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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

More About The Virtue of Exciting Candidates

The Daily Escape:

Mt. Assiniboine, Provincial Park, BC, CN – 2019 photo by Talhanazeer. Assiniboine is the pyramid-shaped mountain on the left.

When Wrongo thinks about the Democratic primary candidates, he feels a bit like when he was a breeder of Havanese dogs: “Don’t get too attached to any one of them–we’re only keeping one.”

At the end of the day, we’ll only have one candidate. The question is which is the keeper?

Yesterday we asked: which candidate excited you? Judging by crowd sizes in Iowa, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg have generated excitement, while Biden has not:

“Mr. Biden has a lot to prove here. I’ve attended some of his town halls and rallies, and they’ve been lackluster, his speeches dull and meandering, and his crowds comparatively small. I’ve been to memorial services that are more exciting. I certainly hope mine is.”

That quote is from Robert Leonard, the news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS. More from Leonard:

“Who is going to get an enthusiastic turnout caucus night? Bernie Sanders will. His support is strong. We’ll see if he can increase it….

Elizabeth Warren has fallen in the polls, but she will have a big turnout caucus night. Her on-the-ground organizing is terrific and her supporters unwavering…..

Pete Buttigieg will also have a big turnout. Watching his several-blocks-long parade of supporters file into the Liberty and Justice Dinner last fall in Des Moines gave me goose bumps…..”

Leonard finishes with this:

“On caucus night, given the soft support I see, if the weather is bad Mr. Biden’s supporters might not come out. It might also depend on what’s on TV….For the other candidates, if their supporters walked outside, slipped on the ice and broke a leg, they still would crawl through snow and ice to caucus.”

He’s alluding to the x-factor, the charisma, the excitement that a candidate creates in voters, and claims that in Iowa at least, Sanders, Warren, and Mayor Pete are showing some of that.

The first thing that most of us want is relief from the Trump assault. In the general election, that starts with telling people the damage assessment, and a plan of repair. The nominee has to say that our government and democracy are in tatters and need to be stitched back together. Constitutional checks and balances have been nearly destroyed by the Republicans.

Maybe we need Medicare for all, free college tuition, and the rest of the progressive agenda, but first, we need to triage our democracy.

To win the presidency, we need to take back Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Are the voters in those three critical swing states ready to sign on to rebuild our social safety net, reform health insurance, and raise taxes on the rich and corporations? Hell yes.

Trump’s 2020 plan is to pump up the Dow while keeping unemployment at historic lows. He’s done that with a $1.5 trillion tax cut without any plan to pay for it. He’ll tout his new “trade deal” with China. He’ll mock and belittle the Democrats and their nominee. Meanwhile, Trump has no health plan at all!

Mitch McConnell’s plan is to make sure Trump is acquitted at all costs, to continue packing the courts, and blocking any meaningful legislation coming out of the House.

What’s the Democratic Party’s 2020 plan? The proposals by the progressive Democratic candidates have merit. Their goals are the right ones for the country and the planet. But, those plans will take several administrations to fully implement. Few voters fully understand the details of how to pay for Medicare for all. Moreover, they absolutely are worried about having their private health insurance taken away. That’s what most Americans have, so that has to be a big concern for Democrats in 2020.

Which of the current flock of Democratic candidates have what it takes to unite and lead the Party to a 2020 victory? Which nominee will have coattails to swing the Senate, hold the House and add to the Party’s roster of statehouses?

The 2020 election will turn on whether individual voters see the Democratic Party’s nominee as a heroic savior of the country, or less of a leader than the execrable Trump.

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College Enrollment is Down, Student Debt is Way Up

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Rock at sunset, Sedona AZ – 2019 photo by microadventures

The Student Clearing House reports that the college student headcount of undergraduate and graduate students combined fell by 1.3% in the fall semester of 2019 over the same semester last year. That equals 231,000 fewer students compared to 2018.

This is the continuation of a long decline. The peak year was the fall semester of 2011, when 20.14 million students were enrolled. Since then, enrollment has dropped by 10.8%, or by 2.17 million students. Here’s a helpful graph by Wolf Richter:

The report covers 97% of enrollments at degree-granting post secondary institutions that are eligible to receive federal financial aid. It does not include international students, who account for just under 5% of total student enrollment in the US.

Women by far outnumbered men in total enrollment in the fall semester of 2019 with 10.63 million women enrolled, compared to 7.61 million men, meaning that overall there are now 40% more women in college than men.

