Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Krugman and Stiglitz vote NO to more Greek austerity

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz share quite a bit in common.  Both won the Riksbank (Nobel) Prize when they were young and enthusiastic neoliberal free traders.  Both seem to have come to their senses since then and have an extensive following among those who believe neoliberalism is an ongoing disaster.  And now both have come out in favor of a NO vote in the upcoming referendum on the latest austerity package being offered them by the Predators who have gotten their hands on Europe's economic levers.

NO seems the smart decision.  Of course, I would have voted NO back when the decision was made to join the EU and adopt the Euro.  I mean, what were they thinking?

Good luck to the Greeks—they're going to need it no matter how this referendum turns out.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Delphi Declaration

The recession of 1981-82 was deliberately triggered by the Federal Reserve when they decided that what the economy really needed was a 21% prime interest rate.  The carnage was widespread, deep, and horribly cruel.  There were literally millions of absolutely innocent victims world-wide.  As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I was quite aware that a handful of people sitting in underground bunkers in western North Dakota (and other places just as desolate) could literally destroy the world by pushing a few buttons.  1981 made me painfully aware that boring people in nice suits could cause damn near as much damage pushing a few buttons that regulated the money supply.

The problems facing Greece are neither new or novel.  Anyone paying attention would have seen the economic catastrophe in 1997 Asia, when the screwed-up banksters triggered a meltdown that reverberates to this day.  Unfortunately, the same people who ignored the failing middle-sized farms in 1981 were even more oblivious to Asia's problems in 1997.  For most of us, the main economic consequence was cheaper gasoline as the world petrol market lost of a bunch of Asian customers.

I suppose that if Greece is any different than Bolivia, Malaysia, or any of the other unfortunate people who have been subjected to bankster economic wisdom, is that that they are so obviously a part of Western civilization.  This criminal behavior by the creditor classes is now something we are doing to ourselves.  Of course, the blame-the-victim industry has gone into overdrive to dehumanize the Greeks.  But for once this hasn't worked so well.  This is Greece, after all.  There are Greek places named in the Bible, our academic fraternities have Greek names, as do hundreds of cities in USA.  Besides, Alexis Tsipras and Yannis Varoufakis are just so damn handsome and we have been educated to believe that beautiful people are also interesting and important.

In my more hopeful moments, I can imagine that Greece is where the banksters finally meet their Waterloo.  At some point, their criminal reign of terror and incompetence simply must end or we are all doomed.  History has demonstrated that these bandits can be slowed down even if they cannot be put out of business entirely.  If the pushback is to start anywhere, Athens would be a damn fine address.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Cool Spring Power Museum, June 2015: The first internal combustion engines

It’s easy to forget our place on the historical timeline of human development. Republicans, conservatives, and neo-liberal economists do it all the time. For example, they are emphatic in their belief that the American way of life involves motorized vehicles burning gasoline. The historical reality is that the internal combustion engine is a relatively recent development, and the technologies which will replace it have already been developed. In the 8,000 years of recorded human history, the era of the internal combustion engine will have lasted less than two full centuries.

Last week I was at the Cool Spring Power Museum (CSPM) spring show, attempting to make a living as a humble itinerant bookseller dealing in industrial and transportation history. The CSPM is just south of Brookville, Pennsylvania, a small burg of not quite 5,000 souls, exactly 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Formally chartered in June 1985, CSPM contains the largest collection of historically significant, early internal combustion engines in the country, and probably the world. There are over 250 engines, most built between the 1870s and the 1920s, displayed in 20 buildings. In 2001, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the importance of the Cool Spring collection by inducting the museum into ASME’s History and Heritage Landmarks Program.

This year's show was extra special, as it featured "flame licker" engines - the earliest internal combustion engines, designed and built before spark plugs and electric ignition systems were perfected and put into use. These engines are the advent of the petroleum age - which we now must bring to an end. But they are marvels of mechanical design and machine precision, fully embodying the "instinct of workmanship." Visit Cool Spring, and you will immediately realize that you are in "producer class" heaven. (I believe that Marx's class analysis is all wrong, but that Thorstein Veblen gets it right - the big class difference is between producers and predators. Veblen termed the latter - much too politely in my opinion - "leisure class.")

