Google analytics

Monday, December 26, 2016

More on Republican economics and trade deficits, corporate raiders and all

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been giving more thought to the curious fact that we had very little experience with trade deficits before voodoo economics reared its head in the 1980s.

What changed? Well, several things. In fact, our whole attitude to economics seemed to change.

There was a major shift in the tax load. Ronald Reagan famously lowered the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%. This encouraged the accumulation of wealth by the highest earners. But tax receipts only went from 18.2% of GDP to 18.1% of GDP. Did that mean that voodoo economics worked?

No, just funnin' ya. It means that while high earners got a lower top marginal rate, others paid more tax, and some was shifted from one pocket to another. Payroll taxes, for example, have been rising for a long time, and that's part of what he did, but the government kept getting just about as much of its income from individual income taxes as before.

Source: Wikipedia

It's just that different people were paying the tax. In addition, the long-term trend for lowering corporate taxes continued. In about 1970, the government started collecting more tax from payrolls than from corporate income tax. In 1952, tax receipts from the corporate income tax amounted to 33% of revenue, in 1982 it was closer to 7%, and it's settled to something less than 10% in most years.

Now, the Tax Foundation argues that high corporate taxes have caused business owners to set up "pass-through" corporations whose only function is to pass income through to the owners without paying corporate income tax. This is because Reagan lowered individual taxes more than corporate taxes.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the corporate tax rate, but reduced the individual tax rate further, and raised taxes on corporations in other ways. That marked the peak of U.S. C corporations, at 2.6 million in 1986. As of 2011 (most recent data), there are now 1 million fewer corporations, at 1.6 million. In contrast, S corporations grew from about 800 thousand in 1986 to 4.2 million in 2011, and partnerships grew from 1.7 million to 3.3 million.

It would seem that this encouraged the use of a tax loophole to dodge the higher corporate income tax. The Tax Foundation, based on this information, argues rather improbably that this is wrong, that the reduction in corporate tax receipts is owing to a shrinkage of the corporate sector -- even though their own figures show an explosion of (pass-through) S-corporations. If, in our innocence, we assume that S corporations are corporations, this notion that the corporate sector has shrunk cannot possibly be true.

And since individual tax revenues have pretty much held steady, that means that the big change has been shifting the tax burden from corporations to payrolls. Payroll taxes are paid half by employers and half by the employee, and there is some controversy about whether total compensation to the employee should include the employer's share. But the point of payroll taxes is that both sides of the tax are really costs to the employer, whether the employee regards them as pay or not.

In essence, what we've come to call Reaganomics involves making it more expensive to hire employees and letting corporations keep more money (or pass it through to their owners.)

At the same time, healthcare costs were going through the roof, and the only practical way for most people to have health insurance was to have it through the employer. So again, the cost of employing Americans was going up.

The Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare, was in part an attempt to "bend the curve" of healthcare cost increases, which it seems to have succeeded in doing, and in part an effort to decouple health insurance from employment.

Both are things that need to happen if hiring Americans to make things and export them is to continue to  be a viable enterprise.

Now, increases in payroll taxes are a long-term trend that didn't start under Reagan, and the decline in corporate tax revenues started long before he came into office as well. What was new?

For one, the claim that tax cuts didn't have to be paid for, that we could cut taxes on the rich and it would stimulate the economy so much that tax revenues wouldn't fall. This was obviously wrong by the mid-1980s, and should have been obvious it was wrong even before it was tried, but the same old snake oil comes on the market with every Republican administration.

The old Keynesian consensus was that you needed to stimulate the economy in downturns and reduce the debt-GDP ratio in good times. Reagan, and later the Cheney administration for which George H.W. Bush's son was a figurehead, changed that calculation. The economy needed to run large deficits during Republican administrations, and cut spending regardless of economic conditions during Democratic administrations.

The result can only be workable as economic policy if by coincidence.

One problem with these changes is that although the numbers sometimes obscure this fact, economics is a science of values. When you increase tax on work and reduce tax on ownership, you are sending a message that you wish to discourage work and valorize ownership. Pretty much everything we've done with economic management since the 1970s, the financialization of everything and the way the change in the basic mission of corporations allowed management to break implicit contracts and go to war against their employees.

As Larry Summers and Andrei Schleiferwere pointed out in their 1988 paper, Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers, the financialization of the economy and the breakdown of companies were linked.

When takeover artists could raise huge sums in junk bonds to do a hostile takeover of a corporation, their plan was not actually to make the company more productive. Summers and Schleiferwere put it, "The industrial diversity of many raiders' holdings suggests that their particular skill is value redistribution rather than value creation."

The reason that companies exist, rather than having individuals doing all the tasks of the company on a contract basis is that the transaction costs of contracting everything would be enormous.(see R.H. Coase, The Nature of the Firm, Economica, Nov. 1937.) Value creation requires implicit contracts which enable large groups of people to work for a common goal.

But the credo of the corporate raider was to make war on their own employees, get them to take less pay, and pass the larger profits on to the management and the shareholders. Companies that had for years worked for a partnership between workers and management found they were under financial pressure to do the same, or be a takeover target.

Starting in the 1970s, public corporations stopped being about what Coase had said firms exist for, working together to create value for customers, and became a game of takeaway.

And that's about the point where America started running large trade deficits. As I've previously pointed out, there were some pretty substantial other factors, like the oil shock of 1973 and Chinese financial sterilization in the 1990s and early 2000s. Still, it does seem a bit of a coincidence that we stopped exporting as much as we imported about the time that public corporations stopped being about creating value and started being about redistributing it upward to the managers and shareholders. And that this all happened while the tax burden increasingly discouraged hiring and encouraged speculation.

But then, I"m an amateur. What do I know?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Trumponomics, trade, and stateless money

by John MacBeath Watkins

We're hearing a lot about the trade deficit lately, and Donald Trump got elected in part based on his claim that he could turn this around.

How will he do that? Well, if the recent Carrier deal is an example, by bribing companies with tax dollars and browbeating those businesses. He's also claimed he would put a 35% import duty on goods produced by factories relocated outside the United States (but not, apparently, on the foreign companies they compete with.)

Import substitution, that is, raising duties and attempting to have more things built in the homeland, did not work very well for Argentina, and is unlikely to work well for the United States. Furthermore, it appears he intends to give big tax breaks to the rich. I believe there are ties between inequality and trade, at least in the American economy.

Now, here's a chart from The Motley Fool showing the history of the U.S. trade deficit.

When Europe started rebuilding after World War II, we had massive trade surplus. How could other countries afford to pay for that? Well, we were shipping them plenty of capital, though the Marshall Plan and private investment. Then, we went through an extended period when trade was roughly balanced, from about 1950 to the mid-1970s, when the oil shocks changed everything.

It was after this that the great decline came, and not just in the trade deficit. Current accounts went into deficit as well.

Essentially, we've been borrowing money and spending it on foreign goods. In part, this is because of deliberate sterilization by China, that is, buying U.S. debt so that the Chinese trade surplus would not cause its currency to appreciate, which would tend to correct for the imbalance. China started doing this in the 1990s. In 2005, they began letting their currency appreciate, but they don't seem to have slowed up on building their dollar reserves until around the end of 2013.

That's only part of how consumption has been paid for. Other capital flows would be earnings parked overseas for tax reasons, foreign money parked in America by nervous foreigners looking for safety, inflows of private investment, money spent by tourists here and abroad, etc. The biggest factor in the current account is the trade surplus or deficit. All in all, the current account shows whether a country's net foreign assets are increasing or decreasing, and ours have been decreasing since about 1982, with upticks in the late 1980s as the price of oil declined and after the Chinese allowed their currency to appreciate after 2005. Aside from those, rising consumption is being paid for with borrowed money. And the Chinese example of sterilization shows how that's possible.

Now, the question remains, what happened in 1982? We know what happened later in the decade, the Japanese Yen increased in value and the terms of trade no longer allowed our (then) largest trading partner to keep building huge trade surpluses, and lower oil prices reduced the trade deficit.. But aside from that reprieve, trade deficits have tended to grow.

I'm inclined to suspect that this has something to do with changes in the structure of our economy. Changes in banking allowed raiders to finance hostile takeovers of established companies, the top tax rate went from 70% to 28%, the country became a more hostile place for unions, and rules were changed to allow stock buy-backs to become common. One result of all this was to move income from the lower and middle classes and up to the top earners. A side effect of this was to make capital more mobile.

Middle class people tend to keep their money in savings and investments that they can quickly get at is circumstances require. If they start a business, it's likely to be a local business, a hardware store, a hair salon, something that keeps the money local. But there again, they run into rules changes. For example, when Reagan came into office, the Justice Department changed the way it enforced anti-trust rules. Anti-competitive practices like predatory pricing used to be treated as illegal. Now, in most cases, the Justice Department is only interested in collusion to raise prices. This has tended to favor the Walmarts of the world over the mom and pop stores.

Those at the top level of income are more likely to invest internationally, and as we saw when the Panama Papers became public, they may move money abroad to avoid taxes. Of course, they might have done that before the 1980s, but when wealth is very concentrated, as it is now, more of it belongs to people who see large benefits in tax havens. And even that may be dwarfed by the amount of stateless money corporations are keeping abroad to reduce their taxes.

I'm not sure there is anything like a 1:1 correspondence of inequality and stateless money, or of stateless money and trade deficits, but I think it's time to examine the question. Something has gone haywire, and the timing suggests to me that changing the rules of the game so that more of the money went to those at the top played a key role.

America used to be the most active country for small and medium-sized business startups. That pattern has changed, with a steady decline since the 1970s.

As someone who has started a business, I can tell you, your own savings are the most reliable source of funds, and many startups are done with family money. As Harry Truman observed, a bank will loan you money if you can prove you don't need it. Inequality makes it harder for small businesses to get started, because it reduces the amount of savings available to the middle class.

And if you want more jobs to stay in America and more companies fit to export, you aren't going to get there by bullying or bribing existing large companies. A more equal distribution of income will allow people to buy things without borrowing the money, and more people to start up businesses to serve that demand. Cutting taxes on the rich will not serve this purpose.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Language and the social contract: Word, spirit, and reason

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, argued that the basis for the social contract is that in a state of nature, we see a war of each against all, so we must form a social contract to have a leader in charge of enforcing order, or we will die a violent death. I believe that was more a description of the breakdown of order during the 30 Years War, just ending when Leviathan was published. John Locke, for reasons we explored in the chapter on him and his radical activities, argued that we form a society to protect property, which includes our own lives.

Both wrote in the 1600s. I believe it may be time to update the notion of the state of nature. First of all, the Hobbesian notion that we formed society to avoid violent death would apply to any animal capable of fear, and I think human society is fundamentally different from most or all other animal societies.

Second, property is a term Locke never really defined. It cannot be objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is the rules and customs regulating the human use of objects. It is, if you like, what objects mean to people. It is a province in the realm of meaning, and meaning is what makes human societies different.

The Hobbesian notion that we form a society to free ourselves from the threat of violent death explains why we have been ruled so long by force. It does not explain why we have been ruled so long by faith and custom, as well. The answer to that lies in the symbolic side of human society. What makes human society a civilization or a culture is this symbolic world, a sort of virtual realm consisting of meanings, which is invisible to animals other than humans. Human culture is one of the strangest things on the planet, and religion is one of the strangest and most powerful things in that ethereal, symbolic world.

Reason is not the basis of religion. In fact, it is not the basis for civilization. People learn to live together by living together, and codify what they have learned into institutions, culture, and stories. The most important of those stories, such as the origin story that binds the community together and the story of what happens to the wicked in the afterlife, are in the keeping of one of the most powerful institutions, religion.

But where did religion come from, and why do virtually all human societies have one?

Humans, relative to other animals, have giant brains. The brain is an expensive organ, consuming about 25% of your body's energy when it is in a resting state, but it pays dividends. One result is our ability to solve problems, such as how to get a piece of fruit down from a tree without breaking our necks. Another is our use of language, and symbolic thought.

We see signs of tool use as much as three million years ago. That is a sign of instrumental thought, problem solving. Symbolic thought is much more recent, appearing and disappearing a few times before it finally “took” permanently (we hope) about 35,000-40,000 years ago.

Language must first have been used instrumentally, to warn of danger, coordinate defense, communicate what plants are edible and how to prepare them, and talk one's lover's mate out of killing you.

But we see the revolution of symbolic thought in the creation of jewelry, and tools that are beautiful as well as functional. We see these as signs that our ancestors thought these things were not just useful, they had meaning.

We are creatures who make meaning; it is the essence of being human, and allows us to have larger civilizations that would otherwise be possible.

