Friday, November 15, 2019

Is Venezuela Stabilizing?

Maybe.
ry It looks the inflation ratei in Venezuela maxed  out in January at an annuualized rate of 192,000 % , whiich fell by September to 4,600% rate, still in hyperinflationary teritoryy, but  clearly coming down substantially.  I am not  a fan of this regime and never was, unlike some prominent economists saying nice t8ings about tueir economic performance, especially back in 2007, just berofe  the  world crash, when indeed their  numbers  looked prtty good.  But, not more recently unfortunately.  But maybe they are slowly returning to a more functional economy now, with still a long way to go.

There are also reports that oil production in Venezuela has recently risen.  Reportedly some of the recent possible stabilization in Venezuela may reflect influence of Russian advisers.

Barkley  Rosser

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Are Robots Stealing Your Job?" is the Wrong Question

Andrew Yang says, "Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job" in an op-ed at the New York Times. Paul Krugman thinks they're not and advises, "Democrats, Avoid the Robot Rabbit Hole." This is, of course, a classic case of asking the wrong question.

The real question is: will robots burn down your house and kill your grandchildren? Let's imagine that all those self-driving trucks and the computers needed to guide them will run on electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Will the robots in the truck factories and the robots in the computer factories also run on wind and sunshine? How about the robots in the wind turbine factories and the solar panel factories and so one ad infinitum? I know an old lady who swallowed a fly...

Let's assume that it is feasible to phase out all current fossil fuel consumption by 2050 and replace it with renewable, zero-carbon energy. Does that mean it is equally feasible to provide the additional energy needed to run all those job-stealing robots? Or to put the question in proper context, would it be feasible to do it without an uncorruptable, omniscient global central planning authority?

The hitch in all this robot speculation is a little paradox known as Jevons paradox conjoined at the hip, so to speak, with it's counterpart, "Say's Law." The former paradox says that greater fuel efficiency leads to more fuel consumption, the latter paradox tells us that labor-saving machines create more jobs than they destroy. Here are two inseparable positive feedback loops that together generate an incongruous outcome. "Yes the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders." Or lots of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or a monthly $1,000 payment to every adult "so that we can build a trickle-up economy," Choose your poison.

There is, they say, "a certain quantity of work to be done." Who says that? Good question. In the beginning, it was the political economists -- even proto political economists -- who said it. But around 1870 economists realized that the maxim conflicted with other things they had in mind so instead of professing it they began to condemn it and to attribute the idea to others -- to Luddites, Malthusians or Lump-of-Laborers. The idea that a people could always do more work was just too great a temptation. In principle, the amount of work that could be done is infinite! The robots will not replace us! The robots will not replace us!

What this job-stealing robot debate is really all about is an economics version of theodicy. "Why does evil exist if God, the creator, is omnipotent, omniscient and good?" This theological question is echoed in the puzzle about poverty in the midst of plenty and in Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees," where private vices promote public virtues. If it seems like robots are stealing your job, have faith, all is for some ultimate purpose in this best of all possible worlds, as Candide's tutor Dr. Pangloss would assure him.

Taking the Panglossian philosophy into account, it becomes clear that both Andrew Yang and Paul Krugman are on the same page. They are just reading different paragraphs. Although they disagree on what the solution is, they agree that there is a solution and it doesn't really require a fundamental change in the way we think about limits to the "certain quantity of work to be done."




