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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – December 15, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Outdoor market, Istanbul, Turkey – 2013 photo by Wrongo

As we cruise toward year’s end, we’ve received a political Christmas present in the form of Paul Ryan’s retirement from Congress. On Ryan’s heading into the Wisconsin sunset, newly minted House Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), had this take:

It’s pathetic how journalists and Republicans often say that Ryan is a thoughtful and principled member of Congress, a genius by some accounts. He is lauded for being elected to the House at age 28, and working his way up to Speaker. But he’s left few footprints on important legislation, except for the Trump tax cut in 2017.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the House at 28 just like Ryan. Unlike Ryan, Ocasio-Cortez has been called out for everything from her wardrobe, to her active commentary on Twitter. Many of the same Conservatives who lionized Ryan say that Ocasio-Cortez is naïve, undisciplined and unwilling to play by their rules. Freshman Congressman, especially young female Democrats are expected to keep their heads down, and speak only when spoken to.

But no one ever changed anything by going along to get along. She’s been outspoken, but she’s done so in a manner which spotlights legitimate issues. That tends to rankle the established power structure, who prefer the status quo, because it’s predictable, manageable, and largely male.

It’s far too early to know if Ocasio-Cortez will be a political force to reckon with, or a transformative legislator. But the fact that she’s willing to speak out and rattle cages is a good sign. Congress has needed new (and younger) voices for a long time. It will be interesting to see what sort of rabble-rousing she’ll take on, and if it will cause meaningful change.

Is there a chance that she’ll accomplish far more than Paul Ryan? Sure, but that’s a low bar. Ryan always played by the rules while working his way up the ladder. That’s great if you are ambitious, which is all that Ryan was really about. Oh, and Ayn Rand.

Consider one of Ryan’s final acts as Speaker:

By three votes, the House of Representatives advanced a farm bill, but not before the Republican leadership slipped in a provision that would turn off any possibility of the Congress’s fast-tracking an effort to turn off American aid to Saudi Arabia due to that country’s abominable war in Yemen.

As Charlie Pierce says,

Consider what Ryan and his majority did today. They made it impossible for the United States to swiftly extricate itself from accessorial conduct in a horrible ongoing crime-by-famine, and they did it by sabotaging a bill that helps get food to people in this country.

This is one of the last acts of Paul Ryan’s Speakership. He will richly deserve our contempt for playing partisan legislative games with starving children.

On to Saturday! Time to leave tree-trimming and shopping on Amazon for a few minutes, it’s time to unplug and land on a small island of soothing in the midst of all of the chaos. Let’s start by brewing up a yuuge hot cup of Baru Gesha coffee (1 kg/$100) from the Los Angeles-based Bar Nine brewers. The Baru Gesha tastes like dark chocolate, raspberry liqueur, frankincense, and almond brittle in aroma.

Frankincense! How seasonal.

Now, gaze out at the last few leaves on the trees and the dormant grass, and listen to JS Bach’s “Air on a G-String”, an arrangement for the violin made in the 19th Century from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. Bach originally wrote the suite between the years 1717 and 1723. It found its nickname in 1871 when the German violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908) made a violin and piano arrangement of the second movement of this orchestral suite. By changing the key into C major and transposing the melody down an octave, Wilhelmj was able to play the piece on only one string of his violin, the G string.

Procol Harum borrowed from it for their hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Gary Brooker of Procol Harum said:

If you trace the chordal element, it does a bar or two of Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’ before it veers off. That spark was all it took. I wasn’t consciously combining Rock with Classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.

If you would like to hear the echoes of “Whiter Shade of Pale”, you can hear the Air played on organ.

But, here it is as intended on violin played by the Ukrainian violinist Anastasiya Petryshak with the Orchestra Cantelli at the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Italy in December 2015:

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

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The Kids Are All Right

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta CN – 2008 photo by Andy Simonds

For the past few days, Wrongo has been writing about both ideas and people that could help to shape a reform of American capitalism.

We’ve talked about Bernie Sanders, Richard Murphy, Alan Curtis and Alexi Yurchak, and the Yellow Vests in France. Today, let’s focus on America’s youth, at least some of them:

More than 1,000 young people and allies flooded the Capitol Hill hallways and offices of Democratic representatives to demand that elected officials listen to their youngest constituents—as well as some of the world’s top scientists—and back the bold proposal to shift the US to a zero-carbon energy system by 2050 in order to save the planet from an irreversible climate catastrophe.

