Building the New American Economy – Not

The title of this short book, only 130 pages, Building the New American Economy: smart, fair, & sustainable by Jeffrey D. Sachs with a foreword by Bernie Sanders (Columbia University Press, 2017) is unfortunately misleading. There is much here about the new economy. The misleading part is that there is very little about its construction, the building of the new economy.

Sachs covers many important issues in a thorough, efficient fashion. If you need a primer or a tune up about the economy this is a good place to start. These include: investment in our society, infrastructure, Federal budget, income inequality, healthcare, energy, military and the empire (not his phrase), and innovation. If you have been reading my postings over the last 5 or so years much of this will seem a bit deja vu. Continue reading

BEHEMOTH (BEI XI MO SHOU) at TSL Hudson

This 2015 movie by Chinese director Liang Zhao is filled with great cinematography and sounds. It trades back and forth between scenes of enormous horizon gulping coal mines, under ground mines, iron making, and ends with scenes of a ghost city filled with enormous apartment blocks in a newly developed but vacant city West of Beijing. But, the most arresting part of the movie is its focus on the workers, men and women, in this relentlessly grim, polluted environment. The only narration is text read over scenes with a nude figure huddled on the ground in front of this devastation. It alludes to Dante’s Inferno.

Behemoth is a refresher course on why capitalism, whether in its American or Chinese variant, needs government regulation, strong regulation to prevent this egregious exploitation of the earth and mankind. Of course this presumes the government is in the hands of the people and nota tool of the rich and corporations. Therein lies the crisis.

The movie runs at TSL over this weekend and the two following. Here is TSL’s calendar.

Also playing at TSL is I Am Not Your Negro, the wonderful, challenging movie about James Baldwin.

Job (Business) Killing Regulations

Ever since Ronald Reagan told us in his 1981 Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” government bashing by right-wingers, Republicans and many Democrats has been a constant drumbeat of political rhetoric. Now we have Trump with his “Kill 2 regulations for every new one” and a government dominated by Republicans for whom destroying government has been an objective for decades. We are faced with the probable destruction of many government agencies whose job it is to protect us from capitalism.

Someone Else Will Pay – A Basic Feature of the Capitalist Economy

One of the basic features of capitalism is the requirement that businesses avoid any costs that they can. Basically they are required by the rules of the competitive game to get someone else to pay for anything they can shirk off. Without countervailing forces, the government, unions, and other social organizations, stepping in, capitalists will externalize any cost they can. This results in capitalist firms destroying the environment by unsustainable exploitation of the earth (see mines, forests, rivers, oceans); polluting the environment (air, water, landscape); maintaining unsafe working conditions; paying wages below that required for people to have a sustainable life; engaging in speculative risky gambling (see our financial sector for the most recent egregious examples of this); creating and marketing products and services based on manipulating demand through false, misleading and manipulative advertising.

None of this being done because capitalists are evil people.

This happens because the rules of the capitalist game require it to happen. If another firm, lets say a paper mill, is avoiding the costs of cleaning the water used in production before returning it to the river, the competitor paper mill must do the same. Otherwise, their paper would cost much more and they would not survive in the marketplace. Without government, unions, and social groups setting the rules of the game with regard to “external costs” capitalist firms must cast off as many costs as possible. This is the simple inescapable law of capitalist competition.

The EPA is a favorite target of government bashing. Let’s look back to why the EPA was formed in 1970 by Republican President Nixon. Many readers are too young to have first hand knowledge of how widespread environmental pollution used to be.

From the Empire St building – photo by Neil Boenzi originally published in NYTimes.

New York City looked like this in 1966. That’s not fog, that is smog, a noxious pall of automobile exhaust and emissions from power plants, petro/chemical plants and others. These days you have to travel to Beijing and other places without an EPA to experience this first hand

Another example

Here is a comparative shot from Los Angeles – 1968 – 2005.

From: http://geoprojectgrp7.blogspot.com/2015/03/air-pollution-in-los-angeles-location.html

Rivers on Fire

Industry polluted water so badly that some burned. Here is a short documentary on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It begins with a snip from Randy Newman’s song “Burn On”1 :

The catalog of capitalism’s inevitable sins is way too long for this brief piece. The breadth of the costs of this central feature is quite astonishing and in some perverse way, inventive. In recent years we have seen new forms of externalized costs unthought of earlier. Do a search on “farm waste pollution” or “chemical pollution” for more examples from our current situation.

You Eat the Next Cost Avoidance Every Day

Another cost that capitalists seek to reduce, or eliminate, is labor, wages and salaries. The food industry is a good example of where non-union, minority workers are exploited because no one will protect them from the cost avoiding behavior of the capitalist system. Without government protections capitalists will pay as low a wage as possible regardless of whether the wage allows workers to live a reasonable life, raise their families and educate their children. Capitalism is not concerned with how the human resources of society survive and reproduce the next generation of workers.

The food we eat every day is plentiful and comparatively inexpensive because the farms that grow it are largely outside the protections of fair labor and minimum wage laws. Many farm workers are undocumented migrant workers from Mexico and other countries to our South. “Annually, the average income of crop workers is between $10,000 to $12,499 for individuals and $15,000 to $17,499 for a family. To give you an idea, the federal poverty line is $10,830 for an individual or $22,050 for a family of four (in 2009). Thus, according to NAWS, 30% of all farm workers had total family incomes below the poverty line.”2 Many are migrants and therefore their children do not have stable school lives. 

This is not a new story. In 1960 Edward R. Morrow reported on this exploitation in one of the most famous documentaries of the TV history, Harvest of Shame. The facts today are only marginally better than 57 years ago.

Externalized costs, cost avoidance and shirking wherever possible are structural features of capitalism that people can and must control. Capitalism is structurally unable to control these outcomes. It has no capacity to see or react to the consequences of the actions of it participants. It requires perpetual mindless growth with no regard to any needs outside of its own needs. People and nature be damned.  With the present weakness of unions and other social forces, government is the tool. We must take the government back from the rich and corporations. Capitalism was created through the joint action of government and private entrepreneurs. It is not some ideal system, rather the result of struggle between various elements in society.  Its present structure is the result of more than forty years of political action by the rich and corporations furthering their ends. Time now for the vast majority to assert their needs to be expressed in the economy.

  1. audio of song here: https://youtu.be/VtW8RkI3-c4 []
  2. http://nfwm.org/education-center/farm-worker-issues/low-wages/ []

Diversity and Identity Politics Is A Deadend

Progressives have to declare class war as a central strategy. Otherwise we will all be sitting at the dinner table basking in our glorious diversity with nothing to eat.

For many good reasons identity and diversity have dominated our politics for decades.  Progressives celebrate its expansion and Republicans and their brethren on the right pretty universally engage in either dog whistle or outright racist politics. 

Simultaneously the rich and corporations have been fighting a class war. They have succeeded beyond belief. As is well known, for 90% of the population real incomes have been flat for the past 40 yrs. Meanwhile, the rich and corporations have gotten fabulously rich. Richer than at any time in history. And, to make things worse they have done this while hiding behind free-market (neoliberal) ideology that has impoverished the government and the public sphere of our lives. Our infrastructure is crumbling, education is outrageously expensive, sending many students to decades of indebtedness. Our health system costs more than twice any of our developed country cohort and delivers third world results. 

Progressives, time to fight back. Diversity and identity without a fair share of the pie is not going to make you happy.

How Much Money Would It Take To Eliminate Poverty in the US?

This 2013 article “How Much Money Would It Take to Eliminate Poverty” (http://prospect.org/article/how-much-money-would-it-take-eliminate-poverty-america) addresses this question. The answer then was $175 billion. This is a ridiculously small number in the context of a $16 trillion GDP.

As someone who is on the homeowners gravy train I was stuck by this part of the article:

“The utterly ridiculous tax expenditures directed toward the disproportionately affluent class of people called homeowners—mortgage interest deduction, property tax deduction, exclusion of capital gains on residences—by themselves sum to $115.3 billion in 2012.”

Of course we live in a society that knows that poor people are poor because they are shiftless, drug addled and lazy. We certainly can’t reward those people with any help. Meanwhile the rich and corporations are worthy recipients of government handouts without fear that we will be corrupting them.

I’ve often thought it would be a salutary exercise if we handed out these tax breaks at a universal government payout office. Here, everyone receiving funds from the government would line up. As they received their check a big sign above the window would flash out the amount of their check. I think people on SSI would be outraged at how their measly few hundred dollars a month compared to the payouts to the rich and corporations. 

So much of this is a question of what and whose priorities are being met by government action/inaction. Presently we don’t have a political system even vaguely responsive to the vast majority of Americans. In fact it is serving the rich and corporations quite admirably.

Park Avenue and How We Got There

“There” is our current situation in which our government has been bought by the rich and corporations, over 80% of the population has not had a pay raise in 40 years and the public sphere, schools, parks, our infrastructure, really anything not behind the gated walls of private wealth, is being starved in the name of free market ideology. The American promise that hard work, pluck and a bit of luck can bring success to anyone, regardless of their rank at birth, is an empty myth. If you are born poor you will die poor. Even if you are middle-class, there is a significant chance that you will sink and at any rate you will always struggle just to keep that middle-class status.

The rich and corporations have waged a 40 year class war. At this point they have won all of the battles and continue to take home the spoils. Continue reading

The Gig Economy in the Academy – a note

The values of capitalism, especially as expressed through free market (neoliberal) ideology, have come to dominate how we organize our lives. Silicon Valley and the tech sector is busy celebrating the “gig” economy. Companies have simply stopped hiring employees and now conduct much of their work using “temps”, “1099ers”, part-time contract workers. The companies, and the champions of free markets, tout this as a wonder of flexibility and opportunity. For gigers not being recognized as an employee means that they lose out on all sorts of direct and indirect benefits long part of the contract between employers and employees: minimum wages, overtime benefits, health insurance, workers compensation for those hurt on the job, unemployment benefits for those who are laid off, proof of employment for those trying to rent or get a loan, and, perhaps most significantly, lower taxes (workers who are “independent contractors” have to pay the employer’s share of  payroll taxes, thats an additional 7.7%). Part-time employees have no regular schedule, in many cases no regular place of work, no regular contact with other employees, or even a job at all. They are the ultimate commodity, entirely replaceable with very few contingent liabilities for companies.

American higher education long ago became an essential part of the corporate state and therefore focus for application of free market ideology.1   As the accompanying chart shows, in 1975 the  contingent  faculty (full-time non-tenure, part-time and graduate assistants) made up 55% of the academic workforce. Continue reading

  1. By corporate state I mean the current situation in which our government, rhetorically democratic, is really the captured entity of the rich and corporations. []

A Note on Jobs & Unemployment

As the presidential campaign of 2016 fades away and the Trump Era begins, we find a national scene without any real discussion of the facts of jobs and unemployment and what the future might bring. Trump and others talk about bringing manufacturing back to the US. No plan, plausible or otherwise, has ever been mentioned for how to accomplish this. The Democrat are hardly better. Much has been made and continues to be made of the role various trade agreements have had in the loss of manufacturing jobs. Even Bernie Sanders can do no better than talking about creating millions of good paying jobs through a national infrastructure program. It is laudable to fix the infrastructure that has become third world, but that is not a long-term jobs strategy.

There are structural changes in the capitalist economy that must be understood and accepted as fact. Lets begin with a few examples. US steel production, one of those lost American industries, is now as high as it was at the beginning of the 1960s. Continue reading

Book Review – The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Rise and Fall of American Growth-bookcoverThe Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US standard of living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon1 is a weighty book in every regard. At 762 pages it is a heavy lift – not beach reading or even bed-time either. But I found it almost a page turner. It is very well structured and written. None of the fussiness or obscurantist language one often finds in academic works. The central point of the book is that during the period from 1870 to 1970 the US economy grew at an extraordinary and we will not see a return to that rate for some pretty fundamental reasons. Continue reading

  1. Princeton U. Press. 2016 []

Inside Goldman Sachs with the Federal Reserve

GoldmanSachsThe relationship between our financial services industry, our government, and us, ordinary citizens who have repeatedly suffered the consequences of the avarice and incompetence of this industry, has always been troubled. Booms, busts, crashes, bubbles, depressions, inflation. Since the beginning of the 2008 Great Recession we have hoped that the government would return to applying some real rational restraints on the financial system. To be honest, with both political parties deep in the pocket of the industry, this is probably merely wishful thinking.

The Secret recordings of Carmen Segarra

While you are listening to this report of regulators captured by the industry they are paid to supervise, think of the endless series of Wall St and corporate chieftains who have worked for every President of our life time. So,  don’t miss the current This American Life story about the Federal Reserve: “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra” ((http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/536/the-secret-recordings-of-carmen-segarra))

FedReserveNY