A Few Observations For 2020

  • Politics is always a matter of life or death. Those who tell you otherwise are selling something. Why does an average child in an affluent white California family have better lifetime earning prospects than a one-in-a-million genius born in Guatemala City? Politics. Why is a black kid 250% more likely to be killed by police than a white kid? Politics. Like an invisible tide flowing around you, the government you live under determines your life prospects.
  • Americans still describe the world in terms of a divide between capitalism and socialism that doesn’t exist, and probably hasn’t for almost a century. That fantasy narrative helps us escape from confronting problems that make us uncomfortable.
  • The difference between things Americans regard as essential government services, like highways, courts, sewers and fire departments, and the stuff we decide to call “socialism,” is manufactured in our perverse imaginations. Everywhere else in the world this habit is viewed with some combination of humor and horror.
  • Our descendants, if they make it, will look back on an America without national health insurance the way we would regard a country without clean drinking water.
  • In a society, degradation feeds degradation. If you let a corner of your culture descend into hopeless poverty, their condition will spread like a cancer and metastasize in ways you cannot anticipate. Allowed to fester, containing their rot will become a constant, threatening menace.
  • Oh, and “you didn’t build that.”
  • A resident of Wyoming has 3 times more electoral power than that same person would have if they moved to Los Angeles. Of the 15 states with the most lopsided electoral power, only two (Delaware & Rhode Island) are more than 4% black. Extend that analysis down the precinct level, calculating state and local political influence along with federal races, and you find a system comically rigged to suppress democratic influence.
  • About 40% of eligible Americans vote in off-year federal elections. About 50% vote for President. About 15% vote in primaries. However, when you follow individual voters across multiple elections, turnout statistics plummet. In any one Presidential election you might get more than half of voters showing up, but very few Americans vote consistently.
  • Most Americans who think they are middle class, aren’t.
  • If “middle class” is defined people earning enough to live with some modest security, but not enjoying income from wealth, then America has a very small middle class, probably about 20% of households. Thanks to the erosion of our safety net, a rising system of financial predation, defunding of basic government services like education, and our refusal to build an effective health care system, it takes an income of around $100,000 a year, plus someone holding a full-time job with health insurance, for a household to enjoy a middle class lifestyle.
  • There’s a consistent 40 percentage-point gap in turnout between voters over 60 and those under 30. As a direct result, voters over 60 live in a social welfare state with a guaranteed minimum income, universal health coverage and a dense matrix of tax and benefit preferences while younger people have to join the army to get out from under their indentured education debt.
  • Those who promise us a “return to normal” after Trump are lying, probably to themselves as much as to us. Any new leader that fails to embark on a merciless campaign of national reinvention will merely grant us a brief “Weimar Intermission” before the next, smarter Fascist takes charge.
  • We still don’t know who paid off Brett Kavanaugh’s credit card debt because none of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee felt the need to ask him.
  • As presently organized, the US military isn’t defending us from anything that matters. No American soldier has been asked to “risk their life for freedom” in a very long time. No one is building a traditional army to challenge us anywhere, because it’s an archaic concept. Our safety and our freedom are most at risk from global crime networks merged with governments, and from those who exploit us through computer-related security vulnerabilities.
  • It’s likely that none of our aircraft carriers will ever be fired on. One day they will sink peacefully to the bottom of the ocean when we finally grow tired of paying for them.
  • Thanks to carbon pollution, our climate is heating up at an accelerating rate. Environmental impacts from this heating have already launched unstoppable secondary cycles of greenhouse gas emissions that will feed further warming even if we ended our carbon pollution today. We have no way out of this loop without deploying technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We don’t have that technology yet.
  • No human being, by our present genetic definition, is going to live permanently on Mars. Ever. Imagine an Earth ravaged by a series of global nuclear wars, runaway climate change, and unchecked chemical pollution, and that world would remain infinitely more friendly to human life than any environment we’ve ever discovered beyond our skies. We are going to thrive or die right here.
  • Republicans are our Nazis. Trump is our Hitler. That otherwise nice neighbor of yours who’s backing Trump wouldn’t feel a moment’s regret if ICE locked you and your kids in the same concentration camps where they currently hold kidnapped brown children. Whatever their reasons or excuses, they will destroy you if you let them. Act accordingly.
  • Remarkable human progress can emerge from surprising directions. Nation-states were once a dream considered too unnatural, too ill-suited to the human mentality to become a reality. And then one day they weren’t. The Soviet Union was an immovable monolith that would burden human existence for the foreseeable future until one day it wasn’t. Progress can happen, sometimes very suddenly.
  • In 1946, Germany was a smoking ruin, its people traumatized and starving. The world imagined that Germans might be incapable of supporting a democracy. Today, Germany is arguably the leader of the free world. Good things can happen, and we’re least likely to recognize those good things at the moment they are taking shape. They say hindsight is 2020.

