Saturday, May 05, 2018

Remember remember

There is a tendency among historians to think that “great” presidents are those who succeeded and who influenced their successors. What they don’t consider is the possibility of a president with enormous influence who also enormously failed. This is because historians believe that American history has an auto-correct embedded in it.
The twenty-first century is upending these assumptions. Surely the most influential president of this century was George Bush. And surely he was the most miserable, rotten, corrupt, lying, failure we have yet seen in the presidency, and I am including the present sexual assaulter.
In fact, although few people seem to have noticed, the Trump administration is modeled almost pathetically on the Bush administration. When the Bushes came in, what was the first order of business? To undo everything that the Clintons had done. This included, by the way, the information and practice of anti-terrorism, which had concentrated on Al Qaeda. Of course, Al Qaeda wasn’t on the headlines of the ever lagging press – if you look back at the debate between Bush and Gore on foreign policy in 2000, you will notice not one question about Al qaeda, which had at that point blown up a U.S. embassy and been ineffectually bombed by Clinton. But inside the White House, from all accounts, remnants of the Clinton era were trying to alert Bush appointees to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda. Those appointees turned a big thumbs down on this business. It was a combination of disdain for anything Clinton and love for anything Saudi. As we know, when the CIA told Bush that al qaeda was planning a big attack on the U.S. in August of 2001, Bush told the CIA to suck eggs. He was that kind of nincompoop.
Second order of business for the Bushies was getting rid of Clinton’s taxes on the wealthy. To do this, the Bush’s cut taxes enormously for the wealthy and hardly at all for the non-wealthy.
Then, of course, everything fell to hell for Bush when the CIA’s prediction came true. He was rescued by the press, which rolled out the usual imperial excuses, and the Democrats, who felt it was their patriotic duty to make sure that the nation continued to be run by an incompetent. I mean, otherwise, there would be investigations, partisanship and who knows what divides in the country’s fabric! The Dems were happy anyway: they’d help abolish regulations on the financial industry under Clinton, they’d reformed welfare to make sure that in downturns, poor people would starve, and they’d messed up single payer health care so badly that it wasn’t even an issue.
After 9/11, of course, there was the commencement of a war in Afghanistan that still hasn’t stopped, pursued with exemplary incompetence. There was the escape of Osama bin Laden on a pony to our ally, Pakistan (who’d been financing him), which we pretended not to see – Osama turned out to be a very valuable threat, an election ploy, but not somebody we wanted to offend the Saudis and Pakistanis by actually “getting”. There were the lies that led to Iraq being occupied. There were the lies that led to Cheney’s office basically attacking the CIA. There was the second mortgage boom, the zero interest mortgage boom, the boom boom boom of credit profiles that made it the case that the average household owed more than its assets by 2007, there was the systematic slimery of the 2002 election, and there was the final boom of the economy as Bush stood by, in his usual suppressed panic mode. Oh, I forgot New Orleans drowning. And of course the day to day mendacity, racism, fundamentalism, and use of lying and stupidity.
If ever the policies of a president deserved to be overturned, it was Bush’s policies. But alas, he was opposed by Democrats. So when Obama came into office, mildness and bi-partisanship became the keywords. It suddenly became all important to have Republicans sign on for any policy that was to be passed. Obama became prematurely concerned with a deficit that was faulty only because it wasn’t big enough to bring the U.S. out of its slump in a faster fashion, with more drippings for the majority of peeps, and less drippings for the uber-wealthy. We all became more unequal, the justice system continued to rot, and the U.S. out of the badness of its heart involved itself in Libya, Yemen and Syria, all to no good end.
Bushism, in other word, endured.
Trump is a nightmare, but he is much too lazy to be anyway near as bad, as malign, as George Bush. But forgive and forget, right? Now polls show even Dems, always on the lookout for a good Daddy GOP-er, have favorable opinions about Bush.
No memory, no future. That seems to be the 21st century’s big motto.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Liberate the past!

In 1926, there was an attempt to put into place a new kind of sidewalk at Rue Championnet in the 18th arrondissement – now known, if known at all, for being the last address of the Iranian author, Sadegh Hedayat – which would incorporate one of H.G. Wells’ vision of the future: it would roll. The speed of the sidewalk was set at 1 to 7 kilometers per hour. The experiment was reported by Paris Soir. But evidently it did not catch on: Rue Championnet today has returned to sidewalks that support the movement of the pedestrians, rather than vice versa. The future didn’t happen.
I am, for some reason, fascinated by the sidewalks of Paris. Outside of our building and all down our street, this winter, they have been reinstalling pipe. To do this, they had to remove the blocks of stone that constitute the sidewalk and dig a trench, going down a good three feet – or so I judge from watching the diggers step into it, which sank them to a chest high view of street level. The diggers seemed to have been a good natured bunch, as they would have to be: all of us residents of the street cast the evil eye, at one time or another, at this disturbance of our routine. We were forced to walk into the street rather than on the sidewalk, for one thing. On the other hand, we depend on those mysterious pipes and cables. Without them, we are fucked.
In the US, the destruction of the sidewalk would have been the work of jackhammers, and the pieces of concrete would have been carted off. In Paris, however, history is an arm’s length away. The sidewalks on our street are not mere anonymous sheets of concrete – the Mafia’s fave substance. Rather, they are paving stones – the kind of thing that, during revolutions, are dug out and piled up in the street to make barricades. Dallage, quoi. What the workers did was rather marvelous: they numbered each stone, spraying the numbers on them with a dayglo paint.  Then they piled them in a little area at the end of the street, which was surrounded by a little nylon green barrier. Now that the pipe and cable are laid, they are putting back the stones in the order in which they were numbered. This, for an American, is so amazing that I can’t walk down the sidewalk without feeling the urge to take out my phone and photograph. Although the photographs don’t really capture what is happening here. Instead of viewing the past as something to be preserved – in a sort of competition with the present and the future – the past is viewed as something living in the present, something that floats in our everyday life. This is so alien to the view of things in the American city – or at least the cities I’ve lived in, Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles – that one has to shift the frame, or crash the frame, to get it to conceptually fit.
Liberate the past. Why give it to the reactionaries?

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Ya want resistance? I got resistance for ya.

We’ve been here before.
In 1852, a slave named Joshua Glover escaped from the household of Bennami Garland of St. Louis. He ended up in Racine Wisconsin. Unlike Huck and Jim, this slave knew the direction of freedom – the ductus of liberation, you might say. Or thought he did. In 1854, Garland got a court in St. Louis to recognize that Glover was in Racine, and that Glover had stolen Garland’s property – Glover. Given the power encoded by the Fugitive Slave Act, Garland informed the U.S. Marshals, who descended on a shack Glover was staying in – while he worked for a local businessman at a sawmill – and they captured him.
What happened next was real resistance, not a hashtag. The bells rang in Racine to warn the populace about the invasion of free territory by the slavers. Racine, at that time, was a strongly anti-slavery town. A meeting was held, and resolutions were passed decrying the kidnapping of Glover. A writ of habaeus corpus for Glover was submitted to the court, which would decide whether Glover could be sent back to Missouri. Glover had been removed under cover of night to Milwaukee by the slave catchers, due to fear that Racine’s enraged citizens would rescue the man. But in Milwaukee the slavers were not safe: a meeting was called in front of the courthouse, and thousands attended. At this time in America, the idea that the feudal remnant called the judiciary could arbitrarily slice and dice the inherent rights of human beings – which we now accept gladly, watching millions process through our jail system – was not so passively accepted. An abolitionist and the editor of a local newspaper, Sherman M. Booth, incited the crowd to do a wondrous work of freedom by crashing the jail in which Glover was held. Eight men volunteered. The jailhouse was merrily cracked open, Glover was taken out of it, hidden in a cart, and taken to Canada.
This is resistance.
Booth was arrested. He was tried. The judge in the case, one A.D. Smith, covered himself with glory by freeing Smith and overturning the Fugitive Slave act on a state’s rights plea.
One should remember that the Southern states were very willing, at this point, to override state’s rights if it involved supporting slavery, before they decided to invoke state’s rights – again, to support slavery – because Southern states identified themselves with slaveholding.
This is from Smith’s opinion:
“But they (the States) never will consent that a slave owner, his agent or an office of the United States, armed with process to arrest a fugitive slave from service, is clothed with entire immunity from state authority, to commit whatever crime or outrage against the laws of the state; that their own high prerogative write of habeas corpus shall be annulled, their authority denied, and their officers resisted, the process of their own courts condemned; their territory invaded by federal forces, the houses of their citizens searched, the sanctuary of their homes invaded, their streets and public places made the scene of tumultuous and armed violence; and state sovereignty succumb, paralyzed and aghast, before the process of an officer unknown to the Constitution and irresponsible to its sanctions. At least such will not become the degradation of Wisconsin…”
Change the words slightly to ICE and this is as pertinent now as ever. ICE, which, lets remember, was started under George Bush. Like almost everything that the Trump administration is doing – from overturning its predecessor’s edicts to tax cutting to war mongering to polluting – the beginning is there in the horrid administration of that world class ignoramus, George Bush. This too.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

in defense of envy: the bad sister of greed

When you read conservative and libertarian economists, you will inevitably, at one time or another, run into an interesting paraodox: the envy paradox. While greed among this type is the good bad emotion, and has been since Mandeville, envy is the wicked sister, the bad bad emotion which we must shame.
Right away, it seems that this makes little sense. If you dub envy “aspiration”, hey presto, it becomes a virtue. The Horatio Alger striver, realizing that capitalism is the best of all systems and the thing to do is to swim upstream and rescue the bankers daughter, is mucho applauded – while the woke Horatio Alger union organizer or (heavens) community organizer who aspires to a more equal society by, say, limiting the amount of wealth possessed by the wealthy, using the democratic tools at hand, are falling for the bad bad emotion of envy.
It is a curious twist. Even more curious, though, is the economists blindness, on a massive, ideological scale, to the economics of envy in capitalism. Because for the neo-classical economist, one thing is clear: advertising is an epiphenomena that has no effect on the market.
This ludicrous position comes out of a deeper, structural ludicrousness about preferences and the sovereign consumer. Advertising messes up the gig.
In any case, in the real world, unfortunately, it is not envy of the expropriators that rules, but envy as a driver of, for instance, creating fan bases for parity products. Wipe out envy and where is the housing market going to be? And how are we gonna sell pepsi, or SUVs?
Whenever you see an economist who is quite comfortable with greed and the most egregious forms of human exploitation suddenly become all Ten Commandments about envy, you have caught a glimpse of the ideology of the beast. The apologists of capitalism can’t help themselves.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

tradition: we dream each other's dreams

It was, I believe,  T.S. Eliot who said that every strong writer creates the tradition that he then proceeds to follow. By this he meant that literature is not sequential, even if its chronology, by mundane necessity, is. A writer picks out, from the vantage point of those instincts found in his scribblings, those of his predecessors who tended towards him. Blake thought the same thing - Milton dreamed of Blake, and then Blake dreamed of Milton. Mixing memory and desire indeed. 

Well, the same can be said, as we all know, for economic history. When bubbles are blowing, the historians turn a revisionist eye on previously dissed speculators. In the nineties, there was an outpouring of sympathy for, of all people, J.P. Morgan. So cultured! So right, so often! This acquisitive weasel, this man whose name was rightly cursed by every farmer and Pullman porter in the 1890s, the classic photograph of whom, stick raised, WC Fields proboscis burning, pig like eyes shining with malice and outrage, was muckraking enough. This culminated in Strouse prize winning bio, which gave us a nineties J.P. For Strouse dear Pierpont turns out to be less ogre than Clinton Democrat avant la letter, managing us into the tiered prosperity we so knew and loved during those boomiest years. 

Economic history is, at the moment, turning a more puzzled eye on 90s verities. Or some economists are. For instance, it was proven as a fact by 90s economists that globalization, free trade for all, was our ticket to utopia. If any of the Morlocks became discontented or dis-employed, during this time, it was all due to technology. And you can’t say anything bad about technology! It just requires smart smart smart smarts – people like, say, degreed economists. Since then the Morlocks have got poorer, they’ve lost social status, they are in debt, and instead of blaming themselves for not having sold Grandma and gone to Harvard, they are blaming their rulers. This is called populism, and man is it bad! First they came for the billionaires, and soon they are against gay marriage. This, at least, is how decent centrists, who want, really want to help the Morlocks but just don’t have time at the moment, see it.

Adrian Wood has a gentle piece in VoxEU wondering whether perhaps, perhaps those economists who cheerled us into the trade pact globe of today were being premature, or even uncaring about the Morlocks. Maybe globalization did have a little bit to do with job loss, wage stagnation, and downward shifting tendencies among those who don’t have personal bankers. It is written in a nice, gingerly manner, all soft voiced, which makes for some unintentional comedy. For instance, Wood notices how much weight was put on  
Heckscher-Ohlin trade theory to show that offshoring manufacturing to cheaper labor oasis wouldn’t touch a hair on the chinny chin chin of the Morlock class. And he comments:

“In hindsight, researchers were blinkered by HO theory. Not enough attention was paid to other mechanisms by which trade might affect wages. HO also assumes that  labour mobility within countries is costless, and this unfortunately caused economists to forget that particular localities often bear most of the social costs of expansion of trade.”
Oh, those Morlocks! They just won’t pick up in their masses, abandon their homes where they grew up and where their parents grew up, and move to where the work is! My gosh, no wonder they take to opioids! Which isn’t to say anything bad about how wonderfully profitable the Sackler family has made Purdue Pharmaceuticals – wonderful people, and so artistic too!
Centrism is, by all accounts, losing its grip on everything but the media and governing class elite. Centrism is the very dream of the economics department. They don’t get everything like they want it – wouldn’t it be nice to privatize the streets in cities and such – but they get good compromises that inflict fatal wounds on the social insurance compacts that formed in the 30s and held up through the 90s. And now nobody likes it!
Time, I think, for tradition to jump the tracks. Let’s go back to the progressive economists of 1900, a much sounder lot.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...