Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Robert Kuttner reviews new biography of Karl Polanyi

Long time readers of this little niche of the pixelsphere know that Jon and I do not have much respect for Karl Marx and marxists in general. Jon especially has some entertaining anecdotes he collected from his 1970s travels in Eastern Europe, he uses brilliantly to illustrate and embellish his critique of Marxism. Our alternative to Marx is Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in his 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. From Veblen's school of economics we get many of the too few economists who foresaw the financial crashes of 2007-2008 and who have been accurate about the state of the real economy, such as James Galbraith and Michael Hudson. Their branch of economics is called institutionalism. Ring a bell?

Another alternative to Marx is Karl Polanyi, who, like Veblen, combined economics with anthropology and sociology to create a deep and incisive critique of capitalism. Marxists may find Polanyi somewhat more palatable than Veblen, since a key influence in Polanyi was his residence in Vienna in the 1920s, when the city was governed by social democrats and democratic socialists who also happened to be competent government administrators of their many socialist and hybrid socialist programs and policies. Hence, the city of that period was knows as Red Vienna. To get a bit ahead of ourselves, and quote from the book review below:
The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.
The reviewer is Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the USA progressive magazine The American Prospect, one of five co-founders of the Economic Policy Institute, and professor of social policy at Brandeis University.
The Man from Red Vienna
by Robert Kuttner
Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale
Columbia University Press, 381 pp., $40.00; $27.00 (paper)

What a splendid era this was going to be, with one remaining superpower spreading capitalism and liberal democracy around the world. Instead, democracy and capitalism seem increasingly incompatible. Global capitalism has escaped the bounds of the postwar mixed economy that had reconciled dynamism with security through the regulation of finance, the empowerment of labor, a welfare state, and elements of public ownership. Wealth has crowded out citizenship, producing greater concentration of both income and influence, as well as loss of faith in democracy. The result is an economy of extreme inequality and instability, organized less for the many than for the few.

Not surprisingly, the many have reacted. To the chagrin of those who look to the democratic left to restrain markets, the reaction is mostly right-wing populist. And “populist” understates the nature of this reaction, whose nationalist rhetoric, principles, and practices border on neofascism. An increased flow of migrants, another feature of globalism, has compounded the anger of economically stressed locals who want to Make America (France, Norway, Hungary, Finland…) Great Again. This is occurring not just in weakly democratic nations such as Poland and Turkey, but in the established democracies—Britain, America, France, even social-democratic Scandinavia.

We have been here before. During the period between the two world wars, free-market liberals governing Britain, France, and the US tried to restore the pre–World War I laissez-faire system. They resurrected the gold standard and put war debts and reparations ahead of economic recovery. It was an era of free trade and rampant speculation, with no controls on private capital. The result was a decade of economic insecurity ending in depression, a weakening of parliamentary democracy, and fascist backlash. Right up until the German election of July 1932, when the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the pre-Hitler governing coalition was practicing the economic austerity commended by Germany’s creditors.

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “dis-embedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society—“the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi emphasized that the core imperatives of nineteenth-century classical liberalism were free trade, the idea that labor had to “find its price on the market,” and enforcement of the gold standard. Today’s equivalents are uncannily similar. We have an ever more intense push for deregulated trade, the better to destroy the remnants of managed capitalism; and the dismantling of what remains of labor market safeguards to increase profits for multinational corporations. In place of the gold standard—whose nineteenth-century function was to force nations to put “sound money” and the interests of bondholders ahead of real economic well-being—we have austerity policies enforced by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the American Federal Reserve tightening credit at the first signs of inflation.

This unholy trinity of economic policies that Polanyi identified is not working any more now than it did in the 1920s. They are practical failures, as economics, as social policy, and as politics. Polanyi’s historical analysis, in both earlier writings and The Great Transformation, has been vindicated three times, first by the events that culminated in World War II, then by the temporary containment of laissez-faire with resurgent democratic prosperity during the postwar boom, and now again by the restoration of primal economic liberalism and neofascist reaction to it. This should be the right sort of Polanyi moment; instead it is the wrong sort.
Read the rest of Kuttner's review.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Can the American Left Be Resurrected?

The reputation of Garrison Keillor is beyond my power to attack or defend. Around here in Minnesota among a certain age group, he has been the culturally dominant figure of our lives. This is certainly true for me. I started listening to him back on the early 1970s and was immediately intrigued because of our shared backgrounds. We both went to the University of Minnesota as impoverished students. We both came from small towns. And we both had WAY too much religion in our childhoods. And these themes informed his worldview. Like a lot of smart kids from small towns, the surprise that never exhausted itself was that citizens of big cities were not automatically smarter or better-read or harder-working than we were. In fact, it was usually the opposite. And there are so many of us that we kept his show alive and well and his books on the best-seller lists for decades.

