Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Shiller Hystericizes The US Housing Market

I have the deepest respect for Robert Shiller, who has been one of the most serious students of the dynamics of speculative bubbles there is, winning a well-deserved Nobel Prize for his work on this important topic.  One of the more significant parts of his work has been on housing bubbles in particular, with his Case-Shiller indices being the most widely watched housing price measures in the US. Furthermore, in the second edition of his excellent Irrational Exuberance he laid out the case that housing prices from 19997-98 onwards into the early 2000s were almost certainly a massive bubble that would crash hard with dire consequences.  He was right.

So it is with some trepidation that I question his arguments in a recent New York Times column and in other outlets to the effect that we are again experiencing a speculative bubble in US housing markets (and it should be kept in mind that these are local so varied and not all behaving similarly).  The centerpiece of his argument is that the average nominal house price in the US has now reaxhed and seems to be surpassing the peak level in 2006 before the crash that brought on the Great Recession.  Needless to say, this is serious stuff that desrves a close look.

Unfortunately these recent public statements by Shiller lack a crucial item that was crucial to the case he made in the second edition of his Irrational Exuberance that there was the biggest housing bubble in U/S history.  That would be take account of the best measure of the fundamental, housing rents, or to translate that, to consider the path of the price/rent ratio.  That he convinceed many people, including me, that housing prices in the early 2000s were a major bubble was that he showed that the average price/rent ratio had been rising in an unprecedented way, with it having been relatively stable theough most of the 20th century, including during the 1940s period that saw a major increase in housing prices.  But that increase paralleled a rent increase thar indicated that indeed there was a major shortage of housing.  The fundamental rent indicator triggered after a few years a supply repsonse that stabilized both rents and housing prices.

In his NY Times column, Shiller claims that there  have in the last century been now three great increases in housing prices, somehow without ever mentionging rents or incomes, a sometimes alternative to rents fairly strongly correlated with them.  One was the 1940s runup, which seems not to have been a bubble because there was a genuine shortage of housing due to low construction during the Great Depression and WW II, with the returning vets from the war wanting housing.  So both rents ans prices soared for several years until a new equilibrium was achieved, although Shiller somehow did not fill out those details in this recent column.  Then there was the screaming bubble of 1997-2006, which he accurately called.  Then he threw in the most recent price  increase, emphasizing that it now matches and is beginning to exceed the 2006 peak, but somehow not having a word to say about rents.  Frankly, I am mystified at this important lacuna.

As it turns out, this recent price runup is sort of midway once one take into account what has happened to rents.  For some reason Cas-Shiller does not track rents, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does.  So if one puts these together using Jan. 1998 as the 100 base, then the national peak of the ratio occurred in late 2006 at about 1.87.  It fell to about 1.2 at the price trough in 2012, and it is now at about 1.37.  So clearly it has risen over the last six years, but that increase is about .25% while the curren level is still about twice that lower than the peak in 2006.  Maybe this is a bubble, and certainly some local markets look like it.  But this is still a long way from what we saw  in 2006.

So what is up?  One thing that is up is that there clearly has been a lack of housing construction, given the steady increase in prices over rents since 2012 to a pretty high level. It is not clear why this has happened.  It certainly cannot be blamed on high interest rates, even though those have been rising in the last few years.  They still remain below historical averages in real terms.  The obvious other culprit, emphasized by Ed Glaeser and others with good reason has been the mulifsrious restrictions on construction that are notoriously especially present in some of the hottest housing markets in the nation, such as LA and the Bay Area of California, as well as both New York and Boston.  These certainly are worthy of condemnation, but it is not obvious that there has been any substantial increase in their severity in the last decade.  This may be the case, but I have not yet seen anybody making that case at all.

So it is not obvious looking at the usual suspects why we have failed to see US housing markets responding with a quantity supplied increase to this clear increase in both rents and prices.  Rents have risen, but interest rates remain not too high, and supply has not been forthcoming.

Having poked at the estimable Shiller, I recognoze  that while he emitted a vibe of worrying about a housing bubble he held back from outright declaring that we are in one.  I am sure he knows the data that I have pointed out here, even if he was not fully forthright about it in his recent columns and other public offerings.  Not all is well in the US housing market. 

The price/rent ratio has been rising, showing some signe of incipient bubble behavior, if still not too wild in the vast majority of the US. But the failiure of housing supply to respond to the clear increase in rents, let alone the larger increase in housing prices, is something worrisome and to be concerned about.  At the bottom end, rising rents drive rising homeleessness more than rising house prices, and we already have more homelessness than we should have.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, December 10, 2018

On, Wisconsin?

As most regular readers here know, I have long and old connections to the state of Wisconsin, having gone to high school, undergraduate and graduate school, as well as having family members there since then, with me visiting on a regular basis.  When I first moved there back in 1963, the atate had the reputation not only as a Progressive stronghold, the home of "Fighting Bob" LaFollette as well as the location of Ripon, where in 1854 the Republican Party was founded in its days as the anti-slavery party of Abraham Lincoln (that first meeting had a non-trivial number of refugees from the failed German Revolution of 1848).  On top of that, and at least as important, it had a reputation for clean government, super clean government.  William Proxmire was a senator from there who refused to take campaign contributions and made his name exposing wasteful government programs with his "golden fleece" awards (actually that came after I arrived).  I was a conservative/libertarian in those days, making me less proud of the progressive heritage, but I was proud of its clean government rep.

OTOH, there was also a dark side, which even my conservative father disliked, the fact that Proxmire was the successor to none other than Joe McCarthy, one of the worsst senators in US history.  That was also part of the state's heritage, although many who voted for him thought that they were doing so as part of an effort to clean up corruption by an Eastern Establishment elite, just as many voting for Progressive "Fighting Bob" thought they were doing (and I am certain that there were people in the state who voted for both, with some of them probably also later voting for George McGovern, who was popular in Wisconsin, also out of an anti-Eastern Establishment motivation).  In any case, Wisconsin has long had a deep political polarization, with this long being mostly within the Republican Party, with different parts of the state adhering to different traditions, with the reactionary McCarthy's base in the northeastern part of the state still the base for that dark side, even if awful outgoing Governor Scott Walker coming from the Milwaukee suburbs.

Which brings us to the current situation following Walker's defeat by Tony Evers for the governorship after two terms, in which along with GOP control of both houses of the legislature as well as the state Supreme Court he undid substantial portions of the progressive heritage of the state on many fronts, with Walker openly denouncing that heritage and proud of his handiwork.  Of course for some time he had dreams of taking all this to Wasington as president, but somebody named Donald Trump pushed him aside to get the job.  And now Walker is on the way out.

But now the state legislature is imitating what the GOP-dominated one in North Carolina attempted after a Dem replaced a GOP as governor, only to be mostly blocked by courts, to pass laws limiting the power of the incoming governor, with the also GOP-led Michigan legislature following along as well, if not with quite as extreme moves.  In Wisconsin, although they did not move up the date for the election of a Supreme Court justice, they have passed legislation preventing Evers from making lots of appointments, allowing legislators to hire private attorneys to counter moves by the also Dem incoming Attorney General, such as to remove Wisconsin from the ongoing court case to upend the ACA, to restrict early voting, and to maintain control over the apparently corrupt state Economic Development council (so much for that clean government tradition). 

