Rat Flood

Rat FloodIn Chapter Eight of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Don Federico is an exterminator obsessed with destroying all rats, because he blames himself for allowing rats to eat his baby sister alive. So I decided to look on my phone to see if rats have ever been known to eat humans. They aren’t. Occasionally, they will bite sleeping people. This is probably because they are trying to eat food particles off people. Rats don’t see humans — or any creature — as prey. Rats will eat just about anything, but brown rats are known to prefer a diet much like mine. Favorite foods: “scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels.” Least favorite foods: “raw beets, peaches, and raw celery.” But I doubt they were ever offered my excellent peach pie. They are also known to like chocolate.

But all this research brought me to the story of the rat flood — once thought to be a mythical periodical deluge of rats in eastern India. From time to time, the rats would just be everywhere and eat everything. Well, not everything. They didn’t eat the humans. But they might as well have, because it decimated the food crops and stores and caused a famine during those years. And then, just like Keyser Söze: poof, they’re gone. Scientists and political authorities didn’t think it was real, because hey, peasants. But it not only was real, it is.

This happens every 48 years. The Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur are roughly 30% covered in bamboo forest. It has a 48 year ecological cycle called the Mautam. So after the bamboo flowers, it dies and releases all its seeds. Rats like the bamboo seeds and suddenly, they are swimming in them. So they don’t have to spend a bunch of time finding food, so they eat and do that other evolutionarily important behavior: have sex. What’s more, studies indicate that female fertility goes up as does the litter size. Suddenly, eastern India is overflowing with rats.

Of course, it doesn’t matter at this time. The rats have their food supply and they are doing just dandy. It is the following year when there are huge numbers of rats and no more bamboo seeds. So they “head into town” and eat the food of the humans. And there isn’t a lot that the humans can do. This is why it is referred to as the “rat flood.” We have records of this happening in 1862, 1911, 1959, and 2006.

The people of these regions are getting better at dealing with the problem. In 2006, the Indian government sent in the army to help out. They used little bitty guns. No, just kidding. They were there mostly to provide education on how to deal with the coming hordes. Interestingly, as I mentioned above, rats have different food tastes. And there are things they really don’t like. Apparently, they don’t like the smells of turmeric and ginger.

In addition to being a human tragedy — although one we could eliminate if we wanted to with a simple application of resources — it is also a rat tragedy. Because of the excessive food supply, the following year is necessarily a famine of unheard of proportions. And there is really nothing that can be done to stop it. God really is evil.

Our Political System, Not Hillary, Is the Problem

Hillary ClintonMatt Taibbi wrote a very good rant on Thursday, Campaign 2016: Hillary Clinton’s Fake Populism Is a Hit. But I’m not sure he’s quite right to write off Clinton as a fake populist. I think the arguments against her could have been levied against FDR. Now I’m not saying that Clinton will actually turn against her class once she is president. In fact, I don’t think she will. She seems to be a total neoliberal, and if she wins the presidency, she will be the third New Democratic president we’ve had in a row. And sadly, in as much as the American voter notices, it doesn’t seem to care.

The real problem is buried in one thing that Taibbi focused on: the carried interest loophole — that bit of the tax code that allows people literally making billions of dollars to pay only a 15% tax rate. He commented facetiously, “Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.” Anyone raising their hand it a complete idiot. As he noted, Obama promised to get rid of this loophole in 2008. And 2012. Yet the loophole has been around for thirty years. It ain’t going nowhere.

Matt TaibbiAnd the reason is clear as day. There are rich people who benefit greatly from this loophole. Some of them give massive amounts of money to the Republicans and some give massive amounts of money to the Democrats. And no national politician is going to forego that money that benefits them directly to do something that would be good and fair for the country as a whole. Now if the electorate stands up and demands something be done, it will be. Or if the electorate stands up and demands that we get money out of politics, it will be done. But otherwise: forget about it.

I’m tired of hearing about the “invisible primary.” Why don’t we just call it what it is: the money primary. The mainstream media is so corrupt that they define a “viable” candidate to be one that is able to raise a lot of money. But here is something that is almost never mention: money doesn’t matter that much in the general election. Jonathan Bernstein recently wrote, “Believe it or not, general-election presidential campaigns are where political spending matters the least.” So we’ve been sold this bill of goods about the importance of money. But all that does is give people with a lot of money that much more influence over our politics. Thank you, neutral press corps!

Just the same, I don’t agree with Taibbi’s larger point. I don’t mind Clinton’s pandering. The fact that she is reciting a “medley of Elizabeth Warren’s greatest stump hits” is a good thing. As Ezra Klein has written a lot about in the past, what politicians say really does matter. The fact that she is talking in a more populist way doesn’t mean she will get rid of carried interest loophole. (And even if she wanted to, I’m not sure Congress would go along.) But it does mean she is more likely to be somewhat more populist and somewhat less neoliberal than she would have been had she won in 2008. The problem is the system, not Hillary Clinton.

