Busy Week

Man, what a week! All kinds of buzz over Iowa, and the State of the Union, and now tonight there is another Republican debate! And really I should be working on other projects, but I just have to get this out…

So, this week at least, my intuition is saying that Trump is going to win. He’s going to win because everyone keeps saying and wishing and hoping and praying that it won’t be him. Nobody believes he will make it through the nomination. And nobody believes he could be President. But everyone is thinking about it. Obama is thinking about it.

Speaking of what Obama is thinking about, I kind of loved Francis Wilkerson’s piece in Bloomberg View on how the State of the Union essentially proposes “crushing the reactionary party obstructing the way” of progress. Man, I wish that was the President’s plan. I wish it had been his plan in January 2009. At this point, I do think it’s accurate to say that stopping the dismantling of Obama’s legacy after 2016 will amount to making the reactionaries feel crushed.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, most people (about two-thirds) feel like they’re losing in politics today. Small wonder that the reactionaries are so strong this year. The study finds that people who feel like their losing are more likely to be angry.

And lately, I feel like a lot of what I hear from my friends on the left is anger. Obama can do no wrong, but everybody else is crooked and horrible. In Illinois, nobody has any love for State Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, because he’s been running the state for decades, so obviously everything going wrong now is his fault. Never mind Governor Rauner refusing to compromise with Democrats in the legislature. And never mind changing demographics, secular stagnation, and the sustained efforts of anti-union forces. Rahm Emmanuel is blamed for systemic racism and violence in Chicago. As if that was his fault.

This is an insidious thing about capitalism! Unemployment is never really anyone’s fault. If there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who wants/needs to work, it is supposed to be the fault of the unemployed for not trying hard enough. And people have the hardest time accepting any other story. It isn’t anyone’s fault that there is high unemployment in Chicago, except as far as you can say the city disincentivizes business through taxes and regulations. You aren’t supposed to force businesses to hire people.

But the fact is that poor neighborhoods are poor because the people in them don’t have enough money. And I’ve heard people suggest that the answer to Chicago’s problems is to take money away from the police and give it poor black people, who need it more. Which is never going to happen.

But in the meantime, everyone in Chicago is up in arms, trying to say that Rahm has got to go. I’d say the chances of him willingly resigning are still slim to none, although it would seem the state legislature might oblige the city by allowing them to recall the mayor. And if that did happen, I’m sure people would be super excited and it would be a big party, until the day after the city’s politics collapsed into the giant power vacuum left by the former White House Chief of Staff. It seems doubtful that Chicago would turn into Detroit, but I think it may eventually parallel the Motor City. Maybe it will become a new frontier in privatization. As public sector unions fall, and public services are diminished, perhaps we will see the rise of a different kind of city.

I mean, think about it this way. If the Loop was secured through private forces, instead of municipal police officers accountable to the public, the rest of the city could just get along with minimal supervision. People would either have an income allowing them to live with dignity, or they would have to fend for themselves. This sort of thing keeps everyone in line: market discipline. You don’t worry about being punished. You worry about being cast out, losing your place. But in the meantime, nobody would be able to talk about police oppression, because they wouldn’t be there.

In some sense, what I think a lot of the people who are calling for Rahm’s resignation really want is something like this: 1) for everyone living in Chicago to identified as people who live in Chicago (this is important for reasons that will become clear), 2) for generous public services to be provided to all of those people, for free, without exception, and for the city to take full legal and financial responsibility for all public services, 3) for the city government to provide these services without raising taxes or revenue of any kind, including and especially borrowing or engaging with banks, 4) for the city to guarantee the opportunity for meaningful remunerative work to be made available, with minimum compensation set at a sustainable living-wage, 5) for the city to guarantee that the increases in rents and property values not outpace the growth of wages, and 6) to guarantee that the city not allow too many people to move to the city once these provisions are established. Its extremely important to realize that what people want is not change, but justice (which, often enough, looks like plain old revenge). Notice how completely unrealistic this all is, and notice the emphasis on people wanting things only for themselves. The people of Chicago want to fire Rahm, but not because they want to help anyone. They’re just mad, and they think by punishing Rahm they’ll feel better.

But this is basically why I see the city moving towards privatization. Nobody really wants a better city government, they just want someone to blame when things go wrong. Certainly no one wants to pay more taxes, and nobody wants to go into debt, but the city can’t operate without funding. This is easily the most infuriating thing about dealing with city politics, people have just no reasonable expectations about money and jobs. They expect everything to be done perfectly, and are outraged whenever they feel disappointed. And for what? Chicago politicians and civil servants are demonized as a matter of routine. Why bother putting your life into public service if all the public can do is complain about you?

Simple things

This was in my daily reading yesterday–

“…I think doing simple things is just as important in God’s sight as the highest states of contemplation. Why? Whatever I do for love gives honor to God. It’s all one and the same…whenever I sin, I step off this path.” -Mechthild of Madgeburg (1208-1282), The Flowing Light of the Godhead

I like it when everyone gets included. Don’t worry about God, worry about love, that’s something relevant to everybody. When people act out of fear, it’s different from when people act out of love. Transactions, in particular those mediated by money, are different from actions, because they are relationships between things, not between people. They can appear genuine, indeed, one frequently encounters claims of authenticity attached to transactions. Your waitress is nice to you because that’s her job. A stranger who smiles back is a sacred vision.

Too much is made of loving one’s work today. A chef nowadays must always claim possession of a driving passion for the culinary arts, but it will not ultimately dispel the fact that returns from growth are overwhelmingly allocated to capital. That is to say, chefs may be expected to work more than they are being fairly compensated for (because they are so passionate), with the implicit promise of future earnings increase, and the chances are that any one chef will burn out from overwork and never realize their expected potential earnings. The people making money in the restaurant business are the owners and investors. And that is because the most important ingredient in any business plan these days is finance.

But I digress.

The People Want Hillary Clinton to Lose

Bernie Sanders claims he’s got Clinton scared. The New York Times is reporting that Clinton is having to fight for Iowa. Politico says that Sanders is pulling ahead.Vox tells us about the 11% lead Sanders has over Clinton among voters 18-35.

Hillary Clinton is still, of course, the establishment candidate of the Democratic Party, but I’m starting to really wonder. And I still support her candidacy wholeheartedly, but I recognize very much that she is a reviled figure, both on the left and the right. Progressives utterly despise her. She is a Neoliberal, a soulless, pandering, elitist technocrat whose only real goal is to uphold globalized capitalism.

American progressives are foolish because they take too much for granted. They think that if Sanders were somehow elected, that he could really turn the country around. That if he were given the ability to make his case as President, then Americans would understand what needed to be done, and everything would fall into place. None of these things would actually happen. If Bernie Sanders were to clinch the nomination (as would seem a distinct possibility at present), the first thing that would happen would be compromise between the Party and the Campaign. Bernie is running a classic anti-establishment campaign, but if he wants that Party organization and support, he’s going to have to make compromises with the establishment. If negotiations go poorly, the division could cost the Democrats the election, and diminish their standing in society. But even if the relationship between the Party and the Campaign is harmonious, compromises made on the part of the candidate will be bitterly resented by many of his supporters. Which brings me to speculate on what would happen on the off chance that Sanders did win the White House in November.

Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House, and he is not fucking around, not even a little bit. If Bernie Sanders were President, Paul Ryan would break him. He would force the President into a confrontation, win, and then humiliate him in the settlement. And it would likely lead to a long and terrible recession. For which Sanders would be blamed! Come 2020, a Republican would be, at long last, brought into the White House.

Not that I expect anyone to be persuaded by that argument. Most of the folks who support Sanders don’t really know what they want, only that they are so very tired. I suppose what they really want is sleep! And good dreams.

Hillary Clinton is not telling bed time stories. She may sometimes be tone deaf and hamfisted, or we might be hypercritical of a woman who would be President. I confess I sometimes cannot tell one way or the other. But she is leading a Presidential campaign. And the establishment at least appears to be supportive of her. Should not that count for something?

It does count for something, but it counts against her for most progressives. Indeed, pointing out that Sanders is a populist candidate is denounced in Jacobin. He’s a populist, but of course he should not be in a category with Donald Trump, who is obviously pure evil, whereas Bernie is the answer to progressive prayers.

Towards this view I can only express a kind of ambivalent despair. So many progressives are simply blind to conservatism. They cannot understand nor imagine why conservatives are conservatives, but confronted by the failure reasonable argument against their political foes, will shrink into bitter cynicism. Cynics don’t vote, because they already know the system is broken. And what scares them most isn’t someone breaking the system, but fixing it.

Imagine, for a moment, if the US economy was a perfect and genuine meritocracy, accurate and kept up-to-the-minute, where everyone knew where they and everyone else was in terms of income and earnings potential. Would the constant measurement and ranking not drive us all insane? And would not the distribution of merit reflect the arbitrary concerns of some anonymous technocrat anyways?

But Progressives instead assume that the economy should be a meritocracy, and that politics distort the distribution of income. In this way, individual achievement can be celebrated while failures can be ascribed to systemic failures. Notice how close this is to  basic libertarian positions. The problem is not with the system, it is rather that the system exists at all.


Why do people hold beliefs? Think about it on a mundane level. If you get in your car, and turn on the radio, and you hear the weatherman talking about rain, why do you believe him? A disembodied voice is telling you one thing or another about the future, and we all know that voice is wrong sometimes, but we go on and believe anyways. How does that work?

It has seemed clear to me for a long time that competing political groups in the United States simply do not believe each other. Conservatives, and therefore Republicans generally, do not trust–do not believe–Liberals, and therefore a leading minority of Democrats. Please note that between Liberals and Conservatives there are a bunch of Democrats, because the Democratic Party is still the acknowledged center. It seems important to develop a sense of gravity in politics.

When I read Erick Erickson over at Red State (oh, the irony), I am persuaded to believe that he really does think Ted Cruz would make a good President. This does not mean I think Ted Cruz will make a good President. But it does mean that Ted Cruz is Erickson’s idea of a good President. Erickson is no slouch. I’ve been following him for years, and he’s a smart guy. And I’m pretty sure he’s not a racist. He might even be a nice guy. But he is definitely really, really conservative, and that means endorsing Ted Cruz–Ted Cruz!–for President.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. To take a phrase from Richard Pryor, “That honky is crazy.” Imagining a world where Ted Cruz is an improvement is frightening for me. Probably as frightening as a world where Hillary Clinton is President for him. Part of my political view is that, if I had my way, it would be oppression to many conservatives. If it was up to me, gas would be more expensive, and people would call it oppressive. And if it were my call, I would say environmental and financial regulations ought to be more strict, and many businesses would call that oppression. Ted Cruz’s entire political career has been based on a moral objection to the Presidency of Barack Obama, because for many conservatives, that administration has been oppressive.

Some time ago, one of my Professors at Roosevelt recommended to me The Rhetoric of Reaction by Albert Hirschmann, which breaks down reactionary writing categorically, demonstrating how it is more or less a function of language. In elucidating the hallmarks of reactionary thought, I noticed that is was always some sort of response to an event. Something happens, and the reactionary says “No it did not!” Please note that the reactionary acknowledges the event that did not happen, while insisting, loudly, that it most certainly did not occur.

Remember 2010? Barack Obama had become President, and the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress; the stimulus had passed, the ACA had been passed. Obama had been elected in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a reform President on a platform of “Hope.” Two years later, you get the perverse response: “Fear.” That was the year of the Tea Party and Glenn Beck frothing at the mouth. 2012 you get the jeopardy response: “Mitt Romney, you’re our only hope!” It was the last gasp of an establishment party before the reactionaries really took over. In 2014 you get the futility response: “Ignore Obama, focus on intraparty feuding.” Rather than fight Obama directly, they can simply focus on repealing everything he ever did, and squabble over strategy and leadership.

Believing and not believing are both activities, with means and ends. How I understand the world matters for how I believe and do not believe. “Make-believe” usually refers to childish fantasies, but I often wonder how, indeed, are beliefs produced? In this world of infinite production possibilities, where anything and everything can be commodified and quantified, how do we make believe?

There’s more, but I have to get dressed.


Breaking into the Blogosphere

Why write a blog? There are already too many blogs on the internet. Too many words, too many plots, and not enough time to connect all the dots.

I have discerned a blog shaped hole in the world, a place to put some thoughts I have been carrying with me awhile. I do not know if they are profound or profoundly dull, only that I wish to put them where they can be seen in the world, where others might see them.

I am a long time reader of blogs—indeed, much of my reluctance to begin writing a blog comes from knowing the already very high quality of contemporary blogging. In particular, I enjoy the blogs of academic economists: Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma, Brad Delong, Simon Wren-Lewis, Noah Smith, David Ruccio, JW Mason, and also Crooked Timber, which is not strictly about economics. I have an MA in Economics from Roosevelt University, and I will be teaching Econ 101 in a cornfield starting in a couple of weeks. I became interested in economics in my mid-twenties, while I was living in San Francisco, because I liked the way it explained the world. Later on, I moved to Chicago and somehow found my way into one of the few remaining heterodox economics programs in the US. Having a broader theoretical base of understanding than most economists, I have developed a peculiar, eclectic view which is not especially radical, but critical of the mainstream.

Political economy, which is to be a primary subject of this blog, is a kind of label placed upon my speculations regarding politics and the economy. I mean it to sound old-fashioned. I am a Christian and a practicing Catholic—I am also a Liberal, and a voting Democrat. I support equal rights for everybody, black people, LGBT people, undocumented people, everybody. I also support the right of all women to have access to adequate and appropriate birth control services including abortion, which should be legal and safe.

Another big influence for me is the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek—and here he is relevant. While I am an advocate of social justice, I am not particularly enamored of toleration. We (I mean people in the United States) should not ever tolerate racism or sexism. I believe that we should forgive bigotry and ignorance, always and without reservation, but we should not tolerate them. I believe in right and wrong, but everybody is wrong sometimes, and therefore everyone needs forgiveness. It’s not really okay to be wrong, but I believe in universal divine mercy, so it’s all good. You can be wrong all day, every day and we can still be friends.

Zizek is something of a radical, and I should be clear: I am not a radical. I am not even a socialist. I support programs and organizations that are sometimes called socialist, like Social Security and Medicare for example, but by no means do I consider myself socialist. I support Hillary Clinton for President not because I think she is least bad candidate but because I think she is the best person to lead the country right now. I also know a lot of people supporting Bernie Sanders, and I still respect their views. But I am not one of them, in part because I am not a socialist. I went to the Socialism 2015 Conference in Chicago, and it was really interesting (perhaps I will write at length about my experience there at a later time). There are plenty of redeeming qualities to socialists and socialism—for me, the priority is on democratic governance and legal equality above social concerns.

While I am something of an ambivalent non-socialist, I am a deeply committed anti-libertarian. I occasionally look at Tyler Cowen’s blog, and I think he’s a good writer and a respectable economist even, but he is a libertarian, like the rest of the economics Professors at George Mason University, and I pretty much disagree with everything he says. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time speaking to Deirdre McCloskey, a renowned Economic Historian and Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, and she’s really smart and interesting and totally worth listening to…but she also is libertarian, and therefore wrong about all kinds of stuff. I have little use for the long-winded libertarian theoreticians like Rothbard or Brooks, and I have a special disdain for Friedrich von Hayek, that darling of the Neoliberal set.

Libertarianism is reactionary ideological poison. It conceives of the modern world as an insidious conspiracy meant to subvert the individual and in doing so makes a perverse game of life. It is also wildly popular nowadays, and has immense intellectual support from think tanks (which are, in turn, supported by wealthy individuals interested in cultivating narratives rationalizing their outsize wealth and influence). I intend to explore this theme more thoroughly as time goes on.

Ideological contortions aside, I am also hoping to cover more whimsical sorts of discussions on music and culture. Being something of a musician (not especially talented nor devoted), I enjoy the subject of music history very much. One of the best ways to explore history is through the arts. For example, a friend of mine who is a successful performer of traditional dance and song told me once about going over 18th century Scottish folk tunes how prevalent the theme of land privatization was in the lyrics. The implementation of the Acts of Enclosure in Scotland during that time has numerous wide ranging and long term effects, among them the Industrial Revolution and the culture of the Appalachian Mountains. Tracing out those sorts of stories is something I want to do here on this blog.

There is, I suppose, a certain element of post-modernism in my conception of this blog. I want to write the blog that I would want to read; the author is the audience. Narcissism, perhaps. This is a risk I will simply have to take. Hopefully someone besides me will find reading it useful.

For myself, just writing it at all is freeing. Most of the time I am afraid to speak at all, for fear of sounding stupid. The only way to write well is keep writing, the only way to think well is to keep thinking. If you’ve read this far, keep reading. You never know when it might get good.