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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Will the Demonstrations Lead to a Wave Election?

The Daily Escape:

Lenticular clouds over Utah Lake, UT – 2020 photo by jephriB. It’s Utah’s largest freshwater lake.

One thing that is giving Wrongo hope amongst the (mostly) negative voices about the protests against police violence is how universal these protests have become. People have protested in all 50 states and DC, including in hundreds of smaller towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.

On Sunday, our little town of 25,000 had a demonstration supporting Black Lives Matter. Here are a few photos:

Photo by Pame Ortega

Photo by Pame Ortega

There seems to be something happening on the ground that may have electoral implications in November. Wrongo’s home town is in a very conservative part of Connecticut. It voted 75% for Trump in 2016, and is 94% non-Hispanic White. The town Facebook page is a cesspool of right wing comments. Yet the march was well-attended, and the marchers skewed young, white and female. It was completely peaceful:

Photo by Pame Ortega

The speakers on the town green included politicians, police, local clergy and rally organizers.

Wrongo has regularly scheduled Monday morning meetings with the town’s mayor, a conservative Republican. The mayor had attended the march, and we spoke in passing about the demonstration. He was pleased by the strong attendance, and was happy with the response by his police, fire and public works departments. He was also happy to see peaceful engagement by the citizenry.

Are things changing in America?

The WaPo reports that the closer someone lives to a protest, the more likely it is to change their vote. Moreover, protests influence not just election turnout, but also what types of issues rise to the top of party platforms, and who gets elected to local, state and federal offices.

Demo Memo reports that most Americans believe in the right to protest, but a surprisingly small share of the public has ever demonstrated. According to a 2018 Gallup survey, just 36% of adults have ever felt the urge to organize or join a public demonstration. That is much higher than it was during the fractious 1960s. In 1965 when Gallup asked the same question, only 10% of Americans said they had ever felt like organizing or joining a protest.

What’s driving the change in the willingness to demonstrate? Maybe it’s the growing polarization of our society. Or perhaps our growing diversity and the relative youth of our population are behind the change.

WaPo also shows that young people in the outer suburbs and small towns are becoming less conservative. They report that statistical analyses suggest that rural voters age 18 to 29 went from supporting Donald Trump by a 17-point margin in 2016 to supporting Democratic congressional candidates by an eight-point margin in 2018. Votes by their older neighbors (40s and older) barely budged.

Even the smallest cities have shifted leftward in recent years.

We’re in a new era. First, COVID-19 brought home to us who were the truly essential members of the American workforce, and how many of them were minorities. Now, we’re seeing first-hand how those same people are forced to live, and how they’re mistreated by our police and by American society at large.

As they say, you can’t unsee this.

Much of what is working to bring about change is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been an organizing force working on these issues at least since 2014. Add to that, white suburban disgust with Trump and his goon-like behavior around both the pandemic and the protests.

It has become clear to white people that Trump would have zero issues with shooting them in the street, beating them, or pepper spraying them, or turning dogs on them.

And when most families are spending concentrated time at home together, their kids are asking them unanswerable questions.

The only answers are at the ballot box. Vote for change in the White House, the Senate, in your statehouse, your county seat, at city hall and on your school board.

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Which Democrat Nominee Excites You?

The Daily Escape:

Keyhole Arch, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, CA – 2020 photo by jtmess. For a few weeks every winter, starting with the Winter Solstice, sunset lines up with the hole in Keyhole Arch.

Someone told Adlai Stevenson when he was running for president in 1952 (or ‘56): “Every thinking person in America will be voting for you.” Stevenson replied, “I’m afraid that won’t do—I need a majority.” (Via)

It’s time that Americans recognize that the most important global event in 2020 will be the US presidential election. The reason is blindingly obvious. It’s questionable if the world can be brought back from four more years of Donald Trump. That’s doubly true for the US. That means historic voter turn-out is required.

And if that’s the case, it’s important that the best person challenge Trump in November. Last night’s debate didn’t move us any closer to knowing who that should be. This, from Deborah Long is a useful take:

Three Democratic candidates for president walk into a bar.

The first one says, “I’m going to beat Donald Trump by re-starting the Bolshevik Revolution”.

The second one says, “I’m going to beat Donald Trump by breaking up the big banks and sticking it to the man.”