Extremely cool pictures below

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Denmark and energy

Those of us who have been preaching that economic growth is not dependent on increased energy use have been ridiculed as idle dreamers for decades.    Of course, it doesn't help that most of the folks who would encourage less fossil fuel consumption usually prescribe policy positions that rely on increasing energy prices.  Anyone who is just scraping by doesn't want to hear anything like that.  So rich and poor in USA believe that it is in everyone's best interest to do what it takes to keep energy cheap and plentiful.

And then there are the Danes who have been taking energy seriously since forever (and certainly since the oil disruptions of the 1970s.)  Now comes the news that their energy consumption is at a 42-year low, even though they have had more or less continuous economic growth in that time frame.

How they actually accomplished that feat is a long story but suffice it to say, they have delinked economic growth from increased energy consumption.  So it can be done.  Folks like me are technological pragmatists—NOT idle dreamers.  And hopefully this lesson will spread—the survival of human life on earth depends on it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are sanctions destroying the German economy?

There are times when the German economy seems to defy the laws of gravity.  Under normal circumstance, being surrounded by dozens of countries with major economic difficulties would suggest that it would be difficult to sell your products.  A consumer who wants your goods and actually has money is a rare commodity—especially if your products are expensive.  This is especially true if your customers are living in shrinking economies.

Then there are the problems caused by neoliberalism itself.  This economic philosophy was invented to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else—most especially their prosperous Producing Classes.  Not surprisingly, this is also extremely effective in drying up the pool of customers with money.  This problem can be managed for awhile by making credit more easily available but eventually this doesn't work so well as consumers max out their credit lines.

And then, for whatever reason, the Germans chose a foreign policy that cut them off from their Russian customers.  Large books will be written for why these normally sane people went so bugfuck insane, but at the core is their belief that "we're #1 (in Europe) and neoliberal economics got us to that position, so more of the same should make us even richer and more powerful."

From the outside, this looks like a recipe for economic disaster.  ONLY the abilities of the German Producing Classes has prevented the above factors from plunging her into a serious economic catastrophe.  Now we see that Germany is really beginning to feel the pain that was as predictable as dawn when they started to drink the neoliberal kool-aide.  And while it may be possible to defy the economic laws of gravity for a while, you will come crashing to earth if you allow the big economic decisions to be made by doddering fools like Wolfgang Schäuble.  It only needed a trigger and sanctions against Russia are beginning to look like that trigger as they expose some of the major fairy tales about the German economy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Greek debt crisis is coming to a head

Watching the Greek debt crises unfold is throughly depressing because no matter how virtuous the Greek position may seem to be, they are the debtors and usually the creditors win.  And in this case, the creditor institutions have been especially ruthless with Greece.  No amount of grinding poverty seems to satisfy them.

When the essentially powerless fight the powerful, it is usually very easy to find something about their tactics to criticize.  In the case of Greece, the flaw in their tactics is their unwillingness to cut themselves free from the Euro—an instrument designed from day one to put them in bondage.  And yet the only way to escape the bondage is jettison the Euro.

It will be very interesting to see if Greece finds itself outside the EU.  Even more interesting will be the question—did they leave or were they pushed?  The articles below seem to argue that because of considerations more important than the desires of the creditor classes (WHAT? you mean there ARE considerations more important than what the rentier classes want?) Greece will NOT be forced out of the Euro zone.  These include the strategic location of Greek ports in the Easter Mediterranean, the possibility of a transit corridor for Russian natgas, and probably most importantly, the positive example Greece would provide if it thrived economically outside the Eurozone.

So the Creditor classes will try all their tricks to keep Greece inside the club—but subject to humiliating and debilitating rules.  The most obvious, and the one that has worked in so many corners of the world, is to install a new government of puppets willing to sign anything the creditors demand.  There always seem to be an unending supply of enthusiastic puppets willing to sell out their country's economic interests for a small cut of the action.  But once in a while, people become so desperate, that even this trick doesn't work.  The Syriza government has roughly a 66% approval rating—mostly for standing up to the creditors.  Toppling these folks will be harder than it looks.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Pope on climate change

