Tag Archives: economics

Wasn’t me

In the past week, a few allegations of wrongdoing jumped back into the spotlight. From a failure to prevent mass lead poisoning to data journalism steadily descending into propaganda-crafting, almost everyone’s been predictably quick to shift blame elsewhere.

A humbling experience

That’s how still sitting Michigan governor Rick Snyder has described the medical crises in Flint. In his own words, they’ve been a “humbling experience” – for him naturally, the most important person in these cavalcade of missteps. From initially a story of rampant cost-cutting and the widespread destruction of local government in predominantly Black communities across Michigan, Snyder has recast the disaster that has left thousands of children exposed to horrifying levels of lead as a tragedy centered on him.

Like an archetypal king hypnotized by advisors with vile designs, Snyder is the true star of this story for having been misled by staff who supposedly convinced him that he would receive alarmist messages about Flint’s water supply. Snyder’s own intentions couldn’t be more clear, since part and parcel with this retelling of the catastrophe is labeling responsibility for the crisis as having been taken.

Whoopsy

Over the past year, calls for raising the minimum wage in many corners of the US as well as nationally have become an almost omnipresent part of the political discussion. More quietly but just as persistently, the popular demand for living wages reflective of the emerging economy has been met by pessimistic predictions of spiraling inflation and anemic employment. To arbitrate between the two, many have turned to data-driven journalists and academics, hypothetically armed with statistics and motivated by a zeal for unveiling the objective truth.

Except, that hasn’t happened. One of the most widely circulated looks into the economic outcomes of raising the minimum wage, penned by economics professor Mark Perry, has fallen under criticism for having drawn from multiple data sets while comparing Seattle (which raised its minimum wage) compared to the surrounding metropolitan area (which didn’t). This may sound minor, but this reads less like mixing together data to reached a more complete picture and matching figures to create the desired result. The goal was never to describe what was happening as a result of the new law, it was to manufacture a glossy statistical justification for a particular take on raised minimum wage.

Perry’s response since the writing of that and other articles describing this and other problems with his research has been to edit the charts in question, noting that the information comes from disparate data sources that aren’t ideal to cavalierly compare. He’s also added an addendum arguing in essence that there’s nothing to see here.

Not caught… not yet

In a bit of lighter news, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have taken the news that no US nationals appear to be implicated in the leaked Panama Papers to heart. They’re now asking the Justice Department to more carefully investigate the matter to make absolutely sure that that’s the case.

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The long shadow of the Panama Papers

For the last few days, world news has been abuzz about the world’s as of yet largest leak of private information, which are now being called the “Panama Papers.” Publicized by a German newspaper a year after being given them, the information is from a Panama-based investment firm specialized in offshore and otherwise tax evasive practices. Major names around the world have been listed as having engaged in hypocritical and at times criminal financial transactions designed typically to avoid paying the full tax cost owed to various countries and localities.

One of the central figures in the leak was Iceland’s former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who resigned on Sunday. Elected as a reformer who largely delivered on promises to turn Iceland’s economy back around, the revelation that he had profited from the financial reforms he oversaw through an undeclared and indirect investment essentially invalidated his political legitimacy.

2016-04-05_1414.pngCountries in which heads of state, high ranking public officials, or close associates have been named in the current leak.

Although uniquely duplicitous and corrupt, his place in the broader story of the Panama Papers actually speaks to a broader worry. His gains from Iceland’s economic restructuring weren’t just undisclosed, they were also untaxed. There’s a palpable failure of an Iceland-like series of new restrictions and standards on banks to address the ability of him and other Icelanders to strategically engage in capital flight. With Iceland facing warnings from international financial institutions over the costs of their response to the global crisis, this isn’t a trivial matter. It’s a shortfall in the millions if not billions globally, which in a political climate of widespread austerity has been felt worldwide by the classes who don’t have hidden bank accounts.

Outside of the Sanders-Clinton fight eating up US leftists’ attention, this is one of the system problems the “Warren Wing” has been hinting with growing volume. In the wake of anemic banking reforms, Elizabeth Warren’s individual focus has shifted somewhat towards addressing capital flight, even if just rhetorically. That’s just about the only ideological contingent in the US that can talk about this easily – for civil libertarians currently defending encryption this is an example of the public costs that high tech and high price secrecy can incur, for the more corporate friendly this only demonstrates the shady ethics of the economic order they defend, and for domestically-focused social democrat factions this represents the international scale of the problem which they often don’t acknowledge.

With a Democratic primary debate barely more than a week away, this is precisely the issue that both of them can and should be pressed on. Let’s see if CNN’s Wolf Blitzer brings it up.

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Genocide, Global Warming, and Garland

Dramatic announcements abounded this week, suggesting what issues to watch in the coming days.

Da’esh declared genocidal

On Monday, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that declared that the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq occupied by the Islamic State was genocidal. Several Christian advocacy groups, with varying relationships with the region, have taken this as something of a political victory, although the ramifications remain unclear – genocide is a crime, and there now exists a complex set of international courts designed to evaluate allegations of it.

As one interesting essay published by the Centre for Research on Globalization on this issue noted-

Using the word can itself be a moral assertion, and with that assertion comes the requisite action.  At least this is the theory – words generate expectations and the need for a physical component. Designating a conflict as genocidal triggers a range of obligations, as implied by the Genocide Convention itself.  The lawyers have to be mobilised; the police and military arms of the state must be readied for capturing the offenders, and more importantly, the imperative to take humanitarian measures might involve the use of armed force.

In short, it is telling that the clearest stipulation in the measure is that political figures “should call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” When it comes to actually responding to the reality of the violence it only vaguely suggests that “member states of the United Nations should coordinate urgently on measures to prevent further war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The language seems to suggest that both peacekeeping and international court activity are possible as a response, but this is only one stop in a longer conversation about what the US and and should do in the region.

California’s starting to hint at a carbon-neutral economy to come

After years of negative predictions about the Californian economy and expectations that economic alternatives capable of mitigating climate change come from English cities with names like Grimsby, Mother Jones has taken an in depth look at the emerging carbon-neutral economy in the state:

The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning and community development, says, “This is money we never expected.”

What’s more, the things that made the Californian economy such a nice target of criticism were basically what made this possible:

“You need the coercive power of government,” he told the crowd. One of the reasons why California’s utilities already get so much of their power from renewables, he said, was because “they have no choice. The government said, ‘Do it, or you’re going to pay huge fines.'” Brown likes to upend the standard argument about government regulation gumming up innovation. To him, it’s the opposite: Regulations push businesses to try new things.

How about that? The full article warns that the state’s regulatory bodies anticipate setting even more ambitious goals for the next decades, which it remains to be seen if California can meet.

Garland’s shoe-in

A cavalcade of House Republicans have accidentally opened up that they might bother to confirm Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The catch is that they are willing to do that provided the Democratic nominee wins in the general election in November, accepting the more moderate and older Garland over a hypothetical younger radical. Garland’s nomination on March 16 would then wait until November 8 at the earliest for confirmation or rejection. That “best case” would weigh in at a 236 day wait – easily a record in US history.

2016-03-18_1458(The most recent nominations, from here.)

In fact, the only nomination to that office that was more than half that amount of time was Louis Brandeis’ which clocked in at 125 days. His was tied up in part because of his connection to many then radically progressive causes, exacerbated by the fact that, as one fellow Justice put it, “the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

Garland, since he is also Jewish, wouldn’t be a similar first for the court, and actually was selected as an alternative to one – Sri Srinivasan, who would have been the first Hindu nominee. Likewise, although comparatively liberal in contrast to the Justice he would replace, he is in no way intimately tied to today’s radical causes – his primary work has been in fairly normal prosecutor duties related to terrorism. Will Republicans really wait that long to make the choice they expect they’ll have to make anyway?

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Economics helped decide the Michigan primaries, maybe more

The Progressive Caucus in the US Congress released their proposal for how the US should spend its money in 2017 earlier this month, and it’s garnered about as much attention as it typically does – which is to say virtually none. An executive summary is available here, which has a link to their full budget at the bottom.

Looking over it, it’s not exactly surprising to see it flounder in the recent news cycles. It’s exactly the sort of deliberate, careful accounting of resources and responsibilities that certain political elements have drummed out of politics. We can all argue about whether it offers the right solutions to the problems in this country, but it’s asking at least some of the right questions when many at that level of government won’t.

On the same day as that budget’s publication, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report on the effect of trade relations on employment within the US. It’s caught little more attention than the budget, unfortunately. Breaking it down by congressional district, the EPI only found two such districts where trade deficits with fellow signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) had a net positive impact on local employment. In stark contrast, a band across the middle of the country, stretching from the western Rust Belt down into the Deep South, is estimated to have lost staggering numbers of jobs to this international effect.

epi_tpp_trade_deficit.png
(An interactive version of this map can be found here.)

As the presidential primaries continue, both of the economic concerns these and other issues have stoked threaten to take center stage in the general election. Exit polling in Michigan showed majorities of voters in both major party primaries agree with the EPI assessment that international trade reduces the number of jobs in the US. These aren’t just meaningless statistics, but lived realities that help people decided whether and how to vote.

What’s more, the exit polling showed Donald Trump taking a large portion of the Republican primary voters who felt that way and an even larger majority in the Democratic primary supporting Bernie Sanders.The former has in many ways become a vehicle for political and economic fervor, as racist violence has routinely erupted at his events, including even ones held since the Michigan primary on Tuesday. The latter is already bringing his explicitly anti-TPP message to Ohio and Illinois. In an election cycle previously dominated by less economically-driven policy debates, economics has suddenly jumped back into center stage.

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Legacies

Antonin Scalia – the justice who gave us so much unnecessary contempt while handing down dismissive and even capricious decisions – died on Saturday. While many have focused on the astounding kerfuffle that’s developed, in which Senate Republicans apparently are going to avoid confirming a Supreme Court Justice for eleven months, I’m more interested in taking a moment to remember Scalia before his prominence in this “originalist” era begins to gather dust.

Justice Scalia was a man that’s easy to dismiss as a motley of contradictions. He demanded that LGBT people remain a criminalized class in the name of preventing governmental tyranny. He argued that Black people should receive lesser educational opportunities in the name of their own well being. He cheerfully supported the limits to election spending being the size of your donors’ pocketbooks in the name of free speech. Underneath these baffling justifications, so easily torn down – often delightfully by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is a kind of stunningly consistent judicial logic. His guiding principle seems to have been that the powerful could define how things were and should be, and that he was very glad to hold an appointed life-long position of power.

At times it’s been presented as a bastardization of his own claims to “textualism” that he supported such a deeply anti-democratic view of politics and the world. That of course involves a certain rosey look at the past that Scalia elevated into an all-encompassing justification. The writings he, and for that matter his colleagues on the court, pour over and cite either were written by or derived from the works of slave owners engaged in genocidal campaigns of colonization. Might makes right isn’t that much of an importation really. What set Scalia apart, even from other conservatives on the court, was his dogmatic insistence that the framers were literally never wrong.

Scalia was a product of an often forgotten era – of Reagan’s shining city upon a hill. The 1980s saw the sudden emergence of an almost mythic devotion to a historically murky period, drawing phrases from a 1630 sermon and connecting them to institutions born from a 1787 political convention. Reagan gave a voice to a conservative backlash to what for some was a frightening new world of LGBT liberation and the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t matter if they were nonsensical appeals to an inconsistent and complex past as long as they served those suddenly on the defensive as a source of comfort. Scalia’s constitutionalism was to some degree little more than an intellectually buttressed version of the same argument from historical authority in the name of authority itself.

The term-less appointment to the Supreme Court let Antonin Scalia sit as a reminder of that time period even while Reagan gave way to Bush, then Clinton, and ultimately Obama. Anthony Kennedy, a centrist alternative put forward after Robert Bork had made it too clear what power for power’s sake looked like, never so fully encapsulated what that Reagan-era moment in history looked like, and has had a judicial career that lived beyond it. Scalia was there alongside him of course, writing more dissents and opinions than almost any other justice in history, but his judicial outlook seemed frozen in time compared to Kennedy’s. At the end of the day, he could only shout at the slow but steady advancement past that Reagan-era reaction or align himself with the positively Macchiavellian rightwing adaptations to that new climate.

