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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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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Saturday Soother – Dorian Edition, September 7, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, CO – 2019 photo by ForkMan. Cheyenne Mountain is in background.

(There will be no Sunday Cartoons this week.)

Trump’s decision to change our posture toward China from free trade to trade war is one of the most significant policy shifts in recent American history. And despite the hand-wringing by corporations and politicians, there’s a grain of value in what Trump is attempting to do.

For sure, it’s unclear if he really knows what he’s doing, but it highlights whether we have a strategy for our trade relations with China. American policy makers must look at and answer a few questions:

  • Why is our industrial supply chain located within our economic adversary?
  • Doesn’t our military readiness therefore depend on that adversary?
  • Why are American companies allowed to transfer critical technologies to China in exchange for short-term market access?
  • Why is Tesla building self-driving cars in Shanghai?
  • Why should Google be running an Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab in Beijing after canceling an AI contract with the Pentagon?

Our corporate overlords’ answer? Because the market wills it.

But markets choose one global power over another only for narrow financial reasons. The market will happily move its business to a surveillance state if it means bigger CEO bonuses and higher profits. In this competition, Corporate America’s ideological commitment to free trade is as big a handicap to us as the Soviet Union’s commitment to central planning was during the Cold War.

Republicans and their corporate partners reject the idea of America having an industrial-policy to support key strategic economic sectors. China has an industrial policy. It’s focused largely on AI, integrated circuits, telecom, and steel. We no longer have high end manufacturing, and we’re losing other strategic industries.

This means that Beijing is likely to pick our “winners” for us. Corporations use the old Ricardian comparative advantage to organize their supply chains. This means that we will watch helplessly as American innovations are transformed into economic engines in China, while our corporations will reap efficiency gains by locating their engineering and management operations next to their Chinese manufacturing.

Inevitably, the innovation in which we pride ourselves will depart as well.

A recent survey of 369 manufacturers found that American firms are moving their R&D operations to China not just to take advantage of lower costs, but to be in close proximity to their supply chains. About 50% of foreign R&D centers in China are now run by American companies. This has helped China achieve first place in market share for manufacturing R&D.

If we remain neutral regarding where our supply chains are located, “we innovate, they build” will become “they innovate, they build.”

So, an unintended consequence of Trump’s tariff war is that maybe American politicians will wake up to the strategic battle underway with China, and realize how our American corporations are lining up on the side of our competitor and economic adversary.

Enough of the outside world, time for a rainy Saturday Soother if you are on the east coast of the US. Wrongo is sitting on Cape Cod, and the weather service here has announced tropical storm warnings for Saturday. So, settle back and watch the Weather Channel!

Now brew up a mug of Panama Finca San Sebastian ($12/12 oz.) with its deep chocolate notes supported by subtle but persistent sweet floral tones. It comes from the brewers at Thermopolis, Wisconsin’s Jack Rabbit Java.

Now, as you watch Dorian news over and over until your mind is numb, listen to the great 1980’s hit from the Eurythmics, “Here Comes the Rain Again”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view Annie Lennox here.

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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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Current and Future Job Growth Will Be In Cities

The Daily Escape:

Breezewood, PA – 2008 photo by Edward Burtynsky. Each year, 3.5 million passenger vehicles and 1.5 million trucks drive the half-mile Breezewood strip on Route 30. That’s because a law in the 1950s prohibited spending federal funds to connect a free road to a toll road. So, highway planners designed an interchange that routes drivers onto Route 30 for a half-mile.

An interesting article from Market Watch shows how nearly all job growth is in big cities, while rural America is being left behind:

“Since the economy began adding jobs after the Great Recession nine years ago, about 21.5 million jobs have been created in the United States, the second-best stretch of hiring in the nation’s history, second only to the 1990s. But….Most of the new jobs have been located in a just a few dozen large and dynamic cities, leaving slower-growing cities, small towns and rural areas — where about half of Americans live — far behind.”

MarketWatch cites a July 2019 study by McKinsey forecasting that 25 cities that are home to about 30% of Americans will capture about 60% of the job growth between 2017 and 2030, just as they did between 2007 and 2017. In typical McKinsey fashion, they break cities and towns into many categories. Please read the report for full details. Here are their top-line findings about where the largest growth is happening:

  • Twelve mega-cities (and their extended suburbs) top the list: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Washington.
  • Another 13 are high-growth hubs in or around smaller cities: Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Nashville, Orlando, Portland (Ore.), Raleigh, San Antonio, San Jose, Seattle, and Tampa.
  • Smaller, fast-growing cities and a few privileged rural counties will also add jobs, while vast swaths of the South, Midwest and Plains will lose jobs.
  • The New York metro area, home to 20 million people, added more jobs over the past year than did all of America’s small towns and rural areas, with a population of 46 million people, combined.

McKinsey’s forecast reinforces concerns about persistent economic inequality in America. Inclusive growth is a must, or it is likely that our society will fall apart. The problem: No one, and certainly not Republicans, have a magic wand that will bring back jobs to rural and small-town America.

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that job growth is mostly occurring in places that vote for Democrats, while the stagnation is mostly in places that vote for Republicans. In 2016, Trump was smart to tailor a pitch to those parts of America, but their situations haven’t improved since his election.

And the divide is getting larger. Over the past year, only 12% of 389 metro areas had any significant job growth, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Aaron Sojourner, a former White House economist, now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota:

So, after 17 years of significant and broadly-spread growth, fewer towns and cities are now doing so well. And, of the 47 metros that gained significant numbers of jobs over the past year, 21 were on McKinsey’s top 25 list.

Meanwhile, the regional jobs data from the BLS shows that non-metropolitan areas, which account for 18% of jobs, had just 5% of job growth over the past year.

OTOH, income inequality is greatest in those cities with the highest jobs growth. But, we can’t write off one quarter of the US population simply because they live in low-growth areas. And politically, it’s essential. Rural America is overrepresented politically — we can’t ignore them.

But, what to do? Sanders and Warren have addressed this by trying to raise tax revenues from corporations, and funding free college. They along with others, believe in some form of Medicare-for-all, which could help address the fact that rural America is older, sicker, and poorer than ever before.

Yang proposes a universal basic income of $1,000/month for everyone.

Trump proposes tax cuts for the wealthy, tariffs and weakened environmental regulations, but despite all three, the situation has gotten worse since his election.

McKinsey suggests that communities that are being left behind ought to try almost everything: improved transportation to get residents to jobs, rural broadband, and lifelong job training.

Building consensus about how to address job growth and income inequality is the key to America’s future. This is what the 2020 presidential election should be about.

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What the Dem Debates Are Telling Us

The Daily Escape:

Yosemite Falls from floor of Yosemite Valley – June 2019 iPhone8 photo by Believeland313

Wrongo, Ms. Right and a few friends saw the play “Ink” on Broadway this week. It’s the story of Rupert Murdoch, and how he disrupted the newspaper business in England in the early 1970s. Everyone knows the story’s outline: A tradition-bound business is revolutionized by an outsider who uses tactics that the industry won’t consider using.

When the Newspaper old guard finally understand that failure is staring them in the face, they try half-heartedly to change, and fail.

Flash forward to America in 2019: The Murdoch-owned FOX network has disrupted our news organizations, assisted mightily by the internet and by little people like Wrongo. Trump disrupted our politics in 2016, and now it’s the Democrats’ time to decide to disrupt, or stay the course. Their Party is dominated by Biden, Schumer and Pelosi. Schumer is 68, while the others are in their 70s. All represent the old guard.

After two Democratic debates involving 20 would-be candidates, it’s clear that the Party is on the horns of a dilemma: Embrace disruption? Or, stay the course? One of the fringe candidates, Marianne Williamson said it’s not about policies, it’s about playing Donald Trump’s game and beating him.

The MSM says Dems should get down in the weeds, talk policies and how to pay for them. But we should really talk about the direction the country should be taking in a post-Trump America.

Democrats face a conundrum. The Democratic disruptors may be out in front of the public. Those candidates are Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, and a few others. Republicans will attack them as radical socialists, but their message, that the average person has gotten screwed for at least 40 years and only systemic change can solve that, resonates.

For the disruptors, Incremental change hasn’t worked. That’s something Trump realized, and these few Democrats have as well. You have to be playing the long game. It’s not about one debate. You stick to your message, and make sure it resonates.

Then there are the traditional politicians like Biden, Beto and Klobuchar who are playing the old style game. Biden in particular says, “look at what I’ve done in the past. Give me the reins again“.

But it’s unclear whether voters want to play it safe. Wrongo had a good conversation with his Trump-supporting friend Dave C., who says he’s fiscally conservative, but may be flexible on some social issues. He knows that Trump won’t fulfill all of his promises. And no one should think that Sanders, Warren or any Democrat will be able to fulfill theirs either.

DC doesn’t work that way. But many things count bigly, like the appointment of Supreme Court Justices.

And regarding the “socialism” epithet, Bernie had a piece this week in the WSJ entitled “Trump Is The Worst Kind of Socialist.” If you read it, you’ll be sold. Bernie is not just saying Trump must go, he’s going at the Right’s main attack on him, while doubling-down on his position.

Bernie may not be your cup of tea; he isn’t Wrongo’s. But, he delivers his position with passion. This isn’t Hillary taking a poll, and trying to cover all bases. Bernie’s willing to drop a few bombs, and then deal with the fallout.

Biden can only go downhill from here. He’s rusty. The Biden we saw may not be around for Iowa if he doesn’t sharpen his game. Here’s Wrongo’s view of Biden and Bernie: (hat tip: Sean O.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kamala Harris showed passion, and her prosecutorial skills to viewers. But will that convince voters? Particularly those in the suburbs? Warren won night one. Let’s see how she does when she’s on stage with night two’s survivors. She’s certainly got the vision thing down, but Kamala seems to have more fight.

Ultimately, the next 18 months are going to be about who can win the suburbs. In 2018, Dems reversed their 2016 losses in the ‘burbs, while again losing rural areas, just like in 2016. The difference was that in 2018, they won control of the House.

Trump’s 2016 formula worked. He traded suburban votes for small-town and rural votes and it got him an Electoral College win. Democrats can win in 2020 if they continue their 2018 success in the suburbs.

If the Democratic presidential candidate focuses exclusively on climate change, he/she will lose a lot of rural votes. A candidate who berates everyone who works in financial services will lose suburban support. But, a candidate that offers solutions on health costs, a fairer, less monopolized economy, more affordable education, a serious approach to the opioid crisis can probably win urban and suburban America.

It’s a long slog from here. And the winning candidate’s job is to keep voters engaged about how important 2020 will be to our kids and grandkids.

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 24, 2019

The Daily Escape:

View from Angels Landing summit, Zion NP Utah – 2019 photo by SurrealShock. 86,000 people visited Angels Landing over the four-day Memorial Day weekend in 2018.

On Sunday, the NYT reported: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“In the last decade, private land in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Today, just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country, a 65,000-square-mile expanse, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks large purchases. Researchers at the magazine have found that the amount of land owned by those 100 families has jumped 50 percent since 2007.”

The West is a patchwork of public and private lands. Land ownership in the West has always been concentrated in the hands of the federal government, which owns about 50%. Now we learn that the rest of the West is quickly moving into the hands of a very few people.

The large purchases by these new private landholders come as the region is experiencing the fastest population growth in the country. That drives up housing prices and the cost of living. Some locals are fearful of losing both their culture and economic stability.

Rocky Barker, a retired columnist for The Idaho Statesman, has said this is a clash between two American dreams, pitting the nation’s respect for private property rights against the notion of beauty-rich publicly-owned lands set aside for the enjoyment of all.

In the West, there is an evolution of an economy based in minerals extraction, to one based on recreation; from a working class culture to a more moneyed one. The NYT article focuses on one family, the Wilks brothers, Dan and Farris, who made their money ($3.5 billion) in fracking. They sold out, and bought a vast stretch of mountainous land in southwest Idaho.

The Wilks brothers see what they are doing as a duty. God had given them much, and in return, “we feel that we have a responsibility to the land.”

The Wilkses now own 700,000 acres across several states, and have become a symbol of the out-of-touch owner. In Idaho, they have closed trails, and hired armed guards to patrol their land, blocking or stymieing access not just to their property, but also to some publicly owned areas. They also hired a lobbyist to push for a law that would stiffen penalties for trespass, and the bill passed.

This has made locals angry, as they have hiked and hunted on these lands for generations. Some emailed the Wilkses, asking permission to cross their property. They were surprised to receive a response suggesting they first visit PragerU, a right-wing website that was financed by the Wilkses and share their opinions of its content.

This is an example of a test for land use. Should you have to tell landowners your political views before you get to use their land?

Welcome to the future. Concentration of land ownership is a natural consequence of our free market capitalism. Our capitalist system isn’t designed to prevent concentration of ownership, whether it be of corporations or land.

That requires politicians who are not beholden to corporations and capitalists.

Our ancestors left Europe because by the 1600s, much of the land had already been bought up and was either inaccessible, or available in small lots for rent. America has been in the process of being divided up in the same way since the 1700s.

We talk about wealth inequality, and this story shows again that it is much more than numbers on a ledger. It is the power to own vast chunks of America, to decide how that land will be used, and to charge for that usage if they desire.

Battles over both private and public land have been a defining part of the West since the 1800s. For years, fights have played out between private individuals and the federal government.

OTOH, Americans in the West have made private ownership of wilderness a sacrament. They even contend that private use of public lands should be a right. Now, when the results of concentrated private land ownership become clear, when suddenly, a river or a mountain range they’ve enjoyed using for decades has a fence around it, their bellyaching begins.

But when the Wilkses, who made their money in fracking talk about how they feel they have a responsibility to the land, that has to be seen as hypocrisy.

The people in the West should Wake Up and give thanks for every inch of every national park. They should willingly pay additional taxes to keep our national parks in prime condition.

And they should finally see the wisdom in higher income taxes on corporate profits, and in Elizabeth Warren’s taxes on individuals with greater than $50 million in assets .

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Is Ending Income Inequality a “Radical” policy?

The Daily Escape:

Mount Robson & Berg Glacier, BC, Canada – June 2019 photo by DrTand the women

New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz writes: (brackets and emphasis by Wrongo)

“…the Federal Reserve just released…its new Distributive Financial Accounts data series [that] offers a granular picture of how American capitalism has been distributing the gains of economic growth over the past three decades. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project took the Fed’s data and calculated how much the respective net worth of America’s top one percent and its bottom 50 percent has changed since 1989.

He found that America’s super-rich have grown about $21 trillion richer since Taylor Swift was born, while those in the bottom half of the wealth distribution have grown $900 billion poorer.”

This is what a few of the Democratic presidential candidates have been talking about, some loudly and some quietly, for the past few months. Levitz asks the right question:

“So, is an economic system that distributes its benefits in this manner consistent with Americans’ common-sense views of economic justice? If not, would incremental changes be sufficient to bring it into alignment with the median American’s values? Or would more sweeping measures be required?”

In a sense, Democrats are testing whether advocating for changing Capitalism is an argument that voters will accept in 2020. More from Levitz:

 “Some Democratic presidential candidates say that America’s economic system is badly broken and in need of sweeping, structural change. Others say that the existing order is fundamentally sound, even if it could use a few modest renovations. The former are widely portrayed as ideologues or extremists, the latter as moderates.”

Essentially, the question is “who’s the extremist?” in the Democratic Party. This conflation of “extreme” or “radical” with “bad” is what the GOP and the Main Stream Media do every day, and it weakens our policy-making.

We use “extremist” or “radical” as a way of signaling that a policy position is too awful to consider.

If you simply say that something is bad, then you are forced to defend your position. But, when you describe it as “extreme“, you’ve called it bad, and people will HEAR that you think it’s much too big a change to even discuss.

Respectable talking heads like Judy Woodruff will ask: “Will Americans really go for THAT?”

This is bad faith messaging about important questions. This is so ingrained into people who talk about politics that it largely goes unquestioned. We shouldn’t care about pundits and broadcasters saying how extreme or not extreme something is. We should care about the merits of the argument.

Republicans have been calling Democrats “extreme” “radical” and “Socialist” for decades. They’re using bad-faith tactics; de-legitimizing an idea or a candidate without having to debate on the merits.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are offering “extreme” policies only if our baseline is what the average Congress critter’s economic agenda looks like. It’s not clear why that’s an appropriate yardstick.

Did we think calls for sweeping change in Egypt were extremism when students took to the streets demanding basic civil rights? Do we think the young people demonstrating today in Sudan are radicals?  Our assessment (and support) of these dissenters’ ideologies has more to do with how far their values are from those of their corrupt political and military leaders.

And also by how close they seem to be to our core values.

Whether it is extreme or moderate to propose sweeping changes to American capitalism should depend on how close our existing system is to how a just economic system operates. And these latest data show that the one percent have gotten $21 trillion richer since 1989, while the bottom 50% have gotten $900 million poorer.

This is what economic class warfare looks like. Saying that isn’t hyperbole. The earnings and wealth of a majority of our citizens has been systematically declining with the complicity and power of our government, in order to benefit the rich.

It shows how bad things are when the “radical” in American politics is anybody who argues that the American economy isn’t working for a huge percentage of the population.

Judy Woodruff may think that the economy is great, but incrementalism has failed most of us for the past 40 years.

Given all this, any politician who insists that American capitalism is “already great” is clearly someone who is indifferent to economic inequality.

We need to adopt redistributive economic policies. That may sound like an extreme position, but the alternative of continuing our growing wealth inequality, should really be thought of as far more radical.

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 3, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Mont Rotui, Moorea, French Polynesia – 2019 iPhone photo by mystackhasoverflowed

Time to wake up America! Donald Trump has proven once again that he has no understanding of economics. From the Wall Street Journal:

“President Trump will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist Arthur Laffer, one of the pioneers of the idea that tax cuts can boost government revenue, the White House said Friday.

Mr. Laffer is one of the founding theorists of supply-side economics, a school of public economics that rose to prominence during the Reagan administration and returned to the fore in the run-up to the 2017 package of tax cuts that Mr. Trump signed into law.

The White House described Mr. Laffer as “one of the most influential economists in American history,” and said his “public service and contributions to economic policy have helped spur prosperity for our Nation.”

Laffer is famous for his drawing his Laffer curve on a napkin, illustrating his idea to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld at a dinner in 1974. His curve showed that increases in tax rates will eventually cause government tax revenue to decrease, because people will begin to work and earn less. This was then taken to its theoretical limit, saying that tax cuts could pay for themselves by spurring economic growth.

The WSJ calls Laffer “one of the pioneers of the idea that tax cuts can boost government revenue”. Isn’t it weird that the fact that his “idea” has been completely disproven in the real world, doesn’t seem to matter?

Conservative economics is not a branch of economics, it’s a branch of Conservatism.

The Laffer curve was successful at its real purpose, providing a basis to funnel more money to corporations and the rich. Republicans traffic in propaganda, not knowledge.

Last year, Laffer co-wrote a book titled “Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy.” Laffer’s co-author was Stephen Moore, another conservative who styles himself as an economist. Earlier this year Trump nominated Moore to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Moore had to withdraw, amid bipartisan opposition from Senators.

Laffer was the advisor behind the notorious Kansas state income tax plan that ruined the state’s finances. In 2012, Then-Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback passed a package of tax cuts based on Laffer’s ideas. The result was that Kansas lagged behind neighboring states with similar economies in nearly every major category: job creation, unemployment, gross domestic product, and taxes collected.

In 2017, the Kansas legislature repealed the Laffer/Brownback tax cuts. After the repeal, state taxes were boosted by $1.2 billion.

Laffer has spent years preaching his idea that almost any tax cut for businesses and the rich could potentially pay for itself. That idea has become the bankrupt conceptual backbone of the Republican Party’s entire economic theology.

For the 2017 Trump tax cuts, his administration also borrowed Laffer’s idea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, have repeatedly claimed that the Trump tax cuts will pay for themselves. But, a new report finds that the tax cuts were responsible for less than five percent of the growth that is needed to offset the revenue loss from the Trump tax cuts.

We must point out here that Larry Kudlow does not hold a degree in economics. He was once fired from an investment bank for doing cocaine. Imagine just how much cocaine you’d have to do to get fired on Wall Street in the 1980s.

Trump’s now added the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the American traditions he’s debasing. Other economists awarded the Medal of Freedom include Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Solow. Laffer can’t carry their briefcases.

There may be no man alive who has done more damage to America’s understanding of taxes and their effect on economic growth than Art Laffer.

Evidently, Trump is grading him on a curve.

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Taxes Aren’t Theft

The Daily Escape:

Humpback Whale, Tonga – Photo by Rita Kluge

Joseph Stieglitz has an op-ed in the NYT about saving capitalism from itself. He wants to re-brand capitalism as “progressive capitalism”: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society….The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.”

America has been debating the role of capitalism in our society since our beginnings. In 1790, John Adams published the Discourses on Davila in which he said that entrenched economic inequality would create a political oligarchy in America similar to what had already occurred in Europe.

The problem isn’t inequality. We’ve survived a permanent underclass, but until recently, it has been a statistical minority. But, we won’t survive today’s continuing erosion of the middle class. Stieglitz says:

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.”

He calls for:

“…a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.”

Call it progressive capitalism, capitalism plus, democratic capitalism, or whatever you want. At the core of any reform of capitalism is less corporate control over the levers of power, and a redistribution of wealth. Along with the growth in economic inequality and political impotence, so grows the myth propagated by the ultra-rich that higher taxes are a public theft of their hard earned fortunes, and are a threat to their personal freedoms.

Let’s spend a minute on the difference between positive and negative rights.

In the simplest terms, negative rights (most of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) protect us from the government. They tell us what the government can’t do. The Constitution was designed as primarily a negative rights document, to maximize our individual liberty, and to protect us from the government interfering in our lives. They are most helpful to people whose rights are already protected.

Positive rights are different. They include things like the right to an education, and in some countries, the right to healthcare. Most of us define freedom as: freedom from hunger, freedom from ignorance, freedom from exploitation, freedom from poverty, freedom from hopelessness and despair. Very few positive rights are enumerated in the Constitution, with the exception of the right to have the government protect private property.

Today, if there’s one enduring myth that drives US politics, it is the myth that the rich have earned their reward, through nothing but their own hard work and savvy. The rich want no income redistribution, which they call “socialism”, just as the fat cats said in this cartoon from 1912:

The Republicans in the 1930s called FDR a socialist. Now, as we are thinking about a New Deal 2.0, today’s Republicans want to again brand all Democrats as socialists.

Corporations and the 1% ignore how much they are helped by a system designed by them, and for them. They are contemptuous of government and public authority, which they say act as agents of the poor, attempting to extort the rich.

They forget that our government facilitates and protects their wealth. If not for the many Federal agencies that write regulations favorable to industry, the Federal Reserve, protectors of the banking industry along with others, there would be a lot less wealth for corporations and the 1% to aggregate.

Therefore, they should pay the most.

And remember, rural electrification was a federal project under FDR. The dams on the Columbia River made irrigation possible, opening up western lands to agriculture. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was the Green New Deal of its time, and was the basis for development of a modern Southeastern US. The railroads that opened up the West relied on government property provided to private companies (redistribution?) to develop.

Let’s decide to reform capitalism. First, by making it responsive to the positive rights that average Americans are longing for. Second, paying for that with much high taxes on corporations. If the loopholes created by savvy corporate tax lawyers remain on the books, let’s create a stiff Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for corporations.

Just like the AMT that Wrongo has had to pay for lo, these many years.

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Saturday Soother – Final Four Edition

The Daily Escape:

Aiguille du Midi – 2019 photo by Berenicids. The Aiguille du Midi (12,605 ft.) is part of the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps. It can be directly accessed by cable car from Chamonix. If you enlarge the picture, the cable car building is visible at the very top of the mountain.

The end of Wrongo’s favorite sport, the college basketball season, happens on Monday. Tonight is the Final Four, the Wrong family’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, with family gathering for food and drink around the TV.

But, that doesn’t start until the early evening, so we’ve got time to talk about another scary piece of news this week: There will be severe human impacts caused by the next wave of automation. The bottom line is that plenty of jobs will be lost and we’ll see societal disruption as machines and robots take over American jobs. Axios takes it from there:

In a new report, the Aspen Institute nudges policymakers away from any notion that the American economy will naturally adjust as robots are introduced at an accelerated pace over the coming two and three decades.”

Axios goes on to quote Aspen’s Alistair Fitzpayne who says that, workers displaced in prior technological cycles “have experienced profound downward mobility” in new jobs at much lower pay and benefits.

The report’s executive summary warns, “Artificial intelligence and other new technologies may lead to deeper, faster, broader, and more disruptive automation”, and retraining programs may be unable to mitigate the downward trend in earnings and social status. Aspen warns that fewer jobs may be created than are destroyed:

  • No one knows how many new jobs will be produced, where they will be created, or how much they will pay.
  • Most studies play down the real possibility that the automation age could go very wrong, for an extended period, for large swaths of workers and their communities.
  • Workers who lost their jobs in the wave of manufacturing layoffs in the early 1980s, for instance, were still earning 15%-20% less in their new work 20 years later, according to the Aspen report.

Axios reports that Aspen tries to pull the punch, saying that with the right policy choices, we can choose to create an economy that works for everybody. That we can encourage employers to adopt a more “human-centric approach” to delivering the bottom line. That we can support displaced workers through retraining, reemployment services, and unemployment insurance to help them transition to new jobs and careers.

Maybe, but it seems questionable that those things will spontaneously happen. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggests all this new technology might be liberating, but she has reservations:

“The reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

The cultural stigma attached to job loss is profound, and that is unlikely to change by adding more retraining programs. Conservatives are not about to celebrate jobless people having more time to learn, to create art, or enjoy the world they live in, as long as they are unemployed.

The merciless mantra of shareholder value above all, and our corporate masters’ acceptance of the inevitability of technological change means that low and moderate-skill workers are expendable. Efficiency for more bottom line is more important than the lives of human workers.

This coming automation disruption is hard to see now. But estimates are that it will impact as many as 40% of American workers.

The 21st Century American corporation isn’t our friend, as currently constituted and rewarded. It is the enemy of our society, because they are quietly working to eliminate our jobs. We constantly reduce their taxes, vainly hoping for them to create more jobs. We look the other way when they pollute our environment. We allow them to disproportionately finance our elections.

It’s time for a new Capitalism.

But you’ve had enough for this week, so on to the Saturday Soother. Start slowly, particularly if you plan to stay up until the last Final Four game ends at around midnight. Let’s brew up a cup of New Hampshire’s Flight Coffee’s single origin Tanzania Tarime AB, ($17/12oz.), with its floral fragrance and intensely sweet flavor. Now settle into your favorite chair and listen to “Spring Morning” by Frederick Delius, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conducted by David Lloyd Jones. “Spring Morning” is the third of ‘Three Small Tone Poems’ by Delius:

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

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