Monday, September 18, 2017

The German auto giants face an existential challenge


A few weeks back, a friend of mine bought himself a used Nissan Leaf. Even though it is fully electric, this car is a long way from being a Tesla—its range is less the 100 miles and quite honestly, it is kind of ugly. Even so, I am pretty sure that no purchase in his life has made him happier. It actually makes him giggle.

Based on this small sample size, I am quite willing to announce the day of the electric vehicle (EV) has arrived. Yes they are still quite expensive although his used 2015 with less than 20k miles on the odometer cost about $11,000. Yes their low range and high recharging times make them still something of a hardship to own. But the upside is a luxuriously quiet ride combined with hiccup-quick acceleration and premium handling due to a very low center of gravity. This is in addition to a seriously reduced need for routine maintenance, lower costs for fuel, and the satisfaction of knowing your vehicle is arguably the cleanest set of wheels around. But just to make sure my friend has plenty to giggle about, Nissan has built in an incredible electronic feature set. His favorite seems to be the announcement of available chargers whenever his range drops below 20% complete with directions for finding them.

But even if EVs are the future, the current reality is that they still constitute less than 1% of cars on the road. And nobody is making money selling them. This leaves the auto giants with a monumental problem. If they spend the big money developing EVs, they will be manufacturing a money-loser that will take sales away from the highly profitable vehicles they already sell—a least for the foreseeable future. And so the temptation to not change anything is very high. This problem is especially acute in Germany where the automakers sincerely believe that they already make the best cars on the road.

The Arrival of Tesla—German Auto Giants Face an Existential Challenge


BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen have been struggling to adapt to the advent of the electric car, held back by conservatism and internal challenges. Now, Tesla is making inroads in Germany -- and the country's automakers face an uncertain future.

Simon Hage, September 15, 2017

At the start of this year, Karl-Thomas Neumann was planning a minor revolution. His plan was to transform German carmaker Opel, known for basic models like the Astra and the Corsa, into a purely electric brand. Electric cars were to be designed at Opel's R&D center in Rüsselsheim, near Frankfurt, destined for the world market.

As the head of Opel at the time, Neuman was convinced that the end of the internal combustion engine was closer than many believed. He now hoped he could bring the necessary technology to Germany.

His idea was also born out of necessity. As a small manufacturer, it is especially challenging for Opel to adjust its internal combustion-powered cars to increasingly stringent emissions standards. Opel vehicles had attracted unwanted attention because of their excessive emissions and Neumann was at least trying to treat the diesel crisis as a chance to start over.

His ambitious electric plan for Opel failed, however, when the company's U.S. owner, General Motors, suddenly lost interest in the European market and sold Opel to French rival PSA in the summer.

Neumann no longer works for Opel, but he still believes his ideas are the right ones. The former CEO fears that the auto industry - especially BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen - has underestimated the momentum of the transformation, and that it is resting on its laurels instead of developing new concepts.

The German auto industry needs "a clean break," says Neumann. It has to "accept that diesel is gradually going extinct." Of course, he adds, the auto industry can still make money with internal combustion engines for a number of years. "But it's time to reduce complexity, that is, develop a much smaller number of different engines," says Neumann. He recommends car companies use the money they save to invest heavily in electromobility.

He has a warning for the entire sector: Unless the auto industry consistently reforms itself, it "runs the risk of being outpaced by new competitors from China and the United States."

Customers and, in some cases, companies, are still skeptical. The arguments against electric cars cited by critics include their lack of significant range, high costs and questionable carbon footprint.

But does that mean that automobile manufacturers should simply continue pursuing the status quo?

Unprecedented Pressure for Carmakers

For decades, the auto industry kept building bigger, faster and more powerful vehicles outfitted with gasoline and diesel engines. And business has been good. In 2016, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen reported €465 billion ($552 billion) in sales and close to €30 billion in profits. But their growth came at a high price.

The systematic deception got started in the companies' development departments about 10 years ago. Unable to satisfy increasingly stringent emissions requirements, the engineers resorted to software that was designed to cheat the system. It guaranteed good emissions results in vehicle testing stations, but allowed the supposedly clean vehicles to emit harmful nitric oxides on the road. In the United States, Volkswagen has already admitted to committing emissions test fraud and obstructing justice. VW and Daimler are currently under investigation in Germany. Only BMW has been spared the judicial scrutiny.

After DER SPIEGEL in July exposed decades of collusion between the three companies on technology, suppliers and exhaust-gas-cleaning systems, the three major German automakers could face further legal troubles. They are making intensive preparations for possible investigations or searches. At BMW, which denies any wrongdoing, 18 lawyers are now analyzing data and documents spanning almost three decades.

The suspicions of collusion are also complicating the plans of BMW, Daimler and VW to cooperate more closely on topics like mobility services and autonomous driving. "From now on, there will always be a lawyer present at any meeting with a competitor, no matter how harmless," an auto company representative explains. Instead of a collective spirit of optimism, a feeling of mutual mistrust reigns.

The German auto industry has never faced this much pressure. Auto executives describe it as a "perfect storm." The old business model is increasingly coming under pressure, both legally and economically.

More and more countries are planning to phase out combustion engine technology. Great Britain and France want to ban cars with gasoline and diesel engines by 2040, while Norway plans to take the same step by 2025. China is expected to impose a minimum sales quota for electric cars starting next year. Surveys show that 60 percent of Chinese car buyers could imagine buying an electric vehicle as their next car.

To be able to sell its products in the future, the auto industry needs alternative, low-emission engines. It also needs to offer mobility concepts like car sharing and ride services. Otherwise the business will no longer be run by BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen in the future, but by foreign competitors.

Tesla Arrives in Germany

The biggest cause for concern in the German auto industry is an American rival, Tesla. Founded in 2003, it has achieved what the German manufacturers failed to do for years: build an electric car that many customers want.

More than 450,000 consumers have already pre-ordered Tesla's new Model 3, and the company says that it is receiving another 1,800 orders a day. "Tesla now has a cult status that other brands can only dream of," says Neumann.

The German carmakers' identity crisis comes at a convenient time for Tesla. While the U.S. company has been restrained in its public statements, Tesla Managers speak off the record about "illegal manipulations in the context of the diesel scandal."

The U.S. company smells an opportunity to finally gain a foothold in Germany, a country that has had relatively little affinity for Tesla in the past and is the home market of Daimler, BMW and VW. The company has more than doubled its German sales in the first half of 2017, for a total of 2,000 vehicles. This is an impressive number for Germany, which lags behind other developed nations when it comes to electric cars.

Management at BMW, Daimler and VW are working on counter-offensives.

The office of Klaus Fröhlich, BMW's head of development, is dominated by model cars on the window sill, relics from the old auto world. The collection ranges from long-extinct brands like the NSU Ro 80, car of the year in 1968, to the Porsche Carrera and the Land Rover Defender, a muscular SUV.

Fröhlich actually wants to talk about BMW and his planned electric strategy, not about the competition. But he keeps coming back to the company's California rival. The BMW executive mentions the word "Tesla" 16 times within 60 minutes.

He sees BMW as being "neck and neck" with Tesla, but plans to have trumped his US rival in no more than three years. Like Tesla, BMW will place a stronger emphasis on "emotionalizing" its electric cars in the future, with wider tires and more dynamic designs.

Fröhlich draws three curves on a piece of graph paper. They illustrate the likely increase in electric car sales in the coming years. The first curve represents sales in China. Starting in 2020, it points almost vertically upward.

BMW plans to produce cars more efficiently to satisfy exploding demand. Plants and vehicle designs are being upgraded so that every car can be flexibly outfitted either with an internal combustion engine, a plug-in hybrid or a pure electric powertrain. As demand increases, the company expects to be able to start producing hundreds of thousands of electric cars by essentially flipping a switch. As such, says Fröhlich, BMW will be ready if consumers in China decide to buy only electric cars.

Fröhlich's second curve represents the east and west coasts of the United States. According to his calculations, the electric car boom will begin there in about 2025. Germans will follow suit about five years later. Fröhlich describes Germany as a country "where they like to talk about e-mobility" but where "relatively little is being done." He blames policymakers, pointing out that Munich, for example, currently has only 50 charging stations.

The Auto Giants' Dilemma

Like all German manufacturers, BMW is trying to perform a balancing act. The company wants to continue selling gasoline and diesel vehicles while simultaneously preparing for the electric age. It has announced 25 electric vehicle models for 2025, but the startup costs are massive. BMW has already invested sums in the double-digit billions in sustainable drives. The Munich company is making a bet on the future. At the moment, it is losing money on every electric car it sells.

The auto industry's dilemma is that its new business, which is still losing money, is cannibalizing its profitable, existing one, creating incentives to delay the necessary change.

Some of the companies' efforts to prepare for the future seem half-hearted. In late 2016, Daimler, Ford, BMW and VW announced a joint initiative for rapid-charging stations. The project was scheduled to begin in 2017, with about 400 locations across Europe planned in the first phase.

Nine months have passed since the announcement and the current number of charging stations is still zero. The first charging station is expected to open this year, allegedly with charging technology superior to Tesla's. By comparison, Tesla has already installed more than 6,300 of its so-called Superchargers worldwide. It aims increase that number to 10,000 by the end of the year.

The U.S. company still isn't making a profit on its electric vehicles, but unlike the German automakers, Tesla does not have to worry about a massive existing car business. This helps explain Tesla's aggressive approach to marketing, which makes it seem like the company is less interested in selling cars than in changing the way the world uses energy.

That doesn't mean it's true. Tesla founder Elon Musk is, of course, pursuing uncompromising economic interests. But his message sounds more convincing than that of the German auto industry, which constantly fluctuates between commitments to electromobility and statements of loyalty to the internal combustion engine. Their mantra is that the diesel engine is far from finished.

The industry spent decades resisting overly substantial changes. Anyone who talked about electromobility or car sharing in the 1990s was immediately mocked.

VW offers the most prominent example. Top executive Daniel Goeudevert wanted to reform the brand back in 1991 by introducing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, but failed. He was also working on a car-sharing joint venture with German national railroad Deutsche Bahn. His conclusion, at the time, was that fewer and fewer people wanted to own their own cars in favor of using shuttle services.

When Goeudevert predicted the demise of the diesel engine, the Volkswagen leadership decided it had had enough. In his last meetings with VW, Goeudevert was told something he never forgot: "You will be amazed at all the things we can still get out of diesel."

The 75-year-old now lives in a town near the Swiss capital Bern, rides an e-bike and regards the vehicle industry from a distance. "Because of its great successes, the auto industry has become blind to the true needs of customers," he says. "For much too long, Volkswagen and the others were only interested in speed and luxury."

In his view, German carmakers' only hope is to drum up enthusiasm among young people. Many teenagers feel more of a connection to the Apple logo than the Mercedes star.

A quarter of a century after his departure, Goeudevert's ideas are now treated as common sense. His former employer, Volkswagen, wants to become hipper. Designers and futurologists run riot in its Future Center in Potsdam outside Berlin, in an idyllic location on the Havel River. People wear sneakers, speak a lot of English and reject formality.

Its latest development is a concept vehicle called Sedric, which VW hopes will serve as a driverless robot taxi in urban areas sometime in the next decade. The designers are especially proud of its futuristic interior, which includes a large display for multimedia applications, such as karaoke, a tool that is meant to appeal primarily to Asian customers.

New Ways of Working

The VW employees in Potsdam are also trying to come up with new ways of working. In conversations with retirees, for example, they discovered they had to simplify the process of ordering a robot taxi as much as possible. The designers developed a remote control with only one button, aptly named the One-Button. VW is even seeking the advice of small children. The Future Center recently played host to the neighboring kindergarten.

"We are just getting started at establishing direct contact with our retail customers," says Thomas Sedran, who has been the chief of strategy at the Volkswagen Group for about two years. This is "a real challenge for a company that has before now primarily been shaped by its focus on engineering." As absurd as it sounds, for years Volkswagen had almost no idea who was driving its cars and what services VW drivers would like to use. Volkswagen interacted mainly with its authorized dealers.

The company is now painstakingly trying to approach its customers through apps and shuttle services. Starting next year, VW plans to offer a kind of on-call bus service in Hamburg. The new service, which will initially consist of 200 electric shuttles, is a test to determine whether VW can make money with taxi services. Most of all, though, it is an attempt to create long-term brand loyalty among customers.

Chief strategist Sedran believes that VW can no longer afford to miss out on any new development. He predicts a "major shift in the entire auto industry," which could even include the disappearance of individual brands.

Whether Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW will be among the survivors depends on whether pioneering thinkers like Sedran prevail. Many managers remain unconvinced that deep-seated reforms are truly necessary. Some even believe that the diesel crisis is somehow over.

They feel persecuted by their critics, including Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental group fighting in court for diesel bans. And by the politicians who are sharply critical of the automakers' manipulation of emissions values. And, finally, by the press for its reporting of these stories. "A key industry is being criminalized here," is a sentence often heard at the auto companies. VW Chief Executive Officer Matthias Müller believes that there is an "ongoing campaign against the diesel engine."

Many managers also express the hope that the Tesla problem will eventually resolve itself. They argue that their U.S. rival's battery technology isn't mature, which keeps Tesla from producing its cars in a cost-effective manner. "A company like that, which is only losing money, could never exist in Germany," said a top executive with a German automaker.

His analysis is not exactly wrong. Investors could in fact lose patience and cut off Tesla's funding. But would that change anything? Even a Tesla bankruptcy would not stop the transformation, because other manufacturers, especially from China, have also discovered the appeal of electromobility. And they are doing their utmost to achieve global market leadership.

Ten years ago, another technology sector made the mistake of underestimating its challenger: the mobile communications industry. Manufacturers like Nokia and Blackberry had long been the undisputed market leaders, but success made them sluggish. New, more innovative competitors had hardly appeared on the scene before the former pioneers were forced from the market.

One anecdote from an executive meeting at RIM, which produces the Blackberry, has now become legendary. It is said that when managers delicately passed around an iPhone, most of those present just shook their heads. The phone with the large screen would not make it, the managers believed, because the battery performance was insufficient.

The good old mobile phone, they argued, was far from dead. more

Friday, September 15, 2017

Big dirty ships make "free" trade economically possible


Ever since the steam guys figured out that it was possible turn heat into motion, folks have been figuring out the thousands of applications for this possibility. Powering ships was one of the first uses of fire-driven power and it remains an important though small niche market (certainly in comparison to land-based transportation and electrical generation) for fuels. The niche has gotten considerably larger in recent years as traditional manufacturing nations off-shore their industrial base to places like China. All of this has been made possible by building very large ships burning the cheapest petroleum available. And they are astonishingly efficient—1/10 of a horsepower can move a ton of shipping through the water at commercially viable speeds.

Until now, no one has seemed to much care that these mega-ships are filthy when it comes to exhaust because for most of their water-borne lives they are out of sight of land. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter where air pollution originates, it is all being dumped into the same atmosphere. When it comes to building a fire-free world, big shipping will be one of the more difficult problems. Giving up mega-ships burning bunker oil will be extremely hard to do. And one of the problems is that impediments to trade like changing the economics of shipping will be viewed with horror by the serious acolytes of "free" trade.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Who murdered the peace movement?


In the essay below, Paul Craig Roberts asks a damn good question, "Who murdered the peace movement?" when discussing the current runaway warmongering in official Washington. As someone who spent a significant fraction of my life before 30 involved in various forms of the peace movement, I'd like to take a crack at that one.
  • Peace movements are automatically the weaker party. It is a thousand times easier to gin up the warlike animus than to teach folks (especially young men) that no one wins wars and that everything from sex to the economy is much better under conditions of peace. Peace movements are only successful when there are highly intelligent and charismatic leaders (like Bertrand Russel) who can make the peace arguments. It also helps to have religious movements (Quakers, Mennonites) that can do the heavy lifting of training successive generations of young men why the peace arguments are superior.
  • The antiwar activities associated with the Vietnam War were notoriously empty intellectually and ideologically. In my experience, a minimum of 95% of the young men who participated in the antiwar movement were merely trying to keep their own asses safe. The day after the first draft lottery I had occasion to visit the Quaker-run Twin Cities Draft Information Center. The place was empty except for the lone woman who had shown up to unlock the doors. 2/3 of their "clients" had gotten their good news and didn't need the help of the dreary folks who liked to stress the moral illiteracy of the warmongers.
  • After Vietnam, the military types learned their lessons on how to avoid the influence, such as it was, of the peaceniks. With their all-volunteer forces and a well-thought-out strategy of spending their money in every congressional district, they would never again lose a political battle over any war they wanted to start. After the last great unsuccessful peace marches opposing the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the peace types realized their situation was utterly hopeless and pretty much gave up.
That's what murdered the peace movement. Which is sort of ironic when one considers that the peaceniks have ALL the good rational arguments. But in the face of the unrelenting propaganda that the warmongers have at their disposal, even people who know and fervently agree with the outcome-based facts of a peace philosophy find it just a whole lot easier to shut up and fume at the unrelenting stupidity of those who still believe that warfare solves anything.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Stone on USA "intelligence"


As hurricane Harvey dumped up to 52" on parts of Texas, our elected officials ponder the grave and soul-searching question "Is my hatred for Russia pure enough." The latest sanctions bill against Russia passed the Senate 98-2. That folks is the Gulf of Tonkin vote. 2% is also about the percentage of folks with a minimal clue compared to the 98% sheep who will believe almost anything and must follow their emotions because their intellects were never properly developed. I mean, seriously, are their any sentient Americans who want to risk nuclear war over Crimea, or Syria, or Iran. And yet the vote was 98-2.

And of course, while we fight over Confederate-era statues and other forms of utter irrelevance, the big problems like climate change go unaddressed. This is absolutely insane. And Oliver Stone and Paul Craig Roberts cannot figure out why there is so much insanity. Of course, they are part of the awareness 2% so they cannot intrinsically understand.

Monday, August 28, 2017

McCoy on the CIA


McCoy is a Yalie who not especially surprisingly got involved with the intelligence services. Skull and Bones is at Yale and the bright and well connected often join forces to become what has lately come to be called "the deep state." McCoy is not well-connected but as can be seen from his beautiful writing, he is obviously very bright. This combination has often led to some scathing outsider critiques and McCoy's here is a doozy.

I have two comments on his expose:
  • McCoy is appropriately outraged that during the Vietnam War, the CIA moved so much heroin into South Vietnam that an estimated 34% of USA forces became regular users. Well yes, wartime profiteering in hard drugs probably doesn't have a lot of support. But I had a neighbor in St. Paul who was one of those users. He was a poor farm kid from northwest Minnesota who had managed to get a degree in French from a St. Paul college. The army turned him into a translator who was assigned to get information from captured Viet Cong. The guys doing the actual interrogation were South Vietnamese army but he was in the room when the torture took place. He never really recovered from that experience and halfway through his tour, the army realized their mistake and reassigned him to Saigon where he spent the rest of his time making sure the hookers with USA clients got their regular shots. This wasn't much of an improvement as he became witness to another wartime-related form of human degradation. Soon he was consuming the readily available heroin. His favorite method involved a regular cigarette that had been soaked in a heroin bath and dried. He reported that the advantage was that he could consume his drugs in the presence of his commanding officers and no one seemed to notice because they looked and smelled like normal cigarettes. In his opinion, heroin was the only reason he survived Vietnam without going insane and committing suicide. So strange as it may sound, getting smack to USA troops may have been one of the more virtuous acts in CIA history.
  • McCoy has done us all a serious service by telling us what some of our taxpayer money has been spent on. On the other hand, one can only wonder at what might have become of such a talented person if he hadn't wasted his life chasing the bad guys. It is MUCH better than being one of the bad guys, of course, but in the end it is still just mostly Leisure Class silliness.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The total triumph of the idiot classes


The absolute WORST feature of Identity Politics is that it trivializes everything. There are BIG problems like climate change, the fact that folks with schoolyard bully mentalities have access to doomsday weapons, the general collapse of the biosphere, and the reality that the global economy is being run by sociopathic lunatics. Yet there are those who believe that I should be most concerned about the sort of statuary found in obscure parks in mainly the Old South. Now I understand that this sort of symbolic posturing is about all most people can muster as a public gesture. And I know it is WAY beyond the abilities of your typical mainstream journalist to write about anything more complex or important than transgender bathrooms. But sooner or later, we must address the big problems or humanity will cease to exist on the third rock from the sun.

Perhaps the best example of a culture run by excessively trivial dimwits is the current outbreak of Russia-bashing. To listen to these cretins, we are supposed to hate the Russians because they annexed Crimea after the anti-Russian coup in the Ukraine. The Crimeans, who have considered themselves part of Russia since Catherine the Great, wanted to rejoin Russia so badly that their vote to become part of the Russian Federation was well over 90%. Crimea was also Russian by virtue of a LOT of spilled blood. Between the Nazi invasion, the siege of Sevastopol, its surrender and the pitched battles to recapture it, the Red Army and civilians, mostly Russian, lost over 500,000 in the battles for Crimea during the Great Patriotic War. That's more than the totals for all of WW II for the French, British, and USA combined. The idea that Russia was going to give up Crimea over a chickenshit coup in Kiev is beyond preposterous. Yet Crimea is reason #1 given for the current round of Russia-bashing.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Neoliberalism—the catastrophic idea that won the day despite being wrong about everything


1973 turned out to be the major economic watershed year for most people alive today. Because that was the year that the pro-growth assumptions of the Keynesians were run out of town.  I was in college when it happened. It was a college known for its Keynesian perspective. The head of the economics department, one Walter Heller, had been JFK's top economic advisor and liked to brag that he taught the principles of Keynes to the President of the USA. In fact, almost anyone who ever had Heller for a class, or had even just met him professionally, had heard this boast. I actually enjoyed his JFK stories because he told them to illustrate the point that even "mere" politicians could understand a set of ideas that had a well-deserved reputation for being difficult.

The University of Minnesota had been "Keynesian" since Alvin Hansen became a full professor in 1923. Actually, calling Hansen a Keynesian is more than a little bit misleading. The USA midwest had only recently been settled so there was a constant stream of political agitation for an economics that represented the world views of people who were attempting to claw a civilization out of some very empty places. Hansen grew up in Viborg South Dakota among people who were attempting to grow row crops and other agricultural pursuits on grassland that had never been plowed. For such people, economic plans that emphasized development were the only ones that would possibly interest them. He studied these ideas under Richard Ely and John Commons at the University of Wisconsin—another new and developing state. So Hansen already was a believer in pro-growth economics long before Keynes ever published his General Theory in 1936.

That Hansen was obviously a "Keynesian" before he ever heard of the man was not unique to him. Marriner Eccles, hands down the best central banker the USA has ever had, was "accused" of being a Keynesian because of his guidance of the Fed during the Roosevelt years. No less a figure than Ken Galbraith called Eccles the most important Keynesian in the land. And yet Eccles claimed to his dying day that he had never read Keynes. For men like Hansen and the Mormon from Utah Eccles, calling them Keynesians was merely a label used by lazy academics and journalists who weren't about to go to the trouble of understanding why folks from frontier settlements might have independently developed pro-growth economic ideas.

Below is a Guardian article that explains how the feudal / imperialist economics came roaring back when the Keynesians faltered in 1973. Their story is about the battle of ideas between Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. My story is that the Keynesians lost because by 1973 their profession had far too many Leisure Class hacks (like Paul Samuelson) and far too few giants like Hansen and Eccles who understood the importance of the Producer Classes and their interests (no matter how they were labeled).

I have written about Hansen and the USA "Keynesians" before:

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Frances Perkins and the fight for decent working conditions


Sunday, November 6, 2011
Waking up to the relentless idiocy of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

The word has become a rhetorical weapon, but it properly names the reigning ideology of our era – one that venerates the logic of the market and strips away the things that make us human.

Stephen Metcalf, 18 August 2017

Last summer, researchers at the International Monetary Fund settled a long and bitter debate over “neoliberalism”: they admitted it exists. Three senior economists at the IMF, an organisation not known for its incaution, published a paper questioning the benefits of neoliberalism. In so doing, they helped put to rest the idea that the word is nothing more than a political slur, or a term without any analytic power. The paper gently called out a “neoliberal agenda” for pushing deregulation on economies around the world, for forcing open national markets to trade and capital, and for demanding that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatisation. The authors cited statistical evidence for the spread of neoliberal policies since 1980, and their correlation with anaemic growth, boom-and-bust cycles and inequality.

Neoliberalism is an old term, dating back to the 1930s, but it has been revived as a way of describing our current politics – or more precisely, the range of thought allowed by our politics. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was a way of assigning responsibility for the debacle, not to a political party per se, but to an establishment that had conceded its authority to the market. For the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK, this concession was depicted as a grotesque betrayal of principle. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, it was said, had abandoned the left’s traditional commitments, especially to workers, in favour of a global financial elite and the self-serving policies that enriched them; and in doing so, had enabled a sickening rise in inequality.

Over the past few years, as debates have turned uglier, the word has become a rhetorical weapon, a way for anyone left of centre to incriminate those even an inch to their right. (No wonder centrists say it’s a meaningless insult: they’re the ones most meaningfully insulted by it.) But “neoliberalism” is more than a gratifyingly righteous jibe. It is also, in its way, a pair of eyeglasses.

Peer through the lens of neoliberalism and you see more clearly how the political thinkers most admired by Thatcher and Reagan helped shape the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties). Of course the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and – always – to cut taxes and deregulate. But “neoliberalism” indicates something more than a standard rightwing wish list. It was a way of reordering social reality, and of rethinking our status as individuals.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A German (DW) update on climate change


Climate change is a BIG issue around here—not that you would know it from the paucity of reporting on the subject. My excuse is that there is more than enough evidence of climate change—and far too little on the subjects of how we got to this place where almost everything everyone does only adds to the problem. Turns out that the technological problems caused by the total domination of fire-based economies is almost trivial compared to the cultural expressions that support them. So much so that any suggestion that the world must move to fire-free societies is greeted as the most radical form of madness imaginable—even though such an assertion is utterly true.

But since not a lot is getting accomplished towards this necessary goal, we still need reminders of how serious the problems caused by a warming planet really are, and that ignoring these problems will not make them go away. This little reminder from DW must do for today. After all, we simply must get back to the "serious" problem of where we site monuments to Confederate War "heroes." (NOT)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Donald Trump confronts the War Party


David Stockman is the sort that can easily inspire conflicting emotions. He is obviously very bright—he was the boy wonder head of Reagan's Office of Management and Budget who soon got into trouble by pointing out that Reagan's budget numbers were, at best, a hoax. Worse he explained it all to William Greider who wrote up the story in the Atlantic. As history so often reminds us, telling the truth is a hazardous occupation and Stockman's venture into honesty quickly transformed him from Rising Republican Star into a political pariah overnight.

While brazen honesty is an admirable and often amusing trait, it does not transform Stockman into a political genius. While his analysis is often excellent, it is usually colored by the same neoliberal assumptions that have led both major political parties (and most of the world) dangerously astray. So when he gets things wrong, he does so in boringly predictable ways.

But being a neoliberal on economics does not necessarily make someone a warmongering neoconservative—it certainly does not in the case of one David Stockman. In the following he writes about what he believes motivates the attempted establishment coup against the constitutionally elected government currently under way in Washington.

Impeaching Trump is going to be a lot harder than impeaching Bill Clinton for a sex scandal—mostly because both houses of congress are controlled by the Republicans. While not all Republicans are Trump supporters, all can remember how easily he dispatched the field in his run to the White House. Voting to impeach Trump would anger a wide slice of their political base and since elections are often won with slim margins, few wish to find out just how angry their base would get.

And yet the war on the Trump administration continues in spite of its seeming futility. Many, myself included, wonder why anyone would bother trying to remove this man from office. So the following explanation offered by David Stockman—that Trump's real "crime" is that he has threatened the War Party (a powerful group that has mostly gotten its way along with the lion's share of the state's wealth since at least 1916) actually makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

China and rare earths


Perhaps THE most annoying thing about the economics profession is that they are extremely bright people with extraordinary math skills who unfortunately know absolutely nothing about the real economy. That they could makes excuses for selling off the crown jewels of USA industrialization for pennies meant beyond any doubt that they had absolutely NO way to accurately value those crown jewels. The biggest single reason is that economists, as a group, are techno-cretins. Any tool more complex than a fork is borderline magical and having to assemble something from IKEA is an "ordeal" (yes I have actually heard one of these geniuses use the word ordeal).

So today's lesson is about how USA economic leadership never figured out how to value rare earths and what a serious problem that will be if we ever get serious about building the post-petroleum society. I think the time has come to make such abject stupidity a capital crime.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sanctions—economics at its most destructive


Using economics to destroy is perhaps the sickest manifestation of the dismal "science." This is mostly because sanctions only really work when the target is weak. As the world is fast finding out, the Russians may no longer be a superpower but they still have the tools to counter a few sanctions. In fact, the economic adjustments forced on the Russian Federation with the latest round of sanctions may have done their economy a world of good. They have discovered that lots of folks want what they can make, grow, and sell.

The Russians have also discovered that their own economic weapons are quite effective. European agriculture is still staggering from the loss of their Russian markets while Russian agriculture is arguably doing better than at any time in the past century. And as Tom Luongo points out below, their presence in the market for the fuels that run the world's nuclear power plants is quite significant.

But lost in all the discussions of who can do what to whom is the fact that all these sanctions and counter-sanctions diminish everyone's economic possibilities. Building the sustainable civilization will be an act of cooperation—NOT confrontation. And the biggest loser of all is very likely the USA—the biggest sanctions bully on the block.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Elon Musk on education


Producer Class superstars are sort of a freak of nature. The overwhelming majority of folks who become rich and famous are resolutely Leisure Class. There are a multitude of reasons for why this is so but mainly it's because the Leisure Classes hold all the cultural levers.

Ask yourself, When was the last time you saw a movie or TV series starring an engineer or someone who builds skyscrapers (as compared to lawyers or cops or soldiers)? When was the last time you saw a competition between student architects or solar designers (as compared to football players or musicians)? Who controls the real levers of economic power—scientists or financial players?

Our schools reflect this reality. Math and science whizzes tend to be social outcasts while the captain of the football team dates the captain of the cheerleading squad. Of course, that sort of thing is forgivable and understandable. What is not so forgivable is that the academic curriculum is designed and administered by folks who absolutely cheer for all things Leisure Class.  So even if they don't know why, budding Producer superstars are going to hate such an environment. In the clip below, Elon Musk admits that he HATED school—which is odd when you consider how much he obviously loves learning.

The general public quite likes their Producer Class heroes so we shouldn't waste much time feeling sorry for the man. But even so, he has a problem—he has five sons he would like to see educated to higher levels with less pain than his own experience. People who love to learn shouldn't hate school. So he decides to create his own school. He hires a certified teacher who agrees with his goals and methods to run it. And then he invites a few other children to join in the fun.

There are some recognizable features of his school. For example, he has eliminated grade levels thereby recreating the best feature of the one-room school. Some of his innovations aren't really that odd when you think about them. For example, Musk believes that when kids understand why they should learn something, all the other problems of motivation disappear. Well, duh! But ask yourselves, when did any teacher ever give you a believable reason for learning something (beyond, you need this to get into a good college, that is)?

Musk's most prominent Producer Class feature is a nice little habit of saying, "I just want to be useful" whenever confronted with the inevitable "What motivates you?" sort of question. Hard to top that response as a refutation of the ultimate goal of total uselessness that seems to rule the Leisure Class. Apparently he wants to assign usefulness as the goal of his school. To me it sounds like a heaven for those who enjoy learning.

The clip below is from Chinese television. It covers more than his school but the school conversation is in the first three minutes.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Circular Economy—still one of the great ideas


One of the lightening bolts of insight that staggered me as a man in his 30s was the idea that because there is no "away" the throwaway society is ultimately doomed by simple physical reality. It is quite impossible to dig up raw materials to be sent on a journey to the landfills forever. Either you run out of resources or you run out of places to store the waste, or both. The only way out of this dilemma is to make products so they can be reprocessed into new things when the time comes for the original product to be replaced.

Yeah.

This is one of those ideas that would require about a million times more effort, cost, and inventiveness to do than to dream up. After all, not only are most things designed and built without the slightest consideration for disposal, large numbers of products are designed to be disposed of after only one use. Designer junk, if you please. I once gave a talk at 3M, a company that has made their primary mission the production of designer junk. I chose to talk about design for disassembly, and other proposed schemes to create a less wasteful world. The assembled 3M folks were not amused. Needless to say, I wasn't asked back.

The idea of the circular industrial society is still one of the better notions to have crossed my mind so I included it in Elegant Technology. It can be found in Chapter Ten: Do Producers Have a Plan? Of course, no one ever reads a book to Chapter Ten so I might as well have never written it at all. But when I saw someone discussing this idea the other day under the title The Circular Economy That Could Save Countries Thousands, Reduce Waste (reprinted below) it made my heart glad. But first, I have decided to reproduce the section from my Chapter Ten called Closing the Loop. I hope that you readers will understand why this was the idea that made me believe a sustainable world was possible. I also hope no one minds that this was first written in 1985.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Globalisation: the rise and fall of a truly terrible idea


There is a certain beauty and nobility about the idea that we are the world and wonderful things happen when we think of the rest of humanity as our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, some very cynical people can take this beautiful idea and turn it into empire building. The sun never sets on the greatest civilization, you know.

Of course, the Roman or British Empires were harmless play-actors compared to the ruthless plunder available to those who can control the hydraulics of electronic money. And to keep the looting of the electronic money boys on track, the world needed some philosopher-pundits to convince the suckers that usury was harmless and the "structural adjustments" that threw whole classes of people into abject poverty were necessary for growth and prosperity. And to give the practitioners of empire building with electronic money a patina of beauty and respectability, they named their wickedness "Globalization" and "Free Trade" and "Reform."

In spite of the fact that none of these schemes benefitted very many people, the Globalists kept at it because the very few it did benefit became rich beyond the dreams of avarice. But pretty predictions advanced by the expensive think tanks couldn't cover the fact that these global schemes never work.
  • Big mass markets simply cannot work without a giant middle class with money to spend. Unfortunately, the primary goal of the money plunderers is to reduce the size and income of the middle classes.
  • The money boys tend to lack all respect for manufacturing and other forms of useful work. Ship those factories to China or Bangladesh where desperate brown folks will work for $10 a day. The de-industrialization of the formerly industrial countries has triggered some of the greatest calamities in human history. These moves were deliberately undertaken by hopelessly thoughtless people.
  • While we may all be brothers and sisters sharing a big blue marble in space, the realities of life are dramatically different from one region to another. One of the things builders quickly realize is that construction practices often don't travel very far. A house built for the blazing heat of the USA Southwest will be damn near worthless during a North Dakota blizzard. In macroeconomics, the same economic scheme that works well in Sweden may not work nearly as well in India or Egypt. Yet the money boys used their institutions to enforce economic orthodoxy from Ecuador to Korea and dozens of stops in between.
So now we are seeing some of the philosopher-pundits of Globalization coming ever so slowly to the realization that they have been selling some aromatic bullshit. Not all of them, mind you. The economics profession is mostly made up of very conventional people so they have no tendency to abandon their conventional wisdom. But some, apparently with the capacity to feel shame, have recognized that the vast majority of Globalization's major theses are just plain wrong and have formulated critiques. What follows is a damn fine article written by someone who has at least seen a brief flash of light.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The economics of waste


There is no particular reason to believe that Charles H. Smith is a Veblen scholar or that he has even read The Theory of the Leisure Class (TOLC). Nevertheless, if someone had been assigned to summarize TOLC, the following would rate an A+ because these are exactly the points Veblen was trying to make. For example, Veblen includes a whole chapter on why the Leisure Classes believe that waste enhances their status, entitled Conspicuous Waste.

This essay is short and sweet, and the reader isn't required to learn a bunch of arcane terms as is the case with a reading of TOLC. Several times in my life I have been asked to "translate" TOLC into modern English. Because I am terrible at such tasks, I have begged off. But I DO think it is a good idea. And however Smith came to write the following, it will be an excellent substitute until someone actually reworks Veblen's classic.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Re-upping my Producer Class credentials (again)





The main reason for do-it-yourself home repair is that you can have something in your life that is unaffordable any other way. Pictured here is my new rest-and-towel-off area built on the site of one of the nastier basement bathrooms ever seen or imagined. Among its many features it has an ADA-approved low-slip tile floor, knurled, high-grip, stainless-steel grab bars, an ergonomically excellent bench, and an LED lighting system that delivers almost 100 lumens / sq. ft. It is safe, comfortable, and aesthetically quite pleasant. And best of all, it was built with some of the lowest-cost materials sold in the big-box building supply store in my little town—for example the ceramic wall tile only cost $1.52 / sq. ft. ($16.36 / sq. meter).

But for me, this sort of building is also (and probably mainly) an epistemological exercise. Building teaches many important lessons including:
  • Careful and extensive planning is essential.
  • There is absolutely no substitute for getting it right the first time
  • Inexpensive materials can be made to look spectacular if used with imagination
  • The instinct of workmanship works best with good tools
  • Nothing disrupts a time schedule like a non-standard design or application
No one changes the world quite like the builders. And when the builders got really serious about their applied art, they produced the Industrial Revolution. The greatest errors in economics stem directly from a deep ignorance of the tool-users and what their role in society really is. So I build because I never want to lose touch with these people. It is what separates the economic thinking of this blog from virtually every other economics site on the internet. Unless one categorizes Ben Franklin and Peter Cooper as economists, there are no historical examples of economists who were graceful tool-users. Of course the greatest political economist of them all, Thorstein Veblen, built simple things—which mostly proves my point about how rare it is for the tool-users to be even mentioned in economic debates.

Even so, I look at my rebuilt bathroom and am filled with the calm assurance that very likely no other political economist in history could have built it. And this fact alone significantly explains why so many got so much horribly and disastrously wrong. It is impossible to accurately explain human society without accounting for the tool-users. Moreover, tool-using constitutes a knowledge that is rarely found in books—this is something you must do.

I must admit that most of these lessons had been learned long ago. But this time around, I thought a lot about the intersection between competence and honesty (mostly inspired by the hilarious debate in the movie The Big Short over whether it was fraud or stupidity that drove the housing bubble that crashed in 2007-8). Besides cost containment, my main goal was to have a well-made outcome. Like any such project, there were many jobs I had not done before. When that never-been-done-before job appears, the most important assignment is to take an honest and thorough inventory of the possible assets that can bring this task to a successful conclusion.
  • Is there a Youtube of someone doing the same thing? 
  • Do I have the right tools for fabrication? 
  • Can I purchase suitable raw materials? 
  • Is the planned method within my skill set? etc.
Of course, when there isn't a relevant example to copy, you are thrown into the world of invention where all these steps must be repeated with a lot less help. In these situations where outcomes are less certain, the margin for dishonest self assessment drops to ZERO. Turns out, once again, that the most important core ingredient of competency is honesty.

Unfortunately, this will be my last such project. I recently turned 68 and physically I cannot do it anymore. Especially if only to prove an epistemological point. This project was conducted in a cellar which means everything had to be hauled down a flight of stairs. Some construction materials are pretty damn heavy and clumsy. But I DO enjoy my repaired bathroom. The details of how it was done can be found by clicking the Read more button below.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

According to the Guardian, "How economics became a religion"


If there is one position I have maintained for as long as I have been writing this blog it is that, "Far from being a science, conventional economics is just bad theology."

I grew up in a parsonage. I had religion crammed up my nose from before I could remember. I fell in love with science because it offered a refuge from that sort of thinking. In my old age, I have made peace with much religious practice—SOMEONE has to bury the dead, after all, and this is something religious practitioners do fairly well. But I certainly do NOT want religious thinking around questions that are not religious. I consider someone who would pray that their god would heal their broken brakes to be crazy.

Theological thinking applied to economics is just as crazy. And yet, we see it all the time. And this article shows that the problem has become so obvious, even The Guardian can see it. Of course, as the "left" house organ of neoliberalism, they probably aren't about to do anything meaningful about their new point of view. This probably isn't even much of a start. But as someone who has taken a great deal of flak in life for questioning the "scientific" claims of the economics profession, I do find their new awareness oddly pleasant.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

R.L. Bruckberger on American School Economist Henry C. Carey


Last month I posted a large article on American School Economist Henry C. Carey, The only economists who ever created a national economy. The article was drawn almost entirely from the 1965 Pulitzer Prize winning history book, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879, by Irwin Unger (Princeton University Press, 1964). One of the most intriguing references cited by Unger was R.L. Bruckberger.

Raymond Léopold Bruckberger was a French priest of the Dominican order. At the beginning of World War Two he requested the order allow him to join a combat unit, and served in the French mountain light infantry and commandos. After the collapse of the French army, Bruckberger became chaplain general of the French Resistance. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the medal of the Legion of Honor for his role in the Resistance. After the war, he lived eight years in the United States, researching and writing his book Image of America, published by Viking Press in 1959. Prominent American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a front-page review of the book for the New York Times Book Review, comparing Bruckberger to Alexis de Tocqueville.

One chapter of his book focuses on American School economist Henry C. Carey, and is entitled, "The Only American Economist of Importance" The title is taken from a 5 March 1852 letter by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in which they wrote that Carey is “the only American economist of importance.”

Bruckberger inlcuded some excerpts from Carey that directly assault the key tenets of conservative, libertarian, and neoliberal economic thought. And, of course, Bruckberger frames Carey’s economic thought as being distinct from, and hostile to, today’s economic thought dominated by the British school. Contrast Carey’s belief that man’s struggle to master nature necessitates the creation of a cooperative society, with neoliberals' belief  (as per Margaret Thatcher) that “there is no society.”, only a never ending struggle of personal interests mediated by the working of markets. Carey’s belief also foreshadows Veblen’s analysis of the need for organized cooperation in the industrial processes of production. And Carey's analysis of humanity's struggle to master nature reinforces the point I have made in the past that the most important economic activity a society undertakes in the creation and dissemination of new scientific and technological knowledge. In The Higgs boson and the purpose of a republic (July 2014), I wrote:
....what is wealth? Is it really hoards of cash, or stockpiles of precious metals? Consider: Why do we have computers now, when there were none 200 or 500 or more years ago? Certainly, 500 years ago, all the raw materials that go into making a computer were available. There was lots of silicon laying around, and there was a lot of petroleum, with which to make plastics, sitting in the ground. There was the same presence of germanium and silver, and copper, and whatever else is needed to make a computer, 500 years ago, as there is today. What is so different today that we can make computers now, but could not 500 years ago? The answer, of course, is knowledge - we first had to develop, acquire, and master, the various facets of science that allowed us to make use of those latent natural resources, then apply that science to actual physical processes of production, or what we call technology. So what wealth really is, is the human power of thinking: reason, investigation, hypothesizing, testing, figuring out why things are the way they are -- and then figuring out how that new knowledge can be used to change the way things are.
In other words, the knowledge required to master nature.

One more note: Bruckberger identifies Carey as a Jeffersonian (there is an article in Bruckberger's book devoted to Jefferson previous to the article on Carey). Since Carey was a foremost advocate for the neomercantalist policies of Hamilton—a protective tariff, a national banking system, and massive government investments in infrastructure—Carey thus brings together and melds the two contending factions of early American history: Jeffersonian, and Hamiltonian.

Following are excerpts from pages 156-165 of Bruckberger's Image of America. At the end of this post are more results of an index search in economics textbooks.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tucker Carlson destroys Max Boot


Tucker Carlson used to drive me into fits of rage. So now he has a gig at Fox News and suddenly, he has almost become a voice of reason. Yesterday, (12 JUL 17) he has Max Boot on his show and proceeded to tear him a new one on the subject of foreign relations in the age of Trump. Whatever feelings I may have had for Carlson (an arrogant, overprivileged rich kid with a career path greased by well-connected parents, for example) they pale in comparison to my loathing of Max Boot, one of the nastier house neocons over at the Council on Foreign Relations whose lies have caused the deaths of thousands (if not millions) of people. As John Lennon once wrote:

There is room at the top they keep telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be just like the folks on the hill

A Working Class Hero

After Carlson got done with him, Boot was NOT smiling—even though I am certain he smiles a lot for his employers over at CFR.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Missing the opportunity of a lifetime


Former CIA Director John Brennan said today on Meet the Press, "...right before he met with Mr. Putin and talked with him at some length, which I'm glad he did, he said it's an honor to meet President Putin. An honor to meet the individual who carried out the assault against our election? To me, it was a dishonorable thing to say."

Really? The appropriate way to meet a leader of another country is to be nakedly rude—especially concerning an accusation for which not one shred of proof has been offered in over eight months? Here's the deal Brennan. Putin is the first truly democratically-elected president in a country that has existed for over 1000 years. He has approval ratings after being in office for nearly 18 years of over 80% He can conduct press conferences that last over three hours without notes. And you actually believe that such a person deserves scorn?

After somehow surviving the utter BS of the Cold War, I thought that maybe, just maybe, the lies about Russia would stop. I could even tolerate all this mega-lying about Putin / Russia if it were not for the fact that some lifelong friends believe it. There are days when I feel physically sick.

So here's to our Democratic "heroes" who are actually more ridiculous than Tailgunner Joe McCarthy ever was. The other day Maxine Waters confused Korea with Crimea. Nice to know that geography isn't a requirement for high elected office. The people who can believe in "Russia-Gate" are the same sort that believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—in fact, they are often the very same people.

We are missing a golden opportunity here folks. If we were to get serious about doing business with V. Putin, who knows how many serious problems facing planet earth could be solved.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sovereign Debt Jubilee?


Whenever someone suggest that we fund a Green "New Deal" (to use the phrase of Green Party candidate Jill Stein) a howl goes up of "you must be crazy-don't you understand the national debt is already in the $20 trillion range?" And unfortunately, that pretty much ends the discussion. And so we keep doing nothing because paying the interest on the national debt is SO much more important than doing something meaningful to save the ecosystems that make human life possible. Massive death by compound interest, anyone?

The power of creditors to force people to do very unpleasant things is really quite amazing from cultural intimidation, to evictions, to debtors prisons, to various methods of physical torture employed by loan sharks—and all to enforce a "reality" that exists mostly as a line of bookkeeping. Think about it—we have been prevented from doing things that are utterly necessary to the survival of the species because of "information" that exists as an electronic charge in the memory of some computer. This reality is so fundamentally insane that its no wonder the creditor classes must resort to their bag of cultural and physical violence to enforce their claims on your life.

The intimidation must be total because the nature of debt can be changed with almost tiny revisions in law and practice. Here Ellen Brown outlines how Japan is in the process of wiping out half of its national debts with almost invisible changes to the way their central bank operates and asks, "Why cannot we do the same thing?"