Monday, March 30, 2015

Farewell powerlifts, hello shot

So after in my last powerlifting related post I announced I would finally not compete in this years’ Spanish Open I’m closing my last strength focused macrocycle and I will not be even testing for new 1RM in any of the lifts, as I do not think I could show any progress at all in them. Not that the three months since the beginning of the year have been a total waste of time, training wise, as I have learned a number of valuable things, that I’m going to share with my ample readership right away (truth be told, I’m going to write them down so I do not forget and can apply the lesson in my next powerlifting block, which should start six months from now). I’m grouping the lessons for each lift, and then I’ll close with general ones:

·         What I’ve learned about the squat:

o   Consistency trumps volume (or total weekly volume is by far more important than the volume reached in any single session). By the end of last year I was doing religiously three sessions per week (heavyish Low Bar Back Squat, mediumish High Bar Back squat and Lightish Front Squat) and I reached my fake meet in top form, whilst this year I was barely training a couple days a week (any imaginable combination, although I was going heavier in the LBBS session, the next heavy session would be almost two weeks afterwards… too much time to catch the supercompensation wave) and I did nothing but regress

o   To improve I really seem to need at least three days a week, every week. The moment the frequency goes down, the bar starts feeling heavy and setting new reps PR (reaching a new 1RM equivalent applying the old conversion formula) gets more and more out of reach

o   To get those three days a week I need to judiciously dose the days in which I go heavy (anything above 85% -150 kg for a 1RM of 170, as is my current case- can be considered heavy), as I end up dreading the squat day more and more, and finding any imaginable excuse not to go to the gym (well, at some point I have to accept that having to work late is not an excuse, but the friggin’ truth)

o   However, not going too heavy too frequently does not exclude doing some sensible over warm-up… those seem to activate the motor patterns and, if I don’t go bananas with them (again, 85% max load seems a reasonable compromise) they make the volume sets feel lighter

o   Paused squats and reverse squats (started from the safeties, so it has no eccentric portion to pre-load the glutes and hammies, which have to start contracting from a dead stop) seem to have tremendous potential to bust plateaus and eliminate weak points (the reverse squat really seems to make you stronger out of the hole), but I have to program them more consistently for longer periods to calibrate results

·         The bench press and me:

o   Although it is the lift that I (and probably anybody) recover more easily from, training it a couple days a week seems to be enough. And one of them doesn’t even need to be with the competition move (weighted dips have worked great)

o   I have to pay more attention to stretching before the lift gets heavy (had some bad experiences with strained front delt and pec insertion in humerus, typically the left arm). Just 15-20 shoulder dislocates with a broomstick seem to be enough

o   Going heavy (even above 95% of 1RM) in this lift doesn’t seem to impact negatively the performance afterwards, or to cause a gross degradation of my ability to adhere to the program

o   Again, reverse presses (from safeties at mid height) and paused presses seem to hold great promise (as do overloaded presses, not going all the way down), but have to program them more consistently to really be able to tell

·         Deadlifting for happiness:

o   I fell a bit in the trap of trying to improve the DL without DL’ing that much, as I threw in partial DL’s from the knee, deficit DL’s with less weight and sumo DL’s also with less weight, and kept the number of reps of full competition DL to a minimum (although almost every DL session I went quite heavy, above 90% again)

o   I think my DL capability didn’t degrade as much as the squatting, but for some weakening of the grip… I think if I had paid more attention to specific grip training (some of the most boring and uncertain areas of our discipline) I may have improved marginally my DL without much in the form of real DL’ing

o   However, the low volume makes it easier for the technique to get a bit off… towards the end of this cycle I noticed I was starting the pull with the hip too high and the shoulders too much in front of the bar. I think just puffing the chest more noticeably automatically corrected both defects, but have to keep paying attention to that

·         Generic stuff:

o   Variation may have some merit, but it makes programming much more difficult. Just to avoid going to squat and feeling like shit about it I started adding variations (reverse squats, partial squats, ampler rep ranges), and even think I should add a few more (box squats and banded squats seem pretty appealing), but I still have to get more proficient with them to find out the load and rep and set schema that works for me… they will probably have to wait until my next powerlifting cycle, as it sounds like I’m getting ready to gravitate towards a conjugate style system

o   As Greg Nuckols has said a million times, the way to keep improving is to do more. Just more means more weight moved in the same time. In the last 2-3 months I was moving infinitesimally more weight in each microcycle, but in longer and longer time spans, so I didn’t progress that much (or at all).

o   I’ll probably need to be more realistic about time availability when programming. Until my dissertation is fully written, it’s better to recognize I just won’t be able to go the gym (and train) more than two, at tops three days per week (specially if I want to keep my job and be a good father and husband)

So all in all I think I have a good bunch of valuable lessons to mull and consider, and if I can apply them to my next cycles I have no doubt they will serve me well. With that I close the book on powerlifting, and start to gear back towards shot putting. I’ll develop a bit more how my training is going to look like in a next post, but I’m thinking in 2 days/ week in the gym, and 1 or 2/ days week in the park, putting, jumping and sprinting. I’ll need to build back some aerobic capacity, as after only training in short rep ranges I get winded very fast. As for the gym, right now there are too many moves I think I have to put in there (bench press both wide grip and close grip, push presses, snatches and cleans and jerks, and tons upon tons of squatting), so I need to rationalize a bit, and decide on some set and rep scheme and some progression method that allow me to get in and out in less than an hour, as I don’t see the next months being any less busy than the last ones…

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The view from the corner office

In my last post I presented a mildly dystopian description of how the future would look like from a societal perspective if we do not substantially change how we organize property and production relations (and keep in power the major parties that have been ruling the main economies of the world for the past half century, which are overly vested in maintaining the status quo). It is essentially a society not much different from Today’s, just a bit more unequal, a bit more stagnant (regarding economic capacity to produce material goods, scientific knowledge and even technologies with the ability of improving people’s lives… in those materially stagnant periods sometimes the zeitgeist compensates with flourishes of creativity that may make the future appear again as distinctly modern –garish fashion, crazy visual arts, innovative narrations, even new art forms enabled by electronic media, likely an almost fully livable Virtual Reality…) and thus a bit more hopeless, a bit more desperate, for the increasing numbers trying to clinch to a middle class life style with incomes increasingly low classy. That means more pressure at work, more competition to stay put in the ever more precarious labor market, more lifetime devoted to the advancement of professional careers in an increasingly zero sum game (my employment is your lack of new opportunities) to the exclusion of everything else.

