Thursday, September 24, 2020

Science. the left, and genetic academic ability

I am a "scientist" both by profession (I'm minimally qualified to publish in the social sciences) and by philosophical inclination. I think science, broadly defined, is not only the best but the only way to anything that looks even remotely like truth.

I'm not stupid. I know that science is not just a philosophy but a social activity, and prone to the same biases and bullshit as every other social activity. Scientists can be just as racist, sexist, and classist as anyone else. As individuals scientists can hold onto their cherished biases in the face of evidence just as fervently as the most conservative priest. I don't think that if someone has a Ph.D. and slaps the "science" label on something, it is therefore God's Own Truth... or even a little bit true.

But, as a philosophy, as a methodology, as a social practice, I think science, and scientists, have a least a chance of stumbling onto the truth, a chance that no other social practice has. And when some individual scientist makes a mistake, however egregious, we can correct the mistake... using science. And science does, at least in the long run, actually privilege some statements as truth, or at as least moving us closer to the truth.

I'm also a moral subjectivist. I don't think there are any moral truths, precisely because we can't use science to decide moral questions. If the evidence contradicts a moral statement, too bad for the evidence: science is about how the world is, but morality is about the world isn't and what we want it to become. The observation that people can and do murder each other contradicts the statement that people cannot murder each other, but does nothing to contradict the statement that people shouldn't (in some broad sense) murder each other.

Just like any other progressive or socialist, I become incensed when reactionaries ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it. 

No, COVID-19 really is infectious, whether you like it or not; it really is an order of magnitude more deadly than the flu, whether you like it or not. To be honest, I don't like that COVID-19 is infectious and deadly, but there it is.

No, the Earth really is becoming warmer because of human activity, and the Earth will soon become at best inhospitable and at worse uninhabitable, whether you like it or not.

No, life really did evolve over hundreds of millions or billions of years, whether you like it or not.

No, Black people really are just as smart as white people; women are just as smart as men, gay people just as pro-social as straight people, etc. I happen to like those truths, but that doesn't matter: they're really true regardless of whether I like it or not. And if someone else doesn't like those truths, well, they're free to dislike them, but they're still true.

And we know all the above because science, not because it is somehow "morally superior" to believe any of the above.

But I become just as incensed when progressives or socialists ignore or contradict scientific truth just because they don't like it.

There are a lot of rhetorical moves one can make against any scientific truth. Scientific truths are never known with certainty. Scientific truths are always underdetermined by observation. Science is always theory-laden and dependent on preconceptions. Scientists might always have made a mistake, forgotten this important factor, missed that causal pathway.

Fine. If some philosopher wants to argue that science has given us some nifty gadgets but does not move us one iota closer to any interesting truth about the world, just because science is uncertain, underdetermined, theory-laden, possibly in error, well, that's hardly philosophically disreputable. But I think such a philosopher should be consistent: they should reject arguments from science for positions they like just as vehemently as they reject them for positions they dislike.

I don't think Nathan J. Robinson is that kind of radical skeptic. But when he comes across an idea he doesn't like, he trots out the same anti-science rhetorical moves that I think (hope!) he would vehemently denounce from a reactionary.

Robinson takes exception to Fredrik deBoer's recent book, The Cult of Smart. Robinson quotes deBoer's own summary:

The existence and power of genetic dispositions in academic ability have been demonstrated by literally hundreds of high-quality studies that replicate each other and that find again and again that genetic influence can explain .5 – .8 of the variation in educational metrics within the population.

I'm probably qualified to evaluate this claim, but I'm honestly too lazy to do so. There are plenty of people whose job it is to evaluate this kind of claim and who could do a much better job than I ever could. But it is certainly possible to contest this claim on scientific grounds, and if the science doesn't hold up, too bad for deBoer and genetic academic ability. We'll never be certain, but if we don't abandon science on this topic, we'll be a lot more confident about the answer in twenty years.

Robinson, however, does everything but contest this claim on scientific grounds. Instead, he constructs an elaborate screed that is nothing more than the idea that he doesn't want there to be genetic academic ability, the idea of genetic academic ability is morally reprehensible, therefore there cannot be any such thing.

Maybe that's a good strategy, at least for Robinson. Maybe abandoning scientific reasoning will bring about the kind of world that Robinson wants, and hey, use what works, n'est ce pas?

But I don't want any kind of world that abandons scientific reasoning. And Robinson's science denialism is as repugnant to me as climate change denialism, and has destroyed the credibility I had for Current Affairs as thoroughly as Doug Henwood destroyed my credibility for Jacobin.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Marxists should not dismiss MMT

I'm not saying that Marxists should become MMT enthusiasts. Adam Booth is at least partly correct: MMT scholars are mostly not Marxists or socialists, and MMT by itself will not usher in a socialist utopia.

By definition, a truly "communist" society doesn't need anything remotely resembling money: the opportunity cost of producing and consuming the ordinary social product — food, shelter, clothing, communication, entertainment, etc. — is negligible and there is no need to carefully account for its use or ration its consumption.

But any kind of "socialist" society will need something that looks very much like money. By definition, a "socialist" society must manage scarce resources, which means that society must carefully account for the opportunity cost of producing and consuming the social product to ensure that we produce what we want the most, and ration the consumption of the social product. Essentially, anything that does the job of accounting for and rationing the social product is money*.

 *It's pointless to quibble over definitions, a task I have spent far too much time on. We could define the label money as including something unique to capitalism, and then, of course, socialists wouldn't use money. But there still would what we use to account for and ration of social product, which we'll arbitrarily label as gnippa. Then the rest of this article is about gnippa.

People in a socialist society will have very different relations to money than people in a capitalist society. Socialists will use and think about money differently than capitalists use and think about money, but whatever those relations, so long as they account for and ration the social product, they will have some relations to money.

There are two reasons I think Marxists should pay attention to MMT. The first is that at least initially, a socialists society must actually manage money. I can't imagine any benefit for a socialist society to not account for the social product, and try to ration access without using numbers. Once we start slapping numbers on the social product and use those numbers to ration access to the social product, we have what is essentially money. And if we're using money, we need theories about how it works.

And just as capitalist scientists can come up with good theories about how electrons, viruses, cows, and ecosystems work, capitalist economists can come up with good theories about how money works, and how to manage the accounting and rationing of the social product.

As an economist in a capitalist society, I understand that most of my colleagues spend most of their time just providing academic support for capitalist ideology, a task I don't really endorse, but there is a little truth, mostly independent of ideology, in there. And I think that MMT has some of that mostly ideology-independent truth.

The second reason that I think Marxists should pay attention to MMT is that MMT explicitly challenges a critical capitalist myth: the myth that money itself is a scarce resource, and that to get what they want, the masses must get money from those who already have it. 

If the capitalist class had all of the iron in storage, protected by armed guards, then regardless of our social structure, if we wanted to build stuff using iron, we would need to get the iron from those who had it, by persuasion or force. And because iron is really useful in making weapons, control over iron would give the capitalist class an enormous advantage in the exercise of force.

The capitalist class rules because it has control over money. So long as we buy the myth that money itself is a scarce resource, capitalists' control over money gives them as much or more power as they would have if they controlled all the iron. Even if 99% of the people wanted socialism, if the people believed that capitalists controlled a scarce resource they needed, then the capitalists can block socialism.

This myth has real bite. Margaret Thatcher supported her eleven-year rule with little more than the slogan, "The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."But if money is not a scarce resource, then we cannot run out of anyone's money. 

