04 December 2016

So why was the TPP so important to Obama?

This has been bugging me for awhile; Obama is widely reputed to be a smart guy, and certainly has way better information sources than I do. So if they're strongly for something I think is an obvious bad idea, I tend to wonder what I've got wrong.  (The TPP is, or was, obviously a terrible idea; extra-national profit-guaranteeing tribunals?  Urgh.)

And then the clue hit.

About four-fifths of the value of the US economy is IP of some kind.  It's very hard to tell how much of that is the intangible output of creatives -- new music, new design, new chemistry, materials, medicine, and biology -- and how much is rents extracted by the power of the American empire.

So let's consider a piano.  A piano is nigh-useless unless you know how to play it -- which someone smart can figure out -- and without the music you play on it, which is an accumulation of skilled people over time.  If you lose the accumulation, you can't get it back; it's contingent on events.  (If you restart the universe, you don't even get humans; you certainly don't get Bach's music.  If in ten thousand years your rising civilization finds a pipe organ in a buried hockey arena and builds a reconstruction, no one is going to re-invent Bach at that remove, either.)

So there's a bunch of questions about what should be charged for the music (above and beyond the material costs of making copies) and who gets the money.  There's also the question about what you pay a performer and what you pay a composer of new music.  (What the piano tuner gets paid and whether it's worthwhile to make more pianos and how much effort you put into making better piano wire for strings are all defined by the answers to that first set of questions.)

Those answers are cultural.  Which means contingent; the answers we have now are not the answers we would get if we did it again.

The current answers greatly benefit the US and somewhat benefit the satellite states of the unofficial empire; that's for a lot of reasons but that state persisting in the present comes down to "change is risky and the current situation isn't intolerable".  (Establishing the current answers is some mix of a very strong economy, getting nuclear weapons first, and being the only non-devastated major combatant at the end of the Second World War.)

I think it's really hard to tell how much of that four-fifths-is-IP is rent extraction.  I very much doubt the people doing economic intelligence for the Obama White House cannot put a number on it, or that the number isn't tolerably accurate.  Is it half?  I could easily believe half.

Anything that forces change leaves the situation open to ending up who-knows-where.  And wherever that is, it's worse for the US.  The TPP was a means to make significant change more difficult so it was less likely.

Completely open change as the current trade arrangements -- which are certainly showing both economic and political strain -- fail is nigh-certainly going to be produce something systemically simpler.  The influence of the US will be greatly reduced.  (It's much much harder to recreate a position of military dominance without the empire's economic dominance than it is to have a historical condition of military dominance acknowledged as persisting while the economy which created it persists.  Guns don't turn into butter.)

The greenback ceasing to be the reserve currency with no replacement available isn't good.   Two fifths of the value in the US economy going away in a short period of time -- rents the empire is no longer able to exact -- doesn't have an adjective.  Even one-fifth, because the current long supply chain situation doesn't have a graceful way to shorten the supply chains or collapse into domestic production.  (Compare the US domestic production of shoes with demand, just as a for-example.)  A depression is what happens when the mechanism is all there and the price signals get messed up.  This would be what happens when the mechanism collapses and has no immediate replacement.

Obama's basically a conservative.  Given a choice between trying to create a new set of economic mechanisms, and trying very hard to be sure the current set will persist, of course Obama would pick "persist".

Trump's approach looks like it's going to be status-quo-by-autarky, aka the worst possible choice; the status quo depends on the empire (which autarky abandons unrecoverably) and the autarky removes anyone else's interest in the "mutually beneficial" part of any new trade structures.  (Trade is a good thing as a means to greater general prosperity.  The problem isn't the idea of trade, it's using the necessity of trade as a means to obtain a political guarantee of profit that's the problem.)

24 November 2016

Some thoughts on the TPP and CETA

Trade is not a just end.  It can be a just means.

(Just like profit; profit is a just means and a sound measure but it's not a just end.  Those who have enough can't justly seek to take more from those whose sufficiency of means is questionable, but that's just what profit as an end accomplishes.)

Long supply chains give much more effect to divisions of labour and regional specialization (and thus highly developed bodies of practice), but they also absorb a lot of capital.  This can be looked at as a nefarious attempt to extract more rents for capital; it can also be looked at as a sort of pre-savings-glut issue, where you have to do something with accumulated capital and making production more profitable (which is not very different from "more efficient") is the obvious thing to do with it.  (You know how Apple has to become a bank because once you've got a hundred billion dollars you can't really invest it?  Like that.  You have to become part of the system to make use of that pile of capital.)

Only here we are in the late period of the Oil Empire; well into the decline.  Once the long supply chains start failing due to capital insufficiency -- there's no controlling feedback; the pursuit of trade and profit as supposed distinct good things in and of themselves goes on until it breaks somewhere -- they can't be re-established because the smaller economy after the crash can't afford them.

It makes me wonder how many people it really takes to run the modern economy; I very much doubt it's less than a billion and it might be two.  So no one nation-state begins to have the option of autarky at this tech level.  It makes me wonder how you figure out what the optimal supply chain length is, too.

22 November 2016

While we have the Constitution open...

So there's some possibility the Trudeau government will move to enact some form of proportional voting.  This means opening the Constitution because Quebec has a guarantee of a quarter of the Commons seats and PEI has a guarantee of four seats (Senate and Commons), which is about three seats more than their population would warrant.

I loathe the proposal that proportional voting will solve the problem.  (For any value of solve, and any value of problem.)  It moves the area of contention from voting to control of political parties, which is probably a net loss because getting control of political parties is relatively easy; it's a small number of people and the idea that the system works anyway because people are unwilling to be bribed (whether with money or power or meeting their goals) is risible.  You also lose the connection to your MP and the House of Commons loses any connection to geographic concerns. That's bad; Saskatchewan grows half the food and should not be ignored.  (Etc.  There is a lot of etc. there and it gets worse as you head north.)

On the other hand, proportional voting does allow representation of a wider range of viewpoints and can tend to force coalitions which ought to help moderate government policy toward population preferences.  Downsides of this include coalition capture by tiny extremist parties with reliable voters (look at Israel) and indecision in the face of crisis.  (The next two generations are going to be a succession of crises as the rain shifts around, coastal cities start to drown, food gets scarce, and big populations move about looking for some place they can survive.  They're not going to be especially respectful of immigration laws.)

So, the Commons theoretically allocates 1 seat per 100,000 people, more or less.  Call it 350 at present.  PEI gets four; Quebec gets 88, everything is pure portion-of-the-vote and party list for Commons seats.

The Senate as it now exists ceases.

Clump up current ridings in groups of 10 or so; not exactly, because while want about a million people per Senate seat, but we also want to weight area in there so various northern but not populous regions are seriously overrepresented in strict population terms.  This process should ignore provincial boundaries completely.  A senate riding gets either two or three senators; "regions" get two, "cities" get three.  The difference is net flow of taxes; if you have net outflow of taxes, you're a city.  (ALL taxes, to discourage side effects of differing provincial tax laws.)  Senate terms are long, with a third up for election each third-of-term.  If we go with the new 5 year federal election schedule, a senate term would be fifteen years.  (The first time, the newly elected Senators will have to draw straws for who has a full term and who a fractional.)  Senate seats use single transferable vote *per seat*; you're running for Eastern Coastal North A, the specific seat, rather than a set of people running for all the seats in the Eastern Coastal North senate riding.

There'd be about 80 senators, I'd expect; maybe 90.

This new senate has to pass a bill for it to become law; the Commons does not get an override.  Bills originate in the Commons but the Senate can draft something and vote to send it to the Commons for consideration.  The Prime Minister cannot sit in the Senate and must command a majority in both houses.

So, geographic representation, check.  More northern representation than we have now, check.  Long terms leading to some continuity of government in almost all cases.  Check.  Direct representation if you really need someone ('s constituent office) to sort out your trouble with the federal bureaucracy for you.  Commons directly party-list proportional representation (so we hopefully get better policy) but the PM is going to be obliged to consider regional interests to hold a majority in the senate.  Hard to get small-party capture in the face of the geographic senate.  The Senate needs the Commons to agree to spend money, and vice-versa.  Potential ghastly deadlock but also potential good policy.  Starts to devalue provinces as political divisions, that unfortunate relic of early 19th century communications speeds.

(PEI would have to give up four Senate seats, though; guaranteeing them 1 senate riding with 1 seat would be roughly equivalent.)

12 November 2016

Someday I will be less of a cabbage

So I recently read through the Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates' platforms.  The phrase "small government" kept coming up as though I should know what it means.  (It's not really small government; it's a preference for types of government spending and regressive taxes.  Conservative governments in Canada do not have good fiscal records, though they claim them.)

Then the lightbulb went off.