38 Comments

  1. EJ

    My support to anyone who lives in Richmond. I hope today doesn’t go as badly as some people are worrying that it might. I very much hope that the claims of far-Right sympathisers and plants among the local police are overblown.

    If anyone is heading down there to take part in antifascist activism, you are a hero and far braver than I could ever be. No pasaran.

    1. EJ

      Update:
      Having seen the commentary from Antifa Seven Hills, please don’t participate in antifascist activity there today. If your local antifa organisation thinks it’s a tactical error to get involved, then they’re probably right and should be listened to.

      1. It looks like the event has ended, and all is peaceful. Kudos to the VA government and security for that. Also good job by the FBI for busting those nutcases last week.

        From WaPo:

        ‘ “It was the opposite of what they expected, and what they wanted,” said one man in a “Three Percent” militia shirt who declined to give his name. “I think they set it up to be a powder keg. They kept saying ‘Charlottesville, Charlottesville, Charlottesville.’ ” ‘

        I wonder who exactly he means by “they”.

  2. “ Those who promise us a “return to normal” after Trump are lying, probably to themselves as much as to us. Any new leader that fails to embark on a merciless campaign of national reinvention will merely grant us a brief “Weimar Intermission” before the next, smarter Fascist takes charge.”

    Looking at you, Joe Biden. He’s been selling his ability to get along with GOPers. One upside to the upcoming impeachment trial is that Joe is about to get a brutal reality check. You’re hurt about what your former friend and colleague Lindsey is saying Joe? Just wait. These people you used to work so well with have sold their souls and they will knife you in the back and smear your reputation to save their dear leader.

    The one saving grace of all Trump’s flaws is that they keep hobbling him. The thought of what a more patient and competent authoritarian type could have done in Trump’s place is the stuff of nightmares. I have no doubt those people are out there, and taking notes.

    1. Absolutely. “Normal” is what got us Trump.

      “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

      1. Totally agree. The Rs have demonstrated beyond any doubt that they will not play nice and will not play fair. I don’t think that we must sink to their level, but we do need to let go of any hope that they would do the right thing and put country first. Those people have already left.

  3. “The difference between things Americans regard as essential government services, like highways, courts, sewers and fire departments, and the stuff we decide to call “socialism,” is manufactured in our perverse imaginations.”

    There’s more here than imaginations, perverse or otherwise, and more than just historical coincidence. I think it has to do with lowering of costs for the production and consumption of goods and services. A couple of examples – the interstate highway system which lowers transportation costs, and a public health care system that promotes health, and therefore productivity.

    A purpose of privatization is often the setting up of tollbooths to recapture of those lower costs as rent, and thus the raising of costs for production and consumption. The “perverse imagination” is strongly promoted by people who want to set up those toll booths.

  4. A broad list. There is one major missing element, for next thirty years: China. An administrative aggregation of as many people as the entire Western Hemisphere, plus a large chunk of the EU.

    Here is a very large un-free organization. If it remains stable — no guarantee — it’s only a matter of time before the wealth, research, and technology relationship between it and the free governments, assumed disorganized in this scenario, invert.

    Already we see the pull in business for the free world to cater to Beijing’s speech preferences (the NBA) as well as technology preferences (Project Dragonfly). How long can current resistance last without organization?

    The theory of market liberalization has inverted. Private industry as constituted is a conduit for repression. I don’t think this would be so hard to rectify in a world where enough of the free countries’ citizens thought much about it (basically, a more muscular free-world protectionism of a general sort), but I don’t think we live in that world. Free countries teeter back and forth as universal freedom is no longer deemed important, as revanchist majorities seek to pawn it for their advantage.

    1. The Chinese System (as I understand it)

      The chinese people elect the “lower house” – the “lower house” elects the next level – two or three levels later you are up with the leading committee

      In order to be elected you must be a “Party Member” –
      Which means that you must start off doing various types of community work, and to be elected to a higher position you must have done well at the lower one
      Party Members are also subject to greater scrutiny and tighter ethics rules

      On the face of it I’m NOT convinced that is any LESS democratic than the systems used in western countries

      If you want to be in charge you have to:
      work at it – prove yourself – keep your nose clean
      AND get elected

      As always the devil is in the details –

      The UK with 66 million has 650 MP’s

      China with 1,400 million would have 13,000 “MP’s

      IMHO something like a parliamentary system with two layers would work – we all elect the MP’s and they elect the next level

      Which is actually very similar to the current Chinese system

      Direct election of the executive (Like the US system) is IMHO a BAD idea – if you elect your MP you do have a fighting chance of knowing something about him/her – and at that level the 100,000 citizens per MP in the UK is too many

      THEN your MP’s can elect the next level

      I would probably go for New Zealand’s citizens/MP ratio of about 40,000 or less

      So with 35,000/MP China with 1.4 Billion citizens would have 40,000 “MPs”

      Who would handle local issues – say 400 “Parliaments” of 100 MP’s

      And each “Parliament” would elect two members of the Top Level Parliament

      Which would operate in a similar way to the NZ or UK parliaments

      1. I referred to freedom, not the “level of” democracy as such. You are not even dinged for making a disparaging comment about government on social media in free countries, for one. You have a genuine vote, among adversarial parties.

        Although it’s too early to say whether the Chinese system has “mastered” flexible response that attenuates totalitarianism to the extent that it is more stable, versus, say, the Stasi, it’s still totalitarian. But instead of a social media post getting you thrown into jail, instead, it’ll just be too annoying in the social credit system to bother risking it.

      2. Daniel said
        I referred to freedom, not the “level of” democracy as such. You are not even dinged for making a disparaging comment about government on social media in free countries, for one. You have a genuine vote, among adversarial parties.

        To which I would reply – if you believe that then I have a fine bridge to sell you

    1. Mary, I believe there’s a common thread in housing and education (healthcare has mostly differing pathologies). The common thread is increasing levels of debt.

      The finance system is incentivized to lend increasing amounts of money so that it can collect increasing amounts of interest. And people who want to acquire assets, whether they be real assets like housing or personal assets like education, tend to spend up to the point where virtually all the economic rent from that asset (that is, the income derived from owning the asset) is pledged as interest on the loan used to purchase the asset. The interest paid to the financier is recycled into new loans, setting up an exponential growth in both the price of assets and debt.

      When the debt becomes unpayable, which it will because exponential growth is always unsustainable, the banking system will foreclose on real assets and look to the taxpayer for bailouts on the personal debts (most education debt is guaranteed by the Federal Government.) This structural feature of financialization was recognized by classical economists like Adam Smith, who advocated taxing away unearned income to break the cycle.

      1. To finish the thought here, financialization is strangling the economy of goods and services, because the economy of goods and services runs on disposable income (that is, what is left of your income after taxes and servicing debt.)

      2. Good question. Income derived from ownership of property (including money) rather than from labor is what was meant by the classical economists. Interest and rents, including economic rents from monopolies and patents.

        There are probably regulative ways to deal with some of these things too.

        It is notable that neoclassical economics denies the existence of unearned income. By definition everything you get is deserved. Which ironically doesn’t stop people from trying to get things like capital gains, inheritances, and the like taxed at lower rates than labor…

      3. Creigh, what was Adam Smith’s definition of unearned income? Income from inheritance, from rent, or from stock dividends?

        Obviously, it was a different world then, but I am curious.

      1. There’s a flaw here:
        “The interest paid to the financier is recycled into new loans, setting up an exponential growth in both the price of assets and debt. ”
        This is not true. It’s not true because the interest derived from a single loan cannot be recycled into a whole new loan, but only part of one. A simple toy problem will illustrate:
        I loan out money for 1000 houses, and get back 5% interest, which means that after a year of receiving interest, I can now afford to issue loans for another 50 houses after 1 year, and another 52,5 houses after another year, and so on. It’s nowhere near exponential.

      2. Van, the formula for compound interest is

        A = P(1+r/n)**(n*t)

        Where A is final amount, P is initial amount, r is interest rate, n is number of times interest is applied per time period, and t is number of periods.

        (n*t) being an exponent makes this an exponential formula.

      3. Van,

        That’s how real estate investment worked in the George Bailey Era. Nobody waits for a property to yield a dividend anymore.

        You buy them through a REIT or a private equity group, which you own. Taxes and other expenses become losses for the REIT. Bundled together in sufficient size, you can refinance the whole lot by selling shares in the entity. Meanwhile if you structure it properly you get paid from the rents on a carried interest, rather than income, so your interest rate is only 10%.

        When you need money for another purchase, you use a mark-to-market accounting method (which is basically, this property is worth what I say it’s worth) to more or less arbitrarily write-up your equity in the current holdings to qualify for more capital. Wash, rinse, repeat.

        It’s not as lucrative as a tech startup, but it’s steady money for people who lack intellect, initiative or a moral compass, while being burdened with too much cash.

  5. Far far less than 20% of Americans are “middle class”
    To be “Middle Class” you need to be “Economically Secure”

    To be “Economically Secure” you have got to be in a position where you and your family will have their home and their lives secure no matter what happens

    OK – NOT extreme situations like martian invasions or WW3

    But secure against the normal bumps and failures of life

    Here (NZ) or in the UK I was/am “Middle Class” – I had my job and now my pension

    My house is paid for and insured – in case of accident or sickness I have the Health Service and the ACC

    When I was working in the USA – for more money – and with a better lifestyle – I was NOT “Secure” – NOT “Middle Class”

    An accident or sickness could have destroyed me financially – two would almost certainly have done so

    To be “Financially Secure” here all you really need is your home – and you are not too badly off even if you are renting

    In the USA to be “Financially Secure” you need your house plus about $2million in assets and a salary over $100,000 a year

    1. “In the USA to be “Financially Secure” you need your house plus about $2million in assets and a salary over $100,000 a year”

      I don’t know about that. I make less than $100k a year and am not an owner/occupier and have far, far less than $2million in assets, but by my math and assuming really major negative events like a severely crippling car accident or cancer, or both, and then losing my job, I have two years worth of assets to sort shit and get help from the parts of the social safety net that still exists. If it’s not that severe of a couple of events, then I have much longer.

      Making less than $100k a year, I am still making, personally, above the average household and somewhere in the third quintile. My rent is less than 25% of my after-tax income and I am able to save/invest well over 20%.

      If I am not middle class then there’s a large swathe of lower class that is financially comfortable and stable. But as the general intellectual point of being middle class is financial comfort and stability, I would still argue that I am middle class.

      1. Well, the absolute value of the numbers is highly location-dependent. When I lived in Virginia Beach, which is an affluent city but not ridiculously expensive, those numbers were probably pretty accurate. Now that I’ve moved to Waynesboro, in the Shenandoah Valley, it takes a lot less.

        And I can’t even imagine what it takes to be middle class in San Francisco.

    1. The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 was FDR’s attempt to expand the Court as its members aged. The underlying theory was that the Constitution did not establish how many members would be on the Court; it was a congressional act–the Judiciary Act of 1869. Therefore, it was within the purview of Congress to change the numbers. The attempt was a failure legislatively and also a PR failure.

      The article in Wikipedia is well researched and well written.

  6. >Without a careful, dedicated purge of the corrupt Trump appointees to the Federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, no progressive reforms of our political system will be possible in coming decades.

    Does any politician even remotely suggests anything like that?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.