Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 May 2016

Hillary’s Fatal Need to be Loved


Psychoanalyzing pols may seem both inappropriate and futile. Besides professional acting, theirs is probably the most dissimulating of professions. But some pols do odd things that beg for analysis. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two.

So it’s intriguing that these two, of all people, are likely to be rival contenders for the presidency come July. What’s more fascinating is that, quite apart from gender, they appear polar opposites.

The Donald goes out of his way to offend and insult people. He’s almost a caricature of Jon Stewart’s caricature of a New Jerseyite. He can say easily, in effect, “Ya ugly an’ stupid. Ya motha weahs combat boots, and ya faddah’s a no-good, lying, rapin’, murderin’ furrinah. No offense.” Trump’s famous insult to Mexican immigrants was very close to that.

Trump doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him or what he says publicly. He says whatever pops into his head at the moment. Many voters love him for that. They love his “spontaneity” and “authenticity.” They adore his penchant for mouthing, and thereby validating, real prejudices and bigotry that they’ve had to hide for far too long.

Hillary’s the exact opposite. She is as careful of her speech as Trump is careless. Every day she goes out of her way, multiple times, not to offend or insult people. She wants all her Yankee family to be her loyal children. She never wants to play favorites.

When you think about it, this is odd for a woman with a single child (Chelsea), whom she’s had to protect assiduously from both marital difficulties and noxious political assaults all the child’s young life. But Hillary acts like a mother with twelve children, ranging from astronauts and opera divas to drug dealers and pimps. She wants to pretend that she loves them all equally, never plays favorites, and can receive all their unconditional love (and votes) in return.

If you think of Hillary as that self-delusional mother of twelve, a lot of things come into focus. Take Wall Street, for example. Hillary accepts huge speaking fees and even bigger campaign contributions (directly or through PACs) from its bankers. Yet she claims to promote policies that will bring them to all heel even better than Bernie’s, who takes not a dime from Wall Street’s bankers and, like FDR, seems to “welcome their hatred.”

Logic says that Hillary is scamming one or the other. Either she’s taking Wall Street’s money and will turn on Wall Street once elected, or her promise to reign in the bankers is a ruse.

But that’s not it at all, at least in Hillary’s mind. Just think of Wall Street as the “black sheep” child, who’s done a lot to harm the others but in Mother’s eyes is still basically good. Its contributions to Hillary are just part of what it must do to demonstrate its love for Mother and its capacity for change. And if it would just stop gambling and swindling and get back to honest banking—real capital formation and intelligent investment in the next generation of real (nonfinancial) industries—it could outshine all the other children, while making amends for prior misdeeds.

So there you have the two views of Hillary. Logically, she’s scamming either Wall Street or its victims; it has to be one or the other. But no mother of both promising and less promising children thinks that way. Is it any wonder that there’s a huge gender gap in assessing Hillary’s candidacy?

Next consider Hillary’s greatest error of political judgment: her unquestioning support for Dubya’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq. That invasion still hasn’t reached its conclusion, over thirteen years later. It has produced a decade-long low-level Iraqi Civil War. It has helped cause the destruction of Syria and the rise of ISIS.

When it was still a gleam in the Neocons’ eyes, Hillary was the de-facto leader of the Democratic party and a powerful, albeit new, figure in our Senate. Her dissent would have made big waves, if not delayed or halted the improvident invasion. But she went along, enthusiastically, playing the loyal mother to cretin Dubya’s father-in-chief. She added fire and momentum to the flaming juggernaut of war.

Today, she says breezily, it was all a mistake. Her apologies don’t sound very sincere, and she elides the entire catastrophe as if stepping over a dead bug.

Among the lessons of the gender-explanatory book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus is a simple nugget: women and men don’t keep score the same way. To women, it’s the thought that counts, not necessarily the cost or the result. Dubya’s decision to invade Iraq—let alone with one-third the troops used by Colin Powell, who stayed out of Baghdad—was probably the most catastrophic single military decision made by any American president since Lyndon Johnson decided to escalate our desultory aid in the Vietnamese civil conflict into a full-scale Asian war. Not only did our invasion of Iraq lead to fracturing that nation itself, probably permanently. It gave Iran a much stronger foothold, led to destabilizing Syria, encouraged the regional involvement of a risen Russia (through Iran), and provoked an explosion of jihadism and the birth of ISIS. Not bad for a single decision of a not-too-bright “decider!”

The “domino theory” of spreading southeast-Asian Communism may have been a paranoid fantasy of the twisted SecDef MacNamara, but it has become reality in the Middle East. We Yanks started the dominos falling, and Hillary was complicit.

So if you keep score like a man, Hillary’s complicity in that gargantuan blunder is a big, big deal. If you keep score like a mother, it’s not so bad. But for some 4,000 dead soldiers and some 30,000 wounded, the horrendous consequences have mostly occurred far away, outside the “family.” Most of the troops have now come home. If we don’t think too hard about it, maybe it will all go away. And anyway, didn’t Hillary’s complicity flow from a laudable if misguided loyalty to our American “family,” at a time when everyone from the Neocons, through the military (with That Idiot Rumsfeld sending our too-small force) to our mainstream press was beating the drums for war?

But the most salient point of Hillary’s psychology is her approach to political conflict here at home. In all the two decades or so of her political career that I have followed, she never seems to have an enemy.

She does have enemies, to be sure. Lots of people despise and even hate her. They describe themselves that way. She herself even speaks occasionally of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” that, in her view, has blown her few small flaws vastly out of proportion.

But that’s all abstract, airy stuff. That fact is, I have never seen Hillary Clinton name names (or groups) or call out anyone as an enemy of herself, or (what’s more important) of our American family. Not even the Tea Party, which is, to a man (it has few or no women) her enemy.

Hillary tries hard to fight without fighting, keeping everyone on her side. Even Saddam and Qaddafi she never called out directly; in the latter’s case she just worked as hard and quietly as she could to get UN authorization for the President to take Qaddafi out.

Why is this important today? Because Trump is the paradigmatic enemizer. He makes enemies as casually and thoughtlessly as most people tell off-color jokes. Sometimes he makes them deliberately, with malice aforethought.

So if he wins, we will have Archie Bunker in the White House. Indeed, we will have a man who is more thoughtless, capricious and oblivious to the consequences of his speech and actions than the fictional Archie Bunker ever was. In this respect, truth and the passage of several decades have overtaken fiction.

But can Trump win? Can Hillary beat him?

She’s certainly not off to a good start. Even the New York Times, as Hillary-partisan a mainstream rag as exists in all of journalism, has noted her weak start. She just doesn’t seem to have the old New Jersey moxie in her.

Worse yet, the State Department’s Inspector General’s report on her private e-mail server came out just as her campaign as presumptive Democratic nominee began to roll. It contradicted Hillary’s longstanding insistence that the Department had approved her using a private e-mail server for official State-Department business and that Hillary and her staff had cooperated fully with the investigation. The Report knocked her nascent anti-Trump campaign on its heels and made her look like a liar.

But that appears to be the least of Hillary’s problems. She has taken much greater hits before and retained her footing. Certainly any blunder in connection with e-mail gate is nothing like complicity in the second greatest US foreign-policy catastrophe since Vietnam.

Hillary’s real problem is that she doesn’t seem to know how to fight back. She’s been struggling for love and understanding from all sides for so long that she doesn’t have a clue how to meet the Dark Side.

And make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is the Dark Side. He has absolutely no compunctions or restraints. He is a grown man with billions of dollars—and more to come from PACs whose funders ought to know better—who thinks nothing of acting like a teenager on a playground and saying whatever it takes to get under the skin of his rival of the moment. Neither American politics nor advanced-nation democratic politics generally has ever seen his like before, at least not so close to supreme power.

In addition to her cloying need to be loved, Hillary has another signal disadvantage. From her days as a political junkie at Wellesley College, she has always been, and still is, a student of politics. She is not a natural, as she has self-confessed. It took her most of a decade to recognize our mistake in Iraq and her part in it.

