Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brexit Post-Mortem

The reason the neoliberal status quo has been around for as long as it has -- 40 years and counting, ten years longer than the social democratic consensus following World War Two -- is that it has proven agile at quickly adapting to threats.

Two recent examples. First, the Arab Spring, which, after stunning victories in Tunisia and Egypt, was completely rolled back thanks in large part to the export of jihad by the U.S. client states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Next, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was easily co-opted by Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, with a hefty assist from New York City's Finest.

What is happening in the case of Brexit is more of the same. The neoliberal status quo lost the vote last Thursday but has been winning ever since. The first significant casualty might have been Podemos in Spain's parliamentary elections on Sunday. Going into the vote, many predicted that Podemos would replace the Socialists as the number two party behind the ruling conservatives. It didn't happen. While Podemos didn't lose ground, neither did it gain any. The Popular Party actually picked up seats. The reason for Podemos' lackluster showing is being explained as voter risk-aversion following the currency and equity markets turmoil on Friday following the Brexit vote.

The markets have calmed since. Brexit will not be another Lehman Brothers. The narrative that is cohering to the point that it is close to being chiseled in stone is that the successful Leave campaigners, leaders like UKIP's Nigel Farage and Tories Boris Johnson (BoJo) and Michael Gove, have not a clue what Britain is to do now that its people have actually voted to separate from the European Union. This confusion is crystallized in a much-cited column written by BoJo for The Telegraph, "I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe – and always will be," where he basically dismisses the reasons for a Leave vote by both the right and the left: Immigration will continue and so too will free trade. Britain will negotiate for itself a Norwegian membership in the common market.

Cameron must have been mindful of this dearth of leadership atop the Leave campaign. His 90-day exit is looking like the smart move at this point. Given another week like the last one, the Leave Tories will be so discredited they will not be able to govern. Cameron's Remainers will keep control of the Conservative Party, better able to join Labour's parliamentary putschists -- assuming they are somehow able to rid themselves of the troublesome Jeremy Corbyn as party leader (which I don't think they will be able to do) -- to finagle avoidance of Article 50, whether through a re-vote or artful negotiation.

The problem in all of this are those hard-shell anti-neoliberal voters, both left and right, who have grown deaf to the mellifluous hymns sung in praise of unfettered markets. Bigger is not better. And I would argue that a solid majority of voters in countries throughout the West have come to believe this, which is a real problem for the governing elite. This majority can be tamped down here and there by means of fear and focusing on division within its ranks, but it will not go away.

I would guess that over the next few years the major parties in the capitalist core will continue to splinter.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Oh, No! It's Devo (1982)

I had intended last week to follow up my treatment of the two Van Morrison albums that closed out the 1970s, Wavelength (1978) and Into the Music (1979), with an appreciation of Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me (1987), an album that I listened to extensively and intensively the summer I separated from my wife. That summer, the summer of 1990, was also the summer I searched for the hidden truths of Wavelength. But the real bonanza of musical exegesis was garnered by my immersion in You're Living All Over Me. I would drink Midnight Dragon malt liquor into the wee hours of morning and suss out the tiniest sonic morsels from Lou Barlow's "Poledo." I have to say that it changed my life. I came up with a motto or hypothesis that guided my studies for years afterwards. I took the hypothesis back with me to New York City, and from there to San Antonio, until I ended up back in the Emerald City. I alluded to this "lunatic fringe" hypothesis at the end of the March post on the Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's:
I have my own hypothesis about this pervasive atmosphere of pain and hopelessness we find ourselves in today; it is highly speculative, to the point of being located solidly on the lunatic fringe. I was going to indulge in it this morning because it follows on ideas I stumbled upon at the same time I was thinking about the alchemists' VITRIOL, as mentioned in last week's post. But it will have to keep. I am out of time.
I never got back to it. And I am not going to get back to it today because though I read Nick Attfield's 33 1/3 of Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me in April -- and it helpfully confirmed my sense of what was going on in that album (namely, Lou Barlow's musique concrete stuff, found in such tracks as "Raisans" and "Poledo," is what gives the record its sublimely deep haunting uniqueness) -- I still want to read Carlo Rovelli's international bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2016) before I post anything else about You're Living All Over Me. But I will spell out the hypothesis revealed to me that difficult breakup summer 26 years ago (the summer of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait): "Future man made the planets."

Insane enough for you? I was under duress that summer. Living alone, working construction, drinking lots of malt liquor, separated from a wife who was partying hard and hooking up with different partners in multiple states, "Future man made the planets" came to me like a firefly on a black night. But what did it mean? I intended to find out.

Monday I went to a fundraising dinner at a hip vegan restaurant. The fundraiser was for a Democratic candidate who is vying to replace the longtime Congressman for Washington's 7th District (who announced his retirement this past winter). I went because the dinner was hosted by a city councilmember who I support (mentioned in a post from last fall on Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia). When she refers candidates to me I make a point of contributing to them.

On my walk up to the hip vegan restaurant I stopped off at one of the only remaining, good used record stores in the city. I was looking for some early Mott the Hoople, something pre-All the Young Dudes (1972) because I want to get back to my exploration of the undercard from Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival of 1970, as well as the idea that Glam was a huge stake in the heart of the Hippie.

All that I found was 1974's The Hoople (Ian Hunter's last with the band before going solo). I probably should have picked it up, but I passed, thinking that I might be able to find a copy at the public library. Instead, walking on down the row of used CDs, I found a scuff copy of Oh, No! It's Devo (1982) for the low price of $4.25.

Oh, No! It's Devo was the end of the line for the boys from Akron. They would release another album two years later, Shout, that I don't think anybody listened to. I didn't, and no one I knew at the time did either. And I was a Devo true believer. (To this day I still haven't listened to Shout.) Warner Brothers Records dropped the group from the label after Shout.

It is too bad that Devo flamed out so quickly. Buzz generated by their 1976 short film, In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution, turned into interest from David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, which landed the band a recording contract with Warner Brothers. The first album, the super-historic, Eno-produced Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978), was followed by the timeless Post-Punk record Duty Now For the Future (1979), produced by the man at the helm of Bowie's big Glam albums, Ken Scott.

Then in 1980 Devo released what is probably the greatest synthpop album of all time, Freedom of Choice. For me, Freedom of Choice is right up there with You're Living All Over Me in terms of importance. We on the high school debate team were wed to Freedom of Choice. We were saturated in it; it was our sonic blood. At tournaments we would stack our evidence file-card boxes and brief cases into a pyramid, and atop that pyramid we would perch a big boom box from which would blast "Girl U Want," "Whip It," and "Gates of Steel." No one would mess with us. We had purpose. (Eventually I intend to post on Freedom of Choice; it might have to be in multiple parts.)

Before moving on to Oh, No! It's Devo, a few words on why Devo is so important for an understanding of Hippies vs. Punks. The principal founders of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, were students at Kent State when, on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on demonstrators, killing four and setting off a nationwide student strike. Campuses burned and it looked for a time that there was going to be a revolution in the United States. In response, the Nixon Administration launched the Huston Plan, which J. Edgar Hoover put the kibosh on but Nixon maintained in pocket version with the White House Plumbers (leading of course to Watergate).

