Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Danger Of Fascism With The Death Of RBG

 I try to avoid these terms like "fascism," but it has become clear that Donald J. Trump actively seeks to become an at least authoritarian leader of the US, indeed openly arguing that the Constitution's limit of only two terms should not hold for him.  We face a clear danger of a contested election that may end up in the Supreme Court. If Trump can put a flunky into the court before the election we may have them putting him in despite a situation where he has clearly lost. And given his recent behavior, backed by a friendly SCOTUS, he would be in position to impose a fascist dictatorship in this nation.

I also note that she died on Rosh Hoshanah, and in the Jewish tradition this is a portentious time to die, with one doing so being especially blessed.  I do not know how all this will turn out, and I can think of scenarios where her death at this time may lead to a more progressive future, but she was a very great woman deserving of the most profound respect and admiration, who should rest in the greatest of peace.

Clearly Mitch McConnell hypocritically seeks to impose a Trump appointee before the election, or if not then, during the following lame duck session.  So far Romney (R-UT) and Murkowski (R-AK) have said they will not go along with this, but two more GOP Sens must step forward to block this. That may happen.  But if it does not, then the Dem senators must simply shut the Senate down, which I think is about the only thing they can do, given that the filibuster was abolished (by Dems)for judicial appointments. But I think they can simply bring the whole place to a halt, and it may come to that.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, September 18, 2020

Putting the CULTURE back in cultural Marxism

My previous postings on "political correctness" and "cultural Marxism" have from time to time brought inquiries from researchers into the right-wing calumnies against the Frankfurt School. I carry no brief for Herbert Marcuse or Theodore Adorno, although I do have a soft spot for Walter Benjamin, who was not formally a Frankfurter even though he hob-nobbed with them.

It so happens that one of my correspondents has written a brief essay defending the conspiracy theory that the Frankfurt School was a bought and paid for tool of the Comintern. The defense hinges on the fact that Frank Brooks Bielanski, who claimed "evidence" that the Institute for Social Research was a Communist front financed from abroad, was "director of investigations" for the O.S.S. and not some random F.B.I. special agent.

Oh, well, if the director of investigations said so... 

On the other hand, the argument reeks of appeal to self-styled authority. So who was this Frank Bielanski character? It turns out he was a private investigator both before and after World War II and before that a Wall Street broker. His investigative specialties appear to have been burglary and illegal wiretapping. He was also a G.O.P. dirty tricks operative. But enough of the character assassination. I'm not here to ad hominem.

UPDATE: Mr. Bielanski testified "off the record" in 1946 before a House committee under the pseudonym of "Mr. Brooks." At that time, he described his position with the O.S.S. as special adviser to the Security Office of the Office of Strategic Services. He described his employment before the war as public relations and, before that, an "ordinary businessman." He was brought to the committee by Congressman George Dondero.

What really fascinates me about Bielanski is his association with a coterie of cultural counter-revolutionaries that also included George Dondero, Michigan Congressman who railed against "Modern Art Shackled to Communism."


My apologies for only having the first page of this treatise. If you get through this and want more, you can always Google it. Dondero's indictment of modern art really, really puts the "cultural Marxism" meme in perspective. Alongside the Museum of Modern Art, Kandinsky, Picasso, Duchamp et al. surrealism, cubism, expressionism, dadaism, abstractionism (sic) &tc. the Frankfurt School's alleged assault on Western Civilization hardly amounts to a snowflake on the tip of an iceberg.

Reactionaries were against modernism before they were against postmodernism.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Au Revoir, Robert J. Samuelson

 For quite a few years not so long ago I was regularly posting here variations on "Today is Monday, so on the WaPo editorial page Robert J. (not related to Paul A.)* Samuelson is calling yet again for Social Security benefits to be cut," and he did indeed do that very frequently over a long time.  However, today was his final column for the Washington Post, so we shall no longer have RJS to kick around, sob! It was titled, "Goodbye, readers, and good luck - you'll need it."  There is also a letter to the editor from former publisher, Donald Graham, praising RJS and reminiscing knowing him as a freshman in 1962 at Harvard.  Graham noted RJS eschewed a nominal non-partisan position and studied and thought hard about his columns, even as Graham himself disagrees with some of RJS's long held positions, noting in particular RJS's longstanding support for privatizing Amtrak.  He also noted, as RJS himself stated in this final column, he is not an economist; he has merely reported on economics for a long time, starting at the Post in 1969 and columnizing on economics since as far back as 1977 in various venues.

I also disagree with RJS on privatizing Amtrak, although this is not a topic he has written much in recent years, although he did mention it in this final column.  I would argue that he has ignored that governments fund highways, which gives vehicles a competitive edge on trains, which governments do not provide or support.  So I certainly see a case for government aid to railroads, with Amtrak certainly one of the more heavily used lines in the nation.

I should note what RJS spent most of his last column writing about. He argues the biggest story of his career has been "the rise and fall of macroeconomics."  But then he turned to economists. Much of it is on the money.  He says some nice things about us in general: "With some exceptions most are intelligent, informed, engaged and decent." But then we have been wrong about a lot of things, such as deciding at various points that recessions will never happen again, although RJS admits that he did not recognize the housing bubble or foresee the Great Recession (some of us here or associated with us here did, but RJS largely ignored us). He also accurately notes that many economists take stronger positions than they might otherwise out of a desire for power and position in this or that administration, and also claim to have more influence on the economy than we do.  And then he notes the unwillingness of most to change their minds after a certain point, something he himself exhibited on some of his more strongly held views.  

Of course the one he pushed so hard for so long that I and some others of us bashed him for repeatedly was indeed his constant refrain to cut Social Security benefits, with a final swing at this in general terms in this final column: "From 2010 to 2030, the elderly's share of the population (65 and over) is projected to rise from 13 percent to 20 percent. Spending on Social Security and Medicare will skyrocket, and already is. Yet we have done little to prevent spending on the elderly from squeezing the rest of the federal budget."  So, there we are; it is Monday and yet again, if for the last time, Robert J. (not related to Paul A.) Samuelson is calling for cuts in Social Security benefits!

Of course this statement took its more general form, throwing Social Security and Medicare in together.  I must grant that this time he left them together and did not pull Social Security out separately as he did so many times in the past.  But this was an old trick: point at rising trends in spending in both, which we know are much more due to rising Medicare costs, which are driven heavily by longterm rising medical care costs in general, but then he would pivot to focus on calling for cuts in Social Security benefits.  This seem to reflect an old view that "nothing can be done about medical care politically" (despite Obama passing the ACA with much effort), but that somehow a compromise was politically possible on Social Security, reflecting a memory of Reagan and Tip O'Neill cutting one in 1983 with the Greenspan Commission, which raised taxes and cut benefits for Social Security.  The idea that another round of this was needed was pushed by Bill Clinton in the 90s, and several bipartisan commissions were formed to pull it off, but somehow they all ran into political problems. It became this established delusion in various VSP circles that such a deal should be made, and it has remained entrenched on the WaPo ed page with Fred Hiatt and others, not just RJS. 

I must note that while I beat up on him relentlessly over this matter, I have done so less in the last few years.  It is not that he changed his mind, but he wrote about it much less.  He noted in this final column that he is "repelled" by Trump, and so I found myself much more frequently agreeing with him as he would criticize Trump economic policies ranging from his "help the rich" tax cuts through his trade protectionism to his awful environmental policies.  He would occasionally reprise these old views to maintain his independence, but much more of this attention was focused on the Trump policies.

A final point he made that has me thinking personally is that a reason he gave for retiring now, even as so much is going on, is his feeling of being "a man of the 20th century, but we are now facing the problems of the 21st century, which demand new policies and norms."  This may well be a major factor for him, with indeed his views on Social Security really seeming left over from the 1990s.  As he is just a few years older than I am, it makes me think that the same could be said of me, perhaps.  But I did see the housing bubble and the Great Recession.  I think I shall stick around for some more time.

*Regarding people related to the late Paul A. Samuelson or not but with the same name commenting on economics, it should be noted that Paul's son, William F. Samuelson, is fairly respectable economist who has published on risk and auctions and some other topics, now an emeritus prof from the Management Dept. at Boston University.  He does not share the last name, but the prolific and prominent Lawrence Summers is Paul Samuelson's nephew.  There is also a non-relative, Larry Samuelson, a highly respected evolutionary game theorist at Yale University. In any case, Robert J. Samuelson is neither related to Paul A., nor has he been an economist, although he is probably a better non-economist economist than some others who pose as one, such as say Larry Kudlow.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Trump’s Law & Order = Ronnie Thompson’s Shoot First and Ask Questions Later

Summer Concepcion reports on something I find very alarming: President Trump leaned into his self-proclamation of being the President of “law and order” further as he appeared to approve of the “retribution” of federal law enforcement officers fatally shooting a man suspected of killing a pro-Trump supporter amid protests in Portland, during an interview on Fox News that aired Saturday night. After mocking Portland mayor Ted Wheeler for refusing Trump’s offer to send in federal troops to the city to quell protests, the President then turned his focus to the fatal shooting earlier this month of Michael Forest Reinoehl — a man suspected of killing a member of the Patriot Prayer group during violent clashes in Portland — by U.S. Marshals. “We sent in the U.S. Marshals for the killer, the man who killed the young man on the street. He shot him… just cold blooded killed him,” Trump said. “Two and a half days went by, and I put out ‘when are you going to go get him?’ And the U.S. Marshals went in to get him, and they ended up in a gunfight.” Trump called Reinoehl a “violent criminal” before suggesting that his extrajudicial killing was par for the course. “This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” Trump said. “And I will tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.” I went to college in Macon, Georgia when Ronnie Thompson was mayor. Quinton David Palmer, a thirteen year old Macon child, brought this lawsuit against Macon Police Officers Roger Hall and Larry Foster, Macon Mayor Ronnie Thompson and the individual aldermen[1] of the City of Macon for his being unconstitutionally and unlawfully shot by Police Officer Hall on February 18, 1973 … RONNIE THOMPSON MAYOR CITY OF MACON GEORGIA 31201 June 19, 1970 EXECUTIVE ORDER FROM: MAYOR RONNIE THOMPSON TO: CHIEF J. F. FLYNT As you know we are receiving more and more threats from a few dissenting people who are interested only in violence. Anyone trying to cause violence in the City of Macon must be dealt with accordingly. People engaged in burning, looting, killing and the destruction of property, etc. must answer to the strongest reply available. Lawlessness designed to produce anarchy and the destruction of the City of Macon will not be tolerated. No policeman, no volunteer policeman will be asked to face the enemy unarmed. See that we have sufficient arms, ammunition and equipment. Those people engaged in lawlessness and anarchy must be stopped. SHOOT TO KILL! Mayor Thompson called this “shoot first and ask questions later” and argued this order should be carried out even if a person was merely taking a $2 shirt. Quinton David Palmer was a 13 year old black boy who was merely carrying a BB gun.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Bahrain-Israel Mutual Recognition

 This freshly announced mutual recognition follows the one between the UAE and Israel, which set a new pattern, with Bahrain and possibly others (Oman?) predicted to follow.  I am not surprised it was Bahrain that was next, although it may prove to be the only one.  There are several reasons why it was most likely to be next, and why we might not see Oman join in, although that cannot be ruled out.

I see three reasons why Bahrain was most likely to be next, although there are really two fundamental ones with the third arising from those.  The most fundamental one is that of the 6 members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), now largely in shatters due to the sanctions on one of them (Qatar) by several others (Saudi Arabia (KSA), UAE, and Bahrain), is the only one where a Sunni minority is ruling over a Shia majority, with the Sunni-Shia conflict a central part of the conflict with Iran that many of them have, with Iran run by Shia, of course, where they are a majority.  The Shia of Bahrain have been restive and rose up against King Hamad during the Arab Spring that began in 2011, only to be violently put down. But, unsurprisingly, the king and those around him are especially worried about the Shia and have strongly supported the anti-Iran coalition, which includes Israel. It is this alliance that is at the heart of the new round of recognitions, with UAE leader, Prince Zayed, arguably the leader of the anti-Iran group in the GCC, along with KSA Crown Prince, MbS, although due to opposition of the Saudi religious leaders who are concerned about the Palesrtinians, MbS himself is not seen as likely to follow UAE and Bahrain to recognize Israel, although there is clearly a de facto alliance against Iran between them.

A second reason Bahrain was more likely to be next is that it is more subject to US pressure as it hosts the home base in the Persian Gulf of the US Navy's 5th fleets, something rarely mentioned in the media, and has been since the 1950s. That dates back to when what is now the UAE was still being ruled by UK as the Trucial States.  On top of that Bahrain is the smallest of the GCC members and also is the one that has been running out of oil more than the others (all of them produce at least some oil).  In short, King Hamad is much more susceptible to US pressure to recognize Israel, although given his unhappiness with his Shia population and support for the anti-Iran coalition, he has been more inclined to go along anyway.

Another reason, which basically follows these others, is that Bahrain is indeed part of the GCC group that is sanctioning/boycotting fellow GCC member, Qatar, for its apparent unwillingness to join the anti-Iran coalition.  Indeed, Qatar and Iran have a joint deal for managing certain natural gas fields in the Gulf, and Qatar, which has the world's highest per capita income, also hosts al=Jazeera, which has reported on dissident movements in several of its GCC partners, another source of anger.  Of course, while Trump initially forgot about this as MbS and Jared Kushner pushed him into supporting the anti-Qatar sanctions, Qatar hosts a major US air base, so the US military did manage to get to Trump to back off overtly supporting the anti-Qatar boycott, although the US has failed to bring that conflict to a conclusion.

So, what about the other two members of the GCC: Oman and Kuwait?  I cannot rule out Oman recognizing Israel, but it lacks several of the elements one finds in both Bahrain and UAE.  One is that it alone among Muslim nations in the world is not dominated by either Sunnis or Shia.  The majority of the population and the leaders are Ibadi Muslims, an ancient sect of Islam, that is barely present anywhere else in the world. But that has allowed Oman to stand aside from the regional Sunni-Shia conflict, and indeed it has played a role as intermediary between the two sides.  It was through Oman that the Obama admin made its initial approaches to Iran when it started negotiating the JCPOA nuclear deal that Trump has since withdrawn from. It is also Oman that shares with Iran the crucial Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.  As a result of this, Oman has not joined the anti-Qatar sanctions/boycott, although it is not as pro-Iran as Qatar seems to be.  Oman is extremely independent and proud of being so.  It joined the GCC to keep the Saudis happy, who organized the group, but it does what it wants.  It indeed has apparently had informal friendly relations with Israel, which may lead it to recognize Israel as part of its being friendly with everybody policy.  But it would not be doing so either as part of an anti-Iran alliance or to kowtow to the US, although it does not mind keeping the US happy as well.

As for Kuwait, it has long been at the top of per capita income among this group, having the second largest pool of oil in the world, one of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded the place.  It has been surpassed by Qatar in per capita income, but it remains very high up there and is also fairly small, although bigger than either Bahrain or Qatar.  The problem for Kuwait is that it almost borders Iran, with just a small amount of Iraq between them (where the Shatt-al-Arab empties into the Gulf, the short river that is formed when the Tigris and the Euphrates come together).  It is predominantly Sunni and has a long history of friendship with the Saudi royal family.  But its proximity to Iran has it not wanting to join in the overtly anti-Iran alliance, in that regard being a bit like Oman.  Also, it has a large Palestinian refugee population, possibly up to a quarter of the population, and recognizing Israel is not something favored by that portion of their population.

So, it is not surprising that Bahrain has recognized Israel.  Oman might do so also, although I am not holding my breath on that one, and if they do, it will be to maintain their independent "friendly with all sides" approach rather than the kowtowing to UAE and US that is going on heavily with Bahrain.

Barkley Rosser

The Wit and Wisdom of A. Fauci

 From Woodward's book: Fauci says Trump's attention span is a negative number. 


By the way, is there any group organizing to raise money to pay the "poll-tax" that the egregious Florida Republican legislature and courts are assessing on ex-felons?  

Sunday, September 6, 2020

How Big Of a "Hoax" Is That "Dirty Dossier"?

 In the wake of the Atlantic story by Jeffrey Goldberg about President Trump reportedly referring to the dead Americans lying in the Aisne-Marne Cemetery near Paris as "losers"  and "suckers," along with a lot of other embarrassing things for him, Trump has called Goldberg a "slimeball" and that that this report is another "hoax" like "the dirty dossier" of Steele, along with "Russia, Russia, Russia" also being a "hoax," of course, despite the recent bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report further verifying that there was even more Russian interference in the 2016 election than the Mueller Report verified (105 meetings between Trump campaign officials and various Russians, with several of those officials then lying under oath about their contacts).  

Of course, Trump is on tape calling the late John McCain a "loser" because he was captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. I thought when he said that it would be the end of this then primary campaign, but it barely budged him a notch, the first sign of how he could get away with outrageous statements and actions that would do in other politicians.  But his base viewed McCain as a "RINO" traitor to their cause, so it was OK to diss him hard.  But now this new report is hitting Trump hard, especially given the widespread reporting of polls showing active military members supporting Biden over him and reports of retired Marines who has Trump signs in their yards throwing them in the garbage. The dead at Aisne-Marne did not run against Trump in a primary or contest for control of the Republican Party.  They died in a crucial battle that stopped the final German effort to conquer  Paris in the WW I.

So Russia was not a hoax, but what about that infamous Steele dossier?  Of course for those who get all their new from Fox, where Trump is also having a problem with their national security reporter supporting some of the Goldberg article, referring to the Steele dossier as "dirty" is a regular button to push to make the faithful sit up and bark their support.  It is like "Benghazi," something pounded on so often the faithful are fully indoctrinated that there is something there. About every other night Hannity reminds the suckers that it "has been completely discredited" and "was bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton."  

Regarding "being discredited," this has not happened despite various GOP congresspeople repeating this line endlessly in various hearings.  Indeed, well over 70% of it has been verified.  Most of it is true.  It accrurately reported on some of the activities of Trump associates later reported on in the Mueller Report and now the Senate Intelligence Report. But, of course, that some of that material appeared in the "dirty dossier" is supposed to be why we are not supposed to accept either of those reports.  

As it is, a few items in  it have been disproven.  Curiously most of those had to do with Carter Page, exaggerated claims that he was going to get a big payment from Gazprom, although he did in fact meet with their officials as reported in the dossier.  The FBI investigation of Page is indeed the one place where all the hysterical Trumpist conspiracy theorists have something: there were inaccuracies in one of the petitions for renewal of the  FISA application for the FBI to investigate Page, who had been investigated in the past for his activities with Russians.  The biggest blooper, not due to the dossier, was the failure of the FBI to note that Page had been used as a CIA informant, and one low level FBI official has been indicted for this Clinesmith, probably the only person who will be indicted, even though Hannity keeps calling for John Durham to come forth with his report and indictments of all the Obama/Biden people who were "spying on the Trump campaign," something that Trump himself has called "treason."  Barr has made it clear he will dump whatever there is onto us in in October, but as of now it looks like this Clinesmith messing with the FISA app is about all there is. In any case, the Page investigation was a bust and it was briefly supported by some erroneous material in the Steele dossier, but this does not amount to much.

There are other items in the dossier which the truth or falsity of remain unestablished.  The most notorious one is the item that caught initial attention when the dossier was first publicly revealed, the "pee tape" claim about Trump and some prostitutes. This was considered outrageous, but given that we have since learned that Trump has paid off prostitutes to keep quiet, this no longer seems like much of a big deal, and indeed there are apparently a number of observers who claim it probably happened.  So the item that makes the dossier "dirty" is probably true, but now who cares? and it does remain unverified.  But the bottom line remains that over 70% of it has been verified.  The claims that it has been "discredited" are simply false. But what is another lie coming out of Trump anyway?

On the matter of being "bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton," there is some truth to that.  The initial investigation of the possible Trump/Russia connection was initiated by the Jeb Bush primary campaign.  When he withdrew it did eventually come to funded by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.  But, in the end, this becomes a so what?  That in and of itself does not prove that what was reported in the dossier is false. And, indeed, a solid majority of what is in it has been verified, and the fundamental claim that the Trump campaign was operating in a cooperative manner, whatever wording one wants to use, has also clearly been established.  The "dirty dossier" is not a hoax, and "Russia, Russia, Russia" is also not a hoax, with them openly at it again for 2020, with Trump's flunky DNI Chief now refusing to testify before Congress on the matter, and specific allegations of such interference being made, such as Russians being behind a lot of the social media accounts of Biden supposedly suffering from dementia, poor "sleepy Joe," which increasingly looks to be just totally fake news.

So, sorry, Mr. Trump, this line of argument does not remotely get you off the hook for having called US war dead "losers" and "suckers."

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

What is Looting?

"Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance." -- Guy Debord, “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy.”

The photograph used in Andy Warhol's 1964 print, “Race Riot” was taken by Charles Moore and was published in LIFE magazine in May of 1963. Warhol used it without permission and Moore sued. Eventually there was an out-of-court settlement. The scene depicted was not a "Race Riot" as Warhol's presumably ironic title claimed. It was a police attack ordered by Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor on a nonviolent demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama.

I remember these photos well because they appeared at the dawn of my political awakening. I was 15. The Warhol print sold in 2014 for $62,885,000. I had to stop myself when I started to type $62,885.00. I thought the latter figure was a lot of money. No, $62,885,000. 

The text in the LIFE feature where the Birmingham photo appeared claimed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of nonviolent direct action invited police brutality and “welcomes it as a way to promote the Negroes' cause."

 

Excuse me? Nonviolent protests invite police brutality? Where have we heard that legend before? Remember, though this was the voice of liberal journalism "sympathetic" to the civil rights cause. 

Sometimes a moment of clarity strikes when I see an absolute denial that there can be any justification whatsoever for some action or expression. This happened in response to the outrage provoked by an NPR interview with the author of a recent book that offered a defense of looting. Intuitively, I would consider looting to be troubling, frightening -- something I would rather have nothing to do with. But utterly, completely indefensible? 

The virulence of the rejections made me curious. I'm familiar with affirmative historical analysis of other "indefensible" actions. People may be familiar with the writing on rioting by Charles Tilly, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Peter Linebaugh, Nick Blomley and others. But these focus mainly on pre-modern or early modern episodes. As a phrase in Hobsbawm's classic essay "The Machine Breakers" suggests "collective bargaining by riot" was seen by him as anticipatory of later trade union strikes.

I found the NPR interview somewhat flippant. Perhaps I'll return to that eventually. But in searching for affirmative analyses of 21st century rioting and looting I found some very interesting leads: Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings by Joshua Clover, "Why is there no just riot theory?" by Jonathan Havercroft and, last but not least, the prophetic essay by Guy Debord alluded to in the title, "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy." 

The latter article focuses on the Watts riot of 1965, which becomes eerily contemporary in the era following the murder of George Floyd. Just three weeks before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the inevitability, if not the legitimacy, of riots as "the language of the unheard." Yet 55 years after Watts it remains politically obligatory to unequivocally denounce riots and looting as having nothing to do with legitimate, peaceful protest. Talk about your "political correctness" speech police! To even question this knee-jerk denunciation is seen as "glorifying violence."

'I Plan to Lead Another Non-Violent March Tomorrow' is the caption of a 1964 cartoon from the Birmingham News by Charles Brooks. Judging from a wider sampling of Brooks's work, he was a “moderate.” 

"In an early Gallup question on the issue, Americans were asked whether tactics such as 'sit-ins' and demonstrations by the civil rights movement had helped or hurt the chances of racial integration in the South. More than half, 57%, said such demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience had hurt chances of integration, while barely a quarter, 27%, said they had helped."

A couple of novelists from back in the day wrote some interesting observations about questions. In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon wrote, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers." "In the realm of totalitarian kitsch," Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Kundera went on to define kitsch as causing "two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

There is also a kitsch of righteous indignation: the denunciation of the cowardly terrorist or, closer to home, of the rapacious extractive corporation. Or maybe it’s the $62, 885,000 sale in 2014 of an Andy Warhol print titled “Race Riot.” This is not to say that corporations are not rapacious or terrorists not cowardly for targeting innocent civilians. But those actions are at least explicable even if they’re not justifiable. Rioting and looting are commonly denounced as not only violent and "counterproductive" but as mindless and incoherent.

But what does all this have to do with environmental sustainability? As Joshua Clover points out, "It matters little whether one conceives of climate collapse as cause of refugees, or refugees the source of resource burdens. In the present world, immigration has become an ecological fact, ecology a matter of immigration." This is also true for racialized class stratification. Our present mode of circulation of commodities requires expansive policing, both of borders and of internal, "disadvantaged" communities. Mass incarceration is a feature of the Spectacle-Commodity economy, not a bug. And a print of a photograph of police attacking civil rights protesters can fetch $62,855,000. Sixty-two million, eight-hundred and fifty-five thousand U.S. dollars. And no cents.

It is logical to make legal appeals regarding legal questions," Debord wrote, "What is irrational is to appeal legally against a blatant illegality as if it were a mere oversight that would be corrected if pointed out.

Much of the conversation of environmental sustainability revolves around the question of how to educate and persuade consumers, policy makers or industries to act more intelligently and responsibly toward the environment. What if we are asking the wrong questions?








Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Should We Fear A Reappearance Of Inflation?

 In today's Washington Post Robert J. Samuelson has raised the possibility that the Federal Reserve may be setting the US up for a reappearance of inflation.  He invoked the 1960s and 1970s when supposedly the Fed allowed inflation to get out of control out of a supposedly misguided effort to bring down unemployment by allowing successive small increases in inflation. Supposedly the newly released report on changed Fed policies may be taking us back to those bad old days, even though for now RJS admits that inflation is low, with expectations of inflation only at 1.34%.  How worried should we be?

OK, I am not going to say that a resurgence of inflation is impossible.  I can imagine it possibly resurging, with such a development perhaps being associated with a sharp decline of the US dollar, perhaps associated with a turn from its use as a reserve currency.  I do not see that happening immediately, but there is a theoretical literature that suggests that such an event could happen rather suddenly at some point.  If so, then maybe it could be happen.  Is the new Fed policy likely to bring this on?

I suppose one reason to be concerned is that the supposedly new policy approach has been rather opaque.  I have had trouble getting a clear picture what the changes are in policy. The main reports have been relatively undramatic, basically an idea that at least through the next year there will be no interest rate increases.  Probably a bigger deal is that the Fed might tolerate inflation higher than the 2% targeted rate.

But a curious thing is that a funny thing has happened about that target.  As long noted by Dean Baker and some others, that 2% is a target, meaning that supposedly that is what the rate should be on average.  If that is the case, then we should expect it to be higher than 2% as much as it is below that rate. But in practice it seems that the "target" has become an upper limit, and Samuelson essentially refers to it this way.  This makes for the rather weird outcome that a reassertion of what has long been offficial policy but not followed in practice should again be the official policy is somehow a scary threat of a possible outbreak of future serious inflation.  This becomes a rather absurd analysis.

Addendum (9/1): I note one area where we have seen rising prices is for food, with many people worried about that, indeed, I have just heard a poll showing this being the top worry of Americans during the current pandemic.  As it is, this seems to be at least one supply-side driven element in inflation that is out there, probably not so important for longer run inflation policy.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, August 31, 2020

Assar Lindbeck Passes On

 Assar Lindbeck died on Aug. 28 at the age of 90, probably the most influential Swedish economist of the latter part of the 20th century.  He was the main driving force behind getting the Swedish central bank at the end of the 1960s to establish the Sveriges Riksbank Award in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, a.k.a., the "Nobel Prize in Economics" (I get increasingly tired of the usual retreads who every fall remind us when the media refers to it by the second name that it "really" should be called by the official first name; we all know this by now). He was a professor at Stockholm University, longtime director of the International Institute for Economic Affairs, and in 1992-93 chaired the "Lindeck Commission," which laid out policy proposal for scaling back the Swedish welfare state, many of which were adopted after 1994.

In terms of his own contributions to economic thought beyond the matters noted above, I note that he wrote influential articles about insider-outsider labor market models, rent control (he was against it), and also on how an extensive welfare state system may lead workers to become shirkers, with this argument in particular playing into the recommendations of the Lindbeck Commission, which led to reducing health leaves and related matters in the Swedish system, although it remains among the most generous in the world, although now not as large as those in Denmark, France, Finland, and Belgium, to name a few.  Sweden is now the "liberal welfare state," not the largest or most extensive as it was in its heyday under Prime Minister Olof Palme before he was assassinated.

Certainly one can debate whether Sweden needed to scale back somewhat, and maybe it did.  After performing very well on multiple criteria from low poverty through low unemployment and inflation and low budget deficits for many decades, the Swedish model sort of went off the rails in the late 1980s, leading to serious macroeconomic crisis in the early 1990s, which was the immediate trigger for the government adopting the kinds of proposals Lindbeck advocated. It has performed better since, doing better than most European nations during the Great Recession, with having stayed out of the Eurozone probably helping, as well as using a very expansive monetary policy with negative interest rates, none of this particularly part of Lindbeck's agenda or suggestions.

I shall further note that it has long been argued that Lindbeck's motive for pushing for creating the Prize was indeed ultimately driven by internal Swedish politics and a desire to support the kinds of reforms he ultimately managed to get accepted in the 1990s.  Crucial in this was not just that he got the Prize established, but he became by all accounts the dominant force on the selection committee until the mid-1990s. about the time his recommended reforms were accepted, stepping down after an outbreak of controversy associated with the first game theory award for Nash, Harsanyi, and Selten.  More generally, it was observed, that with an occasional exception, the prizes tended to favor advocates of neoclassical orthodoxy, with this viewed as supporting the kinds of policy arguments Lindbeck favored in Sweden.

There are some oddities I shall recount based on gossip from primary sources I have heard.from.  So when I went to his Wikipedia page to double check on details of his career, it claimed that the award for James Buchanan in particular in 1986 was especially important for him as part of this general ideological agenda. Maybe, but I have heard otherwise.  Indeed, what I heard a long time ago, sometime before that award was made, from a primary source, was that Lindbeck had claimed at one point that there were two people who would get the Prize "over my dead body."  One was Joan Robinson, still alive when that remark was made, and indeed she never got it.  The other was James Buchanan.  So, assuming my source heard right, the award for Buchanan was not the result of some longstanding plot by Lindbeck to give it to him as part of his general plot to classically liberalize Swedish policy. Something came up, and from what I have heard from other sources (I used to have good sources on that famous committee, but no longer) was that it was the large budget deficits being run by the Reagan administration, which Lindbeck disapproved of and saw as roiling international financial markets, with the upward surge of the USD to 1985 driven by high interest rates creating havoc in Europe.  At the time Buchanan was pushing for a balanced-budget amendment to the US Constitution, basically a silly idea. But supposedly Lindbeck saw that as a way to send a message to the Reagan administration of disapproval for their high budget deficit policies, and this overcame whatever it was that had previously made Lindbeck so negative on Buchanan.

I have mixed feelings about Lindbeck ansd his recored and influence, but I shall wish him an RIP.

Addendum (9/1): Some might argue that Lindbeck's influence may be seen at least indirectly in recent policies in Sweden during the pandemic that have not been very successful.

Barkley Rosser


There Will Be No Postponing Social Security Taxes

 Among the items that President Trump issued an "executive action" about three weeks ago was that for people earning less than around $104.000 per year, their fica taxes were to be postponed until Jan. 1, not cut, merely postponed, although Trump made noises that if he is reelected he will simply eliminate the fica tax entirely, although unclear how he plans to fund Social Security without it.  

Anyway, Allan Sloan in the Washington Post reports that this initiative is now just completely dead in the water.  It has too many problems, too many opponents, and action on implementing it in the Treasury Department has simply stalled out, almost certainly for good due to all this.  Quite aside from people facing potentially huge fica tax bills in January due to four months of postponement, it apparently is very complicated to set this up, and would take many months to do so, involving businesses and the Treasury Dept. having to put in place all kinds of mechanisms to figure out exactly which people would get their taxes postponed and which would not.  A real killer is that businesses pretty much across the board have objected to this proposal, with this now official as 30 different such groups have called for the cessation of this effort through the US Chamber of Commerce.  This is just going nowhere.

This should be contrasted with the temporary fica tax cut that Obama had in place during 2011-2012. There are two large differences between that and what Trump has so incompetently proposed. One is that Obama had it pass through Congress, not be the result of a presidential directive or memo.  The other is that it was completely simple: all Social Security taxes stopped being collected for the period in question, not a system based on treating people differently based on their incomes and also not a postponement.  It was a straight cut, if only a temporary one.

An odd aspect of that Obama cut was that when it came to an end the GOP members of Congress were pretty near unanimous in voting to end it and bring back fica taxes.  Somehow this did not prevent them from continually ranting about supporting tax cuts and opposing all tax increases.  Of course it was technically not an increase but simply undoing a cut, but funny how something that raised taxes more on poorer people received their ready support as they argued for cuts for higher income people and still do.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, August 30, 2020

An Increasing Anomaly In The US Balance Of Payments

 On Econbrowser Menzie Chinn has posted about an increase in the scale of US international net indebtedenss. Since the late 1980s the US has been a net debtor internationally, borrowing more from abroad then we are lending and investing there.  The increase in this net indebtedness has noticeably accelerated since our current POTUS took office, and especially this year.  The size of that net indebtedness has gone from about 40% of US GDP to somewhat more than 55%, a pretty substantial increase, given that we have been in this condition for over three decades and in three years by more than a third.  The fiscal stimulus of this year has definitely been overwhelmingly financed by foreign borrowing.

This increase in net indebtedness highlights a longstanding anomaly that now looks even more anomalous.  Even though the US has been a net debtor for over three decades, it has remained a positive net earner on capital income arising from all those international capital movements into and out of the US.  This is mostly measured by the primary income part of the international capital account, which last year was in surplus at a bit over $60 billion.  What is more curious is that this does not seem to have changed much at all over the last five years, some slight changes here and there, but mostly unchanged.  I confess to being mystified as to how an increase in net indebtedness by more than a third has led to essentially no change in the capital income payments situation.

I have not gone digging to get the exact breakdown, but a few years ago it was clear that what was going on is that most of the US assets abroad are in business investments earning large profits and thus high rates of return on the investments, while foreigners are holding assets in the US earning much lower rates of return, most notably US government securities, the outcome of all that foreign borrowing by the US government over a long period of time.  The foreigners have been sending their money here as the "safe haven," an argument or motive that may be breaking down according to some.  So they have been willing to accept the low returns for the supposed safety, while US investors have been taking bigger risks but getting bigger returns as a result.

This all is clear, and maybe the super low interest rates on current US government securities are sufficient to explain why we have seen barely any change in that capital income balance, even as the net indebtedness has substantially increased, but somehow it would seem there must be more, with somehow the US holdings abroad becoming more profitable.  In any case, I do not have a solid explanation for this apparent anomaly.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, August 24, 2020

Remembering The Bombing Of Sterling Hall A Half Century Ago

 A half century ago at 3:42 AM on Monday, August 24, 1970, the New Year's Gang set off an ammonium nitrate bomb in the back of a Ford pickup track next to Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.  They were aiming it at the Army Mathematics Research Center, then directed by my later father, J. Barkley Rosser [Sr.]. However, they were notoriously the Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight and hit the physics department instead, killing a physics post-doc, Robert Fassnacht, and injuring several other people, as well damaging buildings even blocks away, aside from the major damage to Sterling Hall itself.  

Of the gang, three would eventually be apprehended and serve time in jail: the two Armstrong brothers from the east side of Madison, sons of an Oscar Mayer plant worker, Karl, the group's leader who was caught first and served seven years, and his younger brother, Dwight, who served three years and is no longer alive, with David Fine of Baltimore also serving three years.  The fourth member, Leo Burt, remains at large.

Last October I wrote an 8-page essay reminiscing about the bombing that contains details both representing my peculiar perspective as well as some tidbits not widely public information.  I am willing to send it to anybody who requests it of me.  It contains six parts.

The first and longest part is about my relations with my parents, with a lot of information specifically about my late father.  We respected each other personally, but disagreed politically, although I never approved of violence and thus severely disapproved of the bombing, as well as some personal mistreatment my parents experienced.

The second part recounts my own experiences on the day of the bombing, which is short as they were unexceptional, especially compared to many other people then (I was nowhere near it when it happened).

The third part, also long as the first one, involves a more detailed analysis of the AMRC and issues surrounding it.  This includes that indeed people working there, certainly including my late father, did work of the value to the US military, with some of it being used in Vietnam, the main complaint of protesters who wanted the center shut down or at least moved off campus. However, I also note that mathematics has many uses, both good and bad, and that some of the math developed there is also used in economics, including in such beneficial areas as environmental economics.  It is easy to say that maybe there should be a "good" math research center not funded by the military, but in fact when the military funding disappeared later, none other was forthcoming and the center simply closed.

The fourth part reveals that the wrong person died in the bombing.  Fassnacht was in the lab because the wife of his professor, the late Bill Yen, demanded that Bill stay home for domestic reasons.  Bill was supposed to be in the lab, not the unfortunate Robert Fassnacht.

The fifth part involves a later event, a mitigation hearing held in the fall of 1973 after Karl Armstrong was captured.  He plead guilty, but the mitigation hearing was officially about his sentencing, although it ended up being essentially a trial of the whole war in Vietnam, with famous outside lawyers participating such as William Kunstler. I offered to testify, thinking the judge was not impressed by all this, but one of the local attorneys said this was not needed. However, in the end, the judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years, of which seven were served.  After getting out, Karl Armstrong for many years ran a fruit juice stand near campus, "Loose Juice," and I got to know him.

The final section recounts a banquet in July, 1989 associated with a conference of old UW radicals returned to town.  At the banquet, which I attended, Karl Armstrong appeared and delivered an eloquent and unequivocal apology for what he and his gang members did, ranging from to the Fassnacht family to the anti-war movement, which the bombing severely damaged. 

There is much more detail I am leaving out in the essay, but I conclude this by noting that we have seen some protesters in recent months engaging in violence.  This event needs to be remembered as a warning that it is easy for violence to get out of hand and go too far and damage the cause that is supposed to be serving.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, August 21, 2020

Whining About Lack Of Academic Leadership

 At my so-called university named for the fourth president, the slaveowning "Father of the Constitution."  No, I am not going to talk about the racism issue, which there is some effort to deal with on campus, notably in renaming three buildings named for Confederate figures, with our Provost originally from South Africa speaking reasonably intelligently about that issue.

No, we had our annual general faculty meeting to begin the year, classes supposedly beginning on Wednesday, supposedly a mixture of live and online, although likely to go totally online any minute as Eastern Mennonite University also in Harrisonburg just went totally online and delayed student move-in due to an outbreak of the virus, and Facebook is full of photos of our students partying without masks and packed together on balconies. We will not be far behind on that one.

So many of my colleagues never attend these meetings, but when I have been in town, I have since I first started here in 1977, the year the name was changed from Madison College and there were only a third as many students as there are now.  The speeches are mostly full of party line rah rah baloney I have always had fun making snide remarks about to pals. But in fact I have long enjoyed seeing faculty from across campus, with this meeting increasingly the only time in the year one sees any of them.  I knew that was not to be this year with the meeting virtual, but another regular feature has been a speech by our president, with the current one starting his 8th year here, Jonathan R. Alger.  These speeches, despite usual propaganda, also usually do provide some information about new developments on campus, and there have been some not related to racism or coronavirus, not to mention relations with Richmond, important as this being a state school.

But, no, Alger did not speak except for a minute at the beginning to introduce the Provost. OK, I get that he does not want to say anything inaccurate, but there is much he could say that is not inaccurate, including being honest about just what all we do not know and is up in the air. But he chiekened out, a complete failure of academic leadership.  I am already down enough as it is with everything, but I admit that irrational as it might be, this failure of him to speak at all left me completely demoralized at the end of the meeting, which they did not even clearly announce.  The Provost stopped speaking and sort of said "have a good semester," with many of us watching still pictures for quite some time obviously expecting Alger to appear and speak, gradually dropping off. I hung on until the number dropped below 30, the old number of statistical significance, before I left demoralized and depressed.  I have gotten over that and am now just disgusted and ticked off at this complete cowardice and lack of academic leadership.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Kamala Harris Also Has An Economist Uncle

 Who I happen to know and who got his PhD in economics and computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is now being identified in the media as Gopalan Balachandron, which puts his last name first.  I knew him as a grad student when Kamala's dad, Don Harris, was on the UW faculty, and he was "Bala Gopalan" to all of us, a very witty and cosmopolitan guy.  When I saw him on the news, now 80 years old and living in Delhi and praising the selection of Kamala as Dem VP candidate, I was not sure it was him, but quick checking established it is.  I finally also remembered somebody bringing it up that he was Don's brother-in-law, only two years older than him, but he did not want to talk about it, this being when the marriage of Don and Bala's sister was going down the tubes.  

The news reports have it that when he was working most recently he was working for an Indian government-related think tank called the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in its American Affairs section.  I also saw one report referring to him as "Prof." which makes me think he was an academic for awhile, but I lost track of him after he left Madison, except for hearing from a common old friend of ours in Chennai that Bala "works for the government in Delhi."  But I guess not anymore.  It strikes me that if Biden-Harris win, Bala might become an important diplomatic player.

It also strikes me that if Kamals's dad, Don Harris, continues to lay low and essentially not support her, I could imagine Uncle Bala getting brought in to provide some male family support.  I bet he could handle the media well. He is quite a character and very sharp as well as articulate.

Barkley Rosser