The Democratic party in the United States cannot implement even a hint of a progressive, much less a socialist, agenda just because they cannot imagine how they could pry the money out of rich people's hands. Worse, the Democratic electorate, as much as they might want a progressive agenda, falls for the myth that they need rich people's money, and they too cannot imagine how to get at that money, so they don't demand that the party attempt the impossible.

MMT proponents directly challenge the myth of the scarcity of money. Whether or not they realize it, they are fundamentally subverting a fundamental myth of capitalism, really in the same sense that Christian scholars who challenge the historicity of the resurrection fundamentally subvert a fundamental myth of Christianity. 

Capitalism dominates today not just because capitalists successfully argue that capitalism is better, but because capitalism is true, that any sacrifices or privation the people must suffer under capitalism are imposed not by the capitalist system, but by nature: there is only so much money to go around, and if there isn't enough money, we can't get what we want, regardless of the availability of other resources.

So no, MMT is not itself socialist, and a simple restructuring of the Treasury and Fed around MMT theories will not by itself bring about a socialist society. However, MMT subverts a fundamental myth that supports capitalism, and it behooves all anti-capitalists to endorse that subversion.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Opinion: Detroit accountant shows that opinions built on ignorance come crashing down

the stupid! it burns!

Richard Drumb disapproves of Modern Monetary Theory. He pretty much trots out every moronic anti-MMT trope. 

Drumb compares the federal government to the city of Detroit, but Detroit cannot create money, and the federal government does nothing but create the money it spends.

No one lends money to the federal government. Why would the government need to borrow money, which it creates? The government does not borrow; instead, it generously offers to pay people interest to take money out of circulation.

We have a lot of economic problems, and the federal government is doing a lot of harmful things. But a violating a non-existent budget constraint is not one of those problems.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Sayings

 Curiosity killed the cat... but satisfaction brought it back.

Blood is thicker than water. The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.

Jack of all trades, master of none... but better than a master of one.

Great minds think alike... but fools rarely differ.

Birds of a feather flock together... until the cat comes.

The early bird catches the worm... but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

It's not the automation

 Kind of a cute premise by Frisco Uplink.

Step 1, invoke Star Trek, the Next Generation episode, "The Measure of a Man" (S02E09), where Picard argues that Data should be considered sentient, because holding him non-sentient risks creating a permanent underclass of disposable exploitable labor.

Step 2, argue that non-sentient supervisory software a la Uber goes the other direction: the supervisory software allows us to treat gig workers such as Uber drivers as disposable exploitable labor. According to the author, "Gig workers are precarious not only because they lack benefits, but also because the everyday bedrock of their work is determined by a black box algorithm designed to extract maximum profit for a distant corporation. . . . Software perfectly shields the humans profiting from this one-sided equation from confronting the personal toll it takes" on their disposable workers.

The author puts too much weight on the means, and the inversion fails. Indeed, TNG gets it exactly right. The decision to classify some beings as non-sentient is the critical act. Once we have decided that some beings are non-sentient, we'll find some means or another — lords of the manor, colonial administrators, overseers, supervisors, software — to efficiently exploit them. 

The bosses have always shielded themselves from the human consequences of their exploitation, and this alienation long preceded capitalism, although capitalism has refined alienation to its purest state (at least so far).

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

#WorkersLivesMatter

Standing on one foot, the government acts in the workers' interests, that is the entirety of socialism, and the rest is its interpretation.

Why the workers' interests? Why not humanity's interests? Everyone's interests?

In part, the reasoning is, I think, along the same lines as #BlackLivesMatter. The intent of this slogan is not that only Black lives matter. Instead, everyone already agrees that White lives matter, but no small few seem to believe that Black lives do not matter. White people do not need a political movement to protect their lives because their lives are already protected. Black people do need a political movement because their lives are presently not protected by law and custom.

Similarly with socialism, at least in part: all humanity does matter, but billionaires and their supporters and enablers do not need a political movement to get the government to act in their interests. The government already acts in interests of the billionaires, but acts against workers' interests.

But in part, socialism is dissimilar to BLM. I hold as an article of faith that white people's interests are not fundamentally opposed to black people's interests, however presently entrenched the opposition. In contrast, billionaires' interests are fundamentally opposed to workers' interests. The government cannot act in workers' interests without acting against billionaires' interests. The only final resolution to the conflict is to eliminate the billionaires.

Happily, it is at least theoretically possible to eliminate the billionaires without killing anyone: we need only take away their money, not their lives. The billionaires might fight to the death to preserve their power and privilege, but that's their choice, not ours.

A note on capitalization: I use the capitalized terms White and Black to denote socially constructed racialization. In this sense, White interests are fundamentally opposed to Black interests. I use the uncapitalized terms white and black to denote the physical characteristics that we usually use to socially construct race. I personally am white, but I do not see myself (or I do my best to not see myself) as White. Also, the social construction is not symmetric: Whiteness is intrinsically racist, but Blackness is not, because Blackness is a response to White racism.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Breakup sex?

In Breakup sex, Steve Randy Waldman makes a curious argument with a colorful metaphor. Progressives' and socialists' "current relationship with the Democratic Party is intolerable." But what choice do we have? Vote for a presumably intolerable Joe Biden, or allow Trump to win. Waldman thinks he as a way out of this terrible dilemma. His answer: vote for Biden and hope things someday improve.

Waldman's first idea is instead of individually deciding whether or not to vote for a Democratic party candidate, we create a social democratic political party which could collectively make the decision to support or withhold votes from a Democratic candidate.

Well, duh. The problem is that we already have several of these organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America, the Green party, and the Working Families party. These alternative parties are not working now, and there's no reason to believe they will have any effect on the Democratic party in the future.

Of course a big element is that if progressives were to make a collective decision to withhold votes from a Democratic party candidate, Joe Biden is pretty near the top of the list. (Bloomberg might take the number one spot, but not even the Democratic party elite could stand him.) And the Democratic candidates just keep getting worse. Still, even collectively, the argument against dividing the anti-fascist vote still holds. Either the DSA/GP/WFP etc. endorse fascist-lite Biden, or they allow full-on fascist Trump to win. And why will the argument be any different in four or eight years?

Waldman's better idea is to get rid of plurality voting. No shit, Sherlock. Of course, the only reason the Democratic party wins any elections at all is precisely because plurality voting forces progressives to vote for shitty Democrats instead of even shittier Republicans. I don't think the Democratic party or any of its elected representatives will put plurality voting on the table.

We can't escape the death spiral anymore; just voting is not going to change that. We're either going to end up with a fascist state or complete collapse. Both are scary.

Oh, and literal breakup sex is almost always a Bad Idea.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Blame the Democrats

In There Is No Plan (For You), Hamilton Nolan gets the antecedent right: The U.S. federal government at best just doesn't care about the economic suffering the working class (an a fair fraction of the middle class) is experiencing now and will only get worse as the initial responses expire. At worst, the government, firmly in the control of the billionaire class, sees this suffering as beneficial, increasing the power of the billionaire class and eliminating the power of the working class to resist its descent into near-slavery.

But he misses the conclusion. Nolan claims we should blame the Republican party. Yes, we should blame the Republicans, but only in the trivial sense that the shark does indeed deserve blame for eating swimmers. The Republican party since the 1980s has been fairly upfront that it serves the interests of the billionaire class, and why shouldn't they? The billionaire class pays their salaries.

The real blame should go to the Democratic party, for failing to protect the country, and the working class, from the openly predatory Republicans. In just the same sense, the real villain in Jaws (1975) is not the shark, who is just acting according to its nature, but Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who not only fails but actively interferes with the effort to protect the citizens of Amity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Pandemic and the Democratic Party

The Democratic party should be screaming at the TOP OF THEIR LUNGS against Trump's and Republican governors' mismanagement of the pandemic response. They should be proposing bills, even if the Republican legislators block them and executives veto them. They should be filing lawsuits in every available court. They should be aggressively organizing whatever protests can be safely conducted during the pandemic. They should be in the news media EVERY DAY with op-eds and articles saying that this or that must be done and must be done right fucking NOW to control the pandemic.

And, as a major political party, they should have the organizational ability to do all of the above.

The Democratic Party should do all of the above because it is their patriotic duty to do so. I'm not a big fan of patriotism, but if anyone has a patriotic obligation, a major political party that (supposedly) wants to govern is at the top of the list.

More importantly, the Democratic Party should do all of the above because it would be incredibly politically successful. They could, if they chose, completely destroy the Republican Party, and secure decades of Democratic Party governance. Machiavelli is spinning in his grave at the Democrats' basic political ineffectuality.

(All of the above applies also to the mounting protests against egregious police violence.)

It's not like I'm some great political genius, and it's not like the Democratic Party employs only exceptionally stupid people to enact its political agenda. This is not rocket science or brain surgery.

Instead, the Democratic party has decided to just let Trump and the Republicans do their thing and kibbutz from the sidelines, letting the Republicans twist in the wind. Unfortunately, it leaves hundreds of millions of Americans twisting in the wind.

This strategy might just win them the Presidency in 2020, even with all of Biden's handicaps. But it won't win them a veto- or filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and it won't destroy the Republican party. Instead, it will leave the Republicans strong enough to resist the Democratic party agenda in the 20s.

It might be that the Democratic party really is that incompetent or stupid: Hanlon's razor, n'est ce pas? Or it might be that part of the Democratic party's goals is the preservation of the Republican party, because the Democrats' ideology and policy considerably overlaps the Republicans: the Democrats cannot destroy the Republican party without abandoning the overlap. Either way, stupidity or malice, the Democratic party refuses to aggressively further the interests of the majority of the American people.

But I think it is malice: the Democratic and Republican parties both actively endorse the power of the billionaires.

The billionaires at best do not care about — and at worst approve of — the deaths of millions of working Americans and the permanent damage tens of millions more have and will suffer.

Therefore, the Democratic party does not care about these deaths and suffering, except that they make Trump look bad.

If Biden wins, he will at best have a narrow majority in the Senate. The pandemic will still be raging in the U.S., and the economic effects will start spiraling out of control.

I predict that the Biden administration will undertake a few token and largely ineffectual measures to address both the health and economic effects of the pandemic, not out of any real concern for American workers, but to establish a trivial differentiation from the Republican regime. Otherwise, the Biden administration — like the Obama administration — will continue to transfer wealth and political power to the billionaires. A continuing pandemic helps that effort, so the Biden administration will not take effective measures against it.

Regardless of who wins, the next four years are going to be a real shitshow.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Quiggen on MMT

John Quiggen is awesome. His book, Economics in One Two Lessons should, I think, be required reading for everyone (and I assign it for extra credit in my Principles of Macroeconomics classes). But his recent post, The General Theory and the Special Theories, shows that he doesn't quite get Modern Monetary Theory. Or, at least, he doesn't get it in the same way I do.

I am not any kind of "official" spokesbeing for MMT. I don't have a PhD and I don't publish. I'm not affiliated with the Levy Institute or UMKC. I've never met or corresponded with Kelton, Mitchell, Mosler, Tcherneva, Wray, etc.

I have, however, read a lot of the MMT literature, both peer-reviewed and popular. And I have a Master's degree in economics, and I teach undergraduate economics, so I'm not entirely illiterate in economics. The best I can do is put my interpretation of MMT alongside Quiggen's.

Quiggen claims that "Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is, in essence, based on the assumption that the economy is always in what Keynes called a 'liquidity trap'"; in other words, it applies only under special circumstances, when the "natural" rate of interest is below the zero lower bound.

I disagree. Modern Monetary Theory is, in essence, based on the observation that a sovereign-currency issuing government creates currency, the foundation of the social permission to allocate real resources. Therefore, the government is not required to obtain currency (or money) from those who already have it to get the social permission to allocate resources. The government's social permission both to allocate resources and to manage the money system comes from its political legitimacy.

More technically, MMT scholars conclude (not assume) that monetary policy is never an effective method to employ unused resources. Mainstream Keynesian economists generally believe that monetary policy is ineffective only in a "liquidity trap" (where the real interest rate "wants" to be negative), so this confusion is perhaps understandable. But Quiggen's assertion and the actual MMT position are different.

Quiggen complains that "The problem with this special theory is that a successful application implies destroying the conditions under which it works. Once the economy reaches full employment, any increase in public expenditure requires a corresponding reduction in private expenditure." Well, yes, and MMT advocates always add this proviso literally in the same (or next) breath as the assertion that well-targeted fiscal policy can reach full employment.

Quiggen nitpicks that "MMT advocates, like Stephanie Kelton kind-of admit" that progressive taxation is necessary to reduce private expenditure, "but continuously seek to dodge the point." Maybe Quiggen kind-of has a point, and maybe MMT advocates should emphasize that really big infrastructure projects such as the Green New Deal will require increased taxes to distribute the necessary reduction in real private consumption. I honestly don't know what specific policy positions MMT advocates should emphasize; I'm not at all a specialist in public policy debate. However, the right mix of tools to manage private consumption versus inflation seems to me more like implementation details than deep theoretical issues.

Quiggen states that:
MMT advocates Nersiyan and Wray* suggest that the Green New Deal can be financed without “taxing the rich” . . . relying instead on “well-targeted taxes, wage and price controls, rationing, and voluntary saving”
But this interpretation misses a key theoretical point about MMT. MMT advocates argue that large public works programs such as Green New Deal will necessarily be financed the way all government spending is financed: by creating the currency. Financing, i.e. getting the money, isn't ever a problem for the government; the problem is fairly distributing the opportunity cost of using money creation to divert real resources, with inflation (perhaps) the most problematic way of distributing opportunity cost.

Quiggen does not include a link; presumably he's referring to How to Pay for the Green New Deal.

And I honestly don't know whether households in top decile or percentile even use as many resources as a huge public spending program such as the Green New Deal would require, even if we reduce their consumption to the 20th percentile. I'm pretty sure we cannot provide universal health care just by reducing the real consumption of the ultra rich; we cannot return all the purchasing power middle-income households already forego by paying private insurance companies.

Other than quibbles about the gory details about optimal tax policy, I really don't understand why Quiggen seems to dislike MMT at a theoretical level.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

The fundamental problem with MMT

Robert P. Murphy has a mostly negative review of Stephanie Kelton's The Deficit Myth. Murphy appears to be a member of the Mises Institute, so I assume he believes that the government cannot do anything good, other than to protect the property of the wealthy. Even before reading, I was pretty sure he would disapprove in principle of the whole MMT project of making it easier for the government provide for social welfare. Still, Murphy avoids the OMG! hyperinflation hysteria so common to vulgar critics of MMT, and ideological bias is no guarantee of error, so I want to look at his criticism in more detail.

Murphy presents a laundry list of mostly unconnected objections to MMT, so I'll just present a corresponding list of rebuttals over at least a couple of posts, perhaps more.

The Fundamental Problem of MMT

Murphy begins his objections by stating MMT's "fundamental problem":
regardless of what happens to the "price level," monetary inflation transfers real resources away from the private sector and into the hands of political officials. If a government project is deemed unaffordable according to conventional accounting, then it should also be denied funding via the printing press.
I'm still really struggling to understand this objection. Clearly, Murphy thinks that monetary inflation is something different from a general increase in the price level, the usual definition of inflation. But I don't know what that is. (Murphy kind of expands on the point below.) Presumably, because MMT is all about the government creating currency as needed, I think Murphy considers the creation of additional currency by itself to constitute monetary inflation.