TPP Could Create 4,000+ Minimum Wage Jobs

Timothy B. LeeTimothy B Lee over at Vox yesterday, wrote a very neutral discussion of TPP, The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Great for Elites. Is It Good for Anyone Else? And it is still a blood bath. The answer is: no. It is not good for anyone else. Let’s just discuss the one positive section in Lee’s article, “Trade Liberalization Has Modest but Real Benefits.” According to an estimate by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in a decade, the TPP will add a half a percent to our GDP. Now that is down there in the noise — literally so if you look at the variation of GDP after subtracting the trend line.

But we don’t even need to think about the size of this. After all, a half percent of GDP would come out to roughly $77 billion in 2025. That’s still a lot of money. That would represent decent paying jobs for a million American workers. The problem is that the $77 billion is not going to go to workers. We’ll be lucky to get a hundred thousand minimum wage jobs out of this. In fact, let’s take a nice little statistic from our friend Bernie Sanders:

Bernie Sanders' Questions

That first statistic is stunning. It comes from a Brookings Institution speech back in February, “In fact, the latest information that we have shows that in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.” The fact-checker at The Washington Post had a bit of a problem with it, but it was mostly along the usual lines where liberals have to be found wanting, so the complaint is that not everyone agrees with the study cited. Check out the whole article — most especially including Sanders’ response.

Let’s assume that the $77 billion will be similarly partitioned. That means, the top 1% will get $76.23 billion and the bottom 99% will get $77 million. Now we know that isn’t reasonable. Most likely, the top 10% will get it all and then some, while the bottom 90% actually fall further behind. But let’s just suppose that the $77 million will go to minimum wage workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Assuming a 2% inflation rate, the minimum wage would be $8.83 in 2025. This too is a joke, of course; the minimum wage is worth a dollar less than it was in 1956. But I’m being generous. Let’s assume $8.83. That’s a full time salary of $17,675 per year. That’s a big ol’ 4,356 new minimum wage jobs — or approximately 200 more McDonald’s franchises.

I’ve written about this subject before, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. The fact is that I don’t care if the TPP is going to add $77 trillion to our economy. Until our economy is set up to share the fruits of our labors and our resources, it doesn’t matter. I’m not buying.

But as Lee’s article points out again and again, the TPP is not even about trade. It is about allowing the power elite to take an even bigger slice out of the economic pie. It’s about increasing the prices that we all pay for drugs and entertainment. And that extra cost will not go to employing more researchers and comedy writers. It will go to corporations to better exploit their rents. And the sad thing is that I don’t see much in the way of Democratic resistance to this. A nuclear deal with Iran — well them’s fightin’ words for Congressional Democrats. But funneling even more money to the rich? That’s just the American way! Am I right, Chuck?!

Morning Music: Fahd Ballan

Fahd BallanFahd Ballan was a Syrian folk singer. I don’t know much about him, except that he was extremely popular in his day — both as a singer and as an actor (although I can find no record of his acting). He worked with the great Arabic composer and musician Farid al-Atrash in Egypt.

The following song is more or less, “Girls of Mukalla.” According to As’ad AbuKhalil, “In Arab folklore, the women of Mukallah are reputed to be most beautiful.” And the song has the lyrics, “Oh, the girls of Mukalla. You are the cure of every ill” — a typical sentiment in popular music everywhere, it would seem. Regardless, what he’s singing about, it is a very pleasant song:

Anniversary Post: David Ricardo

David RicardoOn this day in 1772, the economist David Ricardo was born. In Mark Blyth’s book, Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea, he does not come off at all well. But why would he? He was writing 200 years ago. The problem with Ricardo and Smith and Locke is not that they have relatively little to tell us about the modern economy; the problem is that there are so many people who want to follow them for ideological reasons.

Let us consider the idea of Ricardian equivalence. It’s an interesting idea. According to it, the government spending money on stimulus won’t work. This is because, according to the theory, the extra money that the government spends will have to be paid off at a later time in extra taxes. The people know this and so reduce their spending by however much the government increases its spending. It’s a very clever idea. It’s also wrong.

Did World War II happen, or not? The military buildup in anticipation of war got the United States out of the depression. So it is a cool idea that if people were perfectly rational computers, extra government spending mightn’t do any good. But we have World War II and countless other examples of how government deficit spending does indeed stimulate the economy.

But let’s just assume for a moment that Ricardian equivalence actually did work. It most certainly wouldn’t work the way that I’ve heard many conservatives claim that it does. Let’s suppose that the government spends $100 to stimulate the economy. According to the theory, the people would reduce their spending by a total of $100. But the $100 that the government spends will be spend right now (or close enough). The extra taxes to pay for that spending will be spread out over many years or even decades. So if we assume that the tax liability will be spread out over a decade, the government would spend $100 that first year and it would be partially offset by reduced private sector spending of $10 — not $100. Thus, there would indeed be a $90 stimulus that year.

So let’s all just admit that David Ricardo was a smart guy. And the people today who think that he was right are total idiots who are ideologically driven to find any justification for their preferred policies — which are to screw the worker and help the rich.

Happy birthday David Ricardo!