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

Marxism-Leninism And The Chinese Communist Party Congress

Marxism-Leninism And The Chinese Communist Party Congress

At this moment I am watching live on Bloomberg News the opening speech by President/Party General Secretary/Chairman of the Military Commission Xi Jinping of the once-every-five-years Chinese Communist Party Congress.  This is far more important than what one finds on other TV networks whether pro-Trump right now (how great his tax plan/tromping on immigrants and football players are) or anti-Trump (what is the latest gossip from the Mueller investigation and will Republicans in the Senate stand up to Trump).  A major theme seems to be a reassertion of party power and discipline, with a reinvigoration of the State-Owned Enterprises, with Communist Party cells to operate in nominally private enterprises, socialism with Chinese characteristics, with a reaffirmation of the foundation based on Marxism-Leninism.  Yes, he used that term.

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Iraq Conquers Kirkuk

Iraq Conquers Kirkuk

The central Iraqi government based in Baghdad has conquered oil-rich and ethnically-mixed Kirkuk from its recent Kurdish rulers, who hoped to continue ruling it as part of their recently declared independent state of (Iraqi) Kurdistan, clearly consisting of three provinces, but which they also wanted to include the fourth one of Kirkuk province. This now appears not to be going to happen.

Juan Cole has made an excellent discussion of this, noting 7 reasons why this is not about Iran as many commentators in the US claim. I shall not repeat most of his arguments here but suggest people look at the link. I shall note the crucial point that what looked like it was going to be a major military conflict over Kirkuk thankfully turned out not to be is that the Kurdish Pesh Merga, who were ruling Kirkuk, actually are tied to the main opposition party in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union Party (PUK) led by the Talabani family,whose old patriarch, once a president of all of Iraq, has just died. The Pesh Merga has simply withdrawn peacefully from Kirkuk, handing a major embarrassment to Massoud Barzani, the current president of newly independent (maybe) Kurdistan, who leads the center right Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK). This suggests that while the opposition nominally supported Barzani’s independence referendum, they lack enthusiasm, and Barzani may end up in trouble as things are not going well with this. As I noted in a previous post, Barzani is in a tight position because he canceled an election in 2015, and Kurdistan’s economy has been weak due to low oil prices.

I also add that apparently the fall of Kirkuk temporarily shuts down 350,000 barrels of oil per day production, which will add to the ongoing increase in world oil prices.

Barkley Rosser

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Trump Fails To Certify JCPOA Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump Fails To Certify JCPOA Iran Nuclear Deal

I wish to be very precise here on this extremely important matter. President Trump has not “decertified” the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal.  Now Congress must ultimately be responsible. He has, after a lot of discussion and intervention by his national security team, failed to certify the deal.  This is not something that was part of the deal, but an epiphenomenon put in place by the US Congrees as part of a deal agreed to by former President Obama to get the deal through, a matter of every 90 days the US president certifying that Iran is complying with the agreement.  Two times running, President Trump certified it, confronted by the hard fact that Iran has been complying with the deal according to every official body in the world.  But, he has said he would not certify it, and reportedly he has blown up over this matter with screaming fits his c.  So his NatSec team has cooked up this partial save: OK, boy, fail to certify, putting it on Congress to really undo the deal.

In the face of way more to say than I shall here, let me point out odd items most will not. So one of those is a positive.  Even if the Congress fails to do what is right and reasonable and keeps the deal going, probably Iran will not pursue an active nuclear weapons acquisition program.  There are two reasons for this, which could easily be undone if Trump continues to insanely go after them.

