Was NAFTA a Disaster? Close Enough!

Donald TrumpRecently, Donald Trump was on 60 Minutes. I watched parts of it and I agreed with a number of things he said. This was before his "tax reform" plan came out and he showed himself to be a really typical, boring Republican. But one of the things he talked about in the segment was NAFTA. He said, "It's a disaster..." And Mark Thoma, decided to look into the question, Is Donald Trump Right to Call NAFTA a "Disaster"? As I've pointed out in the past, Thoma is no firebrand. He's a careful, if liberal, economist. And so his conclusion is that it is complicated.

Fair enough. But the main claim that was made for NAFTA was that it was going to a boon for jobs. But what did we see? We saw the loss of "somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 to 700,000 jobs." But to be fair, in a nation the size of ours, that isn't a huge hit — between a quart and a half of a percent. But the point is that it was supposed to be a job creator. On the one thing that the deal sold as, NAFTA was indeed a disaster. It didn't do what it was supposed to do.

The evidence for its impact on Mexico is not even great. Brad DeLong — who might be biased, since he worked on the deal — finds that it netted a million and a half jobs. Others claim less. And as Thoma pointed out, "But whatever the actual number, just like for the US, it's also relatively small." There was no economic boom in the region. And the reason for that is that China became a big deal so all those jobs that would have gone to Mexico went to China instead. That's obviously bad for Mexico, but also bad for the US, because if the jobs had gone to Mexico, those workers would have bought a lot of stuff from America that the Chinese are not.

But I think that Thoma is being too kind. I don't think that the point of NAFTA was ever to create jobs. It was designed to make it easier for rich people to screw over working people here in the United States. Well, that's probably putting too negative a gloss on it. It was a way for the rich to enrich themselves even more. In other words, it was yet another government program designed to help out the people who least needed helping. The fact that those people saw greater profits by going to China hardly changes the dynamic.

And now we have the TPP. It's a treaty that isn't even about breaking down trade barriers. Most of the signatories already have low tariffs. The big thing in the agreement is intellectual property law, and these will put unheard of tariffs — hundreds and thousands of percent — on covered items. Is this going grow the economy? Is this going to create new jobs? One thing that NAFTA clearly did do was increase inequality. TPP will surely do the same thing. It will make the poor poorer. It will make the rich richer. But in the end, no in power will care, because they know they can always hire another lackey like Obama to push through the next trade deal.

NAFTA might not have been a disaster in a general sense. But it wasn't a good thing. And we have responded to that by passing trade deal after trade deal. We don't live in a democracy, my friends.

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Morning Music: Airproofing

Leo KottkeIn 1976, Leo Kottke moved to the now defunct Chrysalis Records. His first album for them was the self-titled, Leo Kottke. It consists only of instrumentals -- except for the first song, Nashville session musician Bob Morris' "Buckaroo." The songs are produced in a much more evocative way than had been the case before. They could easily have been used for a film score.

Today, we are going to listen to "Airproofing." It is hard driving, relentless number. I haven't mentioned it this week, but Kottke has done a number of Baroque pieces. There are a lot of Baroque aspects to his music. "Airproofing" doesn't sound Baroque, but it still contains a lot of the techniques typical of the period. And the first time you listen to it, it's kind of like watching a tightrope walker. But trust me: he doesn't fall. Just enjoy the music.

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Anniversary Post: 2005 Kashmir Earthquake

2005 Kashmir EarthquakeOn this day, exactly ten years ago, the Kashmir earthquake occurred. It killed over 86,000 people — and displaced almost three million. Its aftershocks were substantial all by themselves. One of was 6.4 magnitude — not that much less powerful than the most powerful earthquake I've ever experienced, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And compared to most people, I'm laxidasical about earthquakes. I'm sure I would have terrified living through this quake — if I did manage to do so.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.6. It was felt as far away as Afghanistan and China. More than 70% of the casualties were in the city of Muzaffarabad. That's remarkable when you consider that the current population of the city is slightly less than 100,000. Smaller towns were apparently reduced to rubble. It's hard to imagine. And the infrastructure in the area was not up to the task of rescue. Communication was virtually cut off. But in the end, over $5 billion in relief did make it to the area. And life continues on.


