I Could Just Copy Stuff From Twitter

Hey, that’s what I’m doing!

From a gang of tweeters:

Trump didn’t extend unemployment benefits yesterday. He told states to set up a “lost wages assistance program” in coordination with FEMA, DHS and DOL and it’s gonna be a dang mess.

It also seems, like, illegal.

But a real shame if people think this is going to pay them next week.

The memorandum is in plain English and you can see that this is insanely complicated. Obvious, key context: states have already failed utterly to implement simpler policies in timely fashion.

As I’ve said elsewhere, people need to READ the text of executive orders. It’s a publicity stunt to make people think he’s DOING something. The texts clearly show all he is doing is pointing his finger at some cabinet member and saying “Look into this.”

Trump actually thought he upgraded & modernized our entire nuclear arsenal in a few months in 2017 because of an Executive Order:

Ee-5OjKVoAE0c4B

Agreed, but the publicity stunt only works if you have an accomplice in the mainstream media that will just pipeline it into the ether.

Because he’s the “president” they have to cover him and he counts on people just looking at the pictures.

 

Let the Pigs Fly!

The president issued some executive orders yesterday at one of his country clubs while being protected at great expense by the Secret Service. The people who write headlines gave us stuff like this from the widely-printed Associated Press:

President Txxxx moves to authorize more unemployment pay and a payroll tax deferral for coronavirus relief

The nation would have been so much better served if there had been headlines like this (I grant you it’s rather long) written by a Republican political consultant:

If you actually needed more proof that the Republican Party was a non-serious party with no interest in governing, Txxxx signing meaningless executive orders he doesn’t understand at a golf club he’s using to scam more taxpayer dollars is pretty much the perfect trifecta.

After almost four years, reporters still write as though this is a normal president doing things that presidents normally do. So we are told that “Txxxx directs Post Office to employ flying pigs in cost-cutting measure” as if Txxxx has the authority to do such a thing and it’s actually going to happen. He gets his headline and appears to be doing something significant. That’s all that matters to him. It’s good publicity.

As time passes, there will be articles analyzing what the president actually did or didn’t do. By then, he will have moved on to his next performance piece. It will turn out, however, that the Post Office, run by one of his cronies, did spend time and money trying to get pigs to fly but, damn it, somehow failed.

We do have Twitter, however. From Paul Krugman:

I don’t know if anyone else has said this, but payroll tax cuts are the hydroxychloroquine of economic policy. They won’t do anything to solve the employment crisis, but will have dangerous side effects.

Yet Txxxx remains obsessed with them as a cure. We’ve lost millions of jobs, not because employers lack incentives to hire, but because many activities, like bars, indoor dining, inessential travel, elective medical care have been put on hold because of the risk of contagion.

Letting employers keep money they were supposed to be paying into Social Security and Medicare — no good reason to believe they’ll pass the savings on to workers — does nothing to remedy this problem.

It will, however, undermine the finances of programs that are absolutely crucial to the lives of older Americans. If you measure the quality of policy ideas on a scale of 1 to 10, this is a minus 5 or worse.

Even Senate Republicans consider this a terrible idea. So where’s Txxxx getting it from? The immediate answer seems to be Stephen Moore, whose previous greatest hits include predicting that tax cuts would create a Kansas economic miracle [Note: Kansas fell apart after severe tax cuts].

Just a word about the other Txxxx “policy”, on unemployment benefits. He is NOT proposing to extend supplemental benefits. He’s calling for a new program, without Congressional authorization, that states are supposed to set up and provide with matching funds.

Two realities here: 1. The administrative capacity of state unemployment offices is stretched to the limit — it took months to provide expanded benefits, and some people never got them. They’re in no position to add a new program.

2. States are also broke because of coronavirus revenue losses and expenses. Even if they could reprogram their COBOL-driven computers fast enough, they wouldn’t have the money.

So this is policy by reality TV: an attempt to pretend that Txxxx is doing something, while providing no real relief. The fact is that Txxxx and those around him don’t know how to do policy.

But they do know how to get publicity.

In spades.

As if pigs began to fly.