So by the time Hillary figures out a way to counter Trump’s Archie-Bunker-style all-out assault, or by the time she becomes comfortable with perhaps extreme expedients suggested by her staff, the election may be over, and Trump may have won.

It has taken Hillary decades to become a passible “maintstream” politician, starting from the abject failure of “Hillarycare.” It may take her another decade to appreciate the present populist era, in which she is the only “mainstream” politician left standing (Bernie and Trump are “populist” mavericks). And it will take her and her staff at least a year or two to understand that the “Trump phenomenon” is a threat to the very nature of American democracy and therefore unique in our history.

There are no precedents for this student of politics to study. Anyone who wants to beat Trump, let alone decisively, is going to have to play it by ear and instinct. And as Hillary’s long and excruciatingly careful progress has shown, her political instincts just aren’t very keen.

So the surest way, in my view, to stop Trump is to make sure that Bernie becomes the Democratic nominee. Bernie knows what he wants and is not afraid to make or call out enemies. Without being gratuitously insulting, he does not balk at naming names or calling scoundrels what they are. If California does not go for Bernie significantly, and if enough “super-delegates” don’t recognize today’s unique threats, we well could have Donald Trump in the White House come January 20.

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26 May 2016

Could Trump Win?


At least twice (1 and 2), I’ve gone on record opining that Donald Trump will never be president. I stand by that prediction.

But with GOP luminaries who should know better falling into line and GOP money-men opening their pockets, it’s time for a reality check. Many paid pundits, including David Brooks, are multiply on record saying that Trump would never get even this far.

Before asking “Could Trump win the presidency?,” it helps to ask a related question. What makes so many support him? It’s certainly not experience, policy, logic, practicality, consistency, good character, diplomacy or politesse.

But something has gotten him this far. What is it?

A clip from Trump’s Wednesday rally brought me close to an answer. It showed Trump’s reaction to the State Department’s Inspector General’s report on Hillary’s e-mailgate.

You have to see the clip to believe it [set the time at 00:29], let alone assess its emotional impact. A transcript simply won’t do. If Trump had not been so successful in getting votes, it would seem like a self-parody, something right out of Jon Stewart.

In the clip, Trump repeatedly characterizes the Inspector General’s report as “bad news” and “not good” for Hillary. He doesn’t say what was in it. He doesn’t state a single fact or conclusion from or about the report. You could easily come away from the clip believing that Trump made his remarks in complete ignorance of the report, relying only on second-hand information that it was unfavorable to Hillary’s campaign. Maybe he did exactly that.

To me, that clip was absolutely extraordinary. It did something that all Americans are supposed to hate. It told Trump’s supporters what to think. He wasn’t giving them any facts, data or reasoning at all. He was telling them what to think without even telling them why. And he was expecting them to follow, as they have his ridiculous “plans” to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, or to cure the flight of 60,000 of our factories abroad by imposing tariffs on the goods they make.

Somehow, the image of Trump’s once-popular “reality” TV show came unbidden to mind. The highlight of the show occurred when Trump would dismiss a contestant, crying “You’re fired!”

People actually like to watch that? Not anybody I knew when I was growing up. From the day I was old enough to understand what “firing” meant, I was old enough to understand the standard American response to “You’re fired.” It wasn’t knuckling under. It was, “Fuck you!” Or, as a famous 1960s rock-n-roll song declared, it was “Take this job and shove it!”

How did the average American Joe or Mary, in a mere half-century, go from the confidence to raise a middle finger to a firing, to sheep being led to slaughter and told what to think? Answer that riddle, and you will know why Trump is the virtual GOP nominee. You will also know how close we Yanks are to replicating the Nazi psychosis.

For “beaten-ness” is the root of the analogy. It’s not just bigotry, but the total surrender of independence, autonomy and disbelief. Those who support Trump are beaten, utterly, in a way that no large class of Yanks (save our slaves) has ever been beaten before. They are beaten much like the Germans were beaten by their loss in World War I, their collective punishment by the Allies, and their Weimar Hyperinflation—the worst in human history. They are beaten to the point where they see nothing less than a total loss of control over their lives and an unstoppable downward trend.

How beaten are they? This beaten. They can’t use or fix their computers or TVs without waiting in a telephone queue for advice from someone with a funny accent in India or the Philippines. They can’t adjust their billing or services without like advice. They can’t even fix their cars anymore because cars have sealed microprocessors that require special tools and legal licenses to fiddle with.

If they have jobs at all, their jobs require little skill and entail nothing like the self-respect of construction or manufacturing. They’re told they need education and “retraining” when their last stint in school came decades ago. Many of them have lost their homes or have home values less than their mortgages.

They know they can’t assure their kids a better life than theirs. Their incomes are declining on a real and purchasing-power basis. They think the world prefers once-despised minorities over them, when in fact all they have lost is unfair, automatic privilege, which they never understood they had. Their collective health is declining, as is their life span, and their suicide rate is rising.

These folk are so beaten they have no hope of getting to their feet. All they can do is surrender to a powerful figure who shares their disgust with their lot and their prejudices and promises to raise them up. They are not about to forsake him when he gives them what passes for hope, let alone for something so abstract as logic or facts.

This is the reason why David Brooks and other mainstream pundits could never predict Trump’s success. They and their social class have never been remotely as beaten as Trump’s sheep are, and they never will be. They live in a different world from those who have lost the will to rise and can only bleat plaintively or stampede in anger.

This fact makes Hillary’s candidacy horribly risky. On the one hand, she offers women hope, and women are the majority, not a minority group. On the other hand, she cannot offer Trump’s sheep much because most of them are men, and they identify her with their oppressors. Only Bernie can offer the beaten a ray of hope, by identifying the core cause of their beaten-ness and promising to fix it.

So if we end up with Hillary versus Trump, the outcome will depend primarily on three variables: (1) how many of us feel beaten, (2) how many of them will go to vote, and (3) how many of us will hold our noses and vote for Hillary despite her instances of terrible judgment (Iraq, e-mailgate), her refusing to distance herself one whit from the monied elite that the beaten fear and despise, and the unshakable popular suspicion that she’s not really on the up and up. Under these circumstances, the Trump candidacy appears to have raised the risk of a Nazi-like psychosis happening here from twenty to thirty percent.



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13 May 2016

The Big Saudi Oil Questions


[For a brief note on the transgender bathroom wars, click here.]

Good questions are the beginning of wisdom. Right now, everyone in our flaccid, corrupt and mostly useless “mainstream” media is asking a single question: how far will Donald Trump go? But is that the right question?

The importance of any question depends on two factors. The first is the probable consequences of the answer. The second is its knowability: how much we think we know the answer, and how likely the answer we think we know is to be right.

Based on this two-factor scale, how far Trump will go is not a very important question. The consequences of his becoming president seem horrific, but the probability of that happening is very low. The most likely outcome is a repeat of the Johnson-Goldwater landslide of 1964. Even huge possible consequences with very low probability do not pose a big risk.

If you want to focus on consequences much more horrible than a Trump presidency, think about global warming. The consequences of it continuing to accelerate are many times as horrific. They will will affect our entire species, not just one nation. They will affect us all directly and dramatically, and they will last for the foreseeable future.

Global warming will permanently and dramatically change the climate in which we evolved. Eventually, our climate will arrive at a new, relatively permanent equilibrium: hotter, wetter, cloudier, with more violent storms and less land area. An estimated one-third of all species now extant will be extinct. And tropical diseases and their vectors—such as zika and the mosquito that spreads it—will have stressed or exceeded our collective ability to cope. It’s entirely possible that our global population will have suffered a dramatic decline characteristic of species that outgrow their habitat, or whose habitat changes too quickly for their biological evolution to adapt.

Next to that, a bad person as the president of 4% of us, for just four years, doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

As for the likelihood of harm, I’ve already written on acceleration due to positive feedback and the likelihood that the most alarmist current forecasts are timid. Suffice it to take a look at Bloomberg.com’s interactive display of actual global-warming data since 1880. If you come away with something less than an impression of runaway, either you lack mathematical or physical intuition, or the fossil-fuel industries have paid you not to think.