How bad things in Wisconsin are is that this legislature is massively gerrymandered and may be hard to get out of power.  The sign of it is that while Dems won 53% of the legislative vote, the Dems won only 36% of the seats.  These guys are clearly desperate and scrambling to hang onto power as long as they can in the face of the electorate turning against them.  Two further points.

One is that while Scott Walker apparently signaled his support for all this legislation, now six days since it was passed, he has not signed any of it. He has four more days to do so, and it is now clear he may be listening at least somewhat to those urging him to veto all or at least some od this mess.  Why might he?  He is clearly totally self-centered, so I think he is looking at his political future.  Given that even some Republicans in the state are critiizing this legislative initiative, he may be trying to keep his options open for possible future office in the state. After all, he lost by a narrow maring in this just completed election.  Signing this might well kill that.  OTOH, he may be looking at going to Wasington, with it basically certain given the high rate of turnover going on in the Trump administration that something desirable might open up, although it also may become unpleasant if he cannot avoid annoying the prez.  As it is, it is not obvious to me whether signing or vetoing or going partway between the two will help or hurt such prospects for him more.  But I suspect that this concern is part of his consideration and delay in acting on this initiative.  That what he does is as of now unclear, is why I put the ? in the title of this post.

The final item is an annoying development in the media, with over the weekend Chuck Todd of NBC engaging in a two-sideism on this matter of GOP-controlled state legislatures trying to take away power from incoming Dem governors.  He claimed that the Dems have also done this in the past.  But, in fact, this is simply not true.  This sort of thing has never happened in US history prior to the moves last year in North Carolina.  Todd has simply flopped on this, although I am unaware of him admitting it yet

Anyway, we wait now with baited breath to see which on way Wisconsin will go with all this.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Is the "Green New Deal" a Marxist Plot?

At the CEPR blog, Beat the Press, Dean Baker and Jason Hickel are debating degrowth. Dean makes the excellent point that "claims about growth" from oil companies and politicians who oppose policies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, "are just window dressing." I also agree, however, with the first comment in response to Dean's post that his point about window dressing could be taken much further.

I would add that economic growth is window dressing for what used to be referred to much more aggressively as "man's triumph over nature" or the "control of nature." Climate change deniers are more forthright about this connection between aggression and so-called growth: "Is “Strive on -- the control of nature is won, not given” a controversial statement? What does it mean for science if it is?" asks Linnea Lueken at the Heartland Institute website.

Scattered throughout his writings, Donald Winnicott made fleeting but intense criticisms of "sentimentality." "Sentimentality is useless for parents," he remarked in a 1949 article on the analysis of psychotic patients, "as it contains a denial of hate, and sentimentality in a mother is no good at all from the infant's point of view." The inference he drew from this observation was that "a psychotic patient in analysis cannot be expected to tolerate his hate of the analyst unless the analyst can hate him." 

In a 1946 article on the treatment of juvenile delinquents, he warned against "one of the biggest threats" to the use of psychological methods in the management of young offenders was "the adoption of a sentimental attitude towards crime:
If advances seem to come but are based on sentimentality, they are valueless; reaction must surely set in, and the advances had better never have been made. In sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up.
The most thorough discussion by Winnicott of his aversion to sentimentality is probably his 1939 article, "Aggression and its roots." As it is only three paragraphs, I quote it in its entirety:
Finally, all aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution. At the back of all play, work, and art, is unconscious remorse about harm done in unconscious fantasy, and an unconscious desire to start putting things right. 
Sentimentality contains an unconscious denial of the destructiveness underlying construction. It is withering to the developing child, and eventually it can make him need to show in direct form destructiveness which, in a less sentimental milieu, he could have conveyed indirectly by showing a desire to construct. 
It is partly false to state that we 'should provide opportunity for creative expression if we are to counter children’s destructive urges'. What is needed is an unsentimental attitude towards all productions, which means the appreciation not so much of talent as of the struggle behind all achievement, however small. For, apart from sensual love, no human manifestation of love is felt to be valuable that does not imply aggression acknowledged and harnessed.
He might well have added, "And I'm not so sure about sensual love." 

This all may sound somewhat arbitrary and speculative but actually it is a very compressed and jargon-free application of Melanie Klein's developmental theory of the self. What Klein referred to as the depressive position involves an infant's feeling of "guilt" -- or in Winnicott's less extravagant terminology, "concern" -- about its aggressive fantasies toward its mother. In Klein's rather lurid account of the infant's aggressive fantasy:
The phantasied attacks on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out, and rob the mother’s body of its good contents.… The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother.… These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure the object but also to control it and take possession of it.
Whether or not the infant has such unconscious aggressive fantasies about the mother's body, Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of Exxon, expressed similar, fully-conscious ones, "My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that's what I want to do..." Robert White-Stevens, the corporate-designated nemesis of Rachel Carson following the publication of Silent Spring, exemplified the "control of nature" faction of science:
Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.
White-Stevens's vision of a "feeble creature" penetrating "every corner of the planet,"  and "contest[ing] the very laws and powers of Nature, herself," could have been written as a Kleinian parody of the of the infantile arrogance of scientistic triumphalism:
Within the past 100 years, man has emerged from a feeble creature, virtually at the mercy of Nature and his environment, to become the only being which can penetrate every corner of the planet, communicate instantly to anywhere on earth, produce all the food, fiber, and shelter he needs, wherever he may need it, change the topography of his lands, the sea and the universe and prepare his voyage through the very arch of heaven into space itself. 
This is the stuff that science is made of, and man has learned to use it. He cannot now go back; he has crossed his Rubicon and must advance into the future armed with the reason and the tools of his sciences, and in so doing will doubtless have to contest the very laws and powers of Nature herself. He has done this already by expanding his numbers far beyond her tolerance and by interrupting her laws of inheritance and survival. Now, he must go all the way, for he cannot but partially contest Nature. He has chosen to lead the way; he must take the responsibility upon himself.
But I digress. What does all this have to do with economic growth? Again, as Winnicott explained, "aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution." However, "[i]n sentimentality there is repressed or unconscious hate, and this repression is unhealthy. Sooner or later the hate turns up." Indeed, the hate does turn up at the Heartland Institute, where the "Green New Deal" is exposed as the "Old Socialist Despotism."

If it fails to acknowledge the primitive aggression of "man's triumph over nature" that lies beneath the reparation of adopting environmentally-friendly policies, the debate between degrowth and green growth risks descending into sentimental bickering about the window dressing in the hotel on the edge of the abyss.

