Monday, December 11, 2017

Ditties, Dirges, and Duels On 3Quarks

I have a problem. Each December I write a political New Year's ditty to send to friends and family. I've had a good time with them, even when the news (at least from my perspective) is less than cheery. I get to crib shamelessly from great authors of the past, ruin perfectly good metre with my tuneless ear, and throw in some real groaners. My "Mitchie at the Bat" is considered a classic of the genre, and even last year's dirge-y "Wreck of the Hillary C" induced a small avalanche of comments from the similarly agonized.

But I'm blocked. Eleven months of government by cattle-prod has depleted my mirth supply, so, in a last-minute Hail Mary, I am going to recharge by pivoting to a dispassionate discourse about something we are all passionate about—money. Not Bitcoin, or something esoteric that's way above my humble understanding, but plain old cash—the real stuff, actual specie, as in old coins.

I happen to have a few. Not many, and they don't have much in the way of numismatic value, but they are a treasure trove of history, and history cheers me up. About a dozen assorted coins dating from the late 18th Century to 1892, all from a worn-out purse my grandmother found in her basement catacombs. Among them were some two-cent pieces from the 1860s, a half-dime, an 1803 large penny, a commemorative coin from the Columbian Exposition, and an absolutely exquisite 1826 Capped Bust half-dollar.

To a junkie like me (for history, not necessarily for coins) they are all wonderful. Collectively, they tell a story that starts with 16 states and ends with 44, of powdered wigs and multi-hour speechifying, several wars, horses and stagecoaches, cotton pickers and cotton merchants, the creation of whole new cities out of swamp, and the building of an empire (by whatever means necessary) that stretched across the continent.

I was particularly lucky to have that 1826 half because, while it might have been the least rare, it had more stories to tell than I originally anticipated. It was in unusually good condition, well struck (perhaps early in the year, when the dies were still new) and with a faint patina that enhanced its beauty. Today's pocket change doesn't have much personality, but this half-dollar had elegance and character and craft, and even a little provenance to intrigue. This half had something to say. The design was by John Reich, a German immigrant who arrived here in 1800 (the model was supposedly his "fat German Mistress"). His work was noticed by Thomas Jefferson, who arranged for the US Mint to hire him as an assistant to the Engraver…but first they had to redeem his bond--because Reich came here as a bondsman, owing twenty guineas, to be paid off by working for $1 per week, for two years, for a Philadelphia engraver. Beyond that rather stark reminder that the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence allowed for a few business transactions, it also turns out that 1826 was a rather unexpectedly significant year, one that not only had the poetic passings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both on July 4, the 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration), but a spicy brew of political chaos which included a duel of honor that might have, but didn't, alter the course of American History.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Why Did The Coal Miner Refuse To Cross The Road-On 3Quarks

I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number 9 coal
And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"
 ("16 Tons" Merle Travis)

Who in his right mind would want to be a coal miner? It's scary, dangerous, terrible for your health, and destructive to the environment. In popular mythology, coal miners live in tar-paper shacks without indoor plumbing that are situated next to toxic waste dumps, buy all their supplies from the company store at ruinous rates, send children below ground by the time they are 12, and look 70 at 40—if they get there.

Hyperbole aside, it actually is dangerous, and the danger isn't just part of the historical past of Black Lung, the Coal and Iron Police, and Johnny Cash singing "16 Tons." There have been 13 deaths just this year. In 2010, at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, 29 miners died at a site that had over 350 safety violations, including lack of roof support, poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials. The CEO of owner Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was aggressively unrepentant. He wasn't going to slow production for safety's sake. The only thing he cared about was running coal, and running it as fast as it could be wrenched from the ground, at the lowest possible cost. If that meant cutting corners, that didn't trouble him.

Let's pose the question a second time: Who in his right mind would want to be a coal miner? Turns out, quite a lot of people. One of the most striking things about the various retraining programs for out-of-work coal miners and other old-economy/Rust Belt jobs, is how many reject them. They don't want to learn alternatives—the want their old jobs back. Along the Allegheny Mountain Range, where there's still plenty of coal to be mined, they think they should have them back—and will soon, because Trump promised to bring them back.

So, these are foolish people—either too ignorant to understand market forces or too uncaring about the environmental damage mining coal can cause, or just too reckless with their own lives and that of their children? And we need to save them from themselves…

Not exactly. First of all, thanks in very large part to an effective union, a coal miner, with overtime, can earn in the low six figures. They know there will be layoffs and company bankruptcies, but that's a powerful lure. Second, coal mining is truly a family business for many, with multiple generations following that path. The coal miner doesn't want to code. He wants to go back to the mine, wants to earn what he can from it, wants to return to the working community that has friends and neighbors, schools and athletic fields, baptisms, marriages and funerals.

But can he? The history of capitalism since the Industrial Revolution offers cautions. The movement from a traditional, pre-capitalist society to the modern innovative economy has created enormous wealth, and even the partial democratization of wealth, but also enormous upheaval and obsolescence. We have changed the way people live—no longer are they on farms where they can feed themselves, or manufacture at home, or barter with their neighbors. The overwhelming majority have become wage-earners, dependent on other people's capital allocations. When the market moves against the product being sold, whether that's shoes, textiles, steel, or coal, capital goes elsewhere, factories and mines close, jobs evaporate—as do the community towns that relied on those allocations.

To read more

Please join us on Twitter

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Flake Flakes

Jeff Flake made an impassioned defense of conservative principles yesterday, and a detailed takedown of the present occupant of the White House.  And no one who mattered cared.

Yes, it gained wide coverage in the media, got front page treatment from major newspapers, and was the subject of many admiring profiles and columns (including from holdout conservative #nevertrumpers). And no one who mattered cared.

Rank and file Republicans in Congress didn’t care. They were too busy looking at internal polling numbers from back home that tells them their constituents love what they are hearing from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Those esteemed, dignified Republican Senators, from Mitch McConnell on down, didn’t care.  They saw the same numbers, and more importantly, heard from the big-money backers with the most to gain from a Trump Presidency. Flake’s old news already—where’s our tax cuts?

Evangelicals surely didn’t care. They have been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.

Most of the rest of Unoccupied America didn’t care—who the heck is Jeff Flake? Life under Trump is like listening to your upstairs neighbor playing grunge rock out of broken speakers.  You’d like to call the Super, but he went AWOL for the weekend, and there’s no way you are calling the cops.  One thing you are sure about, is slipping a note under the door isn’t going to achieve the desired results.  So, you tune it out as much as you can and try to watch a bit of the World Series.  Football—maybe not so much, because any minute there could be another eruption.

Democrats should care, if they could tear themselves away for just a moment from the Bernie/Hillary grudge match. Maybe there’s an electoral opening in Arizona, or, less likely, in Tennessee (where the petite and charming Bob Corker has also had enough), but, of course, Democrats remain profoundly clueless.  They still haven’t figured out that complaining about Trump’s behavior is like speaking in Latin—you might find some classicists who get it, but the rest of the country is wondering, what’s wrong with English? Besides, we have Tom Perez idiotically criticizing Flake when Democrats should be looking to peel off some of his disaffected supporters. Winning elections is just too gauche for Democrats. There is nobility in political poverty.

Surely, there have to be people who care, right? How about on a strictly policy basis, shouldn’t people care? No, not at all. Flake is still a completely reliable Republican vote—there’s absolutely no distance between him and McConnell. His replacement, assuming it’s a Trump-Publican, will vote the same—just louder and more insultingly.

So, Jeff Flake is leaving—in 15 months. He was eloquent, he recalled a time of more civility and of firmer principles, he called upon his own party to return the better angels of their nature. I suspect we will hear more of that, from him, and from Bob Corker, and from columnists like Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, Kathleen Parker, and David Brooks.

And no one seems to care about what they have to say, because they, and Jeff Flake, are the past, a choir without an audience.   

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please join us on Twitter.