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

30 April 2018

Voting Made Easy


[For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

UPDATE (5/8/18): The “Trump Bump” is Over

Introduction
1. Register to vote
2. Know the rules for voting
3. Try to vote early or absentee
4. How to decide
5. Rules of thumb Conclusion
UPDATE (5/8/18): The “Trump Bump” is Over

Introduction

This post is for new, infrequent and sporadic voters. You know who you are.

Maybe this is the first time you’re old enough to vote. Maybe you’ve voted, but seldom, because you think “all those pols are the same.” Maybe you think that a long ballot is too much like the tests you hated in high school or college. Maybe you have no interest in politics or policy. So you aren’t sure you’re going to vote in November, let alone in the primaries this May or June.

Whatever your reasons for not voting, don’t even think about it this time. If you’re under 40, this November’s election is likely to be one of the most important in your lifetime. It may determine whether you have a life, or at least a decent career. It may determine whether you get shipped off to yet another “optional” “forever” war, like ours in Afghanistan and Iraq today, which are the longest in our history as a nation. It may determine whether we have to fight a new war in such faraway places as Iran or Korea, and whether that war might go nuclear.

Unless you’re already rich, this year’s election will almost certainly influence, if not determine, your level of income, health, opportunity, freedom and happiness. It could even determine whether you have a real right to vote ever again. (Recall that Adolf Hitler was freely elected Chancellor of Germany the first time.)

So make up your mind to vote this time, in both the primaries and the general election, just because it’s so important. Don’t let others steal your country or your future without even trying to have a say. This post helps advise you how.

1. Register to vote.

Before you can vote, you must register to vote. You must sign up with an official (or an official volunteer) who puts you on the voter rolls in the precinct (area) and state where you will vote. You can often find volunteers who will register you in or near schools, colleges, supermarkets, shopping malls, and other public places. If you can’t find one, look for guidance in the official website of your state (see below), or in the local affiliates of the political party you prefer.

You don’t have to have a political party. You can register as a Democrat, a Republican or (in most states) as an Independent, as you wish. In most states you can also register as a member of other, minor parties, too.

Just remember that, in many states, you can vote in the primary election for a particular party’s candidates only if you register as a member of that party. You can always vote in the general election in November even if you do not register as a member of any party, but by then the candidates chosen in the party primaries may not be to your liking.

If you don’t yet have a strong party affiliation, here’s a good strategy to try. Register for the party that you think has the most extremists. Then vote as a member of that party in its primary election against the extremists and for the moderates. Then, if you wish, you can change your party registration before the general election. Under most circumstances, you should be able to vote for any candidate from any party in the general election, as long as you are registered to vote.

2. Know the rules for voting.

You can find out how to register, as well as how to vote, from the official online records for your state. Search in Google for “Secretary of State [name of your state]” or “official rules and procedures for voting [name of your state].”

Pick the best hit with the most official look, and be sure it has a “.gov” or “.us” suffix. Be aware that there’s a lot of “fake news” out there about voting, as about all else. So be skeptical and be sure that you are looking at your real, official state government website.

The official website for voters and voting in your state will lay out the rules for registering and voting and help you find your polling place, i.e., where to go to vote. It will even let you print out a sample ballot, exactly like the one you will find in your polling place, so you can make up your mind in advance.

I recommend doing exactly that—printing out a sample ballot—so you can decide (and mark!) for whom to vote and figure out how to vote on the complex ballot measures (legal issues, not contests of candidates) that often appear. You can take your marked-up sample ballot with you into the voting booth to make actual voting easier and quicker.

Erratum: An earlier version of this section advised looking for a “.gov” suffix exclusively. But some states’ voting websites have “.us” suffixes. Some states may use other suffixes as well (I didn’t check all 50; just a few.) The important thing is to verify that the site you rely on is an authorized, official site of your state. You can do that by many means, including asking people you trust, checking with media or sources you trust, or reading the website’s index and other pages to look for evidence of “official” flavor and currency regarding public officials (with the names spelled right).

3. Try to vote early or absentee.

Many states allow you to vote early if you are properly registered and prepared. That way you can avoid standing in long lines to vote on election day. Or, if you can’t vote on election day, you can secure an absentee ballot (in advance) and submit it by hand or mail it in later. You usually have (depending on your state) a few days (or even a couple of weeks) to mail in or deliver your absentee ballot later.

The official website with your state’s rules of voting will tell you exactly how to vote early, how to get and submit an absentee ballot, and what time limits apply. That’s why you should bookmark that website and keep the bookmark in your computer or mobile device as long as you use it.

4. How to decide.

Now we come to the hard part. How do you decide for whom and for what (on issues) to vote?

I’m not going to tell you that, at least not in detail. I will state for the record that, in November’s general election, I will vote for every Democrat and against every Republican.

Why? Republicans have owned all three branches of government for over a year. Yet they have given us nothing but tax cuts for the rich and corporations, tariffs that will make things more expensive and enrage our trading partners, millions of undocumented immigrants who don’t know where they stand and fear immediate deportation, and bushels of blame and excuses.

The Republicans even tried, but failed (by one vote—John McCain’s!) to deprive tens of millions of us of affordable health insurance. And despite all his promises, President Trump has not created a single job rebuilding America’s failing infrastructure—which is one of the best ways to create jobs that can’t be outsourced.

But you don’t have to vote like me. That’s the whole idea of voting. Everyone gets a say. The reason we have such lousy government today is that far too many people haven’t actually used the say they have. In primary elections, for example, around 30% of eligible voters typically pick a party’s candidates. That’s less than one-third.

With that kind of record, your vote could be amplified if you vote in the primaries. That’s just one of many reasons why your own vote is so vitally important now.

5. Rules of thumb.

Politics and policy are complicated. Economics is complicated. Energy is complicated. It’s hard to figure out what tyrants like Vladimir Putin, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, and Kim Jong-un are trying to do, how they’re trying to deceive us, and how to outwit them. It’s hard to bring manufacturing jobs back onshore after generations of bad policy have sold our jobs and intellectual property abroad.

But you don’t have to figure all this out yourself. All you have to do is pick the best person, of those running, to do that. The idea of our form of government is that you help pick your representative, and then he or she does the hard work for you.

So you don’t have to solve the world’s problems yourself. All you have to do is be a fair judge of character and talent. With these points in mind, I offer six simple rules of thumb that can help you vote right almost all the time, especially in these polarized times of normalized extremism.

    a. Identify the extremists and vote them out.
You know the ones. The try to make complex problems sound simple by touting reckless non-solutions as if they were just, smart or “obvious.” Far from being thoughtful and effective, these pols are impulsive and careless. Their election could be dangerous to your health, both physical and economic.

I’ll give just two examples. The first relates to Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea. Of course we would prevail in the long run in any war against him, at least if we and South Korea devoted all our resources to that war. But millions of Koreans on both sides would die, not to mention our own soldiers. Even without nuclear weapons, Kim’s 10,000 pieces of conventional artillery aimed at Seoul (South Korea’s capital) likely would cause millions of casualties in the first hour or two of war alone.

