Today is the Iowa caucuses. The beginning of the Presidential election in earnest. I’ve been wanting to get something written for days now, but for whatever reason haven’t had the wherewithal till just now.

The Krugman bashing over the last week has generally irritated me. Krugman is supporting Clinton, and so there are a lot of progressives writing about why Krugman is wrong, a maybe also stupid, or just callous, and so on. At this point I’m just trying to sit tight. If Clinton wins in Iowa today, then the splitting of the Democratic party with the Progressive movement will begin. If she loses and Sanders wins, it is likely that she will lose the nomination, and the Progressives will attempt to take over the Democratic Party, at which point it will probably fall apart.

I am not the only person who supports Hillary Clinton, nor am I the only person who thinks Sanders is a dangerous candidate for the Democratic Party. But I am relatively isolated – virtually everyone I know wants to see Sanders win. And this has become nearly unbearable for me, because it goes very hard against everything I’ve learned about politics – well, everything except for the lesson that you can never ask people to think about politics in the middle of a discussion. You can’t ever say “Well, if you would just read [insert name of long, obscure text here]” and expect that to work. You have to appeal to what people know already.

And mostly people seem to think that 1) elections are about issues, and the point is to figure out which candidate most nearly represents your own position on the issues of the day, and to vote accordingly; and 2) the point of government is to ensure the welfare of society. These are both basically wrong. Elections are about political power, and who has it. The point of the government is to do what the people in power tell it to do.

Let me give you an example: education. The point of schools is to educate students so they can be productive members of society, and engaged citizens participating responsibly in democratic institutions, right? Wrong. The point of schools is to determine the distribution of income in the workforce. A school is only successful in the sense that it produces income-earning workers, and those workers can only exist within existing employment opportunities. As there are, today, a decreasing number of good jobs (i.e. jobs that offer a stable income and benefits package), which means that the return on investment in education is basically negative. And municipalities are in serious trouble over this, because education is mandated by law, but funded at the local level. And as incomes stagnate, people are unable to pay the necessary taxes to pay for the necessary education to get the dwindling middle and high income jobs available.

And people will say that 1) education is about learning, not about money, so cutting funding is wrong BUT 2) they can’t afford their taxes and their bills as it is, so they can’t possibly afford the schools they already have and also 3) all people must learn to live within their means and balance their budgets, so whatever money schools do have should come out of taxpayer revenues.

Do you see the conundrum I see? There is not enough money, we need more, but it can only come from available income, which is insufficient. This is called austerity politics. The point is not to do what’s best for society. The point is to do what the market wants, whether that is the right thing or not.

And what’s so appealing about austerity politics? You would think that capitalist economies would just hate austerity. And yet this is not the case.

The beauty of the market mechanism is that it is not personal. If you are a landlord, you rent to people who pay their rent. If a tenant runs out of money, you can and should remove them from the land. If that means they die of exposure, that is not your concern. As a landlord, you are simply being prudent. Austerity lets us make decisions that way to achieve goals that we want but are ashamed to admit in public. Governor Rauner doesn’t want to defund Chicago Public Schools because he’s a racist, or because he doesn’t believe that education is important. He wants to defund them because they’re expensive, and he wants to balance the budget. And voters like the idea of balancing the budget. And they like the idea of lower taxes.

I do not believe Bernie Sanders will not take on austerity politics in any meaningful way. I believe this because his campaign is basically a populist campaign. He depends on an emotional appeal, not a logical one. People feel like the economy is unfair, but that doesn’t mean they feel like paying higher taxes or investing in the uncertain futures of people they will never know. And if what they want is an emotional appeal, chances are they won’t respond later to a logical one. If Sanders get the Democratic nomination, all Trump will have to do is say “He will raise your taxes.” The election will be over, just like that.

The thing I have always liked about Krugman is that he’s always making an appeals to reason and evidence. He’s sympathetic to emotional and ethical appeals too, but his normal mode of operation is logical. Now, you can show me Robert Reich’s video where he explains how Bernie has all the facts in lockdown, but I am left unpersuaded. You can’t gloss over massive institutional reform like it will be a seemless transfer of resources, nor can you ignore the difficulties of legislative reform that would be required. And yet that’s exactly what the Sanders campaign has done. They ignore reason and evidence in favor of their feelings – and at their peril.