The third one says, “I’ll be in my trailer. Call me on the horn when they’re ready for my cameo in ‘The Way We Were’.

Her underlying point is that the current Democratic candidates show no unifying message. That partly explains why the top four are polling at close to the same numbers. Democrats need to answer the question: Who can deliver a knockout punch to Donald Trump, and repudiate what the Republican Party currently stands for?

Wrongo posted about Economic Dignity last spring. It’s from an article by Gene Sperling, Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council. His take is that the Fed and Congress should implement a full employment monetary and fiscal policy that enables tight labor markets.

Sperling says that implementing the idea of economic dignity would lead to higher wages, and give employers greater incentive to provide advanced training to their employees. And, high demand for labor would give more workers more of the “take this job and shove it” leverage that’s lacking today.

We’ll need more: America needs a return to what Paul Collier calls the “cornerstones of belonging”— family, workplace, and nation, all of which are threatened by today’s market-driven capitalism.

That’s a unifying message for Dems. Hidden behind that message is the idea that America has to return to the ethics of the New Deal. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, says: (parenthesis and emphasis by Wrongo)

“Over the past half-century, Chicago School economists, (including Milton Friedman) acting on the assumption that markets are generally competitive, narrowed the focus of competition policy solely to economic efficiency, rather than broader concerns about power and inequality. The irony is that this assumption became dominant in policymaking circles just when economists were beginning to reveal its flaws.”

Stiglitz says we’ll need new policies to better manage capitalism. That means:

  • Dealing with the inequities in health care
  • Paying workers more
  • Rebuilding public assets like roads
  • Passing higher taxes on corporate profits and the incomes of the wealthy

The unifying message is that Democrats will provide Americans with a legal and political framework that allows people to provide better opportunity for their families.

Better opportunity is something all of America wants to believe in.

So, if the Democrats want to win big enough to silence the GOP, the 2020 Democratic Party nominee for president must excite Americans by showing them a path to a better future for their families. Emphasis on the “excite”.

We’re not going to get there by marching with pitchforks. We’re not going to get there with Biden’s nostalgia. We’re going to get there by speaking directly to the needs of America’s families, workplaces and nation.

Not by continuing the tiresome, wonkish recitation of “my policy is slightly better than yours”.

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 4, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Lake Sabrina, CA – November 2019 photo by Wild_NDN

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Slump

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

Income Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And their rules never favor the non-rich.

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

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

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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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Tuesday Wake Up Call – September 3, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Clouds and light, Zion NP, Utah – 2019 photo by walkingaswind

It’s fair to ask, “What happened to the Wrongologist?” He’s taken a long break from posting, in part due to fatigue brought on by our toxic political environment. But beyond that, Wrongo has (at least temporarily) despaired of seeing a path forward to meaningful political change.

Here’s a few relatively connected changes to ponder on Labor Day.

We’re in the midst of a big demographic change. Demo Memo reports that Non-Hispanic Whites (that’s white people to us non-demographers) will account for just 47% percent of the nation’s 2019 public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means the majority of students (53%) in grades K through 12 will be Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another minority.

That’s a big drop since 2000, when 61% of public school students were non-Hispanic White. Their share fell below 50% in 2014. The non-Hispanic White share of public school students will continue to fall. In 2027, non-Hispanic Whites will account for 45% of students, according to projections by the National Center for Education Statistics.

It’s not a coincidence that nearly 32% of Americans aged 18 or older can speak a language other than English. According to the 2018 General Social Survey, this figure is up from 28% a decade ago. Asians and Hispanics are most likely to say they can speak a language other than English, 83% and 69%, respectively. By generation, the youngest Americans are most likely to be able to speak a language other than English, with the iGeneration at 43%, Millennials at 39%, and GenX’ers at 33%.

Times they are a-changing.

Changes on the jobs front have already occured. Here is chart from Visual Capitalist showing the largest non-government employer in all 50 states. Sadly, even in this time of economic progress, Walmart is the largest employer in 21 states:

In many states, either the state or federal government is the top employer. California employs 250,000 federal workers. New York State is unique, since NYC’s municipal workforce is the state’s top employer. And then, there is the US Department of Defense: Eight states have more active military personnel than any single private employer.

Universities and hospitals are top employers in nearly half of the states.

But Walmart is the biggest private employer, with 1.5 million workers. They employ about 1% of private sector workforce in the US. Amazon is a distant second with more than 500,000 employees.

