Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Nightmare of Clinton versus Trump: Hillary is not a shoo in

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?   
"The River" - Bruce Springsteen 

The failure of the economy to deliver real progress to middle-class and working-class Americans over the past 15 years is the most fundamental source of public anger and disaffection in the US.  BBC News 
Forty years of hurt has driven some people to answer Springsteen's question, that the American dream is something worse than a lie, and from that bleak answer they are looking for a political leader who echoes their anger. So my answer to presenters' questions whether Trump can win, is now and was before the primaries started: "Yes."  Michael Goldfarb - BBC

As of Today

In this the strangest of presidential election years, a poorly flushed Donald Trump pops up out of the backed up drains of the American psyche and the only thing standing between him and the Republican nomination is Senator Ted Cruz, who could pass as Boris Karloff's baby brother. 

Republican debate has now moved from the size of Mr Trump's penis to whether the evangelical Mr Cruz sleeps around. And this, far from hurting Trump, is fattening his lead in the polls
Mr Trump has succeeded in breaking down the boundaries of political debate. He has drained all civility from politics and licensed a discourse that elides bigotry with patriotism, is derisive of women, scornful of minorities and permissive of racism. The Republican primaries have become a contest in which it is acceptable to throw a punch at those who happen to disagree, to threaten to muzzle the freedom of the press and to make jokes about those with disabilities. Mr Trump has tossed overboard any idea that politics and public service can serve a moral purpose. Philip Stephens - Financial Times
If The Donald wins the nomination, which as of today, seems probable, he will, unless a kind providence intervenes, end up facing the most soiled politician in America... except for her husband, of course: Hillary Clinton.

For no one, not even Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, has objectively done more to turn Bruce Springsteen's dream into a lie than the Clintons.

Here is how Thomas Frank lays it out:

Ukraine is considered the most corrupt nation in Europe

After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the corporate scandals of the Enron period, and the collapse of the real estate racket, our view of the prosperous Nineties has changed quite a bit. Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton’s administration that deregulated derivatives, that deregulated telecom, and that put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave. He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious. Thomas Frank - Salon


The Skinny
Assuming, as now appears most likely, that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and that either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becomes the Republican nominee, the general-election ballot is set to feature a choice between two candidates more negatively viewed than any major-party nominee in the history of polling. Ruth Marcus - Washington Post
The only thing standing between such a nightmare choice for American voters is Bernie Sanders.

No two human beings could be more different than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and the most fundamental difference between them is that Trump is a very bad man and Bernie is a very good man,

However what they both have in common is that their campaigns are both propelled by the passionate anger that so many Americans feel at the failure of the "American Dream" and their mounting distrust of the "Establishment", Wall Street, the media and of course the government itself.

Hillary Clinton's basic problem is that no one incarnates that Establishment so much as she does.

If it's Hillary versus Trump, America and a watching world will be treated to probably the dirtiest, most depressing campaign imaginable and with the probable, massive abstention of grossed out voters of both the left and traditional conservatives too and therefore with a result infinitely more unpredictable than anyone can now imagine.

However if Bernie Sanders manages to pull off an upset and the race is between him and Trump, the world will be treated to an all-American, Hollywood-esque spectacle of good versus evil, Batman pitted against The Joker, Saint George kicking the dragon's ass.

Not only would it change America and the world, it would be tremendous fun.


Probably the most fascinating, indeed endearing thing about the USA is the "let it all hang out" transparency of such a huge beast. What is missing today, unfortunately, is someone like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis or Norman Mailer to write about all of this. DS

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Republican Primaries: The Voyage from Eisenhower to Trump

"Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military violence, they for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas of their free-born ancestors."  Edward Gibbon, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"

I think people are making a mistake if they treat the Republican primaries as serious politics. They obviously aren't, but at the same time it seems to me that they are a more than serious symptom of levels of unhappiness, frustration and confusion among the citizenry that border and frequently cross the border of collective insanity.

Under Richard Nixon's guidance the Republican party executed the "Southern Strategy" and took know-nothing, racist-populist America to its bosom and began to win majorities sufficient to implement policies that have led that same voter base of know-nothing, racist-populist Americans to even greater degradation.

Now the Republicans are trapped in a nut house of their own creation.

Just as an exercise of political science fiction, try to imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower in the midst of these Republican primaries, try to imagine him on Fox news. 


Impossible, right?

When I was a boy the Republicans that lived around me were mostly pallid, though vigorous, high church Episcopalians, solid, smug types who struggled mightily with golf and sedately clipped stock coupons. As to the younger ones, crew cuts and white bucks, energetically embalmed in stifling, Pat Booney squareness come immediately to mind.

I cannot think of a better bellwether of America's malaise then that of the party of the formerly priggish, self-contented, self-righteous, self-satisfied, conventional and sensible becoming the party of the paranoiac, the exasperated and the kooky

A century from now, the years between Eisenhower's and today's Republican party will seem a brief interlude and I'm sure that Chinese historians will puzzle over the swift deterioration of America and its institutions in that time frame.

I am neither Chinese nor a historian and I am puzzled as hell. I was a kid when Ike was president and I am an old man now... Blessed with an extremely good memory, I have trouble associating the America I was born into and the America that withers before my eyes today, as if it were being struck down by a wasting disease.

