Archive for December, 2017

Six harsh truths for the new year

December 31, 2017

The world only cares about what it can get from you.

The hippies were wrong.

What you produce does not have to make money, but it does have to benefit people.

You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.

What you are inside only matters because of what it makes you do.

Everything inside you will fight improvement.


These are sub-headlines of an article on by David Wong.  Click on any of the links to read the full article.


China tries to draw Afghanistan into its orbit

December 30, 2017

China’s ancient Silk Road

China’s modern Silk Road

The U.S. government for 15 years has been trying to pacify Afghanistan, without success.

During these same 15 years, the Chinese government has been extending its power and influence into the interior of Asia by investing in railroads, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure across the region at the invitation of local governments..

The Chinese call this the “Belts and Roads Initiative”—the belts being the oil and gas pipelines. Others call it the New Silk Road.

Recently China made an agreement with Pakistan to create an economic development corridor, culminating in a port giving China direct access to the Indian Ocean near the Persian Gulf.   Now China and Pakistan are trying to draw Afghanistan into their economic alliance.

I don’t know how all this will turn out.  Many things can go wrong.

But it seems clear that Beijing has been more effective in extending its power by offering material benefits than Washington has by means of military intervention and economic sanctions.

Furthermore China’s policies have made it economically stronger while U.S. policies have depleted U.S. strength.


Apollo 17 – I hope it was the latest, not the last

December 27, 2017

The story of the Apollo 17 mission of 45 years ago should not be forgotten.   It is a story of herosim and competence, two qualities we Americans as a nation can’t afford to lose.

At the present time, we as a nation need to give priority to the basics—long-term survival goals more than aspirational goals.  But I hope Apollo 17 was the latest, and not the last, American venture to the moon and beyond.

Merry Christmas 2017

December 24, 2017

The truth about Santa Claus

December 21, 2017

Sexual abuse and trial by denunciation

December 19, 2017

I don’t feel that, as a citizen, I can take on the responsibility of judging the innocence or degree of guilt of every public figure accused of sexual misconduct.

Even though the Court of Public Opinion is at present the basic venue for trying such cases.

To make informed judgments, I would have the time, inclination and ability to judge in each case whether the person was guilty of (1) a felony, (2) a misdemeanor, (3) gross bad manners or (4) nothing at all that matters.   I’d also have to weigh whether it was a one-time event in the fairly distant past or a continuing pattern over a long period of time.

Most people are too busy to do this.   They judge on the basis of whether there is just one accusation or a lot of them, and on whether the accused admits guilt or stands their ground..

The problem is that there are two kinds of people without guilty consciences—the innocent and the shameless.  If you can manage to act innocent, many people will assume you are innocent.


As I wrote in a previous post, I’ve been blind to how pervasive sexual harassment is.   Evidently there is a world of rich, powerful celebrities who think, often rightly, that they can get away with anything.  I recall the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful French politician and financial official, who thought it was his prerogative to have sex with a random hotel maid.

But sexual abuse does not occur just on the upper levels of society.  One thing I’ve known about for years, but always put out of my mind, is the rape of young boys in the American prison system.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, that we Americans are waking up to the situation.   What we need are procedures for dealing with sexual abuse so that guilty are treated as they deserve and the relatively innocent also are treated as they deserve.

Greater union representation would help.  Union grievance procedures would give employees a way to seek justice.   Federal laws should be enacted to establish that no employee could be fired for complaining about sexual harassment, just as, under law, no employee can be fired for acting in concert with others to demand improvement in working conditions.

Arbitration could help, if the arbiters were truly impartial.   This would require panels in which employees had as much representation as employers.  Simple enforcement of the law, without fear or favor, is important.  Putting women in positions of authority would make a big difference.


Trump, Macron tax plans both favor the rich

December 16, 2017

Donald Trump, the populist, nationalist President of the United States, and Emmanuel Macron, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan President of France, may seem like mirror opposites.

And, indeed, Trump in 2017 spoke favorably of Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, while Macron has been highly critical of Trump.

But they both represent the interests of the economic elite, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous economist who wrote Capital in the 21st Century. 

They both support changes in the tax laws that will increase the share of income of the wealthiest Americans and French.

Piketty says the American and French economic elite have taken almost all the benefit of income growth in the past few decades, and don’t need any more.  Both countries’ new tax laws would—

  • Leave working people feeling even more alienated from their governments than before.
  • Leave the public feeling even more unwilling to make sacrifices need to curb global warming.   If rich people can live even more lavishly than before, why should the rest of us accept the burden of a carbon tax?
  • Leave governments even fewer resources to reduce poverty, either on a national or a global scale.

As Piketty wrote, economic policies that benefit the economic elite at the expense of everybody else, in addition to being bad in themselves, are like to lead to a nationalist backlash that benefits nobody.

This is not an issue that is limited to the USA and France.


Trump, Macron: same fight on Le blog de Thomas Piketty.

I’ll be gone, you’ll still be here

December 14, 2017

I’m 81 years old today.  I don’t come from a long-lived family, and I have what they call a pre-existing medical condition, so I don’t expects decades more of life ahead of me.

I sometimes regret I won’t see what the future holds in store.  But the more I think about the future, the more I’m relieved that I won’t.

The odds are good that I will win what Ian Welsh calls the death bet – the bet that I will have enjoyed the good things the world has to offer and die before I have to pay the price.  If you are 60 years old are younger, the odds are that you will lose.


Right before the financial crash of 2008, there was a saying among Wall Street speculators about when the financial bubble would burst.  “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

In fact none of them suffered any bad consequences from their actions, up to and including financial fraud.  President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arranged to have the big banks and investment firms bailed out of the consequences of their mistakes, and Attorney-General Eric Holder declined to prosecute financial fraud by heads of companies deemed “too big to fail.”

The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department prioritized reviving the stock market, to the great benefit of owners of stocks and bonds, including investors in mutual funds such as myself.   But then, even under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the financial markets recovered before the job markets did.

Now the U.S. economy is in another bubble, just like the last one—overhangs of debt that can’t be paid, increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the decline of the mass consumer market and the failure of either corporations or the government to invest for the future.

It’s probable, but not certain, that the government will succeed in bailing out the big players, just like the last time.  What is certain is that this can’t go on forever.   Without big changes in the financial system, there will be a final crash in which the institutions are not too big to fail, but are too big to rescue.


For more than 60 years, the United States government’s policy toward nuclear war was deterrence.  The theory is that the best way to be safe from war is to have nuclear weapons and be willing to use them if necessary.  In other words, if you want peace, be prepared to go to war.

So far this policy has worked.  We’ve gone to the brink of war a couple of times, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, but we’ve always pulled back in time.   There have long been factions in the U.S. government that wanted to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons, but they’ve always been sidelined or disregarded.

I think it is likely to work—right up until the time it doesn’t work, and it only has to fail once.  If you play a game of Russian roulette, you’re likely—although not certain—to win.  If you continually play Russian roulette, you’re certain to someday lose.

I don’t expect nuclear war with North Korea, although the chances are more than zero.  I don’t expect nuclear war with Russia, although the chances are greater than war with North Korea.   But unless our policy changes, both concerning armaments and our foreign policy in general, there will be a war in which we and everybody else will be the loser.


Hierarchies of need, hierarchies of social class

December 12, 2017

Lambert Strether wrote a good post for Naked Capitalism the other day relating psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchies of need with the U.S. hierarchy of class.

Maslow thought that human beings not only have the same basic needs, but the same priorities.  The basic human need is food, shelter and the other means of survival.  Once you have that, you want security.  Once you have security, you want family, friendship and love.  After you have these, you then are free to seek achievement, creativity, self-expression and so on.

Strether pointed out the rough correlation between Maslow’s hierarchy and the U.S. hierarchy of social class, and argued that this affects U.S. politics.   It certain affects the internal politics of the Democratic Party.

Very crudely, Americans are divided into a bottom 90 percent who are struggling to meet their  survival needs, and a 10 percent whose survival needs are met and can afford to try to gratify  higher-level needs.

Fulfillment of higher-level needs does not threaten the interests of the 1 percent or 0.1 percent who control the wealth of this country.  It is the survival needs of the potentially populist 90 percent that threatens them, because they can’t be met without a redistribution of economic and political power.

Lambert Strether relates identity politics to the higher-level needs of the professional class, but I don’t think that is quite right.   It is rather that racism and sexism are matters of survival on the lower levels of American society and matters of emotional distress and career advancement on the upper levels.

It is one thing to fear being killed by police because of your race or having to take a job in which you are sexually harassed in order to pay the rent.  It is another to be offended by racial stereotypes in the movies or stymied in your career because of a glass ceiling.

Not that stereotypes or glass ceilings are okay!  It is just that they aren’t matters of survival.


The doomsday machine was (and is) real

December 7, 2017

Daniel Ellsberg is famous for leaking The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of U.S. policy in Vietnam.   Now he has written a new book, The Doomsday Machine, which reveals the history of how close the United States came to all-out nuclear war.

The war policy of President Eisenhower was “massive retaliation.”   That meant the only U.S. response to Soviet or Chinese aggression would be all-out nuclear war.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went to the brink of war at least three times, Life magazine reported at the time.  There was even an argument during the Kennedy-Nixon debates as to whether nuclear war would be justified if the Chinese government took over the tiny coastal islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

That was known at the time.  What wasn’t known was that the authority to order a nuclear strike was delegated to military commanders in the field.   We the people thought the decision rested solely with the President.  That wasn’t so.

U.S. plans called for the complete destruction of every city in Russia and China.   Pentagon planners told Ellsberg that this would result in 325 million casualties in Russia and China, plus an additional 100 million in Communist-ruled countries in eastern Europe, 100 million in neutral countries and 100 million among western European allies.

As Ellsberg said, this is the equivalent of 100 Holocausts.  It doesn’t include the number who would die as a result of Soviet retaliation.

Evidently it was thought necessary to credibly threaten to destroy Europe in order to defend it.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s ideas about escalation during the Kennedy administration can be seen as an attempt to create an alternative to immediate massive retaliation.

But while, in a way, well-intended, McNamara’s ideas were illogical.  Once launching a nuclear war is an option, the logic of game theory says you should be the first and not the second to escalate to nuclear warfare.

Ellsberg said every Cold War President through Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave military theater commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons.   He doesn’t know the situation now.

One difference is that U.S. presidents now threaten nuclear attacks against countries without nuclear weapons—a crime against humanity in and of itself, even if you don’t consider the deaths of neutrals and allies.

The U.S. government should join with the Russian government to resume the process of gradual elimination of nuclear weapons that was begun in the Reagan-Gorbachev years.   In the meantime, Congress should enact a law to forbid a U.S. nuclear first strike without a formal declaration of war.


The cost of the Republican tax plan

December 4, 2017

Click to enlarge.  Source: Slate Star Codex


The Brazen Cynicism of the Republican Tax Plan by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Republicans are weaponizing the tax code by Mike Konczal for Vox.

The Tax Bill Compared to Other Very Expensive Things by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Is it wrong to give to panhandlers?

December 2, 2017

The gift without the giver is bare.
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three —
himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.
         ==James Russell Lowell

It’s only during the past few years that I’ve started to give money to beggars.   Prior to that I budgeted certain sums of money for charity, including St. Joseph’s House and the House of Mercy, which serve the homeless poor and felt I had done my duty.

I don’t hold myself up as an example of how to give or how to live.   I am not saying you should give away anything at all—even assuming that you are well enough off that you have extra money to give.

I only say that if you act on a generous impulse, this is nothing to be ashamed of.

It is necessary to say this because of the prevailing neoliberal philosophy, exemplified in the Freakonomics books, that if you act on any motive except self-interest, this will backfire and you will do more harm than good.

These arguments came up in a reading group I belong to, currently reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   It begins with the Ebenezer Scrooge character refusing to contribute to a charity that buys Christmas dinners for poor people.

Scrooge says he pays taxes that pay for prisons and workhouses, where poor, unemployed people are sent.  He sees himself as a hard-working, self-supporting citizen, and sees no reason why he should contribute to support people who don’t work.

Some of us thought he had a point.  We also thought that giving to panhandlers was enabling alcohol and drug abuse habits.   One person even told a story about a street beggar in Washington, D.C., who was later found to have a vacation home in Florida.

I’ll use this blog to say what I should have said then.

First, panhandlers work.  They work hard.  I’ve never in my life worked as hard as they do, and for as little return.   Would you like to spend all day on the street, in all weathers, approaching strangers for money, risking humiliation and getting only small change or, at best, small bills in return?

It is true that panhandlers do no useful work.   But they are not unique in that respect.  Consider telemarketers, for example.   Some people are richly rewarded for doing harm.  Consider hedge fund managers and their role in the 2008 financial crash.

David Graeber wrote a good essay about the growing number of well-paid jobs that are considered meaningless even by people who do them.   He said as a general rule, the more obviously one’s benefits other people, the less likely one will be well paid for it

I myself get income without work, and more than a panhandler is likely to get.   I enjoy a Social Security pension, a company pension and income from savings and investments.

I could say the Social Security and company pensions are rewards for past work, although plenty of people who worked just as hard and created just as much value as I did receive no pensions.

But the income from savings and investments is simply a claim on the fruits of someone else’s labor.  Buying publicly traded stocks and bonds, in my case, in the form of mutual funds, adds nothing to the world’s total wealth.   It simply reflects the fact that, at a certain time in my life, I had more money than I needed.

I am not ashamed of investing in stocks and bonds.   A well-functioning free enterprise economy requires financial markets, and it might as well be me as somebody else who benefits from them.

But a well-functioning free enterprise system also requires that a certain percentage of people be unemployed.  Economists have a name for this, “the natural rate of unemployment.”

As to drug and alcohol abuse habits, these are found on all levels of society, including Hollywood and Wall Street.   In any case, if some panhandler has an alcohol or drug problem, the person isn’t going to change their life just because I refuse to give them anything.


A parable of the lesser evil

December 1, 2017

An alien monster beamed Joe and Jim up to its spaceship, and offered them a choice—be put down on a planet with a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees or a planet with a surface temperature of 10,000 degrees.

Joe said, “Given those alternatives, I have no option but to choose the 1,000-degree planet.”

Jim said, “That’s no choice at all!  I refuse to consent to either alternative!”

Enraged, the alien monster sent them both to the 10,000-degree planet.

In the micro-seconds before he expired, Joe turned to Jim and said, “This is all your fault.”