Malfeasance, Misfeasance, and Nonfeasance

The editors of the Chicago Tribune are not amused by the incompetent, do-nothing Illinois legislature:

Thursday was another day of wasted time, by design. The two chambers are in their own little worlds, not laboring as a team to deliver solutions for Illinois’ grave challenges.

Maybe Democratic leaders John Cullerton and Michael Madigan think their chambers’ conspicuous inaction embarrasses Gov. Bruce Rauner. He was the one who called lawmakers back to Springfield until the end of the month to pass a budget.

Cullerton says his chamber has sent several pieces of important legislation to the House, where they sit. Madigan, though, has no excuse for his decision to do nothing substantive on the second day of the special session — just as on the first day. Inertia was his choice.

Madigan says his chamber is working on a budget — behind closed doors, supposedly. He ignored the budget blueprint Rauner introduced in February. He ignored a budget the Senate passed in May. He has not addressed the Republicans’ budget unveiled earlier this month. He has not done anything to meaningfully advance a budget all year.

It’s a game of Survivor. They’re not trying to accomplish anything. They’re just trying to outlast the Republican governor.

The editors of the Sun-Times are largely in agreement with those of the Tribune:

Not a day goes by when we don’t hear from somebody with bad news about Illinois.

Credit rating going down, bills piling up, people moving out, roads crumbling.

A state falls apart in endless ways when it goes without a budget for two years.

But on Wednesday, the state Legislature will convene for a special 10-day session, called by Gov. Bruce Rauner, to finally — once and for all, no doubt about it, cross your fingers and hope to die — pass a budget. Should you care to hope.

We can’t emphasize it enough: Illinois really is taking a hit every day. Consider these ten bad news stories in just the last ten business days…

The jeremiad includes Illinois’s being ejected from the Powerball multi-state lottery, an actual decline in the number of Illinois jobs, the halt in roadwork, and the enormous borrowing at the usurious rates due to the state’s low credit rating.

Turning to Chicago when Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor the city’s credit rating was Aaa. Now it’s Ba1—just over junk. The Chicago Public School system’s bonds are rated as junk. This is what passes for competence in Illinois.

Malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance are the very definition of Illinois government.


Divide et impera

In a dialogue with Anthony Cordesman at The Cipher Brief he puts his finger on the nub of the problem in Afghanistan:

Now, within this, there is no sort of national solution. We are talking different areas, different branches of ethnic groups like the Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, particularly in the north, and sectarian differences. The country’s economy differs sharply according to urban area, and particularly, according to water and the size of agricultural areas. Part of the problem is that governance is so different in different parts that when you talk about finding a common solution, it doesn’t really work that way. That’s been part of the problem – you are attempting to somehow talk about one-size-fits-all with respect to military forces, local forces, police, economic reform, and governance reform, and in many cases, you simply don’t have the resources to do it.

No president wants to be the one who allowed Afghanistan to return to its status as the world’s largest training camp for terrorists but no president wants to admit the truth—that there is no Afghanistan to unite—and the only way to maintain the fiction is for us to remain there indefinitely.

So we remain there indefinitely and don’t say that’s what we’re going to do, neither pacifying the country nor accomplishing anything except domestic political goals.


The U. S. Is Not an Anglo-Saxon Country

At Bloomberg View Eric Roston realizes, somewhat to his horror, that the United States is not an Anglo-Saxon country:

The Social Progress Index released this week is compiled from social and environmental data that come as close as possible to revealing how people live. “We want to measure a country’s health and wellness achieved, not how much effort is expended, nor how much the country spends on healthcare,” the report states. Scandinavia walked away with the top four of 128 slots. Denmark scored the highest. America came in at 18.

Our index score was practically identical to Japan’s and higher than France’s or Portugal’s. Look at the table included in the post closely. What do the Scandinavian countries plus Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Germany have in common that Japan, the United States, France, and Portugal do not?


Understanding China’s Objectives

Ian Buruma’s New Yorker article, “Are China and the United States Headed For War” strikes me as a good survey of the spectrum of opinion about U. S.-China relations and I certainly found it interesting. Here’s a snippet:

For all that, China’s challenge to the established postwar order needs to be taken seriously. Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times foreign-affairs commentator, considers China’s increasing clout in the broader context of what he calls, in a remarkably ugly phrase, “Easternization,” which is also the title of his well-written new survey (just published by Other Press). The gravity of economic and military power, he argues, is moving from West to East. He is thinking of more than the new class of Chinese billionaires; he includes India, a country that might one day surpass even China as an economic powerhouse, and reminds us that Japan has been one of the world’s largest economies for some time now. Tiny South Korea ranks fourteenth in the world in purchasing-power parity. And the Asian megacities are looking glitzier by the day. Anyone who flies into J.F.K. from any of the metropolitan areas in China, let alone from Singapore or Tokyo, can readily see what Rachman has in mind. There is a great deal going on in Asia. The question is what this will mean, and whether “Easternization” is an illuminating concept for understanding it.

I found the strongest part of his analysis was his remarks on political developments within China which can be summarized:

  • Communism has been replaced by partyism, rule by the CCP.
  • The CCP has used nationalism as a means of bolstering its rule.
  • Nationalism prods the Chinese to extend their clout, reclaiming what they see as China’s rightful place in world affairs (hegemony) and redressing old wrongs and slights.

The weakest part is this:

Etzioni admits that China has flouted international laws by claiming rights over islands far from its coastlines. It clearly wants to expand its influence from the Siberian borders all the way down to the sea-lanes running along Vietnam and the Philippines. But so far China has used almost no force to achieve its ends. Etzioni is convinced that Chinese policies are more concerned with rhetorical and symbolic assertions than with the outright projection of force. This means that, in his view, there is room for tension-easing compromise. Resources in the South China Sea could perhaps be shared. Certain concessions might be made; this or that island could be developed by China in exchange for territories elsewhere.

if, as it appears to me, Mr. Buruma approves of that reasoning. I think what’s going on in the South China Sea is quite different from what’s being described by the paraphrase of Mr. Etzioni. China’s leaders are treading a narrow line. They are aware of their own weakness and China’s but to maintain the present emphasis on nationalism they must challenge the “barbarians”. They have “used almost no force” because they understand what the outcome would be. However, there’s a clear implication of force in their actions, playing their weak hand well, intended to prompt precisely the sort of unearned concessions being suggested.

Additionally, Taiwan is not the red line. American grand strategy requires freedom of navigation and the Chinese are challenging that. China’s “Nine-Dash Line” that they’re using to justify their aggression is the red line and the Chinese have already crossed it. So far we’ve responded well. Offering concessions would be an error. That would be interpreted as a call to demand further concessions.

The real threat is the view, clearly widespread in China, that trade and diplomacy are zero sum games. From that point of view for China to achieve its objectives the U. S. must decline not merely in relative but in absolute terms. So far the Chinese have played their hand well.


Kass’s Modest Proposal

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass presents a modest proposal for dealing with Illinois’s fiscal and political problems without bankruptcy, an option that would require an act of Congress (if not amending the Constitution):

Dissolve Illinois. Decommission the state, tear up the charter, whatever the legal mumbo-jumbo, just end the whole dang thing.

We just disappear. With no pain. That’s right. You heard me.

The best thing to do is to break Illinois into pieces right now. Just wipe us off the map. Cut us out of America’s heartland and let neighboring states carve us up and take the best chunks for themselves.

The group that will scream the loudest is the state’s political class, who did this to us, and the big bond creditors, who are whispering talk of bankruptcy and asset forfeiture to save their own skins.

He’s wrong. Those who will “scream the loudest” are the citizens of Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin. What have they ever done to him?

The proposal actually makes a certain bizarre sense. Illinois north of the Chicago suburbs and west to the Mississippi has more in common with Wisconsin than it does with the rest of the state, central Illinois has more in common with Iowa, and western and southwestern Illinois more in common with Missouri. And heaven knows the area around Cairo and along the Ohio River has more in common with Kentucky than it does the rest of Illinois.

Sadly, such a move would require Congressional action, too, and if there’s one thing that’s lacking right about now it’s Congressional action.

I also think he’s pragmatically wrong. If Wisconsin were to become the repository for Chicago and Cook County it would inherit all of the problems that Illinois has. Illinois’s basic problem is Chicago’s pathological and corrupt politics and Chicago and Cook County are large enough so as to dominate the politics of any state of which they’re a part.


This Time for Sure

At Bloomberg View Eli Lake struggles to distinguish between Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy and Barack Obama’s:

Every disclosure about the Trump administration’s forthcoming Afghanistan strategy triggers a chorus like a Passover seder: Why is this strategy different from all other strategies?

The goal is the same. Like President Barack Obama’s initial Afghanistan surge, the objective for Trump’s strategy is to force the Taliban into peace talks and to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict on terms favorable to the elected government.

The means are essentially the same. Like Obama in setting his second-term policy, President Donald Trump has signaled he does not want to send a large force to take back the country, province by province.

He identifies some distinctions:

  • Trump doesn’t want to “telegraph” U. S. moves
  • Emphasis on blunting Russian and Iranian involvement
  • Working more closely with India
  • More flexibility granted to the military

Since I don’t think there a victory to be had in Afghanistan, at least not as we generally define victory, I think this is all temporizing.


The Ediacaran Fossils

At RealClearScience Imran Rahman and Simon Darrach post on a group of fossils of soft-bodied creatures who lived a half billion years ago about which I knew absolutely nothing:

Paleontologists like us are used to working with fossils that would seem bizarre to many biologists accustomed to living creatures. And as we go farther back in Earth’s history, the fossils start to look even weirder. They lack tails, legs, skeletons, eyes…any characteristics that would help us understand where these organisms fit in the tree of life. Under these circumstances, the science of paleontology becomes significantly harder.

Nowhere is this issue more apparent than in the Ediacaran period, which lasted from 635 million to 541 million years ago. A peculiar and entirely soft-bodied suite of fossils from this era are collectively referred to as the Ediacara biota. Despite nearly 70 years of careful study, paleontologists have yet to identify key features among them that would allow us to understand how these organisms are related to modern animals. The forms evident among Ediacaran organisms are, for the most part, truly unique – and we are no closer to understanding their place in evolutionary history.

One thing which I think they should consider is that these creatures may be unrelated to modern living things. It could be that they left no descendants and our distant ancestors didn’t leave fossils from this period or none of their fossils have been found.


Only in China

In what I take as a sure sign of increasing affluence in China, a new job category has emerged: mistress dispeller. At the New Yorker Jiayang Fan explains mistress dispellers:

Mistress dispellers use a variety of methods. Some Little Thirds can be paid off or discouraged by hearing unwelcome details of their lovers’ lives—debts, say, or responsibility for an elderly parent—or shamed with notes sent to friends and family. If the dispeller or the client is well connected, a Little Third may suddenly find that her job requires her to move to another city. A female dispeller sometimes seeks to become a confidante, in order to advise the targeted woman that the liaison will inevitably crumble. In certain cases, a male mistress dispeller may even seduce the woman. Like all the mistress dispellers I spoke to, Yu said that he never resorts to this tactic, but he acknowledged that there are those who do.

Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be mistress dispellers!

Traditional Confucian China allowed men to take more than one wife, the maximum number of wives dictated by your wealth and rank. It also tolerated concubinage. There is a voluminous literature of the intrigues to which this system gave rise, something that should discourage fans of plural marriage here. Dynasty had nothing on some of these Chinese stories.

Here’s a quote from a trainer of mistress dispellers (yet another new job category):

“Marriage is like the process of learning to swim,” Ming said. “It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your pool is, just like it doesn’t always matter how good your husband is. If you don’t know how to swim, you will drown in any case, and someone else who knows how to swim will get to enjoy the pool.”

People have been wondering what sorts of new jobs will be created as more jobs are automated. I’d like to see a robot take this job.


From the Department of Unintentional Humor

At RealClearPolicy Albert Wynn, “strategic advisor” to an organization called Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, gives us what strikes me as the funniest quote of the day:

They say all politics is local. So it goes with infrastructure investment. Communities need to have honest conversations that deal in realities, not hypotheticals. Voters should consider each project on its merits, and hold their leaders — both public and private — accountable. The benefits these initiatives could deliver are too important to be subject to speculation, innuendo, or rigid adherence to party doctrine.

First, just 35% of infrastructure spending is funded locally. Second, it’s a genuine rarity that an infrastructure project is decided on based on the objective merits. More common reasons are political impact, where the money goes, or it’s some politician’s pet project. You can always expect the street in front of the head of the Department of Streets and Sanitation to have its potholes patched and to be the first to be plowed when it snows. I know that for a fact. The head of the DSS used to live in the next street.

Third, the majority of infrastructure spending goes to expansion rather than maintenance. If you assume decreasing returns to scale in infrastructure spending (how much value does the 153rd bridge across the Mississippi really add?), at the very least that suggests skewed priorities and I would say that it just substantiates my view that most money spent on infrastructure is wasted.

If you really wanted infrastructure spending to be allocated on the merits you’d get rid of Davis-Bacon laws and privatize the roads. I don’t expect the former and don’t support the latter so what I think will happen with any infrastructure spending bill is that a) support for the bill will break along party lines; b) most of the money will be wasted; and c) somebody’s political donors will make a lot of money.


Should the U. S. Have a Balanced Budget?

I wish I knew how they had arrived at their conclusions. At RealClearPolicy John Merrifield and Barry Poulson proclaim that the U. S. has run out of “fiscal space” and must balance its budget:

Keynesians like Paul Krugman argue that the United States has ample fiscal space and should pursue expansionary fiscal policies to stimulate economic growth. But our research reveals that we can no longer muddle along as we have for half a century, incurring deficits and accumulating debt. Expansionary fiscal policies, such as those pursued by the Obama administration, would trigger deficits and debt levels that would expose the country to default and loss of access to international capital markets.

In other words, our nation has no fiscal space. Our debt burdens are already beyond tolerance levels. Prudent fiscal rules and fiscal reforms must be enacted immediately and maintained for the foreseeable future to restore a sustainable fiscal policy. The era of Keynesian stimulus is over; we must return to our country’s historical tradition of enacting balanced budgets.

I’m skeptical of both of those positions. Unlike Dr. Krugman I don’t think that the federal government should run large deficits during expansions but unlike the authors of the article I think that the federal government can and should run at a small deficit all of the time. How small? If inflation is 2% we could probably afford a $100 billion deficit. In other words I think the present deficit of $400 billion is risky.

Further, I think that running a surplus—something we must do if we’re going to have a balanced budget on average—is a disastrously bad idea.

Note to op-ed writers: show your work. Don’t expect your readers to take your conclusions on faith or track down your previous writings to figure out what the heck you mean.