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.

Freedom from…wait, what?

So, I’m thinking about a conversation I had with a student in Justice class yesterday. I was saying that one of the objections to big government is that it stops small towns from enforcing prayer in schools. And he got turned around on it – he doesn’t think a school should have to force anyone to pray. But that’s the policy of big government. That’s the paradox.

I’m fascinated by the school prayer issue for this reason. It was a case that occurred in the 1950s, and has been a source of controversy ever since. Yet it is not especially well understood by liberals. Most folks on the left seem to want to imagine that conservative governments want to force their conservative brand of Christianity on the rest of the country, and yet that is not, from my understanding, really the case. What most conservative Christians want is the right to make local and/or State laws that harmonize with their views, which the power of the Federal government in general and the Supreme Court in particular has frustrated throughout the modern era.

But let’s step back a moment. Imagine it’s 1900, and you and everyone you know emigrates from central Europe to the United States, looking for place to settle where you can live peacefully by your own traditions. You’re not interested in forcing anyone else to live by your traditions. On the contrary, you’re tolerant of others. You won’t mess with them as long as they don’t mess with you. Live and let live. You get some land, you cultivate the land, work hard, and establish a little town with a church and school. Everyone in town goes to the same church, and therefore everyone at school abides by the rules laid down by the church. Sweet liberty! All are happy. You are able to live free of outside intervention.

Fifty odd years later, some guys in black robes in a far off place called Washington tell you that you can’t require your local school to abide by your local church rules. You can pray in school, but you can’t require it, and you can’t exclude outsiders. What the fuck? You aren’t messing with outsiders. You’re not forcing your way of life on anyone. You came and established your town for your people and who the fuck are these “Justices” to tell you what you can or can’t do in your little school on the prairie?

You can extend this sort of thinking to a great many issues – slavery, for example, was not an issue of the South forcing Northern states to abide slavery, only to abide the right of the South to practice it. Hence the continual reference to “States rights.” Folks on the left have a tendency to conflate “states rights” with racism – but there’s an important difference here. That difference is that in order to end slavery, the Federal government had to fight a massively destructive war. Moreover, it had to enforce laws that were thought terribly unjust by vast swaths of the population.

The key to understanding the present political moment, for me, is the opposition to the Federal government. The whole point of the Trump administration is not to reform the Federal government, it is to diminish it as much as possible. To make it stop telling people what to do. To restore liberty to States and localities. So that if a town wants to vote to require all students be practicing Christians, they can do that. Or if a State wants to outlaw abortion and birth control practices, they can do that. Or if a corporation feels that regulations are unfairly interfering in their conducting a profitable enterprise, they can get them changed or abolished without too much trouble.

People love to hate on the Federal government. Everybody does. But y’all are gonna miss that shit when it’s gone.


So, I’m teaching a class on Justice over at Roosevelt University in Chicago. It’s a bit surreal for me. When I was a student there I took it twice, once as an undergrad and once as a grad, in the first and last semesters I was there. It was a signiture course of Professor Ziliak, who is something of an iconoclast. I worry that my own version of the class will pail in comparison to his, but in the meantime I’m having fun with it. Anyways, the first assignment I gave the students was write a short paper, between 300 and 500 words, on the question “What is fair?” The twist is that the student is supposed to write as if addressing a child. A friend of mine (who adjuncted at Roosevelt for a couple years) remarked, when I told him about the assignment I was planning, that I would have to write a version of my own. So I did. Here it is:

Sometimes we say something is not fair. We might say this about something we are doing ourselves, or thing we saw someone else do. We might feel very strong about it, even if we do not know why. Everybody will say something is unfair at one time or another. It is normal and natural. But because everyone will think something unfair at one time or another it is important for us to understand what we mean by the word “fair.”

First, if we say something is fair or unfair, we are saying that we care about it. Not everyone cares about the same things, or in the same way. What might seem fair to one person will seem unfair to another. We have to think carefully about what we mean by fair so that we can talk to other people about it.

Second, when we think about fairness, we have to use our imagination. When we do something – play a game, take a trip, talk to a friend, read a story – we often imagine what will happen before it happens. Many times, if things don’t go the way we thought they would, we think it’s unfair. Sometimes, we will decide something is unfair before we know why, and then find a reason afterwards. This can be dangerous, because our imagination is powerful. We might make up a reason why something is unfair and then refuse to believe anything else. A person who says that anything that doesn’t go their way is unfair is a person who is hard to talk to, to play or work with, or to care about. If we want people to care about us, we need to be able to talk about what fair means.

So how can we know if something is fair? Imagine you are doing something you care about and it doesn’t go the way you want. What would make it okay? When is it okay to lose a game? Did everyone play their best and by the rules? Then it’s okay.

Things are not always fair. Sometimes things don’t go our way, it’s unfair, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When this happens it is important to know how to forgive. Sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes they do the wrong thing on purpose. Sometimes they’ll say they’re sorry, and sometimes they won’t. Either way it’s important to forgive them. If we’re angry or hurt about something that isn’t fair and we don’t forgive the person who made us feel that way we can end up carrying the anger and hurt around with us and it can make it hard to be happy or to care about the people who care about us. It is not fair to ourselves to carry around our anger and hurt, and that’s why its important to know how to forgive.

What is fair and unfair can be confusing, but its important to know how to talk about what fair means. When we care about something we’re doing, we will want it to be fair. People care about different things, so we must be able to talk about fairness so we don’t get confused. If things don’t go our way but we feel okay anyways, it might be fair. It’s always okay to ask a friend what they think. And whatever happens, remember that sometimes people do things that aren’t fair, and when they do, we must forgive them, out of fairness to ourselves.

(When I wrote that it was in a notebook, without a word counter. Once I typed it out I discovered it was 580 words, a bit over the limit I assigned. I’m pretty sure it could be improved, but I’ll leave it as is.)

Don’t freak out about Trump’s cabinet of horrors

My feed over on the ‘book is presently a litany of fear and loathing over the incoming administration – but I think folks ought to chill the fuck out. Trump was never going to be thoughtful about running the country, and I do not think the people who voted for him were hoping that he would be thoughtful about running the country.

Betsy DeVos, who will almost certainly be Secretary of Education, knows almost nothing about education policy. Ben Carson is clueless as to what urban development is about, despite having grown up poor and black in a major American city. The nominee for head of the EPA is not sure if there is a safe level of lead in drinking water regarding children (there is not). Many of my friends are presently exasperated by the sheer ignorance of the incoming administration. Moreover, the current attempt at formulating a replacement for the Affordable Care Act belies a serious misunderstanding of how health care policy works on the part of Republican policy makers.

Let me be clear: I am well aware that the country has been hijacked by nitwits. But it does not especially disturb me.

To understand what’s going on, it helps to know how conservative talk show hosts think about politics. The key to their appeal is that they are anti-liberal. Indeed, there isn’t anything especially conservative about Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, or anybody else in the vast panoply of right wing media. What matters is not what they are for – it never was – what matters is that they are against liberalism. What’s liberalism? The ruling ideology of the US Federal government since FDR.

The many achievements of the Federal government since 1933 – Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, agricultural and environmental regulation, Medicare, Medicaid, the end of racial segregation of the military, along with many Supreme Court decisions (Roe v Wade in particular) – are, together, what conservatives are against in the US. This is what has given the Republican party its emphasis on cutting taxes. Its not that they especially care about cutting taxes – for rich people or anyone else – its that they want to defund the Federal government.

Let’s consider the Roe v Wade case. In my view, what is at the heart of the issue for conservatives is not abortion. No, no, no. It’s not about telling women what they can or cannot do. Not really. What it’s about is the Federal government telling States what laws they can and cannot make. Prior to Roe v Wade, abortion was banned by all 50 States, in individual pieces of legislation. And then the Supreme Court, in one fell swoop, declared those laws unconstitutional. The issue is that the freedom of State legislatures to tell women what they can or cannot do with their bodies was taken away by the Federal judiciary.

This is a tension that has always existed in the United States. It is why we have two houses of Congress, and why we have the electoral college. It is why the Civil War was fought. And it is this tension, between the States and the Federal government, which drives the present political situation.

What’s the other side of this? Well, let’s imagine a government of technocrats for a moment. Smart, sensible, well educated folks who would make policy decisions on the basis of evidence and reason. If such a government were enabled to make laws applicable throughout the country, shit would be radically different. I can’t imagine we’d have anything other than a single-payer, universal health care system. I think it’s quite likely the EPA would be much stronger. And taxes would probably still be close to what they were in the 1950s – that is to say, very high incomes would be pointless, because they’d get taxed away. Hence, income inequality would be considerably lower than it is. And so on. So why are these problematic? What’s the problem with making good decisions?

Well, first of all, many people don’t like other people making decisions for them, superior reasoning faculties be damned. And it’s easy to imagine that everything would be coming up fucking roses if it wasn’t for the decision making bureaucrat you resent. And it’s not as if very smart, evidence driven policy makers don’t fuck up from time to time. And every time they do it works as an argument against the entire system. Remember Solyndra? A company making solar panels that got a grant out of the 2009 economic stimulus that failed – there were lots of successful parts of the stimulus, but conservatives only ever talked about Solyndra, because it was proof that the stimulus was a huge waste of taxpayer money, and that Obama and the Democrats were out of control, and had to be reined in.

But there’s also the disruptive element of Federal policy making. Again, Roe v Wade makes a great example. If a woman can end an unwanted pregnancy, what is to stop her from obeying patriarchy? Again, its not about the government telling women what to do with their bodies. It’s about patriarchy telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. There was a time in the US not so long ago where prostitution was essentially tolerated. It was the privilege of being a man. The introduction of birth control meant that women could also freely participate in sex for pleasure – which paradoxically meant that they could reasonably demand monogamy from men. This was a disruption of the established balance of power between the sexes. Personally, I think birth control was one of the best things in human history. But if you were a man accustomed to being able to dominate women within your family, birth control was and is a serious threat. And if States were allowed to ban abortion and Planned Parenthood, all that would go away.

For many Americans, freedom means being free of outside influence. The Federal government’s only legitimate purpose is to defend them from outsiders, even if they happen to be their fellow Americans. In the old South, the maintenance of racial segregation symbolized freedom. On the great plains, the freedom to have public schools which taught the local variety of Christianity as part of curriculum was freedom. And so on. The Federal government is always the outsider, the meddler.

And Trump is the revenge of those Americans who resent the Federal government. What they want from the administration is to stop doing the things the Federal government has been doing for the past 84 years. And that’s what the cabinet is all about.

Should we all be afraid? I mean, yes. But for me, the larger issue is that people who want sensible, intelligent, reasonable policy made and enforced by the government have to come to grips with the fact that such policy will be interpreted by some folks as oppression. This particular moment is the return of those oppressed by liberalism. They don’t want sensible policy. They want revenge. If a bunch of people get hurt in the process, well, they should have known better than to fuck with the established order of things.

New Year’s eve

Well here it is, the end of December and I’m just now writing a post. And I’ll start with a resolution to write more in the New Year than I have in the last three months. I was looking over the numbers for this year – because one of the best parts about blogging is that you get statistics on viewership – and it felt like I had written kind of a lot. Nothing especially profound, but I did do some writing. And somebody somewhere read some of it.

It’s not for want of worthy blogging topics over the past few months that I haven’t posted. The 2016 elections happened. Trump’s cabinet of horrors. Reflections on opera – Das Rheingold was much funnier than expected – and music and so on. I taught four classes this past semester and beginning in the next few weeks I’ll be teaching four more. One intro, one macro, one micro, and one titled “Theories of Justice” and having to do very much with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. There will be lots of travel, and hopefully lots of reading, and certainly a great deal of work. But I won’t be writing a book chapter, so that’s helpful. I often found I’d feel guilty writing a blog post while I had pending stuff for the book chapter. It was a challenging project for me, and I’m glad it’s done. Next weekend I’m going to Chicago for the American Economic Association’s 2017 annual conference, so that’s exciting. I was surprised to see the the Union for Radical Political Economy has sessions at the AEA (and kind of excited to check them out).

2017 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Das Capital, and I think I’d like to try reading the whole thing this year. I have a weird relationship with Marx – he’s a tradition unto himself, and that can make him fascinating. But there’s also a real politics around Marxism that makes taking it seriously feel very ridiculous. It can be liberating to be ridiculous, if you can keep it straight. It’s harder than it looks.

I also intend to return to my blogging Piketty project. I recently picked up Milanovic’s Global Ineuality: A new approach for the Age of Globalization, and I expect that will get added to the mix. In truth, I picked up an absurd quantity of new books to add to my pile of necessary reading in the past month or so. In particular on a trip to my hometown of Shaker Heights.

My desk is a small mountain of papers and books right now, and I desperately need to clean up ahead of the oncoming workload. But before I get to that, I wanted to first write a little about the recent speech by John Kerry.

I watched a clip of the speech at first, and then clips of various folks responding, negatively for the most part. Then I sort of accidentally watched the whole speech. John Kerry, Secretary of State of the US, delivered a major speech following a UN vote condemning the building of settlements by Israelis in the West Bank – in the UN vote the US simply abstained, in effect letting the vote go through where it had not in years before when such resolutions had taken place in earlier years. Kerry’s speech was long and showed a man at the end of his fucking rope. There was something wonderfully symbolic about the whole thing. Kerry spent most of his career in politics as a Senator from Massachussetts. He comes from a prominent Masschussetts family (although his father came of eastern European Jewish stock), and was educated in elite New England institutions. He married into a gigantic fortune. He is the very definition of East coast liberal elite. And in his speech he made on last appeal for a sensible two state solution, noting that Israel, if it wanted to pursue a one state policy, as the steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank implies, then it can be Jewish or Democratic or both. Its a vision that contains the very essence of the internationalist liberal vision. So here is Kerry making this speech, 3 weeks ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and it really felt like a eulogy for the liberal vision. This is the end, folks.

So, in Greek, the word demos means “people” but can be contrasted with ethnos which means an association of people. Within Athens, the people were the demos. Foreigners were ethnos. My understanding of modern democracy is that as one becomes part of the people involved in governing the state one loses ones alliegence as part of an ethnos. This is, in some sense, what I think Kerry is talking about when he says Israel can be Jewish or Democratic but not both. If Palestinians living within the territory ruled by Israel (including the West Bank and Gaza) cannot be given full voting rights because it might threaten the present Jewish majority, then Israel won’t really be a democracy. If you take a long view of US history, you can scarcely say that the US has always been a democracy, since many of its citizens have been excluded from full democratic rights. I’d argue that the whole concept of the nation-state would come under criticism as well here, but that’s a whole long running debate that stretches over centuries.

It is my sense that the election of Trump signalled the end of an era, and we’re about to see a new era emerge. It’s a dangerous time, I suppose, but then the world is always a dangerous place. In any event, it seems like this was the inevitable end of the victory of the US in the Cold War. Now that there’s no threat of an international communist government, everybody wants to be free to follow their selfish interests with no disruption from anybody else. And everybody wants to argue that they’re for peace, they’re for justice, and so on. Shit, who isn’t for fucking peace and justice? But how do we make decisions? Who makes them? Who decides the parameters? Those questions are no longer clear – indeed, they’re in a constant state of question now. And I think Kerry knew it when he made jthat speech about Israel. He saw that the jig is up. But there was a weird irony that it was Kerry making that eulogy. From the perspective of many, even most, Americans, Kerry is the representative of the New England Yankee ethnos, which has been dominanating the country for decades. If Trump has a mandate, it is to bring the liberals – who come out of New England – to heel. To get revenge for decades of liberal reforms.

Happy new years, everyone. It’s going to be a long one.