Archive for February, 2014


Tomorrow, I’m participating in the Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion, with a commentary on Kate Bowler’s recent book.

Here are a few paragraphs from the draft of my talk:

I can’t say it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Sorry, Kate.) I found it disconcerting from beginning to end. Not unlike reading that, according to Lloyd Blankfein, chairperson and CEO of Goldman Sachs, he was really only “doing God’s work.” (He also insisted we should be celebrating his bank’s success, not condemning it. “Everybody should be, frankly, happy,” he said. “The financial system led us into the crisis and it will lead us out.”)

But (I’ll admit) I also found it both highly entertaining (there were times I found myself laughing out loud at the harebrained ideas and pie-in-the-sky promises) and deeply human—since clearly Kate developed a great deal of affection, perhaps even grudging admiration, for at least some of the members of the Prosperity Gospel movement she met along the way.

There’s more than one reason, then, that the entire story reminded me of American Hustle, the recent film in which David O. Russell manages to capture a nation of small-time con artists, who both deserve our affection (in the earnest manner in which they reinvent themselves and try to “do the right thing”) and represent a distraction from the real culprits (the big-time con artists whose activities have actually put people out of work and driven them into poverty, kept their employees’ wages low while corporate profits and incomes at the top have soared, and now seek to deprive those at the bottom of much-needed social benefits, like food stamps and extended unemployment compensation).

Because at least at one level that’s what we’re talking about here: small-time con-artists (even when they preach in mega churches) who are quite adept at reinventing themselves to take advantage of people’s attempts to improve their lot in life and to negotiate the contradictions of U.S. capitalism. An American Dream that is both dangled before them—if only they invest adequately in their faith in Jesus—but largely kept out of reach. Small-time hustlers who actually embody that faith, or at least its trappings, until of course it all comes tumbling down by one or another much-publicized scandal.

Which makes them different from the members of their congregations, who allow themselves to be conned by the promise but are quietly hidden from view if and when they fail. And different from the real hustlers—on both Main Street and Wall Street—who have made out like bandits both in the run-up to and now in the midst of the Second Great Depression. The only thing they have in common is their shared belief that they’re all “doing God’s work.”

Take back Vermont

Posted: 28 February 2014 in Uncategorized
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The new campaign to take back Vermont should not be confused with the 2000 campaign to repeal civil unions. This one is about the growing problem of heroin addiction in the Green Mountain State.

Long visible at the street level in towns and cities across the country, the extent of the opiate scourge in rural Vermont burst into the national consciousness last month, when Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State message to what he said was a “full-blown heroin crisis.” Much of New England is now also reporting record overdoses and deaths.

For some communities just starting to reckon with drugs, Mr. Shumlin’s words were a call to arms; for Rutland, they offered a sense of solidarity as this city of 17,000 moves ahead with efforts to help reclaim its neighborhoods and its young people, not to mention its reputation.

As Gina Tron explains,

Vermont draws lots of out-of-staters who move there thinking it’s some sort of promised land of maple syrup and covered bridges.

Vermont is beautiful—the view from our house was breathtaking, with rolling hills stretching for miles, full of grazing deer in the morning and howling coyotes at night. But the state is also more complicated than its reputation.

“I was expecting more overalls,” one family friend remarked during a visit a few years after we arrived. Another asked if my classmates wore clogs and pigtails to school. They dismissed my Vermont friends as hicks, and saw the state as a wholesome joke. “What kinda crime do they have up there? Someone stole a block of Cabot cheese?”

It’s not just out-of-staters who see Vermont this way—plenty of locals like to claim the state is immune to “big city problems.” But it’s not that there’s less dysfunction in Vermont. It just takes a different, often less visible, form.

That’s why it’s downright dangerous for liberals like Matthew Yglesias to claim that Vermont really is prospering. A low unemployment rate (in a state with a small percentage of formal-sector jobs) and a high median income (in a state that has refashioned itself as a tourist destination and land of second homes) signify very little. Vermont is also a state of impoverished cities and rural areas, where meth labs and sales of cheaper heroin prosper alongside sugar shacks and covered bridges.


Photographer Kevin McElvaney documents Agbogbloshie, a former wetland in Accra, Ghana, which is home to the world’s largest e-waste dumping site.

Discarders of electronic goods expect them to be recycled properly. But almost all such devices contain toxic chemicals which, even if they are recyclable, make it expensive to do so. As a result, illegal dumping has become a lucrative business. . .

Boys and young men smash devices to get to the metals, especially copper. Injuries, such as burns, untreated wounds, eye damage, lung and back problems, go hand in hand with chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. Most workers die from cancer in their 20s.


More than two decades beyond the Cold War, the Employment Policies Institute yesterday published a full-page ad [pdf] in the New York Times identifying some of the “radicals” among the 600 economists who signed a letter to President Obama in January advocating an increase of the federal minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.*

Peter Coy interviewed Michael Saltsman, the organization’s research director:

I asked Saltsman if he thinks the ad is Red-baiting. “Not at all,” he said. “It’s just, that’s not somebody we should be listening to as an expert as to whether we should raise the minimum wage.”