There seems to be a lot of joy in the climate change community that the Pope of the actual Roman Catholic Church has issued an encyclical calling on the faithful to get serious about global warming.  Considering the incredible damage that right-wing Catholics have visited on the Democratic Party, the Supreme Court, public education, and a realistic discussion of end-of-life medical decisions, etc. in the last 45 years here in USA, it should not be especially surprising that the rest of us would jump for joy at any sign of enlightenment in that viciously dangerous and corrupt organization.  There's even an appropriate passage in the Bible that explains the celebration.
12. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
13. And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  Matthew 18
The Catholic Church has an abundance of institutional flaws:
  • A highly stratified bureaucracy with WAY too many layers.  This ensures that nothing meaningful ever gets done. It also means that corruption is easy and effective.
  • A clergy that is selected from a group of people who promise to refrain from normal human reproductive activity.  The Catholics claim this leads to virtue.  Mostly it leads to some really sick behavior.  And here in Minnesota, the legal claims piling up from all the perversion will financially handcuff the organization for decades.
  • A belief set that leads to property management that can only be called "conspicuous waste on steroids."  The Catholics are probably proud of their grossly overbuilt houses of worship.  The rest of us are disgusted.
And then there's the biggie.  In order to sustain a corrupt organization shot through with scandals like rampant child abuse, it is highly advantageous to keep the sheep in the dark.  For a long time, Catholics brutally murdered people who did things like translate the Bible into languages people could read (Tyndale) or explained the virtues of skepticism (Bruno).  They threatened to torture a world-class astronomer for wanting to explain the cosmos (Galileo).  Before the Reformation, all the leading world-class universities were in strongholds of Catholicism like Italy.  By the time the Counter-Reformation reached peak madness, all the great universities of Europe were in the Protestant lands.  This is something that has not changed—no matter how proud the Catholics are of their schools.  Not surprisingly, making war on human knowledge has its consequences—the most obvious is economic under-development.

So it is not really surprising that the chief cleric of an organization with a 500-year history of promoting ignorance has produced a document on climate change that is pretty lame.  There are a few good things in there but overall, a party platform of, say, the Social Democrats in Denmark in 1991, probably had a much more nuanced understanding of climate change and its implications than the Pope's encyclical.  In fact, MOST of the Pope's document isn't really about climate change at all.

What is most disappointing is that the Catholic Church actually could do something about climate change if they would take a little responsibility for their own actions instead of pointing fingers.
  • The Pope is a man whose carbon footprint is ENORMOUS. It is probably bigger than all but (maybe) a thousand people on earth. Does he outline a plan for how he’s going to reduce his own “sins” against the planet? (Are you kidding?)
  • The Catholic Church has thousands of extremely energy-wasting buildings that are used but a few hours per week. Does our Pope suggest how his institution can address this problem? (Nope!)
  • The biggest problem facing the planet is a population explosion that has left us with over 7.2 BILLION people—all who would join the western middle classes in a heartbeat and the energy consumption that requires. And what does our Pope have to say about population control? (Crickets!) In fact, the Catholic position on population control is so backwards, it makes their positions on pedophilia look positively enlightened by comparison.
Since the Catholic Church claims some association with Christianity, the quote from Matthew about cleaning up your own act before worrying about your neighbor's should apply.  I mean, the Church isn't going to develop new solar cells or energy-efficient transportation systems so that's the least they could do.
3. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4. Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.  Matthew 7

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wendell Potter on free-market "medicine"

Over the years, I have found that Wendell Potter's views on the state of USA medicine most closely resemble my own.  And in the article I have reproduced below, he hits a home run because he tackles THE fundamental issue facing our thoroughly dysfunctional system—whether for-profit medicine is even medicine.  Obviously most countries do not believe a free-market system delivers good medicine.  And of course, they have a wealth of evidence to back them up.  While USA has easily the most expensive medical care on earth, the health outcomes rarely crack the top 30.

There are many reasons why for-profit medicine doesn't work very well in any other measurement than the pay scales of health-care executives or the costs of prescription drugs.  Book have been written on the subject.  My favorite reason is that when money becomes the primary outcome, it destroys the trust between a doctor and patient that lead to all sorts of bad decisions.  It doesn't take long for a patient to wonder, "Are all these expensive tests necessary to diagnose my illness or does the doctor own shares in the MRI lab?"  This is especially true if the patient is paying these crazy bills out of pocket.  The question is especially corrosive if the doctor actually does have a financial stake in a diagnostic lab.

It wasn't always this way.  Between 1971 and 73, I was sentenced to work as a surgical orderly for my "crimes" of opposing the Vietnam War.  The hospital was a big sprawling affair attached to Minnesota's primary medical school.  This teaching hospital pretty much invented open heart surgery during the 1950s so while almost all the giants had moved on or retired, the reputations still dominated the surgical suites.  Heart trays were filled with instruments named for doctors who once walked the halls.

Most of the Twin Cities hospitals in those day were either state or county institutions or were large affairs owned and run by religious organizations.  There was still a tradition that medicine was to be a benevolent affair run for the benefit of the sick.  But the big greed had already begun to set in.  The head nurse of the OR, my boss, had bought stock in Medtronic when it was still being run out of a garage.  She obviously only came to work out of love for medicine because when Medtronic had gone public, she had become a wealthy woman.  The transplant doctors were already anticipating the world they would inhabit when Medicare started paying for dialysis and transplants.  So while there were still surgeons whose big goal was to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for describing some breakthrough treatment, there were also the greedheads who were paying for their offshore horse ranches.

So Mr. Potter, contrary to your claim that Arnold Relman coined the term "medical-industrial complex" 35 years ago, I can assure all us conscientious objector orderlies at the UM Medical School were calling it that in 1971.  But yes, what we found disgusting and offensive was nothing compared to standard medical practice these days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

King coal is (dying?) dead

Vattenfall is a Swedish company that produces much of the hydropower generation in Sweden.  Vattenfall, after all, translates to waterfall.  So, it's not like they don't have experience with renewables.  But the problem is, the number of good hydro sites is clearly finite and the vast majority of them have been built out.  So over the years, they have gotten into nuclear and even brown coal power generation.  They also have extensive holdings in wind generation.

So while Vattenfall can sell themselves as seriously green, in fact they are basically agnostic when it comes to generation.  They're in the business of selling volts and operating a wide assortment of generating methods has seemed essentially prudent.  Well, not exactly.  They face serious criticism for burning dirty brown coal, they have been ordered to shut down their German nuclear power plants by the government (many lawsuits) and now, one of their brand new, start-of-the-art hard coal plants in Hamburg is being used as the perfect example of why concerns over carbon emissions will probably turn this investment into a stranded asset.

Here in Minnesota, environmental activists went a few rounds with the big utility company in the 1970s over nuclear power.  Activists stopped the construction of major plant.  Turns out, this action saved the utility millions of dollars.  When it comes to energy, the bottom line is that everyone is on the same side no matter how contentious these debates become.  I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine the building of the hard-coal plant in Hamburg was quite contentious.  I would also imagine that there are Vattenfall execs who wished they had not built this financial white elephant.  Climate change is real, and the biggest target will be shutting down the carbon-intensive fires of coal.  And this is true no matter how sophisticated the new power plant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Michael Hudson on Russia

In an age when most economists barely rise to the level of drooling crackpots, it is wonderful to know that there are still a few who have used their skills to seek a meaningful understanding of how the world really works.  Michael Hudson is one of those deep thinkers.  I am a big fan of his because he is one of tiny handful of practicing economists who calls himself an Institutionalist.

In this interview, he discusses the situation in Russia.  Since 1991, Russia has tried to become a member of the global economy and has pretty slavishly incorporated the principles of neoliberalism.  Not surprisingly, this has led to one calamity after another.  Since the rise of Putin to power, Russia has tried to modify the worst of the criminal excesses of the neoliberal impulse.  So while there are still plenty of neoliberals with important jobs in the Russian economy, the various "heresies" perpetrated by a guy who merely wanted his country to survive and prosper have become unbearable to the keepers of the neoliberal faith.  Putin's first big "sin" was to throw Mikhail Khordorkovsky (a corrupt oligarch who came from nowhere to become a billionaire through fraud) into jail.

Once Putin had signaled that he believed some elements of neoliberalism were actually criminal, the war against him began in earnest.  And when he refused to accept the neoliberal coup d'etat in next door Ukraine, Russia was unceremoniously thrown out of all the neoliberal organizations she had tried so hard to join.  So mostly by accident, Putin and Russia are having to discover that there are some meaningful alternatives to neoliberalism and what is even more "surprising," they are discovering that almost all those alternatives seriously outperform the big madness.

