Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Guns and Commas

Guns and Commas

I am glad that the large pro-gun rights rally in Richmond on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ended without any violence as had been threatened by some people around the US.  That is nice, but it does not end the unpleasant situation legal situation that has arisen here in Virginia.  As of now 93 jurisdictions, mostly counties, have declared themselves “gun sanctuaries” where any gun control legislation passed by the Virginia government will not be enforced.  The bills currently having received majority support in the Assembly and Senate with support from Governor Northam include requiring uinversal background checks for all gun sales (while allowing intra-family gun transfeers without that), a one-gun per month limit on gun purchases, and an especially controversial “red flag” bill allowing for a person deemed to be a danger to themselves or others to have their guns temporarily taken.

I am located in the Shenandoah Valley where this “gun sanctuary” movement got going, with neighboring county to the south of me, Augusta, getting highlighted in an article about this in The Economist recently.  VA is the only state where cities and counties are distinct and separate from each other.  So I live in the City of Harrisonburg, which is surrounded by Rockingham County, which supported Trump with over 70 percent of the vote.  Rockingham County has joined Augusta in becoming one of these on a unanimous vote of its Board of Supervisors, although I know at least one of those not happy about this. But an angry gun-toting crowd showed up at the meeting.  In Harrisonburg such a crowd showed up at the city council, but left angrily after the council refused to go along with this garbage.

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Covering Up The Coverup

Covering Up The Coverup

I keep thinking that Fox News cannot get worse, but there seems to be no bottom to how low they can go.  New lows are being exhibited in their coverage of the current Senate impeachment trial.  They are fully involved in covering up the Trump administration coverup of what Trump did regarding the articles of impeachment. Anybody getting their news on this trial from Fox will really have no idea what is going on or what the case is that the House managers of the prosecution are arguing.

I am not following the trial fully, and I am only occasionally popping to Fox News to see what they are doing, but I have seen enough.  The main thing they do, and I am seeing Sean Hannity do more of it after seeing Tucker Carlson also do it, is that they barely show the presentations of the House managers. They cover over the presentations with themselves and their allies talking and characterizing what is being said without showing whar is being said except for scattered cherry picked comments.  For Hannity Adam Schiff is a liar and “crazy.”  He  repeats standard talking points he has presented almost every night for months, but never lets the House managers actually their stuff.  Tucker Carlson is no better.

Last night we had the extreme spectacle that I actually saw live, of while Hakeem Jeffries was speaking Tucker Carlson had a large chryon scrolling under him saying “Dems Push Hysterical Talking Points in Trial.”  As  it is, most observers have noted that whatever  one thinks of the bottom line, the House managers have presented careful arguments supported by lots of evidence.  Nothing “hysterical” about any of it.

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The US-China Nothing Burger Trade Deal

The US-China Nothing Burger Trade Deal

There has been much hype about the signing of Phase One (and probably only) US-China trade deal.  However based on a front page story in today’s Washington Post, there is not much there.  The US did not raise tariffs as planned, but tarifsf still remain on two thirds of the sectors that had them, although some were halved.  But numerous US sectors see no change at all and are now viewing the  situation as not likely to improve, with them suffering losses of business likely to return.  Among those are chemicals, apparel retailers, and auto parts. In these and other sectors there is not much reduction of uncertainty regarding US-China trade, so not likely much increase in investment.

The main items in it besides no worsening of tariffs, China has made promises not to pressure US firms to turn over technology and also to increase imports from the US by $200 billion over the next two years, especially in energy and agriculture. So maybe US soybean farmers will no longer need the bailouts of billions of $ Trump has been providing to them.  However, such promises have been made in the past.

As it is, I am watching commentators on Bloomberg, and about the most any of them are willing to say is that this “puts a floor” on the “deterioration” of US-China trade relations.  That is far from some dramatic breakthrough, and most of the tariffs put on as part of the US-China trade war remain in place.

Barkley Rosser

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Further Followup On The Soleimani Assassination

Further Followup On The Soleimani Assassination

I wish to point out some matters not getting a lot of attention in the US media.

An important one of those was reported two days ago by Juan Cole. It is that apparently it has not been determined for certain that the initial attack that set off this current round of deaths when a militia in Iraq attacked an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk in which an American contractor was killed, almost certainly a matter of collateral damage although not recognized as such, was actually done by Kata’b Hezbollah, the group reported to have done it.  That group was commanded by al-Mushani, who was also assassinated with Soleimani, with whom he was allied.  But it is not certain that they did it.  As it is, the Kirkuk base is dominated by Kurdish Pesh Merga, with whom it is not at all obvious the pro-Iranian militias like the Kat’b Hezbollah have hostile differences.  This may have been cooked up to create an excuse for assassinating Soleimani.