Wait, that’s not all. The ad concludes by advising readers to “listen to the consensus of 85 percent of the best economic research,” implying that the seven Nobelists and eight former AEA presidents who signed the letter are in a tiny minority. I asked Saltsman where the 85 percent came from, and he pointed me to a literature review by two economists who have written against a higher minimum wage, David Neumark of the University of California-Irvine and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board. According to their paper (pdf), 28 of the 33 studies “that we regard as providing the most credible evidence” point to negative employment effects.

Two points to make there. One is that Neumark and Wascher, while highly respectable economists, may not have the last word on which studies are most credible. Second, it might be a good idea to raise the wage floor even if there are negative employment effects, as long as they’re not too large. In fact, that’s pretty much where a lot of the economists surveyed last year by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business came down when surveyed last year.

Never mind, though. Let’s talk about the Marxists.


*Full disclosure: I am one of the Ph.D.-in-Economics-carrying individuals who signed the letter.

Map of the day

Posted: 28 February 2014 in Uncategorized
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The map above indicates the net loss of federal funds by 2022, in millions, for the 20 states choosing not to participate in Medicaid expansion, assuming all other states participate.

As the Huffington Post explains,

Following a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that made Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act optional for states, 20 states have opted out of the reform, rejecting billions of dollars of federal funding for low-income residents. Texas and Florida will lose more than $9 billion and $5 billion, respectively.

See, also, Al Madrigal’s lambasting of the states that rejected expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.


Special mention

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Special mention

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Yesterday in our class on A Tale of Two Depressions, we discussed Robert McElvaine’s notion of “moral economy” (which he introduces in chapter 9 of his book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941). The idea is that, during the first Great Depression, Americans were engaged in an intense debate between different moral economies (which McElvaine characterizes as the difference between the “cooperative individualism” of workers and the “acquisitive individualism” of businesspeople).

As I explained to students, all economic theories—for example, neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian theories—represent moral economies. And they arrive at very different conclusions concerning the justice or fairness of capitalism. Thus, for example, neoclassical economists argue that everyone gets what they deserve and, through the workings of the invisible hand, the result will be full employment. In contrast, Keynesian economics is based on the proposition that, while everyone may get what they deserve (with the possible exception of coupon-clippers), it’s quite possible that will result in less-then-full-employment equilibrium, which then requires the visible hand of government intervention. Marxian economists propose a third possibility: even if everyone gets what they deserve in markets, in production things are different (because of exploitation)—and the consequence, whether there’s an invisible or visible hand, is inequality and instability. In other words, the three economic theories represent radically different moral economies.

One student then invoked the idea of moral economy and blamed greed for causing the current crisis. I responded by making the distinction between individual greed and economic institutions, which like the different notions of fairness among economic theories leads to quite different solutions: throw the greedy bankers in jail (which of course we haven’t done) or change the economic institutions (which we haven’t done either).

Chris Dillow makes a similar distinction between “greedy bankers” and “overly powerful bankers.” His view is that “the habit of over-emphasizing individuals’ traits and under-emphasizing situational forces” leads us to “to moralize inequality; the rich are rich because they are greedy whilst the poor are poor because they are lazy.”

What this effaces is the fact that inequalities in capitalism are instead the result of inequalities of power – a power which rests in part upon ideology. Moralizing inequality tends to blind us to this fact. It creates the illusion that capitalism would be acceptable if only those at the top were better people, when in fact the faults in capitalism are structural and not due to the flaws of passing individuals.

That’s pretty much the same distinction I was trying to make, although I still want to characterize the two explanations as different moral economies: one is a moral economy of flawed individuals, while the other is a moral economy of flawed institutions.*


*Although I’m willing to admit I’m sympathetic to Dillow’s view for another reason: because he invokes my favorite football club and blames Crystal Palace fans (who greeted Wayne Rooney with chants of “you fat greedy bastard”) for committing the error of “blaming Rooney’s salary upon his personal character rather than upon his situation.”



As a society, we cut food stamps and extended unemployment insurance compensation but, according to Good Jobs First, we extend enormous amounts of welfare to corporate behemoths.

Even then, as David Kay Johnston explains, those numbers do not include many other forms of subsidies to American business.

For example, Good Jobs First does not count federal subsidies. It also leaves out indirect subsidies like perpetual monopoly rights of way for pipelines as well as rules that limit competition in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and a host of other industries.

Paco de Lucia RIP

Posted: 26 February 2014 in Uncategorized
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I own many of Paco de Lucia‘s albums and had the privilege of twice hearing him play in concert. He was both an accomplished flamenco guitarist (as above) and an innovative jazz musician (as below).