The Sanity Plea: Trump and His Enablers Must Go

I’d like to offer a very special thanks to my dear friends S. Kelly Gupta, Noam Chomsky, George Polisner, and Dean Baker for offering feedback and promoting my article. Noam, George, and Dean are fantastic activists who tirelessly expose oppression.

Very powerful piece.  And very well documented.  Should have a powerful impact.  I didn’t know about your background.  Gives you a unique perspective to understand what is happening in the evangelical movement, now with quite considerable influence in the US and elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky
California's wildfire issues spark debate about prevention – Daily Democrat
California Burns, Trump Fiddles

Almost four years ago, I formed this blog, in a general sense, to meet the existential challenge of Trump’s seeming upstart electoral college victory; more specifically, I’ve aimed to better inform fellow technologists of the gravity and historical context said threat. We now approach what I consider to be the most important election of my lifetime, likely more important than any election since Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, or even Abraham Lincoln’s ascent to power in 1860. With each passing year of the Trump carnival, the probabilities of descent survival for the species have dwindled: the most recent year confronts us with the most serious challenges of all. No president has ever been so woefully inadequate, lacking of moral fiber, and devoid of understanding in his own policy positions, save reversing the meager but respectable civil rights and social victories gained during Barack Obama’s tenure. Catastrophic climate change ravages the land, with fire in the west, wind and water in the east, and the slow cooker that is becoming the atmosphere offered perhaps the highest temperatures recorded on land since the beginnings of accurate measurement: 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trump’s own department of transportation concedes that emission standards will, in fact, partially address climate change; and the report’s recommendation? REVERSE all emission restrictions. I daresay I’ve never heard of such omnicidal whimsy from an agency in the government. Denial, yes, but never acknowledgment but insistence in destroying the world. There’s more, as Trump’s regulatory approach monumentally dismisses hard-fought victories by environmentalists and scientists, in some cases continuing the neoliberal program of laying pipeline in indigenous lands, destroying water sources, continuing a long tradition of imperialist violence. I digress.

A pandemic has massacred at least million people worldwide, with 215,000 Americans among them. Eight million Americans are infected, with the most colossally inept American response imaginable. The economy is in ruins thanks to this same ineptitude. And Trump himself pronounces victory in augmentatives one might expect to hear from a demented spoiled child. “Beautiful,” “wonderful,” “terrific,” like the sleaziest used car salesman you might meet. So who is to blame? The twenty percent of the electorate committed to supporting him unconditionally? The congressional republicans, who with little exception have enabled his every whim, despite declaring him to be a con man, fraud, cheat, liar, and so on? The DNC who ran a deeply unpopular candidate in 2016 after shafting the more popular Bernie Sanders, not once, but now TWICE, despite his actively campaigning for their pick once the contest ends? The Russian oligarchs blamed for electioneering? The debtors to whom Trump owes $400M? I’m reminded of an adage–

whom much is given, much will be required

Luke 12:48

I think the answer lies primarily within traditional power centers : concentrations of capital, a political class owned by the capital class, complicit media, and so on. Contextualizing more specifically, I believe the aforementioned neoliberal program, deregulation, and the ensuing dissolution of social and public institutions are responsible for a newfound suspicion of science, the academy, and the like. Not all of the suspicion is unfounded; the academy has left out much of the population, despite some substantive inclusive overtures on the part of university leadership. Anti-science is perhaps more organized than ever before, with a punditocracy and political elites disparaging higher education regularly. Fox News seems endlessly on the case of some liberal professor somewhere publicly dressing down students who support Trump, though one seldom hears the reverse situation. Said aversion to science has crescendoed, with Pew publishing numbers earlier this year suggesting that republicans still just don’t get catastrophic climate change; and neither party’s leadership seems to understand the omnicidal consequences of nuclear proliferation. Either danger is existential, much more so even than the coronavirus pandemic, though only climate cataclysm seems to receive any mainstream press. We’ll do one better here, with one more pass on the economy, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and badly needed affirmation of the better parts of our species. Let’s first “say it like it is,” as a late friend of my late grandmother once said, with a brief discussion of terminology.

Rather than thinking imbecilically “left” and “right,” consider a more nuanced appreciation for policy. In fact, all of these terms: moderates, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are utterly devoid of meaning. What passes for conservative now is, in many respects, just outer space. Moderates are the conservatives of yesteryear, capable of considering the government and markets to be tools, with suitable roles in day-to-day life. Today’s so-called liberals, as Hillary may be described, is no more than a moderate in disguise. Bernie Sanders is no left-wing crackpot: his policy positions are quite compatible with the mainstream of America’s 1930s and 1940s. But the cartoonish Red Scares in 1917 and 1947 painted thinking people in America, namely socialists (recall, Karl Marx of the eponymous Marxism was a very learned and respected economist) as conspirators with Bolshevism. It’s well-understood that the U.S. government painted Bolshevism the color of socialism to denigrate the latter. Bolshevists accepted the category to legitimize their vicious totalitarianism.

Peaceful Protesters Gassed So Trump Can Do Bible Photo Op
I wonder if his tiny hand burned?

Firearms and Founding Fathers, You Say?

The Economy Was Made Great Again?

Faith-Based Corruption

Racism, Classism, Electioneering, Textualism, and Constitutional Maximalism

Catastrophic Climate Change

Nuclear Proliferation and Omnicide

Pandemonium in a Pandemic

Psychosis and Dementia

Prescription : Democracy

Firearms and Founding Fathers, You Say?

How do we begin to address the nightmarish flow of guns into our schools, parks, and churches? NRA fanatics might be surprised to learn that the organization itself began as a gun safety and use program. Now, with decades of deafening paranoia swirling about an increasingly bankrupt, increasingly unhealthy population, gun rights activists in the so-called mainstream (again, watch for changes in language) argue that a Biden victory will rob them of their God-given right to own countless guns. The latter would be laughable, were it not for the school shooting statistics, fifty-seven times that of the other comparable countries combined–288 for the US versus two in Canada. I’m reminded of Emerson’s hobgoblin when I hear these gun nuts argue that we owe our freedoms to guns, a fantasy promoted even in grammar school when I was a kid. Zinn, recently singled out by Trump in his conspiratorial histrionic denigration of American history teachers, argued powerfully that our freedoms broaden along a trajectory of victory for American labor. If guns played a role, generally they were in the hands of the National Guard, the Pinkertons, and scabs attacking mostly peaceful protests. In any case, the Second Amendment, apparently more sacred than the Ten Commandments, reads that

[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment II

It ought be clear that the amendment doesn’t refer to anarchist gun possession, as the first clause says: “a well regulated Militia.” Then, in Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court held, for the first time ever, that this second amendment magically no longer applies to regulated militias, but rather individual possession. Justices closely huddled with the Federalist Society, a self-described advocacy group for those panicky lone ranger conservatives unhappy with the imagined liberal orthodoxy of the legal profession about them, abandoned their feigned textualism and originalism with a permanent reinterpretation. Textualism, it would seem, served the late Antonin Scalia well, except when it didn’t. As Noam Chomsky often says, if we really want to understand the intent of the Founding Fathers, we can simply read the meeting minutes of the Constitutional Convention, discussed in Klarman’s The Framer’s Coup. Very few Americans would find the motivations to be anything less than repellant, as the U.S. Constitution was an instrument to retain state power for the white, male, landed gentry. The rest of the population, the focus of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, confronted hostility in often horrific ways. Washington, for instance, ordered the slaughter of the Iroquois with the destruction of over forty villages, earning him the title “Town Destroyer,” a moniker he brandished proudly. In any case, no matter one’s interpretation of the second amendment and the more prominently leveraged tenth amendment, firearms of the 1780s could fire only once every fifteen seconds, and that’s if its wielder could reload very quickly. Contrast that with even modern handguns, and it seems impossible to believe the founders would have supported such unrestricted power.

Some People Actually Owned Set is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list Here's What Firearms Looked Like When The Founding Fathers Wrote The Second Amendment
Wikimedia Commons

Trump may believe that American history teachers ought tell only the good stories, and maybe only the good stories are true. I doubt seriously that Trump has ever had any decent historical dressings-down, not that it would matter.

Historical accuracy is essential to democracy–there have been desperately dark days in the history of America, as the continental expansion was a veritable bloodbath in the extirpation and extermination of the indigenous population, the vicious enslavement of Africans, and centuries of oppression of women, other people of color, and homosexuals, a group whose history seldom reaches mainstream press, but enjoys an excellent treatment in Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War. And yet the past six decades exhibit a civilizing of society unlike anything in history. Despite the occasional regression, we’ve made tremendous progress. The eye uncritical of history succumbs to the same tropes, or so the adage goes. Democracy makes sense mostly in the context of a well-informed citizenry, and denying the sins of our forefathers not only betrays the memory of their victims, but the dignity of any station we occupy.

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The Economy Was Made Great Again?

Trump inherited a growing economy still thrumming from considerable state actions undertaken by the Obama administration. I’m no Obama apologist, as I feel his reforms in saving banks and industries rather than workers was a grisly failure, but without federal intervention, the economy would have crashed altogether. Over thirty years of the neoliberal program, capital flight, deregulation, ghastly military misadventures all led to a financial crisis in 2008, a mess left to the democrats to solve. Obama’s administration managed to reverse many of the negative trends, with the introduction of some regulations and an infusion of federal revenue to salvage the financial sector, though neither banker nor broker faced any criminal charges for morally (and ultimately financially) bankrupt damage done. The International Monetary Fund actually assigns profitability of these American banks a number solely based upon the “too big to fail” government insurance policy, ridiculed by serious economists such as Dean Baker.

Trump believes he, and he alone, rescued a tanked economy–he’s simply taking credit for the work of others, and it should be as plain as that. Trump’s psychosis, something to which we’ll return shortly, is perfectly compatible with such a delusion.

More important for my libertarian conservative readers, it bears repeating again and again–the conservative nanny state, so eloquently described by the same economist Dean Baker, is essential in maintaining a robust, technology-driven economy; corporations aren’t naturally occurring agents, but legal fictions, constructed to concentrate wealth further into fewer pockets. Deregulation is a dog-whistle for “socialism for me, capitalism for you.” One cannot point to any dynamic sector of the economy whose interplay with the fed is minimal.

Trump supremely serves as a grotesque exemplar, having suckled from the government’s myriad udders for most of his life, committing likely a litany of financial crimes along the way. Of course, he’s cashed in as president, golfing gazillions of times, expensed foreign dignitaries out of his own hotels, and leveraging his position to sweeten deals with foreign markets into which he heretofore has been unable to seep his wretched corruption. Again, he owes $400M. Could it be money owed to Putin? I very much dislike the Russian interference thread for reasons I’ll describe soon, but it does make one wonder.

As you probably read this, a Manhattan district attorney is preparing a case against Trump of perhaps tremendous significance–can a former president of the United States face jail time for crimes committed? Trump admitted at a recent rally that he may “have to leave the country” if he loses the election. Good riddance, I say. Better yet, run, then face extradition.

The business community, largely behind Trump but hedging for Biden, carries the so-called “national interest,” while the rest of us are “special interests.” The reputable Brookings Institute published income numbers suggesting that the top one percent owns 29% of all wealth in the U.S., more than the middle class combined. The top permille is problematic, draining resources and exploiting labor abroad; Thomas Piketty, renowned French economist, warns that we are fast approaching a economic tipping point, as the majority of wealth will be inherited. In The Disinherited Majority, sociologist Charles Derber editorializes the progressive implications to Piketty’s more facts-and-figures approach in Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.

Source: Economic Research for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The bottom line is that the widening economic chasm in this Second Gilded Age leads, not unexpectedly, to disaster. As one can see from the charts above, growing stock market numbers correlate with greater inequality, despite virtually universal claims of the opposite from mainstream press, punditocracy, and politicians. Worse yet, massive debt and no savings has poised the American workforce, the disabled and elderly, and the hopelessly impoverished, for catastrophe now that a recession is fully underway, for reasons to which we’ll return.

The middle class is an aberration in history’s global economy, owing its very life and soul to powerful government intervention in the economy, principally through New Deal legislation promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with staggering public support. And even Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first republican president in twenty years following Roosevelt and Truman, whole-heartedly supported these reforms, going so far as to suggest that opponents of said achievements have no place in the political arena. And these reforms are significantly more liberal than virtually all official policy positions of today’s clintonian Democratic party. If it weren’t for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, we likely wouldn’t be discussing the visceral cause behind the crumbling economy, the lack of healthcare, overblown and outrageous college tuition, joblessness, and catastrophic climate change–greed. “Greed is good” was a mantra suggested by Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street, so American we ought emblemize it on the flag. With Trump hugging it, anything is possible.

I’ve heard Christian conservatives argue that 401ks are all that matters, and that capitalism is somehow God’s economic philosophy, a claim which ought ring abominable to true believers. Jesus Christ, the key figure of the faith, was a communist, plain and simple. Unbridled hypocritical capitalism, by contrast, is a vicious dogma decried as such by textile workers of the 1890s, in the tradition of Adam Smith’s “vile maxim“:

[a]ll for our-selves, and nothing for other people.

Wealth of the Nations, Adam Smith

How is this compatible with modern Christianity?

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Faith-Based Corruption

A thread of Trump mania I find most disturbing, yet perhaps retrospectively not surprising is the broad cover and support Trump enjoys from the evangelical movement. The man lies daily in his tweets and interviews, his moral failings are endless, and his fascist rallies conjure the darkest dealings of Weimar Germany. Why am I surprised? Hitler emerged dictator in 1933, welcomed by Germans as a “positive Christian” liberator. Carl Sagan suggests in The Demon-Haunted World that the danger of religion is the fundamental lack of agency into self-inquiry of an existential sort. That is to say, one cannot conduct scientific experiments into religious dogma beyond the purview of historians.

President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and faith leaders say a prayer in the Oval Office in September 2017. Several people have their hands on Trump's shoulders. Most of the people have their eyes closed.
Source: Alex Wong, Getty

Trump’s escapades include paying off porn stars, viciously attacking women, promoting and celebrating racism, taking steps to ban religion (namely Islam), banning transgendered service people from the military, and on and on. Are these truly the values of Christians? My aunt and uncle were traveling evangelists for over thirty years, with a decade of retirement work behind them. They’re still active, but they’re astonished at the support their contemporaries bestow on the most fallen person ever to hold the office of presidency. Many actually have suffered COVID, and yet their support, astonishingly enough, is unflagging. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors, according to The Atlantic. They pray for him, despite the evil that surrounds him. It isn’t a surprise to me that leading evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr. has epically tumbled from gauzy grace, embroiled in hilarious sex scandals involving an extra man in his bedroom. In his newly-released book It Was All a Lie, former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens argues in his book that some of the most antigay staffers in republican think tanks are gay themselves, penning histrionic letters to supporters about the dangers homosexuals pose to children. There are too many cases to consider here, but my husband assures me that closeted gays firing their internalized homophobia outward are more dangerous than the run of the mill straight homophobe, as an illusional sexual orientation becomes a fixture of the former’s identity; it’s not to say the latter aren’t dangerous, but the former become more psychologically compromised in their reaction formation.

Returning to the Trumpian evangelicals at large, my uncle argues, convincingly I think, that the doctrine of endless punishment at the very least provides spiritual cover for the aforementioned vulgar promotion of self. Oscar Romero, a Jesuit priest, was murdered in El Salvador in 1980 for promoting within Vatican II and preaching from the pulpit the “preferential option for the poor.” The right-wing dictatorship and its backing by the Carter administration couldn’t tolerate a man so close to the heart of Jesus, an extension of Kissinger’s “contagion to be contained” in the 1973 ouster of Chile’s Allende, or rather democracy. Allende’s ouster and murder on September 11 of that same year is known in South America as the “first nine-eleven.”

I digress further, it seems. I grew up in the evangelical tradition, and save the folks in our circle, it was convenient to place outsiders in the category headed for hell. My uncle observes and promotes universal reconciliation, an increasingly popular doctrine which happened to be the framework for faith of the original church fathers, when the cross represented the poor and the wretched rather than the shield of vicious Roman imperialism, as Chomsky eloquently puts it. How is it possible these people can support Trump? Trump claims to be Christian, complete with hilariously stupid and offensive Bible photo-ops in the midst of having ordered violence upon Black Lives Matter activists protesting the brutal extrajudicial murder of black men and women by police across the nation. He actually says that he has never had to ask God for forgiveness for his sins, a core tenet of the Christian catechism–give me a fucking break! Are these people so inured and starry-eyed that they cannot detect a serpent in their midst? So why should extrajudicial killings bother Trump? He openly calls for violence against black prisoners, and tweets that the fanatics ought “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” no doubt a partial motivation for the recent plot by right wing lunatics to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, namely for the “crime” of restricting social gatherings and school openings to protect Michigans from COVID. In response, Trump simply tweeted what a terrible governor Whitmer is. Apparently, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also was a possible target of the extremist group. Videos emerged of these folks practicing with their machine guns, posing in ways that would do Hitler proud. QAnon seems to figure prominently, a right wing organization utterly persuaded that pedophiles in the democratic party intend to enslave American whites and destroy Trump. Trump claimed in his recent townhall to know nothing about them, then within two sentences uttering a statement indicative of someone familiar with their work.

Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of tolerance and love, and Trump offers neither in any capacity. He is a crass, vicious, womanizing racist rending a canyon of human wreckage in the wake of his personal and business dealings, even before becoming president. In the role of chief administrator, he fans the flames of the most dangerous among the religionists, with Islam-based bans, anti-choice jurist appointments, bans on transgendered servicepersons in the military, and on and on; he ridicules these same fanatics behind closed doors, but they are steadfast, now whipped into a frenzy that Joe Biden will ban religion and rise to a position of dictator. Trump, by contrast, is the modern King David, flawed but nonetheless God’s preferred instrument. The lunacy of this comparison is laid bare when we apply Sagan’s earlier critique of religion: most of its manifestations preclude any serious contemplation of God’s will. It rains today, even if my crops drown, because God wills it. A drought is also God’s will, driving thousands to starvation. It also is his tool. Trump is good because they say he is. Why doesn’t this seem to apply to Biden? Or better yet, Obama, a man whose presidency exposed suffocating roots of racism, gnarled and twisted deeply into a nation’s soul.

Personal responsibility has long been the bugle call of the republican party, a fatuous jingle to the parody that is American libertarianism. The religious fanatics remain steadfast in their sneering cynicism at human nature, clutching Ayn Rand and claiming the world is lost; only in the purity of Christianity is one saved. And yet Trump’s modus operandi is to accuse the opposition of his own sins, repeatedly and repeatedly. And not just generally. He cites his EXACT transgressions, then casts them upon Biden. It’s astonishing to watch. Trump’s chums in the media, such as bloated Chris Chrystie and creepy Rick Santorum, lap it up, pronouncing Trump the grand victor with a strong case made. I found myself scratching my head thinking, “what case?” It is quite evident that the man cannot tell the truth, yet I hear rumblings that his policies are somehow superior to what the Radical with a capital “r” Biden intends for us. Trump joked that they’d support him even if he shot a person on Fifth Avenue; I’d add that Biden could rescue a bus of orphaned children from being hit by a car on the same avenue, and they’d still hate him. Religious icon Pat Robertson claims that God assured him of Trump’s 2020 victory, and war on Israel will follow shortly, along with an asteroid strike and the conclusion of history. I suppose we should ignore the earlier apocalyptic predictions by this modern-day Nostradamus. It’s astonishing this jack-o’-lantern retains any platform at all, and I suspect if there is a God up there, she dreads the day good old Pat comes knocking. Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so shocked. The most strident amongst the hyper-religious often fall from grace, and fall hard indeed. I’m no apologist for Christianity, and these are the merest sample of scandals about which I’ve heard. They’re likely grains of sand on a beach–claims of salvation and conversion ought be treated with the same scientific rigor we treat a new theory.

I suppose Jesus, fictional or not, said it best,

[t]he sons of the world are for their own generation wiser than the children of light.

Luke 16:8

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Racism, Classism, Electioneering, Textualism, and Constitutional Maximalism

Racism in the United States is alive and well. Blacks constitute thirteen percent of the population, yet over half of the hundreds of extrajudicial police killings here are blacks. Forty percent of persons incarcerated in America are black. What explains these skewed numbers? We’ve discussed somewhat the period of Reconstruction subsequent to the Civil War (as though there’s anything civil about war), and how the North-South Compact of 1877 essentially restored the right of states to enslave blacks. I’d refer one to A People’s History, as before, to understand better the period. Jim Crow became the umbrella policy of states hellbent on disenfranchising and torturing the black community, complete with lynching, chain gangs, theft of property, and so on. CNN recently discussed the 1921 massacre of blacks in Tulsa, an event left out of Oklahoma history books. Much of my family originated from the Red River region, about the Texas and Oklahoma border. None of them, to my knowledge, had ever learned about the tragedy, a devastating example of said Jim Crow.

Bragging of the Burn

With the incredible work of black activists, particularly in the 1930s, and with the rather massive deficit for labor following the Second World War, blacks achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, wealthy racist provocateurs have viciously counterattacked the hard-fought gains of blacks, as we’ll discuss more below. Michelle Alexander discusses this second wave of racist policy in The New Jim Crow.

Returning to America’s “first white president,” a label suggested by The Atlantic‘s Ta-Neihisi Coates, Trump bares his ignorance rather astonishingly on October 22: “I am the least racist person in this room,” despite the moderator Kristen Welker being half-black. Biden retorted, much to my delight,

[l]isten to Abraham Lincoln over here… You’re a dog whistle the size of a fog horn.

Joseph Biden

Trump has courted racists with his attacks on black athletes, his insistence of the guilt of the Central Park Five even after a rather clear debunking, he traipses with grotesqueries the like QAnon, Proud Boy, and InfoWars, contradicting his own intelligence agencies by declaring Antifa and so-called “left” wing groups more dangerous than the right wing organizations of which he then pretends to know nothing. He defends white supremacist murderers while assassinating left-wing provocateurs with no trial or arrest, going so far as to brag about the lack of necessity of attempting arrest. Even as I write this, I simply cannot believe my eyes and ears. Extremists plot to kidnap and extrajudicially execute governors, and Trump demands that his followers must “liberate Michigan,” bashing the governor despite the frankly inconceivable cover he provides for psychopaths.

Trump insisted that his accomplishments for the black and brown community dwarf that of any American president, with the possible exception of Lincoln himself; Vox rather strongly suggests the opposite. His business dealings in the 1970s and 1980s were bitterly racist. He tacitly and not-so-tacitly supports white supremacist groups, insists with virtually no proof that Mexicans and others at the southern border are rapists and murderers, insults Black Lives Matter protestors and victims of vicious police killings, outlaws Muslims through travel bans, rips babies from mothers at the southern border, disparages the Chinese because of the origin of COVID, demands suburban women support since he “saved your damn neighborhood” by reversing anti-racist housing orders from the Obama administration, and on and on.

When confronted, true to form, he blames others for the negative aspects of his policy. Further, his appointments to the federal judiciary are far right ideologues determined to eliminate legislation and policy intended the make the life of the voter easier. For instance, SCOTUS ruled just this week that states can bar curbside voting, a method of voting offered in Texas and Alabama to aid elderly and disabled who are concerned about COVID. The majority, led by the usual suspects, offered zero (!) explanation for their decision. Their intent couldn’t be more obvious, if one considers that more voter participation diminishes chances of a republican victory. Further, two of the justices are Trump appointments, and the chief justice John Roberts has long hoped to eliminate the Voting Rights Act, as we’ll discuss below.

Over five decades, the most wealthy magnates among us rallied around the infamous Powell memorandum, assembling rightwing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise, and the Cato Institute. These organizations, along with the aforementioned Federalist Society, have sought through judicial activism and constitutional maximalism to wrest democratic controls away from the remaining population of the country. Rightwing exclusivists faced a crushing defeat with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, convincingly argued by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot to be the most significant civil rights piece of legislation in all Americana, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together with the unusually liberal Warren Supreme Court, these elements of government weakened the influence of the ancestors of today’s antebellum hardball Mitch McConnell, and the suspiciously confirmed bachelor Lindsay Graham, his compatriot Jeff Sessions, and the hysteric from Louisiana, John Kennedy (not to be confused with the political dynasty).

Stevens argues further, convincingly I believe, that the Republican party faced a crisis of demographics in the 1960s; blacks who managed to overcome the vicious Jim Crow obstacles to the ballot entrusted themselves to the party of Lincoln, not the party of Davis. But the Great Depression broadened the coalition that was the Democratic party, entreating blacks for the very first time. Eleanor Roosevelt secured the black vote while her husband Franklin assured, disingenuously, southern white democrats that reforms on behalf of said blacks would be slight. It turns out that it simply would not have mattered, as the republicans offered no solutions to the economic and ecological crises of the 1930s. Stevens mentions that Barry Goldwater’s refusal to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cut black votes for republicans to an abysmal seven percent.

Southern democrats, sharply disillusioned by integration of the schools, increasingly successful protests by blacks long denied the franchise, the lack of a clear racist leader outside of Strom Thurmond’s unsuccessful bid for president in 1948, and other artifacts of an increasingly inclusive and open society, found a home in Goldwater’s party.

Nixon cemented this migration with his southern strategy, a program of so-called “law and order,” the far right correspondent to the alarming civil rights gains of the 1960s. Under COINTELPRO, Nixon’s espied and assassinated civil rights leaders, flimsily justified to secure us from vicious Soviet influence. Southern racists approved. By 2000, democrat Al Gore couldn’t carry his own state of Tennessee.

Stevens observes that Goldwater left the Republicans at a fork in the road, one clearly high, the other clearly low. The high road, when confronted by an increasingly diverse electorate, is to broaden the tent, so to speak. The low road is to neutralize the diversity with harmful policy. The Republicans obviously took the low road, and by now, they’re scraping the gutter. I’ve long been aware of voter intimidation and illegal purging of voter rolls, as Katherine Harris infamously purged tens of thousands of black voters from Florida rolls in 2000 for her boss JEB Bush–his brother, affectionately known as W., won the state by 541 votes after the Supreme Court, along ideological lines, illegally halted recounts on a pretext so flimsy they themselves admitted that the legal logic would never apply again. And the highly contentious reading happened in the presence of arch-textualists, or jurists sufficiently self-deluded as to be aware of the mental state of the author of the constitutional words. George W. Bush lost the popular vote, and had recounts proceeded, he would have lost the election. It seems strange to me now that the corporate media refused to inquire whether Katherine Harris had played fast and loose with election law, and that the court’s finding was accepted so swiftly. Within three years, we were embroiled in endless wars in the middle east following the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Though I find nothing plausible in the conspiracy theory that Bush perpetrated the attack, the charge of negligence ought stick. When we learned that Bush and his cronies had lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (something I knew was a lie at the time, as every reputable intelligence agency, including our own, dutifully reported), media said, “tough shit–at least in three hundred days there will be an election.” By contrast, Gingrich and his raving mad Contract with America impeached Clinton for having an affair with an intern, despite his own ongoing affair with his intern while his wife received chemotherapy. He divorced her in the midst of her illness, marrying his mistress.

In any case, I began digging after my own frustration at the obvious tilted coverage in the media, with journalists posting misleading headlines to minimize Gore’s margin of victory. I even emailed several editorialists around the country, and the response I received was akin to, “Thanks for the interest, kid. Yes, more people intended to vote for Gore than Bush, but if they ruined their ballots, that’s tough shit; never mind we say in the headline, ‘Gore’s Victory in Category X Wasn’t So Hot’.” In doing more research, I eventually discovered the work of investigative reporter Greg Palast, and his most recent book, How Trump Stole the 2020 Election, is a must-read for anyone concerned with the ongoing election. I was aware of Diebold machine malfunctions, the higher percentage of ballot spoilage in machines in poor districts, the unreasonable polling hours, locations, vicious racist gerrymandering, and accessibility, along with the election ALWAYS occurring on a work day, but Palast unearths much, much more. From his perspective, no republican candidate has legitimately won the electoral college or popular vote since George HW Bush’s victory in 1988. And yet six of the nine supreme court justices joining the court over that same period were nominated by republicans; the number will be seven in ten if Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation takes place on McConnell’s timetable; think about that for a moment. Bush Sr.’s term from 1989 to 1993 constitutes 12.5% of the total time since his victory, but the republicans have managed the unthinkable : a 70% control on SCOTUS. The court stole the election in 2000, perfectly down ideological lines, so why not 2020? Trump admitted his plan to petition the court for an election victory, hence the need to replace centrist Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a greenhorn of despicable credentials. A common refrain here would be that I cannot imagine Obama or even Bush W. succeeding in such shenanigans. McConnell and Graham, resolute in their objection to Obama appointing to the high court his selection Merrick Garland so close to an election, that being February of 2016, suddenly offer no apology for fast-tracking Barrett less than five weeks before this election. Even more critical are the hundreds of lower court vacancies left in place by the republican-controlled Senate, intent on delivering those seats to candidates nominated by a republican president. At least the electioneering receives national press now, albeit very late in the game. John Roberts recently ruled with a tied vote that Pennsylvania ought have time to tally votes, yet his career is a crusade to destroy the Voting Rights Act with reckless abandon. Noam Chomsky, Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman, and Palast appeared here together to survey his Palast’s findings.

Congressionally, the game is constitutional maximalism, or the maximal use of constitutional authority according to the letter, but NOT the spirit of the law. McConnell, in his bellowing repugnant drawl, suggests that “divided guhvahmint” was the obstacle then, despite clearly arguing differently at the time. Graham loves the role of hypocrite, having denounced Trump, then declaring himself a Trump lapdog after the sham that was the 2016 election.

So what’s the solution? The court represents an institution of enormous power, with lifetime terms and near unconditional and unchecked determination of the future of American democracy. Sheldon Whitehouse spent his thirty minutes for questions to Barrett instead on presenting the dark money behind a cabal of affluent conservatives hell-bent on owning the court. He makes a compelling case, demonstrating that the coming six-to-three majority is the living dream of corporate America, with increasing hostility to women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, union and labor interests, the environmental movement, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor; the court is a darling of corporate power, presuming and furthering the doctrine of corporate personhood. Barrett, at the tender age of 48, could serve on the court for four to five more decades, factoring in the near-certain advances in senescence reversal, a lifetime legacy. It’s bad enough that one of Trump’s three nominees, Brett Kavanaugh, was accused of rape by a former classmate, and the republicans skirted the issue, just as they did in the case of Clarence Thomas way back when. Seems fitting that Bush Sr., Thomas, Trump, and Kavanaugh are all men accused of sexual misdeeds. Are they guilty? No one has stopped long enough to credibly try to investigate, and the short answer is that these men of power must ascend, with haste directly proportionate to the crimes alleged.

So what are some solutions to an institution so powerful, unaccountable, and indefinitely kinking the flow of progress? We’ll come to that below. Suffice it to say, enumerating the challenges, existential and otherwise, is nontrivial. For instance, what does our planet look like in 2060, when a Justice Barrett reaches the age of 88? We have some alarming readings in the tea leaves. Maybe there won’t be a world to worry about…

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Catastrophic Climate Change

Since the 1970s, man-made changes to ecosphere have been of increasing interest to scientists, though the precise mechanisms were becoming clear to researchers in the late nineteenth century. It should come as a great surprise that Exxon scientists studied climate warming in the 1970s, only to later bury and disavow the same research. To this day, they deny even the denial, pressing hilariously flimsy critiques of ExxonKnew, the preeminent source of many of the controversies. Al Gore argued decades ago that human-caused climate change could destroy the world, yet no administration in the forty years of very obvious warming trends have seriously heeded the call. Bush Jr. dropped his carbon regulatory promise out of the gate, with no pretext. Obama could have declared climate change a national threat, overriding Congress in allocating monies to build a green infrastructure. Hillary Clinton only took the issues seriously thanks to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Trump is the first person to occupy the White House to deny the science altogether. And yet his department of transportation issued a report admitting that climate change is real, and a byproduct of industrialization, but nonetheless repealed emission standards, conceding defeat literally. In a move so callous and murderous, I cannot imagine the man escaping the International Court of Justice–Trump withholds funds badly needed by California to combat the wildfires, despite California’s significant contribution to federal revenue. He claims, ridiculously, that the fires are the fault of the “forest management” rather than a lack of coherent policy on climate change. I’m reminded of his commentary on the passing of civil rights great John Lewis, as Trump stated multiple times, “he didn’t come to my inauguration.” His commentary here might as well read, “California didn’t vote for me, so I won’t help them.” Trump’s mental state is a topic to which we’ll return. Trump insists that blue states fail in all respects, despite the poorest and nearly reddest states, Mississippi and Kentucky, soaking the federal government tremendously. Stevens says forty percent of Mississippi’s state budget flows directly from Washington. In any case, denialism remains hot in Trump circles, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change poses an existential threat, evinced by myriad models such as this one from MIT‘s own Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

EAPS Temperature Pedictions

We’ve discussed this subject at length in earlier posts, and Skeptical Science, among other organizations tightly survey the longitudinal work by climate scientists. Despite Trump’s cease and desist orders to federal agencies in their reference to climate change in public communiques, important work by the National Oceanographic Association of America (NOAA), NASA, and the EPA is ongoing. Even hawkish components of the federal government, such as the Pentagon and the CIA, connect climate change directly to global security, suggesting in the Worldwide Threat Assessment of 2019 that

[c]limate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. […] Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.

Worldwide Threat Assessment, 2019
California's wildfire issues spark debate about prevention – Daily Democrat
California Burning

Carl Sagan warned of a world in which the fantasy occult fascinate us more than the occult discoverable through science. The original pilot of the television science fiction series Star Trek featured a race of beings so preoccupied with dreams that they “gave up, forgetting how to repair the machines left behind by their ancestors.” In a world of technological wonder, it’s quite miraculous how few of us understand even the basics of the global economy, or where most scientific research dollars come from, or how rural electrification, dams, radio, automobiles, aircraft, the computer, the internet, all deeply transformative technologies, were state-supported ventures. I find myself referring back to history–how can we understand where we are now without knowing where we were?

