Friday, June 18, 2021

Speaking of Which

We gave up the paper edition of the Wichita Eagle six months or so ago. It had become extremely thin, was often misplaced by the delivery person, and then they killed off most of the comics I regularly read, adding new ones I had little interest in. During the cold snap, I wound up going to the computer instead of trekking outside, and eventually we decided that was good enough. This changed my daily routine: I get up, get some yogurt, and eat breakfast at the computer now, clicking my way through the news. Sometimes I'd see things that wind me up, and occasionally I wound up tweeting about them, but often that seemed insufficient and too transitory. I still don't want to revive Weekend Roundup, but as I was collecting open tabs, it occurred to me that it wouldn't hurt much to kick out a weekly post, not to round up news but to get a few things off my chest.

One decision was to release on Friday, instead of Sunday. This leaves my weekends free, and there's really not much news then anyway. I wanted to use the links purely as scaffolding for comments, not as something to collect for its own sake. I started collecting a few items last week, and found myself writing more than I've been doing in some while.

No guarantee this will be a regular feature. But it is bigger than expected, and surprisingly easy to assemble. I'm a lazy person, so it's likely I'll fall into the rut of doing easy things.

Zachary D Carter: The end of Friedmanomics: First, allow me a shout out to the author, whose The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes was one of 2020's best books. Less than half of that book was biography of Keynes -- a person as well as a set of ideas you should know about (I haven't read Robert Skidelsky's big biography, but did very much enjoy his shorter Keynes: Return of the Master) -- and the larger half gave an accounting of Keynes' legacy. Part of that was his supposed vanquishing by Milton Friedman in the 1970s, which has since come to look pretty shabby. One point worth reiterating is how conservative "prophets of freedom" remained closely aligned with the segregationist opponents of civil rights -- usually so explicitly you hardly needed to study critical race theory to figure out what they were doing.

Rebecca Heilweil: The controversy over Bill Gates becoming the largest private farmland owner in the US. There are probably a lot more stories like this, the best known probably being Ted Turner's bison ranches (see Is Ted Turner playing cowboy or hogging land?, from 2007). My parents grew up on farms, and were economically driven off the land in the 1930s, as farmers heeded the mantra, get big or get out. Since then, both people and riches have gone elsewhere, but given the limited opportunities for investing surplus profits, it was inevitable that the rich would start collecting farmland.

Doug Henwood: Take me to your leader: The rot of the American ruling class. Long article, covers a lot of history, and I haven't digest it all. But what the title suggests to me is illustrated by this: From George Washington to Jimmy Carter, most presidents have been rich, but most of them were bound by a sense of public trust and interest, and by a personal ethic that insisted on putting that public interest above their own personal enrichment. They haven't always understood public interest well, and they haven't always behaved as scrupulously as Washington and Carter, but nearly all of them tried to fit into that tradition. From Reagan on through Trump, you certainly can't say that about the Republicans, and Democrats Clinton and Obama did much better for themselves than for their voters. Jury's out on Biden, but so far he'd rather be seen as the un-Trump than as the Clinton-Obama successor. But we're not just talking about presidents, or indeed about politicians. Business has been taken over by egomaniacs and predators, with little interest in building and much in stripping wealth, including the creativity of workers. The twin conceptual pillars of the rise of the conservatives in the 1980s are Reagan's "greed is good" and Thatcher's "there is no society." The Democrats' failures are directly attributable to their eagerness to play along with such sociopathic notions, and have only served to reinforce those creeds among Republicans.

Tony Karon: Israel and the United States: Thinking about apartheid and the struggle for freedom. This puts Israel's struggle to establish and persevere within the broader context of settler colonies. I've been thinking along those lines for some time, concluding that colonies which establish >70% demographic dominance survive, and ones that fail to top 30% (Algeria came close) fail. The Zionist settlement in Israel as of 1948 had about 30% of the population, so it was borderline. Israel won out by surrendering a third of Palestine to Jordan and Egypt, and by driving 700,000 Palestinians into exile, leaving it with a demographic majority, which soon reached 70% with their campaigns to force Arab Jews (e.g., from Yemen and Iraq) into immigrating. Israel spent the next 20 years building up its military and police state, then swept up the rest of the Palestinian land, plus a slice of Syria, plus chunks of Egypt and (in 1982) Lebanon that they later abandoned. The result is that they're back to about a 50-50 demography, which they manage through an extremely discriminatory legal system, brutal enforcement, and impoverishment of their unwanted subjects. Americans have always sympathized with Israel, implicitly recognizing their common origins as settler colonies, but in the early 1900s, the US started to let up on its discrimination against its much-reduced aboriginal population, to the point that when Israelis liken Palestinians to American Indians, hardly anyone gets the point. Although it is perhaps significant that US Army strategists still model anti-guerrilla war operations on 19th century Indian wars, which is probably the last time they were successful -- again, while racism and genocidal weapons favored the US Army, demography was the most decisive factor. It's hard to tell right now what's driving Israeli politics so hard right: Is it hubris, thinking that they can continue to control all challenges internal and external? Or is it desperation? And if the latter, are there any limits to the violence they're likely to unleash in order to maintain order? They missed their opportunity in the 1990s to secure a state with a firm demographic majority, and the right has systematically wrecked any possibility of partition. The right, which you may recall was led by Netanyahu before Sharon out-maneuvered him, was convinced that might would win out, and compromise was not just undesirable but unnecessary. Also because average Israelis were seduced by the idea that they would always have to keep on fighting. But also because they couldn't count, and because they couldn't fathom the long-range impact of Israel's brutality on world opinion. [PS: For an indication of where the right-wing is moving, see Yumna Patel: 'Death to Arabs': Israeli 'Flag March' features racist anti-Palestinian chants.]

