Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The Ministry for the Future

June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.

The Pez Outlaw

May 23, 2023

Steve Glew was a Michigan machinist. A job he hated. Hated. But he loved his wife, a ’60s “flower child.” And his hobby, collecting old cereal boxes, which he found really cool. Glew was not your normal average Joe (or Steve). Maybe a little obsessive-compulsive.

Searching for boxes led him to big stashes whose boxtops he could mail in for premiums, mostly little toys, to sell at toy shows, helping ameliorate his family’s poverty. Until the cereal companies adopted “one per family” strictures.

But meantime Glew’s toy show peregrinations clued him to the huge Pez subculture. Pez was a popular candy sold in little hand-held plastic dispensers with varied colorful evocative designs — avidly sought by fanatical collectors. Glew smelled opportunity.

This story unfolded in a 2022 Netflix documentary we stumbled upon, The Pez Outlaw. That was what Glew eventually dubbed himself. The film was a hoot.

Glew got a tip that there was a factory somewhere in Europe where you could get Pez in quantity. Might as well have been Mars, given Glew’s impoverished insularity and psychological challenges. Yet he actually managed to scrape up the money and gumption to go, with his grown son along to help. Didn’t even know where the factory was! (Slovenia!) But somehow found it, connected with the guy in charge, and came back with sackfuls of “product.” Costing him pennies, some would go for hundreds or even more in the hot U.S. collector market.

Getting them through customs was dicey. Not exactly contraband, but not exactly legit either. I frankly didn’t understand this. If Glew did get the goods “under the table” somehow, so what? What business was that of the government? (I’m a free trade libertarian.) Anyhow, it developed that the Pez company had dropped the ball on trademark paperwork, or something, leaving the officious customs guys with no leg to stand on against Glew.

So, with repeated trips to that factory, he started making money in bushels. Happily kissed his machinist job goodbye.

Meantime the Pez company — mainly its “Pezident” Scott McWhinnie, the film’s villain — saw what was going on, was infuriated, and tried to thwart Glew. Thus the “Pez Outlaw” monicker. I found the company’s attitude hilariously baffling. Here its products were so loved by collectors they willingly paid extravagant prices. And this was seen as a problem? Couldn’t Pez come up with a strategy to exploit this phenomenon for its own benefit and profit? But no. Pure dog-in-the-mangerism.

What McWhinnie and company did manage to do was to cut off the spigot for Glew’s supply. Ending that lucrative huckle. Indeed, that factory ultimately stopped making Pez altogether.

But Glew, undaunted, came up with an alternate business plan. A personally designed suite of snazzy jazzy new Pez designs, whose manufacture he contracted. Costing him way more than those from Slovenia — five bucks apiece — but he figured to sell them at $25. Investing half a million, almost all he had.

With what Glew was doing before, I had no ethical qualm. If he could source stuff collectors would pay more for, good for him. (That basically describes my own business.) But now he was ripping off Pez’s brand. Very different.

And when he went to his first convention to debut his product line, the Pez company was there waiting for him. They ripped him off — copied his designs — and priced them at only $1.99.

That was the end of the Pez Outlaw. And of Glew the rich guy. A sad scene showed him dumping his now nearly worthless stock into a ditch and setting fire to it.

That was 1995. Since then he’s been a farmer, and been licking his wounds, trying to process what happened. He eventually showed up again on the Pez collector circuit, where he’s still something of a celebrity.

Through it all, his devoted wife stood by him. A real love story.

The Debt Ceiling: This Time Looks Different

April 26, 2023

We’ve been there, done that: Republicans try to hold hostage the Congressional vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, with maybe too a government shut-down, to extract some concessions. It always gets resolved in the end.

This is an unnecessarily crazy system, predictably producing these periodic crises. We could change that — if our whole governmental schema were not so dysfunctionally gridlocked by political polarization.

The next crisis looms soon. And this time looks different.

Of course Republicans only discover fiscal rectitude when Democrats are in power. During Trump’s presidency they spent like drunken sailors, piling on debt, always raising the ceiling when needed, with no whisper of concern. Indeed, they compounded deficits by passing a massive tax cut, mainly benefiting the rich and corporations. A big reason why the federal budget is so out of balance — yet Republicans now pose as warriors against profligacy.

Furthermore, if they were truly worried about deficits, here’s one simple remedy: fund the IRS adequately so it can collect the taxes actually owed (even after Trump’s tax cuts). Currently the IRS lacks the needed resources, so most high-income tax returns aren’t even audited. But Republicans demonize the IRS and try to starve it. The resulting tax collection gap has been estimated to equal around three-fourths of the annual deficit. So collecting that money would go far toward rendering unnecessary the spending cuts Republicans advocate (or pretend to advocate).

