Friday, August 10, 2018

"as a"

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times dissecting the “as a” locution, in which one first announces one’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or class position before making an argument during a public discussion.  He interprets it as a claim to represent the entire group defined in the preparatory clause, and explains why this claim is invalid; better you should begin with “speaking for myself”.  But I disagree with his interpretation of what “as a” means; I think it communicates speaking from rather than speaking for.

From my experience, “as a” is an acknowledgment that one’s view of the world is limited by one’s background and identity.  It’s a way to anticipate the criticism that what is being said is not universal or “true” in some objective but unattainable sense.  Of course, that limitation can be valorized in different ways.  If an oppressed identity is being invoked—or even better, an intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities—the partiality of perspective is even a strength, because it brings to the fore experiences and ideas that have historically been marginalized.  By the same token, if one is speaking “as a” member of a dominant identity, the limitations are pernicious because they reinforce what has been unfairly imposed over the same long duration.

From an epistemological perspective, the immediate problem is that the “as a” formulation conflates two different consequences of the speaker being positioned in the world rather than above or outside it.  One has to do with differences of experience, the other with proclivity to believe.

As a white man, I have had a host of experiences that people who are not male or white would not have had, and vice versa.  This is important.  It’s a reason to pay more attention to those whose experiences are different from ours.  But, as Appiah would be quick to point out, each individual has a unique set of experiences, even of those aspects of life that are structured by racial, gender or other norms.  As an analogy, consider two children growing up in the same family: same parents, same house, same sequence of family events.  As most of us have learned directly or from others, it’s possible, even likely, that different children experience these “same” things in radically different ways, to the point they can barely agree on the essential facts.  Were the parents permissive or controlling?  Fair or playing favorites?  Did they get along with each other or carry on running warfare?  One kid may say one thing, a sibling something else.  And so it is with our entire course through life: experience does not come out mass produced from the identity factory, each a perfect replica of the others.

Moreover, experience can both inform and mislead.  Or to put it differently, our subjective encounter with the world can be a valuable source of information or a source of error.  The analogy here is to the value of autobiography compared to biography: which is a “truer” account of a person’s life?  There is no general answer.  If I write my own story, I have access to observations and feelings no one else can possibly know about, except if they hear it from me.  That’s a big plus.  On the other hand, I am, as we all are, prone to misperception and misjudgment, thinking one thing happened when the reality was different.  An external biographer would be able to tell me many things about myself I could learn from.  (A good friend plays this same role.)  The larger point is that the set of experiences referenced by the “as a” prefix is not in any general sense validating or invalidating.  These experiences are real and ought to be reflected on, but not used in a mechanical way to add or subtract credence from what the speaker is saying.

The second function is belief, as captured by theories of ideology.  (I’ve written about this before here.)  One’s position in the world, and the interests one has because of it, affect the likelihood of believing ideas that are related to those interests.  (“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  Upton Sinclair)  Prefacing a remark with “as a” can be a useful signal to listeners, and even oneself, to pay close attention to potential biases.  “As a white male from an upper middle class background, I’ve always thought that society was basically fair, and the best people were the ones who got ahead.”  Signal recorded.  But it is crucial to remember that ideology is about belief, not truth.  You can be deeply biased but also right.  Thus whether ideological factors matter depends on what the question is.  If we are interested in the truth value of alternative analyses—of texts, events, judgments—it doesn’t matter at all if particular arguments reveal biases.  If we are interested in why some ideas are widely held and others aren’t, we ignore ideology at our peril.

I’ll close by being honest.  I’m a teacher.  When I hear a student preface a remark with “as a”, I initially cringe.  Most of the time this reflects a mechanistic worldview in which one’s place in a few sweeping social categories determines experience which then determines truth content.  I feel like stopping everything and spending an hour, a week, a year on epistemology.  But sometimes there are exceptions, where “as a” is absolutely appropriate and illuminating.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Would Serious Climate Change Mitigation Policy Increase World Hunger?

That’s the finding of a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, “Risk of Increased Food Insecurity under Stringent Global Climate Change Mitigation Policy” by an international team of 22 researchers.  (Coauthorship like this is why god created et al.)  The abstract has made the rounds of the blogosphere, including Marginal Revolution, which is where I found it.

The article reports an integrated assessment model (IAM) exercise in which various scenarios are run, each consisting of a climate piece (how agriculture will be affected by climate change) and a climate policy piece (how steep a carbon tax is imposed and how it impacts production and consumption).  More tax, less climate change and vice versa.  The unsurprising result is that, if the tax is universal and large it will raise food prices, putting millions more people at risk of hunger.