How are the facts about majority/minority schools and Walmart as  our largest employer linked? According to Walmart’s 2019 diversity report, 44% of Walmart employees are people of color. This means that after graduation, Walmart is a likely workplace for many of them. People of color account for 61% of Amazon employees.

And the average wage for a full-time Walmart employee in the US is $14.26. Recent full-time pay in a New Jersey Amazon warehouse was $13.85. Both sound fine until you realize that these are average pay rates for full-time workers. Many earn far less. And few actually are full-time workers, most are part-time.

Are these good jobs at good wages? They are not.

Our schools are getting more diverse, and the jobs we hold now are increasingly fragile. What’s more, for many Americans, one job doesn’t provide a living wage. As the NYT reported in a Labor Day opinion piece by Binyamin Appelbaum and Damon Winter:

“More than eight million people — roughly 5 percent of all workers — held more than one job at a time in July, according to the most recent federal data.”

Dignity. Shouldn’t America strive to make working at one job pay enough to provide for a person’s family? We tout the low unemployment rate, and the statistics that show millions of available and unfilled jobs. But, except for a few jobs involving high barriers to entry, “worker shortage” is a euphemism for “this job doesn’t pay well enough, or have good enough conditions to attract enough workers.”

There’s no worker shortage in America, there’s a pay and good working conditions shortage. Work doesn’t have to be absorbing, but it should be free of fear, and it should be worthy of one’s talents.

It’s baffling to Wrongo that supposedly smart politicians have facilitated a system that has robbed wealth from the bottom 90% of Americans and funneled it to the top 1%, largely through holding down workers’ wages, when our economy is driven by consumer spending.

All of us are wage slaves to a degree, we all sell our time and talent for money. Our schools are the basis for building talent. That, plus job experience, is what the average American offers to sell to employers.

So this is mostly a post about future Labor Days.

Time to wake up America! Without profound changes to how we educate our kids, and how we reward capitalists and capitalism, our country of tomorrow will bear little resemblance to the nation of today.

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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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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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Fed Study Shows Rising Financial Desperation in Poorer Zip Codes

The Daily Escape:

Aliso Creek State Beach, near Laguna Beach, CA – 2019 photo via

Simon Johnson observes at Project Syndicate: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“To defeat populism requires coming to grips with a fundamental reality: bad economic policies no longer necessarily result in a government losing power. In fact, it is now entirely possible that irresponsible populists may actually strengthen their chances of being re-elected by making wilder and more impossible promises – and by causing more economic damage.”

Johnson, former chief economist for the IMF, believes that structural economic factors, including automation, trade, and the financial crisis have left many people feeling neglected by those who control economic policy.

When politicians back policies that add economic uncertainty, or that discourage investment, we see lower economic growth, and fewer good jobs. Ordinarily, dissatisfaction shows up at the ballot box, holding that government accountable at election time.

But this is no longer reliable, because politicians wiggle out of the trap by saying that the media are biased, that the experts are wrong, and that the facts are not the facts. And the angrier people become, the easier it is to persuade them to accept that no one is to blame, and vote again for those who helped to cause their economic distress in the first place.

A new study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank examined American financial distress by Zip Codes. It sheds light on a topic we regularly debate: Why are there so many signs of distress in a supposedly robust economy? And this time, will politicians be held to account?

Since 2015, the lowest income households have been taking on more debt. Their wealth has become even more concentrated in home ownership. The level of distress in lower-income households has also increased, despite the official story of increasing prosperity.

The study drills into Zip-Code level data to show that even adjacent Zips show striking divergence in wealth accumulation (or erosion). For instance, they looked at the percentage of people within a Zip Code that have reached at least 80%t of their credit limit on their bank-issued credit cards.

That is believed to be a good proxy for financial distress.

Before the 2008 crisis, analysts missed the rising levels of household debt. That debt was often funded by borrowing against home equity. Rapidly falling home prices after 2008 showed how fragile many of those borrowers were.

The contrast between national averages and Zip Code households is stark. Looking at averages, the recovery appears to be quite broad.  But zooming in by Zip Code showed a bifurcated economy still suffering from the 2008 crisis. The researchers found that looking at the value of assets and reliance on debt shows a clearer picture: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“…the poor and high-leverage ZIP codes that are more affected by wealth shocks may still be vulnerable. What’s more, trends in less affluent groups are masked in nationally aggregated statistics by groups with more wealth.”

May be vulnerable”? They will certainly be vulnerable when the next downturn begins.

Since 2015, debt and financial distress have been rising the fastest in these low-wealth areas, while it rose the slowest since 2015 for the wealthiest households. We already see softness in economic indicators like retail sales, home sales and housing construction. It’s reasonable to expect that the next recession isn’t far away.

We’ve had a long economic recovery, but its gains were not distributed as broadly as they had been in previous downturns. What we got was an uneven economic recovery, with most gains going to an increasingly narrow group.

More people are left out of this supposedly robust economy than the politicians and most economists think. The Fed study shows that the averages conceal plenty of pain. Maybe this isn’t an earthshaking idea. We all see income and wealth disparities in our communities, it’s not that unusual. But the fact that the differences are now extreme enough to show up in ZIP Code level data seem significant, and worrying.

So, will politicians pay any price in 2020 for the continuing maldistribution of gains since the 2008 recession? Or, will politicians tell the people that no one’s to blame, that the Laffer curve will surely work this time?

The miracle of modern Republican economic theory allows for both the Laffer curve, and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” not only to be truths, but to be the desired outcome.

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College Admissions Fraud: A Teachable Moment About Capitalism

The Daily Escape:

Eagle pair on nest, Litchfield County CT – 2015 photo by JH Clery

With the college admissions fraud, wealthy Americans are now bribing people to get their kids into college. It’s just another way that the wealthy are rigging the game. Robert Reich enumerates:

We’ve become a nation where any number of greased poles stop your ascent. People with wealth seem unwilling to compete fairly. It turns out that executives from Pimco, Hercules Capital, and the co-chairman of the law firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, were named in the buy your way into Yale scam, along with a few Hollywood types.

It’s become very difficult to differentiate between applicants for the prestige colleges. Good grades and test scores and life experiences are no longer enough to help a kid to stand out the way they might have a few years ago. So some are bribing their way to the head of the line.

It’s just another cost of doing business in America. The truly wealthy can just pay for a new building and see their children get into the best universities. But, the merely rich can’t do that. OTOH, they can’t be expected to simply earn their way in.

As for the kids: They all knew whether what was on their applications was true or not. They had to be in on the scam. This is what passes for the charmed life of the rich in the USA: Kids knowingly cheat right along with their cheating, entitled parents, because they believe they deserve to go to Georgetown.

Robert Reich is correct, this is the rot that concentration of wealth has brought to our country.

Randall Lane has a long read at Forbes about “Reimagining Capitalism” in which he summarizes his one-on-one discussions with two dozen billionaires, including face-to-face meetings with the three richest people in the world, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, about capitalism’s future. Lane says:

“Virtually every billionaire I spoke with acknowledged that higher taxes on the billionaire set are inevitable; most even saw them as beneficial, if correctly applied. According to Gates, Buffett, Khosla and others, the correct way to levy taxes on the superrich is….Either an estate tax without the loopholes that currently render it useless or a higher capital gains tax applied only on extreme fortunes…”

He quotes Buffett about the disparity of earnings between the top 1% and the bottom 50%:

“The market system as it gets more specialized pushes more money to the top….The natural function of a more specialized market economy is to divert more and more of the rewards to the top. That’s something I don’t think we’ve fully addressed in this country.”

Lane points out that Bill and Melinda Gates even went on Steven Colbert and called for higher taxes on the super-rich.

Younger Americans know that the deck is stacked. That may be in part why some kids play along with their parents and cheat to get into Harvard.

An often-cited 2016 Harvard University survey found that 51% of American youth aged 18 to 29 no longer support capitalism. Only 42% said they back it, while just 19% were willing to call themselves “capitalists.” A follow-up focus group study concluded that most felt that:

“Capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.”

Gene Sperling, Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, has an interesting take on redefining our overall economic goal. He says we should strive for “Economic Dignity”. His conclusion is that the Fed and the Congress should implement a full employment monetary and fiscal policy that fosters tight labor markets.

Sperling says that would be a triple win for economic dignity, because it would lead to higher wages, and it would give companies greater incentive to provide advanced training to their employees. Meanwhile, high labor demand gives more workers some “take this job and shove it” leverage that they lack today.

