Thursday, December 28, 2017

"The Lenin of Libertarianism"

The title (quoted above) is magnificent, but that's the only thing I like about Cliff Conner's article in Socialist Action. The essay is commentary on Nancy MacLean's hit piece on James M. Buchanan, a Nobel-Prize-winning economist who died in 2013 at age 93. Her book, published in 2017, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is such a slander that I refuse to provide a link to it.

It's even earned its own Wikipedia section, the first paragraph of which is worth quoting in full:
In 2017, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Her book claims that Buchanan saw a conflict between "economic freedom and political liberty", and that he sought (in his own words) "conspiratorial secrecy" in pursuit of what George Monbiot has described as "a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich". The book has garnered heavy criticism from both libertarian and non-libertarian writers for its perceived flaws in the use of quotes, sources, and the accuracy of its overall thesis. In particular, the claim that Buchanan supported segregation has been disputed as untrue and contradicted by evidence that MacLean's book omits. Buchanan played a key role in bringing prominent South African apartheid critic W.H. Hutt as guest lecturer to the University of Virginia in 1965, during which he also sharply condemned Jim Crow laws.
Also, "Legal scholar Jonathan H. Adler alleges a pattern of misrepresentation in MacLean's book, including truncating quotes to present them as saying the opposite of their original meanings ..." Mr. Conner, who apparently has never read anything by Mr. Buchanan, accepts everything Nancy says as gospel truth.

Whatever opinions he attributes to Mr. Buchanan are likely not accurate and not worth arguing about. So let's focus on Mr. Conner's expression of his own opinions.

There's this.
If you still think of libertarianism as the quaintly eccentric blend of laissez faire economics with concerns such as privacy rights, civil liberties, and antimilitarism, you are behind the times. That old-time libertarianism has been marginalized by a hardcore, right-wing, enemy-of-humanity libertarianism fashioned by Buchanan and the Koch Brothers.
So the mud that supposedly sticks to Mr. Buchanan is now attached to the Koch brothers--on the basis of no other evidence. News for Mr. Conner: the Koch brothers support abortion rights, the legalization of marijuana (and probably other narcotics), gay marriage, and a prohibition on government spying on citizens. Are these opinions that Mr. Conner classes as "enemy-of-humanity libertarianism"?

It gets worse. Mr. Connor apparently has a telepathic connection with the Kochs and knows what they are thinking. They "want above all else to decrease their taxes and minimize governmental regulation of their businesses." Really? How does he know that? How does he reconcile that with the opinions listed above?

Then, of course, there's Pinochet and Chile. Mr. Conner asserts,
If there is any lingering confusion regarding libertarian commitment to genuine individual freedom, it should be laid to rest by their interpretation of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile. To this day libertarian polemicists continue to hail that abominable crime against humanity as an “economic miracle” confirming the wisdom of free-market economic policy.
...The “miracle” they wrought was built upon the destruction of a vital labor movement requiring the murder and torture of tens of thousands of trade-unionists and their supporters. It was liberty for wealthy investors and property owners at the expense of the life, liberty, and happiness of the majority of the Chilean people.
So granted, Pinochet was a brutal guy who murdered lots of people. But he was hardly alone: similar brutality reigned over much of Latin America at the time: Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, to name a few. All of those governments have a lot of blood on their hands.

But only Chile experienced sustained economic revival. As Wikipedia puts it,
The economy of Chile is ranked as a high-income economy by the World Bank, and is considered one of South America's most stable and prosperous nations, leading Latin American nations in competitiveness, income per capita, globalization, economic freedom, and low perception of corruption. Although Chile has high economic inequality, as measured by the Gini index, it is close to the regional mean.
In 2006, Chile became the country with the highest nominal GDP per capita in Latin America.
Mr. Conner blames "los Chicago Boys" (including Buchanan) for all the murders, while not giving them any credit for the economic success story. Yet free market economics has clearly and unambiguously succeeded in Chile, despite the crimes committed by Mr. Pinochet (not Mr. Buchanan).

Then Mr. Conner reduces Buchanan's economic thought to a caricature (boldface mine).
As for reductionism, Buchanan’s “Public Choice Theory” reduces real-world economic decision-making to the sterile abstractions of mathematical game theory. In a universe where human beings always act like purely self-interested automatons, game theory could perhaps offer some useful insights into economic behavior. But Buchanan applies mathematical models based on misanthropic assumptions about human nature to complex social interactions. 
Mr. Buchanan almost certainly never said any such thing--surely he wasn't that stupid. But if you replace the word always with often or on average, then you'd probably get closer to what he actually thought. Or it might be more accurate to say that while humans do not always make decisions based on economic reasoning, when they do they tend to maximize their economic outcomes. And so game theory does offer useful, empirically-validated insights about economics.

Though it's odd that a self-proclaimed Marxist is arguing against the supremacy of economics. Didn't Marx say something about all of history being about economic class struggle?

Finally we get to the makers and takers shtick. Mr. Conner attributes to Buchanan the notion that entrepreneurs are the makers, while workers and poor people are the takers. Again, this supposes that Mr. Buchanan is an idiot.

More likely, both the entrepreneur and his employees are all members of the maker class. They, after all, produce all the goods and services we consume. And I suppose we can reluctantly agree that poor, disabled, sick welfare recipients are in the taker class, though I doubt that's who Mr. Buchanan was talking about.

The most egregious takers are not poor people, but rather government bureaucrats, public employees, and their tax-supported sycophants and hangers-on. I'd certainly put Nancy in the sycophant category. Despite her private school affiliation, her salary is paid for substantially by taxpayers (in the form of student loans, research grants, and tax exemptions granted to universities).

Nancy, who advertises herself as the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy (is that her preferred pronoun?), has clearly established a new low for the quality of "research" at Duke University. Since when does a dishonest book slandering a dead economist count as "scholarship"?

Compare Nancy, for example, with Jennifer Burns, professor of history at Stanford and biographer of Ayn Rand. It's an excellent book, but by reading it you will never discover Ms. Burns' opinions about either her subject or her subject's beliefs. It is that honest and fair-minded.

That's what scholarship should be.

Further Reading:

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Future of Bitcoin

Bitcoin is all the rage now. Many people think it is a bubble. While they might be right, much of what is said about bitcoin is nonsense.

Briefly, bitcoin is the world's first cryptocurrency, invented in 2009 by somebody or some group who went by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Nobody knows who Satoshi really is--he disappeared from public view in 2010.

All bitcoin transactions are kept in a public record called the blockchain, copies of which are spread on thousands of computers around the world. The fact that the blockchain is massively copied guarantees the security of bitcoin since no hacker can hack into all the globe's computers (or even a small fraction of them). Accordingly, bitcoin itself has never been hacked, though various exchanges and individuals have been hacked.

Bitcoin is produced by mining. Miners solve cryptographic puzzles, the purpose of which is to update the blockchain to reflect any new transactions. As a reward for assuming this transaction cost, miners receive payment in new bitcoins. This will continue until the middle of the next century, after which all bitcoins will have been mined. Then miners will have to charge a fee in exchange for their services. Meanwhile, the actual transaction cost is the electricity used to power the many thousands of computers that work on mining bitcoin. This is substantial, and today bitcoin is mined primarily in places with cheap electricity.

So now some basic facts follow:

Bitcoin is not anonymous, but merely pseudonymous. If you or I open a bitcoin wallet, it will have a public key that I have to distribute to anybody I want to trade bitcoin with. That key is a pseudonym for my name. Given that key, then all transactions to or from that wallet are public record as part of the blockchain.

Ross Ulbricht--the founder of the Silk Road drug market, using bitcoin as the medium of exchange--didn't understand that. By using good old fashioned shoe-leather, the police eventually connected his wallet to his name, and then of course they knew exactly who he'd sent money to and from. For that he is now serving a life sentence without parole. Since then the criminals have gotten smarter. They undoubtedly know how to launder bitcoin on the dark web, so the old shoe-leather trick won't work anymore.

Thus bitcoin, as a substitute for cash, becomes an important tool for many a criminal enterprise. That, of course, is a disadvantage for those of us who wish to live in a civilized world, but it is a use-value for bitcoin that won't be going away anytime soon.

Bitcoin is not very useful as a currency. Because mining is so expensive, it typically takes about 10 minutes for any transaction to clear. These days, with bitcoin so popular, it can take considerably longer. Nobody is gonna go to Starbucks and wait ten minutes for their cup of coffee, which is why Starbucks doesn't accept bitcoin.