Most animals only coordinate with others of their species who are relatively closely related to them. Humans are different, in part because of their dual nature. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, living creatures can be seen as things that exist to perpetuate their genes. These are chemical strings of information that define what the creature is.

But we have other strings of information, symbolic ones that define who we are as much as our genes do. Dawkins invented the word memes to describe them. They are a major part of what our minds are made of, the brain's software that has evolved to allow us to function in society. They give us, for example, ideas about honor and decency that prevent us from acting badly and selfishly.

Our minds are made up of the memes we have been in contact with. You might say, what we accept into ourselves defines who we are, and what we reject defines the boundaries of the soul. But in the end, a large part of what we are made up of is each other, everyone we've known, spoken to, read, or watched as they went about their lives around us. In fact, so much of what we are is in our memes, we can transmit much of what we are to those with whom we share few genes. We certainly feel closer to our friends than to our second cousins, and feel they share more of who we are.

But how does the symbolic link up with the spiritual?

Consider what a wonder language is. You have a tree, you know its smell, recognize its shape, perhaps eat its fruit or nuts. The tree is a solid thing, growing in one place and firm in its reality.

But then, you have a word for the tree. In fact, you have a word for trees. It is as if the tree, and all trees, have grown a new dimension. The tree now has an existence in the physical world and another existence in the new, symbolic world.

How are we to interpret this?

One way would be to regard that second existence as spirit. The tree now has a spirit, perhaps we could speak of it as a wood nymph, the brook has not just the sound of moving water but the babbling of the water sprites.

This is a mythopoetic understanding of the world. We understood this new dimension in the world by calling it spirit, and inhabiting the world with a new sort of creature that existed only in the realm of magic.

In our materialistic age, we tend to think of the world and society in materialistic and instrumental terms. But this would not necessarily be the dominant mode of understanding for all of history. In a slowly changing world, we could construct a society of customs and myths that caused people to act in ways that made the crops grow and the social order to remain stable. This would be a world Edmund Burke could admire, in which the customs and myths society imbued its members with were the cumulative wisdom of the society.

There is a branch of philosophy called pragmatism, which says ideas have an evolutionary life, in which the fittest ideas survive. For millennia, this could work slowly, and the ideas only had to work, they did not need to be literally true. Humanity could live by its myths.

When the world changed quickly, as in the late bronze age collapse of about 1200 BCE, this system did not work well enough. The new technology of iron meant the old powers fell. In the following dark age, many cities were leveled, never to be built again on those sites. Populations fell, civilizations failed.

It took around 800 years for civilization to recover. And from that dark age came a flowering of reason we now think of as the Greek golden age. Instrumental logic, combined with language, became philosophy. It was a precursor to the age of reason.

We entered a new dark age when Rome fell, and society relied more on religion and custom for centuries. Then came the Enlightenment, and we began to try to reason our way to the good society again.

So here we are, with reason and faith often at odds. The world is changing too rapidly for mythopoetic systems that have evolved over the ages to adapt quickly enough, but there is great resistance to leaving them behind, and for good reasons. The Enlightenment, after all, produced philosophies that led to the Terror, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields. There is enough wisdom in myth to make it still useful. Its claims to truthfulness are usually not testable, and beside the point in any case.

But reason and faith are not the only things at odds. Both can be used to justify either authoritarian or democratic regimes. The violent regimes justified in the name of “science,” such as the fascist and communist governments, have been pretty thoroughly discredited at this point. But we are now seeing violent reactions against liberalism from people motivated by religion and tradition. We are used to thinking of democracy as a better form of government to live under, but there are plenty of people fighting for or living under authoritarian regimes. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not valued in these societies, and a surprising number of people seem to be just fine with that.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Reality, truth, & facts, versus the Republican will to power

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some on the right seem to regard reality as a mere inconvenience. Recently, Trump supporter and CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes went so far as to assert that "There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts."

It would be interesting to know when there ceased to be facts. Was it during George W. Bush's first term, when an administration official (almost certainly Karl Rove) claimed that "we create or own reality?" Certainly Republicans had a history long before that of acting as if facts were irrelevant. They've continued to assert that lowering taxes increases tax revenue long after that was shown to be untrue.

Now, there is a philosophical position that "truth" is impossible. In The Will To Power, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted as much:
Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. 
‘Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented … [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? … 
In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is … interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings—‘Perspectivism’. 
It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives … Every drive is a kind of list to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.
Nor is this rather malleable notion of the truth new to the right. As I've noted before, German fascism did not consider even science to be capable of objective truth:
Each nation had a science natural to them, they maintained, and any science that claimed to be universal was "Jewish" and false. The "science" of racial hygiene was far more acceptable.
I believe the source of the error here is a failure to understand the relationship between reality, facts, and truth.

Truth is a species of belief. It is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Reality is what is there whether we believe it or not. As I write this, it is winter, and the thermometer in the room I currently occupy reads 63 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a simple, observable fact. I know that the thermometer in question is not the most precise, but I can report what it says without fear that my interpretation has contaminated the reading, and I can be certain that it accords to a reasonable degree with reality.

Now, lest you think I've taken the statement from Hughes out of context, or that I'm being pedantic about "facts," here is her statement in context. As a call-in guest on the Diane Rheme show, she was asked what she thought about some fact-checking that showed much of what Donald Trump tweets is lies.
“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go ‘No it’s true,’" Hughes said. "And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people who say ‘facts are facts,’— they’re not really facts." 
“Everybody has a way—It’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” she added.
I think here we see the basic problem between those of us in what Rove termed the "reality-based community" and those in the conservative bubble. We think there are facts -- observable, objective representations of reality -- while Hughes and her ilk think there is only opinion.

Given the definition of "truth" I've given above, it should be clear that I think it is possible for people to maintain that something is "true" -- that they believe it without question -- while not being in accord with the facts -- objective representations of reality. Hughes seems to mean that if people claiming a thing is true actually believe that, and are not lying, that's as good as having a belief that aligns with observable reality.

Those of us in the reality-based community tend to think people saying this are in effect claiming their ignorance is as good as actual knowledge. In fact, they think their ignorance is better if it wins.

That is a very Nietzschean notion of truth (well, rather cruder than Nietzsche.) Donald Trump himself, asked if his dishonest and heated rhetoric during the campaign had gone to far, replied in this same mode:
"No. I won," he said.
This is perhaps the clearest statement yet of how conservatives have come to regard claims made in the political sphere. In Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Irving Kristol wrote of supply-side economics,  "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities."

The political possibilities involved being able to lower taxes on the rich while claiming they were neither cutting programs for those less fortunate nor exploding the deficit. The fact that supply-side economics never worked was a feature, not a bug. It allowed conservatives to argue that the deficit they had created was too large, and we needed to cut programs like Social Security.

Neoconservatives have long believed themselves a sort of intellectual vanguard, who have no merely the option, but the obligation, to mislead people in order to lead them.

Paul Krugman is fond of saying that "reality has a well-known liberal bias." But why is that? Perhaps it's because conservatives and liberals have a very different relationship with reality and truth.

Conservatives are all about conserving traditional values, beliefs, and power structures. Their truth is already established, through long-standing tradition. Liberals are trying to discover the world and human nature, and discover the best way for people to interact with the world. Liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment, conservatism has been with us as long as culture has.

We see this in their relationship with the press, as well. Starting with Nixon, the conservative take on the press has been that the important thing is, are they with us or against us? Prior to the advent of Fox News, when reality conflicted with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures, the press would present facts, which might establish that the truth was not what we had believed before. This is very annoying to people who know the truth without reference to the facts.

This became particularly noisome from the conservative point of view when they were reporting on the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War. Fox News found an opportunity here, providing "news" that did not conflict with traditional values, beliefs, and power structures; if the facts were a problem, they ignored them or changed them.

When Donald Trump claimed he would "Make America Great Again," he was not talking about greatness in the sense of some objectively quantifiable fact. He was promising to restore -- wait for that phrase again -- traditional values, beliefs, and power structures.

No, he can't bring back the jobs lost in the West Virginia coal mines, and perhaps the West Virginians who voted for him don't really expect him to. In fact, they may not expect him to change objective facts in their lives at all. What he represents to them is the will to power for the formation of a different kind of truth, about traditional sex roles, about the power structure that existed in that lost world of the 1950s.

As L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The world has changed too much for us to return to a time when being white and male and willing to work made the world your oyster, or any other mollusk you chose. It's no accident that the 2016 election took place against the backdrop of a controversy over transgender bathroom use and white backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor is it an accident that the champion of tradition did badly among the young.

Those who can adjust to reality are doing so. For the rest, truth is known from tradition, and reality is an inconvenience.

(I should note that in my opinion, Nietzsche would not have approved of Donald Trump. He was opposed to tribalism and nationalism, and wanted to see a unified Europe, whereas Trump is very much about tribalism.. And Trump does not resemble the ubermensch so much as the last man, who is decadent and resentful, fearful of progress, comfort-loving and backward-looking. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the titular character, finding people reject his teaching on the ubermensch, gives them an example of someone so disgusting he assumes they will be repelled by him, der letzte Mensch, or last man. Instead, they embrace him. That makes me think of how the pundits thought Trump was too disgusting to be elected, and were dismayed when he was. But in truth, Trump does not fit the image of either ubermensch or letzte mensch very well.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On being a blue monster

by John MacBeath Watkins

Among the autopsies of the recent election, the largest group blamed the result on people who didn't vote for Donald Judas Trump: Liberals.

Apparently, if you live in a city near salt water (and not in the Southeast) you are part of a blue bubble whose occupants, through their smug condescension, "created" Trump. Politico outlines the process (dare I say it, with smug condescension) in this article.

The prism of history changes the meaning of events, and nothing could show this more clearly than the Politico article. It begins:
Well before Donald Trump declared he was running—to the amusement of the liberal media and Washington establishment, who didn’t stop laughing until Nov. 8—and long before Hillary Clinton dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” the right had gotten used to being looked down upon by liberals. The general attitude of the left was: Disagree with us? You’re probably racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted or all of the above. Indeed, for many liberal Americans, these prejudices have come to be seen as inseparable from identity of the Republican Party itself.
Now, perhaps Politico has a different view of David Duke and other "alt-right" characters, but I think they are deplorable. And while the right seems never to pay a price for stereotyping their opponents, liberals never seem to stop apologizing when they do it.

So, by hurting the feelings of "real Americans," the headline on the story tells us, "the left created Trump.".

What kind of monster would create Donald Trump? Apparently, a blue monster, one who lives in an area where Trump got few votes. The New York Times went so far as to quote from a 1998 book that supported the the blue-blaming theme. That book, Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, said the following:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. 
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …
I've known postmodern professors.  They did not call the shots, and most taught as adjunct faculty, the temp workers of the academic world. As we move on to whatever is post- postmodernist, they will become ciphers even more than they are now. Smug bureaucrats? Rorty wrote that description in a book published only three years after a right-wing nut killed 168 people by setting off a truck-sized bomb outside the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It was a bit of a clanger to have written, at about the time the jury was sentencing Timothy McVeigh to death for the bombing, that the real problem was smug bureaucrats.

I know exactly why I hadn't heard of Rorty's book before. It came out claiming there was an economic crisis at one of the few times in recent decades when we had full employment and real wages were rising, in those sunny days near the end of the Clinton Administration. It was only the application of the right's favored formula for economic success, banking deregulation and tax cuts that favored the rich, that things got worse, bringing on the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the election of our first African-American president. After eight years of liberal policy, unemployment got down to below 5%, and real wages started to rise again. So, obviously, they needed to get someone to push the old snake oil again.

But the problem isn't that the right sometimes does something wrong. It's always the fault of the left, for having made them do something wrong. How dare they connect the Republican party to racists, just because the Republican Party nominee for president was re-tweeting stuff from white supremacists on a regular basis?

And how could the left think conservatives were in any way connected to racism? Was it just because the Republican Party pursued a Southern strategy, going after the voters and politicians who felt their racism was better accepted in the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act?

After all, conservatives did what the left would not. They made people feel comfortable and accepted for their attitudes about race and gender preference. The party has been doing that since about 1964, when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act.

And Trump won by doing what the Republican Party has been doing for more than 50 years. He made it feel okay to be racist, and fight against being oppressed by smug postmodernists who we all know wield much more power in our society than people like the Koch brothers.

Did Republicans "have" to do this? Well, if they'd managed to nominate a more normal candidate, along the lines of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, they'd have likely been well ahead in the polls as the election resulted. It's quite normal when a party has held the presidency for eight years for them to lose it.

