Links: SYRIZA, SOTU, etc.

syriza (2)

(1) Greek elections:  We just posted an article by Mike-Frank Epitropoulos on tomorrow’s elections in Greece, and what a SYRIZA election would mean: A Second Demonstration Project for Greece. The title alludes to the article Mike wrote for us back in May 2010, Greece as a Demonstration Project. Back then, the architects of austerity were using Greece as a demonstration project to see how a country’s population reacted to vicious austerity. Today, those same elites are worried about what the election of an anti-austerity, sometimes anti-capitalist party in Europe would demonstrate for people elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Also: check out the interview on RT with left economist Yanis Varoufakis, who will become Greece’s finance minister if SYRIZA wins. A highlight: in Pt. 2 Varoufakis speaks of the “fiscal waterboarding of Greece” (around 20:18 in the video).

(2) State of the Union:  I was so busy finalizing the Jan/Feb issue of D&S (check it out! and read the editorial note here) that I didn’t get a chance to post some links in advance of SOTU and after it. What I meant to post:

  • The Sunlight Foundation created the hilarious State of the Union Machine, which allows you to adjust inputs of presidential blather and rhetoric, from Washington and Lincoln to Bush père and fils to Clinton and Obama, to create your own SOTU (of sorts–it doesn’t really produce grammatically correct sentences, but you can’t have everything!). Sample word-salad generated: “Now do your part. Tonight I ask Congress to move quickly and decisively in confirming Judge Anthony Kennedy to the Moon.”
  • The SOTU machine reminded me of the Oliver Sacks essay, The President’s Speech, from his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, about the reaction of patients in the aphasia ward to a speech by “the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal” (clearly Ronald Reagan, though he is not named explicitly–and how great a word is “histrionisms”?).  The patients, some of whom could apprehend non-verbal cues but not the literal meanings of words, others of whom can only apprehend the literal meanings, were either convulsed in laughter in response to Reagan’s antics or darkly disturbed.
  • More seriously: hat-tip to TM for pointing me to Lambert Strether’s post-SOTU commentary in his Water Cooler from Tuesday.
  • Via the Real News Network, an interview with Kshama Sawant, socialist Seattle city councilor, about SOTU, The Socialist Response to the State of the Union.
  • Sawant is a nice antidote to the email alert I got from the progressive outfit Media Matters for America, about their piece Right-Wing Media Decry Obama’s Economic Policy Proposals As Santa Claus-Style Giveaways And Class Warfare.  I’m sure they did, but what about a critique from the left of Obama’s class warfare on behalf of the wealthy?  As I have pointed out by email to Casey Skeens, their “communications and outreach associate” who sends out their email alerts, Media Matters for America bills itself as a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” but they seem to only criticize Republican conservatives, never Democratic conservatives. (Casey has never responded–so much for communications and outreach.)

(3) Sue Holmberg on the Van Hollen Plan:  Over at New Deal 2.0 of the Roosevelt Institute, this piece: The Van Hollen Plan Takes on Soaring CEO Pay: A Debate We Need to Have.

(4) What’s Wrong with Mainstream Economics:  Two pieces discussing what’s wrong with mainstream economics, and whether there is anything wrong.

First, from Noah Smith at Bloomberg View, Economic Stars Swing Left, which tries to respond to the activism at the recent economic meetings (ASSA protests) that we reported on (here), claiming that the protesters are off base, because the most publicly visible economists (Krugman, Stiglitz, Piketty, etc.) are leftists.

… if the protesters bothered to look around, they would see that their wish has been coming true for decades. Over the past quarter-century, economics has been shifting from singing the praises of free markets. Instead, it has moved toward a greater focus on inequality, human welfare and the ways that markets break down.

If you can get beyond the condescension, you may find it funny that Smith cites right-wing economist and pundit Tyler Cowen to back up the claim that Paul Krugman is today’s Milton Friedman.

One of the leaders of the protest, Keith Harrington (whom I quoted in my post about the protests) had a great response:

Utter nonsense Noah. This isn’t about economics swinging right or left. It’s about economics opening itself up to pluralism. Everyone you mentioned in this article is a neoclassical economist. Neoclassical economists like Krugman or Piketty may sit to the left of other mainstream economists like Mankiw, Summers or Reinhart, but that does not mean that the profession is becoming less rigid in terms of the schools of thought and methodology that are considered legitimate. Neoclassicism and its fundamentally flawed assumptions still rule the day.

And in terms of the incompatibility between our protest of the narrow mathematical/ objectivist/pseudo-scientific formalism of neoclassical economics and our protest of Carmen Reinhart’s reckless, ideologically-driven arrogance — there really is none. In both cases the common denominator is a hubristic belief in the fundamental inviolability of the mainstream worldview.

Had you bothered to actually reach out to us and attempt to obtain an accurate understanding of our message, you would have realized that we’re not taking a doctrinaire leftist perspective but protesting the extreme narrowness and provincialism of mainstream economics.