Eric Levitz: The limits of a wealth tax: This piece doesn't really address its subject, beyond mentioning the political difficulties in implementing any sort of wealth tax. The bigger problem is measuring wealth, and that's because most of it is unrealized, and as such is likely to be inflated (a word Yglesias objects to -- see my discussion below -- but we do need a word that is more substantial than "imaginary" but less burdened than "bubble-fied"). There is one important form of wealth tax where that would not be a problem: the estate tax. Were we to get serious about taxing etates, the simple solution would be to seize the estate, liquidate it, and split the proceeds (whatever they may be) between the government(s) and heirs (possibly including foundations). We don't do that, but other than political will, and some thorny issues with spouses and minor children (to the extent they are dependents, as opposed to heirs), we could do that. Otherwise, a wealth tax is like property taxes, based on an assessment of possibly dubious merit. (Example: my late father-in-law's house, purchased for $8,000 in the 1950s, was assessed by the property tax collector at $38,000 before his death. After he died, we wound up selling it for $10,500.)

The other topic of the article is whether we can pay for a robust social democracy by only raising taxes on the rich. Many pundits try to make the point that we cannot, as if that's supposed to deter us from trying. The rich have been chronically undertaxed, at least in the US, since the 1980s, and all we've gotten to show for that is an ever-widening chasm of inequality and an ever-growing public debt. The latter may not matter much, but raising taxes on the rich starts to reverse the inequality trend, and is the obvious place to start to fund much-needed public works. On the other hand, if we decide we need more public works than the rich can reasonably fund, the approach that most decent social democracies have followed is to adopt consumption taxes like the VAT. While not progressive, a VAT puts some downward pressure on prices and profits. I'd like to see a nationwide VAT replace local and state sales taxes -- comparable revenues could be funneled to the states, with the provision that should the states not spend the revenues, they could redistribute them equally.

Hamilton Nolan: Words that mean nothing, or "our political discourse is dominated by issues that don't exist," or "if you can push a bullshit issue into 'everybody knows' territory, you can get away with never having to define it at all." Examples range from "cancel culture" to "socialism" -- the latter, at least, used to mean something, but not what attackers on the right seem to think. Then there is "critical race theory," which was never more than a curious term for a methodology for findingracism in laws that weren't explicitly about race. The problem with vagueness and meaningless here is that Republicans in many states are seeking to ban the teaching of "critical race theory" in public schools. As those laws pass, courts will be asked what they apply to, as well as whether facts and ideas can be banned at all. Most likely, vagueness will end in those laws being overturned, adding to the right-wing's grievances against the courts, as they move on to their next outrage scam. (For an example a couple years past its shelf date, see the sharia law bans some states passed.)

For what it's worth, "critical theory" was a broad (and vague) term for a current in philosophy and social science developed by western Europeans (mostly Germans) in the 1920s-1950s, drawing on Marxians but not generally aligned with the Soviet Union. They were very skilled at discerning deep structures and resonances between culture/ideology and and more pervasive politico-economic forces. I studied their work, and got to where I could discern their patterns almost intuitively, but I rarely credit it these days, because they never were an authority -- they were profoundly subversive of all authority, including their own. I'll offer one brief example: Walter Benjamin wrote that "Baudellaire was a secret agent -- an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule." [Fact check: Amy King.] Not only does this a new angle for analyzing 19th century poets (and other artists), it struck me that Marx himself could be profitably viewed as just such a secret agent.

The founders of "critical race theory" were aiming for fundamental insights, but their subject matter hardly required such depth. Their domain was law, and their object was to show that much law, even without explicit mention of race, was framed with racist intent. But really, who needs critical theory when you got overwhelming empirical proof? After all, so many laws backed by more-or-less clear expressions of racist intent and used to racist purpose that the patterns are obvious. Well, it's the right that needs to call any reference to racism from 1619 to the present a mere "theory." The right has conditioned its followers to dismiss "theory" as unproven speculation ever since Darwin. Calling it a "theory" suggests they can box it up, put a lid on it, and store it away, out of sight and out of mind. Of course, their problem isn't with any "theory" of racism. It's with any mention of the history of racism, with any implication that past racism has consequences in the present, and above all any suggestion that public policy should try to do anything to ameliorate the lingering effects of four centuries of racial discrimination and oppression.

But that in itself doesn't explain why they want to ban teaching about "critical race theory." To undestand that, you have to realize that the right has a peculiar understanding of education. They view it as indoctrination (or training), and indeed when given the chance, that's how they teach it. Their political success depends on people blindly following their dicta, no matter how incoherent or irrational. They may fear liberals seizing power and practicing indoctrination as well -- indeed, they often disparage liberal/left ideas as propaganda, repeated rote -- but what they really dread and hate is the notion that people should learn to think for themselves, and that education should give students the tools for analyzing and solving problems. Or as people like me used to put it: of thinking critically.

A couple more pieces on the "critical race theory" fracas: Alex Shephard: The specter of critical race theory is rotting Republicans' brains, and Jake Bittle: The Fox News guest behind the Republican frenzy over critical race theory (Christopher Rufo). Note "brain rot" again (see Doug Henwood, above). Less clear to me whether it's cause or effect. I'm tempted to argue that it's a good thing that Republicans are offended when they're called racists, but their preferred solution isn't to never talk about race, all the while making side comments that sure sound racist. Also on Rufo: Benjamin Wallace-Wells: How a conservative activist invented the conflict over critical race theory. Related here is Kerry Eleveld: Republicans don't even know how to talk to reality-based Americans anymore. Also He'd kill us if he had the chance: "As we've known for a long time, with conservatives everything is 100% projection."

Aldous J Pennyfarthing: The dumbest man in Congress wonders about FBI's role in planning Jan. 6 insurrection. No, really: Clickbait. Had to see who they referred to, given so many plausible contenders. Louis Gohmert. Duh! On the other hand, his fellow Republicans are trying harder; e.g., see Ed Kilgore: Andrew Clyde challenging Marjorie Taylor Greene for mantle of most extremist Georgian in Congress. Also Josh Kovensky: Inside Tom Cotton's insane world of DNA theft, Olympic athletes, and anti-China conspiracies.

Luke Savage: Novelist Cory Doctorow on the problem with intellectual property. Interview with the Science fiction writer, blogger/journalist, "not related to novelist E.L. Doctorow" (I had to look that up), a proponent of Creative Commons, interested in post-scarcity economics, author of You Can't Own Knowledge. The interview provides a good general overview of the various "intellectual property" (IP) issues, putting them into the proper context of monopoly grants, and includes useful history, especially on Bill Gates and Microsoft. Evidently, Doctorow has been working in this area for some time. My own views were first shaped by Richard Stallman, although I doubt I ever supported the idea of patents: the government-granted right of some people to sue other people for thinking independently (or thinking further about thoughts others had legal monopoly to). I'm always astonished at how a great many economists simply assume that patents are generally beneficial (although I wonder how many still would if they were described as monopolies or rents instead of as property. The main exception to this rule recently has been Dean Baker, who writes often on the issue: e.g., Patent monopolies and inequality: When we give rich people money, why does inequality surprise us? (Also see his free download book, Rigged, especially Chapter 5.)

Matt Stieb: What's driving the surge in ransomware attacks? There are lots of things wrong with the world these days, but I find few more aggravating than cybercrime. That's because it seems like something that shouldn't be so hard to detect, disable, and punish, but it isn't, seemingly because the authorities tolerate it -- one suspects that's largely because they enjoy participating in it, often glorifying it as cyberwarfare. Russia is a case example, as they seem to find it sporting to attack entities in country which arrogantly attack them with sanctions. Indeed, many nations -- Israel and Iran are good examples -- seem to have decided they can conduct cyberwarfare with no real risks of escalation, except that's their inevitable trajectory. The solution here, as in many other areas, requires cooperation, respect, and trust, things the US, with its either-you're-with-us-or-against-us mentality, is especially bad at. However, the fact that the US has historically been one of the world's worst offenders should offer some leverage if only we'd only change our minds and decide to negotiate an end to our own worst instincts. [PS: Evidently Biden at least broached the subject of a possible cybersecurity deal with Russia at his summit with Putin.]

Reis Thebault/Joe Fox/Andrew Ba Tran: 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades. So far, 2021 is worse. I don't regard gun control as something Democrats should focus on -- I'm generally opposed to prohibition of anything that has fairly widespread attraction, but also I think it's an issue that divides Democrats from potential rural and working class allies, at least in the area I live in. But this is a sobering report. What I would like to see people look into and think about is what factors other than the insane number of guns Americans keep buying contribute to the staggering death toll. Twenty-plus years of non-stop war is certainly one of them. Republican efforts to discredit government -- no least through their own malfeasance -- is another. While culture often gets a bum rap for contributing to public delinquency, it is pretty obvious that ours has normalized and glorified gun violence -- going back at least to the 1960s westerns I grew up on. But also something relatively specific to 2020-21 is increasing lawlessness and anti-social behavior on the right, exemplified by the fatuous criminality of Donald Trump, extending throughout his followers.

By the way, I copied down this gun story by Jason Tidd in the Wichita Eagle (I can't link to it, and most likely you couldn't read it if I could):

Police: Wichita boys hurt in accidental shooting had messed with gun

Two boys were hospitalized late Monday night after accidentally shooting themselves while "messing" around with a gun, Wichita Police said.

Officer Charley Davidson said a WPD officer was patrolling through an apartment complex in the 8800 block of East Harry when he heard shouting at around 11:20 p.m. The officer found a 12-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to his hand and a 15-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to his leg.

The boys were taken to a hospital for medical treatment. Their injuries were not life-threatening, police said.

"The investigation revealed that the boys were messing with a handgun when it discharged, striking both of them," Davidson said. ". . . This case is a reminder that guns and kids don't mix."

Davidson, citing research from Nationwide Children's Hospital, said that "guns lead to thousands of deaths and injuries among children every year. Specifically, 1,300 children younger than 18 years of age die from shootings every year."

The organization reports that, "Most of the victims of unintentional shootings are boys. They are usually shot by a friend or relative, especially a brother."

Last week, a 6-year-old Wichita boy was hospitalized after a reportedly accidental shooting. In January, a Wichita teenager accidentally shot himself and a 3-year-old child. In 2019, a 9-year-old boy was accidentally shot and killed by his 11-year-old friend while they played with what they thought was a BB gun they had taken out of a malfunctioning safe.

The article ends with some "gun safety" tips, like "Kids who find a gun should leave it alone and tell an adult." In 2014, I wrote up a post called Guns: The Laundry List (started with a story "about a woman who was killed while doing laundry: a gun fell out of a sock and fired, hitting her"), and provides links for 60 more similar stories (although reading the titles is probably all you need to do), plus some more general background and personal experience. I may not be in favor of banning guns, but I sure wish they would go away. The first step is realizing how stupid, careless, and useless they are.

Matthew Yglesias: "Asset price inflation" is not a thing: During his tenure at Vox, I probably linked to Yglesias more than to anyone else, but I didn't buy his book, and I didn't pony up for his Substack newsletter (even though I would probably read it if it's free). But Mike Konczal linked to this piece and seemed to endorse it, and I've kept it open ever since -- maybe some day I'll approach Konczal and ask, WTF? Reading the piece carefully, I sort of understand that Yglesias is saying that when economists write about inflation, they're only talking about goods and services, and not assets. ("Asset prices going up is not a kind of inflation, just because by definition, that's not what inflation is.") Still, assets have prices, and those prices fluctuate, mostly due to supply and demand. Assets are mostly bought by rich people, so when rich people have more money, their demand for assets should bid up asset prices. So what do you call that? As near as I can tell, most economists don't call it anything. They assume that markets set the perfect prices for assets (and everything else), so when an asset gains value, that can only mean it really is worth more. (It's rather like the notion that when someone walks toward you, they physically get bigger.) Sure, some economists talk of bubbles, but mostly after the fact, when those perfect market gains suddenly disappear. I'm willing to concede that it may be difficult to calculate inflation of assets: sometimes appreciation is real (as when a company finds a new oil field), sometimes it is fraudulent, sometimes it is driven by currency inflation, and often times it merely reflects increasing inequality. Such factors imply different problems and solutions, but each is interesting. Still, Yglesias wants to ignore all that just to focus on conventional definitions, which were politically designed to protect banker profits at the expense of worker jobs and benefits.

I wonder whether both the rich and the left find it politically convenient to accept inflated assets at face value. The former feel richer than they are, even as their relentless pursuit of wealth seems more futile than ever, and the latter can point to even vaster degrees of inequality. On the other hand, if the levers of inequality mostly result in illusory wealth, maybe their political attempts to rig the economy will eventually be seen as futile and self-destructive.

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