Allan Lichtman, whose model had correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote for president from its invention prior to the 1984 election through the 2012 election, faced a model that said Donald Trump would win in 2016. This time, he hedged his bets.

Why did Lichtman, who teaches history at American University in Washington, D.C., feel a need to hedge?

His model is based on 13 key facts, and he figures if six of the keys are met, the party in power will lose. One of those keys was whether people were sufficiently disenchanted with the major parties that someone else would get 5%. While the polls prior to the election showed Libertarian Gary Johnson getting more than 5%, Lichtman recognized that this could flip. And, Lichtman told the Washington Post:
The second qualification is Donald Trump. We have never seen someone who is broadly regarded as a history-shattering, precedent-making, dangerous candidate who could change the patterns of history that have prevailed since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Those keys are linked, because of the possibility that many people would see Trump as too dangerous to take a chance on and vote for Clinton rather than cast a protest vote.

As it happened, it looks like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein together will finish with less than 5% of the vote. Therefore, the model would say that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, as she did. But to predict the election, Lichtman would have had to make that assumption before the election, which he does not seem to have done.

But in the end, Trump has been elected, and we'll have to live with that, whether we are the sort of blue monsters that hurt the feelings of the people who voted for him or the sort of people who actually voted for him. His administration has the potential to change the patterns of history that have defined our country for more than 150 years, and it's easy to see why, for example, a publication like Politico might want to shift the blame from their own failure to vet Trump the candidate.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Non-representative democracy for an undemocratic republic

by John MacBeath Watkins

From Vox:

More Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. More Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republican Senate candidates. And while we don’t have final numbers yet, it looks likely that more Americans will have voted for House Democrats than for House Republicans.

The senate was designed this way, giving two senators to every state, whether they represent the 582,658 people of Wyoming, or the 38,332,521 people of California. Each senator represents 291,329 people in Wyoming and 19,166,260.5 in California. This means that in the senate, Wyoming voters are 65.8 times as powerful as California voters in any decision made by the senate.

The remedy designed for this is that the House of Representatives is allocated by population, with each state having at least one House member. Therefore, Wyoming's one House member represents 582,658 people, and each of California's 53 House members represent 723,255 people.

Notice I say people, not voters. When the constitution was written, some slave states had more slaves than free men. This remained the case up to the end of the Civil War: South Carolina, the first state to secede, had a total population of 703,708 and a slave population of 402,406 in the 1860 census. The compromise that helped bring the slave states into the union allowed them to count slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining how many congressmen they were allocated, and electoral college members as well.

There are 538 members of the electoral college, one for each House member, one for each senator, and three for Washington, D.C., since the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961. This means that each of the 55 electors from California represent 696,955 people, while Wyoming's 3 electors each represents 194,219 people. In electing a president, Wyoming's voters are roughly 3.6 times as powerful as California voters.

And since this power structure is based on population, not votes cast, during the Jim Crow years, states paid no penalty for preventing African Americans from voting. Nor do states in the present day pay any penalty for suppressing the votes of African Americans and Hispanics.

The result of all this is that a party that gets a minority of votes can elect the president and gain majorities in the senate and house. The problem is made worse by gerrymandering. After the election of our first African American president in 2008, Republicans were looking at a demographic death spiral as the country became more diverse and more urban.

Their response was a concerted effort to make America less democratic. They recognized that the backlash against the election of a black president gave them an opportunity, and outspent Democrats 3-1 on an all-out effort to capture enough state legislatures and governorship to control a large part of the redistricting that was done based on the 2010 census, as Pro Publica detailed here. The results have been extraordinarily successful.

Republican now control the senate, the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the power to appoint judges who will favor them. They also control most state legislatures and governorships. They have the power to change the rules of the game so that they can prevent those who would vote against them from voting.

The question that remains is, how long can a minority party successfully rule a republic where a majority of the citizens don't agree with their program?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The unpatriotic right keeps cooperating with foreign powers

by John MacBeath Watkins

Donald Trump tried to make himself seem patriotic by literally groping an American flag. But his victory owed something to the Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

And having dealt with some Trump trolls on the internet, I can tell you, there are many on the right who have no problem with this Russian intervention in an American election. As long as it helped their guy beat Hillary Clinton, they are fine with a foreign power trying to tip an American election.

This isn't the first indication we've had that many Republican care more about gaining power than about their country. There was Richard Nixon's campaign, which contacted the South Vietnamese government to tell them that Nixon could get them better terms than Johnson if they would scuttle the peace talks, at a time when Nixon was claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam war.

From Politico:

Did Richard Nixon’s campaign conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 election to capture him the presidency? 
Absolutely, says Tom Charles Huston, the author of a comprehensive, still-secret report he prepared as a White House aide to Nixon. In one of 10 oral histories conducted by the National Archives and opened last week, Huston says “there is no question” that Nixon campaign aides sent a message to the South Vietnamese government, promising better terms if it obstructed the talks, and helped Nixon get elected.
Delaying the peace treaty until the end of the war was close enough to benefit Nixon in his re-election campaign turned out to be the secret plan, but the lives lost as the war ground on were incidental to the larger cause of getting and keeping Nixon in office.

Gary Sick, a Middle East specialist, wrote a 1991 book called October Surprise that claimed Ronald Reagan's campaign contacted Iran to delay the release of the hostages taken when the American Embassy was attacked in 1979. I would discount that, except that the Reagan Administration later illegally sold arms to Iran (in the Iran-Contra scandal) in part, apparently, to get the release of seven hostages held by Iranian allies in Lebanon.

And, of course, we have the example of the last eight years, when Republicans did all they could to ensure President Barack Obama would fail, hindering efforts to help the country recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Republicans who helped pass a stimulus bill for President George W. Bush in 2008 balked at approving a stimulus bill in 2009, when the country was in much worse shape, because it would be a success for President Obama. Suddenly, they felt that the appropriate response to a recession was austerity.

They even shut down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund the Affordable Care act, also known as Obamacare. After Republicans won majorities in both the house and senate in the 2010 election, Mitch McConnell, who would soon be the Senate Majority Leader, said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

More important than the good of the country was Republican dominance of the national government.

And now, it's not just harm to American citizens they will countenance. It is the assistance of a foreign power.

Republics can be vulnerable to foreign intervention in their politics. One reason the Polish-Lithuanian Empire fell was that its legislative body, the Sjem, could be subverted by foreign powers. One feature of the Sjem was the liberum veto, which said that any one legislator could nullify legislation that had just passed and end the session by showing "I do not allow!"

