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 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.