There is a concerted effort by lobbyists, the corporate stooges holding the leashes of many senators and representatives, to direct misinformation on climate change to the population. The academy has let down the poor and the working class, often siding with the would-be liberal internationalists of the neoliberal program. In the parlance of George Monbiot, we’re missing a narrative to guide us out of the darkness. Ghosts and demons happily assume that vacuum, just as Sagan feared. So the population, goaded by modern day imbecilic Pinkertons such as Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and others, succumbs to the industrialist values of self-loathing and mutual suspicion, finding enemies foreign and domestic, distrusting science, logic, reason, and anything more than bare emotionalism. Powell argued in his memorandum that the ivory intelligentsia has designs on the business community’s private property, and that liberal intellectuals are fueling the radical socialism they place alongside Stalin (then Khrushchev)’s Soviet Russia, a totalitarian state. The hatred of scientists and educators follows a long thread from the southern whites opposed to school integration, increasingly accurate depictions of American history in stark rebuke of the many ideals held dear, such as Aryan purity, misogyny, and ownership of slaves and other property, and finally the critique science, across fields as diverse as sociology, economics, biology, climatology, and ethics, offers for unrestricted capitalism.

The science is clear, though I know educated folks who declare themselves not to be “reactionary” about it, despite the extinction rate currently hovering at one thousand times the usual background rate, wild fires engulfing the west, harsher hurricanes in the southeast, and disasters around the globe increasing. The highest temperature recorded on land, perhaps since 1931, is a 2020 phenomenon: 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. The smoke and ash from fires have affected my own health, living close to a recent effects earlier, particularly in the northwest when northern California and southern Canada were ablaze. The sun was a blood orange, easily spied by the unprotected eye. Ashes rained on my car, evoking the horror of scenes from Schindler’s List. Instead of Jews and other Nazi victims burning, this time it’s mother nature in the oven, with an ecological holocaust well underway.

The so-called Holocene is officially the sixth extinction event. The science is beyond dispute, yet many still refuse to listen to reason. Time is running out, and it’s possible we’re already beyond the tipping point. Tom Steyer, former candidate hoping for a nomination to be president, became a “green” billionaire by making his company carbon neutral, then leaving private industry to take up the mantle of the climate change. He agreed with Bernie Sanders that a green new deal could provide high paying jobs, revamp our infrastructure, and improve quality of life for all Americans. I see zero evidence to the contrary, and much in their favor. Bernie’s influence has shifted Biden’s platform somewhat toward ecological reform, reform we badly need. The October 22 debate featured a powerful moment : Biden committed to phasing oil out, a policy choice essential to our survival as a species. Trump snapped, “Watch out Texas, Montana,” and on and on. He insisted that our environment had never been cleaner than now, thanks to him. It’s almost silly to bother repeating his more ridiculous claims here, but this speaks strongly to a powerful concern to which I’ll return.

Unfortunately, we face three more extremely dangerous existential threats as we crash into this critical election, the latter two of which finally confirms how dangerous a psychopath he really is.

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Nuclear Proliferation and Omnicide

Nuclear Weapons: A Time-Lapse History - YouTube
Hydrogen bomb test

Nuclear proliferation has long occupied the other side of the extinction coin, with details emerging in more recent years of just how much of a threat the weapons pose. Peace activists such as Dave Swanson argue that first-strike nuclear war, a power reserved by the U.S. and Israel, poses an existential threat, as does war in general. Recently, the King’s Bay Plowshares Seven, an advocacy group of Catholics of conscience, defaced trident nuclear missiles in Georgia, and they received not a word of national media attention. Would that all citizens be so brave as this gentle elderly group of activists.

KBP_group_2_signs_horiz
Plowshares Seven Website

August marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the second world war and securing America as the global superpower, with the Soviet Union a very distant second. In the years to follow, American scientists invented thermonuclear weapons, capable of destructive force many hundreds (and later thousands) of times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy. Development at Los Alamos pressed onward, despite a growing concern that the ensuing reaction of such a bomb would immolate the entirety of the biosphere. Hitler apparently was most displeased at the prospect of a nuclear program under his direction destroying the very world he sought to control; though he envisioned a world free of all the undesirables (to his own vicious tastes), a world uninhabitable left little quarter for Aryans.

Enter Daniel Ellsberg, the renowned dissident, and a former intelligence officer working for the RAND corporation, who released the Pentagon papers, thereby unearthing internal documents revealing true, and nefarious, motivations of the U.S. government’s interest in South Vietnam and the surrounding region–greed. His other, less well-known role was nuclear war planning and preparedness. To his great regret, the largesse of the documents he purloined applicable to the risk of nuclear misadventure were lost to a flood. In any case, he pieced together as much as he could from memory, together with the release of official documentary records, bringing together this and that to write The Doomsday Machine : Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

ellsberg.net

I highly recommend the book, and though I can’t offer a full treatment of it here, suffice it to say that Ellsberg debunks many myths surrounding nuclear weapons, namely

  • the president and ONLY the president can initiate a nuclear attack—any number of levels down the chain actually can launch weapons without explicit orders from above
  • first-strike nuclear war is NOT the U.S. war plan—first-strike has always been a power reserved to the U.S. and Israel
  • nuclear weapons provide suitable deterrence—in reality, almost all military misadventure in the post-war period has involved either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, or both; the weapons seem to embolden rather than dissuade our demons
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war—Japan was beaten, ensconced by Allied forces with all supply lines cutoff; the Japanese offered to surrender if they could retain their emperor, an offer turned down by America, then honored after experimenting with the weapons
  • nuclear readiness is tight and secure, with launch codes protected carefully—in many of the stations visited by Ellsberg, codes were posted on the safe door, or the safe remained unlocked
  • denizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only civilians harmed by the bombs—the nuclear tests in the South Pacific destroyed island villages, poisoning the people who lived there (and later the Marines dispatched servicepersons to gather and bury the nuclear waste on Runit Island, withholding the extreme health risks and offering minimal to no protective gear
  • the major existential threat is the force of the bomb itself—it turns out that the more significant threat is the smoke and ash, kicked so far into the atmosphere that precipitation (which coalesces in the troposphere) cannot rain it down, blocking sunlight; enough of this smoke and ash will destroy plant life, unraveling the food chain and leading to mass death, on the order of two-thirds of all humans, likely a conservative estimate
  • we prevented war with the Soviet Union by discouraging their presence in Cuba—in reality, our harassment of three nuclear-armed Soviet submarines in the warm waters of the Caribbean caused two of the three commanders to believe nuclear war was already underway, as each and all already were quite addled by the high temperature since Soviet subs were intended for much colder water; the vote of one Soviet commander staying the itchy trigger fingers of his cohorts, saving all of us
  • war with the Soviets was possible in isolation—in fact, the war planners ALWAYS intended to destroy both the Soviet Union and China simultaneously, with losses they deemed acceptable in Western Europe if the winds were unfavorable

As you can see, this remains an incredibly important issue of our time. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists currently places us one hundred seconds to midnight according to their doomsday clock, the closest we’ve come so far. They plead with world leaders to heed their admonishment:

[h]umanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode–nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Unfortunately, press for nuclear proliferation remains virtually silent. Neither political party commits to nuclear disarmament, and with New START expiring in February of next year, it’s possible neither Russia nor America will feel obliged to slow the stockpile of more and more weapons. As the Bulletin suggests, catastrophic climate change may very well precipitate nuclear war, and thus it is impossible to extricate the two.

Two more global threats confront us, one that didn’t occur to me until this year, the year of COVID.

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Pandemonium in a Pandemic

The Obama administration formed a National Security Council directorate to coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health in response to the outbreak of H1N1, a directorate Trump quickly slashed upon entering office. From the beginning of his campaign to the present, he has labored hard at dismantling each and every accomplishment of the Obama administration, from said directorate all the way to the Affordable Care Act, perhaps Obama’s most important legacy and the most progressive piece of legislation passed in a few decades. Trump, as we argued earlier, managed to obtain all but one key vote in the Republican-controlled Senate to dissolve the ACA, his nemesis and fellow republican John McCain refusing his power play. Trump promised to provide a healthcare solution for all Americans, but his tactic rather was to erase the ACA before even formulating a plan, something he still doesn’t have. The truth is, quite likely, that the plan is to have no plan. Poor people don’t deserve to live, so why bother? Trump’s vicious racist housing practices for the poor pocketed him money but wounded the poor he claims to serve.

Now, enter the coronavirus, the most disruptive predicament Americans have faced in a long time. Almost certainly a by-product of factory farming, the zoonotic virus originated in China, quickly covering the earth as travelers spread the respiratory disease. New Zealand seems a model of success in disease response, appropriately and quickly shutting down businesses and public services, save the most critical among them.

Police stand by trucks filled with dead bodies in New York
U’Haul’s in New York serve as hearses

According to investigative reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, Trump’s initial response was to concede the enormous danger behind closed doors but deny the danger publicly. From there, Trump downplayed the dangers, issuing lie after lie, each more outrageous than the last, all from a place of colossally reckless ignorance of the facts. Reading from The Atlantic, one finds Trump blaming Mexico, China, Obama, the democrats, the director Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH’s Allergy and Infectious Disease, and on and on, blaming Obama for leaving him a wrecked medical system, other countries for increasing U.S. fatalities, and issuing baseless claims about the presumed immunity of children and exaggerating how small the risk of death is. Trump seldom dons a mask at his rallies, and few folks in his packed rallies wear masks, and not unexpectedly, outbreaks then occur. Daily cases rise with each bungle and descend with each set of protective measures taken. With a magnanimous flow of misinformation from Trump, a quarter of Americans seem to believe the disease was manufactured to murder us. Some don’t believe the virus is even real.

Source: Worldometer

All told, Trump has plopped his fat ass on his tiny little hands, presiding over the worst public health disaster in living memory. Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans have died. To put things in perspective, as of 2018, the population of my city of residence, Tucson in Arizona, is 545,975. It’s as though my city lost forty percent of its population. Trump is solely responsible for contradicting experts in the government about how to take precautions, he’s responsible for failing to respond, with the inane claim that suicides due to COVID would exceed COVID deaths if the economy remained closed, and he’s denied relief for the millions of Americans now out of work. It’s very difficult to write these words without becoming outraged.

I recently saw a debate clip of Mitch McConnell cackling at Amy McGrath as she lambasted his unwillingness to even bring to committee the stimulus relief packages offered by the House. He’s a ghoulish fiend, basking in the near certitude of reelection in a deeply red state. Trump complains endlessly that the Democrat-controlled House has accomplished nothing, yet they’ve passed over four hundred bills in the past six months, with McConnell joyously sitting on everything, determined to undermine the will of the people.

In the final debate on October 22, Trump reiterated his nothing plan : dismantle the Affordable Care Act with no offered replacement, then somehow believe a plan into being. He’s provided no hints as to what a plan looks like, and he seems to fundamentally not understand that those who lose coverage with the evisceration of Obamacare don’t have an bridge plan while waiting for his “beautiful health care plan” to beam in from the sky.

Again, Trump is a murderer, plain and simple. He understands the cost, and persists with a destructive policy that even infected him, his wife, and his young son. It’s easy from here to address my final concern if we stay the course.

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Psychosis and Dementia

President Trump hugs the American flag at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., during the 2016 election.
Has a president ever hugged a flag? Never has a relationship been so one-sided… Tree hugger has served long as an epithet for environmentalist. Is flag hugger the equivalent for a jingoist psychopath?

Stuart Stevens maintains that we can distill the core of republican electorate to a coalescence of rabid sports fans, incapable of tolerating policy differences, and frankly incapable of ever thinking their team should lose. I’m no sports fan, but I’ve been around long enough to know that if a player switches teams, he instantly becomes the enemy to most of the fans of his team of origin; to a fan, category is trivially irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, sports fans can have at it, and one can concede a useful means of entertainment. But it simply won’t do as a basis for policy and government. So it makes sense to me that Trump contradicts himself and projects his own wrong-doing onto others, principally upon Biden, all the while team Trump and media surrogates, Rick Santorum and Chris Chrystie, declare a victory for Trump in the last debate; it’s astonishing! He described no specific policy on topics raised, instead spending as much time as he could hurling mud at Biden on frankly absurd conspiracy theories. Apparently, fantasies about Biden “golfing more that” Trump carry much more significance than the principal issues of our time : healthcare, race, or climate change. His spectators cheer hysterically, many of whom refusing to wear masks in crowded places. They cheer him on, no matter how ridiculous his claims are. He also accuses Biden of hiding in basements, precisely the thing he’s been doing. It seems like a bad strategy to project one’s culpability onto the opponent, thus drawing attention to the very issue that colors him corrupt, but it isn’t hard to see in the context of a personality disorder. After all, the federal monies necessary to support him in his near weekly golfing, and hosting meetings and dignitaries in his hotels are staggering: he’s visited his properties over five hundred times during his term so far, according to Citizens for Ethics. His basement hiding led to the stunning Bible photo-op, featured earlier, one of the most ridiculous of his myriad missteps. Citizens for Ethics provide a decent list of his conflicts of interest, a number no fewer than 3,400. And he projects these corrosive conflicts onto Biden, laughably enough.

I need no therapy credentials to point to myriad lies (twenty thousand according to the Washington Post and The Guardian), his ugly mistreatment of women, his river of self-congratulations in his intellect, his perfect policies and decisions, and so on, dripping with asinine augmentatives. His obsession with outperforming Obama seems clinically significant, as he regularly issues polls asking whether he or Obama is superior, despite Obama neither being a candidate nor bearing much on this election at all. It began early, with his pressuring his toadies to edit aerial photographs of his inaugural crowd size compared to that of Obama. I suppose if he really wants to beat Obama at something, he’s more vulgar, more offensive, and more hateful.

Moving along to much more critical issues, most of which we’ve already discussed, Trump exhibits a gross disregard for others in his tweeted orders to white supremacists to kidnap and murder governors, as discussed earlier, his vicious border policies, his encouragement of further police violence, his assassination of a suspect Oregon accused of shooting a violent counterprotestor while defending a counterprotestor gunman at a Black Lives Matter protest, his doggedness in scrapping Obamacare with no regard to the massive impact on the poor and disabled, and most seriously of all, if there is a greatest sin of Donald Trump, his colossal mishandling of the coronavirus, a disease at the time of this writing having 8.5 million cases and 223,000 deaths. The man is drowning in the blood of his victims, and these particular victims are Americans.

A term of increasing prominence seems to be narcopath, or a mixture of narcissist and sociopath. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists tend not to arm-chair diagnose, that is, surmise the psychosis of a person not in their professional care, but I’m happy to cosign arm-chair diagnoses and perhaps a mental fitness test for president going forward. According to Business Insider in 2019, 350 psychiatrists and psychologists signed a petition, arguing

[w]e are convinced that, as the time of possible impeachment approaches, Donald Trump has the real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation,

[w]hat makes Donald Trump so dangerous is the brittleness of his sense of worth. Any slight or criticism is experienced as a humiliation and degradation. To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feeling, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage[,]

[h]e is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake, or failing. His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation. These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive.

Drs. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist

Suffice it to say, some mental health professionals recognize the gravity of Trump’s psychosis. Chomsky recently referred to Trump as a sociopathic megalomaniac, pointing out quite correctly that ignoring the climate crisis is suicidal. Psychology Today refers to narcissistic personality disorder as a decent explanation for Trump’s grandiosity and utter inability to understand facts or accept responsibility. Trump denies responsibility for permitting so many deaths under COVID, yet he quickly calumniates his opponents with precisely his own sins, such as insisting repeatedly that the Biden family has bilked his political connections for his own financial gain. Biden’s response was perfect: “release your tax returns.” Trump’s dirty financial dealings one day will more fully bask in the cleansing light of criminal prosecution, though even seeing darkly through the glass intimates the truth: Trump is the most corrupt president in American history, contending with the likes of Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. He’s as racist as Andrew Jackson, more crazed than Richard Nixon, and his mishandling of COVID stacks well against Ronald Reagan’s cruel reluctance to research AIDS and the myriad deaths associated therewith. In his fog of grandiosity, Trump actually seems to believe he’s better than everyone and everything. And he’s also a victim of everyone and everything. Narcissistic sociopath, psychopath, pick your poison. Not that it really matters at this point, but whence comes this painted animal?

Trump’s own niece Mary happens to be a psychologist, and she penned a timely memoir aptly titled Too Much and Never Enough : How My Family Created the Most Dangerous Man. She describes Trump as a petulant, whiny, misogynistic womanizer, gripped by voracious avarice and cruel whims. His mother, beset by illness, was cold and distant, while his father Fred was a cruel taskmaster. Perhaps Trump’s psychosis might make sense under the circumstances. Trump has never respected women or minorities, or any one else. Trump’s lurid, disgusting behavior is so well-known in New York City that it wouldn’t surprise me that stories abound of his vulgarity. I know personally a former comedic and restaurant waiter from NYC with such a story, though I’ll not repeat it here.