Foreign powers soon discovered that they could bribe legislators to use their liberum veto to nullify anything the foreign power did not like. Rather than eliminate the liberum veto, Poland kept it and was overrun by its enemies.

With modern republics, the opportunity comes more in the electoral process. From the Daily Beast:
For nearly a decade, Russia has established ties with far-right parties in Eastern Europe, including Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s anti-EU Attack movement, and Slovakia’s far-right People’s party. 
The Eastern European far-right parties have returned the love, whether by supporting the 2008 Russian war against Georgia or by vocalizing support for Putin, as the Bulgarian Attack party has. In 2012, Attack’s leader, Volen Siderov, even popped over to Moscow to ring in Putin’s 60th birthday. Siderov also threatened to withdraw his party’s support from the coalition government if it supported further sanctions against Russia, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 
However, in recent years Russian influence has been moving west. In a 2014 report, the Budapest-based research institute Political Capital argued that Russia’s meddling in political affairs of the European far right has become a “phenomenon seen all over Europe.”
And now, we're seeing it here. The American right used to see Russia as the enemy, but since it made its transition from communism to fascism, the far right seems willing to embrace the Russian bear. They seem to care less about being American than about what Vladimir Putin represents -- a white strongman running his nation without regard to what minorities want.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The rise of illiberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, said that:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
He failed to anticipate the resiliency of authoritarianism. They still hold elections in Zimbabw, Russia, and Iran, but not just anyone is allowed to run and not just anyone is allowed to publish opinions about who people should vote for.

Elections, the press, and the judiciary are subjugated to a strong leader or oligarchy. Russia, for example, now has a record of not just silencing its critics, but of killing them, even if they live abroad. People like Vladimir Putin, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe may think they need the trappings of democracy to have legitimacy as a government, but they do not tolerate its substance.

One of the marks of such regimes is that they silence the press or find ways to bend it to their will. A tactic often used is to set people against each other, Mugabe, for example, instigated genocide against the Ndebele people, killing about 20,000 people. Claiming there was an internal threat enabled him to consolidate one-party rule.

An internal threat can be used to silence critics, as Turkey's Recep Erdogan is doing in Turkey, detaining lawmakers from the opposition party based on claims that they were associated with Kurdish militarists and arresting the editor and about a dozen journalists from a left-of-center newspaper which had embarrassed him. He claimed the newspaper had ties to a cleric living in exile in the United States, who is supposed to have been the inspiration for a failed coup attempt.

It has long bothered me that some on the far right seem to regard the constitution as a rough draft, constantly wanting to change it to comply with their agenda on issues like same-sex marriage and the balanced budget (legislators could, of course, simply pass balanced budgets if that's what they want.) Would-be strongmen take this approach as well, for example when Erdogan decided the Turkish constitution needed to give the Turkish president more power, or when Chavez, at the peak of his popularity, held a referendum to revise Venezuela's constitution to give him more power.

The problem is, when you vote in someone who does not really believe in democracy, it's hard to get rid of him (and it usually is a "him.") When the same party controls both the legislature and the executive branch, and allows only its own picks to get on the courts, only the leader's own party can control a drift to authoritarianism. And, if they are getting their agenda passed by the strongman, why would they?

Only a strong commitment to democratic principles on the part of all powerful parties in a system can stem the authoritarian drift. The question for our nation is, do we have that?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Globalization and its discontents

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the villains of the conspiracy buffs is the Bilderberg Group, a bunch of influential people who meet together to discuss an agenda to "bolster a consensus around free market Western capitalism and its interests around the globe."

Denis Healey, one of the group's founders, said of it, "Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn't go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing."

Now, that sounds reasonable, doesn't it? So why are they villains? I mean, aside from the fact they ignore, which is that only people who interact with each other fight (World War I happened at a peak in international trade and travel, so the notion that you can achieve world peace through trade and internationalism is suspect to start with.)

Well, a lot of people are not comfortable with the idea of a single community throughout the entire world. It would, after all, make existing groups obsolete. For example, if you are British, and consider Britishness inexorably linked to being white and speaking English with a certain range of accents, you might be uncomfortable with the open borders policy of the European Union, and vote to exit it.

Or, if you are American and consider whiteness and Christianity to be essential to Americanism, you might be uncomfortable with Muslims, or with allowing people from Latin America to immigrate.

There are other issues, of course. You may oppose free trade because you see too much of what you buy being made in other countries. You may oppose immigration because you think your wages are suppressed by competing with immigrants for jobs.

But the biggest problem might just be that you feel your identity is threatened, what it means to be a part of your tribe. I've described this before as ethnic panic, a psychological reaction similar to homosexual panic, in which someone snaps because a homosexual makes an advance to them and they respond violently because they are faced with their own suppressed homosexual desires.

As in homosexual panic, the person suffering from ethnic panic is faced with an identity they are uncomfortable with, for example, an identity in which you can be American, gay, brown, and Muslim. The more America looks like the world, the more the identity of American as being white and Christian is lost.

I say good riddance to it, but then, I lived abroad as a child, and have a different relationship to identity than many Americans.

Now, consider this idea in the context of Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. Freud argued that there is a natural tension between the individual and civilization.

He said that the development of the ego in differentiating one's self from the world around us, toward an erotic interaction with the world in which we seek to maximize the pleasure principle, doing that which nature intended by doing what feels good, puts us in conflict with society. This is because we must suppress our desires in order to have a stable, working society. We cannot, for example, have sex with whomever we please, because it might not please them (or their mate.)

We sublimate our desires because we have a need for order and protection. Infants, after all, need the father's protection as much as the mother's nurturing, in the Freudian scheme of things.

Compare this to liberal theory: Humanity in the state of nature is free, but cannot exercise freedom because of all those other assholes trying to exercise their freedom on the food you wish to eat and the mate you wish to take. The only way to resolve this is with a social contract that reigns in the individual so that they may have freedom from the war of each against all, and to enforce that social contract, they need the leviathan, who has the power to enforce laws.

In short, Freud's theory is liberalism plus psychology, which gives us a way to look at the issue of identity within civilizations.

