** Robin's Book Report #74 A economics newsletter and reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein ------------------------------------------------------------ Support this newsletter and my journalism by joining my Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/user?u=18720283&fan_landing=true) Agenda -Letter from Me/New Article Alert -The Economic Situation: Why This Crisis Won't Be Like 2008 -Reading list If you enjoy this newsletter, would you consider forwarding it to a friend that might enjoy too? I would appreciate it. Letter From Me: Hey everyone, After this newsletter, I am going to take the next week off! Let me know what books are on your summer reading list. In the reading list below, I have three books in particular I hope to finish this summer: Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia; a book about the violent history of Indonesia since 1965; and David Hill's new history of the one-time gambling mecca of Hot Springs, AR. Two new articles of mine came out since my last letter. The first is a piece at the American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/letting-private-equity-billionaires-rob-worker-retirement-funds/) about a new rule that the Trump administration passed that allows private equity companies to sell products to people with retirement accounts like 401(k)s. Private equity firms charge extremely high fees, and my editor wanted to calculate how much this would cost the workers. So I called an economist, and she ran the numbers for me, and the result was that workers would be paying private equity firms $13.7 billion a year for returns that were the same as no- and low-cost mutual funds. These private equity products were once considered too risky to allow unsophisticated investors to invest in them, but no longer. The second article is a review of a book explaining Modern Monetary Theory (https://newrepublic.com/article/158221/government-can-afford-anythi-wants) . The focus of my review was the book’s argument that “tax-dollars” don’t “pay” for anything. Procedurally, this is true. When the federal government pays for something, it doesn’t transfer money from an account where tax dollars are held. It digitally marks up the account of, say, a defense contractor like Raytheon, and then finds the money afterward. The implication is that the federal government’s spending isn’t constrained by the tax dollars it brings in, but the real resources our society has on hand. If it sends out too much money to pay for too few things, this will cause the value of money to crater and cause inflation. Hard to explain! But the premise is that the constraint on government spending is inflation, and that money is a legal and political construct meant to facilitate the distribution of real resources, not the store of some inherent value, like gold might be. Money comes from the government, which means that money gets into society through government spending. We’re all on welfare, that is. If the government decides to build a nice new road in some area, that benefits someone. If they invest in medical research, someone will be left with more money in their pocket. One conclusion is that economic and racial inequality can begin to be resolved pretty quickly by having the federal government give money to specific groups that need it, that is, poor people and workers. Enjoy! And let me know what you think. ============================================================ The Economic Situation -This crisis will not be like 2008; the investor class argues surreptitiously for its bail out; save restaurants. A few weeks ago, the Atlantic posted a startlingly titled story called “** The Looming Banking Collapse (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/coronavirus-banks-collapse/612247/) ” by Frank Partnoy. For most of you who lived through the last economic crisis in the 2008, the headline sets off alarm bells. In 2008, one epicenter of the problems was the meltdown of the banking system. For the average reader, it is reasonable to be worried about that happening again. However, the article mistakenly grafts the concerns we developed from the last crisis on to the current one, and in true Atlantic style, aims to create a sensation where none exists. So far today the banking system has not developed many problems. In fact, banking seems to be one of the most resilient areas of our world right now. The Dodd-Frank reforms aimed to make banks more safe by requiring them to keep more capital on hand, and this seems to have worked. (A problem here, ** which I wrote about (https://newrepublic.com/article/157455/shadow-banks-back-still-big-fail) , is that much of the risky activity that banks engaged in pre-2008 has been shifted outside the banking sector, to non-banks.) So what is Partnoy so worried about? The crux of the article is that banks own a financial product called consolidated loan obligations (CLOs), which are bundles of payments on the loans that corporations use to fund their daily operations. They are somewhat similar to the consolidated debt obligations (CDOs) that caused big problems in 2008 and that you might remember from Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. The problem was that these CDOs were full of terrible mortgages but the magic of finance made them appear to be solid investments and the ratings agencies like Moody’s, asleep at the wheel, rated them highly. In this story (the story of the banking collapse of 2008 that is) the CDOs were fraudulent. On top of that, the banks sold credit default swaps (CDSs) to clients who were betting these fraudulent CDOs would collapse. A CDS was a type of insurance that would pay out of a CDO defaulted. When the CDOs collapsed, banks not only lost money because they owned these fraudulent securities, but they also owed money to the people who were betting they would collapse. This magnified the financial pain by many factors. Partnoy is trying to compare CLOs to CDOs without acknowledging that there is no CDS component to this current crisis, and (so far), no evidence of fraud. Nathan Tankus wrote about ** this short sight in a long, fascinating take-down (https://nathantankus.substack.com/p/is-there-really-a-looming-bank-collapse) of Partnoy’s article. His conclusion is that there are real problems, and focusing on a problem that seems superficially similar to the last crisis is not useful. I agree. But if Partnoy is way off-base, crying wolf about a non-problem, what is he after? It appears he wants to scare readers into action. After many thousands of words meander out of his keyboard, he gets to his point: we need to reopen the country ASAP, for the sake of the financial system. He writes that, “In calculating the risks of reopening the economy, we must understand the true costs of remaining closed. At some point, they will become more than the country can bear.” It’s a strange sentiment, and false duality. Must we really choose between remaining shuttered and mass harm, just to save the financial sector? Actually, we don’t. A rigorous test and trace program could allow reopening without risking workers lives, but that is not in place, and workers are justifiably hesitant to restart. What Partnoy is really shilling for here is the investor class, who have the most to lose if the financial system were to seize up. In effect, he is drawing a weak comparison to the last scary crisis, to encourage Atlantic readers to fight for reopening. This agenda is made more clear when Yves Smith at the blog Naked Capitalism called the Financial Times out for ** a scare-mongering article (https://www.ft.com/content/f10eaaac-0f4e-46bc-8f78-0754028da46a) about the dangers of CLOs. She suggested that the FT was doing the bidding of CLO investors (mainly private equity firms) who are basically lobbying to get bailed out by the Federal Reserve. The problem is that our financial system is supposed to be structured to wipe out investors first, because they get paid to take big risks, and bailing them out is tantamount to fraud. Some things should fail so others don't. This brings me to my last point. When companies go bankrupt, the people who get wiped out first are the speculators, like private equity firms, hedge funds, and just generally wealthy investors. For all the companies and investors that binged on cheap, reckless debt, the pandemic is the risk that they might not have been able to anticipate, but nonetheless is a risk they took. Almost any worry of financial collapse emanates from these powerful interests. As John Cassidy ** writes in the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-coronavirus-is-exposing-wall-streets-reckless-gamble-on-bad-debt) , investors took on too much bad debt and now are trying to push the stock market up to prevent losses. The parts of the financial world that the Fed has bailed out, have become overheated, ** as reported in the Intercept (https://theintercept.com/2020/05/27/federal-reserve-corporate-debt-coronavirus/) . But even if there is a massive bubble in finance, as I said before, the people who will be wiped out first will be the investor class, which so far has weathered the crisis fine. In fact, ** the entire private sector seems to have been deemed too big to fail (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/business/too-big-to-fail-wall-street-businesses.html) by the Fed. I am just suggesting that instead of fixating on the last crisis––which was a nuclear combination of fraud and financial complexity and home-owner default––and the problems with the financial sector, we should fixate on the problems of this crisis, which is one of the first service-sector crises ever. We need to bail out the restaurant industry and their workers. This might enable them to retool for delivery without paying the exorbitant 30 percent fees that many companies like Grubhub charge their business. ** Maureen Tkacik (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/05/29/delivery-apps-restaurants-coronavirus/?arc404=true) writes in the Washington Post that restaurants during the crisis are suffering from financial predation at the hands of Silicon Valley firms. She finds Grubhub’s former head of innovation, saying that they are “not actually in the business of delivery. They are in the business of finance. In many ways, they are like payday lenders for restaurants and drivers. They give you the sensation of cash-flow, but at the expense of your long term future and financial stability.” The U.S. economy is about three quarters consumer spending and with the hospitality and leisure industry still at almost 50 percent unemployment, we are looking at a big problem with almost no proposed solution. Especially because ** wealthy people’s spending on services has so far not recovered (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/upshot/coronavirus-spending-rich-poor.html) . If the country continues to experience low consumer spending, the pain of the crisis could lengthen by decades. That is, if consumer businesses shutter over the next year or so because there was no government program to grant them the money they need to make up the shortfall, this could remake the country. Reading list ** The Lost Rebellious Spirit of Keynes (https://newrepublic.com/article/158070/john-maynard-keynes-biography-review-lost-rebellious-spirit) The economist’s ideas are often reduced to stimulus spending. His life and work were much more radical than that. Kim Phillips-Fein (The New Republic) A good summary of Keynes and his contradictions. For me, I've always enjoyed reading Keynes but am always unimpressed with his very typical British patrician attitude towards workers. He was a liberated thinker and that makes him evocative and valuable, but even today his ideas seem no match for the historic injustices that need correction. ** The Jakarta Method (https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/vincent-bevins/the-jakarta-method/9781541724013/) : Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins Just started this book about the history of Indonesia and the mass murder campaign against so-called communists beginning in 1965. ** The Vapors (https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250086112) : A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice By David Hill Just started this book too, about the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a gambling hot bed that once rivalled Las Vegas. ** Why Bill de Blasio Is Such a Schmuck (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/bill-de-blasio-police-brutality-education-nyc-nypd) By Danny Katch (Jacobin) I was frustrated by Bill de Blasio's response to police violence in New York and I wondered why he seemed incapable of criticizing the police or even saying anything of substance. Something about him is hostile to reform, or maybe just being questioned, as this article suggests. The author recalls a meeting they had with de Blasio over school reforms in which the anger of the participants caused the Mayor to lose patience. Still doesn't explain his baffling behavior entirely, but suggests he cannot take criticism. ** Rethinking the Fed (https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/499656-rethinking-the-federal-reserve) By Graham Steele (The Hill) How much power should the Federal reserve have? As Steele points out here, the Fed isn't meant to make political decisions but it does all the time. What if we embraced that and used the institution to fix our economic arrangement? "Rather than what it was meant to be, a lender of last resort, the central bank is effectively our nation’s policymaker of last resort. Outsourcing more and more authority to central bankers to solve our structural economic problems is a convenient device for a polarized Congress that can’t seem to meet the basic needs of its constituents." Another political aspect of the Fed is revealed in the minutes of their meetings. “Anyone who has read transcripts of their interest rate-setting committee,” Steele writes, “knows that businesspeople have an influence over how these leaders views our economy.” “In fact, the leaders of a public institution that holds itself out as apolitical make political choices all the time: They just cloak them in neutral, market-friendly language.” ** The Nutcracker Hustle: Why Selling Bootleg Cocktails Just Got Harder (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/20/nyregion/coronavirus-nutcrackers-cocktails-nyc.html) The pandemic has inspired restaurants and bars to mimic the drink. But they have legal protection to do so. By Margot Boyer-Dry (The New York Times) This article is about how the underground business of selling premixed cocktails (called nutcrackers) in New York is being upended because it is currently legal to sell to-go cocktails. I was happy to see this story, because I feel like underground economies in the city don't get enough attention. These bootleg cocktail vendors might be squeezed out by high end businesses. However, I think the audience for the bougie legal cocktails is different than the New Yorkers who typically buy nutcrackers from roaming vendors at the beach in Coney Island or at the West Indian Day parade, so maybe the underground won't be so threatened. Publishers -Sara and Brent Kjelsvig-Erickson -Anonymous donor -Anonymous donor Thanks for reading!