Maybe we could take out Kim and his inner circle with a limited pre-emptive nuclear strike. But that would involve huge risks, including the risk that Los Angeles, San Francisco and/or Seattle might get nuked.

Anyway, sneak attacks on foreign countries are un-American. We have been the victims of two big sneak attacks (at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11), but we have never started a war with a sneak attack on a foreign country. Even Donald Trump, after criticizing Obama for doing the same thing, “telegraphed” his recent attack against Syria’s chemical weapons facilities in order to avoid casualties among Iranian and Russian troops in Syria.

Of course our military planners, in secret, must consider the possibility of a nuclear first strike against Kim and its chances for success. But anyone who touts war publicly as a “solution” to Kim’s tyranny or Korea’s division is an extremist. Just as you would vote against such a “wise guy” in selecting your own boss or a team leader, you ought to vote against anyone like that.

Our second example of extremism involves immigration. We have about eleven million undocumented immigrants in our nation now. Some pols want to throw them all out, as soon as we can.

But there are two big problems with that “solution.” First, all those people are here to work. That’s why most of them came here illegally, for jobs.

Forget about all the taxes withheld from their pay and the benefits they can’t collect because they aren’t citizens. Just think about the work they do. They butcher chickens, hogs and cattle under the miserable conditions of industrial farming. They sow and reap our crops. They build home and business buildings. And they do this work under conditions and for pay that no American citizen would accept. Even then, they scrimp and save and send part of their pay back to their families abroad.

What would happen if we deported them all? Prices would rise as employers had to raise wages and improve working conditions to fill those jobs. There could be shortages, and crops might rot in the fields while those jobs were filled. When the dust settled, many slaughterhouses, farms, food processors and builders would be forced out of business, and imports (at higher prices) would have to take up the slack. We as a nation would be less food secure, less independent, and poorer.

Then there are the moral issues. Is it right to kick people out who have no criminal records, who’ve worked here hard and honestly, maybe for decades, and who’ve contributed to our economy by taking nothing (but their pay, less taxes) in return? Is it right to break up thousands of families and force kids who’ve known no other home to “return” to nations they don’t even know?

Of course none of this is ever doing to happen. Despite what various candidates say, the leaders of the Republican Party know that mass deporting millions of honest workers would be a social and economic disaster. Wall Street and the Republican Party’s true bosses, its business wing, will never let that happen, although the Trump Administration may continue to terrorize small numbers of undocumented immigrants for show.

So candidates who promote this “solution” seriously are either extremists or liars, or both. You shouldn’t have to think hard to vote against them and for their opponents.

    b. Vote out the “white nationalists” and those who try to normalize them.
Our modern media are so full of euphemisms. So-called “white nationalists” used to be called “white supremacists,” “racists” or “Nazis.”

They have always been un-American. We fought our two bloodiest wars ever—our own Civil War and our part of World War II against German Nazism—to rid ourselves and our planet of their hateful ideology of racial superiority.

The horror of supremacist thinking is not just a matter of history. Think of Syria today, or Iraq. Syria is a mound of bleeding rubble precisely because a minority of its people, the Alawites, have used force and butchery to rule the majority. And even when minority rule is overthrown by force, as we did in deposing Saddam and his Sunni rule in Iraq, look at the result. Would any native-born American want to live in today’s Iraq?

By 2043, we will be a majority non-white nation. By then there can be “white supremacy” only through terror and the kind of force that have made Iraq and Syria such hell-holes. There is no accurate word for anyone who wants that outcome here but “extremist” or “terrorist.”

Our history and the consequences of hateful “supremacies” are about as clear and simple as anything in politics. They are so clear, in fact, that even the worst haters try to cover their tracks with euphemisms and code words.

But it’s not hard to discover the reality behind the euphemisms and the hate behind the code words. Supremacists and those who oppose them are never “both good people,” just as calling out and fighting racism is never the same as racism itself.

Rejecting supremacist pols is the first duty of any new or returning voter. Just identify the supremacists and vote for their opponents, every time. The same rule applies to any hater, whether an anti-Hispanic immigrant basher, a Christian anti-semite, an evangelical anti-Muslim, or a person opposed on religious ground to any rights for gay or transgender people.

Besides voting against haters, a good way to fight white supremacy is to vote for non-white or non-traditional candidates, including the young, females, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Muslims. Of course you should vet these candidates, just like white males, to be sure they satisfy all the rules of thumb. But if they do, their very identities and backgrounds can serve as both a badge and a guarantee of resistance to white supremacy.

    c. Reach for equality and equal economic opportunity.
Economics is a complex field. Even the experts get confused. After all, our economic elite once told us that globalized free trade would make everyone better off. The election of Donald Trump and Britain’s choice for “Brexit” show how false that broad claim was.

But there are a couple of broad economic conclusions that common sense and our own history validate. First, societies work better when wealth and opportunity are more equally distributed. The rich and the aristocratic don’t have to step over the bodies of the homeless and beggars in the streets. And everyone contributes something to the progress of society when the vast majority of people have honest and honorable jobs.

So when any pol promotes policies or programs that make the rich richer and the poor poorer, jobless or homeless, you should know for whom to vote: their opponents. So it should be with all those who voted for the Trump Tax Scan, the majority of whose benefits flow to the rich and big corporations.

The second point of common sense is that cleaning up the environmental messes left by primitive industries makes us all better off. Rich and poor alike don’t have to drink unsafe water, swim in polluted lakes or streams, or breath air that causes asthma, cancer and other respiratory diseases, not to mention premature death. Even if the rich can afford water and air purifiers in their homes, they’re better off not having to buy them and constantly replace their filters, let alone when they inevitably have to walk or work outside.

So when pols rail against the taxes that support public health, scientific research and a safety net for the unfortunate, or against the regulations that keep our workplaces safe and our air, water and food clean, they are railing against the common good and general welfare. Usually, they are working at the behest of the rich and powerful, who think (wrongly) that their wealth will protect them from the dangers that ordinary people face.

That’s not democracy. Nor is it healthy for any of us, whether or not we are rich. So this analysis should tell you not to vote for knee-jerk promoters of unregulated markets.

    d. Seek cooperation, not conflict.
There is nothing new about the notion that people are better off when they work together than when they fight. Julius Caesar put it simply two millennia ago: “divide and conquer.”

If you want to make a people, a state or a city weak, just foster division, conflict and discord in it. That’s what Vladimir Putin tried to do to us with all his “active measures” and his trolls. That’s precisely what all the haters among us will accomplish, whether they wish to or not. The division and discord their hate causes will makes us weak and vulnerable, to financial shocks, to disease, and to foreign rivals and enemies.

Of course this point applies as much to our own white supremacists and other haters as to Putin and the foreign tyrants who want to weaken us through propaganda and military provocations.

But we should never forget the flip or positive side. Just as division and discord can weakens us, cooperation and wise compromise can strengthen us. Examples of how are as close as French President Emmanuel Macron’s masterful speech (in English) before a joint session of our American Congress. We can fight terrorists and tyrants better together than separately, and we can better ameliorate the effects of globalization on our American factory workers by seeking global solutions cooperatively.

Even Donald Trump, in his better moments, recognizes this truth when not touting isolationism. The international sanctions against North Korea that his diplomats have put together with China’s and Russia’s appear to be working. And when Trump sent our planes and cruise missiles into Syria to punish Assad’s brutal and illegal use of chemical weapons, British and French forces were at our side.

Yet our domestic politics is a quagmire of division and discord. A Democrat cannot say the Sun is shining without a Republican contradicting her and proposing increased production of umbrellas.

This of course has to stop, lest we become the Banana Republic of America. So look for a cooperative spirit, a reluctance to call names and blame, and a willingness to compromise for the public good. When you find these traits in a modern pol, value them like gold, and vote for the ones who have them.

    e. Protect the rule of law and the independence of our judges and prosecutors.
Rarely, if ever, has a president or party leader before Donald Trump called for the jailing of his political opponents, or questioned the right and power of our government to investigate his own alleged wrongdoing. In our system of three co-equal powers—executive, legislative and judicial—prosecuting and punishing crimes is the role of the judicial branch, including our federal Department of Justice. Our Founders gave us this separation of powers, with decisions about criminal prosecution, guilt and sentencing made by independent investigators and our independent courts.

Why is that so important? It’s all too easy and all too tempting for presidents to increase their power, and cow their people, by putting their political rivals in jail—or executing them—on flimsy or trumped-up charges. That’s what tyrants like Putin, El-Sisi, Erdogan, and Duterte do; it’s not what real democratic leaders do.

Trump is not the first American to chant the equivalent of “Lock her up!” about his chief political rival. Nor will he be the last. But if that approach to political differences prevails, our nation will begin to resemble one from Central or South America.

What applies to his rivals also applies to the president himself. He cannot be prosecutor, judge and jury of claims and charges against him, at least not in anything resembling a democracy. Only when the prosecutor and judge are independent and professional, and when the jury is independent and unbaised, can the people trust a decision to investigate, jail or execute anyone as based on law and justice, not just political rivalry.

A system in which criminal liability depends on evidence painstakingly gathered by unbiased professionals and evaluated by neutral and independent judges and juries makes us all safer from arbitrary treatment. It gives us the confidence to live and act, secure in our knowledge that we will not be punished simply because someone in power doesn’t like us or doesn’t share our views of politics or social justice.

So a vital rule of thumb is to vote for those who promote the independence of prosecutors, judges and juries and against those who don’t. A president or governor is not a king; he or she should have no power to prosecute, convict or jail anyone, or to absolve himself or herself when under investigation. In our system, those things are done only by highly trained professionals, dedicated to a “clean” system without bias or undue influence. We must all vote to keep it that way.

    f. Evaluate character; it’s your human right and duty.
For me, the most astounding things about Trump’s election is his character. He’s a bully who appears to seek crude dominance in all his personal relationships. He’s obsessed with himself and talks about himself incessantly. His ego needs more and more regular feeding than a pet gorilla.

He lies habitually and casually. He changes his mind several times a day. He cannot focus on anything real for longer than it takes to feed his ego.

Most of his businesses have suffered bankruptcy and/or lawsuits. He drives all of his subordinates who are not family members crazy. Everyone but family who has worked for him in the White House has been tarnished and diminished. His many casual but apparently heartfelt bigotries are almost impossible to believe of anyone college educated and born and raised in New York City, one of our nation’s most diverse communities.

In the California and the United States in which I was raised, the universal reception to such a man would have been a raised middle figure. Your size, position or wealth wouldn’t have mattered at all; you would have raised that middle finger.

No one I knew would have put up with such a man as leader or boss for more than a few weeks. Then the end would not have been “You’re fired!” but “I quit!” My generation even had a popular song to match its attitude: “You can take this job and shove it!”

Yet here we are and there he is. We’re supposed to be the same nation. Yet our people seem to have reveled masochistically in being told “You’re fired!” Maybe the “reality” show explains the man. Maybe a nation of people who clamored to be abused and dismissed, if only on national TV, could elect such a man as their supreme leader.

And yet my mind rebels at that explanation. Hillary, too, has defects in character, although not as many or as terrible. She, too, has trouble taking responsibility for her mistakes and her flaws. Maybe we can explain the astounding results of the election by the voters’ exposure to Hillary’s flaws for 23 years, since the failure of “Hillarycare” in 1993, and their much shorter exposure to Trump’s.

If so, the cause is delayed, not defective, judgment of character. Maybe those who voted for Trump simply assumed the best of him because he matched their anger at their treatment by our elite.

This sordid history inspires my last rule of thumb: evaluate character. Doing so is your right and duty as a human being and a free citizen of a democracy. And in modern politics, you may have to do it quickly, so don’t delay.

A candidate for political office is not a collection of political positions, but a man or a woman. The quality of his or her relationships with colleagues and underlings matters. So think of each candidate as your personal boss or leader of your team. Would he inspire you? Or would he oppress and depress you? Would you want to work for and with him personally? Could you do so without compromising your own personality and values? Would you have to stifle your own humanity, or would she bring it out and nurture it?

Character ought not to require any special knowledge or training to evaluate. So the evaluation ought to be easy.

Somehow, in Trump’s case, it wasn’t. His voters apparently neglected to evaluate his character until his support of their anger and positions had hardened into something between submissiveness and sycophancy.

So don’t let that happen to you. Consider each candidate’s brains, knowledge, compassion, humanity, humility and willingness to take expert advice. Be critical. And if you have doubts, don’t vote for that candidate. Your doing so despite doubts might be the worst mistake you as a voter could make. It certainly was for millions of voters in 2016.

Conclusion.

No short essay can capture all the things that a good voter ought to consider in deciding how to vote. It always helps to consult and discuss your vote, beforehand, with people you know and trust.

It can also be helpful to consider the views of organizations that you know and respect, or even the editorial pages of your local or national newspaper. Progressive organizations such as the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the League of Women Voters, Emily’s List, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Democracy for America all have websites with useful information, recommendations and endorsements. Democracy for America, in particular, focuses on new progressive voices, including youth, women, people of color and American Muslims.

A final tip for voting is to discuss your choices and conclusions as widely as you can, with friends, family and co-workers. Try to include people of opposing views in these discussions. If they support your choices you may discover a basis for compromise and accord. Or you may find a reason for opposition that you missed.

But the main takeaway from this essay is that voting is neither conceptually or physically difficult. It requires some time and some effort to get things right, or as nearly right as you have the time and energy for.

But history teaches that the time and effort of voting is far less than those of fighting a war (whether civil or foreign) or getting your Republic back once it has been lost. If we all register, vote and follow these rules of thumb, the present threats to our Republic, our civility, our democracy and the system we have cherished for some 242 years may someday soon subside. And your chances of having a free, happy, prosperous and peaceful life concomitantly may increase.

So if you won’t vote for the sake of your country or your community, do it for yourself. The freedom and happiness you save may be your own.

UPDATE (5/8/18): The “Trump Bump” is Over

There is yet another reason to vote and vote smart, including in the primaries. The “Trump Bump” is over, and a fall is coming, both literally and figuratively. The temporary stock-market inflation caused by giving a huge undeserved tax-cut windfall to our 1% and our biggest corporations has run its course. Now we face the consequences of improvident government, at the very top of our leadership, based on little more than “reality” showmanship and a narcissist’s craving for quick, cheap “wins.”

Those consequences will not be pretty. In our personal lives, we call deviation from the real reality “insanity.” Now we are about to find out what that means for a whole nation, one on which the whole world once relied for leadership.

Signs of the “Trump Bump’s” end also appear in the numbers. On February 2 of this year, I sold out my entire “speculative” portfolio of individual stocks after the first clear, sharp stock-market retreat. A few days later, I posted ten reasons why the “Trump Bump” was over even then. Last Sunday, I took stock of the situation by calculating, hypothetically, what my pre-sale portfolio—a not-so-diversified bunch of mostly tech and high-dividend stocks—would have been worth then (5/6/18), over three months after I had sold out. Here are the results:

Hypothetical Changes in Portfolio Values, 2/2/18 to 5/6/18

Hypothetical StrategyResulting Gain or Loss
Hold All Investments+0.23%
Hold only AAPL & AMZN+4.3%
Sell Out+0.1%*
* Estimated

In other words, by selling out totally, I avoided the wild roller-coaster ride over the last three months and all the risk it entailed. At the same time I earned (in the money market) about half the meager return (0.23%) I would have earned had I taken all that risk by selling nothing. Even had I been smart enough to predict that Apple and Amazon, alone among all my portfolio stocks, would have earned substantial gains over that period (4.3% in three months), the risk would hardly have been worth it for a person well into retirement.

My conclusion is that the investment bump caused by giving the rich and big corporations massive tax breaks has run its short course. In six months, the recipients of this government largesse have done what you would expect smart people to do with an undeserved and unexpected windfall: they invested it. Now the period of investment is over, and the period of reckoning is upon us.

As a nation, we are entering an era in which the consequences of the GOP’s “everything’s fine” (as long as the rich donors are happy) philosophy and the narcissist-in-chief’s constant reality-show ego-feeding are coming due. Even today, Trump is due to announce some sort of “show” abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal. Maybe it will be a no-harm “show,” in which Trump rails at the deal, makes some feckless executive order repudiating it, but leaves the heavy lifting of imposing new sanctions to Congress, which probably will do nothing. Yet if he somehow manages to get Congress to impose substantial new sanctions on Iran, Iran will take them as an excuse to begin new work on nukes—secret, undisclosed and un-inspected.

The Europeans, Russia and China are unlikely to impose new sanctions because they are making too much money trading with Iran. So the end result of Trump’s fomenting against the deal (if he actually does something about it) will be a loss of business for US companies and an Iran back in the nuclear arms race.

Something similar may happen with North Korea. Do you really think Trump can outwit Kim Jong-un? Trump can’t keep a single thought in his head for longer than it takes to stroke his ego, while Kim has been obsessed with the single thought of achieving nuclear power as a means of preserving his life and his twisted regime for as long as he’s been North Korea’s leader. So the result in North Korea is likely to resemble that in Iran: a “show” and bragging rights for Trump, combined with secret nuclear parity on the part of the world’s two most pathological regimes.

Meanwhile, the first primaries have already kicked off our bitter election season. So there will be no action on infrastructure, leaving ours in miserable shape and millions without the good, non-outsourceable jobs that rebuilding infrastructure could provide. Our political dysfunction will continue. Lies, insults, dogmatic division, ideological purity and consequent failure to agree on anything will be the rule of the day, not only in the Congress but in the Executive as well. And if the Dems win control of Congress in the elections, the next six months to a year will be entirely focused on impeaching Trump.

Anyone who thinks all this will be good for business, let alone general prosperity, is delusional.

So, yes, the “Trump Bump” really is over. How could it not be? Our political leadership is focused on serving a scatterbrained narcissist’s big ego. Men like Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton (God help us) hold our fate in their hands. Our trade relationships are souring like spilt milk.

As if all that were not enough, long-festering and now-apparent economic problems are raising their ugly heads in earnest. They include vast and rampant monopolies and their unrestrained impact on privacy, demagoguery, “fake news” (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and future start-ups. The tech behemoths are slowing down our innovation machine as they consolidate their dominance. Soon they may even halt it.

And internal divisions, whipped up to a fever pitch by our president and his 40%, are making it hard, if not impossible, even to see what’s important and what needs fixing first. Recovering from this absolutely dysfunctional mess is going to take years, not months, and our nation and its business will hardly gain from that time out.

So vote early, well and wisely, especially in the primaries. Business and politics may be disconnected in theory, but in practice they interact. That’s certainly true when Congress injects unneeded and unwanted trillions into markets, and when a cheap-“win”-seeking president imposes last-century’s failed “solutions,” such as broad tariffs, on an increasingly delicate global economy. The sooner we put the breaks on policy and initiatives designed solely for this kind of show “reality,” the better off our nation and our economy will be.

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28 April 2018

¡Vive la France!


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For nations as for people, it’s good to have friends. There are no friends like old friends. There is no substitute for the comfort, confidence and courage you can derive from a friend who has known you and stood by your side since birth.

So it was this Wednesday, when French President Emmanuel Macron spoke before a joint session of the United States Congress. It took the leader of an old friend to remind us Americans who we are as a nation, what we stand for, and the many challenges we have surmounted to get where we are today. It took an old friend to recall, gently and with amity, how others, including the French, had stood by our side and we by theirs.

President Macron did all that, and more, in his speech in accented English. It’s well worth the hour to view it in full. It could restore your faith in our nation, its allies, and our species. It could even revive your soul.

What has made the last year so dreary and depressing is not just our sharp turn toward the hard right. It’s not just pols’ complete capitulation to lobbyists and the power of money. It’s not even the steady deconstruction of the regulations that protect the safety of our workplaces and the cleanliness of our air, water, lakes and streams. Nor is it the day-to-day bickering over every cheap political gotcha.

It’s the pervasive pettiness, smallness and meanness of everything in our public life that’s so depressing. It’s the cumulative effect of 536 representatives of the people (including our president)—nearly all of whom have college educations, and most of whom are lawyers—spending their days justifying their most thoughtless words and most corrupt and useless actions while vilifying whatever their rivals have said or done.

It’s Donald Trump acting as if everything that happens on our globe is about him. It’s our helpless feeling that the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and Obama has descended to the level of junior-high-school kids bragging about penis size.

Perhaps on a celestial plane, Macron’s speech was not so remarkable. But compared to all that, listening to him speak was like bathing in a pure, cold mountain stream.

Macron began with the long and special relationship between France and our nation. He recalled Lafayette’s support of our Revolution and our supporting Europe in the two World Wars and the more recent War against Terror. He thanked our soldiers for their aid.

But most of all, Macron reminded us of the common values that lie behind our shared sacrifice. Liberty, democracy, cooperation, peace, mutual respect, and that commodity most lacking in America today: equality. Step by step, Macron sketched the long history of our two peoples, in which we built these values on a global scale, together and with others.

From an analytical standpoint, most of Macron’s speech was just common sense. Of course we can fight terrorists and tyrants better together than separately. Of course we can restore economic equality and contain financial panics in a globalized world better together than in isolation. Of course we can find our way out of a maze of problems spawned by technology and science, including vast credence in “fake news,” better through science, technology, and government regulation than through name calling, superstition, ideology or authoritarianism. Of course “there is no Planet B,” so all our species must cooperate to preserve our planet and its climate and diversity, relying on Science and Reason. Of course it’s better to build on the Iran deal, which delays Iran’s becoming a nuclear power for at least ten years, than to tear it up and start over, giving Iran’s hard liners a fine excuse to start the centrifuges spinning again ASAP.

But the gist of Macron’s speech was not its analytical substance. It was a leader conveying the love and confidence of the French people to ours. It was him begging us to come to our senses, to get a grip, and to continue our contribution to global order and human progress, if not our leadership.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Macron’s speech was the reaction of his audience. There were many standing ovations. Surprisingly few of them involved only one side of the aisle; most involved the entire audience. The applause before the speech, after Macron’s introduction, seemed interminable. So did the applause after it. Our cynical pols seemed entranced by the young, charismatic French leader.

Sometimes it seemed as if they were jealous or in awe of him. How many of the 535 would have liked to be able to deliver a speech like his, acknowledging the common values that undergrid Western Civilization and how much danger they are in? How many would have liked to rise above the daily bickering, bigotry and bragging that today pass for our public life?

Donald Trump claims to have come to Washington to “drain the swamp.” But of course he has only made it deeper, slimier and stinkier. He couldn’t really help himself: his character, intelligence, experience, competence and attention span are simply inadequate to the task.

So good men and women, caught in the quicksand, are retiring by the dozens. They despair that, despite their winning elections and all their efforts, they could ever do anything meaningful in Congress as it is today. And Paul Ryan, himself retiring, fires the House Chaplain, reportedly for insisting too earnestly on the Christian values of equality and aid to the poor.

No, in this atmosphere, even a speech by as good and wise a friend as Emmanuel Macron can only go so far. Our pols are stuck in a web of money disguised as policy and self-serving nonsense like “trickle down” hardened into dogma. There is nowhere for them to go but down, so many are getting out.

It will take far more than one speech by a well-wishing ally to rouse us from our stupor. It will take as great a change in Congress as ever a midterm election has produced.

We will have to elect people of character and courage, who understand our values as well as Macron does. We will have to vote for the best, in both primaries and the general election, no matter how young, female, black, brown or Muslim the best might be. We will have to elect people who will not just stand there and be jealous of Macron’s ability to speak truth, support justice, and apply common sense, but who can emulate it. So our response to Macron’s friendly Call to Reason will have to wait until November.

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20 April 2018

How Dismal Is Economics Really?


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Introduction
1. The many faces of “labor”
2. The seamless web of science and technology
3. The absurdity of a “service economy”
Conclusion

Introduction

The great economist John Maynard Keynes is famous, in part, for having pronounced economics a “dismal science.” Today, it’s far more a quantitative science than it was in his day. We have infinitely more data and infinitely more ways to store and manipulate them. What a modern smart phone can do would have absolutely astonished Keynes.

But data by themselves are not the essence of science. As anyone who ever studied the “scientific method” knows, the essence is testing hypotheses. You form an hypothesis capable of being tested by observation or experiment. Then you do the observation or experiment and see whether the hypothesis holds up. That’s the essence of science.

If you subject modern economics to that test, it wins a few and loses a few. Take Communism, for example. At its core, it’s based on the notion that people will work hard for the “collective” or the state, like the horse in Animal Farm. Humanity put that notion to the test in two long-term fair trials: over seventy years in Russia and over thirty in China. It failed both times.

So Western economists concluded that real people will work for themselves and their families, but not for abstractions like the “collective” or the state. This conclusion led them to reject Communism almost unanimously.

It also led them to celebrate vociferously, because the people who paid their salaries (Western capitalists) didn’t much like Communism. As a science, economics began to seem less dismal. Even today economic hangers-on (namely, pols) continue to exhume Marx and Engels to shoot them down and re-inter them, just for the fun of it.

Then along came globalized free trade. Under this theory, people and nations make what they are best at making, and free trade among them makes everyone better off.

A rapidly developing China glommed onto this theory in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. It decided it could make lots of things better than “developed” nations because it had lots of people who were willing to work harder for less money, and under far worse conditions, than workers in developed nations.

For forty years the theory seemed to work. Chinese workers and Chinese got richer. The Chinese bought up over seven percent of our treasury bills, making China one of our biggest creditors. Nearly a billion people rose out of extreme poverty, mostly in China. Much the same thing happened in once-Communist Eastern Europe, as it rose (more slowly) from Communism and became part of the EU.

But a funny thing happened in the developed nations. They lost manufacturing jobs and factories, big time. Manufacturing towns dried up and blew away. So millions of their workers rebelled. They began to agitate and vote against globalized free trade.

Workers in Britain voted to “Brexit” the EU—the most modern embodiment of globalized free trade. American workers elected a complete political ingenue named Donald Trump, who started to impose (gasp!) tariffs to keep what was left of American manufacturing from drifting offshore, too.

Not only that. Heretofore nice, sensible workers in all these countries turned against immigration and immigrants, including genuine refugees. They turned to racism, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry and tribalism. Their politics, inexplicably, began to look like the fascism and nativism that almost all educated people agree had caused humanity’s most horrible and senseless war in the last century.

So what did economic “scientists” do? Did they question their hypothesis that globalized free trade makes everyone better off? Not on your life! Instead, they stuck to their guns, theoretically speaking. Their collective “reasoned” conclusion was that “the lab rats went mad!”

Now suppose a pharmaceutical firm reacted to a failed drug trial by saying, “the lab rats went mad!” What do you suppose would happen to its stock price and its business leaders? Where would they be now?

Yet nothing similar has happened to our free-trade economists. Why? Because they had a lot of (mostly undeserved) prestige and credence, but they really hadn’t much responsibility at all. They were handmaidens to the capitalists, who were getting rich quick by shipping Western factories to low-wage countries and profiting from price arbitrage. And the global free-trading capitalists wanted the big party they had started to continue. They still do.

Everybody who mattered seemed to be happy. London became an international center for banking and shuffling paper. Everyone who had money, including bent and exiled Russian oligarchs, was buying big flats in Knightsbridge and Kensington. Nobody much cared that the workers in Glagow, Birmingham and Blackpool didn’t have jobs and that the council flats they live in were getting shabbier by the day.

The great theory of globalized free trade continued to make the bankers, capitalists and shareholders who practiced it rich. The theory only seemed to disadvantage people who had lost their good jobs and their unions and therefore had no economic or political leverage. They didn’t much matter, at least until they elected Donald Trump and voted for Brexit.

This essay, in contrast, proceeds on the basis of the scientific method. When an ostensibly scientific hypothesis fails as spectacularly as has the one that says globalized free trade makes everyone better off, you re-examine the hypothesis and your theory. You don’t just claim “the lab rats went mad!” they way Marie Antionette once advised “Let them eat cake!” You don’t, that is, unless you want Keynes to rise from the grave and point his bony finger at his nascent science once again.

As it turns out, a quick glance at the theory reveals some grossly neglected variables. Among them are aspects of society, and of science and technology, that make productive enterprises work, at least in modern, specialized societies. Once you take these features of modern real economies into account, the modern theory of globalized free trade begins to look a lot like Swiss cheese. Let’s take a look.

1. The many faces of “labor.”

Classical economics says there are three factors of production: land, labor and capital. It treats them as pure variables, expressed in abstract form as pure numbers.

But only capital (money) really is a simple abstraction. Money is fungible, at least in a free market, and most free markets work that way to a reasonable approximation.

Land and labor are different. Even the law understands that land is unique: no two pieces are alike. Some land is arable; some land is wild. Some land is valuable because it’s near a highway, railroad or airport and can bear valuable commercial traffic. That’s why, if you agree to sell a parcel of land and renege, the law can force you to sell that particular parcel and no other.

Labor is even more complex because it’s a product of people. My labor is not the same as yours. My law degree and physics doctorate aren’t much good in farming, nor in practicing medicine. They’re not bad in helping me understand how societies and things that run work.

Labor depends on the person doing it, his or her capacity, intelligence, education and training. The process of labor also interacts with all these traits: people get smarter as they work on a particular task, whether or not their training is formal and produces a diploma or degree.

The point here is that workers are not automatons or fungible, no matter how simple the work they do may seem. They are people embedded in a society. Their work is part of that society; the more complex and specialized it is, the more it partakes of and depends on aspects of their society not directly related to the work itself.

Not only does the work they do affect their families and that society (as we now know after watching millions scream in frustration). It and their education and training are part of the seamless web of science and technology, which we’ll get to later.

As Chinese workers began to make stuff for America and Europe, they began to climb the learning curve of manufacturing. They learned about machines, materials, processes and organization. The learned about the Bessemer converter that makes steel and its modern counterparts. They learned about Henry Ford’s assembly line and the modern computers, robots and sensors that make it work much faster and better today, a century later.

The Americans whose jobs the Chinese replaced stopped doing these things. They stopped improving American steel-making machines and assembly lines bit by bit and step by step. Out of necessity, to support their families, they turned to greeting customers at Wal-Mart, pumping gas, and frying hamburgers. And they began to forget the million tricks and twists of making what they used to make, and making it better, quicker and cheaper, step by step, every day.

If you like, you can consider the workers and their daily training and education to be part of the product, or at least a part of its manufacturing infrastructure. You can consider their knowledge and skill part of America’s “know how,” or “trade secrets.”

All this may not seem like much of a big deal in making lawn furniture and hand tools (the first products that went to China). But the more complex and higher-tech the products, the more the people matter. When talk turns to making smart phones or DNA sequencing machines, workers’ training and experience matter. They may not matter for every worker, but they matter for the workers who count. They matter so much that capitalists try to protect this stuff as “intellectual property,” by patenting it, keeping it as a bunch of “trade secrets,” or, for sensitive things related to military matters or intelligence, keeping it as “state secrets.”

So taking work offshore does a lot more than move a mere pure, abstract “factor of production.” It takes training, experience, education and the need for it offshore, too. It neglects “intellectual property” and “know how” and lets them languish and decline at home, or enrich foreign manufacturing venues. It lets the domestic “infrastructure” of manufacturing, including the people who do it, decay.

Land can act similarly. According to a recent news feature on PBS. , India is implementing a massive land-reclamation project to re-hydrate and repurpose rural land. Why? It thinks that so much land has fallen fallow that it might not be able to feed itself. By making sure that its arable land is hydrated, and properly tended, at least seasonally, India can offer rural livelihoods to people who prefer to live in the countryside and better feed its teeming cities. Thinking of land as fungible, like capital or brokerage accounts in computers, just doesn’t seem to work.

2. The seamless web of science and technology.

There is one thing that everyone who had ever worked in a physics laboratory or advanced machine shop knows that few economists (as such) appear to understand. Science and technology form a seamless web. They feed upon themselves. They are a bit like ecology: everything is connected to everything else.

Let’s just take a single industry—one of our species’ proudest achievements: aircraft and air travel. You couldn’t have modern air travel without directional radio and radar. In fact, in a famous accident in the 1940s, an airliner in South America disappeared in a long-unsolved crash because we then lacked the technology to understand and predict how the jet stream held it back in passing the summit of a mountain range.

You also couldn’t have modern jet aircraft without modern materials and metal alloys. Just days ago (as I write this) a Southwest Airlines passenger died when an aircraft engine exploded in flight, likely due to metal fatigue. Assessing metal fatigue in aircraft engines requires diagnostic techniques as varied as ultrasound and X-rays.

Next take modern genomic medicine. Not only does it require the chemicals and electronics of DNA sequencers. It requires all the chemical laboratories and sophisticated integrated-circuit equipment to amplify DNA and sequence it.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. In modern industry, you can never tell in advance what sophisticated aspect of science or technology will permit or facilitate development of a new product or service. You can never tell what obscure branch of achievement or technology will provide the “missing link” that makes a long-sought product work. Only the nation that keeps its fingers in all the pies will have the flexibility and versatility to make new things cheaply, quickly and well. The nation that has the broadest base in science and technology will excel in innovation.

Recently the Trump Administration has become concerned with so-called “strategic” manufacturing. To judge from news articles, that includes things like steel (required for virtually all heavy construction), aluminum (required for aircraft) and advanced communication gear.

But trying to list what’s “strategic” and what’s not is a fool’s errand. In this complex world, one never knows what product or technology will be essential to the next step toward a genomic cure for cancer or in a spaceship aiming for the stars. To think otherwise is to misunderstand how science and technology advance.

Of course lawn furniture and hand tools—the things whose making China took over first—are not terribly strategic. But today, when China is capable of taking over making iPhones, solar panels, advanced machine tools, electric cars, and heavy machinery, its doing so completely would deprive our remaining workers of the training, education and practical experience that they need to succeed, let alone excel, in vast swaths of technology. While one cannot predict in advance the exact ways in which this loss would impair our manufacturing capability and our ability to innovate, we can be sure it will have considerable effect.

This point is so important, and so fundamental to basic flaws in the current theory of globalized free trade, that I feel compelled to cite two lengthy examples to drive it home in all its truth and many ramifications. The examples involve two of the greatest achievements of our human species: nuclear weapons and safe, reliable air travel. Let’s take a look.

    a. Nuclear weapons.
Since 1945, when World War II ended with the United States’ first use of nuclear weapons, their basic mode of operation has been an open secret, revealed repeatedly by news reporters and popularizers of science. First you take critical masses of fissionable material, either Uranium-235 or Plutonium. You get the fissionable Uranium by refining and enriching it in centrifuges, or you generate the Plutonium in a nuclear reactor. Then you cut the more-than-critical mass of fissionable metal apart into pieces. You shape the pieces carefully and place conventional high explosives symmetrically around them, so that a critically timed explosion will implode them, instantaneously, into a more-than-critical mass.

Voilá! You have an atomic bomb! In broad principle, it’s that simple.

But if nuclear weapons are so simple, why doesn’t every nation have them? The United States developed them in about four years, in the middle of humanity’s most dreadful war, while fighting that war on two fronts, with all the resources of its entire society. Surely in the intervening 73 years, other nations could have accomplished the same feat, starting from scratch on their own, just as the United States did. Surely their development would have been much easier in peacetime, without enemies and spies breathing down their necks. So why doesn’t every nation, or at least every nation with a decent industrial infrastructure, have nukes?

The answer is that making them is not really so simple at all. The basic outline is simple, but the devil was and is in the details. And getting the details right required organizing the greatest and most sophisticated military-industrial project in human history, our so-called “Manhattan Project.”

Let’s start with the people. Nuclear physics was a European invention. Virtually all the great physicists of the early twentieth century were Europeans: Brits, French, Germans, Italians, and a Czech or Hungarian or two.

The United States had been a backwater of physics before Hitler and his Nazis came along. But Hitler and his Nazis scared the Hell out of all intellectuals, especially those introverted scientists who spent their lives studying particles too small to see with even (then) the best microscopes. So as Hitler’s armies conquered Europe, all of Europe’s best physicists fled to the United States. Inadvertently, Hitler let us collect the world’s best minds, most capable of making atomic weapons, right here in our own country.

But that’s not all. These foreign scientists, nearly all of whom spoke with accents, included Italians and Jews. They were not exactly popular minorities: anti-Semitism was on the rise here in the US, as in Europe, and Italian Catholics still had not achieved full acceptance as Americans. Yet somehow FDR’s administration had men smart enough to ignore these scientists’ foreign and ethnic origins, organize them and their few American counterparts into a team, accept their strange ideas and untested theories, and put the military and industrial resources of a great nation at their disposal.

Three facts suggest the extent to which the “Manhattan Project’s” team had to invent its way to new technology, i.e., build an entirely new technological infrastructure, in order to develop the first atomic weapons. First, at one point, the Manhattan Project comandeered almost ten percent of the entire nation’s electrical energy, in order to turn the centrifuges to enrich the uranium that went into the first nuclear weapon.

Think about that. One-tenth of the nation’s entire electrical output! Somehow, the rich, the powerful, the industrialists—even the humming war factories—had to skimp on power so that the centrifuges could turn. Probably only an enlightened democracy, with those at the top fully aware of the stakes and the tradeoffs, could have achieved such a diversion of energy for long enough to do the job.

The second suggestive fact involved the invention of teflon. As scientists began to experiment with centrifuges to enrich uranium, they discovered that the Uranium hexafluoride gas that they enriched was not only highly toxic, but highly corrosive. It would burn out thick stainless-steel centrifuge tubing in mere hours or days.

For a time, much of the nation’s scientific and technical talent devoted itself to solving this corrosion problem. Eventually, chemists working with the physicists solved it by inventing a plastic-like coating made of teflon (tetrafluoroethylene), which they used to coat the tubes to reduce corrosion. The coating worked because it had lots of bonds with the very fluorine atoms that made the uranium gas so corrosive.

Today, of course, everyone knows about teflon because we all use teflon-coated non-stick pots and pans. (Teflon has a high melting and degrading temperature, well above normal cooking range.) The scientists working on the Manhattan Project had to create this whole new industry, with a whole new plastic-like material, just to solve a single technical problem on the way to developing nuclear weapons.

The third fact relevant to this discussion involved triggering the conventional explosives. The triggering had to be exact, so that the propagation of the explosive waves through the solid, fissionable metal caused instantaneous compression at enormous pressure. Everything had to work within microseconds, at a time when transistors, integrated circuits and even digital computers had not yet been invented.

Physicists knew good techniques better than others, because in past decades they had done many experiments testing the speed of light in various media. They knew how fast light travels in various transparent media, and how fast electrical signals travel in various conducting and semiconducting metals. Putting this detailed knowledge together with knowledge of how fast high-explosive shock-waves travel, they were able to design atomic-weapon triggering devices that worked the first time. The Soviets were not so clever; they had to steal our trigger design through the Rosenbergs, who were executed for espionage, in order to design their first atomic weapons.

Today, of course, we do have transistors, integrated circuits and digital computers. We even have digital computers with cycle times measured in picoseconds (millionths of a millionth of a second). So today a lot of our design of atomic-weapon triggering devices can be done “virtually,” i.e., in computers rather than in the laboratory. Computers can even keep track of how our high-explosives deteriorate with time and tell us when we have to replace or repair components in order to be sure that our nukes will work when required and not go off prematurely or accidentally.

Of course all this continual study, advancement and maintenance requires a huge organization of highly-skilled scientists, technicians, machinists, and computer programmers. It’s all part of our secret military-industrial complex, and it’s not about to be let go.

But suppose it were a mere industrial/commercial project. Suppose some manager decided, in order to save money, to let this work be done offshore. Who in America would maintain the test equipment, the manufacturing lines, the computers, and the programs needed to maintain and test, let alone improve, all this infrastructure over the years? Who would have been able to use, test, improve and rewrite the computer programs, as new and more powerful computers and programming languages replaced the ones used to write them? Wouldn’t our ability to have, maintain, and improve our nuclear arsenal fade away as all this technological infrastructure moved offshore?

    b. Jet engines.
We all take jet engines for granted as we fly fearlessly on jet aircraft day after day. But in fact, jet engines are one of the greatest marvels of modern technology.

If you sit near an engine on an aircraft, your head is mere meters from exotic metals like titanium and vanadium, whirling away at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute, at temperatures comparable to those in the blast furnaces that make steel. All this is happening just meters from your head; yet you sit there in perfect safety and comfort, while streams of red-hot fuel and air force your plane on its way with thrust forces equivalent to the weight of a tractor and semi-trailer on the highway.

Like the principles of nuclear weapons, those of jet engines are simple enough. A heated fuel-air mixture ignites while put under immense dynamic pressure by turbine fans, and the forward thrust of that pressure on the fan blades moves the engine and the plane forward, while the unrestrained exhaust blows out the rear.

But problems quickly become complex when the jet engine meets the real world. Not only must the blades and system function through the icy cold of high altitudes, polar vortices, snow, rain and fog. The blades themselves must continue to work, and not fly apart, after harsh encounters with snow, ice and flying creatures. Engineers used to test new jet engines, I have been told, by throwing supermarket chickens into the engine intakes and seeing what happened.

Often we first become aware of the complexity of our technology when it fails. Recently a Southwest Airlines jet engine failed on a passenger route, killing a passenger who was nearly sucked out of the cabin through a breach. The exploding engine parts did not kill her directly, only indirectly through the breach. But the speeding fan-blade fragments could have sliced through her chest far more easily than through the cabin’s superstructure and aluminum skin.

In fact there had been another, similar engine failure a couple of years before, one in which fortunately there had been no injury. But these two events scream the need for more careful assessment of fan-blade deterioration and maintenance. As jet engines get older and older, the question of metal fatigue raises its ugly head, just as it did in the spontaneous cabin ruptures that occurred (and that were later solved by monitoring metal fatigue) in the 1980s and 1990s.

To avoid metal fatigue as engines encounter longer and longer useful lives, engineers will have to find ways to test fan blades periodically. And since metal fatigue can escape visual detection, they will have to use more sophisticated inspection techniques, such as ultrasound, x-rays, other irradiation, or electronic probing. These techniques will then become part of the “know-how” of jet engine manufacture and maintenance, perhaps patented but more likely kept as secret lore.

During my days of travel to my teaching assignment in Akron, Ohio, I had a chance to become acquainted with a retired General Electric engineer who had worked most of his career on jet engines. He was still working as a consultant occasionally, on assignment, often in foreign countries, decades after retirement. One thing he worked on, he told me, was clever techniques for balancing precisely the fan-blade arrays and mechanisms that make jet turbines run.

These assemblies have to be precisely balanced because they whir at impossible speeds, under impossibly high pressures, at impossibly high temperatures. The techniques my friend taught, he said, were “workbench” expedients, passed down from engineer to engineer, and kept secret both within the company and within each laboratory. They were unpatented “lore,” but absolutely essential to making jet engines functional, reliable and cheap.

This secret lore is undoubtedly one reason why, although many firms make aircraft, only three firms make the jet engines that let them run: America’s (and Canada’s) General Electric, the Brits’ Rolls-Royce, and a French-European conglomerate once called Snecma, but now (I think) a part of Airbus.

Unlike bankers and economists, who seems to think technology is as fungible as money, the engineers and managers who run these jet-engine companies are fully conscious of the extent to which science and technology are seamless webs. They would no more think of letting loose offshore their hard-learned techniques for balancing jet-engine turbines, or for detecting and eliminating metal fatigue in fan blades, than would a general in our Air Force think of releasing the secrets, including computer programs, for designing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

These managers know from practical experience of decades and careers how much of technology and science actually belongs to the men and women who practice and develop it day to day. They would no more expect to retain leadership in technology by entrusting its day-to-day pratice and development to foreigners than they would think of e-mailing our atomic secrets to the KGB.

3. The absurdity of a “service economy.”

While the transfer of American factories overseas was in full rage, globalized free-trade advocates came up with the notion of a “service” economy. Asserting that modern economies like the United States’ rely on services for 80% or more of their value added, these economists insisted that our losing even all of our manufacturing offshore would be no great burden.

When an advocate for anything proposes his own reductio ad absurdum, you know his grasp of reality is tenuous. Imagine a society with no manufacturing whatsoever. What “services” would we perform for each other? The elite among us might perform legal and accounting services, or manage each other’s money, while teaching each other music and the arts. But what would the average Joe and Mary do? Bake cakes and take photos? sing each other songs? dress each other’s hair? And how would millions support a decent standard of living doing these things?

Whence would come the computers, smart phones, ovens, cooking equipment, musical instruments, easels and hair curlers to do them? With what exchange would we purchase them, presumably from abroad? Would we perform banking services for the foreign manufacturers and help them sue each other? Would we send our musicians abroad to sing for the “hard currency” to buy stuff made there?

A “service” economy would be an economy without science or technology. Yet these are the two fields that have made us pre-eminent in commerce and war, at least since Abraham Lincoln set out to insure that each of us had at least a high-school education.

No, the notion of a service economy came from the fevered brains of folks who never set foot in a factory, machine shop or auto shop, or, if they did, failed totally to comprehend what they saw there. A full-service economy is as likely to occur on our Earth as a society based entirely on song, dance and telling tales. But it sounded good and kept the wolf from the door of the rapidly arbitraging and self-enriching managers, at least for while.

Yet this is the kind of nonsense that economists have fed us to keep us believing that the lab rats who gave us Trump and Brexit must be mad.

Conclusion.

No, the experiment in globalized free trade has already failed on its own terms, just as did the fair trials of Communism in Soviet Russia and “Red” China. Far from making everyone better off, globalized free trade has produced vast social dislocation in advanced nations. It threatens to drain the so-called “advanced” countries of their scientific and technological skill and their leadership in innovation. As times goes on, it could even drain their educational institutions, or force them to serve the nations that most need science and technology: the manufacturing ones.

The question is not whether the globalization experiment has failed. We know it has from the bizarre effects it has already had on politics, commerce and trade. The questions are how and why it failed and whether there are any simple adjustments that can keep it from failing further.

So far, the prospect of simple adjustments is doubtful. The reason is clear: “labor” is not just a factor of production but a part and a characteristic of a people. It and the “know how” it involves are part of their society and their social, industrial, scientific and technical infrastructure. The labor of making things is also part of a people’s training and education, which are vital social and economic goods in their own right. Any economic theory that fails to take them into account neglects the driving force of innovation and any society’s advancement.

Some day, we may have a quantitative theory of these vital social goods. But we don’t today. All we have is the wreckage of an overly simplistic one-dimensional model, tantamount to the “best of all possible worlds” theory popular among the elite in Voltaire’s day. It’s a simplistic model that those economists who serve as handmaidens for the most rapacious capitalists used to justify their self-enrichment at society’s expense. It’s Alan Greenspan’s and Milton Friedman’s blind faith that markets are self-correcting, when we know differently from the hard experience of the Crash of 2008, Volkwagen’s cheating on its emission tests and Wells Fargo’s selling millions of customers auto insurance they didn’t want or need. If this is science, then whatever did Galileo risk his life for?

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