Mourning The Death Of The New World Order

I think this is behind the apparently bipartisan and intense outpouring of mourning over the death of 94 year old George H.W. Bush, indeed with some of this even being for the broader post-World War II era in which the US predominated over the world.  Bush was president when the long Cold War with the former Soviet Union came to its end with the victory of the US and the breaking up of the USSR, as well as being the last president to have been a veteran of WW II, and a highly decorated one at that, leaving only Bob Dole as a major political figure still alive who is a veteran of that increasingly distant war that ended with the US clearly on top of the world economically and politically.  While the Bush family has reportedly promised to avoid criticism of President Trump at later today's funeral, who will attend if not deliver a eulogy, iit is both the personal contrast between Bush and Trump that is propelling this high level of mourning, the general personal decency of Bush with the utter lack of any on the part of Trump, but Trump's role in apparently pushing forward the dissolution, or at least serious weakening of that order that Bush supposedly oversaw the beginning of at the end of the Cold War, a period when the US moved into a position of complete leadership with Francis Fukuyama even declaring that we had come to the "end of hisotry" as lwesttern-style iberal democracy seemed to sweep all before it.

For all of his personal decency and moderation, as well as his generally capable and cautious handling of foreign affaris, Bush can be criticized for many things, mostly regarding domestic matters.  He opposed the Civil Rights Act at the time it was being considered, although he later regretted that.  His campaign ran the infamously racist Willie Horton ad when he ran for president in 1988.  He ignored his own warnings about how Reagan's claim that he could cut taxes, increase defense epending, while reducing the budget deficit amounted to "voodoo economics," to join the Reagan admininistration as vice president and then promise "read my lips, no new taxes" while running in 1988.  Of course he damaged himself politically by violating that promise in a budget deal in 1990 that involed raising taxes, with this preceding an economic downturn that led to his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992.

Nevertheless, despite these and other flaws, the contrast with the current incumbent, and on some matters with his own son, George W. Bush, GWH Bush looks on many matters like the epitome of wisdom and caution.  He did not crow as the Berlin Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact broke up and the Soviet Union came to an end.  Rather he negotiated a reasonable nuclear SALT treaty with Soviet llleadr Gorbachev as it wound down.  He moved to support the entry of the nations coming out of the Soviet breakup into various international organizations.  He quietly aided the reunification of Germany, which has turned out to be a peaceful power.  He did not invade Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War.  He afreed there is a problem with global warming and supported improvements in environmental legislation.  He took a fairly even-handed position vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians and supported negotiations that would eventually lead to the Oslo Accord under Clinton. He supported negotiaions for expanding freer trade and the establishment of the World Trade Organizaion, again also completed under Clinton. He did not repeatedly lie or personally excoriate enemies or denouce the press as the "enemy of the people."  Indeed, even as he climed not to be a "visionary" and merely competent and relliable (which he mostly was) he coined the term "New World Order" or at least advocated it, with this largely open and democratic order now apparently falling apart in a wave of nationalism and authoritarianism now spreading, with the apparent enciiuragement of our current president.

This new turn arguably started with the ascension of Vladimir Putin in Russia at about the same time that Bush's son became president, although Putin's authoritarian tendencies only gradually showed themselves over time.  But Trump's embarrssing and apparently corrupt fawning oveer Putin has highlighted the current state of affairs.  China never stopped being nationalist or authoritatian, but power seems to be being centralized under President Xi even as China's position rises in the world, with it playing at being the defender of at parts of that New World Order as Trump so blatantly runs from it with such moves as his withdrawing of the US from the Paris Climate Accord as well as his trade protectionism policies as well as various international nuclear agreements from Iran to the INF with Russia.  Even as Trump will now face some limits on his activities with the Dems taking control of the House of Representatives in the midterms, and he seemed imostly solated at eh G20 summit, in many countries authoritarian nationalists resembling or even openly imitating him are comintg to power or increasing their power, including in Hungary and Poland and Italy, as well as Turkey, Sauddi Arabia, India, and most recently and dramatically Brazil, where Bolsanaro promises to follow the US in withdrawing from the Paris Clinate Accord as he plans to ignore indigenous rights while engaging in massive deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.  Several of Trump's strongest critics seem about to lose power or becoming serously weakened, including May, Merkel, and Macron. 

Supposedly he has achieved a truce with China on his trade war with them.  But the sharp decline of the US stock market yesterday shows that many realize that this may be a meaningless flop along the lines of his nuclear agreement with North Korea and his trade war truce with the EU.  In both of these latter two we were supposed to get negotiations, but none have occurred yet, and it is not clear any well.  Mostly what we have seen is the lowering of tensions that Trump himself artificially escalated.  This "deal" with China looks to be no different: the removal of a dangerous threat Trump made with a promise of future negotiations along with a promise that China will buy more US soybeans, which was probably goint to happen anyway.  Even his replacement deal for NAFTA seems in danger of coming apart, despite it being officially signed by Trump and Trudeau and Pena-Nieto (the latter on his last day as Mexican president), as it now looks as though the incoming Congress is not keen on approving it.

So the we see the widespread mourning for the late senior President Bush, as the world seems to be moving to being run by loudly nationalist and authoritarian leaders.  Increasingly the danger seems not to just be trade war but war war.  Let us hope that the worst of this will not come to pass, but that New World Order that the late President Bush supported seems to be passing for good, despite its various flaws and hypocricies, and there is probsably good reason to mourn its passing.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Janet Yellen "Not Tall Enough"

So said Donald Trump on several occasions in connection with possibly appointing her as Fed Chair, according to an article in today's Washington Post by Philip Rucker, John Dawsey, and Damian Paletta.  This article, along with several others, mostly covered the 20 minute interview these three had with Trump in the Oval Office.  Most of the news was was expected: on MbS still "maybe he did and maybe he didn't" on his role in the Khashoggi murder; "i don't see it" regarding evidence of a human role in global warming presented in the recently released climate change report, and California forest fires still due to poor forest management (with Interior Sec under investigation Ryan Zinke weighing in on that one about the importance of good forest management).  No, the top story was about the economy.

So Trump is blaming GM's impending layoff of 15,000 workers on the Fed raising interest rates, no role for his steel tariffs.  Janet Yellen should probably grateful she is not in the firing line.  It is Jerome (Jay) Powell who is, with Trump declaring "So far, I'm not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay.  Not even a little bit. And I'm not blaming anybody, but I'm just telling you I think that the fed is way off-base with what they are doing."

Now arguably the Fed is being too vigorous about raising interest rates, and they may well slow down or even halt this if the rumblings of growth slowing become louder.  That said, if Yellen had been reappointed probably we would have seen interest rate increases  this year, if possibly maybe not quite as rapidly as we have seen (or would have with some hawk outsider many Congressional Republicans were pushing like Jon Taylor).  But the Fed is much more of a group operation than many realize, especially given that the Chairs for quite some time have sought more or less consensus decisions, even as they are often scattered dissidents making public noises.  And this consensus has a strong element coming from the staff and their models, with all of this building in a lot of momentum.  Once the Fed gets itself into doing something, like deciding on the string of interest rates they have been doing, it is hard to undo that.

While I am not enthusiastic about it, I do see one reason for some interest rate increases.  It is the matter of looking ahead to the next recession: if interest rates are not up at least somewhat, it will be hard to cut them much to stimulate the economy when it goes down again.  Obviously the problem is avoiding having those increases pushing the economy into that, although it may be that the zero lower bound is not the limit anymore we have thought it was in the past, with many nations running negative nominal rates for extended periods of time.  OTOH, Trump himself is at least partly responsible for rising interest rates, especially the longer term ones the Fed has less control over, thanks to his exploding budget deficit.