By the way, we’ve learned that the IRS, unable to audit many complex tax returns of rich folks, which is costly and hard, instead does what’s easy: targeting lower income taxpayers. Nice.

Meantime, note that for all the righteous rhetoric about government spending, a vote to raise the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future spending. Rather, it’s paying the bills for past spending. Nevertheless, Republican extortionists are yet again making demands about spending in exchange for their needed votes to increase the debt limit, so the government can pay its bills and not default. The Biden administration, standing on principle, insists it won’t play that game.

It’s a game of chicken. And it seems both sides have thrown their steering wheels out the window.

Economist Paul Krugman has said a U.S. debt default would “blow up the world economy.” What that would really mean, we don’t know. It’s uncharted territory — but certainly very dangerous territory.

One thing it would surely mean is financial markets downgrading U.S. government bonds, triggering higher interest costs on all our trillions of debt. That itself would hugely bust our budget. Republicans’ apparent willingness to let this happen makes all the more preposterous their professed concern about future deficits.

In past episodes, default was avoided because a certain modicum of sanity still prevailed among Republicans. We can no longer count on that. Speaker McCarthy, to win the gavel, made himself hostage to the GOP’s bomb-throwing crazy caucus. They may now be willing to bring the house down — imagining that its happening on President Biden’s watch will mean he gets the blame, and hence the catastrophe will politically benefit Republicans.

And these people have the chutzpah to call themselves “patriots.”

The Economist recently presented a full-throated counter to notions of American declinism, enumerating all the ways in which we’re actually doing extremely well compared to other advanced nations. But it’s threatened by that misconceived declinism itself, because it drives our self-harming retreat from globalization and free trade — so important to our economic health. And one sphere where a declinist narrative has much truth is the political one. Now seriously threatening a debt default which, The Economist fears, would do huge damage to our economy and international standing.

The Color of Law: Racial Segregation

April 22, 2023

Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law, concerns U.S. residential segregation. He says we have a myth that it’s de facto segregation, meaning mainly a result of people’s individual choices and behaviors. Whereas instead the bigger factor is de jure segregation, a product of law and government policy. Not just in the Jim Crow South, but throughout America. And not just on the local level, but federal too, which lasted longer than you might think.

We all know about “redlining,” with banks drawing maps delineating no-go areas for mortgage loans. But this wasn’t just on the banks — their policies were responsive to those of the Federal Housing Authority, making it almost impossible for Blacks to participate in government mortgage insurance programs. Likewise programs aimed at helping veterans after WWII.

Illustrating government action hand-in-hand with individual hostility toward integration, Rothstein relates how in 1954, a Black family, the Wades, sought a home in Louisville, Kentucky. A white friend, Carl Braden, bought one in a white area and sold it to Wade. Klan violence ensued, culminating in the house being bombed. Through it all, the police just looked on, arresting no one — except for Mr. Wade and a friend, for “breach of the peace” in failing to provide notice that the friend would be visiting. Then Braden was charged with “sedition,” and sentenced to 15 years, for selling the house to Wade.

Affordability has of course been an issue for Blacks seeking homes in white middle class neighborhoods. But here too, Rothstein catalogs how government policies have penalized them, when it comes to earning and accumulating wealth. While Blacks do earn, on average, somewhat less than white Americans, their family wealth averages only around a tenth.

It’s actually expensive being poor in America — especially if also Black. One example in the book is how property tax assessments tend to be at higher percentages of market value in Black areas. Rothstein drily notes that higher assessed valuations don’t translate into actually higher home values. Yet he oddly fails to note that the opposite is true — higher property taxes on a house reduce its salability.

And while housing affordability is again an undoubted issue, the book shows that it’s often costlier to live in slums than in nice neighborhoods! Because Blacks can be very unwelcome in the latter, their housing options are effectively limited to African-American communities (ghettoes). Where the housing supply is often constricted, making for greater competition among would-be buyers and renters. In turn enabling property owners to charge more. Yet a further factor handicapping Black wealth accumulation.

Education is another, hardly mentioned in the book. Schools could be a great equalizer to offset all the disadvantages burdening Black kids in poor families in poor neighborhoods. But instead our schools tend to compound that disadvantage, often giving Blacks substandard education. Certainly that too is within the purview of government policy.

Then there’s over-incarceration of Black males. Combined with lesser educational attainment and job prospects — plus some white women marrying Black men — causing a husband shortage for Black women, and resulting prevalence of single motherhood. Which in turn deprives kids of the undoubted benefits of dual parenting, further handicapping their later lives.

And why have government policies been so discriminatory? Rothstein doesn’t really explore this question, with racism taken for granted, as a given. But what in fact explains that? Why do so many whites have this mentality?

Differentness is a starting factor. Humans evolved in tribes where a neighboring tribe was likely to be (or feared as) a potential competitor or enemy. Thus an innate animus toward “The Other.” Yet, especially in advanced countries like America, we’ve gone far toward overcoming that; and many immigrant groups that once were viewed with distaste and hostility have come to be thoroughly assimilated and accepted.

Blacks’ visible differentness, however, is harder to ignore. And that combines with a crucial cultural legacy — of slavery.

Slaveowners could justify it only by convincing themselves Blacks were not fully human — degraded creatures, for whom a degraded existence was appropriate. Even decreed by God. And there was a huge industry striving for scientific proof, with skull measurements and all that. (All bunk.) And of course making Blacks live in degrading conditions served to reinforce the idea of them as degraded by nature.

This idea became powerfully pervasive.

Yet despite that, the post-Civil War amendments gave ex-slaves citizenship, equal protection of the law, and even voting rights. Black service as Union troops helped there. Still, this was a breathtakingly broad-minded humanism, which must have reflected the prevailing viewpoint — in the North at least, where exposure to slavery, with all its nasty social ramifications, was fairly limited.

But that didn’t last. The 20th Century’s “Great Migration” of Southern Blacks northward seeded more racial anxiety there. And a recent article in The Economist discusses a study of white migration out of the South, widely spreading the poison of its political and cultural attitudes. The idea that Black people are fundamentally different and lesser creatures. To be shunned, even reviled, not pitied. Indeed, it’s almost surprising how little pity was actually in the stew of feelings toward Blacks.

I’m old enough to remember how this was a vague but real presence in the cultural background. No one ever actually articulated it to me, yet it somehow seeped into my own youthful brain. There was the notion that Blacks are “dirty” — polluting — so any contact with whites should be avoided. That they were louche, immoral, more crime-prone; coarser, cruder, vulgar. With the dysfunctionality one could expect in poverty-afflicted ghettoes seen as proving they have only themselves to blame for their degradation, with consequent antipathy toward any government efforts to help them at the expense of their (white) “betters.”

But even leaving aside all such particulars — they really didn’t have to stated — there was a basic notion that separation of the races was appropriate — it was the way things ought to be. Maybe even God-decreed.

This explains the blatantly racist policies of even a government agency like the FHA in the FDR administration. The bureaucrats were simply reflecting the ethos of the culture they inhabited. It was a given, taken for granted, proper and appropriate, that Blacks should be kept away from nice white neighborhoods. You didn’t even have to think about it.

As Rothstein argues, the lasting effects are so deeply embedded into societal structures that even after half a century of amelioration efforts, they still plague us. It’s very hard to undo. He observes that whereas discriminatory barriers have been reduced, and Black incomes have risen, the window of opportunity for residential integration has effectively been lost because those Black gains have been more than offset by soaring suburban home prices. And integration is not a simple matter of getting Black families into previously all-white enclaves. When more than just a few do get in, whites get out, and the neighborhood winds up segregated again. Maintaining a stable integrated community is tricky.

Meantime, while many of us had optimistically imagined racism confined just to some dark corners of American life, the last few years have revised that picture, showing us how Southernized the country actually became; how widespread those attitudes are, all over. Yet still, a more enlightened mentality does prevail for a majority of Americans today. And we can expect that majority to expand as the cohort of degraded older whites inexorably dies off. Progress funeral by funeral.

China and the New Cold War: Detente?

April 8, 2023

What makes nations enemies?

The Soviet Union aimed for Communism’s ultimate global triumph. The free world, led by the U.S., strove for containment. That was the Cold War.

But despite proxy hot wars, there never was much prospect of America and the USSR coming directly to blows. Far too dangerous, with both being nuclear-armed. Mutual recognition of this reality came to be labeled “detente.” Never an explicit agreement; rather a tacit understanding that whatever the conflicts, in the bigger picture the two sides could coexist more or less peaceably. A modus vivendi.

Today’s Russian aggression is a different situation. There’s no pretense of a universalist ideology, like Communism was. Instead it’s an ideology of brazen nationalism, the imagined greatness and moral superiority of Russian culture (belied of course by its abominable behavior).

China’s ideology is more like Russia’s today than in the Cold War. Invoking no universalist values, but a nationalistic Chinese self-assertion, here too claiming some sort of ethno-cultural virtue or even superiority —and its place in the sun. “Communism” a mere detail. China doesn’t actually seek to rule the world.

Yet this is a new cold war because Chinese view the West as an enemy conspiring to keep them down. A new containment paradigm. China does want other nations to kowtow, and hates criticism over its human rights abuses and suchlike, which it sees as just a weapon wielded against it. Belligerently accusing us of belligerence. China’s rhetorical ferocity is astonishing.

Actually, we were not trying to hold China down, and were okay with its economic rise (which could benefit us through trade*) until lately that’s gotten lost amid all the confrontational recriminations. Which have become a vicious feedback loop.

One we should try to break. By reprising the kind of detente we had with the Soviets. Not a friendship, but a mutual understanding to coexist and avoid needless confrontation. We can both benefit from trade with each other while also being economic competitors, but not necessarily geopolitical enemies. (Note that our trade with China vastly dwarfs anything we had with the USSR.)

The key obstacle is the prospect of China invading Taiwan. That would really make for a different, darker, nastier world; a poorer one too, especially given Taiwan being the world’s premier semiconductor source. China considers Taiwan a “renegade province” and has whipped itself into such a nationalist irredentist hysteria that it’s hard to see them backing off. Yet rather than subjugating and thereby devastating Taiwan, China would be better off leaving it prospering as a trading partner — together with the rest of the free world.

That would be the detente deal: China accepting the Taiwan status quo in return for a relaxation of hostility and resumption of global economic integration. That wouldn’t mean we stop criticizing China over human rights and other misbehavior. It wouldn’t mean we’re friends. Just recognition that trade war, decoupling our economies, and severing global supply chains, hurts everyone. As would military conflict of course.

Unfortunately, all the “soft on China” rhetoric Republicans lob at President Biden may make any such accommodation seem politically toxic. And on the Chinese side, an explicit renunciation of force vis-a-vis Taiwan is surely off the table. Nevertheless, a detente could be something that obtains so long as China refrains from invading (or “grey zone” actions like blockading or cyberwar). On that basis we can have peaceable and mutually advantageous economic relations.

Is that a naive, airy-fairy dream? No, totally pragmatic.

And, who knows, someday China might rise into wisdom. After all, we never expected how the Cold War with the Soviets turned out.

* Trump’s saying China was “raping” us on trade was idiotic. It’s a simple principle: if another nation can produce something cheaper than we can ourselves, we’re better off buying it from them and pocketing the gain, and shifting our own production to something else.

“The Value of a Whale” — Capitalism and Climate

March 22, 2023

Adrienne Buller is a thirtyish British think-tanker. Her 2022 book, The Value of a Whale, is subtitled On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Referring to tackling climate change through market-based approaches, incentivizing needed actions, as with a carbon price, carbon tax, cap-&-trade scheme, or carbon offsets, and “socially conscious” (ESG) investing, etc. All critiqued as flawed and ineffectual, no way to tackle what Buller deems an extreme crisis facing humanity.

The value of a whale was actually the subject of an International Monetary Fund study. We are of course meant to think that the very idea of putting a dollar value on a majestic living creature is crass and tacky. Thus the book’s title — embodying its ethos of prioritizing planetary health above money-grubbing “capitalism.”

True, the planet is beyond price — money is meaningless if Earth becomes uninhabitable. But that’s an extreme (and, so far at least, extremely unlikely) scenario. More realistically the question is the extent of environmental degradation and what we’d have to sacrifice to forestall it (or cope with it). Life is about tradeoffs. A choice between lower living standards and a worse environment is not obvious.

Buller notes that the IMF researchers came up with $2 million for a whale’s value, based on its contributions to eco-tourism and, mainly, carbon capture, reducing global warming. Hence they suggested investment in whale conservation, costing, she writes, “a modest $13 per person on Earth.” And this, on the first page, shows Buller’s mindset. Thirteen bucks may seem “modest” to an affluent brainy Brit. But masses of people earn less per day — or, indeed, per week. They might not be so ready to give up even one dollar for whales.

The book is full of voiced concern for the world’s poor. But they seem like an abstraction. Not flesh and blood.

“Green capitalism” Buller indicts as mostly greenwashing; just another gimmick for finance folks to make money. Surely much truth there. And she’s surely right that, by themselves, such measures won’t halt climate change. Yet so intense is her hatred for “capitalism” that she seems to reject market-based measures altogether, even as part of a larger toolkit. If climate change is such a huge menace, shouldn’t we try using every possible remedy?

Buller also doesn’t think technology can help much. For example, we’d need a lot more lithium, vital for many low-carbon technologies like electric car batteries; but she blasts lithium extraction as environmentally nasty. So she excludes that too.

Her answer instead — though she won’t plainly say it — is reducing living standards. She doesn’t face what this would actually entail for actual human beings — especially all those who’ve struggled to escape the poverty she bemoans. There’s no recognition of what she’s really asking them to sacrifice.

Even the affluent are asked to live, well, less affluently. We hear much about air flights adding to carbon emissions. But such travel has great value for us, it enhances quality of life. That’s just one example, illustrating what Buller refuses to confront. She wants people to accept poorer lives today for the sake of ones in the future whom they’ve never met. People naturally resist that. It’s the key reason why the sort of climate action she envisions is such a hard sell.

It should be imposed by force, Buller is really saying. Rejecting, again, market-based and incentivizing climate approaches, she thinks instead governments must lay down the law, requiring people to do what they can’t be induced to do voluntarily. She may be right that otherwise, we’re not biting the bullet. But nor does she bite the bullet of what she’s really advocating, in all its draconian coerciveness.

Furthermore, the left’s eternal faith in government is astonishing given how often it betrays their ideals. Buller forgets that the market-based measures she critiques are themselves government creations. Why expect government to be more brilliant imposing non-market schemes? And more fair to the poor? After all, the affluent and moneyed interests have far more influence over anything governments do. The kind of “direct regulation” Buller advocates is always vulnerable to capture by the very interests being “regulated.” Not to mention the law of unintended consequences. (My whole professional career as a government regulator gave me a healthy skepticism here.)

Like many climate warriors, Buller is also scathing toward fossil fuel producers. As though they’re villainously extracting oil and gas solely to make money, unnecessarily foisting their products upon us. She’s oblivious to the obvious: fossil fuels are extracted, sold and consumed because people need them. Yes, we should be weaning ourselves off them. But that’s a long process. In the meanwhile, stopping use of these energy sources would crash our economies and living standards. Berating oil companies for supplying needed oil is just idiotic. If tomorrow they all declared, “Greta is right! No more oil! We’re stopping now!” — it would be Mad Max time, wrecking civilization far worse than climate change.

Similarly, Buller condemns economic growth, as though it’s some sort of deranged obsession. Of course it’s true that economic growth is, ceteris paribus, bad for the environment. That’s the tradeoff we’ve always made — we could never have risen from the “nasty, brutish, and short” lives endured by our Stone Age ancestors without exploiting Earth’s resources. There’s no free lunch.

But what’s really jarring is Buller (like many left wingers) denouncing economic growth in the same breath as denouncing the lot of the world’s poor. Almost as if blaming the latter on the former. When in fact, of course, economic growth is the great poverty fighter. The powerful economic growth since WWII has converted the world from one where most people lived in extreme poverty to one where only a small fraction still do.

You’d never guess that fact from reading this book, which makes it sound like the opposite has been happening, “the rich get richer and poor get poorer.” Buller flays global financial systems and machinations as designed to suck wealth from poorer nations to richer ones. Which you might thusly think is the cause of world poverty. Never mentioned is the huge factor of lousy governance and institutions, rife with corruption and exploitation by indigenous elites, which so often afflict the poorer nations and keep them poor, with vast inequality. Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe jump to mind; there are plenty of others. It’s surely those countries themselves (not Buller’s first-world capitalist whipping-boys) bearing the most blame for their stunted economic picture.

It is true that the fruits of economic growth do not equally benefit all people, the richest doing best. But there is no conceivable economic system in which some people won’t do better than others. That would mean the rich getting richer and the poor poorer — absent economic growth. But with economic growth, even while the rich get richer, the poor can too. Because there’s more wealth to go around, so the poor can get a share, even if it’s not a fully equal share. That’s how poverty is reduced.

Buller types seem to think, instead, that the answer is to just take wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. In fact, taxation does that to a degree. But good luck if there’s a no-growth zero-sum world where everyone is fighting over slices of a static (or shrinking) pie, so nobody can gain without someone else losing. And as world population rises (until, with birth rates falling, it levels off and eventually declines), economic growth will be necessary just to maintain current living standards. Opposing economic growth means favoring mass impoverishment.

And what produces economic growth? Not socialism. Global average real dollar incomes have risen something like sixfold since WWII, with again a massive poverty reduction and improved living standards. This gain has been concentrated in nations participating in a globalized, (relatively) free-trading, market economy, where people can improve their own lot by producing goods and services others need or want. Not a zero-sum world. “Capitalism,” if you will. (Marx’s biggest error was failing to foresee how capitalism would, rather than grinding the masses into deeper poverty, produce mass affluence.)

Yet distaste for capitalism, once more, pervades this book, for all its lamentation that some people are still poor. And of course, as with all indictments of capitalism’s evil, you will search in vain for any glimmer of an alternative system that would similarly make the masses richer rather than poorer. In fact, Buller does seem to endorse impoverishment, fatuously mooning about how life could actually be better, somehow, if we all decided to be satisfied with less.

Tell that to the world’s poor she keeps gnashing her teeth about. If governments did, as she seems to advocate, impose lower living standards, she’d be the first to lament that the rich would find ways to cope and thrive in that Brave New World, while the poor as usual get the short end of the stick.

Anyhow, there’s no attempt whatever to sketch out what her imagined “better” world would look like. Nor how we could conceivably get from here to there. But none of this deters her from demanding “bold changes,” positing “boundless possibility for things to be different.” Ah, the idealism of youth!

By the way, Buller types never seem to grasp that most people in the world earn their livings, and living standards, by working to produce stuff other people need or want. If we all did decide to cut back on “consumerism” and make do with less, a lot of people’s jobs would disappear. They in turn would be forced to cut back and spend less too. Eliminating yet more jobs. Economic growth gone savagely into reverse. A Brave New World indeed.

Meantime — yes! — climate change is a huge threat. And, at this point, rising temperature is baked in, there is no way we can avert some very severe harmful effects. No conceivable amount of emissions reduction can do the job — another reality this book refuses to acknowledge. So while it’s true that “green capitalism” won’t do it, the book’s own approach of imposing extreme governmental action and poorer lives won’t do it either. That too is an illusion. (Even aside from the question of whether voters in democracies would stand for it.)

Dealing with the now-unavoidable effects of climate change will require a lot of resources. Resources that economic growth can provide. If we really want to save ourselves (and especially the poorest), we’d better grow our economies as much as possible.

The Philosophy of Train Derailments: Stuff Happens

February 28, 2023

Firstly regarding the train derailment, it’s a sickening cheap shot for Republicans to fault President Biden for being in Europe, not Ohio. The derailment affects one community; the war in Europe threatens the whole world’s future. Besides, the federal government quickly tackled the derailment. And Republicans nitpicking that are doubly hypocritical because they were the ones who cut back on train regulation, a factor in this disaster.

The derailment spilled toxic chemicals with nasty environmental and human impacts. But a newspaper commentary I read* said it’s something even worse: a national security issue. Saying society’s main task is keeping us safe, and it’s failing. Our infrastructure is not up to snuff. Worse disasters could happen. The piece’s whole tenor was that no such accidents should ever happen.

I disagree.

I recalled a decades old case, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company’s costly Danskammer outage; a giant installation got badly damaged. The State Public Service Commission ordered an investigation, and I presided as administrative law judge. The facts showed Central Hudson had in place multiple safety backstops that should have prevented the disaster, but in the particular circumstances those safety features unforeseeably thwarted each other. My report posited a concept of normal accidents. In any big complex enterprise, a certain incidence of mishaps must be deemed normal. Part of the cost of doing business. Perfection is an unattainable standard. Stuff happens. And finding no way in which the utility’s management could be held negligent or culpable, I recommended no penalty.

The Commission disagreed and made the company eat the cost. Unwilling to be seen as a toothless watchdog exonerating the utility.

The Ohio derailment, we’re told, was preventable. Maybe so. But the train was below the speed limit; sensors functioned properly and alerted the crew to a dangerous overheating situation; they took action and braked. But that failed to prevent the derailment.

Of course the full picture is more complex. We’re also told the train was under-staffed. Balancing safety versus cost is a constant challenge in any operation. You can always be safer, but that has a cost, which can actually be not a prudent investment but a waste of resources. And it’s easy to second-guess such a judgment after an accident.

Those commentary writers did, again, talk about America’s aging infrastructure as a factor here, and that’s a valid concern. There, as a generalization, we aren’t optimally balancing cost and safety. President Biden’s trillion-plus infrastructure program is a significant rectification step, for which he’s not getting enough credit. Mainly because the results aren’t (so far at least) very visible. Which, in turn, is a consequence of a deeper problem, our sclerotic civic culture, making it hard to get anything big done, with infrastructure projects hobbled by nimbyism and pervasive regulatory quicksand.

Yet the Ohio derailment — like Danskammer — ought to be seen as a normal accident. Imagining that such things should just never happen is fundamentally wrong. Of course we should study such episodes with an eye to preventing recurrence. But we’ll never achieve an accident-free world.

If we didn’t have trains, we’d have no derailments. But if we do have trains, we have to expect occasional derailments (or other sorts of accidents). Having such a complex operation with nothing ever going wrong is a fantasy. Danskammer was a perfect illustration of how, despite all prudent precautions, accidents still happen, it’s in the nature of things.

Planes sometimes crash, but we don’t stop flying. Actually, the rarity of air crashes, in relation to miles traveled, is astounding. Given how inherently dangerous it must be reckoned to send multi-ton contraptions miles high, traveling hundreds of miles an hour, in all sorts of tumultuous weather. Here at least it seems we’ve got the balance of cost and safety pretty much right.

Cars crash too — driving is in fact far more dangerous than flying — but we don’t stop driving either. Darn courageous when you think about it.

These examples characterize the entirety of the human enterprise. We have indeed built a stupendously complex civilization, full of all sorts of inherently risk-laden operations — like airplanes, cars, railroads, power plants, and so much else — all of which works really remarkably well. With accidents, mishaps and failures, in the big picture, acceptably rare. While giving us a rich rewarding quality of life.

I don’t take it for granted. To me it’s all a veritable miracle. I’m thrilled by the world we’ve made.

Yes, stuff does happen. People even die.

But life itself is inherently dangerous, and everyone dies in the end. Before that, we face the dangers and live the best lives we can.


Democrats and Non-white Voters

January 27, 2023

I wanted to scream, hearing a recent radio panel discussion about voting rights legislation. The talk was all about “politicians” not caring enough to pass it.

I’m so fed up hearing such stuff. It’s not generic “politicians” blocking that legislation. Or gun regulation. Or immigration reform. It’s Republicans.

In fact, for Democrats, voting rights legislation is life-or-death. While for Republicans, blocking it is life-or-death. Both sides understand that every vote counts, in this closely divided nation. The more Black, Hispanic, and poor people vote, the more Democrats will win. That’s why Republicans have striven to make voting harder for those demographics. That’s why Blacks often must wait hours on line; rarely do whites.

Those minorities do favor Democrats. But not as strongly as they once did. In 2022, the Black vote for Democrats was down to 86%. One in five Black males backed Trump in 2020. His Latino support was 38%. Given, again, the closeness of the overall national partisan split, that erosion of Democrats’ key voting base is ominous. If Republicans add enough non-whites to their white nationalist base, they can win.

And why do any non-whites vote for what is in essence the party of white nationalism? It seems perverse.

Part of the explanation is cultural. Of course, while the GOP used to be the fat-cat party, and Dems the party of the downtrodden, that has largely reversed. At least Republicans have conned “forgotten Americans” by talking a good game, though without doing much for them. Trump even claimed to love the uneducated.

While Democrats have become the party of the educated. I hesitate to say the party of the intelligent; though they are more planted on Planet Earth, whereas Republicans are in comprehensive denial toward reality. But anyhow, even while non-whites continue being crucial in the Democratic party’s base, its educated segment — heavily white — looms ever larger, and increasingly to the left of where non-whites are.

Non-whites actually tend to be more conservative, when it comes to politics and economics, but also, especially, culturally. More religious than the average Democrat. Maybe not exactly hostile to all things LGBTQ, but uncomfortable with it, and thinking it’s too much in their faces. They’re also receptive to Republican immigrant-bashing, feeling their own status precarious, and thus sensing some economic threat from newcomers. Hispanic voters cannot be assumed to feel solidarity with Hispanic migrants.

You might suppose on one key issue, policing, non-whites would be all-in with Democrats. But that’s not so simple either. Blacks do want less ill-treatment by police — but not less policing. Republicans’ harping on crime resonates with them, since Blacks in fact are crime’s biggest victims.

Education is another major issue, and here Democrats (captive of teacher unions) seem deaf to Black interests. Opposition to school choice, with the standard line about “draining” resources from public education must strike many Blacks as a cruel joke, because their public schools often stink. That’s a key reason why racial economic and quality-of-life gaps persist. Poor schools aggravate non-whites’ societal disadvantage. While many “woke” Democrats are bedazzled by the fraught nonstarter idea of paying reparations for slavery, the nation cries out for more practical reparation in the form of decent schooling for Black kids.

The party’s left keeps insisting it can win by unabashedly offering red-meat left-wing nostrums. But that, as all the foregoing suggests, is more the problem than the solution. This is basically a center-right country, repelled by wokism’s extremes. It’s not the left-wing firebrands who do best electorally, but Democrats in the sensible center. The left isn’t helping.

I keep wishing America will come to its senses and reject the extremes on both sides. (But especially the crazed, dishonest, racist, downright un-American Republicans.) What we really need is a strong responsible centrist party. Fat chance. Meantime, for me, the Democratic party will have to do. At least they’re sane.

Biden at the Border: Democrats and Immigration

January 9, 2023

President Biden has now made a show of visiting the southern border. The one promise he made to me personally in 2020 was to end Trump’s cruel war on refugees and immigrants. “Immediately, immediately,” he told me.

He did swiftly reverse some of the worst of it, notably the child kidnapping. But we are far from restoring the status quo ante, leaving us actually still closer to the Trump regime than to what obtained before. Our refugee admissions remain way below pre-Trump levels. In fact, we continue to flout international and U.S. law concerning those who have a right to come here seeking asylum. The standard criteria — legitimate fears of home country maltreatment — are simply disregarded. People deported without even an opportunity to be heard.

The Biden administration also continued to enforce Trump’s notorious “Title 42,” a pandemic-inspired measure to turn back migrants on a public health pretext, long after that pretext had become plainly hollow. When the administration finally relented, (Republican) judges ruled it must continue applying Title 42. But surely it could choose to do so less zealously.

We’re now seeing a wave of refugees from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela — all viciously repressive human rights violators. Exactly what international principles for accepting refugees were conceived for. Yet Biden has now announced that migrants from these countries will instead be summarily ejected.

He did say we’d admit 30,000 of them monthly — provided they have a U.S. sponsor; pass background checks; go through bureaucratic hoops; and arrive by plane. Are you frickin’ kidding me? Arrive by plane? Yeah right; plenty will qualify.

Also terrible is our treatment of Afghan refugees, brought here in the wake of our shambolic surrender of the country. With many left behind. But many we took are now in bureaucratic limbo, in real danger of deportation.

For two decades we’ve been told what we really need is Congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform. We can’t even get legislation to regularize the status of “dreamers” brought here as children. But I’m fed up with hearing “politicians” and “dysfunctional Congress” faulted. No, it’s not generic “politicians.” As with so many other seemingly insoluble problems (notably guns), IT’S REPUBLICANS. They are the ones blocking action, with their absolutist hostility toward migrants (and worship of guns).

Democrats are called pussies for not standing up enough for the policies they believe in. President Biden does seem spooked by the “toxic” politics of immigration, toward which many Americans have fear and loathing. And yet those are actually a minority — indeed, a fairly small minority. For all the Republican shrillness on this issue (“open borders!”), a strong majority of voters embrace instead the ideals inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

They understand that we should take in refugees and immigrants not only because it is the right thing to do, noble and humane, but also because it benefits America. Rejuvenating our culture, making it richer and more vibrant. Migrants also make our economy richer — contributing more than they consume in resources.

And they replenish our labor force, as our population otherwise ages, with ever larger percentages in retirement. A key reason we see so many “help wanted” signs is because, since 2016, new arrivals to this country are way down. It’s a cliche that immigrants, rather than “taking jobs from Americans,” take the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. But they also fill many other gaps in our workforce. And our big labor shortage — forcing employers to offer higher wages to attract staff — is a major cause of inflation.

President Biden’s half-Trump measures to curtail immigration and refugee admissions won’t in any case gain him votes from migrant-haters. He, and the Democratic party, should stop being scared of their shadow when it comes to these issues. They know what’s right. They should do it, and loudly defend it.

Blacks Go Back to Africa

January 3, 2023

“Go Back to Africa!” the marchers chanted, shaking their torches. “Go Back to Africa!” their signs declared.

One small detail they overlooked. Black Americans’ ancestors hadn’t exactly come on tourist visas. It was not a “choice” (contrary to what Kanye said). Yet nevertheless, “Go Back to Africa!” the marchers intoned.

The next morning they awoke to find their wish granted! Black Americans had overnight all decamped to Africa.

It wasn’t reported in the newspaper. In fact, the first sign of something amiss was the paper not found on people’s porches that morning. Then they noticed the trash hadn’t been collected. To find out what the heck was going on, they turned on their smartphones, TVs, and radios, but none of those were functioning as normal either. So they went over to the local diner hoping their neighbors might have some information. But the diner wasn’t open. Nor was mail delivered that day.

All of it of course because the Blacks had gone back to Africa. All those who used to work to produce the daily paper, now gone. And the ones who’d worked on the garbage trucks. All those internet workers too; the TV and radio folks; the staff at the diner; the postal system personnel. And so many more, in every part of society. All those Black people who toil every day to make it function. All gone.

It quickly got worse. Much worse. Some bright bulbs thought they’d better head right over to the supermarket, to stock up on groceries and other necessities. Well, guess what.

Mad Max time.

Very soon another march was organized. This time without torches, and the chants were desperate: “PLEASE come back from Africa!”

But the Blacks couldn’t hear them from so far away.