A Constitutional Convention?

I’m not sure that John Dingell, the Democrat from Michigan who is the longest-serving Congressman in U. S. history, having served from 1955 to 2015, realizes it:

As an armchair activist, I now have the luxury of saying what I believe should happen, not what I think can get voted out of committee. I’m still a pragmatist; I know that profound societal change happens incrementally, over a long period of time. The civil-rights fights of the 1950s and ’60s, of which I am proud to have been a part, are a great example of overcoming setbacks and institutional racism. But 155 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and less than two years after our first African American president left office, racism still remains a part of our national life.

Just for a moment, however, let’s imagine the American system we might have if the better angels of our nature were to prevail.

Here, then, are some specific suggestions—and they are only just that, suggestions—for a framework that might help restore confidence and trust in our precious system of government…

but he’s calling for a constitutional convention:

The conduct and outcome of the 2016 presidential election have put the future of our country in mortal peril. After a lifetime spent in public service, I never believed that day would come. Yet it has. And we now find ourselves on the precipice of a great cliff. Our next step is either into the abyss or toward a higher moral ground. Since before the Civil War, we’ve been told that “Providence watches over fools, drunkards, and the United States.” Yet the good Lord also granted us free will. The direction we choose to follow is ours alone to make. We ask only that he guide our choice with his wisdom and his grace.

It’s up to you, my dear friends.

I know of no one who doesn’t believe that doing so would open an enormous can of worms.

It’s hard to write this without it sounding snarky but one of my priorities in a constitutional convention, higher than any of the measures he proposes, would be to prevent tenure in office of the sort that John Dingell enjoyed.

But I’d also divvy up big states like California into smaller chunks and institutionalize that process and force the number of representatives in the House to grow with the population.


The Numbers Don’t Add Up

I don’t read or cite the Daily Beast very frequently but this piece there from Brian Riedl is well worth reading. His message is that we cannot pay for a single-payer system, a federal jobs guarantee, student loan forgiveness, free public college, and a big infrastructure spending plan just by taxing the rich:

In reality, spending like Europe requires taxing like Europe. This means, in addition to federal and state income taxes, a value-added tax (VAT)—essentially a national sales tax—that affects all families. CBO data estimates that raising 15 percent of GDP would require imposing an 86 percent VAT rate, or hiking the payroll tax from 15.3 percent to 56.5 percent. No wonder many spenders prefer the “just tax the rich” fairy tale.

Read the whole thing. To his analysis I would add the following observations.

  1. We cannot pay for all of the things we may want just by issuing ourselves credit, either. Most of these proposals are for operating expenses and they are operating expenses that are rising in cost fast—much faster than incomes, generally. Paying operating expenses by issuing credit is a very bad practice. There is no perpetual motion.
  2. Most educational spending and health care spending is consumption not investment.
  3. Taxing like Europe would not be enough. We’d need to pay like Europe, too. On average physicians in Germany earn a third of what American physicians do. The highest wage that can be earned by a primary school teacher in Germany is about $62,000 per year. In Chicago elementary school teachers start at $50,000 and most earn $80,000 or more.
  4. We’d need to live like Europeans as well. A lot less personal consumption.

IMO we need to set our sights differently. We should trim health care spending to something much more like public health—a limited palette of services much more equitably divided among the population, much greater emphasis on palliative care for terminal patients than at present. Education should be targeted more narrowly at producing good workers and citizens. We need an educational system for the population we have not the population we’d like to have.


Spanish Socialism Not African Socialism

Spain is no longer an exception to the rightward trend of European politics in reaction to mass immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. From the Financial Times:

The success of the far-right Vox in winning 12 seats in Andalucia’s 109-seat regional parliament on Sunday has upended the country’s already fractured electoral politics.

The centre-left PSOE — the party of Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister — is likely to lose its control of the region, Spain’s most populous, after holding power there for 36 years.

With opposition parties already claiming the prime minister — who came to power after a no-confidence vote in his predecessor — has no mandate to govern, his party’s weakness in Andalucia has led to fresh calls for immediate national elections.

In Andalucia, the centre-right People’s Party (PP) and the upstart centrist Ciudadanos party are expected to form a government with co-operation from Vox. But the arrival of the far right has unsettled Spain’s mainstream parties just as it has in European neighbours from France and Germany to Italy.

Following the death of Gen. Franco, the Spanish developed an allergy to right-wing politics. The mass immigration they’ve seen from North Africa in recent years has apparently overcome that.


What’s Self-Driving is the Hype

And I agree with Holman Jenkins’s observations about self-driving cars in his Wall Street Journal column:

It was clear even then what was really going on. Public and press were head over heels for autonomous vehicles. An irresistible, almost mandatory marketing opportunity was born. Google, for the tens of millions it has spent on self-driving runabouts, reaped billions in publicity of the kind that can’t be bought with any advertising budget.

Uber had a perfectly good thing going with ride-sharing, but felt the need to boost its gee-whiz quotient by becoming an autonomous-vehicle pioneer. Apple managed to create a still-vibrating buzz for itself in early 2015 simply by placing a few ads for automotive engineers and leaking word that it was working on a car.

This rising tide lifted many dubious boats. Academics soared to instant prominence by prescribing a universal basic income as the solution for a world where robots suddenly have all the jobs. Traditional car companies like Ford and General Motors , meanwhile, scrambled to brand themselves with autonomous-mobility credibility in hopes of obtaining a sliver of the stock-market favor accruing to Tesla, Apple and Google.

Lately, with signals from its industry sources, the press has finally decided to acknowledge that the autonomous car isn’t just around the corner. It can’t handle inclement weather. It can’t reliably tell a plastic bag blowing across the road from a child on a bicycle and won’t be able to soon.

Waymo, Google’s self-driving sibling, is reportedly set to launch an experiment in commercial service this month restricted to the meticulously mapped roads around its test city of Phoenix. There will still be a human employee on board, and don’t expect Waymo to venture out on Phoenix’s occasional rainy day. Axios, that breathless compendium, now admits after launching its own autonomous vehicle newsletter that true self-driving cars are still “10, 20, 50 years” away.

Toyota was right. For the foreseeable future, autonomous features will mainly serve to stop us from screwing up.

Back during the California Gold Rush of 1849 fortunes were made but most of the big fortunes weren’t made by striking gold. They were made by selling tools and other supplies to miners. I think the same is true for self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence more generally as it has been for eCommerce. The real money is being made by people who are selling the tools to enable people to do it not by the people who are doing it.

Consequently, when Amazon, Apple, or Google tout the imminence of self-driving vehicles, hold onto your wallet.

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Nationalism For Me But Not For Thee

Walter Russell Mead’s latest Wall Street Journal column warms the cockles of my cold, old American heart. In it he points out that French President Emmanuel Macron’s posturing about nationalism is a pile of crapola and just about everything he or France more generally does is motivated, not be high-minded statesmanship, but by narrow nationalism:

But Mr. Macron’s posturing aside, the French are nationalist to the core. Ask the European parliamentarians and their staffers who must make the expensive, time-consuming, carbon-emitting trip from Brussels to Strasbourg once a month to maintain the absurd fiction that French Strasbourg is the home of the European Parliament. Ask any European negotiator who has tried to prune back the Common Agricultural Policy, a giant boondoggle under which France is the largest recipient of funds. Ask any Italian diplomat about French policies in Libya. Ask any American negotiator about France’s approach to trade. Ask any German diplomat who has had a few drinks.

French diplomacy under President Macron is as nationalist as ever. His core objective is to shift EU economic policy in France’s favor. Mr. Macron hoped introducing market-based reforms in France would persuade Germany to loosen the EU purse strings and give Paris more fiscal running room. Then, perhaps, the resulting boost to the French economy would reconcile public opinion to Mr. Macron’s reforms. But he has not made much progress, in part because the German government is too weak to take large political risks. Now he is facing voters’ wrath.

I suspect that is news to most Americans but it isn’t news to me. 23 years ago I observed that I didn’t see how the Common Agricultural Policy would survive with the admission of Romania to the EU and have since repeated it here. The answer is that France has been waging a self-serving delaying action to ensure that Poles and Romanians continue to subsidize French farmers. And Germany?

How can we tell that Germans are nationalistic? By what they do and don’t do. After World War II, Germany took in between 12 million and 14 million German refugees expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. There was grumbling, but by and large the newcomers found places to live and settled down. The transition for the one million non-German refugees who came to the country in 2015, however, has been much less smooth. The political reaction continues to wound Angela Merkel’s government and the political establishment.

Similarly, Germans have paid roughly €2 trillion to lift East Germany in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they fight any suggestion that they should show that kind of solidarity to Italy or Greece. The Federal Republic of Germany is a “transfer union” in which rich areas subsidize poor ones on a very large scale. Germans do not want the EU to work that way. This difference in attitude exemplifies how nationalism works: You do things for “your own” people that you would never do for others.

The French and Germans aren’t alarmed at nationalism. They’re alarmed at American nationalism because for the last several decades they’ve been able to enlist the U. S. to pursue their national interests while neglecting its own in the interests of internationalism.

It reminds me of the complaints about trade war between the U. S. and China. Where were the complaints about trade war when the Chinese began waging a trade war against us 30 years ago? The complaints aren’t about free trade or trade war. They’re about the U. S. looking after its own interests.


Social Security’s Problem

At Project Syndicate economist Martin Feldstein notes the Social Security system’s structural problems:

But providing benefits to support a comfortable standard of living for retirees with just a modest rate of tax on the working population depends on there being a small number of pensioners relative to the number of taxpayers. That was true in these programs’ early years, but maintaining benefit levels became more difficult as more workers lived long enough to retire and longer after retirement, which increased the ratio of retirees to the taxpaying population.

Life expectancy in the United States, for example, has increased from 63 years in 1940, when the US Social Security program began, to 78 years in 2017. In 1960, there were five workers per retiree; today, there are only three. Looking ahead, the Social Security Administration’s actuaries forecast that the number of workers per retiree will decline to two by 2030. That implies that the tax rate needed to achieve the current benefit structure would have to rise from 12% today to 18% in 2030. Other major countries face a similar problem.

If it is not politically possible to raise the tax rate to support future retirees with the current structure of benefits, there are only two options to avoid a collapse of the entire system. One option is to slow the future growth of benefits so that they can be financed without a substantial tax increase. The other is to shift from a pure PAYG system to a mixed system that supplements fixed benefits with returns from financial investments.

As in every similar analysis I have ever seen he fails to point out two things. First, the present system relies, not just on the number of workers relative to the number of retirees but the distribution of income. When increases in income have increasingly gone to the top 1% of income earners while the payroll tax is capped, the system cannot survive.

Second, investments always entail risk. There will be both winners and losers. A system that combines a payroll tax with compulsory investments will result in some people earning more than they otherwise would and others less. There will always need to be a safety net. The alternative is to allow the elderly to be destitute.


What Didn’t Work Out

Andrew Bacevich, more than anything else a critic of the reflex interventionism that has become a feature of both Democratic and Republican politics, criticizes David Brooks in a piece at The American Conservative:

If the present-day conservative establishment has a face, it’s that of David Brooks. As a columnist for The New York Times and during his weekly appearances on PBS and NPR, Brooks exudes respectability. His commentary is interesting, reasoned, and thoughtfully expressed.

Yet Brooks also exhibits the blindness that permeates that very same conservative establishment and renders it unworthy of trust. I use the term “blindness” as a matter of courtesy. Others might describe the problem as blatant dishonesty.

Prompting this reflection is a recent Brooks column that carries the title “The Rise of the Resentniks.” The piece also comes with a subtitle: “And the Populist War on Excellence.” The purpose of the essay is to consider how over the past two decades (according to Brooks) so many conservatives “wandered into territory that is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, authoritarian.” They did so, he believes, because the end of Cold War deprived conservatives of any sense of moral purpose.

Enlightened conservatives sought to fill that vacuum, Brooks citing “compassionate conservatism and the dream of spreading global democracy” as “efforts to anchor conservatism around a moral ideal.” Unfortunately, he writes, those efforts (which Brooks himself had warmly endorsed) “did not work out.”

Reflect for a moment on that concluding phrase: “did not work out.” It suggests minor disappointment. It is steadfastly nonjudgmental. It eschews finger-pointing. If spoken aloud, its natural accompaniment is a shrug, as in “When I was a kid, I’d hoped to play shortstop for the Cubs, but it did not work out.” No big deal.

Now to say that compassionate conservatism did not work out is, at the very least, misleading. The catchphrase devised by George W. Bush’s handlers when he was first running for the presidency in 2000 never received anything remotely like a fair trial, being swallowed up after 9/11 by the global war on terror.

As for the dream of spreading global democracy, it has indeed received a fair trail. Yet to say that U.S. democracy promotion efforts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq did not work out is akin to saying that Bonaparte’s campaign to capture Moscow in 1812 didn’t quite pan out as he had hoped. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia yielded a disaster for France. So too with post-9/11 U.S. efforts to export democracy at the point of a gun: the results have been disastrous for the United States and for more than a few innocent bystanders.

Let’s be more specific here. What “did not work out”? Military interventionism has not worked out. Spreading democracy at the point of a gun has not worked out. The neoliberal trade policies that have resulted in the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and blighted millions of lives have not worked out. Importing millions of workers, whether legally or illegally, has not worked out.

Those weren’t Republican or Democratic policies. They weren’t liberal or conservative policies. They were establishment policies. They had bipartisan support over the period of a generation. And they haven’t worked out except for those promoting them. They’re collecting six and seven figure salaries.


More on the Riots

Adam Nossiter’s New York Times article about the “yellow jacket” riots in France, completely supports the observations I’ve made here in posts and in comments. First, about those yellow jackets. In France they are legally-mandated driving equipment. Consequently, the jackets identify the wearers as drivers.

Second, unlike the riots of recent years these rioters are not North Africans and/or sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants living in the urban banlieux:

The “Yellow Vest” protests he is a part of present an extraordinary venting of rage and resentment by ordinary working people, aimed at the mounting inequalities that have eroded their lives. The unrest began in response to rising gas taxes and has been building in intensity over the past three weeks, peaking on Saturday.

With little organization and relying mostly on social media, they have moved spontaneously from France’s poor rural regions over the last month to the banks of the Seine, where they have now become impossible to ignore.

They are not left or right. They are anti-Establishment whether left or right:

None of the Guéret protesters expressed allegiance to any politician: Most said politics disgusted them.

“They are all the same,” Mr. Dou said.

When Guéret’s mayor, Michel Vergnier, a veteran Socialist with decades of connections in Paris, went to see the protesters, they were not welcoming.

“There’s a rejection of politicians,” Mr. Vergnier said. “They are outside all political and union organizations.”

I think they more closely resemble the pro-Trump voters in the United States than they do previous political protesters in France.

Anne Applebaum, after observing that these protesters met and organized using the Internet, remarks:

With their origins firmly in cyberspace, the gilets jaunes aren’t connected to any existing political parties, although several are already trying to claim them. François Ruffin, a “far-left” politician with a vitriolic dislike of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has already appeared in gilets jaunes marches. Marine Le Pen, France’s “far-right” leader, has also leaped to their defense, and some suspect her followers — or maybe people with even more extreme agendas — may have been responsible for turning what had been peaceful protests in Paris on Saturday morning into violent riots on Saturday night. But any claims of affiliation are opportunism, because the movement itself has named no leader. It has instead appointed eight spokespeople, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and can’t be characterized as belonging to a single party, or even to a single social group.

Rather than an ideology or a clear philosophy, the gilets jaunes seem to share a set of attitudes, as well as what might be described as an aesthetic. They are angry about the green taxes that have raised gasoline prices, and they don’t like the speed limits on French roads. They are angry more generally, and this is part of why a movement that didn’t exist a month ago became consolidated so quickly: Anger is one of the things that travels quickly on social media, a form of communication that favors emotion; it’s also one of the things that brings people together in a world where trade unions, church organizations and political parties are fading in importance. One of the protestors has declared, “All of you” — meaning the political class in its entirety, far-left, far-right and centrist — “are no longer needed.”

What if anything will result from this is difficult to say but it seems to me to be a very important development.


We All Understand the Problems

One of the things I have repeatedly found frustrating is that every op-ed is able to state the problems very clearly and in a way with which most of would agree. Take this dissection of a campaign speech of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren by Hal Brands at Bloomberg:

In her view, the pursuit of globalization after the Cold War was a disaster. It facilitated the rise of authoritarian rivals such as China; it devastated the American working and middle classes. After 9/11, moreover, an exaggerated fear of terrorism led Washington to wage “endless war” in the greater Middle East. Warren charged — and here she echoed any number of progressive critics of U.S. policy over the past century — that American statecraft has become over-militarized and self-defeating.

What is needed, then, is a mixture of reassertion and retrenchment. The U.S. must mobilize for a protracted ideological competition with the authoritarian powers by recommitting to vital practices the Trump administration has neglected. American leaders must revitalize the force-multiplying alliances Trump has strained; they must stand firmly with the world’s democratic leaders rather than the coterie of corrupt autocrats whose company Trump seems to prefer. Washington should also crack down on intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and other predatory Chinese economic practices. It should more actively highlight the corruption and despotism of authoritarian regimes. Reinvesting in diplomacy — another course correction from the Trump era — will be crucial to all of these efforts.

Yet if the U.S. should sharpen its approach to ideological competition, she argues, it should also recalibrate key aspects of its involvement in the world. The military dimensions of counterterrorism need to become less aggressive; the forever war in Afghanistan needs to be wound down so a peace settlement can be reached. Military spending should fall significantly to make budgetary room for domestic priorities; the U.S. should forgo expensive investments in updating its nuclear arsenal. Most importantly, the next president must put the promotion of better labor standards, environmental protections, and outcomes for the working and middle classes at the core of America’s trade agenda.

So far, so good. Hollowing out of U. S. manufacturing through ill-considered one-way trade liberalization? Check. Foolish Middle East nation building? Check. Futile forever war in Afghanistan? Check.


As is often the case with campaign-season speeches on foreign policy, however, Warren’s vision also has its unresolved tensions and challenges. The senator is right that the working and middle classes have suffered in recent decades, yet most studies indicate that automation — not trade — is the primary culprit in the hollowing out of American manufacturing. Warren is equally right that the war in Afghanistan is going nowhere fast, yet if the U.S. begins withdrawing now it will probably undercut any chances of getting the acceptable peace agreement she claims to prefer.

More broadly, there is no arguing with the idea that the United States needs a limited-liability approach to counterterrorism. Decelerating too much, however, risks allowing ISIS, al-Qaeda and their various offshoots to reconstitute and operate in more dangerous ways. Additionally, in U.S.-Russia relations, verifiable arms control would surely be preferable to a new arms race with Russia. But absent the leverage re-investment in America’s nuclear arsenal will provide, how will the U.S. bring Moscow back into compliance with the arms control treaties it has systematically violated?

Finally, the idea of slashing military spending is more problematic than it may seem. Here, too, Warren is correct that there are plenty of parts of the defense enterprise that can be streamlined, and the Pentagon is certainly guilty of buying too many expensive legacy systems with limited relevance to future conflicts. The problem, however, is that the U.S. will find it devilishly difficult to succeed in the global competition Warren rightly identifies without significant new military investments. Contrary to what Warren argued, America’s conventional military superiority is no longer so overwhelming. It has eroded badly in Eastern Europe, the Taiwan Strait and other geopolitical hotspots, as Russia and China have developed capabilities meant specifically to deny the U.S. freedom of action.

and I consider this unadulterated poppycock:

The tenfold increase in the number of global democracies since 1940 has ultimately rested on America’s ability to deter aggression by authoritarian powers.

The increase he points to came despite repeated U. S. military interventions rather than because of them. The abortive attempts at democracy and liberalization throughout the world that are now retrenching came because of manifest U. S. economic success. Nothing succeeds like success. Everybody wanted to emulate what had brought U. S. prosperity. As U. S. economic growth slowed and wealth was manifestly being concentrated in ever fewer hands our system became less appealing.

Mr. Brands also need to take a look at the graph I put at the top of this post. The relationship between that collapse and China’s admission to the WTO is obvious. Less obvious is its connection with automation.

That challenge that Sen. Warren faces in enunciating an updated liberal foreign policy is how can you defend progressive values without interventionism? It has been a vital component of progressive foreign policy for a century.

This seems like a good place to repeat my view that increased inequality and loss of hope in the U. S. are a direct consequence of a triple whammy of ill-considered neoliberal policies: one-way trade liberalization, failure to prohibit mostly illegal immigration of low wage workers from Mexico and Central America, and the abuse of H1-B and L1 visas to push down wages for those in the four and lower fifth quintiles of American income earners. It will be interesting to see how Sen. Warren squares that circle. How she stands up for today’s progressive values in foreign policy while primarily arguing for lining the pockets of the elite at the expense of the middle class and the working poor eludes me.


The Circus

Unlike Maureen Dowd in her most recent New York Times column:

I’m looking around Scotiabank Arena, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it’s a depressing sight. It’s two-for-the-price-of-one in half the arena. The hockey rink is half curtained off, but even with that, organizers are scrambling at the last minute to cordon off more sections behind thick black curtains, they say due to a lack of sales. I paid $177 weeks in advance. (I passed on the pricey meet-and-greet option.) On the day of the event, some unsold tickets are slashed to single digits.

I get reassigned to another section as the Clintons’ audience space shrinks. But even with all the herding, I’m still looking at large swaths of empty seats — and I cringe at the thought that the Clintons will look out and see that, too. It was only four years ago, after all, that Canadians were clamoring to buy tickets to see the woman who seemed headed for history.

It’s a sad contrast with the sold-out boffo book tour of Michelle Obama, who’s getting a lot more personal for the premium prices. But introspection has never been within the Clintons’ range.

I can’t fathom why the Clintons would make like aging rock stars and go on a tour of Canada and the U.S. at a moment when Democrats are hoping to break the stranglehold of their cloistered, superannuated leadership and exult in a mosaic of exciting new faces.

What is the point? It’s not inspirational. It’s not for charity. They’re not raising awareness about a cause, like Al Gore with global warming. They’re only raising awareness about the Clintons.

I do not feel a bit sorry for the Clintons. It was always about the Clintons. Never about anything else.

While the circus performance is going on it looks grand and is exciting but as the tents are struck and the equipment packed away just how cheap and tawdry and phony it all was becomes clear. It was always tawdry. It was just grand when the lights were on and the band was playing.