Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Migrants Overwhelming Europe: Unfairness Impeding the E.U.

More than 100,000 migrants, many of them refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, entered Hungary from January to August 2015, the vast majority en route to the more affluent northwestern E.U. states. A record 50,000, many of them Syrians, reached Greece by boat from Turkey in July alone. Meanwhile, Hungary was building a fence along the state’s border with Serbia, where 8,000 migrants were staying in parks, to keep more migrants from entering.[1] 

I contend that the disproportionate power of the state governments relative to that of the federal government accounts in part for the difficulty that the E.U. has faced in coming to grips with the tremendous influx. This case suggests why redressing the imbalance in the federal system has been plagued with difficulty.

At the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the E.U. Commission—the federal executive branch—criticized state officials for “finger pointing” instead of coming up with viable public policies. He deputy, Frans Timmermans, said in an interview, “Europe has failed. Europe has to get moving. . . . So far, many member states have thought they can go it alone. That doesn’t work. We have to do it together.”[2] In other words, leaving the problem to the states was not working, yet something was impeding united action. I submit that the want of sufficient competencies (i.e., enumerated powers) at the federal level was the main obstacle.

Police disperse migrants at a registration place in Kos, Greece. Should the E.U. leave it to the state governments to handle the crisis? (Yorgos Karahalis/AP)

To be sure, for the E.U.’s general government to warrant additional competencies, it’s governmental machinery must be viewed as fair—that is to say, impartial regarding the various states. In taking sides in favor of creditor states as Greeks were heading to the polls to vote on a referendum in July on whether to accept additional austerity as part of a proposed debt “bailout,” E.U. officials compromised the legitimacy of their respective institutions, and thus of the federal government itself.

The unfairness may have manifested as well in the case of border protection funds. Hungary’s prime minister, Vikto Orban, claimed, “The European Union distributes border protection funds in a humiliating way.”[3] More power states to the west had been able to take the money from the eastern states. He went on to say that the E.U. institutions had failed to offer a coherent solution. I submit that the perception of unfairness and the failure to come up with a viable solution are linked, for granting institutions thought to be unfair additional authority is understandably difficult for the state governments on the “outside.” In other words, to the extent that E.U. institutions are pliable enough to be manipulated by the wealthiest, most powerful states, efforts to move toward a state-federal balance-of-power will face resistance.

[1] Reuters, “As Migrants Head North, Hungary Decries ‘Humiliating’ EU Policy,” The World Post, August 25, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

American Consumers Using Gas-Savings to Reduce Debt: Frugality or Responsibility?

The steep drop in the price of oil in July 2015 was a concern for traders. Drillers and other energy companies comprise a significant portion of the S&P 500 index. “The upside to falling oil is that all the money that drivers are saving at the gas pump should mean more spending by them at stores — and a faster-growing U.S. economy. But Americans are choosing to pay off debt instead of going shopping.”[1] Is this a bad thing? In reckoning it as such, Wall Street analysts are missing the big picture, even financially.

Gasoline at a station in January 2015. (ABC News)

To go on a shopping spree when in significant consumer debt is, I submit, foolish and perhaps even reckless. The mentality erroneously treats debt as permanent rather than something to be paid back. In this respect, the U.S. Government has been a terrible role model, as Bill Clinton dedicated only half of the surpluses in the late 1990s to paying down the debt. After his presidency, the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan added more than $4 trillion to the government’s debt.

To urge consumers in debt to spend what they save on gas implies the same mentality. Tim Courtney at Exencial Wealth Advisors, for example, says "Household finances are growing more healthy ... but you want to see a pick-up in spending, too."[2] I submit that such additional spending at the expense of reducing debt is detrimental to a person’s financial position. Not only is the debt not reduced, but also the habit of spending while ignoring the debt is reinforced. Consumers regaining their pre-debt position is good for Wall Street, moreover, because the financially solid position puts the consumers in a better position to spend beyond the short term.

Even so, using discretionary income to reduce household debt is said to be frugality. The following passage from The Associated Press is a case in point, and even makes explicit the interests behind the perspective. “The new frugality helps explain why the biggest long-term driver of stock prices — corporate earnings — have been so disappointing lately. In the second quarter [of 2015], companies in the S&P 500 grew earnings per share just 0.07 percent from a year ago, according to research firm S&P Capital IQ.”[3] That which is behind disappointment can be expected to be treated harshly rhetorically. Hence, responsible efforts to reduce debt is “frugality,” which has the negative connotation of cheapness.

I submit that debtless consumers are worth more societally than are continuously increasing corporate earnings (and consumer debt). The Associated Press could have reported that consumers were being responsible while over-reaching corporate expectations were taking a hit. How the media decide to report a story does indeed have an impact not only on consumers and company managers, but also the society as a whole—even in how it votes. In the case of the U.S., especially relative to the E.U., business interests can be said to have a disproportionate influence societally.

[1] Bernard Condon and Ken Sweet, “Why Stocks Are Tumbling 6 Years into the Bull Market,” The Associated Press, August 23, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On the Pretentiousness of Senior Water Rights in California

California water regulators proposed a record $1.5 million fine on July 21, 2015 against the Byron Bethany Irrigation District (BBID) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The agency claimed that the district had defied cutbacks that the California Water Resources Control Board had ordered by diverting water from June 13 through June 25. The complaint said that Byron Bethany had consumed an estimated 2,056 acre-feet of water[1] in spite of the fact that the agency had imposed a 25 percent mandatory cutback in urban water use and cuts to major agricultural interests.[2] I contend not only that the district’s board put the interest of a part ahead of the good of the whole (i.e., the common good), but also that the board did so out of a sense of entitlement based on the sheer longevity of the water rights in the district.

The district’s diversion of water up-stream was at the expense of the farmers down-stream. Due to difficulties overall in obtaining water, farmers in California fallowed an estimated 542,000 acres (220,000 hectares) of land in 2015.[3] Almond growers planted new trees nonetheless; almonds are a premium cash-crop there. Even so, both those growers and the siphoning water-district put their own private interests above competing private interests (i.e., other farmers) as well as the good of the whole. 

California’s government was managing water overall in the fourth year of a severe drought. The task was difficult even without self-aggrandizing water-users, and the actions of the latter made it even more difficult, and thus detracted from the public good. Accordingly, the government’s decision that the fine could be as high as $5.1 million if the case goes to a hearing is justified even though the threat is manipulatory in nature.

The mandated water-cuts pertained even to farmers with water rights going back nearly a century. The Byron Bethany district fell into that category.[4] This point played a significant role in the district board’s decision to keep the spigots open for a week. Russell Kagehiro of the BBID reacted to the proposed fine by stating, “The state board is choosing to make an arbitrary example out of B.B.I.D. at the expense of our customers and the communities their hard work supports.”[5] Significantly, he added that the district “will vigorously defend its right to water and due process. The landowners and others that rely upon B.B.I.D.’s senior water rights deserve no less.”[6] That he emphasizes the district’s rights to water—indeed, senior water-rights—says quite a bit about his rationale in taking the water. In short, the underlying mentality is that of presumed superiority over not only other districts, but also the republic of California.

That California is a semi-sovereign republic in the U.S. means that the member-state has the authority to manage the water within its borders unless the U.S. Government claims preemption. Whether or not the California Government can legally override long-held water-rights is a matter for a court to decide. If that government granted the rights, then it could retract them unless doing so would violate the California or U.S. constitution. Absent such a violation, a right is a function of government or else natural. In this case, the rights are presumably contractual and thus rest on a governmental rather than a natural basis. It is in virtue of sovereignty that a government can unilaterally cancel even a contracted right, for sovereignty itself means that no higher authority exists. In modern federalism, governmental sovereignty depends on the domain in question.

Because California’s government was dealing with a drought-crisis, a strong state-interest is satisfied in overriding even long-standing water-rights within California. Moreover, given the water-crisis, the cuts had a rational basis. According to this analysis, the California Government was on solid—indeed, parched—ground in fining the district. Complementing this conclusion is the more damning observation that the district’s unilateral diverting-action based on senior water-rights reflects not only a sordid selfishness, but also a related lack of concern for the welfare of others and even for the public good. Put another way, from the severity of the water-shortage as the context, a presumptuous mentality can be derived.

By analogy, had the first-class passengers on the Titanic insisted on extra room on the limited number of small boats at the expense of the men without such senior rights (i.e., passengers not in first class), the captain would have been well-justified in stepping in to order that the boats be filled to capacity for the good of the whole. That the sense of entitlement of some might actually sabotage not only the livelihoods of others, but also the good of the whole is a testament to just how squalid the mentality is.

[1] An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover a square acre up to a foot high.
[2] Adam Nagourney, “California Farm District Accused of Diverting Water,” The New York Times, July 21, 2015.
[3] Reuters, "California's Drought Will Cost the State $2.74 Billion This Year, Report Finds," The Huffington Post, August 18, 2015.
[4] Nagourney, "California Farm District."
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Analysis of Inferences and Assumptions: A Homework Assignment for “We the People”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.

Government ultimately by “We the People” can be risky business, especially if any plank of a constitution can be changed by amendment. Were a super-majority of Americans intent on bringing back slavery, the constitutional-amendment process would enable the people through their elected representatives to repeal the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was repealed in 1933 after thirteen years. Clearly, the assumptions that had gone into the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment turned out to be faulty. Had the American electorate have subjected those assumptions to better critical-analysis  when that amendment was being debated in the first place, perhaps organized crime would not have prospered and grown as much as it did. My assumption here is in need of critical analysis, however, as I know very little about the history of Prohibition. Yet I just made the assumption nevertheless. I contend that such a making of assumptions—out of very, very imperfect information yet made nonetheless—is a huge problem that remains largely invisible in representative democracy as a form of government. My aim here is to improve it by making one of its fault-lines transparent, and thus potentially treatable.

Speaking recently with a construction worker—a man of about 30 years old—I was impressed with his knowledge of how to put windows on buildings. “If you use a finger to smooth out the caulking around a window, you are getting chemicals such as the oil on your finger on the caulk, and this could diminish the sealing ability.” I was stunned that something I would admittedly do without a thought would be in his eyes an elementary error. “Even some of the guys who do residential windows don’t know this,” he said. He worked on office buildings. He went on to complain that the company, with his union’s consent, takes as much out if his paycheck for health-insurance as from the paychecks of workers who have families insured. “It’s just me,” he lamented, “so I’m subsidizing my union brothers whose health insurance covers their wives and kids.” I agreed with him that the arrangement seemed unfair.

Then, unfortunately, he turned to politics. It was as though he was suddenly on drugs. “I’m for Hillary,” he asserted. “Bill Clinton was one of the best presidents, and if Hillary were president, the two of them would talk in bed about stuff. Bill would be president again. Hillary had influence when Bill was president.” I asked why Bill Clinton was such a good president, to which my interlocutor replied, “Unemployment was low, the economy was humming, and the [federal] government had a [budget] surplus.” Exhausted just from contemplating the guy’s leaps in reasoning alone, I did not comment.

I could have added that Bill Clinton had signed off on legislation repealing the 1933 Glass-Steagal Act forbidding commercial banks to do investment-bank work and vice versa. The risk taken on by many of the largest banks in the U.S. would play a significant role in freezing up of the commercial paper (i.e., overnight inter-bank lending) market in September 2008. Additionally, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, played a significant role in lobbying Congress to keep financial derivative securities, such as the bonds that are based on risky home-mortgages, unregulated. With Larry Summers, also in the Clinton Administration, and Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Fed, Rubin lobbied members of Congress to ignore the pleas of Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to give her agency oversight of the off-exchange markets for derivatives.[1] She resigned in 1999, just after Congress passed legislation prohibiting the CFTC from regulating derivatives.[2] As a result, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chair Ben Bernanke had no idea how many subprime-mortgage-based bonds existed when so many of them defaulted in 2008. In that financial crisis, the U.S. Government was flying purblind, as if the Titanic in the North Atlantic at night.

Viable assessments of Bill Clinton’s presidency would have to include the above, whereas the impact of his administration on unemployment and GNP-growth is more questionable. That the dot.com bubble collapsed in 2000 may suggest that any impact Clinton may have had on the U.S. economy was not necessarily good in the long-run. Even so, my interlocutor simply assumed that Bill Clinton was largely responsible for the economic boom.

Even to assume that Clinton should get the credit for the federal government’s budget surpluses ignores the vital role that the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, played. Furthermore, to the extent that a president does not have an appreciable impact on the U.S. economy as a whole, any surplus due to increased tax revenues from the economic boom could also not be credited to Bill Clinton. In fact, that he decided to spend half of the surpluses rather than use all of the extra money to reduce the government’s accumulated debt—perhaps under the assumption that the boom would continue for decadescan be said to be problematic, or at least short-sighted.

In terms of Bill and Hillary’s relationship, I must confess complete and utter ignorance. In the movie Dave, the fictional U.S. president and his wife hate each other and thus perpetuate the illusion that they are sleeping in the same bed. The assumption itself of any knowledge of the Clinton’s relationship, and more specifically even who would “be president” were Hillary elected in 2016, is a red flag. In other words, that the construction worker presumed so much on a matter so private, and so very distant, told me just how carried away people can get in making assumptions and yet be wholly unaware of how deeply problematic the sheer making of the assumptions is. In other words, I saw no evidence of an internal feed-back corrective in the man’s mind, such that he might beg off his declaratory asseverations. 

Moreover, I realized that his faulty chain of inferences would play a key role in the construction worker’s eventual vote for U.S. President in 2016. I contend that he is by no means alone. In fact, bad assumptions may play a very significant role the American—and indeed any—electorate’s votes.

Consider, for example, how many Americans have declared that Barak Obama is a Muslim. The very ideational act of presuming to know the faith of a person so distant is itself a red-flag. If the assumption played a role in how some of the electorate voted in 2008 and 2012, and if the assumption is wrong, then the phenomenon of unchecked assumptions really does play a significant role in how an electorate—the popular sovereign—does as the “We the People” of a representative democracy. In other words, popular sovereignty itself, to which governmental sovereignty (i.e., governments) is, theoretically at least, an agent, has a rather basic downside, or vulnerability.

If I am correct, then public education in any representative democracy should include assumptional analysis, wherein students are taught how to assess their assumptions and any “supporting” inferences. As a result, the future electors should be able to get a better grip on how far they go in making inferences based on no or scant information. I contend that representative democracy would be a much better form of government were the human, all too human, assumptional “brain sickness” made transparent and treated.

[1] Peter S. Goodman, “The Reckoning: Taking a Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy,” The New York Times, October 9, 2008.
[2] Michael Hirsh, Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2010).

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Coal Industry Challenges Lower Carbon-Emission Targets: Human Nature on Full Display

With heat-waves underway and glaciers melting, climate-change was undeniable in the summer of 2015. Human nature itself was on full display. It was almost as if the human race could not summon itself into action even as the hardships of a warming world were a foregone conclusion.

"We're the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it," said Obama on August 3rd when he announced a new set of regulations for U.S. power plants that call for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, from 2005 levels, by 2030. The EPA also issued final rules for new power plants that call for phasing out new coal-fired units unless there is technology in place that can capture and store carbon emissions. Obama said the rules would reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 870 million tons, the equivalent of what is produced by 108 million homes or 166 million cars.[1] He acknowledged a battle lurked ahead, as industry groups were already gearing up to fight the rules in court.

                            Penguins face receding ice and rising waters. (Natacha Pisarenko of AP)

On the same day, the World Glacier Monitoring Service released a study providing new evidence that the world’s glaciers had melted to the lowest levels since the late nineteenth century, and the ice-melt in 2015 would likely be twice the rate in the 1990s and three times the rate the decade before that. "Globally, we lose about three times the ice volume stored in the entirety of the European Alps every year," Michael Zemp, director of the WGMS and lead author of the study said.[2]  On July 20th, “James Hansen, the former NASA climateologist who brought climate change to the public’s attention in the summer of 1998, [had] issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065.”[3] Coastal Florida, including its vast commercial and residential real-estate, hang in the balance. Meanwhile, Californians, in the fourth year of the worst drought there in a millennium, witnessed a 50-acre brush fire swell seventyfold in just a few hours, with many other fires raging too.[4]

In spite of the clear indications that the Earth’s atmosphere was warming at an uncharacteristically high rate, the National Mining Association of coal-mining companies requested a stay in court on the EPA’s new rules while the courts have the opportunity to determine the lawfulness of the agency’s attempt to commandeer the nation’s electric grid."[5] Doubtless the focus on the EPA's power-grab did not include the fact that that July was the hottest globally since record-keeping began in 1880. The first seven months of the year were the hottest January-to-July span on record. In fact, from ice-cores scientists determined that the planet was its warmest in at least 4,000 years.[6]

Because coal-fueled power plants made up about 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the U.S. at the time, the companies were playing with fire in that their legal opposition to the rules could make an appreciable difference in how much climate change results from emissions. Put another way, a point of law could conceivably decide whether the lives of future generations of people are just uncomfortable or impossible.

"[T]he Rule . . .  aims at nothing less than the comprehensive 'transformation' of the American electric power grid," wrote Hal Quinn, the NMA's president and chief executive officer, in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy. "Congress, however, did not give EPA the power to restructure how the nation produces and consumes electricity."[7] Even if reducing carbon emissions by a third from power plants constitutes a restructuring of the power grid, Obama’s point about his generation then in power being the first to perceive the impacts from global warming and the last to realistically keep the world’s ecosystem from getting away from us dwarfs the matter of a regulatory agency overreaching.

Of course, the matter may be as simple as that of a narrow private interest being indifferent to the general welfare. Implementing the rule, Quinn wrote, "will irreparably injure the coal mining industry, coal mining workers, and coal mining communities" and "has no purpose other than to reduce the use of coal for electric generation as a means of reducing power sector [carbon dioxide] emissions."[8] The harm to the coal-mining industry in terms of lost revenue was Quinn’s real concern. That the human race could stand in the balance in just a few generations makes the sordid nature of the industry’s self-interest transparent. In fact, the increased demand for electricity for air-conditioning could mean that the mining industry had a financial stake in global warming even though in just a few generations demand for electricity decreases due to more climate-related deaths. 

James Jansen and his colleagues warned that if carbon emissions were not cut soon, the social disruption and dire economic consequences of the sea-level rise along could be devastating. “It is not difficult to imagine,” the scientists wrote, “that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”[9] That such a prospect was rendered realistic given the clear signs of global warming already extant makes the narrow focus of the coal executives even more astonishing. To be sure, business and societal norms and perspectives can be expected to differ, and even clash, for business is but one component of society. For a part to seek to maximize its own gain at the expense of the continued viability of the whole in the foreseeable future renders the strategy highly unethical, not to mention problematic from the standpoint of society. The latter arguably has an ethical right—obligation even—to constrain the maximizing tendency of the hypertrophic part.

Beyond business and society, human nature itself, particularly in its preoccupation with instant gratification even at the risk of self-preservation in the long term, can explain why such a genetically-successful species could also be that species that alters its ecosystems to the extent that the species itself goes extinct. The force of reason pales in comparison with selfishness. On August 3, 2015, the generation that could grasp the actuality of climate change was both doing something about it and putting up obstacles. Human nature was on full display. The question is whether such nature is compatible with its own survival.

[1] Kate Sheppard, “Obama On Climate Rules: ‘This Is Our Moment To Get This Right’,” The Huffington Post, August 3, 2015.
[2] Nick Visser, “World’s Glaciers Melting At Fastest Rate Since Record-Keeping Began,” The Worden Report, August 3, 2015.
[3] Eric Holthaus, “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,” Rolling Stones, August 5, 2015.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kate Sheppard, “Coal Interests Prepare To Challenge Obama’s Power Plant Rules,” The Worde Report, August 3, 2015.
[6] Nick Visser, "It's Official, July Was Earth's Hottest Month on Record," The Huffington Post, August 20, 2015.
[7] Sheppard, "Coal Interests."
[8] Ibid.
[9] Holthaus, “The Point of No Return.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Political Contributions in the U.S.: Political Bribery Beyond Access

What exactly does a large political contribution do for a contributor? The standard line is that access is “bought.” Being far removed from the Washington “belt-way,” the American people have swallowed the line, admittedly naively. As of 2015, we can look at the proverbial “man behind the curtain” for a much more realistic grasp of the extent to which private interests seeking particular benefits even at the expense of the whole (e.g., increasing a deficit) corrupt the American political system.

Speaking in 2012, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter asserted, "we have one of the worst election processes in the world right in the United States of America, and it's almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money."[1] In 2015, both Carter and the current federal president, Barak Obama, lamented what Carter characterized as political bribery, “a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors.”[2]  No one is clean in Washington, Obama said at a news conference. We have to take the money to compete in elections and that obliges us. In other words, both presidents were confirming for us that major political contributors do indeed get more than access; the elected office-holders feel obliged to repay the contributors with benefits through favorable legislation or regulation.

Hence, Goldman Sachs was the largest single contributor to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the financial reform law passed two years later steered clear of breaking up the five largest U.S. banks, which at the time had even more assets—a third more—as a group than they did in September 2008. Additionally, Obama backed off including even a public-sector health-insurance option after the health-insurance industry lobby objected. Had that industry contributed to his campaign? If so, did the companies that denied pre-existing conditions bribe the president to insure that the insured would still have to rely on those companies?

Bribery is a strong term; it is a stark indication that the United States are not cities on a hill—salubrious bastions of clean business and government in a corrupt world where bribery runs rampant. American CEOs cannot justifiably lament having to pay brides in other countries because the political contributions domestically are in fact bribes. Put another way, legalized bribery is still bribery even if the shiny veneer makes it more difficult to see underneath. Speaking in 2015, Carter’s recommendation was to make public financing of elections mandatory, hence limiting or expunging altogether private contributions. For this to happen, the U.S. Supreme Court would have to step down from its judicial doctrine that money is speech. The next question in need of a real answer may be whether the Court is subject to bribery, whether directly or through a power-elite.

1. The Associated Press, “Jimmy Carter Slams ‘Financial Corruption in U.S. Elections,” CBS News, September 12, 2012.
2. Paige Lavender, “Jimmy Carter Blasts U.S. ‘Political Bribery’,” The Huffington Post, July 31, 2015.