Meanwhile, there was a more serious and bigger-league (than Noah Smith) debate on the same kind of topic in the pages of the New York Review of Books, when Arnold Packer and Jeff Madrick responded to Alan Blinder’s somewhat negative review of Madrick’s great book Seven Bad Ideas, and Blinder responds in an exchange called “What’s the Matter with Economics?” An Exchange. According to Packer, “Blinder concludes that except for some right-wingers outside the ‘mainstream’ and politicians’ refusal to accept economists’ recommendations, little is the matter and Seven Bad Ideas constitutes ‘serial exaggeration.'” The debate is again about whether mainstream economists are mostly right-wing, but it ‘s also about how much policy influence economists have. Blinder, whom both Packer and Madrick praise as one of the best of the mainstream economists, seems to say that mainstream economists don’t have enough (or governments wouldn’t have pursued austerity policies), whereas Madrick and Packer (and Harrington and the economists who write for D&S) say mainstream economists have too much influence (or governments wouldn’t have pursued austerity policies). If you believe Carmen Reinhart, who after the protests claimed that she herself is “heterodox” (and Noah Smith supported that claim), then you’d have to disagree with Blinder, since if that whole Reinhart/Rogoff kerfuffle (see here)  showed anything, it was that economists like Reinhart and Rogoff (a) are mainstream and (b) have political influence to support austerity.

(4) Judith Butler on Black Lives Matter:  I want to recommend a great interview with philosopher Judith Butler at the New York Times‘s philosophy blog, The Stone: What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’? I, along with about 10% of the online commentators, thought that Butler’s analysis was really great. If you have a couple of hours to waste and your blood pressure is too low, read the rest of the comments, which range from outrage about her failing to talk about Mike Brown’s alleged crimes and character, to failing to talk about “black-on-black crime,” to scorn at the obscurity of theory. (Seriously, this interview is very clear as philosophy goes, and if you don’t like theory, why are you reading a philosophy blog? It’d be like reading a math blog and complaining about the formulae.)  Anyhow, I recommend the interview, but not the comments.

(5) Sasha Breger Bush, Gambling on Hunger and Climate Change:  Sasha Breger Bush, who will be contributing to our March/April special issue on food and farms, has a piece in the Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2015, just released to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos. Her piece is called Gambling on Hunger and Climate Change.

That’s it for now.

–Chris Sturr


Tuesday Links: London Whale, S.A.C. Capital, Jeff Madrick

Apologies about the break from posts for the past week plus.  I just moved apartments, and that kept me from blogging. (Though around the same time I was moving we had some troubles with our sister blog, Triple Crisis, which also took up a lot of time. I have found some temporary fixes for our troubles, but if there are any WordPress developers out there who could give us some pro bono help with our two blogs (which both run on WordPress) and our website (which we intend to shift over to WordPress), please drop us a line.) Here are my latest links:

(1) Jeff Madrick’s Seven Bad Ideas:  I have been listening to, and enjoying, the audiobook version of the new book by Challenge editor and economic journalist Jeff Madrick, Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World. If you’re in the DC area, Madrick will be speaking about his book at EPI this Thursday (1-2:30pm) with Brad DeLong and EPI’s Josh Bivens. Event announcement here. Find a pretty positive review of the book in the NYT by Krugman here.  And find an interview Alternet’s Lynn Parramore did with Madrick here.

(2) Scathing report critical of NY Fed:  The Inspector General of the Federal Reserve just put out a report (summary here; article from Bloomberg here) saying that as early as 2008 and 2009, the NY Fed had info about problems with JPMorgan’s investment office that eventually lost billions because of the so-called “London Whale,” but failed to follow up on the information. This is very juicy, especially given what has come out about the NY Fed as a result of the 46 hours of secret recordings made by NY Fed examiner Carmen Segarra, who was apparently fired for asking too many questions about the bank she was “embedded” in, Goldman Sachs.  The This American Life episode about Segarra (here) is well worth listening to; the reporting was done in partnership with Pro Publica’s Jake Bernstein (here).

(3) Patrick Radden Keefe, “The Empire of Edge”: A great piece in the second-most-recent New Yorker (hat-tip TM) about hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen of what was S.A.C. Capital and insider trading, “The Empire of Edge: How a doctor, a trader, and the billionaire Steven A. Cohen Got entangled in a vast financial scandal.” The elderly Alzheimer’s researcher who provided the inside information that allowed Cohen and his company to make hundreds of millions shorting stock of two pharmaceutical companies was disgraced; the trader for S.A.C. Capital who courted the doctor and presumably brought the info to Cohen, or at least got him to sell his shares and then short them, Mathew Martoma was sentenced to nine years in federal prison. But Cohen couldn’t even be indicted, and from what the article’s author says it seems to be simply because he doesn’t allow his employees to say anything explicit about the insider information that is the basis of how they are advising him to invest (or disinvest):

Cohen would never be so foolish as to sit and listen while a subordinate laid out the full provenance of an illegal tip. At some firms, … there is an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where the fact that a piece of information came from an insider would be conveyed not in so many words but with a facial expression, a tone of voice, or coded language (say, a conviction level of nine). The sociologist Diego Gambetta, in his book “Codes of the Underworld,” explains that people engaged in criminal conduct often evolve an elaborate semiotics to communicate with one another, because they cannot speak openly about their plans. One federal official who has investigated S.A.C. told me, “In the Mob, sometimes it’s just an expression. One expression means ‘Kill him.’ Another expression means ‘Don’t kill him.’ How do you bring that to a jury?”

The skit from the BBC’s Mitchell & Webb at the top of this post (see it on the Youtube here) humorously illustrates mobsters’ use of “needlessly ambiguous terms” (hat-tip Kannan). Of course, the gag is that the ambiguity isn’t needless at all for organized crime outfits like the mob and S.A.C. Capital–it can keep you out of jail. But they do manage to indict and convict mobsters–why not banksters and fraudstsers too?

That’s it for now.

–Chris Sturr