Sunday, October 02, 2016

Trump's Noir Power

This piece blames the Democrats for the persistence of Trump. My reason is that Trump wields what I'll call the power of noir, and the mainstream Democrats are unable to fight it.  Noir is a vision of terrible trouble and of violent recovery that in this election mixes authoritarianism, economic pessimism and racial fear (of white weakness, rather than certainty of white supremacism).  In the U.S., noir always beats nothing.  And that, at the moment, is what the Dems are offering--the status quo, no change, nothing, nothing that we don't already have with Obama, and that is clearly not enough.

This was Clinton's weakness in the debate she won.  The first question noted that half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck and asked how the candidates would create good jobs.  Clinton answered that this is an opportunity to think about the country we want, mentioned her two-year-old granddaughter, said "I want us to invest in you," called for more profit-sharing, and said she supported better work-life balance.  All very nice.  None of them offer a direct means of restoring middle-class jobs.

Here's Trump.
Our jobs are fleeing the country. They're going to Mexico. They're going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They're devaluing their currency, and there's nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they're using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.
So we're losing our good jobs, so many of them. When you look at what's happening in Mexico, a friend of mine who builds plants said it's the eighth wonder of the world. They're building some of the biggest plants anywhere in the world, some of the most sophisticated, some of the best plants. With the United States, as he said, not so much.
So Ford is leaving. You see that, their small car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They're all leaving. And we can't allow it to happen anymore. As far as child care is concerned and so many other things, I think Hillary and I agree on that. We probably disagree a little bit as to numbers and amounts and what we're going to do, but perhaps we'll be talking about that later.
But we have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us
Trump said, of course we need child care.  But we're talking about other countries stealing our jobs. He offered a direct cause for job loss: other countries are getting our jobs.  He then turned to two direct solutions:
All you have to do is take a look at Carrier air conditioning in Indianapolis. They left -- fired 1,400 people. They're going to Mexico. So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this.
We cannot let it happen. Under my plan, I'll be reducing taxes tremendously, from 35 percent to 15 percent for companies, small and big businesses. That's going to be a job creator like we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan. It's going to be a beautiful thing to watch.

 Trump's first direct solution helped caused the problem he laments: Reaganite deregulation allowed companies to offshore production with no financial penalties. It's a terrible solution, and will in fact make the problem worse. But he did offer a direct response to the problem, and scores points for that.  He then offered a better, second response:
The first thing you do is don't let the jobs leave. The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. . . . And what you do is you say, fine, you want to go to Mexico or some other country, good luck. We wish you a lot of luck. But if you think you're going to make your air conditioners or your cars or your cookies or whatever you make and bring them into our country without a tax, you're wrong. 
And once you say you're going to have to tax them coming in, and our politicians never do this, because they have special interests and the special interests want those companies to leave, because in many cases, they own the companies. So what I'm saying is, we can stop them from leaving. We have to stop them from leaving. And that's a big, big factor.
This is Trump's best line, and it's straight noir.  "Big people are screwing you.  They have to be made to stop. I will stop them.  I will charge them to leave, and that will make them stop."

How did Clinton respond? By recalling the financial crisis eight years ago, and saying this:
That was in large part because of tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy, failed to invest in the middle class, took their eyes off of Wall Street, and created a perfect storm.
In fact, Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, "Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money." Well, it did collapse.
TRUMP: That's called business, by the way.
CLINTON: Nine million people -- nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out.
Now, we have come back from that abyss. And it has not been easy. So we're now on the precipice of having a potentially much better economy, but the last thing we need to do is to go back to the policies that failed us in the first place.
Independent experts have looked at what I've proposed and looked at what Donald's proposed, and basically they've said this, that if his tax plan, which would blow up the debt by over $5 trillion and would in some instances disadvantage middle-class families compared to the wealthy, were to go into effect, we would lose 3.5 million jobs and maybe have another recession.
Clinton is basically right, but it doesn't matter.  There is no noir agent in her crisis. "Tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy" isn't an agent: it is an effect of some unnamed parties. How do we know she knows who they are?

Clinton needed to say this: "Donald has supported tax cuts his whole life, and is a champion tax avoider.  I mean he's the king of the legal tax dodge--at least I assume they're legal, Donald.  The congresspeople he gave money all through the 1970s and 1980s when jobs were leaving--they paid him back.  They cut his taxes and deregulated real estate and Wall Street.  When Wall Street blew up the economy with exactly the know-it-all arrogance we see Donald show, Donald and his friends make more money than ever, while his banker friends evicted you or your neighbor or your family member from your house.