Ukraine Corruption and Transfer Pricing

As I listened to the testimony of Bill Taylor and George Kent, I was also reading up on some South African transfer pricing case involving iron ore:
Kumba Iron Ore will pay less than half of the tax bill it received from the SA Revenue Service (Sars) last year following audits of its export marketing practices during the commodities boom. The settlement of R2.5bn significantly overshot the R1.5bn Kumba had set aside as a contingent liability. It is, however, a fraction of the taxes, penalties and interest payments Sars was pursuing the country’s dominant iron ore producer for. The existence of a potential tax liability was first reported to shareholders in June 2014, but Kumba could only put a number on it early last year when it received a tax assessment of R5 billion for the years 2006 to 2010.
If this account sounds like a lot of accounting gibberish, one might check with other accounts including whatever BDO wrote but these other accounts were even less informative. To paraphrase one commercial “people who know” avoid BDO. I think what happened is that the South African tax authority objected to what it saw as a lowball transfer pricing paid to the South African mining affiliate by a tax haven marketing affiliate and decided to completely disallow any commission income for the tax haven affiliate. This account at least notes that Kumba Iron Ore eventually told its shareholders that there might be some transfer pricing risk and that the issue was eventually resolved with a more modest commission rate booked by the marketing affiliate. So what does this have to do with Ukraine?
There is high public interest in the topic of “offshores” in both Ukraine and the EU. It is of particular importance for Ukraine which is categorized as an “open economy”, meaning a country with a high share of exports and imports relative to GDP. In particular, iron and steel production and exports from Ukraine are very significant even by the scale the global iron and steel markets. These sectors have also become the single largest source of wealth for the richest Ukrainians ... It is intriguing that even the Ukrainian authorities publicly declare that there is significant profit shifting occurring to avoid corporate taxation. For instance, according to the State Fiscal Service of Ukraine the usage of transfer pricing within all types of operations results in 100 billion hryvnia tax avoidance annually (around 3.3 billion euros), which leads to almost 20-25 billion hryvnia loss of the national state budget (Riabych, Vakulchyk 2015). This budgetary loss is equivalent to 660–750 million euros, which is comparable to the scale of the annual macro-financial assistance received by Ukraine from the European Union in the last several years to fill the budgetary gap.
The authors spend considerable effort attempting to document the extent of transfer pricing manipulation involving Ukraine’s exports of iron ore and steel. While I’m not convinced they have the right metrics, let’s admit that such tasks are difficult without the multinationals providing information on their business and transfer pricing policies. Of course, multinationals involved with the type of tax avoidance suggested in this document are reluctant to provide such clarity unless they were compelled to do so. It was funny yesterday when the Trump sycophants whined about second hand information with the obvious reply being to demand the testimony of those with first hand information. Now if we could get Rudy Giuliani under oath, not only should he be asked about UkraineGate but he should also be compelled to tell us what he knows about Ukrainian iron ore transfer pricing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

What quid did the president quo and when did he quo it?

Aside from the headline news about a July 26 phone call, I learned four big things from the impeachment inquiry hearing this morning. First, the specific corruption surrounding Burisma Holidings had to do with self dealing by company founder Mykola Vladislavovich Zlochevsky -- issuing oil and gas licences to his own company when he was Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources. In other words, Zlochevsky did exactly what Donald J. Trump attempted to do with his Doral Golf Club and the G7 summit.

The second thing I learned is that President Trump was nursing a grudge against Ukraine because some Ukrainian politicians said some nasty things about him after he made a comment about letting Russia have Crimea. That's why he felt Ukraine "owed" him. The third thing is that the Ukraine shit made fanfall just about exactly the time that Trump was extemporizing about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama. Who knew Trump could multi-task?

The fourth thing I learned is the big one. There was not one quid pro quo but two. One involved Zelensky, the other Putin. That's the significance of the timing of the Trump-Zelensky phone call -- the day after Robert Mueller's congressional testimony was a dud. Humiliating Zelensky by forcing him to make a public announcement of a politically-motivated investigation of Biden-Burisma-2016 would hand to Putin his reward -- a weakened negotiating partner -- for the favor of having helped put Trump in the White House. The art of the deal, indeed.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

OK, Who Approved Of The Ads Here Now?

And not only that, presumably they are paying money to put them on, so who is getting that money?  I am not, although it may not amount to much.  Hey, I see there  are not nearly as many as on Angry Bear, where I find them to be obnoxiously in one's face, and they are pretty low key.  But, personally, I would rarther not have them and I sure as hell was never asked by anybody if I did want them.