Even as people politically opposed to him – again there’s always Ginsberg – mourn him, there is some recognition in liberal circles that what has passed is not just this man but the era that produced him. Far more than former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s passing of his position to current Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia’s death portends a new structural alignment on the court. Any nominee from Obama, even a comparatively centrist one, is going to tip the fragile balance further to the left on most issues.

A Republican blockade against sitting any appointee from the president is the perfect procedural issue to fire up the liberal vote in the 2016 races, and an almost guarantee that another Democratic president would issue their nominations to a more friendly Senate in 2017. Insisting that no one be seated is a complaint with essentially no point, since the anger is that an era is over. Republicans might as well direct those complaints at the demographic shifts in the country, at the transformation of their social wedge issues into liabilities, at the failure of their promised prosperity to manifest for most.

Much like how liberal appointments in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s, the growing liberal bloc on the Supreme Court is a reflection of what has followed Reagan – Clinton’s and Obama’s two-term administrations. The Supreme Court serves as a sort of record of what came before, softly echoing the presidency and to a lesser extent congress. Part of what died on Saturday was the tangible impact of Ronald Reagan, and the political party which still holds debates at his presidential library doesn’t seem to be taking it well.

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Understanding our impacts

This month so far has been full of interesting and often worrisome news about climate change. Here’s a quick rundown of some new discoveries and other confirmations that are already helping us better understand the situation and respond to it.

The tropics swell

It’s long been theorized that one effect of global warming might be that the atmospheric and ocean currents that define the tropics might extend their reach, pushing pole-ward into territory normally regulated by other patterns of air and water movement. With places in the historical tropics seeing record strength storms, it certainly seems like there’s more energy within that part of the climate system. Expansion could be an outlet for that.

hadley-cell-feature-graphic-04.02.16(The Hadley, Ferrel, and polar cells often used to define tropical, temperate, and polar regions, from here.)

Atmospheric scientist Qiang Fu’s now published past decade of work might have confirmed that at least part of that is indeed happening. Some of the most rapidly changing temperatures in the lower atmosphere are happening just outside of the tropical Hadley cells. Previously affected primarily by air and water currents in the temperate parts of the planet, those seem to now be blasted by dry air expelled from the tropics especially in their summer seasons.

Their local climates are one of the stress points where the underlying changes that have already begun are showing more obviously, and for them, the changes are almost all negative – they’ll be hotter, drier, and less predictable. The flurry of droughts in places like California, Australia, Syria, and other already fairly dry places on the edge of the temperate zone indicate where things are headed. Especially in the last of those three, the political and economic ramifications of this are very apparent.

 Things get hazy

A strangely parallel story seems to be happening at the other major meeting point in the climate system – between the temperate and polar zones. In the northern hemisphere, recent years have been marked by a frequently and strongly negative Arctic Oscillation, meaning that the coldest temperatures aren’t as neatly cordoned off by winds near the pole itself as they typically are.

ao negative positive(Negative Oscillation on the left and Positive Oscillation on the right, from here.)

While that does allow for unusually cold air to sink into temperate areas, leading to phenomena like the “polar vortex” in early 2014, it’s not the same as the tropical zones’ expansion into temperate areas. It’s more of an indirect and inconsistent byproduct of the arctic polar cell becoming less stable and coherent, rather than beefed up and encroaching southward. Warmer air from the temperate zone invades it more thoroughly than colder air from the polar zone surges south. Global warming appears to have supercharged these periodic fluxes, bringing warmer air more consistently to the far north.

Although the mechanics of how that happens aren’t fully understood, what is clear is that a surge of unseasonably warm air into the high arctic in the middle of winter is leading to surreal paucity of sea ice. An area of ice more than half the size of Alaska is simply missing, mostly replaced by the darker open water. That’s a new challenge for the ecosystems in that part of the world as well as a worrying suggestion of what more of the world as a whole might like look soon. Worse yet, unlike the lighter ice, the water easily absorbs the sun’s heat, furthering local and global warming.

Accelerating risks

At the other end of the world, the antarctic climate is similarly unstable. The Guardian’s recent report on the long term problems posed by a dramatic sea level rise succinctly described the looming threats to the southern pole:

“We can’t keep building seawalls that are 25m high,” said [Oregon State University Professor Peter] Clark. “Entire populations of cities will eventually have to move.”

By far the greatest contributor to the sea level rise – about 80% – would be the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. Another new study in Nature Climate Change published on Monday reveals that some large Antarctic ice sheets are dangerously close to losing the sea ice shelves that hold back their flow into the ocean.

Huge floating sea ice shelves around Antarctica provide buttresses for the glaciers and ice sheets on the continent. But when they are lost to melting, as happened the with Larsen B shelf in 2002, the speed of flow into the ocean can increase eightfold.

Johannes Fürst, at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany and colleagues, calculated that just 5% of the ice shelf in the Bellingshausen Sea and 7% in the Amundsen Sea can be lost before their buttressing effect vanishes. “This is worrying because it is in these regions that we have observed the highest rates of ice-shelf thinning over the past two decades,” he said.

The antarctic is reaching a key tipping point after which it might start to look drastically different from today, with implications that will be felt around the world.

The good news

Against this backdrop of on-going disasters and horrifying possibilities, a commonly pointed out silver lining is that the transition away from fossil fuels and other aspects of our economic system that drive climate change can have positive economic impacts. A look at one of the regions in the UK furthest along transitioning to clean energy sources suggests that isn’t a far fetched expectation at all.

Grimsby, located on the southeastern coast of England, has historically had exactly the type of economy long criticized for being shortsighted. From fishing to heavy manufacturing, its historical economy was unsustainably built on a model of endless extraction and processing. The main exception to that was the military presence, a source of economic stimulus with its own problems and pitfalls. Given that, Grimsby was until recently a “blackspot” of unemployment, and widely considered economically depressed and unstable.

Interestingly, local action to implement more green technology has largely come about with the private adoption of solar and other clean power sources. That said, that transition seems to have been inspired by national action. The economic interconnections between those still living and working in the area and the United Kingdom’s offshore wind energy helped spur independent projects to create lower impact power sources. A small step towards a greener economy can ripple outwards unexpectedly, but still positively.

As daunting as the tasks ahead are, the study of them is helping us better predict what to anticipate and the study of our own economies is assuaging any fears that we can’t easily address them.

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Skirmish of the Titans

For a while, energy policy in the US has been characterized by many as a sort of apocalyptic battle between a group of interconnected fossil fuels industries and a kind of scrappy coalition of underdog competitors.

Even I’ve written about energy proposals somewhat from that angle myself, where policies fairly neatly cleave into two adversarial camps. There’s those that recognize the risks of climate change and those that don’t and the outcomes on how you want government to work as a result. There’s those that see resource renewability as a key issue and those that don’t, giving us economic policies based on endless resource extraction and those based on resources being possible to exhaust. There’s those that want to create a new energy system and those that want to double down on maintaining what they already have, creating a competition for federal research funds between those who want to improve the viability of solar panels and those who want to perfect the science of dredging oil from the earth. They’re two different worlds and two different political realities struggling to live together in just one.

That dynamic seems to be changing somewhat, however. The anemic coal industry has slowly reached the realization that fracking and other innovations extracting other fossil fuels are at least some of its biggest competitors, joining if not quite replacing renewables and regulatory oversight as its bogeymen. The huge leak of natural gas in California has called into question the natural gas industries not so subtle claim to being the safest fossil fuel energy source. Ethanol producers, long seen as a fossil-fuel-like and fossil-fuel-cooperative energy industry a bit like the nuclear industry, has emerged as a competitor for favor and support within the same Republican energy-minded circles. There’s no outright conflict between any of these powerful industries yet, but there’s a new sense of fractures between them.

There’s a sense that these different industries feel crowded together within the US marketplace. The Republican energy policy proposals expected to be put to a vote before Congress in the coming days seem to attempt to address those feelings in a number of ways. Lifting the ban on export for certain energy commodities might allow fuels like coal which aren’t terribly competitive domestically to be exported to where they might be (or at least, whoever buys them thinks they are). On the other end of these industries, reopening certain federal lands to speculation and extraction might similarly allow all of these possible competitors to co-exist again. Failing that, it might at least create a feeling that they can all get along. From production to sales, the focus in “adult” Republican circles has shifted towards carving out a big enough space for all of these different industries, seemingly to keep the peace.

20140111_FBM959
From here.

Curiously, this would politically put the Republicans in the place of actively governing, and at that in a way that would be to reduce competition within one of the biggest markets in the US. That’s in a nutshell precisely what they’ve branded themselves as being opposed to. In spite of the risks, they appear ready to do anything to avoid wasteful conflicts between your biggest donors, particularly as even mainstream discussions about energy sources have started talking about keeping all of it in the ground. That’s a bit of a tell – they think they might need a united front in the coming years, and are willing to spend political points today to have one tomorrow.

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Socialism here, socialism there

In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.

In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.

Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:

HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”

SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”

His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.

I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.

Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:

“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”

The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.

The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.

It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.

It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.

To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.

That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.

qatar migrant workersMigrant workers in Qatar, from here.

There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.

In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.

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Economic justice… for whom?

It’s one of the familiar just so stories about US politics that’s become crystal clear in recent decades. The Democrats want to maintain or even expand programs designed to provide economic resources and benefits to people with less. Republicans want to shrink or dismantle those types of programs. One party for workers, one party for the “1%”, so the story goes.

Even the candidates who look like exceptions – like Donald Trump with his promises to maintain social security and medicare – tend to ultimately reveal policy ideas that firmly locate them in the political party that they’ve already embraced (Trump, for example, thinks “wages [are] too high” – an implicit criticism of current minimum wage standards).

More interesting, I think, than those less easily categorized oddballs are the terms on which the debate between these two camps is being held. Economic redistribution and inequality are actually somewhat lofty, vague even, concepts. How to measure, to quantify them is an open question. The language tends to be like that in what I’ve linked above – a discussion focused on easily indexed numerical statistics: wages, entitlements, inflation, productivity, unionization.

That’s not a wrongheaded way of talking about who wins and who loses in the US economy, but it’s just one way of doing that. Unfortunately, it’s a way shaped by, and sometimes specifically for, articulating a particular group’s economic grievances. One of the easiest ways of seeing that is in terms of communities with large numbers of undocumented people – for whom income taxes are a murky territory and benefits exist in a similarly unclear limbo.

For largely Latin@ agrarian worker communities, how do you quantify being an exception to environmental regulations? For the far broader set of populations at risk of being targeted with detention or even deportation, how can that not be among other things an economic threat – both held over you by your boss and your landlord but also just ominously lurking outside your home, endangering everything you have.

2016-01-04_1015.pngLeft, 2012 chlorpyrifos use in the western US, from here. Right, a heatmap of Latin@s in the western US made using the 2010 census, from here.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has recently sought to highlight a difference between their candidate and Trump. Sanders is a meaningful, redistributive choice. Trump is manipulating some of those hoping for greater economic opportunity, without any intention to deliver on it. In order to prove that, the Sanders campaign has latched on to Trump’s comments on wages.

Why was that necessary? Trump has already spoken to a more wild set of economic policies designed to hoard resources for some. That’s one of the things inherent in his promise to deport millions of people. That is economic injustice, and it’s important to ask why it hasn’t been considered that by the largely non-Latin@ mainstream media or presented as that by the redistribution-centered campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Is the economic populism advanced by Sanders and tolerated within major media really for everyone? Whose concerns does it speak to? Whose concerns does it barely register?

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The second of the three spirits

This is the third post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here, the second chapter’s post here, or the full series.