Economic and Racial Justice Converge
** Robin's Book Report #73 A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein ------------------------------------------------------------ Agenda -Letter From Me: Minneapolis Sancutary, New Patreon -The Economic Situation: Budget Battles and Police Abolition coverge -Reading List: Kierkegaard and Civil Unrest ***What have you been reading? I'm curious to know, so send me an email!*** Letter From Me: A friend in Minneapolis is working at the ad hoc shelter for people, many of whom are part of the surrounding Indigenous community. You can donate money here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/sanctuaryhotel/thankyou/share My new Patreon I’ve started a Patreon to fund this newsletter (https://www.patreon.com/user?u=18720283&fan_landing=true) and my writing, which I am excited about! I'm doing it for a number of reasons, all of which basically allow me more freedom to write and create things that readers have been asking for. The first is that I spend approximately three to four work days a month on the letter. I love writing the newsletter but I often find myself deciding whether to spend time on the newsletter or spend more time on my paid work (which pays very little). Having some income from the letter makes this an easy decision. (The newsletter will remain free to access.) The second reason is because I have been making some art work recently, and I wanted to share it. The prints are digital archival inkjet prints based on the Federal Reserve’s diagrams made in 2011 to explain the shadow banking system. The diagrams are totally baffling from an informational perspective, but engrossing as an art object. So, as a subscriber of $9/month or more, you will get one of these prints. Depending on the popularity, I think I will do one print per year. This means you’ll be spending $108/year for an artwork by me, which is a good deal. The third is that I don’t want to do advertising. This means that subscriptions are a little more expensive than a normal magazine or newspaper, but all the money goes to me and I will use it for the newsletter. I don’t expect everyone to contribute right away, and in fact I like that the newsletter is free and accessible to most people. But I think longtime readers and friends will find that it is money well spent. Right now I have three tiers, $5, $9, and $21/month. At all levels, you will get a couple bonus essays per year, exploring some ridiculous element of our economic arrangement. At $9/month, you’ll get the shadow banking print. At $21/month you’ll get the print and be considered a Publisher of the newsletter listed at the bottom of every letter. I am open to different rewards and different levels. Would anyone be interested in a phone call, where you could ask questions about the economic situation? I’d love to do this. Would you be interested in donating, but at a lower amount? Please let me know. If you have experience as a patron of other projects, please drop me a line as well. ============================================================ The Economic Situation Economic Situation -The economic rescue package worsens wealth inequality ** Reports (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/business/tax-breaks-wealthy-virus.html) show that the recovery bills remove restrictions on many tax deductions that were put in place to constrain the cost of the 2017 tax cut, such as limits on the amount of debt payments corporations can deduct and in which year. “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people,’ said Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine.” -Budget battles and police abolition converge The civil unrest in response to police brutality has been amplified by many things, but one factor is the economic crisis and the fact that state and city budgets are due imminently. Budgets are always a political minefield, and this moment reveals how consequential they are and how budgets have contributed to the United States failure to deliver racial justice. I find it heartening that the rallying call of the protests is to defund the police, which isn't a vague, quixotic political project, but a specific economic demand. And defunding is a smart demand: even if policing wasn’t a tool to oppress black and brown people, it is a huge waste of resources. ** Police budgets have exploded in the past forty years (https://sirota.substack.com/p/spending-on-police-is-out-of-control) for no good reason––population growth and crime is down––while social services (or really everything else) have lost funding. In NYC, the mayor’s proposed budget, before the murder of George Floyd, was to cut $641 million from the Department of Education and only $24 million from the police budget, which relatively speaking, means the DoE will lose about 27 times more funding, ** according to Gothamist (https://gothamist.com/news/coronavirus-blows-6-billion-hole-nycs-budget) . A group calling for budget justice noted that, “New York City is currently spending more on policing than on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined.” The NYPD’s budget is around $6 billion dollars, and a more aggressive cut of $1 billion will only take the police back to their budget levels of 2014. In Los Angeles, the mayor Eric Garcetti isn’t even bothering with cuts. He proposed giving the department an extra $47 million for overtime, even when ** 55 percent of people in the L.A. area are unemployed (https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-17/usc-coronavirus-survey) . As ** reported in the Intercept (https://theintercept.com/2020/05/22/la-budget-nyc-police/) , that increase is, “despite a raging housing crisis, and a police department that’s been plagued by scandal after scandal.” Defunding the police has become the slogan of protest because the alternatives (rigorous reforms) haven’t worked. As Brooklyn College Professor of Sociology Alex Vitale said in ** an interview (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/alex-vitale-defund-police-interview/) , “After six years of attempted police reforms, we have nothing to show for it. Even if some of these reforms were capable of working in theory, police leaders refuse to properly implement them. The only leverage that remains is to starve the beast.” Defunding is less radical than most people think; it may be the only option if cities and states hope to have enough money to provide basic services to their citizens, and, more importantly, to stop the violent control of their black and brown constituents. But how did budgets have get so lopsided, with scant funding for mental health services, child care, senior care, homelessness, and drug treatment. Why has a progressive city like Minneapolis, defunded these initiatives while plowing millions into the police? I’m sad to say that the only real answer is the implicit racism of our society. Homelessness services, drug addiction counselling, and other social welfare services are programs that overwhelmingly help poor, black, and brown communities From my perspective, this problem originates in the failure to deliver on the promises of the civil rights movement and legislation that resulted in mid 1960s. In ** this enlightening essay (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/opinion/george-floyd-protests-1960s.html) , Dr. Elizabeth Hinton writes the history of the War on Poverty programs including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. This program “empowered ordinary citizens to develop their own solutions to cure and prevent the system of racial inequality, with support from the federal government.” The government gave money directly to poor communities and let them determine how they wanted to develop. This isn’t reparations for slavery and oppression, but it leans in that direction. (One example: on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a federal program “supported residents in protesting the New York City’s police department, department of welfare and public school administrators with the Mobilization for Youth Program.”) However, the programs that came out of the Economic Opportunity Act were abandoned by LBJ and then the Nixon administration. The War on Poverty gave way to the War on Crime. Instead of a robust welfare state, the government invested heavily instead in mass incarceration. Both were solutions to mass poverty, and both were expensive. The rise of policing came from the idea that poor, black, and brown communities could not be trusted to direct and care for themselves. So instead of providing social services, our society just decided to repress them with an overfunded, often explicitly racist, paramilitary outfit. A blunt solution for a society either unready or unwilling to deliver civil rights to all. The uprisings of the late 1960s were used as an excuse to bring in the police, even though they were evidence of a need for more social spending. “The rebellions of the nineteen-sixties and the enormous social spending intended to bring them under control,” w** rites Keeanga-Yahmata Taylor in the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america) , “were wielded by the right to generate a backlash against the expanded welfare state. Political conservatives argued that the market, not government intervention, could create efficiencies and innovation in the delivery of public services.” We are now living the result of that experiment. As Sarah Jones ** writes in New York Magazine (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/killing-of-george-floyd-shows-our-over-reliance-on-police.html) , we ask the police to do too much. They are the only people that can respond to domestic abuse, mental health problems, drug overdoses, minor traffic violations, and a whole host of other issues that they are neither qualified nor excited to deal with. One social worker I know, who used to work for the Special Victims Unit, tells me the police loathe responding to domestic abuse calls. Defunding is about shuffling resources to the agencies and groups better suited to the task. But what I am trying to highlight is that dealing with racism and poverty––the fraternal twins of American history––requires a lot of resources either way. If we hope to ameliorate them, we need to direct money and resources directly to struggling communities so that they can make themselves safe and prosperous. Policing is antithetical to this. They will not make any progress with police departments prowling their communities, exacting the white overclasses' vision of justice. That is to say that banning chokeholds does nothing to advance the call for civil rights, and I am terrified by what Taylor calls the “palpable poverty of intellect, a lack of imagination, and a banality of ideas pervading mainstream politics today.” The Democratic Party's embarrassingly tame, ineffectual proposals on police reform do not diverge much from the proposal they made after Ferguson. More task forces, more training, more body cameras, and ultimately, more money being invested in police. It's the wrong way to go. But mainstream Democrats have almost no good ideas about how to deal with mass economic oppression and coercion either, and that's not a coincidence. The two are connected. Replacing police departments with legions of social workers, drug counselors, and affordable homes for poor people would go a long way to make up for hundreds of years of violence and neglect. But it would require massive reinvestment, action, and imagination. If we piddle around the edges, ** encourage police to shoot criminals in the legs (https://twitter.com/niktaylorde/status/1267513985223602176?lang=en) , and allow states to continuously to blow up their budgets with police department's wasteful, violent, racist-asses, we will just wallow in the deleterious status quo. - Let them sell bonds In a related matter, the New York Times’ conservative side came roaring to the fore to oppose New York City’s suggestion that they might sell bonds to raise money for their budget. Not only did their ** Editorial board scream a warning (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/opinion/new-york-city-budget.html) but their** Metro Desk did as well (https://nyti.ms/2ZUoaCu) . Instead of allowing the city to sell bonds, they want de Blasio to gut public sector workers’ “exceedingly generous health benefits.” As Corey Robin wrote on Twitter, he’d like to see what health benefits the Editorial Board has. From my vantage point, this is class warfare. Cuomo and the Editorial Board would rather let the city rot than allow it to issue bonds. And by the way, NYT's got the history completely wrong: borrowing didn't lead to ruin, it was financiers who held the city financially hostage who did, a history Kim Phillips-Fein recounts in her book Fear City. The financial meltdown in New York occurred because deindustrialization decimated the tax base and financial capital went on strike, withholding bond sales until the city capitulated to remaking the society in their image. It was an image with a greatly diminished and austere public sector. Selling bonds might be risky, but it is a way to use public debt to spread the financial burden out over a longer, more manageable time frame, instead of concentrating it on today. Reading list ** The Housing Vultures (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/06/11/homewreckers-housing-vultures/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR%20Housing%20vultures&utm_content=NYR%20Housing%20vultures+CID_726a4ecfe53514f9aed80e98cd57e4e9&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=investors%20who%20exploited%20the%202008%20financial%20crisis) by Francesca Mari (The New York Review of Books) If you read and enjoyed Mari’s ** excellent story in the New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/magazine/wall-street-landlords.html) about how private equity firms took over the American housing market, this article is an important follow-up. She covers how the federal government after 2008 failed to protect homeowners and in some cases helped private equity firms buy-out huge swathes of houses that they then rented back to the homeowners at exorbitant rates. “The Obama administration,” she writes, “facilitated the transfer of wealth from homeowners to private equity firms.” She damningly continues, that their “response to the foreclosure crisis was [their] greatest failing.” ** Difficulties Everywhere (https://harpers.org/archive/2020/05/difficulties-everywhere-soren-kierkegaard-philosopher-of-the-heart-clare-carlisle/) Can Kierkegaard tell us how to live? By Christopher Beha (Harpers) I can’t say I understand Kierkegaard entirely, but Beha’s analysis has me thinking about the benefits of anxiety. Especially in the context of civil unrest, many people I know are experiencing a deep anxiety about what they should be doing to change society or how they can best contribute. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, talks about Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac as a story of someone taking an action with no knowledge of the benevolent result. I’ve often thought the same way about the story Job, where Job keeps his faith in the face of calamity without the benefit of knowing God exists at all. I find this is to be a useful guide. What actions do you take when you can’t be certain of their result or if no one is watching? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t know for sure that any action will change the world or even make us a good person. Right now, everyone is wondering if they should be protesting, or donating money, or posting on social media, but the real question they seem to be asking is, How do societies change? The unanswerability of that question is the fire that fuels the whistling kettle of anxiety. None of those three things is the singular answer. Social media is definitely less consequential than people think. Protests have a function, but are not an end in themselves. Money is great, but doesn't address public political problems. We don’t know how societies change, but it is good to be worried about it. ** Comrades (https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/vivian-gornick-jodi-dean-american-communism-comrades-book-review/) The inner life of American communism. By Corey Robin (The Nation) Robin considers two books about American Communism and I enjoyed his conclusion: “Today’s left is more hesitant, for reasons good and bad, about state power....this hesitation has liberated the left from the need to reconcile freedom and constraint. But it has also left it without power.” What limits will the left press for if it ever gains power? Will it fall back on policing to maintain order? What behavior is beyond the pale? ** Can America’s Middle Class Be Saved from a New Depression? (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/26/magazine/coronavirus-milwaukee-unemployment-jobs.html?auth=login-email&login=email) As the pandemic guts the livelihoods of formerly stable families, the federal government seems unwilling to act on the necessary scale. By Matthew Desmond (New York Times Magazine) A fabulous article about Milwaukee and a sketch of the exact problems with the government’s inability to help the American middle class. “If the United States is caught flat-footed in times like these, it is because we left the New Deal unfinished and neglected to protect the security of the American people.“ “** The Cats of Hells Kitchen (http://hatchingcatnyc.com/2020/06/10/life-hells-kitchen-cat/) ” By Peggy Gaven (The Hatching Cat: True and Unusual Animal Tales of Old New York) This blog reproduces a 1907 New York Sun article about the treacherous life of the cats of Hells Kitchen (with pictures): “A Hell’s Kitchen cat is born where no boy can find it and where no man can crush out its life. Nor must the lean mother forget that there are dogs and larger cats to worry the life out of her young. Away back in the darkness under some tenement or in the loft of a ramshackle barn is the nursery. “ ... “For those that survive the hard months of youth there is one pleasure and one alone. That is the midnight gathering. When all the roaring men and women have gone to their burrows up and down the length of the darkened streets, when the last piano tinkle is stilled and the midnight squad have tramped away from the police station, then come the cats of Hell’s Kitchen to mingle in sweet intercourse.” Thanks for reading!
States On the Brink
** Robin's Book Report #72 A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein ------------------------------------------------------------ Agenda -Letter about Minneapolis -Letters from readers -The Economic Situation (States on the brink, why PPP went wrong, and worse case scenario) -Reading list Letter From Me: Hello everyone, A brief note about Minneapolis, mainly because I grew up in St. Paul and lived in Minneapolis in my late teens and my family still lives there. (They are okay, though one relative lives blocks from the Third Precinct and was kept up all night by the sounds of helicopters and tear gas canisters exploding.) As a kid, I would not have been able to describe the Twin Cities as a place with a race problem. Which I realize now, as I tweeted about, is part of the problem. However, when I was 18 and 19 I worked summers at a community arts organization in North Minneapolis (a historically black neighborhood), and it was there that I first encountered the issue. My first couple days in North, I was shocked by the police presence. It was unlike anything I had experienced anywhere else in the city, and the neighborhood itself was tense, all the time. There were cops in flak jackets and beefy, military-looking cars everywhere, all the time. Every day I saw someone in the neighborhood being arrested or hassled on Broadway Ave. I later learned that years of de facto redlining and racial covenants throughout the 20th century had brilliantly segregated the metropolitan area, herding blacks and other groups into particular neighborhoods like North Minneapolis and displacing and destroying communities––like the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul––to build interstate highways. I call the segregation brilliant because it worked well to maintain racism invisibly. It made it extremely difficult to know what was going on in other communities. South Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed last week, is much more diverse, and I think that contributes to the huge upswell of anger: a multiracial, multiclass community aware of the implications of police brutality and ready to express their anger. I’m trying to retweet reputable sources on Twitter in order to spread useful information. What I know of South Minneapolis, and Minneapolis in general, is that it has strong community organizations and strong community ties. Many organizations like the transit union and the University of Minnesota have cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, which indicates how deep the community feeling is about anti-racism and police brutality. They can't support the violent, racist, and lawless right-wing paramilitary organization that is immune to reform. I can’t either. Police use violence and the implicit threat of violence to maintain our racist hierarchy and are an obstacle to justice. The Minnesota Freedom Fund (https://minnesotafreedomfund.org/) appears to be overwhelmed with donations, but I am including some links to other organizations that could use your money like the North Star Health Collective. Please let me know if there are other groups that could use funding and I’ll include that in a next letter. -Black Visions (https://secure.everyaction.com/4omQDAR0oUiUagTu0EG-Ig2) -Reclaim the Block (https://secure.everyaction.com/zae4prEeKESHBy0MKXTIcQ2) -Northstar Health Collective (https://www.northstarhealthcollective.org/donate) -Reclaim the Block recommends (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yLWGTQIe3967hdc9RSxBq5s6KKZHe-3_mWp5oemd7OA/preview?pru=AAABcpEJhC8*b0xqB3vPmb7ALy6DsjLrNw) a few other groups Here are some others I found: -MN Healing Justice Network (https://paypal.me/spiralcollective?fbclid=IwAR3XFW9E1uNOgF8lKBlrUq2jgJVxpa2upgR_CWXoyhgFphhXavOxi2213iA) / Spiral Collective (https://t.co/YMBltxvvwz?amp=1) -Twin Cities Recovery Project (https://twincitiesrecoveryproject.org) (https://t.co/9TlXS3K3Gz?amp=1) -Women for Political Change Frontline Fund (https://secure.everyaction.com/fxrNs65SYEiFw5) In Brooklyn: Brooklyn Community Bail Fund (https://brooklynbailfund.org/) Free the All for Public Health (https://freethemall4publichealth.org) (https://freethemall4publichealth.org/) Equality for Flatbush (http://www.equalityforflatbush.org/) Letters from You Oshan on how money is made: I've really enjoyed receiving your newsletter over the past few months - I love the mixture of a literary sense and economics. I always wonder what it might've been like if Annie Dillard wrote about econ. Anyway, I'm hoping you might help clear up an economic confusion for me. You commented that the current paradigm is one where government creates money, and the only way it can inject it into the economy is by making it available to banks who give it out via loans. I'm having trouble reconciling this with the idea that banks don't lend existing money - their loans actually create the money (as summarized in David Graeber's article,Against Economics (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/12/05/against-economics/) ). Are these both occurring simultaneously? Banks lending out money the government makes available to them, and creating money via loans? Any clarification here would be much appreciated! Your recommendation sounds as sane as can be, that we should establish channels to get money directly to people, rather than using bank loans as intermediaries. I've been researching &writing (https://musingmind.org/essays/ubi-capitalist-consciousness) a lot about the various forms of basic income (NIT (https://musingmind.org/essays/negative-income-tax-proposal) , UBI, social dividends, etc), which seems like another viable, simple channel for doing so (not conceived as a panacea, but accompaniment to things like healthcare, codetermination, etc). Cheers Me: You are so correct about how money is made, and banks’ role in creating it. I'm glad you brought that up. The short answer is, yes, banks create money but they are not the only avenue. There are many different avenues to get money into society. That is, money is transferred from its creator (in this case, the government) in myriad ways. One way that money is created is by lending it to the Federal Reserve, a private bank, who then lends it to other banks. Theoretically, this allows the Federal Reserve to control the money supply, but this process isn't as simple as it sounds and the Federal Reserve has less control over the money supply than you'd think. Which brings us to the fact that David Graeber is right, private banks issue funds and that creates money, and it isn't totally dependent on the government or anything really. However, banks are required to keep a certain amount of money on hold, against their loans, which theoretically constrains their lending (called reserves). We have to stress *theoretically* here because, as Graeber says, it's a messy system. That being said! Another way that money can get into society, is through unemployment benefits, food stamps, other spending programs, etc. Banks are not the only avenue, though for the last fifty years, the denigration of the welfare state has been premised on the neoliberal idea that expanding credit through banking is a better way to distribute money than government spending. The result has been clear: relying on the banking sector to originate money leads to wealthy people getting more of it. If we constrained and controlled banking like a public utility, it would make it necessary to get money to the public through other channels and not rely on banking. Also, if banking was publicly controlled, lending to specific, underserved communities would be a direct way to distribute money. I have almost zero faith in this method, expanding credit often backfires, but it's an option. I hope that makes sense. UBI would be a good way to distribute resources initially instead of lending to businesses who then decide how much to pay their employees. When you look at it this way, it is clear that employment is a privatized universal income, the application of which is left up to the whims of employers. If you combined UBI with a jobs guarantee, it would make a floor on incomes and loosen the grip of private employers on the decisions of who gets what and when. Richard on estate taxes: As usual, this is very interesting. Piketty’s proposal for temporary ownership of property brings to mind, for me, US tax policy on estate taxes or “death taxes.” Generally and historically, the US and the states have taxed the estate of a deceased person quite heavily. This doesn’t raise very much money for the US Treasury, so the question is, why do we tax a person’s estate? The answer, I think, can be found in the spirit of the US Constitution. Americans did not want a king and placed limits on a president’s powers through checks and balances, equal branches of goverment. In the same spirit, Americans reject a hereditary aristocracy: the passage of wealth and titles down through families for long periods of time. The purpose of the estate tax is to prevent the establishment of a hereditary aristocracy in America. Now, however, the US has a growing oligarchy of wealthy individuals who avoid estate taxes through “generational trusts” and other tax avoidance maneuvers, thereby creating the conditions for a hereditary aristocracy except for the titles. (Ever since the 19th century, wealthy Americans have been buying titles by marrying into English and French noble families.) If a wealthy family doesn’t protect itself from estate taxes, the estate tax (federal plus state) can run up to 65% of the estate of a deceased person. This is, in effect, a government policy creating temporary ownership of 65% of a person’s lifetime accumulation of wealth. The estate tax could be made higher. The loopholes could be closed. And an estate can be free of taxes if it is donated charitably. Naturally the rich and powerful do all in their power to prevent and undermine estate taxes. Curiously, polls of working class people find that that group is also strongly opposed to estate taxes. But I think most Americans agree that we do not want a hereditary upper class. [A very interesting addendum he added] When Japanese diplomats visited Washington for the first time (after Commodore Matthew Perry had visited Japan in 1854 and opened that country to the outside world), the diplomats asked to meet the descendents of George Washington. They were shocked to learn that nobody seemed to know, or even care, what had happened to George Washington’s descendants. The diplomats had assumed that Washington’s family would be at the top of the American political and economic hierarchy, as would be the case in Japan. Americans just had no belief that Washington’s family bloodline would be special in any way. Likely the opposite: the American attitude would be ‘those Washingtons are probably a bunch of half-wits compared to George.' Me: Good point about the estate tax. Two things I am thinking. First, Piketty does talk about the estate tax and I wasn't able to cover it in my review. It is a good example of temporary ownership, one that we already have on the books, and is evidence that temporary ownership is doable and desirable. I can't remember the details of current status of estate taxes, but I agree I don't think US citizens want a hereditary overclass. However, Piketty's concern at the end of his first book was about the fortunes of the superwealthy and how immense they will grow by the time they get to the next generation. Even 35% of Jeff Bezos’s fortune would be a tremendous amount of money. The second thing that makes me think of (that I didn't get a chance to write about) is that taxes have many functions beyond raising money. (Many people theorize that they don't raise money at all.) Taxes set norms about what is appropriate behavior, kind of like speed limits, and they also work to constrain spending, when inflation is ticking upwards. I have my doubts about the efficacy of taxation to fund government spending, and think it is a losing framework that was introduced by right-leaning thinkers in the late 1960s. To me, the government should spend directly on the programs that help the people who need it, which is an active role in public life that the current administration is going the opposite direction from. David on the silent majority of reopening: What's interesting to me about that argument from Noonan is what you said is that there is no popular mandate behind "going back to work". Yet, watching and listening to media there is almost no voice given to this majority opinion. Instead the media just centers on outliers who want things to re-open and this broadcast the voices of election officials that are ever creeping in their desire for that shared outcome. For all of the chatter/projection on the left about mistrust of institutions and the "media", this feels far more gross than ignoring Bernie or giving a pass to Biden. Cause that is the kind of politics one should expect of corporate media AND I guess in theory this also falls within a similar boundary. Yet, it's still so bizarre to follow-up the news and never really hear the opinion of the vast majority of people on a topic of life or death matters. Then because of that lack of voice you can get this bizarre conservative reaction to try and frame that those who want to help people are bad and "people" want to go back to work even without any proof. Just absolutely mindnumbing. Me: You’re right, there is very little coverage of people who are happy to shelter in place. ============================================================ The Economic Situation -If states aren’t bailed out, unemployment (and many other things) could get worse after July 1st. Many state and city budgets are due July 1st, and many budgets, without federal loans, are extremely short. The public health crisis caused a surge in unexpected spending and few investors are excited to buy the municipal bonds that would shore up these accounts. This means that there could be a wave of public sector layoffs beginning this summer. As I have mentioned before, the federal government hasn’t saved the states yet and in some cases has encouraged states to go bankrupt. Already ** New Jersey announced (https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/05/plan-to-partially-furlough-100k-nj-public-workers-wins-big-in-legislature-its-up-to-murphy.html) their plan to furlough 100,000 public workers. ** Michigan said they are considering axing (https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/13/michigan-plans-furlough-64-percent-workforce-save-80-m/5182528002/) 64 percent of their workforce in order to save $80 million dollars. (However, they are not laying off any police, prison, or veterans homes workers.) Michigan is saying they are going to experience a $3 billion dollar shortfall. It’s a big hole to fill in. The budget deadline of July 1st is why many are saying that we have “** weeks, not months (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/unsanitized-few-weeks-to-stop-a-depression/) ” to stave off a huge downturn that could be much deeper than the Great Recession. As David Dayen writes, “Congress doesn’t have time to see what will happen with the economy. If they don’t backstop state and local spending we will have a depression. Period.” The big problem with furloughing workers is that it creates a downward spiral: these workers stop spending as they normally do, which causes businesses to lose income, which causes states to lose tax income, which causes more layoffs. To a large degree, the Federal Reserve could prevent this downward spiral by directly buying state and municipal bonds, or at least guaranteeing their sale. Worse, these states and cities just got done filling in the hole created by the last recession. As the ** Wall Street Journal recently found (https://www.wsj.com/articles/state-and-local-budget-woes-create-drag-for-economic-recovery-prospects-11590312600) , “State and local government spending and employment levels didn’t fully recover from the 2007-09 recession until last fall, a decade after the downturn ended and only a few months before the coronavirus led to a new round of cuts.” State employees make up 11 percent of GDP spending, which means failing to help them will cripple the consumer economy as a whole. -The Creaky, Underfunded, and Abused Small Business Administration Was Tasked With Preventing Mass Bankruptcies and Unemployment. You Won’t Believe What Happens Next. All the problems I have previously explored about the PPP program are laid out here, in this ** article about the Small Business Administration by Alexander Sammon (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/everybody-hates-the-sba/) . As I have said, there was no reason why the PPP loans needed to be routed through the SBA, they could have been offered by the Federal Reserve like all the corporate bail outs were. But they weren’t. Which makes me very suspicious as to the motives of the lawmakers who designed the program that way, because everyone in Washington knows the SBA is an abused, defunded, and neglected agency that has been largely stripped of its original powers and is often ineffective. Sammon finds that: “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the SBA would head up this program. For many, it made more sense to have the Treasury, which is better staffed, more capable, and already in possession of the relevant documentation through the IRS, do such a task. But Congress tapped the SBA, an agency with just 4,000 employees. If there’s any bureaucratic muscle left in the atrophied Trump administration, the SBA isn’t it. ... Born as an anti-monopoly tool, the SBA became as ineffective as the rest of the federal government to prevent the Second Gilded Age. ... In a cruel twist of fate, the PPP’s structure has resulted in the SBA presiding over a massive racial wealth transfer away from minority small-business owners. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, a galling 90 percent of women and minority business owners were shut out of the first round of the program, including 95 percent of black-owned businesses, 91 percent of Latino-owned businesses, and 91 percent of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander–owned businesses.” The problem is that the SBA should have had the powers to lend directly to businesses, instead of relying on private banks to do the lending for them. “The government should,” Sammon writes, “staff the SBA the way that the Home Owners Loan Corporation was staffed during the New Deal, directly issuing loans out of a government office. The SBA should have an active representative within the next president’s Cabinet.” Good idea. -What Is The Worst Case Scenario For The Global Economy? It’s important to reflect on what the worst case scenarios for the global economy are, because we need to assess how plausible they sound. In an interview with New York Magazine, the economist Nouriel Roubini ** laid out possibly the bleakest projection (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/05/why-the-economy-is-headed-for-a-post-coronavirus-depression-nouriel-roubini.html) I have seen yet. I have to say up front that I don’t totally buy it. A large part of his analysis rests on the effects of skyrocketing government spending, which are way way overstated. It is unlikely that it will cause runaway inflation. Government debt was very high after World War II and this didn’t lead to inflation or slow growth. Roubini sees the rise of huge pools of private debt as being dangerous, or as the interviewer, Eric Levitz, writes, “specifically, Roubini argues that the massive private debts accrued during both the 2008 crash and COVID-19 crisis will durably depress consumption and weaken the short-lived recovery.” This, I believe is true. Private debt is dangerous, public debt... not yet. However, Roubini notes that the oncoming cold war with China could be a big problem for working people. If it leads to a “reshoring” of jobs, the products coming out of American factories would likely be more expensive, but without strong unions, the workers won’t necessarily be paid more. The global economy is in an extreme level of flux right now, partially because of the pandemic and partially because of existing geopolitical problems. There are a lot of open questions right now in the global economy. ** Adam Tooze argues (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n08/adam-tooze/shockwave) that the pandemic has exposed three pre-existing problems for the global economy: that China fueled its growth with cheap debt and now has a dangerous credit bubble; that the EU has a “rickety banking system” that can’t solve individual country’s problems; and that the US is quietly running the global economy through the Federal Reserve and yet is politically volatile. If you are curious about what might become of the geopolitical system after the pandemic abates, this is an important article to read. Reading list “** Newport, R.I. 1878 (https://www.loc.gov/item/75696563/) ” Galt and Hoy (Library of Congress) An incredible birds eye view map of Newport. “** Always Leave Them Wanting Less (https://harpers.org/archive/2020/06/always-leave-them-wanting-less-andy-warhol/) ” How not to write about Andy Warhol By Gary Indiana (Harpers) What is left to say about Andy Warhol? A new book by Blake Gopnik tries and fails to find anything. “A prodigy of research,” Indiana writes, 'Gopnik claims to have interviewed 'more than 260 lovers, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the artist' (261? 263?), and consulted 'some 100,000 period documents.' None of this effort has produced anything resembling a fresh idea.” Another great quote, non sequitur: “It may come as news to young people that many different kinds of pharmaceutical speed were easily available in the Sixties, all of them more fun than Adderall.” “** A Philosopher-Banker Who’s Shaking Up a Nation (https://nyti.ms/2LnpJkh) ” Steven Coutinho had long wanted to help Suriname, his homeland, overcome its colonial past. A huge financial scandal gave him his chance. By Anatoly Kurmanaev (New York Times) The huge financial scandal was that the ruler of Suriname recently pillaged the public’s bank accounts to buy potatoes and onions for the country. “** Introducing Eventide™ Single Adventures” (https://thebaffler.com/sadvertorials/introducing-eventide-single-adventures-dickinson) Even in our age of total digital connection, it isn’t always easy to meet the future Mr. or Mrs. by Kelly Dickinson (The Baffler) Satire about dating after the fall. “I** Want to Go Ahead and Do It (https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/reviews/mailer-song.html) ” By Joan Didion (NYT Book Review) 1979 Didion reviews The Executioner's Song By Norman Mailer, a book about the last months of a murderer before he is executed in Utah. “The very subject of "The Executioner's Song",” she writes, “is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fadeout, trail off, like skywriting.” Thanks for reading!
Noonan’s Incoherent Blame Game
** Robin's Book Report # 71 A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein ------------------------------------------------------------ Agenda -New Article -Letters from You -The Economic Situation -Bedside Table -Reading list An FYI: I am starting a Patreon to fund this newsletter which I hope will be ready in the coming month. I want the letter to continue to be free in some capacity (as it has been for three years), but also would love to devote more time to the letters. And people over the years have asked me to open an avenue for donations, which I never got around to. Also, the business model of journalism is collapsing and subscription newsletters are an alternative. In addition to all that, I have been working on a new set of appropriated paintings, and am excited to send those out at as thank you gifts to people who donate to the Patreon. Anyways, onward! New Article Alert Last week, a review I wrote about Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology (https://newrepublic.com/article/157576/thomas-piketty-new-book-plan-fix-economy-review) was put online. It’ll be in the June print issue of the New Republic, and is my first print article in a national magazine. Pretty exciting. (This is the tweet thread with additional thoughts (https://twitter.com/robinsreport/status/1258052487115923458) ) In the article, I focus on Piketty’s idea that private property inhibits the equitable distribution of resources. I tend to agree with him, as you’ll see, but see some pretty tall obstacles to overcome. Our culture has a deep rooted faith in the power of private property and its ability to protect individuals from infringement by the state. But that protection only applies to a small group of people. It invisibly allows power to stay concentrated in the hands of those already in power, most often wealthy whites. Distributing power and resources more equally would require wresting power from the hands of those people, and that is a political project that is larger than I can comprehend. However, we’ve had more equal distribution before in our history. The New Deal used the power of the state to directly divert resources to working people. It created jobs, and offered old-age pensions and safety net programs. Then in the 1970s, the government was encouraged to stop spending money on working people and the middle classes, and things got really lopsided. To me, this means that private property, private wealth, and private power needs to be regularly curtailed and deprioritized in order to make space for everyone else. What might this look like? Piketty suggests a capital grant to everyone at 25, of about $125,000. Also, temporary ownership of property, intellectual property, and wealth including financial assets. Increased taxes on top-earners. The big problem with taxes though: tax avoidance. Something I didn’t get to in the article is that we can avoid this problem pretty easily. The government creates money and then has to decide how it will wend its way into society. The paradigm for our unequal times is that they make it available to banks, who lend it to businesses, who pay their suppliers, employees, and others with it. This is stupid and makes it obvious why corporate monopolies have so much money and why workers have so little; the businesses just kept the money. Taxing it back is one solution, but another, much more simple solution is to just give the money directly to people, either through government jobs guarantees, expanded welfare programs, universal healthcare, universal education, or Piketty’s capital grants. If we want a better world, we have to demand direct spending and then insist on taxation to set limits on the concentration of wealth. On a personal note, I'm finding that it's not that fun to write about economics. I do it to better understand the concepts and because it is important these topics are not left to people who are beholden to worthless outdated theories, enamoured with business and economics, or herd animals. But still it can be a little lonely, because I'm not in an academic community that might discuss these topics more readily. So please, if you are inclined to discuss, let’s do it! Letters from You David: I just finished reading this [here’s a review of Chaos (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/07/chaos-charles-manson-cia-secret-history-sixties-tom-oneill-dan-piepenbring-review) ]. Highly recommend [This is David’s reading list for March from his blog (https://www.dflovett.com/blog/what-read-march-2020) , which I recommend checking out] Nathan: Great newsletter! Thanks for summing up some things I thought and giving me new things to think about (and read). The last books I got really into were Chaos, the CIA-Charles Manson rabbit hole, and Say Nothing, the Patrick Radden Keefe IRA yarn. Michelle: Man, you and I are on the same page about all this stuff. I have a bad case of schadenfreude, too, although I‘m old enough to realize that my dreams of change for the better resulting from this crisis are just that, dreams. Oh, yuck. I’m finding myself more frightened by the day. This reopening stuff is not sitting well. Your piece on the shadow banks was great (https://newrepublic.com/maz/article/157455/shadow-banks-back-still-big-fail) . Thanks for reminding us about them. Of the other links, the only one I’ve dared click through so far was the piece about Prospect Park (https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/a-walk-in-the-park/) , which I enjoyed. In 1987, I fact-checked a sweet piece about the experience of place, written by Alger Hiss’s son Tony. I still vividly remember taking the subway out to Prospect Park (one of his featured places), and having a wonderful time walking around. It was my first time there. This was in the day when brownstones on St. Mark’s Place could be had for $35,000. The park didn’t feel dangerous, in the way that Central Park did back then. It just seemed ignored. What another world that was. Anyway, if you want to have a look, it’s https://archives.newyorker.com/newyorker/1987-06-22/flipbook/044/ If the link doesn’t work, just log in and go to the archive and search Tony Hiss. It’s part 1 of a two-part article published in 1987. It’s not earth-shakingly brilliant, but might provide another stress-free virtual visit to the park. ============================================================ The Economic Situation -Private Equity Looted Retail Stores, And Now They’re Bankrupt This is a bit of news I mentioned the possibility of a couple newsletters ago, and has captured some popular attention. It’s unlikely the