07 February, 2019

Markets, politics, and religion

One of the defining questions in global political economy is as old as it is meaningless: what's more important-- politics or economics? You could have a more meaningful discussion of "nature versus nurture," or "structure versus process," or "the chicken or the egg?"

"Politics" and "economics" established themselves, in part, by walling off and ignoring the fact that they are both elements of a larger, codeterminative, whole. What was once "political economy" divided itself into artificial disciplines that maintained the orderliness of the university at the expense of messy, interdependent understanding. (And please don't get me started on sociology and anthropology.) Since then, theorists have emphasized one element over another, setting one concept or relationship as the key to understanding. And it does simplify things, at least in the short term. Marx could start with the mode of production, and everything follows. Morganthau defined the national interest in terms of power, and built his structure on that. Waltz attempted to simplify still farther, making the distribution of power in a system the key to understanding and prediction. Neoclassical economics still begins with the myth of the rational man, and builds an enormous artifice from there.

Reality is more than that. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal. When pressed, the best theorists admit that, and talk about necessary tradeoffs. But as we press those maps into our students, or repeat them in our speeches, or assume them in our editorials, we reify.

We pay good money to go to the best restaurant in town, and we eat the menu.

Which brings me to Tucker Carlson. As a rule, I don't watch his show, or pay attention to what he has to say. Anyone on Donald Trump's speed-dial is someone I don't want to know. In fact, one of my favorite moments of live television is when Carlson, "from the right," and his long-time debating partner "from the left" were called on their left/right nonsense in his show on CNN, by none other than guest Jon Stewart:

The show went off the air soon thereafter. Carlson eventually moved to Fox, and polished his act.

But sometimes even Tucker Carlson gets something important. His critique of the American "elite" is on point.
Our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy. Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible.  
You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind. 
There’s no option at this point. But first, Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.
Of course, he can't help but get into an anti-immigrant, culture-war theme as well.  But this particular point is correct: market capitalism (which we don't really have anyway, but we pretend that we do) is too often treated as a religion. And in a globalizing economy, if maximizing profit is the goal, there's no reason for any elite to place the interests of "their country"--the locals, the nationals, whatever you want to call them--ahead of what pays them. People recognize this. And they react: with Trump, with Brexit, with the rising tide of nationalism and protectionism.

And in the process they shoot themselves in the foot. The elites still game the system.  They have the resources and the motive to do it. If the balance sheet tips, they leave and take their assets with them. Even in the most "favorable" circumstances, if there was no place left to go, the people would round up the elites, form a circular firing squad, and shoot everyone.

Fortunately, some of the elites are figuring out that's a solution that hurts them, too. Eventually. So it boils down to how much they discount the future. Can they "cash out" before the casino collapses? "In the long run, we're all dead," Keynes joked. But it can get very unpleasant for everyone before that happens.

Unlike Carlson, I don't think the goal should be to move backwards. We need to have a sense of community, yes, but that community shouldn't be--can't be--Mayberry. It has to have room for everyone. Everywhere. Our telos can't be in preserving the past, but in exploring the future, together.

So how do we do that? American progressives talk about a "Green New Deal," long on goals and short on details. That can be one of the starting points. Trump rallies his troops in opposition to American "socialism" (as if he had any idea what the word means). That can be one of the starting points, too. But both are thinking too small. The economics of the world is global. The politics of these proposals is national. At least the progressive's vision has the potential to be universalized--certainly not now, maybe not soon, but someday. "America First," if it comes down to "America Only," means we've lost before we've begun. And by "we" I mean everyone--Americans and the world.

I seem to have drifted somewhat from the original point. Oh, well, the advantage of a blog is you can post a first draft. Maybe it will prompt a discussion, and I can better figure out what I'm talking about.

05 February, 2019


The president's State of the Union speech is tonight. I have low expectations. Very low expectations. But it's as good a moment as any to report on myself, and where I expect to go next.

So--I've retired. I haven't officially checked yet, but from what I heard last semester I suppose I'm a "professor emeritus" now.

Actually, it wasn't my first choice. Although I feel fine, my Parkinson's Disease had progressed to the point that I couldn't handle the full load of teaching and advising, etc., that goes with the job. An hour of commuting (each way) didn't help. So long as I take my pills and get enough sleep, it's something I barely notice--but when was the last time someone in our business kept to a strict schedule and got nine hours of sleep a night? The good news is I can think, and occasionally write, and I see more of the IR-related stuff in Pittsburgh than I ever could when I was putting in my hours at Slippery Rock. It's a little bit like grad school, but without the pressure.

I was afraid I would just waste the time, while the time wasted me. For a few months, as the inevitable grew closer, I couldn't imagine life without the daily "professor" role.  But four classes a semester, plus advising, plus all the other service to the department and the university that goes with that role, was too much. Parkinson's emerges slowly--at least seven years ago, I suspect, in my case--but it's cumulative. I started taking short naps between classes and appointments (neglecting my research, writing, and other service). Then the naps grew longer. I was hard to stand in front of a class for an hour. I'm sure I wasn't doing my best work. Not by a long shot.

The point where I should have called it off and applied for disability was probably December of 2017. During finals week, there's no chance to take a nap. I made it until my last final exam (the third of the day, in the evening), but when the time came I had dropped to the floor of my office, unable to get up. There's only so much you can ask of your body before it shuts down. I was awake, I was thinking, but my muscles wouldn't work. Fortunately it was one of my advanced classes, and the students had the good sense to come up to my office to remind me where I was supposed to be. I suppose seeing me on the floor shocked everyone. I still couldn't sit up. Of course, they wanted to help. But there really wasn't anything anyone could do. I explained what had been going on, assured everyone that I would work around the problem so nobody's final grade would be affected, and asked them to leave me to get a few hours sleep. After that, I would be ready to pick myself and drive home. They were concerned, of course, and I was embarrassed, but I couldn't see any better options. So they got to finish early, and I slept for slept for three or four hours, and after that my body was ready to get up, walk to the car, and drive to Pittsburgh.

I should have thrown in the towel then, I suppose. But I'm stubborn. I don't like to think I can give my body a reasonable order and it will refuse to obey. And as I regained my strength over the winter break I told myself I could organize things to make everything work. But I couldn't. I made it to May (barely), but I really wasn't doing my job. The Dean (and Human Resources) were kind enough to allow me sick/disability leave, but that was to get me past my 60th birthday, so I could collect on my pension without penalty. My last official day of employment was January 4th of this year. 

Since then, I've been making adjustments. Finances, insurance, all the usual stuff. But the biggest adjustment had to be mental. I don't have to take this as an end to my life's work. If anything, it removes some of the distractions. I can still think, and read, and write. So long as I stick to schedule, take my pills four times a day, and allow myself nine hours of sleep, I actually feel pretty good. I even have the first draft ready of a paper I'll deliver at a conference in March (and I must arrange my sleeping arrangements in Toronto!). My greatest enemy is me: trying to ignore my limitations, or giving in to a temptation to watch a movie when I have better things than TV. Losing myself in the news would be an easy way to remain occupied but unproductive, So I'm not doing that, and I won't do that. (Usually. There's always the temptation to piece together the pieces of the Trump scandals.)

So that's the State of My Union. I'll probably be checking in more here, from time to time, and connecting some of the interesting stuff to Facebook. Social media can easily be another time sink. But it's also allowing me, through "professional" social media, to keep in touch with current and prospective colleagues. I can read more of their work now. I can, and do, contribute. I still have things to say, and I will say them.