I would think it important to separate this new "conservatism" from the traditional variety. Remember the American vice is to use language to hide meaning. 

One of the most disturbing things about America is the incoherence of American language, the endless euphemism-laden double talk. American terminology is confusing and perhaps the confusion is deliberate.

For example, everywhere but in the USA, “red” is the color of the left, but in America, the term, “red state”, means one that is right-wing and “blue”, which is a color that in most countries is associated with the right, to ultra-right, in the US is used to label what Americans call “liberal”, which in the USA means the left, but which everywhere else is used to label the economic right-wing… These examples are just the tip of a semantic iceberg.

This brings us to the word, “conservative”.

The new conservative is, in plain English, in fact, a neo-fascist and the personality traits we observe on the American right these days are those of a fascist.

What is the difference?

If a person is born into a well to do, stable family, where the parents respect and perhaps even love each other and treat the child kindly and his/her exposure to traditional religion is benign. He/she is likely to accept the family’s traditions and values unquestioningly.

From that point his/her attitude will be one of prudence, of not spoiling  (for him/her and his/her family) a good thing… and his/her attitude toward the less fortunate than himself/herself may even be benevolent and paternalistic and be expressed in contributions to charity and other good works.

What we are seeing in the Republicans now, has little or nothing to do with that kind of conservatism. We are looking at exasperated, paranoiac, xenophobic, racist nastiness, in short a fascistic mentality of crippled personalities in reaction to changing mores and a failing economy.

All the unhappiness and frustration are searching for moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are what allow people to kill each other... if only in their imagination. All this hateful speech and dippy ideas are pregnant with death, they are about to give birth to a monster, but the Republicans are only the midwives... They are helpless in the face of the spirits they have invoked from the country's inner darkness. It is that darkness not any individual like Trump that should worry us, something very, very nasty is cooking in it. DS

Monday, February 29, 2016

Is Trump really running for POTUS, or is he just "making a deal"?

"My party has gone bat shit crazy"
Sen. Lindsey Graham R-SC

How did he survive all this?... Hint: watch what happens next


What makes Donny run? 

He is known far and wide as a "deal-maker". 

To most American ears this term "deal-maker" is both familiar and at the same time a bit exotic. In the USA 90+% of Americans go innocently through life paying the price marked on the product they are buying or "shopping around" for a better price and if the price seems correct, this is considered a "good deal". However if you had spent some time haggling over every tomato you bought in the market places of countries like India or Morocco, or visited other cities famous for their "bazaar mentality" where you must even bargain with a pharmacist for the price of a tube of toothpaste, with "and if I buy two?" or "if I pay in dollars?",   you would have had to have learned how to make real deals or you would have been quickly skinned alive even by the street urchins, 

We might say that Donald Trump could hold his own in some of those places, but he wouldn't stand out all that much.

He even wrote a famous book about it, "The Art of the Deal".

Here is a review of that book, from the New York Times, by one of America's most prestigious literary critics:
He is proud to be at play in the fields of American free enterprise, looking for every loophole in the law and edge on his competitors he can possibly get.(...) He sounds disingenuous when he asserts that he never harassed the tenants of 100 Central Park South, but merely wanted to help the downtrodden when he threatened to move homeless people into the building's empty apartments. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - NYT review of "The Art of the Deal"
Let Donald himself explain how it is done, which he did very thoroughly in his book:
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.” (...) “The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”(...) “good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”(...) The point is that you can't be too greedy.(...) “I discovered, for the first time but not the last, that politicians don’t care too much what things cost. It’s not their money"(emphasis mine) Donald Trump - Quotes from "The Art of the Deal"
Those are all quotes from his best selling book for the 1980s, The Republican Party are living those quotes in their own flesh at the moment.
U.S. Republicans in Washington are coming to grips with what many of them not long ago considered an unimaginable reality: Donald Trump is likely to be their presidential nominee and standard-bearer.(...) Trump has vowed to scrap U.S. trade deals, slap a tariff on imported goods and raise taxes on hedge-fund managers, as well as retain some sort of mandate to purchase health insurance - clashing with the free-market principles that have long underpinned Republican economic policy. Some Republicans in Congress, such as (...) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said a Trump nomination would do enormous damage to the party and predicted a heavy election defeat in November to the eventual Democratic nominee. "I am like on the team that bought a ticket on the Titanic after we saw the movie,” said Graham, contending that Trump would be “slaughtered” in the general election. Money Market
Very big money is beginning to react:
A top adviser to the network of donors backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch is joining Republican Marco Rubio‘s presidential campaign, as the Florida senator seeks to rally establishment support.(...)The Kochs, who preside over a network of donors who plan to spend roughly $750 million influencing 2016 races, have said they don’t necessarily plan to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary race(...)a growing question for the Kochs is whether they will intervene to bolster the campaign of a Trump alternative. Mr. Rubio has addressed the network on several occasions. Wall Street Journal
Panic is setting in and Trump is ready and waiting for it.
The specter of Donald Trump as an elected nominee for president pushed his Republican opponents to desperate measures on Sunday, two days before a dozen states could vote to give the billionaire a huge lead in the 2016 contest.(...) Both Kasich and Rubio – who trails Trump in his Florida home – suggested their campaigns were ready for a brokered Republican convention in July, in order to keep the delegates Trump needs out of his hands. But that scenario would require a wholesale revolt against Trump by the Republican party, and the billionaire repeated hints that he is prepared to break his pledge not to run a third-party campaign.“If they have a problem, I’m going to have a big problem with that,” Trump said. “If they want to play that game, I can play it a lot better than they can.” (emphasis mineThe Guardian
Lets look at what's on the table.