Russia could do a whole lot worse than listen to Michael Hudson.  After all, he walks around with most of the good alternatives to neoliberalism in his head.  In fact, he probably babbles better economic advice in his sleep than most economists on their best days.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Stop TiSA or we are all doomed

It is no secret that I most vociferously oppose the trade agreements that the Obama administration is trying to "fast-track."  There was a small victory the other day when the House stopped TPP fast-track on a procedural vote.  I am willing to bet that this minor set-back for the Predatory ghouls who have been using such agreements to loot the USA will be temporary at best.  Maybe I am still licking my wounds from our failure to stop NAFTA, but the question that was often asked in that fight, "How do you stop people who will stop at nothing?" still applies.

Ellen Brown notes below that of all the monstrous "trade" agreement being proposed, TiSA is the most harmful because it will effectively outlaw any sort of meaningful monetary reform.  This is a HUGE deal.  If humanity is going to seriously address the climate problem, it simply MUST come up with at LEAST $100 trillion.  Anything much less will mean that we will be trying to put out a raging house fire with a squirt gun.  And without monetary reform, getting our hands on a pile of money that size will be impossible.

So I am not kidding when I state that if a dangerous lunacy like TiSA is passed, we can kiss our collective asses goodbye.  And I can say this with a mathematical certainty.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ah Bach!

It a big weekend for Bach fans.  The only known portrait of the great genius returns to Leipzig for the first time 265 years.  The St. Nicholas's Church (Bach's "other" church in Leipzig) is celebrating it 850 anniversary this year.  So that's where the portrait was unveiled.

Let the singing begin!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The green power rush is on

Wind turbine and solar panels represent two different forms of technology.  Wind machinery is huge and involves extremely large parts transmitting massive forces through car-sized bearings in all sorts of extreme weather.  Not very long ago, the composite blades were still being made using hand layup. Constructing a wind turbine more resembles the problems of building a medium-sized building than manufacturing, say, an automobile.  Even so, the wind guys have gotten a lot better at their trade—the components are built to far higher standards of accuracy and failure-prone parts have become more reliable.

Solar panels may not need massive cranes to install, but they pose another set of interesting engineering problems.  The technology is younger—in some ways, we don't even know how the majority of solar cells will eventually be made.  There is still an important role for the material science guys.

But what is important to remember is that both have now passed the cost point in their competition to displace the fire-based power systems (and that's without figuring in the costs of fuel extraction and pollution.)  Of course, both have zero fuel costs so it should have been inevitable that they would become the low-cost option.  But because making either technology actually work was so difficult, it was still a pleasant surprise when that day arrived when green power could survive without subsidies.  And now that green power is the low-cost real world option, we can imagine a real de-carbonized society and sooner than anyone has predicted.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We’re all climate change deniers at heart—Oliver Burkeman

One of the things that has dawned on me in the last couple of years is how MUCH climate change denialism is embedded in the movements that oppose climate change.  We saw this phenomenon on full display last September when some of the biggest guns in the USA Climate Change movement descended on New York to march around aimlessly to express their displeasure with the lack of progress on this critical, life-threatening, problem.  The organizers claimed that 400,000 people participated.  If I had participated, I would have had to drive 2400 miles which would have put a TON of CO2 into the atmosphere given that my car gets roughly 24 mpg.  If we assume that everyone was at least 4x more efficient than I would have been driving in from Minnesota, this still means that a symbolic gesture of this size pumped 100,000 tons of CO2 into an overloaded atmosphere.

Of course, I did not go.  I thought the whole exercise was somewhere between obscene and insane.  But it raised a very interesting question in my mind, "How do concerned, intelligent, and unusually informed people sign up for such madness?"  I have been fretting about this ever since.

Now I have some theories.  I have toyed with the idea that the problem is:
  • People don't really understand the science behind greenhouse gasses.
  • The time frame is too long—folks think next year is a long ways off so 50 years is nearly forever.
  • Folks seem to think that if we would only pass the appropriate regulation, the problem would solve itself.
  • There seems to be a widespread belief that climate change is only caused when we waste energy.  There is no realization that doing the things necessary for survival like heating one's house is a MUCH bigger factor in creating CO2 emissions.
  • Etc.
So it was with some pleasure that I read Oliver Burkeman's piece in today's Guardian wherein he addresses the very topic that has troubled me so.  His list of reasons for climate denialism are different than mine but that certainly does not mean that either of us are wrong.  In fact, we are probably both right.  Climate denialism by people concerned about climate change is such an absurd proposition that in fact, there are probably dozens of explanations that make at least a little sense.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Neocons and the insane maneuvers of Zbigniew Brzezinski