Politics and Markets One More Time

Around 40 years ago, I bought a book called Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems. It was written by Yale professor Charles Lindblom. I read about half of it before putting it aside. I don’t know why I stopped reading, because I thought it was excellent and intended to finish it. Instead, I treated the book like a kind of talisman. For some time, I kept it on my desk at work. It was there so long that someone asked me if I was still reading “that book”. I suppose I didn’t have the mental energy to finish it, but having it around was nice. Maybe it reminded me of my aborted attempt at an academic career.

thumbnail_20200807_142201

A few days ago, I thought I might go around the house and find books I’ve always thought about reading but never did. An obvious candidate was a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson called Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Just like Politics and Markets, I read about half of it years ago and have often thought of finishing it. Unlike Politics and Markets, however, Emerson still had a decades-old bookmark showing where I stopped reading (it wasn’t even at the start of a chapter).

I’m now reading Politics and Markets again. I was immediately impressed.

This is how the 1977 edition above begins:

Relentlessly accumulating evidence suggests that human life on the planet is headed for a catastrophe. Indeed, several disasters are possible, and if we avert one, we will be caught by another. At present rates of population growth, another century will put 40 billion people on Earth, too many to feed. If industrial production grows at present rates during the next century, resource requirements will multiply by a thousand. And energy emission, some scientists say, will over a longer period of time raise Earths’ temperature to a level unsuitable for human habitation. All this assumes that a nuclear catastrophe does not spare us the long anguish of degeneration.

However fearful one may be that the fallible and dilatory intelligence of the human species will somehow either end human life or reduce it to unbearable squalor, the decline of the human condition is not inevitable. It is for us to decide whether we will continue to reproduce at disastrous rates, plunder the planet of resources, or burn ourselves from the face of the earth through either thermal pollution or a few quick blasts. The world is man’s doing, not something done to him.

Assuming that men and women wish to give some thought to their futures, what are the fundamental politico-economic mechanisms they can employ in order to maintain — indeed greatly enlarge — the humane qualities of life on Earth? That is the question of this book. Some will doubt that political and economic mechanisms matter. They will say that man’s future hinges on a moral regeneration. Or science and technology. Or inner awareness. Or a new form of family or other small-group association. Or organic foods — the list is open to nominations. This book is for those who believe that politics and economics will turn out to matter.

Well, some good news is that world population isn’t climbing as fast as people expected in 1977. It was 4.2 billion back then. Now it’s 7.8 billion, but the rate of increase is going down. It’s projected that there will be 10 billion of us by 2077, not 40 billion. And since the fertility rate is expected to keep dropping, world population may actually decline in the next century (even without the help of killer viruses, nuclear wars, giant meteors, etc.).

Along with population, resource requirements continue to grow, although some experts believe that we won’t run out of the things we need, since as resources become scare, they’ll become more expensive and we’ll find substitutes (I don’t know what the substitute for oxygen or water would be).

The bad news, of course, is that the “energy emission” that “some scientists” were worried about in 1977 is now out of control. If you want a scary update, see Bill McKibben’s article “130 Degrees” at the New York Review of Books site:

What [the 10 to 15% drop in emissions during the pandemic] seems to indicate is that most of the momentum destroying our Earth is hardwired into the systems that run it. Only by attacking those systems—ripping out the fossil-fueled guts and replacing them with renewable energy, even as we make them far more efficient—can we push emissions down to where we stand a chance.

As for “nuclear catastrophe”, it’s easy to think that the danger subsided with the end of the Cold War. That’s not the message from “The New Nuclear Threat”, an article by Jessica Matthews in the same issue of The New York Review of Books (I’ve subscribed for a long time — the subscription is almost worth the price):

In part because of effective deterrence, fear of their destructiveness, and a growing taboo against their use, and in part because of dumb luck, nearly a century has passed without nuclear weapons being used again in conflict. . . . But we are not safer today—quite the reverse. . . . A second nuclear arms race has begun—one that could be more dangerous than the first. . . .

The single step from which profound policy change could flow, domestically and internationally, would be formal endorsement by the five original nuclear powers—the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China—of the Reagan-Gorbachev principle, jointly articulated by the two leaders at their 1985 summit. It states simply, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” International adoption would simultaneously indicate the nuclear powers’ recognition of the rising dangers of nuclear conflict and the need to move toward nuclear forces around the world that are structured for deterrence, not war fighting. . . .  Eventually, these eleven words could underlie the next generation of arms control negotiations, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and help short-circuit a second nuclear arms race.

I don’t know if Prof. Lindblom’s old book might help with any of this. I’ll let you know if I finish it.