Taken together, it would allow people to care for and provide opportunity to their families, something that is at the core of America’s beliefs.

Young Americans know that capitalism in its current form creates inequality, oppression, and exploitation. It could be made to work for all if it were more responsive to society’s needs, and yes, if it provided economic dignity for all.

Those who have been rewarded by capitalism shouldn’t be able to use their bounty to make the lives of others worse than they are. This isn’t just about the Koch brothers. It’s also about the merely wealthy who scam the college admissions system to get their kids into better schools.

We should be showing the young that there’s a better form of capitalism.

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Trump Says Dems Are Socialists

The Daily Escape:

Sulfur Skyline Trail, Jasper NP Alberta, CN – August 2018 photo by MetalTele79

Trump wants to run against socialism in 2020, so he’s trying to paint the Democrats as socialists. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump brought up “socialism” four separate times:

“Just this week, more than 100 Democrats in Congress signed up for a socialist takeover of American health care.”

“America will never be a socialist country — ever.”

“If these socialist progressives had their way, they would put our Constitution through the paper shredder in a heartbeat.”

“We believe in the American Dream, not in the socialist nightmare.”

Steve Benen notes that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), indicated that the Voting Rights Bill passed by the House as HR-1 was a “radical, half-baked socialist proposal”. Benen goes on to say:

“There’s nothing “socialist” about automatic voter registration. Or curtailing partisan gerrymandering. Or requiring officials to use “durable, voter-verified” paper ballots in federal elections.”

Or making Election Day a national holiday.

Perhaps the GOP is redefining socialism as: Any legislation or policy that would diminish the power of the far right, or diminish the wealth differential enjoyed by their business elites.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that just 18% of Americans had a positive view of socialism, 50% had a negative view, and 26% had a neutral view. Most of the skepticism about socialism comes from older American generations. People who are nearly Trump’s age grew up fearing nuclear war. They saw the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the US.

OTOH, Axios reports that 73% of Millennials and Gen Z think the government should provide universal health care. They will make up 37% of the electorate in 2020. And Gallup found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).

Vilifying socialism might be a winner for the GOP, unless the Democrats hammer home a series of ideas. First, that Social Security and Medicare aren’t socialism or socialized medicine. Second, that we socialize corporate losses all the time. The taxpayers bailed out banks, capitalists and speculators 10 years ago. We also bailed out GM and Chrysler.

We bail out corporations that do not pay for “externalities”. Externalities are the indirect costs incurred because of actions taken by someone else. Think about pollution. When a manufacturer can make its decisions based on their bottom line, it makes sense for them to dump waste into our rivers or air, pushing the costs of cleanup onto society as a whole.

Today’s GOP is pushing quickly to gut regulations in order to protect the industries of their big donors from paying the cost of these externalities.

Third, reforming capitalism isn’t socialism.  Reform is necessary for the economic future of the country. The current neoliberal form of capitalism dominates both our economy and our thinking about economic success. And in the past 40 years, we’ve changed the rules of the game for corporations. We’ve moved the fifty yard line much closer to the capitalists’ goalpost than it was during FDR’s time.

And corporations and capitalists have been running up the score in the economic game ever since.

Neoliberal capitalism has made selfishness an economic and moral good. One result was that improving our economic security, or our social safety net, can no longer be discussed in our society.

The Green New Deal document directs the government to provide all Americans with:

(i) high-quality health care,
(ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing,
(iii) economic security; and
(iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.

These goals are within America’s capabilities, but they come with costs, costs that will not be willingly paid for by corporations, or by “public-private partnerships”. They will only come about with direct government intervention, primarily by implementing policies that encourage them, and by a new tax policy that finances them.

Nothing in the above requires state ownership of corporations, so we don’t have to talk about socialism.

Our market economy should remain, but capitalism needs to be different, because its current track cannot be sustained if we want to contain and correct income inequality, or deal with climate change. Today’s capitalism is creating concentrations in most industries, driving out the little firms. Price gouging is an issue, particularly with big Pharma.

Everyone should agree that companies above a certain size must pay for the externalities they create. That they should also pay a larger share of their profits as taxes. And that they should pay a fee for domestic jobs lost to overseas locations.

2020 should be about those who want to reform capitalism, and how to do it. It shouldn’t be about Trump’s trying to paint Democrats as Soviet-era socialists.

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