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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Getting Past Charlottesville

The Daily Escape:

Upper Peninsula MI, 2017 – photo by Otto Heldring

There’s a depressing overtone to Charlottesville that suggests the arc of history is the energy behind the story. Is the nation’s soul about to be divided as it has been many times before? Americans get two chits: One for the ballot box, and another for the soap box. Many people feel compelled to use both. The existential question is how best to use them.

The Charlottesville incident left a woman dead, and many others badly injured from a car-ramming. It has the flavor of a “first shot” in a new civil war. And the president’s criticisms of counter-protesters in Charlottesville seem to be far outside the mainstream. Frank Bruni, NYT:

We’re stuck for now with a morally bankrupt plutocrat for president, someone so defensive and deluded that he’s urging more nuance in the appraisal of neo-Nazis.

Still, many Republicans have been reluctant to condemn Trump’s Charlottesville rhetoric. The right would do well to excise any association with the Hitlerites who chanted “blood and soil” in their torch-lit pseudo Nuremberg rally in Virginia. America remains the land of the free and the home of the brave, but Nazis? Nein, Danke.

We have two conflicts arising from Charlottesville:

  • Does every group still have the right to assemble (peacefully) and speak their minds?
  • What are we to do about the symbols from our divided past?

The 1st Amendment protects most speech, but not the sensibilities of those who are exposed to it. Some speech is guaranteed to be offensive. America has lived with neo-Nazis, the KKK, et al for Wrongo’s entire lifetime, and has survived it, no matter how odious. Even the ACLU assisted the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

But there are recognized limits. No one has a right to incite violence. Individuals have no right to defame someone. Some of the limits are easier to define than others: The concept of inciting a riot can lead to a subjective reading of the facts and the application of nebulous standards.

Today’s wrinkle are the armed demonstrators. They imply that a peaceful assembly could be placed at grave risk at any moment. It shouldn’t be difficult to foresee that local people will come out to confront neo-Nazis and white supremacists that are marching in their town. That creates even greater risk of physical violence, and requires that local police are well-trained and disciplined.

Second, there are Confederate statues all over America. The white supremacists who went to Charlottesville to “protect” Lee’s statue need to hear that we will not re-litigate the Civil War. The south’s and the nation’s history are what they are. The Civil War should be given due weight, learned from, pondered, and not shunted aside. Are Robert E. Lee’s existence, deeds, and historical relevance news to anyone?

A suggestion: In Bulgaria, the USSR monuments were removed and placed in a single museum park. The museum’s collection covers the period 1944 to 1989, from the introduction of communism in Bulgaria, to the end of the totalitarian regime. Herding those statues into one place makes a statement that speaks loudly about the era, and how the USSR deprived Bulgarians of their rights.

Maybe a few such statue parks could have a similar effect here.

Let’s not get sidetracked from the most important issue before us: How we remake the US economy so that it provides a decent standard of living and expanding opportunity to as many people as possible.

There are plenty of “deplorables” who would benefit from universal health care, inexpensive college tuition for their children, infrastructure that worked, and good-paying jobs. Uniting the US population around programs that achieve these goals would do much to subdue the angry ethnic divisions that these “political entrepreneurs” are trying to foment.

Moreover, this program is not of the right or the left.

It’s a path toward political stability and a better society – one that would allow people the opportunity to develop into contributing, thoughtful citizens, capable of fully participating in the Republic.

Ok, a tune to help you think about peaceful assembly and whether the statues should stay or go. Here is Depeche Mode with “Where’s The Revolution” from their 2017 album “Spirit”. Wrongo didn’t know they were still working, much less producing relevant tunes:

Takeaway Lyric:

You’ve been kept down
You’ve been pushed ’round
You’ve been lied to
You’ve been fed truths
Who’s making your decisions?
You or your religion
Your government, your countries
You patriotic junkies

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

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Silicon Valley Will Escape the Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Waterfall Jumping Competition (from 69 feet up), Bosnia, August 5th – photo by Amel Emric

Antonio Garcia Martinez:

Every time I meet someone from outside Silicon Valley – a normy – I can think of 10 companies that are working madly to put that person out of a job…

Well, that makes most of us “normies”. In context, we are the people who do not work in Silicon Valley. We are the people who use technology, rather than invent technology, and many of us ought to see technology as a threat to our jobs and our place in society.

We are not in the beautiful peoples’ club. Our names are not on the list. We’re not software engineers who work just to pay the taxes on their company stock.

And who is this Martinez guy? From Mashable:

He’d sold his online ad company to Twitter for a small fortune, and was working as a senior exec at Facebook (an experience he wrote up in his best-selling book, Chaos Monkeys). But at some point in 2015, he looked into the not-too-distant future and saw a very bleak world, one that was nothing like the polished utopia of connectivity and total information promised by his colleagues.

Martinez pointed out that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and they’re in the hands of people who would be hurt most by automation:

You don’t realize it but we’re in a race between technology and politics, and technologists are winning…

Martinez worries about how the combination of automation and artificial intelligence will develop faster than we expect, and that the consequences are lost jobs.

Martinez’s response was to become a tech prepper, another rich guy who buys an escape pod somewhere off the grid, where he thinks he will be safe from the revolution that he helped bring about. More from Mashable: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

So, just passing [after turning] 40, Antonio decided he needed some form of getaway, a place to escape if things turn sour. He now lives most of his life on a small Island called Orcas off the coast of Washington State, on five Walt Whitman acres that are only accessible by 4×4 via a bumpy dirt path that…cuts through densely packed trees.

He’s not alone. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told The New Yorker earlier this year that around half of Silicon Valley billionaires have some degree of “apocalypse insurance.” Pay-Pal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel recently bought a 477-acre escape hatch in New Zealand, and became a Kiwi. Other techies are getting together on secret Facebook groups to discuss survivalist tactics.

We’ve got to expect that with AI and automation, our economy will change dramatically. We will see both economic and social disruption until we achieve some form of new equilibrium in 30 years or so.

It will be a world where either you work for the machines, or the machines work for you.

Robert Shiller, of the famous Case-Shiller Index, wrote in the NYT about the changing meaning of the “American Dream” from the 1930s where it meant:

…ideals rather than material goods, [where]…life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…

That dream has left the building, replaced by this:

Forbes Magazine started what it calls the “American Dream Index.” It is based on seven statistical measures of material prosperity: bankruptcies, building permits, entrepreneurship, goods-producing employment, labor participation rate, layoffs and unemployment claims. This kind of characterization is commonplace today, and very different from the original spirit of the American dream.

How will the “Normies” survive in a society that doesn’t care if you have a job? That refuses to provide a safety net precisely when it celebrates the progress of technology that costs jobs?

The Silicon Valley survivalists understand that, when this happens, people will look for scapegoats. And we just might decide that the techies are it.

Today’s music is “Guest List” by the Eels from the 1996 album “Beautiful Freak”:

 Takeaway Lyric:

Are you one of the beautiful people
Is my name on the list
Wanna be one of the beautiful people
Wanna feel like I’m missed

Are you one of the beautiful people
Am I on the wrong track
Sometimes it feels like I’m made of eggshell
And it feels like I’m gonna crack

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

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Our Democracy in its 242nd Year

The Daily Escape:

Three Sisters, Alberta Canada

… the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. — George Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789).

It is worth thinking about the state of our Democracy on our 241st birthday and how the American people are handling Washington’s experiment. At the time of the country’s founding, seven of the 13 states, representing 27% of the population, could command a majority in the Senate. Today, more than half of the US population lives in just nine states, while the other half of America lives in the other 41 states. The voters in the biggest nine states have equal representation in the House, with 223 Representatives, while the other half has 212.

But in the Senate, it’s a different story. Because of the population concentration, the half of the US living in the largest nine states are represented by just 18 of 100 Senators. The other half of the country living in the other 41 states have 82 Senators, more than four times as many. Today, with the filibuster, 21 of the 50 states, representing 11% of the population, can muster the 41 votes necessary to reject a bill, or to stop the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice.

You don’t have to be good at math to see how much less representation in Congress those living in the big states have today. The four smallest states have eight Senators combined, giving California, with two Senators, only a quarter as many as Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, even though California has 14 times the combined population of these states.

Wrongo raises this as a structural example of the now near-permanent political division in America. It is difficult to see what big idea, or great emotion, can bridge that divide and bring us back to some semblance of unity.

Beyond structural divisions, there are huge divisions of policy and perception. A new Marist poll for PBS NewsHour and NPR News finds that 70% of Americans believe the country has become less civil since the Trump regime came to power, with 61% saying they have little or no trust in the White House right now.

(Marist contacted 1,205 US adults using landline and mobile phones between June 21 and June 25. There is a 2.8% margin of error).

The poll shows that Republicans in particular are very receptive to Trump’s attacks on the media, and a healthy chunk of Republicans want the media restricted. When asked if they trust the media, only 30% of US adults overall said they do trust them to at least a “good” amount. But there are stark differences along party lines:

  • 9% of Republicans say they trust the media, while 56% of Democrats and 28% of Independents say they do.
  • And on the Constitutional right to freedom of the press, four out of 10 Republicans said the nation had “gone too far in expanding the right,” while two out of 10 Independents and one out of 10 Democrats agreed with that statement.
  • Overall, a quarter of US adults said the press had too many rights.
  • 52% said the nation should preserve the right to protest and criticize the government. But 41% percent of Republicans think the right to protest should be scaled back. Only 7% of Democrats and 11% of independents said they feel the same way.

When asked about the right to vote, six out of 10 Americans overall think that our right to vote is fine the way it is. But among Republicans, 25% think the US has gone too far in expanding that right.

Some of the cross-tab results are dismal: 

  • Among people making less than $50,000 a year, only 1 in 4 trust the media at all.
  • More 18-29 year olds trust Trump (27%) than trust the media (22%).
  • Meanwhile, 40% of Trump supporters think America has gone too far in allowing people to criticize the government.

Let that sink in, and then try to think about how we ever battle back to a middle ground where America has a chance to once again row the boat in the same direction.

On to music. Here are the Grateful Dead with their take on “Smokestack Lightning”, originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1956. The Dead performed this 18+ minute version in February, 1970 at the Fillmore East:

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

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Buffett: Focus on Lower Health Care Costs, Not Corporate Taxes

The Daily Escape:

Ribbon Chapel, Onomichi Japan – photo by Koji Fujii

Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote about Warren Buffet and the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha. Thousands of people attend these meetings, which are known as “Woodstock for capitalists.” Sorkin reports that Buffet made this comment:

The tax system is not crippling our business around the world.

Sorkin said that Mr. Buffett, was blunt and pointed, implicitly rebuking his fellow chief executives, who have been lobbying the Trump administration and Washington lawmakers to lower corporate taxes. Buffett said that those who have been single-focused on seeking relief from their tax bills would be smart to shift their attention to health care costs, which are growing and swallowing evermore corporate profits. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 49% of Americans, about 156 million, are insured by their employer. More from Sorkin:

The need for corporate tax relief has become the lodestar of the corner office, with CEOs rhapsodizing  over President Trump’s plan to try to stimulate growth by cutting tax rates for businesses.

But as Mr. Buffett pointed out, these chief executives are missing the bigger issue: As a percentage of our GDP, the cost of maintaining our American health care system is rising at an alarming rate. And Corporate America pays a big (and growing) chunk of that bill.

Buffett wasn’t talking about the cost of health insurance, which is a fraction of the total cost of health care. He suggests that today’s corporate tax rates are a distraction, not a true impediment to growth:

If you go back to 1960 or thereabouts, corporate taxes were about 4% of GDP…And now, they’re about 2 % of GDP.

While tax rates have fallen as a share of gross domestic product, health care costs ballooned:

About 50 years ago, health care was 5% of GDP, and now it’s about 17%.

Buffett is a smart guy. He raises an argument for focusing on the underlying costs of our health care system, something that goes far beyond the debate around the Affordable Care Act, or what will replace it. Buffett says that our global competitiveness has fallen largely because our businesses were paying far more for health care — a tax by another name — than those in other countries.

As Buffett said: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

When American business talks about [corporate taxes] strangling our competitiveness, or that sort of thing, they’re talking about something that as a percentage of GDP has gone down…While medical costs, which are borne to a great extent by business, have swelled.

Here are the facts:

  • In 1960, corporate taxes in the US were about 4% of GDP. The percentage fell steadily, reaching a bottom in 1983 before rising slightly over the last few decades. Today, it is 1.9%.
  • In the meantime, health care costs as a percent of GDP have skyrocketed. Today our health care costs are 17.1% of GDP, up from 13.1% in 1995.
  • Germany’s cost is 11.3%, up from 9.4% during the same period. Japan’s is 10.2%, up from 6.6%. Britain’s health care costs are 9.1% of GDP, up from 6.7% percent in 1995.

That makes our health care cost disadvantage far greater than our tax differential. It harms American companies in particular, since they bear such a large share of those costs, which firms in our competitor countries do not. US Corporations spend $12,591 on average for coverage of a family of four, up 54% since 2005, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Congress avoids the issue, and CEOs don’t talk about it. A final quote from Warren:

It’s very tough for political parties to attack it…it’s basically a political subject…

In fact, Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, is the rare Republican (Buffett is a Democrat) who has advocated for a single-payer health care system. Under his plan, the US would enact a sort of universal type of coverage for all citizens — perhaps along the lines of the Medicaid system.

Which brings Wrongo to his final point: Medicaid expansion is the one part of Obamacare that can be said unequivocally to work. It’s a single payer program funded by the Federal government. So it’s bitterly ironic that the Republican’s reaction to Obamacare is to assault and roll back an existing Federal program, from LBJ days.

Of course, kicking poor people who benefit from Medicaid will always be popular with Republicans. So, Republicans, by making Medicaid worse, will try to restore their natural order of things.

Lazy, uninformed voters = Lazy, uninformed legislators = Lazy, uninformed policy.

It’s that simple.

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

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

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First Person Report From the Women’s March

(Below is a guest post from Nicole Dodd, a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara. She has moved to Washington DC to begin a career in government service. The photos below are ©Nicole Dodd)

“Women’s rights are human rights.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

This past Saturday, I was one of almost 500,000 women and men participating in the Women’s March on Washington. From 8 am until well after 8 pm, the streets were crowded with women wearing pink ‘pussy hats,’ carrying indignant signs, and chanting out against our newest president.

The movement was powerful, and greatly exceeded expectations: the Washington March itself had almost 2.5x the amount of people it was projected to have, and the sister marches across the States and the world had incredible turnout. After having seen so many red “Make America Great Again” caps and rioters in the streets just twenty-four hours earlier, I was encouraged to see an influx of pink hats participating in a protest that remained peaceful and could spark a global movement.

From an outside perspective, it may seem that the Women’s March had no direction and no goal. Millions of people took to the streets to protest, but for what? On the Women’s March website, it lists the ‘unifying principles’ of the march: ending violence, reproductive rights, LGBTQIA rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and even environmental justice. From what I saw, participants in the March held signs that advocated for each of the unifying principles of the March. However, the heart of the matter is this: President Trump was elected without a majority popular vote, and while he has promised to be ‘a president for all Americans,’ his words and actions have proven that he will not.

While January 21st was an important first step in the fight against the Orange Overlord’s administration, the fight in no way stops here. As a pragmatist, I realize that many women and men will walk away after this weekend thinking that they’ve completed their democratic duty by simply showing up and chanting angrily for a few hours.

Despite this, I am extremely hopeful. Many speakers at the Washington March implored the participants to get politically active. We were told to write our representatives every single day, join and become active in the organizations that we were working to support, and finally, to run for public office. Protesters held signs echoing those same sentiments, urging us to vote and to get involved. To top it off, the Women’s March website published an article outlining what exactly we can do during Trump’s first 100 days to make sure our voices are heard in the Capitol.

In the same way that it is our democratic responsibility to vote in local, state and national elections, it is also our democratic responsibility to peacefully protest and make sure that our representatives are accurately representing our interests. It’s hard to evaluate if the Women’s March will lead to concrete actions – the commitment of the crowd could easily be attributed to mob mentality, and people lose resolve over time. Still, the Women’s March was the largest protest to ever occur over the inauguration of a US President, and that fact cannot go unnoticed. My hope is that, with clear guidance and resources from the Women’s March administrators, the majority of participants in Saturday’s movement will abandon their excuses and take it upon themselves to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities.

I can promise you that this protester will refuse to sit by idly, and will take action.

My favorite chant from Saturday sums up the movement perfectly:  “This is what democracy looks like”. Here are a few photos from the DC March. This one shows size of the crowd:

Sign from person near the Smithsonian:

One of the main purposes of the March was to address reproductive rights:

I’m with her” sign shows marchers’ solidarity. View towards the Washington Monument:

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Capitalism Is Past Its Sell-By Date

“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations…” Rutherford B. Hayes (March, 1888)

Nearly 130 years ago at the height of the Gilded Age, President Hayes had it right. Capitalism then was an economic free-for-all. Today, capitalism again is rewarding too few people. And data show that the problem is worse than we thought. The WSJ reported on a study by economists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California that found:

Barely half of 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at a similar age, a research team found, an enormous decline from the early 1970s when the incomes of nearly all offspring outpaced their parents.

Using tax and census data, they identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age. In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age. By 2014, that number fell to 51%. Here is a chart showing the results:

wsj-30-year-olds-make-less

And we know that real median household income in the US today is basically the same as in 1989. The paper doesn’t provide specific reasons for the decline in incomes for younger Americans, but it generally blames slower economic growth and, especially, the rapidly widening income gap between the top 20% and the rest of society.

They found that the inability of children to out-earn their parents is greatest in the Midwest. This underlines that those who voted for Trump have a point: The Midwest has been hit harder by import competition, especially from Japan and China, and by technological changes, than other regions of the US.

When looking only at males nationally, the decline is even starker: In 2014, only 41% of 30-year-old men earned more than their fathers at a similar age.

There are some issues with the study worth mentioning: Most kids born in the 1940s did well in their thirties, maybe because their parents were 30 during the Depression and WWII. By the 1960s, an industrialized economy brought significantly higher wages to 30 year olds. A high denominator in the ratio of parent’s income to child’s income (compared to the past) made it more difficult for succeeding generations to exceed their parents’ incomes.

The economy also has shifted in the past 30 years and is now service-based, as factories moved overseas, and automation became prevalent. This change swapped higher wage manufacturing jobs for mostly lower wage service jobs. That alone could make it all but impossible for young adults to hit the ratios that their parents did relative to their grandparents.

Maybe the American Dream didn’t die; it just never really existed in the sense of broadly-based income mobility. Have another look at the chart, upward mobility (as measured by making more than your parents) has been declining since the mid-1940s.

Why? Between rising globalization and rapid advances in automation, we now have more people than jobs. And no matter whom we elect, this trend will continue. Those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Even in China, robots are now displacing workers in factories.

We don’t need “good paying manufacturing jobs”; we need good paying jobs.

This is the most serious challenge capitalism has faced in the US. Without improving personal income, there will be fewer who can afford college, or afford to buy the things that capitalism produces. Low personal income growth puts sand in the gears of our economy.

The left offers a critique of contemporary global capitalism but no real practical alternative. Neither does the right, but their memes of America First, nostalgia for a golden (gilded?) age, and more tax cuts seem like less of a stretch than a Bernie Sanders-like frontal assault on capitalism.

No one in either party has a plan for a world in which robots displace the demand for labor on a large scale. And the under-30 cohort is now spending at least 4 times more (in the case of Wrongo’s university, 10 times) for a college education than what their parents paid, and they are earning less.

If people matter at all to our leaders, and if 90+% of them lack the means to live without working, America must make employment our top priority, despite the fact that many have been deemed redundant by capitalists in the private sector.

Surplus labor drives the price of labor down; allowing the employer class to afford a pool boy, or a nanny, or another cook.

And it makes the waiters more attentive to Mr. Trump.

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New OPEC Deal Puts Saudi Arabia On The Sidelines

The new OPEC deal to cut oil output, the Cartel’s first since 2008, gives OPEC what it wanted: higher oil prices. It was difficult for the Cartel to achieve an agreement. Russia, a major oil producer that isn’t even a member of OPEC, brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. From Oil Price:

The interventions ahead of Wednesday’s OPEC meeting came…from Putin, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani…According to Reuters, Putin’s role as intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran was pivotal, and is a “testament to the rising influence of Russia in the Middle East since its military intervention in the Syrian civil war just over a year ago.”

Prior OPEC meetings failed to deliver consensus, because nobody wanted to cut production. Tehran argued OPEC should not prevent it from restoring the output lost by years of Western sanctions, but the Saudis wouldn’t agree. The animosity between them didn’t help: Proxy wars in Syria and Yemen have exacerbated decades of tension between the Saudi Sunni kingdom and the Iranian Shi’ite Islamic republic.