Common-or-garden whiteness is the expectation that the government won't interfere with what you want to do.  (The strong, upper-class form, is the expectation that the power of the state will be used to remove obstacles to what you want to do.  And yes, it's a continuum, not two quantum states.)

"Small government" is code for "government that will not act to diminish your whiteness".

No taxes going to Those People, for whatever value of Those; no attempts to compel inclusiveness or meritocracy or to end customary advantages arrived at through tacit social agreements; no environmental regulations, no restrictions on your efforts to maximize profits by shifting costs and risks on to the defenseless.

I'm rather embarrassed it took me so long to figure that out.

Health Care

So, various persons talking about the probable fate of Obamacare have managed to set me off.

Cost in medicine is driven by three things; time of diagnosis, accuracy of diagnosis, and treatability of the condition.

The first two matter a lot; you want to catch any problems soon and you want to provide the correct treatment for the problem.

It's even better if you can avoid the problem completely; preventative care is better than incidental care is better than chronic care is better than acute care.  Hence the province of Ontario having free flu shots for residents; the flu shots and the publicity are way, way cheaper than the cases of flu you'd otherwise have.  Even if you leave out the "fewer miserable people" and "fewer dead people (who no longer pay taxes or do work)" parts of the calculation; it's cheaper than the lost work time of those who recover.

The key thing to catching problems early is care that's continuous and uncomplicated.  (If you have to fill out lots of forms, odds are you don't want to do it.)

For-profit health care wants to make as much money as possible, so it's in favour of forms (maybe they don't have to pay!) and it's expensive, so people don't go for care until they're afraid they're going to die.  This pushes care to the acute end of the continuum and raises costs.

In other words, a market can't and won't ever work for health care.  It's not a problem you can solve with a market.

We need a third thing

We need a third thing.

Fighting between authoritarianism and the status quo isn't ever going to get something good.  It can't.  (The choice of bad is not equivalent, and preferring the least-bad of the status quo is not wrong.)

The neo-liberal consensus has failed. (It can't respond to the existential threat of climate change.  Even if nothing else was wrong—and much else is wrong—this failure would condemn it.)

Authoritarianism is a rule that facts do not matter.  It doesn't work as an economic system.  (It doesn't matter if you get your justification from white supremacy or true communism or fascism or wanting to create Gilead; you can't run a successful economy while ignoring facts.)  It's even worse at dealing with climate change than the neo-liberal consensus status-quo.

We need food security.  (Climate change will drown the coastal cities and make deserts out of farmland, but it'll do that more slowly than it will break agriculture.  Our survival depends on six inches of dirt and predictable rainfall.)

That means we need another economy, one that isn't reliant on fossil carbon.

We need a general expectation of a better future available to all.  We cannot have that from either the status quo or an authoritarian reshaping of that status quo to reassure a part of the population by encouraging their overt oppression of everyone else because both systems are systems of concentration, not distribution.

The way you get ahead in a system of concentration is to capture more; the mechanism doesn't really matter, the system will tend over time to a small number of haves and a huge number of have-nots.  Systems of distribution take more conscious maintenance and aren't as conceptually elegant, but insisting that everyone has enough of everything (where "everything" includes autonomy) means the economy stops being motivated by a survival-driven struggle for control.  Since "success" and "control" are a strict binary choice in complex systems—if you could understand all of it, it wouldn't be complex; if you can't understand all of it, you can't control it, but you might be able to build a system that you can trust to work—removing a compulsion to seize control permits success.  It doesn't guarantee success, but "success is possible" is still better than "success is impossible".

The people of whatever nation, faced with a political leadership fighting for control of something they know perfectly well won't work—the great mass of people is collectively pretty smart—gets desperate, and does stupid things.  Some of those stupid things are trying to pick a saviour, whether person or solution; still more are an insistence on a fantastical past where nothing was wrong.

A politician effectively presenting that third thing, the genuinely distributive economy that's got off fossil carbon, is nigh-certain of eventual political success.  It might even come in time, because the end of agriculture is not far off.


08 October 2016

I don't update enough

How did it get to be October?

Commonweal #4 has a draft.  Commonweal #5 is making modest progress.  The first half of The Human Dress (which people of a certain Usenet vintage will recall being mentioned as the Doorstop) is back from the copy-editor.  (The copy editor has been restrained in their imprecations.)

Google Sheets has started putting in spurious @table:number-columns-repeated attributes when exporting to ODS.  This made my week much more entertaining than it might otherwise have been.

I keep seeing a peregrine at the Victoria Park subway station.  The pigeons are consistently distraught.