The first is that this whole negotiation with Iran was an unnecessary farce to begin with.  Vilayet-al-faqih Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was issuing fatwas against the building of nuclear weapons as far back as the G.W. Bush admin.  Pres Bush even accepted two official National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) that declared that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He did it twice.  The fatwas by Khomeini were the ultimate reason why these hard fought and deeply studied NIEs came forth, representing after all a consensus of every one of 17 plus US intelligence agencies, who have a wide variety of perspectives, some of them almost insanely hawkish.  But twice during the G.W. Bush presidency they came together to make this super official certification: Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons program, even though it had one earlier, one that dated back to the Eisenhower admin when the US supported their program under the Shah.  But, the bottom line is that while Khamenei is alive, there will be no Iranian nuclear program.

What this means is that ultimately Obama’s massive effort to negotiate a halt to the nonexistent Iranian nuclear program was ultimately a worthless empty exercise, much as I have on occasion praised it.  I mean, it was a noble and heroic and difficult effort,  Obama supported John Kerry in getting the Russians and the Chinese, as well as the EU and other obvious US allies, to go along with economic sanctions, which actually had an effect, given that Iran is actually a semi-democratic regime, so that even the hardliners associated with Khameini went along and agreed.  And beyond Iran, it was a big deal, the UN officially supporting it along with the Russia, China, UK, France, Germany, and the UN Security Council (oh, sorry, a part of the UN), as well as most of the rest of the world, aside from a handful of countries (not to be listed, although in most cases their intel/military support it).

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On Richard Thaler Receiving The Nobel Prize

On Richard Thaler Receiving The Nobel Prize

This is a Sveriges Bank Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel that I should approve of unequivocally, and I do approve of it. Dick Thaler has long been known to be on the list of likely recipients since at least when Daniel Kahneman shared it with Vernon Smith back in 2002, although I sort of thought the award just a few years ago for Robert Shiller would put Thaler’s off a bit. Nevertheless, I approve of behavioral economics, so I was mistaken not see another award being given for it this soon, and with Thaler clearly a deserving and top candidate for it.

Indeed, I am the founding editor-in-chief of a journal called the Review of Behavioral Economics (ROBE), and back between 2001-2010 I edited the Journal of Behavioral Economics and Organization (JEBO). One of Thaler’s most important papers back in 1980, his fourth most cited, “The Pure Theory of Consumer Choice,” in which he introduced the concept of mental accounting, the first item cited by the Nobel committee in announcing his award, and the paper that I know he long considered the one that would get him the prize (which he long expected to receive), was the second paper every published in JEBO, which should make me even more pleased. Indeed, I recognize that there is an important element of justice in his prize given that he “wandered in the wilderness” for many years, publishing in oddball journals such as JEBO in its beginning and Marketing Science and other such, until much later when his ideas became more accepted, and he finally began hitting the top journals. So, he deserves credit for struggling with ideas that were not accepted and helping to make them become accepted, such as through his column in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on “economic anomalies” from 1987-1990, with some people saying he is the first person to get a Nobel for having a column in the JEP, not entirely false that observation.

So why am I not jumping up and down as much as I probably should be and might be? Maybe for me this is like the prize for Paul Krugman, which I also think was deserved, but which I thought should have been shared with others. I think that is kind of what I am thinking, although I recognize that there is a fairly long list of people who might be the others sharing, with such figures as Camerer, Rabin, Loewenstein, Fehr, Gintis, List, and more as possibilities. It is not obvious which of these should be pushed forward to share it with him now. Indeed, if one looks at Google Scholar citations, one finds him somewhat ahead of all those, with over 110,000, while several of those have around 80,000 and none of them more than that. So, they are not far behind, but they are behind, and it is not obvious again, which of them should be pushed ahead of the others.

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The Kurdish Independence Vote

The Kurdish Independence Vote

Buried on the back pages of this busy week has been the news that in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday there was a referendum on independence reportedly supported by 92% of the voters.  I imagine that is not inaccurate, and that there was strong support for this referendum, even as Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani says that it is only advisory and a prelude to negotiations with the central Iraqi government.  As it is, this vote is not being treated as such, and there has been a tremendous negative reaction not only from the Iraqi central government but from all of the neighbors of the KRG, with even their usual ally, the US, not supporting the vote (if not threatening hostile actions against it), with only Israel openly supporting it. The hostile reactions of neighbors and especially the central Iraqi government may well lead to war, even as ISIS remains not quite completely defeated within Iraqi territory, with up until now the Kurdish Pesh Merga having been working with the Iraq National Army as well as various Iranian Shia militias against ISIS.