This is also a message to those who may think I should be getting rid of weird stuff showing up in posts that I am not the person in charge of that.  So I guess I also have no say on whether we get ads, much less what they will be for.  Heck, I saw some survey about Trump.  I do not even want to see his m--f--g face here at all.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, November 8, 2019

"ok boomer " or "gas all boomers"

Within the last week or so there seems to have been an explosion of yattering over "ok boomer." Over the last few years in various parts of the internet there was a self-righteous meme pushing "gas all boomers."  Yeah. This never made it to the MSM, I suspect  because it was just too extreme for the MSM to publicize.  But now we have the MSM allover this milder "ok boomer" meme, now a big deal.  I think I have an original view of this,that the "gas all boomers"  is an idealistic millennial view, reflecting their boomer parents. This new milder meme reflects the view of the Gen-Z group, \

My view is that the former nastier "gas all boomers" meme was from the idealistic millennials, strongly rebutting their boomer parents,  We failed them, and them wanted us gassed for our  failures to deliver for them, especially in the Great Recession, which in their view at least of several years ago, was our boomer fault, although that is a pretty weak argument.

But now w come to this milder meme of "ok boomer," how polite.  Word is  that this is coming from Gen-Z sources, a groups younger than the angst-ridden millennials., who seem to have come up with the "gas all boomers" meme that went nowhere.

Obviously younger generations in the US have reasons  for being unhappy. The US economy, along with the  world economy, is slowing down.  Both the milllennials and the Gen-Z group face higher college costs and housing costs than their predecessors.  That the boomer gen is responsible for this outcome is a highly unreasonable view.

The middle portion of the millennials have  indeed been big victims of the Great Recession, and will for the rest of their lives will have lower incomes the MSM, was just too shocking, while arguably idealistic hard core in its formulation

But the new less shocking "ok boomer" meme is  coming from the new rising Gen-Z gen. Most commentary has lumped them in with the millennials, but this is crap.  They are following the "ironic" meme of their  parents, the supposedly loser Gen-X, with their irony.

So indeed that is this new "ok boomer" meme  that  is ironic, coming from the Gen-Z gen, following their  Gen-X "ironic' parents.  This contrasts with the hard line millennial "gas all boomers" view, ironically following the idealistic view of their boomer parents.

Barkley Rosser
 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mankiw’s Ideal Democrat (Bloomberg Alert)

Greg Mankiw has always been a Never Trumper:
I just came back from city hall, where I switched my voter registration from Republican to unenrolled (aka independent). Two reasons: First, the Republican Party has largely become the Party of Trump. Too many Republicans in Congress are willing, in the interest of protecting their jobs, to overlook Trump's misdeeds (just as too many Democrats were for Clinton during his impeachment). I have no interest in associating myself with that behavior. Maybe someday, the party will return to having honorable leaders like Bush, McCain, and Romney. Until then, count me out. Second, in Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can vote in either primary. The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, where it has to choose either a center-left candidate (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang) or a far-left populist (Warren, Sanders) as their nominee for president. I intend to help them choose the former. The latter propose to move the country too far in the direction of heavy-handed state control. And in doing so, they tempt those in the center and center-right to hold their noses and vote for Trump's reelection.
In a way I get this and a lot of other centrist Republicans are saying similar things. Enter Michael Bloomberg:
Michael Bloomberg is taking steps to enter the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, a person familiar with his plans tells CBS News. Bloomberg, 77, has dispatched aides to Alabama to file paperwork in the state to run as a Democrat. The Cotton State doesn't hold an early Democratic presidential primary, but has the earliest filing deadline for the presidential campaign. Taking steps to file paperwork is the most serious signal yet that the former New York mayor and billionaire is seriously planning for a White House run. Howard Wolfson, a longtime Bloomberg adviser, said in a statement that Bloomberg "is increasingly concerned that the current field of candidates is not well positioned" to defeat President Trump.
I guess Bloomberg thinks Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Yang are way too liberal for his America. Hey Never Trumpers – more tax cuts for rich people! Now of course, we need to pay for all of this and something tells me that proposals to slash Social Security and Federal health care payments are not exactly going to win the Bloomberg ticket a lot of votes. Oh wait – tax the little guy. Of course, Bloomberg has long proposed a soda tax. Let’s hope Mankiw convinces to go for a carbon tax instead. But addressing income inequality in a Bloomberg Administration? Not going to happen if the Mayor of Manhattan (mainly the Upper West Side and Upper East Side) becomes President!

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The ARAMCO IPO Stumbles Out The Door

Finally after numerous delays, the potentially largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) of stock has finally become for fully state-owned ARAMCO in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  MOst of the delays had involved an unwillingness by the Saudi royal family to publicize financial and other factual details about the company, although issuing an IPO for 5 percent of the company was a part of the Vision 2030 plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). 

As it is, for the time being the IPO is only available to Saudi nationals through the Riyadh stock exchange.  It is unclear how long or even if it will open up to foreigners.  Reportedly the Saudis are hoping for it to value  the company at $2 trillion, which would put it well ahead of Apple and Microsoft, both of which are around $1 trillion.  But some observers think this is overly optimistic on the part of the Saudis for a variety of reasons.

Along with that, the US has this past month for the first time since 1978 recorded a trade surplus in petroleum products.  This will continue to put  downward pressure on global oil prices, and also depress the prospects for how much money this IPO will raise in the end.

Barkley Rosser 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Has Tyler Cowen or John Cochrane Ever Heard of Monopsony Power?

I’m going to replicate one portion of a long winded rant about alleged cognitive dissonance:
The argument for a minimum wage is that labor demand is inelastic -- employers will hire the same number of workers. They will just absorb the higher wages or pass along the costs to customers. Workers get all the benefit. If labor demand is elastic, employers cut back on the number of employees.
Of course, labor economists would recognize that John Cochrane’s entire post assumes a perfectly competitive labor market. One has to wonder about economists who have never even considered monopsony power.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Republican Senators Suggest Trump’s Treason is Legal

Yes – we know President Clinton cheated on his wife while in office. And yes some Republicans such as Trump sycophant Lindsey Graham passed Articles of Impeachment over adultery. Graham was rewarded by being able to move from the House to the Senate where he repeatedly suggested that the Whistle Blower complaint was nothing more than “hear say”. My have things changed:
An increasing number of GOP senators are preparing to acknowledge that there was a quid pro quo in President Trump’s leveraging of military aid with Ukraine as a means to urge the country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, The Washington Post reported Friday. While some Senate Republicans have defended Trump’s insistence that there was no quid pro quo, a growing number of GOP officials in the chamber are adopting the stance that what Trump did was a quid pro quo but that his actions weren’t illegal and don’t constitute impeachment, the Post reported.
Since when did treason become AOK? Yea I know these same Republicans will say “treason” is a harsh word for this holding up of military aid authorized by Congress to Ukraine which needs it to fend against Putin’s invasion in exchange for political dirt on Joe Biden. Of course, Trump’s sycophants say a lot of really stupid things. I listened to two proponents of impeachment debate on what to stress: (a) that Trump was selling out the national interest to our enemy Putin; or (b) Trump was gaining a corrupt benefit. Both statements are clearly true. But we can summarize (a) and (b) into a single and very understandable word – TREASON! Just in case these Republican Senators are confused as to what our Founding Fathers wrote when they gave us the Constitution, let’s remind them about Article II, Section 4 which states:
The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Donald Trump did commit treason. Treason is an impeachable event. The only question is whether these Senators will fulfill their Constitutional roles or will simply remain Trump sycophants. Update: Mike Schupp has a rather weak argument to dismiss my use of the word treason. Yes he cites Article III section 3 but I would argue withholding military aid from Ukraine gave aid and comfort to the Russians who have invaded Ukraine. Mike also wrote this:
But we can't convict someone simply for being a rogue, we try them at law for specific criminal acts.
Sorry Mike but a lot of learned people would disagree. I would also remind people that Senator Trent Lott argued people had committed treason for a lot less than what Trump has done. Speaking of Senator Lott:
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Tuesday that Congress need not prove that President Clinton committed a crime to impeach him. “I think bad conduct is enough, frankly, for impeachment,” said Lott, who has provided guidance to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the House grapples with perjury and other allegations against Clinton. But that is a far different standard from what Lott advocated during the Watergate hearings in 1974, when he was one of President Nixon’s staunchest congressional defenders. Lott and nine other Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee argued then that even proof of criminal conduct by a president was not necessarily enough to proceed with impeachment--precisely the position now taken by the White House and Clinton’s Democratic defenders. “It is our judgment . . . that the framers of the United States Constitution intended that the president should be removable by the legislative branch only for serious misconduct dangerous to the system of government established by the Constitution,” Lott and the other Republicans wrote in a minority report.
Adultery is neither a crime nor “serious misconduct dangerous to the system of government established by the Constitution. What Trump has done does represent the Lott 1974 standard for impeachment.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Death Of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi And Related Matters

