This is one of those topics where it is a little vague what it’s about. My “end of paper currency” wording implies a focus on whether we are finally approaching the long-imagined “cashless society” in which all transactions are electronic. Cash is probably far too convenient in transactions for that to happen anytime soon, from what I read. But, the rise of PayPal and other e-payment technologies make the idea at least worth discussing, maybe.
We also could talk about cryptocurrencies, a very different thing. Also called altcoins, these are non-government-backed monies (or, “monies”) that can be used in electronic peer-to-peer transactions. Bitcoin is the most widely known cryptocurrency, but there are hundreds of others, many with tech-bro names like Etherium, ZCoin, and Einsteinium. Cryptocurrencies have a lot of limitations and problems, notably no governmental central bank to back their value or control their volatility. They are vulnerable to bubble and the machinations of peculators and get used a lot in criminal commerce (but then, so do $100 bills). Still, cryptocurrencies may be here to stay, at least in some forms, and the idea of a currency free from government will continue to be appealing to some Libertarians.
A third way we could expand our topic would be to talk about some of the more, um, exotic (crackpot, maybe) stuff that comes up when you Google “the end of paper currency.” These range from advocates of returning the United States to the gold standard and Ron Paul’s “end the Fed” stuff, to survivalists predicting a collapse of society and a return to a barter-based economy. It’ll be fun for the whole family.
Re: Readings. Cryptocurrency is a brand new topic for me, so I don’t know which of the primers on the subject are best for you to read.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
A Cashless Economy? –
- What is a cryptocurrency? Wiki. More detail from an industry sight.
- How their prices get determined.
- Recommended: Atlantic Monthly clearly explains this stuff + a big potential problem with crypto-money.
- Views of cryptocurrencies’ future:
Gold standard –
- Returning to it = “world’s worst economic idea.”
- Trump has said we should, a truly loony idea. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: What is the legacy of the 1980s?
Oops. I forgot that “Fair Trade” is the name of a consumer movement that asks people to make ethical choices when buying imported goods. Consumers are encouraged to buy only products that carry the fair trade label indicating they are produced sustainably by companies that pay a living wage, keep safe working conditions, etc. The Fair Trade movement is interesting of course. It’s one small way individuals can make a difference in the world of foreign policies few of us have any input in fashioning, and the movement helps to build awareness of global poverty and how people in rich countries can contribute to it (even though in the broadest sense globalization has reduced poverty in developing nations).
I had in mind something more ambitious. How “fair” is free trade to, well, to Americans? The consensus in favor of free trade has collapsed. President Trump owes his election to pandering to resentments of all sorts, of course. But anger over “unfair” trade agreements allegedly foisted on pitifully-led Americans by wily foreigners was a major theme of his rage-filled campaign. It resonated because Republican voters are actually more hostile to free trade than Democratic voters – probably because blue cities benefit more from globalization than redder areas. Yet, many Democrats, too, are abandoning free trade, as Bernie Sanders’s near-success and Hillary Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact attest.
Why do so many Americans believe trade and globalization are unfair? Some dumb reasons, sure. But, I think the links below finger a very legitimate reasons: Modern trade agreements go far beyond simply knocking down barriers to increased imports and exports. They have sought to rewrite some of the basic rules of business and commerce to harmonize them across countries, areas of policy that used to be the sole province of national governments. Progressives sometimes exaggerate the extent of this, IMO. But, it’s real, and a big change in how the now highly-integrated global economy is managed. More is at stake than freer trade.
This notion and other reasons why free trade allegedly has turned against us are highly-disputed. It’s complicated and not just a left-right thing. Trump’s reality-free trade rhetoric doesn’t help the debate, nor did Bernie’s big foreign policy vision speech yesterday that ignored trade. Still, I think we can carve off a few digestible chunks of the controversy over the fairness of free trade and turn the chewing into an informative meeting. Maybe we could focus on these questions a bit.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Consumer movement: What is buying Fair Trade + where can I get more info?
- Trade v. convergence: How much have global trade rules gone beyond freeing trade towards harmonizing economic regulation in general?
- Quo bene? Why was this done? Whose interests were served? Elites/big biz? Doesn’t trade help the public interest via faster growth, spurs innovation, etc.?
- Quo screwed? Who has been harmed? What evidence it was due to (1) trade and (2) trade agreements?
- Alternatives: IF trade has turned against interests of U.S. public and/or democratic accountability, now what? Renegotiate them, one by one (Trump)? Do nothing/double down (GOP)? Attach labor and enviro standards (some libs)? Strengthen edu/training + social insurance/safety net (other libs)?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – Fewer this week, but longer ones.
- The free trade consensus is dead (2015 article).
- It should be (progressives):
- How to make globalization work for all Americans. Or try this shorter one. Either.
- Where it all went wrong and what Trump gets wrong. [Duplicate 2nd link deleted]
- Basic economic regulations does not belong in trade deals. Hard, but key arguments.
- Wrong. Free trade worked and still works:
NEXT WEEK: Social security reform.
That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.
We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?
I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
- Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
- Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
- Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
- Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
- Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
- Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)
- Overall summaries of problem:
- Corporate lobbying is the real problem. Recommended.
- California: In CA its the Democrats that dominate the money.
- More facts and figures:
- [Update Sunday]: Politics is NOT all about the money, this liberal argues. Recommended.
- Conservative POV: All of this is highly misleading, part 1 and part 2. Convincing?
NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?
American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.
Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Now comes President Donald Trump. As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.
It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.
I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
- Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
- What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
- Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
- How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Backgrounder on U.S.-Saudi relations.
- Our relationship is based on three assumptions, all of which (for now) still hold.
- No, Trump should rethink it. Recommended but long.
- His embarrassing visit to Saudi Arabia. Good Lord.
- The Saudis now hope to reinforce their influence, target: Iran.
- Trump’s unquestioning support for that plan has put the Middle East on the brink of disaster. Either.
- What are our options overall? Recommended.
- [Update: The new Saudi leader is a bumbling fool; Trump should (but isn’t) treating him like one.]
After Trump –
- U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.
NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?
What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.
Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.
We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:
- Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
- Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
- Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
- Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.
Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).
But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).
Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:
- Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
- Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
- Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
- Depressing innovation and R&D;
- Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
- Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.
Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Easy reads:
- Harder: America needs more competition. The Economist magazine.
- Hard: Market power in the U.S. economy today.
- The other side POV: Let’s be skeptical of how bad this problem is, especially in the tech industry? Easy.
- Political monopolies: Summary of Dark Money , a book on the raw political power of hyper-concentrated industries.
NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
We picked a bad week to give up sniffing glue. I mean we chose a hard week to talk about American nationalism, given the fuhrer furor over President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville. Trump’s “new American nationalism” has finally been totally laid bare. It’s ethno-nationalism, pure and simple. It’s a largely symbolic one, too. As was bluntly pointed out today, he has no concrete plans on trade or infrastructure, nothing new on managing the economy, and nothing serious on national security. Bannon/Trump’s Economic Nationalism only works in the areas of (hmmm) immigration and civil rights. We’re deporting more illegal immigrants and changing sides at the Justice Department. It was a con.
Still, the empty content of Trump’s patriotism does not preclude the rise of a genuinely new American nationalism of another kind. Americans love their country and want it to succeed again, for them and their children. As we will discuss, other factors could be public weariness with global leadership, long-building fear of Islamist terrorism, economic inequality and stagnation that needs a culprit, or (mainly) White resentment of globalism and its attendant economic integration and cosmopolitanism.
I am game to try to discuss it all civilly if you are. I’ve been ill this week so I won’t have time to prepare anything. Here are a few optional background readings and the discussion questions I imagine us focusing on.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- American nationalism: How many kinds/flavors of U.S. nationalism it are there? What makes them wax and wane?
- Trump’s White nationalism:
- What is it? How popular is it?
- How differ from older forms of White supremacy, or same old thing?
- Why did GOP elites – and voters – ride this tiger for so long? What will they do now?
- Will Trump profoundly change U.S. nationalism, or be a blip?
- Another New Nationalism:
- Is a more benign “New American Nationalism” emerging, too? What are its main elements (e.g., exhaustion w/global leadership, economic insecurity, anger at Lefty anti-nationalism)?
- Why has this happened? Is it just a conservative thing?
- Impacts good bad?
- Liberal nationalism:
- What is the case for a progressive nationalism?
- Why do many progressives hate all nationalisms? Good/bad thing? When is patriotism just chauvinism?
- Global resurgence: Why is nationalism surging in many countries? Effects/will it last?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
- Trump’s White nationalism:
- A New American Nationalism (more benign ergo more enduring?):
- A conservative explains: The New Nationalism is a reaction against globalized elites. It will endure even if Trump is just a passing fad. Recommended.
- Progressive patriotisms:
NEXT WEEK: What do today’s movies and TV say about us?
Has the worm really turned on federalism? Can blue states successfully resist the ultra-conservative agenda emanating for Republican-controlled Washington? A lot depends on California. In the words of one observer (see link below):
“California is the Trump administration’s most formidable adversary, not only on matters of immigration, but on damn near everything. No other entity—not the Democratic Party, not the tech industry, surely not the civil liberties lobby—has the will, the resources, and the power California brings to the fight. Others have the will, certainly, but not California’s clout.”
Yes, the GOP and Trump have been slow and incompetent at enacting their program. But it is still coming, and some of it will hit California hard (and is aimed specifically at us), including on climate and energy policy, immigration, health care, and even housing and transportation. A lot has already happened. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and others have been talking tough – and passing laws and filing lawsuits – on almost every conceivable front. This week’s links give some of the details.
How successful CA’s “resistance” to Trump/GOP will be in the long run will depend on all of the usual factors in federalism disputes: Law, legal strategies, and judges; public opinion; congressional priorities; media coverage and sympathies, and so forth. It also will depend on wild card factors of a kind that has become an exhausting staple of the Trump era: Things like the President’s volatile personality, congressional GOP foibles and schisms, and God knows what else.
On Monday, I will go over a few of the main policy battleground areas and talk a little bit about the shape of the legal and political terrain ahead. I’m not up to date on all the details in the news, but maybe some of you who focus more on state politics are.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What are the main Trump/GOP policies that will be aimed at CA and its interests? Which ones require new law v. merely regulatory changes?
- Which ones are top priorities for the GOP and/or Trump? What’s coming next?
- Pols: What has California done so far to oppose specific GOP/Trump actions? Other states? How is GOP trying to crush it?
- Points: Who’s winning so far? Who decides and (how) will the fight end?
- People: Do Californians support all of these actions? The broader U.S. public? Does public opinion really matter?
- Principles: Is federalism just a tool for hypocrites? What actual and enduring principles are at stake here and is anybody being consistent?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Not all Californians:
- GOP is going to crush blue state federalism just because they have the power. Recommended.
- CA Democrats suddenly love federalism.
- Climate/energy: CA is…
- More: Internet privacy, national monuments, and the all-important 2020 census. The list is endless.
NEXT WEEK: Is there a “New American Nationalism?”