Indeed, it has now been reported that seven months ago Trump had approved killing Soleimani essentially at the first instance there would be a good excuse for doing so.  In fact it is now reported that although Trump had not heard of Soleimani during th 2016 election, within five minutes of his inauguration he suggested killing Soleimani.  SecState Pompeo been encouraging and pushing this action, but it has been something Trump has been hot to do for some time.  Going up for an impeachment trial looks like a really good time.

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Can The US Assassination Of Qasem Solemiani Be Justified?

Can The US Assassination Of Qasem Solemiani Be Justified?

We know from various Congressional folks that briefers of Congress have failed to produce any evidence of “imminent” plans to kill Americans Soleimani was involved with that would have made this a legal killing rather than an illegal assassination.  The public statements by administration figures have cited such things as the 1979 hostage crisis, the already dead contractor, and, oh, the need to “reestablish deterrence” after Trump did not follow through on previous threats he made.  None  of this looks remotely like “imminent plans,” not to mention that the Iraqi PM Abdul-Mahdi has reported that Soleimani was on the way to see him with a reply to a Saudi peace proposal.  What a threatening imminent plan!

As it is, despite the apparent lack of “imminent plans” to kill Americans, much of the supporting rhetoric for this assassination coming out of Trump supporters (with bragging about it having reportedly been put up on Trump’s reelection funding website) involves charges that Soleimani was “the world’s Number One terrorist” and was personally responsible for killing 603 Americans in Iraq.  Even as many commentators have noted the lack of any “imminent plans,” pretty much all American ones have prefaced these questions with assertions that Soleimani was unquestionable “evil” and “bad” and a generally no good guy who deserved to be offed, if not right at this time and in this way.  He was the central mastermind and boss of a massive international terror network that obeyed his orders and key to Iran’s reputed position as “the Number One state supporter of terrorism,” with Soleimani the key to all of that.

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Are We Living In The “Capitalocene”?

Are We Living In The “Capitalocene”?

I also attended the last session listed in the program at the ASSA at 2:30 on Sunday, an URPE session on “Ecology, the Environment, and Energy,” chaired by Paul Cooney.  He presented on “Marxism and Ecological Economics: An Assessment of the Past, Present, and Future.” Lynne Chester presented on “Energy and Social Ontology: Can Social Ontology Provide Insight?”  Finally Ann Davis presented on “”‘Home on the Range:’ Integrating the Household and Ecology.”  There were a lot of interesting ideas in these talks, and there was a vigorous discussion about them involving the audience.

What I want to present here is not anything in particular from the talks, but rather a remark from probably the most insightful commenter in the audience.  That was my old friend, David Barkin, who has lived in Mexico for a long time and is at Metropolitan University in Mexico City.  Long an expert on Mexican agriculture, he has in more recent years written a lot on ecological economics from a radical perspective.

Near the end of the session as the discussion was going on about all the papers, he brought up an idea I was unaware of previously, although it has been around for awhile.  It is due to the late German Marxist political scientist, Elmar Altvater, who first became known for writing on environmental problems in the Soviet Union.

So the concept he introduced is that rather than the world being in the “Anthropocene,” we are in the “Capitalocen.e.”  We may have been the former since humanity first emerged as a species and began heavily impacting the environment, including through bringing about species extinctions.  But in the last several hundred years we have moved into this much more damaging system of the Capitalocene.

This is a serious and challenging idea.

Barkley Rosser

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Might We Be On The Verge Of An “Upswing”?

Might We Be On The Verge Of An “Upswing”?

One of the more dramatic sessions at the just-completed ASSA meetings in San Diego was an AEA panel on “Deaths from Despair and the Future of Capitalism” on Saturday at 2:30.  Chaired by Angus Deaton, it focused on the book by him and his wife/coauthor Anne Case with the same title as the panel session.  Case spoke on their book.  This was followed by Robert Putnam, who spoke on his forthcoming (in about six months) new book, The Upswing, which this post will focus on. This was followed by Raghuram Rajan, who spoke about his recently published book, The Third Pillar: The Community. Finally Ken Rogoff commented on the Case/Deaton book, although he has no new book of his own.

So all of these focused on the declining life expectancy in the US, along with the associated broader breakdown of community and equality and so on.  Putnam presented a series of figures showing the long term trends on various variables from equality to memberships in organization to degrees of political polarization to the relative use of the words “we” and “I” in books published from the 1880s to the present.  He showed a trend where basically there was improvement from around 1900 to the 1960s (1970s in the case of equality)   All of these have since gone down basically steadily to the point that we are now “in about the same condition as we last were in the gilded age.”