So what about this report about Yellen?  Apparently this was  not a matter that came up in the interview specifically, but near the end of the lead article, Rucker, Dawsey, and Paletta wrote the following, which I shall simply quote and end without further comment.

"Trump considered reappointing Yellen, and she impressed him generally during an interview, according to people briefed on their encounter.  But advisers steered him away from renominating her, telling him that he should have his own person in the job.

The president also appeared hung up on Yellen's height.  He told aides on the National Economic Council on several occasions that the 5-foot-3-inch economist was not tall enough to lead the central bank, quizzing them on whether they agreed, current and former officials said."

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Trump More Seriously Kowtows To MBS

We have already seen the spectacle of Trump simply dismissing the reported CIA conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ("Maybe he did, maybe he didn't")  He has put forward silly excuses for this: low oil prices! (nonexistent) hundreds of billions of dollars of arms deals!  Key to the anti-Iranian coalition!  Oh, and also supposedly key to Israeli-Palestinian peace, this last especially ridiculous since Trump supported moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, wirh Saudi King Salman himself intervening to denounce that.  Of course most of us suspect that his willingness to spout off on all this stuff has a lot to do with money personally flowing to him and Jared Kushner, quite aside from the sword dance and orb and all that stuff they showered him with on his first foreign trip as president.  But now we are seeing a new and more disgusting level of kowtowing to MbS and the Saudis.

This has to do with the war in Yemen.  Juan Cole reports that the US is blocking a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Britain and supposedly supported by all the other nations in it for a ceasefire around the Yemeni port of Hodeida.  This is the port through which most supplies go to the Houthi-controlled areas in the northern part of Yemen, including the nominal capital, Sana'a.  The official government, now operating out of Aden to the south, the former capiral of the formerly separate South Yemen, a Sunni govenment backed by the Saudi and UAE, has been attacking Hodeida, apparently hoping to conquer it and cut off supplies to the Houthis with the intention to starve them into submission.  Even though many in the US DOD and Congress, including many GOP senators, have become increasingly unhappy with the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthis, and the US has apparently ceased aiding the refueling of the Saudi bombers, although apparently they do not need the US assistance on this.  Reportedly we are still providing crucial intel in support of this bombing campaign, which has led to many civilian deaths, and the population is also reportedly on the verge of famine, as well as suffering from a cholera epidemic. 

The UNSC proposal is for a ceasefire around Hodeida, but MbS reportedly "threw a fit" when he learned of this proposal, which apparently includes wording that is very supportive of the Saudi-backed government in Yemen and critical of the Houthis. But MbS wants no halt to the campaign to conquer Hodeida and starve the Houthis and those in their territories.  So, Trump has kowtowed to this "fit," and is apparently blocking the proposal, despite it coming from the British and containing anti-Houthi language.  There have been reports that MbS has said that he has Jared Kushner "in his pocket," but it is now screamingly clear that this nauseating murderer also has President Trump "in his pocket" as well.

I am not going to comment on the volatility of oil markets, but I am going to note that Trump is now proposing to put Venezuela on the list of "state sponsors of terrorism" along with North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Iran.  It is increasingly clear that this list is overwhelmingly political.  Most definitions of "terrorism" involve the killing of innocent civilians outside of formal war.  It is many years since Iran has engaged in such activities, and I am unaware of Venezuela ever supporting such activities or carrying them out itself.  But Saudi Arabia has actively supported al Qaeda factions in Syria, and while it might claim that it is formal war, its bombing in Yemen is generating the largest ongoing flow of civilian deaths anywhere in the world right now.  It is a war the Saudis started at the behest of MbS back in 2015 when he became Minister of Defense, a position he still holds.  So, Venezuela goes on the list, and Iran keeps being claimed to be the "world's most important state sponsor of terrorism."  But not only is Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MbS killing far more civilians, MbS now has the US president actively blocking efforts to stop the slaughter.

Oh, and a final note is that the "White House" has forbidden CIA Director Haspel from testifying behind closed doors on the matter of the Khashoggi murder to the Senate  Intelligence Committee.  Although CIa directors have traditionally and regularly done so, those at the White House have given no reason for this decision.

We have sunk very low.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, November 23, 2018

A Vicious Place

The world according to Trump -- notice a trend here?

Reporter: "Who should be held accountable?" [for Jamal Khashoggi's murder]

Trump: "Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place." -- November 22, 2018.

"The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we're civilized. In truth, it's a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they're out to kill you." Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, Donald Trump & Bill Zanker, 2007, p. 71.

"Life is not easy. The world is a vicious, brutal place. It's a place where people are looking to kill you, if not physically, then mentally. In the world that we live in every day it is usually the mental kill. People are looking to put you down, especially if you are on top. When I watched Westerns as a kid, I noticed the cowboys were always trying to kill the fastest gun. As a kid, I never understood it. Why would anyone want to go after the fastest gun?

"This is the way it is in real life. Everyone wants to kill the fastest gun. In real estate, I am the fastest gun, and everyone wants to kill me. You have to know how to defend yourself. People will be nasty and try to kill you just for sport. Even your friends are out to get you!" Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, Donald Trump & Bill Zanker, 2007, p. 139.

"Well, not all people. But it's a vicious place. The world is a vicious place. You know, the lions and tigers, they hunt for food, we hunt for sport. So, it can be a very vicious place. You turn on the television and you look at what's happening." Interview with John Barton, Golf Digest, October 13, 2014.

"This is the most deceptive, vicious world. It is vicious, it's full of lies, deceit and deception. You make a deal with somebody and it's like making a deal with-- that table." Interview with Lesley Stahl, CBS 60 Minutes, October 15, 2018.

"This is a r-- this is a vicious place. Washington DC is a vicious, vicious place. The attacks, the-- the bad mouthing, the speaking behind your back. --but-- you know, and in my way, I feel very comfortable here." Interview with Lesley Stahl, CBS 60 Minutes, October 15, 2018.

Squanto --- A Sad Thanksgiving Tale

I do not know how widely it is still taught or how, but when I was in elementary school in Ithaca, New York, I was taught about the "First Thanksgiving," an event that happened in October, 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, following a good harvest after the pilgrim colony, founded in 1620, had a hard year that saw half their population die (about 50 people, mostly of starvation).  It was a joint feast of the pilgrims with neighboring native Indians of the Pokenok tribe of the larger Wampanoag confederacy, led by Massasoit.  Crucial to the event was the assistance of Squanto, who taught the colonists how to grow corn (maize) and several other crops, including the use of fish for fertilizer, thus becoming the model of a "good Indian" who helped European, especially English, colonists in what would become the United States.  Much of this is true, although much is murky, such as what exactly was eaten aside from the deer brought by Massasoit's people (probably not turkey).

The problem with the tale is more about what is left out rather than any outright falsehoods such as claims that what was eaten was what is now the standard set of dishes consumed at modern Thanksgiving dinners.  It was not even the first Thanksgiving on US soil, with previous ones in St. Augustine, Florida in 1585 and at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619, although both of these were simply major thanksgiving prayer sessions that did not involve either food or participation by neighboring native Indians, with indeed the Berkeley colony being completely wiped out by a native Indian attack in 1622 that also nearly wiped out the nearby Jamestown colony.  But there are more important things left out, with some of them disturbing and sad.

I found out about this stuff as I investigated this matter this year anticipating having Thanksgiving dinner with my niece, Erica Werner (who writes for the Washington Post), and the extended family of her husband, Bill, and their adorable two young daughters, Lucy and Olive.  As it was, both because there were too many grownups talking about this and that as well as them being clearly fully occupied with other matters, I did not get around to telling the tale there.  So I am telling it here, an addition to the old tale I and many others were taught in school at some time or other.

The most important detail is that the pilgrims were far from being the first English people to have dealings with the various tribes of the Wampanoag confederacy in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island (where Massasoit had his home base).  There were at least two previous attempts to start colonies in the area, in 1602 and 1605, both failed as the English insulted the natives and provoked them into hostilities, as well as failing to figure out how to produce food.  More egregious than just trying to impose Christianity and treating them as inferiors was that beyond these two failed efforts, English traders and explorers would regularly raid the tribes, outright stealing goods, and more importantly, kidnapping tribal members.  This is where the story of Squanto begins: he was kidnapped by a Captain Tom Hunt in 1614.

Squanto was what he was called by William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, who was his good friend and the main source of what we know of him, although he was called by various names, with his real name mostly likely being Tisquantum.  There are several conflicting accounts of what happened to Squanto after his kidnapping.  An important fact is that his kidnapping (along with four others) happened while he was involved in transactions in the fur trade, which was already well established in southeastern Massachusetts due to Champlain in Quebec having established trading relations with many tribes that extended that far south (but not further), with the French treating the native Indians far better than did the English in new England at the time.  One account has Squanto being sold into slavery in Spain but then escaping and making his way to England, where he not only learned English, if he had not done so already, but managed to make friends with some merchants.  He was eventually shipped to Newfoundland to assist in various trading activities, but by 1619 ended up back in his own original neighborhood living with Massasoit's people, possible as a captive.

Which brings us to another poignantly sad point: Squanto was the last member of his tribe to live, the Patuxet, who may have numbered as many as 2,000 at one time. The others were all wiped out in an epidemic that came south from the French during 1617-19, probably smallpox, although possibly something else.  The main village of the Patuxet and Squanto's old home was on the site that would become the location of the Plymouth colony in late 1620.  When in March, 1621, at the encouragement of Masssasoit, Squanto with his English language skills went to live in Plymouth, he was returning to his old home town, now bereft of all those he knew when he lived there previously (his year of birth is uncertain but thought to have been around 1585).  Indeed, contraty to the image I got in school of the colonists simply landing at Plymouth Rock and immediately settling down, they had wandered about the bay there from one location to another, finally selecting Plymouth when they found dwellings and even food and cultivated fields left by the recently deceased former inhabitants.

Among the most important things he did was to negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists and Massasoit, which would hold until the death of Massasoit in 1660 or 1662 (a few years after that would be the disastrous for the Pokanoks King Philip's War, with King Philip, originally Macombet, a son of Massasoit).  It s easy at this point to view Massasoit as possibly being some sort of sucker fool for having friendly relations with the Plymouth colonists, especially given what would come later in King Philip's War and the more general total conquest and subjection of the New England native Indians of all tribes (including the Massachuset, another tribe in the Wampanog confederacy).  But the Pokanoks had also suffered grievously from the epidemic, if not to the point of outright exrtinction, whereas the neighboring Narragansssett to their west had not, having stayed out of the fur trade networks established by the French.  Part of Massasoit's treaty involved mutual defense, and to their credit the Plymouth colonists did assist Massasoit at one point when his people were attacked by the Narraganssett.  He was not just some foolish sucker.

It should also be cleat that whereas his image sort of has him being barely above that of Tonto, the sidekick of the Lone Ranger on 1940s and 50s radio and TV, Squanto was also not a sucker at all.  Indeed, he clearly was a very successful operator, having already had experience with the fur trade prior to his kidnapping, and taking advantage of his language and diplomatic skills to negotiate many deals from which he gained.  His craftiness even led him in 1622 to denigrate Massasoit to the Plymouth colonists, resulting in Massasoit demanding that he be handed over, which they did not do.  However, Squanto would die that fall while on a fur trading expedition.  What is unequivocal is that between his technical advice on farming as well as his assistance in making peace with Masssasoit and getting the colonists involved in the fur trade, he was indeed invaluable to them to the point that indeed they probably would not have survived if it had not been for him (of course in 1630 the Puritans arrived and founded Boston, so even if the Plymouth colony had failed, the English would take New England).

Regarding the first Thanksgiving, it was a three day affair that initially did not involve the native Indians.  But the colonists were firing off guns as part of the party and Massasoit had his people check out what was up. When they realized it was a party, they just showed with four or five deer and joined it.  Curiously, in the very abbreviated account of that feast, Squanto is not mentioned, but he was living in Plymouth at the time and so almost certainly participated, whatever was actually eaten.

The celebration was not repeated and became almost forgotten, although there would be sporadic Thanksgivings later in the region.  Memory of it and renewed celebrations began in the 1820s.  In 1863, Abraham Lincoln established it as a national holiday, with the 1621 events getting much publicity and mythologizing after that.

Curiously, for all his genuine importance, there are no memorials to Squanto, no public statues and nothing named for him with the possible exception of a spit of land near Dorchester, MA called Chisquantum Point that may have been named for him.  OTOH, there are quite a few public statues of Massasoit, the most famous overlooking Plymouth Rock, with another in a prominent place in Kansas City, MO, and several in Utah, where the Mormons make a big deal out of him.  There are also various sites and entities named for him, including a community college in Massachusetts.  It may be that he was ultimately a more important figure than Squanto, but he did not suffer the difficult and outright tragic events that Squanto did.  I think few modern Americans know that Squanto was kidnapped and the last member of his tribe to live, an unfortunate fact too deeply rooted in the relations between the European colonists of North America and the native population.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, November 19, 2018

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Lots of bad op-ed stuff gets published in the New York Times and other mass circulation outlets, so I usually give it a pass, but today’s attack on free higher education by David Leonhardt is about my day job, so I have to make an exception.  He repeats the utterly bs line that, since most college students are from the upper half of the income spectrum, using public funds to pay their way is regressive.

No, no no!

First, why is the college student population so skewed to the higher brackets?  There are many reasons, but the financial burden of attending—not only tuition, but also the opportunity cost of not working—is a big factor.  The problem with free higher ed is that, the way it’s usually framed, it doesn’t go far enough.  As in European countries and elsewhere that take this issue seriously, students should not only get free tuition but a stipend.  We can afford and should demand the same.