And yet, within the past few days, Keillor has been written out of our culture by some suits at Minnesota Public Radio for the "crime" of making a clumsy pass many years ago. They have pulled down his extensive catalog of shows from their website. Seriously? Political correctness has come to this?

Part of the problem is the Minnesota Inferiority Complex. (Minneapolis went through a stage where some marketing genius wanted to call their fair city the "Minne-Apple" like a junior version of New York—the Big Apple, get it? I am still embarrassed by how lame that was!) In this case, the state that never voted for Ronald Reagan still wants to be considered the cutting edge of Progressive thought. Politically, that impulse ended when Paul Wellstone died. We now have two doctrinaire neoliberal Senators (although who knows how the Al Franken fiasco will end.) So since Democratic Party activists have decided they won't contest the neoliberal agenda in economics or foreign policy, they will go all in on political correctness to the point where the mark of a gold-star liberal is to redefine a clumsy pass into harassment / rape.

For those poor souls lost in the wilderness of political correctness it is probably time to remind them of the basics of sound government.
1) Governments exist to organize collective action. There are projects that are too complex and expensive for even rich people to afford. From highways and bridges to interstate banking, some things just need collective action. If the people organizing this collective action understand that the goal is to enrich the whole and not some small group of backers, the first big step towards good government has been taken.

2) Honesty. This one is easy. It impossible to do great things with liars and corner-cutters making important decisions. This is ESPECIALLY true if we are ever to escape the energy trap that has caused the climate to change

3) Competence. In spite of what we may believe these days, political correctness is NOT a substitute for knowing what you are doing. It is impossible to make wise decisions on transit policy or land use or pollution control without a fundamental historical and technological literacy. I seriously believe we should have qualification tests in these areas before anyone is allowed close to a collective decision—and this applies to private real estate developers and charter schools as well as elected officials.

British Preparations for War with the United States, 1861-1863

One of the most astonishing comments I ever read at DailyKos was some historically ignorant bloviator arguing that the United States and Britain never differed all that much. Their comment was a reaction to my mentioning there was almost a war between the two countries during the U.S. Civil War, which this ignoramus thought was a lie.

Well, unfortunately, I have found that there is, in fact, widespread ignorance about the historic enmity between the United States and Britain. This ignorance, I believe, has crippled the ability of people to understand that there was once a great chasm between the political economies practiced by the two countries. No, Adam Smith's ideas were NOT the foundation on which the American economy was built.

And this ignorance is also reflected in the inability of people to understand what it means for the U.S. to be a republic. Perhaps it is easier to understand what a republic is supposed to be by looking at what a republic is not: not a monarchy, not an oligarchy, not an aristocracy, and not a despotism. If you read a lot of history, this fight between a republic and the other forms of government keeps coming up in one way or another. For example, after the famous battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack in March 1862, the Monitor's inventor, John Ericsson, wrote to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, that if the Navy proceeded to arm the monitors then being built with heavier ordnance, "we can say to England and France, leave the Gulf [of Mexico]. We do not want your Kings and monarchical institutions on this continent."

How many people even know what Ericsson's reference to the Gulf of Mexico means? The powers of Europe--all run by oligarchs and monarchs who had been trained since birth to rule over subject peoples--had never ceased dreaming of eliminating the American experiment in self-government one way or another. When the U.S. Civil War broke out, Britain, Spain, and especially France landed troops in Mexico and the Caribbean, and imposed a monarchy on Mexico. The British began landing troops in Canada, preparing to crush the Union in a pincers, and basically force acceptance of the Confederacy, breaking the United States in two.

It is easy to be confused by American history, because at the same time that the new American System of political economy was being built and practiced, the British system was competing with it for control of the domestic economy and polity, as well as internationally. A reasonably accurate summary is that the British system was dominant in the slave South, and fought for free trade in opposition to the American System’s protective tariffs. Compare, for example, the North's Doctrine of High Wages, with the South's Mudsill Theory. Another example--which is crucial to understand why today's Republican Party and conservative/libertarian movement are so destructive, is the South's rejection of a Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare. More than anything else, rejecting the concept of the General Welfare is what marks today's conservatives and libertarians as neoconfederates. And, more than anything else, rejecting the concept of the General Welfare is how today's conservatives and libertarians are ripping apart the social and economic fabric of the United States. It is ironic that the economic thinking of conservatives and libertarians today is based on the work of two Hapsburg Austrian economists: the "Emperor" imposed on Mexico was the younger brother of  Hapsburg Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I.

As I recently explained to someone, a big part of the problem with American elites is that they have been indoctrinated and trained to think more like British and European oligarchs than as American citizens. A century ago, that would have been a very damning, and damaging, indictment to level at someone. Today, I would say the American republic is barely a memory at this point. Americans should be outraged that Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, including Fox News, were never at least forced to register as foreign agents, like RT Television recently was.