One of the things I learned serving on the board of the historical society entrusted with preserving the church buildings and graveyard where lies the remains of the parents and some of the siblings of Thorstein Veblen, was that you didn't have to have a dog in a fight to get drawn into it.  Here were immigrants from Norway—many just off the boat—whose first experience in their new country was to get drafted into the Union Army.  For many families, losing a strong young man during the incredibly difficult job of settling virgin prairie created an often life-threatening hardship.  And while most of these families probably agreed that the Union cause was just, it was damn difficult to feel responsible for the conditions that produced the Civil War as a newly-landed immigrant in 1862.

So while it is understandable that a Polish princeling like Zbigniew Brzezinski might harbor some deep historical resentments against Russia and the Soviet Union, I often wonder why any of the rest of us should be forced to pay the bills for the geopolitical screw-ups caused by his raging hatred.  Now, thanks to this madman, we teeter in the verge of a new Cold War between nuclear powers.  And for what?  The overwhelming majority of people in USA and Russia would live in peace and harmony absent the ravings of foreign policy lunatics.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Has there been a global warming pause?

Climates are exceedingly complex and take place over very long time frames.  Compounding those problems is the fact that is it FAR easier to measure changes over time than it is to predict changes in the future.  For example, we know a lot of glaciers have melted releasing fresh water into areas of the ocean that have become a whole lot less salty.  What we don't know is what that development portends.

We DO know that burning carbon increases greenhouse gasses that trap more of the sun's energy in the atmosphere.  Adding more energy to a closed system usually means trouble.  But we don't know how much of the extra energy goes into the air and how much into the water.  And this uncertainty alone has made a lot of predictions look pretty silly.

Outside of predicting that we are probably not going to like the outcomes produced by an atmosphere with more energy, it would probably be prudent for the scientific community to not be so specific.  Not only can such overly precise predictions come back to bite them, but there is PLENTY of work merely explaining how greenhouse gasses are produced and why pumping mega-tons into the atmosphere must be avoided, etc.

What follows is two explanations for why some of those ultra-hot temps didn't show on schedule.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is the political pendulum finally swinging back in economics

One barely knows what to make of a claim that the "center" in economics is finally moving left.  It could hardly move any further right—mainstream economics hasn't been this reactionary since the late 19th century.  What Bloomberg writer Smith calls "left" in the following article isn't even left of someone like Richard Nixon.  So there is a LOT of room to the left of the neoliberal consensus that so dominates the discussion in the overwhelming number of economies world-wide.

At the end of this, Smith asks what could replace neoliberalism.  If he really doesn't know the answer, I would suggest he read some of the ideas of the Progressives beginning in about 1880.  Of course, knowing this history should have been a prerequisite for writing about economic issues in the first place.

Jon Stewart on Middle East

Last night, Jon Stewart reminded us why he is often considered the best newsman in USA.  In just over nine minutes, he gave a perfect thumbnail sketch of how USA's mideast foreign policy has staggered from one disaster to another.  It was brilliant—not to mention extremely funny.

One wonders why USA even tries to run an empire.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Frances Perkins and the fight for decent working conditions

Growing up in a New Deal family, I started on my collection of favorite New Dealers at a young age.  Because we lived in a small town in the corn belt with agriculture as the primary occupation for hundreds of miles in almost any direction, my first was Henry Wallace, the Iowa plant geneticist who designed the programs that would improve the hopeless conditions facing most farmers during the Depression.  Over the years, I have added others—Marriner Eccles, the most enlightened chairmen the Federal Reserve has ever had; J. Kenneth Galbraith, the man who explained why this worked; or Alvin Hansen, the man who brought the teachings of the midwest progressives to the Harvard Econ department.

A couple of years ago, the woman in my life started to read a nice fat book about the life and times of Frances Perkins, FDR's Labor Secretary.  By the time she was done, it was quite apparent that I had to add another name to my personal New Deal Hall of Fame.  It is all too easy for we Nordic Lutherans (who have been taught to believe that the social welfare state is a necessary part of a modern economy) to dismiss the Depression-era struggles over things like Social Security as a case of primitive catching up.  But in fact the mountain that Perkins had to climb was in many ways, much steeper than the one Bismarck had to climb to make Social Security a reality in late 19th-century Germany.

Recently, Frances Perkins made the short list of women being talked up to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 note.  There was some sort of online vote and this household went for her.  And for those who actually wonder why men in USA keep voting for Republicans when doing so is obviously against their economic interests, I now like to point out that most Democrats are also neoliberal swine by saying, "Frances Perkins is not Obama's Secretary of Labor, you know."  Occasionally, this leads to discussions about who she was and the kind of people responsible for implementing the institutions of a modern economy.  Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

China solar panels

China's route to a modern economy is sometimes puzzling.  For those of us who grew up believing that the only industrialization worth having was the version where none of the critical steps were skipped over, China's seems almost haphazard.  For example, we were taught you had to have a native machine tool industry because that is where you learn the importance of precision and the value of technological dispersion.  Etc.  

China's strategy of selling its almost infinite labor supply cheaply to attract runaway industry has some obvious advantages over carefully taking all the steps.  The most notable is that they have managed to get their hands on some serious technology for almost nothing.  Now we will see if they can reverse engineer the lessons they skipped.  It IS entirely possible that this all works.  But if their chaotic energy development is any guide, those missing lessons left some serious gaps.

For example, they have installed so many new coal-fired electrical generation plants in the Beijing area so that is now blanketed in choking smog for weeks at a time during the winter.  These are new plants.  The Chinese could have sampled from thousands of examples to see how she should power her capital.  But Noooo!

Now China is making a big noise about their investment in renewables.  They already have some of the largest solar panel plants anywhere.  They have so much production capacity that they have triggered trade wars over solar panels.  Of course, as the world's biggest burner of coal, China probably has plenty of places where their solar panels would be a huge improvement over the coal smog.  Until those sites have been built out, China should probably stop exporting her necessary solar panels.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Engdahl on the possibilities for a new Russia

To suggest that the last 100 years have not been especially kind to the people of Russia is to practice massive understatement.  It was bad enough at the end of World War I to trigger a revolution, which was followed by a nasty civil war with foreign troops joining forces with the counterrevolutionaries, the murderous brutality of Stalin, the insanities of Marxism including collectivized agriculture run by people who believed food production was a function of correct political thoughts, followed by the Nazi invasion—easily the most brutal in human history.  Then the Soviet Union broke up over the absurdities of Marx's understanding of economics and in swoop the Harvard boys with their neoliberal shock therapy.  In the chaos that followed, a significant fraction of the country began to have warm and fuzzy feelings about Stalin.  It was that bad!

Instead of another madman, they got Vladimir Putin who has brought stability to a country that often longs for little else.  Even better, he has countered NATO troublemaking with decisive moves that assure his citizens that someone in charge has something that resembles a plan.  This is a recipe for hope in a possible future.  Not surprisingly, Putin is arguably the most popular political leader on the planet.

What is even more ironic, the economic sanctions leveled against Russia have made life very difficult for her neoliberals and their twisted agenda.  Putin who jumped through all sorts of hoops to get Russia into the neoliberal economic clubs like the G-8 and the WTO is now being forced into coming up with alternatives.  The crises has forced him to abandon the worst loser economic strategy of our age.  Not totally, of course.  For example, the woman in charge of Russia's central bank is a neoliberal nutcase.  So even if Putin were to discover the great alternatives to neoliberalism, he would have to do some serious housecleaning before he could implement them.

In the meantime, the V-70 celebrations the Russians threw for themselves May 9 were as Engdahl writes below, utterly magnificent.  As someone who grew up in a parsonage where funeral planning was part of the family business, I know that getting these things right is a lot harder than it looks.  And getting it right is very VERY important—people NEED comfort in the face of death.  During the parade coverage, someone noted that in roughly an hour, 16,000 snappy soldiers, etc. had passed the reviewing stand and at that rate, it would require 19 DAYS for the roughly 7.25 million military KIA between Barbarossa and the Fall of Berlin to march by.  The total dead including civilians has been estimated at 30 million.  How do you begin to properly remember such a tragedy?  Well our embarrassing leaders didn't show for the events, but apparently they were pitch-perfect.