Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

2016 and all that

November 3, 2018

Populism is the expression of the righteous anger of the common people against injustice or perceived injustice.

Right-wing populism is the re-direction by the holders of wealth and power away from themselves and toward scapegoats.

The great political scientist Thomas Ferguson and his team of researchers recently published new studies of how right-wing populism operated in the 2016 national elections.

Several studies assert that supporters of Donald Trump are motivated primarily by racial anxiety and not be economic anxiety.  The conclusion they draw is that the Democratic Party does not have to become more populist in order to win elections.

Ferguson’s team says the truth is more complicated.  Racial anxiety and economic anxiety are not all that separate, they wrote.

Donald Trump told his supporters that their economic woes were due to immigration and foreign trade, and promised to fix both.  These are legitimate economic issues.

Many working people feel, for understandable reasons, that competition with foreign workers—both workers in foreign sweatshops and unauthorized immigrants in the USA—is driving down thrown wages.  I have to say that, as President, Trump has tried to keep his promises to try to restrict immigration and imports.  He has acted in a crude and counterproductive way, but he has acted.  These issues can no longer be ignored and will have to be rethought.

That’s not to deny that Trump also has tried to stir up animosity against African-Americans, Mexicans and Muslims.  But he also promised to launch a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, protect Social Security and Medicare and replace Obamacare with something better.

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Is Trump that much worse than his predecessors?

November 2, 2018

My big mistake during the 2016 election campaign was in under-estimating the harm that Donald Trump might do as President.

Donald Trump

I thought that it might do less harm, from the standpoint of progressive reform, for an incompetent authoritarian right-winger such as Trump to take office and take the blame for the coming financial crash, than for a Democrat to take office, fail and open the way for more capable, far-sighted right-wing authoritarian in 2020.

I thought that when my Democratic friends spoke of how Donald Trump was going to destroy American democracy, they failed to recognize how far we had already strayed from democracy.

This “normal” that you speak of: When was that, and where is it to be found?  The Benghazi hearings? The drone war and the secret “kill list” that included American citizens?  The birther controversy and the “death panels”?  Potential vice president Sarah Palin?  The Iraq war and the “unknown unknowns”?  The Lewinsky scandal and the “meaning of is”?

Source: Alternet

In many important bad ways, the Trump is a continuation of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.  He allows the drift toward military confrontation with Russia.  He continues the failing wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  He continues to staff his cabinet and key departments from Wall Street, especially Goldman Sachs.  He has little or nothing to offer working people.

The new bad thing about Trump is his attack on what his former adviser Steve Bannon called the “administrative state.”  It’s true that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush talked as if government as such was the enemy, and made appointments without concern for their lack of qualification.  But the Trump administration has taken this to a new, much lower level.

Trump appointed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.  During the 2016 primary campaign, Perry had the DoE in mind as one of three departments he wanted to abolish, but couldn’t remember its name.

The DoE among other things assembles the country’s nuclear weapons, oversees the safety of nuclear plants and nuclear waste dumps and trains foreign countries’ inspectors that verify nuclear disarmament.  The health and safety of Americans depends on the DoE functioning well.

When Trump took office, the DoE arranged a briefing on all its programs, just as it had done for Obama and George W. Bush.  But the Trump representative wanted just one thing—a list of all employees who had attended conferences on climate change (presumably to arrange a purge list).

Other major government departments are the same.  We Americans depend on their ability to function in ways we don’t think about (for example, the Department of Agriculture’s meat inspections) and often don’t even know.

The Trump administration has systematically downgraded the ability of government to function, except for the military and the covert action agencies.  It is also downgrading the government’s scientific and data collection functions, to eliminate sources of objective information that could be used against him.

The resulting failure of government will be used as an argument to abolish key public services or turn them over to profit-seeking businesses.

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The right wing’s winning long-term strategy

October 11, 2018

Appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is part of a disciplined long-term strategy by the American right wing to lock in its power for generations to come.

It means the rest of the corporate Republican power play—gerrymandering, voter suppression and virtually unlimited campaign spending—is unrepealable.

The Supreme Court has become a House of Lords—a legislature of last resort.  During my lifetime, it abolished school segregation, legalized abortion, legalized gay marriage, blocked campaign finance reform, and reshaped Obamacare.  It has a potential veto power over virtually anything Congress might do.

Progressive and Democratic leaders have no long-term strategy of their own for the Supreme Court or anything else.  Instead they merely react to events, often in ways that are obviously futile—asking the Electoral College to overturn the results of the 2016 election, hoping Russiagate will drive President Trump from office, planning to impeach Kavanaugh in the future.

Even if the Democratic leaders got a strategy and stuck to it, it could take 10 or 20 years or more to undo what the right-wing corporatist movement has accomplished.  It took decades for the corporate right to bring the United States to where it is today, and changing things back will not be done overnight—if ever.

∞∞∞

You could say there is “a vast right-wing conspiracy” except that it is not secret.  It has always been out in the open for anyone to see, if they care to look.  I wrote about this at length in a previous post.

The strategic corporate movement began with the Lewis Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in which the future Supreme Court justice argued that American business had to act strategically to protect its own position in society.

The result was the creation of a media, research and lobbying infrastructure, such Fox News, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which was tightly integrated with the corporate wing of the Republican Party.  The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, grooms reliably pro-corporate lawyers for judicial appointments.

It is true that there are many institutions with a built-in left-wing bias.  But the bias is unconscious and not a party line based on a planned, coordinated strategy.

The corporate movement crossed an ethical line with the REDMAP campaign.  In a targeted campaign, they gained control of both houses of 25 state legislatures in 2010, and proceeded to re-draw their congressional and state legislative districts so as to lock in a Republican majority.

At the same time they enacted laws making it more difficult for racial minorities to vote and canceling voter registrations, mainly of racial minorities, for bogus reasons.  The main obstacle to this strategy was the federal courts, which overruled the more obvious attempts to rig elections and disenfranchise voters.

Mitch McConnell (AP)

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader since 2007, has removed this obstacle by his partisan and successful effort to give stack the judiciary in favor of the Republicans.

He made it his priority to hold up appointments to the federal bench when Barack Obama was President  and then to push through appointments after Donald Trump took office.

When the Republicans were out of power, they took advantage of the “blue slip” tradition, whereby Senators have the right to block a judicial appointment in their states.

They used procedural rules to slow down President Obama’s judicial appointments, creating a backlog of vacancies.

During the last year of the Obama administration, McConnell simply refused to permit consideration of Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland, a moderately conservative but non-partisan judge.  There is no basis for such a refusal except partisanship.  It is an example of politics as a moral equivalent of war.

Now that Donald Trump is in the White House, judicial appointments go through quickly, and “blue slips” are a thing of the past.  Thanks to McConnell, the corporate movement has achieved its goal.

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U.S. civilian and military budget year-by-year

September 24, 2018

The video above shows the U.S. government’s discretionary spending from 1963 through 2017, in constant 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars.  I thank my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey for this link

Notice how military spending has increased, while becoming a smaller percentage of overall U.S. government spending.

The video below shows the U.S. government’s discretionary spending in comparison with spending on entitlements.

The videos are the work of a data scientist named Will Geary.   Click on his name for his web site.  He works for CitySwifter, a company that specializes in making urban bus routes more efficient, but he made these videos on his own time.

Below are two videos tracing U.S. arms sales year since 1950.

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What’s really wrong with Trump’s administration

September 13, 2018

Most of the coverage of President Donald Trump is based on his constant stream of tweets and social media comments, which enables him to dominate the news.

Most of the rest is based in developments of the Mueller Russiagate investigation, which may or may not turn out to be what it’s cracked up to be.

What’s out of the spotlight is reporting about the Trump administration’s actual deeds and policies.

Trump has continued American policy of attempting to dominate the world through military threats and economic sanctions, despite their evident failure.   During the 2016 campaign, I saw some possibility that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, would try to wind down American military interventions.  He was either lying or, what I think is more likely, unable to control the national security establishment—what some of us call the “deep state.”

Trump has continued American policy to risk nuclear confrontation with Russia and North Korea, which puts the whole world in danger.  The national security establishment has undermined his feeble and inept attempts to make peace.  But evidently he has frightened the North and South Korean governments into trying to make peace among themselves, which is a good thing.

Trump does not even pay lip service to trying to avert catastrophic global warming.  Instead his policy is to promote fossil fuels over renewable energy, which will speed up climate change.

Nuclear war and global warming are the main existential threats to the nation and the world.  Trump has failed to address the first and is actively preventing action against the second.

Trump during the campaign promised to do something about the offshoring of American jobs, which is a real problem that the other candidates ignored.  But his threats and tariffs will not help because U.S. industry has become too entangled in international supply chains to free itself overnight.   What’s needed is a long-range industrial policy that will rebuild American industry, which neither party has so far attempted.

Trump during the campaign promised to reform immigration, which is another real issue other candidates ignored.  The cruel treatment of asylum seekers and long-time foreign residents is shameful and does not change the overall situation.  I think there is something to be said for a merit-based immigration system, but I admit I don’t have a complete answer to the immigration question.  But neither does Trump.

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Thomas Frank on why Obama failed

September 11, 2018

Thomas Frank was recently interviewed by one John Siman, whom I’m not familiar with.  This part of the interview stands out for me.

TCF: …… I had met Barack Obama. He was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I’d been a student there.  And he was super smart.  Anyhow, I met him and was really impressed by him. All the liberals in Hyde Park — that’s the neighborhood we lived in — loved him, and I was one of them, and I loved him too.

Barack Obama

And I was so happy when he got elected.  Anyhow, I knew one thing he would do for sure, and that is he would end the reign of cronyism and incompetence that marked the Bush administration and before them the Reagan administration.  These were administrations that actively promoted incompetent people.  And I knew Obama wouldn’t do that, and I knew Obama would bring in the smartest people, and he’d get the best economists.

Remember, when he got elected we were in the pit of the crisis — we were at this terrible moment — and here comes exactly the right man to solve the problem.  He did exactly what I just described:  He brought in [pause] Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, considered the greatest economist of his generation — and, you know, go down the list: He had Nobel Prize winners, he had people who’d won genius grants, he had The Best and the Brightest.

And they didn’t really deal with the problem.  They let the Wall Street perpetrators off the hook — in a catastrophic way, I would argue.  They come up with a health care system that was half-baked.

Anyhow, the question becomes — after watching the great disappointments of the Obama years — the question becomes: Why did government-by-expert fail?

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Electronic voting machines are easy to hack

August 21, 2018

Source: XKCD

Electronic voting systems have long been vulnerable to tampering and hacking.  This has been known for more than 10 years, but little or nothing has been done about it.

Having a vulnerable system is like leaving your door unlocked or the keys in the ignition of your car.  Eventually somebody is going to take advantage of you.

If we Americans want to protect our voting systems from tampering, it doesn’t matter if the suspected tamperers are Russians, Republicans or somebody else.  We need written ballots that are hand-counted in public.

That’s only one of many problems.   Our election system is increasingly rigged to favor Republicans by discouraging or disqualifying voting by poor people, young people and people of color.

LINKS

How They Could Steal the Election This Time by Ronnie Dugger for The Nation (2004)

It’s Magic! by Greg Palast (2012)

How They’re Stealing Ohio: Vote machines audit function turned off—and worse by Greg Palast  (2016)

Justice Department Warns It Might Not Be Able to Prosecute Voting Machine Hackers by Kim Zetter for Motherboard [Added 9/31/2018]

How to Fight Voter Suppression in 2018 by Edward Burmila for Dissent Magazine.  Twelve ways in which voting procedures are rigged against poor people, young people and people of color, and what to do about them.

John Lanchester on the financial crisis

July 7, 2018

John Lanchester

The financial crash of 2008 was worldwide, and the failure of governments to address the causes of the crash also was worldwide.  Because the same thing happened in different countries under different leaders, the reasons for failure are systemic, not just the personal failings of particular leaders.  The solution must be systemic.  A mere change in leaders is not enough.

John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, wrote an excellent article about the crash and its aftermath.  I hoped to call attention to it in my previous post, but, as of this writing, there has been only one click on the link.

I know people are busy and have many claims on their attention.  If you don’t want to bother reading the full LRB article, here are some highlights.  If you’re an American, bear in mind that, even though so much of what he wrote applies to the USA,  his focus is on British policy.

The immediate economic consequence was the bailout of the banks.  I’m not sure if it’s philosophically possible for an action to be both necessary and a disaster, but that in essence is what the bailouts were. 

They were necessary, I thought at the time and still think, because this really was a moment of existential crisis for the financial system, and we don’t know what the consequences would have been for our societies if everything had imploded.  But they turned into a disaster we are still living through.

The first and probably most consequential result of the bailouts was that governments across the developed world decided for political reasons that the only way to restore order to their finances was to resort to austerity measures.  The financial crisis led to a contraction of credit, which in turn led to economic shrinkage, which in turn led to declining tax receipts for governments, which were suddenly looking at sharply increasing annual deficits and dramatically increasing levels of overall government debt.

So now we had austerity, which meant that life got harder for a lot of people, but – this is where the negative consequences of the bailout start to be really apparent – life did not get harder for banks and for the financial system. In the popular imagination, the people who caused the crisis got away with it scot-free, and, as what scientists call a first-order approximation, that’s about right.

In addition, there were no successful prosecutions of anyone at the higher levels of the financial system.  Contrast that with the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, basically a gigantic bust of the US equivalent of mortgage companies, in which 1100 executives were prosecuted.  What had changed since then was the increasing hegemony of finance in the political system, which brought the ability quite simply to rewrite the rules of what is and isn’t legal.

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Trump’s Fed protects banks from stress tests

July 6, 2018

Bill Black, an expert on banking and white-collar crime, described how Donald Trump’s appointees to the Federal Reserve Board are revising “stress tests” to free Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley from a requirement to prove they are solvent enough to weather the next recession.

To pass the “stress test,” they’d have to put a larger fraction of their profits into capital reserves.   Black said they could easily do this, but it would cut into bonuses and dividends.

He also noted that Germany’s Deutsche Bank in Germany can’t even pass the easier stress test.  Deutsche Bank is Germany’s largest bank and, according to Black, the only large bank willing to lend to Donald Trump’s businesses.

LINK

Fed Lets Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley Off Hook, Investors Profit Billions, a transcript of an interview of Bill Black for the Real News Network.

Why Trump may win again

July 3, 2018

I underestimated Donald Trump.  I didn’t think he would be elected.  Although I knew the figures that showed declining support for Democrats, I thought they had enough residual strength to elect a President one last time.

I thought that his election might be a blessing in disguise from the standpoint of progressives.  Trump rather than Hillary Clinton would get the blame for failure to deal with the coming economic crash and ongoing quagmire wars.

I didn’t think that Trump could govern effectively because he was ignorant.  I forget how progressives ridiculed Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for their supposed ignorance, and yet Reagan and Bush were transformational presidents while Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were not.  Trump is on track to be a transformational president, and not in a good way.

President Trump is transforming the Supreme Court so as to reverse all the pro-labor and pro-civil liberties decisions of the past 40 or 50 years.  The religious right was disappointed that Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes never advanced their goals.  But I don’t think Trump will have any qualms about giving them what they want.

Trump is crippling the ability of the federal government to perform its lawful duties to regulate and provide public services.  He has raised corruption to a new level, which, strangely, works to his advantage because there is so much of it that I can’t keep track of it.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and other top Democratic leaders are not an effective opposition.  They are too wedded to pleasing their wealthy donors and to a pro-military foreign policy and pro-corporate economic policy.

What I hear from liberal Democrats are (1) a claim that Donald Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin and (2) outrage at the latest comment that Trump has made on Twitter.

They let Trump set the agenda.  They have no program of their own.  So even though an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump, that will not in itself bring victory.

Increasing numbers of Americans decline to vote in national elections.  They don’t think the leaders of either the Republican or Democratic party represent them.

A certain number vote for Trump not because they expect him to keep his promises, but to “send them a message.”

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, it seemed to me that, since the Republicans had become an ideological party of the right, the Democrats would become an ideological party of the left.  The result, I thought, would be a real political debate based on issues.

This didn’t happen.  Instead the Democratic leaders became more pro-corporate and pro-military.

Now, nearly 40 years later, a true left-wing movement is emerging in America.  Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even call themselves socialists.

I see that emerging movement as Americans’ only hope because the alternatives are the status quo, which does not work for most Americans, and Donald Trump’s blood-and-soil nationalism, which also will not work.

LINKS

Why Trump country is unfazed by the child separation crisis by Matthew Walther for The Week.

This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism | His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson by Susan McWilliams for The Nation.

What’s missing from Draut’s Better Deal?

June 26, 2018

Tamara Draut, at the conclusion of Sleeping Giant, her book about the new American working class, offered a list of proposals that she called A Better Deal.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR A BETTER DEAL

A Better Deal for Workers
Modernize out labor protections by fighting the definition of “independent contractor,” creating new rules for stable scheduling practices and ensuring that the growing “on-demand” workforce is protected by labor laws and has rights to basic worker benefits.  Expand federal enforcement capacity and increase the fines and penalties for companies that break the rules.
• Guarantee paid sick days and paid parental leave as universal benefits for all workers.
• Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
• Reform labor laws to ensure the ability of workers to join a union, including prohibiting so-called right-to-work laws and establishing majority sign-up as the authorization required for establishing a union.

A Better Deal for Families
Develop a system to guarantee access to affordable and high-quality child care for infants and toddlers for all working- and middle-class families and high-quality jobs for child-care workers.
• Reinvest in state public higher education to achieve debt-free public college for all working- and middle-class students.

A Better Deal for Society
Revitalize our nation’s infrastructure, including addressing climate change, to ensure full employment
• Establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Racial Healing to provide full accounting of our nation’s violent racial history and to address its legacy in residential segregation, occupational segregation, the racial wealth gap and oppressive criminal justice and policing practices.
• Develop comprehensive immigration reform to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

A Better Deal for Democracy
Reform election procedures and practices, including establishing automatic voter registration to ensure all citizens are registered and widespread adoption of same-day registration, early voting and restoration of voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens; restore the Voting Rights Act to provide voter protections for African Americans
• Establish a system of public financing at the federal, state and local levels, to reduce the role of corporate money and private wealth in funding elections and allow more racially diverse and working-class people to run for office.
• Amend the Constitution and transform the Supreme Court’s approach to money in politics to establish that money is not free speech and that corporations are not people.

What is missing from this list?

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Reasons to be hopeful

June 16, 2018

I often feel discouraged about the state of the world.  But a lot of things seem to be improving behind my back.

This set of charts was created by the late Hans Rosling for his newly-published book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and are taken from Amazon’s listing for the book.

Rosling contended that people in Western Europe and North America underestimate the progress being made.  In his opinion, this was based partly on an underestimation of the capabilities of people in Third World countries.  He thought that the harmful effect of this mistaken pessimism is that it discourages continued efforts to make progress.

He created Gapminder software as a means of graphically illustrating progress over time.

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Can the U.S. guarantee every American a job?

June 1, 2018

Is it possible to guarantee a job at a good wage to everybody who wants one?  Senator Bernie Sanders is working on a proposal to do just that, and several other Democrats have endorsed the concept.

Nobody in this country has ever tried anything like this.

“Full employment” as usually understood means reducing unemployment to the lowest possible figure, now estimated at 1.5 percent.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created millions of useful jobs, but fell far short of providing a job to every individual who wanted one.   He proposed a postwar economic bill of rights that included the right to a decent job, but it isn’t clear whether that was meant literally or as an aspiration.

At the present time, the most widely-discussed proposal for a job guarantee is the National Investment Employment Corps (NIEC) proposed by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, working with the Center for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Public Policy Priorities.

The NIEC would provide a job to any American 18 years old or older at a minimum annual wage of $24,600 for full-time workers ($11.83 an hour).  They would have a chance to advance within the program to $32,500.  Wages would rise with the rate of inflation or to keep pace with any increase in the national minimum wage.

Full-time workers would be given the same health insurance and other benefits as other federal employees, whose cost is estimated at $10,000 a year. There also would be an option for part-time work.

The Secretary of Labor would provide “employment grants” to state, county and local governments, as well as Indian nations, for NIEC workers to carry out community projects.  The Secretary also would work with federal agencies to identify kinds of needed work that aren’t being done.  Examples might be energy efficiency retrofitting, elder care, ecological restoration and preschool services.

Where local governments could not think up enough useful projects to provide full employment, the NIEC would step in and do the work itself.  On the other hand, it would not fund work that would displace already existing employees.  Investigators would check to prevent corruption or boondoggling.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Paul, Darity and Hamilton estimate NIEC would employ 10.7 million workers which, factoring in part-timers, would equal 9.7 million full-time job equivalents.

They estimate the annual cost of their program at $543 billion a year.  That would be offset, they say, by reduction in spending for food stamps, unemployment compensation, earned income tax credits and other federal programs to help the poor and unemployed, and by an increase in taxable income.

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College has developed a less-detailed proposal, which is said to be the basis for Bernie Sanders’ proposal.  The main difference is that the Levy proposal is based on a wage of $15 an hour.

It sounds good.  What would be the problems?  I think thee are some serious ones.

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How the New Deal created millions of jobs

May 31, 2018

Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that would create jobs. [1]  Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders are talking about a federal jobs guarantee.  Many Americans think this is utopian.

Eighty-some years ago, during the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration showed what is possible.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. 

Rundel Memorial Library in Rochester, N.Y., funded by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937

Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population.  All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.

In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly 3 million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps.

In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8 million workers. …

The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2.75 million idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. …

Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens.  The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.

Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.

A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

Source: Labor Educator

These were not make-work projects.  We still enjoy the benefits of these projects today.  Here is a summary of New Deal construction projects here in Rochester, N.Y., where I live.

  • Doubled the size of the Rochester International Airport (still in use)
  • Built a high school (still in use)
  • Built a post office with publicly commissioned art (still in use, art still there!)
  • Built a new Art Deco headquarters for the Rochester Fire Department (still in use)
  • Built a 40,000 square foot library (still in use)
  • Commissioned a variety of murals in high schools and public spaces, most of which still exist
  • Improved the local waterworks system
  • Set up a local Federal Arts Project center, that paid unemployed artists to create exhibits, run community art classes, and create art for public spaces.
  • Source: Jack Meserve, Democracy Journal.

What conditions exist today that prevent us Americans from doing what our forebears did then?

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Chris Hedges on the coming collapse

May 30, 2018

Chris Hedges wrote last week about the next financial crash.

Wall Street banks have been handed $16 trillion in bailouts and other subsidies by the Federal Reserve and Congress at nearly zero percent interest since the 2008 financial collapse.

They have used this money, as well as the money saved through the huge tax cuts imposed last year, to buy back their own stock, raising the compensation and bonuses of their managers and thrusting the society deeper into untenable debt peonage.

Chris Hedges

Sheldon Adelson’s casino operations alone got a $670 million tax break under the 2017 legislation.  The ratio of CEO to worker pay now averages 339 to 1, with the highest gap approaching 5,000 to 1.  This circular use of money to make and hoard money is what Karl Marx called “fictitious capital.”

The steady increase in public debt, corporate debt, credit card debt and student loan debt will ultimately lead, as Nomi Prins writes, to “a tipping point—when money coming in to furnish that debt, or available to borrow, simply won’t cover the interest payments.  Then debt bubbles will pop, beginning with higher yielding bonds.”

An economy reliant on debt for its growth causes our interest rate to jump to 28 percent when we are late on a credit card payment.  It is why our wages are stagnant or have declined in real terms—if we earned a sustainable income we would not have to borrow money to survive.

It is why a university education, houses, medical bills and utilities cost so much. The system is designed so we can never free ourselves from debt.

However, the next financial crash, as Prins points out in her book Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World, won’t be like the last one.  This is because, as she says, “there is no Plan B.”

Interest rates can’t go any lower. There has been no growth in the real economy. The next time, there will be no way out. Once the economy crashes and the rage across the country explodes into a firestorm, the political freaks will appear, ones that will make Trump look sagacious and benign.

Source: Truthdig

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Is a non-BS economy even possible?

May 26, 2018

What would the U.S. unemployment rate be if all useless or harmful jobs were eliminated?

It would probably be equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Barack Obama, in an interview in 2006, stated the problem:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’  That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.  What are we doing with them?  Where are we employing them?”

Source: The Nation

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, quoted public opinion polls that found 37 percent of UK employees and 40 percent in the Netherlands thought their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world.

Now maybe that is exaggerated.  Maybe some of them think they make a contribution, but that it’s not “meaningful.”

Offsetting this, the inherent bias of people is to think we are accomplishing more than other people think we do or the objective facts indicate.

For example, public relations, advertising, lobbying, consulting and even speculation on financial and commodities markets have their uses.  It is just that they play more of a role in the economy than they should.

I myself think the U.S. military and intelligence services are much greater than necessary to protect the homeland from attack.  Of course, if the mission is to make the United States the world’s only superpower, no number could be great enough.

The question is: What would happen if all these people were thrown on the job market, all at once?

It would be a catastrophe, unless there were some sort of basic income guarantee (which Graeber advocates) or basic job guarantee.

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Trump’s broken promises to working Americans

May 14, 2018

Donald Trump and supporters. Source: Quartz

When Donald Trump ran for President, it was on an economic populist platform that, in many ways, put him well to the left of Hillary Clinton and of any Republican since Richard Nixon.

Most of what he promised would have been politically popular, economically feasible and beneficial to American working people—although not necessarily politically feasible.  But none of it was done or even seriously attempted.

Jonathan Chait last week wrote about Trump’s broken promises for New York magazine.  Here’s a short list of Trump promises:

  • Create a health insurance program that covers more people than Obamacare.
  • Negotiate lower drug prices through Medicare.
  • Pull out of NAFTA and negotiate a better trade deal.
  • Raise taxes on the rich, including himself.
  • Enact a $1 trillion infrastructure program (later $1.5 trillion).
  • Enact a six-point plan to curb lobbying, including no lobbying by former government officials or members of Congress until five years after leaving office and curbs on foreign companies making campaign contributions.

Trump has done nothing to replace or reform Obamacare, only made minor changes that make it worse.  Nothing was done to lower drug prices.

Simply canceling NAFTA would have been wrong.  Nations, even superpower nations, can’t just break agreements and not suffer consequences.  But there certainly is a need to renegotiate NAFTA and similar agreements.

The infrastructure plan is now $200 million, and even that has been postponed until next year.

As for putting limits on lobbying—that is a joke!

But I suspect that most Americans aren’t aware of this.  Most of the reporting on Trump has to  do with the Russiagate investigation, or Trump’s scandalous personal behavior, or the latest outrageous thing that Trump has said on social media.

These things matter, of course.  But they have nothing to do with public policy.

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The fault lies not in Russia, but in ourselves

April 7, 2018

If I habitually leave my car with the doors unlocked and the car keys in the ignition, somebody is going to steal it.

That doesn’t mean that the person who steals it is any less a thief, or that the car thief does not deserve to be apprehended and punished.  It does mean that I am a fool if I look to law enforcement to give me total security against theft without taking action myself.

If electronic voting machines are vulnerable to tampering, somebody is going to tamper with them.   If you want a guarantee of an honest vote count, then have paper ballots that are hand-counted in public.

If the confidential files of political parties are vulnerable to hacking, somebody is going to hack them.   If you want to be safe from hacking, then you need good computer security.

If election campaigns can be swayed by social media using personal information to manipulate people psychologically, then someone is going to manipulate public opinion.   If you want to overcome this, then based your political campaign on supporters going door-to-door and talking to people face to face.

I think the American election process is vulnerable to manipulation by foreign powers, but even more so by special interests and political operatives on the home front.   I think the idea that you can safeguard the process by threatening Russia—even if Russians turn out to be guilty of everything they’re accused of—is as foolish as the idea that you can solve the U.S. drug addiction problem by threatening Mexico or Colombia.

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Diversity is not a substitute for justice

February 20, 2018

Racial and cultural diversity is a good thing.

Adolph Reed Jr.

I, a straight white male, benefited from diversity during my college days in two ways.

I won a college scholarship because I was the only applicant from a small town below the Mason-Dixon line, and because I was one of the few applicants for this particular scholarship who took tests in the humanities rather than the sciences.

The other way I benefited was in meeting a more diverse group of people than I had known before.  I never had a meaningful conversation with anyone who was not white or Christian until I went to college (in the 1950s) and meeting people of different backgrounds was an important part of my education.

But diversity is not a substitute for social justice.  Diversity will not, in and of itself, end plutocracy or war or police brutality or unemployment or divisiveness.

The reason so many powerful people and institutions embrace diversity and reject social justice is that diversity leaves the existing structure of political and economic power intact.   Diversity is a good thing.  But it’s not enough.

LINKS

Diversity: A Managerial Ideology by Darel E. Paul for Quillette.  Hat tip to Alex Small.

Black Politics After 2016 by Adolph Reed Jr. for Nonsite.org (Emory College).  This is long, but well worth reading.

The Political Economy of Anti-Racism by Walter Benn Michaels for  Nonsite.org (Emory College).  A companion piece to Reed’s article, it also is well worth reading.

The New Deal’s forgotten accomplishments

January 1, 2018

A widely accepted criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is that it never really ended the Great Depression.  It took rearmament, the military draft and the Second World War to bring about full employment.

Conrad Black. of all people, writing in The American Conservative, of all publications, pointed out that what these critics overlook is the millions of Americans put to work by the New Deal conservation and public works programs.

Between 5 million and just under 8 million workers were employed on New Deal projects during the 1930s, but, according to Black, they were not included in the employment statistics cited by most historians, including partisan Democratic historians.

Solid line counts workers employed on public works as unemployed; dotted line does not.  Source: The Edge of the American West.

Black, formerly a Canadian newspaper publisher, has written biographies of Richard M. Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Reviewing Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR, Black wrote: —

He states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940, when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated and to the country’s first peace-time conscription, which he called a “muster”.

But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions  of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

[snip]  These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the public sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment.

Those unable to work received Social Security, unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

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Why the FCC proposes to eliminate Net Neutrality

November 27, 2017

Doug Muder wrote an excellent post on today’s The Weekly Sift about how the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to end Net Neutrality will enable monopolists to dominate the Internet.

Long story short: Net Neutrality means that Internet service providers operate like telephone companies.  Anybody can phone anywhere who is connected to the system, and every ISP charges its customers the same rates..   The end of Net Neutrality means that they operate like cable TV companies.  You would have to accept whatever restriction they choose to impose.

Muder shows how the end of Net Neutrality ties in with the growth of business monopoly and how this ties in with the growth of economic inequality.

I strongly recommend reading Muder’s article, but I have a couple of graphics below that also explain the issue, although not in as great a depth.

LINK

The Looming End of Net Neutrality (and why you should care) by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

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America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

August 31, 2017

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

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How inequality is growing

August 9, 2017

This chart, from an article in the New York Times, shows the growth of inequality in the past 37 years.

The income growth that took place in 1980 benefited everyone, but primarily those at the bottom of the income scale.   That didn’t mean the rich became any less rich.  In fact, their gains measured in dollars rather than as a percentage probably were greater.   But a rising tide lifted all boats.

By 2004, things were just the opposition.  Most of the income growth that took place in that year was concentrated among the top income earners.

There is an interactive chart in the original article that shows the hockey stick pattern began in the 1980s, but really shot up beginning in the 2000s.

My theory is that the driving forces were (1) the Carter-Reagan era upper-bracket tax cuts, (2) the deregulation of the financial industry during the Clinton administration and (3) the refusal of the Obama-Holder administration to prosecute officers of financial firms “too big to fail.”

Deregulation created new ways you could to get rich in ways that didn’t create value for others.   Refusal to prosecute meant that you could get  rich dishonestly and keep what you had.

The Trump administration will not change this.   It is making things worse by advocating for eliminating what little financial regulation there is, and by granting tax relief that primarily benefits the upper brackets.

LINK

Our Broken Economy, In One Simple Chart, by David Leonhardt for the New York Times.

How Did They Get So Rich? by Matt Breunig for Jacobin.  [Added 8/10/2017]  Breunig shows that the great increase in the income of the wealthy came from ownership of capital.  They became so much richer because they were already rich.

Donald Trump is wrecking government, legally

August 7, 2017

President Donald J. Trump in just six months has done permanent damage to the working of the federal government.   It is not just that his policies are mostly bad.   It is that, due to incompetence and contempt for government, he is destroying the ability of government to function.

The trouble is that his wrecking is fully within his legal and Constitutional powers as President, while  the illegal and unconstitutional actions of which he is accused are either unproven and / or have precedent in the Bush and Obama administrations.

LINKS

Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.   Short version by Rod Dreher.

How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce and Colum Lynch for Foreign Policy.  Short version by Daniel Larison.

What’s Worse: Trump’s Campaign Agenda or Empowering Generals and CIA Operatives to Subvert It? by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Trump Is Guilty, of Something by Andrew Levine for Counterpunch.   But what?

Neoliberalism and the Grenfell Tower disaster

June 19, 2017

If British reports are to be believed, the Grenfell Tower inferno in central London might have been averted for a cost of a mere $6,000 — or a little more than $100 for each of the 58 unfortunates who, on the best estimate available this weekend, perished in the disaster.

According to the London Daily Mail, when the tower was recently renovated, builders opted for a cladding material so inappropriate that it is rated “flammable” in Germany and its use in tall buildings in even lightly regulated America is banned.  The attraction was a saving of a mere 10 percent.  On the Mail’s numbers, that added up to a total saving compared to a safe material of £5,000 — equal to a little more than $6,000.

Such is the dystopia that deregulation, British-style, has wrought — a dystopia whose excesses are now finally coming to be widely recognized by voters and elected leaders alike.

Source: Eamonn Fingleton

This is neoliberalism in action.   First you privatize a public service, as was done with public housing in Great Britain, because for-profit corporations are supposed to be intrinsically better able to make decisions than public bodies.  Then you make decisions based on assumptions about profit-and-loss, because this is supposed to be objective and rational.

Also, you judge the worth of a human life based on that person’s financial net worth.

Thankfully, not everybody makes decisions on this basis.  The brave firefighters who saved Grenfell Tower residents were motivated by a sense of duty, not a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet firefighters, too, in the UK as well as the USA, are being weighed in the neoliberal balance and found wanting.

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