But where does all this extra money collected in carbon taxes go?  That was not addressed: “In most models, carbon tax revenue stays outside of agricultural sectors both on the producer and consumer sides, and is not properly redistributed to affected people.”  That’s all they say about carbon revenues, but it’s enough to explain why climate policy is portrayed as a threat to the world’s poor.  In any sensible approach, carbon taxes or moneys collected from carbon permit auctions are returned to the people who pay them in a progressive manner, so those with the lowest incomes come out ahead.  (They get back more in rebates than they pay in higher prices.)  The simplest way to do this is with an equal per capita dividend.

I did a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the effect of a global carbon price rebated via an equal lump sum payment everywhere.  For every dollar of this price, $12.5 billion is effectively transferred from upper to lower income countries.  (Details will appear in my climate change book when it appears next year.)  Of course, there are large political and administrative problems to overcome in setting up such a system, but they are not insurmountable, especially since higher income countries can decide (or negotiate) how to divvy up carbon revenues between those destined for national versus international rebates.

So, yes, a global carbon tax as modeled by the Nature Climate Change team would make the poor poorer, but the one additional tweak of recycling the money on an equal per capita basis would lead to the opposite effect.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Trump's Illegal Economic Sanctions Against Iran Start Up

Today, President Trump's promised abjuration of President Obama's hard-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran,the JCPOA, jointly agreed with Russia, China,  UK, France, Germany, the EU, and the Security Council of the United Nations. All parties agree that Iran has held to the agreement, so Trump's move is completely internationally illegal.  His move is supported by exactly four other nations on the planet, and only them: Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, a group that contains about 0.5% of the world's population.  Of course the percentage rises by a couple of percent when we add Trump supporters who applaud him keeping a campaign promise, even though most of them have no idea what this is really all about.

It is clear that Trump has mostly done this to undo something Obama did, although he also very much likes pleasing the leaders of three of those nations,who have managed to get his ear. But it is not even obvious that the undoing of this agreement will actually help these nations, even though they clearly think so. The least important of them, Bahrain, might get a slight gain given that it is a majority Shia nation ruled by an oppressive Sunni elite.  Maybe putting Iran under economic pressure will reduced Iranian support for restive Bahraini Shia. But then, maybe the Iranians will respond by increasing their support. Both the KSA and UAE view themselves as jousting with Iran in the Persian Gulf, although Iran has never invaded or militarily threatened either.  They were not in danger, so they will not  be better off.  of course, the Saudis blame Iran for the success of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been heavily bombing for three years, killing many civilians. But most serious sources say that the Iranians support for the Houthis has been minimal in material terms, if not nonexistent.  But given how low that is, even a worsened economic situation in Iran seems unlikely to make them halt that minimum aid, and mostly the Saudis are scapegoating the Iranians for their failure to defeat the Houthis.

As for Israel, their main concern seems to be Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (and Syria) and Hamas in Gaza, although Hamas is a Sunni group.  Based on Trump's own statement yesterday, these are the main things he seems to be concerned about.  He wants Iranian support for those groups reduced. Maybe that will happen, but while in the past Hezbollah did  carry out terrorist actiffset ons in many places (Buenos Aires, for example), it is a long time since describing them as "terrorist" has been at all accurate.  They have long since become part of the ruling coalition in Lebanon. They have been tamed, but the Israelisare very unhappy that they were unable to outright defeat Hezbollah the last time they invaded Lebanon. But even if Iranian aid to them is reduced, it is unlikely that that would make much difference to an outcome id they were to reinvade Lebanon. And it should be kept in mind that prior to the 1982 Israeli invasion the Lebanese Shia were largely sympathetic to Israel, and there was no Hezbollah.  Just as with Hamas that they encouraged to offset the more moderate PLO, so the Israelis are themselves responsible for the very existence of Hezbollah.

Now it must be recognized that Trump's reimposition of economic sanctions will have an impact on Iran. Even though none of the other nations in the JCPOA support Trump's move, his threat to ban any company violating the sanctions from operating in the US is forcing some major European companies to leave Iran if they have much larger dealings in the US, even if their governments disagee with their moves.  The most prominent companies leaving Iran now are Total and Peugeot from France and Siemens from Germany, although apparently some smaller companies with little business in the US will continue. Another round of sanctions in November will target Iranian oil exports, although there is  reason to believe many nations buying oil from Iran will continue to do so then.  Nevertheless, for all its illegality, Trump's reimposition of sanctions will almost certainly damage the already struggling Iranian economy, with demonstrations against the regime periodically breaking out there.