The brokering started when Putin met Saudi’s Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China. Both felt they could benefit from cooperating to push oil prices higher, and agreed to work together to cut excess production that had more than halved oil prices since 2014. Lower prices had created large budget deficits for both Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Financial pain made cooperation possible, despite the huge political differences between Russia and Saudi Arabia over the civil war in Syria. But Iran also had to agree. Prince Mohammed had repeatedly demanded that Iran participate in any production cuts. Saudi and Iranian OPEC negotiators had debated the point without compromise for months.

Putin stepped in: He established that the Saudis would shoulder the lion’s share of cuts, as long as Riyadh wasn’t seen as making concessions to Iran. A deal was possible if Iran didn’t celebrate a victory over the Saudis.

Reuters reports that a phone call between Putin and Iranian President Rouhani smoothed the way. After the call, Rouhani and oil minister Bijan Zanganeh went to Iran’s supreme leader for approval. During the meeting, leader Khamenei approved the deal. He also agreed that Iran wouldn’t take a victory lap once the deal was announced.

And so the deal got done. OPEC is trimming output by 1.2m barrels per day (bpd) starting January 1st.

The deal is contingent on securing the agreement of non-OPEC producers to lower production by 600,000m barrels per day. Russia says it will contribute half of that, 300,000 bpd. Iran was allowed to slightly boost its output, while Iraq slightly lowered theirs.

We’ll see if the deal holds, and/or, who cheats.

Pundits like to chalk up winners and losers in this type of deal. Since OPEC now accounts for less than half of all energy output in the world, it is a weakened cartel, dependent on the kindness of outsiders (like Russia) to hold together.

Saudi Arabia looks like the biggest loser. First, it cut production by 500,000 bpd. Second, it has presided over a momentous shift in global power, one that is as stunning as Brexit or Trump’s victory.

Saudi’s capitulation to Russia and Iran ends OPEC’s domination of the world’s energy market. The Saudis also made the US shale oil market more powerful in the global energy market, since US shale will produce more oil whenever oil prices are high. However, Saudi oil remains far cheaper to produce than American shale oil, since it requires far less energy to extract and refine.

Russia emerged as the biggest winner. Its economy did not buckle under the Saudi effort to drive oil prices down via increased production. Putin is now the indispensable power broker in the Middle East, something that was unthinkable even 12 months ago. The Syrian civil war will soon end with Russia winning, Assad staying in power, and Saudi Arabia as the regional loser.

And so, this year truly has seen the death of one world order, along with the birth of another. The US and Saudi now have very little to show for their 50+ year joint effort to dominate the Middle East. The EU looks far from stable as a force in Western Europe.

And Saudi Arabia has just become the third dinosaur to be felled by the asteroid called 2016.

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Are We Facing an Undemocratic Future?

What do you think when Trump appoints so many retired generals to cabinet-level posts in his administration? The positive side of the argument is that these are talented, well-educated individuals who bring a worldview and experience on the global stage that Trump himself lacks.

The other side of the argument is that the authoritarian president Trump risks making his government much more authoritarian than it needs to be. This from Roger Cohen in the NYT:

A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown…is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,”…The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear.

We sound like a nation that is ripe for political upheaval. Citizens are not only more critical of their political leaders, they have become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: That once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way. That bedrock assumption is called “democratic consolidation” in political science, but Mounk’s research suggests that isn’t correct anymore.

In fact, he suggests that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline. Data from Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, showed that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. According to Mounk and his research partner Roberto Foa, who reviewed the data, early signs of democratic destabilization exist in the US and in other Western liberal democracies. They found that the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. The survey was based on 2014 data. Here is a graph from the Mounk-Foa study:

percent-who-say-democracy-is-essential-us

The graph shows responses by age cohort. Younger Americans have substantially less need to live in a democratic society than do older individuals. (The grey shaded part of graph is the 95% confidence limit for the responses to the survey). Remarkably, the trend toward acceptance of nondemocratic alternatives is especially strong among citizens who are both young and rich.

Mounk and Foa found that support for autocratic alternatives is also rising. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, they found that the share of Americans who say that authoritarianism would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen from 18% in 1995 to 35% of rich Americans:

support-for-authoritianism-by-income-us

While citizen support for authoritarian rule remains in the minority, it can no longer be dismissed as a fringe group. They support “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and they want “experts” rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. (In the study, “Upper income” is defined as the top 20% of income. “Lower Income” was defined as the bottom 50% of income.)

Overall, the rich are also now more likely than lower income citizens to express approval for “having the army rule.” While 43% of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19%. In the US, only 5% of upper-income citizens thought that army rule was a “good” or “very good” idea in 1995. That figure has since risen to 16%, so the young rich are much more autocratic than their rich elders.

The clear message is that our democracy is now vulnerable. What was once unthinkable should no longer be considered outside the realm of possibility. This is partially the result of an educational system that does not teach even basic civics, much less the meaning of the Constitution.

Generations have grown up believing that they can casually read the document and understand what constitutional law is. Young Americans have never known the threat of an undemocratic system, so their fear of autocracy is far less than it is in the minds of their elders.

Trump is the prime example of this. And according to Mounk’s findings, he has a receptive audience in the young and the wealthy.

Would that be enough to undermine democracy in the US?

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Smart Guys, Smart Power

When we think of entrepreneurs involved in renewable energy, usually just one name comes to mind, Elon Musk, a smart guy who has given Tesla a new meaning. He just merged Tesla with Solar City.

But smart entrepreneurs in solar are emerging. The NYT wrote yesterday about Nicholas Beatty, a former banker who has covered about 25 acres of his farm in England with solar panels. This isn’t a new phenomenon, lots of farms have solar arrays both in the UK and elsewhere:

What’s new in Mr. Beatty’s field is a hulking 40-foot-long shipping container. Stacked inside, in what look like drawers, are about 200 lithium-ion cells that make up a battery large enough to store a substantial portion of the electricity the solar farm puts out.

The battery and its smart software give Mr. Beatty an advantage over other solar panel farmers. Power prices rise and fall depending on the supply and demand. The spread between the high and low price can be dramatic. By storing power in the battery, Mr. Beatty can feed it into the grid when prices are high:

The battery effectively takes power off the line when there is too much and puts it on when there is too little…

Improved industrial-sized batteries are a way of achieving that flexibility. Mr. Beatty’s battery storage system cost about $1 million, but could increase revenue for his solar farm by as much as $250k per year. Beatty is one of many entrepreneurs and businesses trying to play the fast-shifting electric power landscape. This is a capital-intensive business:

With about a dozen friends and family members…he spent £6.5 million ($8 .1 million) to build the solar farm in 2014. The solar panels…generate about £650,000 ($810k) in revenue a year…

Improved battery storage and its smart controlling software has been one of the two pillars required to make solar power competitive with non-renewable energy sources. The other is the cost of solar panels. Tesla has been working on both axis. They have built a solar demonstration project on the island of Ta’u in American Samoa that generates 1.4 megawatts of energy. The microgrid has 60 Tesla Powerpacks, the company’s large commercial battery with 6 megawatt hours of battery storage. These batteries can be fully charged with only 7 hours of daylight from 5,300 solar panels.

The microgrid facility can fully power the island of 600 residents for 3 days on battery power. It is expected to save the island 109,500 gallons of diesel per year or $8 million in fuel costs. Ta’u previously relied on diesel fueled generators for power.

Cost of solar energy per kilowatt or megawatt hour has been uncompetitive for a long time, but that is changing. And most countries and most US states now are willing to purchase power from independent generators, like Mr. Beatty in the UK. The Economist has this chart of the relative costs of sources of energy:

price-of-solar

All of this means that American farmers could open a new revenue stream by becoming smart solar power generators. Farmers own large acreage in sunny locations. They have a deep understanding of farming, another capital-intensive business. They understand that farming is a climate-dependent enterprise, another factor in common with solar power generation.

A key factor is whether their state allows interconnection with the power grid, and whether the state’s program to pay the independent power generator for power sent to the grid at an economic rate.

Let’s hope that Donald Trump’s fascination with coal doesn’t lead to bad policy. The Economist reports that Trump has promised to make more public land available to miners; but access to coal reserves isn’t their problem. Coal employment peaked in the 1920s, and today, fewer electric utilities want to use coal. If he intervenes on behalf of coal, he will be actively handicapping renewables and natural gas. If Trump’s energy policy is focused on a few unprofitable coal-mines, China will take a commanding lead in batteries, solar panels and wind turbines. That wouldn’t be so smart.

We are at a time when the cost of solar energy has dropped dramatically, and with greater economies of scale, it will fall even further.

It is past time for a few smart entrepreneurs to take up the disruption of the fossil fuel industry and its fellow travelers, the electric utilities.

 

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