Now it is definitely true that when the government creates money to purchase goods and services from the population, it is transferring real resources from the private sector to the government. That's pretty much the whole point of a government, and what governments have been doing for about 7,000 years. I get it, Libertarians are completely against governments except to protect their own privilege, but this objection seems misplaced and has nothing to do with MMT per se.

Murphy continues with another opaque objection: "If a government project is deemed unaffordable according to conventional accounting, then it should also be denied funding via the printing press." But what does Murphy mean by "unaffordable" and by "conventional accounting"? Affordability precedes accounting: spending is affordable if a firm or household can get the money; once it has the money, firms and households account for how they spend it. But where does the money that firms and households need to get ultimately come from? Well, in every large economy since 1971, the government creates the money*. All government spending is "funded" by created money. Although MMT scholars are exceptional in that they don't try to pretend that governments don't create money, this objection has nothing to do with MMT. Libertarians might pine for a return to the gold standard, but the world abandoned the gold standard because it just doesn't work. Go back 50 years and argue with Richard Nixon, not Stephanie Kelton.

*The Eurozone is a Hot Mess and has suffered several financial crises precisely because the European Central Bank is not part of any national government.

I will concede one point to Murphy: if the government wants to appropriate real resources away from private production, it should ensure that the citizens believe that benefit of the government spending exceeds the benefit of alternative private employment of those resources: to avoid price inflation, the government should collect enough taxes (after, of course, it spends the money) to reduce private demand by as much as it reduced private production. But every MMT scholar agrees with this concession. The whole point of MMT is about how to employ unused resources, i.e. available labor not employed by the private sector.

Murphy expands a bit, presumably on "monetary inflation". Government spending to employ real resources increases the price level. If the price level would have otherwised decreased, so that spending keeps the price level stable, then those with financial assets are poorer than they would have been had the government permitted deflation.

The easiest rebuttal is simply: yes, but so what? That's how the money system works. Instead of permitting deflation, investors increase their real wealth by collecting interest, which requires increasing the money supply. We might have chosen to keep the money supply constant and let price levels decline instead, but we didn't; which method is correct is beyond the scope of this post. Regardless, investors can't have it both ways: investors cannot be both entitled to interest, increasing their real wealth holding the price level constant, and entitled them a decrease in the price level, increasing their real wealth holding the money supply constant.

But it also matters why the price level decreases. There are two ways the price level can decrease. The price level will decrease if real production increases holding the money supply constant. That's the trade-off above: presently, the government increases the money supply, supplying all holders of financial assets with interest. However, the price level can decrease when real output decreases. In this case, an increase in real wealth for holders of financial assets is at best illusory. If financial asset holders were to increase their consumption, that spending would simply drive prices back up. Even worse, if the decrease in real production were to become permanent (as equipment rusts and workers forget their skills), then an attempt to convert financial assets to consumption will increase the price level above its original point, causing a decrease in asset holders' real wealth.

Murphy argues directly against employing unused resources at all. Murphy cites Mises' malinvestment argument: unused capacity is the result of earlier bad investments; employing that unused capacity will just perpetuate the bad investments. If, for example, we have a thousand factories and a million workers making Pet Rocks that nobody wants anymore, it's a pointless waste of real resources for the government to print the money to keep the Pet Rock factories operating and employing those workers. MMT theorist agree that the Pet Rock factories should not operate (and investors would lose financial claims to their revenue), but what about the workers?

Even taking the malinvestment theory at face value, what do we do with the million workers? We have four choices: pay them to continue to make Pet Rocks, let them starve and die, pay them while they're not working, or pay them to do something else useful. In theory, the private sector should be able to pay them to do something else useful, probably building more factories for products that people do want. Not that Libertarians care much about evidence, but the evidence shows that's not what happens in real life. Instead, if we abandon too many bad investments at once, those workers are not reaborbed into the workforce. Even worse, the workers that provided the newly unemployed workers with consumer goods also leave the private labor force. We end up losing useful productivity for years and sometimes decades.

Murphy continues with some more MMT-specific objections. I'll cover those in a later post.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Content-free criticism

The Deseret News Editorial Board believes that Washington’s deficit spending is dangerous. However, their criticism is just that heterodox economics is heterodox.

Their key point quotes Fed Chair Jerome Powell: "'The United States federal budget has been on an unsustainable path for years now,' he said, adding 'the debt is growing faster than the economy, so debt-to-GDP is rising. That is, by definition, unsustainable.'"

But why should a present rise in debt-to-GDP during a severe economic crisis imply that debt-to-GDP must rise forever? If I heat my house in the winter, should I assume that I must necessarily run the furnace in the summer? If I incur \$300,000 debt this year to buy a house, should I assume that I will incur \$300,000 of debt every year for the rest of my life?

Of course, the board does not understand MMT or the operations of the federal government:
Interest on the debt is now \$385 billion. This is money that must be paid through taxes before the government can begin funding necessary programs. It also is money that otherwise could be in private hands, funding businesses and innovations that create jobs.
But these assertions are wrong.

First, interest on outstanding government securities does not need to be paid specifically through taxes. Taxes do not fund any government spending in the same way that income or revenue funds households' or firms' spending. The government spends what it chooses to spend, on purchases and interest payments, and then collects taxes.

Second, the government has chosen pay \$385 billion on interest payments; the government could, if it wished, choose to pay any amount, including \$0, on interest payments: the government, not the public, sets the interest rate on government securities.

Third, of course, the money that the government pays in interest goes to private hands, where it could, if the private sector wished, fund "businesses and innovations that create jobs."

The board also claims that "fending off a much more damaging fiscal day of reckoning, in which the world loses faith in the dollar, will take hard work and sustained effort." But why would the world lose faith in the dollar? Why should we even care if the world loses faith in the dollar? Literally, the worst that could happen is that the world starts using its dollars to buy stuff from the U.S., which would increase exports and GDP, hardly a catastrophe.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Blue lives matter!

https://t.co/IcudsNfVLY

Cops are making themselves objects of ridicule.

Fucking snowflakes with guns, bad tempers, and no morals.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

What a criticism of MMT lacks

Perhaps surprisingly, Daniel Tenreiro's criticism of Modern Monetary Theory, "What The Deficit Myth Lacks," at least avoids the usual hysterical bad-faith anti-MMT propaganda: Tenreiro does not froth at the mouth screaming hyperinflation! and Venezuela. Indeed, Tenriero grants MMT's most important claim: the United States can presently use government spending to use idle productive resources. However, seems to understand neither the basics of MMT nor basic economic theory.

Tenreiro observes that MMT (following Keynes) prescribes government spending when the economy is below full employment and MMT predicts that government spending will cause inflationary only when the economy is at (or above) full employment. However, these theories do not simply restate the Phillips Curve; more over, modern theory has not thoroughly undermined the Phillips Curve.

We can use the Phillips Curve to say that if unemployment is above the "natural rate" (momentarily ignoring the political choices embedded in the natural rate of unemployment) and inflation is below the corresponding natural rate, then rather than shifting the Phillips Curve, government spending should just move both unemployment and inflation to their natural rates. Indeed, since the GFC, most capitalist economies have seen both too-high unemployment and too-low inflation, indicating that the government can indeed spend extra to use idle productive resources, i.e. labor and existing industrial capacity. Such spending is inflationary by design: a little inflation is a Good Thing.

It is only when unemployment is at or below the natural rate, indicating that the private economy (and ordinary government spending) is using all available labor, that government stimulus spending will crowd out private economic activity. This crowding out causes the Phillips curve to shift outwards, causing inflation with no corresponding increase in long-run unemployment, rather than causing movement along the curve to equilibrium.

Tenreiro mentions the Job Guarantee, an important and perhaps intrinsic MMT policy prescription. His sarcasm aside (the Job Guarantee does not "solve[] the economy"), he correctly states the MMT position: the Job Guarantee will "spur economic growth by employing workers who would otherwise be idle [emphasis added]." The qualification is critical, but Tenreiro perhaps does not grasp its implication.

Tenreiro does not appear to understand ECON 101 national accounting nor the usual rationale for government spending. Tenreiro's complaint here is that the Job Guarantee "would have a negligible effect on output, because by definition it would employ workers in the production of goods and services that private firms consciously avoid." Basic national accounting assumes that government spending counts directly to output: it's the $G$ in $Y=C+I+G+(X-M)$.* Tenreiro's deeper fallacy is that all government spending — roads, bridges, schools, police, the military — is by definition useless: if it were useful, private investors would find it profitable. There's nothing about MMT or the Job Guarantee that's any different from any other government spending.

*In English, output (Y) equals the sum of consumption (C), investment (I), government (G) and net exports (X—M)

Tenreiro shows his disdain for public goods with the usual conservative contempt for alternative "clean" energy. But of course alternative energy hasn't "flopped". It's doing quite well, and the Germans and Chinese are killing us in the sector. The U.S. is lagging behind because it's actually productive, and there's no way to use alternative energy to loot American consumers. More importantly, the job guarantee's primary role would be not in developing but converting the current electricity, heating, and transportation infrastructure to methods that won't kill us all from global warming. Again, ECON 101 (at least as I teach it) tells us that public goods cannot generate profit in a free market because of the free-rider problem. It is worth repeating that the social value of governments providing public goods is not a feature unique to MMT; it's standard economics.

Finally, Tenreiro absurdly objects that MMT isn't what he wants it to be. Tenriero wants a supply-side theory of long-run economic growth; MMT is a demand-side theory of short-run utilization of idle resources. True, MMT fails to address supply-side economics, nor does it promise to do away with war, disease, famine, death, mopery on the high seas, nor the heartbreak of psoriasis. So what? Criticize the theory for what it is, not what it does not even pretend to address.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Socialism and markets

Much ink has been wasted on the supposed conflict between free markets versus central planning, with free markets supposedly being intrinsic to capitalism and central planning intrinsic to socialism. All nonsense. Sadly, too many socialists retain an irrational and unfounded fear of the word market.

In the broadest sense, a market is a system of voluntary transactional exchanges of goods and services using money tokens.

As a general principle, a society should ban voluntary action only in extreme cases where the voluntary action either imposes uncorrectable externalities, such as going without a mask in a pandemic, or is just completely stupid, such as driving without wearing a seat belt. (I tend to libertarianism in the latter case, but that's not a hill I'm willing to die on.)

Any society facing scarcity must have some numerical way of allocating scarce resources. If a society imposes a numerical limit on consumption, it has money: money is the numbers and the limits.

Different jobs have different average desirability, so it makes sense to somehow make undesirable jobs more desirable by allowing workers in undesirable jobs to consume more per hour of work.

"Market socialism" is, therefore, kind of a redundancy. A truly communist society would not have markets, but only because communism presupposes no material scarcity. Under communism, a transactional accounting method for allocating scarce resources, i.e. money, would be superfluous. Whether we might have unlimited material resources in the future, at present we do not yet have them.

A socialist society could ban voluntary transactions, and some societies have. I have no idea whether those bans were good or bad ideas in those societies under their specific historical circumstances. But such a ban is a tool, not an intrinsic characteristic of socialism.

A more critical investigation of capitalist markets, however, gives socialists a better idea of what is essential to socialism.

First, capitalist markets are not always voluntary. If I must pay rent or freeze to death, the "choice" to pay rent is not voluntary. If I must kiss my boss's ass to keep my job so I can pay my rent and not freeze to death, the "choice" to kiss my boss's ass is not voluntary. Nature does coerce us — we must eat to live — but we can eliminate nature's coercion only with science and engineering, not with law or social construction.

Second, capitalism really does require markets (however involuntary) in everything. We can carve out exceptions, and the exceptions work in practice, but capitalists always offer unrelenting indefatigable opposition to any exceptions to markets. Capitalists exercise power using involuntary capitalist markets; any exceptions diminish their power.

Third, and most important, the driving force behind capitalist markets is the profit motive: each household must do whatever it takes to increase its flow of money tokens, without limit. Capitalist markets are about accumulating power, not the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Just because Elon Musk has accumulated a metric assload of money tokens does not mean that firing a Tesla into space is an efficient use of scarce resources. (I mean, maybe it was, but we can't tell just because Musk had enough money tokens to do so.)

The essential nature of socialism is not to ban voluntary transactions. A socialist society might or might not ban some or perhaps all voluntary transactions, based on specific material circumstances, but such bans are not essential: we cannot say that a society that does not ban voluntary transactions is therefore not socialist.

What is essential to socialism is first being honest about distributing nature's coercion. Human beings must work to live, so a socialist society, unlike capitalist societies, must be honest and direct about saying that each person capable of working must actually work. And once we are honest about nature's coercion, we can tackle the scientific and technical task of freeing ourselves from nature's coercion.

It is also essential to a socialist society to reject the profit motive. The motive for each households should not to accumulate as much wealth as possible, but to offer its scarce resource, labor, and use its demand on the social product efficiently to maximize the happiness of its members.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

What is socialism?

Every so often, I talk to people about socialism. Almost always, the first response is, "But what about Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez!? If you're a socialist, you must be in favor of gulags, reeducation camps, famines, hyperinflation, and mopery on the high seas."

Bollocks. It's a bad faith argument on its face. The reasoning is obviously unsound: Stalin was a socialist (granted), Stalin sucked (granted arguendo); therefore socialism sucks. Sorry, non-sequitur. You would have to establish that Stalin sucked just because he was a socialist. And people don't do that.

I'm sure there are a few fringe people out there who think that Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. is the One True Prophet. Fine, whatever. But most people don't think so.

These guys (and others) were real socialists, but they were also human beings, and they were working in very specific historical, economic, social, cultural, and international contexts. A simplistic analysis cannot separate out these various historical influences from the influence of socialist ideology.

It's worth taking a step back, though, and trying to just answer the question, "What is socialism?" There's not one good answer; it's not like the National Institute of Standards and Technology has standardized the term.

The best I can do is take a position that is half historical and half normative: I think what follows is common among socialists and worth keeping.

Socialism consists of three elements:
  1. The government acts directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class holds and exercises direct economic power
  3. The working class holds and exercises direct political power

Feel free to add "should" to the above to go from actually existing socialism to normative socialism.

These elements are continuous, not binary, so there is an overall continuum of socialism.

So, for example, the U.S. federal and state governments provide Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workplace safety and health regulations, mass transit and other public goods, so the government does in fact at least partially act in accordance with the first element of socialism.

Most of the workers in the U.S. vote, and we still have (for now!) a political system that resembles a democratic republic, so the U.S. is at least partially socialist in the third element.

Workers have almost no direct (or even indirect) economic power, so the U.S. is almost completely non-socialist on the second element.

Anti-socialism, then, just negates the three elements:

  1. The government does not or should not act directly in the material interests of the working class
  2. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct economic power
  3. The working class does not and should not hold and exercise direct political power

Everyone should be aware of long-standing anti-socialist opposition in the U.S. to Social Security, Medicare, and all the socialist measures listed above. The working class has been all but excluded from any sort of economic power (and was almost completely excluded from economic power for most the United States' existence), and the project of neoliberalism has been to place most economic power outside the control of the state. Finally, the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party) has been dismantling even the appearance of a democratic republic.

If you want to say you're against socialism, I think you have to commit to 100 percent to all three of of the anti-socialist negations. Otherwise, you're at least a little bit socialist, and as they saying goes, I already know what you are, we're just negotiating the price.

Notice that the above elements say nothing about markets, central planning, the structure of the government, reeducation camps, freedom of speech/religion/assembly, etc.

These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not essential to socialism; they are implementation details. Implementation details are important, of course, but we have to agree first on the goals and framework before we can begin implementation.

The elements of socialism also say nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Someone could be a racist socialist: they would be an asshole, of course, and wrong, but they would be a socialist asshole. It is more productive, I think, to just say, "You shouldn't be racist," than to say, "If you're a racist, you're not a socialist."

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it's hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Democrats love Trump

Why are people still incredulous that the Democratic party does not oppose Trump?

The Democratic party (the real party: the insiders, the pundits, the elected politicians) love them some Donald.

Trump is paying off the billionaire class and their sycophants and fucking the working class. The Democratic party is all about, well, paying off the billionaires and their sycophants and fucking the working class.

It's a match made in heaven.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Our Trump-defeating hero, Joe Biden!

I'm convinced that Joe Biden sexually assaulted Tara Reade.

Noted feminists Amanda Marcotte and Jezebel's Emily Alford have come out swinging to support... Biden.

Nathan J. Robinson lays out the whole sordid story.

Trump is going to win in a fucking landslide.

And the Democratic party will lie down and let him.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Abandon all hope

According to Brad DeLong, your country should [a]bandon all hope of running a successful developmental-state industrial policy if:

  1. You have landlords (or some other parasitic class interpenetrated with those from whose ranks your bureaucrats are drawn): then you are doomed, because the more effective your government’s ability to use levers of state power, the more the distribution of income and wealth will be frozen into a form pleasing to your anti-developmental current upper class. You need to start with a remarkably equal and definitely not inherited-inequality distribution of income and wealth. If you do not start there, abandon all hope.
  2. You do not have an ideology of economic development shared by your elite: if your elite judge each other by, say, how rich they get and do not judge each other by whether they have contributed to society’s growth mission, abandon all hope.
  3. You do not have an effective educational system for training and an effective examination system for selecting your bureaucrats. If your bureaucrats cannot outsmart the private sector and foreign managers whom they are attempting to regulate, outproduce, midwife, or garden, abandon all hope.
  4. You do not have an ideology in which government service is a high prestige occupation. If your best and your brightest do not regard government service as a good thing to do, abandon all hope.
  5. You do not have a firm and reality-based conception of what industrial structure you want your country to develop into. If you cannot point to another country, and say: we want to become like them, and here are the first stage investments and capabilities we need to develop to do so — if you cannot do that, abandon all hope.
  6. You do not have the factor-mobilization prerequisites—the power to mobilize savings for investment, to massively upgrade the technical education level of your population, to move people out of low productivity into high productivity occupations, to build the infrastructure and the links to global value chains. If you do not have the factor mobilization prerequisites to make a success of industrial policy, abandon all hope.
  7. You do not have access to the markets that will buy at a price that will cover your costs the goods you produce if your industrial policy is successful. If world markets are not open to you and you have to rely on domestic demand from a poor population, abandon all hope.
  8. You do not have the power to judge which private businesses are successful and need to be fertilized, and which are unsuccessful and need to be pruned back. The best way to do this is to lower the value of your currency and then watch which of your firms are successful exporters—to use foreign countries markets’ as devices for telling you who is making high-quality goods at a reasonable price. But you have to do this somehow. If you cannot measure where you are succeeding, abandon all hope.

[It should be noted that the United States fails not just one or two but most of these tests, especially the first. We have access to international markets, but not much else.]

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Capitalism and Perfectionism

The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism, by Amanda Ruggeri
“As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists,” says Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University. “We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.” . . .

Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals. . . .

Perfectionism . . . isn’t defined by working hard or setting high goals. It’s that critical inner voice.

Take the student who works hard and gets a poor mark. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy. If the message is: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism. . . .

[F]or perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.

As a result, the pursuit of perfection becomes a vicious cycle – and, because it’s impossible to be perfect, a fruitless one.

The author points squarely at capitalism as a cause, arguing that we live in a society that demands perfectionism. A society...

Where we are so literally valued for the quality and extent of our accomplishments that those achievements often correlate, directly, to our ability to pay rent or put food on the table. Where complete strangers weigh these on-paper values to determine everything from whether we can rent that flat or buy that car or receive that loan. Where we then signal our access to those resources with our appearance – these shoes, that physique – and other people weigh that, in turn, to see if we’re the right person for a job interview or dinner invitation.

[Social scientists Thomas] Curran and [Andrew] Hill have a similar hunch. “Failure is so severe in a market-based society,” points out Curran, adding that that has been intensified as governments have chipped away at social safety nets. Competition even has been embedded in schools: take standardised testing and high-pressure university entrances. As a result, Curran says, it’s no wonder that parents are putting more pressure on themselves – and on their children – to achieve more and more.

“If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes,” Curran says. “If children come to internalise that – the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.” One longitudinal study, for example, found that a focus on academic achievement predicts a later increase in perfectionism.

Similarly, the gold-star method of parenting and schooling may have had an effect. If you get praised whenever you do something well and not praised when you don’t, you can learn that you’re only really worth something when you’ve had others’ approval.

If other strategies, like making children feel guilty for making a mistake, come in, it can get even more problematic. Research has found that these types of parental tactics make children more likely to be perfectionists – and, later, to develop depression.

Fear of failure is getting magnified in other ways, too. Take social media: make a mistake today and your fear that it might be broadcast, even globally, is hardly irrational. At the same time, all of those glossy feeds reinforce unrealistic standards.

Friday, April 03, 2020

The Marching Morons

One of the funniest SF stories, and one that is really scary when you think about it, is The Marching Morons" by Cyril M. Kornbluth.

It's funny because Kornbluth is a great writer. It's chilling because it perfectly captures how our rulers see the ruled. The ending doesn't really make sense, but Kornbluth most probably couln't have sold it (and might not have been able to overcome his own sentimentality) without the comeuppance in the end.

I don't know how the billionaire class, the top 0.01%, feels about the workers. It's likely that they're mostly sociopaths who simply don't see other people (even other billionaires) as people, just as objects.

But I am part of the professional-managerial class, and I know the the PMC in the top 10 or 20%, the ones who do the grunt work of managing the day-to-day operations of society, think that almost everyone not in the PMC are morons, most of whom can be made marginally productive with enough discipline and coercion.

The PMC gets away with feeling this way because workers mostly feel the same way.

The almost in "almost everyone" is the key. Most workers believe that all the other workers — especially workers with trivially lower social or economic status (coughBlack peoplecough)— are morons, but they themselves (and maybe a few of their friends) are the rare exceptions.

Did you lose your job because of the coronavirus quarantine? You don't have any wealth? Well, you must be a moron. Can't get a new job? Then you're not useful: lie down and die get out of my sight, loser.

But I lost my job and have no wealth? Hey, I'm the exception! I'm not a moron! Help me!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Radical conservative stupidity

the stupid! it burns!Coronavirus relief will be used by radical progressives to promote Modern Monetary Theory by JD Rucker.

Oh my.