The self-proclaimed "Caliph" of Da'esh/ISIL/ISIS, Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarri, who took the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has blown himself up after US special forces successfully attacked his compound in Idlib province of Syria near the Turkish border after a US military dog attacked him. (His nom de guerre was chosen for its links to historical caliphs, the leaders of global Sunni Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammed supposedly in his place, with Abu Bakr being the first such after the death of his son-in-law the Prophet and al-Baghdadi invoking the capital of the most powerful of all the caliphates, the Abbasid that ruled for 500 years from their capital in Baghdad).  A few observations.

While President Trump Trump bragged about this success of the US military for 46 minutes as a personal success of his own, the event was delayed for nearly a week and almost did not happen as al-Baghdadi was reportedly on the verge of moving again from the compound he was caught in because Trump had allowed Turkey to invade northeastern Syria, disrupting the Syrian Kurds there who had been the main US allies against Da'esh and al-Baghdadi, thus disrupting temporarily the planned attack.

While Trump most prominently thanked Russia and secondarily Turkey for their assistance in his speech while barely mentioning the US Kurdish allies, it was the latter who not only were largely responsible for ending the self-proclaimed caliphate as an entity ruling over people and territory in Syria, but also reportedly according to the Washington Post developed the mole within al-Baghdadi's circle who provided the crucial intelligence on al-Baghdadi's whereabouts and the details of his compound that made it possible to carry out this attack successfully.  The only thing Russia did was allow this attack to go forward as they reportedly control the airspace over Idlib province.  I am unaware of anything Turkey did to help this at all and in fact had in the past allowed goods to flow to Da'esh across the Turkish-Syrian border and most recently has been de facto supporting the al-Qaeda-related groups controlling Idlib province on the ground, with al-Baghdadi's compound near the Turkish border and the remnants of Da'esh apparently forming an alliance with those groups after having split from al-Qaeda in Iraq originally, with al-Qaeda considering them to be too violent.

In his bragging account of the successful operation Trump appears to have made up some details out of whole cloth in order to heighten the drama of it all, including perhaps most importantly a claim that al-Baghdadi was crying and screaming in a cowardly way at the end, something that has not been supported or verified at all by anybody publicly having primary knowledge of the events there.

Obviously Trump's decision to let Turkey invade Syria against the Kurds there and to describe these allies without whom al-Baghdadi would not have been found to be "worse terrorists then ISIS" as well as "no angels" as well as approving the entry of Russian and Syrian national troops into northeastern Syria reflects his admiration for the leaders of Turkey and Russia, where has major hotels in Istanbul and long has had financial relations with Russian oligarchs and desires to have a Trump Tower in Moscow.  His willingness to nearly botch this operation by betraying the Kurds (language used by Putin's press secretary, Peskov, regarding his actions) seems best explained by Trump's ongoing view of himself as "being primarily in the hospitality business" as his Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney inadverdently put it in an interview on TV.

We finally have the absurd spectacle of Trump deciding to keep 200 troops in Syria to control a small group of oil wells there that Da'esh had gotten money from selling oil from until the SDF took control of them, but with the largely Syrian Kurdish SDF (which includes Christian Arabs) on the run thanks to the Turkish invasion, control of those wells might fall into the hands of either Da'esh agaiin, who will probably gain from this invasion given the freeing of over 100 fighters, despite the death of its leader, al-Baghdadi, or Syrian national troops backed by the Russians or maybe even the Turks.  Trump is under the fantasy that this oil might be developed and sold by an American company, but none will do so given that they are actually in Syrian national territory and thus this would be illegal internationally, as well as the area being a war zone.  Trump is simply delusional on this matter.

While I do not wish any particular person dead and oppose the death penalty, I do not mourn the horrible al-Baghdadi and am glad to see him no longer around to lead the remnants of Da'esh/ISIL/ISIS (I continue to be appalled by the insistence of western media of calling this renegade murderous outfit "the Islamic State" thus spreading the group's own propaganda).  But rather than deserving praise for this outcome, President Trump deserved the booing and "Lock Him Up" chants he experienced at the fifth game of the World Series given his betrayal of the Kurds that nearly made this operation impossible.

A final note is that in the wake of this, for the first time ever, the US House of Representatives has passed a resolution condemning Turkey for its refusal to recognize and apologized for the genocide carried out by the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire in 1915 against the Armenians.  This resolution, likely not to be passed in the Senate, had strong bipartisan support in the House.  It is about time, and the credibility of  Turkey's claims of innocence in the 1915 matter are as good as their  claims that the SDF was carrying out terror attacks against them, which is basically near zero in both cases.

Oh, Happy Halloween everybody.  I figures this makes for an appropriate post on Halloween.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Famous Baseball-Watching Equality-Equity Graphic, Scrutinized

Here’s the graphic, widely used to explain why equity outcomes require unequal treatment of different people.



Benjamin Studebaker (hat tip Naked Capitalism) doesn’t like it at all: “I hate it so much.”  But his complaints, about the way the graphic elides classic debates in political theory, strike me as being too redolent of grad school obsessions.  The graphic is not trying to advance one academic doctrine over another; it just makes a simple case for compensatory policy.  I agree in a general way with this perspective.

Consider the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates special facilities in public buildings to accommodate people in wheelchairs or facing other mobility challenges.  This is unequal treatment: extra money is spent to install ramps that only a few will use, rather than for amenities for everyone.  But it’s a great idea!  Yes, compensation is concentrated on a minority, but it aims to allow everyone to participate in public activities, and in doing this it embodies a spirit of solidarity that ought to embrace all of us.  By making a simple, intuitive case for focused compensation, the graphic captures the spirit behind the ADA and many other policies that take account of inequalities that would otherwise leave some members of the community excluded and oppressed.

Unfortunately, however, there are serious limitations to the graphic; above all, it embodies assumptions that beg most of the questions people ask about compensatory programs.  Some are challenges from conservatives of a more individualistic bent, others might be asked by friendly critics on the left, but all are worthy of being taken seriously.

1. Watching the game over the fence is binary: either you can see it or you can’t.  In the real world, however, most activites are matters of degree.  You can learn more or less of a particular subject in school, have a better or worse chance of getting the job you want, live in a bigger or smaller house or apartment.  How much compensation is enough?  At what point do we decide that the gains from ex post equity are not large enough to justify the other costs of the program, not only monetary but possible conflicts with other social objectives?  Every teacher who has thought about how much extra attention to give those students who come to the classroom with extra needs has faced this problem.

2. Watching the game is passive, an act of pure consumption.  Things get more complex when inequalities involve activities that produce goods of value to others.  For instance, how would the graphic address compensatory programs for the baseball players?  Yes, a player from an underserved, overlooked community should get an extra chance to show they should be on the team.  But should the criteria for who makes the team be relaxed?  How and how much?  In case you haven’t noticed, this gets to the core of debates over affirmative action.  Again, I am in favor of the principle of taking extra steps to compensate for pre-existing inequalities, but the graphic offers no guidance in figuring out how far to go in that direction.

3. Height is a largely inherited condition, but what about differences in opportunity that are at least partly the result of the choices we make ourselves?  This is red meat to conservatives, who denounce affirmative action and other compensatory policies on the grounds that they undermine the incentive to try hard and do one’s best.  I think this position is too extreme, since inherited and environmental conditions are obviously crucial in many contexts, but it would also be a mistake to say that individual choices play no role at all.  Again we are facing questions of degree, and the graphic, with it’s clear intimation that inequality is inborn and ineluctable, doesn’t help.

4. The inequality depicted in the graphic is height, which is easily and uncontroversially measured.  Most social inequalities are anything but.  Student A went to a high school with a library; student B’s high school didn’t have one.  That’s a meaningful inequality, and if an opportunity can be awarded to only one of them, like entrance into a selective college program, it ought to be considered.  But how big an effect should we attribute to it?  Damned if I know.

