Thursday, April 28, 2016

Distant lands of which we know nothing

Forty-some years ago, Le Monde, the most prestigious newspaper in France, ran a series of portraits of great cities. For the USA, it chose Chicago.

Among the reasons it gave for Chicago's rapid advancement was that, unlike Boston, it had never been ravaged by a great fire.


Chicago was then the second city of America and I wondered, is what I think I know about France's second city (Marseille) as weird as what Le Monde thinks it knows about Chicago?

Local knowledge counts for something. I think of the Monde story often, and again today when I read a story about Maui's last sugar harvest in The Guardian.

It is an awfully bad story, although no different from others I have read in the San Francisco and some other papers, all of them based on propaganda from the anticane folks. I am pretty sure that all of them were written by vacationers, either staff or free-lance, who write off their vacations on their taxes by claiming to be doing reporting work. The author, Stephen McLaren, is a freelance photographer.)

(A practice I consider unethical.)

A fair indication of the reliability of the story is that McLaren gets the name of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. incorrect.

He did not bother to interview anyone from HC&S or even from anyone in, say, the general ag community.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The hemp campaigns

Perhaps I should explain that I am a man without party; a New Dealer. The 2016 Democratic Party has few things that appeal to me; and the Republican Party and its antidemocratic theocrats and degenerates nothing at all. But that doesn't mean I cannot enjoy the parade.

So these posts about the contest are merely about the race and imply nothing about the wisdom or rightness of any particular platform or policy proposal.

From Delaware, we have a weird report of a Trump (but ex-Carson) consigliere threatening Delaware party leaders about whom they should select as delegates. Trump hardly seems to be in a position to fulfill threats, and one thing I've learned from following party politics is that if you make threats, you had better complete them and leave no survivors. Because if you frighten or antagonize party men and women, they have a thousand ways of taking their revenge; especially in a small and probably tight-knit little party like Delaware's.

I can gleefully imagine the deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Kent (formerly Whorekill) County, Delaware, pop., 160,000, standing up in Cleveland and skewering Trump on worldwide teevee.

However, I doubt that will happen. despite his repellent persona and tactics, I still think Trump will win the nomination before the convention.

And he can thank Kasich. The only reason I can think of for him to keep running is the give-'em-enough-rope strategy: Trump and Cruz are so repellent that the party will, somehow, reject both and, for lack of anything better, turn to loyal Kasich.

This won't work, second because the pols are able to count. One-quarter of voters are Republicans, and one-tenth of those have shown themselves willing to vote for Kasich -- and sometimes then only because they would have  voted for a pinata stuffed with unwashed gym socks just to keep a vote from going to Trump.

Kasich is delusional if he thinks he can expand that core of one-fortieth of the electorate into a majority. And before the party leaders will let him try, they'll bring in somebody like Romney. Or Pence. There are several possibilities.

But first because there isn't going to be an open convention. Trump isn't going to do poorly in the Midwest and West. His supporters -- aggrieved white racist losers -- are distributed evenly throughout the country.

The Democratic campaign involves a different kind of hemp. 

In January, when the Sandersistas discerned a popular primary majority through clouds of pot smoke, they were saying that superdelegates should follow the vote of the rank-and-file. Now that even the stonedest of them understands that Clinton will easily win most of the votes, they are saying superdelegates should vote for the future of the party by switching to Sanders -- Clinton is currently ahead in superdelegates by 12 to 1.

Aside from the rank dishonesty of the argument, it neglects (as Trump's man Uddo neglected in Delaware) the way party politics works. What has Sanders ever done for the party? Why should people who have worked for the party -- often long, unpaid hours -- for 10, 20, 30, 40 years turn their organization over to a man who didn't even bother to join until a few months ago?

Not only that, but a man who has let his operatives accuse them incessantly of rigging the vote, being corporate whores, cheating and pulling dirty tricks?

Clinton will handily earn enough delegates to win without the superdelegates, but even if somehow she misses, the idea that over half of them would abandon the party in favor of a faction that degrades and insults them is beyond pot-happy. Those guys must be smoking batu.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Making themselves (almost) irrelevant

Not since 1972 and the credentials maneuvering at the Democratic National Convention (where young pol Gary Hart cleaned Boss Daley's clock) have the party rules meant as much as they look to do for 2016's Republicans. Nate Silver has a detailed look at them.

However, setting aside the way they are playing out tomorrow, I was struck by how remarkably foolish the New York party selection rules are; any year, not just this one.

The Democratic rules are uncomplicated and in almost any scenario will give the candidate with the larger statewide vote more delegates. There is one way in which that doesn't work.

