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Monday, October 12, 2020

The Washington Post Has Never Heard of the International Monetary Fund [feedly]

The Washington Post Has Never Heard of the International Monetary Fund

That would seem to be the case from reading the paper's editorial on the need to take steps to reduce extreme poverty in developing countries. The editorial never once mentions the proposal before the International Monetary Fund to substantially increase the special drawing rights available to developing countries.

This measure, which has the support of the I.M.F. leadership, and most of its member states (but not the Trump administration), would give the developing countries resources to help their economies recover from the pandemic. It is surprising that the Post would not mention it in an editorial on reducing world poverty.

It is also worth noting that the Trump  method of pursuing a vaccine, with grants of patent monopolies, rather than an open collaborative effort, is likely to make it more difficult for developing countries to get access to a vaccine. While this route does contribute to the upward distribution of income, it is not an efficient way to develop a vaccine. It does appear as though China is at least partially filling the gap created by the Trump administration going this route. 

The post The Washington Post Has Never Heard of the International Monetary Fund appeared first on Center for Economic and Policy Research.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Sunday, October 11, 2020

China Backs Indonesia to Become Vaccine Hub of Southeast Asia [feedly]

China Backs Indonesia to Become Vaccine Hub of Southeast Asia

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Waiting for a Vaccine: Killing for Inequality [feedly]

Omigod: The vaccine battle is finally bringing Dean Baker's longstanding -- formerly thought quixotic -- complaint about patent monopolies making a mockery of big business "pro innovation" hype, into the spotlight and hotspot ---- where China's vaccine response is set to humiliate the giant US pharmaceuticals. 

Waiting for a Vaccine: Killing for Inequality

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

I have been harping on the fact that it is very likely China will be mass producing and distributing a vaccine at least a month, and quite possibly several months, before the United States. This should make people very angry.

Even a month's delay is likely to mean tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and hundreds of thousands of avoidable infections. And, it adds a month to the time period before we can get back to living normal lives. Of course, the delay could end up being many months, since we still have no idea how the clinical trials will turn out for the leading U.S. contenders.

We are in the situation where we can be waiting several months for a vaccine, after one has already been demonstrated to be safe and effective, because the Trump administration opted to pursue a route of patent monopoly research, as opposed to open-source collaborative research. If Trump had gone the latter route, as soon as China, or anyone, had a vaccine, everyone would have a vaccine, or at least everyone able to manufacture it.


Patent Monopoly Financing Versus Open Source

Since people seem to find the alternative to Trump's patent monopoly approach confusing, let me outline it simply, so that people can see what is at issue. As it turned out, Trump quite explicitly turned the development of a vaccine into a race. He created "Operation Warp Speed," to which he committed more than $10 billion of public funds. This effort is supposed to develop both vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.

The funding takes a variety of forms. Several companies received some upfront funding, but are relying primarily on advance purchase agreements for an effective vaccine. For example, Pfizer signed a contract that commits the government to buying 100 million doses for $1.95 billion ($19.50 per shot), if it has a successful vaccine.

By contrast, Moderna relied largely on upfront funding, getting $483 million for its pre-clinical research and phase 1 and 2 trials, and then another $472 million to cover the cost of its phase 3 trials. Incredibly, after largely picking up Moderna's development costs, the government is also allowing Moderna to have a patent monopoly on its vaccine. This means it will effectively be paying Moderna twice, first with the direct funding then a second time by allowing it to charge monopoly prices on its vaccine.

This nationalistic patent monopoly route was the one Trump choose to pursue. It should be mentioned there was little visible opposition from leading Democrats in Congress.

But, we could have taken a different route. We could have looked to pool research, not just nationally, but internationally. This would mean that all research findings would be posted on the web as soon as practical and that any patents would be placed in the public domain so that everyone could take advantage of them.

We were actually seeing this sort of cooperation in the early days of the pandemic, which allowed scientists to gain an understanding of the virus more quickly than if we had followed the path of patent monopoly supported research. This path of cooperation could have continued, if Operation Warp Speed had been structured differently. Instead of paying for the research costs of a company like Moderna, and then telling them they could get a patent monopoly so that they could charge whatever they want, we could have made the condition of the funding that all its findings would be fully public and patents would be in the public domain.