As though this weren’t alarming enough, it’s worth comparing Trump’s debating chops in 2015 with those of 2020, and one will note a marked deterioration in his verbiage and cognition. I know neurologists who claim he must have some form of dementia, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. He’s obese, he’s 74 years old, and he suffers from an extreme personality disorder. The National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests neuroticism increases while conscientiousness decreases the risk of late life dementia. Does he have it? He’s claimed repeatedly that he can remember five things, then repeat them in order. Is this the bar for the president of the United States? Border collie dogs can remember order of a small number of things. Are they qualified to be president?

A psychotic man on the precipice of dementia, who has already cost us hundreds of thousands of American lives, has access to nuclear codes, and offers according to his self-inflated intuition, as he did in October 22’s debate again, that the virus will go away and we’ll all be wonderful again. Meanwhile, he and Mitch McConnell sit on democratic legislation aimed at helping states and cities. He says it’s all Nancy Pelosi’s fault, despite hundreds of bills receiving the dead-on-arrival stamp from Mitch. When confronted, Mitch just cackles. Why are these people in government? Stevens says it best, admonishing his fellow conservatives:

[w]hat the Republican Party must realize is that it needs America more than America needs the party. And the America it needs is the one that is 320 million Americans and growing, a country of immigrants and less white every day: the real America, not the gauzy Shangri-La of suburban bliss that never existed.

It Was All a Lie by Stuart Stevens

So what can and what should we do about it?

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Prescription : Democracy

No matter the intention of the founders, no matter the wickedness inflicted by man upon others, no matter chaos and horror confronting us now, we have just one answer, and it’s much simpler than we might imagine : democracy. Democracy literally means “common people” and “power,” much like the name of my blog, Scire Populum et Potentiam. The founders never intended it, the framework of our economy and government largely oppose it through institutional stupidity in corporations and exaggerated power in the hands of the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. McConnell concedes impending electoral defeat of republican dominance, but brags that installing Amy Cohen Barrett, another right-wing hysteric, to the Supreme Court is a very long term victory. Currently, nine people, serving for life, can make decisions of enormous impact. And they don’t have to offer any justification, as they did in the case described above. The president now, unlike when the Constitution was ratified in 1789, can completely destroy the world, something Trump seems hellbent on doing. The Senate distorts the power of small states, with filibuster rules capable of locking up any meaningful progress the people may wish. Gerrymandering, voter purging, voter intimidation, and the like ensure that likely democratic voters can’t participate. No thinking person can believe any of the aforementioned make for good policy. Magna Carta originated a western tradition of commons, justice, and distributed power.

Magna Carta (British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106).jpg

Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for all their many flaws, inched us closer to democracy. Labor movements have pioneered the most free society in recorded history. And yet we still have so far to go.

The Russian interference in the 2016 election is largely known to members of both parties. More alarming to me was repeated tropes about Russia threatening our “democratic norms” and “democratic values,” and our “sacred traditions of democracy.” Utterly preposterous. Electing a man from a selection of two who is almost totally unaccountable to the electorate is NOT democracy. Very little of public will makes its way into top-level decision making. None of these norms are democratic. We must change these norms. If we did the following, our institutions would protect us even if Russia hacked Facebook until Putin and Zuckerberg are green in the face.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, writes in On Tyranny : Twenty Lessons for the Twentieth Century several lessons. Mine are similar, but hopefully complementary. Take a look at his book.

  1. Vote for Biden and all Democrats. This couldn’t be more self-explanatory, as Trump and McConnell will otherwise further destroy our country and our world. Don’t accept that polling means you ought not vote. This was likely a factor in Trump’s theft of the office in 2016. Further, vote for democrats up and down the ballot; republicans might insist that local policy is apolitical, yet they provide a mechanism for republicans to organize more effectively. Sure, Biden and I disagree on several policies, and though Bernie’s ideals more closely approximate mine, we disagree on a few things (such as the dispensation of Edward Snowden.) It’s frankly unsophisticated to expect we’ll agree with everything a nominee or candidate offers on her/his political market. Paralyzing cynicism will not suffice to indemnify those of us in more privileged sectors. See the next point.
  2. Assume accountability for our world. Taken from Snyder, we as Americans wield more power than most anyone else in the world. That factor of influence increases dramatically for the technologists amongst us. It’s not enough to surrender responsibility just because the person we didn’t choose happens to win the election. Chomsky correctly points to intellectuals bearing responsibility. I point also to technologists. We have only one earth, and soon we may have none.
  3. Study and listen to science. Become aware of the facts. Find books, like the many I list here, which are largely peer-reviewed and sensible. Scientists study for years and years to become experts. They’re probably not wrong, but the scientific method is the best tool we have in discovery. Catastrophic climate change is real, and our timer has almost buzzed. Nuclear winter could and likely would follow as resources become increasingly scarce in dangerous places. Pakistan and India are both nuclear states, and they both cope with diminishing fresh water flowing from Kashmir.
  4. Learn our history in all its many dimensions. My high school American history course concluded with the atomic bomb in 1945, despite my taking the course in 1995. Pat Ledbetter, now a candidate for the Texas senate, taught me so much more in college. She transformed my perspective. We’re accountable for our history. Blaming others for their problems when our ancestors, and thus we ourselves, have benefitted tremendously from their enslavement, both before and after the Civil War. Read A People’s History. Read Chomsky’s How the World Works. Learn about Israel/Palestine. Watch Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Read Palast’s articles and reports on voter disenfranchisement; no matter your position on the spectrum, you cannot support simultaneously democracy and the horrific and illegal purge and intimidation of voters documented in his works. Democracy Now offers a marvelous reading list.
  5. Learn economics. Unlike theoretical economics, a field obsessed with implausibly simple game models, the real story is much simpler. Read Piketty, Baker, Derber, Chomsky, Monbiot, Robert Reich, and so on. Good data exists. Corporations and their public relations surrogates thrive in darkness. Anticommunist tropes abound, but America is much more socialistic than is understood. We’ve discussed this topic extensively in past posts. Understand when markets work and when they don’t. Read The Conservative Nanny State. Let’s illuminate the absurd; it may wail and gnash, but it’ll wither and die in the presence of knowledge.
  6. Talk to black friends about racism. Understand the talk black parents have always given their kids to protect them from racially-motivated violence, particularly by police. Talking to them openly about their concerns will stun you. Take Harvard’s racism and bias test. You’ll be surprised and disappointed, likely. Research slavery, Jim Crow, the chain gangs, and the vital role enslaved blacks played in the oft-celebrated industrial revolution.
  7. Celebrate pacifists rather than warriors. War is unnatural, according to peace activist and philosopher David Swanson. We celebrate murderers with statues and icons and holidays, but how many national holidays celebrate something unrelated to religion or war? Labor Day comes to mind. Read Dave’s works, and support him in his activism. What he has to say will blow your mind.
  8. Pressure Biden to support the Green New Deal. Our future hangs in the balance. A Biden victory is insufficient to guarantee good policy. Obama could have declared climate change a national emergency, circumventing any hostile obstructionist congresspersons in addressing the problem. Biden can do the same.
  9. Pressure Biden to support Medicare for All. A public option is an excellent step, but expanding Medicare to all Americans, permitting some to opt out if they like their private insurance, is easily accomplished with a slight tax, a tax tremendously lower than current premiums. I hear the refrain of anecdotal failures in Britain, New Zealand, and the like, but the failures in our own system are far worse, well-documented in Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko. We can have as good a system as we demand; nothing is free, including democracy.
  10. Pressure Biden to commit to nuclear disarmament treaties. We’re facing, below the media surface, incredible danger from nuclear weapons; pressure, pressure, pressure.
  11. Demand funding for education. Educators are suffering terribly, and this economic stress long precedes the pandemic. I believe educators are among the most important people in our society, as they shape the youth, safeguard science, and research the universe around us to expand our global consciousness and conscience. My heart and love go to out to E. Clyde Yeatts, Dr. Pat Ledbetter, Joybell Schalk, Dr. Gerald McDaniel, Dr. David Jorgensen, Dr. Michaela Vancliff, Dr. Venkateswaran, Dr. Santosh Pande, Dr. Lance Fortnow, Dr. Guy Lebanon, Dr. Ashok Goel, Dr. Danny Dyer, Dr. Tie Luo, Dr. Moysey Brio, Dr. Joe Watkins, Dr. Misha Chertkov, and Dr. Noam Chomsky.
  12. Demand infrastructure reform by American industry. Our auto technicians, fracking and oil engineers, and anyone potentially displaced by sane climate policy can easily be retrained to design and build high speed rail, badly needed. They also can engineer clean energy solutions.
  13. Call your representative and senators. They’re yours. Call them everyday. Get others to do the same. Make it part of your routine. Write emails, letters, and so on. You’ll be surprised how many friends you’ll find around you with similar inclinations.
  14. Organize peacefully. A Biden victory won’t assure us of anything more than restoring sanity to the executive office. We must organize with petitions and protests to compel and coerce his administration and Congress to fight for us, including economic and social justice, and civility. Democracy, like most objectives, is largely a local phenomenon. You can organize to get a traffic light put up, or you can organize to end the Muslim ban. America, at least for now, offers freedom of speech, perhaps the most important freedom of all. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau depict civil disobedience quite well. Leverage the advantages afforded to us. Trump and his predecessors have often punished and sometimes violently attacked peaceful protests. It takes courage. The next two suggestions makes this a little easier.
  15. Cultivate a robust private life. Appropriating this from Snyder, a healthy inner circle is a refuge, or at least it has been for me. I love my family here in Arizona, and I owe them my life.
  16. Reach out and talk to each other. Our people are highly atomized, now so worse because of the pandemic. Americans are brave and believe in democracy, but we don’t know each other. For centuries, exchange programs have existed to acquaint students with new places in sister city reciprocity. Americans need to talk to each other. It’s not enough to blame others. Reaching out begins with me, today. I’ve almost never failed to engage another in talk; we’re social animals, badly in need of each other, now more than ever. The old admonishment to avoid religion and politics in discourse I believe is at least half wrong: politics determine our national and cultural norms, and we should have the courage to discuss them with each other. I suspect we’ll discover we have more in common than not. Virtually all of the aforementioned are topics we can discuss with anyone. I’ve spoken with hundreds of working class people through the years, and no matter the age difference, they listen in child-like wonderment when you demonstrate a deep knowledge of the history.

To this list, I’d like to propose loftier but still achievable deep and specific structural changes.

  1. Automatically register all citizens to vote. One has to be either an imbecile or a fascist to disagree with this. Every citizen has a social security number issued through the federal government. One person, one vote seems rather obvious.
  2. Migrate voting to the internet once and for all. We entrust security protocols online to safeguard our medical records, our banking, our mail records, our online purchases, and our genealogy in many cases. How would this be any less safe? This would eliminate most of the means by which thuggish republican officials have tried to disenfranchise Americans. The reasons so many are early voting in this cycle distill to fear of COVID and concerns about irregularities barring them from voting on election day proper. Currently, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas permit no voting by mail, an outrageous restriction. It’s time for an election overhaul.
  3. Dissolve the Electoral College. This is a no-brainer. The electoral college’s only purpose was to ensure that a demigod couldn’t become president. They failed. More importantly, they’re undemocratic, rendering it possible for men to win elections without the popular vote. Then the media and the government celebrate this as the “will of the people.” Give me a fucking break.
  4. Weaken SCOTUS and POTUS. Among the programs we should seek are significant reductions in the power of SCOTUS and POTUS. The president is an administrator, not a dictator. Yet he can act unilaterally in opposition of the will of the people whenever he likes, with only a few constraints. They have no business making decisions more powerful and significant than COTUS, the Congress. Said Congress has ceded power, in some cases gradual, others rather incredible, to POTUS in the post war period. For instance, they’ve not declared war officially since Pearl Harbor, though we’ve been embroiled in war in all the years following 1945; POTUS has deemed these skirmishes necessary, for one reason or another. Further, it’s expected now, across the ideological spectrum, that POTUS set the legislative agenda for his term, despite this clearly being the Constitutional responsibility of COTUS. Why? My own interpretation is dark: Congresspersons would prefer not bearing responsibility for controversy, as this is tantamount to forfeiture of one’s political livelihood.
  5. Institute term limits. We’ve already suggested this for members of SCOTUS. If representatives remain in the House for a fixed upper limit of terms, it follows that long-term political survivability will no longer influence their judgment. Of course, the risk is that they no longer have to consider the will of the people, at least during their final term. This is easily rectified with a weighted voting system, or the recognition that one’s political party may not retain power otherwise. In any case, it seems clear that evergreening political terms has partially led to broken government. And that leads to the next point.
  6. Cut dark money and PACs out by federally funding elections. Following a long tradition of empowering corporations by the preposterous bestowal of personhood, a gushing river of dark money strangles nearly every piece of government in America. Citizens United may be one of the latest court decisions permitting limitless, unaccountable money to sway campaigns and lobbies, but the full story begins much earlier: the court held, rather incredibly, in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. South Pacific Railroad Co. that corporations ought receive equal protection under the eponymous clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The SUN PAC decision in 1975 solidified means by which corporations can influence election, formalizing the legality of the political action committee. More recent cases protect corporations under the first amendment, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., protecting their “right” to restrict healthcare options based upon the company’s religion. I’ve never seen a company in church, but then again, stranger things have happened. In any case, we could easily solve much of this quagmire through federal funding of elections.
  7. Broaden the House. The House of Representatives is the most democratic part of the federal government. 436 people can’t represent 330 million. It’s just ludicrous. We need a representative for every thousand people, with a hierarchical house. You should get to know your representative personally.
  8. Eliminate the Senate. The Senate serves no obvious purpose, other than to retard democracy. Popular bills aren’t while unpopular ones are passed. The Senate distorts the power of smaller states. They complain that they’ll receive no representation otherwise. I could say the same thing about myself. I’m only one person. Why doesn’t my vote count ten times as much as yours?
  9. Add many more referenda to federal and state ballots. More people vote when referenda appear on the ballot. More to the objective of democracy, people can actually decide policy rather than vote for a surrogate who will or will not (and more often don’t) carry out the design of the voters. Wouldn’t it have been nice to prevent the Iraq War, or to ensure that Americans crushed by the financial crisis in 2008 receive a bailout rather than the avaricious banks? Americans would feel greater accountability if we could sway policy.

I’ll close with a quote from Sagan.

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Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

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Conversations with Activists III : Dean Baker, A Progressive Economist

Dean Baker, progressive, activist, economist, was kind enough to share some time for an interview. Readers following my blog from its earliest days will recall the extensive series of reviews of his book, The Conservative Nanny State, so scoring some time with Dean is indeed a coup.  For those who bear cynicism toward establishment economics, Dean’s star shines brightly, having predicted and warned of the 2008 housing crash as early as 2002.  Deeply committed to progressive causes, this powerhouse economist counters decisively the bipartisan consensus psychosis in Washington, dispensing easily with wrongheaded policy considerations such as Chicken Little on Social Security, or the commitment to endless, savage wars abroad.  He also is the type of dog lover who adopts the infirm and elderly, a true class act.  So without further delay, let us jump right into the discussion.

As with my previous interview, my cognitive difficulties of late slow my interaction, so bear with me; I’ve edited the discussion for ease of listening.

 

Celebrating an Activist Economist

What is an Economist?

Patents and Copyrights : Anti-Market Tools

Bank Bailouts : There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?

Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble

Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists

Taxing the Rentiers : Makers of More Than $X

Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office

Markets Follow Trade, and the Folly of Context-Free Numbers

The Liabilities of Limited Liability

The Price of Happiness

What is the CEPR?

A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?

Economy of Data

Doggy Sanctuary and Semiretirement

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Celebrating an Activist Economist

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NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. I’m very happy to have Dr. Dean Baker, economist at the Economic Policy Institute and co-founder and economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, where he serves as a senior economist. He’s authored over 10 books in economics. One of which was my gateway drug into his works, The Conservative Nanny State. I wrote an extensive six-part review on this book as I found it in my own ignorance of economics a revelation. This is among a very short list of books I would recommend to every American. Dean regularly contributes op-eds to news journals such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Truthout. He’s an analyst that I believe should appear in every economic debate in the televised news media. Therefore, he’s not included in every economic debate. If I believe it should happen, it probably doesn’t. In any case, welcome Dean. I very much appreciate having you.

Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.

NPS: Yeah. Absolutely. Just to give a little bit of background as I mentioned in the intro, your book, The Conservative Nanny State was my introduction to your works. I heard Noam Chomsky mention the “nanny state” a few times in different talks but it wasn’t until he mentioned your name that it occurred to me that the term might be more than just something that he had created. I looked it up and I found this book. The simplicity of the book, so therefore the reachability, the accessibility of it is incredible. Certainly, it jived with my own speculation about economics to begin with. Certainly makes it a lot clearer and coming from an expert like you, it’s pretty powerful stuff.

What is an Economist?

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NPS: So before we get into your origins, what do you think an economist is? What is it that you do versus what is it do most economist do? Where are the conflicts?

