Archive for August, 2010

Lest we forget

Posted: 31 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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parts 2, 3, 4, and 5

Delusions of grandeur

Posted: 31 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Bloggers are enjoying themselves ridiculing South Sudan’s plans to rebuild its city centers from scratch—in the shape of safari animals.

As well they should! These are crazy schemes, fueled by oil revenues and delusions of grandeur.

But just as delusional is the attack on “constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism,” and the glorification of so-called bottom-up, market-based approaches. This is what such no-planning has produced in Juba and Wau:

The problem is not central planning versus markets. It’s the set of economic and social forces that produced both the current urban disasters and the zoological plans for the future.

Economist of the day

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.

Robert Barro, “The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment”

Food fights

Posted: 30 August 2010 in Uncategorized

Clare Leighton, "Corn Pulling" (1952)

Fights over food permeate every aspect of our society—whether it be the current egg scare, the nature of recipe books, or the role of gardening.

Right now, we’re bombarded with celebrity-chef cooking shows and cookbooks (which are no more than ways of advertising and adding to the chefs’ growing food empires) but the recipe books that provide a cultural context for the food are rare. Clifford A. Wright [ht: lm] found one, Carlo Middione’s The Food of Southern Italy, which he distinguishes from another, Giada de Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian.

A recipe needs an introduction that helps the cook understand the background of the dish and to entice the cook to prepare it, and to provide inspiration and guidance. Middione introduces his recipe by telling us that it is a dish from Apulia. He writes: “When I left Puglia , the battle was still raging between two old men I had met in a restaurant there about whether it is necessary to remove the shells from the mussels of spaghetti con le cozze or not. One felt the shells looked unsightly on the plate, and no host or hostess who wanted to make a bella figura (look good) would do such a thing. The other man maintained you get more flavor with the shells left on, and if your hosts were really considerate, they would let you pick them up and suck on them to get every last drop of sauce. It really depends on the host and guests, whether to shell the mussels or not. Me? I never take the shells off. The discussion about whether the parsley should be cooked in the sauce along with the mussels or simply strewn on top of the finished dish would be too lengthy to present here.” . . .

De Laurentiis’ recipe doesn’t mention al dente pasta and clearly she doesn’t trust us to salt and pepper to our taste, or to even inquire what our tastes may be. Her recipe lacks the charm and inspiration of the Middione recipe, even though her recipe has more ingredients. Her recipe is cold and lifeless. Who makes this recipe? Why do they make it? Do different families make it differently? When do they make it? Do cooks argue about how to make it? Should you use cheese? This is important because Americans might not know that southern Italians never use cheese with seafood. We just don’t know.

A recipe is not a formula. A recipe is an inspirational aide to guide a cook to reach higher, to prepare food that will dazzle others and make them happy and to do that the cookbook author needs to help them in the decision to make the dish in the first place. It’s not just about ingredients. A recipe should have a soul, as it’s about the material expression of a culinary culture.

Just as a recipe is not a formula, so the context of gardening cannot be provided by a mere picture book. The reissue of wood-engraver Clare Leighton’s one gardening book, Four Hedges, is an opportunity to consider what gardening is all about and how it fits into our lives. As Robin Lane Fox [ht: js] explains,

For Clare, Four Hedges house and garden was a return to earthy reality after a dizzying lecture-tour of America. Her observations of labour and nature were not only linked to her eye as a wood-engraver. They connected with the social realism she shared with Noel [aka H. N. Brailsford]. Before they gardened together, she had taught in slum schools in south London, where a child once drew her a picture of spring as a flowery meadow behind a barbed wire gate and a sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. . .

In 1946, Clare was invited to lecture to a big American garden society and told them of the challenge before them. We “must all add our weight to the spiritual balance”, she declared. “The Shelleys and the Mozarts and the Hans Andersens are remembered, not the financiers and the bankers.” The challenge has not changed.

Fighting for food—food with a context, food that connects people, food that nourishes bodies and represents a form of economic and social change—will live on long after we’ve forgotten the financiers, bankers, and celebrity-chefs.

The coverage of the mad Tea Party event has been all about the call for a return to religious values and the number and race of the partiers. Only Frank Rich investigates the sources of the funding and the history, and thus the goals, of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party is financed by Rupert Murdoch and the brothers David and Charles Koch (who have a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans).* But, Rich notes, this is nothing new. It’s the latest in a long tradition of corporate tycoons funding a far-right-wing agenda stretching back at least to the du Pont brothers’ spawning the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R.

You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president. Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics.

This does not mean, of course, that the Tea Party movement is not a sign of widespread disenchantment and fear in the United States, which have a wide variety of sources (both justified and truly dangerous). But, if we consider the Tea Party’s funding and history, it’s certainly not the historically novel movement of “marginalized outsiders” many members and advocates would have us believe.

* Jane Mayer [ht: lm] did the original reporting on the “billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.”

The growth of income inequality in the United States from the 1970s until the onset of the current crises is beyond doubt.*

But there are many different ways of measuring and representing the change in inequality. Chuck Marr, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, looks at the distribution of after-tax income in 1979 and 2007 and calculates what the distribution of income would have been in 2007 had the distribution of income remain unchanged. Here’s what he found:

In other words, the bottom 80 percent lost ground and only the top 20 percent gained. And, within the latter group, the top 1 percent made out like bandits.

Why would anyone be in doubt that (a) there was a dramatic change in the distribution of income between 1979 and 2008 and (b) this was one of the causes of the current crises?

*which, of course, doesn’t prevent many mainstream economists from simply ignoring it.

The Home Affordable Refinance Program has nothing to do with assisting struggling homeowners. It was designed and implemented to help banks “earn” their way back to financial health.

That’s what Zach Carter concludes from all the available evidence.

The initiative lowers monthly payments for borrowers, but fails to reduce their overall debt burden, often increasing that burden, funneling money to banks that borrowers could have saved by simply renting a different home. But according to recent startling admissions from top Treasury officials, the mortgage plan was actually not really about helping borrowers at all. Instead, it was simply one element of a broader effort to pump money into big banks and shield them from losses on bad loans. That’s right: Treasury openly admitted that its only serious program purporting to help ordinary citizens was actually a cynical move to help Wall Street megabanks.

The key is, banks don’t have to reduce the amount borrowers owe, just the amount they pay each month. So, banks get to keep those mortgages on their books, as assets, and the payments (whether or not they’re actually coming in) as income.

The result is that banks, which otherwise would have failed, get to stay in business and keep on reaping profits (and paying out bonuses), while homeowners are forced to fork over more money to the banks or walk away from their homes.

And, as it turns out, that was the plan from the start.

Academic freedom is under assault in Israel. And it’s being funded by the United States.

Neve Gordon describes the escalating attacks on academic freedom in Israel, associated with the defense of human rights and the divestment campaign, and characterizes it as the expression of a “protofascist logic.” Two right-wing organizations, the Institute for Zionist Studies and Im Tirtzu (If You Will It), have initiated campaigns to discredit individual professors and to cut off funding to the universities where they teach.

lthough the recent scuffle seems to be about academic freedom, the assault on the Israeli academe is actually part of a much wider offensive against liberal values. Numerous forces in Israel are mobilizing in order to press forward an extreme-right political agenda.

They have chosen the universities as their prime target for two main reasons. First, even though Israeli universities as institutions have never condemned any government policy—not least the restrictions on Palestinian universities’ academic freedom—they are home to many vocal critics of Israel’s rights-abusive policies. Those voices are considered traitorous and consequently in need of being stifled. . .

Second, all Israeli universities depend on public funds for about 90 percent of their budget. This has been identified as an Achilles heel. The idea is to exploit the firm alliance those right-wing organizations have with government members and provide the ammunition necessary to make financial support for universities conditional on the dissemination of nationalist thought and the suppression of “subversive ideas.” Thus, in the eyes of those right-wing Israeli organizations, the universities are merely arms of the government.

Gordon also reveals that the attacks are being funded from the United States, by such organizations as Christians United for Israel and the Hudson Institute.

As in all attacks on academic freedom, the issue is the larger one of whether or not liberal values will be allowed to continue.

While in politics nothing is predetermined, Israel is heading down a slippery slope. Israeli academe is now an arena where some of the most fundamental struggles of a society are being played out. The problem is that instead of struggling over basic human rights, we are now struggling over the right to struggle.

In neoclassical economics, efficiency is often taken to mean welfare. And neither efficiency nor welfare is affected by the equality or inequality of outcomes.

In the continuation of his illuminating discussion of welfare economics, Uwe Reinhardt is right to point out that neoclassical economists pretend not to be making or invoking value judgments when they analyze economic outcomes.

A researcher’s political ideology or vested interest in a particular theory can still enter even ostensibly descriptive analysis by the data set chosen for the research; the mathematical transformations of raw data and the exclusion of so-called outlier data; the specific form of the mathematical equations posited for estimation; the estimation method used; the number of retrials in estimation to get what strikes the researcher as “plausible” results, and the manner in which final research findings are presented. . .

The problem with welfare analysis is not so much that ethical dimensions typically enter into it, but that economists pretend that is not so. They do so by justifying their normative dicta with appeal to the seemly scientific but actually value-laden concept of efficiency.

Absolutely. But Reinhardt does make one key mistake: he presumes that there’s an unambiguous improvement in social welfare when “changes in public policies (reallocations of economic welfare). . .make some people feel better off and none feel worse off.”

Consider the case of changes in CEO pay and average wages in recent years. Since both wages and CEO pay rose, Reinhardt and neoclassical economists generally would see this as an “unambiguous improvement in social welfare.” The problem is, the increase in the ratio of average CEO pay to average wages is the result of an increase in the rate of exploitation, which represents a deterioration in social welfare in a capitalist society.

When neoclassical economists advocate policies that lead to an increase in the rate of exploitation, even when real wages are increasing, they are adopting an ethical stance—under the guise of “economic science”—according to which capitalist appropriation of the surplus enhances social welfare.