“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy” by Donald L. Miller

Ulysses S. Grant was an American hero. After attending West Point and serving in the Mexican War, he had a lackluster civilian career. But during the Civil War he rose to become the Union’s top general. After Abraham Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for ending the war and emancipating the slaves. I’ve read his memoirs and a few books about him and came away full of admiration.

The author of this book, a retired history professor, also admires Grant and recognizes his accomplishments. Here’s how he describes Grant’s campaign to take the city of Vicksburg in the spring of 1863:

It was a Civil War blitzkrieg. In eighteen days, Grant’s army had marched nearly two hundred miles; won five battles — four in six days’; inflicted a loss of 5,787 killed, wounded and missing; compelled the abandonment of two Confederate strongholds;  captured the capital of Mississippi; chased [Gen. John] Pemberton’s army inside Vicksburg; and positioned his own army between the only two rebel forces in the state. Along the way, he suffered only 4,379 casualties, among them 695 killed. It was a tactical and strategic masterwork, and the decisions that decided the outcome had to be made in a flash, without consulting staff, other commanders, or his superiors in Washington. . . .

After landing in Mississippi on April 30, 1863, Grant had conquered space and time, hostile terrain and climate, without adequate cavalry and reliable maps. Most of his men had made the march on five day’s rations, and none had tents…. But under Grant’s resolute leadership, there was little grumbling or complaining, perhaps because the general . . . “shared the hardships of the common soldier, living on hardtack and sleeping on the ground” [413-14].

After a siege lasting sixteen days, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant’s army. The author concludes:

Vicksburg was that rare thing in military history: a decisive battle, one with war-turning strategic consequences. The only Civil War battle remotely like it was Antietam. . . It did more than open the [Mississippi] river and split the Confederacy. It took the river counties of Mississippi and Louisiana out of the war and left the strongest Federal army in the Deep south, where it could move anywhere at will. . . .

Vicksburg was “the stab to the Confederacy from which it never recovered”, [historian] Edward Gregory wrote after the war. No reasonable chance of a Southern “triumph remained after the white flag flew on the ramparts of the terraced city . . . . There were desperate battles afterward, and occasional victories, but their light only rendered deeper the advancing and impending shadow of ultimate failure”. The military historian J. F. C. Fuller had it right: “Vicksburg, and not Gettysburg, was the crisis of the Confederacy”.

Strangely, the conqueror of Vicksburg failed to mention in his memoirs or battle reports the outstanding strategic accomplishment of his Mississippi campaign. At Vicksburg, Grant evolved a war-winning strategy for the North. His triumph led Lincoln to call him east to take on [Gen. Robert E. Lee] in Virginia, and there he fought as he had in the west. Turning the Army of the Potomac into an agile, improvising force, he used lighting maneuvers . . .  patient siege tactics . . . and scorched-earth raids — all of which led to Appomattox and the end. . . Even today, [Gen. William T. Sherman] is seen as the North’s avenging angel, but it was Grant who had “the real core of iron” [482-84].

Well, it sounds like Grant did pretty well.

What was strange about reading this book is that, despite its title and subtitle “Vicksburg: Grant’s campaign that broke the Confederacy”, it isn’t until page 327 of its 500 pages that we read that Grant “would be moving against Vicksburg soon, and with resolve”.  Before that the author explores Grant’s activities in Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and the titanic two-day battle at Shiloh. Then there are Grant’s failed attempts to take Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863 that involved trying to traverse various rivers, bayous and swamps, including efforts to construct canals under hellish conditions, with disease killing more men than enemy fire.

The author gives equal coverage, maybe more coverage, to the navy’s activities, including Admiral David Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and his attempt to take Vicksburg without significant support from the army. The navy played a major role all along the Mississippi and its tributaries, an aspect of the Civil War that usually doesn’t get much discussion. Even Grant admitted that finally taking Vicksburg might not have been possible without the blockade and extended bombardment provided by naval ironclads and gunboats. Those efforts were in addition to what the navy did to transport troops and supplies up, down, across and around the Mississippi.

The other surprising aspect of the book is that it presents a picture of Gen. Grant that is less flattering than other things I’ve read. The author accuses him of sometimes underestimating the forces against him, being careless with his supply lines, launching attacks that were doomed to failure, misrepresenting facts and occasionally drinking too much (although his drinking doesn’t seem to have affected his performance at all).

It’s impossible to read this book without being reminded that historical accounts, even ones as detailed as this, always leave things out and that war truly is hell.