The following timeline is very incomplete, but I think, and hope, there is enough here to shock most people, and leave them with a lot of questions. The timeline is taken primarily from:

"British Preparations for War with the North, 1861-1862," by Kenneth Bourne, The English Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 301 (Oct., 1961), pp. 600-632, available in pdf here.

Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power, by Howard J. Fuller, Praeger, Westport, Conn., 2008

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War, by Don H. Doyle, Basic Books, New York, NY, 2015.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Putin's farmer

This is a story about a German farmer named Stefan Dürr who has taken his considerable skills to Russia where he has organized enough agriculture to have become one of Putin's goto guys on the subject. We last met Dürr in 2012 in a post on Catherine the Great and her policies that lured German farmers to Russia beginning in the 1760s. Apparently Putin believes that this was one of Catherine's better ideas (it was).

Well, now this story has not only made it to Deutsche Welle (an eminently establishment German broadcaster) but they have seen fit to post it to Youtube. The reason seems to be that because of Dürr and folks like him, Russia has not only weathered sanctions to their food supply, but they have upped their agricultural game to the point where she just had her best harvest IN HISTORY.

In other words, Russia is beginning to prosper because a former KGB agent has by plan, or sheer dumb luck, or some combination, executed a Producer Class economic maneuver of the first order. Import substitution is hard to do and yet they have done it. And it is all based on the recognition of the incredible value of German agricultural practice. Apparently, Putin learned a great deal while stationed in Dresden.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

HAWB 1940s-1950s Timeline of computer development shows crucial role of government

HAWB - How America Was Built

Libertarians like to shout their belief that “the welfare state has created nothing.” I wonder if they think the welfare state was not the one in the 1930s through 1960s that funded the basic research, then specific research to create transistors, computers, and the internet. Perhaps they think NASA was somehow not part of the welfare state? Perhaps all the spin-offs of NASA--such as modern medical monitoring equipment--or the Apollo Guidance Computer, which drove forward the technological boundaries of integrated circuits and software development as well as computers in general--do not really exist because “the welfare state” could not possibly have created them? (The libertarian ideology apparently must be kept pure–shades of the doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist!) Perhaps all those spinoffs are just figments of the fevered imaginations of those terrible statists who want to “redistribute wealth”?

People like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Peter Thiel and every single other chest-pounding libertarian CEO of Silicon Valley (it is frankly disgusting that so many people in the industry given such support to organizations like the Reason Foundation) would have NOTHING, absolutely effing nothing, were it not for what the U.S. government did in the 1930s through 1960s that resulted in the creation of computers and the internet. These people owe everything they have to the United States of America. Without those government programs and that government support — and let's not forget the tens of thousands of kids that were educated at public land grand universities — there would be no computers, no software, no internet, no transistors, no semiconductors, no Silicon Valley, no Silicon Valley fortunes, no Microsoft, no Intel, no Apple, no PayPal, no Amazon.

TIMELINE of Government Support for the Development of Computers

October, 1919. The Army and the Navy granted RCA the former American Marconi radio terminals that had been confiscated during World War One. Admiral Bullard received a seat on the Board of Directors of RCA. The result was Federally-created monopolies in radio for GE and the Westinghouse Corporation and in telephone systems for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. The following cooperation among RCA, General Electric, the United Fruit Company, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) brought about innovations in high-power radio technology, and also the founding of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the US.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

See oil companies, it CAN be done—floating offshore wind turbines from Statoil

My brother insists that the world's smartest people are found in construction. No one is more innovative when it comes to solving crazy-difficult problems where the risk of doing it wrong can be, quite literally, deadly.

Today we examine the efforts of Statoil to build a wind farm so far offshore that the turbines must float and are anchored to the bottom. Doing something like this makes perfect sense because winds are far stronger and more reliable offshore with the added benefit that turbines in these locations are in no one's back yard. In some places like Japan, the ONLY serious offshore option is floating because their oceans get deep so quickly.

Except that crazy-difficult barely describes such a project. And yet Statoil took it on and it looks like it is working. Statoil has vast experience in offshore oil extraction and it looks like they have brought a LOT of that experience to offshore wind. The designs are very conservative relying on components with serious credentials in waters like the North Sea. These turbines were built by very serious people.

