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

What to Do about Amazon

What to Do about Amazon

I think Farhad Manjoo gets it right about Amazon: while the company’s sheer size, not to mention its often shady business practices, call out for public intervention, “Amazon is pushing a level of speed, convenience, and selection in shopping that millions of customers are integrating into their daily lives.”

Breaking it up would be wrong, since the essence of what Amazon offers is its potential universality.  For me, shopping on Amazon is almost like what I imagine shopping to be like in a socialist society, minus the lack of accountability and the astronomic riches of Jeff Bezos.  Let’s fix it.  Make Amazon a public utility with proper protections for workers, consumers, and enterprises that use it as a marketing platform.  Why not?

Comments (3) | |

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Local Climate Policy Run Amok, Bellingham Edition

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a story about Bellingham, Washington, a picturesque town that looks out across Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, but rational thought is in short supply when it comes to climate activism.

What got the country’s attention is a proposal before the city council to require all homeowners to switch from natural gas to electric heating by 2040. A number of cities already require new construction to use electric heat, but Bellingham would be the first to mandate a complete phaseout for everyone.

The opposition is spearheaded by, surprise, the privately owned gas and electric utilities, which plan a PR campaign talking up the wonders of CH4. Real estate interests are unhappy too. They will face off against the enviros, who all seem to see this as a big step toward municipal carbon neutrality.

Comments (4) | |

Small Town Support for Trump and “The Working Class”

Small Town Support for Trump and “The Working Class”

Much has been written about voters, sometimes labeled the “white working class”, who live in small towns, have low incomes and supported Trump in 2016.  There are various hypotheses—not, despite the rhetoric, mutually exclusive—that have been proposed to explain this: never-ending latent racism galvanized by the experience of having a black president, a vote of despair in the face of economic decline, paranoia fueled by fictitious narratives of immigrant crowding and crime.  I just finished reading a post-mortem on the recent British election that, by analogy, suggests two more hypotheses about Trumpism:

1) With decades-long declines in deindustrializing areas, there has been a steady outflow of mostly younger residents.  This has a tendency to shift the politics of those who remain to the right based on age considerations alone, but the outflow is likely selective in other respects as well.  Those who light out to the cities are probably better educated and more tuned in to trends in metropolitan culture, taking their blue votes to jurisdictions that already pile up big majorities for Democrats.

2) What do people do when they lose their long-term jobs in manufacturing and the relatively well-paid services that cluster around manufacturing nodes?  If they don’t emigrate, what’s left?  Many look for bits of opportunity where they can find them, combinations of self-employment, gig work, off-the-books service work, etc.  Those who scrounge for income in these ways are the same people as the workers who were laid off during deindustrialization, but their class position has changed.  They no longer look to unions or government regulation to protect their interest against employers, quite the opposite.  Union work now competes with them, and regulation just makes it harder to cut the corners their livelihood depends on cutting.  In other words, their income has gone down but they are less “working class” than before.

Just to be clear, I’m not pushing these explanations.  They are just hypotheses, and it isn’t obvious to me what kind of evidence would adjudicate them.

Comments (19) | |

Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Two Can’t Miss Sessions in San Diego Next Week

Well, I can’t miss them because I’m in them.  You can, but why would you?

Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Green New Deal and More
Union for Radical Political Economics: Paper Session
Friday, Jan. 3, 10:15am–12:15pm
Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego – La Jolla B

“Financial Bailout Spending Would Have Paid for Thirty Years of Climate Crisis Mitigation: Implementing a Global Green New Deal and Marshall Plan” – Ron Baiman, Benedictine University

“Green New Deal: Interdisciplinary Heterodox Approaches” – Mathew Forstater, University of Missouri–Kansas City; Fadhel Kaboub, Denison University; Michael Murray, Bemidji State University

“The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Issue Is the Issue, After All” – Peter Dorman, Evergreen State College (emeritus)

Chair: Ron Baiman

Comments (3) | |

The Famous Baseball-Watching Equality-Equity Graphic, Scrutinized

The Famous Baseball-Watching Equality-Equity Graphic, Scrutinized

Here’s the graphic, widely used to explain why equity outcomes require unequal treatment of different people.

Benjamin Studebaker (hat tip Naked Capitalism) doesn’t like it at all: “I hate it so much.”  But his complaints, about the way the graphic elides classic debates in political theory, strike me as being too redolent of grad school obsessions.  The graphic is not trying to advance one academic doctrine over another; it just makes a simple case for compensatory policy.  I agree in a general way with this perspective.

Consider the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates special facilities in public buildings to accommodate people in wheelchairs or facing other mobility challenges.  This is unequal treatment: extra money is spent to install ramps that only a few will use, rather than for amenities for everyone.  But it’s a great idea!  Yes, compensation is concentrated on a minority, but it aims to allow everyone to participate in public activities, and in doing this it embodies a spirit of solidarity that ought to embrace all of us.  By making a simple, intuitive case for focused compensation, the graphic captures the spirit behind the ADA and many other policies that take account of inequalities that would otherwise leave some members of the community excluded and oppressed.

Unfortunately, however, there are serious limitations to the graphic; above all, it embodies assumptions that beg most of the questions people ask about compensatory programs.  Some are challenges from conservatives of a more individualistic bent, others might be asked by friendly critics on the left, but all are worthy of being taken seriously.

 

Comments (4) | |

A Nobel for the Randomistas

A Nobel for the Randomistas

I don’t think anyone was surprised by this year’s “Nobel” prize in economics, which went to three American-based specialists in the design of on-the-ground experiments in low income countries, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.  I think the award has merit, but it is important to keep in mind the severe limitations of the work being honored.

The context for this year’s prize is the long, mostly frustrating history of anti-poverty projects in the field of development economics.  Much of the world, for reasons I’ll put to the side for now, is awash in poverty: billions of people lack access to decent sanitation, medical care, education and physical and legal protection, not to mention struggling to put food on the table, a roof over their head and cope with increasing demands for mobility.  A lot of money has been spent by aid organizations over the years to alleviate these conditions, without nearly enough to show for it.  (My specialty, incidentally, has been in child labor, which has been the focus of a large piece of this work.)

There have been various reactions to the lack of progress.  One has been to argue that the effort has been too weak—that we need more money and ambition to turn the corner.  This is Jeffrey Sachs, for instance.  Another is that the whole enterprise is misbegotten, a relic of colonialism that was always destined to fail.  You can get this in either a right wing (William Easterly) or left wing (Arturo Escobar) version.  (I critiqued the “left” stance on child labor here.)  A third is where this Nobel comes in.

Comments (2) | |

Medicare for All

Medicare for All

The abstract for “Does Medicare Coverage Improve Cancer Detection and Mortality Outcomes?” by Rebecca Mary Myerson, Reginald Tucker-Seeley, Dana Goldman and Darius N. Lakdawalla:

Medicare is the largest government insurance program in the United States, providing coverage for over 60 million people in 2018. This paper analyzes the effects of Medicare insurance on health for a group of people in urgent need of medical care – people with cancer. We used a regression discontinuity design to assess impacts of near-universal Medicare insurance at age 65 on cancer detection and outcomes, using population-based cancer registries and vital statistics data. Our analysis focused on the three tumor sites with recommended screening before and after age 65: breast, colorectal, and lung cancer. At age 65, cancer detection increased by 72 per 100,000 population among women and 33 per 100,000 population among men; cancer mortality also decreased by 9 per 100,000 population for women but did not significantly change for men. In a placebo check, we found no comparable changes at age 65 in Canada. This study provides the first evidence to our knowledge that near-universal access to Medicare at age 65 is associated with improvements in population-level cancer mortality, and provides new evidence on the differences in the impact of health insurance by gender.

I can’t vouch for the results, not having read the article in full, but the study design looks good, provided they avoided the spurious results from higher order nonlinear relationships separated by the discontinuity.

Comments (1) | |

Take Your Pick of Left Wing Climate Change Narratives: Green Abundance or Righteous Austerity

Take Your Pick of Left Wing Climate Change Narratives: Green Abundance or Righteous Austerity

While I was preoccupied with other things, the US left settled on a pair of competing climate change narratives.  By the time I looked, the choice was down to just these two, and no other views could be considered.

View #1, Green Abundance, is that combating climate change means unleashing the power of renewable energy.  Fortunately, according to this story, renewables are already the cheapest way to go, or if not quite, they will be once they are scaled up through a massive infusion of public investment.  And this investment is a golden opportunity to ameliorate other problems like anemic economic growth, un- and underemployment, and sluggish incomes.  We will provide green jobs at union wages for everyone who wants one, with special opportunities for workers in the fossil fuel sector.  We will do for this generation what FDR’s original New Deal did for our grandparents, restoring prosperity and a building a vibrant middle class.  We’ll do it even better this time, because we will design our programs to fight racism, sexism, and the oppression of LGBTQ people, immigrants and indigenous nations, along with every other impediment to social justice.  Meanwhile, we will tax the handful of giant corporations that are responsible for most of the carbon emissions, using their ill-gotten gains to finance an environment that’s healthy for people and other living things.  Climate change will turn out to be a godsend, because the struggle against it will unite us around an all-inclusive economic, ecological and social agenda.

Comments (4) | |

Trump: When Reality TV Becomes Reality

Trump: When Reality TV Becomes Reality

The New York Times has an excellent dissection today of the Trump presidency as a reality TV show that has managed to set up shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written by its chief TV critic, James Poniewozik.  His op-ed digs down into the props and story line of “The Apprentice” and how its tone evolved over its 14-year lifespan.  He places it nicely within the ecosystem of post-Survivor entertainment and the particular celebrity culture it spawned.  Nice job, and read it for yourself.

But there’s something missing.  Yes, that’s who Trump is and how he operates, but he could never have gotten to where he is without cutting deals with people whose personas are light years away from his—the plutocracy, particularly in its financial and resource extraction modes, the Republican Party apparatus in the think tanks and lobby shops in and around Washington, and the Christian Right, with its fixation on the courts as a bulwark against cultural change.  There is a real, which is to say a real real, side to the Trump presidency, and it takes the form of tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and judgeship appointments.  This differentiates it from reality TV, which is only itself.

And so we are left with an obvious response: stop rebroadcasting the reality TV stuff.  Leave it alone.  Don’t fixate on the bluster, viciousness, racism or obscenity of his tweets and rallies.  Rather, examine the real real viciousness, racism and obscenity built into the policies of the people who use Trump as an avatar, an attention-grabbing figurehead who enables them to hold and use power.  Yes, I’ve said this before, but it’s still the way to go.

Comments (1) | |

Cheerleading for Austerity

Cheerleading for Austerity

Not content to follow a news strategy that maximizes Trump’s prospects for re-election, the New York Times leads today with a story that combines economic illiteracy and reactionary scaremongering in a preview of what we’re likely to see in the 2020 presidential race.

“Budget Deficit Is Set to Surge Past $1 Trillion” screams the headline, and the article throws around a mix of dollar estimates and vague statements about growth trends, leavened with quotes from budget scolds from both Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle.  (That shows balance, right?)  After terrorizing us with visions of a tide of red ink, the article concludes with a ray of sunshine in the form of prospects for a Grand Bargain under a lame duck Trump that would cut benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare to put us once again on a stable path.

Where to begin?  Should we start by mentioning that nowhere in this lead article does it give the single most relevant statistic, the ratio of the federal budget deficit to the size of the overall economy—the money part, GDP.  The raw size of the deficit itself is meaningless, and the trillion dollar line is meaningless squared.  As Dean Baker likes to say, the article shows its respect for our powers of thought by informing us the deficit is a Very Big Number.  Scared yet?

Measurement aside, the article simply assumes that “large” deficits are unsustainable and bad, and that only irresponsible political motives prevent action on them.  In the name of a nebulous, unspecified Evil of Debt, the population of the US must be subjected to a regime of austerity, beginning with cuts in the programs many depend on to keep themselves and family members out of poverty.  Worse, it opines, Democrats will run for office next year on a platform of spending increases, demonstrating they are the party of ruin.  We can only hope, goes the argument, that they are just saying these things to get votes from the gullible public, and once in power they will join the deficit-cutting crusade.

No reason is given for the assumed Evil of Debt, and it’s no surprise, since it’s based on ignorance, willful or otherwise.  To begin with, federal debt is denominated entirely in US dollars, so servicing is not a problem.  Countries that borrow in foreign currencies, like Greece (which had no control over the euro) and Argentina, can default; that’s not a problem for the US.  Second, government debt is private wealth, and the relevant question is whether there are too many or too few government bonds in private portfolios.  If private wealth holders are satiated with public debt and prefer other securities, it would be a problem.  But that would be a world in which interest rates on the debt would be high in order to sell them, and rates are about as low as they can go without flipping negative (as they have elsewhere).

Comments (4) | |