This leads to Putnam posing a possible optimism the possibility of the “Upswing” in the title of his forthcoming book. He argued at the end of his talk that we should consider what happened back then: the emergence of the Progressive movement that started that upward trajectory of social capital.  He argues that since we did this back then, it can happen again, the Upswing. Can it?  I do not know, but maybe he is right to push for such an outcome, although it may take getting rid of our current president.

Barkley Rosser

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Is The Chinese Economic System the “Mandarin Growth Model” or the “Chinese-Style Keiretsu System”?

Is The Chinese Economic System the “Mandarin Growth Model” or the “Chinese-Style Keiretsu System”?

The first term in this choice was the title of a paper presented this morning (1/4/20) at the ACES/ASSA session at 8 AM in San Diego by Wei Xiong of Princeton University.  It was a highly mathematical model I shall describe shortly, but which drew heavily on the paper presented before it by Chenggan Xu of Cheng Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, the alma mater of Jack Ma who founded Alibaba and the founder of Sinopec and the richest woman in China, etc. His paper was titled “Institutional Genes of China’s Socio-Economic Development,” with it discussed by the current ACES (Association of Comparative Economics) president, Scott Rozelle of Stanford.

The simplistic version of the “Mandarin model of growth” according to Wei Xiong is “political centralization with fiscal decentralization.”  He then presented a math model of incentives for regional governors in a growth tournament being judged by the central government.  These governments face a choice of long term growth-enhancing infrastructure investment versus short-term consumption spending.  He argues this leads to a “rat race of shadow banking borrowing” that is putting the Chinese system into peril as the debt-GDP ratio has been sharply rising, with much of this in the shadow banking sector. This was what I heard about personally on my last trip to China a few years ago, a lot of concern about the growth of the shadow banking sector, driven by local governments.

The historical underpinning of this Mandarin growth model was laid out in the paper by Xu who presented a tripartite system: The ruling bureaucracy, the system of deciding who was in that ruling bureaucracy, and the system and reality of land ownership.  In the imperial system the bureaucracy was the Mandarin elite who were in the  earlier and less-corrupt stages of dynasties selected according to the Confucianist Mandarin exam system originated in the Han dynasty.  This was separated from land ownership at that stage, but at later stages of a dynasty the  sign of rising corruption was the breakdown of the exam system as land-owning Mandarins got their incompetent sons appointed to the bureaucracy.

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Killing Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis

Killing Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis

Most of the attention in this recent attack by a US drone at the Baghdad Airport has been on it killing Iranian Quds Force commander, Qasim (Qassem) Solmaini (Suleimani), supposedly plotting an “imminent” attack on Americans as he flew a commercial airliner to Iraq at the invitation of its government and passed through passport control.  But much less attention has been paid to the killing in that attack of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander  of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and reportedly an officer in the Iraqi military, as well as being, according to Juan Cole, a Yazidi Kurd, although the PMF is identified as being a Shia militia allied with Iran.

The problem here is that supposedly US leaders approved this strike because there were no Iraqi officials in this group; it was supposedly “clean.”  But there was al-Muhandis, with his PMF also allied to a political faction, the Fath, who hold 48 seats in the Iraqi parliament.  The often anti-Iranian Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has now joined with Fath and other groups to demand a vote in the parliament to order a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.  It might be good for them to go, although Trump has just sent in 3,500 more Marines to protect the US embassy that came under attack and protests after an earlier US attack on pro-Iranian militias.

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Forward Creeping Excessmass Wins The War On Christmas

Forward Creeping Excessmass Wins The War On Christmas

“Excessmass” is a term neologized in a column in the late 1990s in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, unable to find precise date) by my JMU colleague, Bill Wood.  A devout Brethren, he was and remains disgusted by the crass commercialism associated with the Christmas holiday in the US. In this column he proposed dividing the holiday into two: a strictly religious one, “the Nativity” without gift giving, and a gift giving one he argued should be called “Excessmass,” a term that did not particularly catch on, but I am reviving as I see its forward creep as in fact damaging it not outright destroying the traditional religious Christmas, certainly far more vigorously than any bout of people saying “Happy Holidays!” to each other.

What triggered this post is that over the weekend in the Washington Post comics section (the most important part of the paper), nearly a  quarter  of the comics had a theme of “taking down the Christmas tree” or “taking down the Christmas decorations,” and indeed in my neighborhood I saw several houses where there was a tree out on the street on either the 26th or 27th.  Plus, for some years now a local radio station has started playing the schlocky commercial Xmas music (“Frosty the Snowman,” etc.) starting a day or  two after Halloween, but then on Dec. 26 is back to its usual pop music stuff. Hey, Christmas is over!  Time to move on to Valentine’s Day!  And also this year I saw the stores breaking what had been a Halloween barrier (the Thanksgiving one long ago broken) and putting up all their Xmas stuff in October.  Hey, with all that going on for so long, of course it is time to put all those decorations away the minute Christmas is over!

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