A sign of things to come?

I figure Christmas this year will look a lot like Christmas last year. And next year, for that matter. The first Christmas that feeldifferent, that’s the Christmas you remember. The question I want to ask is: how many Christmases after passing the bill currently being debated in the Senate – the Better Health Care Act? – until the United States starts feeling different?

I’ve read a couple of analyses on the legislation – my impression is that it changes Obamacare some, cuts Medicaid alot, and cuts taxes. A lot. Mostly for wealthy people. It’s an outrageous, unpopular bill, and it’s probably going to pass and become law.

The United States will see increased income and wealth inequality, or at least I think that’s the most likely scenario. But more importantly, I think the next four years will see the Federal government diminished considerably. The Republicans in Congress have spoken of wanting to put together a major tax reform, and who can say how terrible that will be.

It occurs to me that there are two sides to the political pressure on the Federal government – there’s the desire for the states and individuals for greater independence manifesting in the form of austerity/pro-business policy on the one hand but there’s also, I think, globalized capitalism as well. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other states have produced a wealthy elite in the last couple of decades, and the US is becoming more like them.

And maybe capitalism can subvert patriarchal nation-states and that’s not such a bad idea, or maybe it just replaces the patriarchy. That’s no progress at all.

In any event, I worry that reality is going become unglued for people in the future: the world will change faster than they can deal with, and they’ll get stuck and slowly lose their minds. The health care bill will ultimately take health care away from millions of people. I suppose eventually charity will take the place of some of the social services provided by government.

But here’s what I’m waiting for: some summer it’s going to get really hot in Texas, and it will get ugly, because there won’t be adequate social services. There will be a hospital, maybe, in the country, overwhelmed by cases of heatstroke and dehydration, to set off a riot when supplies run out. Maybe it will happen and it won’t make the news – maybe it will be kept out. Who knows?




Turtle Soup

Nassim Taleb tells this story about a bunch of fisherman who catch some turtles one day. They try to eat the turtles, but the turtles taste bad, so instead they offer the meat to the god Mercury, who happens to be passing by at just that moment. Mercury, an immortal being with supernatural powers, perceives the deception, and dispenses justice. As punishment for offering Mercury bad food, the fishermen are then forced to eat the turtles themselves. And thus the principle of equality of uncertainty is established.

First of all, I want to point to most unrealistic part of this story: the presence of an immortal being with supernatural powers. I feel it is common knowledge that such beings do not exist, and that, likewise, principles are not enforced by them. And justice enforced by coercive power is no justice besides.

Taleb’s primary lesson deriving from the story of the fishermen and the turtles is to beware of salesmen. My gut level response to that is “have you been outdoors lately?” Everyday life is saturated with commecials and advertisements. The drumbeat of salesmanship is ubiquitous, steady, and relentless for most people. It is woven into the fabric of social interaction. Televised sporting events are – both on-screen and live – orgies of salesmanship. Social media commodifies the advertising subject itself – Facebook users are the product – advertisers are the consumers.

Taleb discusses his career as a trader at a “white shoe firm” – the partners at the firm would never sell each other crap – all the crap they would sell to faceless outsiders – well, actually the salesmen sell all the crap to faceless outsiders, and are well compensated for it – the salient point here is that what Taleb finds laudable about the traders at his firm is their ability to off-load inferior product onto outsiders.

If Taleb had an ethical motto it might be “Capitalism is for the capitalists” – or, it’s people screwing each other all the way down. If possible, be the person at the top. In general, try to be as close to the top as possible. Most people live in a fog of lies, platitudes, and fear but it’s easier to just assume they’re stupid and therefore deserve to get screwed. The odd thing is that I imagine that Taleb’s audience fantisizes themselves being part of elite in the know – “most people are suckers, but not us. I think they’re just as confused as anybody. I’ve only read parts of Skin in the Game – not any of his better known work – but Taleb comes across to me as breathtakingly cynical.




Economic Justice

Justice is fidelity to language – the most precise virtue and the one most resistant to arrest.
Justice is not coercive or violent – it is non-violent – and yet often delivered by violence, clothed in violence, called into being by violence.
Justice is sacred because it must be believed before it can be seen in the world.
Justice is believing others in the way you want to be believed by others.

What then is economic justice?


Bulls and Bears. They’re animals – I almost wrote wild animals but bulls (male cows with testicles, and maybe also horns?) are domesticated, despite their reputation for violence. They’re also sports teams in Chicago, where they are refered to as Da Bulls and Da Bears. It was kind of exciting to me the first time I heard someone in Chicago say “da Bears” in that unconcious, this-is-really-how-we-talk kind of way.

Bulls and Bears are also representations of market forces – the first time I had this explained to me was standing behind a coffee shop counter in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco, by an older man with an Australian accent. A bear market means that prices are headed down, and a bull market is when prices are going up. If you’re bullish on something, that means you think it’s value is going up, and if you’re bearish, well, you’re a pessimist. Bear traders engage in what are called “short sales” – meaning that they make deals to deliver some quantity of a stock at some specified future time at a price lower than the presently prevailing price of that particular stock. The idea is that the price will go even lower than that, and you’ll recoup the difference.

I suppose the bear and bull metaphors are what Keynes meant by “animal spirits” – although I’ve never heard a trader say that, probably because traders hate Keynes.

At any rate, I’m feeling especially pessimistic at the moment regarding the national political situation here in the United States. The recent debacle over the AHCA, the bill that would repeal and replace Obamacare, put forward by Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, demonstrated that that the Republican party does not even remotely have it’s shit together. They’ve been agitating over repealing and replacing the ACA for seven years. Shortly after the failure of the bill, the word coming out of Washington was that President Trump was ready to just move on to the next thing. Seventeen days into the legislative process, he just said “Fuck it.”

Now, on the one hand, all this might be taken as good news for those fearing the reprecussions of this most recent election. Turns out the winners were all talk, no action. They complain endlessly, but they can’t actually get a plan together, nor do they have the fortitude to carry it out. Eventually something will come up that requires competence, and then Nancy Pelosi will become the de facto head of state. On the other hand, what I think marks the AHCA failure as seriously bad news is that it means that Republicans can’t get their agenda done through the normal process, so they will simply turn to alternative measures. And I think I have a plausible idea of how that might play out.

It’s all pretty simple. The debt limit, which was suspended back in November until March 15th of this year, will need to be raised sometime this summer. If it isn’t, at some point the Federal government will simply run out of cash, and then payments that come due will simply go unpaid. If this happened, it could mean an international crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. That the United States would not pay interest on it’s loans on time and as expected would have untold consequences in international finance. US Treasury Securities – that is, the Federal government’s debt – is the a strategic asset held in banks all over the world. A default on just one particular piece of this debt would necessitate a revaluation of assets held all over the world. But in the meantime, the Republicans in the House would have the bull by the cahones – when the bankers (and everyone else) plead and beg them to raise the debt ceiling, they’d start making demands. Although they wouldn’t be made as demands – they’d simply be stated as requirements for lowering the long term trajectory of US debt obligations. And then they’d butcher the welfare state. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – these programs would be immediately and drastically cut, if not abolished altogether. At last the Republicans would put an end to “out of control” entitlement spending in Washington. And they would have a perfect alibi – they would say that those cuts were necessary to put the country on a secure footing. Meanwhile, the “dismantling of the administrative state” (quote from White House chief strategist Steve Bannon) would proceed, and much of the apparatus of governance would disappear. The EPA, the BLS and the BEA, the NIH, the CDC, the SEC, and so on and so forth. Economic data would become the property of private banks. Heck, the economy itself would become largely privatized, and democracy would become little more than a dumb show.

The important thing is that all this would be accomplished outside of the normal process, as quickly as possible, and on account of the crisis.

Now, that might sound really bleak, but in some ways this scenario is not as bad as it sounds. There would still be services for the poor – charities would become larger and more important. And there would still be regulation – contracts would continue to carry legal force, lawyers and the judiciary would still play an important part in the daily operation of business and production. I don’t think it would be as dystopic as one might imagine. On the contrary, I think a lot of people would work very hard at obfuscating the differences, and claim strenuously that nothing had really changed. The so-called developed world become more like the developing world. It’s only a move of tense – from past to active. Surely that’s the way forward?

As far as I know, I’m the only person even suggesting that this could happen at all. So if you’re worried about it, don’t be. I’m a nobody, and if all the smart people out there aren’t sweating this, it seems reasonable to say that this is probably just me being too pessimistic for my own good. Nevertheless, I maintain that a course of action such as that described above, is not all that far outside of the realm of possibility.

There would be, I suppose, a brief period of terrible suffering. People who currently dependent on government to support medical treatment, housing, food, and so on, would lose their support, and many people would probably die as a result. But a year or two later, it would simply be a memory, to be reinvented as morality tale about the dangers of dependence on government. The real losers in this case would be the middle class, the great majority of whom would be transformed into paupers. The collective memory of their former affluence would be a subject of the bitterest resentments, and would render political cooperation impossible for a generation or more.

But hey, what do I know?

Hillary Clinton and the angry left

So I have a lot of friends on the left who just hate Hillary Clinton. And I love that they hate her so. Why?

First, because to me their hatred says that they want progressive policies, but without the politics necessary to get them. Everybody should just realize that single payer health care and environmental regulation and a living wage and so on are the simply the right thing to do.  No one should have to argue about it or compromise for it.

But that’s not how democracy works. It’s not enough to simply know what the right policies are, you have to get people to vote for representative legislators who then have to make those policies law, and then you have to get the administrative branch to execute those laws, and have judges uphold them when they are challenged. And that process works at multiple levels. Moreover, there are nearly 200 independent territories in the world, and there are people in each one who, at least in principle, are allowed to make their own decisions about how they want to use their resources, and so on.

I’ve read so many Jeremiads, litanies of the sins of statesmen, capitalists, fascists, totalitarians, revolutionaries, and on and on and on. And I still believe a better world is possible! But the American left is so often terribly narrow in it’s aspirations. What do I mean? Take the antipathy for NAFTA, common on both the left and right (both blame the other for it, as a general rule). It often boils down to a sentimental longing for manufacturing jobs. Jobs that required only a high school education, at most, which used skills already widely understood to American men, which would produce familiar products. The hours would be long enough to satisfy the craving for the badge of “hard work” but not so demanding as to preclude time with family, regular vacations, and so on. Compsenation would be commensurate with skill level, of course, but at minimum would include full health and dental benefits, and enough take-home pay for a stand-alone house in a nearby suburb, which of course would be suitably outfitted with a range of the latest in conusmer goods. A food system that could deliver the option of beef, chicken, or pork, lobster or fresh, wild caught ocean fish, every night to the average person. The option of voting – the choice to care or not – and if you just didn’t have time to really engage in the process, nothing to worry about, but, of course, also a civic engagement that would allow the individual to really matter.

In short, what people seem to want is the right to live unconsciously. And what makes people crazy about Hillary Clinton is that she’s always consciously engaged in the political process. She is by no means alone in her engagement – but she represents the kind of person who made a long term commitment to politics when she was young, and has accrued the expansive personal network and attendent influence that comes with decades of involvement in political campaigns and policy making and so on. People wanted Bernie Sanders to just go storming into the Democratic party and rewrite the platform. And when it didn’t happen all those starry eyed partisans hollared about injustice!

And the thing is that, even though she lost the Presidential election, Hillary Clinton is still a major figure within the Democratic party. And it makes the left crazy because they want her loss to mean that they get to be in change now. “Okay, you lost, you failed! Now get on your private jet and fly away and let us work on our socialist revolution.” It’s important that Clinton be craven and greedy – she’s not allowed to want to do the right thing. Because capitalism is wrong – at least, according to the left. Sort of. When it suits their purposes anyways. Hillary Clinton got paid for making speeches to Goldman Sachs! She must be corrupt!

Never assume that someone else must not be authentic. It’s tremendously dangerous. Because if your theory of how things work depends on some particular individual being a liar, and it turns out they are telling the truth, your entire view falls apart, which is some ways the worst sort of disaster. To me, the insistance of the left that Hillary Clinton represents the failures of the Democratic party is a demonstration of the left’s reliance on that failure. The left doesn’t want to win elections. They just want to be right.

Reading fiction is great!

What was on my mind when I thought about writing a blog post earlier this evening was something about an oncoming political crisis – but then I got distracted by the rest of the blogosphere. So much to read, so little time.

Within the last year I’ve made it a point to read fiction again. I’m pretty busy, because teaching and taking care of a baby will keep you busy, but I decided that I would feel better about the world if I could start and finish novels from time to time, and I was at least right about that. In particular, detective novels. To be specific, books by Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett is most famous nowadays for having written The Maltese Falcon, which was turned into a legendary film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre (who would both later star in Casablanca). Hammett lived for a number of years in San Francisco, and the novel is set there, and has lots of references to places in the city. Having lived in San Francisco, it was fun being able to picture the action of the story – the fog, the streets, the cramped apartments. Hammett’s style is super classic hardboiled style. His protagonists are badass – hard drinking loners with a habit of bending the law in pursuit of a case. The dialogue is witty and sometimes hilarious, the plots are well constructed and clever. In addition to Falcon I’ve read The Thin Man and Red Harvest – both great. I’ve got a book of his short fiction sitting on my desk.

I’d never read Agatha Christie before but I got her book And then there were none for Christmas and it blew my mind. The story is diabolical, and yet basically about justice. Actually, most detective fiction is about justice. It’s maybe the most facinating thing about detective fiction. At some point I’d like to read more of Christie’s work, as well as Ngaio Marsh. In the meantime I read a book published in the 1990s called Out by Natsuo Kirino, which was completely amazing. It felt like a meditation on life under capitalism. Many of the characters spend much of their time worrying about money, and the plot is driven forward by various anxieties induced by the lack of money. But also there’s a lot about how factory work is degrading and kind of boring. It’s also a very dark novel. I could barely put it down.

A novel I read that was not a mystery – although I suppose there was sort of a mystery that drove the story forward – about a month ago now was The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm. What a delightful read! It’s essentially a story of the end of World War II in Hamburg, as told to a young writer in the 1980s by an elderly lady who lived through it. As the title suggests, there’s sausage involved, and finding out how is very much part of the fun of reading the book.

I sometimes feel as if everything is so heavy these days – so serious! And that I need also to be very serious! I need to be reading economics journals and trying to write about policy or something – but honestly, there are really much better sources for reading about economics and politics than my blog. I know, I read them.

Speaking of politics though – I will say one thing about what I’ve been reading in the news lately. I often get the sense that the folks who do take politics seriously (and these are the people who tend to write stuff I want to read) simply don’t understand how deeply unserious other folks are about politics. There’s lots of discussion about Trump and Congress and all that at the moment – and I honestly do not think Trump has seriously thought through what’s going on. Nor Paul Ryan, for that matter. Ryan put together a bill that said what he wanted it to say. And my current favorite response to the bill is “it is unclear what problem it is trying to solve.” Because Ryan isn’t really trying to solve a problem. He’s trying to cut taxes and make government smaller.

It seems to me that the conservative vision for the US is that government doesn’t really make all that many decisions. There would be a kind of business aristocracy that would do most of the decision making instead. Or maybe that’s my own pessimisstic vision. It’s certainly where I think we’re headed.

I’ve been slowly making my way through a short novel called The Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecuter by Tawfiq al-Hakim. It was published in Egypt in the 1930s. The author had gone to university in France and come home to Egypt all hyped up on modernism, and did indeed spend some time as prosecuter in a far flung village somewhere outside of Cairo. It’s very much a black comedy. This lawyer, he’s got a mystery on his hands, he’s trying to figure it out, but nothing makes any sense. Everything is broken and topsy-turvy and so on. It’s hilarious! But also depressing, of course. In Egypt, at least in those days, the legal system made not all that much sense to the country folk who were subject to it. And the system was terribly overworked and underfunded, so it was basically beyond comprehension. Nothing but a series of perverse situations, no justice at all. And yet! The protagonist is drawn into caring about a case. A political crisis erupts in the middle of case, but he perseveres. I don’t know how it ends, because I haven’t finished it. I enjoy how it plays on the “nothing is as it seems” although in some sense, things are exactly as they seem. Everything is all messed up and everyone is just trying to make the best of it.

One of the things that really attracts my attention to Maze is how distant justice seems in the book. Political power isn’t even in Egypt, it’s somewhere else, far away. Europe, I suppose? It doesn’t even really matter in the book. It’s just far away, and it doesn’t give a shit about people suffering. How do you keep your head in such a crazy mixed up world?

Betsy DeVos

[This is a slightly modified Facebook post from yesterday]

Alright, so Betsy DeVos is going to be Secretary of Education. And I basically think that’s a disaster. But some part of me genuinely wants to know: what is it her supporters think is going to happen? Or, more importantly, what is it they want to happen? Because here’s what it seems like:

There’s this idea of “school choice.” Parents have children, and they want them to be educated. To that end, they will investigate the available school options, and then choose the one that best fits their goals for their children. Schools, both public and private, will compete for students, who will come with government vouchers attached to them that will help fund the schools.

In theory that all sounds fine. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen, an economist and blogger at George Mason University who always seems to write from a world where everyone can get a job making as much money as they want, whenever they want. Whatever happens is your choice. Your responsibility.

I think the reality of what will happen looks entirely different, even from the view of DeVos supporters. Because “school choice” is only part of what they want. What they also want is vindication of decades of fear and loathing with respect to government policy on public education. For example, if Chicago Public Schools fail (and thousands of students don’t get an education), it will mean that big government policies have failed! Those government bureaucrats should have known better than to try and fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all system! If public schools collapse, it will be because the communities who supported them chose wrong! And now they’ll have to pay the price!

Also crucial to this view is the idea of the “happy poor.” If you’re unhappy it’s your own fault. It’s not because you have to choose between paying your bills and eating. Or because you can’t afford to send your kids to a decent school. No no no. Happiness is a personal responsibility. But it’s equal opportunity!

It’s essentially a revenge theory. Social conservatives have resented public education for a long, long time. The Supreme Court ruled, in a series of cases going back to 1947 (Everson v Board of Education, where Justice Hugo Black famously quoted Jefferson’s writing “wall of separation between church and state”) and stretching through the early 1960s (in particular Abington School District v Schempp) that religion had no place in education, to the lasting ire of the religious right. And of course, the Brown v Board of Education decision that ended public school segregation.

Conservatives won’t be happy until liberals – and everyone they’ve tried to help – suffer. Suffer long and hard, so they know not to meddle in liberty of their fellow citizens.

Granted, I know that’s a pretty harsh assessment of the situation. I often sense that my tone, both here and in other places, is excessively abrasive. On the other hand, I often think to myself that so many people want there to be a moderation of the debate, and the conservative side of political debate is able to leverage that hope over and over again. Throughout the first Obama administration there were calls for civility and compromise, and Democrats had to constantly make overtures to Republicans, trying to find common ground and “bi-partisan solutions” and the Republicans, almost without exception, acted in bad faith throughout that period. I use harsh language because the bad faith of so many Americans enrages me. When we puff out our chest at the pomp and circumstance of the flag and the anthem and then turn away from injustice that besets us daily, it makes me mad.