Here's one for James Fillmore: in 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in a World Series in MLB history. Is that because there just haven't been that many World Series games, or because of something about the competition in the World Series? That sounds like a good subject for an article. Unfortunately, Larsen never played for the Twins — or even the Senators.


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The Evolution of the Pets.com Sock Puppet

Pets.com Sock PuppetIf there is a single image that sums up the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, it is the Pets.com sock puppet. The company hired the advertising agency that had recently had great success with the Taco Bell chihuahua. So they came back with the the little dog puppet with a microphone. The ad campaign was hugely successful in terms of generating attention for the company. But in the end, it wasn't enough. It wasn't a stupid idea, but the company ran through a ridiculous amount of money. They even had a float made of the puppet for the 1999 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — certainly a waste of money. A sock puppet can only do so much.

The puppet was performed by comedian Michael Ian Black. He's a funny guy. The commercials work really well. But he's a terrible puppeteer. The thing you notice with bad puppeteers is that they don't even try. There is no effort made to match the sound. The mouth opens and closes at whatever speed while the puppeteer talks, and doesn't when he isn't talking. Still, in this case, it is clearly meant to be a hand puppet as they constantly show the arm and the wrist watch. And part of the charm is just how badly it is all done.

After Pets.com was liquidated, the sock puppet was sold to Bar None — the car loan company. They changed him. He was no longer as simple a sock puppet. This was probably because they got rid of Black. I must admit to preferring his voice. But whoever they got was an actual puppeteer. A great puppeteer can work with anything. But just check out the great moves done with the puppet's lips. And, of course, his snout stays level and his jaw moves down like an actual dog (or any other animal that has a jaw).

I have a general theory that pretty much everything is better with puppets. They add the cartoon universe to real life. Like in the Bar None ad, it would be really difficult to have an actual human do that without making the audience hate him. But he's puppet, so somehow it's okay.

Image from Wikipedia where who I'm supposed to acknowledg is less than clear.


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Our Imperfect Government Killing Machine

Scott LemieuxIn late September, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution of Richard Glossip, whose conviction on a charge of murder has been strongly called into question. However, his execution was stayed at the last minute by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. Glossip's fate remains unclear, but we can be certain of one thing: The American death penalty system is irretrievably broken...

The problem is that even though Glossip's moral case is strong, his legal case is much less so. For better or worse, appellate courts place great weight on the "finality of judgment." Even if a judge disagrees with Justice Antonin Scalia's view that it does not violate due process for the state to execute a factually innocent person who was given a procedurally fair trial, Glossip represents a trickier case. He does not have, say, exonerating DNA evidence and an unshakeable alibi affirmatively demonstrating his innocence. The state does not have a very good case that he is guilty, but we do not know for a fact that he is innocent.

Appellate courts are therefore not well equipped to deal with this kind of gray area. This is where governors need to step in with their powers to commute the sentences and/or pardon people convicted of crimes. At the very least, [Oklahoma Governor Mary] Fallin should ensure that Glossip is not executed. But public officials who are inclined to support the death penalty, particularly in red states where they also face electoral pressure to be extra-tough on crime, cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

This is the reality of the death penalty. A division of labor is set up in which numerous officials, operating within their formal legal authority, act in concert to produce a flagrantly unjust outcome for which no one person is responsible. As the legal scholar Mark Graber puts it, "Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because capital punishment enhances prosecutorial power to secure unreliable and arbitrary death sentences."

This is simply not a system that can be defended. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disagree with Justice Breyer's conclusion in June that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional. Even if the death penalty could pass constitutional muster in the abstract, in practice it cannot be applied without violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Glossip's case is merely one example of far too many.

—Scott Lemieux
Why the American Death Penalty System Is Broken


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Obama's Pathetic TPP Legacy

Barack ObamaNow the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a done deal for all intents and purposes, it bears looking at again. The argument for it is that it is going to be great for the economy. That's what President Obama keeps saying anyway. Of course, it's bunk. Dean Baker made a good comparison recently, Donald Trump Says His Tax Cut Will Lead to 6% GDP Growth and President Obama Says TPP Will Boost Growth. That's right: he's saying that Trump's widely mocked claim that his policies will lead to 6% growth are as ridiculous as Obama's claims about the TPP.

