Interesting Reads Week of December 2, 2018

Economics

If you don’t read anything else linked to below, please, at least read When in Gotham by Eric Miller at “Front Porch Republic.” Miller puts his finger on something that has bothered me in the discussion of the movement towards nationalism, and the (merited) critique of globalization: does the movement (be it Brexit or Trump’s crude

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What Autumn Brings, Northern CA 2018

protectionism) really represent a departure into a new economics or merely a more local version of the corporatization of the world that lessens freedom for everyone, everywhere. Miller writes:

A corporate state of nationalist dimensions and a corporate state of internationalist dimensions may in fact be a difference in kind, but not the kind of difference likely to ease the democratic spirit… But as the passing decades have shown, we cannot stop (because we’re unwilling to stop) the growth of the corporate state. What we can do is seek to start, and re-start, forms of authentic growth within it.

Now, THAT is a call to resist! Take five minutes to read this piece.

A theme taken up by Dean Baker quite frequently in his Beat the Press blog, is the question of why the Federal Reserve of the United States is so afraid of inflation. Baker often argues that because of its fixation on inflation, and its seeming finger-on-the-trigger use of interest rate increases to tame it, the Fed essentially reigns in economic growth and job creation.

In my reading, Baker is almost alone in “beating” this particular drum. It is interesting, therefore, to read this review in The Economist of Paul Volcker’s memoir. Here is an extended quote with my highlight of the key take home:

Mr Volcker’s intuitive approach to monetary policy often seems as influential as the academic orthodoxy his tenure helped inform. He worries that economists favour reforms that would free central banks to court higher inflation during downturns. Although many do, central banks have very conspicuously declined to make such changes. They would view years of above-target inflation as a dangerous threat to their credibility, and easing policy in the face of such inflation an unforgivable sign of weakness. But years of below-target inflation in the aftermath of the global financial crisis did not generate a corresponding panic. Indeed, the Fed began raising interest rates while inflation remained below its target, unfazed by the risk that this would undermine public faith in its ability to boost the economy when the next recession strikes.

Mr Volcker writes that, time and again, governments accept “a little inflation” only to find themselves beset by spiraling prices. But the more time passes, the more the 1970s look like an inflationary aberration book-ended by decades of modest inflation. Inflation is a danger, but one among many. It is the strength of Mr Volcker’s character that deserves emulation rather than his response to a specific, bygone set of economic circumstances.

The USA (A “truth-challenged” nation)

I don’t generally like Rod Dreher. He is a conservative Catholic with a SERIOUS dislike for Pope Francis and views on immigration and cultural change with which I simply disagree. But this article, in which he quotes another well known Catholic writer (Ross Douthat of the New York Times) is astonishing in its brutal honesty about Donald Trump and other elites. A sample:

(W)henever I hear of some new vile thing that Trump is alleged to have done, I just shrug. I expect him to be a criminal, in a way that I never would have expected any other president to be a criminal. And the Republicans in Congress have barely tried to rein him in. After he goes, it’s going to be hard to restore respect to the presidency.

The rest of the article delves into the parallel moral universe other elites in this country live in. It is not easy to read.

We have a truth problem in this country. And not just for the reasons that Dreher cites in his short piece. The Economist, this week, lays out the truth about the grifters around the current President.

One theme from the hundreds of pages of indictments is that the people around the president lied frequently and easily, even under oath. It is a management cliché that culture is set at the top. That was true of the Trump campaign, too.

6091dd37-2e97-4389-a3ad-54ac3ad2cebdBut beyond the problem of “truth-telling” (or the lack thereof ) according to Shanto Iyengara and Douglas S. Massey lies the fact that we live in a post-truth society. Their particular point is about science and how scientist might respond in such a society. It does not break much new ground, but its example of how the immigration “debate” has been subjected to post-truth communication methods is engaging and informative.

(And on immigration… check out these six charts from the BBC)

This “post-truth” society is having an impact on our confidence in various institutions (though the continued trust in the military baffles me), according to research by NPR/PBS.5c09f16d-f4e7-43a7-ab8f-975b7131e5ee

Finally, Bacevich is back with a stinging critique of David Brooks’ solution to our current state of affairs. While not discussing the issue of truth telling, Bacevich lays out the case that a return to the “responsible conservatism” of the pre-Bush era is definitely NOT what this country needs. Indeed, Bacevich seems to argue that it is the kind of responsible conservatism that Brooks longs for that led to the rise of Trump and our current mess:

As for the dream of spreading global democracy, it has indeed received a fair trial. Yet to say that U.S. democracy promotion efforts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq did not work out is akin to saying that Bonaparte’s campaign to capture Moscow in 1812 didn’t quite pan out as he had hoped. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia yielded a disaster for France. So too with post-9/11 U.S. efforts to export democracy at the point of a gun: the results have been disastrous for the United States and for more than a few innocent bystanders.

Yet to this very day Brooks and other members of the conservative establishment refuse to confront the scope of that disaster. It has cost trillions and killed hundreds of thousands. It has destabilized much of the Islamic world.

Criminal Justice/Policing Reform

Heavy sigh here… It is truly sad when a bi-partisan piece of legislation the so-called “First Step Act” gets mired in the narrow political calculation of the Senate Majority Leader–a singularly grotesque individual who has waged a personal war against democracy and bi-partisanship. This New York Times editorial describes this calculus and the (probable) sad result of a bill that “aims at rationalizing federal sentencing as well as improving conditions for inmates and helping ease them back into society after prison.” 

Along with our inability to achieve meaningful criminal justice system reform, comes word (also published in the Times) of our retreat from appropriate local police oversight. In the week when my small town seated its very first citizen police oversight commission, we learn that the Sacramento County Supervisors have to play hard ball with a local sheriff to force him to stop locking the police auditor out of his office. And the Times piece shows how the federal government has retreated from its role in supporting local efforts to develop appropriate police accountability. Let’s continue to keep our eyes on this issue.

And… in case you were wondering, no, we did not always lock up immigrants and this Times (sorry for three here) article provides a history of the “bipartisan” effort over time that has led us to this point. What point? The point of treating asylum seekers as criminals. This abandonment of morality is well described in this useful historical analysis. As the author notes:

(I)n 1958 the Supreme Court, in Leng May Ma v. Barber, held that “physical detention of aliens is now the exception, not the rule,” pointing out that “certainly this policy reflects the humane qualities of an enlightened civilization.”

 

I close with quotes by Rene Girard and Jacques Ellul.

First Girard in The Girard Reader “Mimesis and Violence:”girard reader

Violence is discussed, nowadays, in terms of aggression. We speak of aggression as an instinct that would be especially strong in certain individuals or in man as a zoological species… Violence is also attributed by many economists to the scarcity of needed objects or to their monopolization by a social elite…

Imitation or mimicry happens to be common to animals and men. It seems to me that a theory of conflict based primarily on appropriate events mimicry does not have the drawbacks of one based on scarcity or on aggressivity; if it is correctly conceived and formulated it throws a great deal of light on much human culture, beginning with religious institutions.

And Ellul in Hope in the Time of Abandonment (written in 1972)

In the most pacified and guaranteed society which has ever existed, man is living in uncertainty and growing fear. In the most scientific of societies, man is living in the irrational. In the most liberal of societies, man is living in “repression,” and even hyper-repression. In a society in which the means of communication are the most highly developed, man is living in a sort of phantasmagoria. In a society in which everything is done to establish relationships, man is living in solitude…. It would seem that each advance nurtures its exact opposite in man’s living experience.

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