Category Archives: Guest Post

Masaccio: Piketty Shreds Marginal Productivity as Neoclassical Justification for Supersized Pay

Yves here. One of the main agendas of neoclassical economics is to give Panglossian defenses of the current order a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. If our system is the result of individuals and businesses behaving in logical ways, at least in the minds of economists, surely the outcome is inevitable, and therefore virtuous, or else those operators would do things differently. The Big Lie in all of this is that neoclassical economics takes power completely out of the equation. While it does assume selfishness, in that everyone is out or himself to maximize his utility, it also assumes atomized actors who lack the power to influence markets.

One instructive way to see how these arguments break down is by looking at neoclassical economists justify large disparities in pay. Piketty shows that the idea that people are paid what they are worth, or in neoliberal-speak, according to their marginal productivity, to be a sham


Russia Can Survive An Oil Price War

Yves here. This article is an important sanity check on the impact of the current oil price war on Russia. We’ve seen similarly skewed conventional wisdom on the Saudis: “No, they can’t make it on a fiscal budget basis at below $90 a barrel,” completely ignoring the fact that the Saudis clearly believe it is in their long-term interest to suffer some costs to inflict pain on some of their enemies, and render some (a lot) of shale oil and alternative energy development uneconomical, which increases their ability to extract more in the long term from their oil asset.


Jonathan Gruber, ObamaCare, and “Stupid Voters”: It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Shill

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! –Upton Sinclair Schadenfreude is a dish best served, and MIT Professor and Larry Summers student Jonathan Gruber, who played a key (though conflicted) role in legislating both ObamaCare and ObamaCare’s precursor, RomneyCare, certainly had it coming. […]


What Makes Japan Bother With the TransPacific Partnership?

Yves here. We’ve been giving regular updates, with the considerable help of our man in Japan Clive, on how the the prospects for Japan signing up for the TransPacific Partnership look extremely slim. Mind you, “extremely slim” is not impossible, but the reason we deem the probability to be that low is that the Administration appears unwilling to bargain at all, let alone offer Japan some critical and large concessions that it requires to sign up. And since Japan is a linchpin to the entire deal, if Japan is a no-go, you can kiss the TransPacific Partnership goodbye.

These TransPacific Partnership discussions have also given yours truly, and even more so our real expert Clive, the opportunity to do some cross-cultural translating, which I personally enjoy. The Japanese are a sufficiently alien culture that you are forced to suspend or retrain your assumptions about how things work. So to watch the US Trade Representative, which along with the State Department, ought to be a US agency particularly attuned to how Japan needs special handling, instead do the equivalent of repeatedly step on a rake and get smacked in the face, is entertaining in a perverse way. How can they NOT know that what they are doing is counterproductive? And how can they NOT course correct when it should be obvious that what they are doing isn’t working?

However, even though, as we have discussed, the USTR has acted in a way almost guaranteed to offend the Japanese, the government has reasons for being cool on the TransPacific Partnership yet having to feign otherwise. And they aren’t terribly mysterious either, even though they do vary with US baseline assumptions.


Michael Mann Interview: Very Little “Burnable Carbon” In Our “Budget”; Emissions Ramp-down Must Start Now

One of my hats is as a climate interpreter to the interested lay person. I have something of a science background and can read the papers “in the original.” Another hat is as an occasional interviewer for Virtually Speaking. This month the two hats merged on the same head, and I got to interview the “Hockey Stick graph” climate scientist, Dr. Michael Mann.

For this interview I focused on the basics:

Can humans burn more carbon, create more emissions, and still stay below the IPCC’s “safe” +2°C warming target?

Is the IPCC’s +2°C warming target truly “safe” at all?

We’re already experiencing warming of about +1°C above the pre-industrial level. Even if we stop now, how much more is “in the pipeline,” guaranteed and unavoidable?

How do we defeat the Big Money ogre that stands in our way?

And my personal favorite:

Will the answer to global warming come from the “free market”?


The Greater Middle East as an American Garrison: 35 Years of Building Military Bases and Sowing Disaster

Yves here. In a bit of synchronicity, Lambert and I were discussing how bad America is at running an empire. Iraq by any standards was not doing all that well under Saddam Hussein. Growth was lousy due to Western sanctions, and he was thuggish in his methods of maintaining control. Yet he ran a secular government and hostilities between Shia and Sunni were a non-issue. After our invasion, hospitals were basically looted. Electricity barely worked in Baghdad, and wasn’t working all that well long after the US occupied Iraq. Any member of the professional classes that could leave the country did (this was well reported in Australia in 2003 and 2004). So we broke a country…as a demonstration project? For what end? The US also made a botch of the fall of the USSR, with our neoliberal reforms facilitating a plutocratic land-grab in Russia by well-placed insiders, with key Western aides participating in the plunder. OIFVet points out that, contrary to Western ideology, the lives of ordinary Bulgarians was better under the old USSR (Russia is now showing net gains; I’m told Moscow now looks to be on a par with Berlin).

The British took their imperial project far more seriously than we have ours. A big reason that they were more successful is that they built infrastructure, in the form of putting in place a British bureaucracy run by civil servants. And producing those civil servants was the top priority of the education system. C. Northcote Parkinson reports that the top Cambridge and Oxford graduates went to India. The next rank were civil servants in the UK. The ones at the bottom of the heap went into business.

Now there is a lot not to like about a British-style bureaucracy; they are stereotypically rigid and procedure-driven. The Australian Taxation Office is hugely taxpayer-unfriendly if you are a business, compared to the IRS (for instance, when I was there, you needed a receipt for every expense, and not just a credit card receipt. If you had a charge from a newsstand, they wanted to see that it really was a business periodical and not, say porn).

But the rigidity meant it was less easily corrupted, and that no one would question that the government was the paramount authority (a notion that most US regulators seem to have forgotten). Admittedly, with the rise of neoliberalism, no one seems to care about governing well any more, so there hasn’t been much thinking on how to run government in the 20th and 21st century that isn’t really about private sector profiteering.

This article looks at a symptom of the US’ misguided thinking about our imperial project: that of the role of our military bases. It isn’t much discussed in polite company, for instance, that the Saudis had repeatedly asked us to remove our base there because it was causing a lot of discord. We had ignored their request. It took 9/11 to get us to depart.