No matter what happens today in Iowa, I think that the Democratic Party is in serious danger of falling apart, and I think the Sanders campaign has made the situation substantially worse by alienating it’s supporters from the Democratic leadership (who are portrayed as feckless and corrupt). The failure to confront austerity politics will doom politicians to being held hostage by the market.

Back to the Future

“There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.” – Neil Young, “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”

They say that economics is the study of the distribution of scarce resources for the benefit of society, and this morning I am thinking about a resource I think in short supply today which you might call “the future.” It is an odd thing to think about. Time, we all know, will keep moving in the same forward direction, at the same rate. A few years ago I became fascinated with the Augustinian conception of time, (and forgive me, dear reader, if I muck this up) which is subjective, i.e. dependent on the person perceiving it. At the end of his Confessions, Saint Augustine asks the question, Where is God? And his answer is that God is in the future. Perceiving God is perceiving the desire to go on, to hope for something, to believe, to love. When we come into the world, we have no conception of self, and time is an everlasting now. Then, at some point, we come to understand that we are not our mother, that our mother is a separate person. This generates a cycle of terror and comfort out of which the conception of the self arises.

Bear with me, people, I’m going somewhere with this.

There’s a sort of random scene in the old animated film The Sword and the Stone, one of the classic Disney fairy tales, where the wizard Merlin turns himself and his young pupil Arthur into squirrels, and they have an adventure in the trees. Arthur, as a squirrel, meets a young lady squirrel, and soon they are flirting, playfully chasing each other and exchanging looks. At the end of the scene, Arthur is forced to leave her to turn back into a human being, and the lady squirrel is sad and dejected. Merlin’s comment on the scene is that love is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe.

At the risk of sounding like a long dead South American communist revolutionary, love is an essential driving force for the human condition. An infant cries, and is comforted by it’s mother’s love. Why do we go on? Love. If we have not love, we have not a reason to go on. That is, without love, there is no future. God is love. Augustine’s observation, I think, is basically true for all of us. Being human, being alive is caught up in believing in a future, and that is caught up in the memory of love.

You know that line from Jesus about how man cannot live on bread alone? This is basically what he’s on about. He isn’t talking about proper nutrition, he’s talking about love, and how we all need to love and feel beloved. And if that seems too obvious, perhaps you are blind to the poverty all around you.

But let’s talk about the bread part of that statement. Pretty much anyone will tell you, everybody has to eat. You need food and water everyday. All the love in the world won’t help you without the material necessities of life.

So, there’s this thing called secular stagnation that Larry Summers has been talking about for awhile. He and other people like Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, and Olivier Blanchard have all been making similar noises about the general lack of economic growth in the past few years. One of the key parts of the arguments they’ve been making is the general lack of stable employment in the world today. The thing about living under capitalism is that you need a job, and more importantly, you need an income, because consumption is based on income. The problem we are facing is not the scarcity of resources, but the scarcity of incomes.

That is to say: if there aren’t enough jobs, then not everyone can sustain themselves. If you cannot sustain yourself, the future begins to disappear. And as that happens, you lose your ability to love, and therefore your ability to perceive the future, or to perceive yourself in the future. There are not enough jobs. Do you hear me? Not enough jobs. A shortage of jobs means a shortage of income, a shortage of income means social instability, and instability degrades the perception of the future. The future is the scarce resource. Time itself is constrained by a collective failure of imagination.


Berning Down the House

I think I’m finally starting to feel really pessimistic about this years elections. This piece on the nomination fight between Clinton and Sanders from Corey Robin, which is not only supportive of Sanders, but fairly damning of Clinton. And it reflects how much of the left views Hillary as totally unacceptable. The closer we get to the Iowa Caucus the more intense the rhetoric attacking her as a crypto-Republican, an establishment hack, a soulless, calculating deal maker and horse trader, a cackling witch, and so on. Paul Krugman writes in his blog about how he and other policy wonks on the left, such as Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Jonathan Chait, and Mike Konczal – who wrote a whole piece defending his reputation as a serious advocate for financial reform – are being attacked by supporters of Bernie Sanders for being minions of Hillary Clinton.

And I am, at this point, unapologetic in my support of Hillary Clinton. I have plenty of friends who are unabashed supporters of Bernie Sanders, and I have stopped listening to them on the subject of politics. They all want politics without the politics. They want to just be able to do the right thing all the time without having to confront any challenge. And at this point I’m starting to think that maybe Sanders will get the nomination, and then the progressive push will turn to bitter mush when the the general election starts and they find out what politics really looks like.

Meanwhile, in the State of Illinois, the budget impasse continues to take a toll on public services. And what this is ultimately about is dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Exhibit A here is Michael Madigan, who has run the State from his position as House Speaker since the 1980s. He is a reviled figure among everyone but long time Democrats, who are all fiercely loyal to him. The broad dissatisfaction of the electorate is what brought Rauner to Governorship in the first place. In many ways Rauner is exactly the kind of reformer conservatives want: someone who will not back down in the face of having to do terrible things. And that’s what most conservatives have wanted for a long, long time now. They want those pensions destroyed, so that all those folks who spent their lives working for the State will have to suffer with the people abandoned by the private sector. It’s super messed up how people turn on each other.

And what are we fighting over? Money. We are fighting over money. The Black Youth Project 100, for example, in their Agenda to Build Black Futures, is literally up front in saying that what they want is money. Reparations, compensation. Money. They want cold, hard, cash in their pockets, on a regular basis, so they can live like normal people.

In the meantime, a major service organization in Illinois is cutting 30 programs and 750 positions due to the State budget impasse. And even though the Governor claims that he is frustrated, and just wants to be able to settle the budget and move forward, I think that the truth is closer to this: what conservatives want is to see public services cut, and pensions cut, and taxes cut. They don’t want to take food out of a hungry child’s mouth, or take jobs away from desperate parents, or turn seniors out of their homes and deprive them of medical care. The State just feels too big, and their taxes feel to high. But cutting pensions and the budget, in practice, means cutting services for people at the margins, and often causing enormous suffering in the process.

So where does that put us? Everybody wants more money for themselves, and less money for the State. Ah, the politics of austerity. This brings me to Simon Wren-Lewis, on the present state of the left in the UK. “Austerity is a trap for the left as long as they refuse to challenge it. You cannot say that you will spend more doing worthwhile things, and when (inevitably) asked how you will pay for it try and change the subject. Voters may not be experts on economics, but they can sense weakness and vulnerability. If instead you restrict yourself to changes at the margin, you appear to be ‘just the same’.”

This is not far from the situation here in the US. What I find most disturbing about the Sanders campaign is that it clearly does not care about policy, it cares about slogans. People want “single payer health care” and “Glass-Steagal” and they want them right the fuck now. They do not want to have a nuanced discussion of policy. They want to talk about how they feel and why they’re excited for the Revolution. What happens when Sanders is actually in the White House?

He’ll be stuck in the same damn austerity trap everyone else is. He wants to provide more services, but he won’t be able to raise taxes. But nobody wants to listen to that. They just want to get all blissed out and watch Bernie’s new ad.

Its the same thing in Illinois. Everyone wants more and better schools, and more and better services, but nobody wants to pay for it. And we resent the person who’s job it is to divvy up what money there is, because its never enough. Everyone thinks they know how to better spend the money, but usually it just amounts to having more for themselves, so they can get back to ignoring the world.

Water, water everywhere…

…and not a drop to drink!

The crisis in Flint, Michigan over lead contaminated water is terrible. But at the moment the apparent solution is bottled water. I read somewhere that the idea is that the Federal Government will send in some bazillion dollar bail out, but I kind of doubt it. And I know Michigan (let alone Flint) doesn’t have the money to pay for new infrastructure.

But that’s a choice we make. We could totally build new water systems for Flint, but we won’t because we’d have to pay for it with debt. The horror!

Woop, there it is

“Tag team is back again.”

People about my age probably remember the ubiquitous pop hit “Woop! There It Is”. The opening line of that song always confused me, because the group Tag Team only had one hit song. How could they be back again? When were they here? Where are we, anyways?

Similarly, the Backstreet Boys’ first hit was “Backstreet is Back” and my immediate response was “Back from where?” But I don’t think any of the teenage girls that plastered their bedroom walls with posters of the popular vocal groups of the late 1990s ever stopped to seriously concern themselves with a question of whether the Boys were returning or only just arriving.

New Yorker magazine actually has a really good story from last year about Max Martin and his unbelievably successful career as a songwriter and producer for American pop acts like the Backstreet Boys, Nsync, Brittany Spears, and so on. Like many Swedish songwriters, he doesn’t worry too much what the lyrics mean, and American audiences don’t particularly notice.

There was one time I was in a store, and I was talking to the salesman, and System of a Down’s “Chopsuey” was playing out of speakers from just behind the sales guy, and it was maybe just a little loud. And I was trying to pay attention to what this guy was saying, but the hearing the screams of “Fah-thahhhh! Fah-thaahhhh!” over the raging guitars I felt a little overwhelmed for a moment. And, you know, on some level, isn’t music supposed to be this sacred thing where people are expressing their inner selves? When Serj Tankian wrote that song, was he thinking about how it would be providing a soundtrack to bland commercial outlets all over the world?

The thing about little moments of cognitive dissonance is that most of the time, people don’t care. As Hume says, reason is slave to passion.

And that is certainly true in politics these days, no? It occurred to me yesterday that the contest shaping up in the Republican nomination race is epic. Trump and Cruz must be wearing asbestos long-johns, because they’re running for President with their pants on fire. The truth is not a thing with either one of those guys. I’m pretty sure Trump could actually talk through a brick wall. Cruz debates like a prize fighter. They’re the product of a long and difficult competition, and they’re very, very good at what they do.

What’s important is not so much the candidates, but the electorate supporting them. Many on the left deride the Republican candidates as stupid or insane, and this demonstrates a blind spot. They don’t believe that conservatives want what they want. They insist that no one seriously thinks any of the present front runners in the GOP race have any chance of being elected, most of all Trump, who has led the race now for months.

But the fact is that Republicans run 31 State legislatures, as well as both houses of Congress. And the fact is they’ve had liberals on the ropes since 1994. And what happened in 1994? Well, for one thing, Hillary Clinton tried to reform health care, with disastrous results. But also, the Republicans won a sweeping victory in the midterm elections, and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House promoting his “Contract with America” legislative program. There was a government shutdown the following year over passage of the Federal budget.

Paul Krugman has a blog post, “Health Reform is Hard,”outlining why Clinton has the better position over Sanders regarding health care reform. Basically, Sanders doesn’t have a plan. He has a rallying cry. The left, progressives especially, want single payer health care. They want to hear a candidate who talks about straight-up socialized medicine. They don’t want to talk about the difficulties of implementation, or possible concerns over its overall effect on health care in the US. It’s “Single payer, ra-ra!” the end.

And Sanders couldn’t get away from that position now if he wanted to. And all the well reasoned critique in the world won’t change that. Because “Single Payer” isn’t a plan, it’s a rallying cry, a symbol of Progressive tribalism. Just the way “Choose your own doctor” was a rallying cry for conservatives back in 1994.

And the thing about those people who made a big deal about choosing their own doctor back in the 1990s, its not like they had a well thought out plan of action on health care reform either. They just didn’t want change. And I think the whole single payer thing is actually pretty similar. The folks calling for single payer health care don’t have a plan to reform anything. Like Max Martin, they’re not really thinking about what they’re saying, they’re just trying to make a popular noise.

The difference is that Martin will tell you that he doesn’t worry about the meaning conveyed by the lyrics of his songs. He doesn’t, and its fine. Part of the aesthetic, really. But if you confront an American with their own lack of thought on policy, they can get very offended. And I can sympathize with that. I have certainly said sharp, mean, angry things in response to criticism or rejection. On the other hand, I think that passion (particularly its domination of reason) in politics should be recognized. Why can we not have single payer? Because people would freak out if you tried to implement a fully nationalized system of health care all at once. They do have socialized medicine in Europe. They have it in Canada. But here in the United States, we don’t. And if you want to know why, there is a slightly endless literature covering just that topic.

I have friends [no I don’t, that’s a lie]* who seem to just want policy to be made correctly. They’re smart people. There’s a smart way to do things. If we just did the smart thing, the right thing, we wouldn’t have all these crazy problems. If we were just smart enough, we could solve the world’s problems and live in peace and harmony with nature. Zizek actually has a really lovely passage in Violence about the word “smart” —

“The new liberal communists are, of course, our usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as their court philosophers, most notably the journalist Thomas Friedman. What makes this group interesting is that their ideology has become all but indistinguishable from the new breed of anti-globalist leftist radicals…Both the old right, with its ridiculous belief in authority and order and parochial patriotism, and the old left with its capitalized Struggle against Capitalism, are today’s true conservatives fighting their shadow-theater struggles and out of touch with the new realities. The signifier of this new reality in the liberal communist Newspeak is ‘smart’: smart indicates the dynamic and nomadic as against centralized bureaucracy; dialogue and cooperation against hierarchical authority; flexibility against routine; culture and knowledge against old industrial production; spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis against fixed hierarchy.

A few pages later he writes that while “they fight subjective violence, liberal communists are the very agents of the structural violence which creates the conditions for the explosions of subjective violence.” They make money by ruining the world in the morning, and spend the afternoon giving it away to the victims. They are changing the world, just try and stop them!

Banking and the Economy, part 2

Alright– in the spirit of just picking up the thread, I want to talk about the financial crisis for a minute. I’ve read a lot about the crisis, and talked about it, and thought about it. I was listening to the radio the other day and somebody who was explaining what’s going on in the markets right now made a comparison to the apocalypse of 2008 , and I thought, it didn’t seem like the end of the world to me. I remember 2007 (sort of), and it is now 2016. 2008 came and went and most of us are still here. My parents live in the house I grew up in. My friends are, by and large, doing fine, living the lives they had more or less planned on. I mean, I thought the crisis was supposed to be some kind of event.

Obviously, I know about all the loss of money and credit and the recession and all that, and those things are not good, but nevertheless I cannot quite shake the feeling that what the crisis is really about is something that doesn’t happen.

And this is where things get weird for me. It has occurred to me often that what a lot of Americans want is a return to the 1950s- they imagine an idealized version of the Eisenhower administration, peace and prosperity, but without the racism and the sexism  and the fear of nuclear war. Remember the Jetsons and the Flintstones? The first a cartoon about a typical family in the future, and the second the same idea except in the past. In both, the typical family is white. They live in a single story ranch house. The man drives a large automobile to his job everyday while the woman attends to the household. They have two children. The man aspires to be a manager (but management is usually inept), he belongs to a club of other men who get together and wear funny hats. The woman aspires to have high quality material goods, especially the kind that you can display in public.

I think a lot of people want life to look something like a sitcom, where they are able to just go along and kind of ignore the world around them. The economy is expected to just hum along indefinitely and never change.

In the Middle Ages, it seems to me, although life was generally very hard, it was, at the very least, more predictable. It was at least possible, back then, to be born into a small village, live a long life, and die there, having only ever known the other people in the village, and the occasional visitor, and having never seen any other place. The years would come and go, and the world would be much as you found it throughout.

The world my father was born into was very different from the one we are in now. The world since 1815 is a radically different place from the world before 1776. The world we are living in now basically begins in the 1930s, and emerges fully after 1945. And think of how tumultuous that world has been! The human population of the world has increased by over 4 billion since 1950. The Green Revolution, led by Midwesterners like Henry Wallace and Geneticist Norman Borlaug, have changed the realities of food production, making it possible to sustain the enormous population, and allow it to grow. On the other hand, we’re using resources at an unsustainable rate.

And what I think Americans want is to not have to think about all this stuff. What’s the point of being the most powerful country in the world if you can’t get a decent night’s sleep anyways?

The role of banking is to facilitate the ordinary processes of a market economy. Now, in some sense, the market is thought to be an impartial mechanism. Businesses compete not for customers but rather for investment, and their competitiveness is measured by the return on investment. Banks are responsible for making all that happen, for separating profitable business from waste. In theory, consumers are the beneficiaries of this competition, although I think that’s debatable. Nevertheless, bankers are responsible for assessing the creditworthiness of firms as well as consumers; they are judges, arbiters of access to the financial system. A system that makes our way of life possible.

People who lost their job in the recession that followed the crisis lost their job because of the crisis, but it is impossible to hold any person or group of people entirely responsible for what happened. It is accepted that those people lost their jobs, and they have to find other jobs. Now the thing about living in a capitalist society is that it is, in some sense, a society of laborers. People who do not labor do not contribute to society. The people who lost their jobs and did not find new ones, some of those people lost their place in the world, and became homeless. It’s nobody’s fault. The homeless serve as a rejoinder to discipline for labor.  However, in order for that rejoinder to be effective, labor must be made to think that those jobless and homeless deserve their condition in some way, so that existing reality can seem reasonable as well.

Let’s say, let’s imagine, that people feel like the economy is too big. Not enormously too big, just a little too big. If it were just a little smaller, it would be fine. How would you do that? You take a little bit of money out of the economy. Which is sort of what we’re doing right now. The thing is that all the money in the economy is also all the income in the economy, so when that gets smaller, incomes get smaller. And as incomes get smaller, the relative size of debts gets bigger.

Now its tempting to say at this point in the story, aha! This is a negative feedback loop! By enabling companies to store profits offshore, banks are slowly starving the American people. But I don’t really think that’s what would happen. Bankers are not stupid, not even a little. There are guys on Wall Street who are total Bros, but even some of those guys are pretty bright. At some point, in theory, its possible for banks to put the kibosh on a deflation and start lending and get an expansionary cycle going. That eventually turns into a bubble, and then there’s a crisis, and – in theory – the suckers get liquidated. The crisis is not a symptom of instability, but a cause of stability.

Look. After the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb in 1948, fear of nuclear war rationalized the sustained investment and output levels in the US and Western Europe that led to the greatest economic expansion of all time. Full employment led to population growth with social stability. But now the cold war is over. The prosperity of the 20th century brought with it a cascade of consequence.  Here in the early 21st, America is tired.

We close our eyes and we dream of a time when we had hopes and dreams. The steady rise and fall of the economy rocks us like ocean swells felt from the deck of cruise ship, assuring us that nothing will change, not really.

If you think that banks are crooked, that politics is corrupt and America is an oligarchy, then why bother fighting? You have already ceded victory to the enemy. Go home.

Banks are institutions like any other. If we want them to do something different, we ought to tell them what that is, instead of trying to put them in chains. Democracy is quite capable of regulating banking and finance if it wants to – but that’s the thing. You can’t reform banking, or the monetary system, without engaging the people working in it, and without taking into account how it will effect demographics or social arrangements. Saying that the economy should work for the people and not just a small group of billionaires means nothing, because “the people” is an empty term. Everybody has a different idea of who “the people” includes. A serious politician has to engage with bankers, just as they must engage with the military, just as much as they must engage with the people who elect them.


Banking and the Economy, Part 1

Okay, so what I want to do here is try and work out some ideas I have about the economy and the role that banks play in it and how people think about that. In one sense, I want to address what I see as shortcomings of Bernie Sanders views on the economy. But in another sense, I want to try and present something that occurred to me before, sometime when I was thinking about this kind of stuff.

Larry Summers wrote a wonderful, nuanced critique of a New York Times op-ed piece Bernie Sanders wrote about policy reform regarding the Federal Reserve System. The Sanders piece was largely ignored at the time, but since then he has put out a speech, “Wall Street and the Economy” with a more comprehensive view of economic reform. There is a nice overview of the speech and its substantive content, as well as a summary of the response from Wall Street afterward, from Naked Capitalism.

Sanders delivers a progressive wish list of limitations on banking and finance. It is disappointing that he doesn’t seem to even notice all the good work being done by smart liberals. The Rewrite the Rules project at the Roosevelt Institute, with contributions from Joseph Stiglitz, Mike Konczal, and others. But people don’t want new and different. They just want to go back to when everything was all cool. Which was actually never, except in their imaginations.

Banking is one of the institutional foundations of the world we live in. And bankers are aware of this fact. Money is, in some ways, extremely useful. I remember when I was in China, visiting my brother, who teaches English in the suburbs of Chengdu, that I haggling everywhere, as an expected part of a transaction. When I was younger, I remember being quite taken with the idea, the fantasy, of haggling, but in truth I am a terrible negotiator. It occurred to me later that haggling required considerable effort on the part of both parties in an exchange. Somebody who is exhausted and malnourished is easier to take advantage of, while people of higher station not only benefit from better health, but also from the privileges inherent in higher social status. In the US, its kind of an advantage not to have to haggle over prices. If you really want to haggle, its possible to find arrangements here and there, but as a general rule, prices are simply up front. Which is kind of great in a way. Anybody can buy anything as long as they are able to pay.

We who have grown up immersed in a capitalist society can scarcely perceive what a radical thing capitalism can be. When you have to rely on social cues for your well being, you have to strive to be who other people expect. But if everything is available to everyone at consistent prices, you can be whoever you want. Some people decry the sameness of mass produced consumer commodities– but think of it this way: the Coke you get at the store tastes the same, and pretty much costs the same amount, as it does for anyone else. Rich people enjoy it the same as poor people. This is a view laid out in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a book I love for its whimsical and yet lucid treatment of modern culture. Warhol was a way deeper guy than I think most people give him credit for. He was a devoted Christian, too, and went to church every Sunday, as well as volunteering at a soup kitchen in Manhattan. He had an openness to people that I really admire. You find that in New York City, that kind of radical tolerance of others. It’s one of the biggest differences between it and Chicago, which is dominated by aggressively conformist Yankee culture – a view developed and explored in the book American Nations by Colin Woodard.

Anyways, the point is that the financial system we presently have in the US is actually pretty useful, in spite of all the malice it seems to have inspired since the Crisis of 2008. Being able to save money securely, being able to write and cash checks, and being able to get loans are all super useful. On top of that, credit is not only useful for making purchases, but also as a kind of proxy for social approbation. In the 1950s, black people traveling in the US would have a very difficult time finding a hotel room. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection and a credit card can get a hotel room anywhere in the country. The credit company vouches for it’s customers while simultaneously supervising them. Banks, in larger sense, have long provided the same basic service to the economy.

Any business concern requires financing. Under capitalism, savings are (in theory) invested, so as to earn interest. In a liquidity trap, desired savings are greater than available investment, and the holding of cash becomes incentivized. This is how companies hold $2.1 trillion in profits in offshore accounts and don’t worry about it. The inflation rate is close enough to zero that they can afford to just sit on that money.

What we need to do, of course, is boost aggregate demand. People get really confused about this idea, because the it sounds like more spending and more debt, and that just seems intuitively wrong. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure if I recommended reforms where private vehicles as a common mode of transportation would cease to exist, people would look at me as if I was insane. If we all lived closer together in smaller dwellings, stopped watching television and entertained ourselves by playing sports and reading poetry, and gave up the habit of driving everywhere, we would save enormous amounts of resources. But none of that is going to happen, because people don’t really go for comprehensive change, unless there has been some sort of terrible crisis.


Oh Hillary! Why Can’t I Quit You?

So, I went through the posts from a guy I know on Facebook, a progressive activist from Chicago who posts a lot of political stuff, and picked out the articles about Hillary Clinton. The first is something about Hillary talking smack about Bernie’s grandkids, the next is about how Hillary hired “Monsanto’s Man in Iowa” to run her campaign there,  a third about Politifact declaring Hillary’s attacks on Bernie to be false, and then a fourth claiming that Hillary blames the victims of the foreclosure crisis for their hardships. The view that emerges from this is not so much “Hillary Clinton is wrong” but rather “Hillary Clinton is false.” And this is a fairly common view of her on the progressive left. She isn’t a fellow Democrat, she’s the enemy.

And this is, I think, one of the fundamental problems of the Sanders campaign. Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, is the establishment candidate in this race. She stands for a continuation of the Obama administration. Even though Sanders is technically challenging Clinton, what’s at stake is the symbolic leadership of the Party. I think there are progressives at the margins of the Party who would love to see their ideas come to the fore, but in doing so they risk losing sight of the common interest. If Clinton does not become President in 2016, it will be a tragedy for the nation, a passing up of a unique opportunity. If she loses to the nomination to Sanders, it will be a tragedy for the Democratic Party.

“The fundamental difference between the Trump and Sanders crowd was that the Sanders crowd has more money, the natural consequence of the American contradiction machinery: rich white people can afford to think about socialism, the poor can only afford their anger.” -Stephen Marche, “The white man pathology: inside the fandom of Sanders and Trump” (Guardian)

But now Clinton is getting nervous about Bernie, and so she’s attacking him and alienating his followers in the process. Ezra Klein breaks down what that’s all about in “Hillary Clinton doesn’t trust you” — the title cleverly inverting the common aversion to her. Basically, the left still wants single-payer health care. Clinton, having lead a disastrous attempt at reforming health care back in 1994, knows a little too well that reform has to be really cautious, because people freak out when you change existing arrangements of health coverage. Bernie boosters don’t have time for all that noise. They want socialized medicine yesterday and they find it hard to believe that not everyone realizes they’re totally right.

This brings me to a blog post from a Professor of Philosophy at Wabash College that I found through Rob Saler. The author is talking to her brother, who lives in an intentional Christian community in Chicago called Jesus People USA, and he describes “…a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, ‘dive bombing.’  ‘Dive bombing’ is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours.  This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending.  And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong.”

It seems to me like this is actually quite common in political rhetoric. Among the Republican Presidential candidates it is near the only game in town. The Party is united behind dismantling the Obama legacy. Notice how Trump, at the last debate, took on the mantle of anger. It was observed (by Vox) on Twitter that what makes Trump different from the other candidates, who say “I understand your anger,” is that he says “I’m angry.”

Sympathy is a powerful thing. It feels good to have your own thoughts and feelings validated. On the other hand, feelings don’t write policy. What keeps me up at night lately is the thought that progressive resentment of Hillary Clinton will make possible the election of a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump. And we will lose all the progress made over the last 8 years because we can’t bear the idea of Hillary as President. I suppose, in some sense, that if the Democrats can’t get it together to elect her, then the party doesn’t deserve to go on as it has. Who knows? Maybe the Party system is in the process of collapsing, as the grasp of democracy upon the Nation slowly recedes.

Fumbling in the Dark

I don’t really know how many people are reading this, but I realized this morning that posting on this blog still feels like posting on Facebook, except without the Facebook. So a little like Livejournal, perhaps, if anyone knows anymore what that is. Paul Krugman always seems so off the cuff in his blog. He’s scribbling notes in the margins. And what notes! I don’t hope to ever be that good. Oddly, that feels like a stumbling block.

One of the coolest blogs I ever followed was Mimi in New York, written by Ruth Fowler between 2005 and 2012. She grew up in North Wales, went to Cambridge, traveled the world for five years, and moved to New York City to become a writer. Once there, her work visa failed to come through, so she decided to make a living as a stripper, and lived a very interesting life for a while. She blogged through all of this, and eventually got a book deal out of it. Afterwards she moved to California to become a screenwriter. Since then, she’s gotten sober, had a child, gotten married and divorced. She doesn’t do much blogging these days.

Definitely I hope not to share so much of my personal life here as Ruth did with Mimi (that was part of the idea: the name Mimi- “everything is about me me me” – symbolizes her narcissism). But I really admire the way she developed the voice of that blog. Reminded me of Maggie Estep, one of my favorite writers, also a New Yorker. New York City is so romantic to me, probably because I never lived there, but also because of the voices that emerge from it. Herbert Hunke and Dorothy Day, a junkie and a saint, both came out of New York City. Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes and the Nuyoricans. Aaron Cometbus is from Berkeley, but he owns a bookstore in Brooklyn, because that’s where all the cool kids live now. I am not one of the cool kids, and I never was.

Writing this blog feels like fumbling in the dark right now. I think it might feel that way for a while before I get my bearings.


I was most impressed by Ted Cruz tonight. He could go all the way. The guy really knows how to debate. Trump has accepted the Troll mantle, of his own accord. Rubio has turned mean. He’s going to get put down, I think. Carson is comic relief. His answers are so far out it’s amazing. Christie is a bulldog, but he’s got no chance this year. This is the year of super-anti-Liberalism.

This is, by the way, why I was so happy about the opinion piece saying that the SOTU basically laid out a vision of crushing reactionaries. The GOP Presidential field is heavily reactionary right now. The Republican Party has long been the party of reaction since the New Deal, and in many ways has been shaped by that. The Democrats are the Center-Left party, the party of Government. Most government major government programs (with some notable exceptions under Eisenhower and Nixon) have been created under Democratic administrations, at least since 1932.

Anyways, Kasich came across especially well tonight, I thought. He sounded reasonable for a Republican. I do rather like his consistently calm, reassuring tone. Jeb! was pretty good too, if you discount the fact that he seems totally weak. I applaud him for soldiering on, but I don’t think he’s fooling even himself at this point.

I went into the debate tonight still thinking that Trump would be the nominee, but I’m starting to think it will be Cruz after all. He knows how to talk like a President. His tax plan is completely irrelevant, because Paul Ryan will be writing the Federal tax code next year. Although I could possibly imagine the abolition of the IRS.

If Cruz wins, and I think he might have a good shot against Clinton. Against Sanders, Cruz would win in a landslide. Did anyone notice that Rubio talked about the possibility of Sanders running like it was almost a joke. They take Clinton seriously, but Sanders isn’t even a threat. This is because they’re conservatives, and the election of a socialist is literally unthinkable for them.

This year is going to be nuts.