Friday, September 13, 2019

Kim Moody on "Persistent Inequalities"

Why aren't wages equal across the economy? Why, for example, does a warehouse worker receive only half the pay of an auto assembly worker? Why are women and minorities paid less than white men?

The book is by Howard Botwinick and is entitled Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition. I have not read that book (though I probably should and maybe I will). Instead I respond to a lengthy review by Kim Moody, published in Against the Current. The principle inquiry of the book is to explain the persistent inequality in the wages of women and minorities when compared to white males.

Mr. Moody is a very capable economist who regards Mr. Botwinick's book (first published in 1993, and newly reprinted) highly. The latter is a recently retired economics professor at SUNY Cortland. Both claim to offer a Marxist perspective on their topic.

One common Marxist prediction is that industries will tend to be dominated by monopolies. Counter-intuitively (but correctly) Mr. Moody argues that monopolies will tend to pay higher wages, since as monopolies they can raise prices to cover the difference. But that doesn't appear to be happening. Retail, for example, is dominated by two behemoths: Amazon and Walmart. But they're in such intense competition with each other (and with smaller companies in the same space) that they're forced to lower prices--which means they have to reduce their labor costs.

(Some of my Trotskyist friends may confuse monopoly with monopsony. The former is when there is only one seller who monopolizes the market. The latter is when there is only one buyer, such as in a company town. Folks can only work for that company, or not at all, in which case the company can keep wages arbitrarily low. Mr. Moody does not consider the company town, monopsony phenomenon.)

A possible reason warehouse employees (at Amazon or Walmart) are paid less than auto workers is because Amazon and Walmart are in competition with each other, and not with General Motors. Therefore the wages at GM don't correlate with those at Walmart. This is a "persistent inequality."

Another possible reason for the wage differential is differences in productivity. If auto workers are more productive than warehouse employees, then of course they should be paid more. But Mr. Moody cites some statistics that warehouse productivity has increased faster than auto assembly productivity. (I'm not sure why that's relevant. The issue isn't about changes in productivity, but rather comparing existing values.)

The assumption is that auto assemblers and warehouse workers are comparably skilled, and therefore in a fair world should be payed equally. So I've never worked in either an auto plant or in a warehouse. I'll suppose that warehouse work is something similar to the people at Walmart who restock the shelves (or go around and shop for people who've ordered their groceries by phone). And I'll assume that autoworkers do jobs similar to what I see in a TV clip, where they're installing dashboards into SUVs.

The auto worker is using expensive equipment to do very precise work. The dash has to fit within a millimeter. A mistake can ruin a $40,000 vehicle. This has got to be a high stress job that requires continuous concentration. You can't tell me this is at the same skill level as the restocker at Walmart. The auto worker deserves her higher wage!

This, I think, is the fundamental flaw in the argument. Workplace skills can't be classed into a few boxes, e.g., people with a high school diploma. There is instead a huge variation within that category, and it depends not only on training but also very much on personality. The autoworker must be a more careful and conscientious person than the warehouse worker. The Marxist notion that we're all interchangeable proletons is wrong.

There lurks a deeper economic truth here. As Adam Smith pointed out, wealth derives from specialization. Using Smith's example, a skilled craftsman who makes pins might manufacture a couple dozen in a day. But if the labor is divided so that one person cuts the metal, and another sharpens the point, and yet a third fashions the pinhead, etc., then production increases thousand-fold.

This works only if there is a market for thousands of pins. Therefore large markets foster specialization, which makes everybody within that market richer. In our day markets are global, which means jobs are very, very specialized. Which implies that there are no large groups of people with similar skills. Individual talents and predispositions become very important.

Nevertheless, our Marxist friends carry on and locate three key dynamics accounting for "wage differentials among workers with similar skills." The first is "The ongoing processes of capitalist competition and technical change that create different conditions of production..." This describes the comparison between Walmart and autoworkers.

Second: "The continuing regeneration of a reserve army of unemployed workers." The very word "army" illustrates the error. There is no "army" of unemployed autoworkers. The people who can do that job have bespoke skills that are not readily transferable. The laid-off workers from the  Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant may or may not have the skill set necessary to assume jobs in South Carolina's much newer BMW plant.

Mr. Moody cites large numbers of men who have withdrawn from the labor force as being part of this "army." But this seems unlikely--most of those people are on disability, or have various mental/substance abuse problems that render them unsuitable for auto manufacturing (or warehouse work).

Finally, there is "the uneven efforts of workers to raise wages." This represents unionization, and Mr. Moody suggests that workers who are more militant (i.e., willing to sabotage their workplace) will on average receive higher wages. Count me skeptical.

So how do Misters Moody and Botwinick explain gender and racial differences in employment?
The origins of racism and sexism precede the development of industrial capitalism in patriarchy and slavery, but it is the rise of capitalist competition that provides the new and changing unequal forms of wage labor that workers compete to fill.
In this model, capitalism "creates" low-wage employment just so it has a place to dispose of women and minorities. The implication (as I understand it) is that if there were no more sexism and racism then low-wage work would no longer exist. This is not credible.

Women, by Mr. Botwinick's theory, are simply another set of proletons that need to be accommodated in the workplace. Of course they're not: women are obviously and significantly different from men in both physical and psychological respects. Men and women have had different job descriptions since time immemorial--as the words hunter and gatherer suggest. Robert Gordon says that (prior to the industrial era) men's work was dirty and dangerous, while women's work was unending drudgery. It is only latter-day feminists who implausibly insist that gender differences should be radically abolished. That will never happen.

Indeed, the modern workplace seems to favor women, what with its emphasis on customer service and care. Machines disproportionately displace men by doing the backbreaking, muscular labor for them. Mr. Moody illustrates the problem, mentioning the "growing numbers of prime-age males, in particular, who have dropped out of the work force."

There is no cause to think that women are being needlessly relegated to low-wage work as surplus proletons. The "persistent inequality" doesn't exist--at least not for that reason.

Mr. Moody's article, and likely also Mr. Botwinick's book, are worth the read. But the thesis is unconvincing.

Further Reading:

Thursday, September 5, 2019

George Novack: Then and Now

Back in the day (early 1970s) George Novack (1905-1992) was touted as the world's foremost Marxist philosopher.

My girlfriend at the time--also a comrade--had studied philosophy in college. "I don't like George Novack," she said. A heretical thought, for George and his wife, Evelyn Reed, had God-like status within the Movement.

I looked at her, shocked. In a parallel universe such a comment could've gotten her shot.

Nevertheless, since I had no prior opinion about Mr. Novack one way or the other, the remark has forever biased me against him. After all, she, better educated than me, should know a philosopher when she saw one.

Mr. Novack's name hasn't crossed my radar screen for decades, so it was with sentiment that I read the excerpt republished in The Militant, entitled "Socialist revolution is ‘historical mission of modern proletariat’" The entire piece is an introduction to Frederick Engels' classic work, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. That book was first published in 1880, while Mr. Novack made his contribution in 1972. With a bit of fiddling you can likely read the whole introduction using Amazon's Look Inside feature, which is what I did.

My girlfriend was correct--Mr. Novack is not a philosopher. But he is a lucid exponent of Marxist thought. The piece is worth reading for that reason.

Like all Marxists, Mr. Novack understands nothing about economics.
The material source of the conflict between capital and labor is their ceaseless struggle over the division of the social surplus product in the form of the new value that is added to the total wealth produced by the laboring population. The profits of the capitalist stand in inverse ratio to the wages of the workers.
This is manifestly not true, as evidenced by the dramatic rise in global living standards since 1880. The "conflict" between workers and capitalists is not the zero-sum game that Novack and Engels imply.

"Utopian socialism" was the sort practiced by, among others, Robert Owen in New Harmony, Indiana, where a group of like-minded souls got together and tried to live under socialist principles. Of course it failed, surviving only for two years, from 1825 to 1827.

"Scientific socialism," proposed by Marx and Engels, was the root-and-branch social transformation into a socialist society. It was "scientific" because it depended on "social forces," and "material conditions," rather than some idealistic dream. Mr. Novack gives us a summary statement of how this transformation is supposed to occur.

The workers--also known as the proletariat--trying to recover their rightful share of "surplus value," will form trade unions. These will fight around narrow, workplace issues, such as wages and working hours.

When this doesn't satisfy them, they will expand their fight to the political realm. This leads to the formation of a labor party, distinguished from capitalist parties by being beholden only to proletarian interests.

Since the capitalists cannot relinquish their hold on profits and still stay in business, not even a labor party will satisfy the workers. Hence they shall be inspired toward revolution, implementing the dictatorship of the proletariat, and ultimately communism.
Only the triumphant proletarian revolution can clear the road to a classless society. Then, at last, long-suffering humanity will be the master of nature and its own social organization, and its full creative capacities will be released to beautify a bountiful world. This will mark “the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”
It's a silly model, yet Mr. Novack claims some success. He notes that when Engels wrote his book, it was more than a prophecy. History had yet to demonstrate whether his prediction of things to come was solidly based or an aberrant hypothesis of social development. Now a century later, the act of emancipation he anticipated has been effected in fourteen countries, beginning with Russia in 1917 and extending to Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba after the Second World War.
While it's hard to think of Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, or Castroist Cuba as being in any sense "emancipated," it is nevertheless true that (apart from Cuba) there is nothing "socialist" about them now. Mr. Novack was premature in his claim of success and Engels' prophecies are just flat-out wrong.

Yet the dying embers of the Marxist dream are kept alive by my Trotskyist friends, who still insist that Engels' template can be turned into reality. But they're stuck on Square One, still championing the union movement. Socialist Action (SA), for example, touts hotel unions--service workers who Engels probably didn't have in mind when he wrote his book. Indeed, it is unlikely that hotel workers--even collectively--hold the keys to civilization.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is even more out on a limb urging the unionization of Uber drivers. This is a nigh impossibility--the closest they could come would be to quit their jobs, which if the proceeds from driving Uber ever fell below the market rate is precisely what they would do.

The union movement is fading, not just in the US but globally. There are many reasons for that, including: automation has supplanted the majority of industrial workers; workplaces are smaller and harder to organize; supply chains are longer and therefore redundant, meaning strikers have less leverage; management has been flattened, which means employment is much more sensitive to the marketplace than previously; and most employees are now service workers who directly interact with customers. I think this trend is irreversible.

So Trotskyists have made no progress on Engels' step one.

Step Two is the formation of a labor party, and both groups are striving. SA has gone the furthest with this--they are now engaged in Jeff Mackler's quixotic and deeply unserious presidential campaign. The core platform is Build an Independent Labor Party, which, of course, is copied straight from Engels.

But it is more complicated today. SA believes in "catastrophic climate change," and par for the course they're on the radical extreme of that movement, claiming the world will end in ten years. Their solution to this imminent disaster is to Build an Independent Labor Party. I, for one, wonder how such a labor party is gonna prevent catastrophe at all, much less within ten years--especially since it's so far from becoming reality.

Engels would be flummoxed, as I suspect George Novack would be as well.

The SWP has dropped the "climate change" nonsense, which puts them back in the real world. And further, they've gone all-in on the blue-collar billionaire, supporting President Donald J. Trump.

OK--that last sentence is an overstatement. They don't endorse Mr. Trump, but they do sympathize with his supporters. An attack on Mr. Trump--or so they perceive--is an attack on the workers who are his fans. The SWP adamantly (and in my view correctly) rejects the charges of treason and racism so often and casually thrown at the president's constituents.

It's a fine line: defending Trump's supporters against completely spurious charges--without supporting Trump. Many on the Left accuse them of actually supporting Trump. The case is stronger because the SWP has rejected the antisemitism otherwise so rampant on the far Left.

Nevertheless, I think they are very much on the Left: they strongly support the Cuban "revolution"; they defend North Korea as a workers' state ("emancipated"?); they generally oppose Trump's crackdown on immigration; and above all, they aspire to Build an Independent Labor Party.

So I predict they'll again run candidates for president and vice-president in 2020, just have they done since 1948. The campaign will be just as quixotic as Socialist Action's, though less incoherent.

Still, I can't help but hope that at least a few comrades, in the privacy of the ballot box, will join me in voting for Donald J. Trump.

Either way, George Novack is spinning in his grave.

Further Reading:

Monday, August 26, 2019

Useful Marxist Economics: Michael Roberts

Socialist Action does us an excellent turn by reprinting an article by Micheal Roberts. The piece is taken from his blog, which I have now added to my regular Beat (see sidebar).

Mr. Roberts is an excellent writer who explains things very clearly. It appears that good Marxist economists (certainly including Mr. Roberts) are economists first and Marxists only second. Accordingly, his writing is not diminished by meaningless, obfuscating Marxist terminology, such as surplus value, neoliberalism, or working class--words that don't appear at all.

There is no point in my summarizing Mr. Roberts' article--you can read it for yourself, and I recommend you do. Nor will I argue with him--what he says is mostly correct as far as I can see. But I do think he misses an important part of the story, and that's what I contribute here. Think of this more as an addendum than a criticism.

It is commonly noted that US productivity has declined since the 1970s. In The Great Stagnation, author Tyler Cowen suggests we've already picked technology's low-hanging fruit--electricity, the internal combustion engine, etc.--and future technological progress will be much harder to come by. Robert Gordon wrote an excellent, scholarly book explaining the same phenomenon (my review here). Peter Thiel is the most pessimistic about future growth, suggesting that AI and driverless cars, for example, are mostly just hype. (See here, and links therein.) He thinks we live in a nearly zero-growth world.

The chart below illustrates the problem, namely clearly diminished productivity growth after 1978. If this chart and the pundits above are correct, then we are in for a long stretch of slow to zero growth.
Slow productivity growth means that the standard of living also rises very slowly. There is abundant evidence that is true: median real wages have barely budged since the 1970s.

But people are reluctant to give up hope for higher living standards, and the result is they tend to borrow more. The expectation is that times will get better soon and then they can repay the loans. But times have not gotten better and the world is deeper in debt. Growth is now further constrained by the necessary debt service, and the result is a downward spiral.

Given this background, let's use Mr. Robert's paper as a guide to see what the future holds.

He writes:
Many of the academic papers presented to the central bankers at Jackson Hole were laced with pessimism. One argued that bankers needed to coordinate monetary policy around a global ‘natural rate of interest’ for all. The problem was that “there is considerable uncertainty about where the neutral rate really lies” in each country, let alone globally. As one speaker put it: “I am cautious about using this impossible-to-measure concept to estimate the degree of policy divergence around the world (or even just the G4)”. So much for the basis of most central bank monetary policy for the last ten years.
If there is little new technology then there is little cause for new capital investment. One can't buy new computers if the new computers haven't been invented yet. The result is that the so-called "savings glut," is really an "investment drought." There are few good places to invest money. Thus it is easy to determine the natural rate of interest: it is precisely zero. At which value monetary policy has no effect at all. Corporations--never one to pass up a good deal--borrow heavily at near-zero percent interest, using the proceeds to buy back shares (a shift from equity financing to cheaper debt financing).

