from the majority of the working class, and largely represented a "labor aristocracy" of skilled workers with conservative tendencies. Until the 1930s, a very high proportion of union members (and most union leaders) were native-born craftsmen of Northwestern European, Protestant backgrounds, while the majority of working class people were unskilled factory workers--immigrants or the children of immigrants, mainly Catholics, Orthodox Christians or Jews. This deep cultural split, stretching from the shop floor to the local churches to taverns, had significant political ramifications. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was led by conservative "business unionists" who frankly stated that they did not believe the unskilled industrial workers could ever be unionized. Their attention was focused on protecting the privileges and jurisdictions of the exclusive crafts, which typically represented only a small minority of workers in a given workplace….
The AFL's approach to politics resembled its "business unionist" approach of defending practical gains by skilled workers, and ignoring the greater needs of the unskilled mass of factory operatives. Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL for nearly forty years, summed up the Federation's program in one word--"More," meaning more for his members, and little or no interest in anyone else, such as the women or blacks excluded by union bylaws and traditions. In national politics, the AFL tended to favor the Democrats, but its approach was cautious and its influence limited. At all times, it sought the mantle of respectability and legitimacy, rejecting any association with radical programs of social reform. During the 1920s, as American capitalism rode a business boom, organized labor stagnated. The AFL began to seem almost irrelevant under Gompers' unimaginative successor, William Green. By the Depression's beginning it was a minor force outside of major cities where craft locals exercised considerable control over the building trades, railroad yards and a few other jobs, and maintained some power in Democratic machines.
Understanding the quiescent attitude of the AFL, and its decline throughout the 1920s, helps explain why organized labor mounted no significant challenge in the early years of the Depression. It led no protests, nor did it organize any major national campaign for relief, leaving that ground almost entirely to Communists and other radicals. No historian credits the AFL with any significant place in Roosevelt's sweeping victory in 1932, or the even greater Democratic Party triumph in 1934. In fact, until 1933-34, organized labor is almost entirely absent from the various chronicles of the Depression. To most observers, it seemed merely one more interest group to be assuaged, and certainly less significant than the National Association of Manufacturers or the Chamber of Commerce. Other than a few intense local strikes led by breakaway radical unions from the Communist-led Trade Union Unity League, no major strike action took place until 1934
I asked Professor Gosse to provide more background on the Trade Union Unity League:
It was a “dual union” set up to oppose the AFL (keeping in mind that “dual unionism” has always been considered heretical and just plain wrong by most unionists), and I remember it as mainly a way-station before the CIO.  When leftists were kicked out of the regular internationals, or whatever local they were in, or got really frustrated by do-nothing leadership, they would create an alternative body, but even the top CP trade unionists like William Z. Foster had to know this was a stopgap.  Of course the CIO itself was the most dramatic expression of “dual unionism,” but it succeeded—in large part because some of the biggest unions in the AFL split to form it and brought their treasuries and staffs with them.
Professor Gosse’s reply nicely leads into the next excerpt from his article. Here he details how the radical leftists within the labor movement of the 1930s broke with the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL and CIO merged in 1955. The membership of the AFL-CIO reached 20 million in 1979, before beginning its continuing decline under the hammer blows of Reagan, neo-liberalism, and deindustrialization.
…. the strikes of 1934 and the Wagner Act broke the dam within labor itself. At all levels, rebellion had been growing against the domination of "business unionists" and the extraordinarily cautious regime of President William Green. The demand for industrial unionism, uniting all workers regardless of craft, skill, ethnicity, religion, race or gender, had simmered for two generations, and now came to the fore. At the AFL' s [October] 1935 convention in Atlantic City,  John L. Lewis, the formerly conservative and autocratic president of the United Mine Workers, challenged the craft unionists physically, punching Carpenters Union President William Hutcheson in the mouth. Immediately afterwards, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers formed the Committee on Industrial Organization (or CIO; the name was changed to "Congress on Industrial Organization" when they left the AFL formally a year later) to actively promote new unions in the mass production industries.
The new CIO rapidly became the center of the working-class social movement that had been growing from many different sources since 1930. In steel towns, auto plants, oil fields and on the killing floors of meatpacking houses, it became a magnet for a cohort of grassroots activists that had persisted since the failed union drives of the 'Teens. Many of them were middle-aged skilled workers from the British Isles, men with long years of shop floor militance behind them who were recognized as informal leaders by younger workers of different nationalities. Small left wing independent unions had existed outside of the AFL for years, and had mushroomed with new members since the NRA gave public sanction to unions. In effect, they were a movement waiting to happen, through the lean years of the 1920s and the chaos and desperation of the Depression's early years. Indeed, if the AFL had shown any willingness of its own, it could have rapidly have built national industrial unions. By 1936, however, the initiative had passed to the new CIO, which survived largely thanks to money and staff provided by John L. Lewis' Mine Workers…. 
These battles took place before, during and just after the crucial 1936 elections, when the Democratic Party's "New Deal Coalition" triumphantly came together, sweeping all but two states. During that election, the CIO threw all of its resources into securing FDR's re-election via a newly-created entity, Labor's Non-Partisan League. Though FDR had publicly condemned the Flint sit-down, he maintained a hands-off pose, and privately urged settlement on all parties. In light of past history, this was a marked advance: not since Theodore Roosevelt had the White House been officially neutral, effectively giving organized labor a co-belligerent status with corporate America.
The Democrats stance of guarded support, and sometimes open embrace, of a labor movement at the height of its militance, did not arrive in a vacuum. In fact, the Democrats actively feared serious electoral challenges from their left. To understand the significance of the historic alliance of the labor movement to the Democratic Party, which was locked in place in 1936 and persists to this day, we must look at the meteoric rise of radical third party efforts from 1934 on. Historians repeatedly cite Roosevelt's trepidation over a bid by Louisiana's eccentric populist Senator Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in late 1935. In fact, much more clear cut challenges to the Democrats came from bona fide radicals with established credentials. In the upper Midwest, a strong regional tradition of third-party progressivism revived. The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota effectively took over the state, electing governors and Members of Congress. In Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette's old Progressive Party surfaced again, led by other members of his family. Perhaps most startling, however, was the effort in California led by the veteran radical novelist Upton Sinclair. In 1934, he organized a campaign called End Poverty in California (EPIC), won the Democratic primary for governor, and narrowly lost the general election after intense red baiting. Numerous other examples sent a very clear message to traditional Democrats like FDR that they needed to move quickly to secure their working class support, and at the right moment an alliance with the CIO sent that message.
It is instructive to review this history, and contrast it with how Democrats have reacted to mass movements more recently. To win election as President, Barack Obama and his campaign team attracted the grass roots support of over two million people whose small, individual donations and activism propelled team Obama to victory. But Obama was not really a populist at heart, and once actually in power, was unwilling to steer or otherwise use this grassroots movement to impose real change on the existing structure of the economy—despite the massive outrage over the depredations and arrogance of Wall Street. Micah Sifry, author of the 2014 book The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), has recently called this wasted grassroots movement “Obama’s Lost Army.”

The response of many of these people team Obama had mobilized, then failed to use, was to join ranks with Occupy Wall Street. Again, Obama and the Democrats chose not to support or even identify with this mass movement. Instead, the Obama administration joined with the private security forces of large banks, and with local police forces, and coordinated a national para-military suppression of Occupy. In fact, 4,000 Obama administration documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice in June 2014 through a Freedom of Information Act filing, reveal that the Department of Homeland Security treated calls by Occupy Wall Street in 2011 for a boycott of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, as a potential terrorist threat!

Finally, of course, there was the opposition mounted against the Sanders presidential campaign by elements of the Democratic Party leadership.

So, it seems that the institutional instinct of the Democratic Party is to not just completely shun the radical left, but even forsake its New Deal alliance with organized labor. (There are also tight parallels between the formal neoliberal conceptual assault on organized labor. See, for example, Chapter 5, “The Neoliberals Confront the Trade Unions,” by Yves Steiner, in the 2009 book edited by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective), and the ongoing attempts by ALEC, Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians to legislatively cripple organized labor in the USA.) As Thomas Frank explains in his new book, Listen Liberal — Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Democratic Party leaders began to turn their backs on labor following the disastrous 1968 election (pages 45ff).  Frank argues this new direction was first pioneered by the Democratic equivalent of the 1971 Powell Memo (the Powell Memo laid out how corporations could begin to roll back the increasing public hostility to big business and what Powell called "the American free enterprise system"), the book of the same year by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s. This abandonment of labor allowed new Democratic Party leaders such as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Tim Wirth, Al Gore, and the Clintons, to embrace free trade, deindustrialization, and financialization, and shift the base of the Party from the working class to the rising new “professional class.”

