Monday’s Mtg: Inequality’s Causes and Effects

[Note: This will be our first meeting at the PANERA CAFÉ at 5620 Balboa Ave.]

It has been almost two years since President Obama declared that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” are “the defining challenge of our time.” Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and every progressive I know believes the same. Hillary Clinton may not make inequality the rhetorical centerpiece of her campaign, but the policies she’s recommending are clearly designed to combat it. Even some conservatives are talking about inequality. (In fact, one might argue that Donald Trump sudden rise reflects a split between GOP elites and its base voters over inequality. His tirades target policies that downscale GOP voters blame – fairly or unfairly – for their stalled prosperity, like immigration and free trade.) The issue is not going away anytime soon.

I thought it might be useful for us to start at the beginning of the inequality debate by asking two basic (and not yet settled!) questions: (1) What’s been causing inequality’s sharp rise, and (2) what harm does it actually do? Of course, these are to some extent technical disputes among experts. Still, I think we’ll have no problem grasping the basic arguments, which will give us some insight and healthy skepticism going into the debate and bumper sticker slogan phase of the GOP and Democratic primary season.

I will start us off on Monday first by defining what is usually meant by “inequality.” Then, I’ll briefly explain its half-dozen or so most often-cited causes and effects. Partial lists:

CAUSES OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Skills-based technological change: The idea that tech innovation has made Americans with the skills to use the technologies more valuable than those without the skills, and so the pay gap between them keeps widening.
  2. Trade and globalization may have put downward pressure on wages in sectors that are vulnerable to foreign competition.
  3. Immigration: The same night be true for low-skilled, non-college educated occupations that compete with either legal or illegal immigrants.
  4. De-unionization has weakened worker bargaining power.
  5. Financialization of the economy distorts incomes at the top and bottom.
  6. Corporate culture and structures may have changed to devalue workers and encourage excessive executive pay.
  7. Government policies: Tax cuts, spending cuts, anti-trust non-enforcement, mass incarceration, educational inequality, and a host of other policies have made the rich richer and left many of us to tread water or sink.
  8. The Great Recession could have suddenly magnified all of these other factors – or, maybe led us to overstate their impact.

EFFECTS OF SOARING INEQUALITY (alleged) –

  1. Stalled wages and social mobility for most Americans.
  2. Lower growth rates in the overall economy.
  3. Repeated boom and bust economic cycles from which only the rich recover quickly and fully.
  4. Slower recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and future recessions.
  5. Political polarization: There is an argument that soaring inequality contributes to partisan political polarization.
  6. Disconnected elites: Falling elite support for the 20th century American social contract, including full employment and the social safety net.
  7. Plutocratic elites: They’ve taken over our political system and used that power to…
  8. Rig the economic game to perpetuate their power and status.

Most conservative I’m familiar with argue that inequality has not risen by much if measured accurately, and/or that the increase is a result of “natural” market forces, and/or that it does more good than harm anyway.

Fewer links this week, even though it’s one of our more complicated topics.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Cyber-Security – Threats and Responses.

Our New Home – Starting July 27

As we discussed, beginning next week for our July 27, 2015, meeting on inequality, Civilized Conversation will change location.  I’ve selected the Panera Café at 5620 Balboa Avenue in San Diego.  It’s between the 805 freeway and Genesee Ave, in the large Genesee Plaza shopping center with the Target and Home Depot.

It’s a large Panera and, as you can see from the photos below, they have 3-4 different tables suitable for a group of 10-15 people.  There’s plenty of parking and other restaurants nearby, including a Five Guys and a Chipotle and a Native Foods Café.  I was not able to reserve us a specific table permanently yet.  But that may come with time and is not a worry anyway since they have so much space.

So, starting 7/27, look for us by the “CivCon” placard I will place on the table we’re using that night.  FYI, some nights we may be sitting outside, so consider sweaters/jackets.

Map.

Panera Balboa 4

Panera Balboa 1

Panera Balboa 2Panera Balboa 3

And, thanks to Tom and the rest of The Village Café people for hosting us briefly after the Coco’s closed!

Monday’s Mtg: Nuclear Agreement With Iran.

As the whole world knows, on Tuesday night 7/14/15 the United States and 6 of the world’s major powers (+ the EU) announced a major arms control agreement with Iran. Historic, is more like it, for good or ill. After nearly 40 years of cold war, proxy wars, and sometimes actual war with Iran, the West finally has a signed, detailed, multilateral agreement to limit the Islamic State’s nuclear program. However, the agreement does far less than we initially wanted in terms of dismantling and eliminating Iran’s existing nuke program. Its provisions are complex and the road ahead is long. Few observers doubt that Iran has given up its desire to get nuclear weapons capability, at least in the long term.

Still, if this agreement (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) actually succeeds in achieving its stated objectives, Iran will be kept out of the nuclear weapons club for at least the next decade, and probably closer to two decades. If Iran can successfully cheat or if the treaty regime falls apart, Iran likely will get its bomb capability. The result of that likely (but not indisputably) would be war(s) and a regional nuclear arms race. The stakes are very high.

Congress has the next 60 days to approve or reject the agreement. Obama is aggressively stumping for approval while GOP politicians and conservative pundits have thunderously denounced it as another Obama appeasement of an implacable enemy. So, our little group is entering the maelstrom as it’s just getting started.

There’s a lot for us to talk about on Monday night. I will start us off with a short summary of the terms of the agreement. Then, I want to add what I think is some important context that I think will help us in evaluating the pros/cons of the nuclear agreement. Don’t be lulled by the over-the-top remarks the GOP presidential candidates are making. Legitimate questions really do exist about the merits of the agreement and I hope we can address each of the major ones.

###  I found us a great NEW LOCALE.  I’ll fill you in Monday and we can start meeting there on July 27. ###

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is in the new agreement with Iran?
    1. Basic structure and terms: Who has to do what by when and how, etc.?
    2. Enforcement: How will we monitor compliance and punish Iranian transgressions?
  2. Compromises: What have we conceded and what did we get in return, and the same for Iran?
  3. Comparisons:
    1. How far away from our negotiating objectives did we end up?
    2. Is this the best deal we could have obtained from Iran? How can we know that?
    3. Were there any realistic alternatives to this pact?
  4. Effectiveness:
    1. Will the agreement work – Will it successfully freeze and partially roll back Iran’s nuke program?
    2. Is that enough? How specifically could we have achieved more?
    3. How likely is the West to stay vigilant so the agreement doesn’t fall apart?
  5. The Region: How will this agreement affect our other conflicts with Iran and the region’s other festering problems? How might it affect politics inside Iran?
  6. To watch for:
    1. Key events in implementation calendar.
    2. Signs that signal Iranian cheating or manipulation?
    3. USA: Would a GOP president really abrogate the agreement?

LINKS –   Zillions – Focus on highlighted ones!

Next Week – Inequality: Its Causes and Consequences.

Monday’s Mtg: Can Science Explain the Mind?

We have another, excellent learn-from-Bruce meeting this week. Our resident neurologist will lecture on what science knows about the human consciousness. How close is science to knowing whether our self-awareness/sentience is an epiphenomenon of the physical structures and functioning of our brains? Is there any room left for an incorporeal, human consciousness, either divinely-created or in some other way non-physical?

To most of us secular types, the answer is clear: Anything we don’t know about the human mind we someday will know. Everything that exists in our consciousness has a physical analog, evolving naturally. Evolution invented us and then we invented “us.” Many religious people seethe at this POV, considering it arrogant and, at most, unprovable. Hopefully, Bruce can help us seculars better understand what it is we’re so damned sure about.

I – whoever and whatever that is – am really looking forward to this one. Below are a few inks of general interest googled by me. I will add in any readings Bruce suggests later this weekend.

There is a small chance I won’t be there again. But, again, not for lack of interest.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Via Bruce:

From me (they just seemed a little easier)

Next Week:  Nuclear Negotiating with Iran.