Second, what Leonhardt doesn’t mention is the student-worker phenomenon, the crushing workload on college students holding down part time and even full time jobs.  Evergreen State College, where I work, just released the results from its survey of incoming students, and more than half expected to work to support themselves while attending classes, most of them more than 20 hours per week.  I see this reality every day in the classroom, where students struggle with not enough time to keep up with assignments, sometimes even nodding out to recover from a late night shift, or the emails apologizing for being absent because of a work schedule change.

College is hard.  It should be enough for students to commit to doing the academic work to the best of their ability; we shouldn’t ask anything more.

And finally we confront the economics.  Yes, even if college were free there would be high attendance rates among the better off.  There’s a simple solution for that, folks: tax the rich.  If we can’t finance a large expansion of education quality and affordability by shifting priorities away from nonproductive purposes (starting with military pork), increase taxes on the upper brackets.  It’s way better than means testing public support, which is Leonhardt’s suggestion.  Means testing is the enemy of the welfare state, and every time policies are drafted in this way they are politically poisonous and riddled with false negatives and positives that undermine their lofty targeting goals.  (Some legally independent students actual receive substantial support from their folks, while many who are supposed to be drawing on parental largesse aren’t.)

Don’t overthink it.  Make public higher ed free, provide stipends, and if it needs to be financed, raise the money progressively.

ps: I am sidestepping the question of debt foregiveness, because it’s more complicated.  Debt load is partially a function of college cost, and the pricier colleges, not surprisingly, serve wealthier students.  I can imagine a variety of responses to student debt overhang, a topic for another day.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

MbS Guilty!

According to the top stories in both the New York Times and Washington Post this morning, somebody in the CIA has leaked that Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  Of course no sensible observer is remotely surprised, but the Trump administration had been working mightily to deny this obvious fact, with reports surfacing that they were plotting to send Turkish cleric Gulen to Turkey as authoritarian President Erdogan has long been demanding (Gulen is Erdogan's all-purpose scapegoat for everything) in the hopes that Erdogan would stop making it clear that MbS was guilty of ordering the assassination.  But now there is no point in that as the cat is fully out of the bag, no matter how much this leak will anger Trump (Fake CIA leak!).  Indeed, it may well have been reported unhappiness by various government officials in the face of this effort to sacrifice Gulen that triggered the leak.

What is a bit surprising is that the leak involved publicizing that NSA bugs the Saudi embassy, although I would imagine that anybody there who did not know that was stupid.  But crucial to the leak is both that MbS phoned his full brother, Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the US, ordering him to phone Khashoggi and tell him he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to the documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee, and that he would be safe in doing so, and that KbS then followed through and made the phone call. The only thing we do not know is whether KbS was in on what was going to happen to Khashoggi or not when he made the phone call.

This really puts Trump on the spot, although ultimately he put himself there by being such a sucker for  all this phony baloney nonsense MbS has fed him through Jared Kushner.  Indeed, reports have it that Trump had begun to figure out that MbS was not all that reliable.  Trump already some time ago backed off supporting the ridiculous MbS campaign against Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Persian Gulf, with that campaign a total flop, even as MbS persists with it.  Also, at least some in the administration (Pompeo and Mattis at least) seem to have begun to sour on US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.  The US is going to stop refueling their bombing planes there, although reportedly they do not really need that US support, so not too big a deal.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Trump has really not wanted to have to do much more and wanted the Saudis to have a "better coverup," he having already used that word in a critical way. Now the cover is completely and hopelessly gone, although it is highly likely that inadvertently Trump himself encouraged this assassination, making MbS think he could get away with anything and that given Khashoggi was writing for the "Enemy of the People" Washington Post, he might even be doing Trump a favor. 

Trump's main argument has been that he did not want to lose $110 billion in arms sales, but in fact there never was anywhere near that number.  Much of what was signed was already in the pipeline from Obaama, and most of the rest was just vague statements of intent.  If MbS were to react by canceling Trump-made agreements, it would amount to very little.  This was always a matter of farcical propaganda, which made it all the more nauseating as Trump clearly valued it way over any concern for what happened to Khashoggi.

The other important area has to do with oil markets, which had already gotten into a state of high volatility over Trump's reimposing of sanctions on Iran, a stupid move itself. This economic war on Iran of course is the other reason why we are supposed to be big pals with KSA and ignore them murdering their own people.  But that whole effort has been a farce, given Iran adhering to the JCPOA nuclear agreement.  As it is, apparently out of fear higher oil prices would hurt GOP chances in the midterms, Trump got the Saudis to increase oil production, but then oil prices tanked, partly on weaker demand due to the decelerating growth in China, so now we have them all scrambling with the Saudis now announcing production cuts to push the prices back up.  It is not at all cleat that there is any clear US interest in all that, so however Trump might sanction them, if he actually does, will probably not have much impact on that already discombobulated market.

Anyway, Trump is now facing a hard choice.  Does he openly show how much he loves authoritarians murdering dissident journalists even when they are based in the US and work for US news media?  He praised Putin for being "strong" when asked about him allowing dissident journalists to be killed.  But this is a different kettle of fish, and even lots of Republicans in the Senate are up in arms about this matter.  It is clear that MbS has really messed up, and now Trump is on the hot seat.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, November 12, 2018

Is It Not The Economy, Stupid?

On many Mondays I indulge in taking Robert J. Samuelson to task after his regular Washington Post column of the day.  Today he was almost right, or if you prefer, even mostly right.  This one was titled "It's Not the Economy, Stupid" about the outcome of the midterm election, as well as a delayed comment on the 2016 presidential election (although, of course, HRC did win the popular vote by three million popular votes, if not the electoral college).  His main argument is that in both of these elections, but especially last week's midterms, the state of the economy was relatively unimportant.  The argument is that here is Trump with GDP growth exceeding 3%, the unemployment rate under 4%, inflation largely under control, but this supposedly good performance did not help him out much with his party taking a pretty serious hit (the size of which still being counted).  He also sees something similar in 2016, although arguably the economy was not as strongly favorable, but still quite respectable while not obviously helping the incumbent party.  Indeed, in 2016 many saw the economy as hurting the Dems, especially in the Rust Belt.

There is a lot of truth to this, with a lot more attention on ethnic and cultural issues, although it should be kept in mind that the top issue for Dems, health care, is at least partly an economic issue.  Certainly one sign of the weakness of the economic issue is the matter of the big GOP tax cut.  They were quite convinced when they passed it last December that this was their ticket to a strong showing in the midterm election.  And indeed it is almost certain that at least some of the acceleration of GDp growth can be attributed to it even if it may be setting up the economy for slower growth down the road.  So according the usual views, it should have helped the GOP. But in the end it seems to have been an electoral flop.  It has consistently done poorly in the polls, and most GOPs running for reelection in the end barely mentioned it.

But then the major source of reported public unhappiness with the tax cut is revealing.  It is the massive inequality obviously inherent in it: the vast majority of the gains went to the top ends of the income and wealth distributions, and everybody knows it.  As it is, supposedly the vast majority of taxpayers did get a cut, but for vast majority of that vast majority, it was such a small cut that they barely noticed it.  In fact, Obama gave a bigger tax cut back in 2009, but the same thing happened then.  When the GOP claimed he had raised taxes, a majority of voters believed them.  They barely noticed the actual cut they got.  No, it does not seem voters are all that upset about the increased deficit, but they resent that so much of it went to the rich.

So in both 2016 and in 2018, a major problem was that while there were all these good looking aggregate statistics, a majority of people really did not notice much improvement.  Yes, job security has steadily improved, but this still has not shown up in wage increases, although reportedly there has begun to be some increase of those recently.  But as with the tax cut, not too much, or maybe too little too late.  The bottom line here is that most people simply are not seeing all that much economic improvement, so while it is not a negative, the economy is not remotely the positive many think it might have been or should have been.  Most of those gains have gone to the top, and that was going on while Obama was president as well.

There is another matter in the midterm election where economics may have shown its old important tole, curiously reported on in WaPo two days earlier.  This is that it looks like Trump's trade war may have impacted several congressional races, mostly not to the GOP's favor.  There seems not to have been much impact, if any, on Senate races, with Dem candidates in Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri losing even while trying to score against Trump's trade war.  But supposedly the issue played for the Dems in in several races where growing soybeans is a big deal, notably two races in Iowa, one in western Illinois, one in southwestern Wisconsin, and one in southeastern Minnesota, with Dems flipping all these seats while pushing hard on the trade issue.  OTOH, one of the two seats that flipped from GOP to Dem was the northeastern seat in Minnesota.  This is where the Mesabi range is and still probably the largest source of iron ore of any House district in the nation.  Anyway, its economy is booming thanks to the tariff on steel and aluminum imports.  So, we know that so far basically the one industry that has really done well from the Trump trade war has been steel, and so it is not surprising that a district heavily dependent on producing iron ore would boom and favor the GOP, while districts with industries, like soybeans, hurt by the war would go the other way.

So, Samuelson's claim that "It's not the economy, stupid," seems to be a bit overdone, if not completely false.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Serious Centennial

After failing to show up at a major American cemetery in France at least our president did not add to his shame by failing to show up for the big show with 60 or so other national leaders at the Arc de Triomphe for the official ceremony marking the centennial of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of November, 1918, when the guns fell silent on the western front of World War I, officially ending it in the eyes of most historians, even though fighting would escalate in certain other important zones whose outcomes still shake the world, most notably between Greece and Turkey, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire coming out of that leading to many wars since, some of them gong on right now.  We get it that Trump was uncomfortable given that President Macron was lecturing against the sort of nationalism that led to WW I, with a three day forum to follow that Trump will run as fast as possible back to the US to avoid. And, hey, Macron did not even have tanks and missiles for the parade this time, which Trump really likes to see.

This important day, the first Armistice Day, which we renamed Veterans Day in the US after the War to End All Wars' unfortunate sequel (actually  in 1954 right after the end of the "forgotten" Korean War) and have since turned into one of those Monday holidays, has turned into a curiously sad one personally.  It involves another war, Vietnam.  My cousin, Bill Atwater, died yesterday, the day before this serious centennial and also the 243rd birthday of the U.S. Marines.  Yes, Bill was a Marine and was in Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange that led him to have various cancers that basically led to his death, although it was an opportunistic pneumonia that finally actually did him in.  He will be cremated with his ashes spread over the cemetery at Arlington. I had not communicated with him directly for over 20 years (did through another cousin), but he told me at his mother's funeral that he had been spat on when he returned to the U.S.  I have more recently seen stories that such reports were exaggerated, if not outright true.  As it is, I have no way of checking on Bill's story now, but I know  that he was a multiply wounded man.

Maybe those tales of spitting were exaggerated or untrue, but it is true that in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War its vets were widely disrespected.  Peaceniks did not like them because of alleged war crimes (some of which were committed) while hawks did not like them because they lost.  This attitude began to change with the dedication of the Vietnam "wall" memorial in Washington on Veterans Day in 1982.  But the rancor remains as I could see in a Veterans Day parade this afternoon in Harrisonburg happening because of the centennial, with a lot of Vietnam vets marching or riding on their hogs, with all those POW-MIA flags flying,

Of course every war leaves its survivors as victims, even those surviving a supposed clear victory like that War supposedly to End All Wars a century ago.   Millions died and a world order was broken. We know that as it started many leaders and people in the combating nations were enthusiastic about it, hoping or a glorious victory within a short time period, even including most of the leftist socialists who were supposed to recognize international working class solidarity, but in so many numbers went along with the nationalist frenzy and war whooping enthusiasm.  And now we see the same sorts of noises and delusions in many nations, fed by lies upon lies.  Resisting this is so important on this anniversary.

Barkley Rosser

The Death of Shame

In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful.  Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed.  They should repent their sins and promise to make amends.  Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?

Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals.  (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.)  We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force.  That’s what holds us together.

It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon.  Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out.  A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this.  Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.

All of this depends on the biological mechanism of shame to kick in: those whose hidden misdeeds have been exposed should feel disarmed and admit defeat.  It isn’t enough that they be reviled by other members of the community; if direct coercion is unavailable for any reason, it is only the shame response that makes exposure a force of justice and not an empty gesture.

But the shame response shouldn’t be assumed.  In fact, what evidence we have suggests it operated only within limited circles through most of human history.  Liars and cheaters were accountable to their peers but not underlings or outsiders.  If a Roman warlord falsely took credit for a battle won by a rival, this might be a problem if the truth were known by other commanders, but would it matter what the soldiers knew?  Shame was circumscribed and structured by deeply embedded customs and social hierarchies.  You might have the fantasy you could go back in history and present the truth those who lived through events couldn’t see, but how much difference would it have made?

The faith that shame is a force of universal application and effectiveness is a modern indulgence, a product of the rationalism and optimism of an Enlightened world.  It ignores at least two uncomfortable truths.  The first is that the shame response is not equally strong in all people.  Some are ruled by the fear of shame and exercise little independent judgment or initiative.  Others are almost impervious to it; they seem almost to feed on the disapproval of those around them and succumb only to the application of overwhelming power.  The second is that shame, like all other psychological factors, is mediated by the way we make sense of the world—religion, ideology, and social custom.  This is why priests and warlords experienced shame only among their peers and not universally, and why the notion of universal shame is a historically specific political hypothesis.

So back to the present time.  Those of us who take the Enlightenment outlook for granted tend to assume it’s enough to bring out the facts about dishonest, corrupt or abusive power holders to cause their downfall.  In case you have noticed, however, it’s not working.  We have a president whose rampant dishonesty and exploitive behavior has been amply documented, but he doesn’t care and just continues on.  The Kavanaugh hearings were more of the same, not only for Kavanaugh himself but also the senators shepherding him to his seat on the Supreme Court.  And it is wider and deeper than this: think of the campaign for war against Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush could even make a comedy skit out of the pretext of looking for weapons of mass destruction.  Or the patently dishonest arguments put forward to justify tax cuts for the rich.  Exposing these lies gave many of us a sense of vindication, but it had no effect on outcomes.  Above all, those in power showed no sign that they cared whether or not they were exposed.  To stop them it was necessary that they be stopped.

I see two reasons why we are having an epidemic of shamelessness.  The first is the emergence of a philosophy on the political right that the majority of the public is craven and easily duped, so the higher good depends on a strategy of deceit.  This has its roots in the teachings of Leo Strauss, the philosopher who taught generations of University of Chicago students after fleeing the Third Reich in the 1930s.  Strauss believed the great works of philosophy were written in code, since deep thinkers, by virtue of their very depth, understood that most people were shallow and un-virtuous.  They couldn’t say this out loud, so they had to devise clever ways to say it to their inner school of acolytes.  (For a counter-view, see this, but it argues only for Strauss, not his students.)  Strauss transmitted this perspective to young skeptics of liberalism, who developed it into a high-minded critique of democracy, from which it devolved into the end-justifies-the-means credo of movement conservatism.  Far from evoking embarrassment and shame, being revealed as a liar is a badge of honor among the elect; it shows they are elevated above the credulous masses.  Movement activists discovered this philosophical stance is also a source of tremendous power: once you are no longer in thrall to your scruples or anyone else’s and can be held back only by a superior force, most mechanisms of social control have no effect, and you can accomplish greater things.  Note, by the way, that such cynicism is not a monopoly of the Right; classical Leninism too justified shameless deceit on the ground of the relativity of morals and the overriding logic of History; public exposure of facts had no effect on Communist show trials.

It seems to me another element is at work, although I can’t quite describe it.  Many people who have not transcended the shame response in their own lives (they are “good people”) nevertheless vicariously identify with heroes and celebrities who have.  It seems there is a thrill to be had in cheering on the bully we are not capable of being ourselves.  But why should there be a historical ebb and flow to this spectacle?  Why now and not before?  Why is Trump admired for his disdain of social norms, while Nixon succumbed to his?  Is it connected to the evolution of movement conservatism, as the Straussian sneer is translated into tweets and viral video clips?  Is it a product of the pseudo-intimacy of the virtual world, where the thrill of the bully, transmitted to us through what feels like a personal medium, can be experienced almost first-hand?  Or something else, or all of the above?

I would like our culture analysts, who are so adept at discerning subtle shades of colonialism in language and art, to take up the study of shame and its progressive disappearance from public life.  In the meantime, those of us who are disgusted by the shameless behavior of those in power should have no illusions.  We won’t get them to back down by uncovering further evidence of their misdeeds, although evidence remains the basis for rational judgment and should always be sought.  Only greater political power will overcome shamelessness.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Siphoning off the Increment to Pay for the Excrement, 2018

"In a Wednesday morning note to investors entitled "It's always a party, regardless of party," Jefferies investment analyst Sheila Kahyaoglu noted the 2006 midterm election, in which Democrats seized the House at the height of the U.S. war in Iraq. Defense companies' share prices climbed an average of 18 percent during that year."

A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon tax in Washington State, lost by almost 12% of the vote this week.  Commentators on all sides have interpreted this as a decisive defeat for carbon pricing, making more indirect policies like subsidies to renewables the only politically feasible option.*

I don’t have time for a lengthy analysis, but in a few words I want to suggest that this conclusion is premature.  I live in Washington State and saw the battle unfold first hand in real time.  Voters were not asked by opponents of 1631 to reject carbon pricing; on the contrary.  And it was the failure to draft and promote a straight-ahead carbon pricing law that doomed it.

While supporters of 1631 point to money from fossil fuel interests as the “cause” of their defeat, the actual propaganda of the No side did not belittle the threat of climate change, nor did it even argue against the need for action to reduce emissions.  It hammered on these points:

1. 1631 was weak.  It excluded too much of the state’s emissions and wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on them.

2. Nevertheless it would raise energy bills for virtually all the state’s residents.

3. It proposed an undemocratic procedure for allocating carbon revenues.

The money behind this message may be “bad”, but the message itself was correct.  1631 was so poorly conceived that the arguments of the troglodytes were closer to the truth than those of the progressives.  Take them one by one:

1. 1631 was the second carbon tax initiative in two years.  Last year’s effort, I-732, had broader coverage and allowed for higher carbon prices over time.  It was opposed by progressives, who organized to defeat it and then drew up their own, weaker proposal.  There is a lot of detail to go into, but the short version is that 1631's carbon price was essentially symbolic, a few cents on the carbon dollar.  It was not a meaningful action to deal with the threat of a climate catastrophe.

2. This one was particularly galling for me as an economist.  Supporters of 1631 actually campaigned on the argument that the tax would be paid by a few large corporations, not by all of us.  On this point the No crowd was entirely right and the Yes entirely wrong.  I’m sure many pro-1631ers really believed that energy taxes aren’t passed through to consumers, but those at the top who drafted the proposal knew better.  Their public communication was dishonest, they got called on it, and they lost.

3. 1631 was the product of horse-trading between various interest groups.  Environmentalists wanted carbon revenues to go for green infrastructure.  Identity groups wanted funds funneled into minority, immigrant and low-income communities.  Unions wanted money for workers in the fossil fuel sector who might lose jobs.  Tribes wanted the state to defray the costs of climate change that impinge on them with particular force.  All of these are worthy goals in their own terms.  The problem is, how to translate a deal reached around a table between various representatives of these movements into a political process for disbursing public funds.  The solution they came up with was an appointed board of 15 “experts” who would control the allocation, carving off the carbon money from the general fund and its control by the state legislature.  Do I understand the distrust of the legislature?  Yes.  Was this blatantly undemocratic and contrary to the widely-held principles of how government ought to operate?  Also yes.  The No people blasted this idea again and again, and the public responded predictably.

The defeat of 1631 was an own goal by the progressive community.  We still haven’t had a vote on a sensible, defensible carbon pricing measure.  Until we do, I don’t want to write off the political feasibility of taking direct action against climate change.  A better bill would have universal coverage, as stiff a carbon price as possible, and—because carbon prices would eat significantly into household budgets—would return most or all of the revenues back to the public, ideally in equal lump-sum rebates.**

*Subsidies to renewables, energy efficiency programs and the like, while highly desirable, have only indirect effects on the use of carbon energy.  They shift the demand for fossil fuels to the left by some amount, but in a complex, evolving world with many other factors influencing global energy markets, the effect on emissions is unpredictable.  A direct approach uses the power of law to keep some portion of fossil fuels themselves in the ground, either by a cap on their use or price increases calibrated to corresponding use reductions.  The indirect approach to carbon is direct in its impact on renewables and other resources it targets, just as the direct approach to carbon is indirect in its effects on renewables and efficiency.  Ideally we should adopt both approaches, with programs directed against carbon fuels and for energy alternatives.

**732 was intended to rebate carbon revenues, but through tax cuts.  This was a mistake, since the amount of the rebate was variable (depending on how complex tax formulas would be affected by changing state economic conditions) and the rebates greater for those with higher incomes.  Worse, a portion of the cuts was allocated to business taxes in a misguided effort to buy off business and conservative interests.  The mobilization against it by progressives was vigorous and emotional; I attended an event in which supporters of 732 were called racist from the podium.  Mainstream environmental groups joined this opposition in order to demonstrate their social bona fides.