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

The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

Imagine that, instead of the dinosaur of a postal service we have today—the product, among other things, of congressional insistence that no government outfit can compete with private business in lucrative new markets—we had an entrepreneurial, innovative public dynamo.  In this other universe, the USPS was always on the lookout for new opportunities to build on its postal infrastructure, providing better services to the public while broadening its revenue stream.

USPSʹ, this better but hypothetical twin, greeted the arrival of the internet a generation ago with anticipation.  Yes, it was obvious that email would be a threat to its core business of moving mail, but there would also be new possibilities for people to shop and do other business remotely.  If a postal customer goes online to find a new product to clean his bamboo floor and decides to buy it, somehow that product has to find its way to its new owner.  This is a job for the post office!

Driven by the urge to leverage its vast delivery infrastructure, USPSʹ years ago set up a website for remote shopping.  They encouraged producers to list their goods by making it free; the postal service stood to profit from providing the logistics for any transaction, so there was no need to cream any revenue from the site itself, meaning no need to sell advertising.  Of course, they hired top programming talent to make the site as searchable as possible and improve the online shopping experience for simplicity and transparency.  The idea of allowing users to review and rate products was imported from other sites and found to be reasonably effective.

Over time, our hypothetical USPSʹ became something like Amazon, but Amazon wedded to the delivery infrastructure of the traditional postal service.  No Jeff Bezos got to be a gazillionaire out of it, there was no crass commercialism and as a public institution it was amenable to democratic input.  The health information and products site, co-managed with the National Institutes of Health, was a big hit.

Comments (3) | |

On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

The other night I was sitting at home, locked in a conversation about climate change and race.  How is this a racial issue, I asked?  I realize that the society I live in has pervasive racism, and one should always keep this in mind, but how specifically is climate change worse for nonwhites?

Well, it’s all about first and worst impacts, I was told.  People of color are on the front lines.  They are the one experiencing the most severe consequences, and therefore failure to act against climate change is environmental racism.  The key example is Hurricane Katrina.  That was an early impact of global warming, and what was it if it wasn’t a racist horror show?  Whose houses were flooded?  Who was forced to flee the city?  Who were gunned down by police and blocked by white vigilantes along the way?  Whaddyamean climate change isn’t about racism?

OK, I replied.  I understand the racial geography of New Orleans, and the aftermath of Katrina was every bit the nightmare you say it was.  But what about the recent Camp Fire in California?  That was an early impact of climate change too, and lots of people were killed.  Even more lost everything they had.  But from what I could see in the coverage of it, most of the folks out there were white working people or retirees who were priced out of the Bay Area.  I guess that makes the vanguard of the movement against climate change a bunch of older white dudes.

Comments (4) | |

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology

As someone who has looked at the world through a political economic lense for decades, I am restless with the “cultural turn”.  Once upon a time, it is said, the bad old vulgarians of the left believed that economic structure—the ownership of capital, the rules under which economies operate and the incentives these things generate—were everything and agency, meaning culture and consciousness, were nothing.  The latter was sometimes claimed to be derivative of the form.

Then we had a cultural turn.  Now it seems it’s all about consciousness and ideology, of which economic structures are a pale reflection.  Neoliberal ideology is said to have seeped its way into the heads of intellectuals, journalists and politicians—perhaps even the public at large—and this explains things like deregulation, privatization and the ubiquity of outsourcing and global value chains.  It’s even possible to have 500-page treatises about the failures of capitalism that make no reference at all to the empirical structure of the economy, only modes of thought, as I point out here.

According to this view, the various failings of our society, from the inability to act on climate change to mass incarceration to the imposition of market logic on higher education, all converge as consequences of neoliberal hegemony.  But what is neoliberalism?  It is usually described as a philosophy, born sometime between the fall of the Hapsburgs (Slobodian) and the postwar convening of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Mirowski et al.), and surely there is truth to these well-documented accounts.  But should we understand the past four decades or so as primarily the product of a sea-change in thought, the end result of these precursor currents?

Comments (3) | |

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Lots of bad op-ed stuff gets published in the New York Times and other mass circulation outlets, so I usually give it a pass, but today’s attack on free higher education by David Leonhardt is about my day job, so I have to make an exception.  He repeats the utterly bs line that, since most college students are from the upper half of the income spectrum, using public funds to pay their way is regressive.

No, no no!

First, why is the college student population so skewed to the higher brackets?  There are many reasons, but the financial burden of attending—not only tuition, but also the opportunity cost of not working—is a big factor.  The problem with free higher ed is that, the way it’s usually framed, it doesn’t go far enough.  As in European countries and elsewhere that take this issue seriously, students should not only get free tuition but a stipend.  We can afford and should demand the same.

Second, what Leonhardt doesn’t mention is the student-worker phenomenon, the crushing workload on college students holding down part time and even full time jobs.  Evergreen State College, where I work, just released the results from its survey of incoming students, and more than half expected to work to support themselves while attending classes, most of them more than 20 hours per week.  I see this reality every day in the classroom, where students struggle with not enough time to keep up with assignments, sometimes even nodding out to recover from a late night shift, or the emails apologizing for being absent because of a work schedule change.

Comments (9) | |

The Death of Shame

The Death of Shame

In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful.  Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed.  They should repent their sins and promise to make amends.  Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?

Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals.  (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.)  We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force.  That’s what holds us together.

It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon.  Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out.  A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this.  Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.

Comments (10) | |

A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon tax in Washington State, lost by almost 12% of the vote this week.  Commentators on all sides have interpreted this as a decisive defeat for carbon pricing, making more indirect policies like subsidies to renewables the only politically feasible option.*

I don’t have time for a lengthy analysis, but in a few words I want to suggest that this conclusion is premature.  I live in Washington State and saw the battle unfold first hand in real time.  Voters were not asked by opponents of 1631 to reject carbon pricing; on the contrary.  And it was the failure to draft and promote a straight-ahead carbon pricing law that doomed it.

While supporters of 1631 point to money from fossil fuel interests as the “cause” of their defeat, the actual propaganda of the No side did not belittle the threat of climate change, nor did it even argue against the need for action to reduce emissions.  It hammered on these points:

1. 1631 was weak.  It excluded too much of the state’s emissions and wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on them.

2. Nevertheless it would raise energy bills for virtually all the state’s residents.

3. It proposed an undemocratic procedure for allocating carbon revenues.

The money behind this message may be “bad”, but the message itself was correct.  1631 was so poorly conceived that the arguments of the troglodytes were closer to the truth than those of the progressives.  Take them one by one:

1. 1631 was the second carbon tax initiative in two years.  Last year’s effort, I-732, had broader coverage and allowed for higher carbon prices over time.  It was opposed by progressives, who organized to defeat it and then drew up their own, weaker proposal.  There is a lot of detail to go into, but the short version is that 1631’s carbon price was essentially symbolic, a few cents on the carbon dollar.  It was not a meaningful action to deal with the threat of a climate catastrophe.

Comments (8) | |

Nobel Prizes in Economics, Awarded and Withheld

Nobel Prizes in Economics, Awarded and Withheld

Most of the commentary today on the decision to award Nobel prizes in economics to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer has focused on the recipients.  I want to talk about the nonrecipient whose nonprize is perhaps the most important statement by the Riksbank, the Swedish central bank that decides who should be recognized each year for their work in economics “in memory of Alfred Nobel”.

Nordhaus was widely expected to be a winner for his work on the economics of climate change.  For decades he has assembled and tweaked a model called DICE (Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy), that melds computable general equilibrium theory from economics and equations from the various strands of climate science.  His goal has been to estimate the “optimal” amount of climate change, where the marginal cost of abating it equals the marginal cost of undergoing it.  From this comes an optimal carbon price, the “social cost of carbon”, which should be implemented now and allowed to rise over time at the rate of interest.  In his first published work using DICE, from the early 1990s, he recommended a carbon tax of $5 a tonne of CO2, inching slowly upward until peaking at $20 in 2085.  His “optimal” policy was expected to result in an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of over 1400 ppm (parts per million) at the end of this planning horizon, yielding global warming in excess of 3º C.  (Nordhaus, 1992)

Comments (0) | |

A Few Thoughts on “Sorry to Bother You”

A Few Thoughts on “Sorry to Bother You”

I saw this film several weeks ago and have been meaning to say a few things about it.  Herewith:

1. This is an exceptionally intelligent movie by American standards.  It maintains a high level of wit and observation from beginning to end, and little zingers flash by in almost every frame without announcing themselves.  It speaks up to its audience, something I really appreciate.

2. STBY fits into a tradition of films in which the act of organizing a union and carrying out a job action is held up as a revolutionary political and personal challenge.  Other examples include “Norma Rae” and “Bread and Roses”, but actually I was reminded even more of “The Cradle Will Rock”, at least in spirit.

Comments (2) | |

Citizens United, Thoroughly Debunked

Citizens United, Thoroughly Debunked

I admit I haven’t paid too much attention to debates over Citizens United, since I regard the direction taken by regulation, control over who may contribute to political campaigns and how much they can put up, to be misguided.  I would like to see comprehensive control over how much money can be spent on behalf of candidates, period.  (I would also like to see a mandate that all such contributions be funneled through an intermediary, like a public political finance fund, that keeps the identities of donors hidden from recipients.)  While CU has been yet another blow to democracy, the demand that plutocrats use one vehicle to flood the system rather than another is second best.

That said, I was struck by this new critique of CU.  Its authors, Jonathan Macey and Leo Strine, base their analysis on a point I was familiar with in the context of economic debates over the Jensenian shareholder rights theory of the firm, but its application to CU is obvious once you think about it.  The article ranges over a number of topics, but here’s the core, taken from the abstract:

In this Article we show that Citizens United v. FEC, arguably the most important First Amendment case of the new millennium, is predicated on a fundamental misconception about the nature of the corporation. Specifically, Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited the government from restricting independent expenditures for corporate communications, and held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights to engage in political spending as human citizens, is grounded on the erroneous theory that corporations are “associations of citizens” rather than what they actually are: independent legal entities distinct from those who own their stock…..[C]orporations do not have owners, they have investors who have contract-based, financial interests in the firms and limited management rights.

The best ideas often seem obvious once they are put forward, but the trick is to see them in the first place.

Comments (5) | |

“as a”

“as a”

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times dissecting the “as a” locution, in which one first announces one’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or class position before making an argument during a public discussion.  He interprets it as a claim to represent the entire group defined in the preparatory clause, and explains why this claim is invalid; better you should begin with “speaking for myself”.  But I disagree with his interpretation of what “as a” means; I think it communicates speaking from rather than speaking for.

From my experience, “as a” is an acknowledgment that one’s view of the world is limited by one’s background and identity.  It’s a way to anticipate the criticism that what is being said is not universal or “true” in some objective but unattainable sense.  Of course, that limitation can be valorized in different ways.  If an oppressed identity is being invoked—or even better, an intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities—the partiality of perspective is even a strength, because it brings to the fore experiences and ideas that have historically been marginalized.  By the same token, if one is speaking “as a” member of a dominant identity, the limitations are pernicious because they reinforce what has been unfairly imposed over the same long duration.

From an epistemological perspective, the immediate problem is that the “as a” formulation conflates two different consequences of the speaker being positioned in the world rather than above or outside it.  One has to do with differences of experience, the other with proclivity to believe.

 

Comments (3) | |