Casale and Mothersbaugh were so affected by the savagery of the National Guard shootings that they crafted a philosophy of "devolution." Simon Reynolds' interview of Casale in Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews (2009) perfectly captures the essence of Hippies vs. Punks. Casale said something to the effect that, "Sure, we're all about peace and love and revolution and creating a new world but then daddy comes along and mows a few of us down and we fall right back into line and shut up and do as we are told!" Mothersbaugh and Casale thought that the most cogent response to Kent State was to embrace Dadaism and Fluxus. Anarchy, baby.

In other words, the failure of the Hippies to respond effectively to Kent State leads directly to Punk.

Oh, No! It's Devo came out in the fall, a time when we were all listening to Combat Rock (1982). We liked it, particularly "Speed Racer." That fall Devo made an appearance on Square Pegs, a CBS sitcom that was a vehicle for a pre-stardom Sarah Jessica Parker. I remember making a note to watch it. I was in my freshman year, living alone off campus in a nicely refurbished mother-in-law unit. I can't remember actually watching it. I think I must have been underwhelmed. (I do remember thinking that Sarah Jessica Parker was fetching with her long wavy pigtails and schoolgirl glasses.)

I say "we," meaning a buddy who I went to high school with; he was attending Stanford on the other side of the Bay. We made plans to see Devo when they came to San Francisco. My memory isn't exact here, but I think we -- me, Kevin, and my girlfriend-who-would become-my-wife -- saw them on New Year's Eve at the Warfield. The band was tremendous, truly incredible, very physical, very tight. Bob Mothersbaugh used a heavy-duty whammy bar to bust all the strings on his guitar. There was a big screen with video playing while the band performed. I think it is one of the best concerts I have seen.

Listening to Oh, No! It's Devo again after all these years -- I probably haven't listened to the album more than once or twice in over 23 years -- my initial reaction was not kind. It seems like the band, which always peddled schlock, was parodying its own schlock. And that's a hard sell.

Then walking to work one morning I experienced a moment of incandescence when I heard "Speed Racer." It was like I was frying on acid and the whole Hippie/Punk "society is a hole" perspective yawned in front of me. There is speed racer who is always trying to outrun everything, distance himself from class and status and the other categories of existential confinement. He is followed by the big pirate who likes to drink and steal and kill. That's basically society. Big pirate is followed by barbie doll who has lots of brains and likes sex. Self-explanatory. Another basic construct. Then comes the doctor who, same as big pirate, likes to steal. So there it is. Society is murderous theft. Delivered in faux-naif synthpop. Pretty amazing.

I started hearing everything on Oh, No! It's Devo differently after my "Speed Racer" acid trip. The album gets cooking I think with track three "Out of Sync." All of side two is strong. "I Desire" is based on a poem that John Hinckley, Jr. wrote to Jodie Foster. It is a great song.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Elites Feeling Queasy This Morning: Brexit Triumphs by a Million-Plus Votes

Markets are down but not breathtakingly so in response to the triumph of Brexit at the polls yesterday. The Leave campaign ended up winning 52% to 48% -- more than a million votes -- over the Remain campaign. Cameron has announced his resignation effective in 90 days.

As Yves Smith makes clear in her flinty, dour post, "Brexit: The Crisis Begins," jockeying to shape the separation of the UK from Brussels will commence immediately. Cameron will be distracted by leadership battles among his Tories. Smith dusts off a post by Willem Buiter from 2008, "How likely is a sterling crisis or: is London really Reykjavik-on-Thames?," to sketch a worst-case scenario for Britain, which she then takes global in the final two paragraphs of her post:
And with the US growth sputtering, our economy will feel the effects. Roughly 25% of S&P earnings come from Europe. The strong dollar will weigh on exporters. Europe is a major export market for China, and China may allow the renminbi to slide. Earlier this year, a devaluation of the renmibi was also seen as having the potential to trigger major upheaval. A flagging US economy going into the election hurts Clinton and Democrats generally. And this vote will embolden other separatist movements, most important, Le Front National. 
No matter how this plays out, the UK and EU will have to blaze a difficult path. And this rupture is taking place when advanced economies almost without exception have singularly weak leaders. We are in for a rough ride, and the portents suggest it will be much rougher than it needs to be.
I would like to accentuate the positive. With the Brexit vote people showed, as they did in Rome on Sunday, that they are not the zombies who inhabit the leadership level of political-economic class. The majority is willing to cast aside the bankrupt zombified neoliberal consensus and strike out in a new direction, even if it is not clear exactly where it will lead. This is cause for great hope.

For decades we have been told that "There Is No Alternative!" And things have steadily worsened. Now we have proof that, after forty years, people are willing to scrap the neoliberal paradigm and begin anew.

The future is no longer foreclosed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why I Think Brexit Will Win

Polls are not providing much insight into whether voters will opt for a Brexit tomorrow. The Leave campaign's surge was upended last week with the slaughter of Labour MP Jo Cox by a deranged constituent outside a Leeds library.

If an edge exists, the Leave camp still has it, but it is modest. And if you are one of those who like to "follow the money," then you might want to pay attention to the jump in exchange transactions. Britons are unloading pounds out of fear that the currency will take a significant hit when Brexit triumphs.

My own non-rigorous interpretation gives great weight to the big win for the Five Star Movement in Italy's mayoral election Sunday. Thirty-seven-year-old beauty Virginia Raggi is the first woman and the first member of the Five Star Movement (M5S) to be Mayor of Rome. A super-historic achievement (she won over two-thirds of the vote!) and a huge blow to politics as usual as personified by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.

Think of Renzi as a Paul Ryan of the center-left. Someone that party leaders believe breathes new life into their corpse-like organization. It is hard to think of a Democrat -- young, confident, telegenic -- in the United States who is a peer to Renzi. Julian Castro? Not even close. For a while Renzi seemed to have a little pep in his step. He was able to achieve a rollback of Italian labor law (of the type Hollande's Socialists are presently attempting with the El Khomri law). But because of the success of Raggi in Rome and another M5S upset in Turin, Renzi appears to be a politician well past his sell-by date.

Granted, Italy is not the UK. But if voters in Rome overwhelming support a non-traditional leader --and M5S advocates an Itexit -- I think it means something, and it augurs ill for the status quo.

Also, I don't think Juncker lecturing Britons that "out is out" is going to win any votes for the Remain campaign. And there is the hope that the UK will lead the way with the right choice as Parliament did when it voted against bombing Syria in the summer of 2013.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Van Morrison's Into the Music (1979)

If you are like me, the chronology of work produced by the great trinity of singer-songwriter solo artists -- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young -- is not difficult to recapitulate until the beginning of the Hippie vs. Punks period, 1975 - 1979. Then things get murky.

Most of us know Dylan's Desire (1976) and Neil Young's Zuma (1975), and hopefully we have all listened to Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece (1974) into the triple figures. But who can say whether Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars comes before or after Comes a Time? Or whether Dylan's Shot of Love antedates or follows Saved?

For Van Morrison this "Bermuda Triangle" period begins later because after the breakup-from-Janet-Planet album Veedon Fleece he takes a recording hiatus before reappearing in 1977, the big year for UK Punk, with A Period of Transition, basically naming the departure of the Aquarian Zeitgeist, which he then follows up the next year with the successful "New Wave" album, Wavelength.

The murkiness of Van the Man's discography begins, for me at least, with his last album of the 1970s, Into the Music (1979). I have always been under the impression that Beautiful Vision (1982) follows Wavelength. It doesn't. Beautiful Vision actually follows the Celtic rocker, Common One (1980).

I say all this to emphasize the point made last week in relation to Wavelength. The late-70s were a confusing time. Old verities were vanishing. And a simple sort of satori to bring this home is the attempt to chronologize the oeuvre from this period of the trinity of our modern masters, Dylan-Morrison-Young.

Apropos of this, the last few weeks I have traveled directly into the "heart of darkness," immersing myself in Into the Music. Though I would identify myself, like my father, as a Van Morrison man, I was not familiar with this record. I think I might have heard it once or twice back in the day. If I reach way back I might have a vision of a sun-bleached album cover and the smell of lavender perfume so strong it makes me gag.

The backstory of Into the Music is that Van, alienated by Wavelength, went for a reboot. So he traveled to the English countryside and walked the fields at dawn, getting into the music by plucking out songs on his guitar. The result, as the 1970s come to a close and Jimmy Carter greases the skids for the Reagan-Thatcher lurch to the right, is -- believe it or not -- a critic's choice album of the year (#4 on Robert Christgau's Pazz & Jop Dean's List for 1979).

I say "believe it or not" because the album is so sugary and earnest it is hard to hear it as anything other than a precursor of the Boomer nostalgia, perfectly captured by the Big Chill (1983), that is about to burst forth in the 1980s as Reaganism takes hold.

But Into the Music provides an amazingly accurate template for the type of record that Morrison would perfect in the 1980s once he leaves off his Celtic Scientology synthesizer voodoo (an album that I never tire of, 1983's Inarticulate Speech of the Heart).

You can hear it all in two tracks -- "Troubadours" (above) and "And the Healing Has Begun" (below).

In "Troubadours" Van introduces the piccolo trumpet and stroviola (not your usual rock'n'roll instruments) to go along with the strings and other horns to create a signature "neo-Avalon" sound that would become a staple of  '80s albums like No Guru and Poetic Champions, an ideal accompaniment for the one-time Hippie now a solid burgher drinking his delicious Peet's coffee and scanning the morning business page.

From there it gets worse. "And the Healing Has Begun" is the type of Vegas showtune that Van has been able to extrude for the last 30 years as if he is the artistic equivalent of a plastic injection mold. Listening to it with its caws and whoops and "yeows!" one can't help but see the lads and lasses hoofing a Riverdance while the aging Boomers sip white wine in the audience and smile.

Of course we must doff our caps because it is after all 1979 and none of this was visible back then. Though it is hard to accept that Christgau was being sincere when he labeled Into the Music a pick hit, awarding it a rare A, and describing it as "Van's best album since Moondance."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Edsall in Pottstown, PA: For the GOP the 2016 Election is All About the Down-Ticket

I used to read Thomas Edsall's column every week. But then I switched employers, and I no longer had to while away the hours on the train. Consistently excellent, Edsall's reporting usually tells the story of a country wracked by inequality and economic dislocation while its major political parties struggle with how to win votes without doing anything to address the voters' concerns.

This week Edsall describes a visit to postindustrial Pottstown, PA, "Measuring the Trump Effect," where support for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee breaks down along gender lines:
My interviews this week with Pottstown voters in working and middle class white neighborhoods showed almost no support for Trump among women, but steady support among men.
“I like him because he is to the point, and it’s time for a change, I think he’s got the oomph to rattle some cages,” John Keyser, a nonunion employee at Universal Concrete Products Corporation, said. Universal Concrete is one of the few manufacturing facilities left in the area. Keyser told me that he usually votes for Democrats and thinks that Bill Clinton was “one of the greatest and best presidents we ever had.” But this year he supports Trump:
I’d rather have somebody who does get angry and has feelings than what we have had with politicians who don’t care either way. I like the emotional involvement.
In a number of cases, local support for Trump among white men was based as much on their animosity to Hillary Clinton as it was on their faith in Trump.
“I’d vote for the devil before I would ever vote for that woman,” said a man in his 60s who identified himself only as Keith. In a phrase repeated by at least three others, Keith said that Hillary Clinton “belongs in jail.”
Stacey Weinstein, a 53-year-old psychiatric social worker, reflected the opposite side of the coin: she distrusts Clinton, but sees Trump as by far the worse choice.
“I’m not terribly enthusiastic about her because I think she has done some very underhanded things,” Weinstein said, but “Donald Trump is a misogynist, and I don’t like misogynists.”
What stood out in the interviews I conducted on June 13 here and in an upscale development in East Goshen, 24 miles south of Pottstown, was that the Trump supporters were male, with one exception; Clinton backers were decisively (but not exclusively) women.
News consumers would be better informed if more reporters did what Edsall does in this week's column -- go to a town; describe briefly its history, both demographic and economic; and ask people what they think about the candidates. The interviews he quotes breathe fresh air and provide a slice of life we too rarely get to sample. It's too bad that Edsall only appears online and not in NYT's national print edition.

The rest of the story Edsall wrestles with the down-ticket ramifications of Trump's candidacy. This is the $64,000 question for the GOP and explains why party leaders have vacillated so when it comes to embracing or criticizing Trump. Basically the Republican Party is trapped and elders don't know what to do. Look at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. First, he said the party would run attack ads in select states against its own nominee if it ends up being Trump. Then he was one of the first high-profile Republicans in Congress to endorse Trump.

For the GOP it is all about protecting its majorities in the Senate and House, which means inoculating its down-ticket from any Trump backlash at the same time it grabs whatever ride is available on Trump's coattails. Maybe such a calculation is possible at the level of the individual race, but certainly not at the national level. That's why Congressional Republicans seem so adrift when it comes to Trump, and it is not something that is going to be solved between now and November. The GOP hope is to fudge things and not lose too many seats.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Liberals on the Precipice: Knowing that Neoliberalism has Failed while Pretending that Politics can Fix It

Eduardo Porter has a column every Wednesday on the business page of The New York Times. It is interesting because it records how a liberal is comings to grips with a bankrupt neoliberal economic paradigm. Lately Porter has been jousting with proponents of a universal basic income (UBI).

Today, "For Hillary Clinton, a Risk of Excess Caution in Economic Policy," Porter implores Hillary to go big in addressing the problems of today's economy, which he correctly identifies as the shrinking of the working class:
A big part of the problem is the erosion of America’s working class. It has been hollowed out as trade and technology have done away with most of the well-paid jobs once available to Americans without a college degree, tipping many of them into a service economy of low wages, uncertain hours and little job security.
He likes Clinton's emphasis on rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, but he thinks her proposal to do so is too stingy:
For instance, she is proposing $275 billion in federal infrastructure investment over five years. That is less than 10 percent of what the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates will be needed. 
Mrs. Clinton’s entire tax plan would raise only $1.1 trillion over the next decade, according to the Tax Policy Center, half a percentage point of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Porter then goes on to list some helpful liberal ideas on how to create a more equitable economy:
What about dismissing the deficit scolds who shape the outdated Washington Beltway consensus and borrowing $1 trillion or so to sharply increase the spending on infrastructure, letting states and municipalities select the investments and manage the job?
How about taking advantage of the cheapest oil prices in a very long time to propose a carbon tax? Or how about imposing a progressive wealth tax to tap into the good fortune of 160,000 American families at the very tip of the wealth pyramid, who are on their way to pass $12 trillion to the next generation, much of it untaxed.
The money could be spent on high quality and universal early education, providing the next generation a better shot at a level playing field. It could be spent on training, to provide workers with needed skills, or job search services to help match workers and jobs. These strategies have been successfully employed by other advanced nations but remain a rarity in the United States.
Mrs. Clinton, of course, is not the only candidate indulging in nostalgia. Witness Donald Trump’s bombastic appeal to white working class men uncomfortable in an America where one must dial “1” for English.
Still, she has a rare opportunity. If she wins, she may well come into office with the political wind at her back: a Senate returned to Democratic control and a divided Republican Party with only a tenuous hold on the House. [Some robust magical thinking here.]
Americans have just lived through perhaps the most progressive presidency [!] since the 1960s. President Obama raised tax rates on the rich and expanded health insurance for millions of Americans. Facing stubborn resistance in Congress, he leaned on his executive powers to improve working conditions.
Yet the nation’s enormous inequities just got bigger. The income of the richest 1 percent grew 27 percent from 2009 to 2014. The average gain for everybody else barely exceeded 4 percent. A future projected along these lines does not look promising.
Bernie Sanders talks about a revolution. Mrs. Clinton might want to try to deliver one.
Most liberals (they don't call themselves liberals anymore; if pushed, they call themselves progressives) are where Porter is at. They realize the economic paradigm is malfunctioning for the vast majority of people, but they are still attached to the delusion that the political system can address and solve the problem. It can't.

The idea that Clinton is going to have long coattails in November and sweep the GOP from control of the Senate, or even substantially reduce the Republican majority in the House, is fanciful. No fix is in store. And what will be interesting is the level of allegiance Hillary will enjoy from liberals who remained loyal to Obama even after it became apparent post-2012 election that he was not "the one we were waiting for." I suspect liberal loyalty will be at a minimum.

At least liberals like Porter are able to frame the question, as he did in last week's column on technology-induced unemployment, "Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect":
Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University has been working with a series of colleagues on an economic model of a world in which robotization both raises economic output and immiserates workers, pushing them out of their jobs. It is not a theoretical impossibility.
“The point for me is that these two scenarios — robots lead to nirvana and hell — can happen side by side,” Professor Sachs told me. “Generally capital wins and all labor can lose. It shows up as a fall in the labor share of national income.”
In that event, preventing a dynastic society of relentlessly growing inequality would require large-scale redistribution. It could even take the form of a universal income paid for with a hefty estate tax — using some of the vast profits accruing to the owners of robots to finance a living for everybody else.
Since most paid human labor would be pointless, the disincentive to work produced by a monthly check would be unimportant. People could devote themselves to unpaid creative affairs.
“Don’t destroy the robots,” Professor Sachs said. But recognize that “not everybody would be better off as a result of market forces. With redistribution everybody could be made better off.”
Many experts are not convinced. For every analysis like this one — forecasting that half of all jobs in the United States will be replaced by new technology — others point out that there is no evidence of humanity’s impending redundancy.
A research paper published last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development argued that even the occupations most at risk of being replaced by machines contained lots of tasks that were hard to automate, like face-to-face interaction with customers.
My sense is that given a choice between interacting with another human or a computerized machine, consumers will overwhelming opt for the machine. Look at the fate of the corner video store. Streaming home video had a lot to do with the demise of the mom-&-pop neighborhood video rental store, but not so much as the appearance of the Redbox movie kiosks in grocery stores and in front of 7/11s.

We have to give more weight to predictions of 50% job loss due to automation than a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by faith that robotic efficiencies in the job market will trickle down and create other types of employment.

To this end, Porter concluded his column last week with a Larry Summers anecdote. And who doesn't love a story about the pompous economics guru ex-Harvard president?
Last November, Lawrence H. Summers — a former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, a top economic adviser in President Obama’s first term and one of the youngest people to earn tenure on the Harvard faculty — strode up to the podium at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and made an unlikely admission: Perhaps economists were not always the smartest people in the room.
He reminisced about his undergraduate days at M.I.T. in the 1970s, when the debate over the idea of technological unemployment pitted “smart people,” exemplified by the great economist Robert Solow, and “stupid people,” “exemplified by a bunch of sociologists.”
It was stupid to think technological progress would reduce employment. If technology increased productivity — allowing companies and their workers to make more stuff in less time — people would have more money to spend on more things that would have to be made, creating jobs for other people.
But at some point Mr. Summers experienced an epiphany. “It sort of occurred to me,” he said. “Suppose the stupid people were right. What would it look like?” And what it looked like fits pretty well with what the world looks like today.
For large categories of workers, wages are inadequate. Many are withdrawing from the labor force altogether. In the 1960s, one in 20 men between 25 and 54 were not working. Today it’s three in 20. The population is generally healthier than it was in the 1960s; work is almost uniformly less demanding. Still, more workers are on disability.
“Maybe the stupid people weren’t quite as stupid as I thought they were,” Mr. Summers conceded. “This was at least a serious concern that had to be thought about.”
In a world in which many Americans do not work during large chunks of their lives, we might have to conceive of Social Security and disability much more broadly than we do today.
That, Mr. Summers said, “could start to look like a universal income.”
So this is where smart-set type liberals are now. They are the on the precipice. The economic system is clearly not working for the masses, and it promises to only get worse. Talk about solutions is headed in the right direction, but there is very little acknowledgement that the political system will address the problem in any significant way.

A political revolution is called for, but in the United States a political revolution is not on the horizon. So things are going to continue to get worse.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Republicans are Going to be in Control for a Long Time

A must-read from yesterday's Salon is Paul Rosenberg's interview with David Daley about his new book, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy.

Daley explains the GOP bonanza of the 2010 Tea Party landslide as the ability to redraw district lines. It is a story of technology and Republican ingenuity under the gun of a disappearing base; and from Daley's telling, it doesn't look like the Democrats are capable of a meaningful response.

Which means solutions are going to have to be bottom-up, people-powered and organic. Money has a way of subverting these types of movements.

The interview includes descriptions of the how GOP practices the dark art of gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan. But the basic frame of  Ratf**ked is captured in the passage below:
The central focus of your book is the GOP REDMAP redistricting plan, which took the ancient practice of gerrymandering to a level never seen before. So, to start out, how did it come about and what made it so strikingly different from what happened before?
You can trace gerrymandering back to the late 1700s, but the plan that the Republicans executed in 2010 and 2011 reinvented this game in a completely modern and transformative way. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was the fourth presidential election out of five in which the Democrats won the popular vote. They took 23 of 33 Senate seats and opened up a supermajority. They held the House. The future demographics looked scary. And when you look again at the Election Night coverage, the leading Republican intellectuals were wringing their hands about the GOP’s future as a national party. But then a handful of brilliant Republican strategists centered around the Republican State Leadership Committee hit on a plan: They recognized that 2010 was a “zero year,” and that zero years reverberate through the rest of the decade because that’s when every Congressional district and state legislative district gets redrawn.   
The two key tacticians behind REDMAP (for Redistricting Majority Project), Chris Jankowski and Ed Gillespie, recognized that if they crafted a plan to flip state legislative chambers in enough key states–especially purplish states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin–that they could control redistricting in these states and redraw both the state and federal lines in a way that built the Republicans a firewall in the House of Representatives. They spent $30 million on state races and blew these Democratic incumbents out of the water, and recaptured control of all those state capitals. Then, they provided state legislators with the mapping, technological and legal help to draw impregnable lines. It worked exactly as planned, helped along by the fact that 2010 was a year of Democratic malaise and low turnout. This is the biggest political heist, and the biggest political bargain, in modern memory. Linda McMahon spent $100 million on two losing Senate races in Connecticut. For a third of that, the GOP locked in control of the House for a decade–and took dozens of previously competitive races off the board, where they would have had to have spent more money.  
In the past, gerrymandering had been an incumbent protection racket, a means of mischief, something that both parties did. What the Republicans did in 2010 and 2011–helped along by Citizens United, a brilliant plan, and technological advances that made map-making amazingly precise–turned gerrymandering into a blunt-force weapon for partisan control. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Brexit Winning + General Strike Tomorrow in France

Good news. Recent polls show the "Leave" campaign moving ahead in the upcoming June 23 Brexit referendum. Yves Smith summarizes in this morning's must read, "Why a Leave Vote May Not Result in a Brexit":
The officialdom in England and in much of the rest of the advanced world is suddenly in alarm over the possibility of a Brexit. US Treasury yields sank last Friday as investors ran for cover, and the flight to safety continued today as a surge in the yen led to a 3% fall in the Nikkei. 
The UK's elites had been confident that frequent, loud “Don’t Touch That Dial” warnings, with vivid descriptions of all of the horrors that would ensue, would herd voters into line well before the June 23 polling date. 
Instead, an online poll commissioned by the Independent showed the Leave campaign to be winning by a stunning 55% to 45%. That revelation coming on top of weak economic data from the US, put Mr. Market in a funk. The Financial Times’ “poll of polls” puts Leave in the lead by a smaller margin, 46% to 44%. 
Moreover, the sense is that with only 10 days to the decision date, the Leave campaign is gaining momentum. The Conservatives have realized that having a bunch of toffs, big banks, and intrusive foreign leaders tell British citizens how economically damaging a Brexit would be seems only to have persuaded voters at most that the people at the top of the food chain would take a hit. Voters seem to be in a bloody-minded enough mood to be willing to take a hit if they can inflict some pain on their putative leaders and take the banking classes down a notch or two. Another sentiment (and one that the elites appear to deny) is that voters are willing to pay an economic cost, even a large one, for more national sovereignty. So now Labor leaders have been moved to the front line of the sales campaign.
Smith goes on to describe the likely scenario of Brexit winning at the polls -- a re-vote after the EU grants a few more concessions. It has happened before in Denmark and Ireland.

I think Smith has it right. And it must noted that she was incredibly accurate last summer in her assessment of the phoniness of Syriza. So, as I said, good news. It looks as if the EU, feckless enabler of U.S. hegemony and enforcer of neoliberal orthodoxy, is about to sustain a body blow.

Smith quotes Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail, "The British people have risen at last - and we're about to unleash chaos":
It has been a mystery to me that these voters stayed loyal to organisations that repeatedly spat on them from a great height. Labour doesn’t love the poor. It loves the London elite. The Tories don’t love the country. They love only money. The referendum, in which the parties are split and uncertain, has freed us all from silly tribal loyalties and allowed us to vote instead according to reason. We can all vote against the heedless, arrogant snobs who inflicted mass immigration on the poor (while making sure they lived far from its consequences themselves). And nobody can call us ‘racists’ for doing so. That’s not to say that the voters are ignoring the actual issue of EU membership as a whole. As I have known for decades, this country has gained nothing from belonging to the European Union, and lost a great deal. 
If Zambia can be independent, why cannot we? If membership is so good for us, why has it been accompanied by savage industrial and commercial decline? If the Brussels system of sclerotic, centralised bureaucracy is so good, why doesn’t anyone else in the world adopt it?
Compare Hitchens' piece with the shallow, laughable fear-mongering of NYT's cold warrior Roger Cohen, "Europe and the Unthinkable," and you understand what thin ice the reigning paradigm is erected upon. Cohen creates an image of a Putin bogeyman waiting eagerly for the Europe Union to come undone so he can swallow up the Baltic nations, and he celebrates the power and coherence of Atlanticism by describing Samantha Powers, one of the architects of R2P and the chaos in Libya, sharing the stage in Berlin with Dr. Strangelove:
I listened the other evening at the American Academy in Berlin as Henry Kissinger, the personification of realpolitik, insisted that the “necessity of the coherence of the Atlantic world” had become “even greater.” With him was the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, the recipient of this year’s Kissinger Prize — and long the personification of liberal interventionist idealism. In many ways they formed a strange duo. But their togetherness was also a statement: That, until now, America’s postwar European and internationalist commitment has held across the foreign policy spectrum.

Realpolitik and idealism meet in the unity of Europe. The unthinkable, on both sides of the Atlantic, must be resisted before it is too late.
The unthinkable is that the status quo, based as it is on a paradigm that has been juiced out since the millennium, should be allowed to continue. In order to remain in power and keep the paradigm intact rulers are subjecting the planet to an increasing number of wars and failed states while the media monopoly engages in Goebbels-like crass propaganda.

Case in point, try to find some decent reporting of what is going on in France with all the strikes brought on by the El Khomri law. You won't find it in the mainstream media. You have to go to the Marxist press like the World Socialist Web Site or Workers World.

A general strike is set for tomorrow in France as the Senate begins debate today.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Van Morrison's Wavelength (1978)

For the last several weeks I have had a mental block on doing this post; subsequently, I have ended up listening repeatedly to Van Morrison's Wavelength, his last great album of the 1970s, for a lot longer than I originally intended.

The mental block has to do with the importance of Van Morrison in my personal history. My father was a Van Morrison man. I grew up to the sound of Van Morrison's voice. My sisters and I would complain in chorus, "Not Van Morrison again!" When I went off to the university, I discovered for myself the joys of the Belfast crooner's work. This was during the period that Van was experiencing a creative renaissance. I would listen to No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986) preparing for class in the morning.

I stayed loyal all the way up to the millennium when I lost track around You Win Again (2000) and Down the Road (2002). My father sent me a copy of What's Wrong with This Picture? (2003), but I never bonded with it, nor any of the others -- Magic Time (2005), Pay the Devil (2006), Keep It Simple (2008) -- until 2012's Born to Sing: No Plan B, which is great. What's remarkable to me is how commercially successful all these recent albums have been. For instance, Born to Sing: No Plan B was a Top 40 album across the Western world -- and the others were in the same basic tony territory -- creating the odd situation where the septuagenarian Irishman is more popular now than his Moondance (1970) salad days during the Hippie revolution.

But it was the Hippie revolution powered by Astral Weeks (1968), Moondance, His Band and Street Choir (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971) and Saint Dominic's Preview (1972) that vaulted Van Morrison to super-historic stardom and tied my father (not to mention Robert Christgau) to him.

"The late '70s were rough on you guys." I have said this before to my father. When I said it to him this last time we were driving back from San Francisco after spending the day there the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. "[Y]ou guys" was meant to refer to my father, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.

The day before I had related the story of Bob Dylan's "Born Again" conversion, which prompted my father to quote from "When You Gonna Wake Up," off Dylan's great Christian Slow Train Coming (1979) album, about "Henry Kissinger's got you tied up in knots." Meaning? It is hard to pay attention to the news every day.

I understand how destabilizing, confusing and powerful the late-70s counterrevolution was because I lived through it with my father. At the end of 1978, when Wavelength first appeared with a Norman Seeff cover photo (with the ubiquitous late-70s background pastel highlights) of "Van the Man" decked out in crotch-hugging white disco pants and a short-sleeved Studio 54 urban chic tee, it was clear -- to me at least, and to my father as well, no doubt -- that the Hippie's day was done. There was no way in good conscience that my father, a Morrison acolyte living in the Santa Cruz Mountains trying to establish some sort of alternative education type of schooling, was going to emulate his hero. There was no going back, but the way forward was obviously false, celebrating as it did money and a superficiality.

[I'm reading Philip JenkinsDecade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (2006). Though it is not Jenkins' intention -- he's a Christian conservative academic who now teaches at scandal-plagued Baylor University -- he makes a convincing case that the Carter-Reagan swing to the right was likely a color revolution initiated by a national security state seriously on the ropes after the '60s cultural revolution, Vietnam, Watergate and the Church and Pike Committees.]

Wavelength announced unequivocally the end of the Hippie and a celebration of the counterrevolution. I never sat down and made a study of the record until the summer of 1990 when I separated from my wife (a time covered in the last Hippies vs. Punks post). I thought it would be appropriate because the album represented a period that roughly corresponds to the end of my parents' marriage; I thought maybe I was missing something, that if I just spent more time listening something would be revealed.

Despite my efforts that summer I never really shook the impression that Wavelength is superficial. Until now that is. After listening to the record for the past two-plus weeks, I have to say that of all Van Morrison's numerous albums Wavelength might be the most unique. He is struggling, not always successfully, to find a new way. There are a lot of synthesizers which seem extraneous. And there's a ska-inflected "Venice U.S.A." (the third YouTube from the top of the post), followed by the (unsuccessful) disco Celtic soul number, "Lifetimes."

But on side two, beginning with the title cut, "Wavelength" (fourth YouTube from the top of the post), everything meshes.

The songs that define the album are the last three: "Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession" (fifth YouTube from the top), "Hungry for Your Love" and "Take It Where You Find It" (below).

They are big statements, mostly of confusion. The impression is of a guy knocked on the head by a brick falling out of the sky, and he's trying to walk it off and get his bearings. He's trying. He wants to be sincere. But he is having trouble figuring out where he is and what is going on. "Hungry for Your Love" is a smooth paean to carnality which provides a sonic chute to the nearly nine-minute, album-ending ur-statement "Take It Where You Find."

"Take It Where You Find" is Van Morrison's explicit message to the Hippies (and to himself) that the dream is over. It didn't work. The revolution died aborning. There is the beautiful chorus:
Change, change come over
Change come over
Talkin' about a change
Change, change
Change come over, now
Change, change, change come over
Followed by Van belting it out like only Van can:
I'm gonna walk down the street
Until I see
My shining light
I'm gonna walk down the street
Until I see
My shining light
I'm gonna walk down the street
Until I see
My shining light
I'm gonna walk down the street
Until I see
My shining light
I see my light
See my light
See my shining light
I see my light
See my light
See my shining light
Trite? Yes. But what else is there to say? You lost. Dust yourself off and walk on, keeping an eye on your shining light.

In the end Wavelength was a way forward for the Hippie, but only if he were willing to acknowledge that he had lost. Commercially, the album was successful, probably the most successful up until ten years later and the batch of lucrative albums beginning with Avalon Sunset; this leads me to believe that a lot of Hippies were receptive to Van's message.

Equally a way forward for the Hippie was Rick Danko's solo album from a year earlier. Interestingly, Danko did not counsel an acknowledgement of defeat by his Hippie brothers and sisters. He plowed an aural path that let the good times roll. But the Hippies apparently were having none of it. They did hanker after what Morrison and Dylan were peddling though, whether New Age mysticism or Born Again Christianity.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Arango on the Outskirts of Falluja: NYT's Reporting on Conflict in Iraq and Turkey

Tim Arango is one of The New York Times' better reporters. He is stationed in Turkey but he has been reporting out of Baghdad for some time. Reporting on Iraq NYT staff have to follow certain guidelines that are identical to USG talking points. First, Iraq is a sectarian mess mostly due to the corruption of Shiite leadership and the malign, Snidley Whiplashesque influence of Iran. The recrudescence of Al Qaeda in Iraq in the form of ISIS is blamed on former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (onetime U.S. favorite). Almost no mention is made of the Wahhabi jihadis of Islamic State and their sectarianism and where it comes from. Next, as Iraqi forces, both Iranian-led militias and U.S.-led regular army and special forces, take back territory from ISIS there is a great deal of attention paid to the plight of civilians (compared with, say, Yemen).

Tim Arango in his story the other day, "Iraqis Who Flee Fighting in Falluja Find Hardship and Hunger," adheres to the guidelines in the first two-thirds of his dispatch from the outskirts of Falluja. But the able reporters find a way to subvert the standard narrative, and Arango delivers: the Iranian-led Shiite militias are conducting themselves professionally with no targeting of the civilian Sunni population fleeing the war zone, and any sectarianism appears to be fomented by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies:
Shiite militias have played a prominent role in the offensive to retake Falluja after nearly three years of Islamic State rule. But because of that, the battle is playing out amid persistent worries that the campaign could intensify the sectarian tensions that are tearing the country apart. [A good distillation of the official U.S. position.]
The Sunni extremist fighters for the Islamic State have warned civilians that the Shiite militias would slaughter them in revenge attacks whenever possible. The news media in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have framed the battle in crass sectarian terms, warning that Iran’s militias were intent on killing Sunnis. [Not at all dissimilar from NYT's reporting.]
But for the most part, civilians who have fled the areas around Falluja have said they had tired of the grim life under the Islamic State and had been treated well by the militias and Iraqi soldiers.
“We were surprised that they treated us so well,” said a man at a camp who was in his 50s and gave his name as Abu Muhammad, standing on Sunday outside his tent. “Daesh had told us the Shiites wanted revenge and would kill us.” 
Instead, he said, he was given cookies and orange juice.
For evidence of ruthless state-sponsored terrorism which news consumers hear almost nothing about, Arango needs to travel back to his old turf, Turkey, where president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is waging a scorched-earth campaign against the Kurdish population of the country's southeast.

Erdoğan's Kurdish war fulfills all the guidelines of NYT's Iraq reporting, but the Gray Lady gives the Turkish government a pass for the most part. I say for the most part because Ceylan Yeginsu did have an informative piece yesterday, "Bomb in Istanbul Kills 11 Near Tourist District":
Violence has surged in the country’s predominately Kurdish southeast in recent months, after Turkey undertook a major military operation to eradicate militants from their strongholds in the region.
The Turkish authorities have imposed round-the-clock curfews across several southeastern cities and pounded Kurdish militant targets with tanks and artillery, and they claim to have killed almost 5,000 militants. In the process, they have reduced many Kurdish cities to rubble.
Critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say he deliberately short-circuited the peace process with the Kurds last year to stir nationalist sentiments after his ruling Justice and Development Party fared poorly in a first round of parliamentary elections. Premeditated or not, the tactic worked, as the party went on to win in a landslide in November, prompting the president to say the country had voted for stability.
Despite that victory, violence sharply escalated and the P.K.K.’s youth branches, fighting for self-rule, began carrying out increasingly sophisticated attacks in urban areas.
Last month, lawmakers from Mr. Erdogan’s governing party pushed through a contentious amendment to the Turkish Constitution that would strip lawmakers’ immunity. Analysts say the move will lead to the ouster of Kurdish politicians, many of whom could face terrorism charges. Kurdish politicians have warned that their exclusion from Parliament could aggravate tensions in the southeast.
Erdoğan's Turkey has been rewarded by the E.U., under Merkel's leadership, for its help in keeping refugees away from European shores.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Five Star Movement + How Much Time Left for the Dominant Paradigm, Six Years or Six Decades?

With Hillary being feted this morning as the likely Democratic nominee for president, it might help to cast a glance elsewhere for hope. Good news comes from Italy.  The Five Star Movement's mayoral candidate in Rome, 37-year-old lawyer Virginia Raggi, is polling ahead after the first round of voting.

At about the same time Syriza was rising in Greece, the Five Star Movement (M5S) was on the ascent in Italy. Led by comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, the new party seemed like the best hope in 2013 for exploding the Brussels hive mind.

Then Syriza captivated the media and the political left; this, combined with M5S's underwhelming showing in 2014 elections for the European Parliament, moved the party off the front burner.

Now -- after the spectacular failure of Syriza, the diffident performance of Spain's Podemos, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe (Austria's Freedom Party is challenging May's election loss), the triumph of the corporate media behemoth over Bernie Sanders' millennials, and many other disappointments -- besides the Scottish National Party, there seems little to celebrate in terms of elections in the West, other than the Five Star Movement. The Brexit vote coming up is a big deal. But the left is split on whether to stay in the EU or go. (I say go.)

I ask people I know who pay attention to the news the following question -- "How much longer can the dominant neoliberal paradigm last?" Everyone so far has replied, "A lot longer." Tariq Ali agrees.

The basic question as I frame it is "Six or 60?" Does the corporate-dominated predatory capitalist system which is vacuuming up all the wealth to the top of the pyramid and destroying the planet survive for six years, say early to middle 2020s, or six decades, at which time many agree that the effects of climate change -- sea-level rise and acidifying oceans -- will demand a huge, paradigm-shifting coordinated response?

The reason I favor the near-term shift is I can't see how the present system lasts beyond four years. First off, the party system throughout the West is collapsing. Granted, charismatic, rejuvenating leadership championing popular policies could rise from within the discredited mainstream Christian Democrats, Labourites, Tories, Socialists and Tea Party Republicans, but there is zero evidence for this. So sooner rather than later a minor party will rise to the top and lead, successfully or not, in such a way that it will create a fissure in the dominant paradigm. If not a Brexit on June 23, then Marine Le Pen in 2017 or Alternative for Germany. An EU subservient to U.S. global hegemony becomes much harder to imagine.

Secondly, the U.S.-led warfare state cannot keep multiplying and maintaining its many theaters of conflict. The fall of Saigon led to an adjustment and correction in the way that the U.S. conducted war. There was a decade-plus pause and reset. Does the fall of Kabul lead to the same type of timeout? Unlikely. But there is a limit to what the U.S. can manage in the way of mayhem. Already the blow black from its wars in the Middle East  and North Africa is diminishing support for the major parties of Europe.

Below is a helpful primer on the Five Star Movement that appeared a couple days ago on the Europe Online web site. Having kept an eye out for M5S over the last several years, I find it accurate:
No laughing matter: Italy's comedian-led Five Star Movement
Rome (dpa) - Italy‘s Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of the most successful anti-establishment parties in Europe, whose main rallying cries are clean politics, direct democracy, euroscepticism and basic income support for all.
"We are normal citizens like you, and this normality is scary" for the establishment, Virginia Raggi, who topped a first round of elections for the Rome mayoralty on Sunday, said at her closing campaign rally last week.
Founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a shadowy internet consultant who died in April, the M5S shot to national prominence after taking a surprise 25 per cent of the votes in the 2013 general elections.
The movement defies left-right categorizations, and shuns alliances with other parties, which it sees as fundamentally corrupt. It is also critical of banks, big corporations, free trade agreements and wants a referendum on Italy‘s exit from the eurozone.
The movement‘s defining characteristic is its reliance on internet consultations among its supporters to select its candidates and political priorities, which are communicated online via Grillo‘s blog.
But critics have accused Grillo and Casaleggio of using the system arbitrarily and quashing internal dissent. Out of the 163 M5S lawmakers elected in 2013, some 37 have either been expelled or have walked out of the party.
In 2014, the M5S hoped for an electoral breakthrough in elections for the European Parliament, which did not come. It won 21 per cent of the vote, against a record 41 per cent for the ruling Democratic Party (PD).
In this month‘s local elections, the M5S led polls in Rome and came a strong second in Turin, but fared poorly in other big cities like Milan and Naples, suggesting that it still has some way to go before building a strong national base.
In the EU assembly, M5S lawmakers have formed the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group with the British eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the German anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The death of Casaleggio, who acted as a behind-the-scenes strategist, has raised questions about the future of M5S, but plans to prepare a younger cadre of party members to take over the leadership have been under way for some time.
After saying in 2014 that he was "a bit tired," Grillo has cut down on campaigning, giving more space to the M5S‘ rising stars, such as lawmakers Alessandro Di Battista and Luigi Di Maio. Tellingly, the 67-year-old comic stayed out of Raggi‘s campaign finale in Rome.

Di Maio, a 29-year-old deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, is seen as the most likely M5S prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections, due within the next two years. Grillo has always refused to run for office.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Hillary Wins

Any doubt should be put to rest this morning about Stathis Kouvelakis' statement mentioned a couple weeks back, that with the erosion of support for major parties throughout the West the corporate media has filled the void to prevent a more precipitous collapse of the status quo. On the eve of the final day of primary voting, the Associated Press preordained the outcome and announced that the Democratic nominee would be Hillary Clinton (Amy Chozick and Patrick Healy, "Hillary Clinton Has Clinched Democratic Nomination, Survey Reports").

Based on the polling, it did not appear as if Hillary was in any serious danger of losing California to Bernie Sanders, particularly given the fact that last week she received the endorsement of longtime California Governor Jerry Brown. So this AP "rush to judgment," as the Sanders campaign is calling it, seems like paranoid overkill. Possibly the intent is to create a situation in the six states voting today where Hillary will walk away with enough pledged delegates (the AP report had to do with superdelegates) to prevent Bernie from contesting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Sanders has predicted that Hillary will not have enough pledged delegates after today's vote, and that, on this basis, he will march his children's crusade to Philly.

One thing is certain, to me at least. This primary campaign has illuminated the extent to which U.S. society is a closed one. It took a billionaire schooled for decades in the most brutal, omniscient media market on the planet to break through. But, if last week is any indication, Trump will be sliced and diced before August is over.

Hillary, competing in her fourth presidential campaign, did several things well, given how tarnished a candidate she is. Though her Super Tuesday "Southern strategy" did not work exactly as planned, because it was designed to knock Bernie out of the race, it will likely end up providing her the margin of victory she needs in pledged delegates; also, it cemented the narrative that black voters overwhelming favor her. Most importantly, Hillary proved an adroit manager of Democratic Party machinery, including the big international unions, and the corporate media monopoly.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Swiss UBI Pummeled at the Polls + The Left's Piss Poor Answer to Brexit + Recession Looms

Yesterday the Swiss overwhelming rejected a proposal to create a universal basic income. Raphael Minder reports in "Guaranteed Income for All? Switzerland’s Voters Say No Thanks" that 
About 77 percent of voters rejected a plan to give a basic monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs, or about $2,560, to each adult, and 625 francs for each child under 18, regardless of employment status, to fight poverty and social inequality and guarantee a “dignified” life to everyone.
Switzerland was the first country to vote on such a universal basic income plan, but other countries and cities either have been considering the idea or have started trial programs.
Winning less than 25% in a public vote is about as bad as it gets. The good news, as Minder goes on to note, is that other countries in Europe are considering a UBI:
Finland is set to introduce a pilot program for a random sample of about 10,000 adults who will each receive a monthly handout of 550 euros, about $625. The intent is to turn the two-year trial into a national plan if it proves successful.
In the Netherlands, Utrecht is leading a group of municipalities that are experimenting with similar pilot projects.
One pro-UBI "man on the street" in Geneva who Minder quotes gets it right, I think:
“We’re losing all our values, creating countries that no longer need workers but still need consumers, but how can we expect people to buy anything if they can’t earn a salary tomorrow?” asked Olivier Duchene, a musician and street entertainer.
While the Swiss UBI went down in flames, referendums in Europe have delivered some stunning victories recently, as Minder helpfully catalogs:
Referendums are gaining ground in other European countries that normally rely on a system of parliamentary democracy. 
Last year, Greece held a referendum on a bailout plan, and the Netherlands introduced a referendum law under which voters rejected a European Union agreement with Ukraine in April. Britain is set to vote in a referendum this month on whether to leave the European Union a year after Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom.
Other than the Scottish vote to stay part of the UK, all those votes were big wins. I have no sense of how the June 23 Brexit vote is going to go down. The reporting I have read in The London Review of Books has been nuanced to the point of turgidity. Case in point is Jan-Werner Muller's "Europe's Sullen Child."

The problem for the anti-Brexit left is it is arguing to stay in the European Union based on a romantic ideal that has proven fictitious:
In many ways the EU is already incoherent. For the time being, it is in a situation where failing policies are neither reversed nor properly fixed. With the Eurozone, governments created a single currency; with Schengen, they created one border. But nobody has been willing fully to accept what has to follow from these major forms of integration: namely, one fiscal policy, with at least some modest redistribution to address imbalances across the Eurozone; and a shared asylum and border policy. This would not in itself create a federal state, but it could be a step in that direction.
. . . Brexit would make Germany even more powerful, and Germany’s continued attempts to keep Europe British without Britain would create even more conflict and resentment. A UK that remained and co-operated selectively with Berlin might just make the EU more stable, better able to project power, and less toxic. Eventually, after what is likely to go down in history as a lost decade for Europe, the EU might even become an area of hope again.
So that's what the "stay" argument boils down to after all those column inches: If the UK stays, maybe Britons will make the EU more stable and eventually "an area of hope again." That's some awfully thin soup.

Why the idea of a UBI is so timely is that it looks like the West is headed toward another recession. The May jobs report was dire (Patricia Cohen and Binyamin Appelbaum, "Sharp Fall in U.S. Hiring Saps Chance of Fed Rate Increase in June"). Even Dem cheerleader-in-chief Paul Krugman thinks so ("A Pause That Distresses"). Only 38,000 jobs were created in the month, and the jobs numbers for March and April were revised downward. As Wolf Richter notes in "What Makes This Jobs Report So Truly Ugly":
This is what was “expected”: 
The Labor Department was expected to report, according to Wall Street economists, a “moderate” gain of 158,000 jobs in May, “moderate” given that the Verizon strike kept 35,000 workers off their jobs. The “whisper number” was around 200,000 jobs. 
And this is what we got:
The BLS reported that the economy had added 38,000 jobs, the lowest since September 2010. Furthermore, the April job gains of 160,000 were chopped down by 37,000 and the March job gains of 208,000 were chopped down by 22,000. Hence, with 59,000 jobs revised away, and with only 38,000 jobs “created” in May, the net total in today’s report was a net loss of 21,000 jobs. We haven’t seen that since the Financial Crisis. 
“Shockingly weak,” and “In one word, ‘Ouch’” is how MarketWatch put it so elegantly. 
It was ugly all around. A number of sectors, including manufacturing, shed jobs, and the labor participation rate dropped for the second month in a row, to 62.6%. Just about the only good number was the magic headline unemployment rate, which fell sharply, from 5% in April to 4.7%, the lowest since the Great Recession began, leaving some folks scratching their heads and searching for answers.
Richter sees the drop in temp hiring as the canary in the coal mine:
But here’s where the report really spread gloom:
The number of temporary jobs plunged by another 21,000. Temporary employment is a harbinger for future employment trends, on the way up and on the way down.
The temporary-help sector was a major – and much lamented – driver of jobs growth after the Financial Crisis. The sector began adding jobs in September 2009. It was an early sign that companies were starting to hire again but didn’t want to commit to more permanent jobs, even as the economy overall continued shedding jobs until February 2010.
From the low point in August 2009 at 1.75 million temporary jobs, the sector added 1.2 million jobs by December 2015, when it peaked at 2.94 million. But then it started shedding jobs. With May’s loss of 21,000 jobs, the sector is down 63,800 from December.
This also happened in 2007, when the temporary help sector started shedding jobs even as the overall economy was still adding jobs until right up to the official beginning of the Great Recession. And it happened in 2000, before the 2001 recession kicked it.
Staffing agencies are cutting back because companies no longer need that many workers. Total business sales in the US have been declining since mid-2014. Productivity has been crummy and getting worse. Earnings are down for the fourth quarter in a row. Companies see that demand for their products is faltering, so the expense-cutting has started. The first to go are the hapless temporary workers.
Some the reporting of the G-7 meeting in Japan a couple weeks back mentioned Abe's rebuffed call for a unified commitment to stimulus spending. Nothing much more was said about it. But I figured that something ominous must be in the formative stages. Can you imagine the impact of another recession when we have yet to dig our way out of the post-Lehman Long Recession?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Red Wolf #6

A tremendous comic book, Red Wolf, just finished a six-issue run. That Marvel cancelled the series speaks poorly of its corporate leadership. This comic book had everything -- excellent writing, superb art, a riveting narrative of a noble hero who, from the 1872 title (part of the recent Secret Wars crossover event), suddenly finds himself transported to present-day small-city New Mexico on the verge of a big-business drug-trade takeover.

Red Wolf is a Luddite manifesto. Scribe Nathan Edmondson champions a "whole earth" noble savage gestalt. Red Wolf fights gun-totting criminals barehanded, with the exception of an occasional mighty toss of a stone or an empty beer bottle, relying on pure athleticism and an understanding of the natural world, both flora and fauna, to best his foes.

Red Wolf is a true hero, no easy achievement these days, and for this Edmondson and penciler Dalibor Talajic deserve praise. Red Wolf offers a primer on how to be a good man. Do what you know. Be honest. Don't be afraid. It brought me to tears (a weakness of mine, this tendency to start weeping while reading comics books) in the 14 scans below: