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US Policy On Iran After The Midterm Elections

A curious coincidence is that the US midterm elections happened one day after the US reimposed its second round of illegal economic sanctions on Iran, with the focus on oil, shipping, and banking, along with some other sectors. Despite all but a handful of governments around the world supporting Iran in this matter (despite apparently two attempted assassinations of opponents of Iran’s government in European nations recently) against the US out of a hope to keep Iran following the JCPOA nuclear agreement as it has by all reports been doing, the impact of the midterm elections is probably to reinforce support for Trump’s policy, even as mostly he lost support in the election. The reason is that the most important location for serious critics of a president’s foreign policy usually come out of the Senate, not the House of Representatives or governors. So, even though the Dems have taken the House and gained governorships, the GOP gained in the Senate, and some of the GOPs leaving included the few Trump critics, notably departing Foreign Relations committee Chair, Robert Corker of TN. This is the case, even as those GOP gains may only amount to a net two (Dem Sinema now ahead in AZ) or even only one (Nelson in FL may yet pull it out too).

Yet another reason the gains by Dems will probably not lead to much more pressure on Trump on this is that many Dems at least somewhat support his policy, especially those strongly influenced by the Israeli government. Thus in today’s Washington Post, a lead editorial (presumably by neoconnish Fred Hiatt) said there may be reasons for imposing some sanctions because of “malignant” policies by Iran, notably supposedly supplying missiles to the Houthis in Yemen, plus the Syrian government, and Hezbollah in Lebanon (there are doubts on the extent of all this), even as WaPo opposes the US withdrawing from the JCPOA and is highly critical of Saudi Arabia due to the murder of their journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, probably on orders of KSA Crown Prince MbS, a main enemy of Iran. Indeed, members of both parties in the Senate have become unhappy with the Saudi war in Yemen and may move to cut US military support of the Saudi war effort there. But this will probably have little to no effect on the reimposed economic sanctions on Iran.

As it is, the ultimate impact of the new sanctions is quite complicated with various cross-cutting effects that are already damaging the Iranian economy, but may end up having less impact than Trump would like. The most important part of the sanctions involves Iran’s oil exports, which US officials claim they would like to see go to zero. Early forecasts had those falling to about a third of the about 2.8 million bpd of a few months ago, which anticipation helped push oil prices up substantially, with Brent crude topping $80 per barrel while West Texas intermediate crude topped $70 per barrel. But the Trump administration has granted temporary waivers to 8 countries allowing them to continue importing Iranian oil for a while, supposedly to avoid excessive disruption of global markers (while not officially announced, the Japan Times claims the 8 waivered nations are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy [only EU nation on list]. and UAE [yes, that big anti-Iran oil exporter imports oil from Iran]). As it is, with surging oil inventories in the US, prices have fallen sharply in the last two weeks, with Brent down to nearly $70 and WTI to nearly $60 , with some commenters today claiming that oil is turning into a “bear market.” While this clearly allows Iran to export more oil than previously thought for now, the price decline will hurt Iran.

A fundamental clash in this is between governments and the businesses based in their nations. Only a handful of national governments officially support Trump in this policy, basically the odd group of Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and apparently Egypt, with a few others sort of semi-supportive, such as Jordan, if with little enthusiasm. Russia, China, Turkey, and the major EU nations all oppose Trump’s policy. While businesses in Russia in particular go along with their government’s view, nearly all of those that are reasonably large in the EU nations are obeying the demands of the US government to cut back business relations with Iran, with poster boys for this being Total and Peugeot from France out of fear of losing markets in the US or facing sanctions from the US government. All of this has led to efforts in both China and the EU to set up alternative payment systems to avoid using US dollars and going through US-controlled financial intermediaries, a big conflict over this involving the SWIFT payment system, which the US would like to prevent Iran from using while the major European nations oppose this move by the US. As it is, given the ongoing efforts by they EU nations to help Iran out, it seems especially unwise of Iranian intel agencies to be attempting to assassinate people in France and Denmark as they have reportedly done, albeit unsuccessfully so far.

A final point is that it is extremely unlikely that this policy by Trump will lead to Iranian leaders kowtowing to him and entering into any negotiations. If anything, they might get pushed into pulling out of the JCPOA or create trouble for their enemies in various ways. OTOH, it may be that the sanctions will not lead to as harsh impacts on the Iranian economy as forecast, whether this is due to the Europeans and Chinese setting up alternative payments systems, or due to Iran wriggling out of the sanctions whether due to waivers or through such maneuvers as barter transactions involving oil or the use of “ghost ships” that do not use any radio communications, something reportedly already going on. We shall see how this all turns out, but for now Trump probably has gotten a modest boost of support for his policies within the US as a result of the midterm elections, much as I am not pleased to see this.

Barkley Rosser
Econospeak “US Policy On Iran After The Midterm Elections”

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Piestein

by Sandwichman  (re-posted with author’s permission):

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke affirmed, “I do not question but that human knowledge, under the present circumstances of our beings and constitutions, may be carried much farther than it hitherto has been, if men would sincerely, and with freedom of mind, employ all that industry and labour of thought, in improving the means of discovering truth, which they do for the colouring or support of falsehood, to maintain a system, interest, or party, they are once engaged in.”

In Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain, Richard Epstein, henceforth Professor Piestein, gave the quintessential demonstration of how to employ “all that industry and labour of thought… for the colouring or support of falsehood.” In his “philosophical preliminary” chapter, “A Tale of Two Pies” Professor Piestein purported to illustrate, with a drawing of two pies, a Lockean perspective on “how natural rights over labor and property can be preserved in form and enhanced in value by the exercise of political power.”

Here is what Professor Piestein’s pies looked like. Sandwichman coloured them in to make them prettier:

And here is what Professor Piestein wrote about his pies:

The larger pie indicates the gains that are possible from political organization. The outer ring represents the total social gains, while the dotted lines indicate the proportion of the gain received by each individual member. The implicit normative limit upon the use of political power is that it should preserve the relative entitlements among the members of the group, both in the formation of the social order and in its ongoing operation. All government action must he justified as moving a society from the smaller to the larger pie.

A couple of questions go unasked and, of course, unanswered by Professor Piestein.

Why should we assume that the unequal endowments are the consequence of natural rights rather than a backward projection of the inequalities imposed in political society by its rulers? Second, even if the unequal endowments had been present in nature, why should that make the more fortunate individuals entitled to a proportionately larger share of the social gains, since they are, after all, social gains? In The Natural and Artificial Rights of Property Contrasted (1832), Thomas Hodgson wrote:

Laws being made by others than the labourer, and being always intended to preserve the power of those who make them, their great and chief aim for many ages, was, and still is, to enable those who are not labourers to appropriate wealth to themselves. In other words, the great object of law and of government has been and is, to establish and protect a violation of that natural right of property they are described in theory as being intended to guarantee.

What would Locke say? I’ll not waste your time with a pile of extraneous exegesis and superfluous hermeneutics. Number VIII of Locke’s Essays on the Law of Nature was titled, “Is Every Man’s Own Interest the Basis of the Law of Nature? No.” Number VIII was the source for several of the arguments in Chapter Five, “Of Property,” in Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government.

What part of the word “no” did Professor Piestein not understand?

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"Of Property" and the Mercantilist Fallacy

  Sandwichman at Econospeak offers a look at a piece of history:

“Of Property” and the Mercantilist Fallacy

“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

The above is the core of what is commonly referred to as John Locke’s “labour theory of property.” It is a extraordinarily compelling narrative, resplendent with “self-evident truth” (“We hold these truths to be self evident…) and nearly indiscernible ambiguity (what does “labour” mean? what’s “mixing” got to do with it?).
It is widely acknowledged by Locke scholars that his economic views were essentially mercantilist. Keynes suggested that Locke stood with “one foot in the mercantilist world and one foot in the classical world.” However that may be, chapter five of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, “Of Property”, is relentlessly, incorrigibly, two-footedly mercantilist. And nobody seems to have noticed (except possibly John R. Commons).

Why would this even matter?


Yeah, sure, we are told, ad nauseum, about how PROPERTY is the be all and end all of freedom, democracy and prosperity. A comic-book, social Darwinist pseudo-Locke lends the right-wing libertarian anti-tax mantra a veneer of moral righteousness and intellectual gravitas.

And it’s crap.

But there are bigger fish to fry: LABOUR.

While socialists and even liberals may be inclined to circumscribe the sanctity of property, they are loath to gainsay the hallowed individualist framing of labour. Some folks even think it’s downright revolutionary to insist on the worker’s right to the whole product of labour. Labour, though,  is only conventionally something an individual performs. Labour is social. Labour power is best understood as a common-pool resource.
The ideology of labour as an extension of the self is pervasive, persuasive and pernicious. From that perspective, solidarity is a voluntary act of magnanimity that can be “terminated at will” just like a redundant employee. As individuals, the relationship between workers is accidental; their relationships with the employer and with the state are what matters.

The inescapable mercantilism of Locke’s notion of natural law puts that individualist ideology in a different light. In his Essay on the Law of Nature, Locke was adamant that “the rightness of an action does not depend on its utility; on the contrary, its utility is a result of its rightness.” “It is impossible,” Locke wrote, “that the primary law of nature is such that its violation is unavoidable. Yet, if the private interest of each person is the basis of that law, the law will inevitably be broken…”

Here is where the mercantilism comes in: “when any man snatches for himself as much as he can, he takes away from another man’s heap the amount he adds to his own, and it is impossible for anyone to grow rich except at the expense of someone else.” To avoid any mistake, Locke reiterates his objection to positing “every man’s self interest the basis of natural law”:

“For in such a case each person is required to procure for himself and to retain in his possession the greatest possible number of useful things; and when this happens it is inevitable that the smallest possible number is left to some other person, because surely no gain falls to you which does not involve somebody else’s loss.”

An unequivocal zero-sum game. “No gain falls to you which does not involve somebody else’s loss.” “It is impossible for anyone to grow rich except at the expense of someone else.”

Now there are those who will object that Locke modified his views between the earlier Essay on the Law of Nature and his later Second Treatise on Civil Government. Not so. In the latter, and especially in the chapter “Of Property,” Money plays a pivotal role in repealing what has become known as the spoilage limitation:

“He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples, had thereby a property in them… He was only to look, that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share, and robbed others. And indeed it was a foolish thing, as well as dishonest, to hoard up more than he could make use of.”

Someone who took so much that it spoiled before he could use it did a foolish, dishonest thing and robbed others. In short, if you take so much that it rots, it was never yours to take.

How does Money nullify that limitation? The person who gathers more perishable goods than he can use can exchange it for durable Gold or Silver. Problem solved.

Locke was a staunch metallist who insisted on the intrinsic value of Money as represented by its weight and fineness. This is not some incidental biographical trivia. Locke’s well documented views on Money were decisive in the monetary reform and re-minting of British coinage in the 1690s.

According to Locke, it was not the absolute quantity of Gold and Silver a nation held that determined its wealth but the proportion of Gold and Silver it held relative to the holdings of the rest of the world:

“Riches do not consist in having more Gold and Silver, but in having more in proportion, than the rest of the World, or than our Neighbours, whereby we are enabled to procure to our selves a greater Plenty of the Conveniencies of Life than comes within the reach of Neighbouring kingdoms and States, who, sharing the Gold and Silver of the World in a less proportion, want the means of Plenty and Power, and so are Poorer.”

A zero-sum game. What was “one man’s gain is another’s loss” in useful things is mitigated by its transmutation into metal Money where one man’s gain is still another’s loss but is at least not a net loss (through waste). This later proviso, though, only holds good for Money with an intrinsic value of specified weight and fineness.

Postscript

Some readers may have wondered at the parenthetical reference to John R. Commons back in the second paragraph. Commons didn’t specifically address the passages I cited from the Essay on the Law of Nature. In fact, it wasn’t published until 20 years later. Nor did he discuss Locke’s influential writings on Money. But he did make a point in a reply to a critic that is germane to my argument here.

The context of Commons’s observations is crucial to the significance of his remark, so I will reproduce a substantial excerpt here:

My point of view is indeed personal, as was said by Professor Homan of all institutional economists. It is simply my own experience in collective action from which I drew a theory of the part played by collective action on individual action. It may or may not fit other people’s ideas of institutionalism. It started, indeed, with my trade-union membership and my later participation in labor arbitration; then turned to drafting a public utility law designed to ascertain and maintain reasonable values and reasonable practices; then to drafting and participating in administration of an industrial commission law with the similar purpose of reasonable practices applied to employers and employees; then to representing the western states before the Federal Trade Commission on the Pittsburgh Plus case of discrimination; then to aiding the House Committee on Congressman Strong’s bill for stabilization of prices; meanwhile administering and developing a plan for unemployment insurance finally enacted into law.

I do not see how anyone going through these 45 years of participation could fail to arrive at two inferences, conflict of interest and collective action. Even the state itself turned out to be merely collective action of those in possession of sovereignty.
Meanwhile I was necessarily studying hundreds of decisions, mainly of the United States Supreme Court, endeavoring to discover on what principles they decided disputes of conflicting interests under the clauses of the Constitution relating to due process, to taking property and liberty, and to equal treatment. I found that none of the economists had taken this point of view, and none of them except Professor Ely, had made any contributions that would make it possible to fit legal institutions into economics or into this constitutional scheme of American judicial sovereignty.

Drumroll… Now here’s his point:

Going back over the economists from John Locke to the orthodox school of the present day, I found they always had a conflicting meaning of wealth, namely a material thing and the ownership of that thing. But ownership, at least in its modern meaning of intangible property, means power to restrict production on account of abundance while the material things arise from power to increase the abundance of things by production, even overproduction.

A simple point but a profound and subtle one. Ownership is not the same as the material thing owned. But beyond that, the restrictive implication of ownership is contrary to the abundance implication of the material things owned.

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Reading the story, asking normal business questions

Peter Dorman at Econospeak writes a gem of a post asking readers to ask simple questions when offered a morality tale by journalists, or an implied cause and effect tale, and how it takes no special skill to ask simple business questions that the journalist should at least ask, even if not o tanswer all of them.

Peter Dorman writes:

The Spin on Tires

It would be nice to have economic literacy in journalism.  Take this morning’s story in the New York Times about a pair of tire factories in Amiens.  One is managed by Dunlop; its workers agreed to a schedule of constantly shifting workweeks and shift work, and it is still operating.  The other is managed by Goodyear.  There the workers rejected the disruptive schedule, and the factory is shutting down.  The comparison is presented as a morality tale, where the responsible workers, recognizing the new demands of productivity and competitiveness in a globalized economy, did the right thing, while their obstinate counterparts, representative of all that’s wrong with France, preferred heroic self-annihilation.

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but think that this analysis of The Real Reason the French Economy is Sputtering was there all along, looking for a story to attach itself to.

But an economist might ask a few simple questions.  First, what is the elasticity of the total production cost of a tire with respect to the changes in work hours?  I realize the reporter wants to emphasize the symbolism, the importance of workers bending to the employer’s will as a virtue in and of itself, but perhaps there is a factual dimension worth looking into.  Just a suggestion.

Second, what is the market for these tires?  In particular, who if anyone will pick up the market share being abandoned by Goodyear?  Is this about outsourcing of a portion of tire production to lower-cost producers in developing countries?  Or is it about a shrinking domestic market that no longer needs the output of both plants?  Or some combination of the two or something else?

In particular, it is interesting that both factories, despite their different nameplates, are owned by the same company, Goodyear Dunlop.  Thus, this story describes a consolidation.  The very least an enterprising journalist can do is to inquire into the company’s overall capacity.  Is it cutting back elsewhere in Europe?  Are they shifting production geographically?  Is it possible that they might want only one operation in Amiens in any case, and that the only result of the contest over worker concessions is which plant it will be?

All of this is speculative, because I don’t know the tire market in France.  That’s what I would want to learn from a newspaper story, a rather long one at that, on the subject.  This might also help me understand why the US, where few workers are unionized and none have the will or ability to resist whatever schedule is dictated to them, is not blanketed in tire factories.

Incidentally, there has been a ton of research in the past decade documenting the health effects of exactly the sort of work schedule being imposed at Dunlop.  It is associated with significantly elevated levels of a wide range of diseases; arguably it represents the single greatest occupational safety and health threat experienced in developed countries.  An informed journalist might want to weave that into the story too.

(re-posted with permission of the author)

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Interpreting the news of getting high on net wealth news

US Household wealth regains pre-recession peak!  crows this story.

Steve Roth‘s chart to 2010 from Asynptosis demonstrates the drop in net worth for most of us.

pgl at Econospeak adds perspective:

So Whose Wealth Is At a Record High?

This news story must be good news for some folks:

According to the Federal Reserve, household wealth amounted to $66.1 trillion at the end of 2012 and further gains in stock and house prices have allowed Americans to make up for the losses incurred during the recession.

If you want to protest that not everyone has recovered their lost wealth, the story sort of concedes this further down:

The recovered wealth — most of it from higher stock prices — has been flowing mainly to richer Americans. By contrast, middle class wealth is mostly in the form of home equity, which has risen much less.

Households owners’ equity in real estate peaked at $12.5 billion in 2005 and then plummeted. While it has partially recovered, it was only $8.2 billion at the end of 2012 according to the Flow of Funds Accounts. Given that consumer prices have risen by almost 20 percent over this period, our equity in real estate is still far below its 2005 peak value.

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Only 6% Of Public Knows Deficit Is Declining

Prof Barkley Rosser at Econospeak also asks questions on the freaking out over the fiscal deficit numbers:

Only 6% Of Public Knows Deficit Is Declining

Yes, here we go again, massive public ignorance post # I forget how many.  This has been floating around out there for awhile but was on Rachel Maddow last night, and here is a link with suitable discussion of relevant facts from Dave Johnson, perhaps important as this silly sequester is about to land on us supposedly driven by the overwhelming need to get the deficit under control,http://blog.ourfuture.org/20130226/deficit-is-falling-dramatically-but-only-6-know-that.  As it is, apparently 62% think it is rising, while 28% think it is constant.

Among things that the public is wrong about, this one sticks out for being so far off from the facts.  And as is noted, not only is the deficit declining, but it is doing so at a very dramatic rate.  Without doing anything we should be able to stabilize the debt/GDP ratio within about two to three years, although to maintain that down the road, further adjustments would need to be made.  Being an austerian is one thing, but being completely out of touch with reality is quite another.

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Risk = Freedom?

Peter Dorman at Econospeak speaks to the current selling of big idea models of the world (re-posted with permission from the author):

There’s a review on the Dissent website by Steve Randy Waldman of Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America by Jonathan Levy. The book sounds interesting, but it is apparently based on a commonplace but false understanding of the relationship between freedom and risk-taking.

At the individual level it is absolutely true that we face a tradeoff between risk and freedom. You can opt for a secure life, but only at the expense of creativity, individualism, moral courage and all the other Emersonian goodies. Each one of us, every day, faces this choice. Mostly it is just a matter of a tiny bit of risk-taking, but these moments add up, and from time to time there is a fundamental fork in the road. We make our own freedom.

But the social level is another story. Individuals take the array of risks as given; society can choose how much risk its members will face and what their risk-freedom tradeoffs will be, at least up to a point. If the objective is to minimize all risk of any sort, especially all risks to health and income, the result will be stultifying. But that’s not where we are on the Great Risk Curve.

 Rather, the debates we have are about whether to cut back or extend social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare, social protections like TANF and Medicaid, and more or less regulation of finance, pollution and such. It seems clear to me that more security of this sort, which limits the downside risk individuals face in their personal lives, reduces the cost of living freely.

Examples are everywhere. Ample unemployment insurance makes it easier to work for a startup or switch jobs in general rather than being held down by too strong a need for job security. A stronger public pension system encourages entrepreneurship: people can hazard their savings by starting a business rather than hoarding everything for old age. Social guarantees for basic needs make it possible for artists to risk making art their day job. Professors with tenure (big time risk reduction) can take more controversial positions on public issues. (I don’t say they always do this, but they do it more than they would if all professors were temps.) In each case there is a real tradeoff between freedom and security at the individual level, but society can create programs that relax it, so it takes less courage to live freely.

That’s what I don’t like about the nanny state rhetoric. Yes, of course the state can go too far and overprotect us from risks we would do better to face ourselves. But the state we actually live in goes too far in the other direction. With a stronger safety net we could have less risk and more freedom.

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GDP Gap Stuck at 6%

Pro Growth Liberal points us to this interpretation of new economic data:

GDP Gap Stuck at 6%

Dean Baker gets it right with respect to the latest news on GDP:

A sharp drop in government spending, heavily concentrated in defense, coupled with a decline in inventories caused GDP to shrink at a 0.1 percent rate in the 4th quarter. Government spending fell at a 6.6 percent annual rate, driven by a 22.2 percent decline in defense spending, subtracting 1.33 percentage points from the growth rate in the quarter. A 40.3 drop in the rate of inventory accumulation reduced growth by another 1.27 percentage points. Without these factors, GDP would have grown at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the quarter. Pulling out these extraordinary factors, the GDP data were largely in line with prior quarters.

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Joe Scarborough on the Deficit

Pro Growth Liberal at Econospeak also takes Joe Scarborough to task on Krugman and Keynes:

Joe Scarborough on the Deficit

After his interview with Paul Krugman this morning Joe Scarborough wrote:

Mr. Krugman’s view is that Americans would be better off if its government ran deeper deficits and ignored its longterm debt.
To suggest that Keynesians like Paul Krugman ignore the long-term government budget constraint is either dishonest or shows that Mr. Scarborough does not understand what we are saying. Which is why Mr. Scarborough should check out this list of commentary on the current economics and fiscal situation compiled by Joe Weisenthal.

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