The protesters were mostly members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, 800 of whom had attended a training on lobbying members of Congress and their staffers the previous evening. They carried signs reading, “Do Your Job,” “Back the Deal,” and “No More Excuses“. Here is a picture of them in the halls of Congress:

Before you get all crazy about the (apparently) professionally-made signs, here’s a web site where you can easily make them. More from Common Dreams:

Many also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the following message: “We have a right to good jobs and a livable future,” two key components of the Green New Deal, which would create 10 million jobs in the first decade by putting Americans to work building a green energy infrastructure…

At least 143 of the demonstrators were arrested as they lobbied in 50 congressional offices. But, they had an impact. The number of Democratic lawmakers now supporting a Select Committee on a Green New Deal has now reached 31, twelve of whom signed on this week. How it came together reveals how the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), will use its growing membership.

The Caucus agreed with incumbent members who were willing to have a select committee so long as actual lawmaking authority remained in existing committees.

This wasn’t all due just to the kids. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has spent the past few weeks wrangling support for the Green New Deal as well. The outcome was the result of a collaboration between the CPC leaders, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement.

Wrongo doesn’t know if a Green New Deal is a good idea or not, but much of the message will resonate with voters. Who will be against “good jobs and a livable future”?

And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is showing that she has really good political instincts.

We should be happy that these kids are speaking from their hearts. They are practicing for when they will need the strength to fight the hard political battles of their generation. But, why aren’t we seeing a million parents fighting alongside their kids?

We also should remember how undervalued kids are in America: We under fund their schools. We are providing only low-wage service economy jobs for most of them when they grow up. We hardly care whether they are covered under a health insurance plan. We take them from their parents at the border.

No wonder they are learning to act, since we, their guardians, seem unwilling to act for them.

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Funding The Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada in snow – photo by Yan Gao

When the President and the incoming Speaker of the House get into a televised shouting match over whether we have enough money to fund Trump’s wall, you know that things have to change in America. They’re fighting over use of a limited resource, the US government’s funding.

We now have within our means the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate everyone. But, as a country, we are unwilling to do so, because we buy into neoliberal economic theory. Never in history have we had the ability to make our species as secure as we do now, but we choose instead to make as many as insecure as possible.

Until about 1980, economic growth created a level of prosperity that earlier generations of Americans could only dream about. But, economic growth no longer makes people more economically secure. We’ve become prisoners in a system that promotes permanent growth, where wages stagnate, schools decay, and Goldman Sachs sits inside our government.

The question we should be asking is: How can our politics provide an answer to our people’s need for economic security? We know that neoliberalism has reduced many of our people to states of economic insecurity. We know that our economic and social order must change, and profoundly, or face an eventual revolution. This isn’t an option, it’s a certainty.

That means that only state funding will create the (peaceful) change we need.

Here’s a big idea from Richard Murphy, a UK tax accountant:

…To put this another way, what may be the biggest programme of change ever known in human history is required in very short order. We need new energy systems; transformation of our housing stock; new transport infrastructure; radically different approaches to food that might even require rationing if we cannot create change any other way; different ways of working and new ways of using leisure time.

Murphy goes on to say:

But this must be done in a way that increases certainty. Jobs must be created on the ground…And I mean, in every constituency….but the transport and other infrastructure must be provided in that case and that does not simply mean more roads. The social safety net must be recreated. That means a job guarantee. It also means a universal basic income. And business must be transformed. Since that process will be incredibly expensive this requires capital and if that means state investment and co-ownership, so be it.

Murphy says that if this was wartime, our government would find the money to fund radical change. He says that we can no longer just extract higher taxes from the rich to solve our funding requirements, we need to create a vision, a plan and funding to achieve the change required.

One way to fund a portion of these requirements may be to restrict funding for the military, to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. More from Murphy:

The time for pussy-footing is over. We know what we need to do. We know the scale of the issue. We know the reasons for acting….and we know we can pay for it. This is not left or right as we know it. And any party not addressing it is part of the problem and not the solution.

He’s suggesting deficit financing for societal gain. What are the chances that revolutionary change can happen? Almost zero today. Left to our political class, we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re currently doing, that is, until we can’t.

As we said yesterday, people say, “It’s the system, we can’t change it”.

But, in the Middle Ages, the exact same thing could have been said about feudalism. That institution was deeply entrenched, it was “how things are, and were meant to be.” It was inconceivable that something like democratic government could ever succeed feudalism, yet it did.

Today, our revolutionary task is to allow democracy to express its full potential to reshape and revitalize our social and economic life.

We must begin by setting priorities, taking resources from areas that drain the economy. Then we need to devote those resources to things that will make for a healthier, more secure economy.

One example is to adjust the priority that military defense spending has in our economy. Let’s stop being the world’s policeman, nobody wants us to do it. Then, use the excess resources to build infrastructure, and renewable energy systems.

Everything else we need then will become easier to build.

It’s a matter of deciding what our priorities are, and voting for those who agree with that vision.

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We’re Being Sold a Story

The Daily Escape:

Plague Fort (or Fort Alexander), St. Petersburg, RU. It was built between 1838 and 1845 on an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland. From 1899 to 1917, the fort housed a research lab focused on plague and other bacterial diseases. It was abandoned in 1983.

The Economist has an 8500-word interview with the documentary film maker, Adam Curtis. For 30 years, Curtis has produced documentaries on politics and society. Apparently, he has emerged as a cult-hero to the UK’s young thinkers trying to comprehend our chaotic world.

His latest film, “HyperNormalisation” (you can view the trailer here, or watch the entire 2+hour documentary here) argues that governments, financiers, and technological utopians have, since the 1970s, structured a simple “mostly fake world” for us, run by corporations, and kept stable by politicians.

Wrongo was attracted to this in part because Curtis takes the title of his documentary from work by a Russian historian, Alexei Yurchak, now a professor at Berkley. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006). Yurchak says that in the 1980s, everyone from the top to the bottom of Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working. They knew that it was corrupt. They knew that the bosses were looting the system. They knew that the politicians had no vision. And they knew that the Party bosses knew they knew that.

Everyone knew it was fake, and they just accepted the fakeness as normal. Yurchak coined the term “HyperNormalisation” to describe that feeling. When Wrongo was in Russia in October, he heard a few Russians express this exact idea about the end stages of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The fall of the Soviet Union didn’t stop them from despising Gorbachev, who ended the state economy and replaced it with a less-than-functioning market economy. They longed for the simpler state of affairs, with less to think about, and less to worry about. Where everyone knew that the system didn’t work, but they all had jobs, and there was food in the markets.

2018 America is far from being the Soviet Union, but this is exactly the way the US is today. In most ways, everything the government touches, like elections, environment, tax policy, and health policy, could be substantially better for all of our citizens.

We all know everyone is unhappy, but everyone just says, “It’s the system. We can’t change it.”

A quote from Curtis:

There is a sense of everything being slightly unreal; that you fight a war that seems to cost you nothing and it has no consequences at home; that money seems to grow on trees; that goods come from China and don’t seem to cost you anything; that phones make you feel liberated, but that maybe they’re manipulating you, but you’re not quite sure.

He talks about the concept of “risk”, and how it entered our discussion, migrating from finance to politics in the 1980s. Today, everything has become about risk analysis, and how to stop bad things happening in the future: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Politics gave up saying that it could change the world for the better and became a wing of management, saying instead that it could stop bad things from happening. The problem with that is that it invites all the politicians to imagine all the bad things that could possibly happen—at which point, you get into a nightmare world where people imagine terrible things, and say that you have to build a system to stop them.

Can the people take power back from corporations and their captured politicians? Maybe, maybe not. People like stability and they fear instability. We saw that with Gorbachev in Russia in the 1980s.

But if we are to move past the collusion of corporations and politicians trying to keep us accepting things we know are unacceptable, we need to have better politicians.

The job of a master persuader is to tell a story that says, “Yes this is risky, but it’s also thrilling, and it might lead to something extraordinary”. The persuader must say, “Yes, I understand your fears but look, what’s happening isn’t right. We can do better than this”.

People are asking, “What is our future? What is this existence for?

  • If you live in West Virginia surrounded by people taking opioids, you surely want to know what all that sorrow is for
  • If you are a recently laid-off GM worker, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’re a student with $75k in student debt, and a cog job, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’re a plumber with no health insurance and pancreatic cancer, you’re asking the same thing
  • If you’ve worked hard to elect someone who just lost because of ballot-stuffing, you’re asking the same thing

These are the questions that our politicians should be answering.

Do you see someone who can bring people together behind a better vision?

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Monday Wake Up Call – December 10, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The twin peaks of Ushba, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia – photo by Pflunt

Last week, Bernie Sanders was with Paul Jay on the Real News Network. The discussion was about how growing income inequality isn’t simply unfair. Bernie said:

Concentration of wealth in America causes concentration of political power.

Sanders had spoken at (his wife Jane’s) Sanders Institute in Vermont on Wednesday. In his subsequent interview, Bernie said:

But it is not just that the one tenth of 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90%. They don’t put their wealth underneath their mattresses….They use that wealth to perpetrate, perpetuate their power. And they do that politically. So you have the Koch brothers and a handful of billionaires who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections, because the Supreme Court gutted the campaign finance laws…and now allow billionaires quite openly to buy elections.

We all know that wealth equals political power. Sanders gave a great example:

Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, came to Congress a few years ago…after the taxpayers of this country bailed them out because of their greed and their illegal behavior…..These guys, after getting bailed out, they come to Congress. They say, you know what we think Congress should do is…cut Social Security, and Medicare, and Medicaid. And by the way, lower corporate tax rates and give more tax breaks to the wealthy. That’s power. That’s chutzpah. We have it all, we can do whatever we want to do.

He closes with this:

My vision is that we have got to have the guts to take on Wall Street, take on the pharmaceutical industry, take on the insurance industry, take on the 1 percent, and create an economy that works for all.

….We’re seeing great young candidates who didn’t wait on line for 20 years to get permission to run, but kind of jumped in and beat some long-term incumbents. They’re saying, hey, I come from the community. I know what’s going on in this community, and I’m going to fight for working people, and I’m not afraid to take on big money…..So a two-part approach…..we need to fight for our agenda. We need to elect candidates from the grassroots who…are going to implement that agenda.

Bernie is the best messenger about our urgent need to reform capitalism.

In a similar vein, Seth Godin wrote last week about what he calls “Linchpin Jobs”. These are jobs that few can do, and which contribute greatly to society. That’s an interesting concept, but Wrongo focused on his apt description of “Cog Jobs”, which anyone can do, and which can be done with little effort, or skills: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Industry offered a deal to the worker:

Here’s a job. We’ll pay you as little as we can get away with while still being able to fill the job. We’ll make sure it’s easy to find people for this job, because we don’t want you to have much in the way of power or influence….In return, you’ll work as little as you can get away with. That’s the only sane way to respond to the role of being a cog.

This is the dilemma that faces low-skilled workers today: They can find work, but they can’t live on what they make at only one job. Clearly, cog-like work doesn’t create nearly as much value as intelligent work, but not everyone can find a linchpin job, they’re rare.

Can the paradigm that concentration of wealth equals concentration of power be shifted? Is Bernie Sanders the next FDR? While Wrongo thinks we need a younger leader to reform capitalism, Bernie is the right messenger for reform. His effectiveness as a messenger is clear when we see that 70% of the American people now support Medicare for All, just two years after his 2016 campaign.

And the message is clear. Without reform, we’ll have to look our grandchildren in the eye, and say we’ve wrecked their future.

Time to wake up America! This is the signal issue of our time. The reform of Capitalism must be at the top of our agenda.

Whomever the Democrats nominate for president in 2020 has to be a person that can start America down the road toward reducing the concentration of both money and power in America.

The choice in 2020 will either be more Trump, or a Democrat.

We shouldn’t select another tepid corporate Democrat. They probably won’t win. If by some chance one wins, we’d have to watch as our society becomes even more unequal for the rest of our lifetimes.

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Can America Learn From France’s Yellow Vest Movement?

The Daily Escape:

Turtlehead Pond, Groton State Forest, VT – October 2018 photo by mattmacphersonphoto

The Yellow Vests have thrown France into turmoil with their protests in recent weeks. They say they want lower taxes, higher salaries, freedom from gnawing financial fear, and a better life.

It’s a uniquely French phenomenon. Every automobile in France is supposed to be equipped with a yellow vest, so that in case of car accident or breakdown, the driver can put it on to ensure visibility and avoid getting run over.

That enabled the wearing of a yellow vest to demonstrate against unpopular government measures to catch on quickly. Most people had one. The symbolism was fitting: in case of an income inequality emergency, show people that you don’t want to be run over.

What set off the protests was a rise in gasoline taxes. But it became immediately clear that much more was driving the protests, that the gasoline tax was the last straw in a long series of measures favoring the rich at the expense of the majority of the population.

That’s why the movement achieved almost instant popularity and support.

The Yellow Vests held their first demonstrations on Saturday, November 17 on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Most French trade union demonstrations are well organized. People carry banners and listen to speeches from leaders at the end. But, the Yellow Vests showed up without any organization, and no leaders to tell them where to go, or to speak for the crowd’s demands.

They were just there in yellow vests, angry and ready to explain their anger to any listener. Their message was:

We can’t make ends meet. The cost of living keeps going up, and our incomes keep going down. We just can’t take it anymore. The government must stop what it’s doing and change course.

This is another example that income disparity between the rich and rest of us is out of control on a global basis.

The Yellow Vest protesters know that our political systems are controlled by the rich, and by their captured politicians. They are enriching themselves on the backs of the working and middle classes. Interestingly, it was the French economist, Thomas Piketty, who has researched and publicized the fact that the US has the largest income gap of any Western nation.

We should be paying closer attention both to Piketty and the Yellow Vests.

Global corporations and their fellow traveler politicians know that this sort of discontent is infectious, so politicians always try to quell it quickly. If the American 90% got the idea from France, revolution might migrate, as our revolution in 1776 migrated to France in 1789.

It is interesting that the NYT reports that in France, the Yellow Vest protests were totally unanticipated by the government.

We all know that income inequality is a growing global problem, so how can it be that the suffering of a country’s citizens and their protest against the French government’s plan to increase gas taxes would be “totally unanticipated by the parties’’?  Are the powers that be in France completely tone-deaf to the needs of their constituents?

So, are there lessons for America in the Yellow Vest movement? There should be, because the issue here is similar to the issue in France, and elsewhere in Europe. That issue is economic insecurity.

There’s no political will to deal with job insecurity. There’s no mechanism in place for those who can’t pay their bills. Soon, given automation and AI, there will not be enough work available for everyone to support themselves and their families. Underemployed people will still need food, shelter, and health care, so they might start by demonstrating in order to get them.

The sooner our corporate and political leaders decide to work on these problems, the better we all will sleep at night. But, no one in the top 10% of our economic strata has any idea what it is like to go without the necessities; it is simply inconceivable to them.

Many think that there are no consequences to the inequality that has developed in America since 1980, but there certainly will be consequences. We are in the midst of economic class warfare. The politicians, bought by the corporate plutocrats, are pushing their corporatist agenda down the throats of the middle and working classes.

We can either engage in a slow reform of Capitalism, or we can wait another generation, and participate in an urgent, rapid destruction of Capitalism as we know it today.

If we opt to go slow, let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t close a deep wound with a Band-Aid. It takes surgery.

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Tax Abatements Are Killing School Budgets

The Daily Escape:

Egmont National Park, NZ – photo by vicarious_NZ

A new report shows that US public schools in 28 states lost at least $1.8 billion in tax revenues last year as a result of tax incentives granted to corporations. The study analyzed the financial reports of 5,600 of the nation’s 13,500 independent public school districts.

Good Jobs First examined the first full year of reporting under a new accounting standard for school districts, adopted by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the body that sets accounting rules for all states and most localities. The new rule, GASB Statement No. 77 on Tax Abatement Disclosures, requires most state and local governments to report annually on the amount of revenue they’ve lost to corporate tax abatements.

This is extremely important, since most local schools are very dependent on revenue from property taxes, but they rarely have influence over corporate tax abatements granted by their towns, and/or the cities or counties where they are located.

And local voters have had no way to see how much they are forced to pay in additional taxes that were lost to enrich the pockets of corporate employers.

Good Jobs found that the 10 most affected states could have hired more than 28,000 new teachers if they were able to use the lost revenues. Or, they could have avoided higher home property taxes, or provided their teachers with better resources, or higher pay.

States and cities have long used abatements and other tax incentives to lure companies, or to keep them from leaving, and/or to encourage them to expand locally. Often, those companies make their choice of location based on the quality of local schools and colleges.

These abatement deals are made by local politicians and are meant to boost local economic development. Their proponents say the lost tax revenue is worth it, because they grow the local economy. But it is difficult to know whether the benefits outweigh the burdens.

And until GASB 77, it has been impossible to see just how much a school system may have lost because of a company’s tax break. The new rule is especially helpful in understanding local schools finances, because it requires the reporting of revenue losses even if they are suffered passively by the school system as the result of decisions made by another body of government.