Most of the progress in civilization has consisted of a broadening definition of who belongs to our group. To a hunter-gatherer from 10,000 years ago, the notion that there could be 325 million people in the world would have been unimaginable, let along there being 325 million people in a tribe called "American." Rome became immensely powerful in its day in part because you didn't have to be from the seven hills of Rome to be a Roman citizen. Allowing those who joined them to become Roman soon meant that Rome had more people and larger armies than their enemies.

But progress can leave people feeling dislocated. Foreigners joining the tribe can make people wonder what defines the tribe. And if the new members are very different, people can suffer from unease. They can feel that the tribe is changing, and their own definition of the identity "American" (or, for that matter, Iraqi) is being left behind. Even well short of a violent reaction to ethnic panic, they may suffer a discontent with the changing face of their nation.

Of course, there are other aspects of the current discontent in our nation. Part of the reaction to immigrants is connected with the fact that white men in this country haven't seen real wages rise in real terms since about 1973. And those who have actually been getting the money -- the very rich -- have managed to avert a rebellion against themselves by blaming the "other" -- all those people who do not meet the definition of what it means to be American that so many people have in their minds.

The real reason real wages haven't risen has more to do with something I've written about before, the political movement to create inequality. The grievance is real, and seeing manufacturing go to other countries enforces the idea that globalism is the problem, but solving the problem of more and more money going to the people at the top of the income stream does not necessarily mean getting rid of globalization, and getting rid of it won't solve the problem of inequality. Getting real wages to rise is a separate question.

Both the economic grievance and the discontent over the changing identity of the nation are real problems, not just excuses for bigotry, as some liberals suppose. Granted, bigots may find common cause with people suffering from this discontent and grievance.

The line between discontent and prejudice can be hard to define. If you think you need to keep African Americans from voting to defend your identity, for example, you've crossed that line. My feeling is that both bigots and economic elites have been exploiting people with real problems to advance their agendas.

They still await real solutions.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

They want you cynical and passive

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, you can't say he didn't warn us. Donald Trump said this election was rigged, and he unexpectedly won it, so this begs the question, how did he and his party rig it?

Paul Krugman has published his own list of how the election was rigged in Trump's favor. He blamed voter suppression aimed a minority voters, Russian hackers transmitting stolen emails through Wikileaks, the FBI statements about Clinton's emails, news media's obsession with those emails, partisan media that spewed lies, and mainstream media that refused to report on policy.

What it all comes down to is this: The moneyed class who finance the Republican Party wants those who oppose them cynical, passive, and disenfranchised. They aim to disparage any leader their opposition might find to make them seem even worse than the sad parade of characters the Republican Party puts up. They've spent a generation investigating and demonizing the Clintons, never finding any criminal behavior, but subjecting them to a death of a thousand cuts, spreading the perception that there was some real wrongdoing because Republicans had made so many accusations.

How many Clinton supporters have justified their support only after first saying that she was a flawed candidate? And the real flaw was that so many accusations, never finding any wrongdoing, were leveled at her over the years.

Give him credit, Donald Trump was able to energize his base and get some low-propensity voters to the polls. But the big story is that Clinton's voters did not turn out in big enough numbers in the right places for her to win. It appears she will win the popular vote -- the 5th time in the last six elections Democrats have taken the popular vote -- but those voters were inefficiently located, so that she did not garner enough electoral college votes.

I don't think anyone thought Clinton had the charisma of President Obama, but she was running against a cartoonishly evil man who did his best to offend a wide variety of voters.

Yes, Trump energized his base, but there was more to it than that. His party has spent decades trying to make voters cynical and passive, so that they could be manipulated.

And it's working.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dylan's Nobel Prize and the nature of poetry

by John MacBeath Watkins

I'm glad to hear that Bob Dylan is happy to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. This is a major stick in the eye for the American poetry establishment, which it seem to me has destroyed poetry as a popular medium.

Dylan's lyrics were sometimes allusive, sometimes bitter, sometimes funny, but always aimed at a wide audience.

He revolutionized folk lyrics with Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Johnny's in the basementMixing up the medicineI'm on the pavementThinking about the governmentThe man in the trench coatBadge out, laid offSays he's got a bad coughWants to get it paid offLook out kidIt's somethin' you didGod knows whenBut you're doing it againYou better duck down the alleywayLookin' for a new friendThe man in the coonskin cap, in the big penWants eleven dollar bills but you only got ten

Motorpsycho Nightmare was excellent light verse, and All Along the Watchtower is strange and mysterious, a song that ends as if it were beginning:

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl 
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Those lyrics are old, from the 1960s, but Dylan has continued to work, striving to fulfill the role of the balladeer.

It's easy to forget that poetry was once a popular medium, not the cloistered, academic artifice that it had become by the time Dylan came on the scene. Casey at the Bat first ran in a newspaper. Can you imagine a newspaper running such a poem today?

Lyric poetry was all about performance. It was a way of making literature that could be memorized and repeated with great accuracy, because if you busted a rhyme or missed a beat the mistake was at once evident, and the meter and rhyme assisted memory. Modern poetry, which often abandoned meter and rhyme, is more dependent on the written word. A poet that the academics might have favored for the Nobel is W.S. Merwin, one of the best of the free-verse poets. But it is much harder to remember this...

From Our Shadows

This has caused poetry to lose much of its audience. Fortunately, there are better judges of poetry than academics, such as audiences for music or poetry slams.

I graduated from high school with credits from five different schools, because my family moved around. As a junior, it appeared I would be short of credits to graduate when my senior year ended as a result of my peregrinations. Fortunately, I wrote a sonnet that won me a scholarship to a createive writing class taught by three University of Washington professors at the Cornish School of Allied Arts, which I attended as one of about a dozen high school students the summer between my junior and senior year, gaining enough credits to graduate.

The most important thing they taught me was that I did not want to be like my professors. They seemed to spend all their time trying to get published in incestuous little poetry journals which had an audience consisting almost entirely of people trying to get published in them.

I wanted to write for a broader audience, so I studied journalism. Perhaps, if I'd learned to be a musician, I might have had another outlet for the kind of thing I liked to write.

This is the point of giving the Nobel to Dylan rather than someone like Merwin. The Nobel committee was trying to reward lyrics written for a large audience, to encourage a return to poetry that sings.

Poetry is now more audience-driven than it was when I studied with those three professors. I can only hope the trend continues.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump can only win if the election is rigged

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the Bizarro world that American politics has become, everything seems to the the opposite of what it is, at least in Donald Trump's mind.

Howard Dean says Trump might have been snorting coke, so Trump says Hillary should take a drug test.

Trump has a record of disrespect to women, so he attacks the Clintons for disrespect to women.

Trump can only win the election if the voting is rigged, so he claims his opponent can only win if the voting is rigged.

His chance of winning is now 1 in 8 by the most popular measures. If he should win, wouldn't people suspect something? Unless, of course, he had some way of immunizing himself.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Donald and the primal scream

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've just witnessed the ugliest presidential debate ever seen, at least until the next one. And the worst thing is, it's exactly what one would have expected of a debate in which Donald Trump participates. The reason it happened that way is that a large minority of voters agree with Trump's statement that "I am your voice," and want him to scream their rage at the world.

Trump got a big rise out of his supporters in the audience when he said that if he were in charge of the country's laws,. Hillary Clinton "would be in jail."

This was reminiscent of Chris Christie's performance at the Republican Convention, when he had the crowd chanting "lock her up!"

Now, Hillary Clinton has been investigated repeatedly by the Republican-controlled senate and by less political agencies such as the FBI. No one has found a legal case against her that would hold up in court, and given the effort that has gone into it, if she were really guilty of a crime, she would have seen the end of her career by now.

But "you would be in jail by now" is exactly the sort of thing Trump's supporters want to hear.

But why? Not because it will help get Trump elected. While the fever swamps of the far right seep out a miasma of allegations which, if true, would certainly merit prosecution, these are a symptom, not a cause, of the hatred Trump's followers have for her.

Hillary Clinton has spent her adult life fighting for social justice. She is that figure greatly derided on the right, a Social Justice Warrior, or SJW.

Wikipedia defines an SJW as "a pejorative term for an individual promoting socially progressive views; including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism, [citation needed] inclusiveness, and identity politics."

But who would oppose social justice? Those who perceive themselves as benefiting from social injustice. Not that they would put it that way, even to themselves.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, researched the sort of people who became Trump supporters, interviewing 60 people over a period of about five years. She wanted to research an area as far to the right as Berkeley is to the left, and she chose Louisiana as the place to do her research. (Nationally, 39% of whites voted for President Obama in 2012, in Louisiana it was 11%.)

Horchschild describes a world in which a "feels like it's true story" is "...a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need."

It's a world where people aren't doing well, and they want to know who's to blame. This makes them vulnerable to mountebanks peddling conspiracy theories. One example she gives is that 66% of Trump supporters think President Obama is a Muslim.

Horchschild appeals to me in part because her portrait of this group is sympathetic. She describes a "deep story," a sort of central myth, that describes how they feel.
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.
Of course this story isn't true in any conventional sense. But it feels true to the people she's talking about.

Now let me tell you another story about standing in line. I was born in 1952 in Louisiana, on an Air Force base. My parents, both from Oregon, experienced a certain amount of culture shock. One story my mother tells is about standing in line to get a Louisiana driver's licence in 1952 outside the base.

She joined the end of the line, behind a black man. As time passed, white people would join the line ahead of the black woman. At last, near closing time, only two people remained in line. The clerk looked around the black woman and said to my mother, "can I help you?"

"He's ahead of me," my mother said, indicating the black woman.

The clerk closed her station and left.

The only thing unusual about that story at that time and place was my mother's behavior, which was completely out of keeping with the norms of local white culture. You can see why people born into that culture would feel the world turned upside down, with a black man in the white house. A world that relied for so long on giving one group rights over another is not well constituted to deal with equality -- it feels all wrong.

The Trump campaign, like the tea party, is a backlash against our first African-American president. The same people who think Barack Obama got into Harvard because of minority preferences yearn for a time when all the preferences were for whites, because without those preferences, they feel their place in the world is precarious. The people they've looked down on all their lives could end up doing a lot better than them, and that's really not okay with them.

This is not a policy-driven group of voters, and they are not part of a coalition to accomplish some carefully thought-out agenda. These are desperate people who feel their world is not just threatened, but disappearing. They are angry, and they are less worried about whether the person who represents them is electable, than whether he will truly represent them, shout out their rage, give expression to their sense of grievance and their sense that their enemies are those who have made an alliance with those they fear will supplant them.

Donald Trump represents the primal scream of an injured group. He is an almost perfect symbol of white, male privilege, exactly what his followers wish they were. His privilege is what they wish they shared with him, his resentment against the allies of minority groups is what he has in common with them.

How is our country to deal with these people? By making them better off. White males working for wages haven't seen real incomes rise since the 1970s, as illustrated by this chart from the Washington Post's Wonkblog. 

I encourage you to follow the link and read the Wonkblog entry in full, because it has a lot of information on the economic basis for the Trump phenomenon.

The thing about this is, looking at the relative status of white men in relation to the other people in the Wonkblog chart shows that their relative position has been eroded, even as they continue to do better than other groups. This isn't about objective poverty, it is about positional status.

But it would certainly feel better to those experiencing this if their income were increasing, even if not as rapidly as other groups. The real problem here is that wages as a percentage of GDP have been declining for decades.

The top earners are getting their income based on things like stock options, not salaries or wages, and more and more money is going to the top. This is by design. The Republican agenda for the entire period of white male wage stagnation has been to lower taxes on the very rich and jigger the rules in their favor. Republican leadership has been getting the money to run campaigns from the people who benefit from these policies, but they've been getting their votes from people who have been hurt by them.

How is this sustainable? In the long run, it probably isn't. But it has gone on for a long time based on getting the people hurt by these policies to blame those they compete with directly, such as women and minority groups, rather than the people who have actually benefited from the policies.

Even as we've recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, those at the top of the income ladder have benefited more from the recovery. Only very recently have wages started to rise. Somehow, we've got to fix the imbalance that we see in the chart above, where less and less of the GDP goes to wage earners.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Grand reopening Oct. 1 at 2419 NW Market

The pteranodon is hung by the till with care...

We're definitely going to be open Oct. 1 at noon. The shelves are up, we're getting the books on them, and customers are trying to wade through a barricade of boxes insisting, against all evidence, that we are open. Once we're sure nobody will kill themselves tripping over boxes, and get the section signs in place and a number of other tasks, we will welcome all.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pictures of our new location

by John MacBeath Watkins

Here are some pix of our new, magnificent locations, which will give us twice the room we've had before:

This is what the outside looks like now. We need to figure out the signage.

This is the inside looking out.

And this is what it looks like from the doorway. So much room!