DB: Yeah. I think economics inevitably involves some fairly complex issues, studying data, analyze data, and knowing how to make sense of statistics. From my view though, as an economist and obviously there’s division of labor here: I do do some primary analysis myself, but first and foremost I see my responsibility as making this information available and as understandable to people as possible. It’s common for economists to throw up their hands and go, “Oh, this is complicated. People can’t understand it.” I think that is really being a cop out. Our responsibility is to talk about this in terms people can understand. At the end of the day, I believe in democracy. People can’t make intelligent choices unless they understand what’s at stake. The big economic issues have huge impact on people’s lives. If they don’t understand how those choices are being determined, how those policies are being determined, you don’t have a real democracy. I think first and foremost, my job is about looking at important economic issues and trying to present them in ways that are understandable to people. I mean I don’t mind saying that. I’m not going to deny I have a progressive bent. I think we have too much inequality. I think people should be able to count on the necessities of life, all that. But I think we will get there best by making the issues clear to people. I think most people basically agree with those things. Any case, the point is people have to understand first and foremost what’s at issue. It can be done. I just think a lot of economist, I sometimes joke about it. I think the economy is too simple for economists to understand.

NPS: Right, right. I like that.

DB: I make things simple, not complicated.

NPS: Certainly, the abridged education that I’ve had in economics has been built around laissez-faire market ideology, that the free market will be able to deliver the very best products and services for the best value, [while d]iscounting considerable obstacles to that kind of optimization. I think that what I’ve seen at least in the limited social media that I look at on this topic and this is looking at what fellow technologists are thinking about these things. They’re pretty well hung up on this notion that profits proxy for everything that’s good. To me that seems more a dogma than something that’s actually underwritten by the facts.

DB: Yeah. Well, profits … what I always like to say we should think of the market as a tool. It could be a very, very powerful tool. The point is we structure, we decided how the tool will be used. We’re don’t want people to make profits selling heroin. We banned that now. Obviously, you have a black market but we do ban. We’re better off if people made profits on legally selling heroin. It’s an arguable point. I think probably not but that’s an arguable point. In any case, for now, at least we don’t allow that. We don’t allow it legally. The whole point of certainly Conservative Nanny State really much of my writings, we structure markets to decide how profits are made.

Patents and Copyrights : Anti-Market Tools

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DB: My most obvious example here, patent and copyright monopolies. The idea somehow these are intrinsic; that Microsoft just has a copyright on Windows and they can make a huge amount of money on that. Well, you could argue that’s a good or bad thing. That’s not just the market. That was a government policy. We decide Microsoft can get a copyright and make a lot of money on it. We’re going to arrest people if they start mass producing copies of computers that contain Windows and they’re not paying Bill Gates’ money. Again, we could argue where there’s good or bad thing but that was something we designed. That was how we structured the market. What I do in Conservative Nanny State and other work is make a point: here’s how we’re structuring the market. Again, you could argue, someone could defend the copyright system and say the current system’s the best we could do and that’s an arguable proposition but we have to understand, that’s not simply a market that was given to us. That was how we chose to structure it.

NPS: Exactly. That there’s a legal framework underwriting all of that and that it’s not that somebody sat in a room and spent a long time working on some wonky optimization problem and said, “I know what will work best. We’ll just have a copyright system.” I always thought it was bananas that I would see popular songs that we might sing like Christmas carols and you’ll find that they have copyrights from one hundred and twenty years ago. At least whatever’s listed in the fake book. The fake book’s pretty old.

DB: Yeah. It gets pretty crazy and both copyrights and patents have bizarre applications. Some of the extreme ones I remember hearing that there’s… I’m forgetting the names of them [possibly General Patent and Web Defense Systems?]. Now, there’s two main services that are involved in enforcing copyrights. If a radio station plays copyright music, they have to pay a fee. If say you have a restaurant or a bar, and you’re playing copyrighted music, you’re supposed to pay. I’m sure most of them don’t but in principle, you’re supposed to pay. Anyhow, one of them was going after the campfire girls because they were singing copyrighted songs. You get some pretty wacky examples.

NPS: Right. That you have to have a powerful nanny state to enforce those kinds of things.

DB: Yeah, yeah. This is very far from a free market.

NPS: Absolutely.

DB: They’re all sitting around the campfire and they’re singing whatever songs. Now, we’re going to have the government come in there and say, “Oh, you have to pay whatever amount to so and so has the copyright on these.”

NPS: Right. I doubt seriously that my coworkers and bosses over at Microsoft would want me to say this but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t believe that the patenting and the copyright system has done justice to the software industry at all. I feel like Microsoft, Gates and Allen were able to exploit the open architecture, hardware architecture and so on in order to be able to build an operating system on top of that that they made proprietary. Because of the fact that it is proprietary and they’ve spent all of this time trying to ensure that those copyrights stay in place, we end up with products that frankly are subpar. I even told them that in my interview there. I told them that in my interview.

DB: They hired you anyhow.

NPS: Yeah. They called me back that day.

DB: They really wanted you.

NPS: Yeah, yeah. Either it speaks to their desperation or their desperation I guess, either or.

DB: Yeah. Or maybe they had admirable respect for freedom of thought. We’d like to be optimistic about that. I don’t know that’s the case but we could be optimistic that way. I’m not an expert on software. You clearly know much, much more about it but I’ve heard that from many others, that much of what when the original DOS, the pre-runner of Windows was taken from various forms of open software-

NPS: UNIX, yeah.

DB: On the government tab. Of course, it becomes proprietary and I don’t know anyone as a regular user of Windows computers, which I am that’s very happy with if you gave me the option of the computer 20 years ago and the computer I had today, you know, there’re some things clearly better but a lot of things are not. It’s not as though we could look back over the last two decades and go, “Wow! There’ve been all this great innovations, the software I have today in my computer is so much better than what I had two decades ago.” I for one would be able to say that.

NPS: And actually internally at Microsoft, this is pretty well the opinion that we get every year when we do the internal surveys. Of the pillar issues that they ask opinions on, the most troublesome for the company are the tools that we have to use internally. And though they are slightly better than what you see on the outside, just because, we’re constantly being guinea pigged, and they’re constantly trying to make sure that our systems are reliable, it’s not a good thing. The other tech companies I’ve worked at where they’re basing their systems more on open source software, much more reliability. I mean the difference is night and day. But it also raises another interesting point that I’ve brought up with some of my coworkers when they ask questions about these kinds of things. It’s one thing to patent, or copyright a complex algorithm that you can use to achieve some particular goal. And let’s say that an individual wants to benefit from that and see that others are not able to steal his work, that’s different from a company doing it. And it’s also different when we’re talking about the scale and the scope of these algorithms. I like to ask them, “How would you like to have to pay a fee every time you used the addition operator in your code?” I mean, it gets to a point where it’s just obscene. That’s like having a plumber install a toilet in your house and then you have to pay for every time you flush it.

DB: Yeah. With our intellectual property system in general, I think there’s been very little thought in the design as to, “Is this really optimal?” And you could argue for patents, you could argue for copyrights, but I think you’d be very hard pressed to look at the system we have today and say, “This is the best we could do.” And you have a lot of things that are almost like, paying for every time you flush the toilet. I mean, particularly when you get to research tools, this comes up more with patents I think than copyrights, but a lot of times you have research tools, but because their patented, they hugely raise the cost of research.

NPS: Right, absolutely. And to say nothing of medical equipment and then the pharmaceutical industry. So my father-in-law worked for Dial and for Pfizer and he let me in on a lot of the tricks that they use for evergreening, that I wrote about actually in the book review that I did for your book because I wanted to augment it with some of the information that he was giving me about how they are able to, by virtue of the way that they do the research, you end up with a mirror copy of drug molecules and usually there’s some utility to those. And it’s not necessarily the utility you’d planned, but you get to double dip and get two patents for the price of one. But I think the number that bothers me the most is the copycat drug share of the market, to me it’s obscene. So tell me a little bit about that.

DB: Yeah. Well, again we get into a strange debate, at least I find often it gets very strange when we talk about parents and prescription drugs because of course, it costs a lot of money to do research and developing new drugs and someone has to pay for that. But the question, what is the best way to do that? And again, we’ve settled on the patent system where basically what we’re doing is we’re telling companies, “Go ahead, do research and then we’ll give you a patent,” and then you basically get a monopoly on it for 20 years. You were saying with evergreening, they often find ways to extend that for number of years. Another way it’s not quite evergreening, it’s kind of a variation, is that often times companies will have several patents on a drug, and the main one may expire, and then what they do is they have a very dubious patent that they claim to prevent competitors from marketing their drug, marketing as a generic. And even though it may not stand up in court, you have an incredible asymmetry: you’re looking to come in there as the generic entry, well, you’re looking to be able to sell it at a competitive market price, that might be a 10th, even a 20th, maybe even less of what the price Pfizer charges. So there’s an incredible asymmetry if you envision a lawsuit, Pfizer stands much more to lose than the generic does to gain, which means that they are prepared to spend a lot of money in the lawsuit. It doesn’t make sense for the generic spend anything remotely comparable, because they don’t stand to gain that much. So often, Pfizer could have a patent, but they know it’s very weak, but they’ll just tell a generic that’s trying to enter, “Well, we’re going to contest this and if we lose, we’re going to appeal it. We’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. You’re going to be buried in legal fees. It’s just not worth your while.” And that’s often a way to keep generics out of the market because for them it just doesn’t make sense. Getting back to the basic picture, this is one of the things I often say to people when I’m giving a talk. I often begin, “Drugs are cheap.” And they immediately think I’m nuts. And the point that I make with that is that almost invariably they’re cheap to produce. So if you just talked about manufacturing the drug profitably, in most cases that would be $10, $15, maybe $30 to outside per prescription, and we know this because there are generic drugs here and in other countries; India as a world class generic industry, they produce very high quality drugs and in almost all cases they’re very, very cheap, whereas if they’re patent protected, they could sell for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and again, it’s because they have a monopoly on a drug people need for the health and need for their life. It’s an absurd situation where people are struggling in trying to get their insurer to pay [for] hepatitis C [drugs]. There’s been several drugs recently, but originally Sovaldi was the first breakthrough drug that could cure hepatitis C, which is a debilitating, sometimes deadly disease, for $80,000 per three month course of treatment, incredibly expensive. So insurers didn’t want to pay people who were on Medicaid, other government programs, government didn’t want to pay. And you had articles about this as a big moral dilemma. Should they pay it for everyone? A lot of people with hepatitis C have lived, they’re drug addicts, they’ve done things in their life that you might say weren’t very good, should we pay $84,000 for them to be treated? And I’ll just say, okay, that’s good question. I mean, I’d probably be inclined to pay it, but whatever, some people saying no. They go, “Well actually it doesn’t cost $84,000 to manufacture this drug. It costs $200 or $300.” Again, we know this because that’s what the generics in India could sell it for. And again, they make money. They’re not charities. Like $200 or $300, that’s really a no brainer. I mean, you’re only going to spent $300 to save someone’s life, to cure them of a debilitating disease? I mean, even if they got it because they were drug addicts or whatever, that’d be nuts. So we create this huge problem for ourselves with how are we going to pay for these expensive drugs, when they wouldn’t be expensive if we didn’t have the patent monopolies. As they say, it’s a very, very perverse way of financing drug research and again, we have to pay for it. So I don’t argue that, I talk about other ways to pay for it, mostly through direct pay for the funding research upfront. Pay for it upfront and have it be in the public domain. But the current system I just think is incredibly backward, and it’s a big deal economically, but even more so this is people’s health, people’s lives.

NPS: Right, yeah. Chomsky’s read on the history of technology has been something that’s similar, that in essence, the computers that we’re using right now to talk in the vast international and actually trans-national communications network, originally it was just going to be a coast to coast network for communication. All of it was developed in the public sector, and the public sector bore the risk and lots of things didn’t pan out that we don’t hear about, but nonetheless, it was not a free market that delivered computers to us or the internet or a lot of the R&D as you point out in your books, a lot of the R&D that goes into the development of these drugs.

DB: Yeah. And even as it stands, with the National Institutes of Health, they get $40 billion a year from the federal government. Again, most of that is more basic research, so it’s not common that they’re actually developing drugs, but there are cases, important cases, AZT, the first major AIDS drugs, that was actually developed by NIH money. It was developed as a cancer drug that turned out not to be an effective cancer drug. And then in the 80s, several, probably Burroughs Wellcome was the big one, they then tested it an AIDS drug where it turned out to be an effective treatment, but a very large chunk of the expense, certainly developing the drug originally and as I understand, even some of the research done by Burroughs Wellcome was financed by the federal government. So again, you look at drug after drug, someone did an analysis recently looking at drugs that were in the last, I forget how far back they went, like last decade. Every single one of them, had a major role for federal funding. That’s not to say the industry didn’t do something. In most cases they made substantial contributions, but the point was they were building on work done by the federal government.

NPS: Right. And probably like the big banks underwritten by the federal government at the same time. So you have this extremely skewed, loss function of no way to lose and every way to gain.

DB: Yeah. It often looks that way.

Bank Bailouts: There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?

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NPS: So somebody that I had discussed this with had made the comment that copycat drugs were good because therefore there was market competition, as though prescription drug development occurs in a free market or laissez-faire framework. There seems to be this pervasive belief amongst intelligentsia that not only is this the usual course, but that it ought to be that way, challenging earlier points in our discussion. How do we dispel the myth?

DB: I mean, I like patents and copyrights just because they are such blatant interferences in the market; I love to point out, we can get drugs in India for, in some cases, less than 1% of what it costs here and if people want to be strict, libertarians go, “Fine, let me go to India. Let me import the drug from India.” And just to say Pfizer would go nuts if we just said, “Oh, we could just import all these generics from India. “They would put them out of business in no time. So, that’s a very clear mechanism, but there are so many other ways. I mean, one of the things that was striking to me when we had the bailout of the banks in 2008, well the market outcome of course is Citi Group and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, they were all out of business. They got themselves in trouble because it made a lot of bad loans, and they couldn’t cover their debts. And well, in a market economy they’re out of business. People couldn’t race fast enough to engineer the bailout, to keep them going and somehow-

NPS: Basically, in both parties.

DB: And in both parties. So it was totally bipartisan. I was on the hill talking to skeptics, they were Democrats, and also skeptics are Republicans, well I meeting skeptics on the democratic side. And there were a lot of people of course who did have questions, many who did vote against it, more Republicans voted against it than Democrats. But in any case, there were those who voted against it, but basically they scared all these people saying the economy will disappear. They were saying this and, just to be clear, I don’t mean to say there wouldn’t have been greater disruption had you not had the bailouts. There would have been, but the economy would just disappear? What do you mean? The physical banks aren’t going anywhere. So all the banks that, we have our deposits, there’s still going to be there the next day. Their records aren’t going to go anywhere, and we actually do have a mechanism, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to keep operating, keep normal bank services going through a crisis, which isn’t to say everything would have been perfect. But there was just this idea. We have to rescue them. And of course here we are now ten years, a little more than ten years later, and those banks, Citi Group, Bank of America, they’re bigger than ever. But you can’t call that a free market.

NPS: No, not at all. And I think you’re right in Rigged that the IMF showed that these big banks are able to borrow at a much better rate than they would be under normal circumstances because of the government insurance policy.

DB: Yeah. So there was research that the IMF had done, this was a few years ago now, and it may not still hold up because risks have fallen. That was still kind of in the wake of the crisis. But what their research had found, I’ve done some too showing this, that their borrowing costs were less than smaller banks because the presumption was if Citi Group got itself in trouble, the government would come to its rescue. Just as of course it did do in 2008, 2009. So obviously if you think from the standpoint of someone, you’re looking to lend Citi Group $20 million or another bank $20 million, well you’re going to be thinking, “I really don’t have much risk with Citi Group. It’s obviously a big bank and not likely to go under, simply because big banks don’t typically go under, but even if it were to go under, I could still count on the government bailing it out and making the whole.” So that means you’d be willing to lend to a lower rate of interest and that’s certainly what the IMF found, though again this was a few years ago. It was a careful research. I don’t think people disputed that at the time.

Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble

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NPS: And you were credited as being one of the economists that actually was able to predict the housing bubble.

DB: Yeah. This is a source of incredible frustration because it started like you see a disaster coming, and you’re trying to warn about it and no one’s really listening. To my view, it was not hard to see for anyone looking at the data, because it was just very, very clear with this unprecedented run up in house prices. And I had data going back to the early 1950s, government Robert Shiller, economist at Yale, subsequently won the Nobel Prize. He constructed data using public data sets, but he had to construct himself, going back to the 1890s, and we had never seen a run up in house prices, anything like this. House prices generally nationwide, at least pretty much track the overall rate of inflation. But suddenly in the late 1990s, they began to diverge from the overall rate of inflation and in the next decade quite sharply. So 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05, they’re rising at double digit levels. There’s no corresponding increase in rents. Rents are pretty much tracking the rate of inflation. Vacancy rates are actually high and rising. That doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with the type of labor market. So I’m looking at this and go, “How could that not be a bubble?” And the reason bubbles were on my mind, and not some of those bubble bubble bubble, we just had a stock market bubble, which collapsed in 2000 or 2001 and gave us the recession that year. And that was a big deal. So the idea that we might get bubbles in asset markets shouldn’t have been crazy to people in 2002, ’03, ’04. We had just seen a really big one collapse and gave us a recession, so I saw this in the housing market, and the reason why I thought the impact was likely to be really big was housing had grown to be a very large share of the economy. Housing ordinarily is around 4% GDP. It hit a peak of, I think it was 6.8% in GDP in 2005, so it was way above its historic average. And on top of that, people were consuming based on their housing wealth. So people bought a home for $200,000, and suddenly worth $400,000. A lot of people were borrowing against their homes, none of this was secret, by the way. I mean, I didn’t need special insight about this, I had to have some special insight or debt. Alan Greenspan actually wrote papers on this.

NPS: Really?

DB: They actually go back, and he had equity … I’m forgetting the term he used, something like equity withdrawal or spending from equity withdrawal. He had some term for it. I mean, I don’t know if he invented it, but he’d used this several papers, so it wasn’t any sort of secret that (a) housing construction was soaring to record levels, and (b) that people were spending based on their housing wealth. It was widely reported, and the point being that when the wealth disappeared, so did the spending. That’s exactly what happened. Of course, the bubble peaks in ’06, begins to drop at the fall of ’06, drops more rapidly in ’07, because basically the story you had in the housing market was people buying homes where they look at the house and go, “Is this worth $400,000?” They might’ve said no, but because the price is rising 10 or 15 to 20% every year, it doesn’t matter. So, you might say to yourself, “Well, I wouldn’t pay $400,000 for this house, but on the other hand, since it’s going to be worth $500,000, two years, yeah, why not?” But suddenly when that reverses, when the price is falling rather than rising, well then you look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s probably not worth $400,000, maybe I shouldn’t pay $400,000 for it.” And of course the banks wouldn’t make the loans anymore. So you’ve got house prices falling in ’07 and then very rapidly by the latter part of the year because it feeds on itself. And that was the story of the crash. House prices plummeted. And then of course residential construction plummeted. So as I said, it ordinarily had been around 4% of GDP, it fell back to less than 2% of GDP. So we went from being close to seven, 6.8% to less than 2%. That’s four and a half percentage points of GDP, that’d be 900 billion a year in today’s economy. So how are you going to replace that? Then you had the big fall in consumption, because again, you had all these people, their house went from $200,000 to $400,000, they take out a home equity loan, buy a car, take a vacation, maybe they’re sending their kids to school. So it’s not that was a stupid thing to do. They thought the house would still be worth $400,000, but then it ends up being worth $200,000. Well, suddenly they can’t do that anymore.

NPS: Oh yeah. So, in my husband’s family’s neighborhood in Scottsdale, we saw housing prices rise to just astronomical numbers. It was remarkable. Houses that were previously like $400,000 up to one point $1.2 million. And then all of that just completely vanished. And we used to live in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, and I can remember construction happening out the Wazoo, all over the place in the areas around the metropolitan area where there were, basically just open fields and some farmland. And I couldn’t believe that, that many people would be moving into those houses, especially with so many houses on the market. But yeah, we ended up buying high and selling low.

DB: So sorry to hear that.

NPS: Fortunately we didn’t lose a lot of money, and it was nothing to complain about compared to what other people had to endure through all of that, the humiliation and the bankruptcies, foreclosures, just dreadful stuff. And the fact that this is done, and it’s understood, it has to be understood at top levels of power. Would you say that, that’s the case or do they genuinely not understand how this stuff works?

DB: I think they genuinely did not understand. I mean, I knew some of these people. What happens is you get this groupthink story that people talk to each other. They only take the opinions into account of other people that they think are really important honchos. I mean obviously it helps I’m an economist as opposed to someone just off the street but still, I don’t have Nobel prize, they don’t have to listen to me. So they didn’t have to count what I’m saying. And I remember being on a panel once, and I was talking about the risk of a house price decline. And it was a fairly prominent economist, he was just totally dismissive. He just said, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like what you’re describing.” And my point was, “No, we’ve never seen a nationwide fall in house prices like this because we’ve never seen a nation run up in house prices like this.” That seemed fairly straightforward to me. He was just totally dismissive. Like I’m talking about something that’s just other worldly.

NPS: Right.

DB: For me that was very concrete.

Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists

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NPS: I liked the way that you described it earlier, that economics is much simpler than people think because I was going to say something similar at the beginning of this discussion about how on the one hand it seems like economics is much simpler than what people think. But on the other hand, theoretical economists start delving into NP hard optimization problems and Nash equilibria, and all of these interesting things that don’t pay that much attention to the pragmatic. And I guess that brings me to Piketty. I know that you’ve written about him and talked about his works quite a bit now, particularly Capital in the 21st Century, which I’ve started, but I can’t say that I’ve finished yet. There’s a lot in there. But I guess, what is your take on this that there’s a schism in the field of economics?

DB: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of economics, I was joking about this, but this is actually very serious. I think it’s about making simple things complicated.

NPS: Yeah.

DB: I mean, of course my analysis of the housing bubble was pretty simple, and people asked me, as this was going on did I consider getting it published anywhere and I kind of shrugged because I go, “You know, it’s too simple. I don’t where it can get published.” I mean, it was basically a very simple story. And I actually had exactly that because there was a similar issue, back in ’05, President Bush wanted to privatized social security.

NPS: Oh yeah.

DB: His big argument was that, “Oh, we’re going to give people individual accounts and will make way more money in private accounts. And that was based on their assumption stock returns and what I was arguing was that you can’t have the high stock returns that they’re talking about given that they’re projecting slow economic growth and their price to earnings ratios in the stock market were already quite high. If you had low price to earnings ratios, you could do it, but we didn’t have low, we had high. So I was saying that you cannot get the returns that they’re predicting. So a friend of mine, Brad Delong called me up and said, “Do you want to do this as a Brookings paper?” And he goes, “I can get it published.” And I said, “Well, this is really a Brookings paper. I mean, because it’s simple. It’s basically algebra. What are dividends, what are capital gains, it’s adding two numbers.” And he said, “Oh yeah, no, it could be a Brookings paper, so I won’t have to do my work on this.” So I wrote it up, gave the basic algebra. So Brad goes out, “Thank you very much.” He did the bulk of the work, Krugman did some too, I don’t mean to downgrade his role, but Brad was the main actor here. But anyhow, he totally rewrites it and basically makes two points. One was an intertemporal consumption optimization model and then the other was the point I was making, which was again, basically simple algebra. Brad rewrote it, but basically presented the argument. What made it, the Brookings paper of course was the optimization model, though not too complex, but it was certainly more complex than simple algebra. When we actually presented the paper, no one said a word about the optimization model. No one could care less, all they cared about was the simple algebra, but without having something with some calculus in there that you could wave your hand and would go, “Oh, yeah, this is complicated. We wouldn’t have gotten there as a Brookings paper.” So it was just as clear as day that, “Okay, you have to make this complicated, get through the door, even though, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”

NPS: I wish I could say I was surprised by that, but I’ve spent enough time, been in and out of academia enough times that yes, that’s definitely true, that oftentimes you can present something that is even novel and advances the science. I had a classmate at Georgia Tech who submitted a paper to one of the theoretical computer science symposia and they thought the result was momentous, but the proof was too simple. So therefore they didn’t want to accept it.

DB: Oh God-

NPS: And they actually outright said that. They weren’t hiding it. They weren’t saying, “Uh, this really wasn’t good work.” They were just saying, “We like the result, but the proof is elementary, so therefore we can’t publish it.”

DB: It’s amazing. They wouldn’t be embarrassed that … Are we trying to advance the science or are we just trying to spin our wheels and …

NPS: Or make ourselves look so complicated that we can … I don’t know, to achieve some dominance in the field, maybe. The more David Attenborough programs that I see, the more I realize that we’re just animals. That’s a little bit cynical.

Taxing the Rentiers : Makers of More Than $X

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NPS: One thing that is in the news right now, and then I want to get back to your background because I want to make sure that we cover that as much as we can. I noticed that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in the news, the 70% tax rate on $10 million and above, and that Paul Krugman–actually I learned about her quote by reading one of Paul Krugman’s columns on this. And it looks like Piketty and I’ll never be able to say these names, [Stefanie] Stantcheva and [Emmanuel] Saez, I believe is the-

DB: Yeah, Saez, yeah.

NPS: Okay. That they say that it’s 83%, but through the last twenty years, since the Bush W. tax cuts were pushed through, I have told people repeatedly about the top marginal tax rates that we had at the end of World War II, when we had some of the greatest growth, if not the greatest amount of growth that we ever saw in American history, economic history. And so I wanted you to weigh in on that also, so how this 70% versus 83%, the numbers are sort of … they’re not immaterial, but the concept is important. How do we tax the wealthy in an optimal way?

DB: Yeah. Well, two issues. The more important one is this idea that if they effect the high tax rate that, “Oh we’d lose out, all these very highly talented people,”

NPS: Which is bullshit. They don’t, contribute that kind of work to the economy-

DB: Yeah, I guess I would divide those into groups. So when you get the people defending it, like Greg Mankiw was Bush’s, the head of his council of economic advisors, “Oh Taylor swift, don’t you like Taylor Swift’s music or whatever, and she wouldn’t perform if she’s going to be taxed at a really high rate.” (A) that’s not true. I mean the vast majority of people are not Taylor Swift, I mean, whether you like it or not, I am not a great Taylor Swift fan, but whatever. The vast majority of people who are in those income brackets are people on Wall Street who are shuffling money. Your corporate CEOs, the people who got a lot because they inherited their wealth-

NPS: The rentier culture.

DB: Yeah. So that’s who we’re generally talking about. But even the Taylor swifts, I mean, the example I like to use there’s Michael Jordan who maybe was the best basketball player ever. During the prime of his playing years, he took two years off to play baseball. Now suppose he had faced the 90% marginal tax rate. Would he have decided that he had so much money that he could spend two years playing baseball? Maybe he would have, I don’t know, but he may well not have, and certainly Jordan was a fantastic player and if you enjoy see Michael Jordan play, we actually might have gotten more of Michael Jordan with a higher tax rate than lower tax rate. But again, that’s not who we’re talking about for the most part. We’re talking about the corporate CEOs, the people shuffling paper, so I’m not worried about not giving them enough incentive to do what they do for the economy. In most cases they would probably do the same. And in the cases where he had the CEO said, “Well, if I have to pay a 70% or 80% tax rate, it’s not worth if it to me,” my view would be, “Well, fine, we’ll take the next person in line. It’s not as though,” I mean fair, there are some CEO who were extraordinary Steve Jobs, and though you can make complaints about what Apple’s done and everything, he was a visionary, so if Steve Jobs had said that, okay, we would have lost something, but the vast, vast majority of CEOs are not Steve Jobs. So if they said, “Hey, it’s not worth it for me,” it would not be a big loss to the economy. The part I do worry about, and you have to decide where this kicks in, is what they will do by way of evasion / avoidance because that is a loss to the economy. They both don’t get the revenue, but it also means it creates tax sheltering industry, and that’s what I worry about. So I would probably put a number, certainly below the 83%, probably some below the 70. Important point to remember here, we also have state and local taxes and in the case of say California, somebody who’s earning $10 million year is facing a 13% state income tax. So I’d probably be more comfortable with something close to the 50% because as you get to high tax rates, you’re giving people a lot of incentive to evade your tax, to avoid your tax and that’s just a loss to the economy. Again, I’m not worried that they’re going to say, “Oh, I don’t feel like working for that.” But it’s a loss lost the economy that they’re paying people to come up with various gimmicks so that, they don’t have to pay their taxes because that itself is a drain on the economy. I mean, if we have attached shelter industry where all these people are making their living by thinking of ways to gain the tax cut, well those people aren’t doing anything productive, so that’s what I worry about.

NPS: Well, it’s certainly be valuable to the economy to get rid of the tax lawyers.

DB: Exactly, exactly.

NPS: Most of them anyway.

DB: Well, no. I mean seriously, we want a system that involves as little as possible in terms of compliance and enforcement cost, so we have to ask not just about, “Oh, is that going to mean that this CEO or this Wall Street guy is going to work a little less if we have 70% tax rate?” That doesn’t concern me. It’s more, how many tax additional tax lawyers to the accounts are we going to have who instead of doing something productive in the world, they’re going to be coming up with games that. That’s what I worry about.

NPS: Right, right. I guess that I would be somewhat optimistic and hope that at least the good guy CEOs would be willing to reroute the money that they would be getting in salary back into the company for the profitability of the company. Good Lord, that’s something we haven’t even touched on, is simply the history of corporations and indefinite charters and all that.

Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office

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NPS: But I want to rewind a little bit before we get onto that. Well, so I want to go back to the beginning for you, where you are from and what is it that interested you in economics and what is it that interested you in progressivism/activism? I know that you participated in sit in protest against the contras in Nicaragua and you had a very interesting advisor who was, I guess by all accounts, a Marxist economist.

DB: Yeah, [W. H.] Locke Anderson.

NPS: Yeah, Locke Anderson.

DB: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Chicago, under the Daley machine. I always had a sense, politics was corrupt and it needed to be cleaned up and this was back in the days of the Vietnam War. I had the sense the Vietnam war was at least a very serious mistake. It’s easy to see that a lot of things that our government was saying weren’t true. I remember I read a book [The Arrogance of Power] by [J. William] Fulbright, who was the head of the Foreign Service Committee and a big critic of the Vietnam War. And it gave the history, which I hadn’t heard. I was a casual reader, at this point I’m like twelve or eleven year old reader of the newspaper. But it was certainly an account I hadn’t heard and then realized, “Oh my God, this makes no sense our involvement in the war.” Anyhow, so I had a sense things were really not going as they should. And I actually came into economics just my last year in college because I felt economics was important, but I didn’t like the mainstream of the field. I had a professor in my last year there, David Weiman, and I got to talking with him, I was very interested in the economics he was doing and decided my senior year that I take economics with him. I decided to go to grad school in econ. You probably couldn’t do that today because I didn’t have big background, but I was lucky to do well on tests, so I was able to do well on my GREs and everything. I always had been good at math, so I was able to get in. In economics, I was always interested in like, “Okay, how can I learn this stuff to be a voice to criticize the mainstream of the profession.” That was what I was thinking about in grad school. You mentioned the sit ins at our congressman’s office. This was the 1980s, the US was actively involved, it was the Reagan years, so trying to undermine the Nicaraguan revolution, which I thought was just incredibly pernicious. I mean, people don’t know, the background I realize it’s ancient history now, it was forty years ago. There was a very corrupt dictatorship that had been installed by the United States. That’s not a euphemism. It had literally been installed by the United States back in the 1930s. We put in Anastasio Somoza’s father who passed it onto his kid. Anyhow he was very corrupt and needless to say they didn’t care at all about the needs of the people. There was no money going for healthcare and education; they were pocketing money left and right within a poor country in any case, but they weren’t sharing what they did have. And they were overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by the Sandinista’s armed revolution, they managed to overthrow them. And Carter was still president at that time. He didn’t want the Sandinistas to come to power. He was trying to keep them from coming to power. He wasn’t able to work out a deal. He was doing his best to try to work out something and basically kept them out of power while getting rid of Somoza. He wasn’t able to do that. They came to power, and they were very much committed towards providing healthcare, education, meeting basic needs of the people. Under Reagan, he very quickly got remnants of the National Guard, which is the army that does supports Somoza, and he began arming them, and they basically did a terror war–they would do attacks on villages. They’d come over the border from Honduras, there was also a group in Costa Rica. They’d come over the border, and they’d attack whatever they could, which often was hospitals or schools. As I said, terrorism is the right word. And that continued through the 1980s and our Congress person who had been a moderate Republican, they redistricted in 1980, for the 1982 election, made it a much more conservative district. He suddenly became a very conservative Republican following the district, and he supported Reagan on that. That was the basis I was in any number of protests. Actually I challenged him for the seat in 1986, it wasn’t my intention, but we couldn’t get anyone else to do it. We got the Democratic nomination and got 41%; it was not close, but it was way more than anyone expected. But anyhow, I felt that was the important thing to do. I mean, I don’t regret at all having tried to oppose the US actions there. I think we see it again today. The US, it’s involvement in Venezuela again; again I’m no fan [Nicolás] Maduro government. They are corrupt. They’ve done really horrible things in terms of what’s happened with their economy and its impact on the people. I mean these aren’t just numbers, people aren’t getting food, they’re not getting medicines, it’s a really bad story. But our concerned there, the concern of the US government is not that Venezuelan people are suffering, because that’s never been a concern of our government. It’s an anti-US government, and they want to see it overthrown.

NPS: Our presence in Latin America has been brutal and horrendous since the founding of the colonies.

DB: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem to change. I mean, you keep hoping, you know.

NPS: Every single president promises not to be an interventionist like the previous one.

DB: Yeah.

NPS: And then they say we must look forward and not backward, which I think was one of the most disillusioning things I heard Obama say.

Markets Follow Trade Policy, and the Folly of Context-Free Numbers

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NPS: Not that I want to talk about Trump necessarily because we hear enough about him, but we’ve been controlling their economies using trade agreements, which are anti-market forces. And I can’t believe that self-described free marketeers in the Republican Party believe promoting democracy or free market ideology.

DB: My guess is that’s ascribing a level of thought of planning that I think really is not true.

NPS: Institutional independence or free mindedness. Yeah, I agree with you.

DB: Yeah. So I think they’re going, “Okay, NAFTA, the transpacific partnership is coming up, how do I vote?” They’re getting the lobbyists calling them, they’re hearing the party leadership saying, and I think that’s 99% of the time, what determines how they vote. Well, what does this actually do? I think most of them have very little idea what it actually does.

NPS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the works of George Monbiot, he’s a naturalist journalist over in Britain. He has some interesting things to say about, the narrative that people have been fed, that it is this neoliberal narrative, even though you would ask them what neoliberal means. They wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but he thinks that we need some cohesive narrative to be able to explain to people, how our economy actually works, how we’re told it works, and what the differences are. But I think people are pretty smart when it comes to these things. They may be ignorant of the facts, but it’s not as though they don’t understand them when the facts are expressed.

DB: Yeah. Again, I think of my job as an economist is about making these things clear to people. My blog Beat the Press and what that’s about is criticizing reporting because, I think the biggest problem, of course, most people aren’t going to be reading government documents; a more informed person reads through the Washington Post, New York Times and major papers. Most people don’t, I’m saying, the more informed person and I focus on those papers, and they are not giving people information in a way that’s understandable. That’s a real big problem. I’ll just give you my pet one, [as] it just drives me nuts because there literally is no other side to it. When you see a budget number that’s expressed and in millions or billions or tens of billions, it’s giving no information.

NPS: Yes. I read that on one of your blog posts about the lack of context.

DB: Yeah. And no one, literally, no one disagrees on that. I mean, I’ve never found a reporter who tries to tell me that when they write down the transportation budget is $180 billion over the next six years, that any substantial segment of their readers, and I’m talking about New York Times readers, I don’t mean the New York Post and most of the people aren’t that educated. I mean, New York Times readers, all of them have college degrees, many have advanced degrees, law degrees, whatever. They don’t know what the budget is. So if you tell them $180 billion over six years, you could have added a zero, taken away a zero, it’s a lot of money and that’s all they know. Of course, what’s relevant is how large is that relative to the total budget? Is this big thing in terms of the total budget? A small thing? And most people have no idea. So haranguing them, it’s really not that hard to just put it in some context. The most obvious one to me is put it in percentage terms, but there are different ways you could do it. So if you said $180 million over six years, that’s $30 billion a year. It’s about seven tenths of 1% of the budget. So if you told people seven tenths of 1%, most people that gives them a reasonably good idea. It’s not a huge share of the budget. It’s not altogether trivial, but if you cut it by 20% it’s not like you have a lot of money in your pocket. If you raised it by 20%, that’s going to be a huge increase in the deficit or a big tax increase. Anyhow, if you put it as a percentage of the budget, it would hugely help in terms of informing people. Where I think this issue comes up most clearly is when you talk about a lot of social spending on the poor, that is almost very, very, very small in terms of the whole budget.

NPS: Yeah. It’s dirty pennies in the couch cushions. I mean, it’s nothing compared to the overall budget.

DB: So if you take TANF, the temporary assistance for needy families, the main welfare program-

NPS: The food stamps, yeah.

DB: It’s less than one half of 1% of the budget. The big argument, is this money well spent, is poorly spent? But it’s important, you go, “Okay, it’s a horrible program. I want it zeroed out.” Okay, we get your wish: you’re not going to have much more money in your pocket because we lowered your taxes. It’s half of 1%, less than one half of 1% of the federal budget. So it’s not all your money is going to these people you don’t like. You might not like the people. Maybe I don’t think they should get the money, but it’s really not going to affect your tax burden in any big way and people don’t understand that.

NPS: Yeah. I feel like institutionally, not just the government, the various agencies and branches of the government, but also the media don’t have much of an incentive to make things clear. An example is I’ve been staying down here in Tucson the last couple months, because of the short term that I’m on; I’ve been staying with my aunt and uncle and my uncle watches CNN almost incessantly, which means that all I ever hear about is Trump and screaming. And that literally is about it. There’s almost no content that is provided. I’ll switch on Democracy Now, and my aunt and uncle are amazed at how much stuff is out there that people aren’t hearing about. And having experts on that can spend fifteen minutes explaining something to you instead of 30 seconds screaming at other painted up people.

DB: It’s one of the things I will say I really don’t understand because I think, New York Times, which is clearly the country’s preeminent newspaper. I had this argument with reporters there for decades now. And I remember about five years ago, maybe a little longer, Margaret Sullivan who at that time was the public editor. She wrote a piece on this, my haranguing, I and others had, really pushed on this, the issue about putting budget numbers in context. She agreed completely. She said, “Yes, no one knows.” And she brought in David Leonhardt who at that time was their Washington editor, so important person there who controlled or had a lot of say I should say, I don’t know exactly who controls, but he has a lot of say about how things appear in print. And he goes, “Yeah, we might as well just write a really big number.” That was exactly the line I said, he’s welcome to take it, but whatever, we might as well just write a really big number because no one knows what these are. So here you have the public editor, the Washington editor both agreeing with me completely saying, “Look, it’s irresponsible to put these big numbers and there was no content because no one has any idea what they mean.” So I actually went out, I remember I celebrated, I go, “Holy Shit, if the New York Times does this. Well then probably Washington Post will follow, National Public Radio will follow, and if picked up, it’s a good standard.” I was going, “This is fantastic.” Nothing changed. You just go, “What is this?” I mean, I’m not asking them to do any big thing. It’s not like I’m asking them to go research some boring topic. The numbers are right there. I don’t believe their reporters are stupid. If you wrote down $20 billion, come on, you can put it on an Excel spreadsheet, a hand calculator. Probably most of them could do it in their head. This is really simple stuff.

NPS: Yeah, apparently the Brookings did a survey a few years ago. They probably done more surveys along this type since of the tea partiers and the surveys demonstrated a thorough ignorance on how much spending goes towards TANF and foreign aid. It’s interesting that they believe that more money should go to it than actually is going to it, and they also believe that more money is going to it than they think the numbers should be.

DB: Yeah, I’ve seen those stats. I don’t know if I saw that specific Brookings one. But you know, I often say if I thought as much money was going to these programs as those people thought, I’d be opposed to them too. I mean if I thought 30% of budget, people think that TANF is getting 30% of the budget they would be looking and going, “We’re spending 30% of the budget, $1.5 trillion a year, and we still have all these poor people? That doesn’t look like a really good program.” Again, and I understand some of it goes the other way. Some of them are racist, and they want to believe really bad things about these people. But you have people that aren’t racist, they actually think we want to help poor people. They just say, “Oh, we’re spending too much,” because they think we’re spending, ten or twenty times as much as we’re actually spending.

NPS: Right. And that was the case with a lot of them. They wanted there to be aid for single mothers with children, with minor children but they were opposed to welfare or food stamps. When they heard the terms that have been racially charged, then suddenly they’re opposed to it. So yeah, it makes for a very interesting lot of people in the United States. I guess there were a couple more questions I wanted to ask you-

DB: You go ahead.

NPS: Oh, thank you so much. This is awesome. I mean to actually be able to ask you questions. It’s fantastic.

The Liabilities of Limited Liability

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So limited liability, recently I had a back and forth with somebody on LinkedIn and much to my surprise what I said actually won him over–I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, but he was signing on, piling onto this notion that corporations are these magical unicorns that have been given from on high that are able to come to these optimal strategies, which of course if you know anything about high dimensional, even convex optimization, but non-convex optimization is ridiculously hard, but they somehow get in their mind that these corporations are given from on high and are able to do this all on their own and that it’s just government regulation that’s impeding them.

NPS: So I raised the concept of limited liability and how that’s actually an anti-market, which I pulled this straight from your book, so this information came from you. So I’d like for you to discuss limited liability a little bit and how it does not follow any kind of free market ideology.

DB: Yeah. I’ve often had fun with libertarians, who want to say they won’t get the government of the economy. So I go, “You want to get rid of corporations.” And they look at me like, what are you talking about?

NPS: Exactly.

DB: You and I can form a partnership, but a corporation has legal status because of the government, and specifically legal liability, limited liability. And there’s other benefits as well, but first and foremost. And what that means of course is, you could have a corporation that they do bad things to people, and we sued them and guess what, they don’t have enough money, and we’re out of luck. And if you and I had ownership and we did that, well we’d lose everything we had. In the case of cooperation, I had $50,000 in stock or whatever or I could lose that, but I could still have millions of dollars, they can’t touch that. Okay, that’s arguably, that was a good thing for us to create corporations grant them limited liability. I think it was. Well, we have to understand that is a government action. That was a policy. We’re not, free marketeers if we believe that the government should be able to grant corporations limited liability. The point I make on this, and I think this is tremendously under appreciated. Go ahead.

NPS: Oh, I was just going to say that in reading your book and then reading some on the History of the Corporation, I can’t think of the author’s name. It’ll come back to me, but I think you site in your book, that these corporate charters issued were predicated on some temporary service. So they needed to raise capital to build a bridge or pave a road with the exception of shipping and railroads and interstate commerce kinds of things because that made sense to have more of a lasting requirement for raising capital. So how is it that we have these charters issued that last indefinitely now and what was the justification for it?

DB: Yeah, so if you go back to English common law, the corporation, as you said, it was designed for specific public service, building a canal or South China, South Sea Trading Company or the East India Trading Company. So there were very specific purposes that it was started to serve a public purpose to allow, the special status of a limited liability. In England that continued to be the case well into the 19th century. They didn’t have a general incorporation law until 1867 if I remember correctly. In the US, we had it earlier, it was actually in, I think it was 1817 when we adopted general incorporation. And the basic idea there was, we have a general interest in promoting the creation of wealth. So this was a way to create wealth so companies can incorporate and have limited liability. That was the rationale. And again, you could argue whether that was a good or bad thing, but it clearly was explicit policy at the time, everyone understood that this was a government policy to promote wealth. It wasn’t just something that was out there in the world. We were going to do this as a way to promote wealth. The other point I was going to make is that, we also set rules of corporate governance, and those are actually very extensive. Most of the rules are designed to protect basically protect minority rights. So, “I own shares in Microsoft, I own,” I’m going to say 1000 shares of Microsoft or something. Well we want to make it, or I should say we either want to or not, the rules make it so that you can’t have a situation where some group gets control of 50.1% of Microsoft and then tells me and everyone else that are in the minority, “I’m just taking all your shares.” That’s what most of the rules of corporate governance are around. But the point is that there’s nothing intrinsic to the corporation that sets those rules. We could set those rules in different ways. And one of the points that I’ve been trying to make in some of my work recently is that the rules are very much skewed now to give management an enormous say. So I’m actually, people think is weird. I actually argue for more shareholder rights because what I would say is where you have these CEOs that are getting $20, $30, $40 million salaries, they’re ripping off the shareholders. And it’s not necessarily that I have so much sympathy for the shareholders. I mean most of the shares are held by very rich people, but some of them aren’t rich middle class people 401ks, pensioners also have shares. So not all of them are rich. All the CEOs are rich that we know. In that sense, I’d rather see the money go to the shareholders. But what’s a more important point to me is that this affects pay structures throughout the economy. If the CEO’s getting $30 million, the CFO, the other top people, they’re probably getting $10 or $15 million and even the third echelon you get to people who are senior, but below these people in standing they’re probably getting one or $2 million, and just stands to reason that more money is going in those people less for everyone else. So I would actually like to see shareholders have more say because I want to see them be in a position to reign in CEO pay, because the CEOs are not doing them a favor when they basically charge the shareholders $30 million for their service. You can sure get plenty of people who’ll do the job just fine for two or $3 million and this gets to a point about progressive taxation. It’s very rare that you have a CEO like Steve Jobs, the real visionary. Those people are very few and far between. The vast majority, I’m sure they’re smart. I’m sure they’re hard working, but the next in line is just as hard working. So you aren’t going to lose anything if they go, “Oh, it’s not worth it to me for two or $3 million.”

The Price of Happiness

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NPS: Yeah. And even then is anyone worth having billions and billions of dollars, no matter how talented they are.

DB: Well, that I think is at least a debatable point, because, I mean, I never met Steve Jobs, and I don’t know, he might well have been very creative even for a tenth the money he got, maybe than a hundredth of the money, there’s certainly, were you have … Getting back to Greg Mankiw who was talking, I don’t know, Taylor Swift. I mean, many of the people we think of as great artists, great musicians, they’re committed to their work, they probably would do it for our tenth of pay. You go back in time, I won’t advocate this, but how much did Vincent van Gogh ever get for his paintings? I don’t think he sold one in his lifetime. I think he was poor.

NPS: He died poor, yeah.

DB: But he was maybe the best artist in all history. And you think of Charlie Parker, the fantastic jazz musician. He died in poverty. Again, I’m not advocating that these people should be poor, but the idea that they have to get enormous sums to be creative.

NPS: To be motivated and that greed, that money is the only thing that motivates them. That sounds more like something a rentier would say is that money is the only thing that motivates him. People will do creative work, especially if their basic needs are being met. So my husband is a psychiatrist and so he’s read a lot of these reports and is and is fascinated by these reports on what amount of money it would require to make people happy. And it turns out that it’s not a lot. It’s basic necessities, healthcare, shelter, being able to provide for your kids’ college, and those sorts of things that make people tremendously happy. And if you have those things you’re going to work on what’s interesting to you. I know it’s speculation, and I’m a humanist optimist in that sense. I believe that, that’s what people will do.

DB: Yeah. Well, I’m inclined to agree with that. Of course, the key thing is not just the money that they have, but they’re secure so they want to know that they have care insurance today but aren’t going lose it tomorrow, that’s a really important thing because obviously it’s a big fear that people have today. They might think, “Oh, I have a decent job, and I could afford my mortgage, my rent, pay for my healthcare insurance, but I can lose the job tomorrow.” That realistic fear.

NPS: Yeah. What I’ve been through in the last year and a half, pretty bad health crisis, and I have nothing but gratitude for the good healthcare that I have through Microsoft that most people this country don’t have healthcare that’s that good because we have sort of Cadillac insurance policy with Premera, but most people don’t have anything like that kind of security. And it’s astonishing to me that there hasn’t been more of an organized uprising in this regard. Hopefully there will be.

DB: Yeah. No, I’m hopeful that in the next election we’ll see some real movement towards establishing a genuine universal system. I mean, I thought the affordable care act was a big step forward, but obviously that’s not go nearly far enough, but I think it was a step in the right direction.

What is the CEPR?

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NPS: Yeah, definitely. So the formulation of the CEPR, what motivated you to co-found this organization and what do they do and what are you continuing to do with them these days?

DB: Well, you know, I had been at the Economic Policy Institute, and I appreciate the time I worked there and everything. But I felt that it was overly bureaucratic because they were very cautious in everything and a lot of layers of bureaucracy. I used to joke with someone, they’d say, how long does something take? I’d say, “Well, imagine it taking it as you could possibly envision, double that and add six months.” That was obviously being somewhat facetious, but what I felt was there’re a lot of issues that, we could have an impact on, but we often had to act quickly, and I didn’t think that the Economic Policy Institute gave me that room. So I formed Center for Economic and Policy Research with an old friend of mine from grad School, Mark Weisbrot and we felt that was basically what want to. There was a lot of policy issues that we could have an impact but we just have to move quickly. And one of the big ones at that time, we had a book come out literally as we were starting it, Social Security: The Phony Crisis and everything were taking issue with the view that was held really across the political spectrum in Washington, I should say. Social security faced a crisis because I had any number of Democrats, democratic pollsters, I remember once one of them just telling me, basically, “You have to acknowledge there’s a crisis or people just won’t take you seriously.” It was based on his polling, his focus groups. And we didn’t accept that, we felt (A) the data, it wasn’t true and (B) if you talk, people would listen.

NPS: It was absurd rallying point. I had college teachers that actually would say in class that social security was going to be bankrupt in a couple of decades and that none of us could rely on it. And it just seemed ridiculous to me that something like that could ever come to pass when we have more money in this country than we know what to do with.

DB: Yeah, I remember I spoke of course around the country many times on this, and I remember, at that time I knew the social security trustees projections pretty much inside out, and I’d just go, “Okay, let’s say they’re all exactly right. Here’s what it looks like. And it doesn’t go away, you face a short fall. But literally the idea there’d be no money, that’s literally … I mean, again, assuming you never did anything, and they’re exactly right in all their projection, but when I couldn’t convince, I’d say speaking to a college class, the line it’d always go, “Okay, so we have some point in the future, is it ten years as twenty,” I’d have them give me a year, at some point. “Okay. So we’re not paying social security benefits.” So then I’d go, “Okay, so in this year …” This was back in the 1990s. “So in this year, 2015, are we still going to have an army?” Looking at me like, “Of course. ‘Okay. Are we still going to have our court system?’ Yeah. ‘Are people in Congress still going to be …'”

NPS: Get paid, right.

DB: I go, “Okay. So we’re going to be paying for the army, paying for our courts, congress people. So we’re going to have 30 million people who are over 65, and we’re going to tell them that there’s no money for their benefits?” You just go, “Okay, that makes zero sense. That is not going to happen.” So anyhow, obviously we didn’t do it. You can’t do anything alone as a small think tank. But we helped I think change the tide on that, and by 2005. Yeah. When Bush tried to privatize, the Democrats are no longer saying there’s a crisis. And of course more recently many, if not most Democrats had been calling for increasing benefits, which I think would be a good thing.

NPS: It definitely would be. My aunt and uncle rely on it critically. Obviously it’s a necessary thing to have and I don’t like part of the narrative about social security, that it is money you paid into it so therefore you’re entitled to it later, because it was set up originally paying benefits to people who had not paid into it. And that has always been the way it’s worked, that the current working force is subsidizing the retirees, which makes sense. I mean, ideologically it’s progressive, and it’s comforting, but that’s not the way that it’s spun usually.

DB: Yeah. Well, I sure like the idea that people think they have a right to it, so in that sense, I think that part of it is good because it makes it much, much harder to-

NPS: Oh yeah, definitely a human, right.

DB: Yeah.

NPS: Yeah. But healthcare also should be a human right, and it should be something that is available to everyone.

A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?

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NPS: Just as a funny aside, I try not to get on LinkedIn or any other social media and get into debates very often because my husband yells at me about doing because, it’s such a time drain. I’m not even on Facebook anymore, and I wouldn’t be anyway after the revelations of how they’re using data. But there was this man on LinkedIn that was arguing that so many of us are complaining about how we’re running out of water, we’re running out of coral reefs, we’re running out of fish, temperature is changing and there’s scarcity of oil and all these things. And he said, “But what about the real problem that there’s scarcity of money?” And I just wrote back and said, “In a certain respect, money is a number in a spreadsheet.” I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but I thought that was astonishing that people have this mindset of a gold standard, that money intrinsically is of value when it really is just supposed to be a proxy for value. I don’t know if it was a funny interaction.

DB: A lot of people have strange views. I was once debating some libertarian guy, forget the exact topic, but it was something related to the Federal Reserve Board. And I remember this woman came up to me afterwards because we’re at a reception, and she said, “Do you …” I forget exactly how she put it, but basically, “Do you think gold has intrinsic value? ‘Well, if you wanted the jewelry or something, but no.'”

NPS: Yeah, that’s what I said to a coworker … actually, my tech lead at Microsoft, he made a comment about that, that if money were underwritten by gold, then I said, “Well, the problem is gold and precious jewels and precious stones, all this stuff, it doesn’t really have value if you think about it.”

DB: But, it’s amazing. It’s actually one of the most basic social conventions, but it is just a social convention.

NPS: Yeah, it’s other otherwise nonsense that we just take for granted. And I had never really thought about that seriously until this past year, because if somebody asks you about gold, you say, “Oh yeah, it’s valuable.” Should I buy some bricks of gold and bury them under my house? Yeah. Let’s see. Well, here’s an interesting question about an actual market system. At what scale do you think market economies can exist? Obviously it doesn’t seem to work, as an overarching theme, but are there macrocosms where it does work and work well?

DB: I mean, I think we’ve gotten a huge amount out of a market economy, so I won’t deride it. I mean it just that you have to set the rules, and it’s interesting, and I won’t claim expertise on the platform economy, but it’s totally noncontroversial among economists, where you have a natural monopoly say electric companies, just to be clear when I’m saying, electric companies, I mean people who actually laid the lines to your house. So I understand we could have competing generators but no one was going to lay duplicate electric lines to my house, that they have to be regulated because, here it is, it’s a central service, and there is no competitor, so it’s totally noncontroversial among economists. I mean, maybe you could find one libertarian somewhere who has some story why you don’t have to regulate it. It’s basically noncontroversial, and it seems that we have something similar with things like Facebook, things like Google that they have for practical purposes, monopolies people, and that’s a story just like, “Well, you then have to regulate them because then they could obviously exploit them endlessly and they seem to be doing that.” That seems to cry out for regulation, both in terms of what they could do with your information because I’m sure, Facebook in particular is probably doing all sorts of things with information about us that we wouldn’t want them doing, but–

NPS: Absolutely, yeah.

DB: –but also what they could charge because again, you can’t have it … No one’s going to lay the second electric wire, no one’s going to have the serious competitor to Google. So, those are clear cases where, we need to reign them in. I mean, other aspects … To me, it’s problematic, people talk about putting up … With greenhouse gas emissions that somehow we have to restrict the market, in my view again, it’s defining the market. I mean, we know greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So, the analogy I make, it’s not an interference in the market if I tell my neighbor that he can’t dump his sewage on my lawn, that’s what we’re saying with greenhouse gas emissions, that we have to restrict them because it’s not just something you’re doing pride, you’re throwing this into the atmosphere. If you have a way to … You’re going to burn oil, and you have a way to suck in all the carbon emissions so that … That’s fine, it wouldn’t bother me and there’s still issues with the extraction, but in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions. All right, fine. If you can deal with that, you can’t, I mean just to be clear. But I mean if someone came up with some brilliant way to do that. All right, well then I guess we don’t have to worry about burning oil. I don’t know, I mean it’s just, you have to think clearly about what you want the market for, what it’s doing in specific circumstances.

NPS: You said as the tool rather than overarching philosophy, but more just one of the many tools that you have. It’s interesting you mentioned the greenhouse gas regulation because it brings to mind the notion of the externality, which I heard when I was at Georgia Tech, Ken Arrow came to give a talk, and he mentioned externalities extensively and how much complexity that adds into any kind of market economy and that a lot of these things are things that we have to consider and regulate, just like what you said.

DB: Yeah, he was a very good economist. Very thoughtful.

Economy of Data

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NPS: Yeah. I happen to work in data science. I’m a statistician working at Bing Ads, although I’m not working on the actual ad space, so unfortunately you can say that I’m in that bemoaned financial sector, and I can’t believe that I found my way into it and decrying it the whole time. But I continued to derogate it. I think also there is this problem of data and regulation of data. Facebook can keep tabs on what you’re doing and then exploit that using machine learning to figure out exactly how to target you with ads. And I wonder to what extent … I was thinking aloud about this, and ended up writing a pretty long blog post about it on my other blog [Algo-Stats], some of the complexities that come up in this and that I feel like a tighter regulation is coming. But what is your take on, data and the way that it’s appropriated for profits? I get a sense, even though I know this would be hard to regulate, I feel like people whose data is used to generate money should either be told very clearly that’s going to happen or be in on a cut of the profits.

DB: Yeah, I think we have to do one or both. Again, these get into issues that I’ve just looked at very, very cursorily. But the idea that, Facebook and Google can get all this data on people, compile it. First and foremost, I think very few people appreciate how much data they could actually get on you and then be sharing it with what they’re doing with it. I mean it’s … I don’t know, what I should say. I definitely would know that I don’t want every search I’ve ever done on Google to the public.

NPS: Oh yeah. No, absolutely not.

DB: Presumably they won’t do that. They’d have no reason to do it, at least that I know. But, in principle, they have access to it, they could, I don’t think there’s any … So, I think there have to be clear restrictions on how this data can be used, say if they’re profiting from it, it seems reasonable in different directions. One, you restrict how much they can profit. You could say that, “Okay. You have to share that with the people you got it from.” I’ve not stayed closely, so I really can’t speak with expertise, but I will say, I don’t think the current system is working, meaning I don’t think the people who are basically giving them the money or happy with it.

NPS: Right. I’ll send you the article that I wrote.

DB: Okay. Yeah, I’ll be interested in reading it.

NPS: Noam Chomsky was kind enough to read an earlier draft of it and thought that it raised some interesting points. So, I think you might find it interesting because it touches on some arenas where data is being used in shocking ways. Ways that I didn’t know going into writing the article, I would not have believed that data was used in this particular capacity, for instance, it’s used to sentence criminals, and it’s used to do dispatch, police patrols in various cities so that the data can reinforce racist stereotypes because they, originally would be patrolling, say black neighborhoods and harassing black people. And if the data confirms that, that’s where they’ve been and that’s where they found, either vagrancy or under age drinking or whatever. I mean, the things that you have everywhere, across obviously all races, all features. But they don’t send the police into white communities as much, so the data tells you to go to the black communities and then they can say the data is the justification for it, and not own up to the actual racism, the systemic racism that promotes that.

DB: Yeah, it’s classic.

Doggy Sanctuary and Semiretirement

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NPS: You said that you said that you’re semi retired now to work on a sanctuary for a puppy dogs. So tell me about that a little bit and what’s next for you?

DB: Well, you know, basically I have to say it was kind of wearing on me being in DC; I got up at 4:30 AM every morning and after a while, it does take a toll on you. My wife and I both decided we wanted a change, so we’d been coming out here, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We’ve been volunteering here since probably about ten years ago, I’m not sure when exactly our first year out here was. And we love doing that, and it’s a beautiful area here. We’re halfway between Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, so it’s a beautiful area. I just felt that I wanted change of pace, work somewhat less, play with the dogs, love dogs. We have our own but also the dogs there, help them out and basically be able to work on a more measured schedule. What’s nice here is I work on things that I think are important. I don’t have to worry about funders, what they think is important. So I could work on the things I want to do, so my goal is to put in twenty, I’d probably put in thirty, forty hours a week but in any case, much less than I had been doing and yeah, so I think I could still make a contribution, still get involved in the debates I’ve been doing and just avoid a lot of what I considered often a waste the time getting pulled into things in DC. We’ve been here a little over six months now, and we’re both very happy with it.

NPS: I would imagine. So I feel like DC would be a hard city to live in irrespective of the fact that you have all these corrupt people.

DB: Yeah, well there’re nice aspects to DC, they have a very nice park right in the middle of the city Rock Creek Park that we actually lived close to, like the whole time [inaudible 01:33:30] in two different neighborhoods, but both were very close to Rock Creek Park. So there are aspects of it that are very nice, but we could walk literally to anywhere in the city here. It’s the tiny town, it’s 4,500 people so-

NPS: Wow. Yeah, just a final word on this. Your book, The Conservative Nanny State to me is … I mean, there may be better books that you’ve written as far as the points that you make, or the data you presented. I’m not sure, but I found it to be a revelation. I think that it … like Piketty’s work. I think that it’s … it could be as important to the lay person in understanding contemporary economics as Chomsky is in the history of technology or Zinn is in the history of the United States. So thank you so much.

DB: Thanks, that’s really quite a compliment.

NPS: So thank you very much, and you enjoy the rest of your Friday.

DB: You too, I enjoyed the interview.

NPS: Yeah, thanks. Bye-bye

DB: Bye.

A Return to Gainesville

Returning to the issues of today has been overwhelming.  Last year, I suffered a health crisis nearly taking my life.  I’ve since returned to a better place, though I remain deficient.  So many issues are current and pressing, and it’s difficult to know where to begin.  The separation of children from their parents by Trump’s border gestapo seems in need of triage, though Trump seems to have understood that harming children isn’t a reasonable means of coercing cooperation from Democrats on the wall funding.  We could examine a myriad of issues, including North Korea, DuPont’s coverup of the dangers of teflon, Scott Pruitt’s $43K phone booth, the ongoing Mueller investigation and Trump’s repeated witness tampering, and so on.  But instead, I’d like to talk briefly about a journey I made recently.

Home Again

To support my best friend during a difficult loss, I returned to my hometown of Gainesville this past month.  Cathartic and lengthy, my visit permitted time to get a good look at how the city of my youth has changed in the eighteen years since I lived there, along with a reunification with my college history professor, Pat Ledbetter, faculty at North Central Texas College (NCTC), and my high school calculus instructor, E. Clyde Yeatts.  It just so happens that my twenty year class reunion transpired during the time I was there, as well as a town hall by Beto O’Rourke, Democratic representative from El Paso, and most recently candidate for the upcoming U.S. Senate election, pitting him against Ted Cruz.  I attended the latter, eschewing the former.  The town hall was lively and energized, though a fair amount of shallow, rally-around-the-flag banter and gladiator hero worship persisted.  I did manage to query Beto on economic issues during the question and answer, available around 50:00 or so in his recorded version.  The issues raised there, along with the drawn, sober look at my city of origin, are topical of this post.

IMG_1975

Beto, Piketty, and Income Inequality

My question specifically asked about the approach one might take in addressing income inequality, something we all understand, at least in the first order.  I referenced Thomas Piketty, the eminent French economist with rather dire predictions for industrialized nations with respect to the current balance of rents and labor.  In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he describes an economic dystopia in which the super-wealthy need not invest in labor, as the return-on-investment (ROI) for capital exceeds that of material investment.  Put more simply, money by itself makes more money than any kind of investment benefiting the apocryphal middle class, so investing in manufacturing, science, health care, and so on, simply isn’t as lucrative as investing in real estate, credit cards, and the like.  Piketty describes this as a grim portent of political instability, as a larger and larger share of household wealth becomes inherited.  Once all capital is owned and controlled by heirs, the extreme poverty imposed on working class and indigent people reaches a breaking point.  It’s worth considering that fact for a moment.

The Role of Public Relations

Since the dawn of the public relations industry, sociologist Anne M. Cronin suggests that we’ve been told rather feverishly that occult forces, be it God, the market, patriotism, and so on require that we accept the station to which a would-be wizened corporate and political elite may assign us; it’s a kind of brainwashing, guaranteeing society-wide compliance in tyrannies historically entrenched.  Walter Lippmann said it best:

[t]he public must be put
in its place…so that
each of us may live
free of the trampling
and the roar of a
bewildered herd.

The framers believed this problem compelled the formation of a strong government:

[t]he primary function of
government is to protect
the minority of the
opulent from the
majority of the poor.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, spear-headed the wartime propaganda from within Woodrow Wilson’s administration by exploiting his uncle’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis to shape public attitudes.  As the great war ended, he recognized that these same mechanisms ought apply to peacetime attitudes as well; he successfully increased revenue for the American Tobacco Company after originating the “torches of freedom” campaign, a means of convincing women to smoke by equating the cigarette with a penis.  Subsequent to this and similar campaigns, Bernays emerged a superstar and corporate darling, fathering public relations, a watershed science capable of convincing very large numbers of people to purchase the unnecessary and ignore the uncomfortable.  These facts are public record, and they’re invaluable in partially contextualizing how my hometown has deteriorated since the post-war boom.

Gainesville, Boom and Bust

Gainesville prospered significantly following the second world war, benefiting principally by railways constructed in the nineteenth century and the intersection of two significant highways, one being I-35, an federal interstate running from Mexico to Canada, the other locally known as state highway 82.  Armco Steel and National Supply, steel and oil pump manufacturing companies, co-owned a plant where my grandfather and many other Gainesvilleans found employment.  The population dipped with the closing of the plant in the 1980s, and big retail became bigger retail, closing hosts of stores.  Thus, the Gainesville of my childhood was stagnant economically, and downtown rapidly became a series of vacant buildings and warehouses.  My grandmother recollected to me that municipal leadership of the town deliberately limited growth, though I’ve not been able to corroborate that.  Principal employers in the city were the local college, the independent school district, Weber Aircraft, and retail, grocery stores, and restaurants.  My mother worked for Weber for a couple years, but lack of jobs led my family out of town during the 1990s, though we returned for my high school years.

Gainesville Gambles, Floods, and Stagnates, Regressing Toward Trump?

In the years since I left town, the Winstar Casino opened across the Red River in rural Oklahoma.  Despite the pervasive religious overtones of Cooke County, its primary source of employment now is said casino. Crime rates spiked after my exit, though they settled downward in the decade to follow; a devastating Biblical flood struck the town in 2007, killing some people and destroying considerable property.

Is it possible many of the run-down buildings I saw in my recent visit were condemned after the flood?  I’m uncertain, but the demographics have changed, the poverty seems deeper, and Gainesville seems more dangerous to me.  On the other hand, some downtown stores have appeared, and there are places in town reminiscent of a more economically rich history.  In any case, should Gainesvilleans accept their station on the strength of the word of Trump or some other demagogue?  Considering that capital is more valuable than labor, the future is grim for a city with a quarter of residents living below the poverty line, per City Data.  A large number of toddlers and slightly older children fall into this category.   Eight-in-ten Gainesville voters selected Trump in the 2016 election.  This must include a large fraction of those quarter denizens below the poverty line.  With such striking numbers, I may very well know personally every person in Cooke County who didn’t vote for Trump…

Where Next?

To escape poverty and lack of jobs, many of us expatriated elsewhere; I also find the sharp support of far right politics reviling.  To that end, I found employment in the midcities, then Atlanta, and finally Seattle.  My good friend Pat Ledbetter, whom I’ll interview for this blog in the days ahead, mentioned to me that Texas needs “thinking people” now more than ever, and considerably moreso than does Seattle.  Though a permanent return to Texas isn’t on the radar, I do think it’s time to offer aid to my city of origin.  Beto’s campaign seems a good starting place.  He, like Bernie Sanders before him, refuses funding from PACs, relying on local and individual donors.  Perhaps there’s more to be done.  Pat, my former teacher Clyde Yeatts, and I will have to cogitate…