It turns out that even people who are in favor of TPP don't make much in terms of claims for it. The Peterson Institute claims that it will increase economic growth by 0.03% per year. This is literally at the level of noise. And in fact, that's what others say. The United States Department of Agriculture said that the effect would be "too small to measure." So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side... Well, there is no plus side.

So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side... Well, there is no plus side.

For a while, a lot of people like me thought that maybe the crazy Republicans would step up and make this an issue. After all, isn't this treaty exactly what they are always claiming liberals are trying to do: create a one world government that will tell the good God fearing people of Texas or Arkansas or Mississippi what to do? But they aren't concerned about this treaty because they know that the down side will only affect the poor people and the up side will help the rich people. Thus it is everything that Republicans want in a law or treaty: something to screw the poor and help the rich.

But you might wonder: if the TPP is going to produce basically no economic growth, why do the rich care? Well, it is the same reason that drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been such a big deal for such a long time. There is not enough oil there to make any difference to us on a national level, much less a world level. But it did mean billions of dollars for people who were already hugely wealthy. So it is a big deal to do. And it is the same thing here. This treaty is huge for the pharmaceutical industry. It is huge for Hollywood. But are we going to get better drugs or movies? Don't be silly. This is about them being able to collect more rents on things they've already made.

So it is sad that Obama has pushed this through. In the end, I suspect people will remember him for Obamacare. But they will mention TPP in the same way that people mention NAFTA and Bill Clinton. "Oh yeah, well that was a mistake." Not that Obama will ever suffer because of it. After he's out of office, I'm sure that Pfizer and Roche will be eager to give him a million bucks to drop by and give a speech on something like volunteerism.

Plutocrats: 1
America: 0


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Democratic Leadership vs Republican Brinkmanship

Republican FascismDaniel Drezner wrote an interesting article at The Washington Post last Friday, The Politics of Leadership and Anger. He noted that President Obama has moved from "weary resignation and shifted into frustrated outrage." It's understandable. So far this year, we have had more mass shootings — "incidents where 4 or more people are killed or injured by gunfire" — than we have had days (294 mass shootings in 297 days). The death toll has to get very high before the national news even notices one. And Obama is angry about it — not least because he's tried to do things in the past and the Republican Congress has stopped him.

At the same time, Republicans claim to be very unhappy about the fake sting videos involving Planned Parenthood. Are they any more angry than Obama is about these mass shootings? They don't seem to be. Actually, if you ask me, I think it is mostly fake — demagoguery for their base. But even if we take their anger at face value, it is no worse than the president's. Yet as Drezner noted, Obama is not using the situation to block all the business of the government until Congress does what he wants: (1) threaten to veto all appropriation bills; (2) refuse to raise the debt ceiling; (3) demand the resignations of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Now Drezner has no answers as to why this is. In fact, he seems to be under the delusion that John Boehner is in the same class of politicians as Obama: "a traditional politician who recognizes the limits of what can be accomplished without political support." And that's just nonsense. Was Boehner not one of Newt Gingrich's hatchet men? Wasn't he in favor of the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1995-96? Why, yes he was! And didn't he vote to impeach President Clinton? Yes! In fact, only two of four charges passed against Clinton, but Boehner voted for all four.

I think it is critically important to remember this: even the "reasonable" Republicans are crazy. Remember in 2013, Boehner didn't want to pick a fight with Obama over the continuing resolution. His stated reason was that the Republicans didn't have as much leverage. He wanted to pick the fight over the debt ceiling — a far more dangerous act of brinkmanship. And so this isn't — as Drezner claims — about the Tea Party. If anything separates the establishment from the Tea Party it is practical experience. They are all just as crazy; it is just that the establishment types wield the crazy more effectively.

So the problem is not that some in the Republican Party have poisoned it. It is that the Republican Party is itself rancid. And it has been since at least 1981 when Ronald Reagan said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." The conservative movement — and America in a general sense — has managed to forget the first four words at the beginning of that sentence, and decided that the government is always bad. So why not shut it down? From the standpoint of the conservative, as long as the government continues to do the things they want (like send Social Security checks), then it's fine.

At this point, I don't think there is any way forward with the Republican Party. It will not reform from the inside — at least as long as it has any amount of political power. It must be destroyed. This is not a Cold War situation where we can move forward together while disagreeing. That was the way it was 40 or 50 years ago. We are now in a World War II situation. The Republicans are determined to destroy a century of American progress. They must be stopped. They must be destroyed.


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Morning Music: Mona Ray

Dreams and All That StuffIn 1974, Leo Kottke put out one of his most successful albums, the all instrumental Dreams and All That Stuff. There is a lot of production on the album, which I tend to think is more about making the process more fun for him than us. Although it is generally effective, especially on When Shrimps Learn to Whistle (which you should check out).

Today, we listen to a very pretty song that still makes me slightly sad with its longing, "Mona Ray." It's easy to get caught up in his technique, but the music really is beautiful. It's easiest to experience by not watching him as he plays. But it is wondrous regardless.

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Anniversary Post: First Image of Far Side of Moon

First Picture of Other Side of MoonOn this day in 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft transmitted the first ever pictures of the far side of the Moon. I thought we might take this opportunity to discuss why it is that the same side of the Moon is always facing us. Although I should tell you that this is not exactly true. I think we are able to see about 55% of the Moon's surface, because it jiggles. But for all intents and purposes, we see the same moon each night. This is because it is tidally locked.

The Moon once rotated rapidly. But over time, the Earth's gravitational field slowed it. The force from the Earth produces a bulge in the part of the moon that is directly facing the Earth -- and also directly opposite (just like the Moon created tides on Earth). This has the effect of squishing down the sides, so that the moon looks like a football with the pointy end facing Earth. Of course, the deformation isn't anywhere near that great. But that's the basic idea.

While the Moon was spinning fast, the bulge was always slightly after the direct line. As a result, the gravitational field had a net torque on the Moon, slowing its rotation. The effect was very small. But it's amazing what you can accomplish in a billion years. I used to tell my students to image the Moon (or any other tidally locked object like Mercury) as if it were a frying plan. The handle would always be facing just a little off center from the Earth, and would thus be constantly pulled slightly in the opposite direction of the Moon's rotation.

Luna 3 was the first mission specifically meant to photograph the other side of the Moon. Luna 1, sent in January of that year, was meant to crash on the Moon. It missed. (Don't laugh: we missed the Moon the first time we tried.) And it became the first human object to go into orbit around the Sun. Luna 2, sent in September, actually hit the Moon. Later, in February 1966, Luna 9 would be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon (or any other place).

The radio signal on Luna 3 was so weak, that the spacecraft had to get almost all the way back to Earth in order to transmit its 18 images. The one above is the first transmitted back. I think we humans have become far too cavalier about this kind of stuff. What we now do in space is mind boggling. It's always nice to go back five or six decades and see what we were doing and just how hard it was. Oh, and no one knows for sure what happened to Luna 3. But it probably burned up in the Earth's atmosphere.


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"American Pie" Is a Reactionary Political Whine

American PieIn the first band I was ever in, the first song we did was "American Pie." I'm not sure why. It wasn't a song I was particularly fond of. It was probably because it was easy, although certainly "Wild Thing" would have been easier. It is a song that has largely been given a free ride over the years with his jumbled lyrics about the history of rock music. It is an okay song, but overall tedious and too long.

Earlier this year, Don McLean auctioned off the original lyric sheet for the song. He got over a million dollars for it. But he also claimed that the notes would reveal all there was to reveal. And what they revealed were really obvious things like the "the king" being Elvis and "the jester" being Dylan. I've never found the song particularly mysterious. It seems designed to make listeners feel good about themselves for figuring out its transparent metaphors.

Something else "revealed" by McLean was that the song was about the death of the rock-n-roll that he loved as a kid. He said, "[Life] is becoming less idyllic." You know what that's called: growing up. Everyone thinks "life" was more idyllic when they were kids because, you know, they were kids -- life was more idyllic. Nothing had happened to the music other than what had always happened: it continued to grow and evolve.