Most delegates are awarded tree per congressional district, winner take all. Several states, including California, have similar rules. If Sanders, say, piles up huge margins upstate and, contrary to expectations, loses but by small numbers around New York City, then he could win the state popular vote but get fewer delegates than Clinton. But generally, each candidate should end up with delegates in close proportion to his vote totals.

Not so with the Republicans, who have a system that seems designed to keep New York from having much influence on the choice, in those uncommon years when the choice is sill unsettled this late.

In a two-candidate contest, the Republican rules work like the Democratic rules. But with three or more candidates, unless it's a runaway for one everywhere, the Republican rules are designed to cancel out advantages for  anyone.

In each district where there is no name with an absolute majority, the top finisher gets 2 delegates, and the second place name gets 1. So, if the two strong candidates are stronger in one region than another, for every advantage Trump gets by leading in a New York City district, he loses it to Cruz in upstate districts.

In a close contest, its seems probable that whoever gets the most delegates will end up with just a few more than the second-place man. It is not out of the question that the net impact of the millions of New York Republican votes could have less meaning at the Cleveland convention than the 130 Republican votes in the Virgin Islands.

Unlike at Cleveland, the delegates in the Vigin Islands were packing heat, but -- contrary to what Wayne LaPierre says -- that did not make their society polite. Far from it.

There is an additional complication in New York. In any district where third (or lower) candidates don't get 10%, those votes are thrown out, and it then becomes a winner-take-all district with the top finisher getting all three delegates.

Aside from the fact that throwing out votes sounds undemocratic (and unDemocratic), this makes predicting the delegate hauls tomorrow difficult.  Kasich has often shown himself unable to get to 10%, so I can (just barely) imagine Trump getting every district delegate. (There are an insignificant few statewide delegates.)

Or, I can imagine Cruz getting some threes upstate while Trump gets a majority of the delegates but not nearly the 60% the polls say he can expect in statewide votes.

I still think Trump wraps it up before the convention. The punditry expects him to do less well in the West, but he has not been a regional candidate like Wallace or Goldwater. Silver expects him to be around 75 delegates short of a first-vote majority.

I made a lot of money in the prediction markets in 2012, in part because I accepted Silver's analysis of the general election. But I don't think his poll-of-polls approach works so well, either for low turnout primaries or for Trump and his Trumpeters.

I do agree with Silver than Sanders has no chance and my expectation is that Clinton will get in the neighborhood of 160 delegates to Sanders's 131 tomorrow. But he won't drop out because he's ego-tripping. Has been since the start.

Also, if he was so smart, he should have become a Democrat a while back if he wanted the nomination of the Democratic Party. But I don't think he is so smart.


You cannot make things simple enough for some people.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Words sting

It has been nearly 15 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001; and about 23 years since the first attack on the World Trade Center. It is a safe bet that most Americans knew little about Islam and antiAmerican Islamism then. And even less now.

The linked story concerns an Iraqi-American who was removed from a Southwest Airlines plane because a passenger heard him "talk about martyrdom in Arabic, using a phrase often associated with jihadists."

It was, of course, nonsense, in the sense that the complaining passenger does not know Arabic, so she could not have heard him "talk about martyrdom," even if that was what he was doing.

I would not bother linking to this story, interesting though it is, except for the reaction of Southwest Airlines. Here are the statements it provided to the Times:

  “We regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft,” the company said in a statement. “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”

 Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said the company was unable to comment on the conduct of individual employees.
 Oh, really?  And who is stopping your company from explaining its outrageous conduct?

I have been reading a book (review coming soon) by a flight attendant about, among other things, the detailed training flight attendants get in how to deal with passengers and their complaints. How difficult would it have been to ask the complaining passenger, "Do you speak any other language than English?"

Friday, April 15, 2016

Which is bigger?

The national debt or the national ignorance about the debt?

I suppose one way to think about it is to propose that the American educational system has failed because almost no one understands the simple and basic concept of a national debt. Not the editors at Time:

Not the Tea Party.

Does Donald Trump, the Teadiot darling? That's a curious question. (Bear with me. I will leave the formal demolition of the debt-is-a-bad-idea to more formal people. This post will offer some facts that, I am willing to bet, not many people know.)

Trump is clearly not averse to borrowing when he can find someone stupid enough to lend to him, but his 4 -- count 'em, four! -- bankruptcies demonstate he doesn't manage debt well.

The first country to create a funded permanent national debt in the modern sense was England in 1694. The vehicle was the Bank of England, which is still in business and doing very well, thank you.
Britain has never been out of debt since and the debt keeps growing. Yet the British are among the most prosperous people in the world.

The British understood the value of a safe investment in which its growing middle class could park their savings, since placing them with private banks was extremely dangerous. (This is one of many examples of how governments can accomplish goals better than private enterprise. Nobody has even lost a farthing in the Consols, as British government stock used to be called.  Consols were finally paid off last year, now replaced with more modern forms of public debt.)

There were earlier "national debts," of course, but usually considered the personal obligation of the sovereign. Sovereigns were very bad people to lend to, as Jacques Coeur and many another rich man discovered. The few medieval and early modern republics issued what we would now recognize as national debt.

These were called, in Italy, mountains of piety, and they were not always voluntary. Venice made capital levies on its rich citizens to pay for war, issuing bonds. In light of the recent controversy about vulture funds buying discounted debt from Argentina, Puerto Rio and other places, it is interesting that when Venice eventually paid off its bonds (which were 100 at par), it paid 2 ducats to holders who had bought on the secondary market, but 8 ducats to heirs of the original "investors" of a century earlier.

The United States got its national debt down to nothing during the "National Period" by selling off lands it had stolen from the Indians. It had the advantage of not fighting expensive wars or providing much in the way of public services in those days, except lighthouses and harbors. Global trade was not a bad word back then.

The Civil War put the nation into permanent debt, but this did not damage prosperity, which -- in terms of percentage expansion -- has never been greater. Holders of Confederate bonds lost everything.

The United States has never levied on capital, although that might have been a good idea at some periods, like 2003-present. Nor has it ever raised forced loans, although the pressure to buy War Bonds was very strong in 1917-18 and 1942-45.

The end of World War I was followed by a sharp depression from which the country never recovered, and it was feared that World War II would also be followed by a depression, unemployment and business failures. Debt saved the country's bacon, however.

In 1917-18, ordinary workers, who were paid little over subsistnce, could not buy much debt, but in 1942-45, thanks to minimum wages, unionization and oher excellent New Deal innovations, ordinary workers bought $140 billion in governemtn debt. In 1946, as the economy converted to peacetime pursuits, this enforced saving was unleashed in a tidal wave of home buying, car buying and furniture buying that at last ended the depression that had started in 1921-22.

For perspective, in 1944 the government ran its biggest debt (as counted in constant dollars) ever, $244 billion. So the war debt in the hands of average Americans was equal to about six months of allout deficit spending.

It helped that much of that $244 billion was invested in new factories, mills and mines. Most of these were put to profitable use after the war. Very, very profitable, since many of these valuable properties were turned over to private corporations for a dollar each. That is not the kind of deal that you or I are ever offered, so when some heir of World War II profiteers bitches about taxes and spending, throw that in his face. (It was not because the holders of great wealth were such great managers that their share of national wealth went up and up.)

The Time cover story that sparked off this post was not written by a staffer (though it must have been editd by the paid help) but by James Grant. Here is how the magazine describes him:
Grant is the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. His latest book, The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself, won the 2015 Hayek Prize
 Ah! Time turned its cover over to a Teadiot. Not everybody has forgotten the Crash of '21. Not RtO, not by a long shot.

As I have mentioned many times (working off the research of Rexford Guy Tugwell, perhaps the best of all American political economists), in 1921 about 1 in 4 Americans was a farmer or other primary producer (timber, fish) or depended on farmers for income. Although US industrial production expanded in the '20s, giving rise to an illusion called "Coolidge prosperity," the farmers who were wiped out virtually dropped out of the money economy. After great exertions, the New Deal began to get the farm economy reviving by 1940, but by 1950 technological innovations had rewritten the playbook. The yeoman farmer never did recover. (As Harry Truman remarked, in 1949, there were 2 million farming mules in Missouri; but they were being replaced by tractors.)

It is no surprise that a moron like Grant would win a Hayek Prize.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review 367: How Rome Fell

HOW ROME FELL, by Adrian Goldsworthy. 531 pages, illustrated.Yale paperback

Adrian Goldsworthy felt obliged to spend the first and last pages of “How Rome Fell” explaining that the answer, whatever it is, cannot be copied over as a cautionary admonition to the United States today.

Not that he does not draw conclusions. Some historians claim history does not teach lessons -- a silly idea equivalent to saying that you cannot learn from experience -- but Goldsworthy does not do so. He claims that superpowers, when they fall, fall from within.

When I was a boy in the South, the fall of Rome was a favorite theme of holy roller preachers, although these men were so ignorant they could not have found Rome on an Esso map of Italy. They were persuaded that it was the moral depravity of the Romans. They were too stupid to note that the decline leading to the fall coincided with the Christianization of the empire.

Edward Gibbon thought the fall was the result of religion and barbarism. A German historian counted at least 200 proposed causes.

Goldsworthy is cautious. For one thing, the decline can be fairly precisely started in the third century, and he notes that we know so little about that time that if we were equally ignorant about the 20th century, we would know there had been a Great Depression and two world wars but would not understand how serious they were.

Still, he dates the beginning of the end to the murder of Emperor Commodus and the civil wars that followed. Surprisingly, he offers no discussion about why the murder -- not the first of an emperor -- was so dire.

The reason was that Augustus, 200 years earlier, had not devised a rule for succession in the constitution of the empire. There was a vague feeling that sons should follow fathers, but Roman emperors did not have many sons, or if they had one, tended to die (or be murdered) when he was an infant. There was no plan for the death of an emperor without an heir.

The empire was basically the army, so the strongest, best-placed general grabbed for the diadem. And others, too, often enough.

Goldsworthy identifies a structural change that this system of musical chairs began: the later emperors stopped using senators as legates to command armies or undertake other crucial tasks. They were afraid of creating a viable rival.

But if senators could not be trusted, the emperor had to do everything himself, which meant leading the army. If campaigns were necessary at opposite ends of the empire, one would be left unattempted.

Although he says relying on a small aristocracy -- around 600 men -- “may seem odd in this day and age,”  especially since they were “amateurs in the modern sense,” the method worked well in the Roman context.

By keeping the ruling class wieldy, it allowed emperors to judge whom to trust and whom to keep away from temptation. And until the breakdown in the third century, senators did not think of themselves as potential emperors, which helped keep them contented as subordinate servitors of the state.

Expanding the upper leadership to the class of equestrians -- perhaps as many as 10,000 men -- meant an emperor lost intimate knowledge of whom to rely on and whom to fear.

This is a more subtle argument than barbarism and religion, and Goldsworthy is at pains to show that the barbarians were never numerous enough, skilled enough or united enough to do critical damage to such a strong empire. He has much less to say about religion.

No empire ever lasted so long. The western empire lasted around 1,300 years (though much of that period as a republic), the eastern portion much longer.

The other kind of rightwing child sacrifice

RtO has long opposed the ammosexual  practice of child sacrifice by firearms. There is another kind, though. As the Guardian reports:

He lost his faith around the age of five, when a baby died in his arms in the course of a failed healing. While elders prayed, Hoyt was in charge of removing its mucus with a suction device. He was told that the child died because of his own lack of faith. Something snapped, and he remembers thinking: “How can this possibly be God’s work?” His apostasy set up lifelong conflicts with his parents and church elders.
In just one incident, when he was 12, Hoyt broke his ankle during a wrestling tryout. “I ended up shattering two bones in my foot,” he said. His parents approached the situation with the usual Followers remedies – rubbing the injury with “rancid olive oil” and having him swig on Kosher wine.

Intermittently, they would have him attempt to walk. Each time, “my body would just go into shock and I would pass out”.

“I would wake up to my step-dad, my uncles and the other elders of the church kicking me and beating me, calling me a fag, because I didn’t have enough faith to let God come in and heal me, while my mom and my aunts were sitting there watching. And that’s called faith healing.”

He had so much time off with the untreated fracture that his school demanded a medical certificate to cover the absence. Forced to take him to a doctor, his mother spent most of the consultation accusing the doctor of being a pedophile.

He was given a cast and medication but immediately upon returning home, the medication was flushed down the toilet, leaving him with no pain relief. His second walking cast was cut off by male relatives at home with a circular saw.

An Idaho Democrat lawmaker introduced a bill to allow gummint intervention to save the children -- you know, typical socialist overreach and nanny-state meddling.  How did the Republican-controlled Legislature react to that?

Lee Heider, chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, refused to hold a hearing. The Guardian reports:

Heider’s repeated response to these claims was a welter of contradictions and bluster.

After telling the Guardian that no bill was lodged (John Gannon confirmed that he did, as was reported in local media in February) and that he had been told by the attorney general and the Canyon County prosecuting attorney that the laws did not need to change (both men deny saying this), Heider took refuge in the US constitution.

“Republicans didn’t feel the need to change the laws. We believe in the first amendment to the constitution. I don’t think that states have a right to interfere in religions.”
When pressed on the fact that children are dying unnecessarily as a result of exemptions, Heider makes an odd comparison.

“Are we going to stop Methodists from reading the New Testament? Are we going to stop Catholics receiving the sacraments? That’s what these people believe in. They spoke to me and pointed to a tremendous number of examples where Christ healed people in the New Testament.”