In that previous post I intimated that I did not expect the situation to change due to pressure from the bottom up, but I saw the only sliver of hope in the possibility of the elites themselves, favored as they are by such state of things, pushing for change. Yup, the plutocrats, the one percenters (my gosh, in my youth those were the members of bike gangs, as they proudly christened themselves after the conservative AMA dubbed them so for their perceived responsibility in the Hollister riot), the filthy rich, are almost the only hope for bettering everybody else’s condition. So, to keep that hope alive I am going to devote this post to analyze how the likely evolution of the socioeconomic world-system in the next two decades may look like from the perspective of that elite that occupy the corner room of the title: the CEOs of the big corporations, the investment bankers and hedge fund managers, the ones that decide which lobbies to pay and what legislation to enact, which items are newsworthy as they may further their interests and which are not… but first a word of caution. I have never believed (and do not believe now) that the world is actually ruled by a tiny clique of entrepreneurs and executives that convene behind the public scene to dictate policy. Those CEOs and bankers I’ll speak of are isolated individuals, typically surrounded by a heavy retinue of sycophants and false friends that shelter them from reality and impede their fair evaluation of their surroundings, and thus incapable of coordinating their actions for their global benefit. They are individually very powerful, but collectively almost powerless (to begin with, because imposing the will of a tiny number over the desires of the many doesn’t sit well with our avowedly democratic principles), which in part explains why they have to advance their interests in mostly secretive and restrained ways. However limited their capacity for coordinated action may be, they specifically set the tone of the cultural agenda, they legitimize dominant ideas and they can ostracize new alternatives (they are mainly responsible for defining the “Dominant Reason” I’m devoting my dissertation to expose).

Now this responsibility is not planned or explicit, and may be not even consciously intended. Is not like the owner of a giant conglomerate calls the poor soul in charge of programming a local network and threaten to fire him if he airs a documentary about the ill effects on public health on some chemical compounds that other branches of his firm manufacture, or a media mogul threatens to shut down the operations of an independent publishing house if they bring to market the ideas of an up and rising countercultural figure; although those things may conceivably have actually happened, I think they belong more to an imaginary narrative of corporate evildoing that the public finds comforting to indulge in… I fear the reality is more prosaic and in some sense more terrible: great corporate leaders do not give a humdrum shit about ideas or discourses, trusting the herd instinct of the masses and their zest for emulating the worst excesses of the public figures to discard those alternative voices to the proverbial dustbin of history without need for their intervention. The mechanism through which economically powerful captains of industry (in a post industrial economy that expression has to be revised) shape the framework of what can be publicly discussed, and even of what can be privately thought, deserves a post of it own.

Now back to our original concern, what do I think those captains are more likely to observe from their privileged perches a couple decades from now? First, given their age, most of them are thinking more about their legacy than the state of their bank accounts (the latest whiz kids to make it to the C-Suite stormed the heavens in the noughties… so in the thirties most of them are already 40-50 years old, or older). Not having many heirs to think about (either childless or divorced) and with fantastical amounts already stashed away (in the old times they would have no doubt diverted part of their fortunes to fiscal havens, but with tax rates ludicrously low already in most advanced nations there is just no need any more) they can only fall prey to melancholy thinking how the future, once you arrive to it, is just not all it was hyped up to be: no flying cars, no colonies on Mars, no cheap and inexhaustible sources of energy, no great medical breakthroughs that have expanded the average lifespan to above 120 years… just the same old same old (as it couldn’t be otherwise, when you gear all of the economy and all of the creative energies of the population towards the production of shorter lived gizmos that can have an impact in the bottom line in months rather than years, let alone decades). Even the excitement of growing the corporate behemoth under their command may have grown stale, as that growth only comes from absorbing the competition (the only real alternative to being absorbed oneself) in a market of either constant or slightly diminishing size (neither private nor public demand can grow: the first one depends either on demography or on productivity through technological innovation, and as we have argued ad nauseam both have dried up; the second one is hobbled by the historical legacy of ever increasing deficits that have failed to spark the overall economy back to grow). So politically they resort to what all the plutocracies in all ages have done: they try to buy the government to ensure their protection and turn their (uncertain but definitely low by historical standards) incomes in monopoly rents, which they then lend (most likely to the very same government, always hungry to finance the aforementioned irreducible deficits) in an ever expanding financial turn. But of course, in an economy devoid of real growth that lending can only finance speculative enterprises in the form of bubbles, which by definition sooner or later end up bursting, so if the leading tycoons turn too greedy (and take excessive risks) they may end up loosing significant portions of their wealth.

So what is an honest to God plutocrat to do in such dire circumstances? In my view, there is only one alternative: a substantial increase of the aggregate demand that creates anew niches of opportunity and can trigger the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter famously (and incorrectly, as it has only worked in a couple very specific historical circumstances) identified as the true spirit of capitalism. Now in a couple decades we (they) will have realized that fiscal stimulus by national states just can not create the necessary oomph for that substantial increase. The multiplier is nowadays close to 1, and the already strained public finances are unable to make a difference in today’s moderately financialized economy (again, Europe and Japan are our , much less two decades from now (when the degree of financialization will likely dwarf anything we have known so far). How can then they prod the economy towards that required substantial increase (once they convince themselves, having exhausted any other alternative, that Keynes was right all along)? I can think of only two alternatives, one of which has already been tried: another turn of the screw of weaponization, and all out war between great powers (be it USA vs China, or USA vs Europe, as the imperial project of a hegemonic USA has already failed miserably, and demonstrated that just obliterating the socioeconomic gains of the past 50 years of your run of the mill rogue state or banana republic doesn’t do all that much for your GDP, and have a number of unintended consequences that just makes it not worth the cost) with the subsequent massive destruction of fixed capital (probably with a significant amount of human capital alongside, but in an era of high inequality and no growth we are all expendable)… or a redistribution of wealth so enormous numbers of poor villains can increase their level of consumption (and again, I hope nobody has any doubts of how that redistribution would look like: universal basic income).

So there you are: unlikely as it may sound today, our best hope for a more just and less dehumanizing society is that the plutocrats that set the tone of what and how to think come to realize that redistributing a part of their gains is the only way forward. Which in 20 years should be abundantly clear, anyway. Talk about delusional optimism…

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Conservative Case for a UBI – what lies in front of us all

This weekend in the NYT Mark Bittman argued for the convenience of reconsidering a guaranteed income to avoid the pitfall of the growing inequality caused by increased automation and the unstoppable advance (as long as we don’t find the political will to stop it, that is) of globalization. He provided in his column a link to an old article In “The Atlantic” I was surprised not to have read back when it was published, in August of last year ( ). In an impressively complete review of the idea’s intellectual roots he unearths some unexpected early proponents, like Founding Father and Rights of Man author Thomas Paine, Austrian monetarist hero Friedrich Hayek and the inevitable Milton Friedman (although, as we clarified in our previous post Friedman advocated a negative income tax, which is pretty different from a universal income, whose universality consists precisely in being received by everybody, regardless of any other income he may perceive). Politically it was supposedly proposed by Richard Nixon (but defeated in Congress by those pesky Democrats for never well explained reasons… in a conservative narrative probably because it would have loosened the grip of the big nanny state in its citizens, taking away the discretion to decide who perceives what, on what terms) so its republican bona fides should be established without discussion.

Except they are most definitely not, and anybody willing to seriously propose to incorporate it in the political platform of any major party would be laughed out the room. In the case of the USA, we have already argued ad nauseam that they have shrunk their tax base so much in the last three decades that it has become truly unfeasible (to support the cost in a non inflationary way they would need to return the overall tax receipts of the state, as a percentage of the total economy, to levels not seen since the seventies), whilst for Europe it may be done in a fiscally neutral way, but it would require relinquishing state control over significant parts of the economy (mainly industrial and agricultural policies), and thus diminishing the resources the bureaucracy that currently controls the State (the heads of the Party system, which we may consider includes the top executives of the biggest corporations) can freely distribute to the well connected in exchange for their financial support.

So, again, even recognizing it eminently makes sense both from a liberal perspective (it is the surest and safest way to not just reduce, but entirely eliminate poverty and dependency) and from a conservative one (it reduces the power of the State over the citizenry, and can do so in a fiscally responsible manner, without adding to the deficit) I’m not holding my breath (I have written before that I do not expect to see it implemented in my lifetime, and may be in my sons’ lifetime either), and would consider advocating the idea a completely Quixotic task, were it not because I’ve come to believe it is the only hope to avoid the total collapse of the system in the next 20 years. How come? Because of the aggregated effect of shrinking demography, deceleration of productivity gains, increase in automation and globalization, which are going to keep demand so chronically depressed (regardless of how many Quantitative Easing, or any such financial wizardry the world’s central banks may bother to conjure, as the cases of Japan and increasingly Europe are making abundantly clear) that at some point even the plutocrats that are benefitting from the current societal organization are going to find themselves in the position of choosing between some redistribution or complete breakdown.

Not because the vast majority of people may realize they are given the crumbs of the opulent banquet the one percenters have been enjoying since the Reagan and Thatcher revolution of the eighties and thus may revolt, as wedge issues and identity politics seem to have taken care of that, and in the main Countries (USA, Britain, Germany, Japan and increasingly China) the masses seem to be enthralled enough by the promise of unending technological baubles to keep them entertained everywhere and all the time (although one may expect that the mere promise may not be enough at some point, and that the cheap simulacra of entertainment that the “society of spectacle” produces endlessly will have to be replaced by something more substantial at some point). Rather, because the soon shrinking market (in the advanced economies at least, with the possible exception of the USA, which may keep stealing the little demographic growth there still is in the world for a few more decades) is going to force the great quasi-monopolistic firms that lord over the economy to a fratricidal fight over ever diminishing returns, placing ever increasing demands on the State to protect their rents until they find in their interest to expand again their customer bases by redistributing the piles of money they will have accumulated, without knowing what else to do with them (there not being any promising, productive outlet for Capital, something we may be already witnessing, but to give it back to the wretched masses).

Before thinking about the probability of a scenario in which the big firms give their hard earned surplus back to the masses for lack of a better venue to spend it (so far their executives have proven to be really imaginative in finding new and ever more extravagant ways to work around that problem, with private islands coming in the wake of private jets as non negotiable perks for successful CEO’s) lets delve a bit in how the current scenario may play out, if current trends simply are left unchecked: if we just leave things as they stand (and keep on electing Republicans or Democrats in the USA, Christian-Democrats or Social-Democrats in Germany, Labour or Tories in UK, Liberal Democratic Party in Japan and of course Chinese Communist Party in China) a decade or two from now we will have an anemic recovery which, except for the very rich, is barely distinguishable from the previous recession (if we are still not downright in it); an unemployment rate that has barely budged, and that may even look like full employment because the percentage of the population actually looking for a job has kept shrinking; budget deficits and national debts that are high or very high according to their historical standards, and thus leave an ever shrinking leeway for whoever holds power to push for a fiscally expansive budget (as without productivity gains, austerity's only effect is to plunge Countries deeper in recession, eroding their receipts more than what it reduces their expenses); the attempts to reignite growth through “structural reforms” has only accomplished a further weakening of workers bargaining position, a further hollowing out of the middle classes and a further strengthening of the general feeling of squalor and precariousness that accompany a more flexible labor market, thus depressing individuals’ investment decisions (and acquisition of big ticket items); ageing populations impose ever growing strains on the State budgets, which can not resort even to the “weaponized Keynesianism” that kept them going for much of the 20th Century;  those same ageing populations can not research much, innovate much or create much, so kitchens, living rooms, office buildings, factories (may be with a tad more robots and a tad less workers), cars, TV shows, computer games and even fashion all look suspiciously alike what they look like today (of course, energy is still produced mainly by burning fossil fuels, the first fusion experimental reactor is under construction but not yet finished, animal and vegetal species are going extinct at the same alarming rate as today, without anybody feeling much alarmed any more –also not that different from today- while the Earth keeps on getting warmer by the year); in some Countries, half the young will never, in their whole life, have a stable job (or a job at all), but family support, occasional recreational drugs, the ever present thrill of social media presence and the fear of an ever more present surveillance state (and an ever more efficient police) will keep them in check while they wait for their parents to croak so they can inherit the house and keep on coasting.

Not very appealing, huh? Although if you compare it with the central centuries of the Middle Ages, when Mongols roamed Europe unimpeded, life expectancy was around 35, 90% of the population was illiterate, underfed and unfree it doesn’t sound so bad (and the experience of Japan since the eighties, being more advanced along that path than any other Country, makes it seem almost as a nice thing). But I do think we can do better, and probably so do the honchos that decide who they are going to shower with millions in the next election cycle… so it is to them towards who we have to turn, and understand how they see the world, and the most likely path in front of them, so we can influence them to turn things for the best, although of course that is the subject of another post.

Friday, March 20, 2015

About the ideal organization of Society

You know your loony ideas may not be so loony after all when you see them echoed in the Great Newspaper of Our Times (the GNoOT, more commonly known as “The New York Times”). Trying to educate myself in the intellectual history of what I had settled on as the remedy for most of capitalism evils I found much of the work done by Bruce Bartlett in there: Rethinking the idea of a basic income for all, but only after seeing many of my concerns about the jobs that may never come back also confirmed in a more recent article: After jobs dry up

The points touched in both articles will sound familiar to any reader of this blog: the increase in automation within the manufacturing sector, and advances in transportation and IT are increasingly pointing towards an scenario where there may not be, after all, jobs for everybody (unless you accept as a definition of job doing something for someone that he himself does not want to do, but doesn’t require much skill or is especially satisfying, so he would only accept to pay a pittance for it… so in a sense there will always be jobs as shoe polisher, janitor, toilet scrubber, waiter and the like, as those are the only activities for which there is a truly free market –not requiring any qualification, so nobody can assert monopoly powers over them or somehow constrict the offer, in which given the demanded salary is low enough you can hope to always find “buyers” of labor power).

What is up to us as a society is to decide what we do with the likely increasing numbers of citizens (and non-citizens, a great worry of some of the writers in the topic which we will have to come back to) that have been made redundant and do not have neither the required skills nor the ability to acquire them that the tightening labor market still demands, and that can at most hope to join the labor force in the weakest position, to perform menial jobs with no stability, no social recognition and no prospect of advancement. It is not surprising that most find the idea utterly unappealing and are resorting to different sorts of escapism (from the harmless, like videogames, through the mildly self-destructive, like controlled substance abuse, to the full-blown psychopathic, like armed robbery or drug smuggling) with the subsequent loss of social capital and global impoverishment.

However, both Bartlett and Bennhold confuse things a little bit, as they point to Milton Friedman’s negative tax returns (NTR) as a precursor of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) I advocate, without realizing there is a huge difference:  the NTR substitutes for the rent the perceiver is not able to win for him/herself, whilst the UBI, as it name implies, is perceived by all the population (yup, even the millionaires receive that comparatively little stipend from the State, which of course does not even start to compensate the comparatively much bigger amount that then is taken from then in the form of taxes). Is that important or is it just hair splitting? As it happens, it is of enormous importance, as the main problem the opponents of a UBI see is its negative impact in the incentives to work, and that negative impact is a feature of NTR, but NOT of UBI: consider this, you are a single male with barely any education, so all you can expect from life is to earn the minimum to get by and put a roof over your head and some food on the table. You can work a shitty job for that OR you can just sit back and collect the checks the State send your way, as it is one or the other. The moment you start working the size of the check starts shrinking, so you have all the inconveniences of the job (from bearing a probably not too brilliant himself boss to the diminished time to enjoy your meager pay) without any of the advantages (the money you receive from it just compensates what you were receiving anyway). No shit Sherlock social researchers found it strongly disincentivized job seeking! But now think how it would work in the UBI scenario: you receive your money from the state no matter what. You start working in the lousy job, so whatever you get paid gets added to your previous income, so you are definitely better off. If you just can not stand your job, no biggie, you quit and revert to your previous income level; if you swallow hard and keep going, you get the continuous reward of staying in an upper income bracket (so in a sense this may still feed the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality we identified as a key problematic feature of capitalism, which is not that good), and you can reevaluate as frequently as you want, as the moment the balance between what you get from that job and what you have to put in it gets too tilted towards the giving side and away from the taking you can safely go back to your home, knowing your subsistence (and your family’s, had you one) were guaranteed, without compromising your freedom on how to spend your resources.

Now that particular canard has been debunked (I strongly believe people would rather work in a society where a UBI has been instituted, although they would work more freely and less stressfully) I think it is time to articulate how the ideal society would look like, so we can then analyze how can we get from here and now (very imperfect social order) to there and then; in no particular order:

·         The ideal society has to guarantee each citizen the maximum freedom compatible with the freedoms of all the rest. A good starting point is the U.N. charter on human rights, which already contemplates the freedom of the press, religious practice, association (including family formation), political representation, movement and occupation

·         An acceptable mechanism (probably the only one) to coordinate and avoid conflict in the enjoyment of material goods is the existence of robust property rights (so private property and the possibility to freely alienate that property –which require a free market so every proprietor can determine if he wants to buy or sell with minimal intervention- is a necessary feature of the ideal society)

·         Note that the “freedom of the market” is subordinated to respect for basic individual freedoms. In order for that subordination to be achieved there is unavoidably a certain amount of regulation (to eliminate externalities –for example, I can not “freely” sell you electricity I produce as cheaply as possible if everybody else has to unwillingly pay the price of a polluted air or a degraded climate, and also to compensate for gross disparities of power or information) that needs to be defined and enforced, which in turn requires an institution capable of it (the legislative branch of the government, and the judiciary to oversee the police required for the enforcement)

·         Now, given the current level of technological advance and the admittance of markets, there are still going to be areas where a single-payer (or even single-provider) solution is going to produce overall better results (from the point of view of the whole society), namely: defense, policing, healthcare, basic education, research and development and basic infrastructures (hydraulic, transportation and communications). As resources have to be pooled (via taxes) to provide for those and allocation decisions to be taken, a third branch of government has to be added to propose a budget and oversee its use

·         I do not want to get too sidetracked by the discussion of how each branch of government should be appointed (popular vote or direct designation by a perpetual ruling elite) as the modern world gives us examples of both (the USA elects judges, but they do not seem to reach systematically better decisions than their European peers, which are designated and promoted in a non-democratic way; the West elects both the executive and legislative branches, whilst in China they are appointed within a ruling elite and for the past decades they seem to have been making better decisions on how to productively allocate the budget and set the right priorities for a sustained economic development). I personally tend to favor democratic election as a way to avoid corruption and the “bad emperor” problem identified by Fukuyama, but sometimes I confess I’m utterly dismayed by the abysmal choices collectives make…

·         Now, once we have property rights, maximum freedom, markets for the exchange of most goods and services, with a three branched government to police that market, maintain the monopoly of violence to ensure an ordered society and provide additional services that private initiative has historically shown to be no good at, ¿what do we have different from Today’s predominant order? Well, a tweak here and a tweak there, most of which are highly situation specific (for example, the USA would benefit from severe restrictions in monetary contributions to campaigns; Spain from a more independent judiciary; Greece from leaving the Euro…), but one of which is as universal as it sounds: the system would be more humane, more rewarding, more conductive to human flourishing, fairer and richer if we guarantee a basic income to every person, from the cradle to the grave, and then give them the freedom to add on top on that whatever their entrepreneurship, initiative, desire for further improvement and drive dictates.

So in the end there is not so much we have to accomplish to get “from the here and now to the there and then”, just push to get that UBI incorporated in some party’s platform in the West, and then have that party elected. It doesn’t matter that much if it is a left leaning party or a right leaning party (as both tend to, when in power, execute very similar policies in every other respect). I do believe the system would work better when it is spread to the whole world, under the auspices of a single governing body (like the current U.N. but without any member having veto power), but again that is not something I expect to see in my lifetime. To begin with, some countries are much closer (and have already the tax base in place) to such an arrangement, whilst others are light years away… so a more realistic scenario is to push for it in a country that has the ideological basis in place (Scandinavian Countries?) and hope that it sets a shining example (in terms of quality of life, happiness of its inhabitants and economic development) that attracts more and more countries to follow suit. I would expect the USofA to be between the latest to adopt such an egalitarian social arrangement for a number of reasons (their tax base, as we analyzed in this post: UBI cost in the USA, would need a more significant expansion, and their entrenched special interest, tinged with a racial component which is so far absent for most other mature democracies, are much more refractory to giving anything at all to “those people”, least of all what would enable them to lead meaningful lives without begging or risking prison).

Now there are two objections that have to be overcome, one mainly coming from the left and the other from the right. From the left I would expect to hear how this is not enough change, as it leaves the logic of the market almost intact, it leaves the power of big money and multinational corporations towering over an emasculated state with not enough resources to resist it, and this would continue fostering insane competition (between companies, but even more harmful between countries and between classes), ever more crazy business cycles, ever growing exploitation of workers and ever more despoliation of shrinking natural resources. From the right I would expect to hear (as we are already hearing) how it is just unaffordable (something I basically have already answered in this post: UBI cost in a European welfarist State), specially given the “phone call effect” that would attract countless (mostly poor) immigrants to whatever political entity that is so foolish as to establish such a luring scheme especially apt for freeloaders and every kind of parasite. The answer to those objections will be explored in further posts, suffice it to say now that none of them seems likely to carry much weight.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Back in (half assed) intensification mode

Finally ditched the idea of competing in Spain’s next Powerlifting open, just too many things going on in my life right now (busy spell at job, and a real Achilles-and-Tortoise situation with my dissertation, when as I seem to get closer and closer to finishing it I keep finding more and more loose strands I have to work on, thus putting the real completion farther and farther away). However, I’m still sticking to a “false meet” on the actual competition date (or around that) to see where I’m at, and transition to the next training block (which involves focusing on speed and explosiveness, and getting as fat as possible).

So I am back in intensification mode, substituting triples (and soon singles) for the sets of five I had been mostly doing in the main lifts, and limiting the amount of assistance exercises to the bare minimum. It has not started well, as the first session centered around the squat saw an abysmal failure in the first set of triples, at what should have been a relatively easy 150 (about 85% of what should be my current 1RM, which I expect to be hovering  around 175 kg) ended up with my first fail ever in just the second rep (having already done a triple with this weight a couple of weeks ago). Blessed be the power rack, as I left the bar in the safeties without a problem (and then, after stripping it of just a couple plates, did my first pin press ever –a session of firsts, as may be seen-) and could resume the training with less weight. Fact of life is that far from gaining strength since the end of last year, at least for this lift I’ve probably lost some of it, and I’m not sure if it is lack of frequency (as I’ve not adhered much to my pristine program, and have stretched most microcycles wo they ended up lasting between 12 and 14 days, instead of the 8 days that would have been optimal) or on the contrary, lack of recovery between sessions, specially for the squat (as the bench press doesn’t seem to have been similarly impacted, nor does the deadlift, which I’m training much less frequently).

Be it as it may, I’ll just soldier on with this type of routine (go to a daily max, then triples for one more cycle, and then singles for another one, do accessories as needed to keep the frequency of presses and squats high) until April, and then it is off to the races (back in shot putting mode)…

Friday, March 13, 2015

From Economics back to Philosophy

I realize my latest posts have been almost entirely devoid of philosophical content, being very centered in the perspectives of the latest vintage of European leftist parties and what the insights of economic historians may tell us about the likely direction of the capitalist mode of production (or rather, mode of organizing the whole of society, as the first truly global system, both in geographical scope and in its overwhelming force that ends up influencing every aspect of the life of the individuals under its sway). Time to correct that “economicist” deviation, and put in perspective why I think understanding how decisions of what to produce and how to distribute it is relevant to my main concerns, which are more centered around what the good life consists in, how we should act to achieve it, what we owe to each other, and how it all relates to the ultimate (true) stuff the Universe is made of.

Now to illustrate that relevancy I’m going to describe (somewhat uncharacteristically, I recognize I tend to be a bit opaque about myself) a bit of my personal “journey” of discovery about how the world (and the mind in the world) works, as it reflects at an individual level most of the relationships I’ve found also hold collectively.  When I was young (like, really, really young) I fell in love with Philosophy. Metaphysics, Ethics, Ontology, Logic, Philosophy of language, Philosophy of mind, I just couldn’t have enough of it. Modern or Classical, Continental or Anglo-Saxon, Analytic or postmodern, critical school, Frankfurt school, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, whatever. I just read with no rhyme or reason whatever fell in my hands, in general preferring to spend my time with books than with people (I was lucky that my father had taught me the basics of how to lift and pushed me hard to compete in track and field, or I would have been the slobbest slob that ever roamed the Earth). Until the time came to choose a career, and I had to decide between studying what I loved and studying what I could most likely make a living with. Being a logical guy, and having read (and been dumbfounded by) Vattimo and Lyotard and Foucault and above them all Marx I “knew” that Philosophy was dead, and that the real explanation of how the world functioned, and what tickled people to action were economic relations. So I studied Industrial Engineering (because it was heavy on physics, and I still recall with special fondness my training in quantum mechanics), and shortly after I finished that one, I started to study economics, to really get a grasp of the hidden laws that shaped society.

Only I soon found the discipline was a joke, an ungodly mess of conflicting opinions with the flimsiest empirical support (if any) where the aforementioned laws were nowhere to be found. The doctrines of Marx, those shining paragons of simplicity and explanatory power, were long ago discredited, as the guy really missed a number of important points and just elaborated on a theory (the neoclassical economy of Smith and Ricardo) that he never fully grasped, and which he never really saw working (as he never held a position of responsibility in his whole life in any productive endeavor which may have showed him why people take the decisions they take). Finally, the prestige of the profession was not that high (understandably). So, seeing it wasn’t illuminating at all, and it was utterly useless for my professional advancement, I just let it be and abandoned the study of economics (as taught in Spanish public Universities) for good.

After years of struggle to establish myself professionally and start a family, I gravitated slowly but sure-footedly towards Philosophy again. Only an engineer (with a good foundation of basic physics) sees speculative thinking under a wholly different light, as his training has helped him develop a bullshit detector of the highest sensibility, so many of the currents I admired in my infancy and youth I now read as the utter nonsense I still consider them to be (this would made for a pretty interesting post by itself, let’s just point here that the I find aspiration of “social sciences” and the like to an epistemic status similar to that enjoyed by physics and chemistry amusing but scandalously misguided). Be it as it may, I started pursuing a doctorate in Philosophy, finally aligning my academic orientation with my original passion. And what I have found researching my dissertation is that there is indeed a very close relationship between the socioeconomic organization of society and the answers people tend to find acceptable to the eternal questions it is the task of Philosophy to unravel. Only it is not a one way influence, as Marx somewhat simplistically thought. The dominant reason of each era (of each time and social group) limits the problems that can be posited, and the shape that the solutions that are proposed to them can take. That framework in turn limits and shapes the solutions that are imagined, and the social forms (institutions, laws, hierarchies, morals) that can flourish. And those social forms in turn determine how the decisions about what to produce and how to distribute it  are reached and enforced. So it is the dominant reason of each era the main force behind the economic organization, and not the other way round. That economic organization in turn influences the ways in which the dominant reason evolves, specially in the struggle with neighboring social groups, as the group that can produce more material goods typically can put more boots on the ground (of the battlefield), equipped with better weaponry, so their own specific reason tends to propagate and be imitated, whilst that of the less successful groups is smothered and quickly forgotten (a primer on the idea of dominant reason and the five dimensions I have found that characterize it can be found in this post: The five dimensions of dominant reason (I)).

If I’m not entirely back where I started I am at least closer, as I have found a different link between my original interest (the ideas people have to explain the most basic questions: the true nature of reality, the possibility of an afterlife, the existence of free will and moral responsibility, the kind of life we can rationally pursue, the duties we have towards our neighbors, and towards the environment) and the peculiar level of description taken by the “dismal science” (which is not so dismal, as the sycophantic tone of much of what today passes for economic thinking attests, and most definitely is no science at all). I follow avidly economic news, and read even more avidly economic history, and am quick to express my opinion about economic developments because I see all of them as harbingers of how our own dominant reason is more likely to evolve. So I talk of Syriza, or Podemos, or Arrighi’s cycles of accumulation, or Brenner explanation of the origin of the last long economic slump, or the impact of our gonadal vote (towards demographic collapse) because of what they tell me about how people think, how reason itself is being configurated and distorted and prodded to evolve along certain predictable paths.

So you can confidently expect more of that kind of analysis in future posts, as right now it is just part of how I roll…

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Is over-capacity to blame for the last long slump?

So while I was getting up to date with Arrighi reading Adam Smith in Beijing (I’m sad to say I’m finding it way less engrossing than the previous The Long Twentieth Century, of which I talked about in this rapturous post: Arrighi and gonadal vote) I caught a number of references to Robert Brenner’s work which made me race to his two latest books (The Boom and the Bubble; and The Economics of Global Turbulence). According to Brenner, the long slump between 1973 and today has been caused by excess capacity and excess production, that has kept the rate of profit depressed relative to historical levels (too many companies entering the market and too few exiting, and specially big unprofitable incumbents staying in it even at a loss because of sunk costs, that would make them loose even more were they to quit). The boom years of 1993-2007 did not correct the lack of a “shakeout” (although Arrighi accuses Brenner of not defining clearly enough what that shakeout may consist in, as the only historical precedent would be the single case of the Great Depression) to cull the inefficient firms, so the problem was just papered over (and the extraordinary profits of those years were explained by the increased financialization and successive asset bubbles enabled by the ever decreasing interest rates demanded by central banks and historically low yields offered by the productive enterprises in the “real” economy). Now, given that the current crisis that started in 2008 (after he wrote  the aforementioned books) is much deeper and much more destructive than any other one since the (now apparently so distant) halcyon days of the mid nineties (which we now remember for the boom, the talk of a “new economy” and the overcoming of the business cycle, shaky as it all turned out to be, and discredited as the unwarranted optimism of the time has become) we can wonder, is this the shakeout predicted by Brenner (or the terminal crisis expected by Arrighi, too bad it started the year after he passed away)?

If indeed it were, we could ask ourselves how advanced are we in getting rid of that excess capacity (not much, as every indebted firm that should have gone out of business has been bailed out given they were big enough to resort to the government largess). A signal of that advance would be to what extent are profits back to historical levels (given firms sitting in ever increasing piles of cash for lack of profitable investment opportunities, we can conclude that not much). So if overcapacity were at the root of the system wide crash we are still in the midst of (as the talk of “green shoots” has been replaced by more open recognition of a “robust recovery” under way, we can not help but say that if this is the recovery Lord help us when we get back to recession) we can expect things to get only so marginally better as long as said overcapacity is not fully corrected. As a matter of fact, given how anemic aggregate demand is and presumably will continue being as long as the eye can see, the long slump described by Brenner seems entirely like something we will leave our sons to deal with (and, unless they make some substantial change in the capitalist system, something they in turn will leave theirs). Some prominent economists (mostly of a liberal bent, my admired Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz foremost among them) argue that a robust return to Keynesian orthodoxy is our only way out of such dire prognosis, and that public spending can indeed revive that sagging aggregate demand that both companies and individuals are unable, under present austerity dominated conditions, to increase.

It has to be noted that those economists arguments are not entirely without merit, as weak demand and oversupply are two aspects of exactly the same problem (the supply is considered “over” precisely because there is not enough demand for it, thus pushing prices downwards and depressing the profits companies can extract from selling and marketing their products). What we have to ask ourselves is if the tools at the states’ disposal are up to the task of reverting such an entrenched downward trend, which has only accelerated in the last eight years, but which according to Brenner has been going on since the 70’s. And I’m sorry to report that, as much sympathy as I have for their ideological outlook, I don’t think a strong program of public spending would make much of a difference… as the example of Japan is making abundantly clear (as a momentary aside, that lack of dramatic results doesn’t make it less of a necessity, as the alternative –keeping austerity in the face of a recovery that is almost indistinguishable from a recession, with unprecedented numbers of people, specially between the young and less educated, unable to find a decent job- is clearly much worse). To understand why, let us formulate the secular (as in “Centuries in the making”, not necessarily opposed to religious) trends that have culminated in the current almost half a Century long slump:

·         The most productive (in material terms) economies of the world (what Gunder Frank called “the global North”, which includes Australia and New Zealand) basically decided in the 70’s (coincidence?) to stop reproducing themselves, as their resources (time and accumulated wealth) were “better” employed in the production of material goods and services. This collective decision was somewhat masked by the migratory pressures from the still growing global South (specially in the hegemonic power, whose demographic decline in the groups that hold all of its societal power have been long ignored by being surrounded by powerless minorities and immigrants still reproducing above replacement levels), but now most of that apparently inexhaustible source of new consumers is also drying up

·         Technological progress has kept on running ahead of our capability to harness it, enabling productivity gains that are not yet fully realized, as their societal impact would be too big. As each recessive part of the latest business cycles show, companies find one and again that they can lay off between 10 and 20% of their workforce and keep on producing approximately the same amount (admittedly this forced increase in productivity is not only due to the greater automation and more intensive capital use –as in this case it doesn’t require much in terms of capital investment, but also to the remaining workforce having to work more hours to compensate for the laid off). It is not difficult to conclude that probably a similar percentage (around 20%) of the employees in the expansive phase of the cycle are more or less “expendable” (or are performing a “make job”) ,but mostly do not know they are, which translates in generalized insecurity (which in turn translates into a lower propensity to consume, as more income has to be saved for the potential rainy day)

·         However, that technological progress that seems enough to keep the labor market permanently depressed (even in an scenario where the total workforce is not set to expand, and is already contracting n a number of advanced economies) is heavily concentrated in residual sectors of the economy, the agricultural and industrial sectors, it is much less apparent in the services sector (now dominant), and entirely absent in other (energy, transportation, basic research). As I have discussed in previous posts (About decrease in rate of technological advance), the capitalist system, which was noted for its capacity for innovations that improved significantly the lives of its citizens, seems to be petering out in that accord. We have seen recently a significant illustration of this with the much hyped presentation Yesterday of Apple’s latest contraption, its “smart” watch. All that the world’s most valuable company (by the somewhat gimmicky definition of valuing all of its outstanding stock by the price the latest purchaser paid for the latest share, regardless of what price all the overwhelmingly bigger amount of the rest of the shares commanded the last time they were exchanged), that boasts of having given us whole new categories of consumer products, can come up with is a shiny contraption that communicates with a (separate) phone, presents in its face a fraction of what the phone can present, and can vibrate… It will probably sell millions (at 17,000 $ apiece for the most expensive one they don’t even need to manufacture that many units), it will give work to a few dozens, and it will improve the quality of life of none

If companies built in their expectations the idea of perpetual population growth, how should we expect them to react when they discover that the new millions upon millions of consumers they counted on to reactivate their sagging bottom lines are not going to materialize? Exactly as we are seeing: no matter how much money the government showers its citizens with, and how low the interest rates they ask them in exchange for lending them money, as long as they see their inventories not shrinking and the machines (and their operators) in their factories sitting by idling they will not take that money and invest in new capacity, and they will not hire substantial new amounts of employees (we can rest contented if they do not lay off additional workers). And the effect of any big monetary expansion is likely to be very limited, as they probably can absorb it just with the productivity gains they still know they can realize without any investment at all (and without needing any major technological breakthrough).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everything is futile, and we will never see any economic recovery anywhere. It’s secular tendencies I’m talking about here (Braudel’s longue durée). We will surely see some short expansion here and there, generally more short-lived than expected, to be followed by a longer and harsher contraction. I’m no determinist either, and I fully recognize it is in the hands of society to change course, if we find the political will to do so. Because without changing, what we are witnessing is the advent of the dreaded “stationary state” predicted by John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. A stationary state of growing inequality where a gilded few enjoy most of the advantages of ever more wondrous technologies whilst the vast majority barely subsists performing insecure, occasional, mostly menial jobs.

So it is to the nature of the minimal, feasible changes that have to be made to avoid that fate towards which we have to turn our attention, but not of course in this already too long post

Friday, March 6, 2015

About the importance (and difficulties) of “leaving one rep in the tank”

As I mentioned in my last powerlifting post (A problem to avoid in periodizations), listening to your own body may not be as straightforward as it sounds, even after many years under the bar. Whether in systems that rely on autoregulation or in those ones that prescribe a fixed number of sets and reps with a predefined percentage of a 1RM (or of a more attainable “every day max” or “training max”) as the weeks accumulate it is difficult not to get consistently closer to the limit of what our body can adapt to.

Another way of looking at it is that we make larger and larger withdrawals of our ability to recover, and in the end, sooner or later, we will completely deplete it (or even go into the red and incur a “recovery debt”). We would expect that to be the moment when progress stops, we start failing more and more reps, find it harder and harder to go to the gym and even start regressing, and finding each session that we end up moving less weight (or the same weight for a lesser amount of reps) than the previous one. Typically that dreaded “plateau” (or stagnation) is accompanied by a number of symptoms outside the gym that can make its identification easier: feeling overall tired most of the day, increased HRV (Heart Rate Variability), persistent pain in some “trouble spots” (IT band, hip sockets, knees, elbows or shoulders are the most typical ones) and even reduced sex drive (as you feel to friggin’ tired to really bother about bangin’). But even if you manage to keep the training stressors under control (and life, which as we all know has a disturbing tendency to be a bitch, doesn’t add stressors of its own) and keep a reasonable balance between how hard you push yourself in the gym and how well you manage to recover, most likely if you keep the principle of progressive overload (in its  most essential form, trying to keep each microcycle more challenging than the previous one by judiciously or injudiciously increasing the load on the bar or the number of reps or their density) there will be a time when you end up spending above your income, or forcing yourself to go beyond your recovery capacity.

Now the consequences of that overdraw may be more or less severe depending on how long you keep it and how deep “into the red” you get. Injuries are a typical occurrence, as is temporary (or definitive) abandonment of the sport altogether (something that happens as much as a 25% of competitors in an Olympiad, that normally have to incur in such humungous recovery deficits just to qualify that after competition, regardless of result, just let it go completely). It stands to reason that the longer you can keep training without depleting (or even better, positively building) your recovery capacity, the further you will be able to progress and the healthier, fuller of energy you will feel. That’s when the concept of “leaving one rep in the tank” comes in. If your training methodology includes doing AMRAP (As Many Reps as Possible) sets at a certain weight, or just accumulating sets across  as long as you can, or even pyramiding to a daily top set with the max weight you can handle that day, it makes an enormous difference to take that set strictly to failure (even “one set to failure” is many times subject to interpretation, as some people understand it to actually start a rep that they can not complete, and have to drop or ask a spotter for assistance, and other people understand it as completing the rep that feels so limit as not to be able to start another one ,knowing with full certainty that they won’t be able to complete it) and take it one or two reps short of that failure. Those one or two reps would be the ones “left in the tank”.

It has to be noted that there are times to really push it (the traditional balls to the wall attitude), as many times I’ve experienced the exhilaration of believing I was in my last ropes, really close to failure, and then eked out three or four reps more for new reps PRs that felt extra sweet because of the sheer exhaustion and mental drainage that accompanied them. Had I stopped leaving (apparently) one or two reps in the tank, I wouldn’t have find what I was really capable of. What I’m saying here is that you can not train that way for too long (I would dare to say that more than 2-3 weeks is more than enough for most, as the cost to the CNS is just too big) without burning out and loosing all desire to keep on pushing. I once read Christian Thibaudeau describe those nerve-wracking sessions where you get as close as possible to your limit (and then repeat, and repeat) as “training on the nerve”, and I think the expression nicely reflects a salient feature of that type of training: you constantly feel like you are in a torture rack, with your nerves being pulled at, subject to a tension that threatens to snap them and screaming in pain almost in every repetition, for hours on end, to the extent that you actually feel a pang of fear in your gut every time you think what you have planned for yourself for your next session.

