2:00PM Water Cooler 8/24/2017

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Readers, I need to leave for a routine medical checkup, so this isn’t as complete as I would have liked. –lambert


“For lawmakers who support NAFTA, and trade agreements more broadly, part of the reason for widespread concern over President Donald Trump’s now-familiar threats to terminate trade deals — which he repeated again this week — is that trade lawyers largely believe he has the executive authority to do so on his own” [Politico]. “But legal experts are saying, well, not so fast. Some maintain that Congress may still have more power over withdrawal than many lawmakers and other government officials recognize — enough to challenge Trump’s. Any invocation of Section 125 would involve breaking new legal ground, and U.S. exporters and consumers — and potentially lawmakers — could sue, leaving it up to the courts to decide.”

“Trump can’t withdraw from NAFTA without a ‘yes’ from Congress” [The Hill]. “Many members of Congress work under the fundamental misunderstanding that the president has the power, on his own, to terminate NAFTA. They are unaware that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, while the president is the negotiator and signer of trade agreements, he is not the “decider.” Power to approve, and to terminate U.S. participation in, trade agreements is assigned to Congress…. While Congress can make specific delegations of powers to the president in the field of trade, it has steadfastly avoided delegating power to the president to terminate trade agreements. So there is little basis for an argument of implicit delegation by virtue of the inclusion in these agreements of clauses allowing the member countries to withdraw…. The Supreme Court has never addressed this issue of independent presidential power to terminate treaties….”


Trump Transition

“Good Riddance to Steve Bannon” [Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal]. I am so happy to live in a world where Karl Rove can excoriate Steve Bannon. More: “Mr. Bannon is not the first staffer to believe the White House agenda must mirror his own. But no other aide in memory has had such grandiose or destructive plans for trying to remain in charge after being shown the door.” “Actually,” Rove is right!


Monuments we like because they’re part of our heritage:

Typically, it’s baby shoes that are bronzed, but cultures differ….

2008 Post Mortem


Our Famously Free Press

“The recent rise of all-encompassing internet platforms promised something unprecedented and invigorating: venues that unite all manner of actors — politicians, media, lobbyists, citizens, experts, corporations — under one roof. These companies promised something that no previous vision of the public sphere could offer: real, billion-strong mass participation; a means for affinity groups to find one another and mobilize, gain visibility and influence. This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation. This contradiction is foundational to what these internet companies are” [New York Times].

Realignment and Legitimacy

“Are Trump Supporters Authoritarians?” [Niskanen Center]. I believe the term of art is “authoritarian follower.” More: “[T]he psychologists of authoritarianism treat the first options in the four binaries as if they are the natural defaults—timeless values that would manifest themselves in everyone if not for the interference of authoritarian predispositions.” This critique is from the right, but essentialisms, especially binary ones, always get my Spidey sense tingling.

“To the Left: stop resisting the resistance 2” [Grassroots Economic Organizing]. “In retrospect, however, I think I was weak in presenting strong alternatives for situations like Charlottesville in my previous blog. Citizens in Charlotte, NC in 2012 met a neo-Nazi demonstration with humor and vaudeville. A Huffington Post piece at the time describes what happened.”

Stats Watch

Kansas City Fed Manufacturing Index, August 2017: “reporting ideal conditions” [Econoday]. “[Y]et there is a caveat: this year’s definitive data on the factory sector have not been living up to the strength of advance data.” That seems to be the new normal.

Existing Home Sales, July 2017: “Yesterday’s new home sales for July were very weak as are today’s existing home sales” [Econoday]. “The nuts and bolts of housing are not showing strength this summer with permits down and sales down. Though prices are firm, the sector does not look like it will be a strong contributor to the second half economy.” And: “The rolling averages have been slowing in 2017 – so it is easy to agree with the [National Association of Realtors] that this will not be excellent for home sales this year. We also agree with the NAR that price growth is straining budgets for buyers – and we wonder how the home affordability index is saying otherwise” [Econintersect].

Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, week of August 20, 2017: “surged to a new expansion high” [Econoday]. “[T]his month’s violence in Virginia and tensions with North Korea are not hurting consumer psychology. Consumer confidence ultimately hinges on strength in the labor market.” Even though new car and housing sales are falling…

Jobless Claims, week of August 19, 2017: “[T]his morning’s jobless claims data are little changed at historic lows” [Econoday].

New Home Sales (yesterday): “Weak, inline with permits and decelerating mortgage credit growth” [Mosler Economics].

Architectural Billing Index (yesterday): “Down a bit, low and going nowhere” (chart) [Mosler Economics].