So the biggest question today—globally and for every race, nation, culture, religion and ethnicity—is “when are we going to get really serious about reducing the acceleration of global warming, and what strenuous efforts, in what order, will we make”? That’s a big question that will almost certainly decide your children’s and grandchildren’s futures, livelihoods and happiness, if not your own.

Right now, there are signs that we as a species are beginning to move. The President has adopted rules that, if our Supreme Court upholds them, will start phasing out coal, by far our dirtiest and most dangerous fuel. The Chinese have put a moratorium on new coal plants. And plans for a half-billion-dollar terminal to ship our own coal to China have just been canceled, albeit on irrelevant environmental ground.

All this is good news, but it’s just a bare beginning of what we have to do. And like the President’s coal rules if the Supreme Court misses the point, all of it is subject to reversal. Our collective determination to face the single greatest challenge we have ever faced as a species is still very much in doubt. So the most important question of all has, at present, an unknowable answer.

But you do what you can. If you can’t answer the most important question, maybe you can ask subsidiary questions that bear on it. Maybe, in short, you can break the big question down into little ones.

If you try to do that, you inevitably come back to Saudi Arabia. Why? Because it has the single greatest oil reserves of any nation and the single greatest oil-producting capacity. And oil is the dirtiest fossil fuel that we still haven’t really figured out how to do without.

Not only does Saudi Arabia lead the great OPEC oil cartel. As the clear and unchallenged leader in oil reserves and production, it has a rare capability. All by itself, it could set the price of oil just about as high as it wanted, simply by reducing its own production.

Let’s do the math. The production glut that has reduced oil prices from their 2013 peak of $111 per barrel to their current level of about $45 is generally believed to be about 2 million barrels per day. But Saudi Arabia, right now, is producing 12 million barrels per day. So it could, in theory, eliminate the entire glut and boost global prices back to somewhere around $110, simply by cutting its own production by 2 million barrels per day, or about 16%. Here’s how its revenue would change:

Current revenue: $45/b x 12 million b/d = $540 million/d
Adjusted revenue: $110/b x 10 million b/d = $1,100 million/d

In other words, Saudi Arabia could more than double its daily oil revenue simply by cutting its own production to dry up the glut.

What if Iran, Russia, Nigeria and all the other petrostates increased their own production? Well, let’s suppose that they could boost their production, collectively, over three years, by as much as 3 million barrels per day. Then Saudi Arabia might have to decrease its own production by another 3 million barrels per day, thus:

Further adjusted revenue: $110/b x 7 million b/d = $770 million/d

Even if we assume the others’ production hikes were instantaneous (which they most certainly would not be), three years down the road Saudi Arabia would have enjoyed three years of oil revenues at $770 million/d, instead of just $540 million/d. That’s a total of ($770 - $540) million/d x 365 x 3 = $ 251 billion dollars.

So it looks as if Saudia Arabia left a quarter-trillion dollars on the table. Moreover, if Saudi Arabia had followed this plan, it would have 3 x 365 x 5 million = 5,475 billion barrels of oil still in the ground to sell later. Even at just $45 a barrel (the current price), that’s another quarter-trillion dollars left on the table.

Now a half-trillion dollars is real money, especially to a small kingdom falling into serious debt. Why did Saudi Arabia leave it on the table?

There are plenty of plausible political reasons. The Saudis might have wanted to harm their arch-enemy Iran economically, as it emerges from sanctions under the nuclear deal, and to harm their arch-enemy’s backer, Russia. We Yanks might have encouraged the Saudis to do so for similar reasons: in order to sanction Russia’s adventurism in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria.

We and other Westerners also might have encouraged the Saudis to keep oil prices low in order to continue healing the global economy, which is still in some trouble. After all, the Saudis have become experts in milking the global economy for oil money without killing the milk cow. If that theory is right, then we ought soon to see oil prices rise as the global economy begins to show a robust recovery and the Saudi Princes turn the milking machines on high again.

It’s hard to see a sound economic reason for their not doing so, as least in the short term. Sure, other petrostates could boost their production to compensate for Saudi Arabia’s cuts. Maybe they could even do so faster than foreign analysts expect. But Saudia Arabia has the productive capacity now. If it cut now and raised production later, it would be in no worse position then than now, and it would have had enjoyed higher revenue in the interim and smaller reductions in its reserves. Why hasn’t it yet done so?

The only economic reason that makes much sense is a Saudi prediction of a longer-term glut. If Saudi Arabia saw that coming, it might be willing, even eager, to sell its big oil reserves as fast as it could at any price it could get. The fact that it has the lowest-cost reserves, and so can make a profit at any price that other petrostates can bear, gives Saudi Arabia another incentive to sell first and fast. Also, Saudi Arabia might be reluctant to play around with short-term oil-price manipulation for fear that it would: (1) destabilize the global economy, (2) lose the backing of its Yankee mentor and protector, (3) lose its patient and prudent leadership of OPEC, or (4) even start a war. Anyway, stabilizing and temporizing appears to be what Saudi Arabia has been doing since 2013.

So let’s play devil’s advocate. What evidence can we find that might have led the Saudis to predict an oil glut for the medium-to-long term, say, five years to the end of oil as a major energy source?

Five factors provide such evidence. First, more oil from traditional petrostates is coming on line. Iran is off sanctions and will likely stay so as long as it honors its part of the nuclear deal. The longer it stays off sanctions, the more foreign investment will flow into Iran to increase its oil production. Russia is probably self-sustaining in oil investment and technology, so its output will likely increase steadily. Even pathetic Venezuela might get into the act again; once its leaders come to understand that it has little wealth but oil, smarter ones will bring the international community back in to increase production. Although Venezuelans might, global oil markets don’t much care whether the capital and technology used to increase Venezuelan production come from us “imperialist” Yanks or from the so-called “Communist” Chinese.

Second, new petrostates might join the fun. Nigeria is an example. Much of the world has already been explored for oil and gas, but there are probably places (for example, in Central Africa) where chronic political instability has prevented exploitation or even exploration, or has impeded development. As political stability increases globally, entirely new oil may come on line.

Third, existing and new petrostates may turn to fracking to increase oil production or to extract dwindling reserves. The US is far in the vanguard of frackers, having discovered the technology and having already used it to bend oil markets. But what happens when all the petrostates, including potential new ones, begin exploiting the technology to increase production, too?

At the moment, fracking of US wells does not pay at a price below about $45 -$50 per barrel, which is about the current price. So fracking may not explode abroad until the global price goes a bit higher. But who’s to say that fracking might not be cheaper abroad, where subsurface conditions might vary, environmental restraints might be looser, and labor and/or steel pipes cheaper? When fracking does go abroad in a big way, the global price of oil may come down below $40 per barrel. Or at least it will stabilize at that price or a bit higher.

The last two factors are on the demand side. When I was a graduate student in 1971, I drove a big old car that got 11 miles per gallon. Today I drive a little Hyundai that gets almost 33 miles per gallon. All else being equal, that’s a factor-of-three reduction in oil demand for my personal transportation. It took about four decades, but the pace of innovation is accelerating along with the need. Tomorrow’s more efficient hybrid and smaller cars will likely succeed today’s, and at an increasing pace. As that happens, increases in efficiency, even for gasoline-driven cars, may start to produce actual decreases in the global demand for oil.

Before that happens, markets for gasoline-driven vehicles will have to reach global saturation. But saturation may already have happened, or may be happening, in the US, the EU, Japan, and other big cities of East Asia. Why? Population is leveling off or declining. People are gravitating to cities, where cars can be an inconvenience, parking is difficult, and rides can now be shared. Anyway, many big cities today have gridlock; there’s not much room for more cars. So as urbanization continues globally, it looks as if the total number of cars driven, like the population, will level off and maybe even decline. With gallons-per-mile decreasing along with numbers of cars, the resulting demand for oil has nowhere to go but down.

The countryside is a different story. There’s still a lot of space there. But there are few places in the global countryside that have the density of roads prevailing in the US or the EU.

So the saturation (or not) of the global countryside with gasoline-drive vehicles is perhaps the part of the picture that is hardest to predict. Common sense may prevail, along with more-efficient forms of transport, such as rail, boat and ship. Or more undeveloped hinterlands may try to emulate Ohio, a US state with an extraordinarily dispersed (largely rural) population in which everyone seems to use cars to get around. My own view is that most of the rest of the rural world will not follow Ohio’s energy-profligate model, but that’s just a guess.

The final factor on the demand side is new technology, such as electric cars and better rail systems. All the excitement today is with electric cars, which are simpler, cleaner, easier to maintain and far more energy-efficient than gasoline-driven cars. As their prices come down and their single-charge ranges increase—a process already well under way—they will begin to make serious inroads into the light vehicle base. But they don’t use any oil at all, except for lubrication, for which synthetics will suffice.

Natural-gas vehicles may be equally important in the medium term, before both it and oil run out. Right now, today, oil costs about $45 per barrel. In New York (Henry Hub), as of April 27, an energy-equivalent quantity of natural gas (5.8 million BTU) costs less than $11, or one-fourth the price of oil ($1.88 per million BTU, times the conversion factor 5.8 million BTU per barrel). Some day car makers will begin to understand that internal combustion engines can burn natural gas as well as gasoline, that ranges are similar, that natural gas burns cleaner and doesn’t require refining, that it’s easier to transmit by pipeline, that it doesn’t “spill,” and that its prices are likely to be more stable than oil’s because there is no global market for natural gas. When that understanding dawns, a “gold rush” to natural-gas cars, which are just modified gasoline cars, will further reduce demand for oil.

I must admit, I was astonished recently when Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced a grand plan to sell off a large part of Aramco and invest the proceeds in (among other things) alternative energy. It’s not that I think that’s a bad idea. I just didn’t expect to see it, let alone from the Saudis, for another twenty years, if I lived that long.

But now we have before us the Saudis’ openly announced plans. Are they real? Are they a head fake? Those, too, are good questions.

Yet as this brief essay shows, there are good reasons to suppose that they are no head fake. Maybe the Saudis could make a few big bucks, in the shorter term, by cutting their production and jacking up global oil prices. Maybe, for a whole host of political reasons, they don’t want to do that, at least not right now. Maybe, as people who live on one of the hottest parts of our planet, they are beginning to ken that global warming won’t improve their lives. After all, they are human beings, too.

Anyway, two things are clear. First, there are a bunch of market, demographic and technological reasons to believe that persistently high oil prices are a thing of the past, unless and until our species gets so stupid as to let oil run out with billions of gasoine engines still running. Second, Mohammad bin Sultan’s plans suggest that the Saudis are not short term thinkers. They may actually be looking into the future that our species must make for itself, in which fossil fuels like oil will play a minor role, if any, in energy production but will serve as feedstocks for synthesizing organic chemicals and (some day) artificial replacement organs.

The Saudis’ announced plan to sell a big stake in Aramco has another crucial implication. Since the First Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-1974, the Saudis have become more and more sophisticated in maximizing the value of their oil reserves and the reserves’ monetary benefit to themselves. If they are indeed selling a huge stake in Aramco now, and not earlier or later, that act alone suggests that Aramco's price is at a peak today, or at least the Saudis think it is.

But the price of oil is obviously not at a peak today; it’s about 60% lower than it was in late 2013. That fact, coupled with the Saudis’ reported desire to sell now or soon, suggests that they think the price is going lower.

What about reserves? As I have noted previously, whether the Saudis’ own reports of their oil reserves are on the money or (as some people think) 70% high makes the difference between current (unfracked) global reserves lasting 43 years and only 18 years (from late 2014). Would the Saudis be eager to sell now if they thought their oil reserves are actually lower than generally reported? Maybe. But if that is so, supply shortages that are bigger and come earlier than expected would make even their lower reserves very valuable. The best guess is that the Saudis believe their own reserve reports but question the future value of oil as the global supply of it increases with normalization of broken petrostates, the advent of new petrostates, and the spread of fracking technology globally, and as demand for oil comes under global assault from substitutes (electricity, natural gas, and electric trains and buses), from the growth of car-inefficient cities, from the increasing efficiency of gasoline-driven cars, and from a universal desire to avoid the most horrific effects of accelerating global warming.

Footnote. I drew this somewhat dark picture of Ohio from having lived and taught there for eleven years. But a single statistic tells part of the tale. All together, Ohio’s six largest cities account for only 16% of its roughly 11.7 million population. The other 84% of its people live in suburbs, small towns and the countryside.

I suspect, but haven’t verified, that Ohio has the most geographically evenly distributed population of any US state. With that sort of distribution, it’s hard to imagine living without cars. You can’t run a rail or bus line to every tiny town and farmhouse. Maybe electric cars fueled by the Sun or made-safe nuclear power will become Ohio’s salvation.

The Transgender Bathroom Wars

Sometimes you wonder whether the “silly season” has come early this year, or whether it’s become a permanent condition of our Yankee culture. Trump’s entire campaign evokes this wonderment. But now comes one better: the transgender bathroom wars.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve supported homosexual rights and homosexual marriage all along. I believe that people should, if they wish, have the right to change their genders and to have their choices respected by society and by government.

But at a time when our species is just becoming aware of how fast global warming is accelerating, and when a crypto-fascist is set to become a major-party candidate to lead the free world, should we all really be obsessing about this?

Homosexuals may be a significant minority (and an important one, because they slow our population explosion). But people who use modern hormonal medicine and surgery to change their gender are a minuscule minority of us Yanks, and an even tinier minority globally. Most members of our species are having too much trouble surviving economically or even physically to even think about changing their gender. So why the big explosion of interest and concern now?

As you may have noticed, there’s an election on. And the social “hot-button issues” that have let the GOP delude ordinary people into voting against their own economic interests are getting a bit stale. Homosexual marriage has not destroyed and will not destroy the Republic or Western civilization, and that truth is becoming increasingly apparent, especially to the young. The pro-life folk are winning some skirmishes in red states, but there are still many places nationwide to get clean, safe abortions. So that issue appears to be reaching an uneasy truce, if only due to voter and activist fatigue. Finally, the lie that Christianity is under siege in America has been exposed for the frothy bit of propaganda it is.

So if the splintered, fraudulent and probably dying GOP didn’t have another hot-button issue to distract voters from what really matters, it would have to invent one. Hence the transgender bathroom wars.

The puzzling thing is not that the GOP should pull this rabbit out of the hat. Distracting, deluding and deceiving the public with irrelevancies are its stock in trade. The puzzle is why the Dems, up to the President, have not just gone along with it in this case, but have upped the ante, having the DOJ send out its “guidance” circular to the nation’s schools.

So what’s going on here? Are the President and Attorney General Lynch complicit in giving the GOP yet another policy-free “hot button” campaign issue? Are they shooting themselves in the foot?

General Lynch gave us a hint when she analogized denying transgender people a choice of bathrooms to Jim Crow. That analogy has so many holes it’s difficult to count them. First, neither transgender people nor their ancestors (in general) ever were slaves. Second, while homosexuality is not a choice, changing one’s gender is. It’s not only a choice; it’s a painful, discomfiting and extended voluntary procedure. In contrast, being “black” is entirely involuntary, the more so under the “one drop” rule, which often subjected people who could and did “pass” for white, after discovery, to myriad agonies up to lynching. Third, unlike bathroom restrictions, which make it hard to pee and poo, Jim Crow made it hard to pee, poo, eat, sleep, travel and do business. It severely impaired the travel “privileges and immunities” of citizens, which are among all Americans’ birthrights.

That a crack lawyer like Lynch should make such a bogus analogy from a public dais gives us all a signal. To progressives, it signals that something odd is going on. To bigots, it’s a signal to pile on. A “black” woman is standing up for a tiny, misunderstood minority that wants to mess with sex. To religious fundamentalists, it’s a signal to conflate overt or unconscious racism with loathing for sexual deviance and hyper-prudish privacy and circle the wagons of dogmatic certitude.

Remember Ted Cruz? (How quickly we forget.) Remember the guy whom everyone who met him but one roundly hated, and who nevertheless mounted the most successful opposition to Herr Drumpf? Remember all those evangelicals and religious fundamentalists who would follow Cruz’ arch-conservativism into Hell, at least as against Trump?

They are the real targets of that “guidance” letter. They are the ones who are going to stay home on general-election day, or—out of sheer spite—maybe even vote for Hillary. And one of many reasons they are going to do so is that attack ads, funded by anonymous but probably progressive donors, are going to show Trump, over and over again, revealing the attitude of most people nationwide (and especially cosmopolitan New Yorkers): that he doesn’t much care what kids do with their genders as long as no one gets jumped.

What we have here, I think, is another bit of political jujitsu from the President and his staff. Not for nothing did he get elected twice, by clear popular majorities, as the first “black” president in what he subsequently showed us to be—still—a consummately racist nation. He knows how to bend an opponent’s momentum to his ends, often without his opponents even knowing what he’s doing.

The GOP’s establishment/money men don’t give a damn about transgender people or high-school bathrooms one way or the other. They just hope the issue will be a hot button—“don’t let boys pretending to be girls ogle or fondle my daughter in her high-school locker room”—that will let them keep control of Congress, if not the presidency, and keep the money flowing into their anonymous donors’ bottomless maws. But in enraging a significant faction of their base, they forget that that very same faction doesn’t like Trump much anyway, and that this will only make them hate him more.

It’s a “wedge issue,” all right. But the wedge is like the ones that our pioneers used to split logs. The log is the Republican Party.

This episode gives us a preview of just how hard and just how nasty the coming general-election campaign will be. When AG Lynch can analogize denying trangenders their bathroom choice to Jim Crow, you can bet that no hold will be barred. If we all sometimes seem to act as if the end justifies the means, remember to look closely at the end: preventing an utterly unqualified, crypto-fascist, impulsive super-egotist from becoming leader of the free world and bearer of our Nuclear Codes.

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06 May 2016

Trump: Theft of a Generational Fraud


By the dozen, clueless Republicans are trying to ken the “Trump phenomenon.” How did a vulgar, crass and brassy showman with zero experience in political office steal their party and their voters from right under their noses? And how did he do it in a single, albeit prolonged, campaign season?

The conventional wisdom is far too shallow and glib. Sure, it’s a good season for “outsiders.” Bernie is one, too. At least he is if you define him as an “independent” and a “Democratic socialist.” But Bernie is nothing like Trump. He’s a seasoned, experienced pol, with eight years as mayor of Burlington, sixteen in the House, and nine in the Senate. That’s 33 years in elected public office. Trump? He has zero, zip, nada.

Sure, “we, the people” are angry. Even those of us who survived the Crash of 2008 and its aftermath unscathed know in our bones that our nation is not what it used to be. Nor are the personal prospects of ordinary Americans. So there’s a lot of anger and angst out there. “Make America great again!” is exactly what most of us want to do, whether on the left or the right. But how?

How did a man with an empty resume steal the mantle of one our two great political parties and win nomination for the hardest and most important job in the world? How did a man whose “solution” to our massive job drain is high tariffs suddenly become a plausible leader? “Outsider” is a pretty lame explanation for that.

No. To understand the “Trump phenomenon,” you have to understand how the GOP has managed to remain a competitive political party nationally for the last two generations. With the aid of the most powerful propaganda machine in human history (Fox), it has perpetrated a massive, persistent and spectacular fraud on the American people.

Unfortunately for the GOP, once you leave truth behind, belief and trust become malleable and fickle. Trump has merely stolen the fraud, shifting it in a new direction. And if the truth be told, the GOP’s massive fraud was already getting a bit long in the tooth. Trump has given it new life, with a scapegoating twist reminiscent of Adolf Hitler and a decided lurch toward Southern culture.

But we’ll get to that later. First let’s see how the GOP fraud worked.

Once the GOP was a practical, problem-solving party, just like today’s Dems. After demagoguing “Red” China his entire career, Richard Nixon went to Beijing and initiated today’s most important bilateral relationship. Nixon also established the Environmental Protection Agency and raised taxes. He even tried wage and price controls as an experiment, albeit unsuccessfully. Reagan, Ford and Daddy Bush also raised taxes. A generation ago, the GOP did what had to be done to make things better, albeit differently and with different priorities than Dems.

But ever since Reagan inaugurated selfishness as a national value, the GOP has become the party of the rich and powerful. Its driving policies became three: lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government. Everything else became subordinate to these three, regardless of circumstances and exigencies.

These three goals were the only constant things in the GOP’s hall of smoke and mirrors. The rest was all social-culture agitation—abortion, gay marriage, and the alleged “abuse” of the Christian religion—about which the rich and powerful cared nothing. They were just means to an end: getting ordinary people to vote against their own economic interests and in favor of the interests of the rich and powerful.

Of course the GOP needed a theoretical basis—an ideology—for this drastic shift in the pragmatic, problem-solving approach that both parties had taken well into the postwar period. So called “intellectuals” supplied it. Lowering taxes, gutting regulation, and reducing government, they said, would produce more “freedom.” We could all go back to a state of nature, in which the strong ruled the weak and the alpha male ruled all.

The GOP even had its sage and myth maker. Ayn Rand, a half-deranged refugee from Eastern European Communism, went Marx and Engels one better. All three were just creative writers, shocked by the social and economic conditions that they had observed around them and had endured. None was anything like the scientific economists of later years, let alone a “quant.” None could have written, let alone solved, a differential equation if his or her life had depended on doing so.

But Rand was smarter than Marx and Engels in one respect. If you’re going to analyze complex systems without data, logic or numbers—if you’re going to write “creatively” about serious, complex subjects—it’s best to do so in fiction, so more people will read and can ken your musings. So Rand wrote novels, not weighty, “serious” tomes like Marx and Engels. Her novels caught the popular imagination, teaching that übermenschen could improve all of our lives if only left alone, unregulated and untaxed, to work their magic. She wasn’t so much a doyenne of American culture as a channeler of Nietzsche.

The crowning glory of this massive fraud involved American history. The so-called “Federalist Society,” which propagated this patent nonsense, became the so-called “conservatives’” social club. They forgot that, during our foundational period, the Federalists had argued for centralized government while the Democrats, mostly Southerners, had pushed for distributed, weaker power.

Nothing about this massive fraud made any sense, except that it consistently advanced the interests of the rich and powerful. If it prevailed, they could return to the nineteenth century, before the income tax and before industrial regulation. They might even return to the “Golden Age” of labor exploitation, before unions and regulation of working hours and child labor. So situated, clever, ruthless men could “earn” enormous fortunes in a mere few years, without regard to the consequences to others. And then they would, and did, donate massive campaign contributions to the GOP as “tithes” to keep their money coming in.

It was a self-sustaining delusional system, at least for a while. It did succeed spectacularly in making the rich richer and exploding economic inequality. But the fraud has had serious consequences for the rest of us, and for our national politics. The most telling were three.

The first and most important was distorting “free trade.” The steady elimination of tariffs and other trade barriers, on which both parties agreed, had been intended to serve two purposes. It let foreigners sell their products in our country, the more so if they could do so more efficiently than we. It also let us sell our products abroad more easily.

The first point reduced the impetus for war, for example, of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs on Japan. But the latter point was far more important to us. It allowed us to get rich and improve our manufacturing by selling our products abroad, if we could do so more efficiently than foreigners. We thought we could do so, and for a long time we were right. The more efficient manufacturers waxed rich and successful, and, for the most part, they were us.

But slowly things changed. As the new economic order enriched ordinary Americans, wages and working conditions here improved tremendously. So did the costs of workers’ pay and benefits. As a result, the bosses began dreaming of using American technology and capital with foreign labor. In just the past generation alone, they exported some 60,000 US factories abroad.

There were beneficiaries of this massive shift in industrial power. But they were not Americans. Foreigners, mostly in Asia, enjoyed the greatest transfer of wealth, know-how and technology in human history. The bosses who arranged, managed and profited from this transfer became enormously wealthy and powerful. They are today’s 0.1%.

But American workers and American industrial infrastructure suffered horribly and eventually languished. The country that once had led the world in manufacturing became a manufacturer of cars, specialty and “high-end” products. Millions of ordinary workers lost skilled, well-paying and self-respecting jobs.

All this, the GOP savants told us, was natural and proper. We were, they said, entering a “post-industrial” economy, in which services predominate over goods.

Indeed, today we are told that some 70% of our economy involves services. Evidently, we Americans are supposed to restore our former greatness by giving each other haircuts, legal advice, psychological help, and financial services, such as exploding student debt. Maybe we’ll pick ourselves up by our bootstraps by suing each other. At least the lawyers who help us do that will wax rich.

But to anyone who knows our industrial history this is absolute nonsense. We Yanks, for a time, were supreme in peace and war because we out-invented and out-produced everyone else. Our economic heroes were innovators like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. They created whole new industries with their imagination, scientific and technical know-how, and risk-taking.

Today, we have no dearth of prospects for similar innovative industries. We have electric cars, smart grids, nanotechnology, personalized medicine, private space travel, and so-called “designer genes.” But if we send these new industries abroad as soon as our visionaries create them, what will our ordinary people do: go back to farming or turn to crime? Can the 0.1% populate and run an entire nation?

The second consequence of the GOP’s pander-to-the-powerful ideology was equally devastating. With American manufacturing languishing and moving abroad, how could the bosses make big money quickly? Only in finance. So we had an explosion of “innovative” financial instruments, including derivatives and their derivatives, plus an explosion of fees and high interest rates that drained consumers. The result was the Crash of 2008, which threw millions out of work and out of their homes, and for which no boss has even yet lost substantial money, let alone gone to jail.

The third consequence of the GOP’s low-taxes, no-regulation, and no-government ideology was a bit bizarre. It was the Tea Party. Unanticipated by GOP ideologues, the newer drown-government-in-a-bathtub ideology dovetailed nicely with Nixon’s Southern strategy to produce an undisciplined, uncontrollable rump group within the GOP’s own party.

Here’s how it worked. Immediately after signing his historic 1960s civil rights laws, Lyndon Johnson predicted that the Dems would lose the South for two generations. The reason was racism, pure and simple. A century after the Civil War, the South still could not stomach treating African-Americans with anything less than a clone of South-African Apartheid. Johnson knew that his civil rights laws would move the South to flock to the GOP, and it did.

From Nixon and Reagan onward to today, GOP leaders have encouraged the process with code words and dog whistles. They did so not out of personal racism, but because they saw a clear and easy political advantage in doing so. It wasn’t the first time that cynical pols exploited tribalism to gain power, and it won’t be the last.

But a funny thing happened when the GOP also abandoned its pragmatic, problem-solving side for a “scriptural” ideology of low taxes, no regulation, and smaller government, regardless of consequences. The GOP inadvertently stumbled right into the second big feature of Southern culture: bossism. The difecta of racism and bossism, and GOP pandering to them, let the GOP own the South politically. But it also let the South own the GOP ideologically. The two—South and GOP—became Siamese twins by cosmetic surgery.

The result was bizarre but predictable. Southern states, which by and large had the most people without health insurance, became adamant opponents to Obamacare. Their traditional suspicion of outsiders and centralized government—fanned to white heat by GOP propagandists—ultimately made them rebel against Washington and their own leaders in it. Thus arose the Tea Party, its rebellion against the GOP establishment, and the bizarre flash in the pan that has been Ted Cruz—a man hated by everyone he ever met but one, yet coming close to a major-party nomination.

As I have analyzed previously, the Tea Party is entirely a Southern and rural phenomenon. Its name is a just another part of the massive GOP fraud. It tries to evoke the Boston Tea Party and our Founding, with which neither the Tea Party nor its protagonists have anything to do.

So what does all of this have to do with Donald Trump’s bizarre and unpredicted rise? Just about everything. Trump has stolen every aspect of the massive GOP fraud and has raised it a notch. He has raised racism (with its cousins misogyny, Hispanophobia and Islamophobia) and bossism to an art form. And—master showman that he is—he has been brilliantly successful in doing so.

After the success of Daddy Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad and the fictional (black) “welfare queen,” racism against blacks is finally failing as a political strategy. It’s failing because most people, even in the South, are getting used to having black neighbors and co-workers, plus seeing African-Americans in positive roles on TV. It’s failing because the recent epidemic of police killings of unarmed African-Americans has evoked enormous sympathy from all but the most intransigent racists. And most of all, it’s failing because of a President who was twice elected by clear popular majorities (the first time since Ike) and who has (among many other things) saved our economy, wound down two utterly gratuitous wars, and helped forge a global consensus to fight global warming.

But tribalism is a powerful force, with biological-evolutionary roots. And Trump has exploited it brilliantly. He has done so by “moving on” from blacks to Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, and targeting African-Americans only by implication (and because none of them is likely to vote for him anyway). Trump targets Hispanics, especially Mexicans, because they and their “foreign” language evoke widespread cultural unease and fear of job losses. Muslims are a particularly juicy target for Trump because they are a tiny minority of voters but, with the help of effective demagoguery, they can evoke fear vastly out of proportion to their numbers and any danger they create. Trump also evokes cheers from his bigoted supporters by bringing his tribalism out into the open and making it explicit—something that has become culturally unacceptable, even in the South, with regard to African-Americans.

But Hitleresque scapegoating of helpless minorities is not The Donald’s trump card. It’s bossism. His entire pitch is based on bossism. He says, in effect: “I’m the boss. I’m smarter and tougher than you and those Washington wusses. I’m a business genius. I can get things done.”

Of course his stated “solutions” are ludicrous. Build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it? Wasn’t the first part what we’ve been trying to do for a decade? And doesn’t every Mexican leader back three cycles laugh at the second? As for 35% tariffs on Chinese imports, wasn’t that kind of thing what led the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor? And wouldn’t 35% higher prices in Wal Mart, which gets most of its hard goods from China, spark massive inflation and savage our lower middle class and poor?

No one with the slightest ability to see cause and effect can credit The Donald’s “solutions.” They’re just a theft of the massive and continuing fraud that policies designed to enrich the rich and powerful (so-called “trickle down”) will help the rest of us. Is it so startling that Trump’s equally ridiculous “solutions” meet equal and even better success among those who’ve swallowed the GOP fraud enthusiastically so far? Trump has studied well what suckers will swallow and has covered his fraudulent morsels with an even sweeter and simpler sauce.

The problem for Trump and the GOP is that the South is only one-third of the nation. And the targets of Trump’s tribalism—especially African-Americans and Hispanics—are strong and growing stronger everywhere, even there. None of them is going to vote for Trump or his down-ballot accomplices, at least not if attack ads like this one keep coming. Even New Yorkers will recognize that “New York values” are those of Michael Bloomberg (former Republican mayor) and Bill de Blasio (current Democratic mayor), not the racist, bossist, loose-cannon Trump.

So the GOP’s two-generation massive fraud on the American people appears to be coming to an end. The likely result is an historic GOP defeat at the polls this year, and the party’s split-up or dissolution.

GOP so-called “leaders” and “pundits” should not blame this all on Trump, who merely stole their perhaps-more-sophisticated fraud. They should blame it on themselves. After all, they have supported and inflamed racism and bossism for two generations, under the guise of a false and transparently nonsensical ideology at odds with America’s traditional, pragmatic, problem-solving culture. All Trump did is steal their “trickle down” fraud and make it sound even better to folks whose capacity to reason is stuck in grammar school.

As for Hillary, she has an historic opportunity not just to become our first female president, but to preside over a rare sea change in American politics. But in order to do so, she must drop her penchant for compromise and triangulation and become a real leader. She must refuse to compromise with fraud, racism and bossism. She must blaze a new trail, much closer to Bernie’s than to Ted Cruz’, in full knowledge that the GOP’s having moved the goal posts ever-rightward for the past two generations has been based on a massive fraud, which is now failing.

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01 May 2016

Six Things Bernie Should Say


1. Bernie’s brand of “Democratic socialism” will strengthen capitalism and free enterprise, not harm them

2. Bernie’s revulsion at obscene economic inequality and concentrations of economic power is in the mainstream of American politics

3. Breaking the big banks up through market purchases and sales is the only practical way to reduce their power, prevent further oppression of consumers, and avoid another Crash

4. Economic inequality drives oppression of minorities

5. Global warming is the single greatest threat to happiness that minor children and grandchildren of today’s voters will face

7. As a Jew, Bernie can be an economic handyman

While I was incommunicado on vacation, Bernie lost four out of five primaries, including one in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. So Hillary is looking more and more like the eventual Democratic nominee.

That doesn’t mean Bernie should quit. Far from it. But it does mean he should tone down his personal attacks on Hillary, lest he aid the Devil in the general election. It also means he should think harder about his own message, and how he might improve it.

I still intend to vote for Bernie, as much as I can. How can you not love a guy who says true things that no one else has the guts to say? How can you not love a man who picked up the threads the two Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson left hanging, who reminded us that America is not about bosses, whether in politics or business, but about all of us together? How can you not admire a man who did all that at an age when most of us are basking in pleasant retirement?

But no one is perfect. In staying rigidly on message—more than any other candidate in either party—Bernie has been masterful in diagnosis but weak on cure. In trying to emphasize his independence, he has forgotten to tie his campaign back to the historical mainstream of American business, economics and politics. And in focusing so relentlessly on rule by misguided billionaires and their lackeys, he has failed to give proper emphasis to what will harm our grandchildren more than anything else: global warming.

1. Bernie’s brand of “Democratic socialism” will strengthen capitalism and free enterprise, not harm them. Of all the points that Bernie has failed to make adequately, this is perhaps the most important. He has allowed his opponents to tar him as “idealistic,” a “radical” and “unrealistic,” and he has led many to believe he can’t win. Our nation is so devoted to capitalism and free enterprise that even to appear to question them is tantamount to political suicide.

But opening Medicare to all, strengthening Social Security, giving kids free educations at public universities, providing family leave and guaranteeing a living wage won’t kill capitalism or free enterprise. They will make them work better.

They will do so in so many ways that it’s difficult to enumerate them all in this short post. Perhaps the most important are providing workers the personal security and education to follow their talent and bliss, and giving more workers more money to grow the economy. Henry Ford—a consummate capitalist and notorious industrial tyrant—understood these points. He unilaterally gave his workers a more-than-living wage (an unprecedented $5 a day in 1914), so they could buy the cars they made. That single act of enlightened self-interest created our modern consumer society.

Bernie has showed political courage and integrity in refusing to run away from his previous self-labeling as a “Democratic socialist.” But I’ve never heard him mention “capitalism” or laud “free enterprise,” which produce all the goods and services we enjoy, including the computers and social media that feed Bernie’s campaign.

That was, and still is, a big strategic mistake. Voters need to know that what Bernie wants to do is right in the mainstream of Democratic tradition. They need to understand that his achievements will return us to the Golden Age of (regulated) American capitalism that FDR inaugurated, and which lasted until Reagan’s reign. They need to know that Bernie, like the two Roosevelts (and many others before him) means not to destroy capitalism, but to make it work better. And they need to know that he has a plan similar to the ones many others before him have had.

2. Bernie’s revulsion at obscene economic inequality and concentrations of economic power is in the mainstream of American politics. It’s hardly extreme. It’s also not just a Democratic idea. One of the greatest Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, fought the very same evils over a century ago, in the twilight of the nineteenth century.

One result of Teddy’s struggle was our antitrust laws, the most important of which is the Sherman Act, adopted in 1890. These laws survive and have been strengthened in some ways. But their enforcement today is weak, and the plutocrats have learned to get around them. The big banks, for example, have circumvented laws forbidding big and anticompetitive mergers by accreting power gradually, in acquisitions just below the regulators’ radar. Over years or decades, the incremental accretions produce aggregations of power far beyond anything even imagined in Teddy’s time—to the point where a few big banks can cause a global economic meltdown and then pass the hat to cure it, without coughing up a dime.

Bernie just wants to do what Teddy and Senator Sherman did: prevent private combines from becoming so mighty they threaten our political and economic system and society itself. As always happens with law, smart, rich men have managed to circumvent it by acting in more subtle and clever ways than malefactors before them. But their goals and their results are much the same: building economic empires big enough to ignore the law, subvert or overcome the state, and oppress the people.

Not only is Bernie’s call to break up the big banks right in the mainstream of American history. It’s also related to the oppression of workers and minorities. Justice Thurgood Marshall understood this point. He knew that free enterprise is one of the few ways oppressed minorities can rise from the depths of oppression to wealth and privilege.

Here is how Marshall described our antitrust laws in a 1972 decision:
“Antitrust laws in general, and the Sherman Act in particular, are the Magna Carta of free enterprise. They are as important to the preservation of economic freedom and our free enterprise system as the Bill of Rights is to the protection of our fundamental personal freedoms. And the freedom guaranteed each and every business, no matter how small, is the freedom to compete—to assert with vigor, imagination, devotion, and ingenuity whatever economic muscle it can muster.”
Marshall would have cast a much more jaundiced eye, for example, on Microsoft using its operating-system monopoly to crush Netscape, on Google and Apple using their samrtphone duopoly to control apps, and banks getting big enough to exercise oligopoly power over consumer services and to threaten the global economy. He would have understood that economic empires like these only entrench the privileged and further disempower the oppressed. He would have noticed that none of the parents of unarmed African-American kids shot down by police are business owners.

3. Breaking the big banks up through market purchases and sales is the only practical way to reduce their power, prevent further oppression of consumers, and avoid another Crash. In his infamous interview with the New York Daily News, Bernie fell short of a solution to the very real problems that he had diagnosed. But there is a solution, and the one proposed by Hillary is unlikely to work.

For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere (see 1 and 2) neither criminal sanctions nor civil suits can contain powerful bankers, for legal reasons. Market forces can’t contain them when they get too big to fail; in fact markets encourage excessive risk taking when they believe the government will socialize losses, even when government doesn’t have the money.

So there are only two practical means of preventing another Crash of 2008, or worse. One is having regulators ride herd on the bankers, scrutinizing their risk taking after the fact and adjusting things like capital reserves accordingly.

There are three serious problems with this approach. First, it works only after the fact. What happens if the regulators act too late? Second, it requires regulators to be consistently smarter and more farsighted than the bankers they regulate, able to foresee and assess the risks better than they. Good luck with that. Finally, it requires that regulators take their jobs seriously and have the expertise to do so. What happens in a laissez-faire administration, or a series of them? Wasn’t that exactly how the Crash of 2008 occurred, after then Fed Chief Alan Greenspan thought broken markets fix themselves?

So in the final analysis, only the other means of preventing disaster is effective: breaking up the big banks so they are no longer too big to fail and to squash competition more friendly to consumers. Hillary says that Dodd-Frank gives regulators the power to do that. But regulators are cautious and under constant derogation by the “anything-goes” boys. Even in an administration as progressive as Obama’s, they won’t break the banks up except as a last resort, likely too late. You think they would act faster if Kasich or Jeb! replaced the Fed Chief, let alone Trump or Cruz? Tell me another fairy tale!

Breaking up the big banks by decree is something that Hugo Chavez or the Soviets might have done. But there is a better way. When a bank stumbles badly, its stock goes down. Then the government can purchase control and exercise it, so as to sell the offending bank piecemeal, to private investors. That’s the proper way to break up the big banks: on the open market. The deal that Hank Paulson struck with the big banks under Dubya missed a crucial ingredient of this plan: Paulson made billion-dollar investments, mostly in common stock, but waived the government’s right to vote the stock. Thus did he leave the foxes not only in charge of the henhouse, but with no chance of any dissent on their boards.

Corporate raiders might do this job, if there were any for banks. But there don’t appear to be. There’s no Carl Icahn or T. Boone Pickens for banks. Why that is so is something of a mystery, but it’s true. The reasons may be a combination of the plutocratic social class that bankers inhabit and the obscurity of their business. In order to become a corporate raider in banking, a man (they are all men) would have to learn all about derivatives and their derivaties, so he might as well become a banker himself.

Lacking any motivated private raider, the government would have to step in, but the current statutes give it no such authorrity. Even Paulson’s limited no-control investment had shaky authority; but being a bold man and a Goldman Sachs alumnus whom no one would challenge, he made it anyway. So much for Obama’s “imperial presidency.”

4. Economic inequality drives oppression of minorities. It’s sad but true that Bernie enjoys far less love from minorities than Hillary. Part of the reason is Hillary’s and her husband’s decades-long cultivation of African-Americans and Hispanics. Part of the reason is that Bernie comes from a lily-white state.

Those are things that Bernie can’t change. What he can change is to make the obvious connection between inequality and oppression of minorities, and to make it with passion. He can point out the obvious: that African-Americans and Hispanics are the economic canaries in our coal mine.

A great wag once said that the law treats everyone equally: it prohibits both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges. Just so, the law allows both rich and poor to be shot down in the streets if the police see them as a threat, or to be exploited relentlessly if they are undocumented immigrants. But somehow the rich don’t seem to suffer this treatment in practice. Blacks are shot down, and undocumented Hispanic immigrants are oppressed, because they lack privilege, money and status, and because the people who have those things, lost in an acquisitive frenzy, are oblivious to their suffering.

If there are plutocrats in the Black Lives Matter movement, or in the vanguard of those seeking legalized status for undocumented immigrants, I haven’t heard of them. Most plutocrats are either too busy augmenting their already obscene wealth to care or (especially in the case of undocumented immigrants) see correcting injustices as depriving them of cheap labor.

Bernie may not be a warm and fuzzy guy. He hasn’t, like Hillary or Bill, spent decades cultivating minority voters. But if he made this simple, logical connection repeatedly and with passion, he might begin to attract some of them. More important, he could begin to educate them to the fact that not all their misery is due to racism; some is due to dismal economic forces that greater economic justice could remedy.

5. Global warming is the single greatest threat to happiness that minor children and grandchildren of today’s voters will face. It easily surpasses economic inequality, as awful as that is. Why is this so? Because inequality will affect their livelihoods, while global warming will change the world in which they live. Global warming at alarming levels is already baked in (pardon the expression), and it is accelerating. Furthermore, physical processes not yet well studied are likely to increase the rate of acceleration, long before we humans can change our collective life styles enough to reduce it.

The dirty little secret of the climate-change “dispute” is that today’s dire scientific predictions are themselves highly conservative. There are three reasons why. First, the deniers have browbeaten scientists, especially the less cautious and careful, for decades. Scientists are by nature cautious and careful; most of them are introverts unaccustomed to political conflict. By nature, they retreat into the position of greatest certainty, i.e., the most cautious one.

Second, scientists are highly specialized. They inhabit specialties as diverse as oceanography, paleoclimatology, and atmospheric and ocean physics and chemistry. In order to produce useful conclusions about global warming, they have to get together. When they do, each challenges the others with new “what ifs” and questions about the adequacy and validity of known data. So the reports they produce resemble a bipartisan political committee’s report on a highly partisan investigation. Group caution rules, on steroids.

Finally, there is evidence of at least four mechanisms of positive feedback in global warming. They are: (1) melting of polar and glacial ice, (2) resulting decrease in the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity for light and heat), (3) the release of methane—a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide—from melting permafrost, and (4) the release of methane from methane hydrates in oceans, seas and lakes. Of these four, only the first two are sufficiently well studied to be included in quantitative models of global warming.

We simply don’t have enough reliable quantitative data to include the last two positive-feedback mechanisms in detail. We do know that they work to accelerate global warming further; we just don’t know how much and how fast. On the other hand, we’re not aware of any mechanism of similar potential magnitude that might cause negative feedback and tend to stabilize the Earth’s climate.

Of course scientists won’t say this, at least for public consumption, because it’s all speculative. But chances are the current projection of 2°C warming by the end of this century is far too conservative. The hope that warming can be contained to 1.5° C is likely a fantasy. The conclusion to draw, if you bank on probabilities and not what highly conservative, pushed-to-the-wall scientists will say in public with unassailable caution, is that we are likely to see global warming run away in our minor children’s lifetimes. Bloomberg.com’s interactive presentation of annual temperatures since 1880 corroborates this point; to anyone with a dab of mathematical or physical intuition, it looks like a system beginning to run away.

No one can say with precision how quick and catastrophic the runaway will be. The deniers have huge vested interests in minimizing the risk and alarm. They also have huge megaphones, including Fox. But Bernie can use his position of trust among youth to educate them to the likelihood of warming coming much quicker and harder than anyone in authority now expects. As the threat of more severe impacts becomes clearer—which it is highly likely to do—Bernie’s followers will gain credibility and influence.

7. As a Jew, Bernie can be an economic handyman. When a believer asked Bernie about his Jewishness in one of the debates, he answered lamely. He said he was proud of it and then mentioned the Holocaust—a complete non-sequitur.

Bernie, it appears, is not a religious man. But his entire political life has been consistent with a fundamental tenet of Judaism: tekkun olam. This Hebrew phrase, which means “repair the world,” is congruent with both American progressivism from Teddy to Obama and the notion of industrial and economic “progress” that has animated Yankee thinking from the very beginning.

“Repair the world” doesn’t mean elevating the bank accounts of the 1%. It means improving justice and happiness for everyone. When our Founders wrote of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they were expressing the very same philosophy.

As a not-particularly-relgious man from a tiny minority religion, Bernie need not bring the subject up himself. But if it comes up again, Bernie ought to have a much better answer—consistent with the progressivism of his fans and the “can do” spirit of Americans generally. He might even smooth the path for the next Jew to run for president.

* * *


When the dust settles and Hillary (as appears likely) begins her general-election campaign, what will Bernie have accomplished? Of course he will have driven Hillary and the Party to the left, after about two decades of its shifting right in response to the GOP and Fox having moved the goal posts. But by far Bernie’s most important accomplishment will have been education.

He will have taught an entire generation of American youth not to bark and growl at the word “socialism” like Pavlov’s dogs, but to consider the costs and benefits of particular social programs. He will have taught them that the rest of the developed world, which has Bernie’s programs in one form or another, has not made a pact with the Devil. He will have shown them that allowing economic inequality to run rampant, while permitting vast concentrations of economic power to undermine a functioning global economy and the common good, poses far greater threats to capitalism and free enterprise than Bernie’s modest social programs. And he will have proved that none of those social programs is outside the mainstream of American history.

Perhaps during the remaining months of his campaign, Bernie can drive these lessons home, make them more forceful and explicit, and give them a broader audience. Perhaps he can remind the American public that FDR’s reasonable reforms of capitalism saved it both from its worst proponents and from the Communist revolutions sweeping Russia and China, which eventually failed. Perhaps he can get American voters, if only the young, to see beyond the label on the box repeatedly applied by Fox and Rush to the contents inside. If he can do that, Bernie will leave us, as his legacy, intellectual and social groundwork for the “political revolution” that he so desires. It may not happen on his watch or even in his lifetime, but he will have moved it forward and made it possible.



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