In summary, the picture that emerges from actual history is that the radical left in the USA played a very important role in creating the New Deal. Most of the major ideas that created the social safety net—which remains wildly popular—originated in the radical left, percolated up through the working class labor unions the radicals organized, and were finally accepted by the national leaders of the Democratic Party in power only with some reluctance and hesitation. As Professor Gosse concludes his article:
…. the Roosevelt Administration was in fact responding to popular pressure, attempting to mediate and control a genuine upsurge. Increasingly, as time went on, it sought to ride the force of the mass movement spawned by the Depression to build a new Democratic Party coalition, with considerable success.

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.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Elon Musk rediscovers vertical integration


The 1980s introduced the era of "greenmail" and other forms of financial piracy.  It wasn't just the resulting destruction of essential national wealth that was so disturbing, it was the bizarre rationalizations for why this destruction did not matter. Those of us who argued for example, the economic value of tight manufacturing integration, were hopelessly overmatched. We were up against the simple argument that it was better to move production from somewhere it cost $60 / hour to a location where labor could be had for $10 a day. Against that reality, we could only offer intangibles. Unfortunately, these "intangibles" included the values and practices that that allowed our great-grandparents to build in extremely hostile environments (like Minnesota—it was -22°F / -30°C yesterday morning) while turning them into warm and comfortable habitats with lighting, abundant food, transportation systems, educational institutes, medicine, and the other requirements of life.

The pioneers who ventured out onto this bleak landscape were not exactly building something from nothing. Around here, they started out with excellent soils, abundant water supplies, trees that yielded superb lumber, and a large supply of rocks—most especially limestone. Even so, there were no instructions on how to turn these resources into the farms and villages of settled life. The tools needed to build and the skills to operate them were especially scarce.  And yet, the resulting artifacts of civilization were figured out—in many cases with unusual sophistication. All of this happened so recently that the evidence that some mighty builders had roamed this land can still be found by anyone remotely interested.  My childhood and youth was spent marveling at these accomplishments—my favorite question seemed to be, "Now how do you suppose they built that?"

What fascinated me most was the realization that almost everything I could see and touch had been created by people who had no "qualifications" to build them. There were no schools or books that taught aeronautical engineering to the Wright brothers or Glenn Curtiss, no instructions to guide Ford into making automobiles or Firestone into tires. These folks were self-taught simply because there were no other teachers available. The greatest inventions of human history were brought to us by unqualified amateurs. Because this was so nearly miraculous, the practices and work habits that allowed the utterly "unqualified" to pull off feats that most observes still consider magic became extremely important. These were the factors of production that the financial pirates so happily destroyed in their get-rich-quick schemes of the 1980s.

The act of producing electric cars in a world designed to produce internal-combustion vehicles powered by liquid fossil fuels is similar to the acts of pioneering and invention practiced by the those early industrial giants. The most charming proof of this now comes from Elon Musk who has recently discovered the same virtues of vertical integration that Henry Ford so massively demonstrated when he built his famous River Rouge factory in Dearborn Michigan. It turns out that many of the old ideas still work.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Institutional Inertia and electric cars


In theory, Institutional Inertia is completely understandable. Companies that have been in business for a few decades have developed a bunch of lovingly-held procedures and practices.  When you find something that reliably works, you tend to stick with it and use it in other applications. After all, there usually are other matters that don't work so well that can use the institutional inventiveness. Because it is the collection of reliable methods that form the core of Producer Class success, it isn't at all surprising that such ventures become technologically conservative over time. Institutional Inertia grows out of the same impulse that produces excellent goods.

Unfortunately, sometimes Institutional Inertia just gets in the way. Today we learn some more about the reluctance of the German automobile industry to get serious about building electric cars. The list of institutional reasons are as long as your arm. At the head of the pack is the mostly-admirable trait of the serious manufacturers that they know best as in "Why should we involve our customers in design decisions—after all, they pay us to know more about cars than they do. If we make the best product we can, they will buy it." These are people who are corporately trained to ignore outside influences.

So even though the German government wants the auto giants to change their ways and have offered to assist the project, and the Chinese have threatened to seriously alter their biggest market, the biggies are still in a "mom, do I hafta" mode when it comes to electric cars. It doesn't have to be that way, of course. After all, all the Germans already excel at the hard parts of automaking. In fact, this is a main element of their Institutional Inertia. In a chart below, we discover that on average, 12, 770 Euros go into providing the internal combustion drivetrain of every car—all parts made unnecessary in an electric car. These are parts that form the soul of the corporate identity—if you ever get a chance, ask a Mercedes engineer about their engines and transmissions.

Elon Musk knows that the important part of an electric car isn't the engine and transmission, it's the batteries.  That is why he is betting the ranch on his battery gigafactory in Nevada. But even though he is trying to produce 500 thousand cars a year, that number is still is tiny compared to the 80+ million internal combustion vehicles sold last year.

See also my report of DW's coverage of Germany and electric cars.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Where to go—Frank on the Democrats


Tony noted a few posts back that we have not been especially enthusiastic about covering the election of 2016.  To which I plead guilty.
  • One of the things that most impressed / saddened me about this Presidential election is how amazingly trivial and irrelevant these things are. The old saying that "if elections actually changed anything, they would be illegal" seemed especially appropriate this time around. My favorite subject is climate change. Ms. Clinton promised some scolding and few dimes tossed at the problem while Trump actually claims to believe this is all a hoax. Good Lord—What a terrible choice.
  • I find the fact that the Clintons and their gang of thieves managed to steal the party of those who sacrificed a LOT to make it the Party of the People—and then sold it to Wall Street—to be utterly depressing.  My contempt for these crooks is absolutely total.
  • Trump probably did not really believe he was going to win. He had no party infrastructure or book of principles around which to organize.  So we really have no idea what kind of government he will form. He has 4000 policy jobs to fill and it is highly unlikely that he even knows 4000 people that interested in politics. Some appointments look pretty damn awful.  On the other hand, his appointment of Terry Branstad as ambassador to China looks inspired (Mike Mansfield or Walter Mondale as ambassadors to Japan, anyone?) It is probably good to wait and see what sort of government the man actually forms before passing judgement.
  • The Democratic Party I once knew was a party of ideas. Now we see that the party elites—the same people who managed to blow an easily winnable election—are now advising that we become a party of disruption and civil disobedience. Well screw that! We should be getting up every morning thinking about the agenda we would advance if we were in power. And if our ideas aren't a whole lot better than neoliberalism and neocolonialism, we should shut up and work hard until they are!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Republican Gospel of Enforced Virtue


One of the most disfiguring and crippling faults of modern American political economy is the result of American Christianity having been corrupted by prosperity generally and specific business interests in particular. Put simply: most so-called Christian denominations in the United States have turned their backs on the social gospel, and go to great lengths to avoid discomfiting queries into members' livelihoods as usurers, speculators, money exchangers, and other economic predators. It has gotten so bad, I dislike using the words "Christian" to refer to these people, and use "christianist" instead.

The most disturbing example of this is House Speaker Paul Ryan's devotion to the cruel economic thinking of Ayn Rand, which actually once caused Ryan to literally flee a young Catholic trying to give him a Bible while exhorting Ryan to pay more attention to the Gospel of Luke. Ryan claims he is a Catholic, so I harbor a fervent wish that the Pope will send him a message or two trying to instruct Ryan in the ways of actual Christian economic policies. And then threaten to excommunicate Ryan if Ryan persists in trying to shred what remains of the USA safety net in the forms of Social Security and Medicare.

Whatever legislation Ryan and Republicans try to pass, I hope Democrats in Congress try to tack on amendments requiring serious estimates of how many people will die as a result, and creating some means of imposing criminal liability on the authors and proponents of the legislation. After all, some of the Republicans' favorite mantra is that "you have to assume responsibility for your actions," and "there must be consequences."

I want to point out another dimension to the problem posed by the way Ryan and Republicans think. We have reached a point in human history where economic scarcity is not really a problem.  As early as the 1920s, Thorstein Veblen pointed out that businessmen regularly sabotage and limit industrial production to create artificial scarcity and maintain price and profit levels. Any standard economics textbook today defines economics as society deciding how to allocate scarce resources. So standard economics starts off on a wrong foot from the get go.

But our technology today allows us to produce everything we need to support and sustain human life with a fifth or less of our workforce. Now, further advances in robotics and automation are estimated to be displacing another half of the already employed workforce over the next couple decades. What are we going to do with all those unemployed and marginally employed people? I don't see how the beliefs of Paul Ryan and today's Republicans help us to even begin to address this problem.

And there are problems on the Democratic side, also. Big problems. But that's a post for another today. I will leave you with this link, if you want to read about how what Democrats think cripples them also: Poverty Doesn't Need Technology. It Needs Politics.