Montreal notes

So I’ve been here all week w/my beloved. We got tired of the warming up in D.C. and wanted more snow, cold air, icy sidewalks, and biting wind.

A few notes before we leave, in case anyone has any brilliant suggestions for things to do. I’ve never traveled much. This was my first trip out of the country in over ten years. Don’t change money at the airport is my sage advice to infrequent flyers.

There was some kind of demo Sunday. Lots of police downtown. Our bourgeois cab ride went by it.

We went to the Basilica of Notre-Dame. Done a lot of walking around. Going to the L’Espace pour la Vie today (also called Biodome, which makes me think of Pauley Shore, despite myself).

Staying in a house in Mile End, where hipsters are everywhere. Also Hassidem (men only; haven’t seen any women on the street). We haven’t found a bad restaurant yet. Restaurant Rumi (great Persian food), Au Coin de Berbere (heavenly couscous), B&M (nice brunch), L’Gros Luxe (ditto), Joe Beef (great food, but $$$$).

The way to do this city I think is to hit the Italian market the first day and stock up on all sorts of yummy delicacies.

I’ll get back to some of the comments, but I’ve been sitting around too long today already. Time to get back out there.


The case for being unreasonable

gompersMy friend Scott Lemieux kindly takes issue with my previous post. Perhaps reading his and other objections will deepen my argument. I leave that for you to decide.

Things that are incontrovertible, some of which I’ve already acknowledged:

1.  Dems are better than Republicans, in more-or-less every respect. They will be less bad, and their hires and appointments doing administration in the executive branch will be much less bad. Hence for the left a vote for Democrats for the presidency under currently foreseeable circumstances is usually the correct vote.

2.  The obstacles to third parties at the national level are huge, nearly prohibitive.

3.  Everybody agrees we need reinvigorated social movements to push the Dems and the country to the left.

4.  I am no fan of Maoist “the worse, the better” thinking, which is more accurately memorialized in “After Hitler, us.”

So what’s wrong with another exhortation to go lesser evil? I note that Scott refers to it as “boring.” I’ll take that as an admission: it reflects a lack of imagination. The implication is that point #1 is contested, and answering it solves the Social Question, as Bismarck would say. My case only partly overlaps with ‘third party curiosity’ (Scott’s cute phrase).

One question that is arguable is whether we are on a continuous, rightward path where the D’s are always better than the R’s, but always worse than D’s of years past. How much credit is due to the current and previous Dem administration?

In this regard I’d first refer back to Samuel Gompers, who when asked the objectives of the labor movement, replied “More.” I think Scott and Mike Tomasky would agree with that too. However, their implementation of that axiom differs from mine. For me, “more” means maintaining constant, unrelenting criticism of the Democratic Party, replete with threats to abstain, sabotage, or defect. It means being an endless pain in the ass (insert your own joke here), a perpetual source of discord. Call it creative tension, or if you like, “heightening the contradictions.”

Even when the Dems are better, they should be told to be better still. To me that’s a valid strategic principle. You can’t put that across if you’re always making nice, or telling everybody things could be worse. It’s not like Dem leaders are some fragile, needy children with low self-esteem who require constant encouragement. How hard to push, and when, is a tactical matter. At times credit will be due. We don’t expect Democrats from a lot of places to garner much enthusiasm. From many, there is little to expect (Hi, Heidi).

There is also the non-trivial matter of evaluating actual progress and regress. It is not one-dimensional. It’s certainly better to be gay today in the U.S. than it was even ten years ago. Or to smoke weed. But is it better to be, say, African-American? Or a woman? I am neither, but some starkly negative trends are evident. Residential segregation by race (and by extension, in local public education) is probably as bad, though different, as it was fifty years ago. Incarceration rates are high. Denial of the voting franchise proceeds apace. Reproductive rights are increasingly under pressure in the so-called red states. The police are basically out of control, whether in day-to-day dealings with minorities or in attacking the practice of non-violent civil disobedience. We have no well-founded expectation of privacy any longer.

It pays to be careful with statements along the lines of “We’ve never had it so good.” On the other hand, if you rant that shit is fucked up and bullshit, you’ll never leave anybody behind. Scott can compare some points in time that favor his case, but as in economics, the period you choose to define a trend makes all the difference.

We often bifurcate issues between the economic and the social. The Dems are better on social issues, there have been notable improvements, as cited above. On economic, class issues there is more to argue about. On one level the split is misconceived. Segregation, incarceration, and reproductive rights have profound economic implications for the victims. On the other side, Scott can point to the BFD of ObamaCare. I could add the initial fiscal response to the Great Recession.

For the sake of argument, we could concede that the Affordable Care Act and the initial Obama budgets for FY 09-10 were the best that could be achieved. Imagination comes back in as one reflects on this background. We could acknowledge the pragmatic necessity of results without neglecting what more there is to do. Lesser evilism tends to rest on imperfect or, worse, entirely unjustified laurels.

In the case of fiscal stimulus, more was clearly called for, at the start and to a greater extent a year plus down the line. In the case of ACA, the surviving legislation will deserve any number of adjustments in the future. Where should we be going? I defy you to relate any answers from the White House, or from admonitions that the other guys are always worse. Is it worth advancing proposals with no immediate chance of passage? It seems to have worked for the crazies on the Right. What’s harder to support is offering bad proposals — like ‘chained CPI’ — that have no chance of passing either. (I happen to think it might have passed, but that’s speculation on my part, or at least, more speculative than the rest of this post.)

What can we unreasonably say, looking forward, taking a long view?

1.  The Dems address climate change, but not enough. In this case a bit better is not necessarily adequate.

2.  The Dems remain wedded to dangerous meddling in the ME, indulging dubious allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hillary in particular promises more unwelcome excitement on this front.

3.  You can’t advocate for jobs while touting deficit reduction; it just makes people stupider. The same goes for what I call the Democrats’ doctrine of Federal Reserve supremacy. The European variant is even worse. Ersatz notions of full employment are purveyed by liberals.

4.  We are not out of the woods on bad Social Security changes coming from Democrats. They only await the return of more reasonable Republicans.

One new development is promising noises made by Democratic big thinkers. I’m so old I remember similar talk about “putting people first” (they didn’t). Another presidential election looms, and Lucy and her football are back.

If the problems I have raised do not support the case for a permanent state of umbrage, I’m afraid we are fated to disagree. Dems may get my vote, but they will not get my apologetics.



Don’t be less evil

Michael Tomasky comes ’round with that Olde Tyme lesser evil rag. He proposes some dubious arguments and fails to grapple with the most important ones.We can stipulate from the outset that these days, most any Democrat for president will be less evil than most any Republican. That includes Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and “Jeb” Bush (really John Ellis Bush; don’t call him Jeb!) on the Republican. It follows that whatever legion of minions the Democrat would bring with her into the executive branch will be comparatively superior as well. This is not really controversial, nor is it really on point.A different issue is the political dynamic of the right-drifting center. As the center drifts right, so do the Democrats. They may be less evil, but they are more evil than in previous periods. Mondale and Dukakis took up bankrupt deficit reduction mania. Bill Clinton destroyed Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Both Clinton and Obama came close to cutting Social Security. With sanctions, Clinton greased the skids for a second war with Iraq.

If you go less evil, you’re less evil in the here and now, but over time things can trend in the wrong direction. It’s kind of like Zeno’s Paradox. We could also say as the Democrats get more evil all the time, they will still earn Michael Tomasky’s vote.

The best rejectionist argument is not that there is no difference between the two major parties. It’s that the pragmatic focus on lesser victories obviates the political sea change we need. Things are less bad than they might be, but are they so good that they can sustain any sort of healthy society? The choice of socialism or barbarism comes to the fore. What sort of barbarism is worthy of the name?

One is the melting of the polar caps, which threatens the survival of humanity. Maximizing fossil fuel extraction, a ballyhooed achievement of this Democratic White House, is barbarous.

Another is the increasingly barbarous, racist carceral state. We could imagine a whole panoply of moves fully within the power of the Administration, beyond the tentative steps towards modernizing police practices and bleating about military hardware. I note that no such modernization is in evidence in cities commanded by liberal mayors, especially during conventions of the Democratic Party. Try to demonstrate during these affairs and you will be treated to a vivid demonstration of your actual rights.

A third is the dwindling access to family planning services in many states, in light of the virtual reign of terror administered against any who would provide such services.

I could go on. You could too.

It should not be doubted that a successful left third party would need overwhelming popular support to breach the legal and financial barricades. How to do that without ceding all sorts of damage to a Republican-dominated state, I don’t pretend to know. But remember, without the kind of break that addresses climate change, the kids are all screwed. There’s got to be another way.

Tomasky suggests that protest votes are easy for bourgeois elitists who will not suffer from the machinations of retrograde Republican governance. This is a little rich. Of course, votes for the Democrats are not costly for elites either. It’s good to be the king, as long as your feet stay dry.

Another dubious analytic point from MT is that elected officials who are abandoned by protest voters will have no incentive to attend to the interests of those voters. He forgets that politicians are whores for votes. The only thing for which they are bigger whores is money. A potential vote or donor is a friend too. Moreover, if staying outside the tent loses you influence, what does staying in the tent get you, absent any threat to leave? Being taken for granted is at least a good possibility. So score this claim as maybe so, maybe not.

The presidency and Supreme Court appointments are always brought to the fore in these discussions, and for good reason. They have epochal implications. But as we slide down the political food chain, MT’s exhortations lose more and more force. What’s the world-historical harm from sabotaging the execrable Andrew Cuomo, for instance? New York has survived Republican governors.

If Democratic leaders were serious about some sort of liberal vision, we would seem them encouraging motion to their left, generating the possibility of reversing rightward movement of the center. Instead we see them trying to destroy any such motion, even in the case of New York, where the dissenting Working Families Party had committed itself to cooperation in both the primary and the general election. In Seattle, we see liberal forces conniving to eject socialist Kshama Sawant from office. Control supercedes progress in the realm of policy. This is political sclerosis at its finest.

Sometimes the case for alternatives is stigmatized as a vain quest for purity. The implication is that there are no differences of principle, but that implication is not defended. It is merely asserted.

The best argument for MT’s status quo participation is the lack of manifest alternatives. You can’t beat something with nothing, and nothing is on offer at the moment. A national election tends to consume all available political oxygen, but that should not stop grassroots action and may not preclude some real upsurges. We have witnessed local action around homicidal police practices, low pay, and climate change. The finger-wagging about the presidential election tends to collapse politics to a narrow, us-or-them question.

There are all sorts of social time bombs that are ticking away. I’d say the political focus belongs on them. Electoral action may follow. In the meantime, I’m no political genius. I’ll have to vote for Hillary, like everyone else. I just choose not to revel in the ugly, doomed necessity of it.

By some commentators, not necessarily MT, criticism of the Democrats signifies wholesale alienation from politics in the large. It isn’t so. (H/T Digby)

Noah and Nick, Too

barcodeMore responses. We actually read comments here.

Hi Jay. (Note to readers, his blog is here.

We could just as easily call human capital “skilled labor” and acknowledge that spending now can finance the acqusitions of skills that endure. And we could try to exploit a capital investment model to analyze individual spending to acquire skills. None of that would be objectionable in principle.

Some of us oddballs reject the term human capital (so-called “saltwater economists” are perfectly comfortable with it, by the way) because humans spending money to acquire skills are labor, and we think labor including skilled labor is fundamentally different from Capital in the traditional sense: the concentrated ownership of capital assets that afford its owners overweening control over investment, production, and the democratic process itself. By contrast, labor lacks any such control and must submit itself to capital for survival. We think the right foundational framework is to distinguish labor from capital. This would not necessarily change how one did a model of spending for higher education. What it goes to is the context for any such model. An excessively narrow model ignores that context, which in some cases makes for a bad model yielding junk results.

I think Nick’s reply at 1:02 pm illustrates the problem. He describes an exercise that tries to shed light on whether the market (sic) results in too much or too little human capital. But with some additional context, individuals’ demand for college education obviously depends on their income, as well as outside support. And their ability (or anybody’s) to estimated expected earnings is clearly limited. And signalling, though Nick condemns it to quotes, is relevant too. It is well understood by all semi-conscious economists that ‘endowments’ (wealth) influence demand, so efficiency results are contingent on an arbitrary footing.

The other huge gap is that the narrowness of skill and knowledge acquisition as an investment  glosses over what economists recognize as externalities. Would you rather live in a nation of educated persons, or one where science and the arts are alien to the culture? Even if we set aside income distribution and uncertainty, a human capital context is anti-social. Everyone’s human capital is his or hers alone. It augments individual income but does nothing for society. In effect, there is no society.

In the final analysis, the human capital concept is prey to the weaknesses of the market, and by extension to models of the market, and by further extension to the micro-economic theory constructed to analyze that market. The problem comes if you think what human capital stands for is not well served by a context of individual outlays and discounted earnings — if you agree that it is fundamentally a non-market, social thing. In other words, the problem with human capital is the problem with mainstream micro-economics.

Nick’s comment at 8:19 provides further ammunition for my argument, wherein capital is reduced to inputs, outputs, and time. I think Capital is also about power, who has it and who doesn’t, and what this means for historical development. Marx called it a “social relation.” How could it not be?

Again, this is not a question of sentimentality. I don’t care if you want to call infants an investment, or a tax deduction. It’s about what you allow into your frame of analysis, and what you exclude.

Related, for a non-Marxist view, see “Power and the Useful Economist” herein.


For Noah and Nick

righttoolOK Noah. Here we go. This is in reference to comments on the previous post. A little long for a reply comment.

1. Quoth Noah: “Human capital is more fair, because it makes the capitalists work.” This is pretty baffling. Yes the use of physical capital usually requires labor. It does not require the labor of its owner and typically does not entail the labor of its owner. What this has to do with ‘fair’ I have no idea. At issue is whether Capital’s fundamental differences with Labor obviate the terminology of human capital. Fair has nothing to do with it. It’s an analytical issue. In fact the whole idea of Capital is that its basic nature subordinates the identities and peculiarities of its individual owners. It becomes a social and economic force in its own right.

2. The reforms Noah alludes to are arguably the consequence of labor mobilization in the 30s, and enduring union power through the 60s. Politics, not human capital. Sometimes the economic lingo is really unequal to the tasks of analysis. As for whether that debunks my ‘nominally democratic’ crack, the reference is to recent decades, as pressure builds to undo those reforms.

As we speak, the next presidential contest bids fair to feature a Clinton versus a Bush. Are you excited? I know I am. For a more academic treatment, I’d refer readers to the recent Larry Bartels piece, reported on here:

Of course there is some democracy. It’s hard to measure, but I suggest easier to detect its direction, namely going south. This kind of argument is never easily settled.

Nick Rowe visits (thanks!) and says can’t we model college as an investment decision. Sure we can. Or you can. Wake me when you’re done. I’d say economists are sufficiently ingenious to account for labor of different skill levels without confusing labor with capital. Nick suggests the human capital complicates the simpler division of labor from capital. I’d suggest that it muddies the fundamental distinctions and simplifies in an unconstructive way. In the quote provided by Lee Arnold, I think Schumpeter does this too.

The case for Capital

noahI follow Noahpinion because 1) he provides a helpful window into the abysmal state of modern macroeconomic theory, and 2) he pisses me off. In the latter regard, his latest crime against humanity is a little ditty about Capital (the concept, not the book). His point of departure is a column by my friend Branko Milanovic urging the discard of the term “human capital.” Noah manages to ignore the points raised by Branko. Some elaboration here provides an inkling of the reductionism inherent in mainstream economics, even when practiced skillfully by kinda-sorta liberals.

Of course there are no a priori incorrect definitions. We can apply whatever names we like to whatever we want. The question here is whether it is useful to imply an analogy between an attribute of the worker — a marketable skill, ability, or educational attainment — and durable productive physical assets, or the ownership thereof.

There is no issue here about abstraction for the sake of analysis, or modeling. Capital-c Capital is as abstract as anything. Is what makes it different from Labor sufficiently fundamental to maintain the distinction that prevailed before the economists’ invention of “human capital”? You know I’m going to say yes.

NS noodles around the difference and similarity between Capital and “human capital” by analogies to prosthetic arms and financial options, or he puts it in the context of a narrow modeling problem — decisions about investment in education. Or Jesuitical digressions on is it wealth or isn’t it. More definitional trivia.

Branko approaches the heart of the matter by noting capital is something that most people have little of, while a small minority have a lot. Not only do most have little, but exploitation of their so-called “human capital” takes an important toll on their well-being — to rent your human capital you must give up your own time. Exploitation of your financial capital incurs brokerage fees and service charges. Not really the same thing.

But Branko pulls his punches. Capital assumes a life of its own and informs the organization of society, in the large. Those who seek to accumulate live on as part of the Capital borg; those that don’t become irrelevant rentiers. Capital exercises overweening influence in otherwise democratic systems, for that reason only nominally democratic systems. Capital, not Labor, determines the conditions of work, where most of our lives are spent.

In the conventional wisdom, augmenting human capital cures all ills. Inequality? We will help people raise themselves up, though while you do, others slip back down. Low wages? We will increase productivity, though wages have not kept up with  productivity. And we’re not really doing much for human capital in its own terms either. College becomes increasingly out-of-reach, public schools are under assault by corporate raiders.

Of course, you could model the decision to attend college as some kind of investment, taking account of costs, foregone earnings, one’s preference for making less money sooner vs. more later. If you’re lucky you come up with “statistically significant” elasticity estimates that some other nerd can contradict with a follow-up paper. Meanwhile we face long-term trends in wage stagnation and the so-called ‘college premium,’ support for public education, and student indebtedness, to name a few things that are goin’ on. What a sterile exercise such models are. Think of what college students actually do. Are they rationally maximizing utility with the benefit of long-run foresight and accurate information? If you believe that, delete your account.

nobsWhen I was a graduate student, we had a room in the attic of Tydings Hall reserved for us to study and hang out. On the blackboard, somebody drew a picture that looked a lot like this:

It was labeled “consumer theory.” In the barren world of mainstream economics, people are reduced to atomized pleasure-seekers who solve impossible optimization problems with the benefit of limited information on a featureless social plain with no past and no future. And they call it social science!

Capital likes it that way. Its greatest feat — getting you to forget it exists as an overwhelming, malignant, motive force in history. It’s not only a moral issue; it’s an analytical one.




Blogs are so over

That’s what I’m hearing, after the pending demise of Andrew Sullivan’s venture. Well fuck that. Fuck your monetization. Fuck your SEO keywords. Fuck your snackable content. Fuck your clickbait. Clear your mind of trivialities and inanities. Don’t waste time arguing with idiots. Tune out the noise. Seek a higher level of consciousness. Get laid.

I plan to leave my nine-to-five gig at the end of this year. And. This. Place. Will. Rock.

I’m on Facebook and Twitter all the time, but I predict the endless drive to “monetize” them will make them shittier and shittier. There will always be an audience for discussions deeper and more substantive than are possible on FB or Twitterville. I don’t need thousands of people to have a rewarding conversation, and I don’t need to get rich.

Maintain, people. We have work to do.