Monday’s Mtg: Is There a Looming U.S. Retirement Crisis?

I knew this would happen someday. We did this topic about a year and a half ago, in December 2013!. Oops. It was a good meeting and my intro post had some nice links, many of which I’ve reproduced below. Now, there is not much in the way of new developments in this area since 2013, since whether there is a retirement crisis and how big depends on long-range projections that do not change much with short-term economic fluctuations. But, I still think we can freshen up this issue on Monday night in several ways.

First, we can look at the weird politics that surround anything having to do with the interests of the elderly in this country. Older voters are now the base of the Republican Party, even though they are the most reliant on the socialistic government programs (Social Security, Medicare, and others) conservatives claim to despise in the abstract: Why is that? Progressives say they are the great protectors of these programs, yet liberal proposals for new government spending almost always exclude the elderly and (possibly) would come at old folks’ expense.

Second, if there is a large looming U.S. retirement crisis, it is a function of some of the other problems we talk about all of the time. Low wages and income inequality in particular, but also rising health care costs and other problems. Are the solutions to our retirement crisis to be found in goosing Social Security or other government benefits, as some progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed? Or, should any teeth-pullingly hard to get new spending be aimed at helping working people?

Lastly, we can view our retirement problems as part of an old problem that I’ve learned something shocking bout since our 2013 meeting: The “Great Risk Shift.” This is the huge transfer of financial costs and risks away from large institutions – corporations and governments – to employees and taxpayers that has occurred in the last 30 years. Via this book, I’ve just learned that hundreds of blue chip American companies have been using their employee pension plans as a kind of cash cow, looting them to pay for other priorities.

But in order to do any of these, it may be helpful to get a brief refresher on the basic issue of whether there might be a big retirement crisis in America’s future. I’ll try to do that in a short introduction. Have a nice Fourth of July and I’ll see you Monday.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Definitions: What makes for a “secure” retirement in the USA? What are the “3 legs” retirees are supposed to lean on financially?
  2. Leg 1 – Private pensions:  Who gets company pensions and who does not? How adequate and well-funded are they? Have big companies really been looting them in recent years?
  3. Leg 2 – Savings/Investment: Same.
  4. Leg 3 – Social Security:  How generous are its benefits and who relies most on it for retirement income?  How big is its funding shortfall and how hard would that be to make up?
  5. 1+2+3: So, do experts predict a big future U.S. retirement crisis?  Why/for whom? How sensitive are these estimates to small changes in assumptions?
  6. Fixes: What can and should be done about all this? Is spending more on the elderly the best place to spend any new public money?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Our last mtg on retirement –

Yes, a huge retirement crisis looms-

No, there is no looming crisis!

Next Week: Can science explain the mind?

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Iraq and Syria?

Our group has been debating the Middle East’s problems since we formed more than a decade ago (!). Most recently, we discussed the failures of the Arab Spring (2/14) and the rise of ISIS (9/14). (I thought these posts had some good links, BTW.) In those meetings, I steered us away from blaming individual actors (like Iraqi leadership, U.S. presidents, Iran and other regional meddlers) in favor of structural and historical factors. This made our discussions a bit incomplete, since there is plenty of blame to pass around, obviously. But, the blame game is not very conducive to civilized conversation.

Now, the luxury of avoiding assigning blame is ending. Who “lost” Iraq and Syria (not to mention Libya, Egypt, etc.) is going to move to front and center as the 2016 presidential election gets closer. With the economy recovering and Obamacare and marriage equality now settled law, the Republican Party is widely expected to try to make 2016 a foreign policy election. Why? Much of the Middle East – especially Iraq and Syria – is a genuine catastrophe. Plus national security is the one issue area where the public consistently trusts the GOP more than the Democrats. So, they are going to try to hang ISIS and the whole of the Middle East’s problems around Hillary Clinton’s, ex-Secretary of State neck.

There is a certain nationalistic narcissism to these arguments. The United States does not control the fate of the Middle East and it’s pretty arrogant to think we ever could unilaterally summon some pre-fabricated peaceful future for the region.

Still, it should go without saying that we are high up on the list of culprits, at least concerning Iraq. Bush’s invasion and our decade-long occupation unleased that nation’s Pandora’s Box of horrors and barred the country’s throat to outside subversion. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died and millions fled. Al Qaeda infiltrated and is still there, as are Iranian- and Saudi-backed armed groups. Sunnis and Shiites fought one bloody civil war in 2004-06 and basically started fighting another one the moment we left. ISIS is the hideous result of that decade of war and infighting. Syria is different. No one can say the United States caused the civil war, and maybe no one could have stopped the 6-years of slaughter or prevented ISIS’s rise. But, if anyone could have, it was us and we did not really try.

So, I think a backwards-looking meeting assigning blame for Iraq and Syria is important and not just because of campaign politics. It’s the only way to hold our leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions) and learn from our mistakes.

On Monday, you don’t need me to rehash the last 15 years of U.S. Middle East policy. But, I will try to open with something useful to frame our discussion. Probably I’ll just bring us up to speed on recent events and then list the main candidates for culprit-hood in Iraq and Syria. You all can let me know if you want us to focus mainly on the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria’s problems or more on actors inside Iraq and Syria and regional meddlers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Who do the American people blame for Iraq and Syria? Why do you think they assign blame in this way?
  2. Iraq:
    1. Why couldn’t Iraqis reconcile in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Who besides Iraqis is to blame for that? What specifically did Bush do or not do to screw things up and what should he have done?
    2. Could action by Obama have prevented ISIS’ rise? How so?
  3. Syria:
    1. What caused the long, bloody stalemate?
    2. What specifically were U.S. options for intervening?
    3. Is it realistic to think we would have made a difference?
  4. To what extent are other outsiders (Iran, Arab governments) to blame for Iraq and Syria? Could the United States have kept them from meddling?
  5. What are the big lessons here for future U.S. foreign policy?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READINGS –  Lots of them! Pick and choose. 

NEXT WEEK:  Is there a looming Retirement Crisis?

Monday’s Mtg: Is God a Human Invention and a Still-Needed One?

This is Filip’s first topic idea and he will run the meeting if I can’t make it back in time from out of town. We have discussed atheism several times in the past. (Here, for example.) But, I like Fil’s wording because it cuts to the heart of atheism’s challenge to religion: That people believe in God because they want to, based on some psychological or biological need.

Many of you all are practicing atheists, if that’s not an oxymoron. So, no need for me to set up the topic idea, either here or on Monday. Instead, I’m taking this week off after all of the recent long, complex topics and weekly intro posts lately. I’m sure it will be a great meeting,, like all of our religious-themed ones are.

Still, out of habit, here are a few readings on the subject of the basic arguments for and against God’s existence, plus a few dealing with one author’s idea of what needs a human-created God might fulfill for society. It’s a pretty good read, IMO.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Who is to blame for Iraq and Syria?

Monday’s Mtg: Are Free Trade Agreements in the Public Interest?

This might be our best-timed topic in a long time!  Friday, the House of Representatives rejected President Obama’s request for “fast track” trade authority, officially known as Trade Promotion Authority. TPA is a voting rule that would prohibit Congress from amending any trade agreements that a president submits to it within a set period of time. Legislators still can vote any agreement up or down, but only exactly as submitted, unaltered. The politics of the vote were complicated, and I still think it will pass next week.

Yet, even though Obama has been pushing fast track really, really hard, he has hit a wall of fierce resistance from most Democratic members of Congress and progressive interest groups. So, this time might be different. We may have reached a tipping point on the Democratic voter base’s willingness to countenance free trade policies. If fast track really is dead, it will spoil Obama’s plans to ask Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact (TPP). TPP is a huge, 12-nation trade agreement that’s 30 or so chapters are in the final stages of being negotiated. Several lesser-known but still important trade pacts could be in danger, too, if fast track is killed.

What’s going on, here? Our topic is going on. More and more liberals are convinced that decades of free trade policies have been a major contributor to decimating the American middle class. This is highly debatable, IMO. But, there’s no debate on how sweeping modern trade agreements have become, nor on how poorly average Americans have fared economically in the last 30 years. The TPP, like NAFTA or the WTO regime, do much more than lower tariffs and barriers on manufactured goods trade. They’re about internationalizing the basic rules of commerce – all commerce, from services (inc. financial regulation) to agricultural trade to intellectual property rights. These agreements, most controversially, are enforceable by binding dispute settlement procedures. Progressives say these procedures could be used by foreign companies to challenge U.S. health and safety, environmental, and other laws.

This complexity makes our job harder on Monday because it makes it very hard even for the experts to judge the impact trade agreements have had on U.S. jobs and wages. Even knowing that would not settle the issue, because U.S. trade policy is also about broader, strategic goals (like countering China’s influence, a major TPP goal) that few people bother to think about when they add up free trade’s effects on the United States.

So, with all of this, I think it’s best for Monday if we have a two-part discussion.

  1. Trade agreements: What they are and their impact on the United States, esp. jobs and wages.
  2. TPP and related deals: Even though there is no final TPP yet, WikiLeaks has leaked enough draft chapters to reveal its broad outlines.

I will open each of the two subjects with a 5-7 minute presentation, each presentation followed by its own discussion. Sound good?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. ABCs: What is fast track, why do presidents say they need it, and why is it so hard to pass this time? What does “free trade” mean, really? What do modern trade agreements cover/not cover and why?
  2. Effects: How have past free trade-oriented agreements affected the United States, especially jobs and wages? How can we separate the effects of trade from everything else that’s going on in the economy (like growing automation, collapse of labor unions, etc.)?
  3. Other rationales: Are there any other benefits/costs from free trade aside from the economic ones? (National security, diplomatic, etc.) How much should they matter?
  4. TPP: What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what’s s controversial about it and why? What are the main arguments both sides use?
  5. Alternatives: Are there any good alternatives to free trade agreements that would do more for Americans? Is the U.S. in a position to dictate an about face on trade even if it wanted to?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Has Free Trade Been Good for Us?

Trans-Pacific Partnership –

Next Week: Is God a human invention?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the Presidency Too Powerful?

Presidential abuse of power is a hardy perennial issue in American politics. Every president gets accused (often with good reason) of unilaterally expanding the scope of the office, especially in times of war, national emergencies, and political gridlock. Since all of these conditions seem permanent these days, it’s a good time to revisit an issue we last discussed in 2012: Has the executive branch grown too powerful?

Bruce wanted to talk about this subject for a more specific reason. Conservatives are extremely agitated these days about President Obama’s use of executive power. They argue that he has abused his authority – in both foreign and domestic policy – in unprecedented ways. They cite his actions on, well, pretty much everything: Immigration, environmental regulations, Obamacare implementation, war and diplomacy, etc. In case you don’t follow conservative media, you should know it’s hard to overstate how endlessly these charges are repeated in conservative circles and how widely accepted it is on the Right that Obama is a “lawless president.”

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this as just partisanship and anger over Obama’s ability to use executive action to get around the unprecedented legislative gridlock the GOP deliberately created. (Also, where were these principled critics during Bush 43’s staggering expansion of presidential power?) I think many of the charges against Obama are exaggerated, but I also believe there are real issues here. Obama did reign in some of Bush’s worst abuses, like torture. Yet, like almost all presidents, Obama pocketed most of his predecessors’ expanded authority and has added a few more of his own. Presidential power really does just keep expanding, and has been my entire adult life.

Bruce may want us to focus on specific charges against Obama, like his altering of statutory Obamacare deadlines, and his executive orders deferring deportation of large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Fair enough. I am more interested in pondering why executive branch power keeps on expanding, decade after decade and whether it can be – and should be – stopped.

On Monday, I’ll give some brief opening remarks, then ask Bruce for his POV on the subject. Note: The links this week do not crawl into specific issues, like warrantless surveillance, drones, immigration, EPA regs.  Each one would make a good separate topic someday.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS.