There are times, to be sure, when you just have to man up and keep pushing through the pain, the uncertainty of the results, the apparent pointlessness and futility of it all, as it just is what it takes to keep improving beyond certain point. But, taking now a metaphor from Dan John, as there are times when training is like waiting the bus (bus bench training), there need to be times when it is like sitting in a park, feeling the tingle of the spring sun in your skin while watching the people stroll leisurely by (park bench training). So, next time you find yourself in a rough spot on your training, dreading the next session and afflicted by a thousand minor aches and pains (and by nagging doubts about the sanity of this whole lifting thing we do) you may want to consider how long you have been training on the nerve, in bus bench mode, and for how long do you intend to keep it until you lift the foot from the pedal and coast a little bit. There is nothing wrong with that every now and then…

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Game of Chicken final outcome

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how the negotiations between the new Greek government and its European debtors reminded me of the famous scene in Rebel without a cause where James Dean drives a stolen car over a cliff in parallel with Corey Allen to see who would “chicken out” and jump off first to avoid falling, and how I interpreted some declarations of Greece’s Finance Minister as visibly chaining himself to the steering wheel to show his willingness not to jump first (in the film, it is Allen whose jacket gets stuck to the door handle, and thus goes over the cliff-although at least he was not branded as a chicken it may be argued his fate was far worse). Well, the negotiations have ended (we may say the cars have already gone over the cliff) and it is a good time to reflect about how they have gone, what they have achieved, and what they portend for the future of Europe in particular, and of our socioeconomic system in general (not that I think they were specially momentous, but in the end everything counts).

But first I want to give some kudos to the Greek negotiator Yanis Varoufakis, who showed his intellectual mettle in this article from The Grauniad: Bruce Willis lookalike comes out as "erratic Marxist". The conclusion he reaches (even if Capitalism is a despicable, inhumane system, it is better to work for its strengthening and continuance than to try to speed its demise, as that demise would most likely cause at this point more suffering and distress than the alternative) I can sympathize with, and even his recollection of feeling guilty when boarding a plane to fly first class and his inner struggle to combat the temptation of somewhat rationalizing his privileges (assuming he had somehow “earned” them) is something that resonates with me, having felt the very same guilt and attempted the very same rationalization… I may disagree with the theoretical validity of some of Marx’s insights, but they are finer points in what seemed to me a courageous and well argued position (again, substantially above what you expect from your average politician these days).

Now to my analysis of the agreement: essentially both parties have punted and kicked the can down the road, postponing the resolution four months from now. That is indeed a strong rebuke of Greece’s initial position (Varoufakis first article I quoted explicitly stated they would not accept any temporary extension of the current agreement, and that anything short of a final resolution would be unacceptable for them). Taking into account that two of their original requests (to stop negotiating with the “troika” and to be given explicit recognition of the end of the requirement to reach a 4,5% primary surplus ) were also absent from the temporary agreement, it is understandable that many commentators (specially those tending to be less sympathetic to the Greek position) have called it an “unconditional surrender”, and them being “drubbed 0 to 3”. The German finance minister (Wolfgang Schaüble) declared that those pesky leftists had received a healthy dose of reality and would have some hard explaining to do to their electorate for all the foolish promises they would now have to accept they would not be able to meet.

However, things in Greece looked quite different. Support for the government stayed at a solid 80% (higher than in Germany and stratospherically higher than in Spain or Portugal, which had been recently denounced by the Greeks for “wanting to bring their elected government down”), and although a few MPs protested and talked about Tsipras and Varoufakis not respecting the electoral promises they made, none of them has resigned. Let’s not forget Syriza is a coalition, formed in a very short time to ride the tide of popular discontent with the traditional left communist party and PASOK, widely seen as accomplices in the crash of economic activity and the subsequent imposition of savage austerity measures), so for them just staying together is no minor achievement. What have they told their constituents they have achieved? Not that much, really. They are probably benefiting from the abysmally low expectations of the Greek public, for which just standing up to the powerful troika and not rubberstamping the dreaded existing framework agreement is already a resounding achievement (as they put it to a UK journalist “we had zero, and we were asking for ten, knowing that achieving two or three would be already very good”). They have gained four months to keep on receiving funds that should help stop the trickle of deposits fleeing the Country in exchange for very vague promises of fiscal responsibility and not taking unilateral action. If on that time they can effectively act against tax evasion (one of the open scandals of the Greek social compact is the extent to what it was considered acceptable not to pay taxes at all levels of society, starting with the widely considered corrupt and crony plutocracy), readmit a handful of public servants fired by the previous administration and maybe even raise pensions (giving the minimal dose of stimulus they can afford to help aggregate demand recover) and not act too rashly to scare investors (as if there were any of them outside European institutions acting on their government’s behalf) with nationalizations, they may be in better position to negotiate a more rational agreement.

The European debtors, on their side, have signaled a cautious openness to relax the target of a 4,5% of primary surplus, as well as they should, because it was a target that never made any sense at all. Let’s remember that as a percentage, it is calculated against the total GDP, whilst the expenditures (and the receipts) of the Greek state amount roughly to a 40% of that GDP. In 2013 The Greek State received 106,200 million € from its citizens, and spent 116,000 million €, but those 10,000 million € (10% of difference between receipts and expenses) amounted to a deficit of “only” 3.7% against a total GDP of roughly 267.000 million €. I have referred to that “magic” of camouflaging the real extent of the amount in which what the state spends beyond what it earns as a “legerdemain”, as it hides from view how structurally unsound most of the world State’s finances are. Now in the case of Greece (or any other Country forced by their foreign creditors to “live within their means”) the magic turns against them, as the fiscal mountain they have to climb is much, much higher than it sounds. To go from a deficit of 3.7% of their GDP in 2013 to a surplus of 3% (it is a primary surplus, which excludes debt payments, which translates to a more manageable 0.3% deficit, as approved by the previous government near the end of last year) requires reducing expenses (or increasing receipts) by a 3.4% of the GDP, or a bit above 9.000 million €. That means almost a 10% of an already severely depressed budget. Of course, that further cut would depress the economy by contracting the aggregate demand, thus reducing the tax receipt, thus making additional cuts necessary… Anybody that thinks that a 10% reduction in a modern government is a feasible policy should try to save every month an additional 10% of his salary (above whatever he was previously saving) by cutting 10% his expenses just to have a taste of how easy that is.

So the really big deal for Greece is how small the primary deficit they have to reach is going to be, and all the rest (troika or no troika, declarations of not taking unilateral action, collective bargaining or not, possible nationalizations) is just a sideshow, red meat they need to throw at their base if they become too restless. And what do they have as single bargaining chip? The threat of leaving the euro (which in everybody’s mind would be immediately followed by a bankruptcy, formally refusing to pay the insurmountable mountain of debt that is nominally the object of all this negotiationg), in what has been dubbed “Grexit”. How credible of a threat is that, and to what extent Grexit would be in the long run economically advantageous for Greece (and likely for Portugal, Ireland and Spain) will be the subject of another post.