She should have continued: "Donald will say, 'that's called business.'  Donald means, 'I win when you lose.'   Now he wants to take another $5 trillion away from you by depriving the government of $5 trillion more after he and his friends lost $13 trillion in family wealth.  He wants to take another $5 trillion from schools, clinics, roads, bridges, colleges, parks, police, firefighters, everything you need for a decent life, and give it to the same wealthy people who made all the money from the crash. Made money from the crash just like Donald did.   I won't allow that.  As president, we'll put the money Donald and his rich friends took from you back into your communities and the economy."

Clinton can only fight Trump noir by writing her own noir plot and making Trump the predator.  As many a Bernie voter knows, she is probably prevented from doing this by her own alliances with Wall Street and her own distance from the working class Democrat base that, starting with the Carter and ending with the Clinton presidencies,

The Clinton-Trump exchanges I mentioned all occur in the first six pages of a forty-page debate transcript.  Clinton goes on to invoke solar energy, inviting Trump to defend another of his terrible claims, which is more oil and coal because global warming is a hoax.  Trump instead turns Clinton-Obama back into the noir villain:
TRUMP: She talks about solar panels. We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. 
Now, look, I'm a great believer in all forms of energy, but we're putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster. Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt. You can't do what you're looking to do with $20 trillion in debt. 
The Obama administration, from the time they've come in, is over 230 years' worth of debt, and he's topped it. He's doubled it in a course of almost eight years, seven-and-a-half years, to be semi- exact. 
So I will tell you this. We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs. And we have to do a much better job at giving companies incentives to build new companies or to expand, because they're not doing it. 
And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they're gone. 
And, Hillary, I'd just ask you this. You've been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you've been doing it, and now you're just starting to think of solutions. 
CLINTON: Well, actually... 
TRUMP: I will bring -- excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can't bring back jobs. 
CLINTON: Well, actually, I have thought about this quite a bit. 
TRUMP: Yeah, for 30 years. 
CLINTON: And I have -- well, not quite that long. I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again... 
TRUMP: Well, he approved NAFTA.. (CROSSTALK) 
CLINTON: ... million new jobs, a balanced budget... 
TRUMP: He approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.
Trump gets Clinton to defend NAFTA, which destroys her image as tough on Wall Street. She doesn't ever say what the great new ideas are that have come from 30 years of thought.  He goes on to point out that her own party's president is pushing a new trade deal that's like NAFTA, and she doesn't repudiate Obama.  She says, "there are different views about what's good for our country," which proves Trump's point that she can't be trusted to know who the enemy is or to do anything to that person.

When they get to the next segment on taxes, her big line is that she "would not add a penny to the debt." This puts her entirely in the camp of the conventional Republicans that Trump torpedoed in the primaries.  So it doesn't matter that Trump says "the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs" when the wealthy have been doing the opposite for thirty years, because he is talking directly about overcoming an enemy--people who send American jobs abroad.  She is not.

In the final two-thirds of the debate, Trump lost focus and became defensive, so most pundits have declared her the victor. She was not. She didn't become a noir hero battling an identified evil with a direct intervention.  Trump remained one.

The same problem dogs today's New York Times revelation that Trump may not have paid income taxes for twenty years. Previous NYT reports have showed that Trump built much of his empire on political connections that generated $885 million in tax breaks in postindustrial New York, made his money on a labyrinth of debt, on bankruptcy, and on shorting investors he'd attracted while stiffing working-class contractors.   As U.S. manufacturing and its blue-collar workers declined, real estate deals and Trump's extractions soared.  So you'd think Clinton could make Trump the poster child of American decline, caused by its greedy extractive financiers.

Not so far.  In response, Trump said the Times is an arm of the Democratic party,  that they broke laws to get the tax documents, that Hillary Clinton is even more criminal than Trump is, that Trump is a supremely skilled businessman who was obliged to minimize his tax burden which is what he did. The crucial statement appeared in a Trump tweet: "I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them."

Translating the noir code: "I know the system, I used the system, I broke the system. If you want to fix the system, hire the person who was big enough to break it.  And if you don't, I will keep breaking it."

In a guilt-driven nation like ours, he who shows no guilt will be considered innocent, and receive a hero's welcome.  This is how we have gotten to Trump, the conquering hero.  Some analysts feel that Trump is such an obviously unqualified and corrupt candidate that it's a miracle that Hillary Clinton isn't 20 points ahead. I feel that Hillary Clinton is such a weak candidate on working-class and middle-class economics that Trump still can win. 

UPDATE: Trump's "bitchy sewing circle of overweight men" performed exactly this spin control about the NYT story today (h/t Meranze)--Trump the conquering tax hero.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Children of the Reagan Generation

Thanks to my friend Ricki I wound up at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. yesterday to see Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities.  It deals with the same issues that people like Mad Men for addressing, but without leaving the impression that anything cool is actually happening.

Reviews (LA Times and LA Weekly's) have focused on the frame of a political couple, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (center and right in the photo), who were big in the national Republican party during the Reagan years, and who have, in 2004, been retired for a while in Palm Springs. Their children do not share their conservative politics, and their daughter, Brooke (at left), a liberal and a writer, has arrived to spend her first holiday with them for a while.  The youngest son, an L.A. TV producer, is also there. The oldest son, who committed suicide in the 1970s, is there in the form of a book manuscript that Brooke, has recently completed. It is a tell-all book about her famous family and how they cruelly drove their oldest son to suicide out of hatred for and embarrassment about his anti-war politics and revolutionary drug-taking friends.  Brooke wants her family to read the manuscript and bless her decision to use a published book to air the truth about their lives.  We learn (SPOILERS scattered from this point on) that she has been helped by her aunt and Polly's sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic who has her own scores to settle with her sister and with Republican politics, not necessarily in that order.

The "liberal" position is upheld in the play by the two women--Brooke and Silda--who have  been damaged by their lives under the reign of the self-righteous, authoritarian power in the family, the mother Polly (played wonderfully by JoBeth Williams).  But they don't really espouse their own positions and instead continuously criticize Polly's.  Polly is a dominating figure who was friends with Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and at one critical juncture had forced their fictional versions to back Lyman when they want to dump him.   The ongoing power of the parents is the real subject of the play, and runs deeper than Brooke's dislike for Polly's support for George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for Lyman's faith in Colin Powell, or for Polly's very frank hatred for the protest politics of the 1960s, which have clearly for her never ended.

Polly's position is clear from beginning to end: she hates weakness and admires strength.  "Families get terrorized by their weakest member," she says, referring to her sister Silda as someone she's had to take care of from start to finish--which financially at least is true. In one of the most quoted lines, she says, "I just think— The only way to get someone to not be an invalid is to refuse to treat them as such." (The audience loved Silda's response: "And there it is, folks: the entire GOP platform in a nutshell.")  When it becomes clear that Brooke's book is about her dead brother, Polly says two kinds of things.  One is "political" -- a standard conservative attack on the liberal / radical 60s:
The story of your brother. It’s drugs. Your whole generation, awash in drugs. The provocations, the absurd beard, the refusal to shower, to bathe, to adhere to the basic civilities of family life. He was stoned from the age of fifteen on, it made him dumb and it triggered his depression. Three generations, three generations of escapism. Lost. Drugs. Drugs actually destroyed the American century. Up the hill there, up the hill in Indio, the meth addicts, and you see them coming into town, wrecks.
There isn't much analysis, just a visceral antipathy for what she reads as a generation's break with the authority and more deeply the civilization of its parents.  The Reagan-era parents, embodied by Polly, once rejected by their children, were wounded, insulted, outrageous, furious, and unforgiving.  Baitz's Polly is a luminous portrait of a Reagan generation that condensed every social movement or progressive political idea into this rupture with, implied repudiation of, the goodness of their way of life.

The second kind of thing Polly says is parental. Referring to Brooke's view that publishing her version of the family's history is her right and of great benefit, Polly says,
Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life, you know, and we’re expected to be the parents of children forever? This is a new phenomenon; once I was an adult, all of my parents’ indulgence ceased. You all want to stay children forever, doing whatever mischief you can think of. All you entitled children of the “me” generation. 
Polly is wrong about her children's politics and leftist motives, as in the first passage. She is right, as in the second passage, that her adult children remain childish.  Brooke replies with submissive wit, "By free-passes you mean 'free-will' of course?"  Her entire visit, in fact her book itself, is an effort to get not only attention but approval from her parents.  The effort is delusional and self-destructive: her parents couldn't possibly approve a project that claws open old wounds and embarrasses them all over again for something that had happened thirty years before, and for her to imagine that it could is infantile, a form of aggression that presents itself as victimized, which is of course exactly what her Republican parents see in everyone not of their political circle -- Romney's 47% etc etc.

Until we get to the major revelation, Polly and to some extent Lyman are much more impressive and even sympathetic than their twerpy children and the perceptive but completely unreliable Silda. Here's a core exchange between mother and daughter, regarding the publication of the book:

Polly (cont.) Whatever it is, whatever you do, you’re our daughter, and I will love you. I can’t stop you from doing what you will, I can’t prevent it. But you must know that whatever you do, there are consequences to your actions.  
Brooke What does that mean?  
Polly How could I trust you? How could I ever be in your presence, my dear? If you betrayed the trust of the family? A family that has so valued discretion and our good name in the past three decades. You would still be my daughter, but the meaning of it would change. You needed us. We came to the East Coast. A year of our lives, I thought of nothing but your well-being, your recovery. I could never in quite the same way avail myself— I know who I am. That is who I am. You would lose us. So you understand.
Polly does know who she is, while Brooke does not.  Polly's claim about the primacy of trust is entirely open and consistent with everything else she believes. She is a far more appealing character than is the passive-aggressive and dependent Brooke.

But Brooke is Polly's creation.  We don't know how she has produced Brooke exactly until the climax of the play--MAJOR SPOILER HERE.  In order to derail Brooke's book once and for all, Polly and Lyman finally tell the rest of the family the truth about their dead son: he never killed himself, but was ferried in secret by Polly and Lyman across the border to Canada, where he presumably still lives under an assumed identity.  Brooke has never gotten over her brother's death, and is shattered by this news. By the end of the play, we realize she really is victimized by her parents after all, whose genteel, sociopathic politics, Lyman says quite directly, flow from the capacity he discovers in himself, through this coverup, to lead a life of secrets and lies.

The revelation scene ends too abruptly. There's an epilogue six years later in which Brooke seems to have changed her book into celebrity pablum to cash in on the death of her parents.  The point is not to make Brooke an emblem of feeble-minded Democratic politics, though she is that, but an emblem of the capacity of the Reagan-era parents to destroy the independence of their children.  This is of course ironically what their childrens' generation was supposed to be about.

At one point Silda, pressing Brooke not to back down, says of Polly and Lyman and their Republican circle, "These people, driven by fear, have taken ownership of an entire country. And fear— fear led to punishment."  This is true of the parents, but it is equally true of the Reagan era's children.  What exactly are we still afraid of?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Building the Ryan Backlash

Mitt Romney has just confirmed the main- streaming of a far-right ideologue, Rep. Paul Ryan, by anointing him the Republicans' vice- presidential candidate.  What would constitute an effective response? It's clear from the early reviews that there's a confidence gap on the left in the vacuum created by Barack Obama's non-leadership on the relevant issues.

It's worth pointing out at the start that while some early commentary saw Ryan's extremism as a problem for a party that needs to reach out to the center in November, the Republicans' winning strategy since 1980 has been not to move the ideologue to the center but to move the center to the ideologue.  Romney's "bold" move is "Politics 101"  according to Reagan-Atwater-Rove: make fringe ideas common sense through saturation media exposure both pro and con from the pundit legion of America--even critique helps make the bad or silly claims weighty and important.  Hugely unpopular ideas can in this way become hard truths whose acceptance proves the adherent's toughmindedness, rather than, as in their first appearance, his obvious lunacy.

Exhibit A is Paul Ryan's obsessive desire to convert the country's existing public health insurance system--known as Medicare, limited to senior citizens--into a voucher system for purchasing private insurance.  This is an obviously absurd idea, since it takes a popular, administratively efficient, and humane program and gives it to a hated, inefficient, and inhumane private insurance system that delivers the world's most expensive health care at a mediocre level of quality.  But the whole country must take this bad idea seriously because the top of the Republican ticket advocates it.   

Progressives generally have two reactions to the way the two-party system and the monopolized MSM legitimate one awful, regressive right-wing talking point after another.  They split between anger and depression, which leads, respectively, to denunciation of the right and denunciation of progressives themselves.  For the first, here's Joan Walsh's blast at Salon right after the announcement- "Paul Ryan: Randian poseur":
Paul Ryan was born into a well-to-do Janesville, Wisc. family, part of the so-called “Irish mafia” that’s run the city’s construction industry since the 19th century. When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. He went to Miami University of Ohio, paying twice as much tuition as an Ohio resident would have; the in-state University of Wisconsin system (which I attended) apparently wasn’t good enough for Ryan. After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government, where he’s spent his entire career, first serving Republican legislators and then in his own Congressional seat, with occasional stints at his family-owned construction business when he needed a job (reportedly he also drove an Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile for a while).
Ironically, Ryan came to national attention trying to dismantle the very program that helped him go to the college of his choice, pushing an even more radical version of President Bush’s Social Security privatization plan, which failed. He has since become the scourge of the welfare state, a man wholly supported by government who preaches against the evils of government support. He could be the poster boy for President Obama’s supposedly controversial oration about how we all owe our success to some combination of our own hard work, family backing and government support. Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.
Glenn Greenwald offered a parallel exposé of Ryan's hypocrisy and generalizes it to the Republican party:
the American Right seems to have a particular need to inflate their leaders into beacons of courage, self-sufficiency and virtue, even when their lives are completely devoid of those traits. Paul Ryan is a perfect symbol of America’s political class. He is directly responsible for the large deficits and debt which America has compiled, and now seeks to exploit what he himself helped create in order to deny to others the very benefits that were responsible for almost every opportunity and success he has had in his life, with the burden falling most harshly on those who need those benefits the most to have any remnant of fair opportunity. That’s the crux of the American elite: making massive mistakes and engaging in destructive behavior and then demanding that everyone — except them — bear the brunt of the consequences.
Greenwald and Walsh are excellent critics and writers, but their material inspires and deflates other progressives who can't imagine it having an impact on the American voter. This gets us to progressive option #2, which appears in the also excellent commentator James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario. The Right, Kwak wrote in a recent post, has a great rhetorical claim: "Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes."  To respond to that the Left has, he says, well, nothing.  Democrats need to have "some kind of understanding of what the federal government actually is and does," which they apparently don't. Kwak ended the post in muffled despair: "President Obama needs to come up with a vision of what the government is for—one that he hasn’t already compromised away. Isn’t he supposed to be good at that sort of thing?"

Politics 101 does say that the angry denunciation, whether it's Walsh and Greenwald's columns or Henry Rollins singing Liar, shocks, alienates, and offends the fence-sitters one needs to win over.  On the other hand, Politics 101 also says arguments don't change voters minds.  Kwak's best line is a denunciation of the dimwit middle--"this election will be just like every other one: it will turn on a handful of independent voters’ inchoate, irrational perceptions of which candidate better fits their inchoate, irrational notion of what the president should look like."  Depression is anger turned against the self--the progressive self in Kwak's case--and within progressive psychological dynamics both responses are doomed: attacking is wrong, arguing is wrong, so the Right wins again.

Kwak's low esteem for the American decider in fact supports the Greenwald-Walsh style of denunciation, and is confirmed by three generations of successful Republican anger politics.  It's true, as Kwak says, that most people don't pick the candidate on the basis of "a considered reflection on the proper size of government." The obvious alternative is drama, story, passion, feeling, critique, and anger in a package that enlightens people while firing them up against a clearly-defined opposition.  Greenwald and Walsh are already masters of the genre of linking a threat to a face and name attached to it, which is sadly one of the few things that galvanizes humans in general and Americans in particular.  The goal with Ryan should be to show that he personally adds a new level of delusion about people's lives starting with the voters in his district, that he is a calloused ideologue, that he is a Simple Simon and therefore dishonest, and that his ideas about privatizing Medicare or whatever, because they are his ideas, cannot be trusted. This would include the kind of analysis at which Kwak excels, like showing that lower taxes don't produce higher growth or that falling government employment is hurting the recovery.  Getting there doesn't mean a smear campaign. It requires impassioned and relentless critique, escalating throughout the campaign.  In Ryan's case this started happening years ago (e.g Krugman's "Ludicrous and Cruel" in 2011)--there's plenty to work with here.

On to Kwak's other point, which is that progressives don't have a message about government.  This isn't true, and Greenwald and Walsh, to stick with our two examples, demonstrate two of them.  First, for Greenwald, government needs to be honest.  It needs to be honest in the specific sense of treating everyone via the same rules, equally and fairly. In health care, the obvious contrast is between private insurance companies that deny coverage to clients that are likely to be more expensive, and Medicare or Medicaid, which pays for everyone regardless of cost. Ryan fully intends to ration Medicare, and he worships the private sector model of cutting costs via denying coverage and this damages the welfare of millions of people in ways Ryan refuses to admit. Government rejects hypocrisy in the sense of double standards of the kind that, via private insurance, have divided Americans into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class citizens in the realm of health care.

Walsh's progressive value is that individual success depends in part on the quality of the public sector.  For some reason Kwak wrote, progressives could say, "people need government services to succeed. (Doesn’t that sound offensive as soon as you say it, even if it’s true?)"  Why is that offensive to say? It is very true, and obvious in all wealthy countries other from the United States-- in fact the entire "rise" of the "West' out of the depths of quite violent, authoritarian cultures riven with religious fanaticism and planted on top of mediocre physical resources--like Britain, Germany, Sweden, etc.--hinged on their fairly early discovery that large-scale "improvements" in public infrastructure, coordinated by government but largely built from the bottom-up, made all the difference in a society's success or failure, and hence in the success or failure of all but a privileged few of its citizens.   Americans have not been taught this, but need to be via politics among other ways if they are to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

Kwak is right that the Dem arguments for government are underdeveloped. But these arguments are correct, and the compelling drama is this: government-funded social development is the difference between plutocracy and democracy.  Crap public services, small middle class.  Most voters, judging from the popularity of say social security, know this. Progressives need to cement the convictions so we can go on to address our actual problems rather than the demons Romney and Ryan conjure up to get elected.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Under the Big Empty

I can't see any foreclosed houses from the hotel pool.  I do see a 5 story apartment building going up across the street. It looks cheap enough to fall down befoe it gets its supporting siding and paint.  It ill have the airport to the front and a hotel to the side. I look at it from poolside. Trees consist of a scattering of short palm trees whole leaves rustle like the pom-poms of tired cheerleaders, most of whose friends have already left.  There a party on the other side of the pool - Hilton Honors. the tall greeter, who much be a supervisor, is white. Every other employee is a person of color - mostly Latino, who can be seen everywhere doing all of the work, literally 100%, and a few South Asians.  Jets roll off the runway at John Wayne screened from view by the hotel.  Their steep angle keeps things quieter over the hedge funds heads below at Newport Beach, and up here they make a military roar.  Southern Cal has always been great for aviation - endless flat plains, steady onshore switching to offshore breeze. endless emptiness of the sky.  It's not so good for the people of the empty sky. the unchanging breeze ripples the pool surface that no one swims.
Earlier that morning, same hotel, other side:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Unger is Right: the Left Must Defeat Obama

There's good stuff in the Unger statement about the purpose of society and government pointing towards the development of human capabilities, and the need to pay for education that does this.  Then he drops the bomb around 6:17 that got us the Huffpo headline, "Roberto Unger, Obama's Former Harvard Law School Professor, Says The President 'Must Be Defeated'

Here's what he says, after 6'10"
President Obama must be defeated. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States. He has spent trilliions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests, and has left workers and homeowners to their own devices. He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care, in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.  He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.  He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money. He has reduced justice to charity. His policy, is financial confidence and food stamps.  He has evoked the politics of handholding. But no one changes the world without a struggle.  Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a contest for the reorientation of the Democratic party as a vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.   There will be a cost for his defeat, in judicial and administrative appointments. The risk of military adventurism, however, under the rule of his opponents, will be no greater than it would be under him.  Only a political reversal can allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.  Its speech is always dangerous. Its silence is always fatal.
This is all quite right - except for the part about the Democrats becoming progressive if Obama is defeated.  Bit if it makes the chronic, semi-permanent fear vote for the Dem candidate feel any better, Unger is calling for a strike on the Democratic party that is nothing less than what the Tea Party did to the Republicans.  But it must go far beyond that.

When I began this blog in 2006, most people assumed that the fortunes of the working- and middle-classes went up and down with the business cycle, but that the overall trend was up.  Now over five years later, studies of the inequality boom have made it clear to anyone who reads that the gains of economic growth have gone largely to the very top, and to an almost unimaginable degree.

Monday, May 07, 2012

France After Sarkozy: What Can Hollande Do?

Nicholas Sarkozy came to power five years ago heralded as France's New Man who would yoke France to global capitalism by separating it from its social model.  He jogged and he paddled New Hampshire canoes without his shirt.   I thought then that it would turn out badly, and it has.  The new Socialist president François Hollande faces a mess when he steps out of his democratically little car.

Sarkozy was a classic wedge politician, campaigning against France's supposedly grasping unruly immigrants and its allegedly violent racial minorities in 2007 as he had while minister of the interior under Chirac. Sarkozy brought one of America's most repulsive and ineffective ideas into French politics, which is that solidarity damages the economy and retards society's wealth creators, who should rule by natural right.  The practical effects in France have been a minor-key echo of their destructive impact in the U.S.. Sarkozy presided over the piecemeal degradation of two of the cornerstones of French society, its strict, high-quality public schools and its affordable, high-quality health care system. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Apple's Attack on the Knowledge Economy

The New York Times has just published the latest in Charles Duhigg''s important series of pieces  on Apple and the iEconomy (see also "middle class squeezed" and "human costs," written with various coauthors).

This third article is about Apple's global effort at maximum tax avoidance.  The story is mainly about what is in effect one rich company's effort to contribute as little as possible to public coffers, but it shows how Apple's way of looking at society is creating a Bizarro world that steadily undermines its own ability to innovate.

The most important relationship in the story is between Apple and its neighboring community college, DeAnza College.
A mile and a half from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters is De Anza College, a community college that Steve Wozniak, one of Apple’s founders, attended from 1969 to 1974. Because of California’s state budget crisis, De Anza has cut more than a thousand courses and 8 percent of its faculty since 2008.

Now, De Anza faces a budget gap so large that it is confronting a “death spiral,” the school’s president, Brian Murphy, wrote to the faculty in January. Apple, of course, is not responsible for the state’s financial shortfall, which has numerous causes. But the company’s tax policies are seen by officials like Mr. Murphy as symptomatic of why the crisis exists.

“I just don’t understand it,” he said in an interview. “I’ll bet every person at Apple has a connection to De Anza. Their kids swim in our pool. Their cousins take classes here. They drive past it every day, for Pete’s sake.

“But then they do everything they can to pay as few taxes as possible.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Problem with Schumpeter

First, some throat-clearning, with Mr. Schumpeter at left very much in mind.

The decline of the middle class has been this blog's theme since it began in 2006. I have been interested in the self-inflicted nature of this decline, and in its social and psychological dimensions. The title of the blog expreses this angle on the problem.   The economic decline of the majority is now common knowledge.  The self-inflicted sources of the decline - not so much.

Most of my blogging since 2009 been about the decline of the foundational institution of the middle class -- college, including community college -- and about the big conceptual and storytelling errors that have gotten middle class voters to go along with the budget cuts and the loss of focus on core educational missions that have made universities increasingly less useful to the students (and faculty) who go through them.

When I consciously try to avoid this theme of public university (self) destruction, I wind up in my other obsessive area, innovation theory.    Which brings me to last week. On Thursday, in Berlin, I gave a talk at the JFK Institute called "Does Cultural Study Need Innovation Theory?" My real topic was the reverse - that innovation theory needs cultural study. This is a slightly obtuse way of saying that there are huge problems with the unchallengeable model of innovation in the US, which is founded in Joseph Schumpeter. Here's my one slide summary of what is wrong with him.

i just don't see anything in Schumpeter's model, with its hostility to self-governance and regular people, that is compatible with egalitarian economic development.  Why would a Schumpeterian entrepreneur care about full employment, as opposed to minimizing their own employment of people?  In this system it is inevitable for us to have an Apple Economy now where the wealthiest most admired companies practice the offshoring of jobs as a doctrinal necessity. The now-famously "squeezed middle class" is no longer the beneficiary of innovation and new levels of productivity, but its victim.   We have innovation, but we don't have innovation jobs.

Under Schumpeter, genesis is technology.  Its fountainhead is the entrepreneur, not the toiling multitude.  To a surprising extent, technology is always in opposition to labor, which it seeks to liquidate.  Schumpeter allows economists and anyone else to assume the valuelessness of people -- the valuelessness of how people like to do things.  Schumpeter enables the social darwinism that even Barack Obama has complained about.  He also enables the decoupling of labor productivity from pay, since productivity doesn't really come from labor at all.   The logical consequence is the broken relationship between productivity (up) and wages (flat) that has caused the economic decline of the middle class.

Am I blaming Schumpeter's dominant model of innovation for this decline? Yes I am. 

Looking for an alternative, the day after my own talk I went to the Berlin meeting of the George Soros-funded Institute for New Economic Thinking. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


My favorite Capitalist Pal, trader Phillip Lewis, has a remarkable section in yesterday's post that is worth quoting in full.  Are European leaders going to force Greece to go the way of Russia under Yelstin, in which public health falls off the cliff?  It's another omen of a new dark age.  The deep psychological question is why elites are ok pushing things this way.  As Davis points out, they can't save themselves either.

****  Davis follows:

Sunday, January 08, 2012

How Subsidized Capitalism Hurts Innovation

Last week I posted on our more active university blog about how subsidized capitalism damages both the funding and popular understanding of the central role of public services in building economies and societies.

The post was just a first poke for the new year into a huge hole in Anglo-American capitalism's theory of itself.  This theory ignores the extent to which it has spent the conservative 1980-2010 period absorbing public resources into its own revenues. Most of this theory's public apologists denounce public spending, which has helped massively reduce their tax obligations -- tax avoidance has become a major profit strategy -- while justifying private appropriation as putting public money to better use.

The New York Times has a good example of the problem.  Caterpillar is spending $426 million building a new factory in North Carolina.  It has gotten the state to pay $51 million in various incentives, including $5.3 million in direct costs to train future Caterpillar workers.  Since most of the training is being done by a local college called Forsyth Tech, the state is footing other costs as well.

This suggests serious weakness in the economic theory itself.  The co-founder and longtime CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, wrote a while back that "the U.S. has become wildly inefficient at creating American tech jobs." Intel spent $3600 in adjusted dollars for every job it had 10 years after its founding.  This cost has exploded to $100,000 per job at some of the country's most successful high-tech companies -- Genentech, Google, etc. Here's the chart that accompanied the article:

The cost of each new Caterpillar job in North Carolina is $130,000 - well above Google's cost.  But that is only the state of North Carolina's contribution.  Add in the company's own investment in the new facility, and you get an incredible $1.2 million per job.  Caterpillar is very inefficient at creating jobs, and has gotten North Carolina to pick up some of the excess cost.

The use of the chart above isn't entirely fair, since the 392 jobs is this Caterpillar plant's immediate workforce and not the workforce 10 years out.  But the point of the new plant is to use technology to suppress workforce growth, suggesting future growth will be limited. And the huge cost per job can only be justified, if at all, through some extraordinary and unlikely tech-fueled level of productivity.  These are not obviously sustainable jobs, and the article points out that some of the same workers in the new state training program have been burned before by hit-and-run companies.

The problem with the expected public subsidy of capitalism has several parts. The first is that U.S. federalism has put states and local jurisdictions in competition in a "race to the bottom" to offer the weakest union protects, weakest safety requirements, lowest wages, and highest subsidies. Yes there are practical limits to all this and no not all firms are slave-driving exploiters of labor and plunderers of the public purse.  But the downward spiral is the logic of the system, and a well-paying company with good labor conditions (that support creativity) in New Jersey or Minnesota is vulnerable to competition from cheap operators in states like, well, North Carolina.

The second problem is deeper, and Andy Grove points it out.  U.S. companies are less efficient at creating jobs, he says, because the country has spent the last few decades shipping manufacturing know-how overseas, attached to the jobs it has shipped over there.  Grove focuses on the capacity for "scaling," which is the way that a good invention becomes an industry that supports lots of employment. The million little problems that must be solved require complex knowhow that is housed in people. Solutions require an entire, "effective ecosystem in which technology knowhow accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer." When this ecosystem is already established as it famously is in a place like Silicon Valley, new jobs are generally less expensive to create.  When you don't have that ecosystem, they cost a lot and, just as importantly, they are less secure.

Universities are central to an innovation ecosystem, and constantly cutting their budgets weakens the ecosystem as a whole.  But interestingly, cuts ironically drive up the cost of new jobs rather than lowering them (usually defined as lower taxes).   A weaker innovation ecosystem can destroy a new industry before it gets started.  Grove's example is lithium-ion batteries for the next generation of electric cars and trucks.
The U.S. lost its lead in batteries 30 years ago when it stopped making consumer electronics devices. Whoever made batteries then gained the exposure and relationships needed to learn to supply batteries for the more demanding laptop PC market, and after that, for the even more demanding automobile market. U.S. companies did not participate in the first phase and consequently were not in the running for all that followed. I doubt they will ever catch up. 
Subsidized capitalism conceals the real problem, which is the weakening of the overall social environment in which innovation and sustainability take place.   It has been weakened by social underinvestment.   Grove calls explicitly for jobs policy -- for "jobs-centric" leadership.

We won't get something that intelligent because both parties like to shovel public money toward private firms, even when it means taking public funds away from the social ecosystem on which the firms depend.

To wrap up, subsidized capitalism kills two birds with its one big stone.  First, it hurts public services. Subsidized capitalism has enabled the takeover of the charter school movement by education companies whose existence depends entirely on taxpayer funding.  The same goes for-profit university-company sector, which depends so totally on federal loan money that it pipes through its student-customers that the government has had to cap their receipt of federal funds as a share of total revenues at 90%.  This sector sells educational services, but makes its money by not spending revenues on education, and produces bad educational results.  The bad drives out the good, as the for-profit sector's existence convinces many policymakers that they can get away with spending less public money on real-thing public education.   The same has happened to transportation. A somewhat funny example is Chicago outsourcing its parking meters, which historically helped pay for street improvements.  More seriously, the UK House of Commons's Treasury Committee published a study last August, 20 years into its "Private Finance Initiatives" experience that included privatizing its rail system.  The committee found among other things that PFI deals typically added 40% to the service costs.

The second victim of subsidized capitalism is the private sector itself.  Demanding tax reduction with one hand and receiving taxpayer funding with the other, corporate America has ignored the role of public funding in building the advanced society on which its own survival depends.  After nearly 40 years of this, in 2012, it's not clear that the U.S. will ever catch up.