bankruptcies of these companies will mean much. They will file, cut out on payments to shareholders and possibly employees, and then maybe reemerge under new private equity owners. All three crumbled because they had been ** bought and gutted already by private equity companies (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/05/retail-bankruptcies-bailouts-put-spotlight-on-private-equity.html) , and honestly, I think most industry analysts were just counting down the minutes to implosion, even before the crash. ** Private equity was the worst in the case of J Crew (https://ourfinancialsecurity.org/2020/05/jcrew-private-equity-fact-sheet/) . The ** PE firm bought the (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/private-equity-firms-profit-covid-19-j-crew/) clothing store, sold the brand name rights to a shell company they owned in the Cayman Islands, and looted the rest of the company. J Crew was a house that had been essentially relieved of all its joists and beams. And then came a hurricane. The message is that any business with lots of high-interest junk bonds can’t survive -Unemployment Infrastructure is Embarrassing ** This story (http://v) about the Hawaiian unemployment system is embarrassing. Apparently the computer system hasn’t updated since the eighties. -Homeownership Could Consolidate Further ** Investors are betting (https://www.wsj.com/articles/wall-street-bets-virus-meltdown-gives-landlords-a-chance-to-grow-11589189405) that home management companies will be able to buy even more suburban houses in coming years, and rent them out to people. When you consider ** this story (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/magazine/wall-street-landlords.html) from NYT Magazine earlier this year, this is a very scary proposition. -Who's to blame? Class Analysis Grows Incoherent Class analysis is a mess. In a truly moronic column by Peggy Noonan over at the WSJ, she desperately tries to frame the conflict in the US right now as one between pampered, out of touch scientists and journalists (who I guess are fine with the shutdown lasting forever) against poor people who are anxious to get back to work. The first problem is obvious: most working people support the limitations of the shutdown. The second is less clear. Noonan tells us there is a “class element in the public debate,” which she doesn’t go on to describe but rather to invent and then criticize. To her: “Since the pandemic began, the overclass has been in charge—scientists, doctors, political figures, consultants—calling the shots for the average people. But personally they have less skin in the game. The National Institutes of Health scientist won’t lose his livelihood over what’s happened. Neither will the midday anchor.” Wait, what? How again are scientists, doctors, and journalists part of the problem? (I'll leave politicians and consultants out of this.) She refers to them as the “managerial elite” (a terrible right-wing appropriation of Barbara and John Enhrenreich’s “professional managerial elite” coinage from the 1970s). Noonan is making the argument that “professionals” are blind to the plight of working people, and thus are imperiling their livelihoods. Poor folks in red states, she claims, know better. They understand that keeping the economy open might mean, “hundreds of thousands could die and the American economy is damaged but still stands, in which case there will be fewer economic casualties—fewer bankruptcies and foreclosures, fewer unemployed and ruined.” The implication is that professionals are out to cause massive “economic casualties,” which doesn’t make any sense. What are economic casualties anyways? And didn't the overclass rescue the economy by backstopping the financial sect or? Now, I have made similar type arguments in different settings, that the professional class is out of touch, but this is unhinged. Poor people, if they are anxious to get back to work (which we don’t know because she never substantiates this claim) are surely anxious because for decades the GOP has gutted worker protections, compensation, and the social safety net to such an immense degree that most people have no choice but to go back to work because they have no savings and probably no healthcare without work. This doesn’t mean that they want to. The only evidence to the contrary are the totally astroturfed protests across the country, that are sponsored by the owners of big businesses, who are more than excited to get the economy running again. In fact, the class of people that Noonan conveniently ignores in her columns are these business owners, who are more than willing to sacrifice workers' lives for the sake of their continued operation. They're the ones with less skin in the game: they often aren’t interacting with customers and coworkers. Their money is at stake, but not their health. Actually, the whole point of the article is a covert defense of the cynical business class that paid for these protests. But my head is spinning trying to resolve this gross right-wing misappropriation of the problems of the “managerial elite.” If doctors, scientists, and journalists don’t convey the information and define the terms of the proper response to the crisis, who will? The answer is not the honest, hard-working poor people who have tragic homelives that Noonan pretends to defend. It is the right-wing, anti-worker business class that has for decades pillaged this country, and continues to do so today. -Praytell, What Does The Stock Market Say? The stock market has disambiguated from reality, as many people are noting. If you study the actions taken by the Federal Reserve, you can see why. The main ways of funding the large corporations that compose the stock market have all been guaranteed and backstopped by the Fed (e.g. repurchase agreements, junk bonds, and other commercial paper). Before traders knew the Fed would take such decisive, wide-spread action, the stock market tanked. But the Fed acted swiftly and the markets rebounded. Unfortunately, how the stock market performs says little about how the society is doing, as argued in this ** informative New York Times article. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/business/stock-market-economy-coronavirus.html) (Good note: “Economists who have studied the performance of stock markets over time say there’s relatively little evidence that economic growth matters to the outcome of the market at all.”) One reason is because the stock market is composed of a bunch of monopolistic corporations, which means that their profits are little affected by what is happening in the real world. They control the market, and for the most part, determine the outcomes. “These highly valued firms — Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, are each worth more than $1 trillion — now account for one-fifth of the market value of the index,” the article says, “the highest level in 30 years.” So for example, if Amazon or Apple needs a private or public market bail-out, their bargaining position means the money they demand is very cheap. They don’t pay the same costs everyone else does. Also, “the giant companies that make up the S&P 500 operate under very different circumstances than the nation’s small businesses, workers and cities and states. They are highly profitable, hold significant sums of cash and have regular access to public bond markets. They’re far more global than the typical American family firm. (Roughly 40 percent of the revenues of S&P 500 companies come from abroad.)” Which is to say that the stock market reflects the moves of the global market. It wasn’t always this way, “during the 1950s and 1960s, it was easier to link the health of the largest American companies with the broader health of the country, partly because their enormous payrolls helped fuel the expansion of the middle class.” Now employers just extract cash, hold it in Ireland and contribute very little to our society. They employ basically no one, “the two most highly valued companies in the country in 1962 — AT&T and General Motors — employed nearly 1.2 million people combined. Last year, the two largest companies in the S&P 500 — Microsoft and Apple — employed 280,000.” The last problem is that the people who care most about the stock market are people with financial assets, and these people tend to vote in higher numbers. ** This is why politicians are so obsessed with the stock market (http://inthesetimes.com/article/22504/stock-market-real-economy-disconnect-unemployment-poverty-coronavirus-trump) . It tells us what people with financial assets think, which is surely of note, but obviously has very little to say about the feelings of people who are on unemployment and facing a black-hole of unpayable debts. Our association of the stock market with financial crashes is just outdated, and reflects the news stories that we read about the stock market crash in 1929. The stock market indicated something was clearly wrong, whereas other indicators were more ambiguous. The response in the last hundred years hasn’t been to avoid economic calamity, it has been to create ways to make sure the stock market doesn’t crash, which the health of the stock market right now proves has been achieved quite successfully. Reading list Bedside table Inspired by my friend David’s blog post, I am going to now include “Bedside Table” because I read a lot of books, but I almost never finish them. This has discouraged me from putting them on my list, but shouldn’t! Curious what you have half-read too. An American Childhood By Annie Dillard Within the Context of No Context By George W.S. Trow What’s Wrong With Economics: A Primer for the Perplexed by Robert Skidelsky Globalist: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism By Quinn Slobodian Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country by William Greider Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier Articles ** My Appetites (https://www.vulture.com/2020/05/jerry-saltz-my-appetites.html) On eating and coping mechanisms, childhood and self-control, criticism, love, cancer, and pandemics. By Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine) This is a really excellent memoir piece by Jerry Saltz, which deals with his early home life: “I have no memory of any hot cooked meals in our home. Cooking wasn’t something you did. There was only eating. Our refrigerator was stocked with Oscar Mayer bologna, corned beef, tongue, salami, and roast beef. There was mayonnaise, ketchup, peanut butter, and other things I don’t remember.... Once a week, a Polish maid came in to clean the house and make a large pot of something called “grub” — a gray mealy mix of rice, lentils, peas, hamburger meat, and other stuff. It was placed in the fridge, and we heated it up anytime we wished. There were no dinner hours; we ate alone, with each other, at the table, in our rooms, in the basement, wherever. We never went out to dinner as a family. Paul would come down to the dining-room table wearing only tighty-whities, eat grub with his fingers while sitting on the back of the chair, drinking a beer, talking about getting stoned, and being racist. We all had do not disturb signs on our doors. So did my parents.” On his early writing career, begun at 40, when he took his wife Roberta Smith’s job at the Village Voice: “By the time I finally got the job she’d once had at the Voice, she was writing for the Times. She started reading my work. After going through a batch of pieces, she walked into my office and put a stack of my reviews down on my desk. I thought she was going to praise me. Instead she said, “If you don’t get better, I’m going to kill myself!” ** Smeeze into Your Elbow! (https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/smeeze-into-your-elbow/) I fear that we’re about to see a sharp decline in the number of TikTok videos being made by hospital employees by Sophie Pinkham (n+1) I’ve been watching a bit of TikTok and this essay clarifies most of my feelings. ** The Pandemic Is the Time to Resurrect the Public University (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-pandemic-is-the-time-to-resurrect-the-public-university) By Corey Robin (The New Yorker) Robin writes about the difficulties facing universities like the one he teaches at, Brooklyn College. Elite schools have big endowments and will do fine. Their facilities make good hygiene possible. Underfunded public universities are a different story. “Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash,” he writes, “is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.” And while public universities are real engines of social mobility, we chronically underfund them. Without investment, our attempts at equality are misguided. “This is the song of culture in our society,” he writes, “The bass line is wealth and profit; the melody is diversity and opportunity.” “** How Profit and Incompetence Delayed N95 Masks While People Died at the VA (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-profit-and-incompetence-delayed-n95-masks-while-people-died-at-the-va) ” Federal agencies have hired contractors with no experience to find respirators and masks, fueling a black market filled with price gouging and multiple layers of profiteering brokers. One contractor called them “buccaneers and pirates.” by J. David McSwane (ProPublica) Sad but hilarious story of a man failing to profit off the pandemic. Seemed similar to ** this story (https://nyti.ms/2SEOoEF) of Jared Kushner’s task force full of incompetent elite hedge fund dinguses royally fucking up the search for PPE, and devolving to corruption. ** Buybacks And Bailouts (https://www.npr.org/2020/04/29/848079558/episode-995-buybacks-and-bailouts) By Kenny Malone and Robert Smith (Planet Money) The investor Chamath Palihapitiya argued on CNBC that we should have let the airlines fail. He’s right. Watch the original clip ** here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvEWez59fbI) . The basic question at hand here is, Does anyone deserve to fail in this crisis? The answer is yes. Companies that spent the last ten years tossing off money to their executives and shareholders, instead of holding money for research or a crisis, knew what they were doing. They were taking risks, which is only a risk if it has consequences. Hedge funds too, were leveraged way beyond what was safe, and if major corporations like airlines fail it would be primarily hedge funds who would be wiped out first, which is how things are supposed to work. When a company goes bankrupt, the investors, speculators, and shareholders lose first. Then the pensions holders, workers, and suppliers. If these companies are rotten anyways, bailing them out only protects the hedge funds a little longer, allowing them to loot the company a little more, until the firm finally collapses. Thanks for reading!
