Coming in 2015!

InjusticesTwo things are coming next year that I am very much looking forward to. One is very silly and the other is not. Let’s start with the one that is not, given that it is coming first.


While doing research for last labor day, I came upon an article by Ian Millhiser who works for the Center for American Progress. The article was, The True Story of How One Man Shut Down American Commerce to Avoid Paying His Workers a Fair Wage. And before it was a note, “The following is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s Nearly Unbroken History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.” The article is great so I went looking for the book.

Unfortunately, the book is not coming out until 24 March 2015. But Amazon has a good summary of the book and it sounds like essential reading:

Few American institutions have inflicted greater suffering on ordinary people than the Supreme Court of the United States. In this powerful indictment of a venerated institution, constitutional law expert Ian Millhiser tells the history of the Supreme Court through the eyes of everyday people who have suffered the most as a result of its judgements. The justices built a nation where children toiled in coal mines and cotton mills, where Americans could be forced into camps because of their race, and where women were sterilized at the command of states. The Court was the midwife of Jim Crow, the right hand of union busters, and the dead hand of the Confederacy. Nor is the modern Court a vast improvement, with its incursions on voting rights, its willingness to place elections for sale, and its growing skepticism towards the democratic process generally.

What’s interesting about this is that for people my age, the court we knew growing up was liberal with Brown v Board of Education and Roe v Wade. But the truth is that the Supreme Court now is very much as it has traditionally been. It has not been conservative legislators but rather conservatives on the Court who have stood “athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” Un-elected old men hold the destiny of democracy in their hands. I do not feel good about this.


Also out next year is Minions. It is not any secret that I love Despicable Me and the sequel. I even wrote a semi-serious article about them, Thematic Uses of Minions in Despicable Me. So when I heard that there was going to be a movie that focused on the minions, well, I was really excited. Admittedly, there will be no Agnes. But still, it has Bob, who was frightened of the journey ahead. And Stuart, who is hungry. And Kevin, who still looks a bit too much like Burt for my taste. Still, it is bound to be a fun journey.

The only reason I bring it up is that I just happened upon the trailer for it. The film is set to be released on 10 July 2015. So that will give me time to finish Injustices. And at that point, I ought to need some cheering up.

Yes, I am easily charmed.

Global Warming and Slippery Property Rights

GuanacosI’m going to talk about the social disruption that will result from global warming and how the power elite will try to maintain the status quo, causing countless unnecessary deaths in the name of them keeping their privilege. But before I get to that, I want to provide you with how I got to thinking about this. You see, recently I was watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You may remember one of the best things about the film is that the opening credits are done in the style of an Ingmar Bergman film, and so there are repeated references to Sweden and moose. But then, the titles are changed to that of a Latin American film and instead of moose, we get llamas.

For example, one of the executive producers is, “‘Ralph’ the Wonder Llama.” And of central importance to us, one of the director credits is to, “14 North Chilean Guanacos (Closely Related to the Llama).” I had to look this up. And indeed, it is true. The guanacos are of the genus Lama — Latin for llama, I assume. They live in southwest South America. And most notably, they manage to live on the western edge of the Atacama Desert — the driest desert in the world outside of the polls. The average rainfall is about a half inch per year. But there are some weather stations in the desert that have never received any rainfall for over half a century.

So how do the guanacos survive in this place? Well, they mostly don’t. They only live near the coast. The cold ocean air hits the hot land and fog forms. This moisture is captured by the cacti and the guanacos eat the cacti. And that is how they survive. So the guanacos can only survive in perhaps 1% of the Atacama Desert. And I thought that was rather a good analogy of what we are doing to the earth as we ignore global warming.

As I talk about all the time, the biggest problem with global warming is almost certainly what it is going to do to rainfall patterns. A warmer world should actually create more rainfall. The problem is that both the models and long-term precipitation-temperatures correlations show that global warming will mostly decrease rainfall where we need it: over land. A lot more rainfall over the oceans really doesn’t help much. Decreased rainfall is going to make areas where there still is adequate rainfall far more valuable. The world will be like the Atacama Desert: plenty of land where we can’t survive and little land where we can.

What will happen then? Well, there have been water wars in the past. And as Shane Harris discussed in Foreign Policy recently, Water Wars, “The new conflicts of the future could be sparked by climate change.” I can see this working internationally and intranationally. I can easily see the United States invading Canada to get its farm land in a century. Of course, it won’t be sold that way. I’m sure The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets will be as willing as ever to spin whatever yarn the government is feeding them about the existential threat those francophiles in Quebec represent.

But also, as always, the rich will take the best land and everything that results from that. And the poor will be pushed to the margins. The argument in favor of private ownership of land is pretty weak. We aren’t talking about something that anyone built. It is literally true that you did not built that piece of earth. So when it comes to natural resources, we really do have a “might makes right” system where whoever owns a piece of land does so because of laws that privilege them.

This situation is bad enough today. But in a highly disrupted system caused by global warming, the situation will be much worse. Since the land that is considered valuable will change, we will see just how much billionaire Americans respect the land rights of poor people who win the geographic lottery. My guess is that we will see that they don’t believe in those rights all that much. At least, they won’t until they take control of the lands. Then land rights will be unquestioned. I only say this because it is how it has always gone.

At some point, every piece of land was stolen. The American obsession with land rights is just a way for the rich to maintain their power. The moment that it isn’t to their advantage, they will simply take what is not theirs. Afterward, they will pretend that their land ownership is righteous. Just like they do today.

We Must Make the Democratic Party Better

Jeffrey SachsI’m afraid that we liberals are upset about Tuesday’s election because we have had our expectations lowered far too much. The sad truth of modern America is that on economic issues, there is a razor thin difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Are we really upset that Mark Pryor did not get elected? It’s not like he really worked for the people of Arkansas, even if he was far better than Tom Cotton. The Democrats and the Republicans are both the parties of big business. And they have been since the mid-1970s. As a result, many young people probably don’t even know what real liberalism looks like. If the Reagan of 1980 ran today, he would make many Democrats look like conservatives. And don’t get me started on Richard “I created the EPA” Nixon.

Jeffrey Sachs wrote an excellent article about this over at Huffington Post this morning, Understanding and Overcoming America’s Plutocracy. He noted, “History shows the wreckage of democracies killed from within.” And I’m not sure if we are seeing democracy killed in the United States, or if we are simply viewing its rotting corpse. The beauty of the modern plutocracy is that it doesn’t look like a plutocracy. Sachs put it well:

Money works in election campaigns. It pays for attack ads that flood the media, and it pays for elaborate and sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts that target households at the micro level to manipulate who does and does not go to the polls.

I am very pragmatic about politics. That’s why I’m a Democrat. It is still the only party that considers evidence. The Republican Party has turned into a revolutionary group where ideological purity is all that matters. What’s interesting is that most Americans share my pragmatism. But most Americans don’t vote. And Democrats normally only offer one reason to vote for them, “We’re not (quite) as bad as the Republicans!”

But even among those who do vote, we saw the minimum wage win in a big way on Tuesday. In four red states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — where the people voted for very conservative candidates, they voted to increase the minimum wage. Think about that for a moment. These people are voting for candidates who are generally against having any minimum wage at all, yet they voted to increase theirs. How does that happen?

I don’t think it is cognitive dissonance. I think it is quite rational. Democrats have started to talk about raising the minimum wage. But they are only recently to the issue. Certainly when Congress was owned by the Democrats, they did not think it was important enough an issue. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Democratic Party has approached the minimum wage the same way it approached same sex marriage: as a follower. As always, the usual caveat: much better the Democratic Party that follows public opinion than the Republican Party that fights against it. But I suspect that the voters of Arkansas figured that it didn’t matter that Tom Cotton voted against raising the minimum wage in the past; neither Cotton nor Pryor were actually going to do anything about it in Congress.

Yesterday, Jonathan Bernstein wrote a disheartening article, Win the White House, Lose the Midterms. It is about how people blame the president for everything. So when the Democrats have a situation like they had in 2009, they need to use it. The problem is that we elect terrible Democrats whose first loyalty is to big business. That’s why single payer healthcare was never seriously considered. Bank nationalization was never seriously considered. No truly liberal policy was considered when the Democrats had the White House, House of Representatives, and a super-majority in the Senate. We were offered the same old neoliberal policies — the usual “not as bad as what the Republicans want” policies. Although sadly, what Obama got behind in policy terms was actually more conservative than what John McCain had run on. Think about that.

Sachs made a really upsetting observation:

Think of it this way. If government were turned over to the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Bechtel, and Health Corporation of America, they would have very little to change of current policies, which already cater to the four mega-lobbies: Big Oil, Wall Street, defense contractors, and medical care giants.

The solution? I think we have to start with a grander vision. The neoliberalism of the the Clinton and Obama administrations have been a catastrophe for liberalism. After that, it is just a lot of work at the local level. The most important thing is to get money out of politics. But that is a very heavy lift since the Supreme Court decided that money doesn’t distort the political process — a decision that started with the conclusion. But we can succeed. It is just that it is all on us. Sachs noted that we have pushed back against plutocracy before: “notably in the Progressive Era from 1890-1914, the New Deal from 1933-1940, and the Great Society from 1961-1969.” But that it wasn’t done by Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Kennedy/Johnson, “[I]n all of those cases, the mass public led and the great leaders followed the cause.” We have to start leading.


This video is self-congratulatory — not that I mind. But I do think that Wolf-PAC is a good group and they are worth supporting.

Economics Is Not a Science

Seven Bad IdeasThe pretense that economics is a science is harmful in that it gives economic ideas more credibility than they often deserve. Policymakers — and US citizens — are unaware of the questionable underpinning of much of the advice offered by economists, which has time and again led to gravely incorrect policy decisions.

But evidence often does not seem to matter. Only in recent years have most economists softened their antagonism to a higher minimum wage, despite the persuasive analyses undertaken by some since the 1990s that it can be beneficial. Similarly, most in the profession have only lately broadened their thinking about the adverse effects of offshoring jobs. A renewed interest in financial regulation, including higher capital requirements, was provoked only by the devastating 2008 financial crisis, which revealed gaping holes in efficient markets theory. The position of some economists from prestigious universities on the benefits of austerity economics was a mockery of good research, as updated scholarship has clearly shown. Despite this intellectual flexibility, policymakers seem to think that most economists know what they are talking about when they agree with them, or they cynically use them to promote their own political agendas in areas such as financial regulation, free trade, and workers’ rights.

Also, there has been a de facto censorship of needed ideas that don’t fit today’s idological preferences. For example, until the slow recovery after 2009, economists generally did not even enter into a discussion about the role of consumer demand and high wages as sources of economic growth. The orthodox conversation instead focused on low inflation and the dangers of rising wages…

The basis of much of economics is a set of value judgments, a claim as widely denied as it is generally true. The Invisible Hand cannot be divorced from a bias in favor of laissez-faire solutions. Economists opposed to active government involvement find adherence to the Invisible Hand comfortable as they do a belief in self-adjusting economies. Given the predominance today of such views, judgments are often skewed because the path to professional success requires conformity, not scientific objectivity.

—Jeff Madrick
Seven Bad Ideas

John Philip Sousa

John Philip SousaOn this day in 1854, the great composer John Philip Sousa was born. I know that marches are not “hip” (whatever that word might mean). People will generally leave me alone as I listen to my old blues and country thinking that it might be super hip and they just don’t know any better. (They’re right!) But no one questions but that marches are strictly the domain of blue haired old ladies and incontinent old men who are always shouting about communism. They are wrong to think this, because marches are a beautiful if extremely constrained art form.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that “The Washington Post” march is one of the greatest compositions ever written. The thing about a march is it has to be technically perfect and yet still have a great deal of musical inspiration. Consider “HM Jollies” by Sousa’s British contemporary Kenneth J Alford. I think it is an amazing piece of music by a brilliant musical mind. Yet despite its use of three common melodies and having once been forced to memorize it, I never find the march floating through my head. But “The Washington Post” plagues me — at least once a week. I only just found out that it was written for the newspaper:

Sousa’s father was a trombonist in the Marine band. He started Sousa’s musical education early — when he was only six years old. When Sousa was 13 years old, he apparently was going to run away and play in a circus band. So his father apprenticed him with the Marine band. I didn’t know they did this. It would be right after the Civil War. Sousa stayed with the band until he was 21. After that, he worked in theatrical orchestras where his facility on many instruments was doubtless highly valued. While doing that work, he learned to conduct — a skill he would use for the rest of his life. In 1880, he rejoined the Marines as the head of the band. After leaving in 1892, he formed his own band which was hugely successful. During his life, it was generally considered that playing in Sousa’s band was the best that a wind player could attain. Many notable people came out of the band, including Meredith Willson, who played flute and piccolo.

What I didn’t know was that Sousa also wrote a number of successful operettas. Sadly, I cannot find any of them that are performed as operettas. They are all instrumentals. But here is a collection of pieces from The Bride Elect, which most tantalizingly originally had an libretto by Sousa himself. This is quite beautiful:

Happy birthday John Philip Sousa!