The other night, I was thinking about the song and the obvious hit me: it's a reactionary political song. It's the pop music equivalent of "Okie from Muskogee." It's one big -- eight and a half minute -- whine about how the hippies had ruined everything. The song makes continual reference to Christianity. This has generally been interpreted as the spiritual side of music, "Can music, save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?" But that isn't really what he seems to be getting at.

The motivation behind "American Pie" is McLean's complaint about growing up and the loss of innocence. So he's just grabbed onto the cultural signifiers of the time that allow him to say "Now is bad, then was good." And give the sad sap content of the album -- with songs like "Empty Chairs" and "Vincent" -- we get a clear picture of adolescent discontent. (Yes, I know he was 25 at the time.) And he reached for a convenient excuse for his displeasure -- his parents and that "stuck-up girl in history class" no longer fitting the bill.

It's ironic that McLean's big whine would turn out to be exactly what he was complaining about: rock-n-roll with an over-serious, pseudo-intellectual gloss, ultimately stripped of its power. And the rest of his career is one of easy listening pop and country. There were people around who were doing the kind of rock music that he claimed to miss: The Troggs and Velvet Underground to name just two. But "American Pie" is not about the music. His discontent was with life. And he's way off target. "American Pie" could have been written in 1957 as a complaint about how Buddy Holly had destroyed music.


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Deficit Spending Crowds Investment In

Paul KrugmanIf weak demand leads to lower investment, which it does, and if fiscal austerity is contractionary, which it is, then in a depressed economy deficit spending doesn't crowd investment out — it crowds investment in. Or to be more explicit, austerity policies don't release resources for private investment — they lead to lower private investment, and reduce future capacity in addition to causing present pain. Conversely, stimulus in times of depression supports, not hinders, long-run growth.

—Paul Krugman
The Investment Accelerator and the Woes of the World

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We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

Lauren NelsonIn the Friendly Atheist section of Patheos, Lauren Nelson wrote, Before You Claim the UCC Shooting Was About Christian Persecution, Consider All the Evidence. It's a relatively deep dive into whether the shooter was an atheist and whether this had anything to do with singling out Christians. And the answer to the first question is clearly no. He certainly had a problem with organized religion, but he doesn't seem to have been an atheist. We now we have some indication that the answer to the second question is also no.

But I think it is a mistake to make such an argument. Implicit in it is the claim that an atheist wouldn't target random people for execution as an expression of atheism. That might not be the case here, but given the frequency of mass shootings, it may well happen -- and soon. And then atheists will be in the same place that Christians now find themselves: committing the no true Scotsman fallacy. We'll have to listen to people claiming that anyone who really understood the tenets of atheism wouldn't have committed this horrible act.

I am an atheist, but I know the atheist community far too well to rely on this. There are many atheists who get mad at me for saying this, but there really is a strong connection between atheism and libertarianism. Atheism doesn't necessarily turn someone into a humanist. Many atheists feel it is perfectly acceptable to let human beings die in the name of their primitive economic theories. In general, they don't think it is all right to explicitly kill others. But it is hardly far off the beaten path. Ayn Rand was very much enamored with serial killer William Hickman and Nietzsche's Übermensch. It doesn't take any effort at all to actually become the serial killer and imagined Übermensch.

But there is a more fundamental point here. Humans are clever. It does not take much to use just about anything to justify something that you did or want to do. True, it would be harder to justify murder using Jainism than Judaism. But I feel certain it can be done. And atheism is a hell of a lot closer to Judaism than it is to Jainism -- at least judging from the way that prominent atheists talk. So I think we atheists ought to give our theist brothers and sisters a break. We should just assume that some very prominent horrific act has already been committed by an outspoken and clear atheist.

Does this mean that atheism is bad? Not at all. It is just an acknowledgement that people use all kinds of things to justify their terrible behavior. And that would allow my fellow atheists to better see that the acts terrorists, lone gunmen, and Republican politicians do not necessarily say anything about the religion of those people. If there is one lesson from religion that I wish that atheists would learn, it would be the dangers of hubris taught in the Old Testament. As a group, we atheists are very full of ourselves. I would hate for me and my philosophy to be judged on the basis of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.


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