Since some folks have a hard time understanding what incentive Moderna would have if they weren't getting a patent monopoly, let me explain: they would be getting paid.

Just as most of us work for money, not patent monopolies, Moderna and other drug companies developing vaccines or treatments would be getting paid directly for their research. Their incentive would be that they presumably want to continue to get paid. If they went two or three months and had nothing to show, then they would not continue to get paid.

This is the idea of working for money. I thought that most economists were familiar with it, but when it comes to financing drug research, they seem to view it as an alien concept.[1]

Anyhow, if we committed $10 billion for open research, presumably we would want comparable commitments (adjusted for size and wealth) from other countries. For example, Germany, which has an economy that is roughly one fifth the size of the U.S. economy, would be expected to commit to paying $2 billion to support open research. China would also be expected to make a commitment that was comparable relative to its GDP, although as a much poorer country (on a per person basis), perhaps the commitment would only be half as large relative to its economy.

If we had leadership in the United States that was committed to pursuing a path of open research, then presumably it would be possible to quickly work out a deal that countries were reasonably satisfied with. It doesn't matter that a deal may not make everyone perfectly happy. Lots of things are happening in the pandemic and the response that are far from perfectly fair. Such is life.

Anyhow, in this world of open research, if it turned out that China's vaccines were showing more promise earlier than the ones developed by Pfizer and Moderna and other U.S. companies, we would be able to manufacture and mass distribute their vaccines, as soon as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved them. No one would need permission from China since the research was open, anyone could manufacture the vaccines who had the capability.

Just to be clear, using a Chinese vaccine does not mean accepting China's safety standards. The FDA would make its own determination of a vaccine's safety and effectiveness based on the data from the clinical trials. If it could not be confident that the data supported approval, then it would not be granted, just as is the case with any domestic vaccine or drug.

If we had gone this route, if the Chinese vaccines are shown to be safe and effective before the vaccines developed by U.S. companies, we would not be left waiting. If China, or any other country had a vaccine, we would as well. This system still leaves a problem for developing countries who lack manufacturing capabilities, but at least intellectual property concerns would not be preventing people from getting a vaccine or treatment.


Open Research and Inequality

It is hard to understand how, not just mainstream Democrats, but even progressive leaders like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, were not pushing for an open research response to the pandemic. This almost certainly would have given us a vaccine more quickly.

However, an open research approach to the pandemic also could have been a very important model for biomedical research more generally. If we went a route of financing research upfront and putting all patents in the public domain, it could save us $400 billion a year on prescription drug spending. This comes to more than $3,000 per household. It is more than twice the size of the Trump tax cut. This is real money.

Patent monopolies also have a lot to do with inequality. We are often told that technology is a big part of the story of upward redistribution over the last four decades. While this story is frequently exaggerated, insofar as it is true, it is because we have designed patent and copyright laws so that some people can get very rich at the expense of everyone else. Bill Gates would still be working for a living if the government did not give Microsoft patent and copyright monopolies on its software.

It is more than a bit bizarre that political figures who devote so much effort to combatting inequality look the other way when we design a pandemic health care research plan that both slows research progress and gives more money to those at the top.

It's fine to have progressive taxes, but it is even better to structure the market so that we don't have so much inequality in the first place. If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity since its 1968 peak, it would be $24 an hour today. That would be a hugely different world.

While it would be great if we could raise the minimum wage to $24 an hour, we can't do that without changing many of the rules that allow so much income to be redistributed upward. The current system of patents and copyrights is a really big part of that story. In the case of the pandemic, it is not just leading to inequality, it is also costing people's health and their lives. Progressives should be paying attention.    

[1] I discuss in chapter 5 of Rigged how this sort of system can be structured in a more systematic way (it's free). But in the context of dealing with the pandemic emergency, the arrangements would have to be somewhat ad hoc, as is already the case with Operation Warp Speed.

The post Waiting for a Vaccine: Killing for Inequality appeared first on Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Branko Milanovic: Was Novel Born and Died with the Bourgeois Society? [feedly]

Was Novel Born and Died with the Bourgeois Society?

Branko Milanovic argues that, in some cases, literature can help shed light on how inequality was historically understood and felt.

Can we use literature to learn more about inequality? Yes, I think we can, and, as some of my readers know, I did exactly that in "The haves and the have-nots" which open with the discussion of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (in terms of the monetary advantage for Elizabeth to marry Mr. Darcy) and of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".  Piketty has used later the same idea in his "Capital in the 21st century" adding Balzac—who by the way was cited by Marx for precisely the same reason: as an extraordinary chronicler of life in a bourgeois society.

Recently, Dan Shaviro published "Literature and inequality", a book in which he looked at the social structures of England and France (in the 19th century) and the United States (in the 19th and 20th) as revealed by nine books, beginning with the inevitable Jane Austen, going through Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Trollope, EM Forster, Mark Twain, Dudley Warner, Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser. I have reviewed the first part of the book here and the second part here. On October 15, Dan is planning an online book vernissage to which I am very much looking forward.

As the luck would have it, I took from my shelf a couple of days ago John Lukacs's "The future of history", a nice little book of essays about history written by one of foremost US historians of the World War II. I read it when it was published, almost ten years ago, and I planned to read (for the reasons entirely unrelated to the topic I am discussing here) my book notes and comments only. But what attracted my attention was Lukacs's discussion of the relationship between history and literature. He asks the same question as the one I asked in the beginning of this post: can we learn something about history of a given era by reading good literature?

Lukacs's answer is, "yes". Not only can we learn about how people might have felt about a historical event, whether they even knew they were participants or witnesses to such an event, but good literature, as Lukacs writes, is like good history. When you read it you are not supposed to feel that you know the outcome; it has to be open-ended, to always keep the full breadth of possibilities that exist in the present, but which we, looking at what used to be present, know did not materialize. Thus, Lukacs writes,  literature and history are symbiotic. This is very much the point that I think all of us who hold that you can learn about societies and their inequality from novels would agree.

But then Lukacs makes an additional intriguing point. Noticing that the birth of the novel was in the mid-18th century, contemporaneously with the Industrial Revolution, and that its peak was probably in the 19th century Europe, and noticing also that the type of society-revealing novel that both he and economists have in mind, has become much rarer now, Lukacs asks: has novel died at the same time as the bourgeois class-compartmentalized society dissolved?

He uses the fact noticed by many that around the turn of the 20th  century, novels became much more focused on individual experiences which did not necessarily have much to do with the surrounding society. It is not that Julien Sorel or Emma Bovary were not focused on themselves. But that self was described as it navigated and struggled in the world riven with greed, arrivisme, social mimicry, and class divisions. So the self was seen against the background of society. At times that  background moved even upfront, became the real topic of the book (which may be the case with Dickens, for example). But in the novels of the early 20th century and increasingly afterwards, Lukacs writes, the societal background recedes: what we see is mostly an individual with his issues, family, friends, sex, love, depression. Grand societal themes raised by the past literature are gone.

This is indeed what I noticed when, emboldened by the success of using Jane Austen and Tolstoy to throw light on English and Russian society of the early 19th  century, I started looking around, and asking my friends and students, to find similar novels in other settings and languages. The results were disappointing. Societies that were less developed and commercialized than the 19th  century Europe did not (understandably) produce such novels:  if monetization is quasi non-existent, how can you quantify social positions, incomes, wealth? Novelists are not going to impute incomes the way that economists impute the value of own produced goods to farmers in household surveys. On the other hand, Western societies of the mid-20th century and later did not seem, for the reasons Lukacs mentions, to care much for that kind of literature either.

I have not followed contemporary literature (contemporary meaning, written in the past 30 years) partly for that very reason, so I relied more on the judgment of others. But they too seemed at a loss of finding novels from which one could glean social inequality, or even more generally social issues linked with  inheritance, position in society, class distinctions, and even money. So we ended with a very meager yield.

Lukacs provides an answer to that dearth. In his view, the dissolution of classes and of typical bourgeois societies made novels of the type that I was looking for irrelevant. Society decomposed into individuals, not in classes. The subject matter of literature became individual issues, not class issues.

Now, one further element (never thought of by Lukacs, I am sure) lends credence to his explanation. Political economy stopped looking at social inequality through the lens of class, which it did from Quesnay through  Adam Smith and  Ricardo all the way to Marx. It did so precisely around the same time as classical novel disappeared. It was Pareto at the turn of the 20th century who introduced for the first time, studying fiscal data from a number of German and Italian cities and states, interpersonal income inequality. From Pareto onward, we ceased to deal with capitalists, workers, and landlords; we began to deal with individuals, some rich, others poor. The class analysis was definitely pushed out, so much so that in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the United States, even the mention of class in an economic paper would immediately classify you as an unreconstructed Marxist.

It dawned on me that this was not a coincidence: the death of the classical novel, the dissolution of the class structure of the bourgeois society, and the end of a political economy where the subjects were classes in favor of "agents" might have all been related.

But now as the importance of capital incomes increases, and capitalist societies grow increasingly stratified, with the rich attempting to confer and transmit all the advantages to their offspring, may not both the class analysis in economics and the classical novel make a comeback

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Journal Entry: 10/10/20: I Have a Socialist Moment With Harold Meyerson


It Stops Being Scary When Its the Only Light Around.

The scary word is not the obstacle, IMO. Socialism gets currency as the more reactionary order crumbles from its own irreconcilable fault lines, and simply cannot continue in the old way. We are seeing that here, and now. People do not go to the immense and expensive trouble to make structural changes to their societies, except under duress. The forces mandating the vast accumulations of wealth in the 70's and afterwards, overwhelmed even the highly skilled, liberal and cautionary efforts of Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The decay of an imperial culture, including its lifelong infections of slavery and its legacy of racism, native genocide, and the moral damage inflicted by imperial wars, has been devastating to our karma. Even in the Left, the damage leaves its imprint in the form of endless anarchisms (under many names) and factional labors. Trump is teaching us that is a luxury with which we will have to part. If not, we may, like German social democrats and communists, have to wait for an alliance of foreign armies to save us.

The socialist movements are being reborn again from necessities and failures of the now long-standing austerity regime in US capitalism Along the way it is not infrequently reproducing, or recycling, the socialist birth traumas of earlier times and upheavals in capitalism's history, which resulted, usually, in socialism's advance. Societies that cannot reform the unsustainable chasms of wealth, class and caste in a mandatory multi cultural, multi-racial, multi-national, mixed-economic-system world -- cannot thrive now. Globalization has baked that inevitability in.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the wealth concentration and political corruptions (or nullification) would always walk hand in hand toward anti-democratic and anti-popular and immoral, fascist-like regimes. Perhaps it is inevitable that such regimes if not defeated early, must die by the sword. Perhaps not. Is this a test? Yes. It is.

The Socialist Moment, and How to Extend It

Harold Meyerson reviews (a book and a movie about) Bernie Sanders socialism.

While Joe Biden has been making it unmistakably clear that he’s nobody’s socialist tool, the American socialist movement—most of whose adherents will be voting for Biden—has continued to expand. The Democratic Socialists of America (to which I’ve belonged since the Neolithic Age) now has more than 70,000 members and has launched a campaign to raise that number to 100,000. At its current rate of growth, its membership rolls may well surpass that of the Debs-era Socialist Party, which claimed 118,000 dues-payers at its early-20th-century zenith.

The rebirth of American socialism has come complete with any number of explanatory and exhortatory books, the best of which was published late last month: The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, a brief, incisive volume by veteran political journalist, longtime democratic socialist, and sometime American Prospect contributor John B. Judis. The book is Judis’s third in a series published by Columbia Global Reports. In it, as in its two predecessors The Populist Explosion and The Nationalist Revival, Judis tracks the consequences of the failures of globalized capitalism to sustain working- and middle-class prosperity and stability since the 2008 collapse, and the concomitant rise of both left and right in the wake of those failures. As is not the case in the other two volumes, however, Judis writes not merely as an analyst of an ideology’s return but as an advocate for its necessity, with particularly shrewd assessments of how the new American socialism can advance, and, alternatively, how it may marginalize itself into irrelevance.

More from Harold Meyerson

Judis focuses on two periods in American socialism’s long history: the Debs Era of 1900 through 1920, and the Bernie Sanders Surge, which began to incubate with the Occupy movement of 2011 but didn’t really take off until Sanders began running for president in 2015. Both were periods in which capital concentrated wealth and power, in which little of either trickled down to most Americans, in which the New Deal’s semi–social democratic reforms had either not yet been enacted or had been discarded in the post-1970 turn toward laissez-faire.

Sanders has always made it plain that socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was his hero, but in Judis’s telling, the key to Sanders’s zeitgeist-changing success was his move away from the socialist insularity that Debs espoused. While nominally remaining a political independent, Sanders won election to Congress on a social democratic platform of greater regulation of capital, greater power for workers, an expansion of social welfare and economic rights, and a pledge that he’d caucus with the Democrats. When he began running for president in 2015, Sanders made clear his model of socialism was the Scandinavian mixed economy. But as Judis recounts, after Columbia University historian Eric Foner sent him an open letter that emphasized a more American pedigree for socialist initiatives, Sanders took the hint. As I recounted in the Prospect, in Sanders’s two speeches that he billed as his definition of socialism—one given at Georgetown University in 2015, the second at George Washington University in 2019—he cited Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King as his forebears in the struggle for socialist reforms.

In keeping with that expansive definition, Judis emphasizes the broad socialist “network” that’s emerged today, which extends well beyond DSA card-carriers. It includes a range of progressive think tanks (like the Economic Policy Institute and the Roosevelt Institute) and magazines; most importantly, it includes not just the avowed socialists in elected office but a host of progressives whose politics are indistinguishable from the socialists’ politics, as Elizabeth Warren’s were from Sanders’s.

Expanding that network, as socialists like union leaders Sidney Hillman, A. Philip Randolph, and Walter Reuther did during the New Deal and the postwar period, will be as important, if not more important, to the social democratization of today’s United States than the growth of DSA per se, Judis contends. What could retard that growth, he continues, would be continuing the hold that a relatively small group of orthodox Trotskyists now have over DSA’s leadership. The majority of DSA members, he argues, are Berniecrats, happy to work for socialist and other progressive candidates seeking office as Democrats. (I believe he’s right about this.) They understand, as Sanders does and as DSA founder Michael Harrington did, that third-party politics are a dead end in the current configuration of the American electoral system, and that socialists have won power in democracies only when allied with other progressives on behalf of social democratic programs. Such an approach is anathema to the neo-Trotskyist cadres in DSA, for whom a kind of socialist identity politics eclipses both class politics and that of a 21st-century popular front.

Judis also makes the case for a socialist version of nationalism, at which many in today’s socialist movement will look askance. So long as democratic nations offer the one kind of government where majority rule holds sway, though, I think Judis has a point. While capitalism has had no trouble going global (in part to escape the regulations enacted by democratic nations), socialism cannot yet call on any planetary democratic body to reform the global economy. Moreover, people’s support for welfare states funded with their taxes, Judis points out, seldom extends beyond their nation’s borders. To advance a slightly different viewpoint, it’s worth noting that the nation that has given the highest share of its GDP in foreign aid—sometimes to insurgent movements, like the African National Congress—was Sweden under the Social Democrats. Of course, that was when Sweden also had the world’s most expansive welfare state for its own citizens.

Judis writes not merely as an analyst of an ideology’s return but as an advocate for its necessity.

As events would have it, the publication of Judis’s book coincides with the premiere of a film that seeks to introduce and normalize socialism to American viewers. Indeed, The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, a film by documentarian Yael Bridge, will have its first festival screening later today.