Oh, and one other thing. For years, Big Oil has been ducking the possibility that if they were going to remain energy companies as the Age of Oil runs out, they were going to need expertise in renewables. And yet Statoil seems to be leading the way. This is an oil company partly owned by the Norwegian people and seems to be as corruption-free as the rest of the Nordic societies. The key to making crazy-difficult projects a success is to keep the corrupting Predators out of the way of the master problem-solvers.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Germany to Jump to Russia – U.S. Deep State has Lost

The latest rumblings from Berlin suggest that the SDP is going to cave, once again, and become the junior partner in Merkel's CDU-run government. This comes after the collapse of the so-called Jamaican coalition talks (CDU, Greens, and FDP.) You could smell that fiasco in the middle of North America. But that attempt comes after the SPD and CSU lost significant fractions of their vote in the last election and needed new blood. But Greens and FDP? That would be like Bernie Bros hooking up with the Koch brothers. (It seems to me that any coalition named for Jamaica should be negotiated to the sweets sounds of Bob Marley and good Ganja and the Krauts probably tried it with polka, bier, und schnapps.)

Of course, the interesting question is whether the German government will keep pursuing their hopelessly stupid neoliberal agenda because that is what the crooks at Deutsche Bank want, or will they begin catering to the industrial interests that really keep the economy going. (Producers vs Predators, ja) The problem with running a Producer agenda is that it is exactly what the EU and USA does not want.

My take is that while an economic realignment is seriously overdue, it will face major hurdles. The Neoliberals will not give up easily. On the other hand, there are elements in the German psychic that really like doing business in Russia and so this may lead to Germany abandoning sanctions. Luongo below has thoughts on this.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Non-Partisan League dramatized

Based on the diaries of a former Non-Partisan League organizer, 94 yo Henry Martinson, Northern Lights is an exquisite examination of the hardships and challenges of organizing arguably USA’s most successful economically progressive movement. Filmed in NW North Dakota by John Hanson in 1978, it would win the Caméra d’Or award (best first feature) at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.

Only four of the actors in this film were professional. The rest were locals. As someone who once lived less than 50 miles from where this film was shot, I can assure everyone that they are very authentic. One of my favorite films—EVAH!

(Sorry, they took down the linked video. Apparently there's a reason a copy of this film is so hard to find.)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

This ain't no new fight - The Nonpartisan League, 1919

1919 cover of the Nonpartisan League’s newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, portraying “organized farmers and workers” standing tall against big business interests. (Wikimedia Commons).

Something I can give thanks for is the many episodes of history Jon has brought to my attention. One of the most relevant for our time, with our desperate need to reform and revitalize the political system of the USA, is the Nonpartisan League of the upper plains states. The NPL gained political control of North Dakota in the 1910s, and created a lasting legacy which includes the only state owned bank in the country; the largest flour mill in the country, also state owned; and the best rate of internet access in the country.

This evening I found that some scans of the League's newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader, on Google Books. I thought it would be a wonderful Thanksgiving post, which will hopefully encourage more people to read about the League. A number of pages of Robert Morlan's excellent book, Political Prairie Fire, are also available on Google Books. In July 2016, Bill Moyers' website featured the League in an article entitled, How to Make a Political Revolution, which includes an important description of how the League's legacy is still improving the lives of people today.

The League was heavily slandered, so be discerning as you research more.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On Veblen and Puritanism

Well, folks, I keep trying. Someone whose stated qualifications for interest in Veblen was that he had been assigned to read The Theory of the Leisure Class in college, asked me to address his little group of the socially and politically interested called the Minnesota Branch of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims (I am NOT making this up.) Apparently, to be a member one has to be able to trace his or her genetic roots to the Mayflower.

This didn't sound like a good match but I gave the prospective appearance a good faith effort. I drove the event coordinator around the Veblen house and Valley Grove cemetery for almost three hours. Because the meeting site had no AV equipment, I got real 8 x 10 color photos produced. He even informed me I had to wear a jacket and wonders, I found one in a dusty corner of my closet. By this time, I had invested so much time and energy that I arranged for a friend with a NICE camera to record my efforts—a move that was allowed only with great reluctance and promises that the members would not be photographed.

As the proceedings got under way, I began to understand why these good children of Pilgrims didn't want to be identified. They had a quasi-religious ritual that included the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. I come from a religious background but I had never seen these two combined in one ceremony. Most of the people I know would consider this blasphemy (along with a being a serious violation of the separation of church and state.) It reminded me of the scene in the 2006 movie called the Good Shepard where the Skull and Bones crowd gathered to control the world. They also mixed in Christianity with Angelina Jolie as the Senator's daughter noting that it was first Bones THEN God. I guess it is just easier to run the world if you think that God is on your side.

The guy sitting next to me informed me that he was going to be especially skeptical about my presentation because he was a BIG fan of von Hayek. Oh joy, someone who actually believes that old Hapsburg toady had anything interesting to say about economics. von Hayek was the guy who taught that socialized medicine was the Road to Tyranny. If you want to blame one person for the disaster that is USA medicine, von Hayek is a damn good candidate. I tried not to let this bother me because under any objective standards, von Hayek was not intellectually qualified to wash Veblen's shorts. Which of course, is the main reason von Hayek is treated as a god at the University of Chicago.

It got worse. At the end of my talk, I was subjected to questioning. The event planner asked the final question. He wanted me to comment on the rumors of Veblen's sex life. Veblen wrote 10 books and 100 papers. And this clown wanted to talk about the fact that Veblen lost his job at the Rockefeller-Baptist University of Chicago because he got a divorce. That's Puritanism for you—don't grapple with a man's ideas when you can talk about his sex life. Talk about getting stuck in puberty. It's no damn wonder this nation has become a cesspool of ignorance.

As I prepared to leave, the von Hayek fan made the claim that without government subsidies, Elon Musk (who I had used as an upper-level member of the Producing Class in my talk) would be nowhere. Of course, as Tony could have informed him for days without resorting to notes, virtually ALL scientific and technological advancement in USA was initially funded by the government. In my mind, people with the vision, imagination, and organizational ability of an Elon Musk should be told by the Federal government that we would be providing $20 billion per year to spend on any project he found interesting—especially projects that would help us transition us out of the Age of Fire.

Anyway, I thought I gave a good talk and friend Fabre captured fine video. So while I was busy casting pearls before swine, I think the effort was ultimately useful. Fortunately for me, this blog has readers who are anything BUT swine so I hope you enjoy the effort. I added a 2 minute 40 second graphic animation on my view of Veblen's distinction between business and industry which starts at about the 19 minute mark. This was a LOT of work.

Monday, November 20, 2017

15,000 scientists warn of scientifically predictable global destruction

This is one of those bad-news—worse-news stories. The bad news is that the science on climate change in 1992 was damn near flawless already. And we have gotten a LOT better at it in 25 years. And the science says that without a radical alteration in business-as-usual, we are doomed on this planet. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The worse news is that the brightest minds of the species seem to believe that warnings lead to action. Not without a plan they don't. Preachers have been warning about hell-fire and brimstone for thousands of years and I have yet to see how all that fear-mongering has ever led to a better society. Why is it any better when our best scientists believe that if only their warnings are dire enough, someone in the greater audience will somehow come up with a solution?

We get the point. Climate change is dangerous. Now, oh bright ones, lay out some reasonable possibilities for remediation. I don't want to get all worked up about a problem unless there is something  I can do to help. Otherwise, screaming headlines about the world coming to an end is just meaningless motivation.

Also, I am not at all certain it actually requires 15,000 scientists to tell us we are in deep shit. It seems like 500 could monitor our ride in the handbasket so that 14,500 could work on what to do next. Just a thought.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Five Hundred Million Dollar Negative Yield Bond Issued

I have permission from Mr. Welsh to repost anything he writes after waiting at least a day or two from his original posting. TW.
by Ian Welsh, Nov. 17, 2017

No, central banks aren’t screwing the economy up with their purchases:
Veolia (Paris:VIE) has issued a 500 million 3-year EUR bond (maturity November 2020) with a negative yield of -0.026 %, which is a first for a BBB issuer.
To be clear, central banks didn’t buy those bonds, investors did. But central bank purchases of government debt are a large part of what is causing this issue.

The ECB (European Central Bank) has been buying SEVEN times the issuance of government bonds. Seven times. Seven times.

They are straight up financing governments (which, done right, could be a good thing, but isn’t in this context).

The problem in the world today is the same as it was 15 years ago, before the financial collapse: There is too much money chasing not enough returns. Because there isn’t enough real growth, that money moves into bubbles and fraud, and destroys companies through leveraged buyouts and so on, but it also means that, if there isn’t enough fraud or predation going on, it sits and stagnates and does nothing worthwhile.

What the developed world actually needs is stuff to invest in, high marginal tax rates (higher on capital gains than on earned income), distributive policies to the bulk of the population to create wide-spread demand, and moderate inflation of about five percent a year to get people to actually invest in new businesses, not in financial speculation.

The problem with this solution set is that if it doesn’t also include effective regulation, it can have to environmentally devastating effects; for instance, because solar is not fully online, the above solution set could lead to oil price spikes.

Those problems, however, are not why this isn’t being done. This isn’t being done because current leadership does not believe in high taxes, wide distribution, or regulation. They are neoliberals, and 40 years of neoliberal disasters cannot convince them to engage anything other than neoliberalism, because neoliberalism has made them and their friends very very rich.

But the game is coming to an end. They want to tax the middle class and poor people, sparing the rich but they are now starting to tax the rich through the back door of negative interest rates. Meanwhile, the poor and middle class, especially the young ones, are losing patience and are willing to go either straight-up socialist or straight-up fascist (the Polish 50K rally).

This is going to get a lot uglier before it gets better.

There will be three choices for countries: Fascism, left-wing populism, or dystopic surveillance/police states.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Trump's New Fed Chairman--Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss

Trumpster's choice as next chairman of the Federal Reserve is Jerome Powell, who is not an economist, but a lawyer. Powell, a Republican, has been on the Fed Board of Governors since 2012 when he was appointed by that paragon of unrequited bipartisanship, Barack Obama.

Actually, I myself missed the news: Powell's appointment was on November 2, 2017. I just learned of it via one of today's postings at Naked Capitalism: Powell’s Federal Reserve, a melange of reactions from various economists, including Kenneth "dangerous debt cliff" Rogoff, and Joseph Stiglitz, one of the precious few high-profile but decent economists in the world, who "wonders whether Trump has captured the Fed." The best line in the piece linked to by NC is "Tho Bishop at Mises Wire argues that with the nomination of Powell the “swamp wins again”." This is one time the libertarians get it right: a quick perusal of Powell's profile on Wikipedia shows that Powell is a swamp creature, a Wall Street financial predator, and nothing else.

Powell started his career clerking for a federal judge, followed by joining the big Wall Street law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1981. This firm was a central legal player in the leveraged buy outs (LBOs) of the 1980s, which laundered hundreds of billions of dollars of dirty money by taking over and asset-stripping thousands of U.S. industrial and other companies.

In 1984, Powell moved to Dillon, Read & Co., one of the most established of the Wall Street establishment investment banks. A few years ago, a former managing director of Dillon Read, Catherine Austin Fitts, made her public mea culpa by posting details of the firm's involvement in dirty money laundering that will make your eyeballs pop. Dillon Read was involved in what was by far the largest LBO of the time, the $25 billion buyout of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts in 1988. (KKR has been a top funder of the Republican Party and conservative political infrastructure for decades now). Fitts writes that the RJR Nabisco LBO made no business sense at all, since it was impossible for RJR Nabisco to service the buyout debt piled on it within the limits of its stated cash flow. The LBO only made sense after she read a European Union lawsuit against RJR Nabisco, which alleged that RJR Nabisco was engaged in multiple long-lived criminal conspiracies, including business with Latin American drug cartels, Italian and Russian mafia, and Saddam Hussein’s family. There were literally billions of dollars in additional cash flow, but it was all dirty money.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Porsche admits electric car investment to take on Tesla will be very expensive

Anyone who doesn't understand the role of institutional inertia in the foot-dragging that shows up whenever an industrial company must upgrade its offerings to cope with changing environmental circumstances should pay attention to the tears being shed these days at Porsche. This a company that feels it must get into the business of building electric cars but clearly does NOT want to do it.

Porsche's most fundamental problems stem from the fact that no one has a good reason for owning their cars. They are expensive and downright dangerous to drive at their design speeds. Here in Minnesota it is now a FELONY to drive over 100 mph (160 kph). A Porsche is barely warmed up at that speed. So in USA, all the performance action is acceleration. Unfortunately for Porsche, their fastest accelerating cars are not as quick as a 5-passenger Tesla because electric motors produce maximum torque at zero rpm. Absent this fact, it would be highly likely that Porsche would just keep building what they know how to make.

The other obvious reality is that Porsche is just a minor branch of the very large corporate tree that is Volkswagen. The corporate pooh-bahs have decided that little Prosche should meet fixed profit targets as part of the plans to make VW the kind of conservative investment beloved of pension funds. Unfortunately, a decision to make a completely different type of car involves spending big money. In such a situation, Tesla just eats up their capital because it is a company run by someone who understands that an enterprise is never profitable when it is seriously innovating.

Corporate mandates tell Prosche that they cannot go into a temporary loss situation to finance the tooling for a new line of cars. Sounds like an impossible situation. Either Porsche takes the financial hit, or they don't build electric cars. And if they do not build electric, they won't be the fastest cars on the street. And if they aren't the top dog, they pretty much lose their reason to exist.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Oh goody—another dirty climate conference

Someday soon, humanity must make organizing and attending climate conferences a capital crime. These things are worse than useless but they grind on because the folks who like these sorts of things are convention planners. It's what they do. This year's climate extravaganza is being held in Bonn Germany. No one knows why or what they hope to accomplish. An estimated 23,000 people are descending on a tiny little backwater that is obvious ill-equipped to handle them—belching thousands of tons of CO2 on their sacred journeys of self-importance.

If anyone suggests that anything important could be accomplished with video-conferencing, the face-to-face crowd reacts in horror. According to them, those who would eliminate these conferences are the worms of humanity—the introverts. Since the only legitimate way to call these conferences a success would be the ability to point at falling CO2 levels, and that clearly has not happened after 23 years of conferencing, a sane person would try something else. But these folks cannot even progress to video conferencing. And since few or none of them seem willing to grapple with the problems of progressing from legislating outcomes to funding outcomes, we can assure ourselves that no meaningful progress will happen anytime soon.

Climate change is a Producer Class problem that will only respond to Producer Class solutions. Climate conferences are extreme manifestations of Leisure Class behavior. Pretty much explains why they are useless. After all, useless is the primary goal, the heaven, of the Leisure Class.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ein feste burg ist unser Gott—Luther's Reformation at 500

To perform a good deed once or twice is easy. But to avoid becoming bitter from the ingratitude and wickedness of those for whom you have done good deeds, that is difficult.

If I knew the world would perish tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.

One should not dispute with quarrelers. They won't be bettered thereby, but become all the more furious. They are not seeking truth, but glory and triumph.

Martin Luther
My junior year of high school was just incredibly painful. My nominally Lutheran preacher father had relocated the family to an ugly little oil town in northwestern North Dakota. Now there ARE people who are in love with vast and very bleak vistas of the "Peace Garden" state, but there aren't many of them, and I was certainly not one of their club. The wind howled all the time. Temps of -30°F (-35°C) in the winter were routine and while the brief summers were a lot warmer, the season brought clouds of hungry biting bugs.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The end of Wolfgang Schäuble's evil madness?

Wolfgang Schäuble does not have a fan club around here because he is such a perfect neoliberal. (The list of my criticisms can be found here) But he has been accepted / praised in Germany because he has been the enthusiastic face of the German financial establishment. And what an ugly face that has been. Even by German standards, he is especially homely. If someone was casting a play and needed a devil to scare little children, he would be perfect. And I am pretty certain the Greeks whose lives he was destroying had no problem thinking of him as evil personified.

But the neoliberalism he was pitching was certain to be harming the German economy as well because it is an economic philosophy that causes a great deal of collateral damage. So it is with some pleasure I note that one of the more enlightened of the German economists, Heiner Flassbeck, has produced a stunningly accurate critique of Schäuble's crackpot mismanagement. Unfortunately for the Germans, the neoliberal bench is very deep. There are probably thousands of economists spread over all the political parties ready to make Schäuble look like a kindly old man. But the fact that he has been eased out as the FM may mean that there are corners of the German economic establishment who at least have questions about the "wisdom" of neoliberalism. It is 25 years too late but a turnaround must start somewhere.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Ken Burns tries to explain Vietnam

It turns out there IS something worse than being historically illiterate and that is being historically misinformed. Ken Burns is a master of historical misinformation and his latest effort on Vietnam is truly ghastly. What a tragedy! I often claim that this country's failure to come to terms with that horrible and expensive adventure in late-stage colonialism pretty much explains the decline of this once pretty-interesting nation.

Take, for example, the horror that was Agent Orange. Some "genius" came to the conclusion that because the Viet Cong were so good at hiding out in their native jungles, the "solution" was to remove the jungles. And so 21+ MILLION gallons of the most toxic herbicide ever invented was sprayed on that poor nation killing wide areas of native foliage. Agent Orange was so dangerous that the folks who merely loaded it onto the airplanes used for spraying suffered long-term health effects including having children with birth defects.

Of course, compared to the suffering inflicted on those poor people on the receiving end of all that spraying, the damage to the USA troops was trivial. There are areas of Vietnam where serious birth defects are almost "normal." That does not make the pain suffered by the young mothers who must cope with these cruel reminders of some genius's chemical warfare any easier.

There was a small burst of interest in the problems caused by Agent Orange when they began to surface in the affected veterans. But seriously, the subject has not even begun to be treated on anything but the most superficial level. For me, any serious thinking on Agent Orange would include a comprehensive examination of the wasted genius that led to this horrible war crime. In order for Operation Ranch Hand (the cutesy name for the largest deliberate environmental catastrophe in recorded history) to succeed, thousands of engineering hours were spent designing and building a fleet of aircraft that could haul large loads of heavy liquid poison, designing a herbicide so lethal it could kill jungles, figuring out how to manufacture 21+ million gallons of the stuff, and delivering this massive load of poison to the other side of the planet. It took a lot of people who studied very hard to learn difficult and complex subjects to pull off this feat—people who otherwise looked and acted like regular middle-class citizens who would do things like coach Little League baseball.

Think about this for awhile. Star students are taught the most brilliant scientific facts Enlightenment thinking can produce and then are put to work designing and executing an ethical and environmental disaster. You tell me how this cannot seriously degrade a culture. When I discovered how involved my university was with such ventures, I just wanted to run away from the academic world. My epiphany came the day I discovered that my "favorite" PolSci professor had a big contract to help design the Phoenix Program—a nasty little operation of torture and assassination targeting the rural males of Vietnam for the "crime" of being educated.

I sort of understand why Ken Burns is so diligent about telling small stories while ignoring the big ones. Most probably it is because his worldview cannot even comprehend the big stories. And that goes double for the tote-bag crowd that watches PBS. Plus he gets paid large sums of money to create a kiddie version of history. The problem I have with little Kenny's kinderspiel is that people who are historically curious wind up being more ignorant for watching his efforts.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wiping Out Puerto Rico’s Debt Without Hurting Bondholders

Even before Hurricane Maria leveled the island of Puerto Rico, their economy was already in a world of hurt. They were attempting to refinance $74 billion in debt when Maria inflicted another $55 billion in property damage and caused $40 billion in lost economic output.

But hey, Puerto Rico is part of USA and we just spent the last nine years wiping out the massive banking losses incurred when the financial system crashed in the 2007-8 recession. The method used was a little gimmick called "quantitative easing." If we can bail out a bunch of crooked banksters, we should surly be able to rebuild an island responsible for a significant fraction of global Viagra production.

Below Ellen Brown explains just how this could be done. Of course, this does not mean it will be done. It's one thing to bail out crooked banksters—it's quite another to help poor people struggling to survive.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Saker nails it

The Saker has spent a great deal of time in the last decade writing about what it is like to be on the receiving end of USA / Western economic "wisdom"—the various elements of the wholesale destruction of people's lives. I am especially grateful for his insights because I am personally a victim of the neoliberal madness. I lost a business that I had invested every cent I could lay my hands on plus a seeming infinity of hard work to the depression of 1981-82—one deliberately caused by Paul Volcker and his idea that 21% prime interest rates couldn't possibly do structural damage to the real economy. He probably knew this move would hurt real people—he just didn't give a shit. After all, what is a "great" man except someone perfectly willing to sacrifice real people because someone they respect intellectually will assure him that destroying the lives of the peons is understandable and reasonable collateral damage.

Compared to the Russians and what the Harvard gang did to their economy, I got off pretty easy. The disastrous economics were largely the same but the difference was that USA was a lot richer to start with compared to USSR which was still recovering from the monumental damage inflicted by the invading Germans during WW II.

I knew it was especially bad for the Russians. Even so, Saker's description below puts the carnage is especially human terms. And he explains why the Russians are so grateful that Putin put some serious brakes on the neoliberal destruction of his country. Which also explains why the elites in USA are so furious with him. Suddenly, the baseless and mindless Russia-bashing seems to sound almost rational coming from the country's Predator classes. Putin is hated because he partially foiled one of the greatest thefts in history.

Of course, that is also why V. Putin is so beloved. Those constituting the collateral damage classes tend to admire anyone who makes their lives possible again.

Monday, October 9, 2017

America's Russia-gate Obsession - Sign of a Failing Nation

Can the people pushing Russia-gate possibly believe their own BS?? Was anyone so asleep during junior high math that they could believe that a $200,000 Facebook ad buy could swing an election where billions were spent on political persuasion? But the even bigger question is, How much damage can be done by the exposure of such massive stupidity on the international stage? While USA is clearly still the biggest bully in the neighborhood as measured by its willingness to spend so much money on weapons systems and soldiers in uniform, there are a LOT of ways to exercise power. Unfortunately for USA, these alternate methods rely heavily on the ability to convince the rest of the world that competent people are in charge. Between Donald Trump's inability to organize an effective government and the Democrats willingness to push the absurd storylines of Russia-gate, the illusion that USA is run by wise and virtuous people is taking massive hits below the waterline.

The imperial apparatus looks like it is in the process of collapse. The examples of this collapse are numerous but for me, the biggest sign of the loss of imperial power is the overdue attack on the petro-dollar.  So long as petroleum is traded in dollars, the USA can print as many dollars as it wants without fear of inflation because the world is effectively on an "oil standard." With the petro-dollar, multi-billion monthly merchandise trade deficits are essentially harmless. The petro-dollar advantage is so great that oil countries that attempted to opt out of the system—like Libya and Iraq—soon found themselves being destroyed by USA military aggression.

So now the Chinese and Russia have banded together to make war on the petro-dollar. Russia has a massive resource base while China has become an industrial superpower. Both have nukes and neither likes being pushed around. But probably the deciding factor in their decision to move against the petro-dollar now are the obvious demonstrations that USA is being run by badly-educated, misinformed, wildly-incompetent, fools. Ken Galbraith used to say that successful revolutions are usually a matter of someone kicking in a rotten door. Hard to imagine a door more rotten than one composed of Trump and those buffoons who are pushing the hoax that is Russia-Gate.