Of the five districts that lost the most, three are in Louisiana. Together, they lost more than $158 million, or $2,500 for each student enrolled. The School District of Philadelphia, which only last year regained local control from the state after climbing out of a deep fiscal crisis, lost the second most revenue at $62 million.

Overall, nearly 250 school districts lost at least $1 million each, and in four districts, tax abatements reduced classroom resources by more than $50 million.

But most school districts have not yet complied with Rule 77, which was implemented in 2015. Good Jobs First estimates that another $500 million of subsidies and abatements are currently unreported.

Most of us believe that our governments are supposed to govern in the interests of the “general welfare,” that when voters put people in positions of power, based on the legitimacy of our electoral process, is the limit of our responsibility as voters.

We accept that somebody has to say what the rules are, and then enforce them.

But in our neoliberal economic times, voters have to remember that our governments often act as wholly owned subsidiaries of the 1%. It takes suspension of belief to accept that our republic, ruled as it is by an oligarchy, is working for the general welfare of all of our citizens.

Why do we think that, our “governments”, all of which are subject to capture and ownership by the few, are going to somehow provide decency, comity, or fairness to all of us?

We need to abandon the article of faith that the free market, one without government oversight, promotes the best economic outcome for all of us.

Today’s inequality says the opposite.

We need a new vision of the role of government. But it isn’t really a “new” vision. It is simply a return to insisting on the “promotion of the General Welfare for all” as the paramount object of government.

Here’s another thought from Gordon Wood, in his book, Creation of the American Republic:

In a republic each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body. For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance.

The last outcome that American revolutionaries wanted was to be ruled by oligarchs. But, here we are.

We need to reform our capitalism.

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We’re Too Short to be on This Ride

The Daily Escape:

Lion’s Head, Capetown South Africa, viewed from Tabletop Mountain – 2012 photo by Wrongo

A WaPo report said that Donald Trump discussed giving Janet Yellen another term as head of the Federal Reserve, but was concerned that she was too short. He thought that at 5 feet, 3 inches, she just wasn’t tall enough to get the job done.

Wrongo thinks Yellen’s performance was about the same as her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, and her successor, Jerome Powell. Shouldn’t the real question be: Do we know what’s wrong with our economy, and do we have people in place with enough strength and/or courage to fix it? They can also be short, as long as they have ability and vision.

And it isn’t only in the US: (brackets by Wrongo)

Income inequality has increased in nearly all regions of the world over the past four decades, according to the World Inequality Report 2018. Since 1980, the global top 1% of earners have…[garnered] twice as much of the global growth as have the poorest 50%.

More from the World Inequality Report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Such acute economic imbalances can lead to political, economic, and social catastrophes if they are not properly monitored and addressed….Governments need to do more to keep society fair…Public services, taxation, social safety nets – all of these have a role to play.

We’re seeing a slow-rolling social catastrophe in the US. We’re seeing alienation across class, race, age and gender. We’re divided as never before, with the possible exception of the pre-Civil War period.

Aren’t we all too short to be on this ride?

Central banks play an integral part in the global economy, and their performance (including the Fed’s) during the 2008 Great Recession was for the most part, admirable.

But central banks can only use monetary policy to partially solve issues of economic inequality. The most robust solutions lie in fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is how Congress and other elected officials influence the economy using spending, taxation and regulation.

Take student loans. Many of our university students are simply being led to the debt gallows. Currently, 44.5 million student loan borrowers in the US owe a total of $1.5 trillion. Student loans are the fastest growing segment of US household debt, seeing almost 157% growth since the Great Recession.

From Bloomberg:

Student loans are being issued at unprecedented rates as more American students pursue higher education. But the cost of tuition at both private and public institutions is touching all-time highs, while interest rates on student loans are also rising. Students are spending more time working instead of studying. (Some 85% of current students now work paid jobs while enrolled.)

Student loan debt has the highest “over 90 days” delinquency rate of all household debt. More than 10% of student borrowers are at least 90 days delinquent. Mortgages and auto loans have a 1.1% and 4% 90-day delinquency rate, respectively,

And if the student loan can’t be repaid, it isn’t expunged by bankruptcy. In fact, students can’t outlive their debt. The feds can garnish social security payments to repay a student’s outstanding debt.

As young adults struggle to pay back their loans, they’re forced to make financial choices that create a drag on the economy. Student debt has delayed marriages. It has led to a decline in home ownership. Sixteen percent of young workers aged 25 to 35 lived with their parents in 2017, up 4% from 10 years earlier.

We are only beginning to understand the social costs of our politics. We are in the midst of a brewing social disaster. And these are self-inflicted wounds, fixable with different government policies. But, most of today’s politicians are too short to get on that ride.

So, how to solve the simultaneous equations of high poverty rates, income inequality and an impending social disaster?

It won’t be easy, and it starts with politicians admitting that our economy doesn’t work for everyone, and that it must be reformed. Then, we can move beyond the tired rallying cries of “more tax cuts” to a capitalism which incorporates a social consciousness that can get people on the track to better paying, and more secure jobs.

An April 2018 study of survey data from 16 European countries found that economic deprivation increased right-wing populist tendencies. Sam van Noort, a co-author of the report said:

Individuals who “feel economically less well-off” were more likely to be attracted by the far right…and radical right respondents are more likely to be male, subjectively poorer, less educated [and] younger.

This will also happen here, unless the voters have determination, and even the short politicians have courage.

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Monday Wake Up Call – December 3, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Boston Public Library – photo by joethommas

The NYT’s David Brooks:

We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The GDP is growing at about 3.5% a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history, and if it lasts for another eight months it will be the longest ever.

So everything’s good, no? Not really. More from Brooks: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago.

And people’s faith in capitalism has declined, especially among the young. Only 45% of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010.

Brooks’ conclusion? It’s not the economy, we all just need more community connections.

His is another attempt to dress up the now-failing neoliberal economics. Things look good today from some perspectives, but our economy is crushingly cruel from others. Brooks seems to think that millions of Americans are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, education loans, health care insurance or buy groceries because they have failed to master the art of networking in their neighborhoods.

Alienation is behind the rise of Trumpism, and the rise of populism across the world. In that sense, Brooks is correct, but the leading cause of people’s alienation is economic inequality.

And the leading cause of economic inequality is corporate America’s free rein, supported by their helpmates in Washington. Last week, Wrongo wrote about the exceptional market concentration that has taken place in the US in the past few years. He suggested America needs a revitalized anti-trust initiative. In The Myth of Capitalism, authors Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearns write:

Capitalism without competition is not capitalism.

For decades, most economists dismissed antitrust actions as superfluous, so long as consumers were not the victims of price-gouging. Monopoly capitalism is back, and it’s harmful, even if a company’s core product (like Google’s and Facebook’s) is free to consumers. As we wrote last week, there’s excessive corporate concentration in most industries, including air travel, banking, beer, health insurance, cell service, and even in the funeral industry.

All of this has led to a huge and growing inequality gap. That means there is little or no economic security for a large and growing section of the American population. People see their communities stagnating, or dying. They feel hopeless, angry, and yes, alienated.

One consequence is that we’ve seen three years of declining life expectancy, linked to growing drug use and suicides. We seem to be on the edge of a social catastrophe.

But our real worry has to be political. People could become so desperate for change that they are willing to do anything to get it. The worry then, is that few vote and a minority elects a strong man populist leader, simply because he/she tells them what they want to hear. That leader can then go out and wreak havoc on our Constitutional Republic.

After that, anything could happen.

Despite what Brooks thinks, we don’t have a crisis of connections. It’s a crisis of poorly paying jobs, job insecurity, and poverty. When people look at their economic prospects, they despair for their children. Doesn’t it matter that in America, health care, education, and transportation all lag behind other developed countries?

The unbridled ideology of free markets is the enemy. Our problem isn’t that individual entrepreneurs went out and took all the gains for themselves, leaving the rest of us holding the bag. It’s more about how neoliberal economics is used both by government and corporations to justify an anti-tax and anti-trust approach that has led to extreme wealth and income concentration in the top 1% of Americans.

The reality is that the nation’s wealth has become the exclusive property of the already prosperous.

We need to wake up America! We have to stop for a second, and think about how we can dig out of this mess. When America bought in to FDR’s New Deal programs 75 years ago, we entered an era we now think back on nostalgically as “great”.

And it isn’t enough to talk about how we can look to Sweden or Norway as economic models. Both have populations of under 10 million, and our society is far less homogeneous than theirs.

We need a uniquely American solution to this problem. It will involve reforming capitalism, starting with tax reform, and enforcing anti-trust legislation.

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