Commodities: “[Cargill Inc.] has taken a stake in Memphis Meats Inc., a startup developing lab-grown meat. The investment is a sign that the world’s biggest food producers are taking so-called clean meat seriously, with companies racing to perfect chicken strips and burgers made from plants, or in Memphis Meats’ case, cell-cultures from living animal tissue. Clean meat would reduce major financial and environmental costs to food production, while cultivating new demand from consumers who disapprove of industry practices ranging from livestock treatment to water usage” [Wall Street Journal].

The Bezzle: “You can now buy $400 pants with a subprime loan” [The Outline]. “If you’ve ever bought a Casper mattress or plane tickets on Expedia, chances are you’ve heard of Affirm, a financial services startup that lets you pay for purchases in fixed installments. Affirm may be a relatively new company, but the service it offers isn’t particularly innovative: It’s taking the concept of layaway, a type of no-interest payment plan that became popular during the Great Depression that lets you pay for things in fixed installments and take them home once you’ve paid for it in full, and twisting it for millennials. Unlike layaway, Affirm delivers your purchases instantly — but the cost of instant gratification is interest rates as high as 30 percent. The service is basically a cross between credit cards and layaway, combining the worst aspects of both. And if there’s one thing tech startups have mastered, it’s getting investors to give them millions of dollars to recreate things that already exist, like taxis, ordering food from restaurants, and now, subprime loans.”

The Bezzle: “Apple Scales Back Its Ambitions for a Self-Driving Car” [New York Times]. “Steve Zadesky, an Apple executive who was initially in charge of Titan, wanted to pursue the semiautonomous option. But people within the industrial design team including Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, believed that a fully driverless car would allow the company to reimagine the automobile experience, according to the five people.” Fresh from the success of Apple Watch…

The Bezzle: “Legislators grant private firm $605K” [Honolulu Star-Advisor]. “Lawmakers this year approved a grant worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to a privately owned Hawaii island well-drilling company through a process usually used to fund nonprofit social service organizations, and some lawmakers are wondering why.” No doubt!

The Bezzle: “The Fed Has 6,200 Tons of Gold in a Manhattan Basement—Or Does It?” [Wall Street Journal]. “New legislation, nicknamed the “Audit the Fed” bill, could allow the Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed’s vault, said a spokesman for the bill’s Senate sponsor, Rand Paul (R., Ky.). GAO lawyers wouldn’t speculate on the bill’s reach. Mr. Paul’s spokesman said the Senator has arranged a personal visit to Fort Knox this fall.”

The Bezzle: Can this be true?

Facebook has sunk to new levels of evil by autoplaying video? And you if you don’t want to hear it, you have to turn off Sound, and not just Facebook?

The Fed: “Fearful of awakening market bears, Yellen and Draghi to tread softly at Jackson Hole” [MarketWatch]. “Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, now says a significant market correction, such as a sharp drop is asset prices, is a ‘major risk’ to the global outlook… ‘For now, we suspect that the risk of a major asset market correction is a reason for central banks to tread cautiously and only remove stimulus very gradually,’ Buiter and his colleagues wrote in a research report.” I’ve always wanted to make this joke: “I can’t believe it’s not Buiter!”

Today’s Fear & Greed Index: 23 Extreme Fear (previous close: 19, Extreme Fear) [CNN]. One week ago: 17 (Extreme Fear). (0 is Extreme Fear; 100 is Extreme Greed). Last updated Aug 24 at 12:50pm.

Health Affairs

“Did Medicaid Expansion Cause The Opioid Epidemic? There’s Little Evidence That It Did.” [Health Affairs]. Because:

First, trends in opioid deaths nationally and by Medicaid expansion status predate the ACA. Second, counties with the largest coverage gains actually experienced smaller increases in drug-related mortality than counties with smaller coverage gains. Third, the fact that Medicaid recipients fill more opioid prescriptions than non-recipients largely reflects greater levels of disability and chronic illness in the populations that Medicaid serves. While we do not reject the possibility that public policy has played a role in our current prescription abuse crisis, on balance we find little evidence to support the idea that Medicaid caused or worsened the epidemic.

Our Famously Free Press

“First Amendment in Peril?” [City Journal]. “Google and Apple, with a combined 98 percent market share in mobile-phone operating systems, have banned Gab, an upstart Twitter competitor with a free-speech policy quaintly modeled on the First Amendment itself, from their app stores. Google cited “hate speech” as its reason for exclusion; Gab doesn’t censor. What few people yet understand is that Google and Apple have used their duopoly status to revoke the First Amendment on mobile phones. Because the Internet is now majority mobile, and a growing majority of all web traffic comes from mobile devices, the First Amendment is now effectively dead in the mobile sphere unless policymakers act to rein in the tech giants who serve as corporate gatekeepers to digital speech.”

News of the Wired

“Japanese Designers May Have Created the Most Accurate Map of Our World: See the AuthaGraph” [OpenCulture]. This is really neat. Greenland sure looks smaller than it looked, back when I was back in grade school!

“Stretched Skulls: Anamorphic Games and the memento mortem mortis” [Digital Humanities]. Perhaps slightly turgid, but fortunately not PoMo:

From Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors to Robert Lazzarini’s skulls, anamorphic artworks explore the tension between mathematical models of vision and an embodied experience of space. After reviewing the ways in which anamorphosis has been deployed as a philosophical tool for investigating digital media in terms of human phenomenology, specifically through the criticism of Espen Aarseth and Mark Hansen, this paper analyzes how contemporary videogames like Sony’s Echochrome series, levelHead by Julian Oliver, and Mark ten Bosch’s forthcoming Miegakure technically, aesthetically, and conceptually explore anamorphic techniques. While The Ambassadors is famous for its anamorphically skewed skull, a classic memento mori, we propose that the anamorphic effects of videogames can be more accurately described as a memento mortem mortis: not reminders of human mortality, but of a nonhuman the death of death. By foregrounding the impossibility of ever fully resolving the human experience of computational space, the memento mortem mortis in these “anamorphic games” gestures toward experiential domains altogether indifferent to human phenomenology to create allegories of the beyond.

This would, in fact, fit in quite well with your Silicon Valley squillonaire’s desire to live forever. As Maciej Cegłowski wrote:

Given this scary state of the world, with ecological collapse just over the horizon, and a population sharpening its pitchforks, an important question is how this globalized, unaccountable tech industry sees its goals. What does it want? What will all the profits be invested in?

What is the plan?

The honest answer is: rocket ships and immortality.

I wish I was kidding.

The best minds in Silicon Valley are preoccupied with a science fiction future they consider it their manifest destiny to build…. Our cohort of tech founders is feeling the chill breath of mortality as they drift into middle age. And so part of what is driving this push into space is a more general preoccupation with ‘existential risk’.

The biggest existential risk, of course, is death, so a lot of money is going to make sure that our big idea men don’t expire before the world has been received the full measure of their genius.

Don’t worry. I’m sure when the Fountain of Youth is discovered, all will share equally in it.

“How to Make Jon Snow’s Cape Using an Ikea Rug” [The Cut]. News you can use!

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NOTE A few readers have expressed a desire for a small meetup in the Bangor area. My dance card for September is pretty full, but Friday, September 15 would work for me. (I realize I’d be “outing” myself to any locals who haven’t made the connection, but at this point my online identity is sufficiently gauzy — certainly to a professional — that it probably doesn’t matter much anyhow.) If anybody wishes to contact me on this topic, here’s my email: lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com; I’ll go by responses to see whether it’s worth doing. I think attendance of one or two would be discouraging, so there would be no point going ahead, but if we ended up with five or six, as in Portland, that would be great.

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Readers, feel free to contact me at lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com, with (a) links, and even better (b) sources I should curate regularly, (c) how to send me a check if you are allergic to PayPal, and (d) to find out how to send me images of plants. Vegetables are fine! Fungi are deemed to be honorary plants! If you want your handle to appear as a credit, please put it in the subject line. Otherwise, I will anonymize by using your initials. See the previous Water Cooler (with plant) here. Today’s plant (pq):

pq writes: “Just before 10 a.m. on Monday morning, I was sitting at my desk looking out the west-facing window, when I spotted a couple of odd-shaped spots of sunlight on the ground next to my car. I thought, “No, can’t be …” When I went outside to check it out, the driveway was covered with them. As the eclipse progressed, the spots appeared all over the lawn. Evidently, the stand of tall Doug fir on the east side of the house were acting as natural pin holes. I took a lot of photos, but none convey the shivers of seeing them materialize right before your eyes.”

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Readers: Do feel free to use the dropdown and click the hat to make a contribution today or any day. Here is why: Regular positive feedback both makes me feel good and lets me know I’m on the right track with coverage. When I get no donations for five or ten days I get worried. More tangibly, a constant trickle of small donations helps me with expenses, and I factor that trickle in when setting fundraising goals. So if you see something you especially appreciate, do feel free to click the hat! (Don’t go overboard, though :-)


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.