Just as last week’s chapter began with Scrooge alone in bed, this one does too. Once again, Scrooge has shrunk back from a message critical of his actions. First he retreated somberly and almost automatically to bed after meeting Marley’s ghost, but now, he has also more aggressively shut out the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

That spirit had shown him something that pained Scrooge – his own steady transformation into the person he is at present. Although the seeds for self isolation and miserliness had always been in him, a lengthy series of choices led him to embrace those parts of his life, and be pickled in his own vitriol and contempt.

Isolated in his room again, awaiting yet another spirit, he’s beginning to have something of a change of heart, however. After awakening in bed, he doesn’t passively await the spirit while insisting they won’t come. Instead, “finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands, and lying down again, established a sharp lookout all round the bed.” Previously impervious to cold and socially withdrawn, him being spurred to interaction by a chill shows the beginnings of a changed nature.

This spirit, perhaps reacting to Scrooge’s inching towards a return to social life, awaits him this time around, in the next room. The light emitted from him eventually draws Scrooge from bed – again, having him relinquish his isolating tendencies – and Scrooge walks in on the spirit. The spirit makes a luxurious first appearance, which is often lovingly rendered in stage and video adaptations:

“It was [Scrooge’s] own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as the dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time or Marley’s, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-checked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy stat upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”

Where the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before Scrooge almost faded – a mixture of forgotten good moments and ignored negative ones – this spirit comes as a loud proclamation of what Scrooge is missing out on. His bounty appears before Scrooge as physical and even edible. As they go on another Christmas tour, through the present holiday not Scrooge’s past, he seems to imply it isn’t ultimately one that you have, let alone eat. Instead, it’s one that you share.

As they travel, Scrooge witnesses the spirit blessing a number of meals, of all different sorts of people, and this conversation happens between them:

“‘Would [the blessings] apply to any kind of dinner on this day?’ asked Scrooge. ‘To any kindly given. To a poor one most.’ ‘Why to a poor one most?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Because it needs it most.'”

With that, they begin a rather harrowing look at how the other half lives, which Scrooge so casually dismissed from concern in the first chapter. The tour begins with Scrooge’s own underpaid clerk, who is cheerfully reunited with his eldest daughter, who has moved out of home to be a milliner’s apprentice. Even amid the joy in seeing her, however, the tone of the day has somber moments. Scrooge’s clerk had previously been at Church with his youngest and disabled child – Tiny Tim.

When discussing him with his wife and eldest children, his “voice was tremulous when he told them [about their morning at Church] and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire, and while [Scrooge’s clerk], turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round”.

This is the life that someone in comparatively good economic standing could have in Scrooge’s time. He is not ensnared in poverty and hardship – which will be seen later – but he and his family live with constant interruption, reminding them of how fragile their lives are and how economically vulnerable they remain. Nothing, I think, shows this better than the description of their Christmas dessert as they bring it out:

“A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’ next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered = flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

Unlike others, soon to be seen, the Cratchits do live with a certain amount of material comfort. But even in their celebrations there are the looming prospects of how much they must do (and soon) to maintain what little good things they have, making even a pudding not just a triumph but one that reminds them of a series of different economic activities. In our era in which the presence of basic comforts is so routinely used to cast doubt on the seriousness of economic vulnerability or limitation, this stands out as a profound portrayal of how living without enough, even a small amount less, is debilitating.

The labor they need to perform permeates even their rest days and the ominous threat of costs that can never be fully covered – most obviously proper nutrition and otherwise treatment for Tiny Tim. Scrooge, watching these private moments is moved, and asks if Tiny Tim will live, presumably meaning to a reasonable, adult age.

“‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'”

He then gives Scrooge something of a ticking clock, by implying it is most likely to happen before the following Christmas. Scrooge is horrified to hear this, only to have the spirit hurl his words back at him: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.'”

From this, the spirit guides Scrooge through miners’ and sailors’ Christmas celebrations, showing those in even more precarious standing and with even less to celebrate with than Scrooge’s clerk and his family. In this, Scrooge sees the faces of those he had so coldly called expendable surplus lives the day before.

They travel everywhere, however, and ultimately see Scrooge’s nephew’s celebrations. The games at their party ultimately culminate in a kind of older version of twenty questions, in which it is ultimately revealed that the moody animal that walks the streets of London is revealed to be none other than Scrooge, who declined to join them.

Scrooge laughs off the joke, showing a previously unseen sense of humor, but an often overlooked exchange comes about after that reveal among the guests. “[S]ome objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes,’ as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.”

What’s suggested here are two things – that Scrooge has become a distant and often overlooked subject to many of these people and that when he is considered, it’s not entirely in human terms. It’s at that point that Scrooge sees something also curiously between human and animal protruding from his accompanying spirits cloak. “‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply” before he lifts the hem of its robe, showing “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, [and] miserable.”

ignorance and want final
From here.

The spirit disavows parenthood of them, saying that they belong to men. He introduces them: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow, I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

Often, this is read as a warning that those with fewer resources – for education or more immediate wants and needs – are a scowling, almost subhuman threat if left unfed. Reading this immediately after Scrooge himself is noted to be similar at the edge of humanness and has come to grips with his ignorance of what life in poverty is like, however, it seems more as though Scrooge is the clawing child. He maybe be threatened by the “Doom” written upon him, but he is also the unsavory and dangerous threat himself.

This is the second spirit’s last moment with Scrooge, for it then disappears at the stroke of midnight, leaving him alone except for “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, to him.”

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Reproductive freedom is economic stability

Trigger warning: abortion, sexual assault / rape, sexism, cissexism

Against the backdrop of the Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood, that and other abortion-providing organizations have seen not only intimidating violence but institutional attempts to shutter their doors of the past few years.

Concentrated in Republican-controlled states, one of the strictest provisions on abortion providers is set to advance to the Supreme Court for review with a decision expected in late Spring of next year. That ruling will affect the legality and further room available to legislatures in at least a score of states which if current trends continue would likely restrict abortion further if given the option.

Former Texan state Senator Wendy Davis appeared on national news recently to discuss the potential ramifications of that ruling. As part of a changing voice within the debates surrounding abortions and other reproductive healthcare, she explained that to her and others like her abortion access is not only a means of physical, bodily autonomy, but also a lifeline to basic control over personal financial planning. In her own words, “when women’s reproductive autonomy is controlled, their economic opportunity is controlled.”

Wendy Davis during her Texas Senate filibuster

Former state Senator Davis, while filibustering a new set of restrictions on abortion in 2013, from here.

With her limited time, Davis couldn’t expand on her point about the economics of reproductive healthcare to those seeking abortion or similar services. Others have made it clear how the people most in need of an option other than pregnancy, let alone parenthood, typically have the fewest resources to devote to simply accessing an abortion. With a dwindling number of providers in many of these states, someone finding themselves in that sort of situation would have to spend more money to travel further and most likely take off time from work to avoid the huge economic costs of pregnancy or parenthood.

This is typically where the moralizing starts. The unnecessarily incurred costs to access an abortion under these increasingly difficult restrictions are, supposedly, just the price paid for failing to abstain from sex or to use birth control. The people most likely to seek out abortions for economic reasons, however, are also the people with most inconsistent and mistaken sex education and the fewest resources to commit to a birth control regimen.

Running through that understanding of how they became pregnant, there’s a presumption that the pregnant person necessarily consented to have sex. In addition to sexual assault, there’s also the (not at all hoped for) failure of birth control plans, which is more likely the less consistent and less accurate the sex education on receives. There’s a number of factors at play here, but it’s clear that people with fewer resources to draw on are more likely to end up stuck in this type of situation.

Likewise, overwhelmingly the opponents of access to abortion want to similarly restrict sex education and access to contraceptives, offered by organizations like Planned Parenthood far more often than abortion services. The intent doesn’t appear to be preventing abortion, so much as making it a shameful and shame-able activity. The political goal isn’t to end abortion, but to hide it within a nightmarish corner of the world that the broader society doesn’t have to consider.

The moralizing isn’t just another conversation intruding into others’ personal reasons for preferring to have an abortion, for those with that perspective, it is the conversation. The desire to be a parent, filled with a kind of urgency that accepts the financial and other costs of that, is either treated as universal or is evangelized – without hearing that other people, directly living the effects of that decision, have different priorities.

Even as abortion in popular conversation is increasingly a part of an economic plank – argued for in combination with improved education, greater access to other healthcare, and better personal financial standing in general – there’s ways in which it is left out of a broader economic argument. It’s still often thought of as a separate issue, even if one increasingly harmonious with a broader view of how to structure the economy.

The Economic Policy Institute, for example, excluded it from their recently released twelve-point Women’s Economic Agenda. Aspects of their policy plank address the underlying economic issues by calling for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, asking for policies to encourage labor organization, and specifically for an end to wage theft and wage discrimination. All of those are key financial factors that weigh heavily in the decisions of many to have an abortion.

Some policy prescriptions even more directly confront the economic situation that many pregnant people find themselves in. The agenda also called for greater access to childcare, as well as paid family and sick leave. Those are often specific economic realities that motivate people unsure if they can become parents to decide that they aren’t in a place where they can have children. In short, the policies here are designed to give people the resources to become parents, if they so choose.

What’s more, some of those policies useful to parents are also useful to those who for other reasons aren’t interested in having children at this time. The call for longer term scheduling, to ease planning, is vital for parents to be able to best interact with their children. It also is one of the key ways for someone who needs an abortion to plan ahead and not face the prospect of forgoing a potentially significant amount of pay to avoid the even larger costs of pregnancy and parenthood.

In short, this emerging set of policies, which has deep ties to a progressive vision of how to improve the current economy,  is rather compatible with the increasingly economic argument for retaining or even improving access to abortion. Still, abortion remains another issue for now, and has yet to be specifically invoked in the broader policy plank.

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The first of the three spirits

This is the second post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here or the full series.

When we last left Scrooge, he had shrugged off the bizarre supernatural experience he had had and gone straight to bed. His procession to bed is described hastily and vaguely, leaving an impression that he is drawn to bed by a strange gravity.

Pushing the weird interpretations of what is happening to him to the side, it does come off like he’s avoiding. Considering how much he has cut himself off from the world in a kind of pre-death, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t have adopted avoidance strategies, to maintain his separation from people. Now, however, he’s using it to put distance between himself and a fantastical mix of supernatural sights and experiences.

Having cut himself off from the world, Scrooge wakes up from his sleep woefully confused. He remembers it as having been in the wee hours of the morning that he had gone to bed, but it’s the chime of twelve, presumably midnight’s, that wakes him.

Curious explanations come to him – that he’s slept through the day into Christmas night, that it’s the apocalypse and all has become night – but none of that really seems to fit. Because he has no one in his home with him, there’s no one to clarify what time or even day it is. Oddly, it doesn’t occur to him to reach out and find someone to help make sense of his incomprehensible reality. Keeping himself cloistered has become so second nature that he can’t call for help from others to make sense out of the inexplicable.

His isolation and madness are interrupted by the chime of one, which Scrooge greets by stating that “nothing else” has come.

“Lights flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of the bed were drawn. The curtains of the bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them”

Who had barged into Scrooge’s room? This is one of those details that almost every video adaptation I’ve seen has failed utterly in. Here’s how the original describes it – yes, that is the pronoun used:

“It was a strange figure – like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white, as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.”

Its paradoxical nature is felt even in its accessories:

“It held a branch of fresh, green holly in its hand and, in singular contradiction to that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers.”

In spite of this explosion of oddity directly into Scrooge’s face, there’s one particularly attribute Scrooge first admits is oddest about it: the light that poured from its crown (which he presumes is why it carries an extinguisher, like for a candle, at its side like an unworn hat). After a moment, another aspect of it eclipses that, however:

“For as its belt sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body, of which dissolving parts no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And, in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever.”

This is some unsettling, intrusive spirit that enters into Scrooge’s personal space in the midst of him being confused about unexplained events. Confronted with that kind of compounded oddness, Scrooge reacts in a telling way. He attempts to shut off contact.

“Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him, but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap and begged him to be covered.

The spirit brushes off the request and makes it clear that it is there to shine and benefit him. It takes him by the hand and pulls him into what for many is a familiar romp through Scrooge’s past.

What’s often lost in adaptation’s at times perfunctory tour through Scrooge’s past are the ominous signs that he was being pushed into the type of bitter and isolated old age he now finds himself in. While Scrooge was not always distant from others and prone to separating himself, the patterns of that were foreshadowed ominously even in his childhood.

The first Christmas memory of Scrooge’s that he and this spirit visit shows him unvisited by family at school during the holiday, abandoned by friends, and mistreated by school staff. Confronting that past is a difficult process for Scrooge.

“It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire and Scrooge sat down upon a form and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.

In the next memory, in which his sister fetches him from exile at his school, one of the revealed aspects of his life is that his father instilled him and others with a doubt that they would be loved and respected. Without any assurance of appreciation and dignity, Scrooge has nothing to trust in but what he himself can create – potentially through purchases.

Even as these early childhood memories of neglect and ultimate inclusion march past, his early adulthood full of apprenticeships and other economic arrangements shows him curiously on the periphery of the holiday celebrations. The full blown avoidance of social interaction that highlights his later life was prefigured in a slower retreat earlier in life. He slid out of the social sphere, into more extreme isolation.

While his retreat had in some sense started, he was active enough in the world that he remembered certain lessons well. The spirit goads him into explaining the financial returns on the Christmas feast thrown for him, a fellow apprentice, and almost everyone else working in the shop’s vicinity.

“[The shop owner] has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Charles Dickens, who himself had worked for a short time as a child laborer, is making the case for an economy centered on human wants and comfort, and what’s more having it tumble out of Scrooge’s mouth. In both Dickens’ time and ours, that’s a contested point. Then and now, resources are tightly concentrated in the hands of a few, and the basic security and happiness of almost everyone else is simply a cost to be questioned.

This can be seen in the on-going debate about whether healthcare is a human right. It’s also visible in the proliferation of work environments in which everything possible is done not to benefit the workers – with wage theft, stagnant wage growth, a proliferation of unpaid positions, and debates over the continuation of pension and entitlement programs. One of the first policy questions to come before the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was about family leave, and his answer was entirely in that vein: that work in general should be structured to allow or even encourage everyone’s happiness is silly. His time with his family is a privilege he would like, however.

By the time his Christmas memories reach what the book describes as his prime years, Scrooge’s face has “begun to wear the signs of care and avarice.” His silent participation had begun to be eclipsed by an as-yet unnamed “eager, greedy, restless motion”. As his older self witnesses him parting ways with his almost-wife, his younger self shows the signs of someone beginning to withdraw from the broader world.

That woman looks “with steadiness upon him,” and asks, “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now?” The book describes how his younger self in the moment “seemed to “yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself.” Guided by the spirit, his older self sees him retreating inwards, cutting his ties.

That is the conclusion he unfortunately reaches in adulthood, from seeds sown in his childhood. He echoes the cheapness that his old schoolmaster tended towards – who served stale food to him and his sister and offered a servant something even worse. The coldness of his father, who sent him away for school, returns in his chilly romance. His own dead-like nature has begun to emerge after his sister has ominously disappeared from his Christmas memories.

From that memory between him and his unnamed romantic partner, they look in something akin to horror on a Christmas he had been elsewhere. On the Christmas of Marley’s death, his would-be-wife and her actual husband enjoy a Christmas with their children and speak of him briefly. Her husband had seen him “quite alone in the world” in passing earlier that day.

Overcome by the children he never had and the wife he never married, Scrooge begs that the spirit shield him from this tour of his past, only to look on it and see “a face in which, in some strange way, there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him.” Scrooge’s own tumultuous, unstable past has come to confront him, and he fights it, grabbing “the extinguisher cap and by a sudden action pressed it down upon [the spirit’s] head.”

Ghost_of_Christmas_Past

From here.

He buries his past just as he cuts off his connections in the present, and leaves himself alone to avoid those in worse places than him. He finds himself in his room again and falls into a deep slumber, just like after meeting Marley’s ghost.

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Dark, darker, darkest

Trigger warning: racism, islamophobia, mass surveillance

Black Friday – it’s a kind of cartoonishly negative image of Christmas. All the (supposed) piety and charity in the traditional holiday is darkly countered in today’s crass materialism and determined search to maximize savings. It’s a day when the darker side of human nature comes out more than we might realize. Here’s a quick look at that in the news from today and earlier this week.

The New York Mag’s Jonathan Chait put together a somber examination of the dangerous rhetoric that’s become common stock in conservative politics. In the wake of the Paris attacks, one of his interesting observations is how President Obama’s ruling out of a full-scale invasion of Syria or Iraq has mutated the post-attack paranoia into a more inwardly-focused xenophobia. What I’d argue is the most haunting part of his piece, however, is this:

“[Trump’s] talent for manipulating the darkest emotions of the conservative id, while minimizing specific policy commitments, has been on full display. In every public appearance, he emitted new, authoritarian-sounding warnings. ‘We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,’ he vowed. ‘We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.’ Every new sound bite set off a profitable fervor of media speculation, forcing other candidates to raise the bidding or be left behind. ‘It’s not about closing down mosques,’ insisted Rubio, placing himself rhetorically to Trump’s right, ‘it’s about closing down anyplace — whether it’s a café, a diner, an internet site — anyplace where radicals are being inspired.'”

While the fear of the Other blazes in the background – America conventionally goes to its big box stores today. Economics journalists are sounding the alarm that the loss-leading sales that define the holiday aren’t as business-savvy as they might seem. Black Friday has managed to attract a deal-conscious fan base, not motivated by brand loyalty but by getting the best offer. In short, stores have to offer discounts that don’t actually make them money (or far less than usual) – but that’s acceptable since the point is to outcompete everyone else, not to turn a profit.

8211477498_34b6ee9b0a_o2012 Black Friday crowds in New York City, from here.

Faced with that type of market failure, where the fight is over who loses the least, there’s one basic solution: expand. Black Friday deals have begun coming to the UK – another corporate import from their former colony. If crowds can be turned out over there like those that created the deal-driven celebrations in the US, then maybe international companies can sell at a loss here and recreate their historical sales profits over there. That could keep them in the black, at least until a similar customer base for the holiday develops in the UK. Then, they go shopping for another set of buyers – maybe Australia next?

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A tale of two capitalisms

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have kicked up quite the commotion within the Democratic Party in the past couple of weeks. I’ve mentioned before how Sanders’ presidential campaign has pushed fellow candidate Hillary Clinton into adopting more substantive promises to the liberal base, particularly when it comes to affordable access to education. More than a few observers have noted how this has stoked the less obvious competition within the Democratic Party over what economic policies the leaders of the party will advance.

That’s just what’s happening within the presidential primary, however, as Elizabeth Warren is similarly galvanizing the Democrats’ economic left in the Senate. Even while Sanders’ defense of reinstating Glass-Steagall regulations on banks has captured the media’s attention, it’s easy to see Warren’s less eye-catching work on those and other issues. In a traditional legislative dynamic, her criticisms and suggestions to the financial industry and the broader economic system both suggest she might block financial deregulation in the Senate and help inspire left-leaning Democrats in the House to directly oppose it.

Beyond opposing a conservative vision for the economy, Warren and like-minded congressional representatives have begun presenting the type of reforms that are anathema for Republicans and distasteful to the more corporate-friendly Democratic circles. She began a speech last week by deflating the calls for lowering corporate taxes, and from there moved to a progressive tax proposal arguing that “revenue generated from corporate taxes is far too low.”

As a part of that, she delivered deeply topical response to the economic conversations being had among both conservatives and centrist Democrats about lowering the taxes collected on international companies to encourage them to remain in or return to the US. As Warren explained, “Fortune500 companies proudly proclaim that they are making record-breaking profits, and then they hire armies of lawyers to make sure they don’t pay taxes on those record-breaking profits.” With Carl Icahn having openly done this, she seems to have a point. She wasn’t kidding about the armies, either, as she noted-

“In just the past ten years, the amount of untaxed, off-shore profit has increased nearly five-fold. In other words, one of the hottest investments in America in the past decade hasn’t been biotech or big oil, it’s been tax lawyers. The money sheltered overseas is now about the same as the combined total earnings of all US corporations in 2013.”

Big-short-inside-the-doomsday-machine

“The Big Short” is, according to Warren, actually the big siphon.

She points out that the push for lowering taxes in the US to be competitive is being driven by other country’s somewhat collective efforts to “shut down tax dodges”. The main companies keeping their money perpetually between countries to avoid taxes in either are looking for a deal competitive with their current set-up that can replace the looming risk of tax litigation.

Centrists like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and business-centered Republicans like Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) have been happy to offer that kind of a deal, including deemed repatriation (one-time giveaways on sheltered companies that keeps them from paying the full cost of back taxes).

As I’ve noted before, one of the most salient differences between the parties in the coming election appears to be their distinct understandings of economics and capitalism. What Sanders and Warren seem to have done is created that, not only by pushing some centrists like Clinton further to the left, but also by making others like Schumer into obvious examples of the centrist wing, rather than just another Democrat.

It’s become common to argue that the two parties are essentially indistinguishable on economics. It’s true that they are both offering, for the most part, fundamentally modern capitalist economics. That said, the specific prescriptions within that type of economic thought have begun to notably diverge. Their common worldview isn’t as shared as one might suspect.

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Coal lights the way

Perhaps it’s because the heart of coal country – West Virginia and Kentucky – won’t be voting in the presidential primaries until relatively late in the season next Spring, but coal hasn’t capture the conversation quite as much as it has in prior campaigns. As a commodity, it’s deeply implicated in almost all of the issues raised in both major parties – climate change, energy availability, domestic economic competitiveness – but it’s become something of a pariah.

Lewis Wickes Hine

A West Virginia coal mine entrance, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1908. From here.

Quietly however, a few prominent politicians have still come out recently with policies for the industry and its most intense regions of operation in the US. That there is a space for the government to do something to help is, surprisingly, something of a bipartisan concern, particularly advanced by the more business-centered wings of both major parties.

Still, that’s about where agreement ends. Republicans led by Ohioan Republican Senator Rob Portman have called for investment to encourage innovations within the coal industry, particularly to capture carbon emissions. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, instead suggested a broader revitalization project to address any negative outcomes of her environmental policies. It aims to shore up public education in the region and expand access to job training, in case the industry’s workforce ends up being reduced.

In spite of their differences, both proposals attempt to shrink the climate footprint of the US and improve the economic lot of the people of Appalachia. Their different ways of going about those goals, however, indicate a subtly distinction between the typical economic policies from the major parties. The government filling in for the failure of investors to create a drive for carbon-capturing power plants is basically a gentle nudge on the existing market dynamics. The government creating opportunities for people to enter different industries is equally capitalist and competition-minded, actually, but understands the government’s role differently. Instead of redirecting the occasional dinner conversation, the government puts a lot of thought into the seating chart and lets conversations develop organically from there.

What this speaks to is a broader disagreement on how capitalism and economics necessarily function, or at least potentially could. From the conservative perspective, private ownership is absolute and can only rarely and carefully be circumscribed. From eminent domain to taxation, the government is begrudgingly permitted to get involved, but with the constant expectation that it should explain its reasons why and quickly get back out.

For liberals on the other hand, and that doesn’t mean anti-capitalists, the understanding is that the government has always been involved, if for no other reason than it sets up the courts and legal standards that create our understanding of ownership and award different people ownership of different goods, territories, or resources. The government’s involvement is a constant – as it continually maintains the legal, social, and political systems and expectations that basically create the economic system.

It’s a shame that coal has ended up on the back burner of US politics, because the policies around it have created such a great example of the contrasting understandings of the world and ideas about how it should work which the two major parties are offering.

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