Archive for the ‘Coming Bad Years’ Category

The sources and future of U.S. global power

April 20, 2021

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The goals of U.S. power.

With the fall of Communism in Russia in 1991, the USA found itself an unrivaled global power. Two factions in the U.S. governing establishment—the deep state, the establishment, the power elite, call them what you will—decided to keep it that way.

They set policy all through the Clinton, G.W. Bush, Trump and Obama administrations, and they continue to set policy today.

Neoconservatives sought full spectrum military dominance for the United States in every region of the world. Aside from the love of power for its own sake, they thought this would forever secure the United States from any military threat.

Neoliberals sought to give U.S. banks and global corporations access to every region of the world as a source of customers, raw materials and cheap labor. 

This meant suppression of socialist and nationalist regimes that opposed foreign domination of their economies, and, above all, any regime that refused to do business in U.S. dollars.

Other motives are loyalty to alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel and avoidance of the humiliation of obvious defeat.

No doubt there were and are individuals in the U.S. power structure who sincerely believe in using U.S. power to promote democracy, human rights, a “rules-based international order” and the like.  But they are not the decision-makers.  They are only allowed to speak when their ideals happen to coincide with U.S. policy goals.

The sources of U.S. power.

The main source of U.S. power is the dominance of the U.S. dollar in conducting world trade.

This gives the U.S. government the power to borrow money to finance the world’s most expensive military establishment, and not worry about paying it back.

The U.S. Navy dominates the world’s sea lanes, and the U.S. Air Force dominates the air over poor countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  This allows bombing with impunity.

By using air power and flying killer drones, special operations forces and subsidized foreign fighters, the U.S. military can wage war without large-scale sacrifice of life.

The Central Intelligence Agency has a record of plotting the overthrow of left-wing governments and installing U.S.-friendly dictators.  Latin Americans have a joke: There will never be a military coup in the United States because there is no U.S. embassy in Washington, D.C.

Another source of U.S. power is the thousands of weapons in its nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world.  The only nation with a comparable arsenal is Russia.  This means that no other nation except Russia can rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack.

The power of the dollar also gives the U.S. government control of the financial bottlenecks of world commerce, and impose sanctions and embargoes on foreign countries without having to worry about retaliation.

Much of the world’s commerce flows through the New York money center banks.  This gives New York banks the authority to impound the funds of nations such as Iran and Venezuela.  It also gives federal judges in New York jurisdiction over such things as Argentina’s settlement with his creditors or Ecuador’s fine of Chevron for environmental violations.

The SWIFT system—Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, based in Brussels—is a messaging system used by banks to transfer money and communicate information.  Being cut off from the SWIFT system means being cut off from the bulk of the world financial system, and SWIFT enforces U.S. sanctions.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are dominated by Americans.  They have a record of insisting that debtor countries impose “austerity”—higher taxes, fewer government services, higher prices and lower wages.  The debtor countries have to sell national assets and open up to U.S. and other foreign investors.

The 2014 coup in Ukraine came after the incumbent President decided to take a Russian loan instead of an IMF loan.  The new government took the unpopular IMF loan.

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The threat to U.S. power.

The greatest threat to U.S. power is neither Islamic terrorism, nor Russian subversion, nor China’s growing industrial power. 

It is the replacement of the U.S. dollar as the medium of exchange for doing world business.  Without dollar supremacy, all other sources of U.S. power would collapse.

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The USA’s coming perfect storm of crises

January 14, 2021

New York’s Times Square during lockdown

It is said that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”

I don’t know whether that is literally true or not.  I do believe that the USA faces a historical turning point—a perfect storm of crises out of which something better just possibly may come.

The crisis is economic, political and cultural.

The economic crisis is the high rates of unemployment, bankruptcies and evictions.

Revolutions are typically led by unemployed intellectuals.  Nationalist rebellions are typically led by unemployed war veterans.  The USA has plenty of both.

Many of us Americans hate each other based on our political affiiation.

Neither party is trying to win over members of the other side.  Partisan Democrats regard Republicans as bigots; partisan Republicans regard Democrats as immoral.  These are character judgements, not policy judgments.

Both sides have factions willing to resort to armed force.

In some of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, factions invaded municipal and federal government buildings and burned police stations.

In the recent pro-Trump election protests, an armed faction invaded the Capitol and tried to prevent the certification of the winner in the 2020 elections.

I don’t make light of any of this, but the actual number of deaths—an estimated 25 in protests during 2020 and five in the Capitol invasion—could have been a lot higher than they were.  There is potential for things to get a lot worse.

Ammunition and firearms sales are at record levels.  I don’t think these sales are limited to hunters, sportsmen and people who want guns for home protection, nor do I think they are limited to right-wing Republicans.

Only a small number of Americans are actually ready to engage in organized armed violence.  But there are millions who think that violence by one side is excusable and violence by the other side is inexcusable. 

It is interesting that all the armed factions, with few if any exceptions, consist of white men.  That includes those who embed themselves in the Black Lives Matter protests. There is a certain number of individual hoodlums and looters, including whites as well as blacks, but there is as yet no armed black organization equivalent to the Black Panthers of the late 1960s.

The stage is set for a continuing low-level war.  I don’t predict such a conflict will happen.  I do say there is nothing in place that guarantees it won’t happen.

President-elect Biden, who has taken credit for the USA Patriot Act, is talking about new laws against “domestic terrorism.”  Silicon Valley is moving to silence Trump supporters

The result of this will be to convince the hard-core MAGA Republicans that the political system is so stacked against them that they cannot work within it.  The populist radical left is also being squeezed out of the political system and may come to the same conclusion.

There’s long been a vast repressive apparatus in place to deal with any uprising. It is almost as if the powers that be have long expected an uprising and have made advance preparations to prevent it from succeeding.

We also have a crisis of governmental administration, revealed by the ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic and climate-related weather disasters.

All these crises are coming together and reinforcing each other.

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Domestic fossil fuel industries in crisis

December 28, 2020

The domestic U.S. fossil fuel industry is in trouble.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake.  President Joe Biden will face a choice: try to save them or replace them with something better.  There is a good article in Dissent magazine about this.

In 2016,  [Donald] Trump charged Barack Obama with waging a “war against coal” and promised to bring the sector back to its former glory.

He manifestly failed to do so, but his rhetoric still proved an effective bludgeon against Hillary Clinton in Appalachia during the campaign.  In fact, more coal plants were retired under Trump than in either of Obama’s terms in office.

U.S. coal production had already been declining for years, as cheap natural gas edged it out of the energy mix used in power plants.  Coal jobs had been disappearing for years even before that, as the industry replaced workers with machines.

At its peak in the 1920s, the industry employed over 800,000 people in the United States.  Today, only about 42,000 coal mining jobs remain.

As coal companies have gone bankrupt, they have shed their pension obligations to former workers, leaving the federal government to pick up the bill.  Last December, Congress bailed out nearly 100,000 coal miners’ pensions.

In the long run, this was a good thing, not a bad thing.  Of all the important sources of energy production, coal is the dirtiest.  It generates the most air and water pollution and the greatest hazards to its workers’ health and the public health.  Still, that is no consolation if your livelihood depends on coal.

As energy researchers point out, coal is the canary for other fossil fuel industries. Oil isn’t on quite the same decline yet, but it’s headed in that direction.

The American fracking industry has expanded rapidly in the past decade with the use of cheap credit, and with encouragement from Obama, who boasted of making the United States the world’s leading oil producer.

But the shale oil that fracking produces is only profitable when oil prices are relatively high, and the overproduction of shale gas has glutted global markets.

The combination of a pandemic-spurred decline in demand and a price war between Saudi and Russian producers sent oil prices plummeting this year, resulting in a record number of bankruptcies among American oil producers.  An estimated 107,000 oil industry workers lost their jobs in the United States this year.

While some of those may come back as the economy recovers (whenever that is), many will not. Some energy analysts suggest that the world may have hit “peak oil demand,” as renewable energy begins to replace fossil fuels.  The Houston Chronicle reports that oil production employment in Texas “may never fully recover” as the overextended shale oil sector consolidates and learns to get by with fewer workers.

Source: Dissent Magazine

The fact that the fracking industry, or any other fossil fuel industry, is unprofitable doesn’t necessarily mean it will cease operations.  The economic incentive for an industry in the red is to do everything possible—in this case, extract every little globule of shale oil and gas—to minimize the loss.

Of course, moving away from fossil fuels is a good thing, not a bad thing—also overall.  Global warming is not imaginary.  Greenhouse gas emissions are real.  But what about all the people whose jobs depend on oil and gas?

We need something like a Green New Deal to create useful and sustainable jobs to replace jobs lost.  Without some such program, Americans will be forced to choose between short-run economic survivable and a livable planet in the long run.

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The coming pandemic economic crisis

November 30, 2020

Joe Biden will be sworn in as President of a nation in which millions are unable to pay their bills and most of the programs to help them will have expired.

There will be much that he can do, with or without the cooperation of the Senate.  But what he will do is another question.

Here’s the deal.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that—

  1. Nearly 26 million American adults—12 percent of all adults—reported they sometimes or often had difficulty in putting enough food on the table during the first week in November.  That’s triple the pre-pandemic percentage.
  2. An estimated 13.5 million adult renters—about one in five renters—were behind in their rent.
  3. Nearly 81 million adults—one in three—reported it was somewhat or very difficult to pay their usual bills.
  4. In September, some 31 million Americans met the official definition of “unemployed” or were part of a household of an unemployed person.

Bankruptcy filings are mounting, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many owners of failed small businesses can’t even afford to file for bankruptcy.  State and local governments, meanwhile, are running out of money.

Most of the federal emergency programs to alleviate the crisis will expire at the end of the year.  The $600-a-week supplement to state unemployment insurance expired July 31.  The rest of the unemployment insurance supplement will expire at the end of the year.  An estimated 13.5 million Americans benefit from pandemic-related unemployment relief.

The Senate and House of Representatives are deadlocked  on how to extend emergency programs.

So will the moratorium on evictions decreed by the Centers for Disease Control.  That wasn’t sustainable as a permanent policy anyway.  Property owners who make a living from rental income need that income to maintain the properties and usually to pay for utilities.

And the moratorium on student debt payments decreed by President Trump also expires at the end of the year.  About 32 million Americans had loans eligible for suspended payments. 

Both the renters nor the student debtors still owe the full amount.  They got a temporary suspension of payments, not relief.

∞∞

Joe Biden is the first President to be take office in the middle of a national crisis in which one house of Congress is controlled by the opposition political party.  This limits his freedom of action, but progressives say existing law gives him a great deal of power.

The Higher Education Act gives the Secretary of Education authority to settle all publicly-held student debt and cancel all or part of it.  David Dayan of The American Prospect says that covers 95 percent of American student debt, which is up to $1.5 trillion.  This would help stimulate the economy by making it easier to get a home mortgage or an auto loan.

Biden also would have the authority to forgive up to $50,000 of student debt by executive order.

The Affordable Care Act authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to create a pilot program to cover medical expenses of anyone who suffers from an environmental health problem.   The coronavirus, Dayan said, is an environmental health problem.

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Rod Dreher on the coming soft totalitarianism

November 18, 2020

Communism and Naziism were different from plain old run-of-the-mill tyrannies.  They were totalitarian, not merely authoritarian.

An authoritarian ruler is content with passive obedience.  Silence is enough to buy safety under authoritarian rule.

A totalitarian regime demands active and sincere support, without mental reservations.  Totalitarianism aspires to control not only your outward actions, but your inner thoughts.

The rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s was new and frightening.  But after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War Two and the breakup of the Soviet Union following the Cold War, totalitarianism was seemingly defeated for good.

But the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, in his new book, LIVE NOT BY LIES: a Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of the danger of a new form of totalitarianism.

The danger, in his view, consists of two converging forces: (1) the rise of what’s called “cancel culture” or “political correctness,” which seeks to punish people for unorthodox words and thoughts, and (2) the rise of surveillance technology, which gives the powers that be new tools for tracking down what you’ve said and thought.

You might say both fears are exaggerated.  Where is the equivalent of the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps?

Dreher interviewed Christian dissidents who suffered under Communist rule, and they in fact see the seeds of a new totalitarianism in the USA and other Western countries.

It would be a “soft” totalitarianism, enforced by economic pressure and the pressure of public opinion.

People really do fear for their careers if they go on record as saying something unacceptable, even with the best of intentions.  It’s not just Christians or conservatives who suffer.  So do liberals or progressives who make a misstep.

It’s customary nowadays to search social media for things people may have said in the past that’s unacceptable now. 

Meanwhile high-tech companies such as Amazon offer services based on connecting everything in your life to the Internet.  This of course creates a record of everything you do. 

This information is sold to advertisers, marketers, bill collectors, insurance companies, credit rating agencies and anybody else with an interest in knowing about you, and also used to manipulate your mind.

It would be naive to think that your political and religious opinions are excluded from this, or that police and intelligence agencies don’t have access to this information.  We see a preview of what might happen in China’s social credit system.

I recommend Dreher’s book.  His fears are not exaggerated.  In fact, it is even broader than he makes out.  It is not just religious people and conservatives who are targeted.  Anybody of influence who is anti-war or anti-corporate is a target for cancellation.

And this is against a background in which the federal government asserts new powers to start wars, imprison whistleblowers, order assassinations and pressure social media companies to censor all those who depart from the official view.

I do not argue that you should be concerned about these issues rather than Dreher’s issues.  All these things are forces converging on the same outcome.

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What a 21st century civil war would look like

October 26, 2020

Patriot Prayer rally. Source: US Defense Watch.

I think there is a real possibility of civil war in the United States—not all-out war as in 1861-1865, but an intermittent, continuing conflict like The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1968-1998.

Whatever the outcome of the Presidential election, the losing side will not accept it as legitimate.  Democrats will point to illegal purging of voting rolls and other tampering with the election process.  Republicans will point to slanting and censorship of the news by big media and high-tech companies to favor Biden.

Many Democrats think President Trump is a puppet installed by Vladimir Putin to undermine the U.S.  Many Republicans believe the Q-anon story of a secret struggle against a conspiracy of pedophiles.

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of these beliefs.  The point is that they are widely held.  Democratic leaders didn’t accept the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 victory.  They tried to block him from taking office by manipulating the Electoral College and then tried to impeach him on far-fetched grounds.

Along with this there are armed factions already in the streets—the revolutionary faction in the George Floyd protests and the armed right-wing militias.

Black Lives Matter originated as a non-violent protest movement.  But the conflict in Northern Ireland also originated with non-violent protests, conducted on behalf of the Catholic minority there.  The conflict didn’t stay non-violent because the Provisional IRA and the Protestant militias joined in.

One of the lessons of the Northern Ireland conflict is that when civil war breaks out, it is difficult or impossible for the government to put down both sides.  Inevitably, it lines up with one faction or another.

So could it be in the United States.  A Biden administration would tilt toward the Black Lives Matter faction.  A Trump administration would tip toward the right-wing militias.  Democratic and Republican mayors would have their own agendas, as would Homeland Security and state and local police. 

Things could get complicated, very quickly.   We see these kinds of alignments forming right now..

I of course hope that this doesn’t play out as I fear, or that, if it does, violent conflict soon dies down to the point where it can be controlled. 

But with a looming economic crisis, an ongoing pandemic and continuing climate-related crises, I fear the USA is headed for a tipping point, and I do not know what the results would be.

On Oct. 26, 1860, few Americans, North or South, expected or wanted a civil war.  A year later, they were fighting one.  I doubt that, in 1968, the people of North Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, wanted or expected decades of conflict.  But they were forced to choose sides, whether they wanted to or not.

LINKS

A New Civil War: News & Opinion Aggregator.

Could America Split Up? by Damon Linker for The Week.

Is a New Civil War Possible? by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Over half of voters expect violence, disagree on election legitimacy by Ledyard King for USA Today.

The Northern Ireland Conflict, 1968-1998 by John Dorney for The Irish Story.

Even an FDR would have tough going today

October 6, 2020

In 2017, the incoming administration inherited a bad system that needed to be reformed, but, as we know. it wasn’t.  In 2021, the incoming administration will face overlapping emergencies probably even worse than Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933. 

The USA and much of the rest of the world faces not only an economic crisis, but an ongoing series of weather-related crises and probably a continuation of the pandemic plus ongoing international crises.

FDR was sworn in with the economy in ruins, including Wall Street and the banking system.  The country was pretty much ready to accept any bold action that FDR might propose. 

Yesterday’s leader

There were a number of political currents much more radical than Roosevelt––the CIO, the Progressive Party in WIsconsin, the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, Huey Long’s “Every man a king” movement.  The Communists and socialists didn’t have a mass following, but they were more influential than they ever were before or since and gave a lot of energy to the labor movement.

In the political spectrum of his time, Roosevelt was what we’d now call center-left.  The Democratic Party was never a true party. like the British Labor party or the French Communist Party, but labor unions had a place at the table, along with the oil industry, teh real estate industry adn so on..

The opposition to the New Deal didn’t coalesce until 1938, when the Republican-Dixiecrat alliiance blocked FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court and FDR failed to purge the Democratic Party of his strongest opponents in the Senate.

Then, too, there was no military-industrial complex in the USA in the 1930s.  The U.S. had a smaller standing army than Portugal.  The military-industrial cpmplex as we know it today was a creation of the Democratic administrations of the 1940s and its main opponents were Republican isolationists, many of them progressives who remembered World War One

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was in some respects like the New Deal—a short period of radical reform terminated by a war. Johnson’s legacy is as a great civil rights president – the greatest since Lincoln and Grant.

But except for Medicare, none of the Great Society programs provided universal benefits to a wide public, and none of them except Medicare were broadly popular.

Tomorrow’s leader?

The incoming president in 2021 will face a different balance of forces than FDR did.  Wall Street and the Fortune 500 corporations are not in disarray. 

Policies put in place during the Obama administration allow the Federal Reserve to prop up the banking and financial system without legislation.  The bailouts enacted by Congress earlier this year primarily benefit big business.

It is hard to see how any program of progressive reform can be enacted without a drastic reduction in military commitments and war spending.  But millions of Americans depend on the war machine for their livelihoods—not just plutocrats, but working people and the middle class.

We need to replace the military-industrial complex with a Green New Deal.  But I don’t see any mass movement in favor of it, and even if there were, it would be a big challenge to bring about.

The strongest mass movement we have in the United States today is the Black Lives Matter protest movement.  It is the biggest U.S. mass movement in my adult lifetime.

But the leaders of this movement, unlike the New Dealers, see the main division in the United States as racist white people vs. African-Americans and their allies. They don;t see it as the common people of all races vs. a rich and powerful elite.

Of course racial prejudice and racial discrimination, including police abuse of minorities, are a great evil and it is good that there is a strong movement for change.

But seeing everything through a racial lens is perfectly compatible with plutocracy and the forever wars.  That’s why BLM gets support from big corporations and foundations. 

The goals of Black Lives Matter need to be part of a larger, more inclusive movement, and I don’t see one on the horizon.  Of course this could change overnight.  Maybe it already has changed and I don’t see it yet.

A Constitutional crisis in the making

September 26, 2020

I think this prediction by economist Jack Rasmus is all too possible.

CNN poll shows 66% of Trump supporters will vote in person on Nov. 3 but only 22% of Biden supporters vote in person. (53% Biden supports to vote by mail). Trump will appear to win on Nov. 3 based on direct in person voting. He’ll declare victory and then move quickly to have Barr and the Justice Dept. stop the counting of mail in ballots in key swing states.

His lawyers are already fanning out and filing motions for injunctions against mail in voting. They will flood swing-blue states mail in ballot vote counting to delay the counting still further. States where Republican governors (and State secretaries of state who manage those states’ vote counting) will meanwhile throw out millions of mail in ballots based on technicalities like signatures failing to dot i’s or cross t’s to ensure Trump ‘red’ states turn in pro-Trump decisions.

Examples of US post office chaos & claims of lost vote ballots, etc. will be used by Trump lawyers to make legal argument that mail in ballots cannot be used to determine the final vote count. Injunctions will be filed to require states to disregard mail ballots. Further delays in mail in ballot counting will occur.

Disputes and legal action by Dems in response will be quickly sent up by Trump federal district judges (appointed by hundreds under McConnell since 2013) to the Supreme Court, now 6-3 in Trump’s pocket. Trump’s Supreme Court will repeat its Florida 2000 decision stopping the vote count––this time counting original votes not a recount. Only swing and blue states will be targeted, not red states already pro-Trump.

Street protests will erupt after Nov. 3 protesting the legal coup d’etat in progress. Trump has already called protestors “insurrectionists” and identified all protests as ‘antifa’ or ‘communist’. His attorney general, Barr, has also already pre-labeled protestors as “treasonous” and traitors who should be forcibly repressed and jailed

The US executive branch since 2002 now has its own executive police force called the Dept. Homeland Security (DHS), with de facto military swat teams who’ve been doing ‘dry runs’ in Seattle, Chicago, Portland and elsewhere. They will be used to suppress protests, aided by pro-Trump local police departments (e.g. New York City, etc.) and perhaps even welcoming right wing radical supporters as provocateurs to attack protestors and thus allow DHS-Police to declare protests riots and directly quash protests.

Source: Jack Rasmus

When Donald Trump was elected, I scoffed at those who called him a potential dictator.  I thought he was too erratic and ignorant to be a dictator.  I thought his significance was as a kind of proof-of-concept of how someone more intelligent and purposeful might become dictator.  Maybe I underestimated him.

This potential crisis is not Trump’s doing alone.  The Republicans–and it is mainly the Republicans–have been chipping away at the integrity of the voting system for 20 years.  In 2000, the election did not go to George W. Bush merely because the Florida recount was halted.  It was because thousands of black voters were disqualified based on false claims they had been  convicted of felonies in other states.

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The virus and the world food supply chain

September 2, 2020

The fight against the coronavirus has resulted in collateral damage to world food supplies.  Or rather it has revealed underlying weaknesses in the world economic system.

The world produces enough food that no-one need go hungry.  An expert quoted by National Public Radio said average world food prices are lower than they were a century ago, despite the huge increase in world population.

The question is how to get the food to those who need it and who pays for it.  There is nothing in the nature of things that makes this impossible, but only the structure of the world economy.

LINKS

‘Instead of Coronoavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us’; A Global Food Crisis Looms by Abdi Latif Dahir for the New York Times.

COVID-19 pandemic leads to huge spike in world hunger by Kevin Martinez for thr World Socialist Web Site.

COVID-19 risks to global food security by David Laborde, Will Martin, Johan Swinnen and Rob Vos for Science magazine.

Obstacles to a new New Deal

August 31, 2020

The USA is heading into an economic crisis with evictions, foreclosures, small-business failures and unemployment rates like those of the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, made worse by the pandemic and catastrophic climate change.

But Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist whose specialty is money and politics, said that a second Great Depression will not necessarily result in a second New Deal.

The Great Depression was touched off with a crash in the financial markets.  Banks closed.  Business profits fell.  This weakened both the credibility and political power of big business.

No such situation exists today, Ferguson noted.  The Federal Reserve is propping up the banks and the financial markets.  The super-rich are actually richer and more powerful than ever.

President Roosevelt’s first response to the crisis was the National Recovery Act, a kind of democratic corporate state.  It was only when big business turned against him that the New Deal as we remember it emerged. with Social Security, the Wagner Act and so on.

The impetus for the true New Deal came from the new labor movement organized by John L. Lewis and the CIO.

Conditions today are different. Ferguson said.  Big business is entrenched in both parties and is able to block popular and necessary reforms such as Medicare for all.

There are wildcat strikes and a few militant unions, but nothing as yet like the labor movement of the 1930s.

Ferguson saw some long-range hope in the insurgent movement in the Democratic Party as represented by the Justice Democrats and other factions.  But in the long run, as someone said, we are all dead.  The crisis is not going to put itself on hold until 2022 or 2024.

LINKS

Biden Blurring Almost Everything, an interview of Thomas Ferguson for theAnalysis.com.

Joe Biden’s Platform for 2020: Anti-Populism by Bill Scher for POLITICO.

The Non-Voter by Chris Arnade for American Compass.

The test of reality

June 23, 2020

For decades, the USA and other rich nations have had the luxury of dealing with self-created problems.’

Some were self-created (deregulation of finance, foreign intervention), some symbolic (the border wall, Confederate statues) and some imaginary (the Russiagate plot).

Now, however, we’re up against real things.  Pandemics don’t care about public opinion polls.  Climate change doesn’t care about the limits of the politically possible.

Some nations are demonstrating the resiliency needed to rise to these challenges.  Some aren’t.  In a few years, we’ll have the results of real-life experiments as to what works and what doesn’t.

My hope is that we Americans will learn from experience.  My fear is that we will be unable to endure the pain of facing reality and the consequences of what we have allowed our rulers to do.

COVID-19 is the quiz, climate change is the final exam by Jeff Masters for Yale Climate Connections.

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Kirkpatrick Sale’s bet on the world of 2020

June 11, 2020

The Luddites in action

Back in 1995, Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired magazine, made a bet with Kirkpatrick Sale, the critic of technology.  The bet was that, by the year 2020, technology would have produced a much better world.

Kevin Kelly believed then and still believes that technological progress will automatically produce a better world.  Kirkpatrick Sale believed the opposite.  He thought then and still believes that the world has been on the wrong course since Columbus’s voyages in 1492.

My old friend in Texas called my attention to a 2019 article, in which Sale described the bet and told how he foresaw the world going wrong:

First, an economic collapse. I posited that it might take the form of a worldwide currency devaluation, in which the dollar loses its standing as the world’s reserve currency and becomes effectively worthless even in this country, and a global stock-market crash and depression.

Second, a political collapse, with upheavals both within nation-states and between. I saw the collapsed economy leading to maybe the bottom fifth of society in the developed world, no longer bought off with alcohol and drugs and celebrity and consumerism, rising up in rebellion and creating havoc and disarray throughout; at the same time a similar rebellion of the poor nations, no longer content to take the crumbs from the table of the rich, and simultaneously fighting violent guerrilla wars and flooding into the developed nations to escape their misery.

And finally, perhaps over-arching, an environmental collapse, in which global warming and ozone depletion, for example, made some areas like Australia and Africa unlivable and caused ice packs to melt, and old diseases, released from melting ice and deforested swamplands, mixed with new and spread deadly infections to all continents.

Source: CounterPunch.org

Kirkpatrick Sale’s predictions haven’t come true, at least not completely, but they seem much more probable than Kevin Kelly’s faith in inevitable technological progress.

I have to say, though, that, in 1995, I would have bet on Kelly’s side.

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Is green technology a mirage?

June 9, 2020

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.  [Attributed to Donald Rumsfeld]

It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.  [Attributed to Ayn Rand]

A new Michael Moore movie, “Planet of the Humans,” is an attack on the renewable energy movement.  Environmentalists by and large are outraged, and some demanded the movie be suppressed.

It actually was taken down from YouTube for 11 days, but it’s back up now.  If it is taken down again, you can view it on the Planet of the Humans Home page.

It runs for 100 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it held my interest, and maybe it would hold yours, too.

In the first part of the movie, director Jeff Gibbs shows that solar panels and windmills are built through energy-intensive industrial processes and that they are made of materials such as high-grade quartz and rare earths that are scarce and non-renewable.

Solar panels and windmills wear out and have to be replaced.  In one scene, he visits Daggett, California, which pioneered in the development of solar and wind energy.  He sees a wasteland of dilapidated panels and windmills, because the pioneers couldn’t afford to keep them up.

And they don’t even fully replace fossil fuels.  Because of variability of sun and wind, backup electrical generators have to keep spinning, and the ones that aren’t hydroelectric use coal, gas and nuclear fuel.

In the second part, he looks at the environmental destruction caused by biomass energy.  There is no gain from freeing yourself from dependence on coal companies and embracing logging companies.

He makes a big point of pointing out the corporate ties of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and of environmentalists such as Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Richard Branson and even Bill McKibben.

He questions the whole premise, promoted by advocates such as Al Gore, that it is possible for middle-class Americans to enjoy our current material standard of living simply by adopting a new technology.

Fossil fuels made possible a world with an exponentially increasing population with the average individual using an ever-increasing amount of fuel and raw materials, Gibbs said.  Such a world isn’t sustainable, he said.

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What’s the world coming to? A rant

May 20, 2020

Things are getting worse faster.  Some French movie director once said: Have the courage to believe what you know.  I keep hoping that what I know—what I think I know—won’t prove to be the case.

U.S. domestic policy is steered by a selfish financial oligarchy, which we can call the neoliberals.

U.S. foreign policy is steered by a murderous national security establishment, which we can call the neoconservatives.

Civilization faces two threats, nuclear war and global climate change.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives are making both worse.  Because of them, the U.S. has restarted the nuclear arms race and is stepping up fossil fuel production.

They also are soaking up resources needed to provide basic public services, maintain infrastructure and provide a social safety net.  Manufacturing capability and governmental capability are being hollowed out because of failures to invest.

The neoliberal and neoconservative elite maintain their power by corrupting the democratic process.  One way is by creating a dependence on big donors to conduct political campaigns.  Another is through gerrymandering, voter registration purges, creating artificial difficulties in voting and using hackable electronic voting machines.

This year the USA faces a near-perfect storm— (1) a pandemic that nobody really understands, (2) unemployment exceeding Great Depression levels and (3) the likelihood of more floods, storms, fires and other weather- and climate-related disasters.

The powers that be give us only two choices – (1) shut everything down and deprive millions of people of their livelihoods or (2) open everything up knowing that hundreds of thousands of people may die.

It’s possible that the coronavirus pandemic will ease off sooner than predicted, but it won’t be the last pandemic and may not be the worst.

We’re headed toward an election in which, as in 1876, there may be a dispute as to who really won.  I don’t expect a new civil war, but then the historic Civil War came as a surprise.

The Bernie Sanders campaign showed the near-impossibility of bringing about meaningful political change within an existing political party.

The Greens, Libertarians and other small parties have virtually no chance of coming to power, and probably wouldn’t know what to do with power if they got it.

Maybe a national reform movement can be created through grass-roots organizing, but this could take decades—barring a societal collapse, which is more likely to bring to power demagogues and dictators than new FDRs.

I’ve pushed back against those who say Donald Trump is a new Hitler.  It is not just that he doesn’t have the political acumen or sense of purpose of a Hitler.  The Trump-as-Hitler meme ignores the degree to which the USA of 2016 had already adopted Nazi-like practices—unprovoked military aggression, contempt for international law, assassinations, torture, detention without trial.

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Is this our situation?

May 18, 2020

My old friend in south Texas e-mailed this.  I added an illustration.

My smart friends: Is THIS our situation?

1.) Nobody REALLY understands the coronavirus, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

2.) Nobody REALLY understands the coming economic effects of the pandemic, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

3.) Nobody REALLY understands accelerating climate change, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

4.) Nobody REALLY understands the murky 2020 US presidential campaign, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

It’s dismaying to think I could go on here.

5.) Nobody REALLY understands the current confusing international situation, although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

6.) Nobody REALLY understands what’s up with American education (student debt, testing mania, online education, privatizers, shut schools) although everyone agrees that things are going to be bad, and some quite knowledgeable people (as they seem to be) argue that things are going to be MUCH worse than official sources claim.

Surely I MUST be missing some blue sky somewhere, right?  Let me know.

The irrelevance of old-time Keynesianism

May 12, 2020

John Maynard Keynes was one of the great economists of the 20th century,  Maybe he was the greatest.  He is the father of the idea of economic stimulus.

His insight was that, in a capitalist free-enterprise economy, economic growth depends on a growing mass consumer market, which depends on masses of the public having money in their pockets.

So when the economy stalls and people are out of work, the best way to stimulate the economy is to give the people more purchasing power.

J.M. Keynes

Once they started buying things, businesses would hire more people, and there would be a multiplier effect that spread through the entire economy.

The important thing, according to Keynes, was to get people back to work and earning money—no matter how.  He famously said that hiring workers to dig holes and fill them up again would be better than nothing.

In the pandemic lockdown, governments are doing exactly the opposite of what Keynes recommended.  The government is actively trying to prevent millions of Americans from going to work.  By staying at home, they help limit the spread of the virus.

Congress recently voted an economic bailout that was called a “stimulus” bill.   But economic stimulus was not, and is not, needed.  What is needed is an economic sedative, combined with an economic life support system.

We do not need employment for the sake of employment.  We need to have virtually necessary jobs get done, less necessary jobs put on hold and useless jobs not to be done at all.  We Americans as a nation have not yet figured out how to do this.

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Is universal basic income the answer?

March 27, 2020

Universal Basic Income as it’s usually presented is a solution to an economic problem that doesn’t yet exist.

The imaginary problem is what happens after automation and computer algorithms make a majority of American workers unnecessary and unemployable.

The real problem is that our present economic system rewards useless and harmful work more than it does necessary work and even allows much necessary work to go undone.

There are a great many unmet needs in society and a great many unemployed people available to meet them.  It ought to be simple to match them up, but it isn’t, not within our present economic and political setup.

The coronavirus pandemic is a great revealer of who’s necessary in our society and who isn’t.  Grocery store clerks risk their lives so that I can have food in my pantry.  Yet as a class they’re on the bottom rungs in pay and social status.

They should get the equivalent of combat pay and maybe a military-type medal in awards ceremonies after the crisis is over.

I do think a UBI could be useful in the present emergency.

Send a $1,000 check every month to every man, woman and child who are willing to pledge to socially isolate themselves.

Send $2,000 or $3,000 every month to those who are doing the necessary work to keep us alive and well—health care workers and emergency responders, farmers and agricultural workers, truck drivers, grocery and drug store clerks, public utility workers, etc.  Shut down everything that’s not necessary for life and health.

[Added Later.  My idea is that the income grants would be supplementary to what people already are earning or drawing from savings.  The specific amounts are just to illustrate the concept and could be more; I don’t think they could be much less.]

The problem is – the USA may not have the capacity to do something so seemingly simple.  I read somewhere that it may take months before the government can mail physical checks in its one-time-only economic stimulus plan.

Laissez-faire conservatives used to say that the only thing government could do competently is mail out checks.  Evidently it can’t even do that nowadays.

The best practical thing that could be done immediately is for the federal government to fully fund state unemployment insurance programs and Medicaid programs up to a reasonably generous cap.

For the long run, the country needs is a full employment program more than it needs a UBI.

See to it that every needful thing is done to prepare for pandemic and weather-related catastrophe.  See to it that every practical thing is done to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  See to it that every needful thing is done to safeguard the lives and health of children, the elderly and the sick.

Pay all the people who do the needful work a decent wage.

If all these things were done, UBI would become an unimportant side issue.  Whether these things are possible within our current economic and political structure is a question I don’t have a good answer for.

LINK

The False Promise of Universal Basic Income by Alyssa Battistoni for Dissent Magazine.  [Hat tip to Steve B.]

Taking the coronavirus seriously 3

March 17, 2020

I think I have less to fear from the coronavirus than most people.  Unlike many, I live in a house alone rather than in an apartment with several.  Unlike many, I own an automobile.  Unlike many, I am a pensioner who doesn’t have to go out into the world to earn my daily bread.

I already live the life of a semi-recluse,  Being more of a recluse than I am would not be a great burden.  I have a library of unread books and an Internet connection that keeps me in touch with the world.  I am in a position to stay home except for going to the grocery store and keeping my medical appointments.

But what about the thousands of people i depend upon to keep me in my comfortable position—the thousands of people in the supply chain starting at farms and ending in the checkout line at my local supermarket?  the supply chain leading to my local drug store?  the public utilities that supply me with electricity, heat and clean water?  the whole health care network?

A new report says that emergency measures may have to last for up to 18 months or millions will die.  Are we prepared for this?

I’m 83 years old, which puts me in the vulnerable population, but even at that, my chances of survival are excellent.  Suppose there is a 50 percent infection rate, and roughly 16 percent of infected people in my age group die.  That means, all other things being equal, I have a 92 percent chance of surviving the epidemic.

Then, too, dying of a COVID-19 infection would be better than dying of cancer.  it would be far better than me spending my last years in a state of dementia—a living body with nobody home.  I accept the fact of death, at least intellectually.  Dementia is the thing I fear.

No, I don’t worry about myself.  I worry about my country.  We criticize the Chinese government for being slow to act, but what about our own government?  The first COVID-19 infection outside China was detected on Jan. 4, the first infection in the United States was detected Jan. 20 and President Trump banned travel by Americans to China on Jan. 31.

So our government at high levels has been well aware of the problem for many weeks, but it is only just now beginning to exercise leadership, and even now without long-range thought.  Local governments, too, are issuing emergency decrees without long-range planning.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, has ordered the closings of restaurants, movie theaters and casinos.  But what happens to all the small businesses that are forced to close?  How many of them will reopen after the crisis?

I do not necessarily criticize Gov. Cuomo and others who are are issuing emergency decrees.  Maybe this is the best we can do under the circumstances.

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The worst of the pandemic is yet to come

March 16, 2020

Click to enlarge. Chart Updated 3/18/2020

[Updated 3/18/2020]  The chart in the upper left shows the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.  Others show that France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the USA are on track to follow in Italy’s footsteps.  So far the virus is spreading more slowly in Canada Sweden and the UK.  

Nobody can know for sure what will happen, and France and Germany are somewhat better prepared for a health emergency than the UK or the USA, but I don’t see anything in place that would save any of these countries from Italy’s crisis.  And of course the situation in Italy may become much worse that it already is.

Unless things change, COVID-19 will not be the last or the worst pandemic.  People and governments need to concentrate for now on dealing with the emergency, but afterwards we need to think about why we were caught by surprise, and why our globalized economic system can enable infection to spread from a single source, possibly a live-animal meat market in China, to every corner of the globe in a matter of months.

I include myself among the complacent.  I have a certain limited intellectual understanding of the crisis, but I don’t feel it in my bones.  As the saying goes, I lack the courage to believe what I know.

LINKS

The incompetence pandemic by Matthew Karnitsching for POLITICO.  Mainly about Europe.

Conceit and Contagion: How the Virus Shocked Europe by Bruno Maçães for Quillette.

Who, if anybody, has a vision for the future?

November 8, 2019

Political debate in the United States is based on nostalgia—a desire to return to a former era.

Donald Trump’s motto is “Make American great again!”  He doesn’t specify when America was great.  My guess is that his favorite era would be the 1920s, when the country was prosperous, big business was respected and the U.S. was free of entangling alliances.

The Clinton-Biden wing of the Democratic Party simply wants to turn the clock back to 2015.  Bernie Sanders wants to complete the unfinished business of the New Deal of the 1930s.  Elizabeth Warren wants to go back to a time when capitalism worked the way it should—perhaps under Eisenhower.

The closest thing we have to a positive vision of the future is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.  Her idea is to meet the challenge of global warming and resource exhaustion in ways that avoid or minimize hardship on working people.

Her key idea is full employment through a 1930s-type public works program that builds a green infrastructure and meets the country’s other long-deferred needs.  This is the only way the coming bad years can be made bearable.  I don’t blame her for not thinking out all the details in advance.

The government of China, in contrast, has a definite, feasible plan to make China a powerful and prosperous nation.  It includes an industrial policy to make China a technological leader and a foreign investment program to bring about the economic integration of Eurasia.

For the past 15 years, Pepe Escobar has been writing about the overreach and coming collapse of American empire and how China, along with Russia, will pick up the pieces.  I think that is highly possible, although my view of China is not as uncritical as his.

I think the socialist vision of a utopian centrally-planned economy has been discredited, both in theory and practice. All the uprisings going on all over the world seem to have a vision of radical democracy, which I think is hopeful, but I don’t claim to understand them well.

Science fiction offers visions of the future.  There is a lot of excellent, dystopian, near-future science fiction – Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; Ken McLeod’s Intrusion; and Cory Cotorow’s Radicalized.

For a positive SF vision of the future, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.  Cory Doctorow’s novels are said to be good, but I haven’t read them.

The trouble with extrapolating present trends into the future is that there are foreseeable crises that are likely to change everything in unpredictable ways;

  • a climate and renewable resources crisis, as global warming becomes unbearable and fossil fuels and certain raw materials become unobtainable;
  • an economic and financial crisis, as the system of global finance and fragile global supply chains breaks down; and
  • an international crisis, as the world turns against the United States and the dominance of the dollar.

I don’t know whether the change will be for the better or the worse.

If the future is unpredictable, what is the point of even thinking about it?  It is because your vision of the future gives you a compass point for the present.

Waffle House prepared to weather the storms

September 9, 2019

USA Today recently had a good article about how the Waffle House restaurant chain is organized to provide food and shelter during storms, floods and other disasters.

Waffle House stockpiles emergency supplies, employs special teams ready to rush to the scene of an emergency and has thick loose-leaf binders of directions as to what to do in any kind of emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rates the seriousness of emergencies based on the status of the nearest Waffle House – “green” (Waffle House operating normally), “yellow” (Waffle House operating on a limited basis) and “red” (Waffle House close, which almost never happens).

This is a good example of how managers of corporations and other big institutions need to think during the coming bad years.

LINKS

How Does Waffle House Stay Open During Disasters? by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Hurricane Dorian: ‘Waffle House Index’ put to test during disasters by Annie Blanks for the Pensacola News-Journal and USA Today.

What Do Waffles Have to Do With Risk Management? by Laura Walter for EHS Today magazine.

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy

August 16, 2019

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy, or what will be left of it, will be when other nations rebel against the power of the U.S. dollar.   That will be when the United States is most in danger of a would-be Hitler or Mussolini.

The power of the U.S. dollar is what gives Washington the means to be a great economic power despite huge trade deficits and a hollowing out of American manufacturing.  It provides the means to maintain the world’s most expensive military.

It gives Washington the means to wage economic warfare against nations such as Iran, Venezuela and Russia, and to force poor nations to sacrifice the well-being of their people to foreign creditors.

But the power of the U.S. dollar is a legacy of a past when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, leading creditor nation and leading exporting nation.   Now the dominance of the dollar rests on the fact no nation’s leaders are both brave enough, and lead a nation that is strong enough, to defy the dollar system.

Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in The Death of Democracy that many European nations turned to fascist and right-wing dictatorships as a result of military defeat, which discredited the established governments, and strong Communist and revolutionary movements, which caused the middle classes to look for protectors.

German democracy survived for a time, but was pushed over the brink by onset of the Great Depression, which the established government was unable to cope with.

The conditions will exist in the United States following the crash of the U.S. dollar.  The U.S. government will no longer be able to raise money by borrowing in foreign markets.  Lack of borrowing power will mean it no longer will be able to pay for a world-wide network of military bases.

At the same time, the military will have to pay more for imported electronics components, imported oil and other supplies, including uniforms.  The fall in value of the U.S. dollar will make U.S. manufacturing costs cheaper in relation other currencies, but it won’t be able to fix the lack of manufacturing capacity.  And it will make investment in new manufacturing capacity more expensive.

The sudden collapse of U.S. military power without a military defeat would open the way to a “stab in the back” myth, comparable to the one about Germany’s defeat in World War One.

The buying power of U.S. workers will fall and the prices of merchandise, so much of which is directly or indirectly dependent on foreign supply chains, will fall.  There will be a crash in the U.S. financial markets and real estate markets.  Many workers will strike.  Many citizens will turn to the streets in protest—probably very few that are explicitly Communist, but who knows?

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Twenty years onward: the coming bad years

February 25, 2019

Sometimes I wish I could live for 20 more years to see what the future brings.  Most of the time I’m glad I’m 82 and almost certainly won’t.

I envision a USA very different from today—one shaped by a catastrophic climate change that can’t be averted, and by an economic collapse that can be averted only by drastic economic and political reforms that seem highly unlikely today.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine New York City during the Great Depression being hit by Superstorm Sandy.

Catastrophic climate change is usually discussed as a doom that will full upon us unless we accomplish X things by the year Y.  In fact, catastrophic climate change is already upon us.

We can by our actions influence how bad things are going to get, but existing greenhouse gasses will produce increasing numbers of floods, droughts, heavy snow storms and power outages.

We the citizens of Rochester N.Y., located as we are on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, are fortunate. Cities such as Miami and New Orleans will meet the fate of Atlantis, but we have a good chance to survive.

We’re not in danger of tidal waves.  We have had relatively few severe storms compared to other regions.  We have access to a relatively abundant supply of fresh water which, however, we are not caring for.

Climate crisis is likely to be combined with financial crisis.  Starting with the Reagan administration and especially since the Clinton administration, the U.S. government has turned over management of the economy to the financial markets.

There have been a series of financial crisis, each one worse than the one before.  The response of the U.S. government has been to rescue failed financial institutions, and allow the cycles to continue.

At some point, there will be a financial crisis too big to resolve.  Instead of financial institutions being “too big to fail,” they will be “too big to bail.”

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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.

THE FINAL CRASH

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.

NUCLEAR ROULETTE

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.

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Why do we discount the future?

January 7, 2014

Ian Welsh wrote on his blog (one of my favorites on my Blogs I Like page) that we Americans don’t care about the future any more.

The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the future. They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their specifications.

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd.  Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In its pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead.  If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill.  Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed.  Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property.  Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay.  The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society.  The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment.  But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares?  The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

The death bet is why America had a 2.4 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit as of 2009. It is why Californians voted in 1978 to disallow property tax increases of more than 2% per year. And it is why tuition rates have increased by hundreds of percentage points more than inflation in many countries.

A death bet always come due. It just isn’t always paid by those who made it.

via The Death Bet.

Why is this?  I think it is reinforced by a philosophy that says pursuit of self-interest in a free market is sufficient to produce a good society, and moral values just get in the way.  This is not a question of liberalism vs. conservativism per se.  You can believe in individual self-reliance and oppose the welfare state, and still be concerned about your neighbors and those who will come after you.   The house I live in was built in the 1920s, before anybody dreamed of a New Deal.  Yet it is more solidly built than many of the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another factor is that American society since its beginning has been continually transformed by rapid technological change.  Why make an automobile or a computer that will last 25 years when it will be replaced by a better model in five years?  We become habituated to focusing on the new at the expense of maintaining the old.

Some of our problems seem so intractable that it is easier to try to postpone the day of reckoning rather than to solve them.  While it would be perfectly feasible and economically beneficial to launch a public works problem to repair America’s crumbling bridges, dams and water and sewerage systems (what Welsh calls the infrastructure debt), it is much harder to face up to the need for sustainable energy and the problem of global warming.  These would require daunting transformations of society that I, for one, find it virtually impossible to face up to.

That is why apocalyptic religion, and apocalyptic fiction and movies are so popular.  If we are living in the End Times, if civilization is going to collapse anyway, why bother to invest in infrastructure, education or scientific research.

At age 77, I probably will win Welsh’s “death bet.”  I expect to fall apart before American society does.  I guess that makes me part of the problem.