Simply put, the transaction costs for bitcoin are too expensive to justify using it for small amounts of money. However, the cost is per transaction, and is not proportional to the amount of money transferred. So bitcoin is impractical for $1.85, but for $1.85 million it's another story. For large amounts the transaction costs become irrelevant.

This is very much like gold. Try taking your Krugerrand to Starbucks and see how far that gets you. For just as with bitcoin, transaction costs for gold are very high--you have to weigh it, judge it's purity, ship it, and so on. But unlike bitcoin, gold transactions don't get that much cheaper with volume. So while bitcoin is nowhere near as convenient as paper currency or a credit card, it is much more convenient than gold.

Bitcoin will steal some of gold's luster. Yes, gold is a shiny metal that you can hold in your hand, while bitcoin is a public/private key combination that you can store in your safe. Gold is more tangible, but that very tangibility is what makes it less useful. Perhaps a better analogy for bitcoin is GLD (a gold-based ETF), rather than gold itself. Though--and here's the big deal--bitcoin is much more secure than GLD.

Gold has historically been used to settle transactions across international borders. Because the shipping costs are so high, in recent times international trade has been settled in eurodollars (dollars held in bank accounts outside the United States). This is not satisfactory to many participants (China, Russia, Iran, to name but a few), and I predict that bitcoin will eventually become a medium for international settlements. This is a second use-value for bitcoin.

It's worth noting that both China and Russia are very schizophrenic about bitcoin. On the one hand they see it as an avenue for capital flight, and thus they want to prevent citizens from using the currency, much the same as the US for many years prohibited citizens from owning gold. On the other hand, they both recognize the potential bitcoin has to free them from the dollar, and both countries have invested in significant mining capacity.

Meanwhile, many citizens around the world have every incentive to get their money the hell out of Dodge. Most recently that appears to be happening in South Korea, which is now the biggest bitcoin market in the world (or so I'm led to believe). The Chinese have been no slouches either, and are likely still crypto-sneaking money out of their country. Venezuela and Zimbabwe are big markets for bitcoin, for obvious reasons. (In Venezuela electricity is heavily subsidized, making mining very profitable, albeit illegal.)

Volatility, Schmolatility. Doesn't matter. There is no better way to transport money outside your falling-apart country with relative speed, liquidity, safety and anonymity than bitcoin. This is a third major use-value for bitcoin.

What are some of the disadvantages of bitcoin? There are a few.

First, many bitcoins have been lost. Since there is no central authority, there is no way of recovering your private key if you lose it. Many people have lost it. And then many others have died before revealing the secret to any of their heirs. Satoshi himself, at the beginning of bitcoin-time, mined himself about a million bitcoins, today worth nearly $20 billion. None of them have ever been spent (we know that from the blockchain), and Satoshi would give himself away if he ever tried to spend one. Perhaps that's a reason to leave $20 billion sitting on the table untouched.

Or, possibly, maybe Satoshi is dead, in which case all those bitcoins are gone for good. If there is one shortcoming in his design, it was not allowing for the replacement of lost bitcoins. Only 21 million will ever be mined, but over time more and more of them will be lost. Eventually there will be so few bitcoins in the world that they'll become a collector's item rather than a currency.

I don't know what fraction of the currently extant 17 million bitcoins have been lost. I read somewhere that it was 50%--I think that's too high. But suppose it's only 25%--that means the total capitalization is not the top-line $325 billion, but instead only $244 billion. So if bitcoin is in a bubble, it's not as big a bubble as everybody thinks.

A second threat to bitcoin is the development of a rival cryptocurrency that adds significant value and so displaces bitcoin. There are lots of cryptocurrencies already out there, but the main ones all do something different than bitcoin. BCH, for example, tries to speed up the transaction speed. ETH is primarily about trading assets rather than currency. Etc. There is a place under the sun for these species. But bitcoin is the most gold-like precisely because it's transaction time is relatively slow (and thus secure), and it is the most liquid. I think it will be hard to displace, but not impossible.

So is bitcoin in a bubble? I don't know. There is nothing written here that says it ain't so. But I will claim this: bitcoin has use-value. It's not just a speculative bubble. The price will not to fall to zero, and the equilibrium price is probably higher than it is now--though it's unlikely to get there in a straight line.

It's worth pointing out that Bitcoin is not primarily an American phenomenon. Predicting its value based only on sentiment within the United States is not reliable.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

China & the United States

There are two extreme but commonly held opinions about China. The China Bulls, typified by NYT columnist Thomas Friedman (e.g., here), believe that China will leap from strength to strength, eventually far surpassing the United States in both wealth and power.

The China Bears, meanwhile (represented ably by Peter Zeihan, whose work I have reviewed here, here and here), think China is approaching a precipice beyond which lies disastrous decline. Mr. Zeihan, for example, thinks the country is unstable as a unitary state.

Lynn Henderson (who often writes for Socialist Viewpoint) sent an Open Letter to Dave Gilbert, kindly including me on the copy list. The full text of the letter is posted at Louis Proyect's site, here. Despite its length, it is cogent, well-written, and very much worth the read.

Mr. Henderson did not title his piece. Mr. Proyect headlines it as Trump, Russia vs China and China Industrialization. Fair enough, but I'd prefer another: China's Threat to American Capitalist Hegemony. That reveals him as a China Bull, and further, he subscribes to the common corollary: that the United States is in secular decline (a view shared by Mr. Friedman).

Mr. Henderson tells a history of Chinese-American relations that doesn't make much sense to me. The 1949 revolution threw the imperialists out of China, but then in 1980 Deng Xiaoping invited them back in as foreign direct investment*. My take is that China wasted 30 years murdering tens of millions of its own people before they finally got their economic act together. Somehow Mr. Henderson sees the "revolution" as an advantage.

He attributes too much credit to Nixon and Kissinger--figures who were bit players in the whole drama. The real stars were people like Malcom McLean and Sam Walton. The former "invented" the shipping container, reducing the cost of freight transport by 90%--a technology that came to full fruition by 1970. The latter (who in 1970 owned a few stores in NW Arkansas) took advantage of that savings, along with cheap labor availability in China, to build the world's largest retail chain.

Mr. Henderson gets that last point. A key paragraph is this.
Handed down from the pre-revolutionary past, the new China possessed a gigantic peasantry numbering in the hundreds of millions accustomed to a very low standard of living and hard manual labor. This peasantry served as the source for an industrial proletariat willing to put up with a much higher rate of surplus value than the workers of North—and even Latin—America, Western Europe or modern Japan. Huge amounts of foreign investment, especially U.S. investment flowed into China. What the United States—or rather the United States capitalists—wanted most of all from China was the lion’s share of the surplus value produced by the Chinese working class. Russian workers produce very little surplus value compared to what the U.S. capitalists could appropriate from Chinese workers in the form of profit, interest and dividends.
Let's ignore the unnecessary term "surplus value" and acknowledge that trade with China was hugely profitable--for both Americans and Chinese. We got everything from toys to hand tools to smartphones at sharply reduced prices. Indeed, though Mr. Henderson credits Paul Volcker with ending inflation, it's just as likely that cheap imports from China did the trick. China, initially through Walmart, dramatically raised the standard of living of every American, especially poorer ones.

In return 400 million Chinese were pulled out of poverty and became part of the global middle class. They used the proceeds of their labor to buy grain (there's no more starvation in China), airplanes (jumbo jets fly hourly schedules between Shanghai and Beijing), and the construction of superhighways and bullet trains (Tom Friedman's favorite toys), among many other things.

Though somehow Mr. Henderson thinks this is a problem.
The problem from the viewpoint of the U.S. capitalist class and its political representatives—the Party of Order of both Democrats and Republicans and the emerging Trump America First gang—is that the U.S. capitalists in squeezing huge amounts of surplus value out of the Chinese have been forced to develop China’s productive forces at the same time.
Mysteriously, he thinks we'd be better off if China remained poor. Just how are those poor, starving Chinese supposed to buy grain, airplanes, and everything else from the USA? They have to sell something to us first--as I said in a previous post, it's all about trade. The USA can't trade with countries that have nothing to sell. Fortunately for all of us, Sam Walton enabled China to sell lots of stuff to Americans.

Mr. Henderson buttresses his argument with one big factual error. He claims that because production increased in China, US industrial production has been declining.
In order to make the empire last for even 70 years—a very short period historically—the U.S. had to give up much of its domestic industrial production.
But this is manifestly not true--US industrial production has more than doubled since 1980! Don't believe me? Then listen to that Marxist economist of (deserved) renown, Kim Moody (my review here):
The problem with trade-based explanations [for the decline in manufacturing employment--ed] is that manufacturing output hadn’t shown a decline, but had grown in real terms by 131% from 1982 to 2007 just before the Great Recession reduced output. At an annual average of 5% this is only slightly less than the 6% annual growth of the 1960s.
So both China and the USA were successful from 1980 through 2010. But the world moves on; this is how Mr. Henderson sees the future.
China on the other hand, as the world’s most rapidly expanding manufacturing power, is now its strongest proponent for globalization, “free trade”, open markets and multinational trade agreements. Under China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which is aimed at creating a modern version of the Silk Road, a network of trading routes from China to Africa and Europe, it has launched a massive economic outreach dwarfing even the Marshall Plan of U.S. imperialism following WWII.
Let's take this apart.
  • China is not "the world's most rapidly expanding manufacturing power." The United States is, by far. Robots and AI have reduced the value of low-wage labor, and sharply increased the advantage of cheap electricity. Thanks to fracking, the US has by a good margin among the cheapest electricity prices of any country in the world.
  • OBOR ain't gonna work--see my previous post. The only advantage is it gives China a back door to Persian Gulf oil. Though shipping oil over the top of the world won't be cheap.
  • Yes--China is a strong proponent of globalization and free trade, for obvious reasons. But see my reviews of Peter Zeihan's books for more about that.
I tend to be a China Bear, though not as pessimistic as Mr. Zeihan. Here are some of the important problems China faces.
  • Chinese population growth is slowing, and the size of its labor force is actually shrinking. Since labor force growth is the biggest component in overall economic growth, this will severely limit the Chinese economy going forward.
  • The economy is too big to be primarily export-oriented. Global markets simply can't absorb all that stuff. Exports will have to decline as a fraction of GDP.
  • China is dependent on foreign oil, which will put it at a significant disadvantage to the US.
  • Increasing personal consumption--and therefore income--is absolutely crucial to sustain the economy. That means Chinese citizens have to get a lot richer, which means productivity has to increase--dramatically. I'm not sure they can do that.
  • China has a huge debt burden, which is a drag on future growth.
So I think the best case scenario for China is growth at global rates, i.e., around 2%. Personally, I'm skeptical if they can sustain that. Then it becomes an issue of whether or not the country remains politically stable.


*Not sure I buy the "foreign investment" argument. I don't believe the US ever ran a trade surplus with China, which means net foreign investment must have flowed toward the US, not toward China.

Further Reading:


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sex and the Alpha Male

What the mainstream media has to say about the slew of sexual harassment scandals is silly. In their telling women have finally had the "courage" to call out "unacceptable" behavior on the part of "men." We are now at a turning point, they claim, where the male psyche has been sufficiently tamed such that we stand on the precipice of a different world.

Hogwash! "Courage" is not a new attribute among women, but rather a function of new media. It's easy to be courageous in an era of Facebook, Twitter, and cell phone cameras. In an earlier day the best you could do is go to the New York Times and plead for coverage (which mostly didn't happen). Nor has the male psyche changed--it's just that any expectation of privacy is now non-existent. Whatever they do is likely to become public, much to the embarrassment of Alphas who preferred their failed efforts at conquest remained secret.

The world will adjust, and not by a decrease in sexual hijinks. Instead the constant scandals will wear on the public, they'll tire of them, and soon enough tune them out. This, too, shall pass.

The most perceptive post on the kerfuffle that I have read so far surprisingly comes from a music professor. Kristi Brown-Montesano (B-M) is on the faculty at Colburn Conservatory of Music, has authored a book entitled The Women of Mozart's Operas, and pens a piece entitled Holding Don Giovanni Accountable.* (h/t Tyler Cowen)

The opera revolves around three women, two aristocrats and a peasant girl. Donna Elvira is in love with Don Giovanni and feels betrayed by his infidelity. Donna Anna was either raped or seduced by him. Her father came to defend her honor and was murdered by Don Giovanni. Finally, Zerlina was also raped or seduced by the Don.

Professor B-M is convinced that rape is the appropriate descriptor in the latter two cases. Maybe. Though if I were Mr. Giovanni's defense attorney I could at least raise reasonable doubt.

For starters, rape isn't really an operatic subject, while seduction certainly is. If my client were intent on simply forcing himself on Zerlina, why did he sing her such a beautiful aria beforehand (Là ci darem la mano)? To which her reply was roughly I want to, but I shouldn't.

She eventually succumbs, after which she is deeply ashamed. She goes to her fiance begging forgiveness with what I think is the most beautiful aria in the whole opera (Batti, batti, o bel Masetto). Forgiveness is soon granted.

The professor has a stronger argument in the other case. According to Donna Anna (echoed by Lepporello), Giovanni sneaked into her bedroom and raped her, after which he murdered her father. We don't know for certain what happened--the events occurred off-stage before the opera even begins.

Donna Anna loudly proclaims her victimhood, and feels not ashamed but rather humiliated. Instead of seeking forgiveness, she goes to her hopelessly feckless boyfriend--Don Ottavio, a Beta male if there ever was one--and demands that he avenge the crime. He comically touts his pathetically unsuccessful efforts to redeem her honor.

And maybe a crime it was. But why? Giovanni is obviously very successful with the ladies and doesn't really need to force himself on anybody. She, meanwhile, has every reason to lie about it. That's my lawyerly response, and maybe it's true.

Were I producing Don Giovanni, I'd cast Anita Hill as Donna Elvira. She always struck me as the woman scorned, and had she become the Mrs. Clarence Thomas we'd never have heard another word from her.

Monica Lewinsky will get Zerlina's role, an innocent seduced by a charming man. She never claimed otherwise, and I don't recall her ever saying a bad word about Bill Clinton. Like Zerlina, all she sought from the public was forgiveness, which she never received. We were too mean-spirited.

Finally, I'd assign Juanita Broaddrick the role of Donna Anna. She claims she was raped by Bill Clinton, and perhaps that's true. Again, though, why? Rape is usually the last resort of low-status males who can't get it any other way. Bill certainly doesn't fall into that category--why would he force himself on somebody when there were any number of others eager for the privilege? So I don't believe her, just as I don't believe Donna Anna.

Mozart's opera is about a male predator and not a female manipulator (for that, listen to Bizet's Carmen). Women have a career option not open to most men--they can spread their legs in return for promotion. When men offer that bargain it is considered a fireable offense. But surely as often as not the offer comes from the woman. In the current environment the man is damned if he accepts her offer and damned if he doesn't. It's always his fault, no matter what the circumstances. That's what makes it an unfair witch-hunt.

So we need some rules about sex in the workplace. It's just that I don't know what they should be. Perhaps we should go by the Mike Pence standard: no man should ever be alone with a woman not his wife? That would end sexual harassment, albeit at the cost of putting the kibosh on most women's careers. Though we're headed toward a rule like that on college campuses.

Or perhaps it's a prohibition against sex in the workplace? My former campus recently instituted something very similar to that. I'm not opposed to it, but it has to be enforced against both genders--not just men.

I can tell you what the solution is not: the females in Congress want all men to behave like Don Ottavio--cowardly, weak, ineffectual. Alpha males are supposed to sacrifice their Alpha-ness and become wallpaper. It won't happen, and surely we don't want it to happen. What a boring world!

So I think (based only on what I know, which may not be enough) that Al Franken has done nothing to deserve losing his Senate seat. The Democratic women are stupid. John Conyers is on the bubble, but he's so old he should probably retire anyway. Donald Trump behaved in precisely the way you'd expect Donald to behave, and as far as I can tell has done nothing worse than Al Franken. He should not be impeached for sexual misconduct (or for any other reason).

Roy Moore's transgressions are much worse and if true are literally criminal. Though they happened a very long time ago. I surely wish that Luther Strange had won the primary. The fact that the allegations were made public only after the primary speaks to the dishonesty of Alabama Democrats, and also is a reason to doubt the whole story.

Still, I wish the guy would just disappear. Having said that (were I an Alabaman) I'd vote for him. He's a bastard, but he's our bastard.

The final scene in Don Giovanni is like the ending to a cheap, dance-hall rom-com. It's a we all lived happily ever after epilogue. The Human Comedy is indeed just that: a comedy. Complicated humans will rarely interact in straightforward, good/evil ways, especially when it comes to sex.

Shit happens. Get over it. Get a life. Enjoy the passing scene.


* Don Giovanni is an opera by Mozart about an aristocratic playboy (also known as Don Juan) whose mission in life is to f**k as many women as possible. A short synopsis of the plot is here.

Further Reading:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What Marxists Don't Understand About Economics

This post is inspired by, but not directly in response to, an Open Letter by Lynn Henderson and Cindy Burke (H&B), posted on Louis Proyect's website. Their misconceptions are so common on my Beat that I think a post pointing them out is useful.

Growth

In 1956 Robert Solow and Trevor Swan published a model for economic growth that is both simple and fits real world data fairly well. Economic growth is the sum of three terms: 1) growth in the skills-adjusted labor supply; 2) growth in capital invested; and 3) growth in productivity due to technological advancement.

In today's world (unlike the future world of robots), the availability of skilled labor is the most important factor. A proxy for that is population growth, especially of the working-age population. In the US our population growth is less than 1%. During the first 60 years of the last century it was closer to 2 or 3%. Obviously fewer workers will result in a lower GDP, so it should be no surprise that our growth rates have declined from 3-4% historically to about 2% today. Absent a new baby boom or a sharp increase in immigration, our economy will not grow as fast as it did before.

Japan's workforce has been in absolute decline for several decades. So it should be no shock that their economy is barely growing at all. This has nothing to do with a "crisis" of capitalism or malfeasance by Mr. Abe, but is a matter of simple demographics.

Note that we Trumpkins will be disappointed with our president's stated immigration policy. Economically we are much better off with more immigrants rather than fewer.

Capital behaves differently, obeying the law of diminishing returns. When a company with 1000 employees buys their first computer, there is a huge jump in productivity. But after they buy the 1000th computer, productivity will barely budge. That is, initial investment in a new technology is highly profitable, but as more and more money is invested the returns diminish. Eventually the maintenance and upkeep on all those computers costs more than any profit, at which point the firm is fully capitalized. There is no point in investing more money in more computers.

It's roughly the same for national economies. In my opinion the United States is fully capitalized--there are relatively few places where investing new money makes sense. That means we have a savings glut, which implies that interest rates are low and will remain low for a very long time. This is why asset prices are being bid up--houses, art, antique cars, bitcoin, stocks & bonds, etc.--as there are no other good places to put money.

Note that we Trumpkins will be disappointed with tax reform. The stated goal is to repatriate trillions of offshore dollars and thus recapitalize and dramatically grow our economy. Sorry--it won't work. We've already got too much capital sloshing around. But it will secure very low interest rates for even longer, and people who own real estate or bitcoin will do very well. (I am generally in favor of the tax reform proposals, but not for that reason.)

Finally, productivity growth is the implementation of new technology, e.g., replacing the horse with the internal combustion engine, or the abacus with a computer. For whatever reason (there's no agreement on why) productivity growth has declined since about 1970. Robert Gordon wrote a whole book on that subject, which I reviewed here.

That our economy is growing faster than demographics is likely due entirely to productivity growth.

Trade

Money is earned only by trade and in no other way. I can buy something from you only if I have money. And the only way I can get money is by selling something to you or somebody else. Or put another way, only people with something to sell are able to buy the things I sell. A homeless, unemployed bum has no marketable skill or product to sell, and therefore has no money to buy anything from me or anybody else.

It's the same with countries. We buy toys from China, paying them in dollars. That only works if China can buy airplanes from us, also paid for in dollars. If we didn't manufacture airplanes then China would not sell us their toys since we'd have no money. (A trade deficit just means China doesn't need an airplane today, but will buy one in the future. Meanwhile it keeps its dollars invested in US Treasury bills.)

China is America's largest trading partner. That means China manufactures things that we want to buy, which perforce means that we manufacture things that they want to buy (today or in the future). So Marxists are wrong (and specifically H&B are wrong): we do not benefit from manufacturing all products in the United States. We should only manufacture those items for which we have a comparative advantage. Everything else we should buy from other countries.

This explains why our biggest trading partners are mostly rich countries. Rich countries produce things we want to buy, which means they have money to buy the things we have to sell. A country with nothing to sell also can't buy anything, and therefore is not a market for our products. Our trade with Haiti is next to zero--they've got nothing to sell to us. So Marxists have it precisely wrong: we do not want to impoverish the world. Quite the opposite--we only trade with countries that can produce valuable goods and so can afford our products.

The Marshall Plan and OBOR

The Marshall Plan was a program of loans to war-ravaged Europe after World War II. The purpose was to rebuild the European economy so that Europeans could sell into the US market, enabling them to buy things from the United States. That trade was hugely profitable to both sides of the Atlantic, generating way more than enough to pay back all the loans.

Had the Plan been a failure then US taxpayers would have been on the hook for all the loan defaults, and Europe would never have become a major trading partner to the US. As it is our total trade to European Union countries combined is larger than our trade with China.

OBOR (One Belt, One Road) is--according to H&B--a Chinese version of the Marshall Plan. That means China is lending to other countries in the hopes that they can produce something that China wants to buy, which will enable those countries to pay back the loans. So compare and contrast: during the Marshall Plan we lent money to Germany, Holland, the UK, France, etc. China is lending money to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Greece, and Venezuela. Let me know how promising you think Chinese investments are likely to be. Hint: they've already written off Venezuela.

There are certainly geopolitical calculations in China's OBOR project, but as an economic effort it's doomed to fail. H&B, for example, point to the Greek port of Piraeus, which they claim is now the largest port in the Eastern Mediterranean. But it's a lost cause--Piraeus has no industrial or agricultural hinterland, and transport to/from the more productive parts of Europe is hopelessly difficult and expensive.

China

Henderson & Burke's letter is mostly about China. I will have more to say about that in a future post.

Further Reading:


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Review: Eleven Nations of North America

This post's heading is often how Colin Woodard's book is referred to, but the real title is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, published in 2011. As someone interested in geography and politics I found it a fascinating and engaging read. I had originally resisted reading it thinking it was a rehash of Joel Garreau's 1982 book The Nine Nations of North America. It's not, and indeed it is much better--more scholarly, much more historical, and a lot more than Mr. Garreau's entertaining, anecdotal journalism.

For all that, I think Mr. Woodard's thesis is at least incomplete, if not outright wrong.

It begins promisingly enough, expanding on David Hackett Fisher's magisterial Albion's Seed, which describes four of the nations. For example, Yankeedom was founded by Puritan immigrants from East Anglia. They were the victors in England's Civil War, and came not as refugees, but rather as pilgrims. Their goal was to build "a city on a hill," i.e., a place closer to God, and where His chosen people can lead a more saintly life. The Yankees had no use for aristocrats or royalty, nor did they believe in freedom of religion. They despised the Anglican church, "popery", and the heretical Quakers. They passionately supported the American Revolution, providing the largest number of soldiers for that effort.

Yankeedom, according to Woodard, started in New England, but has since expanded to include the Canadian Maritimes, Upstate New York, and west to encompass Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (along with bits of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois). Yankees believed in good government guided by religious truth.

They also colonized the Left Coast, that skinny stretch along our Pacific rim to the west of the Sierra/Cascade mountains, including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. (Los Angeles is part of El Norte.)

By contrast, the Midlands was settled originally by Quakers, a heretical Christian sect who emigrated from the West Midlands--places like Lancashire and Cheshire. Unique among American colonists, they championed religious liberty and tolerance generally. Accordingly, they welcomed immigration from "friendly" people, e.g. German pietists such as the Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, etc. Because their ancestral home in England was strongly affected by Viking invasions, the Quakers share much with Scandinavians, both in heritage and culture, including gender equality, and indeed equality generally. Northern Delaware was settled by Swedes, who arrived upon Quaker invitation.

The Quakers themselves are not important today, but the immigrants they attracted still thrive and preserve most of their values. Among those are pacifism, which led them to tend Loyalist during the American Revolution, and not eager to join the Union cause during the Civil War. (The New Netherlanders, who lived in New York City and immediate environs, were stauncher Loyalists and Confederate sympathizers, albeit for different reasons.)

From Mr. Woodard's map, the Midlands today looks like a ridiculously gerrymandered congressional district, including most of Pennsylvania and South Jersey, central portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, much of Missouri and Iowa, and the eastern parts of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Their Loyalist sympathies caused them to emigrate to Southern Ontario and Manitoba, where they still dominate the culture. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis are Midlander cities.

Greater Appalachia was settled by people from the Scottish Borders, who Woodard dubs Borderlanders, but are more commonly known as Scots-Irish. They are the only colonists who truly supported democracy and individual rights, along with the ideal of rugged individualism. Tidewater (Chesapeake Bay) was settled by the aristocratic losers in the English civil war, who sought to recreate their lost British homeland. They produced men of great character and erudition, notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, without whom the Revolution should never have succeeded. The Deep South began in Charleston, SC, by immigrants from Barbados who wanted to expand their profitable slaveocracy beyond that small island. Unlike in Tidewater, for these people slavery was precisely the point of their existence.

And so on. Mr. Woodard recounts American history as a struggle between these and other nations for dominance in the federal government. While Virginia was the most populous state, Yankeedom was the most populous nation. They both hated the Quakers. The Borderlanders hated everybody, fighting against Southern aristocrats and Yankee "good government" meddlers alike. In the end it became a battle to prevent the Deep South from expanding too far, and then dominating the federal government. That, along with the Yankee's strong moral objections to slavery, led eventually to the Civil War.

And indeed, through the Civil War I find Mr. Woodard's story convincing. After that it becomes much less credible. I'll highlight three reasons why.

1.  African-Americans. Through most of the book Black people are slaves and have no further influence. Then they briefly become equally neutered sharecroppers. Only near the end do they acquire any agency at all in the form of the Civil Rights movement. During which Malcolm X is described as a "Yankee," in comparison to Martin Luther King, who is a "Deep Southerner." Really?

Within Mr. Woodard's framework African-Americans are probably deserving of their own nation, overlayed on top of the others such as what they do with area codes. Certainly their influence on American politics and culture grants them at least that importance. For example, American music is substantially of African-American heritage, and owes nothing to the Barbadian immigrants who founded the Deep South.

Indeed, I will go further and argue that most residual influence of the antebellum South is due to African-Americans.

2.  Technology. In 1840 it may have been reasonable for Southern plantation owners to think their slaveocracy might survive (though Tidewater's Thomas Jefferson doubted that even before the Revolution). But by 1860 surely the handwriting was on the wall--technology in the form of railroads and mechanization would eventually render slavery economically impossible.

The problems with slavery are twofold: it is a fundamentally unproductive use of labor, and it depends crucially on export markets for income, as slaves cannot become consumers. Both of those conditions made slavery uncompetitive on the world market.

After the war it turned into sharecropping, which at least incentivized the workforce a little better. By 1900 mechanization was in full force, the Southern farms became much more productive, and their former slaves migrated north to factories where their skills could be better used.

Exceptions notwithstanding, today's Southern Blacks--who populate shopping malls and live in middle class suburbs--are not desperately poor people under the thumb of some hopelessly cruel oligarchy. Yet oligarchy is precisely how Mr. Woodard describes the South, as if  Barbadian descendants still ran the show. Please, Mr. Woodard, name ten such oligarchs that control the South. You can't because they don't exist anymore. The South has an economy as modern as any other part of the country. And the proof is that Blacks have gone from being slaves to being consumers, just like the rest of us.

This process would have happened anyway, Civil War or no. So I disagree with Mr. Woodard's statement that the war was primarily about slavery. It was much more about culture, which included slavery but which didn't depend on it, especially in Virginia.

3. Morality Tale. The last two chapters of the book are the least satisfying, for that is where Mr. Woodard reveals his Yankee roots and moralizing tendencies. The Borderlanders are no longer just different, but they've morphed into something evil. Either that or they're stupid victims of some (non-existent) oligarchy. He claims, for example, that lessening regulations on clean air standards is a sop to corporations, apparently unaware that the United Mine Workers are as much against those regulations as their bosses. Of course, because their jobs and livelihoods are on the line.

Borderlanders have spent the last three centuries fighting against aristocracy and Yankee government  in defense of democracy and individual freedom. Why should they now surrender to the regulatory state? What is it about Yankee technocrats that makes them so fit to rule?

Some regulation is necessary. Too much regulation is bad. One can argue the distinction. But Mr. Woodard seems to think that every squiggle from a government bureaucrat is divinely inspired, and that Borderlanders should just suck it up and obey their Yankee superiors.

Bullshit.

Though I enjoyed and recommend Mr. Woodard's book. Just don't believe all of it.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Schreiber on Bonn Climate Talks

Socialist Action's Michael Schreiber reports on the COP23 UN-sponsored climate talks held in Bonn, Germany. The topic has not made the news on any other medium I pay attention to (and I'm a news junkie), so I was unaware that the talks were even happening. That's how far climate change has fallen off the radar in the United States--you have to read papers from Trotskyist grouplets to find out what's going on.

Whatever the status of the scientific debate, the climateers have lost the political battle. People are not willing to take a catastrophic hit to their standard of living now in order to prevent some hypothetical (and improbable) disaster one hundred years from now.

My own posts on climate change are among the least read of any, which is par for the course--nobody is interested in the topic anymore. But Mr. Schreiber's article is such a hodge-podge of silly ideas that I can't resist trying to set him straight (a lost cause, I know). I will make clear at the outset that I don't believe Mr. Schreiber speaks for actual "climate scientists." They are a more sober group of people who are less willing to throw factoids around as propaganda points. For in the long run such hyperbole diminishes their credibility and hurts their cause.

Here are a few of the factoids:
  • "As the conference opened, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that 2017 is apparently the hottest non-Niño year on record, and is expected to join the two previous years as the three hottest in modern history." What is left unsaid is that the record is only since the beginning of the satellite era, i.e., about 40 years ago. This is not a long enough timeframe from which to draw major inferences about the climate.
  • "The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (over 400 ppm) is at a concentration unsurpassed in the last three million years, when global temperatures and sea level were significantly higher than today—and the concentration is still rising."  The 400 ppm is true. The "three million years" is irrelevant. 
  • "The report predicted heat waves becoming common, an increase in forest fires in the American West, and drastically reduced water resources with possible chronic drought in the United States by the end of the 21st century. Worldwide sea levels could continue to rise for centuries to come, as the ice sheets and glaciers melt." Rising temperatures will mean more water vapor in the atmosphere, which is inconsistent with a prediction of more droughts. And rising sea levels are not caused by melting glaciers, but rather by the thermal expansion of the world's oceans.
  • "The report presented a grim prognosis for the future, in which the Atlantic coast of the United States could be swamped by rising seas and regularly battered by heavy storms."  'Heavy storms' is inconsistent with extreme drought. And it's not clear climate science suggests there will be more storms, which depend not on the absolute temperature, but rather the temperature difference between the poles and the equator. So far that difference seems to be diminishing rather than increasing.
The conference chose an odd spokesman: the Prime Minister of Fiji, Mr. Frank Bainimarama. He claims to represent “ 'one of the most climate-vulnerable regions on earth' and called on the delegates to 'make the Paris Accord work.' ” If you're trying to convince American workers to make huge sacrifices to prevent climate change, then touting him as the principal beneficiary hardly seems like a winning strategy.

Mr. Bainimarama doubles down on the disaster by claiming “ 'The need for urgency is obvious,' he said, referring to the tremendous hurricanes, floods, droughts, and forest fires of the last year and more. 'Our world is in distress from the extreme weather events caused by climate change.' ” A prediction that predicts everything is a forecast that can't be taken very seriously.

More surprising to me is that Mr. Schreiber, a Trotskyist in good standing, even takes the Paris accords seriously. He echoes the complaints of poor countries that the developed countries are not keeping their word to contribute the promised $100 billion in climate aid.
The Bonn conference is entrusted with creating a mechanism to achieve the objectives of the Paris Accord, while leaving space for those goals to be raised higher. But success, even on limited terms, is not assured. On the first day of the conference, less developed countries, led by India, questioned whether the wealthier countries could be trusted, since they had failed to meet many of their pledges to reduce carbon emissions made at earlier COPs.
India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been very forthright in stating that his country is not going to take an economic hit because of hypothetical climate predictions. He has adamantly refused to scale back fossil fuel use. So the hypocrisy is stunning: India still wants money from American taxpayers (among others) to fund its nonexistent efforts in fighting climate change.

Mr. Schreiber seems to believe (though he does not say explicitly) that the Paris accords are a good first step, i.e., a reformist position. Though I will ask: if the Accords were implemented in full, how much cooler would the planet be 100 years from now? How is the implementation (or lack thereof) of the Paris accords reflected in the computer models that supposedly predict the climate?

In the extraordinarily unlikely possibility that Mr. Schreiber gets his way, this is what it would mean for American workers:

  • They will pay much higher electric bills, by multiples of 10, or even 100 times more.
  • Transport will become vastly more expensive, and much less convenient. Travel in the US will be as difficult as it is in today's Cuba.
  • Solar power, when scaled up, will have enormous environmental impacts, from the large heavy-metal waste from their manufacture, to the large amounts of land required for their use, to the toxic and expensive materials used in batteries to store the generated power.
  • Electric cars will put even larger demands on the power network, leading to much higher prices and lower reliability.
It is no wonder that the climate issue has disappeared from American politics. Trump's withdrawal from Paris was very popular, and not even progressive Democrats are advocating that we reenlist. The Accords were never meaningful, regardless of whether the US is a signatory or not.

Further Reading:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tradable vs. Non-Tradable Goods

This post has nothing to do with Trotskyism, for which I apologize in advance. But I watched a really interesting talk last night by Mervyn King (h/t Timothy Taylor). The thesis is new to me and so totally congenial to my priors that I'm inspired to write about it--Trotskyism be damned.

Mr. King's larger topic is the "failure" of macroeconomics since the Great Recession. He has a lot of interesting things to say about that, but he also addresses why the current recovery has been relatively slow and weak.

There are a number of theories:

  • Larry Summers' Secular Stagnation model, by which interest rates can't go below zero.
  • Robert Gordon's low-productivity model, which maintains the "miracle century" is over and done with and won't come again anytime soon.
  • It's all the Fed's fault, which for malign and inexplicable reasons has kept interest rates very low for far too long.
These are not really mutually exclusive, but the long-term decline in global interest rates since 1990 requires an explanation. And Mr. King offers a good one.

One of the shortcomings of modern macro (in his view) is that the computer models all assume a single sector. This is best explained using the cartoon version: The economy consists of a GDP factory that manufactures GDP. Consumers buy the GDP, and if they buy all of it then we have full employment and a thriving economy. If, on the other hand, consumers only purchase some of the GDP, then there will be layoffs, declining production, deflation, and all the other ills that afflict a recessionary economy. The disease is generally described as "low aggregate demand", which just means consumers don't want to buy all the GDP. The cure is to increase aggregate demand, typically by the government buying up the excess GDP through deficit spending, and thereby putting folks back to work again.

A common criticism is that the economy is much more complicated than that--it's not just a GDP factory. Instead you have technology, and retail, and automobiles, etc. Some of these sectors may be healthy and others not so much. There's no such thing as "aggregate demand", but rather demand for the products of these individual sectors.

The computer guys are aware of this shortcoming, and so they inserted multiple sectors into their models and ran the programs that way. What they discovered is that it didn't make much difference--for all intents and purposes you got the same answer whether or not you use a multi-sector model or a single-sector model, i.e., a GDP factory. (I'm assuming that the sectors they tried are things like Industrials, Transports, Retail, etc., but I don't know that for sure.)

So now Mr. King comes along and suggests that the single-sector model is fundamentally wrong, and that at least two sectors are required. But rather than divvying up the economy as market indicators do, he instead makes the fundamental distinction between tradable goods and non-tradable goods.

The difference is that foreigners can buy tradable goods, whereas they can't easily buy non-tradable goods. So airplanes, movies, software, and computer chips can be exported abroad, and those are examples of tradable goods. Conversely, haircuts, taxi rides, restaurant meals, and doctors' visit are not readily tradable. (At the margin everything becomes fuzzy: foreign tourists can eat in our restaurants and foreign students can study at our universities, but for the most part restaurants and colleges are in the non-tradable sector.)


If the economy is split between tradable and non-tradable sectors, then there is some optimal distribution of capital and labor investment that optimizes total GDP. That is, the optimal proportion of capital is invested in tradable industries with the remainder in non-tradable industries. And similarly for labor.

This idea can be represented graphically (see below). The blue arrow (labelled a von Neumann ray) represents economic growth--the longer the arrow the faster the economy is growing. The direction of the arrow tells you the optimal proportions of investment in tradable (T) and non-tradable (NT) industries. Choose any different direction and the arrow will be shorter (i.e., suboptimal). Taken literally (which is not the intention) the diagram indicates that the bulk of the investment is in tradable industries since the arrow is closer to the T axis. (Put mathematically, the blue arrow is a vector in a 2-dimensional vector-space, with the coefficients representing the fraction of investment in either T or NT.)
Diagram taken from King, Mervyn: NBER Reporter (2017: 3, pp. 1-10)
Of course there is no guarantee that the economy is optimal--if resources are misallocated between the two sectors then it won't be. A tell that there is misallocation is if there is a permanent trade imbalance such as what exists today. In today's world, China and (especially) Germany have been running huge trade surpluses, while the US and the UK have been running substantial trade deficits. These imbalances have persisted for decades (though in the case of China things are beginning to change).

This means that the US is producing too few tradable goods, and conversely producing too many non-tradable goods. Schematically, it implies that we've gone off the rails somewhere around point A on the graph and have been following the suboptimal, dashed-line curve to point B. This, in Mr. King's opinion, is the reason for the sub-par growth of the economy since the Great Recession.

It also explains low interest rates. A big trade surplus (such as for Germany) results in a comparably large capital surplus for the United States. This typically shows up in German and Chinese purchases of US government debt, i.e., treasury bills, resulting in very low interest rates.

Before the Great Recession we were able to muddle through. Since the Recession, however, the situation has become unsustainable and we (along with the rest of the world) are taking a hit to growth. The solution is to rebalance investment between the two sectors and follow the red line from B back to point C, on the optimal von Neumann ray.

For Germany the situation is opposite. Their economy also deviates from optimum, but to the left of the blue arrow rather than to the right. They are producing too many tradable goods and as a result required to export capital around the world. US government debt is the least of their problems; more troublesome are the large loans made to countries such as Greece.

My thoughts:

1) If Mr. King is correct, then huge investments in new infrastructure are precisely the wrong thing to do. After all, there is nothing less tradable than a new highway, and since we're already over-invested in NT, this just doubles down on a bad idea. I've never been a fan of infrastructure spending, which I regard mostly as wasteful pork. Mr. King simply confirms my opinion.

2) Among the things I most appreciate about the Republican tax plan is that it disses higher education. Of course that's mostly political--higher ed is certainly no friend of conservative politics, and for that reason alone they deserve to be defunded. But more, I think this country invests waaay too much in education generally, and higher ed specifically. And given that education is mostly an NT industry, Mr. King's thesis reinforces the point. Disinvesting from higher ed at the margin is a very good idea, and an excellent reason to support the Republican tax plan.

3) Mr. Trump's fixation on the trade deficit may not be quite as cockamamie as it sounds (though it's still pretty cockamamie). Most economists think that the trade deficit doesn't matter, and that's certainly what I used to think. To be sure, year to year fluctuations don't matter, but when the deficits are long term and endemic, there clearly is a problem. In his own inarticulate way Mr. Trump is addressing an important issue. Though I do wish he'd phrase it in less zero-sum terms.

In short, I learned something from Mr. King. If anybody thinks I misunderstand or have misstated his views, please let me know.

Further Reading:


Saturday, November 4, 2017

100 Years After October Revolution

Three articles have recently appeared celebrating the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Socialist Viewpoint publishes a piece by Chris Kinder, The North Star highlights an article by Roger Silverman, and finally, Socialist Action posts a feature written by their national leader, Jeff Mackler. Mr. Mackler promises a second installment which I fear may not appear for several more weeks.

All three articles cover pretty much the same territory, which we can summarize with three questions:
  1. What was the significance of the Russian Revolution in 1917?
  2. How can the success or failure of the Revolution be assessed?
  3. What is the relevance of 1917 to our present day?
Significance

All three authors hold the Russian Revolution in very high regard. Chris Kinder, in his opening paragraph, phrases it in utopian terms.
Long disparaged and denounced as it is, the Russian Revolution of 1917 still demands our attention today. No event in history was quite like the Russian Revolution, because no other event before or since has attempted to change the motive force of history in the fundamental way that this event did. By forming the world’s first and only lasting (if only for a few years) workers’ state, this revolution alone offered the promise of a world without the endless class conflict that defined all previous history: a world based on genuine human cooperation; free of exploitation, war, racism, sexism and national, ethnic and religious oppression. The promise of the Russian Revolution embodied the true goals of the vast majority of humanity then, and yes, of humanity today. The fact that this revolution soon was unraveled, betrayed and eventually destroyed only makes the lessons it holds for us today more important to understand.
Mr. Silverman perceives the Revolution as a specter that still haunts the globe.
November 7th, 2017 marks the centenary of an event whose impact still today reverberates throughout the world. The Russian revolution remains a constant spectre at the feast of the rich, its shadow falling across all subsequent history. Since its lessons lie buried in a century of sludge by all those determined to malign its meaning, it is the duty of socialists to unearth them and bring them back to light.
Mr. Mackler credits the Bolshevik Party.
To this day, 100 years after Lenin’s Bolshevik Party led the world’s first socialist revolution, no party has matched its record of social, political, theoretical, organizational, military, cultural, and moral contributions to the advancement of the interests of the working-class masses.
He sees Socialist Action as following in the Bolshevik's footsteps (though he's too modest to suggest that he is himself the reincarnation of Lenin).

Assessment

Trotskyists have a problem. Unlike Communist parties, they are not willing to sweep the Stalinist crimes under the rug. They freely admit to the purges and mass murders of the 1930s, though those events are not explicitly mentioned in any of the articles. And contrary to Conservative critics (like me) they are even more adamantly insistent that the Revolution was ultimately a success. After all, why celebrate it otherwise. It is a high wire act to rescue something of enduring value from an event that otherwise appears disastrous.

Mr. Silverman is the most explicit in tabulating accomplishments, citing economic data.
It is worth remembering that in earlier days, for all its devastating burdens, the planned economy had boasted miracles of economic transformation. To take a measure of what was then achieved, in the fifty years starting from 1913 (the highest point of the Russian pre-revolutionary economy), Russia’s share of total world industrial output had soared from 3% to 20%, and total industrial output had risen more than 52 times over. (The corresponding figure for the USA was less than six times.) In the same period, industrial productivity of labour had risen by 1,310%, compared to 332% in the USA, and steel production from 4.3 million tons in 1928 (at the start of the first Five Year Plan) to 100 million tons. Life expectancy had more than doubled and child mortality dropped nine times. Soviet Russia in its heyday produced more scientists, technicians and engineers every year than the rest of the world put together.
This paragraph illustrates a fundamental problem with Marxist economics, which renders their comparisons irrelevant. That's because they weigh measures of what workers produce much higher than what consumers buy. Producing something (e.g., refrigerators that don't work or cars that break down within 5000 miles or warehouses full of rotting produce) is not important if people don't want or need to buy it. Increasing industrial output by 52 times, or even by a million times, has no value if it serves no need for consumers, i.e., people. That's why sales data is more important than production data.

Mr. Kinder recounts some (in his view) admirable Bolshevik policies without commenting on how successful they were. The most radical was the Decree on Land, which forbade landlords from collecting rent or evicting tenants. He tells in loving detail of the political intrigue this dramatic move caused, though nowhere does he say anything about the economic outcome, which we know was awful.

Mr. Mackler also comments on land reform, writing,
Aside from revolutionary Cuba, no nation since then has implemented a land reform-distribution of that scope. Indeed, today in Latin America every so-called revolutionary or “popular” regime, from Venezuela to Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay to Nicaragua and Argentina, has failed to accomplish even a modest land reform. To do so would entail a break with the capitalist system of private property that none of the above dared to contemplate.
Beyond Cuba, he fails to consider Zimbabwe, which implemented a land reform at least as catastrophic as the Soviets. And then also China, unless he is revisiting the existence of the Chinese Revolution. Beyond which it beggars imagination to think that Cuba has an effective agricultural industry.

The problem with transferring all property rights to the poorest citizens is that they, almost by definition, lack the capital (both human & financial) and the access to markets to be meaningful producers. If the goal is to improve agricultural output, this strategy will inevitably fail, as it always has.

Then Mr. Kinder talks about Soviet housing policy. The paragraph is long and hard to excerpt, but here goes.
However, to judge by the numerous critiques of Soviet housing that emerged in modern times, one would think that problems such as these were the whole story, as they repeat endless horror stories about inadequate housing in the USSR. Yet, how many homeless people were there in the Soviet Union?....Russians find it odd that Americans call themselves ‘homeowners’ from the day they close on a mortgage loan. For Russians, ownership only begins after all debts are paid off.” How true that was for millions of so-called “homeowners” in the U.S. who lost their homes in the mortgage fraud-induced crash of 2008!
There was no homelessness in the Soviet Union because it was illegal to be homeless. The alternative was internment in a mental hospital (or worse). And surely Mr. Kinder will acknowledge that almost all Americans had housing far better than all but the Soviet's nomenklatura.

Relevance

None of our correspondents are very specific about the relevance of Russia's revolution on today's world, beyond claiming that it's earthshaking and exemplary.

We've quoted Mr. Kinder at the top of this post. Presumably Mr. Mackler will have something to say in his next installment. That leaves Mr. Silverman, who simply asserts that it continues to be important.
And now more than ever, another world is necessary. In every continent today, a new generation is waking up to the reality that the only future it faces under capitalism is one of poverty, homelessness, hopelessness, discrimination, environmental destruction and war. Millions of people are in revolt, casting around for alternatives, sometimes seduced by false demagogues, but increasingly determined to find a road to change. Those commentators who used to scoff at the idea of revolution are today falling silent. In a recent Greek opinion poll, 33% called for “revolution”. And last year in the USA, 54% of respondents voted yes to the idea of a “political revolution to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans”. That included 68% of Afro-Americans, 65% of Hispanics, and 68% of 18-29 year-olds.
It is time to rescue the Russian revolution from the history books and return it to its rightful place as a guide to action.
I think if you'd asked those poll respondents "Would you like to live in country like the Soviet Union?" I suspect the answers would have been far different.

My view is that the Russian Revolution has faded into history and has nearly no relevance for the modern world outside of Russia. Within Russia, the Revolution was a cataclysmic event that destroyed their country, culture, and peoples, and from which they will never recover.

Further Reading:

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Eisenhower Coalition

Thomas Friedman has expressed his desire for a radical centrist to save us from our partisan bickering. He thinks our two-party system is broken (written in 2010).
My definition of broken is simple. It is a system in which Republicans will be voted out for doing the right thing (raising taxes when needed) and Democrats will be voted out for doing the right thing (cutting services when needed). When your political system punishes lawmakers for the doing the right things, it is broken. That is why we need political innovation that takes America’s disempowered radical center and enables it to act in proportion to its true size, unconstrained by the two parties, interest groups and orthodoxies that have tied our politics in knots.
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Friedman. Because you have precisely your savior right in front of you: Donald J. Trump.

The last time we had a centrist, non-partisan president in office was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was courted by both parties to serve as their nominee, but chose the Republicans. He believed in big infrastructure (e.g., the Interstate Highway System), balanced budgets, and American patriotism. Those were the days of beneficent paternalism (Father Knows Best) and he-man heroics (John Wayne movies). His modern critics accuse him of sexism and racism, conveniently forgetting that Ike sent in the 101st Airborne to help desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

So in Ike's image along comes Donald, nominally a Republican, though those most loyal to the Republican ideology hived off as NeverTrumpers. Likewise, a lot of Democrats have claimed to hate him, and some of them really do. But it's difficult to find much animosity between Trump and Chuck Schumer, for example. A lot of Democrats actually voted for Trump!

Trump has muddied the waters more by throwing some bones to the Democrats. Most embarrassingly for Congressional Republicans, he forced them to cave on the debt limit extension. The Dems got everything they wanted with no return favor granted or requested.

There are, I think, some not-so-subtle signs that the President is looking for bipartisan, centrist solutions. He knows he is not going to get there by simply hectoring--telling the Democrats that they're obstructionists. Instead he's put some carrots on the table and made it clear that if they bite he'll reciprocate. His debt ceiling surrender was an invitation to negotiate.

I see four general areas where the President would be happy to work with a coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans, throwing both the Tea Party and the Progressives overboard in the process.

1) Health care. Trump relentlessly challenged the Republicans to make good on their Repeal & Replace promise. They couldn't do it--and perhaps Trump even predicted that. He's gone out of his way to embarrass the Congressional leadership, saying he'll be happy to work with Democrats.

And that's true--Trump would love to strike a deal with Chuck Schumer to craft a version of Obamacare that is both financially and politically stable. It will have to be less intrusive and less comprehensive than the original, but unlike ideological Republicans, Trump definitely believes that health care is a legitimate responsibility of the federal government. In his view Obamacare was a step in the right direction, only it went too far to be practicable.

Trump's strategy is to pressure the Democrats by gradually dismantling Obamacare until they are willing to deal. Eventually (he and Mr. Friedman hope) they will. Obamacare will be saved to be renamed Trumpcare.

2) Immigration. Mr. Trump was never against immigration (see my post from early 2016 here). But he is also right when he says that a country without borders ceases to be a country. Americans will never agree to any legalization not accompanied by much stronger border security. Trump's goal, which he presented in very visceral language illustrating that trade-off, is precisely to craft a comprehensive immigration deal (such as what Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio and Mr. Friedman also want).

For that he needs Democratic support. The carrot is already there--he's offered to sign a DACA bill. But that bill also has to include a "wall", which really just means more border enforcement. Trump has indicated a willingness to legalize most undocumented people already here, but not an automatic path to citizenship.

Under Trump an immigration bill becomes politically possible--his base trusts him and the Dems can work with him. In the meantime he is going to make life as uncomfortable for the Democrats as possible by deporting dreamers and defunding their sanctuary cities. Eventually they'll come to the table.

3) Infrastructure. Personally I think this country needs more infrastructure like it needs a hole in the head, though I know Mr. Friedman disagrees with me. But then I'm not a congressman with people in my district looking for candy. Trump--a born builder--is looking for any shiny, new thing that he can attach his name to, along with the name of the local congress-critter. So it's a done deal--yet another tool he can use to bribe the Democrats.

4) The Trump Doctrine. This will replace the Cold War/containment strategy conceived and executed under the Eisenhower administration. Of course that model is now obsolete, and Mr. Trump--in his own colorful and non-intellectual way--understands that. He realizes that the United States has no real use for NATO anymore. He understands that the word "ally" only makes sense if there is also a global enemy (which there isn't). He intuits that countries as disparate as South Korea, Canada, and Saudi Arabia are no longer as strategically important to the United States as they once were. Indeed, they're all about to get thrown under the bus.

But there is one global issue that will keep the US involved on the global stage indefinitely, and that is nuclear proliferation.

In a policy that I predict will eventually be known as the Trump Doctrine, the United States will prohibit any additional country from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons. The first test case is North Korea--there are only two options. Either the Norks gradually dismantle their nuclear and missile capabilities, or the United States will use military means to take them out. The Trump administration has made that abundantly clear--to North Korea, to China, to South Korea and Japan. While we hope those latter three are allies in this fight, neither their opinion nor their fate will determine our action. If necessary we will attack North Korea to destroy their bombs and missiles regardless of consequences elsewhere.

Once North Korea is disarmed we will pull our troops off the Korean peninsula. There is no strategic reason for us to be there.

Terminating the treaty with Iran is of the same piece. It doesn't matter if Iran was in compliance or not--their nuclear program is non-negotiable. The fact is that a nuclear Iran will experience the very same fire and fury that may be visited on North Korea. I think the Iranians understand that--their nuclear program is over.

So while I supported Trump in 2016 (and compared to Hillary it was no contest--also no regrets), I'm not really a Trump centrist. Count me more sympathetic to neverTrumpers ideology (though frankly they're not a very inspiring group of people).

I'm skeptical of more federal involvement in healthcare, and as stated, I generally oppose big infrastructure projects. I am pro-immigration, and I would strongly support the immigration plan I attribute to Trump above. I support the Trump Doctrine, if that's what it turns out to be.

Still, it's a strange world out there. I won't make any predictions, but if in 2020 I vote against Trump, and if Thomas Friedman votes for him I will not be all that surprised.

Further Reading:



Sunday, October 22, 2017

Book Review: The Absent Superpower

So I'm on a Peter Zeihan tear this month--this is the third post in a row about that author. But now is the end of it, for as much as I agree with his premises and some of his conclusions, his recent (2016) book goes off the rails.

The first section, entitled Shale New World, is worth the read no matter what you think of Mr. Zeihan's opinions. It is a concise and clear description of the US and global shale industry, including relevant facts about technology, geology, chemistry and finance, all very clearly explained. In particular, my Trotskyist friends would do well to read this--not that it will change their minds, but at least they could argue their environmental extremist positions knowledgeably.

American frackers have worked hard to ameliorate the environmental problems of their trade, also making it cheaper in the process. For example, there has been much talk about the amount of water used in fracking. That was never as big problem as it was cracked up to be--the US industry uses less water American golf courses. Still, especially in arid areas, water had to be trucked to the site, and the resulting waste water was no longer usable by humans or agriculture.

What frackers have since discovered is that accompanying shale oil is also a layer of water far below the shallow ground water that makes up important aquifers. This deep groundwater is brackish, meaning it can't be used as fresh water, which is an advantage to frackers since they need to add salt to frack-water anyway. Further, organic material--algae, etc.--is a problem and aquifer water needs to be filtered to remove that. The deep groundwater contains little or no life, which saves money. Finally, they drill through the layer on their way to the oil, so water can be extracted on site, eliminating trucking costs.

While shale producers recycle as much wastewater as possible, eventually there is a disposal problem, which remains the largest environmental issue associated with fracking. Accordingly frackers have worked hard to make their solutions as non-toxic as possible. Today they restrict themselves to using non-toxic, consumer products as additives. Apparently there are YouTube videos showing frack executives drinking frack water!

The result is that the American frack industry is profitable at $35/barrel, competitive even with Saudi Arabia.

A second important point is that fracking is overwhelmingly an American industry, and Mr. Zeihan explains why that will remain true even two or three decades into the future, despite the fact that there are massive shale reserves elsewhere on the planet.

And that leads to the remainder of the book, which reads very much like a war thriller. It's as compelling as fiction largely because it mostly is fiction--at least in my opinion.

I accept Mr. Zeihan's two premises: 1) North America is already energy independent, and does not depend on global trade for oil; and 2) the United States no longer has any compelling reason to remain engaged in world affairs outside the Western Hemisphere, and therefore will no longer police global sea lanes or enforce international borders. 

The result will be the Great Disorder as the rest of the world fails on short notice to establish their own order. Mr. Zeihan predicts three wars, all occurring roughly simultaneously. The Twilight War, centered around the Baltic Sea, will pit Russia against Scandinavia, Poland, England, and probably Germany. Related to the Twilight War will be Russia's effort to secure its southeastern flank against Turkey by occupying land to the banks of the Danube in Romania.

The second war is the (Next) Gulf War which will pit Iran against Saudi Arabia, precipitated by the withdrawal of American forces from the Persian Gulf. This will lead, in extremis, to the complete de-civilization of the entire Middle East, including the destruction of the electricity network from Oman to Lebanon. It will result in 60 million deaths and/or refugees.

And finally is the Tanker War, caused by the closure of the Persian Gulf, along with most Russian oil exports. The Tanker War will be a struggle between China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan to secure whatever little oil is left on the open market, and to protect their ships from the depredations of enemies, pirates, and third-party countries such as India that will engage in privateering.

Of course all of this could happen--anything could happen--but it's not likely. When I mentioned these scenarios to a friend of mine, he immediately asked Don't any of the countries have any diplomats? It's a good question--Mr. Zeihan's scenario assumes they don't and they all go for absolutely the worst possible outcome.

Let's take the Twilight War as an example--so named because Russia is in terminal demographic decline and has only a few more years to wage war of any sort. It will spend this opportunity attempting to recover the defensible boundaries of the former Soviet Union. Of course they will probably lose, and either way their demography will still decline, so this really doesn't make too much sense.

It's easy to come up with a diplomatic solution to the Twilight War. Germany, far from fighting Russia, has every reason to ally itself. In return for a guaranteed supply of oil and access to the Russian market, Germany will guarantee Russian borders. Indeed, Germany can guarantee all the borders in the Baltic region. As Mr. Zeihan points out, the Russians could invade the Baltic countries on a Sunday afternoon. There's no reason for them to do it preemptively when there is no military threat on the Western frontier. By treaty both Poland and the Baltics could be demilitarized.

Further, the Germans will float a flotilla down the Danube to Romania, and set up camp on the Black Sea. Of course they'll be keeping an eye on Russia, but their primary mission will be to defend against the real rising power in Eurasia--Turkey. On this front, too, the Germans and Russians are allies. Germany has been very quiet about objections to the Russian reconquest of Crimea, and is not all that upset by the Russian invasion of Ukraine precisely because the Turks are a bigger threat.

If the French navy can secure the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia can fortify the northern shores of the Black Sea, and Germany can defend Romania, Bulgaria, and mainland Greece against Turkey, then Europe is as secure as possible against either military or refugee invasions from the Middle East. The Russians can get back to doing what they most urgently need to do--make babies.

Turkey can relieve Iranian pressure on Saudi Arabia simply by attacking, or threatening to attack, Azerbaijan. With this tool the Turks can turn Saudi Arabia into a vassal state, reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire. By building a pipeline from Ghawar (Saudi's oil-producing region) to the Mediterranean, Turkey will have both the Iranians and Arabs by the short hairs.

There is no shortage of oil in the world--the only issue is transport disruption due to war. Get rid of the other wars, then the tanker war becomes unnecessary. Peace will prevail. And we'll all live happily ever after.

Or maybe not. It may not end as cheerily as I suggest. But Mr. Zeihan's predictions I think are almost certainly wrong.

Further Reading: