Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Mid-Term Elections, 2014

Although the Republican sweep of the midterms has occasioned much unhappiness and recrimination in the left blogosphere -- not to mention among Democrats, and self-described liberals and progressives--, I do not consider the results to have been surprising.  I have preliminarily attempted to organize some thoughts on the causes, and now make bold to present them below.  The format is a list of topics, although priority is not necessarily connected to order of appearance.  My reflections tend towards the subjective and anecdotal; those who wish to verify or contradict will find fodder aplenty on the web.

1.  Bad economic times and the end of work.  The economic times are bad, no matter what indicators attempt to tell us, regarding productivity and Gross Domestic Product.  Wages for working people  (anyone below executive band) have been flat in this country for 35 years, despite ongoing growth of productivity.  While this is a multifaceted and multi-factoral proposition, it really comes down to the lack of a robust labor movement.  But labor has been destroyed by a conscious campaign, of policy and propaganda, lasting several decades, and beginning (if one must pick a date) with Reagan's firing of the air-controllers.

Concurrent, coordinated, and consequent upon this has been the loss of manufacturing jobs.  The notion of off-shoring as an economic necessity is not an economic given (I would argue, in any case, that  there is no such thing), but a consequence of low wages.  The marginal gain in offshore manufacturing is trivial compared with the growth of American productivity over 30 years.  If wages had tracked productivity, there would be no imperative to offshore-- or more properly, those small companies who chose to keep work at home would have no trouble competing with the lower price --and lower quality-- goods from abroad.

As an aside, one can view the Charter School movement as part of the ongoing war on labor.  While manufacturing unions can be destroyed by taking the work overseas, this is not true of teaching.  Teachers' unions can only be destroyed by supplanting Public Schools-- with their established tradition of unionization-- by a new class of schools, in which, in the name of innovation, teachers will not be unionized.

Another related and under-reported factor is the growth of part-time service work sold on the web to bidders who require, say, a chauffeur for a day, or a chef for an evening.  Those who provide the actual services are typically trapped in the hamster-wheel of a never-ending and illusory struggle to progress.  A corollary of this type of work is the hiring of professionals -- e.g. lawyers, accountants, programmers, etc. not as employees, but as independent contractors, without benefits, including, conspicuously, pension benefits.  The disappearance of pensions in Fortune 500 companies is another subject worthy of study, as is the attack on the pensions of public-service workers.

2.  Foreclosures.  Since 2008, something like five million homes have been foreclosed upon.  Five million families evicted.  Although the HAMP program was put in place, nominally to help keep financially distressed homeowners in their homes, it has been laughably ineffective; and its main proponent, Timothy Geither, is on record as saying that its purpose was merely to 'foam the runways' for the banks, by stretching out the process-- that is, it was designed to help banks, not homeowners.  The degree to which the foreclosures were fraudulent, due to loss of title chain in the (accelerated and slipshod) process of mortgage securitization, is another shameful chapter in our history, into which we have not now time to delve.

3.  The phenomenon of stay-at-home youth.  A generation of young people is living at home with their parents, at an age when their forbears were out on their own.  This is not altogether a choice; and although I regard it as fundamentally an economic necessity, I am not blind to the fact that this generation spent their childhood in captivity, and have not been allowed the free range of children in earlier times (including my own.)  But I think at bottom it is less a question of lacking initiative that comes from a free-range childhood, and more an inability to find good jobs.  We are truly looking  at the end of work.

4.  The nationally coordinated suppression of the Occupy Movement.  This has been well documented. Whatever one thought of Occupy, its violent eviction , nation-wide, sent a strong message about the consequences of peaceful protest, which I believe resonates to this day throughout the left-leaning populace in America.

5.  Water shutoff in Detroit.  It beggars credulity that thousands of citizens in a major city of a supposedly first-world country could be willfully deprived of water, by city authorities.  The pretense of collecting on overdue billings becomes transparent when it is noted that large concerns like municipal stadiums are also overdue, but have not been penalized. Yet this has been sanctioned by the courts.  That there has not been national action to reverse this is a national disgrace.

6.  The Affordable Care Act.  It is considered anathema in Left Wing Circles, to speak ill, or even critically of the ACA.   And yet I think that a hard look is due.  I believe that many Democrats hoped and believed that this would be a political savior for the Party, yet it has not been so; and I consider that this is not due entirely to negative propaganda from the Right, and their childish campaign to repeal it.

That the bill which passed was largely authored by Liz Fowler, a healthcare industry lobbyist, should indicate (to the cynics at least) that it would be conceptually flawed.  I will note the following issues:

i) Whatever one thinks of the desirability of having health insurance for all (and who could dislike so humane a prospect?) the optics of a mandate compelling the purchase of insurance, and enforced by the IRS are simply atrocious.  There is no way around this, whatever the benefits of being insured, and perceptions are everything in American politics.

ii) The website has established some functionality, following its disastrous rollout, but it is still complicated and difficult to use.  Also, as of May 2014, it still unclear whether the 'backend' of the website, which connects applicants to their insurance providers, is fixed and working.

iii) It appears to be generally the case that most plans, below the level of platinum, have high co-pays and deductibles, making them less than altogether desirable.  Add to this the narrowness of networks, and the problems arising from emergency care out of network.

iv) My belief is that under ACA, many people who had no insurance will get not very good insurance, as will (unfortunately) many people who had reasonably good insurance, as corporations gradually adjust to the new market place and lower the quality of their health care benefits.

7.  The President Himself.  Again, criticism from the left of President Obama is considered anathema in many circles, but I believe it is necessary.  First I believe that the exceptional Congressional hostility that he has faced does not exceed that directed at Bill Clinton.  However, on the national front, outside the halls of Congress, the torrent of racism has been shocking, even to cynics; and I believe that many voters who voted against the Democrats were effectively voting against a the idea of a Black President.

That said, I believe the only political remedy lies in what is called 'retail politics'-- the handshaking, backslapping, baby-kissing connection to the people.  George W. Bush excelled at this, as did Bill Clinton, although I think in Bush's case, it was purely a charade, albeit well acted.  Clinton, (I believe) despite his corporatist leanings, genuinely liked the common people from whose ranks he sprang.

Obama, on the other hand, is notoriously aloof.  Yes, he delivers the occasional well-publicized hug-- most recently and beneficially to an ebola survivor-- but he is not known for the common touch.  And yet the common touch, although it will not win over the hard core racist, is quite capable of swaying those individuals, whose underlying goodness of heart has been corroded by association (often involuntary) with a racist cohort.  But unfortunately, this is is not the President's political forte, and certainly not his inclination.

Beyond this, I admit that pressing the flesh in crowds is a physically dangerous business, but one that goes, for better or worse, with the territory.

But returning now to the difficulties of the ACA, I believe that the President's aloofness has also prevented him from taking a more activist role in monitoring the developmental progress of the website.  And this I put down to inexperience.  I do not expect a president to be a programmer, but experience in governing will, over time, teach the willing learner that one needs to ride herd on complex projects, that in the colorful phrase of Murphy's law, left to themselves, things go from bad to worse.

The comparison with Bill Clinton is also apposite: Clinton had been a long-term governor -- he had also suffered political defeat in his life; in simple terms he understood better what it takes to achieve and occupy a responsible position, and get things done.

The question now arises what direction will the President take with a new Congress entirely in opposition hands?  It is highly unclear to me what are his options in economic and environmental policy; but one frightening possibility stands out.  He has previously attempted to push forward a grand bargain, so called, which would amount to the first step in dismantling and/or privatising the great social insurance programs of the New Deal and Great Society: Social Security and Medicare.  The fear is that a Republican-controlled Congress would give him his wish; the hope is that Republican intransigence will defeat even a grand bargain.





Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Frankenfoods normalized? A quick response

I was surprised to read over at Eschaton that



                   …there's nothing inherently dangerous about genetic modification.  
                   Several people pointed out, correctly, that it's just a faster way to 
                   practice husbandry than traditional methods.    


This, in the famous words of physicist and Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli, is not even wrong.  Normal  husbandry is confined to mixing characteristics among organisms which can naturally crossbreed.  That is, you can cross one apple with another, one weed with another, one grain with another, and so on.

You cannot, in nature, cross a fish and a tomato.  Old Farmer Jones can throw as many tomatoes as he likes into the pond with his carp, but the two will never exchange genetic information.

But you can do this, by gene modification, and it has been done. 

On the other hand, grains and weeds, (both, in my non-botanical mind, being grasses) should readily cross-pollinate, and have in fact been shown to do so naturally.  (This fact has implications for the development of drug-resistant super weeds, but that's a story for another day.)

So, with apologies to the ghost of the military theorist Clausewitz (certainly one of the most quoted individuals on the internet) gene modification is assuredly not a continuation of  husbandry by other means; it is, rather, a radical reshuffling of a biological order was has developed over hundreds of millions of years.  As the holder of a Ph. D. in Biochemistry, I do not consider myself smart enough to undertake such work.   Those who support it should at least recognize it for what it is. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why is the recovery (so-called) so slow?

I have been perusing comments at economistsview, seeking explanations for the slowness of economic recovery as we now experience it.  Well, the commenters are seeking explanations; but I in my usual omniscient fashion believe that the answer lies plainly before us, in the form of history, not of economics.  My view -- which crystallized while examining some anonymous musings on the sustainability (or not) of borrowing against home equity-- is that such borrowing represented the last gasp of the struggling middle class, to preserve the generous levels of consumption, to which its members had become accustomed in the great post-war economic boom.  That boom has of course ended, in consequence of the ongoing war against workers, as embodied in the tearing-up of the social contract between labor and capital, which has been the main social and economic consequence of what I will broadly refer to as Reaganism.


Then, to specify: regarding the sustainability (or not) of borrowing against home equity: it was sustainable as long as the prices of houses kept going up, i.e. in a real estate bubble.  This was a recent phenomenon: it was the strategy arrived at by normal middle class people to sustain their accustomed lifestyle when twenty (now thirty) years of flat wages finally started to seriously bite into their spending habits.
Flat wages were a natural consequence of the 30 year war on the labor movement (and on workers more generally)  that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Then it took the mortgage securitization boom, and the ensuing foreclosure fraud, to throw millions of families out of their homes, and to thus ensure that borrowing one's way to imagined prosperity was a scenario that would not be replayed. Of course, the lost homes are being snapped up by private equity players, who now fancy that they will become real estate magnates skimming the rental cream, while ignoring the plugged toilets.
People talk about our situation as if it were the consequence of immutable economic law. Well the only immutable economic law I know of (I am an engineer, formerly a chemist) is that no economic process whatever transpires without human agency and volition. Which is to say, the economy is what our choices have made it; the facts before us are the consequences of votes and policies and individual decisions by political-economic actors great and small.

The big news this past week was that Boeing has extorted fromthe machinists' union their right to a defined benefit pension, which will be replaced by a 401k. This is part of a general process of asset stripping by Boeing management. Multiply this by a million to get the current situation.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Economist's View

Following the advice of Paul Krugman, I have started to frequent an economics blog run by University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma, economistsview by name.  Many links are given to current research papers (surprisingly accessible as often as not), as well as to fairly high level discussions of policy and philosophy by respected economists in academia, government, and industry.  Typically these posts lie to the political right of Mr. Thoma's apparent sympathies, but they are highly informative concerning the mindset of academically trained economists, which, in my reading, is in many instances rather divorced from the messy realities of business and politics in which it might should be embedded.

The discussion seems to involve a smallish group of dedicated readers who post regularly, and are not shy about their views, which are often (though not always) left-progressive, but also reflective of training in economics.  As a recent example, a policy paper was linked from the Federal Reserve  Bank of Atlanta, on the question of the health of today's labor market in America, and whether recovery from the 2007 recession had produced (or not) appropriate levels of employment.   From which I select the following quote:
In these charts lies the crux of some very basic disagreements about the appropriate course of policy. The last three graphs draw a clear picture of labor markets that are underperforming by historical standards—a position that I take to be the conventional wisdom. An argument against following that conventional wisdom centers on the question of whether historical standards represent the appropriate yardstick today. In other words, is the correct reference point the level of employment or the pace of improvement in the labor market from a permanently lower level? For the proponents of the latter view, the bubble chart might very well look like a return to normal, despite the fact that employment has not returned to prerecession levels.
To me, this illustrates a sort of passivity in the face of the facts, which I find inexplicable.  I append my response, which the interested reader can look up under Mr. Thoma's original post.

The sense I get from this post is that, according to economic wisdom, we might be adjusting to a new equilibrium, which includes a shrunken labor market; and since that's what's been determined by the immutable laws of economics, we should all just face the unpleasant facts, and live with them, and stop boo-hooing.
To me, this is akin to saying, that if an individual becomes ill, it reflects the workings of the inviolable laws of biology, and we should let nature take its course without complaint.
Then my response is: Gott in Himmel! what ever happened to the practice of Medicine? To the idea that poor conditions of human existence might be ameliorated? That the human and social factors influencing the health of an individual, or an economy, are not eternally fixed, and have arguably deteriorated in measureable ways over the last thirty years? That maybe it's time for activist policy aimed at making things better?!
Part of my argument for changing conditions is that forty years ago, the Republican party under Richard Nixon was populated by crooks but not by utter dolts; but we have now entered the era of dolts ascendant. The plain fact now is that we have a major party that has cut loose its moorings to reality. Sure, lot's of other things have changed, but I offer that as a simple example.

Antibiotics in Animal Feed

For decades, factory farmers have laced animal feed with antibiotics-- nominally to promote growth, but also (in my view) likely as a prophylactic measure, given the extremely cramped and unhealthy conditions for animals in modern industrial agriculture.

Anyone with a serious background in bioscience and/or biomedicine can tell you that this is a terrible idea, since it is a virtual cornerstone of modern molecular biology, that resistance to antibiotics develops and spreads rapidly in micro-organisms.  Large-scale use of antibiotics  leads therefore to the generation of superbugs -- disease agents with resistance to multiple antibiotics.

Given that antibiotics are in fact miracle drugs, and represent the reason why a broken blister, or an unfortunate scratch, need not prove fatal if left untended, and given also the difficult path to their development, it is of key importance to public health that we guard the efficacy of those we possess.  I am also old enough to remember parents of friends, who died of tuberculosis in the early 1950's, before the availability of streptomycin.

In light of all this it is good news that the FDA will likely attempt to ban the routine use of tetracycline and penicillin in animal feed.  Of course agriculture industry trade groups will cry out that the danger is unproven; this argument contradicts every known biological fact and  does not even rise to level of stupidity.

Occam's Razor and a 9-11 Conspiracy

In an recent post I invoked the principle of Occam's razor -- that when confronted with two competing explanations, we should choose that which embodies fewer apriori assumptions.  My focus was on the difficulty of reconciling three factors: i) the  easily observed characteristics the three catastrophic building collapses of 9-11,  ii) the official explanations of same, and iii) the known laws of physics.  My conclusions --  were that the official explanations were untenable,  and that the collapses could be explained only by the use of explosives, strategically placed and detonated.

Following Occam, however, I explicitly rejected any discussion of conspiracy theories.  Nonetheless, a report in the New York Times  now raises again the conspiracy question.  A pair of credible individuals, both former United States Senators, one of whom served on the 9-11 Commission, both with access to secret information, have publicly stated their belief that the Saudi government was linked the attacks of 9-11.

I refer the reader to the Times article; I will not pursue the discussion other than to note that most so-called progressive or left-wing commentators have refused to touch the 9-11 question as regards the credibility of the official narrative.  Hopefully, this will begin to change.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Requiescat in Pacem

Steve Jobs, a man who saw that digital technology could be beautiful, and made it so, has died.