Of course it would appear that what Trump and such aides as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo want, as well as the leaderships of the four nations listed above,is "regime change" in Iran.  The short run reaction so far has been a rise in support for the moderate Rouhani government by its hardline opponents.  As it is, the most likely outcome if the weakening economy weakens political support for the government will not be regime change but simply a takeover by the hardliners.  This group contains many who never supported the JCPOA, and they may well then leave it and return to enriching uranium to a high level.  This will increase the national security of any of those four nations?  That it would not is seen by the support for the JCPOA given publicly by many retrired Israeli military and intelligence figures.

Needless to say, there has been heightened warlike rhetoric between Iranian and US leaders.I regret that Rouhani felt he had to indulge in the first round of this.  Probably this is all just chest thumping noise, but it is clear that there are some among those four nations as well as in the US who would like the US to either bomb Iran or invade it.  Given how much larger and more powerful it is than Iraq under Saddam Hussein, this looks extremely dangerous, in light of what a disaster the invasion of Iraq turned out to be.  Of course, given that Iran is not involved in developing nuclear weapons and has remained in accord with the JCPOA, there is  no such justification for such an invasion, which would probably end up creating major problems for the Gulf nations, if not Israel, although I think the Saudi leadership is too egomaniacally stupid and incompetent to figure this out.

Yet another irony is that if either through triggering some kind of successful  democratic uprising that would overthrow the Islamic regime, or if one were to be installed a la Iraq after a "successful" invasion, this regime would demand to have civilian nuclear power, which is overwhelmingly supported by the Iranian population (although maybe aid to  Hezbollah and Hamas would end).   The opposition Greens, who were violently suppressed in 2009, supported civilian nuclear power.  Iran has been working for it since Eisenhower initially provided US support for it in Iran to the Shah.  In the end the outcome in terms of the nuclear issue, after who knows how much cost in lives and material, would be something like what we had with the JCPOA,a carefully monitored and controlled civilian nuclear program. But it is clear that Trump is not even thinking about any part of this aspect of the matter, so focused is he on scoring short run political points and pleasing a narrow set of allies against the vast majority of world opinion, as well as an agreement made by the US government.

I see little prospect this will end well and serious danger this could lead to a seriously bad outcome.  I have said it before, and I say it again: abrogating the JCPOA with Iran is by far Donald J. Trump's worst foreign policy mistake, even as few Americans realize it yet.

Barkley Rosser

Real Wages Decline

Trump and his allies have been loudly bragging about the second quarterly GDP growth rate of 4.1%.  It is quite possible that a growth rate of this sort may be maintained for another quarter or so, given the large fiscal stimulus put in place at the beginning of the year. How curious it is that that coincided with the peak of the US stock market, at least as measured by the Dow.

However, this is seriously overblown for the simplest of reasons: the rate of inflation is rising.  It has now gotten to rising at a 2.9% rate while nominal wages are rising at a 2.8%.  So real wages have declined by a 0.1% rate.  Real wages rose throughout nearly all of the Obama presidency, except for a couple of quarters.  But if one pays attention to Trump and his allies, one would have no idea of this development. Needless to say, as the price increases from the trade war kick in, this situation is  not likely to improve.

Barkley Rosser

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Mush versus Mush on Climate Change

The very long New York Times piece on climate change politics in the 1980s by Nathaniel Rich has attracted a lot of critical commentary—justifiably.  To say that the failure to achieve a political response was due to human nature, a genetic defect that prevents our species from planning ahead, is just lazy and wrong.  Were the scientists, environmentalists and other activists that did want to take action a bunch of mutants?  Haven’t humans acted with foresight (and also failed to act) since time immemorial?  “Human nature” explains everything and nothing; it’s what you invoke when you don’t want to do the digging a real explanation would require.

I wish the left had a solid response to this immobilizing mushiness, but instead it mostly offers its own version of counter-mush.  A case in point is Naomi Klein.  I’ve already written at length about her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, but I don’t want to let her latest piece at The Intercept pass without notice.

Klein rightly excoriates Rich, but then goes on to make this argument:

Capitalism, not human nature, is responsible for climate inaction.
Capitalism is an ideology that worships profit and “endless growth”.
Its purest form is neoliberalism.
The late 1980s was the high water mark of neoliberalism, so climate activism was suppressed.
We must reject capitalism by adopting the earth-centered philosophy of indigenous peoples.
Politically, this means embracing a caring economy of green jobs, meeting human needs and rejecting “extractivism”.

If this were just Klein’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint we could shrug and move on, but since it reflects what may be the main current in left thinking about the climate crisis, it matters that it turns what ought to be well focused and clear into a thick, gummy soup.

No, capitalism is not an ideology.  What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital.  Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital.  There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy.  (One way we can tell that existing policies are largely toothless is that their enactment had imperceptible effects on asset prices.)

Yes, the 1980s was the zenith of the modern neoliberal project, but there are currents within neoliberalism that support climate action.  One doesn’t have to be a fan of this school of thought to recognize that it’s not monolithic on environmental matters—or on racism, criminal justice, public health and other questions.

Countering a climate disaster is not about changing one’s philosophy of economic growth or living a more natural lifestyle; it’s about keeping carbon in the ground.  I’m all for shifting production to more socially beneficial purposes, but that’s not what will prevent temperatures from rising far into the red zone over the decades to come.  The problem is too much carbon in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels, so the solution is to collectively limit them.  That means either setting up a permit system, with a tight cap on how many permits can be issued, or taxing fossil fuels into unaffordability.  The main reason governments haven’t taken this path is business opposition, and not just from fossil fuel corporations.  What motivates Team Capital is not a shared philosophy, but the belief, probably justified, that really effective action would eat into the value of their investments.  Fighting climate action is as rational for them as cutting an unnecessary production cost or cultivating a new, profitable market.

If you look at it this way, the left has a crucial role to play in climate politics, to clearly spell out the difference between the rationality of capital and the rationality of the human race.  Everything else—the fixation on degrowth, the claim that action on climate requires concomitant revolutions in cosmology and lifestyle—is a distraction.  Which is not to say that delving into consciousness and how to live a good life are unimportant, of course, just that, on this particular issue, what the left should be offering is clarity.  It’s as if you had a plumbing problem in your house, called up a progressive plumbing service, and were told that the real problem is your failure to envision the hydrological cycle in its global fullness and reorient your use of all natural resources.  Yes but no.

To turn Klein’s thesis around, the tragedy is that our awareness of an impending climate catastrophe arose just at the time that the left had entered a state of maximum confusion and diffusion.  It’s not too late to change this.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Is The World's Largest Planned IPO Kaput?

That would the long planned and widely advertised IPO to sell 5% Saudi-government-owned ARAMCO, estimated at being worth US $2 trillion, making the planned IPO being at about $100 billion, well ahead of any that has happened in the past, the largest being $25 billion by AliBaba. This has been a crucial part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has had this as a central part of his Vision 2030 plan to privatize and diversify off oil the Saudi Arabian economy.  Most of the publicity about it over the last year or so has focused on which exchange would get all the fees (easily up to $1 billion, still real money), NewYork, London, Frankfurt, or maybe even Riyadh, for hosting this massive IPO.

Now in the last few days there are numerous reports floating around the internet declaring that at a minimum this IPO has been postponed, with quire a few now saying that the IPO is completely off, that the Saudis are now looking at a different approach, although exactly what that is or will be is very much up in the air. Sorry I have been unable to make the link,but this can easily googled, a story out today on this from by Kurt Cobb, "Was ARAMCO IPO Destined to  Fail?" which obviously suggests that it is kaput, although the article recognizes it may simply have been postponed. He provides links to some other reports engaging in various bits of speculation.  So what has happened?

Cobb provides two leading reasons why the IPO may be off.  One is that they may not need the revenue as much as they did a year ago  because of the roughly 50% increase in oil prices.  This makes sense.  Going along with that is that apparently they seriously do not want to be open to some external audit of their reserves and finances and so on.  This also also looks reasonable, with certainly all of the non-Saudi exchanges would make such a demand.  Maybe they might not have this demanded on the Riyadh exchange, but it is not a large exchange, and even there such a demand might be made.

Now it might be that their finances are fine and they do not need the money the IPO would have brought in. However, some of the sources Cobb links to report that the Saudis are contemplating various peculiar schemes for, well, raising money.  One of these involves a scheme to have ARAMCO take over a Saudi refining company and then issue a bunch of bonds on it.  This  all sounds a bit fantastic and not too likely, but the hard fact is that Saudi finances are highly opaque, which is a main reason they supposedly do not want to do the IPO, and there certainly have been a variety of efforts by them to reign in public spending.  Higher oil prices have certainly loosened some of this pressure, but exactly what is going on is far from clear. But at a minimum, it appears that the ARAMCO IPO has at least been postponed and may be totally kaput.

Barkley Rosser