If monetary policy doesn't work, what about fiscal policy? Per Mr. Roberts, that's Larry Summers' suggestion. The goal, by excess government spending, is to increase aggregate demand until the economy returns to health. Governments spend all this excess cash on useless roads and bridges (Japan, China), on the military (USA; not useless, but not a productive investment), or on ever more generous entitlements (Europe, esp. southern Europe).

But more money in the back pocket doesn't necessarily increase demand. It could increase inflation, which central banks have guarded against by paying interest on reserves, thus eventually sucking back up the extra cash. While it might increase employment, in the USA (at least) that is already maxed out. And given demographic stagnation (if not decline), then there are fewer people out there to spend the money, even if you do get it into their pockets.

The result is that fiscal stimulus doesn't stimulate. We just end up with more corporate debt and more people working at low wages. Given low productivity growth, it can't be otherwise.

I mentioned above that folks are still in denial about low productivity and near zero growth. To maintain their standard of living they borrow more, unrealistically expecting to pay it back later. We've already mentioned the ways government can borrow money: by printing it or by selling treasury bonds. Otherwise known as monetary or fiscal stimulus, respectively.

In addition, folks can borrow their own money. This has certainly happened as the 2008 mortgage crisis proved. Today we have high levels of student loan, auto loan, and credit card debt.

Student loans are especially pernicious, and not just because they aren't dischargeable in bankruptcy. It's because in a near zero-growth world there are diminishing returns to education. Kids who expect to graduate into a dynamic, high-opportunity economy will be sorely disappointed when they end up as burger-flippers and dog-walkers. But absent new technology, there won't be many high-tech jobs for them to fill.

In my view, student loans are a dead-weight loss to the economy and the whole program should simply be abolished. Beyond which they destroy many people's lives.

Marxists think this is all a crisis. Mr. Roberts doesn't say that explicitly, but he seems to imply it. It could be a crisis. If, for example, central banks stop paying interest on reserves, then hyperinflation is just around the corner. In the United States that would be a civilization-ending event. I'm not predicting it, but for those who want to lie awake at night worrying about stuff, it surely is a much more likely life-ending outcome than catastrophic global warming.

Near zero growth is really bad news. It means that the next generation will not be richer than the current generation. It is stagnation, which is the opposite of a crisis. Indeed, nothing here even predicts a recession--merely steady as she goes. (It doesn't preclude one, either.)

Mr. Roberts does give us one piece of good news. He points out that in recent years profits, as a percent of gdp, have been declining.

If the returns to capital as a fraction of gdp are declining, that means the returns to labor are increasing! Even I can't see why that is a bad thing. It contradicts the claim of Thomas Piketty, who argues that capital will always get an ever larger share.

Take your good news while you can. The world is going to be increasingly short of it.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Unionizing Hotels?

Ernie Gotta and Erwin Fried post a useful article in Socialist Action (SA) entitled Shifting the balance of power in hotels. It concerns the unionization of Sheraton and Hilton hotels in Stamford, CT.

I'm sympathetic. Hotel maids work very hard for low wages. The ladies (and a few gentlemen) who get up at 4am to serve breakfast (free to guests) are heroes in my book. I depend on them whenever I travel, and I make sure I leave them all a tip. They deserve it.

So if a union is being formed to demand higher wages, I'd tend to favor it. After all, I'm as much against poverty as Misters Gotta and Fried, and if it's at all practicable to raise the salaries of hotel maids, surely that's a no-brainer.

But raising salaries is not what this union local in Stamford has in mind. Instead their goal is simply to reduce productivity. To wit:
  • Employees should be allowed to talk on their cell phones during work hours and get paid for it.
  • Cooks, who are paid more because they bring essential skills, should spend valuable time doing work that servers can do more efficiently and cheaper.
  • Managers should be forbidden from helping out--they can't clean a room or assist with service. 
None of this actually helps the maids. Yes, she can now talk on her cell phone instead of working, but how this substantially improves her life is beyond me. And worse: why should I leave a tip to a maid who takes twice as long to clean my room because she's yakking on the phone?

At the Sheraton, workers are now fighting for their first contract, but before voting to join Local 217 workers were often made to staff positions other than their own, regularly taking on two or more different jobs in the same shift. This allowed the bosses to hire fewer people and cut hours for positions like the café. By keeping a skeleton staff that is worked to the bone, they save a lot of money on labor costs, but at the same time the hotel cannot maintain a high level of customer service. Management proves again and again that they prioritize profits over guest satisfaction.
This is perverse. Surely an employee who can flexibly do several jobs as needed is more likely to be working full time than one who can only make beds (but not vacuum floors). It's hard to see why a guest should have to wait for the unionized vacuum operator to come along before the room is cleaned.

All it does is featherbed the workforce. The hotel will have to hire more maids to do the work of the phone talkers--and each of those additional employees will pay additional union dues. It's the union bigshots who come out ahead on this.

On the other hand, if instead of featherbedding all the maids just got a raise, the union's additional take would at most be a trivial percentage. This is a classic example where the interests of the union diverge from that of the employees.

Misters Gotta & Fried, being Marxists, claim that capital deserves no return--all proceeds should go to the employees. The net profit margin (as percent of operating costs) for Hilton Worldwide in June, 2019, is 8.71%. In another article, Mr. Gotta writes "Right now, hotels in Stamford, Conn., the second largest market in New England, are bringing in big profits for the owners. They can afford to pay their workers a living wage, but they’re too greedy to concede a few bucks."

So let's play that out. Suppose Hilton sacrificed their entire 8.71% margin. The employees all get a raise by that amount. Presumably suppliers receive a similar bump--they'd have to give their own employees an 8.71% raise. Of course not just workers, but managers also get a raise. Most front-line managers are not paid much more than the hourly workers.

So what happens then? Hilton's profit margin has just gone to zero.

  • The stock price also falls to zero. Anybody with a 401K or pension plan invested in Hilton is just plum outta luck.
  • The board of directors all resign. Why bother managing a company that can't earn a dime? It's a lot of work to manage a company!
  • Most of the C-suite execs also quit. Their pay is mostly in stock options--now worthless. The reservations system crashes.
  • Suppliers no longer trust the company to pay their debts. After all, with a stock price of zero Hilton has no collateral anymore. So all transactions are cash only.
  • Travel agents no longer book rooms at Hilton. There's no guarantee that the customer will actually get the room she paid for. Even today something occasionally goes wrong and the room fee needs to be refunded. Hilton can no longer be trusted to make those refunds.
  • Homeless people move into the lobby.
  • The city confiscates the hotel property for back taxes.
If you want to see what a profit-free hotel looks like, just check out housing in Cuba, or the NYC public housing projects. Nobody wants to live like that, much less pay $250/night for the privilege. All that for a once-off, 8.71% raise? Fortunately most hotel workers are smart enough to know that money doesn't grow on trees, something that Misters Gotta and Fried apparently haven't learned yet.

My Trotskyist comrades see themselves as uncompromising radicals, and they urge nothing less on their fellow workers.
A worker’s strength also does not exist in the formal relationship between the union and the boss. ...Strength comes from shop floor militancy. What workers have on their side is the ability to apply pressure on management through delegations, workplace actions, shop-floor campaigns like button ups, or a strike.
In other words, employees should, as a first resort, sabotage the workplace.

This strategy will fail. Most large hotel chains often do not own the real estate. They simply lease it for a period of years, or occasionally operate the hotel on a commission basis. The benefit is that companies like Hilton can just walk away from the property at little cost. The employees know this, and sabotage will be rewarded with everybody losing their jobs.

A hotel--like any business, no matter who owns it--has to be profitable to stay in business. Sabotage certainly doesn't help. What's the point of having a union if you're not going to avail yourself of the grievance procedure?

It's worth noting that once the union is in place, it wants all employees to behave so that it can extract its dues from them as efficiently as possible. Union leaders are smart enough to know that money can't be squeezed out of a bankrupt hotel.

I think the union drive is just a big scam designed to transfer money from hotel maids to union bureaucrats. It's a scandal.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Book Review: The Fall of Rome

The book, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization is by Bryan Ward-Perkins, today an Oxford don, but born and raised in Rome, the son of an archaeologist.

It's a wonderful little book--less than 200 pages of actual text--that delivers just what the title promises, written with concision and clarity. Perhaps it's not an easy read, but it certainly isn't a boring one. I picked the Kindle edition, which was a mistake. The book contains lots of maps and figures that don't reproduce all that well. I'd recommend a dead-tree version.

History, it turns out, often depends on the present as much as on the past. Immediately following the Second World War, French scholars portrayed the invading Germanic tribes as barbarians, who "had achieved the remarkable feat of living for centuries on Rome's frontiers 'without becoming civilized.'" The fall of the Roman empire was uncannily similar to the fall of the French Republic in 1940.

A few years later, as Germany was being tamed to bring about the EU, historians in North America and northern Europe played down the event. Rome didn't "fall" as much as it gradually "transitioned" into a medieval culture. The tribes cease being "invaders" and gradually just become migrants. Late Antiquity (as the era from 400 - 800 AD is called) was not a dark age, but rather a passage to another way of life.

Further, there is a reluctance to use the word civilization, implying that Romans were somehow morally superior to the barbarians. While Mr. Ward-Perkins rejects any moral superiority, he asserts that a civilized society is both richer and far more sophisticated than the more primitive sort.

Mr. Ward-Perkins mostly condemns this modern point of view as being not true. He documents the catastrophic decline in living standards across the empire, with many peoples reduced to an iron-age existence. It was many centuries (until the dawn of the Renaissance, or even longer) before wealth in the West exceeded that of Roman times.

He draws heavily on archaeological evidence, notably pottery. Roman pottery is found practically everywhere, even in homes of very modest circumstance. It was certainly not restricted to the wealthy. It came as tableware, cooking pots, and was used in transport. For example, olive oil, a staple Roman commodity, was shipped in amphorae.
Amphorae stacking.jpg
Amphorae used in shipping (Wikipedia)

While pottery vessels can break, the shards are nearly indestructible. "It is a reasonable supposition that, somewhere in the soil, almost all the pottery vessels ever made survive in fragments, waiting to be excavated and studied."

There is a huge wealth of information: the chemical composition tells where it was made; the design says when; the shape suggests what it was used for; and the location says something about who used it. Further, it often comes with inscriptions which inform about who made and traded it, and also the extent of literacy.

Pottery was an industrial art and produced in high quality on a massive scale. Amphorae carried grain from North Africa (the empire's granary) and olive oil from Spain to the farthest reaches of the empire: Hadrian's Wall in Britain, and the banks of the Rhine and Danube. There it provided for the soldiers who defended the empire, who in turn spent their income in local communities on the frontier. The result was Pax Romana.

This is something akin to today's globalization. Just as we can buy cheap, high quality clothing made in Bangladesh, Romans acquired fine goods and foods from hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

The Vandals sacked the city of Rome in 410, and went on to conquer the Iberian Peninsula and most of Roman Africa. The rest of the Roman empire was divided among various Gothic and Frankish tribes. Anglo-Saxons and Celts ruled previously Roman England.

Despite the occasional sacking, pillaging and looting, the tribes did not want to destroy Rome, but instead they wanted to share in its wealth. They were quite conscientious about this, retaining Roman nobility as administrators. They gradually even converted to the Roman religion.

The problem was not their intent. The problem was by divvying up the empire into so many competing principalities, it made trade impossible. This was especially painful at the frontier, which no longer had access to quality pottery from abroad. Instead they had to make do with hand-formed (not wheel-thrown) pots, made from crumbly, substandard material. Plus they had to grow their own food, since that trade, too, had disappeared. No more olive oil for you!

The result, by 450 AD, was a reversion to an iron-age economy.

Mr. Ward-Perkins traces the same history not only in pottery, but in building materials and even in the size of farm animals! He suggests that human populations dramatically declined during the 5th Century (though he can't prove that).

Trade allows for specialization: specialized potters, builders, writers, soldiers, farmers, etc. Without trade, each household has to do all those things on their own--that's the very definition of an iron-age world. Our modern society is so rich precisely because we have hugely sophisticated global trading networks and therefore highly specialized job titles. But lots of people are--to one degree or another--against trade. President Trump apparently sees it as a zero-sum game, which it isn't. 

Our most celebrated congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggests we should abolish airplanes (to protect the climate). This would immediately put tens of millions of people out of work. But worse, it would destroy tourism. Think of all the countries that depend on tourism for a large part of their income. Without tourists they lose access to the world market and can't buy anything but what they produce themselves. Which likely will not include things like electricity, computers or pharmaceuticals.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez's supposed solution to climate change will condemn hundreds of millions of people to a miserable existence--assuming they survive at all.

Many people look into the abyss, and somehow they see utopia down there. If you want to find out how people of good intentions and good will can destroy the world, then please read Mr. Ward-Perkins' book.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What Determines Political Opinion?

The conceit of this blog is that my arguments are so compelling and my writing of such spectacular quality that the scales shall inevitably fall from my former comrades' eyes and they'll all become Republican Trump supporters.

Of course that almost never happens. People rarely change their political opinions because of argument, spectacular or otherwise.

So what determines people's political opinions? There are several points of view.

The first may be called Marxian. It maintains that politics derives from economics, and a person's political opinions will roughly follow their economic status. In the narrowly Marxist sense this reduces to bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, and proletarian sympathies. As this blog has relentlessly pointed out, that taxonomy no longer fits the modern world very well.

The larger Marxian premise is alive and well, however. It's shows up in simple-minded form in the MSM as blue-collar voters elected Trump. A more sophisticated, Marxian perspective is proposed by Joel Kotkin, author of the recently released The New Class Conflict (which I have not yet read). It is summarized in an important article here.

In Kotkin's view, US society exists in four classes: the Oligarchy, the Clerisy, the Yeomanry, and the Serfs. The oligarchs are the top 0.1% of our society--roughly equivalent to the bourgeoisie. The clerisy are "made up of academics, the media and well-paid professionals — represent[ing] some 15 percent of the American workforce." The yeomanry represent "small business and property owners." I'd suggest it constitutes most Americans with a positive net worth. Bringing up the rear are the serfs--people who are too poor to accumulate any wealth at all, or who have smothered themselves  debt that they'll never be able to pay off.

That all sounds very clear, and it has considerable explanatory power. But it falls apart when I try to apply it to myself, my family, friends and colleagues. Am I a member of the clerisy? After all, I retired as a professor at full rank, making me an academic in good standing. But I retired from Two-Bit State College--not Harvard. How far down in the academic pecking order can one get and still be a cleric in good standing?

Unlike most of my colleagues, I retired on a 401K rather than with a state pension. That means I have a lot more money than they do--if I can't rise to clerical status I'm definitely a yeoman. My retired colleagues, while they have much less money, do get a state pension--which politically isn't much different from a welfare check. Are they clerics, yeomen, or serfs? (Or are retired folks declassed altogether, as a traditional Marxist might maintain?)

And so on. It all dissolves into ambiguity. And none of this predicts my vote or that of anybody in my family. Maybe we're just special--but I don't think so.

A second explanation for political opinion is that it is a personality trait. A leading exponent of this model is Arnold Kling, author of The Three Languages of Politics. My review (here) briefly summarizes the thesis:
Kling suggests that there are three political ideologies in America, which he roughly labels as Progressive, Conservative and Libertarian. These three groups use different languages--that Kling calls heuristics--and from this he derives a three-axis model. Progressives organize ideas around an oppressor/oppressed axis. Hence they are primarily interested in social justice, and in righting historical wrongs. Conservatives think in terms of a civilization/barbarism axis. Accordingly they emphasize stable institutions (church, family, law), and tend to resist sudden changes. Finally, Libertarians orient according to a freedom/coercion axis. They're worried about big government, too much taxation, gun control, and too much environmental regulation.
How one aligns along the three axes (I'm halfway between the conservative and libertarian) is personality trait. Given that the adult personality is roughly 50% genetic and 50% random chance, a person's political opinions are substantially inherited and in any case unchangeable in adulthood--at least in terms of basic priors as summarized by the three-axes model.

This, of course, contradicts Kotkin's Marxian view--neither clerics nor yeomen share a common set of personality genes. It also means that political conversation is mostly a waste of time--we'll always be talking past each other no matter what we do.

The third model is group affiliation. A core human desire is to be part of a group, to have a reliable set of kin and friends who will stand with each other through thick and thin. People thus go to great lengths to demonstrate their allegiance to the group. Religious practice is a common example. The devout parishioner visibly demonstrates his loyalty to the group, proving that he can be trusted no matter what.

Some groups demand not a religious faith, but rather a shared set of political principles. The academy is an obvious example. To be a member in good standing of the academic club you have to hold reliably Progressive opinions. It doesn't matter what your genotype is, nor is any randomness in your background a factor. Absent vocal progressivism your chances at getting an academic job, much less acquiring funding and tenure, shrink dramatically. Accordingly academics are ostentatiously Woke and aggressively Green.

A lot of this is self-selection. People who aren't Woke or Green often shy away from academic careers. Though some of my colleagues are nowhere near as committed to those principles in private as they are in public. In many cases they're just not interested in politics at all and only go through the PC motions. Others (like me) are actual Conservatives, and mostly we just keep our mouths shut.

Nevertheless, group affiliation explains why the academy is so relentlessly Leftist. To a lesser degree the same is true of school teachers and civil servants. On the other side, some religions also impose a political dogma on their adherents--they will often be Conservative.

The fourth and last possible determinant of political opinion is identity politics. It maintains that people of a given ethnicity share common genes, culture and/or experiences, and thus will share common politics. The Progressive version of this story has become cartoonish, but I have succumbed to it myself. Since reading Albion's Seed, I have been seeing Yankee, Quaker, and Scots-Irish influences everywhere. (See my review of Colin Woodard's book here.)

While Progressives say they subscribe to Identity politics, what they really mean is a form of group affiliation. The latter easily explains why academics vote 90% for Democrats. African-Americans also vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Progressives claim this is because of their unique genetic/cultural heritage, i.e., their identity. Though it is a stretch to think that African-Americans are so uniform in genotype and culture. Of course they're not, but voting Democratic has become a cultural touchstone--you're not genuinely African-American if you can't toe the line.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley recently put it very well. She said "we don't need Black faces that don't wanna be a Black voice." She's not playing identity politics, but rather trying to enforce group affiliation.

It won't work. Unlike academics, Black's are not self-selected. They were born into an ethnic culture. That culture is much more heterogeneous than Ms. Pressley will have us believe. I think the days when Democrats can simply take the African-American vote for granted are coming to an end.

None of these models are mutually exclusive, and all of them describe some aspects of reality. Surely people respond to economic stimuli. For example, teachers vote to pass school budgets. But to suggest that blue collar workers voted for Trump for economic reasons stretches credulity. For that phenomenon group affiliation is a better predictor. Likewise, identity politics might have some merit--there really are many Americans of Scots-Irish descent, and they often vote similarly. But to think they'll vote as a solid block is to overstate the case.

While I'll give much credit to all of these models, I still think they're incomplete. It's a quaint thought, but I do believe people have free will. It's remit is pretty small, but it's still there. It means that ornery, unpredictable, thoughtful people still can change their minds independently of money, genes, or culture.

So there is reason for me to write my blog after all.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Book Review: Donald J. Trump

The full title of this biography by Conrad Black is Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. Mr. Black--Canadian-born, one-time newspaper mogul and a former US prison inmate recently pardoned by President Trump--is a spectacularly talented writer, despite his discursive, complex, literate style. Among my friends I call him "my favorite Canadian," and I read his columns religiously.

Obviously this isn't the definitive biography of Trump--the man is still in mid career. We'll have to wait a decade or two before that comes out. Equally clear, it isn't a hit piece--Mr. Black is upfront about his pro-Trump sympathies. 

Nor is it a hagiography, perhaps best described by Edmund Morris (Theodore Roosevelt's biographer) who says you can't fall in love with your subject. Mr. Black avoids (maybe just barely) falling in love, and is sufficiently honest and clear-eyed to find fault.

What you will find here is first-class journalism. It's a background piece on today's top story, and apart from it's length it could appear in any newspaper or magazine.

Trump comes by his hucksterism honestly. His grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, arrived in the US in 1885 at age 16. Mr. Black surmises that he took the name Fred Trump at the port of entry. He first traveled west to Seattle, and then on to the Canadian Yukon, where he "operated restaurants, bars, and hotels, catering to prospectors." But "most accounts allege that he was in fact operating whorehouses and clip joints, sometimes with no lease or title to the land." Eventually he settled in the Bronx, marrying his childhood sweetheart from Germany.

Donald Trump was an ingenious businessman, but borrowing to the limit, played very close to the edge. When the economy tanked in the early 1990s, bankruptcy seemed inevitable. He took full advantage that neither banks nor bondholders wanted that outcome. The lenders didn't know how to run a casino, nor did they have the celebrity to promote it. Both knew that only he could maintain the value of the property. Trump leveraged this to the max, renegotiating the loans at very favorable terms, saving his personal fortune.

I previously believed that Trump became a politician by accident--that the campaign was initially a PR stunt designed to promote his business. Indeed, Trump obviously didn't think he was going to win--not even at the last minute. But Mr. Black makes a convincing case that Trump planned a presidential campaign far in advance of the event. He was long interested in politics, especially as his business turned from buildings/casinos into licensing his own name as a brand. Trump's long shot bet on a campaign is risk-taking typical of the man, and does not indicate lack of seriousness.

Trump's political tactics revolve around two principles. The first is never back down or apologize. He broke this rule at least once: following the release of the Billy Bush tapes, where Trump said he "can get away with women, including grabbing them 'by the pussy.'" This was made public a few days before the second debate with Hillary Clinton. Trump's first response was to apologize, saying "Anyone who knows me knows these words do not reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize." It made him sound like any two-bit political loser.

But then he fought back: he held a press conference with three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and a fourth woman--a victim of an actual rape--whose assailant had Hillary Clinton as a lawyer and was acquitted on a technicality. Oddly not mentioned by Mr. Black, Trump invited these ladies to sit in the front row during the debate.

Far from backing down, Trump "flipped the script", accusing Mrs. Clinton of precisely what she had accused him of. It worked. I read recently that the Trump campaign thinks this maneuver saved the election for them.

The second tactic is truthful hyperbole, including obvious exaggerations, such as requiring press secretary Sean Spicer to say that his inauguration was "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, both in person and around the globe." That one probably didn't help him any. But Mr. Black also writes that
Trump, the grand impresario, had entered "an environment that was ripe for bombastic, inflammatory outrageous statements without having to suffer the consequences," where extreme partisanship, public cynicism, general disregard for traditional expertise, and accumulated public anger did not discourage his natural tendencies toward hyperbole and did not really punish lapses into fabrication.
Mr. Black, writing a biography, sticks close to Trump's own truthful hyperbole formulation. But I will go further and claim that Trump is a teller of tall tales.

A tall tale differs from a lie in that nobody is expected to believe the tale. Indeed, Trump is a master story teller--that's how he can keep an audience spellbound for over an hour. Stories must have a plot, and that requires exaggeration and simplification. The "alternative facts" have to fit the story--not reality.

The most famous tall tale (which Mr. Black doesn't mention) is the tag phrase "...and Mexico will pay for it." Nobody ever believed it--it was just an applause line--and that's why he suffers no political damage upon not being able to deliver. His critics--who invariably accuse him of "lying"--miss the point completely and make themselves look like fools in the process.

As Salena Zito famously wrote, "the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."

Trump is neither an intellectual nor an analytical thinker. He traffics in metaphors and parables. He doesn't have a "program" in the way Hillary or Elizabeth Warren do. His slogans are all evocative, emotional, and vague--easily misunderstood.

For example Nancy Pelosi thinks his slogan Make America Great Again, really means Make America White Again. I find that completely implausible, but I'd be hard pressed to find a specific quote where Mr. Trump explicitly denies it.

Likewise, I think Trump is pro-immigration, but he insists that it be legal. We should admit people "who love us." But others (both critics and supporters) interpret his rhetoric as trying to shut the door, or that we should only admit white people. I think they're wrong, and my post Good Trump, Bad Trump makes that case.

The amorphous nature of Trump's appeal makes him hard to pin him down. Some people think he's a "racist"; others, like me, think he's rebelling against political correctness. Some people think he's ignorant about "climate change." Others, like me, believe he's not gonna throw good money after a non-existent problem.

Those three issues (or at least my interpretation of them)--immigration, political correctness, and "climate change"--are what inspire my support for the man. Plus he's such a great storyteller.

Let me give Mr. Black the last word, who compares Mr. Trump to his predecessors.
In international relations, Richard Nixon was a chess player and Ronald Reagan a poker player, and both were very successful. Trump seems more of a pool shark, but it seems likely he will do well too.
"Pool shark" is a good word in many contexts--not just in international relations. It's part of Donald J. Trump's genius, as beautifully described by Conrad Black.

Further Reading: