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.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Cycle of Civilization And The Twilight of Neoliberalism

Jon and I don't have much to write about the election of Trump. (Though, I will pass on what I think is one of the funnier slaps at the President-elect: "Der Furor.") Basically, both Jon and I were disgusted and demoralized that the Democratic Party nominated Hillary Clinton, despite the clear evidence that she was a thorough-going neo-liberal in economic policies, and a closet neo-conservative in foreign and military policies. (Leading neo-conservatives, such as Robert Kagan, even came out openly endorsing Clinton rather than their party's nominee.)

Unlike Jon and I, Ian Welsh has been putting up a stream of excellent posts since the election. Welsh was one of the few voices on the left before the election trying to warn people to take Trump seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of people were so unhinged that they mistook Welsh's warnings about Trump, as Welsh actually supporting Trump. I hope this is not symptomatic of how the left and the Democratic Party are going to respond to the Trump regime over the coming years, but it is a slight hope without much real basis other than wishful thinking. So far, it seems that most of those who got steamrolled by Trump are going to cling to their ineffective Marxism, or identity politics, or deconstructionism, or whatever.