Inside Higher Ed reports that community college enrollments declined by 3.4%. Four-year public institutions saw a drop of 0.9%. Four-year private institutions bucked the trend with an increase of 3.2%. However, the Student Clearing House said most of this increase was due to the conversion of large for-profit institutions to nonprofit status. Grand Canyon University, for example, successfully made the transition last year.

Wolf Richter says that the 10.8% decline in enrollment since 2011 comes even as student loan balances have surged 74% over the same period, from $940 billion to $1.64 trillion:

Looking at the two charts, it’s clear that over the last eight years, enrollment has declined in a straight line at about 1.35% per year. And over the same eight years, student loan debt has increased in a straight line at nearly $90 billion per year!

We’re seeing three trends: First, the decline in enrollments. Second the decline in men attending college. Third, the soaring costs of college leading to soaring student debt.

No one has the answers to all three, but the decline in enrollments may have a demographic element. We are approaching the tail end of the college-aged millennial generation. Higher education has been facing demographic headwinds for a decade. The post-millennial generation is simply smaller than the previous generation.

Meanwhile, a big part of the enrollment peak spike in 2009-2012 period was due to people choosing education to avoid unemployment during the Great Recession. And 25% of the enrollment decline is due to the for-profit diploma mills losing their government support after years of robbing their “students” blind.

The rapidly increasing costs of college are a burden that can also drive down enrollments. The numbers do not favor investing in a college degree as much as they used to. Back in the day, a good entry level job’s salary was about 4 times the annual tuition. Now it’s under 2 times. If you check out some of the terrible numbers for 20-year net Return on Investment (ROI) on payscale.com, it’s clear that many colleges and universities have negative or relatively small ROIs.

OTOH, there’s still a massive income gap between people with a college degree and those without one. And outside of a few small business owners, there’s no way around it. College is the only reliable way to get into the middle class, and stay there.

The college industrial complex knows that it has a stranglehold on your future, and it will try to suck as much money out of you as possible.

The solutions involve some of the things that Sanders, Warren and others are talking about. Wrongo is for making college free for all. He isn’t for debt forgiveness, but for granting interest-free loans to students. Those loans should be carried only by the federal government.

Cost containment is the biggest issue. Online education is now readily available, and saves on both tuition and room and board. The economy is stronger, so on-the-job training is returning, and a lot of specific how-to knowledge is now available online.

Except for the male-female imbalance, much of this is solvable.

Finally, higher education serves many purposes in our society. As a people, we need it for its practical value, but also for sharpening our ideals, nurturing our growth, advancing our knowledge, and our arts.

Despite a popular subculture of anti-intellectualism and doubt, we should still know that a people without ideals are lost.

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America Is OK With a Wealth Tax

The Daily Escape:

Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon NP, UT – November 2019 photo by biochemistry_unicorn

Over the past year, progressives have made a wealth tax a central part of the policy discussions in the Democratic primary. Both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposals to tax the wealth of billionaires to help pay for improvements to the social safety net and infrastructure.

Currently, the US mostly taxes individuals on the income earned from their jobs and investments. The wealth tax is different since it would tax assets like stocks, yachts, artworks, and vacation homes.

Critics of the wealth tax have made a variety of arguments against them. The most prominent that the US government couldn’t enforce them effectively. Consider this from Business Insider:

“Usually, progressives cast Europe as a model for the cradle-to-grave social benefits that nations like Norway provide because of steeper tax rates on richer citizens. But most…countries have ditched them [wealth taxes] over the last few decades.”

Twelve European countries had a wealth tax in 1990, but the number now stands at four: Spain, Switzerland, Norway, and Belgium, which just introduced a limited wealth tax of its own.

Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has analyzed the Warren and Sanders wealth tax proposals, says the European wealth taxes failed because governments created many exemptions that undercut their ability to draw revenue:

“The wealth taxes in Europe have failed by and large….they didn’t raise that much revenue because of big exemptions for asset classes….”

Others argue that the super-rich already donate big amounts to charity. One of Saez’s co-authors, Gabriel Zucman, says that the annual giving of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett equates to ~3%–4% of their wealth, while the other top 20 billionaires’ giving equals ~0.3% of their wealth. Like a really tiny wealth tax. Here’s his chart:

Annual charitable giving of the top 20 richest Americans: $8.7 billion, equaling just three tenths of one percent of their wealth. For the top 400 richest Americans, their taxes paid = 1.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.4% of their wealth.

