Month: January 2015

Dear Senator Cornyn

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Dear Sen Cornyn believe when I say that at this moment I’m finding it difficult to accord you the respect due a senator. You removed Civil and Human rights from your Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.  This action, symbolic as it might be is astonishing, backward, regressive and idiotic. Our civil and human rights are NOT derived from the Constitution but the reverse. The Constitution merely elucidates A FEW of the rights we already possess. In a time where BOTH parties are justifiably concerned with civil and human rights to strip the name violates any lingering vestiges of trust that you have anyone’s interests at heart.  I’m not sure this the result of a continually failing Texas educational system or some sort of deeper pathology.  Do Civil and Human rights have no meaning for you?  They can’t possibly, you deliberately mutilated the sub-committee to make exactly that point.  When a world cries out for justice your response is our humanity is of no value? Our value to this country is meaningless?

This is the value of our Constitution: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it”  —  Justice Learned Hand

Throughout our long history the Constitution has never prevented us from doing great harm people.  Do not place so much faith in the Constitution now that this blind inhuman adherence to your values will prevent you from using the Constitution as a weapon or from abusing vast numbers of peoples.


The Resource Curse

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Taking a break from social justice issues that have populated this blog in recent months, I want to draw attention to economics, specifically something called the “resource curse”.  It’s a bit of a counter-intuitive phenomena where discovery or development of a valued resource or commodity adversely affects the national economy.  Typically, development of new resources is fantastic for the economy but there are exceptions.  The rise of the United States is in some ways the development and exploitation of new resources such as minerals, crops, timber, and various other industries including and especially the US’s own vast carbon based energy deposits.    What has made the American story, and many such stories, a success is the ability of the American economy to reinvest the profits from the sale of resources back into the economy.  More importantly, it allows America to import goods from abroad.

There are two reasons that the development of a resource might detrimental to an economy. In the eponymous Dutch disease case, the exploitation of a large field of Natural Gas increased the value of the Dutch currency.  The Dutch Guilder became expensive enough that it hampered their domestic manufacturing base.   Dutch Disease might have possibly been avoided if the profits from the Natural Gas had been able to circulate more efficiently through the Netherlands increasing the domestic consumer base enough to support their manufacturing base.

In other places of the world, like Nigeria and many of the Middle Eastern countries, too much of the national resources are put into developing a single commodity. Because the wealth is so highly concentrated, the benefits do not get distributed to the rest of the country. Even if they are, commodity fluctuations can still be highly toxic to an economy so reliant on a single resource. Since the infrastructure, social spending, and other sectors of the economy are sacrificed or ignored to develop a single lucrative resource, the economy declines over time as market fluctuations take their toll. For example, in Louisiana in the 80s went through something very similar.

Other countries such as Norway, UAE, or the state of Alaska, have taken great pains to translate the wealth gained from oil and turn it into real wealth for its citizens. The United Arab Eremites for example, uses their oil wealth to diversify their economy. Dubai has been tuned into a world class tourist destination, and the city is a hub for business, trade, and commerce. Should the oil run out or prices drop precipitously, the economy should still be broad enough to thrive. In Norway, the profits from oil and gas are managed by the government and are used to fund an generous social programs, giving Norwegians one of the highest standards of living in the world. The fund for these programs is large enough to withstand market volatility without compromising the standard of living. Alaska is genius in its simplicity. The state just cuts a check to each of it’s citizens for a portion of the proceeds as well as funding basic infrastructure.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways of managing resources. Perhaps one of the most toxic methods is evident in our own backyards. Rural Appalachia. As the coal mines fail and energy production moves to cleaner and less costly fuel, the mining towns are slowly dying. They’ve turned their frustration and despair into anger at the government which they see as a meddlesome outsider. Instead of developing a new economic bases, they want to double down on a failing strategy. In many ways, Texas resembles a petrol dictatorship with the wealth generated by the oil revenues concentrated in the hands of a few while funding for education, healthcare, infrastructure, and economic expansion are highly curtailed. Texas is already supported by the Federal government despite its oil wealth and with the precipitous decline in oil and gas, people are worried how Texas will weather the current economic climate.

The United States can be thought of like a complex corporation with a highly diversified portfolio and managed board of directors picked by shareholders. The company grows by reinvesting profits from its various divisions back into the company to develop a deeper or better product base. However, if the company becomes over-leveraged or the portfolio in one of its divisions becomes too concentrated the shareholders will suffer. It might be understandable for shareholders to demand high dividends for their investment but not at the cost of failing to invest in a diversified portfolio.

A country is not like a business. It’s a metaphor, but a good one. The US has never faced a competitive environment like today’s global economy. During our rise to power, the industrialized world had been devastated by 30 years of brutal warfare. Now there are dozens of sophisticated economies and dozens of developing economies able to provide free labor. It’s a time for innovation and investment. The US faces a serious risk of running into it’s own version of the resource curse. There are solutions but we won’t find them resting on our laurels and listening to our iPhones.

Hope and Change

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The Obama slogan in 2008, and to a lesser extent in 2012 was “hope and change”. I can’t imagine what that the last few years turned out anything like the President thought they’d turn out.  I wonder what people thought “hope and change” would look like.  Real, substantive change has never been easy and it’s often been violent.  It’s not always successful.

The level of animosity towards the President is unreal.  Bush was hated by liberals to be sure, but even they, for the most part, never sank to the depths that we’ve seen people sink to with Obama.  I truly hope this is the nadir of American politics.  But in an odd way I think this is healthy.  Or at least, it can be healthy.  Before you can treat the problem, I think you have to understand it.  To see it exposed in all of its horror.  I think if the issues hadn’t been so damaging, and so ingrained I think Obama could have done something more direct, but I’m afraid that healing these festering wounds will require the efforts of his successor.

And we’ve been distracted.  Obama started his presidency in the middle of two wars and an economic crises unseen since the great depression.  The final days of the Bush Presidency and the first days of the Obama presidency were instrumental in stabilizing the economy.  While the economy has yet to produce gains for the poor and middle class, it’s literally and genuinely the best in the world right now.  The poor and middle class should start to see gains as the slack in the labor market gets absorbed, but the job losses in 2007-2009 were so horrendous that it’ll take more time yet.  I mention this only because its ludicrous to talk about race in America without discussing broader economic principles.  I think if this was something more people realized, it would be easier to tackle some of these outstanding problems.

The point is that we fixed the economy, even sabotaged as it was by austerity, government shutdowns, the sequester, and a threatened government debt default.   We passed healthcare reform.  It was a compromise plan that made no one happy but still offers real and tangible gains for the poor and middle class.  It’s very small change but within that change there is hope.

Lately, the country has been largely focused on criminal justice issues.  Superficially, it looks like dark days.  But it’s not dark days.  Police brutality is not new. We haven’t lived all this time in this country under the righteous and benevolent police force who cares about minorities and engages in continuous honest self-reflection and community dialogue.  That’s the story we tell ourselves.  We used to think that Bad Cops were just a few rotten individuals in a sea of heroes.  Outliers.  We know that’s not true.  With every story of brutality at the hands of police, the country realizes that there is yet another injustice that minorities are suffering through that must be addressed.  With every bald-faced racist newscast and commentary seeking to victimize an entire group of people for the actions of one, we get a better idea of who we really are.  White privileged America had no idea.  This is not a problem we do not face.  Perhaps we are damned for our inability to see the obvious, but we did not know.  But it’s getting harder to do nothing; to say  nothing.  There is hope.  Things are changing.

The police confronted with their clear abuse of power are offended.  They’ve literally turned their back on the mayor.  This is understandable.  This is usually the first response of someone who’s been told they’re racist and abusive.  That they’ve fallen from grace.  That they’re not the heroes they thought they were.  That will take some getting used to.  They’re taking it hard, they’ll get better.  Things are changing and there is hope.