In Judis’s terminology, The Big Scary ‘S’ Word is a film about the broad socialist network, and broad left history, rather than a look at, say, the American Socialist and Communist Parties, or at DSA today. The focus is on progressives in motion, then and now, and their connection, explicit or implicit, to socialists and socialism, as distinct from the substance of their involvement in the socialist movement as such. Rather than disentangle the socialist and nonsocialist threads that came together to make the civil rights movement, for instance, the picture simply documents the socialism of Martin Luther King. Some of the environmental protests it shows may not have been populated by socialists, but they’re juxtaposed with interviews with Naomi Klein in which she connects a socialist perspective to any serious effort to save the planet. There’s a marvelous segment, replete with old films and photos, on the socialists’ 40-year control of Milwaukee’s city government, but no discussion of the social democratic meliorism of Victor Berger, the Milwaukee socialist leader and a contemporary of Debs who did not share Debs’s antipathy to reformist socialism. For that, you need to consult Judis’s book, which is pitched at a narrower audience than Bridge’s film.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Journal Entry: 10.8.20 Desolation Row


Larry Summers summarized on CNN: the consequences of Trump's cancellation of any stimulus "until after the election": more unemployment, less output, lower incomes, more death, more poverty, more global dysfunction -- and -- a DOUBLE recession. 

I went to bed right after the fly landed on Pence. At least he was civil. But Kamala Harris wiped him out from the start. Imagine Adolf Eichmann, charged with mass murder in Nazi concentration camps, offering copies of his condolence letters to his victim's families as examples of his pathos for their loss. 200,000 dead from Covid, the worst record in the world, and he offers prayers for them!

Despite Trump voter suppression effort, his campaign appears floundering, especially since the debate, and since his COVID infection. But between now and the first quarter of 2021, when relief might appear, we may be at the mercy of this neo Nazi garbage, with his ability to launch big provocations both nationally and internationally. 

The great Night Soldiers spy series by Alan Furst features a Polish Officer in the Spring and Summer of 1939, torn from his marriage and family hopes and aspirations planned for the Fall, by the Nazi invasion in September. The legendary Polish cavalry rode to defend the nation  against German tanks and aircraft. The marriage was ruined, as was the future. The Polish Officer became both a Russian, and a British spy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Journal Entry: 10-7-20 -- Lipstick On a Pig


Lipstick on a pig


There will be no stimulus bill until the first quarter of 2021. And even that depends on Biden being elected. Trump decided yesterday to abandon the stimulus talks between Mnuchin and Pelosi. But he was really putting "lipstick on a pig", as a Bloomberg commentator termed it. The neo-fascist Republican block in the House and Senate were always opposed to any "stimulus" other than a tax cut for themselves. For the public, these turds advocate the the old Jesse Helms contempt for the working class -- "the hungry dog hunts harder." The most you will get out of Trump may be an extension of unemployment if he wins -- but who knows what that level of derangement will really produce!

And Trump's actions prove he agrees with "the people are dogs", despite his daily gaslighting ("a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions"),   and catfishing ( "a deceptive activity where a person creates a sockpuppet presence or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim for abuse or fraud"). 

Democrats, especially progressives, want in the order of 6 Trillion: frontloaded to fight the virus and extend UI and PPP benefits, and rescue state and local governments;  backloaded to focus on infrastructure of the kind outlined in the Thrive agenda, a revised green new deal enhanced with addressing inequality, racism and reformed labor relations It has been endorsed by a rising number of unions. It will take winning the House, Senate and the presidency. Biden will have to go bold and big. I am sure he knows this since literally EVERYONE in the advising business is telling him their version of "go big". But doing it will require both skill and hardball tactics against the ultra right, neo-fascist menace.

It helps to have an outline of the actual future, instead of lots of posturing. But between now and the hoped-for first quarter of 2021 Bob Dylan's Desolation Row, and its tragedies, will rule. Communities will have little protection other than themselves. The dangers are high. Outcomes are being driven by both lunacy in high places, AND, grave externalities from climate change, grave social contradictions and conflicts in the US, and many Western nations,  and rising global instability as many states fail in the face of the combined pandemic/depression. It could take 10 years, and world wars, to get to the hoped-for 2021, if externalities deepen the crisis, and its associated horrors.