Let me be clear that I have enormous sympathy with the aspirations of the Kurdish people for having their own nation.  The 35 million Kurds have long been described as “the largest ethnic group without a nation” (although technically some larger ones merely have a state in India).  They were promised a nation at the Versailles conference back in 1919, but the machinations of the British, French, Turks, and Persians (now Iranians) led to that promise not being fulfilled, and the Kurds being spread among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran today, and a history over the last century of being crushed and abandoned and lied to by many nations.  They speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi/Persian, and are mostly Sunni Muslim although with a Shia minority.  However, they are largely not as religiously fanatical as most people around them, and the parties representing them in Turkey tend to be secular and leftist.

The three provinces with a Kurdish majority in northeastern Iraq began achieving a de facto autonomy during the first Gulf war, after Saddam Hussein had used gas against them during the 1980s, leading to some of them fleeing to the US, including some to my city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they have a large community.  The US supported this autonomous government with a no-fly zone over it, and it achieved a more official autonomy, although not independence from Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  During the US invasion, the Kurds were the strongest allies of the US, and their Pesh Merga has been the strong arm of the anti-ISIS military movement in both Iraq and Syria, working especially closely with the US in that.

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How I Came To No Longer Be A Kaldorian Economist

How I Came To No Longer Be A Kaldorian Economist

Yes, for a period of time, according to some sources, I was a member of the “Kaldorian” school of Post Keynesian  economic thought, although I had not previously thought of myself as such, indeed, had been unaware that there even was such a school of economic thought.  But now, according to such sources, I am no longer a member of such a school.  Indeed, it is not clear that there even is such a school, if there ever was.  This is a tale of the ongoing tangle of schools of Post Keynesian economics, as well as how Wikipedia operates, and more broadly the history of economic thought.

I note that while it lasted, this matter was taken at least somewhat seriously.  So, a few years ago I was at a conference and walked into a plenary address that was being given by Tyler Cowen of George Mason.  There was a pretty large crowd, but Tyler interrupted his talk when I came in to note, “I see that Barkley Rosser has entered the room, so I had better be careful what I say about Nicholas Kaldor.”  Indeed, ironically, he was just about to say something about Kaldor, and I must say that I had no serious disagreement with his remarks, although maybe he cleaned up his act, given my presence as the representative of “the Kaldorian School,” if not the late Lord Kaldor’s personal representative.  That was then, but this is now, and I am nothing, nothing, I tell you!

Anyway, as I said, I had not been aware of such a school, much less that I was supposedly a part of it, but then in 2014, my friend Marc Lavoie published his excellent Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations.  In it he provided set of supposed schools of Post Keynesian economic thought.  I note that there has long been a history of arguing and battling and generally warring among various strands of Post Keynesian thought, with some expelling others, although not necessarily totally.  Joan Robinson coined the term back in the 1950s, and for a while Paul Samuelson was using the term for an eclectic bunch of Keynesian economists of the early 1960s.  But the term became narrower as the 1960s moved on and journals were started, and battle lines were drawn.  Going into the 1980s, and focused on Post-Keynesian summer schools being held in Trieste, Italy, there was a sharp split between Sraffian neo-Ricardians based in Italy, led by the late Pierangelo Garegnani, and American Post Keynesians who focused on uncertainty and the role of money led by Paul Davidson.  In between them was a more British and Australian based group, some of whom were thought to be followers of Michal Kalecki, and probably Joan Robinson, some of whom made efforts to overcome the sharp split between these other two.  The most important leader of that group was probably Geoff Harcourt, he of the “different horses for different courses,” how open-minded of him.  Anyway, those summer schools fell apart, with each of the more sharply opposed groups not attending the seminars of the other, and after this the Americans all but expelling the Italian Sraffian-neo-Ricardians from Post Keynesianism, even if they were still counted by others.

