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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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Send Establishment Democrats to the Bench

The Daily Escape:

City Hall Subway Station, NYC – via @themindcircle

We live in disorienting times. Disorienting in that our society, and our values, are in motion. We are no longer anchored by social mores, beliefs, or any shared vision of the future. Our politics are evolving as well. We can’t simply blame Trump, or those who elected him for taking us to this scary place. The bipartisan consensus that’s ruled this country since the 1940s — neoliberal domestic policy, and neoconservative foreign policy ─ no longer produces the same results for our citizens that it has produced since the Eisenhower era.

Establishment Democrats bear some of the blame. And looking forward to the mid-terms and beyond, they have failed to do the simplest work — forming a worldview, then persuading others about their vision, and the steps to achieve it.

We can also blame establishment Republicans, but they have collapsed. The new right is much farther right, more authoritarian, and whiter. And who would have thought they would be the pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-DOJ, and (maybe not a complete surprise), the pro-police state party?

History shows that when society turns like this, the establishment parties can disappear, as did the Federalists and the Whig parties. And when one party changes, the other must as well. After Lincoln, neither the Republicans, nor the Democrats, were the same parties.

Perhaps it’s time to take these words in the Constitution to heart:

…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…

Therefore, if the Dems are to win back the hearts and minds of the people, regardless of what the banks and corporations want to do, Government must be the advocate for the People.

That requires that our political parties confront the banks, corporations, military contractors, and the other oversized creatures that feed at the government trough.

Is that something that the establishment Democrats (Wrongo likes calling them the “Caviar Dems”) are willing to do? They used to champion social and economic justice, but not so much today. Today, they follow the same neo-liberal economic policies that Republicans champion.

And with few exceptions, they are as neo-conservative on foreign policy as any Republican.

Republicans have undergone a different mutation. They celebrate the globalized economy, and support the domestic gig economy as a means of growing corporate profits. They still celebrate Christian values, so controlling Supreme Court appointments is their great achievement, along with ruinous tax cuts.

America’s corporate tax revenues are going down, while social and infrastructure costs keep rising. So far, under both parties, government has continued to spend money it doesn’t have. It borrows, and pretends that everything is under control.

Now, after 10 years of economic expansion, we continue to pile up deficits. What’s going to happen in the next recession? The truth is, we are poorer, and weaker, as a country than we think. But few politicians are willing to help us face reality.

We see both Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic nominee for Congress in NY, describe themselves as socialists. But, in fact, that’s not what they are. Merriam-Webster defines socialism as:

Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective, or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

Obviously, they hope to take over the corporate-friendly establishment Democratic Party, but if you call yourself a socialist, then, at a minimum, you need to advocate for government ownership of the means of production, i.e., industry. You’re only a socialist to the extent that you advocate that.

Will Bernie or Alexandria nationalize General Motors, Apple, or ExxonMobil? No.

Even advocating for “Medicare for all,” isn’t socialism. Neither Medicare, nor other single-payer programs like Medicaid, are really socialized medicine. No one is advocating for an actual government takeover of hospitals, or turning doctors into government employees. If they really wanted socialized medicine, their cry would be “VA for all,” not “Medicare for all.”

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are social democrats. In a social democracy, individuals and corporations continue to own the capital and the means of production. Wealth remains produced privately.

But taxation, government spending, and regulation of the private sector are much more muscular under social democracy than is the case under today’s neo-liberal economic system.

Joel Pett has a great illustration of the difference between Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez and Republicans:

It’s time for the Dems to change direction. Carry the “Medicare for all” banner proudly. Work to end income inequality. Work to add jobs for the middle class.

Send the establishment Democrats to the bench.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Cape Cod Edition

The Daily Escape:

Cape Cod morning – 1950 painting by Edward Hopper

(Today, Wrongo and Ms. Right are on our way to Cape Cod for a few days of bonfires, bicycling, surfcasting, and hanging with kids and grandkids. Blogging will be infrequent, but you can expect a Saturday Soother on, well, Saturday.)

This morning, Wrongo feels the need to bore you with a concept from historian Peter Turchin, taken from his book Ages of Discord, which provides some insight into where America is today. Turchin posits that historical eras are either integrative periods when people find reasons to cooperate, and join forces, or disintegrative periods, when reasons to split apart become dominant.

Turchin identifies three key factors that can create the disintegrative periods:

  • Competition and conflict among an expanding population of elites
  • Declining real wage for an expanding population of workers
  • State financial collapse (unpayable debt)

Does any of that sound familiar? Turchin’s theory is that history experiences cycles which, in non-industrialized economies, tend to last between 200-300 years. In America, the cycles from start to finish are much shorter, about 150 years, due to a faster pace of change.

His demonstrates his theory about a positive phase (the integrative phase) and a negative phase (the disintegrative phase) in the first of two American cycles, from 1780 to 1920. The positive phase lasted from about 1780 to about 1840, while the negative phase lasted from about 1840 to about 1920. Turchin contends that the second American cycle began in 1920, and is not yet complete. The positive phase lasted from 1920 to around 1970, and the negative stage has lasted from 1970 to the present.

He contends that the best parts of positive eras typically last only a generation or two, such as 1810 – 1840, and 1940 – 1970 in the US, before elite individuals and groups abandon consensus politics to pursue ever harsher exploitation and competition to enrich themselves.

A cycle begins with an undersupply of labor, such as happened after the American Revolution. This shortage of labor caused a rise in real wages and general economic progress. This positive phase peaked around 1820. It was a time that reflected a sense of national purpose and a desire for unity among Americans in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

But the division between the industrial North and the slaveholding, agrarian South continued, creating rivalry among the elites, along with political polarization, culminating in the Civil War. The negative phase of the cycle continued afterward, with massive strikes, many of them violent, in the late 19th Century. Meanwhile, income inequality peaked during the Gilded Age as elites profited from low worker’s wages and poor working conditions.

In modern America, we are largely governed by religious, geographic (local, state and federal), and economic institutions. And many compete with each other for resources, and the separation of powers among them is becoming hazy. Today, our “economic” government is the corporation.

If you think about it, our current political struggles are between geographic governments and both the religious and economic ones. Republicans, and many Democrats, support the efforts of both to increase their influence over the lives of the people, often through the geographic governments.

And this isn’t simply a minor change in who is doing the governing, they threaten our democracy.

We’re blowing up our institutions, but it’s not in reaction to any looming danger. It’s because we’ve been conned into thinking that September 11 was the same as Pearl Harbor. And the threat of immigrants today is the same as the threat of a Japanese invasion was in 1941. And that modern social policies threaten the religions of some people.

Time to wake up America! We cannot surrender to fear, to corporatism, or to forever war. We have entered a disintegrative phase, but there is time to pull out of it.

If you care.

To help you wake up, here is Pink Floyd with “Ordinary Men” from their classic album, “Dark Side of the Moon”:

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

 

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 4, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The Blue Grotto, Malta – photo by SingularET. Not to be confused with THE Blue Grotto on Capri, the hangout of the Roman emperor, Tiberius.

NewdealDemocrat over at Angry Bear raised a few excellent points about historically low unemployment and stagnant wage growth: (emphasis by Wrongo)

As I noted several weeks ago, even though we are at least closing in on full employment, the percentage of employers not raising wages at all has gone up in the last year:

(The blue line is the percentage of employers who have not increased wages. The grey shaded areas are recessions.)

There was more bad news from Axios , reporting on a meeting with the Dallas Federal Reserve about how big companies aren’t planning on raising wages at all:

The message is that Americans should stop waiting for across-the-board pay hikes coinciding with higher corporate profit; to cash in, workers will need to shift to higher-skilled jobs that command more income.

Troy Taylor, CEO of the Coke franchise for Florida, said he is currently adding employees with the idea of later reducing the staff over time “as we invest in automation.” Those being hired: technically-skilled people. “It’s highly technical just being a driver,” he said.

The moderator asked the panel whether there would be broad-based wage gains again. “It’s just not going to happen,” Taylor said. The gains would go mostly to technically-skilled employees, he said. As for a general raise? “Absolutely not in my business,” he said.

John Stephens, chief financial officer at AT&T, said 20% of the company’s employees are call-center workers. He said he doesn’t need that many. In addition, he added, “I don’t need that many guys to install coaxial cables.”

The Civilian Non-Institutional Population (those who the government tracks for jobs analysis), grew 21.3% between April 2000 and April 2018, yet, full-time jobs grew only 11.7%. This means that we can’t possibly be at full employment, despite the government’s headline unemployment rate of 3.8%, the lowest since 2000.

And if most employers are thinking like those at Coke and AT&T, wages won’t increase, despite the country’s nine-year economic recovery. If wages will not be increasing, where do employers think increased demand will come from? And, if companies are freezing wages during the supposed good times, what will happen when times turn bad?

Corporate policies are designed primarily to respond to the requirements of its management and its institutional shareholders, not employees. Employers’ profits have been increasing steadily, but the wealth keeps getting transferred upwards. And it’s the employers who are responsible for layoffs, and who use other methods to increase profits, such as automation, which leave the surviving workers in an increasingly poor negotiating position when it’s time for the annual raise discussion.

Do workers “deserve” an annual increase? By performing their jobs, workers produce value for the company. If a company is profitable, workers should get a cut, and if profits go up, so should their share.

If a particular individual isn’t performing well, then in an efficient/well-managed company, they’ll be replaced. If the job itself is not structured to produce effectively, in an efficient/well-managed company, the job will change. And if the company fails to do either, then in an efficient/well-managed company, the company will change, or it will fail.

It appears that with their paltry increases, workers are losing ground. Rents are rapidly rising in most cities. Wrongo saw a story about a New York City couple who moved from Brooklyn, NYC to Westport, CT for cheaper housing. It wasn’t many years ago that Westport was substantially more expensive than Brooklyn. In fact, it was once the home town of Paul Newman and Martha Stewart.

Many workers are fighting for a 2% raise. (Remember, 2.6% is the average, which means many workers are getting less than that). Factor in the rising rents, food costs, and health care insurance, and you can see that the average hourly worker has little chance of upward mobility.

Is this an inevitable outcome caused by Mr. Market? Not really. Our government has its thumb on the scale via tax benefits to corporations, combined with a Federal minimum wage that is impossibly low.

Time to wake up, America! We must stop letting corporations hoard the profits! Capitalism is institutionalized avarice. Its purpose is concentration of power. And one outcome is the spreading of economic misery.

To help you wake up, here is the Soup Nazi who, says, “No soup for you! Come back 1 year!” Just like many employers say when hourly employees ask for a raise.

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

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Saturday Soother – February 17, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka – photo by jcourtial for dronestagram. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress. The site was the palace for King Kasyapa (477 – 495 BC). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We live in a seemingly endless loop of outrage. Nothing ever changes, because we waste energy on the “what-about?” arguments from both sides, each attempting to reframe the issue to their side’s advantage. These discussions yield nothing, and solutions are never agreed. This adds to a generalized feeling of powerlessness: The view that everything that is important is out of our hands, and insoluble.

So it is with school shootings, with protecting the DACA kids. And with whatever Russiagate is.

At least the Mueller investigation will run its course. We have to hope that the results will be made public. But if they are released, it will only lead to more debate and disagreement. Until then, we’ll continue to gleefully argue our respective Russiagate viewpoints in a fact-free vacuum.

We have experienced hysterical political times before, but they tended to be single issue events. Has there ever been a time when so many people in both political parties have been so single-mindedly determined to whip up anger?

When we’re looking at just a single issue, one side or the other often simply runs out of steam. Then the issue can be resolved both in Washington and in the mind of the public.

When we experience multiple issues simultaneously, the available energy is expended across the entire spectrum of problems. Thus, there isn’t enough energy to direct successfully at a single issue. So nothing is resolved.

This is where we are in February 2018, in a kind of nervous exhaustion: Too many issues and too few resolutions.

Can something, or someone unite us? Will a big event allow a majority to coalesce around a point of view, or a leader?

History shows that when we are in the grip of anxiety, it can be a relief if something we fear actually happens. Think about when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It was widely reported that the response of the public, including anti-war activists, was relief. There was a feeling that at last a course had been set, a key decision made. FDR united the disparate groups behind a war.

While the same situation doesn’t quite apply today, we crave some sort of decisions, perhaps some sort of decisive act. What would that be? It isn’t possible to see from where we are today.

As John Edwards said, there are two Americas. The one that sends their children to private schools, and the second one that sends their children to public schools. The second group has the kids who get shot by the gunmen. And politicians get away with platitudes about their thoughts and prayers.

Unfortunately, they then decide that fixing the problem is not worth their time.

We may have reached a breaking point. Shitty jobs, shitty pay, shitty hours, and little hope of advancement. No easy access to medical care, an uneven social safety net. Wrongo lived through the chaotic 1960’s. He endured Reagan’s show-no-mercy 1980’s. Those were bad times.

But, in a lot of ways, 2018 is worse. Today, there is an immense lack of mutual respect. And there is a ubiquitous atmosphere of a powerless people.

Wow, who said all that??

We desperately need a weekend where we can unplug from the media and focus on other things. In other words, we need a Saturday soother. Start by brewing up a big cuppa Stumptown Coffee’s Holler Mountain Blend, ($16/12oz.) The Stumptown people promise flavors of blackberry, citrus and toffee in a creamy, full body. Your mileage may vary.

Now, get in your favorite chair and listen to some, or all of the musical score from the film “Dunkirk”. Both the score and the film are Oscar-nominated. The film’s director Christopher Nolan suggested to the musical director Hans Zimmer, that they use Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the 1898-99 “Enigma Variations” as part of the theme. They decided that the movie’s music should be about time, and how for the men on the beaches, time was running out. They picked the “Enigma Variations” because it’s part of English culture, less a national anthem than an emotional anthem for the nation. Along the way, consistent with using time, they slowed it down to 6 beats per minute. Listen to their version from the movie:

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

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Places That Don’t Matter

The Daily Escape:

Maroon Bells, CO in winter – photo by Glenn Randall

America’s forgotten masses used the ballot box in 2016 to ram home a message to their betters. The message was that we shouldn’t ignore the places that don’t matter, those places that once had middle class jobs, and now have few options. The Trump election was one way to signal all was not well in the America’s decaying small towns.

We long ago retreated from the idea that the central government has a responsibility to look after the lagging places. It isn’t an invisible, unstoppable force that directs all the wealth generation to cities: It’s a system of deliberate centralization, by individuals who control capital, to concentrate productive efficiency and thus, wealth. The left-behinds are on their own.

The reality is that regional or town regeneration is very hard, once the original reason for the town’s existence is lost. Places that don’t matter have to find ways to build wealth locally, and then keep that money local. Locally produced goods and services keep regions alive.

Most solutions are based on the usual arm waving that says: “let them have training” or, “they really need to move where the jobs are”. These ideas have largely failed. Figuring out how to revive these communities requires better policies.

The revenge of the places that don’t matter is the rise of local populism, the increasing opioid use, and declining longevity. The stakes are high, but maximizing the development potential of each town has got to be the answer.

Here is one solution. The WaPo has a long read about how a liberal DC entrepreneur set out to help West Virginians. And for a very long time, Joe Kapp’s help was refused. He was the object of a vicious online campaign, targeted by homophobia, and maligned as a carpetbagger.

When Kapp, 47, an entrepreneur decamped to a West Virginia cabin in 2012 with his partner, he’d come to take a sabbatical. The town is Wardensville, pop. 256. From WaPo:

Those who do work locally gravitate toward poultry processing, furniture manufacturing and agriculture, but the numbers aren’t good. In 2015, the unemployment rate…was 7.5%, compared with 6.7% statewide and 5.3% nationally. The per capita income…was just under $28,000 a year, compared with about $37,000 for the state, and $48,000 nationwide.

The basics are lacking. The area doesn’t have Internet. Kapp says:

You’ve got kids doing their homework in McDonald’s parking lots. People in most of the country just have no idea.

And even community college enrollments suffer. Only 10% of West Virginia high school students enroll in community college, compared to 50% nationwide.

Kapp soon befriended the president at the local community college. From there, it wasn’t long before he was helping the college launch an innovative project, the Institute for Rural Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (IREED), aimed at helping to diversify the regional economy.

Kapp initially failed to gain traction, but things have gradually turned around. He thinks this demographic has more potential than the coastal elites give them credit for. He is certain that by harnessing local knowledge, like agriculture, they can start businesses, and put their own people back to work.

Every town wants its own Amazon, but in rural communities, that’s not an option. They need to create an ecosystem that promotes a small-business culture and entrepreneurship. So Kapp’s assistance in establishing the IREED with the community college got the idea off the ground. No community college in the state had anything of the kind.

The goal of the IREED is to help the local agricultural community think of itself as entrepreneurial.

He is developing a program that will allow community colleges to offer low- or no-interest micro-loans, around $5,000, to aspiring entrepreneurs. These individuals would then take entrepreneurship and business-development courses at the lending college. Kapp:

A bank might say, ‘This guy’s too risky,’ But a community college can say, ‘I know this guy. We work with him. I am vetting and validating his ability to be able to pay back the loan.’

In other words, it’s development banking on a community level. Today, most community banks mainly fund real estate, and they still follow the model where the borrower needs to pledge collateral to get the loan. In a world where services are the business’s primary asset, collateral has no meaning.

So the micro-loans by schools may be a perfect first step to bootstrapping these persistently poor towns.

This is a tentative step. It may not be scalable, but if we are looking for the greatest “social impact indicators”, it is the degree to which people feel secure economically, and safe in their community.

Always has been, always will be.

(The concept of this column, although not the solutions, is taken from “Revenge of the Places That Don’t Matter” by Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Professor of Economic Geography, London School of Economics. Originally published at VoxEU)

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Saturday Soother – January 27, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Two Harbors, Lake Superior, MN – 2018 photo by Fhallopian

You may have missed the Op-Ed in the NYT by 2015 Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton, entitled “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem”. In it, Deaton says this:

According to the World Bank, 769 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013; they are the world’s very poorest. Of these, 3.2 million live in the United States…

That’s $1.90 per DAY. Deaton asks:

Surely no one in the United States today is as poor as a poor person in Ethiopia or Nepal?

Well, only 3.2 million of us. That’s one percent of the American population. Deaton analyzes the World Bank’s study, and concludes that the minimum level per day should be higher in rich countries like the US. He quotes a study that says that the needs-based absolute poverty line should be more like $4/day in rich countries:

When we compare absolute poverty in the United States with absolute poverty in India, or other poor countries, we should be using $4 in the United States and $1.90 in India.

If we do that, there are 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards.

The time has come to ask a truly uncomfortable question: Will our society provide a role for people who for reasons of reduced mental or physical capacity, cannot contribute enough to earn their keep? There are millions of Americans who, by virtue of incapacity, or other challenges, are unemployable. They have no place in the workplace, and never will.

Most likely, you wouldn’t hire them, and neither will anybody else.

If the answer is we cannot provide them with a job to do, what is society’s responsibility to them? What is our individual responsibility?

Ponder that while you think about which beer you are going to buy for the Super Bowl party next Sunday.

Speaking of poverty (the intellectual kind), the State of the Union speech is next Tuesday. CNN tells us that Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy will give Democrats’ response to Trump’s State of the Union:

Kennedy, 37, is seen as a rising star in a party that has many in the senior ranks well into their 70s.

So, prepare for your back to the future moment when another young Democrat named Kennedy spends a moment on the national stage. Americans trying to live on the same amount per day as Ethiopians, and Trump getting standing ovations from one side of the House on Tuesday; both can make you sick.

So, try to take your mind off of Davos, immigration, and poverty for a few minutes and prepare for a soother. Kick back and brew a hot steaming cup of Café Cubano by Don Pablo Coffee Growers and Roasters. Café Cubano isn’t from Cuba, it’s from Florida. But it is bold & complex, with a very smooth cocoa-toned finish, and says the brewer, never a bitter aftertaste. (2lbs/$13.99)

Now, click on the video below and watch a snowboarder glide peacefully through the woods and down a mountain of perfect powder near Steamboat, CO. He is accompanied by a rendition of “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy. There is no moonlight in the video, but it is very relaxing:

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

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Do Democrats Have a Winning Political Strategy?

The Daily Escape:

Frozen branch in Lake Erie, Cleveland OH – 2018 photo by Igorius

The Democrats’ demand of passage of DACA legislation, or they would block a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open, lasted 72 hours. No DACA legislation was passed, but Dems are touting a Republican promise of debate about DACA over the next three weeks.

That promise comes from Mitch McConnell, the guy who stole Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat, and got away with it.

Wrongo believed that dying on DACA hill was a bad political choice for Democrats. After all, there are 700,000 Dreamers, but 320 million Americans would be affected by a government shutdown. Their negotiating position shows how weak the Dems are today.

Those Dems who say that capitulation on the CR was worth it to secure the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funding for six years, should remember that the CR runs out in three weeks. Then it will be up for discussion again.

So from the Dems viewpoint, if by February 8th, the Republicans have not dealt with DACA, the Dems can shut the government down again, this time using the narrative that Mitch McConnell is a liar, and that they gave Republicans a chance to fix the problem. Unfortunately, McConnell has been called a liar before.

But if February 8 comes, and Democratic Senators back off on another confrontation to protect the Dreamers, that will not only be terrible for Dreamers, it’s terrible for Democrats. They have a few weeks to pressure Republicans to get this done.

OTOH, it is difficult to see why Republicans would do anything different. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will use these three weeks to tighten the screws, and finish the job. That would start with McConnell taking the House’s already passed Securing America’s Future Act (SAF) to a vote.

Once Senate Dems say “no” to that, McConnell can say “Well, we put a DACA bill on the table, and the Dems rejected it. I lived up to my promise.” There will be some tinkering by middle-of-the-road Dems around the edges of the SAF bill. Then it will be attached to the CR. How long do you think it will be before 10+ Dems cave, and pass it?

Fault lines exist. A dozen Senate Democrats broke with party leaders to vote against the bill, including a number of potential presidential candidates, a sign they knew exactly where their base is, even if the leadership doesn’t.

Democrats need to use their time in the minority to remake the Party. They should pursue and deliver programs that offer real benefits for middle and working class voters. They need a plan to deal with income inequality. Fundamental questions about what being a Democrat means in the 21st Century must be addressed.

FDR provides a great example for today’s Democrats. In the 1930s, FDR responded to a financial crisis with bold, creative policies that delivered massive, tangible benefits to working people. Because of what FDR did, the Republicans were forced to go in his direction to stay politically competitive. Republicans began to promise that they could improve the programs they once opposed.

Here is what Roosevelt said in a speech about Republicans at the time:

Let me warn you, and let me warn the nation, against the smooth evasion that says ‘Of course we believe these things. We believe in social security. We believe in work for the unemployed. We believe in saving homes. Cross our hearts and hope to die. ‘We believe in all these things. But we do not like the way that the present administration is doing them. Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them, we will do more of them, we will do them better and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything’

In the post-war period, the Republican Party looked more like Dwight Eisenhower than like Ronald Reagan.

And today, Democrats must emulate FDR: Move Republicans to the left, not move the Dems further to the right. This isn’t about finding someone to create an Obama third term. Democrats shouldn’t prioritize getting rid of a bad president, they need to build a serious alternative to Republican ideology.

The Democratic Party has failed many times to produce a political strategy which would force the Republican Party to change direction. And they look like they may fail once again. The Democratic leadership believes that the party needs to unify at all costs to present the strongest possible electoral challenge to Trump in 2020.

It’s counter-intuitive, but to secure a future Democratic majority, Dems must first decide to be a party with a plan that addresses income inequality.

They can knock out Trump without moving to the right.

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GOP Asks “Hillbilly Elegy” Author To Run For Senate

The Daily Escape:

Snow in the Sahara Desert, Algeria. The snow lasted only a few hours on the ground, since the average low winter temperature is 54°F – 2018 photo by Zinnedine Hashas

With the speculation about Oprah as a candidate, we knew it wouldn’t be long before the Republicans dredged up a celebrity non-politician too. Politico is reporting that Mitch McConnell wants JD Vance to run for the Senate in Ohio against Dem incumbent Sherrod Brown:

Top Senate Republicans have quietly reached out to J.D. Vance — the star author of “Hillbilly Elegy” — about running for Senate in Ohio after the abrupt withdrawal of GOP candidate Josh Mandel last week… McConnell has told associates that he would prioritize the race if Vance jumps in.

McConnell has a good idea. If Vance runs, he is interesting enough to force Democrats to defend an otherwise safe Senate seat. People seem to think Vance is a white working class whisperer.

Wrongo and Ms. Right were persuaded by many Eastern Liberal Elite friends to read Mr. Vance’s book. The pitch was that Vance explains to liberals why white Trump voters from southeastern Ohio and West Virginia wouldn’t vote for Hillary, and don’t lean progressive in their politics.

Maybe. Wrongo thinks that by writing his book, JD Vance was just pushing propaganda that fits the policy preferences of leading Republicans. Try reading this:

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being.

Or, this:

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs…

Vance’s stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so why waste taxpayer money on programs to help lift people out of poverty? After all, Vance got out of hillbilly Ohio without them.

People shouldn’t decide policy based on Vance’s anecdotes; they should care about the bigger picture. After all, are conversations with cab drivers a sound basis for economic and geopolitical policy?

It is depressing that Vance places so much blame on welfare rather than, say, neoliberalism and corporatism. They are the ideologies that moved jobs offshore. Their firms leveraged, and later bankrupted manufacturing firms in the heartland. They are the ones who precipitated the economic holocaust in Middle America.

And despite what Vance tells us, most poor people work. Of the families on Medicaid, 78% include a household member who is working. People work hard in jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on.

After graduation from Yale, JD Vance became a venture capitalist. First, he worked in Silicon Valley for Peter Thiel, and now works for Revolution LLC, a Washington, DC-based venture capital firm, co-founded by AOL founders Steve Case and Ted Leonsis.

It is fair to say that Vance’s hillbilly days are way back in the rear-view mirror. Yet, he remains naïve. He was on “Face The Nation” on December 31st, talking about the Trump tax cut:

When the president talks about tax reform, he talks about the people who will benefit…He talks about American jobs. He talks about the fact that we’re going to be taking money that’s overseas and bringing it back to the US so that it will employ American workers. I think that focus again on the American working and middle class is- is-is to me the most thoughtful and, in some ways, the most genius part of Trump’s approach to politics.

Vance just revealed himself to be another reptilian conservative. We should remember this quote from economist J. K. Galbraith:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

The grift goes on.

 

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Rising Interest Rates Will Add $233 to Monthly Household Expenses

The Daily Escape:

Snoqualmie Falls, WA

We are in the middle of the holiday shopping frenzy, so it may be a bad time for Wolf Richter to mention this:

Outstanding “revolving credit” owed by consumers – such as bank-issued and private-label credit cards – jumped 6.1% year-over-year to $977 billion in the third quarter, according to the Fed’s Board of Governors. When the holiday shopping season is over, it will exceed $1 trillion.

If that’s not bad enough, WalletHub points out that the Federal Reserve is planning on raising interest rates, and that will make credit card debt a lot more expensive, since credit card rates move with short-term interest rates:

The Fed’s four rate hikes since Dec. 2015 have cost credit card users an extra $6 billion in interest in 2017. That figure will swell by $1.46 billion in 2018 if the Fed raises its target rate again in December, as expected.

Everyone expects the Fed to raise rates today. This would bring the incremental costs of five rate hikes so far to $7.5 billion next year. So how do these rate hikes translate for households with credit card balances? Finance charges are concentrated in households that do not pay off their balances every month. Many of these households are among the least able to afford higher interest payments. More from Wolf: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

195.9 million consumers had a revolving credit balance at the end of Q3, with total account balances of $1.35 trillion. This equals $6,892 per person with revolving credit balances. If there are two people with balances in a household, this would amount to nearly $14,000 of this high-cost debt. If the average interest rate on this debt is 20%, credit-card interest payments alone add $233 a month to their household expenditures.

Economists are assuming that the Fed will hike interest rates three times in 2018. The Fed thinks that the “neutral” rate (the target at which the federal funds rate is neither stimulating, nor slowing the economy) is between 2.5% to 2.75%. Since today’s rate is 1.25% to 1.50%, that is a long way up from the current target range. Again, from Wolf:

Interest rates on credit cards would follow in lockstep. These rate hikes to “neutral” would extract another $8 billion or so a year, on top of the additional $7.5 billion from the prior rate hikes.

But there is a double whammy, because credit card balances will also continue to rise. Rising credit card balances combined with rising interest rates on those balances will produce sharply higher interest costs to people who already can’t pay off their monthly credit card balances.

For many card holders with poor credit, this will eventually lead to default. Credit card delinquencies have started to tick up, from 2.16% in Q1 2016 to 2.53% in Q3. That is a low overall level of delinquency, but we need to look at to losses in the subprime segment (those with the lowest credit scores) and at the lenders that specialize in subprime lending. And there, delinquency rates are jumping.

Debt is not always a choice. A catastrophic medical debt, the death of the primary breadwinner, or loss of employment with no new job for an extended period of time can destroy a lifetime of savings in as little as a few months to a few years.

Since the crash of 2007, a great many people have be unable to find employment that is enough to support a family. And they have taken multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. Or any job that they can find.

And this is in what economists and politicians say are the best of times, with the lowest unemployment rate since 2000.

Increased costs for consumer credit coupled with increased delinquencies could become a third point reason for populist economic anger. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the coming GOP attack on Medicare and Medicaid are also justifiable reasons for economic anger.

Where will voters turn for a solution?

After all, governance has ceased to be a part of the job description of our political parties.

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