The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress... for the moment, and a Supreme Court that could mark the ideological slant for a generation is up for grabs.

If Trump runs as either the Republican candidate or as an independent, all poll projections predict an Armageddon for the Republicans, with not only the loss of the presidency, but loss of majorities in both house of Congress, perhaps even in state houses too.

Has the moment finally come for doing a "deal"?

It seems to me that Donald Trump is now holding the family jewels of some of the most powerful people in the world in his warm hand and is squeezing them rather hard. We are talking about a political party that now controls both houses of Congress and represents the interests of the top 0.01% of the American economy. What laws could they write for him (which I'm sure Obama, as a patriot, would be quick to sign)? Or how much would, say the Koch brothers, or all the conservative super-PACs, be willing to cough up to kiss him goodbye

The shape of a deal?

What are the Republicans still in a position to offer Donald Trump between now and the convention, something which would be more attractive for him than losing the presidential race by a historic margin and destroying the Republican Party in the process... in which case they could give him nothing?

To answer that question we would have to know things that, for the moment, only Trump himself and possibly his lawyers, accountants and tax "planners" know, but which might become public (IRS-FBI) knowledge in a foreseeable future?

Stay tuned. DS

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Oil, Banks and Bonds and the Majestic Flight of the Oozlum Bird

If you don't know him already, let me introduce you to the Oozlum Bird, probably the most useful metaphor possible for describing the world's economic/political situation today.
The oozlum bird, also spelt ouzelum, is a legendary creature found in Australian and British folk tales and legends. Some versions have it that, when startled, the bird will take off and fly around in ever-decreasing circles until it manages to fly up itself, disappearing completely, which adds to its rarity.(...) A variant of the oozlum, possibly a mutation, is the weejy weejy bird, which has only one wing which causes it to fly in tighter, faster, smaller circles, until it disappears up its own fundament. Wikipedia
Where are we now in in the Oozlum's flight plan?
Received wisdom has been upended. The fall from $100 a barrel in 2014 should have seen consuming nations throwing their hats in the air. Not a bit of it. Europe, beset by stagnation and overwhelmed by refugees, has other things on its mind. The US, now producer as much as consumer, is stuck with anaemic growth. China, the world’s thirstiest economy, has its own challenges. Global equity markets have tumbled in tandem with the oil price. Philip Stephens - Financial Times
Lets bring that up a bit closer, make it "real".
As the economy struggled to take off in the years after the financial crisis, Americans had at least one shining source of optimism: a booming stock market that not only helped rebuild shattered 401k plans, but suggested better times to come.(...) that silver lining is being threatened. The stock market is lurching downward after a flat 2015, and large banks are casting increasingly gloomy predictions about returns in the years to come. Some older workers say they’re now planning to push back retirement dates, bracing for a protracted bear market that shrinks their nest egg.  (...) wages are flat and housing prices are only beginning to recover. (...)Bond yields are at basement-lows and savings accounts offer only fractional interest rates.     Washington Post
Closer yet:
Older Americans are burdened with unprecedented debt loads as more and more baby boomers enter what are meant to be their retirement years owing far more on their houses, cars and even college loans than previous generations. The average 65-year-old borrower has 47% more mortgage debt and 29% more auto debt than 65-year-olds had in 2003, after adjusting for inflation, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released Friday. Wall Street Journal
Of course in a globalized economy, what goes around, comes around.

Today's financial crisis, as in any oozlum-ish situation, has innumerable factors all of which play off each other in endless and unpredictable ways. One of the most ominous factors is the deteriorating geopolitical situation's effect on the price of oil and vice-versa; and the effect crashing oil prices have on the health of banks and investment and retirement funds. 

Two years ago activists were pressuring investment funds etc, to divest from oil company shares. Most fund managers, even those most sympathetic to their pleas, found this nearly or totally impossible.
If you have your 401(k) or IRA invested in a diversified U.S. stock fund, there’s a good chance Exxon Mobil and Chevron  are among your biggest individual stocks holdings. Those two oil giants alone represent 4% of the S&P 500 index, a standard market benchmark. Most professional fund managers think they simply have to hold energy stocks. Time Magazine (Sept 2014)
This reminds me somehow of the idea most people had before the crash of 2008, that real estate value was stable, that you could "bank on it", that prices would always go up, or at least never go down... and they woke up to discover that the house they lived in, their home, was worth much, much less than the mortgage debt they had contracted on it. And of course those investors holding mortgage backed securities (MBS) discovered that they were worthless. 

We might call the crash of 2008 "Oozlum - I"

Knowing what an ironclad, "good as gold" storehouse of value oil has been for many years and extrapolating from the old Time article, the image of another punctured bubble arises and it would be essential to quickly know the exposure to oil shares of any bank or fund where your savings are.
RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) has advised clients to brace for a “cataclysmic year” and a global deflationary crisis, warning that major stock markets could fall by a fifth and oil may plummet to $16 a barrel. The bank’s credit team said markets are flashing stress alerts akin to the turbulent months before the Lehman crisis in 2008. “Sell everything except high quality bonds. This is about return of capital, not return on capital. In a crowded hall, exit doors are small,” it said in a client note.(...) "All these people who are ‘long’ oil and mining companies thinking that the dividends are safe are going to discover that they’re not at all safe,” he said. (emphasis mine Telegraph
How to proceed in the age of "Oozlum - II"?

One of the advantages of growing older is to still possess the living oral history of ones parents and grandparent's generations, which can often take you back well over a hundred years. 

If like me, you are an American in your seventies, one, who as a child liked to listen to older people spin yarns, you may have heard many vivid stories about the bubble that led up to the crash of 1929 from people whose entire lives were marked by it and its aftermath. 

Just on example from my family lore would be a relative who went from running a steel mill in '29 to selling shirts from door to door two years later and going to markets at closing time to buy cheap, unsold, vegetables. I heard endless stories like that as a boy. The idea that Wall Street was either corrupt or strictly for insiders was common to nearly everyone who lived through the depression,

The bottom line would be that my parent's and grandparent's generation would never dream of investing in stocks; and the only bonds they would buy would be US Savings Bonds... and that was good enough in the post war boom years of the 50s and 60s. 

It is when middle class prosperity began to stutter and splutter in the 1970, and hard work and earnest saving became not enough to fully participate in the globalized cornucopia of consumerism: it was then that "simple folk" were lured back into speculation.

And now as we await the Oozlum's last plunge.
Just like we have seen so far – periodic inexplicable and what the heck moments as markets everywhere hunt for causes to explain away something very inconvenient. That the game has changed for financial markets – that there is no going back to the boom times – and that the world going forward is a much more boring, and much less finance friendly place, than the markets want to admit. Most of all to themselves. Mark Blyth - The Guardian
What to do? Where to go from here? Personally, I can't think of anything better than the video below. DS



Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Best Reason for Supporting Bernie Sanders

MIT Technology Review
“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.”
"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
 Warren Buffet
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
What is the best reason for supporting Bernie Sanders?

How about: "the future of humanity is at stake"?

Exaggeration? Not really.

To get right to the point: in at most a generation, or perhaps much sooner, science, in the form of robotics and Artificial Intelligence, will have led humanity to a fork in the road. A clear choice between a dream utopia and utter dystopia lies before us... it reads like science fiction, but it isn't.

One path we could take holds the possibility of leading us to an amazing and paradisaical utopia of infinite possibilities for a full and enriched quality of life, an end to poverty and even alienation... for everyone... everywhere.

And the other path - the one we are traveling today - would eventually lead the immense majority of humanity, including most of today's middle class Americans, to live in conditions that would make the legendary slums of present day Calcutta look like Disneyland by comparison.

Calcutta today.- Your town tomorrow?
How can we take the right path?

The question is: what ideas and what political mobilization will best make sure that humanity takes the path of the greatest good for the greatest number, instead of the path that will lead to unimaginable wealth and power for a tiny minority and utter misery and a "life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"  for 99% of humanity.

Here is how the situation stands now, with the present technology... in the opinion of none other than Martin Wolf, someone who nobody could consider "radical". Here the prestigious, chief economist of The Financial Times says.
(T)here is anxiety over rising inequality and economic insecurity. Perhaps the most fundamental cause is a growing sense that elites are corrupt, complacent and incompetent.  Martin Wolf - Financial Times
And remember, that is with present technology.

Now meet Hod Lipson:
Hod Lipson (born 1967 in Haifa, Israel) is an American robotics engineer. He is the director of Cornell University's Creative Machines Lab (CCML), formerly known as Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL), at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Lipson's work focuses on evolutionary robotics, design automation, rapid prototyping, artificial life, and creating machines that can demonstrate some aspects of human creativity. His publications have been cited close to 10,000 times, and he has an h-index of 50, as of November 8, 2015. Wikipedia
Professor Lipson is very worried.
Hod Lipson’s vision of the future is one in which machines and software possess abilities that were unthinkable until recently. But he has begun worrying about something else that would have been unimaginable to him a few years ago. Could the rapid advances in automation and digital technology provoke social upheaval by eliminating the livelihoods of many people, even as they produce great wealth for others? (...)  Are we at the beginning of an economic transformation that is unique in history, wonderful for what it could do in bringing us better medicine, services, and products, but devastating for those not in a position to reap the financial benefits? Will robots and software replace most human workers?(...) A prevailing view among economists is that many people simply don’t have the training and education required for the increasing number of well-paying jobs requiring sophisticated technology skills. At the same time, software and digital technologies have displaced many types of jobs involving routine tasks such as those in accounting, payroll, and clerical work, forcing many of those workers to take more poorly paid positions or simply abandon the workforce. Add to that the increasing automation of manufacturing, which has eliminated many middle-class jobs over the past decades, and you begin to see why much of the workforce is feeling squeezed.(...) Whoever owns the capital will benefit as robots and AI inevitably replace many jobs. If the rewards of new technologies go largely to the very richest, as has been the trend in recent decades, then dystopian visions could become reality. (emphasis mine) - Who will own the Robots - MIT Technology Review
Newslinks Thought for the Day: If the word "democracy" has its origins in the Greek words demos, meaning "people," and kratia, meaning "power"; then what happens to democracy, when the demos don't "add value"?... "Not adding value" being a bland technicism that means people are not needed for much of anything anymore. Therefore power-less?
Some people and organizations who are paid to think are busy thinking about all this. One of them is  the Brookings Institute.

This is how Wikipedia describes them:
The Brookings Institution is an American think tank based on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., USA. One of Washington's oldest think tanks, Brookings conducts research and education in the social sciences, primarily in economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, and global economy and development. In the University of Pennsylvania's 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Report, Brookings is ranked the most influential think tank in the world
    This is how they see the problem and possible practical solutions to it.
    While emerging technologies can improve the speed, quality, and cost of available goods and services, they may also displace large numbers of workers. This possibility challenges the traditional benefits model of tying health care and retirement savings to jobs. In an economy that employs dramatically fewer workers, we need to think about how to deliver benefits to displaced workers.
    Darrell M. West proposes striking economic changes in order to restructure how our society delivers on the social contract, such as:
    • Separating the dispersion of health care, disability, and pension benefits outside of employment, offering workers with limited skills social benefits on a universal basis.
    • Mandating a basic income guarantee for a reasonable standard of living to combat persistent unemployment or underemployment posed by the automation economy.
    • Revamping the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to allow the benefit to support households in the grips of high unemployment.
    • Providing activity accounts for lifetime learning and job retraining to motivate the workforce to keep pace with innovation.
    • Offering incentives for volunteerism—beneficial for many people who in the future may not be able to provide for their families through regular employment but may still wish enrich their communities.
    • Encouraging corporate profit sharing to spread the benefits of improved productivity to the broader workforce.
    • Reforming the education curriculum to reflect the high premium STEM skills will offer employees in the future.
    • Expanding arts and culture for leisure time, ensuring that reduction in work will not eliminate chances for cultural pursuits.
    "There needs to be ways for people to live fulfilling lives even if society needs relatively few workers," West writes. Taking steps now in anticipation of the exciting new future that awaits will help people adapt to new economic realities.(emphasis mine"What happens if robots take the jobs?" - Darrell M. West
    If West's agenda could be realized, what might it look like?

     Going back to the piece from MIT:
    Software and digital technologies have displaced many types of jobs involving routine tasks such as those in accounting, payroll, and clerical work, forcing many of those workers to take more poorly paid positions or simply abandon the workforce.
    The disappearance of paper pushing jobs doesn't have to be a tragedy. Read this from the philosopher, Erich Fromm:
    Marx did not foresee the extent to which alienation was to become the fate of the vast majority of people, especially of the ever increasing segment of the population which manipulate symbols and men, rather than machines. If anything, the clerk, the salesman, the executive, are even more alienated today than the skilled manual worker. The latter's functioning still depends on the expression of certain personal qualities like skill, reliability, etc., and he is not forced to sell his "personality," his smile, his opinions in the bargain; the symbol manipulators are hired not only for their skill, but for all those personality qualities which make them "attractive personality packages," easy to handle and to manipulate.  Erich Fromm
    So if, thanks to AI and robots, it is no longer possible to "earn" a living, but the rights to "life itself, + liberty + the pursuit of happiness", are still maintained, then offering West's menu of "Incentives for volunteerism—beneficial for many people who in the future may not be able to provide for their families through regular employment but may still wish enrich their communities." or "Expanding arts and culture for leisure time, ensuring that reduction in work will not eliminate chances for cultural pursuits.", while making sure everyone, everywhere, has decent health care, education etc, would,  in short, mean a recipe for heaven on earth.

    Of course the money for all of this would have to come from taxing the only ones who would still have any money... the one-percent.

    Now stop for a moment and think a bit... Can you imagine the "one-percent" buying into any of Darell West's agenda? For example: the Koch brothers... or Sheldon Adelson or the right-wing think tanks, like The Heritage Foundation The American Enterprise Institute, Standford's Hoover Institution, etc, etc,etc, all the "greed is good" crowd, Ayn Rand's Objectivists, or any of their political errand boys: Cruz, Trump, Christie, Rubio, Bush... and the endless lobbyists and their hordes of parasitical congress-persons and assorted senators or governors. Can you imagine them swallowing West's program without the assistance of a nationwide, massive, political, "Great Awakening", to "help" them gag it down.

    Facing such hard, ruthless, well-funded and organized opposition, those who call themselves "realists", those possibilists said to "living in the real-world"; in other words, those settling for small "realistic", incremental gains, would be putty in the hands, of such brutal opponents .

    It will be a long hard fight and very different from the old-fashioned labor battles... because with robots doing everything and the one-percent owning the robots... who could go on strike? In the meantime, until all the robots arrive, the one-percent is moving more and more manufacturing to China: a one-party dictatorship where strikes are illegal.

    The fight

    Below I have included a classic political fight song, "Which Side Are You On?", sung by the iconic folk singer, Pete Seeger, in social-democratic Sweden, in the no less iconic year, 1968. It's about a coal miner's strike in Kentucky.... It is a wonderful song, wonderfully sung, but coal's going out these days and so are strikes... so only the title makes much sense today... and one single phrase in the song... which sums up why I believe that anyone who thinks that Darell M. West's agenda is worth fighting for, should support Bernie Sanders.



    The single phrase?

    You guessed it!

    It's,  "Us workers haven't got a chance, unless we organize."

    Recite that as a liberating mantra.

    This brings us to Bernie
    When Sanders says — as he does in every speech — that he’s seeking to build “a revolution,” that’s not just rhetoric. What Sanders understands in his bones is that every period of progressive reform in U.S. history has come as a result of massive street heat, of energized movements that push policymaking elites to the left. Abolitionists pressured the Lincoln Republicans toward a policy of emancipation. Militant workers and a socialist left, whose general strikes shut down several major cities in 1934, prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats to legalize collective bargaining and create Social Security in 1935. The civil rights movement enabled the Kennedy-Johnson Democrats to pass the landmark legislation of the ’60s. Progressive reform doesn’t happen absent a large and vibrant left. Harold Meyerson - Washington Post
    Now Robert Reich, the brilliant Atom Ant of left-wing, economists and agitators, describes how it was done before and how it could be done again.
    Teddy Roosevelt got a progressive income tax, limits on corporate campaign contributions, regulation of foods and drugs, and the dissolution of giant trusts – not because he was a great dealmaker but because he added fuel to growing public demands for such changes.(...) "The real world we’re living in” right now won’t allow fundamental change of the sort we need. It takes a movement. Such a movement is at the heart of the Sanders campaign. The passion that’s fueling it isn’t really about Bernie Sanders. Had Elizabeth Warren run, the same passion would be there for her. It’s about standing up to the moneyed interests and restoring our democracy. It Takes a Movement, Like the One at the Heart of Bernie Sanders’ Campaign, to Change the World -  Robert Reich 
    Reich makes a very, very important point... This is not really about Bernie himself, it is about the people themselves, the Demos and their Kratia.  

    Bernie Sanders is simply the only one who has had the guts to rise to the occasion. 

    The only "mouse" brave enough to volunteer to "bell the cat"...

    Bernie Sanders + enough voters = Mighty Mouse

    And finally Bernie speaks for himself:
    As he looked ahead to carrying on the fight in New Hampshire, he used many of his favorite lines. “It is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.” “We do not represent the interests of the billionaire class, Wall Street, or corporate America. We don’t want their money.” “The American people are saying no to a rigged economy.” “We are going to create an economy that works for working families, not just the billionaire class.” - Bernie Sanders Just Changed the Democratic Party - The New Yorker
    You could say it louder, but it would be hard to say it more clearly. 

    Moral of the story: It has happened before and it can happen again and God help us if it doesn't. DS


    PS: Here is the Brookings document in full to download:

    http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/10/26-robots-emerging-technologies-public-policy-west/robotwork.pdf 

    Monday, January 18, 2016

    Reliving the tragic 1930s... this time as farce


    "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." Antonio Gramsci

    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 
     
    Most newsaholics tend to limit their reading to people they agree with... I think that is a big mistake, especially for anyone who is trying to make a serious analysis of reality. Why? Because it's always interesting, instructive... and creatively disturbing when you find that someone you detest is saying something that makes a lot of sense.

    For example, an arch-villain of any progressive citizen, Charles Koch, (yes one of the brothers who are busy corrupting the entire US democracy in order to discredit climate science), is here found talking much sense about the "War on Terror":
    “We have been doing this for a dozen years. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. Has that made us safer? Has that made the world safer? It seems like we’re more worried about it now than we were then, so we need to examine these strategies.” (...) “I’ve studied revolutionaries a lot,” he says. “Mao said that the people are the sea in which the revolutionary swims. Not that we don’t need to defend ourselves and have better intelligence and all that, but how do we create an unfriendly sea for the terrorists in the Muslim communities? We haven’t done a good job of that.” With about 1.6bn Muslims worldwide “in country after country. What,” he asks, “are we going to do: go bomb each one of them?". Lunch with Charles Koch - Financial Times
    Koch quotes Chairman Mao! How is that for chutzpah?

    In an odd sort of way Koch practices what he preaches; for example by trying to create an "unfriendly sea" for ecologists and climate scientists in America's mainstream media and the US Congress. Having said that, what he affirms in the quote above is one of the most sensible thing that I can remember having read about America's "War on Terror". It will be interesting to see how the Koch brothers, with all their oil interests, will react if Muslim-baiter, Donald Trump, is finally the Republican nominee.

    ...Morbid symptoms appear

    There are reputable analysts who today are predicting a worse recession than 2008.

    For example: if  Lehman Brothers' collapse  in 2008 was 1929's tragedy repeated as farce, where we are moving right now could be seen as a priapistic version of the same thing.  
    Three of the biggest US banks revealed the damage wrought by a plunging oil price this week, disclosing big jumps in costs for bad energy loans and fears of contagion in other portfolios. Financial Times

    Cleaning up the aftermath of financial mistakes — a depressingly familiar experience — is just a part of the challenge the world confronts. Equally important is finding a powerful new engine of demand as old ones splutter and die. It is not at all obvious where this is to be found. But the rest of the world is hoping, probably over-optimistically, that the US will provide what it seeks. Unfortunately, it will not do so.  Martin Wolf - Financial Times
    We seem to have come to a dead end.
    There has always been a tension at the heart of capitalism. (...) Its self-regulating properties, contrary to the efforts of generations of economists trying to prove otherwise, are weak.(...) A low oil price historically presages economic good times. Instead, the markets are panicking. They are panicking because what is driving the lower oil price is global disorder, which capitalism is powerless to correct. Indeed, it is capitalism running amok that is one of the reasons for the disorder. Profits as a share of national income in Britain and the US touch all-time highs; wages touch an all-time low as the power of organized labor diminishes and the gig economy of short-term contracts takes hold.(...) All this requires a new generation of political leaders prepared to throw off the categories in which thinking has been cast since 1980(...).  Will Hutton - The Guardian

    The Unborn

    Another commentator who is often worth reading, despite being even further to the right than the Koch brothers is Pat Buchanan. He is a paleolithic-conservative, pre-conciliar Catholic and the adviser behind Nixon's "Southern Strategy", which has probably been the most noxiously successful and sinister political ploy since the disenfranchisement of African-Americans ending Reconstruction.

    To give you an idea of how far to the right Buchanan is, none other than Donald Trump (way back in the 1990s) considered him a "Nazi-whacko".

    This is how Pat Buchanan sums up the present situation:
    Everyone sees clearly now the de-industrialization of America, the cost in blood and treasure from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants. (...) (W)hen you see Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and Trump and Ted Cruz with a majority of Republican voters. Not to put too fine a point on it, the revolution is at hand. Pat Buchanan - Washington Post
    What is Trump's reaction to Pat Buchanan in 2016?
    Donald J. Trump 
    @realDonaldTrump
    Pat Buchanan gave a fantastic interview this morning on @CNN - way to go Pat, way ahead of your time!

    How is that for chutzpah?

    What is interesting for me in the Buchanan quote above is that he groups both Sanders and Trump as "revolutionaries". The old is dying and the new is yet unborn.

    Lets hear from Bernie:
    “If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now,” Sanders said in a television interview in June 2007. But in his current campaign for president, Sanders has been unequivocally in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he has spoken passionately on protecting families from deportation. Many immigration activists note that Sanders’ plan is more detailed than Hillary Clinton’s. Time Magazine
    What we see here from Sanders is nuance: recognizing that massive third world immigration is a huge problem for underpaid American workers and at the same time compassion and practical solutions for the problems of the immigrants already in the USA, who are also helpless, innocent, victims of the globalization process.

    And now here's Trump's official position on immigration:
    When politicians talk about “immigration reform” they mean: amnesty, cheap labor and open borders. The Schumer-Rubio immigration bill was nothing more than a giveaway to the corporate patrons who run both parties. Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first – not wealthy globetrotting donors. We are the only country in the world whose immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own. Donald Trump's official webpage
    Notice all the dog-whistle words: "amnesty", "cheap labor", "wealthy globetrotting donors" ("rootless cosmopolitans"?), "needs of other nations". That vocabulary and not the actual content is the real message

    Now Sanders on China:
    One of Bernie’s key goals is to end our disastrous trade policies with China which force American workers to compete against low-wage labor, which serves largely to benefit already wealthy corporations. Feel the Bern
    Now Trump:
    We have been too afraid to protect and advance American interests and to challenge China to live up to its obligations. We need smart negotiators who will serve the interests of American workers – not Wall Street insiders that want to move U.S. manufacturing and investment offshore. Donald Trump's official webpage
     Again, notice the word choice: "afraid",  "protect", "challenge", "live up to", "smart", "insiders", "offshore", etc.

    Repetition?

    At the top of the page I put: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce"  and "The old is dying and the new cannot be born". Those two quotes could well define the historical period we live in.
    Where Buchanan may be on to something is in calling both Trump and Sanders "revolutionaries"; revolutionaries in the same sense that both Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt were revolutionaries in the context of the 1930s,.

    FDR changed the classic capitalism practiced by  the Republicans beyond recognition and saved America from the sort of turbulence that  tore Europe apart.

    Hitler, on the other hand rode that turbulence to power and literally destroyed Germany and most of Europe with it.

    Here is a definition of Hitler's method of taking power, from Adam Gopnik's New Yorker  piece on the new edition of Mein KampfSee if you can observe a formula that is still in use:
    "The faith in a strong man; the love of the exceptional character of one nation above all others; the selection of a helpless group to be hated, who can be blamed for feelings of national humiliation. He didn’t invent these arguments. He adapted them" 
    Sound familiar? It should, it is being used every day and not just by Donald Trump, even nominal liberals have invoked "American exceptionalism" in recent memory to justify interfering in the internal affairs of other countries or even voting in favor of "wars of choice".

    Rhyme or farce?

    Back in the 1930s the Republican party's laissez faire, hands off, version of capitalism was finished (for the moment). The choice of a way forward then was between Hitler/Mussolini, Joseph Stalin... or FDR.

    Now the Nazis and the fascisti are long gone and Stalin's Marxist-Leninism is on the ash heap.

    Today the categories of "ists" and "isms" are different:  Now Russia's ruling ideology is Putinist-Hands-in-the-cookie-jar-ism, while China is following Friedmanist-Leninism and apparently is entering into some kind of a shitstorm with it.

    Meanwhile the United States and all who sail in her seem to be experiencing a terminal crisis in the economic policies that have been in favor since the 1980s, which we might call Reaganist-Thatcherism or Clintonist-Blairist-Bushism.

    However, this not the 1930s, Pope Francis is not Pius XII, Stalin is gone, with no one to follow. Donald Trump is a Monty Python parody of Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, Hillary Clinton is not Herbert Hoover and Bernie Sanders is not (yet) Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    But, as Mark Twain said,"History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes". This is the interregnum that Gramsci spoke of, with all its morbid symptoms, the old is dying... and the new, whatever that might be... Can it be born? DS


    Thursday, December 31, 2015

    2016: Trump, meths and heroin: the white man's burden

    If World War Three doesn't break out in the Middle East (a big if), 2016 may well feature the increasingly grotesque and tragicomic banality of American life.

    Not long ago in these pages, I wrote about the massive addiction of white Americans with only a high school diploma or less to the stimulant, methamphetamine.

    Now this same demographic group appears to be "hooked" on Donald Trump, who has a real chance of becoming the next POTUS.


    Washington Post

    Moving up the social feeding chain, now it seems that heroin addiction is soaring among affluent, suburban, young white people,
    When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white. New York Times
    Since Heroin is no longer about black people in the inner city ghettos, this is leading to a growing clamor for a kinder, gentler, war on drugs.

    The affluent taking opiates is not entirely new, there have always been rich old ladies shooting morphine prescribed by a "doctor-feelgood" and administered by a nurse, but not  middle class young people, with a higher education, or possibilities of getting one, OD-ing in public toilets.

    Heroin is very different from methamphetamine, That drug is a powerful stimulant, one that was given to starving, freezing, German soldiers fighting in Russia is WWII in order to keep them awake and aggressive. That might come in handy in today's America if you are forced to work 60 or more hours a week at minimum wage.  Heroin, however, goes like this:
    Injecting can give a pleasant rush, where there is an immediate feeling of intense euphoria, warmth, and general apathy toward anything that doesn't involve one's high.  Drugs-Forum
    Which might be a good fit for a rich, lonely old lady, not something that can help you hold down a couple of McJobs, but then again might be quite useful in calming the angst of an empty, alienated life or the anxiety of paying back a student loan, while living off your parents.
    Nationally, nearly half of 25-year-olds lived with their parents in 2012-2013, up from just over a quarter in 1999. (...) many factors have been suggested for why young adults return to or continue living at home, including significant student debt, weak job prospects and an uncertain housing market.(...) additional research has shown that the underemployment rate for recent graduates was about 40 percent during the Great Recession. Canon and Gascon noted: “An implication is that a significant portion of recent graduates were earning lower wages than what they should have been, given their education.” Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis
    Adding to this, being raised in what most consider a privileged environment can lead to much mental distress as many brought up this way are led to automatically assume that life should be wonderful, but as that "wonderful" is ever out of reach, vacuity, frustration and boredom fill its space, There is even a name for it now: "affluenza".

    Thanks to the continuing escapades of Ethan Couch, these days we are hearing a lot about "affluenza". 
      Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001) defines affluenza as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."The term "affluenza" has also been used to refer to an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege, notably in the case of Ethan Couch.(...) British psychologist Oliver James asserted that there was a correlation between the increasing nature of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens. Referring to Vance Packard's thesis The Hidden Persuaders on the manipulative methods used by the advertising industry, James related the stimulation of artificial needs to the rise in affluenza. Wikipedia
      The poor whites on meths and the coddled millennials on heroin, the angry, undereducated white people who will vote for Donald Trump are all the flotsam and jetsam of neoliberalism and globalization, the crippled stepchildren of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

      How does their economic philosophy lead to such damage? The late William Pffaf diagrammed it perfectly:
      Both monetarism and market theory remove from economic management voluntarism, political intelligence, and moral responsibility, by describing economic function as objective and automatic. Thus the customer always makes the most advantageous choice, so the market presents a perfect and efficient mechanism dictating the choices that must be made by businesses, while always tending towards perfect competition. Labor is a mere commodity, and unions and wage demands obstacles to the free function of markets. Governments by nature are obstacles to economic freedom. — William Pfaff
      That is the aquarium we swim in today.

      We are seeing a massification of a classic American recipe for dealing with angst.
      "Basically, I'm for anything that gets you through the night - be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels."  -  Frank Sinatra
      Not to contradict the lord of the ring a ding dings, but nowadays it might be more productive to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind.

      Perhaps this presidential election year, of all times, Americans should meditate more intensely on who exactly the "We" are, that we are talking about when we say, "We The People". DS