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Worse Than The Usual Hypocrisy: Trump, Puerto Rico, And The Jones Act

Worse Than The Usual Hypocrisy: Trump, Puerto Rico, And The Jones Act

The Jones Act was passed 97 years ago to protect US shipping within the US from foreign-made ships.  I doubt I ever would have supported such an act, but at least back then there were plenty of US-made ships to fulfill the demand. Despite the Jones Act, the US shipping industry has collapsed in the last century so that the number of such ships is far below demand in normal circumstances, so that intra-US shipping costs are far higher than those outside the US.  Puerto Rico was covered by he Jones Act and remains so.

After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma the Jones Act was temporarily suspended for Texas, Louisiana, and Florida on orders of President Trump, going through the Department of Homeland Security.  The Jones Act is not being suspended for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurrican Maria, although damage to PR seems to be far greater than what happened on the mainland during Harvey and Irma (with those areas also accessible to supplies and aid by ground transportation, not relying nearly as much on ocean shipping).  The supposed reason is that PR’s ports are damaged, which is certainly the case, but even if suspending the Jones Act will only slightly speed up deliveries, it will certainly reduce the costs of supplies, allowing cheaper natural gas from Pennsylvania in place of more expensive oil from Venezuela, for example.

Which brings us to the worse then usual hypocrisy on the part of our president.  While he has been all worked up over football players kneeling and moved to get aid to Texas and Florida as rapidly as possible while expressing lots of sympathetic sentiments for the victims in those states, his initial reaction to Hurricane Maria, after several days delay, was to talk about how bad their infrastructure was before the hurricane and how they have a massive debt situation.  Of course, if he were really concerned about helping them, he could suspend their debt, but at a minimum, given that he is aware that they are poor and debt ridden, on top of having 80% of their crops destroyed and all their power out among other problems, he is insisting that they pay top dollar on supplies brought in by water, where almost all supplies will come.  His refusal to suspend the Jones Act for Puerto Rico after having done so for mainland US territories is far worse than the usual hypocrisy from any president, even this far more hypocritical than pretty much all others one.

Barkley Rosser

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Obamacare Could Die

Obamacare Could Die

We are at this very odd moment now.  We thought ACA was saved by a narrow vote some months ago, when John McCain joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to block the last version of Trumpcare.  Whew!  No need to worry about millions of people having their health insurance taken away!  Time to start pushing for single payer, Medicare for all, hah hah!  But, ooops!

So here we are with only 12 days to go before the window in which the US Senate can pass a repeal and replace of ACA using budget resolution, and thus with only a majority vote.  But, hey, here we have Cassidy-Graham, which would turn the whole thing into block grants to the states, allowing them to allow insurance companies to charge more for preexisting conditions and pretty much get rid of all those things people have liked about ACA once they began to realize that it might disappear.  But now hardly anybody is aware of what is going down at all, with near zero media attention, since we all moved on to Korea and DACA and whatever..   But this stealth Cassidy-Graham bill could very well pass.

It looks like Collinis and Murkowski will again vote no, realizing that it slashes the Medicaid expansion, among other things, and would kill insurance for many people in their states who currently have health insurance thanks to ACA.  But one of the co-sponsors, Lindsey Graham of SC, is John McCain’s closest ally and friend in the Senate, maybe in all of Washington now.  Reports have it that McCain is in fact thinking seriously of voting for this bill, which most reports say is actually worse than what got shot down previously by McCain’s swing vote.  The only other reported possible negative vote is  Rand Paul, who is claiming this bill still contains too  much of ACA, but he voted for the “slim repeal” after  similar complaining last time.  He could easily vote for this.

The hard bottom line is that we could wake up in a week or so with this awful bill passed, ready to whiz through the House for Trump to sign, and Obamacare dead after all, with millions set to lose their insurance, with barely anybody even knowing what is up.  This is a seriously bad business.

Barkley Rosser

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On The Relationship Between Wahhabism And Salafism

On The Relationship Between Wahhabism And Salafism

I apologize if this seems an esoteric topic, but it is one that seems to be a matter of seriously contentious dispute, as well as one that Iis relevant to various controversies and issues in the Middle East now. It is triggered by the biggest argument I have ever had with Juan Cole, whom I usually agree with, and indeed I agree with the vast majority of his recent  post advising Saudi Arabia on how they can make themselves look better to the rest of the world, which includes such obvious items as allowing women to drive (the last of 7).

My disagreement with him was over a line just dropped incidentally that he would later defend ardently, that the official Saudi theology/ideology of “Wahhabism” is “not Sunni.” I challenged this, pointing out that 1) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) officially uses as its official Shari’a law code the Hanbali code, one of the four Sunni Shari’a codes, and 2) that KSA is currently claiming to lead a global Sunni movement against the global Shia movement, even if this may well boil down simply to a local power struggle between KSA and Iran. I think Juan agrees with those two points, and also that Wahhabism and Salafism are not identical, in contrast to claims by many ignorant commentators.

I now accept that Juan is right about certain matters I differed with him about. The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammed ibn Abdel-Wahhab, who formed an alliance in 1744 with the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammed ibn Sa’ud, did not make as his primal demand that the very strict Hanbali code be adopted by the Saudi family as part of their alliance. He had his own idiosyncratic theology that mostly attacked local practices such as worship of saints and their shrines. And he denounced the existing Sunnis and all other Muslims who did not follow his version of Islam to the point that they could be killed, although it seems that his worst wrath was against Shia and Sufis. But his stance led and justified the view by many that his followers were not proper Sunnis, even though later they would adopt the proper, if extreme, Hanbali Shari’a code, although that would be following ibn Hanbal’s follower, ibn Tamiyyah more specifically when they did so by a century or so ago. It was also the case that from the beginning Abdel-Wahhab’s views were close to those of advocates of the Hanbali code, who included members of his family, including his influential grandfather.

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Douglas F. Dowd Is Dead

Douglas F. Dowd Is Dead

Douglas Fitzgerald Dowd has died at age 97 in Bologna, Italy.  A scholar of Thorstein Veblen and expounder of a radical view of US economic history that strongly influenced Howard Zinn and Daniel Ellsberg, among others, he was also a serious political activist.  After serving as a bomber pilot in the Pacific in World War II, he managed the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace from Berkeley, CA, his home town, he later was a major organizer of anti-Vietnam War sitins and campus teach-ins and was vice presidential candidate with Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom ticket.  His best known book was probably Blues for America (1997).  He taught at Cornell, Berkeley, San Jose State, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Modena in Italy, where he was lecturing until well into his 90s.  His New York Times obituary is here, which has many more details.

I have old and deep personal connections with Doug.  When I was a kid living in Ithaca, NY in the 1950s, his son, Jeff, was my best friend, and I got to know Doug from that perspective.  I came from a conservative family, but Doug spoke directly and openly about his views to me as if I was an adult. Hid kids, Jeff and Jenny, called their parents by theiri first names, Doug and Zirel, the only family where I saw such behavior.  Doug made me aware of many of his views about the nature of the US and its society. I would move away to Madison, Wisconsin in 1963 to enter high school, but I would remain in contact with Doug off and on until quite recently.  I regret that I did not visit him recently when I was in Florence for an extended period, with him living in Bologna, Italy, not far away, where he was living with his third wife, who owned a feminist book store.  He was always honest and direct and forthright in his views and expressions.

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