Monday, March 19, 2018

Summary Statement of US Strategic Goals for the Coming Period

I've been doing some reading and thinking about geopolitics,* and I think I can express America's foreign policy goals succinctly and clearly:
  • The Eurasian continent consists of four "empires" and several smaller "kingdoms". The empires are China, Russia, South Asia, and Europe. The kingdoms include Japan, Indonesia, Persia, and Turkey. I don't mean these countries within their current political boundaries, but rather their cultural/strategic spheres. For example, for Russia that means the former Soviet Union. Turkey is the old Ottoman Empire, plus much of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Persia includes parts of Central Asia, Kurdistan, and half of Afghanistan. South Asia is the whole subcontinent, from Kabul to Dhaka to Columbo, and maybe also Tibet. Only for China do current borders roughly correspond to empire.
  • None of these empires constitutes an essential threat to the United States in their current form. We can defend against any of them individually.
  • The danger comes if one of these empires makes an alliance with the others (or conquers them). Our vital strategic interest is to prevent that from happening. Therefore, for example, we defended Stalin against Hitler, certainly not for moral reasons, but the combination of Europe and Russia potentially augured an entity that would be a vital threat to the United States. So we helped preserve the Soviet Union.
  • The situation is more complicated because Russia is in terminal demographic decline and will cease to be an empire within a generation or two. Its geographic space will be fought over by Europe, Turkey, China, Japan, and Persia. The US vital interest is that none of these kingdoms should win too big a slice.
So this makes US foreign policy spectacularly clear. In the immediate term it has four major goals:
  1. Retain naval hegemony over the South China Sea. This prevents Chinese aggression/alliance with India, and vice versa. Plus it allows us to trade with SE Asia.
  2. Retain control over Afghanistan, which borders several of the above empires and kingdoms: Persia, South Asia, China, Turkey. Indeed, Afghanistan is probably the most strategic piece of ground on the planet. We don't really care what their internal government is, but we insist that none of its neighbors win control over the place. We're gonna have troops in Afghanistan for decades to come.
  3. Harass terrorist groups sufficiently to deny them control over any territory, and so they never acquire any substantial military capability.
  4. Prevent further nuclear proliferation, most immediately in North Korea.
This has some interesting implications for current conflict zones. Consider Syria.
  • One goal in Syria and Iraq is to deny Iran control over the Fertile Crescent and the Levant. Toward this end Turkey, the Syrian/Sunni rebels, and Israel are our allies.
  • Another goal is to prevent the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization that potentially threatens the US. Our allies here are the Kurds and the Assad regime.
  • A third goal is to prevent Turkey and Sunni rebels from destroying Kurdish and Alawite populations. Our allies here are Assad and Iran.
  • A fourth goal is to prevent the mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing of Syria's Sunni population, many of whom have become refugees in Europe. Our enemies here are Assad and Russia. The latter is using this as a lever to destabilize NATO and the EU.
  • The Kurds are a people with divided loyalties. On the one hand they speak a Persian language, unrelated to either Arabic or Turkish (apart from some loan words). On the other hand, they are Sunni and at odds with the Shi'a theocracy in Tehran. Should Iran ever have a secular government then likely the Kurds would become Iranian allies. This is why the Turks are so terribly afraid of them and try very hard to suppress their language.
So it's a very complex battlefield, contrary to what Jeff Mackler, writing in Socialist Action maintains. He posits a mythical creature called "American Imperialism" which for some bizarre and unexplained reason wants to occupy Syria. Thus Mr. Mackler supports the Assad regime, who supposedly represent the progressive future of the human race. For him it's a case of white hats vs. black hats, with Americans wearing black. 

His support for Assad is shameful--sort of like supporting Pol Pot (which my Trotskyist friends also did). But no matter--it's just pseudo-revolutionary grandstanding. By taking a fake radical position, no matter how stupid and inconsequential, Socialist Action burnishes its credential on the American Left.

Nobody should take them seriously.