But, the average American paid taxes equal to 5.5% of their wealth, while their charitable giving = 0.3% of their wealth. Joe Six-pack gave the same amount of his assets to charity as did the top 20 billionaires.

If Warren’s 6% wealth tax was enforced on the top 20 richest Americans above, they would pay $60 billion to support the social safety net.

Moreover, despite the nay-saying by the rich, surveys show that Warren’s 2% tax is broadly popular:

(This was an online survey of 2,672 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11)

The survey by the NYT and Survey Monkey shows that 75% of Democrats and more than half of Republicans say they approve of the idea of a 2% tax on wealth above $50 million. The proposal receives majority support among every major racial, educational and income group.

The majority of college-educated Republican men disapproved, with only 41.5% approving of it.

The NYT reports that the proposed wealth tax is even more popular than the Trump tax-cut enacted in 2017. Only 45% of Americans said the tax cut was a good move:

“The movement against the Trump tax cuts since then has been powered, oddly enough, by Republicans. They largely still back the law — by 76% over all, compared with 20% of Democrats — but that support has dropped six percentage points since April.”

The shift on the tax cut is highest among high-earning Republicans: Americans earning more than $150,000 a year are far more likely to favor a tax increase on the very wealthy than the Trump tax cuts.

America’s tax code is designed to allow massive fortunes to grow ever larger. Wealth is concentrating in a tiny segment of the population, as the middle class shrinks.

We see that even the most high-minded billionaires can’t even give money away faster than their piles of dough are growing. And when Democrats like Warren and Sanders suggest a way towards tax reform, the GOP and the conservative think-tanks condemn them as socialists who want to punish success.

Most Americans are fed up with a government and an economy that overwhelmingly benefit corporations and the rich at the expense of everyone else. A wealth tax can work if Congress doesn’t get rolled by lobbyists that demand loopholes for their clients.

Wrongo will have no trouble backing a candidate who supports a wealth tax. But, increasing the taxes on corporations and a financial transactions tax should come first.

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 25, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Delicate Arch, Arches NP, Moab UT – 2019 photo by rallymachine

Wrongo learned last week that the GOP thinks he’s just another agent of Soros, like most other non-Republicans. Sadly, the mailbox didn’t contain his weekly globalist payoff check, so we’re still stuck writing this blog.

We should be framing the debate about 2020 not in terms of policies, but by asking the question Ronald Regan asked: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” For the Evangelicals who wished for a right-wing Supreme Court, the answer is “yes”. For the 1%, and corporations who were awarded a gigantic tax cut, their answer is a strong “yes”.

But for most Americans, after four years, the answer isn’t yes, it’s a hard “no”.

Yes, the unemployment rate in the US is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. More Americans have jobs than ever before. Wages are climbing, but people tell a different story: Of long job hunts, trouble finding work with decent pay, or predictable hours.

How do we square the record-long economic expansion and robust labor market with the anecdotal stories we all hear? Quartz reports on a new jobs index that shows a way to make sense of both stories. Researchers at Cornell, the University of Missouri, Kansas City, the Coalition for a Prosperous America and the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, working together:

“…..unveiled the US Private Sector Job Quality Index (or JQI for short), a new monthly indicator that aims to track the quality of jobs instead of just the quantity. The JQI measures the ratio of what the researchers call “high-quality” versus “low-quality” jobs….”

They developed a ratio of higher-wage/higher-hour jobs versus lower-wage/lower-hour jobs, and tracked it back in time using federal data. The Index reveals that job quality in the US has deteriorated substantially since 1990, and even more so since 2006.

Overall, the JQI found a shift from US high-wage/high-hour jobs to low-wage/low-hour positions. Since 1990, the US has been creating an overabundance of lower-quality service jobs. The JQI reveals that 63% of the production and non-supervisory jobs created over the past 30 years have been in low-wage and low-hour positions. That’s a marked change from the early 1990s, when nearly half of these jobs (47%) were high-wage.

Since 1990, America has cumulatively added some 20 million low-quality jobs, versus around 12 million high-quality ones. We now create more bad jobs than good. This helps explain why our GDP growth isn’t nearly what economists say we should expect from a full-employment economy.

Also, the poor jobs come with fewer hours worked. People in low-quality jobs clock 30 hours a week. Compare that to an average 38 hours a week for high-quality jobs. That seven-hour gap doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up to about 480 million hours per year.

Those unworked hours represents the equivalent of about 12 million jobs forgone each year. A key reason is that employers limit worker’s hours to keep from having to pay benefits.

Overall, the growing total of jobs that offer lower-than-average incomes means that job growth, as reflected by a super-low unemployment rate, provides less spending power than in the past. The economy is getting a lot less bang for its buck.

Maybe the Democrats’ presidential candidates should base the campaign on asking the Ronald Regan question again in 2020.

Time to wake up America! Look behind the headlines. Ask the candidates what they plan to do about the fact that our economy isn’t providing quality jobs. The $15/hour wage, although useful, isn’t enough to grow the economy.

To help you wake up, listen to Tones and I, a 19 year-old Australian singer-songwriter who has the number one global hit “Dance Monkey”. Today we’re featuring her song called “The Kids are Coming”. This song is sending an important message and portrays the reality of our time, that young people believe we’ve been poor stewards of their futures:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Auto Loan Delinquencies Are Rising

The Daily Escape:

Tetons twilight from Snake River overlook, WY – November 2019 photo by timtamtoosh. Ansel Adams once shot a picture from this spot.

From Wolf Richter:

“Serious auto-loan delinquencies – auto loans that are 90 days or more past due – in the third quarter of 2019, after an amazing trajectory, reached a historic high of $62 billion, according to data from the New York Fed today….”

Total outstanding balances of auto loans and leases in Q3, according to the New York Fed, rose to $1.32 trillion. That $62 billion of seriously delinquent loan balances are what auto lenders, particularly those who specialize in subprime auto loans, are now attempting to either get to current status, or to repossess. If they cannot cure the delinquency, they’re hiring specialized companies to repossess the vehicles, which will then be sold at auction. And the repo business is booming!

The difference between the loan balance and the proceeds from the auction, plus all of the costs involved, are what a lender stands to lose on each delinquent loan.

Worse, lenders are still making new subprime loans, and a portion of those loans will also become delinquent, and a smaller portion of them will default. Wolf helpfully adds a chart that shows today’s level of delinquencies as a percentage of the auto loan portfolio is the same as it was in 2009, when we were in the middle of the Great Recession:

It’s useful to remember that in 2009 and 2010, the US was confronting the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. People were defaulting on their auto loans because they’d lost their jobs. That isn’t the case today, we’re near full employment.

Let’s differentiate “Prime” auto loans and leases from “Subprime”. Prime auto loans have minuscule default rates. Of the total of $1.3 billion in auto loans and leases outstanding, according to Fitch, Prime auto loans currently have a 60-day delinquency rate hovering at a historically low 0.28%.

That means that most of the delinquencies are in the subprime category. In fact Wolf says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Of the $1.32 trillion in auto loans outstanding, about 22% are subprime, so about $300 billion. Of them roughly, $62 billion are seriously delinquent…around 20% of all subprime loans outstanding.

We know that the subprime delinquencies are not caused by an employment crisis or, by the brutal recession we endured during the 2008 financial crisis. Employment is still growing, and unemployment claims are near historic lows. But subprime auto loans are defaulting at very high rates.

What’s going on? It’s car dealers’ greed. They’re striving to sell more cars. Customers with a subprime credit rating have already been turned down when they try to buy things on credit. But, when they walk on a car lot, their bad credit rating is magically no longer an issue.

The dealers know they’re sitting ducks, who won’t negotiate. They accept the price, the monthly payment, and the trade-in value. They’re just happy to be in a new car. When they drive off the lot, they have a high monthly payment, which, since they already have trouble making ends meet, will soon be late, or in default.

The subprime car buyers really have little choice if they need a car to get to work. Poor people are smart about doing what it takes to survive: If you don’t have a down payment or a good credit rating, and need a car to keep your job, it means a bad deal is better than no deal.

They take the bad deal because if things get worse, they probably will only lose the car.

The kicker is that auto loans aren’t the loan category with the highest delinquencies. Student loans have even higher delinquencies:

  • Outstanding student debt stood at $1.50 trillion in the third quarter of 2019, an increase of $20 billion from Q2 2019
  • 9% of aggregate student debt was 90+ days delinquent or in default in Q3 2019

The student loans total of about $1.5 trillion, is higher than the $1.32 trillion of auto loans.

The system is broken. Someday soon, the job market will deteriorate. We’ll be back listening to why we should bail out lenders and investors who lend, securitize, and sell these loans to investors who are chasing yeild.

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Available Housing Drives Growth in Jobs

The Daily Escape:

Snow near Boulder, CO – November 2019 photo via

Last week, in our town’s Mayoral race, each side had a signature issue. For the Republicans, it was roads. For the Democrats, it was affordable housing. Wrongo has served on the town’s municipal roads committee for three years. He’s also attended a few town workshops on affordable housing. The incumbent Republican Mayor won in a landslide.

Did that mean that affordable housing was a non-issue? Not really. Like most of Connecticut, our town has a sharp income divide. And despite having among the most affordable housing in Litchfield County, we have elderly poor and younger middle-income people vying for limited multifamily housing stock.

The major problem is a concern that affordable housing equals more kids in our schools, and more infrastructure. The reality is that the incremental real estate taxes that landlords would pay the town will not offset the increased costs of schooling and infrastructure.

But, the town also desires greater economic development. New businesses and jobs are important to increasing our tax base. We’re not alone in this. Consider the city of San Jose, CA. The Silicon Valley region has added about 385,000 new jobs over the past five years, but only approved about 60,000 housing units. From Vox: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Communities sometimes mobilize in opposition to some kind of new project, but this…happened when someone proposed building some offices near a new football stadium in Santa Clara, California, is mind-boggling: San Jose has taken the rare step of publicly opposing the project, saying it would add far too many jobs, exacerbating the region’s housing shortage.”

It’s difficult to believe that we’ve reached a point in our economy where creating new jobs can be construed as bad for existing residents of an area.

The Bay area isn’t overbuilt with housing. San Francisco is less densely populated than Brooklyn, NY. Santa Clara County, where Silicon Valley is located, is significantly less populated than the Long Island suburbs. The fear is that meeting the need for housing will lead to many lower income residents living in high-rise buildings.

Or take New York City, where Amazon was shocked when the public said that Amazon could take their 25,000 new jobs and shove them. (brackets by Wrongo)

“It’s only natural that Amazon saw its promise to create 25,000 jobs as a blessing, for creating jobs is most [all] of what we have ever asked of American companies. But given the realities of our economy…. it’s also only natural that many New Yorkers wanted nothing to do with it.”

Promises of 25,000 new jobs in NYC sounded much different in 2019 than it would have sounded in 2009. If you’re among the sea of NYC hotel and restaurant workers, you know you’re never likely to be qualified for one of the jobs Amazon promised to create in your backyard. And since it would be built in an area where many hourly workers live, they naturally opposed what would have driven their costs of housing even higher.

Amazon already had 2,000 employees in NYC in November 2018, when the HQ search concluded. Despite not building a NY headquarters, that number has grown to 5,000 in the past year. Amazon’s continuing jobs expansion in NYC makes the case that those who fought against the state’s $3 billion dollar incentive package were correct.

No economic problem is simple, and neither are their solutions. Here is a good rule of thumb: When things are complicated, inputs are messy. Some factors may cancel out other factors.

And in the case of trying to increase economic growth in a given city or town, an available, skilled workforce in numbers sufficient to meet the new business needs is primary. Available housing is huge as well. These two inputs exist in a feedback loop. Our towns can’t grow if workers can’t find housing.

Freezing housing stock in a growing economy helps those who enjoy higher Socio-Economic Status (SES). Our cities are seeing an outflow of lower SES’s and an inflow of higher SES’s. This is making housing costs in our second-tier cities move closer to what they have become in NYC and LA.

Exurban ring towns like Wrongo’s are seeing inward migration, mostly of middle and lower SES’s who routinely commute long distances for work. That adds local spending on goods and services, but puts pressure on local housing stock and on schools.

The landslide results in our town’s election was a vote for better roads, and against changing zoning requirements to add affordable housing. Indirectly, it also was a vote in favor of lower economic growth, just like what happened in San Jose, CA.

But we shouldn’t be confused with Silicon Valley.

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 4, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Lake Sabrina, CA – November 2019 photo by Wild_NDN

All of a sudden, there are ongoing protests throughout the world. This seems to be an enormous story, maybe the biggest story of October, despite America’s focus on impeachment. And there’s some, but not a lot of media coverage. Here’s a map of the locations, and primary causes, of recent unrest around the world:

When you see the map, it’s clear that something’s happening. In some places, protesters are mainly demanding more political freedom, like what we’ve seen in Hong Kong. In others, like Iraq and Lebanon, people are sick and tired of corruption and unemployment. They want to throw out the old guard.

The map shows 14 countries, but others report as many as 22 countries experiencing protests in 2019. Can we find common threads to these protests?

They don’t show ideological consistency, although they do show similar tactics. Unlike Occupy in the US, these protesters have demands, which vary with each protest. In some places, they involve millions of people. They do not seem to be internationally driven, although the local powers that be often say that they are.

A Chinese friend of the Wrongologist who lives in Hong Kong provides lots of coverage on local violence. For our media, violence is always “breaking out,” or protests always are “descending into” it, but we rarely hear deep explanations for why it occurs.

Let’s look at a few reasons that transcend individual countries:

Economic Slump

This argument is true for Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Haiti in Latin America. It is also true in Iraq in the Middle East. Despite their differences, each country saw commodity-driven economic growth, followed by a slump or stall. Haiti, despite its own economy largely being stagnant, saw billions in aid from oil-rich Venezuela come in, then disappear when Venezuela had its economic issues.

Income Inequality

Jeffrey Sachs frames income inequality as social unhappiness and distrust, in Why Rich Cities Rebel: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Three of the world’s more affluent cities have erupted in protests and unrest this year. Paris has faced waves of protests and rioting since November 2018…after…President Macron raised fuel taxes. Hong Kong has been in upheaval since March, after Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed a law to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland. And Santiago [Chile] exploded in rioting this month after President Sebastian Piñera ordered an increase in metro [subway] prices….taken together, they tell a larger story of what can happen when a sense of unfairness combines with a widespread perception of low social mobility.”

Gallup finds that while Hong Kong ranks ninth globally in GDP per capita, it ranks 66th in terms of the public’s perception of personal freedom to choose a life course. The same is true in France (25th in GDP per capita, but 69th in freedom to choose) and in Chile (48th and 98th, respectively).

It appears that traditional economic measures of well-being are insufficient to gauge the public’s real sentiments. The protesters perceive the politics behind the prices, and that’s what they are moving against.

Income inequality also shows up as withdrawal or repricing of government services. From the NYT:

“In Chile, the spark was an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, it was a tax on WhatsApp calls. The government of Saudi Arabia moved against hookah pipes. In India, it was about onions.”

In Ecuador, the focal point of the protests was a demand for restoration of fuel subsidies. From The Financial Times (paywalled):

“The mass protests that have broken out during the past year in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East…are usually leaderless rebellions, whose organization and principles are not set out in a little red book or thrashed out in party meetings, but instead emerge on social media.”

Social media is the enabler for leaderless movements. When the Hong Kong demonstrations broke out in June, Joshua Wong, the most high-profile democracy activist in the territory, was in jail. In Moscow, Russia arrested leader Alexander Navalny, but demonstrations continued without him. In Lebanon, France and Chile, authorities have searched in vain for ringleaders. In Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, has emerged as the leader of the movement to replace Prime Minister Mahdi.

Underneath it all, whether we’re talking about people wanting political freedom or economic security, these riots are about class, wealth, and income. They are about the fact that all of these countries have very rich people who make the rules.

And their rules never favor the non-rich.

It is unclear if any of these protests will effect change. History rarely favors the man in the street.

Pro tip: If you are going to riot, take the time to head over to the part of town where the rich live, and riot there.

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Saturday Soother – October 5, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Fall colors, Adirondacks, NY – October, 2019 photo by nikhilnagane

You can be forgiven for not focusing this week on the UAW’s strike against GM, which is now in its 19th day. Shares of GM have plunged by double digits since the strike began, mostly because the automobile sector has reported weak sales figures. Wolf Richter reports that:

“New-vehicle deliveries in the US…were…flat, at 4.32 million vehicles in the third quarter. For the nine months, deliveries were down 1.6%. This puts new vehicle sales on track for about 17 million…in 2019, the worst level since 2014, and below 2000….”

So, automobile unit sales are at the same level that they were 20 years ago in 1999-2000. With the strike, GM vehicle production has ceased at nearly all of its North American plants. This hasn’t really hurt GM yet, because they had around 90 days’ sales worth of vehicles in inventory as the strike started. They typically have more like 60 days on hand. So shutting the plants helps work down their inventory bulge.

Back to the strike: Julianne Malveaux reports in the WaPo about how GM betrayed the UAW after the union made sacrifices when GM nearly folded in 2008:  

“General Motors was on its knees in 2008. Amid a global financial crisis, the company was so financially challenged that it had no choice but to accept a federal government bailout. In 2009, the United Auto Workers joined the feds in saving GM, making concessions on wages and benefits to rescue the beleaguered company.”

The partnership paid off for GM. The company has earned $35 billion in profits in the last three years, partly as a result of the concessions the workers made over a decade ago.

But, does GM owe the UAW anything in return? The protracted strike shows that GM feels it doesn’t owe them much. Darrell Kennedy, a UAW striking worker said in a video:

“We gave up a cost-of-living increase, a dollar-an-hour wage increase we were due, tuition assistance and more…”

The union wants to include non-union workers who are part of GM’s three-tiered wage system. Those hired before 2007 (the union members) are Tier One workers who earn roughly $31 per hour, plus guaranteed pensions. Those hired after 2007 are Tier Two workers, earning about $17 an hour and have the opportunity for 401 (k) participation. The third tier are temporary workers who earn less than Tier Two workers and have no benefits.

The union wants better pay for Tier Two workers, and a path to job security for Tier Three employees. But since GM plans to move toward electric vehicles which use less labor that gas-powered cars, they are uninterested in commitments that reduce their flexibility in the future.

In business, Wrongo learned the hard way that making concessions, and expecting it to create good will that helps a future negotiating position, is usually a bad idea.

But, in this case, it’s difficult to work up enthusiasm for either side.

For example, GM spent $10.6 billion since 2015 buying back its own shares, some of which went to the UAW, who originally owned about 17.5% of GM after the bailout. The UAW has now sold over half its GM stock. Since the 1960s, GM has consistently demonstrated poor management. Their share of the automobile market has decreased from about 50% to about 17%. If it wasn’t for the government bailout, GM wouldn’t be here.

The UAW is rightly trying to grow its membership by advocating for GM’s Tier Two and Three employees. OTOH, in 2009, the union didn’t agree to cooperate with GM out of any sense of benevolence. They were saving their jobs. Finally, since the bailout, GM’s UAW workers have a profit-sharing deal. In 2018, the 46,500 UAW hourly employees earned up to $10,750 each.

Wrongo is very pro-labor, and often pro-union. In this case, it’s difficult to get behind the UAW’s strike.

Time to move past which State Dept. official in the Ukraine texted what about the Bidens, or how much more blatant Trump’s overtures to foreign governments will get. Let’s enjoy a Saturday Soother!

Start by thinking about the leaves piling up outside. Friday night brought frost to Mansion of Wrong, so our fall clean-up is in full swing. If it’s warmer where you live, enjoy the last of the warm weather.

No coffee today, get outside and do something physical. But before you go out, let’s remember the great Jessye Norman who died last Monday. She was a gifted singer with one of the greatest and most beautiful voices ever. She had all the qualities to make a performance both convincing, and memorable. Here she is singing “Ave Maria” by Schubert:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – September 9, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Cape of Good Hope, 6:00pm, South Africa – September 2006 photo by Wrongo

Last week, the NYT’s Thomas Edsall discussed an award-winning academic study focused on the nihilism of the Trump GOP’s hardcore supporters. The paper illustrates that among this slice of the American electorate, the temptation to cause or support chaos may be overwhelming. Edsall says the study argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to “chaos incitement” and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media:

“The rise of social media provides the public with unprecedented power to craft and share new information with each other….this technological transformation allows the transmission of a type of information that portrays….political candidates or groups negatively…and has a low evidential basis.”

The study says that the chaos-inducing information transmitted on social media includes conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns.

The study’s authors, Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, both from Aarhus University in Denmark, and Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple, conducted six surveys, four in the US, interviewing 5,157 participants, and two in Denmark, interviewing 1,336. They identified those who are “drawn to chaos” through their affirmative responses to the following statements:

  • I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
  • I think society should be burned to the ground.
  • When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
  • We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
  • Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

The responses of individuals to three of the statements are horrifying:

  • 24% agreed that society should be burned to the ground;
  • 40% concurred with the thought that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn”;
  • 40% also agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”

Despite interviewing 5,000+ Americans the study doesn’t conclude if the results represent the actual percentage of Americans who share this view. They did use a YouGov nationally representative survey of Americans. They say the data are weighted to achieve national representations on gender, age, education and geography.

As bad as this sounds, what if we reframed the “need for chaos” as “a need for things to change in ways that work for everyday people“? Instead of casting them as evil or as deplorables who wish to destroy nice things, we could see them as people who have been left out, or cheated by the system.

In that light, it might be reasonable for the marginalized on the left and right to wish for major changes in our system. So, let’s treat this study as an example of one dead canary in a coal mine. At this point, it’s a potentially terrifying glimpse of what may be America’s (and the entire developed world’s) future.

Nihilism is a symptom of needs not being met. Our current neoliberal capitalism is a prime cause behind this nihilism. Our system must change to be more inclusive, to create more “winners”.  We won’t blunt nihilism with more trickle down policies.

Time to wake up America! Our society has to change, or die.

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The Ethics of Responsibility

The Daily Escape:

John Muir Wilderness, CA -August 2019 photo by petey-pablo

Nobody in America should be rooting for a recession, and no political party should root for one either. Shame on those who are.

US economic policy is often driven by ideology, and those operating policies can change whenever the party in power changes. That seems to be more likely to occur in 2020 than it has at any time since Reagan. Like it or not, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama all followed similar economic policies.

Trump has disrupted much of them, returning to a vigorous trickle-down policy, aggressive deregulation and the imposition of unilateral tariffs.

Max Weber, in his 1919 essay on “Politics as a Vocation”, made a distinction between politicians who live by the “ethics of responsibility” and those who follow the “ethics of conviction”. The ethic of responsibility is all about pragmatism; doing the right thing in order to keep the show on the road. But the ethic of conviction is all about moral (ideological) purity, about following the playbook despite the impacts.

An example is the Kansas Experiment, where Sam Brownback, following right-wing convictions, cut taxes to produce a “shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” Economic growth was below average, state revenues crashed, and debt blew up. But, still a believer, Brownback vetoed the effort to repeal of his laws.

You don’t need more from Wrongo to paint the picture. We’re in a time of the ethics of conviction.

Let’s take a look at two recent articles about the economy. First, from the Economist, which is telegraphing the possibility of a US recession:

“Residential investment has been shrinking since the beginning of 2018. Employment in the housing sector has fallen since March….The Fed reduced its main interest rate in July and could cut again in September. If buyers respond quickly it could give builders and the economy a lift.”

But housing is not the only warning sign. The Economist points to this chart, showing the change in payrolls in the 2nd Quarter of 2019:

It’s clear that much of America is doing quite well. It is also clear that most of the 2020 battle ground states are not. Indiana lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the last downturn, almost 4% of statewide employment. It is among a growing number of states experiencing falling employment: a list which also includes Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In 2016, those last three states all delivered their electoral-college votes to Trump, and were decisive in his electoral victory. Trump’s trade war may still play well in these states, but if the decline in payrolls continues, it suggests a real opening for Democrats, assuming they are willing to hammer on pocketbook issues.

Second, the Wall Street Journal had an article about winners and losers in the 10 years since the Great Recession. It isn’t a secret that those left behind are in the bottom half of the economic strata, and there is little being done to help them:

“The bottom half of all U.S. households, as measured by wealth, have only recently regained the wealth lost in the 2007-2009 recession and still have 32% less wealth, adjusted for inflation, than in 2003, according to recent Federal Reserve figures. The top 1% of households have more than twice as much as they did in 2003.”

We also call wealth “net worth”. It is the value of assets such as houses, savings and stocks minus debt like mortgages and credit-card balances. In the US, wealth inequality has grown faster than income inequality in the past decade, making the current wealth gap the widest in the postwar period. Here is a devastating chart from the WSJ showing the net worth of the bottom 50% of Americans:

There’s a big difference between the 1% and the bottom 50%: More than 85% of the assets of the wealthiest 1% are in financial assets such as stocks and bonds. By contrast, more than half of all assets owned by the bottom 50% comes from real estate, such as the family home.

Economic and regulatory trends over the past decade have not only favored stock investments over housing, but they have also made it harder for the less affluent to even buy a home. The share of families in the bottom 50% who own a home has fallen to 37% in 2016, (the latest year for which data are available), from 43% in 2007. OTOH, homeownership among the overall American population is higher since 2016.

Weber’s ethics of conviction have driven our politics since well before the 2008 recession. We know what it caused: inequality, demonstrated by lower wages for the 90%, and a devastating decline in net worth for the bottom 50%.

Can we turn the car around? Can we elect politicians who will follow Weber’s ethics of responsibility at the local, state, federal and presidential levels in 2020?

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