** Robin's Book Report #70 A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein ------------------------------------------------------------ Agenda -New Article -Shutdown Notes -Reading list *** For many of you who responded to my last letter, I didn't get to your letters this week! Sorry. But I promise to follow up with many of you who wrote to me about what you are reading, so keep them coming! *** New Article I wrote about shadow banks (https://newrepublic.com/article/157455/shadow-banks-back-still-big-fail) , institutions that act like banks but aren’t regulated like banks. They include really big companies like AIG, Quicken, BlackRock, and other financial firms. In 2008, the country bailed out these shadow banks because they had acted recklessly and imperiled the global economy (AIG, MetLife, and Prudential are examples). Since then, the shadow banking sector has grown by 75 percent and continues to be unregulated. In fact, they have actively pushed back against regulation. Today, they once again needed the government to back them up. I talk about the history of the federal government guaranteeing the business of banking, and how banks pay for that protection. Shadow banks need to do the same. It goes to show that all banking should be regulated, if not controlled like a public utility. My tweet thread about the article (https://twitter.com/robinsreport/status/1254790565037735936) . Shutdown notes -Fighting Schadenfreude I am finding it difficult to fight the schadenfreude. On one hand, I want the Trump administration to fail, I want fracking companies to fail, I want all those astroturfed protesters to fail (get sick?). I want all kinds of things to fail. I was, for a moment, so happy that Boris Johnson got sick. But the cost of the failure is too great to want it to happen. I can’t wish for anyone to die, not even Boris. I suppose I just don’t want things to go back to the way they were before, but then again, I do. There are many things I want back. Like riding the subway, or walking on the street without anxiety. So what to do? I guess it’s what we always had to do: fight for a better world, hope for success, and highlight the failures of everyone in charge. As Helaine Olen writes (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/29/im-rooting-georgia-you-should-be-too/) , we should be rooting for the states who are reopening, like Georgia. I hope it goes well. This doesn’t seem likely, but if it does, that’s great. -Will cities and states survive the shutdown? One of the worst things that could come out of the economic shutdown would be a wave of state, city, and municipal bankruptcies. Many cuts are already happening (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/coronavirus-relief-bill-layoffs-coming-to-state-local-governments.html) . States cannot legally run deficits, and I imagine that few can sell enough bonds to raise the money needed to keep on spending. Without significant federal aid, states and cities will default on their obligations. No state has gone bankrupt since the Great Depression, but with so many regions of the country suffering at once, it is a tricky issue to figure out how to rescue them all at once. It’s tricky, but not any more tricky than saving the banking sector, airline industry, and much of the private corporate world. So why is Mitch McConnell openly blocking state and city funding (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-22/mcconnell-says-he-favors-allowing-states-to-declare-bankruptcy) in Congress? Does he want to purposely inflict misery? Actually, he does. Forcing a wave of default would allow states to restructure their public sector employees’ pensions, potentially just eliminating them completely, which he openly mentioned was the goal. It would also allow Republican governors to slash funding and promised aid to any number of other institutions, and do it very quickly. Austerity to resolve huge budget deficits, could lead to a terrifyingly rapid make-over of American society, if the federal government withholds money. Congress can run unlimited deficits, which they have already demonstrated by allowing the Federal Reserve to buy and hold tons of crappy loans (like junk bonds) that allow loser companies to survive and fail another day. What really irks me is that the language of austerity that McConnell uses, that states were too generous to their public employees, is not applied to dumbass, wasteful companies that chronically overcompensate their executives and spend their money on everything but their employees or improving their capital stock (factories, technology, etc). If you are wondering how this might play out, I would (once again) recommend reading Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, which chronicles how the withholding of federal support to New York City in 1974 lead to a quick, wholesale remaking of the city on the false grounds that the city had overspent and needed to discipline the greedy, pampered working classes. -PPP isn’t working The higher than expected numbers of unemployed people shows that the response to the shutdown was too slow. Money did not get to businesses fast enough, which will have longer term consequences. Employers who laid-off their employees don’t qualify for the Payroll Protection Plan, because they have little payroll to protect anymore and some workers are making more on unemployment now, and have little incentive to return to a low-paying jobs (I think unemployment averages out to about $16/hour which leaves me no sympathy for employers who are complaining they can’t get employees to return to work). Another problem with PPP is that no one really understands how it works, and many small businesses, afraid of using it incorrectly, are just letting the money sit around. A clearer rescue program, that sent money directly to the small businesses that needed it (like restaurants)––instead of an over-complicated lending program that had tons of fine print and needed to be administered by private banks––would have been better. But that would have required the federal government making decisions and taking action, which it seems incapable of doing. All they can do is free up money for credit facilities, which is important, but inadequate. -Vultures and monopolies As companies fail, bigger companies will take them over, possibly leading to more monopolization (investors are betting it will) (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/business/coronavirus-stocks.html?referringSource=articleShare) and an even more unequal society. Private equity firms reportedly have enormous amounts of “dry powder” on hand to buy up distressed assets and companies in bankruptcy. Real estate investors are licking their chops (https://www.wsj.com/articles/real-estate-investors-eye-potential-bonanza-in-distressed-sales-11586260801) at the possibility of foreclosures. Big banks appear to be growing (https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/495719-big-banks-are-growing-due-to-coronavirus-thats-an-ominous-sign) even bigger during the crisis, which should worry us all. Vulture capitalists are people, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who specialize in buying bankrupt companies for pennies on the dollar and them reselling them. It’s predatory and exploits the nature of bankruptcy law, which was initially designed to prevent widespread chaos when a company failed. But vulture capitalists use bankruptcy law to swoop in and devastate a companies’ suppliers, employees, and customers. They sell the assets of the company and leave the scene unscathed. This article in the Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/coronavirus-vulture-capitalism/) lays out what kind of world we might live in if vulture capitalists get their way. -Financialized risks everywhere Part of the character of financialization is that credit schemes are injected into situations where they were never before. This can be dangerous, because the novelty of the scheme means it often initially goes unregulated and the lack of regulation means that people often bet imprudently. One example is something I learned about the other day called “supply-chain finance (https://www.wsj.com/articles/supply-chain-finance-is-new-risk-in-crisis-11585992601) ,” which is where a company borrows money to pay off their suppliers. WSJ likens it to taking a personal loan to pay off a credit card. If companies overborrow to make it look like they have more money than they really do, this could be a problem. Especially because it masks their funding problems for, usually, about 60 days. For me, I’m not worried about supply-chain debt specifically, but about all the other financial schemes that are lurking in the dark waiting to crash the economy, or necessitate another private sector bail out. ============================================================ Reading list “** A Walk in the Park (https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/a-walk-in-the-park/) ” A memento mori at the heart of the leisure zone by Dan Fox Fabulous essay, not only because it examines the perils of trying to enjoy Prospect Park during the pandemic, but also because it taught me a lot of history of the park that I didn’t know. “The park encourages preventive psychology. Running and cycling is a way to remind yourself that you’ve not been infected and that your lungs still work to capacity.” “** Harpooned by Facebook (https://www.revealnews.org/episodes/harpooned-by-facebook-2/) ” by Nathan Halverson (Reveal) Facebook willingly, purposefully addicts children and gambling addicts with its games. One child accidentally racked up $1000 in charges on his mom’s credit card playing a free game on Facebook, and a gambling addict lost $400,000 to a game that didn’t even have a feature that paid out money. More reason to break up a company that can use its expansive surveillance power to sell data to companies that can addict you with the data. “** When Journalists Become Workers (https://prospect.org/labor/when-journalists-become-workers/) ” Five years ago, unions barely existed in digital media. Today, they may save the industry from the worst of the COVID-19 depression—and provide a model to other working professionals. by Aaron Freedman (The American Prospect) An analysis of a fairly quick change in the minds of journalists, who, in big waves, jumped on board the labor movement. “** When Art Becomes Self-Help (https://newrepublic.com/article/157222/jerry-saltz-how-be-artist-instagram-self-help) ” Jerry Saltz’s new book markets an instagram-friendly version of creativity. By Kyle Chayka (The New Republic) My question is, Why did Jerry Saltz write a book about how to become an artist when he (as he himself admits!) failed at being an artist? Why didn’t he write a book about something he actually is an expert in, like art criticism? The result of the book, this essay shows, is that Saltz sells art as a lifestyle choice, an affirmative self-help mode of being, instead of what art is generally considered: a practice, a research field, or a craft and commodity trade. “** The Pessimistic Style in American Politics (https://harpers.org/archive/2020/05/how-the-anti-populists-stopped-bernie-sanders/) ” And its eternal war on reform By Thomas Frank I was excited to read this essay, because I love Thomas Frank, but found it doesn’t have much to do with the headline on the magazine (“How The Anti-Populist Stopped Bernie Sanders"). Frank explores the history of the word 'populism' and how elites frequently and inaccurately characterised populist movements as being backwards and ignorant. It’s an important historical assessment, but at the moment it's most important to dispel the connection between the “populism” of Donald Trump and the populism of Bernie Sanders. Equating them has been the somewhat successful rhetorical twist of elitist pundits like Frank Bruni, and is really frustrating for someone, like me, who believes in the capacity of the general people, that they are capable of government and decision making. It is hard to parse and I wish I knew of a better rebuttal. Thanks for reading!
|Robin’s Book Report #69|
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
– Letter from Me / Economic pandemic report
– Letters from You
– Reading list
***As always, I am curious what you are reading and curious what you are concerned about in terms of the economic situation, so please send me a letter if anything comes to mind. I won’t share your letter without asking first.***
|Letter From Me:|
Hello readers, I received a lot of mail in response to my last newsletter, some of which I am reproducing below. I also wanted to include a number of additional subjects that have drifted on to my radar in the last two weeks (in regards to the developing economic situation). I’ll do that first.
-Fracking and energy companies might be taken over by banks, which would be illegal but would prevent them from presumably having to take major losses.
-As mentioned in the last letter, brick and mortar retailers are beginning to fail. Neiman Marcus will file for bankruptcy. Retail like Neiman was hurting before the crisis, and many stores were funding operations on junk bonds (watch out for J Crew and JC Penney). The problem here is that there isn’t anything, that I can imagine, that wants to take up the leases for these huge stores. So the underlying entities who own the properties might also default, which could, in addition to other defaults, contribute to a financial crisis.
-Some businesses that haven’t been bailed out yet pose a systemic threat.
One problem with the stimulus package is that our economy is littered with all these non-bank banks that have emerged in the last decade or so (Quicken Loans is a nonbank, as is AIG). So far they don’t qualify for stimulus money. Many of them exist to skirt the lines of financial regulation, and lax enforcement has enabled their proliferation. For an illustration, an episode of Planet Money explores what would happen if everyone stopped paying their rent. The hosts speak with a landlord who pays two different businesses for his mortgage: Wells Fargo and a company called NewRez. NewRez is a nonbank mortgage servicer, meaning they collect money from mortgages and package those mortgages in securities that they in turn sell to investors. They deal in money and lending but are not considered banks by regulators.
As I mentioned above, the problem is that these private, unregulated companies like NewRez––while a major cog in the functioning of the economy––do not yet qualify for the loans the Federal Reserve is doling out. I’m sure the government will eventually come to the rescue of these companies, but it really shows how broken our financial system is. First, businesses, especially banks and nonbanks, are so interconnected now, failures cannot be contained. Everything is systemically important, and thus Too Big To Fail. Second, new financial products and sectors often go unregulated until they cause a problem. Remember financial derivatives? Alan Greenspan told us we didn’t need to worry about them, until they blew up in 2008. Funding-starved regulators couldn’t even recognize threats if they wanted to. The financial system is massive and complicated. It’s like an overgrown garden, the size of two football fields, that’s tended by one asthmatic farmer whose tools are all dull, rusted, or missing. Novel weeds and pests fester in darkness until one day they take over. Only then are they addressed.
–Zombie firms also pose a problem. They’re loser companies that survive only by continuously rolling over lots of low-interest loans, now they might all collapse at once. Most can’t survive more than a few weeks without paying their loans.
-Cash payments were necessary but aren’t an egalitarian victory.
I am less surprised and excited by the direct cash payments from the government, and unlike some people I don’t see it as the end of whatever the previous economic regime was. Many influential people from across the political spectrum––from hedge fund king Ray Dalio to former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke––have openly suggested, for years, that cash payments will be necessary to stimulate the economy especially in the event that the only two tools it has to stimulate the economy (interest rates and quantitative easing) don’t work. That is, if interest rates are already so low that you cannot lower them further or quantitative easing has been stretched to the max, which is precisely the situation that we are in now. (It doesn’t matter if you’re not familiar with interest rates or quantitative easing or how they work, I barely can wrap my brain around them. What is important is that they are tools to manipulate the economy, and prior to the crisis they were already at full power.) Bernanke talked (way back in 2002) about how cash payments might be necessary to stimulate the economy in the event of an economic catastrophe. So I don’t see it as a triumph of a newly energized left or of Modern Monetary Theory. On one hand, it demonstrates the hypocrisy in grilling politicians who support Medicare for All about how they’ll pay for it, but on the other hand that line of questioning was always so obviously cynical and untrue: untold sums are always found for military spending and to offset the losses caused by tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction. Massive government spending is not the lefty issue people make it out to be. Reagan ran enormous deficits. Actually changing US society requires a renewed, permanent emphasis on redistribution of resources, of which the cash payments aren’t evidence of. They are an attempt at maintaining the status quo, which will fail because many people will come out of this crisis with more debt and less savings. The payments are simply one of a very few options the Treasury and Federal Reserve had to avoid triggering a massive financial crash. Which is something they should do! But I don’t see it as a big change in economic policy. However, if it awakens people to the hypocrisy of asking how social programs will be paid for, that is good.
It’s just more evidence that the question of paying for social programs like healthcare splits along ideological lines not logical, or procedural lines. People don’t oppose universal healthcare because they think it would bankrupt the country, because how would they even know? The analysis required to make that claim is tremendous; it just confirms a larger sociopolitical impulse against redistribution, which is the heart of the problem, not the funds. Minding the budget sounds apolitical, but it’s really not. Cash payments and a $2 trillion stimulus show that the funds are there, the government just didn’t want to spend it.
Letters from You
Michael with a correction: Hey Rob, quick correction here: “our government’s reported plan to save small businesses during the pandemic is to provide loans at 3.75% interest” is out of date. The CARES act includes a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), “a low-interest (1%) loan that will be forgiven if employee wages and count are maintained through June 30, 2020…. This program is available for any small business with less than 500 employees…. The PPP loan has a maturity of 2 years and an interest rate of 1%. the maximum loan amount is 2.5 X the average monthly payroll costs…. The form is relatively simple (2 fillable pages)…. The CARES Act Stimulus is $349 Billion. The banks will get overwhelmed.” [here’s the referenced Forbes article]. It’s probably underfunded, there’s been some confusion as it gets off the ground with last-minute changes, but it’s a lot better than what you have in here. That said, I personally think the whole thing is a bit of a sham, and we should just be sending out money to individuals.
Me: Thanks Michael. And I want to apologize to Matt, who isn’t at fault here. He wrote his letter to me before the PPP came out and I failed to follow up. However, if a business had already taken a 7(a) from the SBA you don’t qualify, and the cost is still high, from 2.75 percent to 4.75 percent. Also, as Michael predicted, the program is way underfunded. The $350 billion pot set aside for it is already out. And there are many other problems emerging from PPP now, banks are refusing to service new customers, and banks are closing their application portals. This failure to service the wider public falls hardest on communities that have historically lacked access to credit, like black business owners. Hedge funds are applying for these small business loans too, which is surely, uselessly sucking money out of the pool.
especially great letter. thanks for keeping it up, hope you’re feeling well.
I’m nearly done with this Bertrand Russell History of Western Philosophy, it’s really good though I’m sure more than a bit biased. Apparently his wife did a lot of the historical research which is interesting. He almost like spins the battle over western thought into some kind of epic fantasy.
Also reading Carceral Capitalismwhich I have a feeling you’ve read. Excellent, practically a tutorial on how to write concise and engaging materialist analysis. stay up!
Me: Haven’t read CC, I will check it out.
> Millions will immediately go back to work, which is different from the
> 1930s or the 1980s when workers were unemployed because businesses failed and sacked their workers.
Millions will go back to work, but immediately? I expect at least a certain amount of hysteresis: they won’t all go back to where they left or were laid off or fired, and there’ll be some messing around and delays as businesses come back to life in recovery and stage their hiring. Moreover, there will be fewer of those businesses, because some won’t have survived, or they will have had to change focus. In some places the businesses will have survived, but not all the earlier jobs.
Of course certain businesses will need even more people… for a while. Not many, I expect. Perhaps we’ll see a new spike in temporary jobs, even a temporary spike followed by another drop. And because so many people will want to return to paying work, we might also be looking at a Western-capitalism-driven overall lowering of wages.
I do hope my worst fears won’t be realized, but as you already know, I don’t worship at that church.
You’re right about all this, and there is bound to be some interruption in the process of reopening the economy, which is looking worse than I initially expected. Mass gatherings, like music and sports events, might not happen at all for a year. And it’s likely that wariness will change workers’ behaviors. However, in this case it is important to separate unemployment as a cause of economic pain and as a result. The problem in analyzing unemployment right now is that the two groups are swirled together in the same pot, both workers who are laid off temporarily and workers who are permanently laid-off. Both types of unemployment can be painful for the people and the society, but in different ways. What is notable about the unemployment of the 1930s or 1980s was that it was foremost the result of bad economic conditions, which caused owners to sack their employees. For all these workers, there was no job to go back to. This will surely be the case for many firms once the shutdown is over, but it is hard to say now. However, it is important to note that being unemployed––over even not making 100 percent of your salary––can cause people to save more than they usually would, which will also delay the recovery and negatively affect employment. (Though this would be welcome development for the sake of the environment.) High debt levels also constrain people’s spending. With an economy that is 3/4 dependent on consumer spending, this could be a very large problem.
Another aspect here, as you allude to, is that high unemployment is great for owners of businesses. The larger the pool of people seeking work, the more wages can be suppressed. Of course it doesn’t always work like this (we recently had the opposite, very low unemployment, and it didn’t raise wages meaningfully) but it will to some degree without government wage controls and/or a militant labor movement.
What I want to stress is that the news reports of unemployment are significant but not necessarily as compared to other moments of economic strife. Media loves to compare but sometimes the comparison is wrong.
The life and times of America’s comic prophet of race.
By Hilton Als (The New Yorker) 1999
Haunting portrait of Richard Pryor.
“Dinner with Schmucks”
The faux populism of contemporary food writing
by Kyle Paoletta (The Baffler)
There is something very wrong with Pete Wells’ food criticism, and this essay unearths most of it. Wells, for me, is primarily confused about the class concerns of dining and ultimately ends up all over the map, senselessly defending wildly expensive food and attacking middle-brow restaurants, while taking swipes at sacred cows (like Peter Luger and Per Se) so as to cause a scene. Ultimately, Wells loves high-brow cuisine and the standards that have been created to judge it, and struggles to imagine a different, less irrelevant paradigm.
“Into the Maw”
How Obama-era economics failed us.
By Ryan Cooper (The Nation)
I, like a lot of people, see the economic policy since the end of the Bush administration as largely an unbroken chain of bad, regressive policies. Obama reversed little of the priorities of conservative economists in government, and even went so far as to reappoint them once he came to office. This review does an amazing job presenting that argument, and if you are wondering why Obama failed to reverse or even halt economic and social inequities, this is an important piece. Biggest point is that after 2008 the status quo was maintained at all costs:
“The Bush-Obama bailouts reflected a highly political and ideological choice on their part to preserve the financial status quo at any cost—including the enormous share of the country’s economic output gobbled up by Wall Street—and to do so while directing incomprehensible amounts of money to the banks instead of to the American people.
Somebody was going to have to eat those losses—and Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, and the Obama economic team were committed to making sure it wasn’t the banks.”
“The Price of the Coronavirus Pandemic”
When COVID-19 recedes, it will leave behind a severe economic crisis. But, as always, some people will profit.
By Nick Paumgarten
Fun article with some good analysis of what’s going wrong in the middle portion.
Adam Curtis and Vice director Adam McKay on how Dick Cheney masterminded a rightwing revolution As told to Paul MacInnes (The Guardian)
The point they raise that is important is that fear is the overriding political ideology in both major parties today (this was the subject of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares, which is mainly about the War on Terror). Today both sides practice fear based politics, whether it’s a fear of Trump or a fear of immigrants. Very little room for an optimistic vision of the future, except in calls for universal investments in society (like universal healthcare or the Green New Deal). I also find the labor movement optimistic.
“Songs from Sinjar” How ISIS is hastening the end of the Yezidis’ ancient oral tradition.
By Alex Cuadros
Essay about the music and cultural history of Yezidis in Syria.
|Robin’s Book Report #68|
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
-Catastrophe preview: what might happen to the economy in the coming months.
-Letters from You
First of all, this is week is the 3 year anniversary of this newsletter. Thanks to everyone who reads and also to the people who respond, that’s what makes it fun.
|Hello everyone, As the economic shutdown continues, I wanted to highlight a couple of economic issues that I am watching. A lot is uncertain, because, if government intervention is smart and active, the global economic recovery could be quick. I doubt that will happen, first because the recovery after the financial crisis in 2008 was slow for everyone who wasn’t a bank or automakers, and second because the scale and complexity of the recovery probably outpaces our federal government’s competency and capacity. As many are aware, there simply isn’t a good system for getting people money. Cash transfer programs (that is, welfare and tax refunds), are so punitively complicated and threadbare that it is uncertain whether cash will even get to the people who need it. If the cash does not make it to people, there will be an epic wave of defaults on mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards could spark a financial crisis. Hopefully this won’t happen, but it requires coordinated action on the part of state and federal governments, lenders, and borrowers. However, this, as I said, seems unlikely. |
The effects of mass unemployment is also uncertain. While it’s a tasty bit of schadenfreude to watch unemployment skyrocket on Trump’s watch, the numbers that will matter most will be after the shutdown is over. Millions will immediately go back to work, which is different from the 1930s or the 1980s when workers were unemployed because businesses failed and sacked their workers. Surely, many businesses already have failed or will fail, but we will have to assess unemployment at the point when the economic activity resumes. The numbers today are crazy high, but less meaningful. Also, just a reminder that unemployment is a bad metric. The figure underestimates the true number of people out of work, because it doesn’t count people we have stopped looking for work and it doesn’t count contractors, gig workers, and freelancers (typically, though today it *kind of* does).
The real pain of this moment will likely come in two to four months, when debt comes due for a number of companies and they can’t pay their lenders back. When these companies default, it could ripple quickly through the country. Same with consumer debt. Many people will be able to afford their rent and other essential payments, but they may decide to default on their other obligations which could have widespread impacts. Like their auto loans, which I’ll mention below. So there are only a few immediate economic problems, but there are issues on the horizon that I am watching. Here is an annotated list.
–People might begin to default on their predatory subprime auto loans. These auto loans (often over a seven year term instead of a five year term) have increased in use by almost 60 percent since 2008. Many people are rolling over the balance from their last loan into their new, more expensive subprime loan, which means that they didn’t have the money to pay their car loans in the first place. They were relying on future incomes to keep rolling in.
-Businesses that were already struggling before the shutdown are vulnerable. One example is brick and mortar retailers like Macy’s and JC Penney. Many retailers (like JC Penney, Neiman Marcus, and J Crew) were using junk-bonds to finance operations, which are extremely expensive loans that give a business almost no flexibility if demand crashes. Wouldn’t be surprised if many close and never reopen.
-This leads to a second problem: the leases on brick and mortar retailers are repackaged in commercial mortgage backed securities. You may remember mortgage backed securities as being a culprit behind the 2008 crash. If these retailers fail en masse, the CMBS market would likely fail too.
-In general, WeWork and other junk-bonded funded companies are vulnerable too. Softbank actually just refused to buy outstanding share in WeWork, suggesting it might be on the verge of dissolution. Low interest rates for the last ten years has made debt easy to get, but leaves us vulnerable to a economic shock. From the New York Times: “easy money for companies came with a downside. The dependence on debt created what has been described as an “unexploded bomb” — a precariously balanced powder keg that could be set off by the coronavirus outbreak.”
–Energy companies could fail. Fracking, an industry that lives on strict junk-bond diet, is already seeing failures. (“Energy Companies Strange on Debt”). Whiting Petroleum, a Denver based fracker of the Bakken in North Dakota, already filed for bankruptcy. I could go on and on about how stupid fracking is, but I will wait to see how it unfolds. Also, a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has driven the price of oil down past $30 a barrel. This makes me think about the Dust Bowl, an environmental catastrophe that happened to strike in the midst of a financial crisis. Economic problems compound when they overlap with other problems. Coronavirus combined with an oil shock could be a serious problem.
–Credit is drying up, right at the moment when people need it most. This leaves small businesses that are otherwise financially healthy, stranded. Credit could easily allow a business to borrow against future profits to survive a dramatic loss of demand, but credit is becoming more expensive. Definitely Exhibit (a) of how the financial system is incredibly stupid.
-Last, I am watching the calls for austerity. Many cities are facing a financial crisis, including Las Vegas. Government officials, especially Cuoma, call for budget cuts to deal with the crisis. Since the 1970s, this has been the approach of almost every city, state, and nation. But I blame low taxes. So before we enact a single budget cut or ask workers to take a pay cut, let’s enact a tax on wealth, financial transactions, corporate profits, and salaries over $200k. If that doesn’t shore up the budget, then maybe workers can begin to pitch in.
-Do you have good ideas for donating money or time to something? I’ve been donating money to local food banks. This article about Hmong elders stockpiling rice in Minnesota, was a good example of how important access to food is, especially people who have experienced crisis before.
Letters from You
Lolly: I just had MBS by Ben Hubbard delivered. Will read next, after I finish Gabriel Bump’s Everywhere You Don’t Belong. I enjoyed The New Yorker short story Out There by Kate Folk. Stay well, safe, and sane.
I was reading about low-interest disaster loans in the Times this morning and started wondering about some things—some very broad Corona-related economic questions, the kind you might write large on a blackboard… At the moment, our government’s reported plan to save small businesses during the pandemic is to provide loans at 3.75% interest to keep them afloat until society gets off “pause.” These loans would require collateral. So, once things are up and running again, business owners are stuck with new loans in addition to whatever loans they presumably already had, and if they can’t pay them off the government comes and repossesses their building (or gym equipment, or ovens, etc.).
Yikes! This seems worse than nothing—how can owners make their new double loan payments if nobody’s spending money at their restaurant or gym or bookstore because they don’t have any money because they didn’t work for a month, or two, or six, or nine… So what, are we just not going to have any restaurants or bookstores anymore? The recovery model as currently proposed seems to be based mainly on incurring debts which will likely never be repaid. Is our economy all illusory anyway, as you’ve suggested before? You can’t eat a hologram.
Rob, is there something I am not understanding here? I keep wondering how many people in NYC have less than $300 in their bank account. A million? 2 million? What are those people going to do next week when they run out of money and need to get some groceries? Rioters looting Key Foods is a best-case scenario? Even if the government cuts everyone a check for a thousand dollars (an idea that is, incredibly, under consideration), how long does that money last? The only solution I can imagine is an immediate freeze on any rent, mortgage, and loan payments, including credit card payments—everything.
But maybe we don’t need permission. Rent Strike! I braved the subway to go see my psychiatrist last Tuesday. He was all fired up, said this is a political crisis, not a health crisis, and as I was walking out the door he said, “if you want to cure your depression, join the revolution!” Just might take the good doctor’s advice.
My response to Matt:
I think your questions are all valid. I have a feeling that if we do nothing, a lot of people will come out of the crisis with more debt. That rate for small businesses (3.75 percent) is way too high. In my estimation the best course of action probably isn’t a rent strike, but a general debt strike. A rent strike might be necessary for people who can’t pay, but without some kind of bargaining power to cancel the rent, it just delays the pain until later. And with people’s homes at stake, I feel like cancelling rent is more difficult than cancelling student loans or medical debt, a lot of which is owned by the government.
|Reading List |
The Education of a Prince By Alva Johnston (The New Yorker) This is a profile of a scam artist from 1932. It is notable that the scam in this case is all about credit. If you act rich, or like an exiled Russian prince, you can demand services on credit, for at least a little while. Paying cash is so vulgar!
“Why Preppers Weren’t Really Prepared For The Pandemic” By Michael Federer (On The Media) This segment was really good. One suggestion is that the preppers weren’t prepared because they live in a fantasy. Coronavirus has “rattled the prepper world to the very core.” Preppers weren’t really interested in the apocalypse but instead “looking for something missing in their lives.” One of the experts in the segment quips that “no survivalist ever did any survivalism,” which may or may not be true, but exposes the real mission of prepping. Preppers want to act like they are in control of their own lives.
Waiting for the End of the World Apocalypse camp at the dawn of the Great Extinction
By Lauren Groff (Harpers) Another aspect of prepping, argues Groff, is that they are romantics, people ready to defend white supremacy against logic. They are pining for the collapse, a sentiment which the author foolishly shares with the survivalists. It’s the idea that only a major dissolution of the society will make way for a better world. This isn’t really true–collective action will be effective even in the face of no collapse–but I agree with the Groff that it will require a certain type of preparation on the part of people on the left. Both the survivalist kind and the imaginative kind. Both emergency medical training and the sketches of a more just political order, one in which all shades of preppers can come together against billionaires.
“Prophets of Instability” How finance broke the modern corporation.
By Rick Perlstein (The Nation)
Perlstein reviews a book on how the modern corporation changed from being a steward of societal progress to being an extractive burden on the nation. Around the 1970s, theorists encouraged corporations to be crazier:
“To encourage [managers] to behave as full-time profit maximizers and nothing but, [theorists thought] companies should take on much more debt. They should, in other words, be much, much more unstable, for well-funded corporate treasuries “permitted chief executives to relax,” Lemann writes, “rather than being incessantly, almost desperately worried, as they should be, about making the company more profitable.””
Funny line about the deranged neoliberal economist Michael Jensen:
“Jensen’s most influential statement of this idea was a 1976 paper, “Theory of the Firm.” Lemann describes it as “long, detailed, [and] formula-filled,” which gave it the appropriately cool aura of science, even if it was also a work of moral dementia.”
Good observation about the true function of venture capital investing, where 3/4s of investments fail:
“The only possible way such investing could make sense is if the venture capitalists are placing bets that they will someday buy into a monopoly; indeed, it is only at a monopoly-like scale of market domination that a social network company can hope to make money at all.”
Paperwork has never fit comfortably into our idea of what work means—it has no heroes and few sympathies.
By Ben Kafka (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Who are the literary heroes of paperwork? Bartleby? Kafka? Fun essay.
“Shell Is Looking Forward” The fossil-fuel companies expect to profit from climate change. I went to a private planning meeting and took notes.
By Malcolm Harris
Sort of depressing, but an important window into how energy companies are rationalizing their continued existence. Why energy companies often encourage government spending:
“Government spending is fine with capitalists as long as it ends up in their pockets, so that’s the type of spending we’re likely to see. It’s the only care they can afford to offer, not because we’re too expensive to keep alive, but because the American system only functions if workers are living on the brink of disaster.”
When the Future Doesn’t Exist
|Robin’s Book Report #67|
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
-Letter from Me
|Hello readers, I hope everyone is doing well. Last week, I was temporarily laid off from my temporary job with two full weeks pay. This is nice, but I can’t imagine being called back into work in two weeks. I can only wonder what will happen next. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be isolated at home in Brooklyn. Email me! I’ll be desperate for social contact soon. I’m not sure I have anything helpful to add to the economic analysis of the crisis right now. But I will say that even if everything resolves today, we’ll still have a problem. Everyday life requires lots of different debt tools to operate, which requires a lot of different future incomes to operate. Already, a lot of future incomes have failed to flow in. The economic response in the United States, to just a few days of shuttered businesses, demonstrates how impossible the present is, if the future doesn’t exist or isn’t certain. How will I pay my credit card if my work stops paying me? How will my work pay their loans if customers stop showing up? Our world runs hot on the optimism of debt; the pessimistic winds of crisis cool it quickly. Absent bailouts and low interest loans, the businesses and people most reliant on debt (most highly leveraged) will fail first, then those with the least savings (most economically precarious), and then everyone else.|
What kinds of observations/questions do you have the economic situation? What have you been reading? Let me know!
New Writing Alert:
I wrote an article in The New Republic that came out the same day as my last newsletter (two weeks ago). But I didn’t have any heads up from the magazine, so I am informing you about it now! It is about how deaths in middle age (usually very rare) for white people without a college degree are on the rise. Worse news, the deaths are primarily of suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholic cirrhocis and liver cancer. It is hard to say why exactly, but employer-provided healthcare, coupled with the surging cost of healthcare, has driven down wages and encouraged firms to shed workers. The people affected the worse by this are precisely the same demographic that is dying these “deaths of despair.” Providing universal healthcare wouldn’t reduce the very high cost of healthcare, but it would reveal the true cost and allow the government to demand a more reasonable cost. In brief, the article is a case for uniting all classes against the common nuisance of our very expensive, cynically extractive healthcare system.
|Reading list |
“Passive Income Schemes For The Truly Passive” By Kelly Dickinson (The New Yorker)
Very Funny: “In willful denial of your impending workweek, stay up until 4 A.M. on a Sunday night watching a Hungarian life-style vlogger’s secondary ASMR channel. Be lulled into complacency by the skrit-skrit sounds of her application of viscous spreads to rustic slices of toast. Feel your eyelids grow heavy. In the middle of “Shhhh: Vegemite vs. Marmite,” fall asleep with your face pressed against your keyboard. Wake up to discover that you have inadvertently opened a Word document, written an e-book on how to be a “product ninja,” listed it on Amazon using S.E.O.-friendly keywords, sent a snappy press release to a curated list of key industry influencers, and shot to No. 1 in the “Product Management” category.”
“The Case for a Social Distancing Wage”
Paying people to stay home will save lives in the near term, and aid the economic recovery in the long run. By Mark Engler and Andrew Elrod (The New Republic)
Necessary: “The effect of [our] tattered social safety net is a disuse and neglect that is now proving to be an obstacle in responding to the coronavirus crisis: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74 percent of recently unemployed workers in 2018 did not apply for unemployment benefits.” “Elected officials must insist that no business be bailed out unless there are guarantees in place to maintain the income of the people who are being temporarily thrown out of work” “Rather than $1 billion, full replacement wages would come to something closer to $15 billion per quarter for every one percent of the labor force without work.”
“A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street” Hundreds of thousands of single-family homes are now in the hands of giant companies — squeezing renters for revenue and putting the American dream even further out of reach.
By Francesca Mari (The New York Times Magazine)
What a fabulous article. During the last crash, many homeowners defaulted on the mortgages and lost their houses. Large private equity firms came in and bought those houses, often renting the houses back to the previous owners. This should be an excellent lesson about what happens when you bail out banks and leave individuals out to dry. Who is more to blame, banks who made risky bets on derivatives or individuals who made risky bets on property? When we decide who to rescue we make moral judgements about what lives and dies. Stabilizing banks without stabilizing homeowners practically guaranteed this outcome.
“An Open Letter to Leon Cooperman” We detect the rank smell of class warfare by Dave Denison (The Baffler)
Dave Denison implies that billionaire Leon Cooperman’s griping about the class war reveals Cooperman’s political mind is a vast, empty canyon. Cooperman’s rich but he’s not smart. Actually, he’s quite stupid.
Bank Workers Unionize for the First Time in 40 Years
More than 100 workers at a Tom Steyer-founded bank have won collective bargaining rights in an industry with the lowest unionization rates in the country. by Lauren Kaori Gurley (Vice) Choice quote: “The banking industry has one of the lowest rates of union representation in any industry, at 1.1 percent. And it has an abysmal track record of discrimination, pay inequity, and unrealistic productivity quotas. One in three bank tellers relies on some form of government assistance. The median annual salary for bank tellers was $29,450 in 2019. Meanwhile profits at the biggest banks in the United States soared to record levels last year—thanks to a $38 billion Trump administration tax write-off.”
Rebekah Neumann’s Search For Enlightenment Fueled WeWork’s Collapse By Moe Tkacik (Bustle)
An article about the wife of WeWork founder Adam Nuemann. Uma Thurman’s brother: “‘You can use the language of spirituality to revive a discredited idea,’ Thurman says. ‘And so, the yoga business is old-fashioned labor exploitation, and maybe WeWork was a Ponzi scheme.’” “In a lot of office environments, ‘bad energy’ might be code for ‘old’ or ‘overweight’ or ‘knows too much about labor law,’ but one veteran WeWork employee said Rebekah’s firings were seemingly random and without obvious prejudice.”
“Rural America Doesn’t Have to Starve to Death” A predatory and extractive financial sector has hollowed out communities across the US. By Nick Shaxson (The Nation)
Finance has drained the life out of the rural United States. “How Business Schools Fail Up” The rise of the STEM-obsessed, corporate-partnered university By David Sessions (The New Republic) Choice quote: “The postwar academic entrepreneurs who championed the new institutes—Kerr at the University of California system, Penn president Gaylord Harnwell, and Samuel Hayes Jr. at the University of Michigan, among many others—saw the research university as a potential engine of economic development; liberal education and traditional academic research were of secondary importance, if not altogether obsolete”
“Shell Is Looking Forward” The fossil-fuel companies expect to profit from climate change. I went to a private planning meeting and took notes. By Malcolm Harris (New York Magazine)
Malcolm Harris reports from a Shell leadership conference where the energy company attempts to reconfigure their image to appeal to millennials, while fundamentally changing nothing about their business. Pretty dark, but often funny.
There Are No Technical Solutions To Political Problems
|Robin’s Book Report #66|
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein
|New article alert|
I have three recent articles for you this week. The first is a review of a book about the San Quentin News, a media operation run out of California’s San Quentin Prison. The book is written by the veteran journalist Bill Drummond, who was one of the founding editors of NPR’s Morning Edition. Drummond advises the newspaper at San Quentin, and in his recollection of his experience there, I found a story about how the media contributed to the rise of mass incarceration by broadcasting the most grisly and depraved events from our inner cities in the 1980s and 1990s. But Prison Truth makes the argument that the media can contribute to the decline of mass incarceration.
I also wrote for the Baffler about the financial literacy programs on college campuses. The thrust of these programs is that borrowers should do everything they can to pay back their loans (bring your lunch to work!). It’s eerily obvious advice, and should make you wonder why this advice is suddenly so necessary. How did anyone ever get by without the financial literacy initiatives that started in the 1980s? Is the advice necessary because a bunch of irresponsible borrowers took out student loans? It’s not. It is because the cost of college has risen to such a high level that almost no one can afford it without enormous loans. Expecting every college-bound student to read and understand the entirety of their loan documentation is, simply, crazy. And the idea that anyone will be able to pay off their loans by being thrifty is also crazy.
Lastly, in my first article for The Nation, I wrote about why banks act so badly. The article is called Essentially, I wrote about why being Too Big To Fail is extortion, why it happens, and what we might do about it. (hint: nationalize!)
Also: My union and I were also featured on NewYorker.com. Check it out!
|Reading list |
Come and See dir. Elem Klimov
I saw this harrowing movie, about the terrifying Nazi campaign through Belarus in 1943, last weekend. (Webster’s defines ‘harrowing’ as “acutely distressing” which is quite accurate.) Tremendously effective as an anti-war movie.
“SoftBank Is Funding Every Side of a Bruising Startup Battle” Money from the Japanese tech investor is fueling a price war in Latin America between three of its own: Uber, Didi and Rappi
By Robbie Whelan and Eliot Brown (Wall Street Journal)
Softbank, the Japanese international conglomerate and private equity fund, is starting to look like a global monopoly super-power. The profits flow in one direction.
“It’s Still Not the Supply Side” Yes, workers should be able to move and work freely. But economics remains fundamentally about power. By Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum (Democracy Journal) Choice quote, with my bolding: “The bottom line here is this: There are no technological solutions to political problems, and the power of the financial sector is a political one. Even if FinTech shakes up consumer lending, it will do little for the way finance exerts power over the rest of the economy.”
“Where’s the Savior?” by Patrick Blanchfield (n+1)
Already irrelevant but still a hilarious article about Bloomberg’s failings and Freud’s least funny book.
“Oxford and Cambridge are the world’s foremost producers of bullshit” You can’t understand Oxbridge or, to an extent, Britain, without understanding this. by Maya Kaiser (The Outline)
What do Boris Johnson and Caroline Calloway have in common? The antiquarian schools of England.
“Freelancers resist precarity by sharing rates and organizing”
For many workers, openness about pay has helped to make conditions more equitable. Still, they fear retribution. By Elizabeth King (Columbia Journalism Review)
I work as a freelancer in two different fields and I have found that one of the problems is that no one knows what anyone else is making. This tends to keep rates low because we are often unsure whether we should ask for more money. But once I have found ut that others make more, it’s been easy to ask for a higher rate. Ignorance keeps rates low, and for atomized workers like freelancers, who are also working without worker protections, the rate needs to be as high as possible. Sharing rates is incredibly important for a functioning freelance economy, or at least a freelance economy that isn’t set up to exploit workers. Thanks for reading!
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The Problem with Duetsche Bank