Peter Zeihan, The Accidental Superpower (reviewed here)
Peter Zeihan, The Absent Superpower (reviewed here)

Monday, March 5, 2018

Strikes, Janus, & Amazon

The West Virginia teachers' strike headlines the news at both The Militant and Socialist Action. The latter's star reporter, Bill Onasch, probably gives the best overview of the situation. The lede paragraph:
West Virginia “Wildcats”—Technically, public sector collective bargaining is illegal in West Virginia. But practically, governors have negotiated in the past with teachers—and school service employees including bus drivers, cafeteria, clerical, and maintenance workers—for salary and benefit packages passed by the legislature. While perhaps better than nothing, the teachers have been falling behind.
He tells us that 20,000 teachers and 15,000 support personnel are off the job, that they haven't gotten a raise in four years, and that West Virginia teachers' salaries rank 48th in the nation. Further, rising health care premiums are a big issue, and that initially caused the rank & file to turn down a 5% raise from the state.

The Militant's Mary Imo-Stike (never heard of her before--may be a pseudonym) reports from Charleston, interviewing actual teachers. She captures the anger and frustration that many of them feel--medical premiums have been rising faster than wages.

As of yesterday afternoon there has been no settlement--the strike now enters its second week. The governor has conceded on the 5% raise but Republicans in the legislature balk, offering only 4%. I have no recent information on the medical issue.

A few thoughts:

  • The union's lack of legal status is important. It can't enforce a closed shop, nor can it negotiate a real contract. All it can do is get a widely publicized agreement from the state. That is actually an appropriate role for a union. I support this kind of "union" activity.
  • Labor militancy goes up as the economy gets better. With today's low unemployment the teachers are in a very strong position to ask for a raise. Looks like they're gonna get it, too. Bully for them.
  • West Virginia seems to be unusual in that teachers' salaries are negotiated state-wide, and not district by district. That gives the union more power.
  • Pensions are apparently not on the table. That undoubtedly stems from this being a "voluntary" union. "Real" unions have been lying to their members for decades, promising pensions that can never be delivered. That's been especially true with the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, as discussed here previously. Once burned--twice learned. The teachers are not negotiating for pie in the sky.
So if the only difference between the state's offer and the union demand is 4% vs. 5%, then this really should be pretty easy to settle. (Again, I don't know what's happened to the medical issue.) The governor is asking the state senate to do just that.

I don't think the roadblock is money. Instead, I'll suggest that there's a large constituency that wants the strike to last for a long time. I'm thinking of people like me--retired and no longer having kids in the school system--who resent paying taxes for "overpaid" school teachers. I think that sentiment must be strong in West Virginia, which is among the oldest states in the union, and where private-sector salaries are lower than what teachers already get. Beyond which, education is historically a low priority for the Scots-Irish who live in Appalachia. If the teachers want to go on a two-month, unpaid holiday, it's fine by them. The longer the better.

The other big labor news is the case now before the Supreme Court: Janus vs AFSCME. An Illinois public employee, Mark Janus, sued AFSCME for using his agency fees for political purposes, expounding positions with which Mr. Janus disagreed. A similar case reached the high court previously, but shortly after Justice Scalia's death the court couldn't produce a decisive majority. So they're revisiting the issue.

Oddly, neither The Militant nor Socialist Action has covered this issue at all. But Louis Proyect has.

In as post entitled Mark Janus vs. AFSCME and the need for a real trade union movement, Mr. Proyect suggests that unions that don't have a guaranteed income source are more likely to be radical. Guaranteed incomes make for complacency, and why upset the apple cart with a strike or something? Mr. Proyect quotes Illinois' solicitor general, who argues for the maintenance of agency fees.
“When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational. They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”
 An interesting idea--not sure if it's true. On the one hand, the West Virginia strike lends credence--the "non-union" has no guaranteed income whatsoever and they're perfectly happy to lead a strike. On the other hand, the Wisconsin Education Association Council--once flush with cash--has, thanks to Scott Walker, been cut off. They're a mere shadow of their former selves--hardly in a position to be more radical.

Those are two anecdotes--the truth of Mr. Proyect's suggestion is an empirical question. I think the jury is out.

For what it's worth, highly regarded, conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh has filed a friend of the court brief siding with AFSCME. The money quote:
I don't think there's any First Amendment problem with compelled payments of union agency fees at all. The government can constitutionally require people to pay money to the government (in taxes), money that the government can then use for ideological purposes (e.g., supporting a war, opposing racism, promoting environmentalism, and so on). Likewise, the government can constitutionally require people to pay money to unions, money that the unions can then use for ideological purposes.
 We'll see what the Supreme Court decides; I have no clue.

Finally, let me take issue with an article by The Militant's Brian Williams, Trotskyism's only competent economics reporter. But he falls down on the job in this piece about Walmart and Amazon. The lede paragraph:
Walmart and Amazon bosses have been battling for domination in market share and profits. The Walton family owners of Walmart have been winning, as Amazon has proven unable to launch any serious challenge to their utter domination of the brick-and-mortar store market.
But I think he's too much in love with his thesis and fails to report some significant facts. First, Amazon is not really in direct competition with Walmart. Walmart's customer is in the bottom 50% of the income demographic, while Amazon's customer is in the top 50%. Yeah, there's more overlap than that suggests, but there is definitely room in the market for both companies. Neither is going out of business anytime soon.

Second, he fails to note that Walmart has been trying to step up its on-line game, having purchased However in the recent quarter it has performed well below expectations, and the stock dropped substantially.

Third, it's a stretch to say that Amazon failed in launching brick-and-mortar stores. They only recently bought Whole Foods (which, by the way, doesn't compete against Walmart at all), and have not yet had time to assimilate the experience. They haven't failed--they're still experimenting.

The Amazon Go store--one without cashiers which is in beta-testing in Seattle--is a big experiment, as Mr. Williams notes. It potentially puts millions of cashiers out of a job. That's bad, but it's good for consumers who will save both time and money. Trotskyists, including Mr. Williams, are Luddites. Does Mr. Williams think we should ban cars so that unemployed blacksmiths can be put back to work?

So it is not clear that there is a battle royale to the death between these two companies, nor is it true that Walmart is winning.

Further Reading:

Monday, February 26, 2018

Whose Free Speech?

A talk with that title was presented at SUNY New Paltz by Dana Cloud, a professor of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University (annual tuition: $47K). I did not attend, but the organizers kindly posted a video of the proceedings here, and I did watch that. It's a bit over an hour long and not really worth your time, but it's entertaining (and of high technical quality). If you do want to listen to it I recommend you do so soon as the link may disappear.

A caveat: I listened to the presentation last night. I do not have a transcript and I'm not going to listen to it again. So while I will make every effort to accurately recount the presenters' opinions (albeit in my own words), it may be that my memory deceives me. I apologize in advance.

The program consisted of three parts. First came an introduction from college president Don Christian, whose office funded the speaker series. (The president's office is in turn funded by students and taxpayers, whose contributions were not acknowledged.) Mr. Christian, to his credit, reiterated the College's commitment to the First Amendment, arguing that a state college has to follow the law of the land. He then hedged, pointing out that some people may be offended by other's speech, that this was problematic, and that the campus will be sensitive to people's feelings.

The second speaker (beginning at 5:59) was Jessica Pabon, an assistant professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies. She served as the host and organizer for the event, and her introductory remarks are a summary of recent events on campus, where supposedly "marginalized groups" pushed back against "white males" basking in their privileged free speech. The current speaker series was initiated as a response, and with no sense of irony she mentions that it was generously funded and ostentatiously blessed by the (white male) president of the college.

Nobody on campus opposes Ms. Pabon's free speech, and indeed they're bending over backwards to provide her and her ilk with a forum. I think this is to their credit. Nevertheless, in Ms. Pabon's view, "white male" complaints about lack of free speech on campus, far from being an assertion of first amendment rights, are instead an act of bullying and harassment against "people of color", "women", and "LGBTQ" adherents. 

I think she opposes the first amendment, believes that speech should be regulated by some sort of racial/gender quota system, and that people like her should decide who gets to say what.

Then (at 13:30) Ms. Cloud takes the stage. Her credential for this talk is not some academic paper, but rather her experience (which she describes here) as the recipient of hateful and vile e-mail.
I myself was targeted in June after I tweeted for reinforcements at a demonstration against anti-Muslim activists, writing that if more people came out, we could “finish them off.” Of course, as a nonviolent and longtime activist, I did not intend to take or incite actual violence. The statement was taken out of context and circulated via social media across major right-wing outlets including the right-wing front Campus Reform and by Ann Coulter. [link to campus reform here--ed]
Certainly she has every right to be upset (though honestly, she should be more careful about her tweets), but nothing here is about the first amendment. Harassment and threats are not protected speech. Instead she was victimized by petty criminals--likely dysfunctional teenage boys trolling from their mothers' basements.

But the thrust of her talk didn't concern speech at all, but rather about a grand conspiracy theory to discredit "critical faculty" at America's universities. Such persecution (and here I have carefully checked the quote) "becomes part of a larger, globalist, neoliberal agenda. By attacking critical and activist faculty, the minions of the right are doing the work of global capitalism."

So who are these "critical faculty" who have been so relentlessly attacked? I didn't catch every name, but two stood out: George Ciccariello-Maher and Saida Grundy.

George, a former professor at Drexel University, out-did Ms. Cloud in intemperate tweeting by a mile. He wrote "All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide." After which he claimed he was taken out of context. Now maybe Mizzes Cloud and Pabon think that constitutes "critical thinking", but the rest of us see crackpot apeshit.

Drexel University, like any other organization in the world, is a brand. It can't allow completely kooky (and possibly dangerous) insults of its students and faculty to go unchecked. Of course they had to fire George. If nothing else he lost his job for pure stupidity.

The less egregious Saida Grundy (who I believe still has her job at Boston University) is similarly insulting of her employers' customers. According to CNN,
Her personal Twitter account has since been made private, but the Boston Globe reported some of the tweets: "why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?" and "every MLK week i commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. and every year i find it nearly impossible."
That "problem population" is paying her salary (tuition: $52K), and even if there is a (slight) scholarly point behind what she says, some courteous discretion is in order. (For example, I live in a majority Black community. Out of respect for my neighbors--who treat me very kindly--I won't be putting a Trump yard sign in front of my house. It would be totally misunderstood, or "taken out of context" as Ms. Cloud puts it.)

Ms. Cloud is especially upset that funding of "critical programs" is being cut. She bemoans the lack of funding for graduate students. Of course she shouldn't be surprised--if you poke your biggest funders in the eye, surely their enthusiasm for giving money will decline. I understand that Mizzes Pabon and Cloud have every first amendment right to hate on me (a white male) as much as they want. But I don't understand why I have to pay them for the privilege of doing so.

No wonder Republicans no longer see higher education as a good investment.

Ms. Cloud sees university faculty as the cream of American society. As I interpret her remarks, they are the only people with the scholarly distance and critical point of view who can legitimately criticize our world. But not all faculty are created equal.

The STEM folks have sold out to the defense department, which discredits them (though to my knowledge nobody at New Paltz has any funding from DoD). The social scientists have sold out to big business by letting their research be used to manipulate the rest of us. So only the "critical" faculty remain--the vanguard party, if you will, who can lead us to the Next American Revolution.

Not really a Marxist perspective, but that notwithstanding Ms. Cloud is a comrade in the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO split from the Socialist Workers Party before my time, over reasons that are no longer relevant to anything (state capitalism in the Soviet Union). Because I have no personal connections with them they are not on my Beat, though I end up covering them anyway. But rest assured, the ISO is as irrelevant a grouplet as any of the others, their academic pretensions notwithstanding.

It's hard to estimate from the video, but the audience for this talk looks to be about 50 people. They were enthusiastic, polite and engaged. There were no hecklers, and nobody tried to disrupt the meeting. During Q&A the questions weren't just softball--they were marshmallows, at least insofar as they were coherent. Apparently anybody with any critical thinking skills decided to stay home (pun intended).

The ISO is not representative of American opinion, and despite the campus-wide, aggressive advertising for this event it drew only a limited audience. Probably an audience comparable in size to what a neo-Nazi speaker would have gotten (leaving out all the counter-protesters). Neither of these groups believes in American democracy, individual liberty, or economic freedom. The best response is to just ignore them.

Further Reading:

Sunday, February 25, 2018

School Shootings and Socialist Action

They're depraved because they're deprived?

That, along with a thorough-going misunderstanding of the second amendment, is the substance of Socialist Action's two articles on the recent school massacre in Florida.

The first, by Bruce Lesnick and modestly entitled A surefire plan to address gun violence, advocates such reasonable & relevant goals as
  • Free, single-payer Medicare for all 
  • Free quality education for all
  • Guaranteed jobs for all
  • Slash the war budget
  • Abolish the "War on Drugs"
and last, but certainly not least,
  • Address the root causes of depression, anxiety and alienation.
Nobody ever accused our Trotskyist friends of being practical.

At bottom the whole article is a slur on poor people, who are painted as mindless victims/puppets of some all-powerful ruling class. Consider, for example, this sentence:
People who are happy, healthy, loved, well-educated, and constructively employed rarely become mass shooters.
One should add--just to be fair--that people who are unhappy, unhealthy, unloved, poorly educated, and unemployed also rarely become mass shooters. Fortunately mass shooters are an unusual breed. Indeed, there seems to be little correlation between the listed traits and becoming a mass shooter. The Columbine shooters, for example, arose from stable, middle-class families.

I've never been poor myself, but I did spend a year in Uganda--a country with poverty beyond the imagination of nearly all Americans. I didn't meet a single mass murderer there. Accusing poor people of being mass murderers just because they're poor is a slander.

To buttress their case that all problems in the universe have to be solved before one can make a dent in school shootings, Mr. Lesnick cites a recent book by Johann Hari entitled Lost Connections--Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression.... Mr. Hari's thesis is that the biological causes of depression are exaggerated, with more blame properly assigned to factors including childhood trauma, meaningful values, and status & respect. (Even Socialist Action's ambitious program won't address those concerns.)

I think discounting genetic and brain-chemical causes puts Mr. Hari outside consensus opinion. Still, even if he's right it hardly proves Socialist Action's case. For just as there's no clear link between poverty and random homicide, so also there is no real connection between depression and high school shootings. How many millions of people are depressed? And what tiny fraction of them go on to become high school shooters? Depression isn't much of an indicator--I think Mr. Hari's book is irrelevant here.

The fact is that school shootings are so rare that no good statistical profile of the malefactors exists. Obviously there's a screw loose somewhere. I'll hazard that it's biological as much as anything, but even if I'm wrong it's silly to think that anything on Socialist Action's to-do list is actually going to solve the problem.

Gun control won't solve the problem, either. Socialist Action also opposes gun control, but their reasoning is so absurdly ludicrous as to embarrass the NRA. The offending article is by Gary Bills, entitled Gun control & workers' militias: How socialists view the issues, originally published in 2007.

Mr. Bills completely misunderstands the second amendment, which reads in full:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Mr. Bills interprets this to mean that the people have the right to form a "well-regulated militia," thus justifying his call for workers' militias. He claims that the original impetus of the amendment was precisely to form such vigilante groups. But he's got it precisely wrong, since of course the supreme court has never in the history of the republic interpreted the amendment in that way.

The modern name for a "well-regulated militia" is the police department. The amendment rightly points out that, without a police department, civilization could not long endure. It insists, however, that despite the existence of a police department, citizens still have the right to keep and bear arms for use in their own self-defense.

  • Citizens do not have the right to form vigilante squads, such as what Socialist Action suggests in its title. Pursuing criminals is the duty of the "well-regulated militia."
  • Similarly, citizens do not have the right to own military-style weapons, which cannot generally be used for self-defense. The responsibility for the armed forces is vested in the president, not in individual citizens.
The way I might rephrase the amendment for our age is Citizens have the right to armed self-defense until the police arrive. Since it typically takes the police 20 minutes to get anywhere, the first line of any defense is the citizen, many of whom own guns for that purpose. They have a constitutional right to do so. 

Or, put another way, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

Admittedly, my reformulation doesn't take into account the utter incompetence of the Broward County Sheriff's office, who were actually on the scene but then didn't do anything. Surely that re-emphasizes the importance of the second amendment.

The problem with "gun-free zones" is that they deprive citizens of their constitutional right to defend themselves and their neighbors. I think such zones are (or at least should be) unconstitutional. I agree wholeheartedly with President Trump's sentiments on the issue.

Crackpot school shooters will not be dissuaded by gun control. All that will do is render students and teachers defenseless in the face of evil.

Further Reading:

Friday, February 9, 2018

Louis Proyect & Identity Politics

I'm astonished at the attention Louis Proyect gives to people who don't deserve it. His recent post is an attack on Chris Hedges, who despite a Harvard M.Div. and his own Wikipedia page, is as dumb as a bag of rocks. Mr. Proyect, a man of considerable intellect, shouldn't punch so far below his weight.

Hedges' piece, entitled The Bankruptcy of the American Left, relates a discussion Mr. Hedges had with David North (chief honcho of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP)) and Charles Derber, a fellow who looks as foolish as he sounds. The lede paragraph begins,
Charles Derber, sociology prof
at Boston College (tuition $52K/year)

"There will be no economic or political justice for the poor, people of color, women or workers within the framework of global, corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism, which uses identity politics, multiculturalism and racial justice to masquerade as politics, will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance."

On the expectation of "a monumental explosion of class struggle in the United States," David North believes identity politics is a bourgeois-inspired distraction designed to mislead revolutionaries.

He further opines that "[w]e totally reject the narrative that the working class is racist. I think this has been the narrative pushed by the pseudo-left, middle-class groups who are drunk on identity politics..."*

Mr. Derber thinks that "[i]dentity politics is to a large degree a right-wing discourse," and "It focuses on tribalism tied in modern times to nationalism, which is always militaristic."

Mr. Proyect dismisses the whole meshugaas with one sentence: "Unless we are ready to challenge injustice on all fronts, we will never create the vanguard that is so necessary today." Or, socialists (for whom I do not speak) have to fight on a battlefield that actually exists. And that certainly includes identity politics.

Mr. North's description of the battlefield--that we're on the cusp of an explosion of class struggle--is fantasy. Curious how he could be so reality-deprived I went to the SEP's website, which includes this page (not recommended unless you want to go down a rabbit hole). It consists of a history of revolutionary thought from Karl Marx to the present, including this earth-shattering excerpt from paragraph 157 (of 255, and no, I have not read the whole thing).
...but also a comprehensive Marxist analysis of the objective situation and the assimilation, by a relatively inexperienced party cadre, of the lessons of the ICFI’s struggle against Pabloite revisionism. Instead, the work of the party assumed, under Wohlforth’s direction, a largely activist character, without a clear political perspective. Wohlforth’s political and personal behavior exhibited disturbing signs of disorientation. Egged on by a new personal companion, Nancy Fields, Wohlforth’s interventions in the party assumed a frenzied, unprincipled and destructive character.
Huh? Admittedly I left out some context, but rest assured it adds nothing.

Mr. Derber's point--that identity politics "focuses on tribalism" is also wrong, but at least it's wrong in an interesting way.

So African-Americans are surely a "tribe," though perhaps ethnic group is a more precise term. They arrived as slaves from among closely related peoples in West Africa, and in the intervening 350 years have forged a unique culture in America. They tend to marry each other and have maintained relatively high fertility rates. They have certainly suffered from "racism" (surely the least of their problems) in the past, and undoubtedly suffer from it today, though the extent of that is disputed. Obama thought it was a serious issue, while Trump either dismisses it or is just not interested.

African-Americans are an ethnic identity, and will necessarily practice identity politics. It's inevitable.

The LGBTQ (occasionally written with more initials) is a collection of people who are in some way gender-different (or alternatively, gender-abnormal). They are a small minority of the population--depending on how you define the acronym probably less than 5%. They are typically infertile and can't reproduce themselves (lesbians are an exception). What offspring they do have are not usually LGBTQ. Further, in the near future it is possible that the gay male population will steeply decline--just as the Downs Syndrome population is declining today--because of selective abortion.

These people are certainly not a tribe. Identity for this group means something very different than it does for African-Americans. The latter are justly insulted by being compared to the LGBTQ community (such as it exists).

White Americans are not an ethnic group--and on this almost all Leftists are mistaken. Instead they are a collection of many tribes, some of whom royally hate each other. I'm informed here by two books (both of which I recommend): Albion's Seed, and the Eleven Nations of North America. Indeed, much of today's politics can be explained by the longstanding rivalry (and mutual hatred) between Yankees and Scots-Irish. The latter are the most populous tribe in America--about 60 million strong. Obama represented Yankee America, while Trump owes his election to the Scots-Irish. This is identity politics pure and simple, but it's not a generic "white" identity.

Finally, 51% of the population--women--is supposed to be an identity. This makes no sense. Women, like men, owe more to kin and clan than they do to some gender abstraction. Scots-Irish women are not about to become raging feminists. For that matter, neither are most African-American women. The whole thing is silly.

And here our foolish friends may have stumbled on to something true--Mr. Derber criticizes Sheryl Sandberg's version of feminism. Similarly, I think the #metoo movement is an upper-class phenomenon. Alpha males (the top 1% of our gender) have the wealth, power, and sex appeal to have their way with women, mostly because women are attracted to wealthy, powerful, and sexy men. Women achieving any relationship with alphas tend to be beautiful, intelligent, talented, or all of the above--in other words, they're elite females. Of course when things go wrong they complain, hence #metoo.

Beta men don't have that hold over women, and most women have sufficient backbone to resist boorish advances from the beta sort. So the problem does not scale to the 99%--it's upper-class self-pity.

Women are not an identity. They're too attached to their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons to hold any real animus against the "patriarchy." Only among infertile members of the upper class and childless academics does feminism have a foothold.

*Superficially this position is similar to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which is actively trying to recruit Trump supporters to revolutionary politics (albeit with no apparent success). At the same time they do not hide their pro-immigration, anti-racist, pro-gay-rights agenda, about which they hope to educate white workers. In their view there is no contradiction between identity politics and building the Party. In other words, unlike Misters Hedges, North & Derber, the SWP can keep two ideas in their head at the same time--which implies they have at least double the IQ.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Arnold Kling's Moonshot

I'm a great Arnold Kling fan--I've favorably reviewed two of his books on this blog (here & here). I follow his blog daily--it's one of my favorite reads. Mostly I agree with him. But I have to take issue with his post from a few days ago, entitled A Moonshot to Overthrow Neoclassical Economics, along with the similarly titled article, here.

A moonshot is the Big Thing that a person wants to accomplish in life. In other contexts it might be called a vision statement, or a passion. Though a moonshot is typically much less practical than those--a goal for striving rather than achieving. Mr. Kling's moonshot is "to be a leader in overthrowing neoclassical economics. A better approach would focus on mental-cultural factors and rapid evolution."

I think he gives neoclassical economics a bum rap.

In his account (and I don't disagree) neoclassics begins with two "essential propositions":
1) Production is a process that employs two primary factors--labor and capital. 
2) The distribution of returns to labor and capital reflects their respective contributions to the production process.
He notes that Marxists disagree with the second axiom--they believe capital steals a disproportionate share of the proceeds--and he acknowledges they might be right. But that, in his view, is quibbling over a detail. Mr. Kling's critique is much more damning--he denies the validity of the first premise.

Instead a third axiom must be included:
[Y]ou have to pay attention to what people believe. What they believe affects what they value, what they think constitutes a good investment, what conduct they believe is appropriate when buying and selling, how they interact in their work environment, and so on.
Mr. Kling says that culture matters. In a slightly different context others insist that institutions matter. And of course they do--does anybody deny that? Indeed, Paul Romer took the idea to the nth degree and attempted to build a city de novo in the Honduran jungle, endowed from the beginning with good institutions. I don't think that worked out very well.

My old professor in general chemistry (Norman Nachtrieb--now deceased) told us that "science is the art of successful approximation." Ideal gas law is valid as long as intermolecular forces are assumed to be negligible. A step in an engine cycle is adiabatic as long as no appreciable heat escapes into the environment. The words "negligible" and "appreciable" are purposely left vague, and depend on how precise an answer one actually needs in the result.

Economists have a similar concept--ceteris paribus--which means all else equal. Put that phrase in front of anything an economist says and you've got the economic equivalent to "negligible" and "appreciable." Of course, what with economics involving humans rather than molecules, the approximations are much rougher and the degree of precision much less. Still, at least in this sense economics is just like chemistry--it is the art of successful approximation.

One common approximation is to limit the timeframe during which a result is expected to hold. At picosecond scales (light-matter interactions) almost everything is adiabatic. For long-lived radioactive decay processes (the uranium half-life is billions of years), nothing is adiabatic. Completely different approximations will apply in the two cases--indeed, they can't even talk to each other.

In that sense economists have it easy--economic timescales don't vary by 30 orders of magnitude--maybe only by four or five (from a few weeks to a few centuries). Still, timescales matter, and this is where Mr. Kling's analysis breaks down.

Implicit in neoclassical economics are those two, essential, prefatory words: ceteris paribus. The axioms are not divine writ, but only hold as long as everything else remains equal. Thus we'd expect the approximation to be successful only for a relatively short period of time. How long is that time? Do many people make economic forecasts beyond a year? Even the Fed doesn't dare estimate anything more than four or five years out--and they're roundly mocked when they do even that. Ten years is beyond anybody's ken--ceteris is no longer paribus (pardon my Latin).

And Mr. Kling knows that. He says that culture changes, and furthermore, evolves. He further claims that it's changing more quickly than before. And therefore the all else equal assumption is invalid at nearly any timescale. Of course that's wrong--it is certainly possible to predict many economic phenomena (interest rates, corporate profits, unemployment) on a quarterly or even annual basis. Those predictions (especially the short term ones) are right more often than not. Culture does not change that fast.

Contrary to Mr. Kling, I think culture changes are on a generational timescale--roughly 30 years. My children grew up in a different part of the country than I did, and their mother (my wife) is Filipina. So obviously they see the world differently from me (though there is also considerable continuity). But now that they're 30 years old (give or take), those attitudes are mostly baked into the cake. For the next 50 years their cultural expectations will not significantly change.

I think Mr. Kling is mistaken in his claim that cultural evolution is speeding up. It's not. We're talking 30-year timescales here, minimum. It may even be longer since life expectancy has gotten longer. Within that timeframe, for the few-years horizon of neoclassical economics the ceteris paribus approximation makes sense.

What is more rapidly changing is technology, often known as structural change. That's the way mainstream economists refer to something not being equal. And like physical scientists they treat it with fudge factors, as a perturbation from the original result. Obviously if the structural change is huge (the engine explodes), that's not a fair approximation. But in the real world structural change happens slowly--driverless cars aren't anticipated to be mainstream for another 30 years.

So, over the two or three year window during ceteris paribus, neoclassical economics is a good approximation. Or, as scientists working at a blackboard might put it, a good first approximation, for which more refined iteration may be indicated. Mr. Kling's criticism is valid, but only over longer timescales when the two axioms no longer hold.

Mr. Kling does have a legitimate complaint. Approximate models will never give you exact results. Calculating theoretical implications out to four significant digits is a waste of time. It's computer gaming. Many econometric models seem to me to fall under this category (though I'm not expert).

But economists are not alone in falling in love with their computers. Scientists suffer from the same disease--in our current day so-called "climate scientists" are extending models far beyond where they can reasonably be expected to hold.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


So I was disappointed in Trump's speech in two ways. First, it was much too long. He spent too much time applauding "heroes", most of whom didn't seem all that heroic to me. Otto Warmbier's parents, for example, deserve our sympathy I suppose, but it's a stretch to think they are "heroes". I found that whole thing corny and not worth the time, but then I acknowledge I'm not a typical listener.

Second, we were all led to believe that it would be a "bipartisan" speech. And my model of Trump (a secret Democrat) predicted he would have done that. But he didn't. While there were a few bones thrown to the Democrats, they were very few, and the speech was mostly aimed toward the Republican side of the house. Indeed, he looked almost exclusively at the Republicans, casting only occasional glances toward the Democrats. It's as if they weren't even there.


One possibility is he intended it to be a bipartisan speech, but then missed the target. That's possible, but somehow I doubt it. This is a guy who understands media better than anybody else on the political planet--I can't imagine he'd get this wrong by such a wide margin.

The other possibility is that he thinks he can beat the Democrats, and rather than compromise he went in for the kill. If you judge by the faces on the Dems, that certainly seemed to be true--they all looked desperately unhappy.

So take DACA. The Dems want to grant citizenship to 600,000 Dreamers. Trump raised them by a factor of three--his proposal will naturalize 1.8 million Dreamers. I certainly support that! I can't imagine that the Dems will seriously be able to oppose it.

But of course it comes with a catch, or actually three catches: build a wall; end chain migration; end the visa lottery.

So here's the asymmetry: for Republicans those three catches are vote movers. Stronger border security is a core issue for the Republican base. And most people--even Republicans--are generally sympathetic to Dreamers. Trump is on the popular side of the issue in all ways, and will grab independent and even Democratic voters.

The Democratic base, on the other hand, cares passionately about naturalizing Dreamers. But Trump has conceded that issue--by a factor of three! The other stuff is down in the weeds--important to politicos, but not the kind of thing that's going to drive Dems to the polls.  Outside of a college campus it really is hard to argue against more border security and a rationalized legal immigration system.

So in 2018 the Dems are running on Dreamers, for which Trump has outbid them, and on opposing some small-scale,  commonsense reforms in immigration. They can't win.

Then there was the shtick about standing for the flag. Super-wealthy, entitled NFL players can't even pay respects to military veterans (according to Trump). It tars the core Democratic base as being unpatriotic and makes them unappealing to a larger number of voters. This is another vote loser for the Dems.

And more. Do the Dems really think they can win elections by going soft of N. Korea or Iran? Are they really going to oppose new infrastructure because Trump wants to shorten the permitting process to under two years? Are they going to campaign to put millions of people out of work for the sake of stupid EPA regulations?

Even the Jerusalem thing helps Trump, not so much with voters, but by putting daylight between the Dems and their important Jewish donors.

It is pretty clear that Trump believes he can win the 2018 midterms. He doesn't think he needs to compromise with the Democrats at all.

So I don't know if that will work out as planned. We'll see what happens in about nine months.

Further Reading: