Thursday, September 19, 2019

Country Music

I have been watching Ken Burns's "Country Music"  series on PBS.  May not watch too much more of it as I am not that interested in more recent country music, although I like some of it.

So the big story of this series is how much of supposedly "white music" is of African-American origin.  I had long been aware of how the banjo was of African origin, the core country instrument beside the "fiddle," aka "violin," which is of European origin.  But it shows that most of the important early Country music people had serious interactions with black musicians, relying on them for finding music as well as helping them developing their own styles.  These figures include A.P. Carter, the founder of the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnnie Cash, and others.

All of this clearly rebukes the Country Music Association's rejection of this year's massive hit, "Old Country Road," as being officially "country music."  Despite the fantasies of ignorant current racists, country music and rhythm and blues and, jazz, not to mention rock and  roll, have always been curiously hybrid forms of music.

This also extends to rock and roll, with Elvis Presley coming originally out of hillbilly music with his sidemen of that origin.  His borrowing from Rhythm and Blues was nothing new.  Indeed, it was only in 1949 that Billboard shifted to calling what had been labeled "Race Music" to "Rhythm and Blues" and what had been "Hillbilly Music" to "Country and Western," with people like Bob Wills adding Latino and cowboy themes to whhat had earlier come out of southwestern Virginia with Carter family, later tied up with Johnie Cash, and Billie Rodgers out of Mississippi.  Both of these had African-American influences.

The earliest of these performers was arguably John Carson, recorded initially in 1923, who had been a textile worker in Atlanta.  Among those he performed for included both the KKK and the US Communist Party.  While originally an urban worker, he later moved to the rural Tennessee.

An ongoing theme involved class, with even Burns not showing this fully. Thus in the 1950s Patsy Cline was a big hit, with her song by Willie Nelson, "Crazy," one of the biggest selling songs of all time.  But the show did not depict how she was mistreated in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, with this continuing until long after her death in a 1963 plane crash to the point that it was only quite recently that this city not too far from where I live finally figured out that they should overcome the longstanding disdain held by local elites against her and her "wrong side of town" background to honor her and her home, with much of this amounting to taking advantage of her popularity as a local girl made good and popular with tourists, even as the local elites continued to disdain her.

Anyway, the bottom line is that all of them: country, R&B, and rock and roll were racial hybrids with people from both Euripean traditions such as fiddlers as well as Africans with their banjos, and other influences as well, all drawing on each other.  Current country music rulers out of Nashville ruling out "Old Valley Road" from being a country song because its singer is a black rapper, are simply ignoring hard history, as are those going the other way, ignoring European influences on supposedly "black music"

\Barkley Rosser




Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Strike On Saudi Oil Facilities

This is going to be a tentative post because there is much that remains unclear.  What I am going to do is to make it clear that stories that are being told by US authorities and largely repeated by the MSM with little critical commentary is highly questionable.

As it is, it looks like the economic impact of the knocking out of about 60 percent of Saudi oil processing capacity by an attack by 20 drones will not amount to too much.  The Saudis have now announced that they should have 70 percent of their damaged production capacity back in operation withing a week or two.  While crude oil prices initially surged 20 percent up, they have largely fallen back toward where they were before the attack.  This is a massive contrast with how all this used to be back in the 1970s when, for example, crude prices would triple or even quadruple with a supply disruption from the Persian Gulf, with dramatic stagflationary effects on all the oil importing national economies.  This does not look remotely likely to happen.

The matter that remains very much in the air, with a threat of war breaking out worse than it is already happening, involves the source of the attack on the facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq.  SecState Pompeo outright said the attack came from Iran.  Supposedly US intelligence agencies are supporting this, although there seem to be doubts.  Buried deep in the press reports are caveats suggesting that maybe not quite all the attacks came from there.  Of course it is essentially impossible to evaluate these claims as we know these agencies have their secret methods and sources they are not leaking.  But then we see both the Saudis and President Trump holding back from fully going along with this report.

So why might this be wrong?  Well, at least one alternative version appears to have been decisively repudiated. That is that the attack came from Shia militias in Iraq.  This theory was put forth by Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, perhaps as a desperate part of his reelection campaign, with it looking like he has not done well in that election, although the full outcome is still not known.  But this apparently blatantly ridiculous report may be the beginning of the end of people taking publicly announced Israeli intelligence reports as things to be taken seriously.

However, the more serious alternative to Iran as a source is the Yemeni Houthis.  Almost certainly the drones were from Iran, although even that is not definitely certain.  In any case several statements have come supposedly from US intel agencies that the Yemeni Houthis could not have done this, even though they themselves have been loudly claiming that they did it, while the Iranians are loudly denying that they did it.  Supposedly this all distraction from the role of the Iranians. But Juan Cole has pointed out things that the media are simply not reporting things that suggest that indeed  the Yemeni Houthis appear to have the capability.  In particular in May the Houthis launched a drone attack on an oil pumping station at al-Duadimi, well over 800 miles from Sana'a.  The sites struck in this attack are only another 100 miles further, and the Shehad 129 Iranian drone supposedly can travel a full 1100 miles.  Why are we seeing no reports of this in the media?

As it is, it may be that both the Saudis and even Trump may be aware of this matter that has not been well publicized.  If so, no wonder they are not fully signing on to saying it was Iran, quite aside from a reluctance to get into a new war there. Whatever has really gone down, let us hope at least there will be no new war.

Barkley Rosser

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Frederic L. Pryor Dies

On September 2, 2019, Frederic L. Pryor died at age 86, which has now been reported in obits in both the  NY Times and the Washington Post.  These outlets have focused on his incidental role in 1861-62 as the unfortunate graduate student who was arrested in East Berlin on Aug. 25, 1961 while attempting to visit the sister of a friend, with the sister having already defected to the West.  Fred was also planning to give a copy of his PhD (Yale) dissertation to someone who had helped him with it, but when the Stasi watching this woman's place saw him and found a copy of his dissertation  on  the foreign trade patterns of the then East Germany, just in the midst of building the infamous Berlin Wall, he was arrested as a spy.  He would only be released early in the following February in 1962 as part of the "Bridge of Spies" exchange involving Francis Gary Powers of U2 fame and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (real name: William Fisher), with this being arranged by US attorney, James Donovan.  He would be played by Tom Hanks in the 2015 film version of this put on by Steven Spielberg, although Spielberg never communicated with Pryor and absurdly misrepresented him in the film.

Beyond this headline story there was much more to Fred Pryor, a personal friend to me and my wife, Marina, who wrote a back cover blurb for the second edition of our comparative economics textbook.  Coming to locate at Swarthmore College in 1967, where remained for the rest of his life including as an emeritus professor, he wrote many articles and books on a wide array of issues, including many highly innovative ones on comparative economics. He was one of the leading experts in socialist agriculture as exemplified in his 1992 The Red and the Green: The Rise and Fall of Collectivized Agriculture in Marxist Regimes (Princeton University Press), which subtly recognized the high productivity of Hungarian agricultural collectives, along with the  more widely recognized failures in many such regimes. 

He also was one of the first to recognize the variety of economic systems that did not neatly fall into either the market capitalist or command socialist categories.  In 1985 he wrote on the nature of Islamic economics and in 1988 on the complicated nature of "Corporatism as an Economic System" (Journal of Comparative Economics), which ranged from the authoritarian "corporate state" models of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and Austria, to the liberal versions found in Sweden and post-WW II Austria later, which had excellent records in controlling unemployment and inflation.  In these studies he understood the role of religion, not just in Islamic economics, but also the Roman Catholic Church as the origin of the corporatist model.  Marina and I would extend this approach to what we called "New Traditional" economic systems, an idea Fred approved of.

He also was a student of economic complexity as shown in his 2011 Economic Evolution and Structues: The Impact of Complexity on the U.S. Economy, although I disagreed with him on his view here arguing that what he really was observing was "complicatedness" rather than true complexity.  He wrote on many other topics as well.

Unlike the anodyne figure played by Will Rogers in the movie "Bridge of Spies," Fred was a sharp and witty character who I imagine gave his East German interrogators a hard time, even as he wisecracked that what they did to him ten hours a day for nearly six months amounted to  good way to learn German. He did not suffer fools gladly.

Fred arrived at Swarthmore four years after Marty Weitzman graduated from there as a student of comparative economic systems, although majoring in math and physics.  Also graduating then was my sister, Edwenna Rosser Werner, who would go on to get a PhD in psychology from Harvard.  That group at Swarthmore included such figures as social capital theorist Robert Putnam, as well as economists Duncan Foley, Roy Weintraub, and Gavin Wright.  My sister died on 9/11/19 of a burst brain aneurysm.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Whither Ukraine?

Or "wither Ukraine?" some might suggest?  But no, after nerly 30 years of serious economic stagnation and massive corruption, along with losing territory to neighboring Russia with whom it has on ongoing military conflict, things are looking up there.  GDP grew at 4 percent annually last quarter.  The  hryvnia currency has been the second most rapidly rising currency in the world during 2019.  There has even been a prisoner exchange with Russia.  All this comes under its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who until recently was playing a Ukrainian president on a TV show. That sounds like a joke, but so far he seems to be delivering the goods, including an apparent effort to combat the deeply entrenched corruption practiced by both his pro-Russian and pro-EU predecessors.

A curious aspect of this so far successful presidency seems to be the effort by President Trump to undermine it, or at least not help it.  $250 million in military aid has been canceled.  Is this more payoff to Vladimir Putin for a future Trump Tower in Moscow?  There have also been reported efforts led by Rudi Giuliani to get the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into alleged misdeeds by a son of Joe  Biden who worked for a Ukrainian company for awhile. There have also been efforts to get them to denny charges made against former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort.  Rumors are that the military aid is being held up until The Ukrainians deliver on the firrst of these items, which would be pathetic.  So far they do not seem to be going along.

I was in Kyiv (Kiev) last weekk for a nonlinear economic dynamics conference and can confirm that the optimistic feelings are shared by Ukrainian economists I met there, some of whom I have known for a long time and who have not been like this in the past.  Maybe it will not work out, but for now there definitely is optimism there. Ironically an advantage of not having had much economic growrth over the last 30 years is that there are few modern glass and steel buildings downtown, with many very beautiful per-revolutionary ones there, with sculptures on them and painted bright colors.  This goes along with various historical buildings and sites dating back nearly a 1000 years.

Barkley Rosser

Monday, September 9, 2019

MbS Consolidates Immediate Family Control Of Saudi Oil Industry

Saudi Oil Minister al Falih, who also ran ARAMCO, has been replaced by Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz  al Sa'ud, half brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Sa'ud, (MbS),who was Ambassodor to the US untile the Khahoggi murder got hot between USA and KSA.

The New York Times claims that this is part of an effort by MbS to modernize the Saudi economy, an ongoing line of th Saudi PR machine.  However more specifically how al Falih got in trouble with MbS is that oil prices are too low and there has not yet been an IPO for ARAMCO.  These probably are issues for MbS, although I think at this point the Saudi Oil Minister's ability to make oil prices go up has become limited.  But the lack of an ARAMCO IPO clearly has cost variouis members of the Saudi royal family money.  But the problem has been that to issue an IPO ARAMCO will have to make public information that apparently it does not want to.  Whether MbS and his brother are really ready to do that is unclear.

Anyway, I think all this talk about modernizing is just baloney.  This is just a further move to consolidate power and also make money for the Salmans, the king and his sons.

Barkley Rossser

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Is Doing Environmental Economics Especially Depressing?

We have now learned that on Aug. 27 last week Matin Weitzman hanged himself, leaving a note citing his failure to share in last year's Nobel Prize as well as his apparently declining mental acuity.  That prize he did not share included William Nordhaus as a recipient for his work on climate economics issues, a topic that Weitzman also worked on, arguably more deeply and originally than did Nordhaus.

Last April Alan Krueger also committed suicide, although we have to this day not learned either how it was done or if he left any notes or if somehow it is otherwise known why he did it, with the only hint of any trouble being that he suddenly stopped tweeting in January, which he had previously done daily.  He is better known for his work on minimum wages with David Card and worked on many topics.  But among his topics was also environmental economics, with he and Gene Grossman publishing an influential paper on the Environmental Kuznets Curve in 1994, although it is nnot fully known that it was actually discovered by Thomas Selden and Song Daqing from looking at data on SO2 emissions by country.  So he was also involved in environmental economics.

Ironicially the EKC is widely viewed as an optimistic theory: if only we can get income levels high enough around the world, most pollution problems will take care of themselves.  However, while this seems to maybe finally be kicking in for C02 emissions, it has been slow and late in coming, with many nations still increasing emissions, and CO2 not leaving the atmosphere quickly, so that ambient concentrations will continue to rise even as emissions decline for a long time.  The potential optimism of the EKC is seriously weakened when it comes to global warming.

This is all probably quite secondary for what led either of these respected economists to end their lives, but it is a curious coincidence, and I cannot help but think that much of what is going on with the global warming issue may not have contributed to their deadly depressions.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, September 6, 2019

Trump: When Reality TV Becomes Reality

The New York Times has an excellent dissection today of the Trump presidency as a reality TV show that has managed to set up shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written by its chief TV critic, James Poniewozik.  His op-ed digs down into the props and story line of “The Apprentice” and how its tone evolved over its 14-year lifespan.  He places it nicely within the ecosystem of post-Survivor entertainment and the particular celebrity culture it spawned.  Nice job, and read it for yourself.

But there’s something missing.  Yes, that’s who Trump is and how he operates, but he could never have gotten to where he is without cutting deals with people whose personas are light years away from his—the plutocracy, particularly in its financial and resource extraction modes, the Republican Party apparatus in the think tanks and lobby shops in and around Washington, and the Christian Right, with its fixation on the courts as a bulwark against cultural change.  There is a real, which is to say a real real, side to the Trump presidency, and it takes the form of tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and judgeship appointments.  This differentiates it from reality TV, which is only itself.

And so we are left with an obvious response: stop rebroadcasting the reality TV stuff.  Leave it alone.  Don’t fixate on the bluster, viciousness, racism or obscenity of his tweets and rallies.  Rather, examine the real real viciousness, racism and obscenity built into the policies of the people who use Trump as an avatar, an attention-grabbing figurehead who enables them to hold and use power.  Yes, I’ve said this before, but it's still the way to go.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Does O'Rourke Have The Trade Strategy For Dems Against Trump?

I have been posting here periodically on how it seems that the Dems do not seem to have a strong or well-defined position about Trump's trade wars that seems politically effective or even coherent.  The few candidates who have made noised about essentially returning to Obama's policy, e.g. Hickenlooper, have done so poorly they are dropping out or at least not in the 10 making the next debate stage.

We then have those who think what is called for is being "tougher than Trump on trade," with Bernie Sanders literally saying that.  Warren has a more nuanced version of that, but which amounts to calling for renegotiating essentially all US trade agreements to make them more labor and environmentally friendly.  Maybe on the eve of Labor Day I should jump up and  down for that, but, frankly, it looks about as wise as Cory Booker joining Trump in calling for the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal to be renegotiated, in other words, not so wise although it make look good as a campaign slogan.

Most of the others seem to be avoiding the topic, apparently aware that different groups in the Dem party have quite different views about this.  It is not an easy issue, although increasingly it looks like one where Trump is becoming increasingly unpopular, with this likely to gt very serious if the economy more seriously slows down with Trump's trade wars getting a lot of the blame.

Which brings us to Beto O'Rourke's new position, something different anyway.  I think he is not going to get the nomination, despite having been the flavor of the month when he first joined the race.  Indeed, he is one of those like Hickenlooper who should drop out and run for Senate in his state, although Julian Castro might also make a good Texas Senate candidate given that Beto has already done it, and Castro seems even less likely to get the nomination than Beto, being the last of the 10 to make it to that next debate stage.

Anyway, what about his trade policy position?  He seems to be trying to sort of running down a middle.  He wants to remove the tariffs on China, but at the same time he wants to still use other policy tools to stick it to China over security and intellectual property and so on.  This is where he gets a bit vague, which makes me think maybe there is not much there there as used to get said  about Oakland.  This may not be much better than Hillary's attempt to straddle by mostly following Obama's poliies except for withdrawing from TPP as Trump supported and did.  But at least he seems to recognize that tryhing to play the game of fighting a rougher and tougher trade war than Trump is doing will probably not be a wise  way to go politically or policywise in the end. 

In any case, the Dems have some ways to go on figuring out how to deal with this issue, and they may never get a proper handle on it.

Barkley Rosser