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Status report on the US economy: stand by for the boom!

24 April 2014

Summary:  It’s time for another look at the US economy. Economists have lots of enthusiasm. Lots of bad news, blamed on the severe winter that hit much (but not all) of America. It’s Spring. Has the data warmed up? Is it Springtime in America?

Springtime In America

Content

  1. Stand by for the boom!
  2. About housing, a driver of the recovery
  3. The Architecture Billings Index
  4. Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index
  5. World trade volume
  6. For More Information

(1)  Stand by for the boom!

Every year since the crash economists forecast decent growth next year (2% – 2.5%) and ~3% growth in 3 years. But late last year economists varied the script: they forecast 3.1% growth in 2015 and 2016 — but also strong growth next year. They forecast that the US economy would accelerate to escape velocity. They cheered for the “Red, White, and Boom”.  See the Fed’s Survey of Professional Forecasters, 14 February 2014:

Groundhog

Looks wonderful out there!

  1. 2014: Q12.0%
  2. 2014: Q23.0%
  3. 2014: Q32.8%
  4. 2014: Q42.7%
  5. 2013:1.9%
  6. 2014:2.8%
  7. 2015:3.1%
  8. 2016:3.1%

It’s April. How’s that 2014 boom running? Although estimates for Q1 have fallen from 2.5% in December to 2% now, but hope remains for faster growth in the rest of the year. Previously we looked at the strong automobile sales, fueled by easy credit to increasingly sub-prime households. This looks to run for a while longer. Here we examine some other economic indicators.

The economy is complex beyond understanding. These are just snips, clues to the future.

(2) About housing, a driver of the recovery

The housing sector is expected to be another driver of the recovery. So far the omens look bad, but economists and housing experts remain confident. They’ll remain so until prices rollover, which they eventually will if these trends continue.

The weakness of housing activity has lasted since summer, and its broad geographically. This shows that it does not result from bad weather alone. Let’s review the ugly numbers.

(a) Purchase mortgage applications for week ending April 18: -18% YoY NSA, continuing their year-long decline.

Read more…

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Worst case scenarios versus fat tails: a discussion about climate change

23 April 2014

Summary: Threat assessment requires understanding not just of worst case scenarios, but their odds of occurrence. Yesterday’s post looked at the math: A guide into the weird numbers that run our world, describing both financial bubbles & climate change — power laws, Black Swans, and Dragon Kings. If the worst case scenarios come true, we’ll all become too familiar with these terms. Today Professor Judith Curry discusses how can determine the likelihood of one of these scenarios happening. It’s one of the great questions in the public policy debate about climate change.

Fat Tails

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Contents

  1. Worst case scenarios vs fat tails
  2. About Judith Curry
  3. Important things to know about climate change
  4. For More Information
  5. Other worst-case scenarios

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Worst case scenarios versus fat tails

by Judith Curry, at her website Climate Etc
18 April 2014
Posted here under her Creative Commons license

.If we omit discussion of tail risk, are we really telling the whole truth? 

(a)  Kerry Emanuel

This post is motivated by an essay by Kerry Emanuel published at the Climate Change National Forum, entitled Tail Risk vs. Alarmism, which is in part motivated by my previous post AAAS: What we know. Excerpts:

In assessing the event risk component of climate change, we have, I would argue, a strong professional obligation to estimate and portray the entire probability distribution to the best of our ability. This means talking not just about the most probable middle of the distribution, but also the lower probability high-end risk tail, because the outcome function is very high there.

Do we not have a professional obligation to talk about the whole probability distribution, given the tough consequences at the tail of the distribution? I think we do, in spite of the fact that we open ourselves to the accusation of alarmism and thereby risk reducing our credibility. A case could be made that we should keep quiet about tail risk and preserve our credibility as a hedge against the possibility that someday the ability to speak with credibility will be absolutely critical to avoid disaster.

(b)  Uncertainty monster simplification

In my paper Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster, I described 5 ways of coping with the monster. Monster Simplification is particularly relevant here:  Monster simplifiers attempt to transform the monster by subjectively quantifying or simplifying the assessment of uncertainty.

The uncertainty monster paper distinguished between statistical uncertainty and scenario uncertainty:

Read more…

A guide into the weird numbers that run our world, describing both financial bubbles & climate change

22 April 2014

Summary: Two of our greatest challenges in the 21st century are climate change and management of economic crises. They’re similar in that their mathematics are unlike that of the normal life — the routine world of averages, variances, and bell-curve distributions. These phenomena take us deep into the mysteries of science. Before we can predict the future on the basis of the changes we’ve made to our physical and social environments, we must understand the range of changes in the past (extreme weather, financial bubbles, depressions)  — events which will reoccur, eventually, even if the world were to (somehow) remain unchanged. In a sense we must prepare for the past before we prepare for the new futures.

Rather than grapple with these complex matters, our political manipulators seek to paint simple pictures of the world. Oversimplified portraits drawn in fear and greed that make us easy to lead — which give us the illusion of knowledge, feeding our ignorance, blinding us to the wonders of our strange world.

Today we look at two articles describing math essential to understand both financial bubbles and weather. These allow us to understand something about our past so that we can prepare for the future: extreme events dominate history, and will largely frame the future. More about this tomorrow.

Chaoic System

A strange attractor plotting the behavior of a chaotic system. By Nicolas Despez, Wikimedia

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“History doesn’t always repeat itself. Sometimes it just screams, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’ and lets fly with a big stick.”
— John W. Campbell Jr., Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine (1965)

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher, comment posted to “UK floods in context” at Climate Etc

(A)  Simple definitions of important concepts

(1)  Complex systems: systems with a large number of mutually interacting parts, often open to their environment, which self-organize their internal structure and their dynamics with novel and sometimes surprising macroscopic “emergent” properties. Climate and finance are complex systems.

(2)  Power law distribution: a specific family of statistical distribution appearing as a straight line in a log-log plot. Power laws often have no well-defined mean or variance. Many aspects of nature and society display power-law relationships.

(3)  Black Swan events: Rare, high-impact, and difficult-to-predict events that live in the tails of the probability distribution, beyond the average of history (as in science and finance). Such events are non-computable using standard scientific methods.

(4)  Dragon-kings:  events even beyond the fat tails of the probability distribution. Their extreme outcomes dominate historical results.

For explanations of these things we turn to two articles by Didier Sornette, Prof of Entrepreneurial Risks at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Wikipedia bio).

(B)  The rare but ugly extreme results from complex systems

Probability Distributions in Complex Systems“, Encyclopedia of Complexity and Systems Science (2009) — Excerpt:

A central property of a complex system is the possible occurrence of coherent large-scale collective behaviors with a very rich structure, resulting from the repeated non-linear interactions among its constituents: the whole turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts. Most complex systems around us exhibit rare and sudden transitions, that occur over time intervals that are short compared to the characteristic time scales of their posterior evolution.

Such extreme events express more than anything else the underlying “forces” usually hidden by almost perfect balance and thus provide the potential for a better scientific understanding of complex systems.

These crises have fundamental societal impacts and range from large natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and tornadoes, landslides, avalanches, lightning strikes, catastrophic events of environmental degradation, to the failure of engineering structures, crashes in the stock market, social unrest leading to large-scale strikes and upheaval, economic draw-downs on national and global scales, regional power blackouts, traffic gridlock, diseases and epidemics, etc.

There is a growing recognition that progress in most of these disciplines, in many of the pressing issues for our future welfare as well as for the management of our everyday life, will need such a systemic complex system and multidisciplinary approach.

Read more…

The Ukraine anti-semitic flyer: a case study in propaganda

21 April 2014

Summary: The war in the Ukraine is, like many wars during the past few centuries, fought for the moral high ground as much as the physical terrain. Like many conflicts since WW2, it’s fought largely in the shadows by covert agencies of the participants and the great powers. Governments fall by mysterious means, dramatic actions make headlines, statesman make bold statements. But nothing is what it seems. The vignette of the anti-semitic flyer demonstrates these things in miniature, reminding us that journalists paint only the surface of events. We need analysis to see what lies beneath.

Ukraine anti-Semitic leaflet

Ukraine anti-Semitic leaflet

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Contents

  1. The story breaks: evil in Ukraine
  2. Too good to question: US officials embrace the story
  3. The truth slowly emerges
  4. For More Information

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(1)  The story breaks

Donetsk leaflet: Jews must register or face deportation“, Ynet News, 16 April 2014 — Excerpt:

A leaflet distributed in Donetsk, Ukraine calling for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews marred the Jewish community’s Passover festivities Monday (Passover eve), replacing them with feelings of concern. The leaflet demanded the city’s Jews supply a detailed list of all the property they own, or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportion and see their assets confiscated.

Donetsk, a Ukraine province with 4.3 million people – 10% of Ukraine’s population – and 17,000 Jews, is home to much of the country’s heavy industry, and is thus the biggest prize of the eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists have captured government buildings in the past week.

The leaflet, signed by Chairman of Donetsk’s temporary government Denis Pushilin, was distrbiuted to Jews near the Donetsk synagogue and later in other areas of the city where pro-Russians activists have declared Donetsk as an independent “people’s republic”, defying an ultimatum from Kiev to surrender.

The leaflet was written in Russian and had Russia’s national symbol on it, as well as the Donetsk People’s Republic insignia.

“Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality,” the flyer began, “due to the fact that the leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine supported Bendery Junta,” a reference to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement which fought for Ukrainian independence at the end of World War II, “and oppose the pro-Slavic People’s Republic of Donetsk, (the interim government) has decided that all citizens of Jewish descent, over 16 years of age and residing within the republic’s territory are required to report to the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration building and register.”

The leaflet detailed what type of documents the Jewish citizens would need to supply: “ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you, including vehicles.”

If the message was not made clear enough, the leaflet further stipulated the consequences that would come to those who failed to abide by the new demands: “Evasion of registration will result in citizenship revoke and you will be forced outside the country with a confiscation of property.”

To add insult to injury, the leaflet demanded the Jews pay a registration fee of $50.

(2)  Too good to question: America embraces the story

Although too absurd to believe, the usual suspects ran with the story.  Propaganda moves the American mind, sign of a weak people.

Drudge: Ukraine Jews

Ben Rhodes about Ukraine

(c) Secretary of State John Kerry enthusiastically believes, as he explains at a press conference, 17 April 2014 — Reminding us to believe nothing the government says:

Read more…

Watch corporations strip-mine their future (and ours)

18 April 2014

Summary: Al Qaeda (Bin Laden’s organization, if it still exists in meaningful form) is a threat to America. A greater threat are our CEO’s, some of whom who have discovered discovered a formula to vast personal wealth: leverage the company up (borrow), use those funds to buy back stock (boosting earnings per share), cut capital expenditures (capex) to boost short-term profits, pay most of the profits in dividends — all of which disguises massive payouts to senior managers (via salary, benefits, pensions, golden parachutes, grants of stock and stock options, etc). They’re strip-mining away America’s future. Slowly people begin to fit these pieces together. Today we help you to do so.

Executive Pay

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Contents

  1. An example of how it’s done
  2. Cutting capex: short-selling the future
  3. For More Information

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(1)  An example of how it’s done

List most stories about corporate finance, it’s complex. These articles clearly explain the game using IBM as an example (just one of many), but have to be read. The excepts are just teasers.

(a) Stockholders Got Plundered In IBM’s Hocus-Pocus Machine“, Wolf Richter, Testosterone Pit, 17 October 2013 — Opening:

I’m not picking on IBM. I’m almost sure they have some decent products. So they had a crummy quarter – the sixth quarter in a row of sales declines. And their hardware sales in China have collapsed since Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and its collaboration with American tech companies. But in one area, IBM excels: its hocus-pocus machine.

IBM isn’t alone in its excellence and isn’t even at the top of the heap in that respect. There are many corporations like IBM, mastodons that successfully pull a bag over investors’ heads, aided and abetted by Wall Street with its “analysts,” and by the Fed, to hide the stockholder plunder taking place behind a billowing smokescreen of verbiage.

(b) Big Blue: Stock Buyback Machine On Steroids“, David Stockman, at his website Contra Corner, 17 April 2014 — Opening:

The Fed’s financial repression policies destroy price discovery and honest capital markets. In the process these deformations turn financial markets into casinos and corporate executives into prevaricating gamblers. To be specific, most CEOs of the Fortune 500 are no longer running commercial businesses; they are in the stock-rigging game, harvesting a mother lode of stock option winnings as the go along.

Those munificently rising stock prices and options cash-outs owe much to the Fed’s campaign to suppress interest rates and fuel stock market based ”wealth effects”, but the CEOs are doing their part, too. They have become full-time financial engineers who use the Fed’s flood of liquidity, cheap debt and soaring stock prices to perform a giant strip-mining operation on their own companies. That is, through endless stock buybacks and M&A maneuvers they create the appearance of “growth” while actually liquidating the balance sheet equity and future asset base on which legitimate earnings growth depends.

Read more…

Should we listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?

16 April 2014

Summary: What is the role of amateurs’ analysis in the climate science debate? They’re increasingly dominating the debate, even declaring the work of scientists as invalid or flawed. Are they valuable voices, or chaff — reducing this vital debate to cacophony?

Experts

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Contents

  1. Are amateurs needed?
  2. Their role in the public debate
  3. Why should laypeople listen to amateurs’ analysis of climate science?
  4. For More Information

(1)  Are amateurs needed?

Often difficult to spot — they often speak like experts, sometimes like a Pope of Science — amateurs have become an increasingly loud voice in the public discussions of climate science.  They can help experts — climate scientists and meteorologists  – in many ways, such as data collection and analysis, synthesis of new ideas. But what about the role of amateurs in the public debate about science, especially in issues with major public policy implications?

Do we need more people giving us analysis of climate change? Speaking as long-time reporter on climate change (over 200 posts), I cannot follow the output of experts written for laypeople (like myself) from…

  1. the many climate-related agencies, including the IPCC and BEST;
  2. articles for laypeople in the major peer-reviewed journals;
  3. articles in the lay-science news media (e.g., New Scientist, Scientific America);
  4. blogs by climate scientists (e.g., RealClimate, Climate Etc);
  5. publications by meteorologists (e.g., the Browning newsletter)
  6. statements by scientists’ professional organizations (e.g., American Physical Society)

Much of this is high quality, clear and easy to understand. Do we need a legion of amateurs to provide more? I see to much to track, let alone read. It’s a deluge. We need a Noah, not more water.

(2)  Their role in the public debate

Given the vast body of material by scientists written for the public about climate change, why do both sides in the climate debate increasingly rely on amateurs? Worse, the voices of amateurs increasingly drown out that of scientists. They not only give their own data, analysis, and theories — but often declare the work of actual scientists to be flawed or invalid, or even declare the scientists themselves to be illegitimate in their own field. See the posts documenting the Left’s abandonment of the IPCC for more extreme views (often without strong science foundations). The Right has their counterparts, some even denying the fact of past anthropogenic warming.

Read more…

We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today

15 April 2014

Summary:  One of the great themes of the FM website is our clouded vision, the American people’s inability to clearly see the world and our susceptibility to propaganda. It’s central to almost all of our large problems. It’s one of the most important issues of our time, for I doubt that reform remains impossible for a people so confused and gullible. Today we have an incisive essay about this by Charles Simic, a poet and keen observer of our society.

Girl looks into a mirror

If only we had a mirror in which to see ourselves, and the nature of our folly

Matthew 7:5: “… first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Contents

  1. The Age of Ignorance
  2. My comment on Simic’s essay
  3. About the author
  4. For More Information

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Age of Ignorance

by Charles Simic, Blog of the New York Review of Books
20 March 2012
Posted with their generous permission.

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.

It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught.

Read more…

Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep

14 April 2014

Summary:  Myths reflect how a people see themselves and their aspirations. Great peoples have great myths. We, early 21st C Americans, see our myths on the big screen, the spectacles of our day. They reveal much about our nature. It’s not a pretty picture. For example, see “Captain America: the Winter Soldier”. See links to other examples at the end.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
— Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

“People need stories, more than bread itself. They teach us how to live, and why. “
— The master storyteller in the film “Arabian Nights” (2000)

“{M}yth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (1963)

“A third function of mythology is to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his group”
— Joseph Campbell in Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (1968)

“The rise and fall of civilisations in the long, broad course of history can be seen largely to be a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilisation. A mythological canon is an organisation of symbols, ineffable in import, by which the energies of aspiration are evoked and gathered toward a focus.

— Joseph Campbell in Masks of God: Creative Mythology (1968)

Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below — Spoiler below

Read more…

What China Wants Us to Understand about China’s Rise

11 April 2014

Summary:  With President Obama going to Asia, it’s apropos to revisit this March 2012 post by Franz Gayl (Major, USMC, retired), in which he provides perspective on one of the most important developments of the 21st century. Correctly understanding and reacting to this is essential for America, if we are to have a successful grand strategy in the 21st century.

China dragon

Image from Forbes

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Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What China Wants Us to Understand about China’s Rise
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

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(1) Introduction by Franz Gayl

On 9 September 2011 the FM website republished Will China become a superpower?, with articles by by Minxin Pei (Prof of Government at Claremont McKenna College; his latest book is China: Trapped Transition) and Young J. Kim (former Captain in the US Army, currently a PhD candidate at Korea University in Seoul). It’s worth reading in full.

This widely accessed piece has since benefited from extensive expert critique, a discussion that is still on-going in the comments. The discussion has provide an education for me on various aspects of China’s observed course and general historical precedents. I am neither a historian nor an economist, and there is little that I can add to those expert comments.

However, one voice that could be added to the discussion that began in 2011 is a definitive Chinese government position on China’s rise. During my development of a wider-ranging ICAF research paper in 2005 – 2006, I was permitted to interview Consular Jia Xiudong at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C. where he then served. The paper in which the interview is nested has been posted on the FM website. Unfortunately, the length of my paper was as a major flaw, and the interview was effectively buried within it out of sight. Yet, Consular Jia’s observations in that interview would appear critical for the balance of FM’s China discussions today.

The interview is certainly dated in that it was conducted six years ago. This will be seen as many of the contemporary events discussed from that period have evolved or changed in quantitative scope. One cannot assume exactly what the Chinese would say today without conducting another interview in 2012. At the same, looking at the contents and given consistency-focused Chinese government strategic communications, it is unlikely a 2012 interview would yield much different positions, especially on critical themes.

My questions were wide-ranging and submitted to the Embassy almost two months in advance of the interview. Consular Jia was surprisingly candid in his detailed, Chinese Government approved answers to me. The interview was reviewed and approved by the Chinese again after I typed it up my notes so as to constitute a joint understanding of the 2006 interview contents shared by author and the Chinese Government in the published paper. I contend that its contents are overwhelmingly what China wants us to understand about China’s rise even today.

This is especially true when it comes to the topic of Taiwan and its employment by the U.S. defense industry as a justification for increased military expenditures focused on containing China. Taiwan is a salient topic today as industry and military interests are, according to public sources and media reports having significant success in influencing the Congress and Administration decision makers in this regard.


(2) What China Wants Us to know about its Rise

Excerpt from
Realism and Realpolitik – Setting the Conditions for America’s Survival in the 21st Century

By Franz Gayl (Major, USMC, retired)
His thesis at the National Defense University
Industrial College of the Armed Forces research paper
June 2006

(a) General Introduction

China is committed to peaceful domestic development in the context of globalization, and seeks to contribute internationally as a partner in a multi-polar world. China’s leadership is also faced with great domestic challenges, as the people of China have different concerns and interests throughout society.

On the international front, China is committed to peace and cooperation. In terms of U.S.-Chinese bilateral relations, misunderstandings have arisen that cause Americans to question Chinese intentions, and the implications of her rapid development. Americans ask, is China a partner to be engaged or a threat to be contained. These misunderstandings can best be mitigated through franker bilateral communications on sensitive issues, including perceiving China and the U.S. through the eyes of the Chinese themselves, i.e. standing in the Chinese shoes. It also includes prioritizing the self interests of our nations as core, vital, and important, and finding the commonalities between them, i.e. the purpose of this interview.

Click here to read the rest of the this article.

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Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?

10 April 2014

Summary: Except for issues about which the 1% have no interest (e.g., who sleeps with who, how the peons marry), reform efforts in America have proven themselves mostly ineffective for several generations. Here we look at one aspect of that failure, our reliance on demonstrations — and why this results from deeper errors: our failure to organize around leaders and programs. Perhaps when we’re desperate we’ll become serious about reform (unless it’s too late by then). At the end are links to learn how we can do better.

Occupy Wall Street

Saving the nation from banks, one unicorn at a time

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(1) Do protests ever work?“, Joshua Keating , blog of Foreign Policy, 2 April 2009 — Excerpt:

{Phil} Collins names Gandhi’s march to the sea and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington as the ultimate effective demonstrations in this sense. They mobilized huge groups in support of a definable and achievable goal rather than opposing an amorphous concept like “capitalism.”

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade to the environment to capital punishment.

(2) Why Demonstrations and Petitions Do Not Work“, Phil B, undated — This doesn’t show that demonstrations do not work, but rather that the bar for their success is quite high. Excerpt:

There are two main reasons why demonstrations and petitions do not work.

  1. the leaders who make decisions and influence changes are well shielded from protesters. These leaders most likely never even know that there are riots and protests nearby and even more so for peaceful demonstrations and petitions.
  2. business leaders with money and power belong to a much higher class than the average demonstrator. As a result, these leaders do not care much about the issues and causes of most middle and lower class people.
  3. a lot of rich people can not even relate to most of these issues either. Therefore, demonstrations and petitions mean very little to rich people when compared to the average person.

Zeynep Tufekci

(3) After the Protests“, Zeynep Tufekci (Asst Prof, U NC), op-ed in the New York Times, 19 March 2014

Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.

Captain America visits the Tea Party

Cosplay as political activism

(4) Why Street Protests Don’t Work“, Moisés Naím (bio), The Atlantic, 7 April 2014 — “How can so many demonstrations accomplish so little?” Excerpt:

Street protests are in. From Bangkok to Caracas, and Madrid to Moscow, these days not a week goes by without news that a massive crowd has amassed in the streets of another of the world’s big cities. The reasons for the protests vary (bad and too-costly public transport or education, the plan to raze a park, police abuse, etc.). Often, the grievance quickly expands to include a repudiation of the government, or its head, or more general denunciations of corruption and economic inequality.

Aerial photos of the anti-government marches routinely show an intimidating sea of people furiously demanding change. And yet, it is surprising how little these crowds achieve. The fervent political energy on the ground is hugely disproportionate to the practical results of these demonstrations.

…The hodgepodge groups that participated had no formal affiliation with one another, no clear hierarchy, and no obvious leaders. But social networks helped to virally replicate the movement so that the basic patterns of camping, protesting, fundraising, communicating with the media, and interacting with the authorities were similar from place to place.

… In fact, government responses usually amount to little more than rhetorical appeasement, and certainly no major political reforms.  … How can so many extremely motivated people achieve so little?

One answer might be found in the results of an experiment conducted by Anders Colding-Jørgensen of the University of Copenhagen. In 2009, he created a Facebook group to protest the demolition of the historic Stork Fountain in a major square of the Danish capital. Ten thousand people joined in the first week; after two weeks, the group was 27,000 members-strong. That was the extent of the experiment. There was never a plan to demolish the fountain — Colding-Jørgensen simply wanted to show how easy it was to create a relatively large group using social media.

… The problem is what happens after the march. Sometimes it ends in violent confrontation with the police, and more often than not it simply fizzles out. Behind massive street demonstrations there is rarely a well-oiled and more-permanent organization capable of following up on protesters’ demands and undertaking the complex, face-to-face, and dull political work that produces real change in government.

… Achieving that motion requires organizations capable of old-fashioned and permanent political work that can leverage street demonstrations into political change and policy reforms.

… What we’ve witnessed in recent years is the popularization of street marches without a plan for what happens next and how to keep protesters engaged and integrated in the political process. It’s just the latest manifestation of the dangerous illusion that it is possible to have democracy without political parties—and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society.

(5)  For More Information

(a)  Reforming America: steps to political change – all posts about the theory and practice of organizing and executing reform movements

(b)  Posts about organizing to reform America:

  1. The First Step to reforming America — Organizing
  2. The second step to reforming America — Building a big organization
  3. How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America
  4. How do protests like the Tea Party and OWS differ from effective political action?
  5. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century

(c)  Posts about the Tea Party Movement

(d)  Posts about the Occupy Wall Street Movement

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