Sunday, July 31, 2016

Surely You Can't Be Serious

The voices in his head are very, very serious
Back in the early years of the odious GW Bush administration, one of the complaints the American Political Right had about liberals in the post 9/11 era was that they were 'unserious'. The term was quickly adopted by the media, and politicians, policies and pundits were suddenly judged by how 'serious' they were. Of course, seriousness isn't something that can be objectively measured, so it was really just a term used to call out policies you disagreed with. Don't want to invade Iraq? You're not serious. Don't want to cut government spending? Deeply unserious on economic policy. Don't want to invest billions in a new generation of nuclear weapons? You're just not serious about strategic deterrence.

It's funny to see people now taking aim at Donald Trump's lack of seriousness. He's not a serious candidate. He isn't running a serious campaign. He doesn't have a serious policy agenda. And this is where I have to draw the line. We've totally lost contact with the meaning of a common three-syllable English language word. Let me correct the record here - Donald Trump is serious. He's as serious, as the old saying goes, as a heart attack.

Of course he's not a typical politician. He's a populist demagogue out of the Huey Long school. He's uninformed, incurious and unclear on even the most basic functions of 21st century governance. He doesn't KNOW anything - except what HE knows he knows - and when it comes to those voices and images bouncing around in his head, do not doubt for a moment that he is serious. If he says something and the rabble responds favorably, it becomes a part of the Trump policy agenda. Impossible, unconstitutional, illegal, it doesn't matter. He'll make the promises. And he'll believe them.

He's 'serious' in the sense that he is unable to differentiate between routine campaign promises and actual viable policy proposals. To him, strong-arming the Mexican government into paying for the wall is a very serious proposal. Sure, we might look at the real-world barriers to such a fantasy and smirk that he is utterly unserious, but that overlooks the madness that is Trumpism. He not only believes - nay, KNOWS - he can do these things, but his desperate, uninformed and fearful supporters believe it too. They know he is serious - and nothing that happens in the course of the campaign can convince them otherwise. We know enough about Trump that we can clearly see he'll be angry and frustrated with the legislative and judicial processes, particularly when he demands congress appropriate funds for his bizarre and dangerous initiatives.

But we also must not forget that, where he CAN act unilaterally he will - because of his own certainty around his actions. Will he really walk away from NATO? Abrogate the Iran Nuclear Weapons agreement? Demand tribute for continued US military presence in Japan and Korea? Impose trade sanctions on China? One can have no doubt - when he promises these things, and people respond positively, they become the hard core of his 'serious' policy agenda.  Trump - and Trumpism - is dangerous in a way we really haven't internalized yet. Not just for his authoritarian bent, his lack of democratic values or his inability to understand even the most basic second-order consequences of government action. Trump is dangerous because he actually believes what he says - what the world will perceive as a dangerous, impulsive recklessness is really just his inherent certainty of his own infallibility.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Today We Are All Corrupt Neoliberal Sellouts

Our long national nightmare is over
Just to note in passing that after all virulent, spittle-flecked rhetoric, after all the accusations and innuendo, after all the threats and tantrums and willful intransigence over the basic functions of a political party's nominating process, today Bernie Sanders announced that he is With Her.

The Sanders campaign devoted no little effort in the attempt to amplify and focus the incoherent right-wing Clinton Derangement Syndrome narrative among the more liberal denizens of the Democratic party - and had a disappointingly large affect on the political conversation. For months the Democratic primaries were argued, not in terms of what Sanders might be able to accomplish, or how a Sanders presidency might compare favorably to a Clinton term, but rather about the alleged corruption, criminality and neoliberal warhawk tendencies of the Clinton dynasty. From a strictly practical sense, this was probably a reasonable choice. Bernie ran a dumpster fire of a campaign, insisting on labeling himself a socialist, turning every question into an argument about inequality in America, and refusing to even offer the slightest suggestion of how he might make his liberal fever-dream of a policy agenda a reality. It was a campaign straight out of the underpants gnomes playbook, and even his supporters quickly learned not to talk about him at all - leaving them with nothing to say except to shriek in increasingly over-the-top terms how terrible Hillary was and how we'd all be doomed if she won the nomination.

So yeah, there's a little twitch of a smile of schadenfreude today. It's pretty amusing that all the Sanders supporters who swore they would NEVER vote for Hillary Clinton are now more radical Sanders voters than...well, than Sanders. And even with just the explicit statement about the Democratic position on capital punishment, yeah, the party's policy platform is a pretty good statement of values. But it never mattered a bit. Clinton could have told him to take a long walk on a short pier. With the Republican self-immolation candidate Donald Trump as the opposition, the Democrats never needed their far left wing to elect her - they suddenly find themselves with a far-right wing instead. But she took the smart path (note - this should not come as a surprise to anyone) and added the vast majority of the Sanders voters to what is becoming an overwhelming political coalition. We can even start looking beyond her inauguration on January 20 of next year, and begin to think about the looming constitutional crisis over the Supreme Court. Because that could be the next phase in the collapse of the barking mad American political right.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Trade Globalization Agreements - Less Than Meets the Eye?

This is your culprit right here
Between now and November, we're going to be hearing a great deal about 'trade', especially in terms of trade globalization and the impact on American manufacturing jobs. So it's a very good time to stop and think about international trade, how we got here and what it means today and in the future.

The first question, as always, needs to be about root causes. The conventional wisdom is that trade globalization agreements created trade globalization, by changing the rules and opening up low-cost manufacturing centers in poor countries. But is that the case? Once you think about it, it's actually the other way around - trade globalization led to the free trade agreements. In other words, the agreements were negotiated to address the changes that were already happening in global trade. But if that's the case, what caused the globalization of trade in the first place? The answer is the standardized inter-modal shipping container. Once you had a very cost effective way of transporting goods on ships, trains and trucks, there was no place on earth that wasn't available as a manufacturing hub. And once that infrastructure was in place, every corporation in the world was able to either create or participate in highly efficient large-scale global supply chains.

A second point to remember is that these are agreements between multiple parties. They are not supposed to be one-sided zero sum contests in power and advantage. America lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, but as the largest consumer market in the world we benefited hugely from the increased speed and efficiency of the global supply chain. We have our phones and tablets and laptops and televisions, sure, but we also have the tens of millions of servers, routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, along with the millions of miles of optical network infrastructure what permits you to watch Netflix. Would any of that be affordable to all if it had to be manufactured here? Would the advances in technology have been deployed as rapidly? And along that same context, think about the millions of people around the globe who have been lifted out of the grinding poverty of subsistence farming, who now have houses with plumbing and health care and education for their children. For every $75/hr American manufacturing job that has been lost, a hundred desperately poor families have joined the modern middle class. All in the course of a single human lifespan. That is an unqualified good thing.

In the end, if you're an American worker these trade deals have not been a good deal. They have cost good jobs and empowered the worst instincts of corporations. But they are not the catastrophe they are often made out to be - rather they are the cudgel that populist politicians can use to drive hostility toward the parties in power. And if you look at the results of trade globalization over the last few decades from a global rather than an American nationalist viewpoint, they have done an awfully lot of good.

One final point to consider: manufacturing jobs will return to the US. That's not good news, however. Robotics and workforce automation have changed the capital/labor calculation. When all the costs of manufacturing are capital and none are labor, you can establish your manufacturing hubs anywhere you want - the only advantage is proximity to markets, and the US is still the largest consumer market on the planet. The jobs will return - they are returning - but workers will not benefit. Sooner than you think, the lions share of manufacturing will be automated, and both the advanced and the emerging economies will be confronted by huge numbers of desperately poor, unemployable people demanding solutions. At that point we'll look back on the days of trade globalization as a golden age.

And, just like that, Yglesias makes the final point crystal clear...