5. There is no real scarcity facing the three game-watchers in the graphics.  There are enough boxes to allow everyone to get a good view and enough fence space for everyone to share.  In the real world neither tends to be true.  Resources that can be devoted to compensatory programs are limited, especially on a global scale, which, if you’re really an egalitarian, is how you should think about these things.  Even locally, the money often runs short.  The college I used to teach at could be criticized for not doing enough for students from low income and rural backgrounds with weak K-12 systems (I certainly did), but even with the best of intentions the money was not there.  Of course, where the goods to be distributed are competitive, like slots in a school or job openings at a company, the problem is that there’s not enough fence space to go around.  Yes, we should take action to provide more opportunities and reduce the competitive scarcity.  No, this won’t make the scarcity go away completely.

6. The graphic shows us three individuals and asks us to visually compare their heights.  America has a population of over 320 million, and even “small” communities can have a cast of thousands.  Surely we are not expected to make individual calculations for every person-by-person comparison.  No, those using the graphic usually have in mind group comparisons—differences requiring compensatory interventions according to race, class, gender, ability status, etc.  But while that makes things easier by reducing the number of comparisons, it makes everything else much harder to figure out: How do we measure group advantages and disadvantages?  How do we account for intersections?  Are they additive, multiplicative or something else?  Do all members of the group get assigned the same advantage/disadvantage rankings?  If not, on what criteria?  These are tremendously difficult questions.  I am not suggesting that they force us to abandon an egalitarian commitment to substantive, ex post equality—quite the contrary, in fact.  We do have to face them if we want to reduce the inequality in this world.  My point here is that, by depicting just these three fans watching a baseball game over a fence, one tall, one medium, one short, the graphic is a dishonest guide to navigating actual situations.

My bottom line is that, while I agree with the spirit of the graphic that policies, whether at a single office, a large institution or an entire country, should take account of the inequalities people face in real life and try to compensate for them, how and how far to go is difficult to resolve.  Achieving ex post equality is complicated in the face of so many factors that affect our chances in life, and on top of this, equality is only one of many values we ought to respect.  The real world politics of affirmative action, targeted (as opposed to universal) benefit programs and the like reside in these complexities.  The equity graphic conveys the initial insight, but the assumptions packed into its story make it harder rather than easier to think through the controversies that bedevil equity politics.

Whither Lebanon?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I should probably write about the "big successs" we have in Northeastern Syria thanks to Vladdie Putin talking the Turkish president, Erdogan, into holding back some from his nation's invasion of Kurdish territory.  But, heck, it is still hard to know what is going on there.  So instead I am going to look at events happening in Lebanon mostly under the radar, but that are both connected to the broader war in Syria as Lebanon has been challenged by receiving over a million refugees from that war, but also is experiencing something that resembles events happening in several other nations and that may lead to deep changes in that complicated and  long-suffering nation, things that may actually be hopeful for an improved future, more likely than what is happening to the Kurds in Northeastern Syria.  Lebanon is experiencing massive street demonstration involving hundreds of thousands of people.

Lebanon became independent from French rule in 1943, having been carved out of the Ottoman province of Syria by them following the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement with the British in order to favor the elite Christian Maronite group, who follow eastern rites but are under the Catholic Church, with the wealthy Maronites having had close relations with the French dating back to the Crusades.  With 18 recognized ethnic/religious commuities, the French set up a system based on these groups, but favoring the the Maronites, then the largest group.  The president, as well as the Chief of Staff of the military and the Head of the central bank, were to be Maronites.  The premier would be from the then-second largest group, a Sunni Muslin, and the Speaker of the parliament would be from the poorest group, the Shi'a, who were predominant in the South next to Israel.  The Sunnis would increase in population as waves of Palestinian refugees entered, fist in 1948, and then in 1970 after the failure of the Black September uprising in Jordan, with the PLO taking power in various parts of Lebanon then.  However, the poor Shi'a would become the largest group in population. 

In 1975 civil war broke out initially between the Maronites and the PLO, but various groups sided up up with each other, with some ethnic groups split among themselves, including the Maronites.  The war lasted until 1990, when entry by Syrian forces largely brought it to an end following the 1989 Taif Agreement, which promised that a Senate would be formed that would be led by someone from the nation's fourth largest group, the Druze, but this never  happened.  An important group coming out of the civil war was Hezbollah, the Shi'a group backed by Iran and founded in 1982 to oppose both Israel and the PLO.  Over time it would become the strongest militia and political group in Lebanon, long led by Hassan Nasrallah, and now the most important group in the government, operating through an alliance with current Maronite president, Michel Aoun.  The premier is Saad Hariri, son of a premier assassinated in 2005 by the Syrians, which led to the Cedar Revolution, a massive uprising that led to the Syrians largely leaving, although now the population has surged due to the arrival of many mostly Sunni Syrian refugees from the war.  The current premier also was briefly detained by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, nominally his  ally.

Out of the war and its aftermath, the barely-ruled nation came to be dominated by a corrupt elite from a small group of families from each of the main ethnic groups.  The economy long ago fell into a kind of permanent stagnation, with many public services barely functioning and one of the largest foreign debts/GDP in the world, with these elites siphoning off massive via their corruption.  Anger over this erupted over a week ago fallowing a proposal to raise taxes on phone calls on Whats App.  The demonstrations have crossed party and ethnic lines, with hundreds of thousands in the streets and now calling for a complete replacement of the current regime and all its main leaders and groups, including Aoun, Nasrallah, and Hariri.  This is profoundly potentially hopeful, although where all this will lead remains unknown and unclear.

Curiously this parallels similar demonstrations going on in quite a few nations, nearly all of them initiated by a proposed or actual tax increase, with the Gilets Jaunes ("yellow vests") in France arguably an earlier inspiration.  Such demonstrations, most of them also massive and ongoing, are going on in Ecuador, Chile, Haiti, with also the somewhat related but also somewhat distinct ones in Hong Kong as well.  In short, this is a globally widespread movement that looks to shake up  governments and systems in many nations.  However, the one in Lebanon next to Syria that is still experiencing war that directly impacts it may have the largest demonstrations with those making maybe the most serious demands of any of them.  The long troubled nation of Lebanon now stands at the epicenter of a global upheaval of potentially enormous significance.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Mike Pompeo Reminds Me of Al Capone

How to say in Latin that our Secretary of State is pompous and dishonest as it gets? Oh yea – if one says “quid pro quo” in English, it never happened. These unbelievable stupid excuses for denying what is plainly true – that Trump extorted dirt on Democrats from Ukraine by withholding military aid – is insulting as they are treating us like “chumps” to paraphrase Leon Penatta. But even more insulting is this:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fiercely criticized the House impeachment inquiry, saying his department is being treated unfairly as Democrats seek to remove President Donald Trump from office ... “They’re not letting State Department lawyers in the room ... they have not let State Department lawyers be part of these hearings,” Pompeo said. “That’s unheard of ... I haven’t seen you all report that.”
First of all, we do know that the brave members who served the State Department honorably have turned down Pompeo’s lawyers in lieu of bringing their own so this last sentence of his is a lie as this fact has been reported on. Secondly, Pompeo is whining that HE is being treated unfairly. Look Pompeo is clearly a mobster style criminal – hence my reference to Al Capone. Can you imagine a grand jury investigation of a mob boss where the mob boss gets to send his own lawyer into the testimony before the grand jury? Witnesses might be reluctant to appear out of fear that the mob lawyer would tell his client who to knock off. Pompeo is all about witness intimidation as he fears the truth. And yea – I bet Pompeo and his boss (Trump) would stoop to killing anyone who dares to stand up to their treasonous crimes.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Ultimate Solution

Yes, Trump really said that.  The Syrian Kurds, who have been where they are about to be ethnically cleansed out of, are welcoming "the ultimate solution," just like Jews in you know where were welcoming "the final solution."  Of course they must accept this because they are "no angels," "communists," and "worse then ISIL." So much for a "post-socialist" Bookchinite cooperative system.  But, hey, they are all so fortunate to have "the ultimate solution."   What else is there to say?

Barkley Rosser