  1. How and why have recent presidents acquired new/expanded authority not explicitly granted in the Constitution? Has this accumulation been “natural;” i.e., a result of the needs of the modern Presidency/state?
  2. Bush: How radical versus necessary was GWB’s expansion of power? Why did we (Congress, Media, public) let it happen?
  3. Obama: Same Qs + How did Obama/Bush differ on expanding executive power?
  4. Okay, then: What’s the alternative to an imperial president?  Who would solve national problems – Congress?  The states?  No one?
  5. Could continued extreme polarization and permanent state of war lead to a presidential “soft-dictatorship” (see links)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

G.W. Bush –

Obama –

The Future of Presidential Power:

Next Week: Free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

Monday’s Mtg: Big Agriculture in the United States

We have a bit of an unwieldy but important topic this week. American agriculture is the most productive in the world. The industry supplies about 10% of global food production. Huge economies of scale and high-tech farming methods make food prices in the United States lower than they’ve ever been relative to average income and widely available for most of us. (1/3 1/6 of households have “food insecurity” problems, but they are a function of low incomes, not high food prices.)

But, American agriculture is a highly concentrated industry, which, critics say, is a problem in and of itself. A small number of very large companies dominate each ag sector, giving them enormous power over ideally competitive markets. They also possess enormous political power and, the critics say, use it freely to avoid having to be environmentally and socially responsible. How concentrated? According to the USDA, just 4% of U.S. farms account for 66% of all sales, while the smallest 75% account for less than 5% of sales. Raising and processing food animals is, if anything, even more hyper-concentrated, including geographically, on a small number of gigantic factory farms.

We’re talking about blue chip, household name companies like Perdue and Tyson’s (poultry), Dole and Del Monte (fruit/veg) Cargo and Archer Daniels Midland (grains), Armour and Smithfield (livestock). But, also others you would not think of as agricultural giants, like Monsanto and DuPont (seeds/herbicides). And don’t forget the big foreign-owned giants, like BASF (herbicides) or Seagrams (liquor/grains). You also could throw in the big ag equipment manufacturers (International Harvester), supermarket chains, or other parts of the industry. Big, big Ag.

Lace suggested we talk about Big Agriculture in general, since it gets a LOT of big criticism these days from political activists and popular media. (Movie: Food, Inc.; Books: Omnivore’s Dilemma.) This is totally not my area of expertise, but I know enough to be aware that the criticisms involve a few big (there’s that word again) issues.

Pollution: This includes damage to soil, ground and surface water, and, and even ocean contamination from fertilizer and pesticide runoff and offal from the big CAFO factory farms. Heavy use of monoculture (single-crop) farming also has been criticized.

Health: Industrial farming practices are said to cause poor human health. Low-quality and unhealthy ingredients may contribute to obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes. Toss in food-borne illnesses from poor sanitary methods, overuse of antibiotics, and animal cruelty issues.

Communities: Industrial farming may contribute unnecessarily to depopulation of America’s rural areas. Big Ag’s monopsony power (the power to dictate prices and terms to its suppliers) robs smaller, often family-owned farms of income and independence.

Political Power: It’s hard to overstate the power of Big Ag, at any level of our politics. The industry uses its clout to get large government subsidies and other special favors, many of which allegedly are unnecessary, market-distorting, and encourage consequence-free farming methods.

Now, Big Ag has its defenders, too. IMO, some of their arguments deserve more than to be dismissed as corporate shilling. I’ve linked to a few pieces written by non-hack supporters of the industry, below.

I’m not sure yet which parts of this big huge mammoth topic to try to cover in my introductory framing remarks. Update:  I will briefly describe the structure of U.S. ag industry and the federal subsidies and supports for agriculture.  Do you all want to focus the discussion on any areas in particular? Say so in comments, please, and maybe I will add my usual Discussion Questions later this weekend..

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Bigness

Badness –

In Defense of Big Ag –

Next Week: Has the Executive Branch Grown Too Powerful?  (new schedule, Bruce idea)

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