Probably the stupidest economic part of the article is this:
If we start devaluing it intentionally by pumping too much cash into the system, the rest of the world will bail out within weeks. Then, the national debt will lose it’s perceived support mechanism, forcing countries to demand collection before we devalue their investments artificially.

Collection of what? Countries such as China hold government securities. All they entitle those countries to collect are dollars. We can always print more dollars.

A close second, maybe tied for first, is this
There is no way the government can pay for the recent coronavirus relief bill, but it was deemed necessary to prevent an immediate economic collapse. . . . Unfortunately, the outcome of this will be devastating. The costs accrued during the coronavirus crisis will be stretched out over time in the form of massively adding to the national debt.

Rucker talks about preventing an immediate economic collapse and stretching massive costs out over time as if they were Bad Ideas. But what's the alternative? Allowing an immediate economic crash and incurring massive costs right now... or just not paying the costs of having a hundred million people stay at home or millions dying? Do we just let a hundred million people be evicted from their homes and left to starve or force them to work and let the pandemic spread?

I'm not saying that Rucker would prefer allowing millions of peoples to die to save the "value" of the dollar. But if he did, he would be in good conservative company.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Democratic party is the enemy

I've been saying this since 2007: the Democratic party is the enemy of the people. They are the enemy of the working class, of the precariat, of the people who want to do their jobs and come home to their families.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties are parties of the billionaire class. The Republican party is the bad cop, the Democratic party is the good cop, but they both are working for the same thing: to further billionaire class's desperate struggle to keep 80% of the population as poor as possible, as close to slavery as possible.

It's not over till it's over, and perhaps Sanders will pull off the nomination, but it looks like Biden will win.

Biden will lose the general election. He will lose mostly because he is a weak and stupid man, and Trump is at least competent in bullying people who show the slightest hint of weakness.

Biden will lose because he offers nothing to the people who support Sanders, and he offers nothing to the people who support Trump. Even if he were to win — Trump is not a healthy man, and it's possible he drops dead before the election, which is the only way Biden wins — Biden will do everything that Trump is doing, only without the cartoonish buffoonery. Biden will do nothing to improve the life of anyone who is not part of the 1% or their servants in the the top 20%. I absolutely do not care whether he who wields the lash wears a blue shirt or a red shirt.

But Trump will probably not drop dead, and Biden will lose.

And Sanders supporters will be blamed.

For me, I will claim what credit I can for Biden's loss. I will not vote for Biden. If Trump wins because of that, so be it. Yes, failing to support Biden is "objectively" pro-Trump, but supporting Biden is actually and explicitly pro-billionaire.

If the Democratic party wants to win, they must offer working people what we want. Not crumbs, not platitudes, not We're not quite as bad as the Republicans, but real power over our lives, our heath, our homes, our jobs.

We have to face the fact: Trump gives enough people in the working class something they want: if they can't have any real power over their own lives, Trump gives them permission set someone even lower and shit on them even as they're getting shit on by the billionaires.

What does the Democratic party offer the working class? Only this: "We're going to shit on you, just shut up and take it." I won't vote or support the Republicans, because I don't want to shit on anyone else, but I'm not going to support the Democrats because I'm tired of getting shit on and told to like it.

Until the Democratic party wants to, you know, represent us and our interests, I say fuck you. Fuck the horse you rode in on.

I used to say that the Republican party needs to be utterly salt-plowed-in-the-fields destroyed. It still needs to be destroyed, but the Democratic party will not do it. So I say now, the Democratic also must be destroyed. They cannot be saved.

Unless Sanders pulls off a miracle and wins the nomination, I will not vote for any Democrat ever under any circumstances for any office, from President to dog-catcher. And even if Sanders does win the nomination and the presidency, it will take a lot of convincing for me to believe the Democratic party has mended its ways.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Sanders on Castro

Should Bernie Sanders have mentioned Cuba's Castro-era literacy program? I have no idea; I'm not a politician or political advisor. But what precisely did he actually say? Can we infer what he meant?

What did he say?

During the recent Democratic party debate:

SANDERS: What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba; that Cuba made progress on education. Yes, I think....

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Boo.

SANDERS: Really? Really? Literacy programs are bad.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yes, because there's no comparing those two...

Examining Bernie Sanders' Comments On Literacy In Castro-Era Cuba

On 60 minutes in the 1980s

Sanders began by saying, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” before adding, “but, you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.”

“When Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program,” he told journalist Anderson Cooper during the interview. “Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Sanders’s Cuba comments are bad politics

Like I said, bad politics? I dunno. This is what I found; did he say anything else? Let me know in the comments.

It seems perfectly clear that Sanders did not say that the United States should implement literacy programs exactly like Fidel Castro did. He said that just because it was Fidel Castro (whose "authoritarian nature" Sanders explicitly opposes) who did something, i.e. implemented a massive literacy program, does not mean that what he did was bad. This is true.

When I still bothered to talk about socialism with idiots in comment threads and message boards, the refrain was maddeningly consistent: If we do this thing that vaguely resembles something that a communist or socialist did, we will have hyperinflation, social collapse, gulags, and genocidal mass starvation. If we give free milk to poor children, like Chavez did in Venezuela, we will crash our economy. If we expand workers' rights, have government-provided or -controlled health care system, raise the minimum wage, regulate business, etc., well, that's what the socialists did, and look how things turned out for them! If we do any of these things, it will end with hyperinflation, gulags, etc.

It's a transparently bullshit argument.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Boomer Individualism

Boomer Individualism and the Californian Ideology,
A selfish, disingenuous, performative leftism born of base desires for sex, drugs and rock and roll, a rebelliousness against parental and societal restrictions in youth, dovetails perfectly into an adult rebelliousness against financial and governmental regulations and the social strictures of great society era probity with regards to greed.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Richard Feynman on education in Brazil

From Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman:

In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism – Maxwell’s equations, and so on.

The university was located in various office buildings throughout the city, and the course I taught met in a building which overlooked the bay.

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn’t any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”

Nobody said anything.

Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”

“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”

“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”

“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

I said, “Well?”

Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”

“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

Later I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The lecture went like this, translated into English: “Two bodies… are considered equivalent… if equal torques… will produce… equal acceleration. Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration.” The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.

I didn’t see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge – nothing!

After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes – what do you do with them?”

“Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.”

“What will the exam be like?”

“Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “ ‘When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ “ So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.

Then I went to an entrance exam for students coming into the engineering school. It was an oral exam, and I was allowed to listen to it. One of the students was absolutely super: He answered everything nifty! The examiners asked him what diamagnetism was, and he answered it perfectly. Then they asked, “When light comes at an angle through a sheet of material with a certain thickness, and a certain index N, what happens to the light?”

“It comes out parallel to itself, sir – displaced.”

“And how much is it displaced?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I can figure it out.” So he figured it out. He was very good. But I had, by this time, my suspicions.

After the exam I went up to this bright young man, and explained to him that I was from the United States, and that I wanted to ask him some questions that would not affect the result of his examination in any way. The first question I ask is, “Can you give me some example of a diamagnetic substance?”

“No.”

Then I asked, “If this book was made of glass, and I was looking at something on the table through it, what would happen to the image if I tilted the glass?”

“It would be deflected, sir, by twice the angle that you’ve turned the book.”

I said, “You haven’t got it mixed up with a mirror, have you?”

“No, sir!”

He had just told me in the examination that the light would be displaced, parallel to itself, and therefore the image would move over to one side, but would not be turned by any angle. He had even figured out how much it would be displaced, but he didn’t realize that a piece of glass is a material with an index, and that his calculation had applied to my question.

I taught a course at the engineering school on mathematical methods in physics, in which I tried to show how to solve problems by trial and error. It’s something that people don’t usually learn, so I began with some simple examples of arithmetic to illustrate the method. I was surprised that only about eight out of the eighty or so students turned in the first assignment. So I gave a strong lecture about having to actually try it, not just sit back and watch me do it.

After the lecture some students came up to me in a little delegation, and told me that I didn’t understand the backgrounds that they have, that they can study without doing the problems, that they have already learned arithmetic, and that this stuff was beneath them.

So I kept going with the class, and no matter how complicated or obviously advanced the work was becoming, they were never handing a damn thing in. Of course I realized what it was: They couldn’t do it!

One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: “If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, ‘What are you wasting our time for in the class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking a question’.”

It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what’s going on, and they’d put the other one down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting as if it’s not confusing at all, telling him that he’s wasting their time.

I explained how useful it was to work together, to discuss the questions, to talk it over, but they wouldn’t do that either, because they would be losing face if they had to ask someone else. It was pitiful! All the work they did, intelligent people, but they got themselves into this funny state of mind, this strange kind of self-propagating “education” which is meaningless, utterly meaningless!

At the end of the academic year, the students asked me to give a talk about my experiences of teaching in Brazil. At the talk there would be not only students, but professors and government officials, so I made them promise that I could say whatever I wanted. They said, “Sure. Of course. It’s a free country.”

So I came in, carrying the elementary physics textbook that they used in the first year of college. They thought this book was especially good because it had different kinds of typeface – bold black for the most important things to remember, lighter for less important things, and so on.

Right away somebody said, “You’re not going to say anything bad about the textbook, are you? The man who wrote it is here, and everybody thinks it’s a good textbook.”

“You promised I could say whatever I wanted.”

The lecture hall was full. I started out by defining science as an understanding of the behavior of nature. Then I asked, “What is a good reason for teaching science? Of course, no country can consider itself civilized unless… yak, yak, yak.” They were all sitting there nodding, because I know that’s the way they think.

Then I say, “That, of course, is absurd, because why should we feel we have to keep up with another country? We have to do it for a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.” Then I talked about the utility of science, and its contribution to the improvement of the human condition, and all that – I really teased them a little bit.

Then I say, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”

I can see them stir, thinking, “What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes.”

So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.

Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek – even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?” – and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrr-up” – he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.

But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the students can understand.

I said, “That’s how it looks to me, when I see you teaching the kids ‘science’ here in Brazil.” (Big blast, right?)

Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using. “There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an inclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have ‘errors’ in them – that is, if you look at them, you think you’re looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors – very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the acceleration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling down an inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of experimental ‘results’ is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten those results!

“I have discovered something else,” I continued. “By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter – how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.”

So I did it. Brrrrrrrup – I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed…”

I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature – what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.

“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.” ‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.” I used that example to show them, but it didn’t make any difference where I would have put my finger in the book; it was like that everywhere.

Finally, I said that I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. “However,” I said, “I must be wrong. There were two Students in my class who did very well, and one of the physicists I know was educated entirely in Brazil. Thus, it must be possible for some people to work their way through the system, bad as it is.”

Well, after I gave the talk, the head of the science education department got up and said, “Mr. Feynman has told us some things that are very hard for us to hear, but it appears to be that he really loves science, and is sincere in his criticism. Therefore, I think we should listen to him. I came here knowing we have some sickness in our system of education; what I have learned is that we have a cancer!” – and he sat down.

That gave other people the freedom to speak out, and there was a big excitement. Everybody was getting up and making suggestions. The students got some committee together to mimeograph the lectures in advance, and they got other committees organized to do this and that.

Then something happened which was totally unexpected for me. One of the students got up and said, “I’m one of the two students whom Mr. Feynman referred to at the end of his talk. I was not educated in Brazil; I was educated in Germany, and I’ve just come to Brazil this year.”

The other student who had done well in class had a similar thing to say. And the professor I had mentioned got up and said, “I was educated here in Brazil during the war, when, fortunately, all of the professors had left the university, so I learned everything by reading alone. Therefore I was not really educated under the Brazilian system.”

I didn’t expect that. I knew the system was bad, but 100 percent – it was terrible!

Since I had gone to Brazil under a program sponsored by the United States Government, I was asked by the State Department to write a report about my experiences in Brazil, so I wrote out the essentials of the speech I had just given. I found out later through the grapevine that the reaction of somebody in the State Department was, “That shows you how dangerous it is to send somebody to Brazil who is so naive. Foolish fellow; he can only cause trouble. He didn’t understand the problems.” Quite the contrary! I think this person in the State Department was naive to think that because he saw a university with a list of courses and descriptions, that’s what it was.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Bumbling accumulation of neuroses

Each one of us is just a different bumbling accumulation of neuroses we’ve developed from childhood or adulthood babbling about the three things we’re interested in trying our best to get by. — Brad Evans

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The point of economics

"The point of economics as a discipline is to create a language and methodology for governing that hides political assumptions from the public." -- Matt Stoller

Monday, January 06, 2020

Why neoliberalism is untenable

Let's take the neoliberals at their word: neoliberalism is about using markets to achieve maximum productivity and (maybe) some social democratic ends, while using the power of government to regulate markets and provide what markets cannot. As stated, this idea cannot work because markets contradict government. Neoliberalism calls for freedom and regulation, distribution and centrality, elitism and egalitarianism. At best, neoliberalism simply handwaves over these inherent contradictions; at worst, it is just a cover for libertarianism.

Economists understand that markets have inherent problems that stem from the individualistic competitive nature of markets. First, sellers, both firms selling goods and services and households selling their labor power, have a powerful market incentive to create and maintain monopolies, which economists understand are inefficient. Second, absent the police, it is always easier and cheaper to "cheat" rather than "play fair", and again, the individualistic nature of markets embeds an incentive to cheat. Third, a market economy concentrates and refines the class struggle between rentiers (bourgeoisie) and workers (proletariat), always to the detriment of workers. When markets are used everywhere possible, market competition becomes a life-and-death struggle for everyone, bourgeoisie and proletariat; when everyone's life is on the line, the incentive to monopolize, to cheat, to oppress and enslave others, overwhelms any sense of social or civic value.

Opposing these market incentives, the neoliberals vaguely wave their hands and say, "The government will regulate these markets, break up monopolies, punish cheaters, and protect the proletariat from slavery." But how? Whatever neoliberals think they're trying to do to corral markets for social democratic ends does not seem to be working. Yes, neoliberals can say, with perhaps some deserved pride, that a global markets-in-everything economy has doubled the income of the desperately poor, from \$2 per day to \$4. But it's not enough, and helping the desperately poor shouldn't be mutually exclusive with creating a decent society for working people.

There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, government regulation of a market economy is both as practically difficult and ideologically illiberal as a centrally planned communist economy. Neoliberal economists, like central planners and literally everyone else, are never as smart as they think they. And, fundamentally, any government regulation entails coercing individuals for the sake of the collective. Second, people with political power decide government regulation, and a market economy gives political power to those who can successfully accumulate wealth. Why would such people give up their own power? For the sake of abstract "liberal" principles and altruistic public spirit? Grow the fuck up and re-read Machiavelli.

Libertarians understand these tensions, and, while they dissemble (because why not fool people if fooling them is profitable), they understand that libertarianism is just liberalism without the fuzzy-headed sentimentality. The race may not always be to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong, but it often enough is. If we are going to compete, it makes no sense to punish the winners nor reward the losers.

Do neoliberals understand these tensions? Are they merely better than libertarians as dissimulation? Or are they merely more naive? I don't think it even matters. Liberals — classical and neo- — are either fellow travelers or useful idiots for the right. They are not part of the left.