Friday, February 14, 2020

Go Directly To Jail, Do Not Pass Go

For someone who mostly reads science-fiction novels and plays fantasy video games, I've been reading an unusually large number of economics books. Retracing my steps, it started off with an interest in personal finance, migrated to studying how the stock markets worked, and recently has veered into political economy and income inequality. The latest and most strident book in this "series" has been Goliath by Matt Stoller. Its subtitle is "The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy", though it would probably be more accurate to say the 230-Year War, the 150-Year War, or maybe the 50-Year War.



This book has been a weird combination of compelling and infuriating. Compared to every other money-related book I've read, it is very personal and narrative in structure. Stoller doesn't write about abstract trends or forces: he has a cast of heroes and villains, hundreds of "characters" who are actual historic persons, famous or not, and the tale he tells is all about the individual choices people made and the effects they had: who created a policy and why, what effect that had on another person, how that influenced a later thinker, who tried to stop that policy. It's much more of a page-turner than I was expecting. But, it's also a book that I frequently wanted to hurl at the wall in fury. About half of the time that's because I was so mad with Stoller at the greed and stupidity on display. The other half of the time I was so mad at Stoller for the moral equivocation of his monomaniacal framing.

I have a lot that I want to write about this book and am having trouble structuring all of it. I'm planning to start with a summary of the book, then how I'm processing it in conjunction with other recent readings of mine, then why I think it'd bad and important, and finally how it relates to some contemporary political topics I've been mulling over recently.

The book starts with the founding of America, and specifically the famous Hamilton/Jefferson conflict between strong centralized power and weak dispersed power. Stoller continues the longstanding historic tradition (not the recent post-Miranda trend) of viewing Jefferson as a "man of the people," a champion of small independent farmers, seeking to break up concentrations of wealth and control. I'll have more opinions about this below! Obviously the 1790s don't map directly to the later concerns of the industrialized nation, but Stoller identifies the seeds of the coming battle: On the one side, a New York City-based, Wall Street-oriented, bank-funded faction seeking to grow larger businesses; on the other side a populist, small-town, entrepreneurial spirit.

Stoller moves relatively quickly through the early era of monopolization, the "trusts" that arose after the Civil War: the railroads, Rockefeller and Standard Oil, the Morgan bankers. I'd recently read about this era in Strike!, and it was cool to see it from another perspective, focusing more on how these corporations got to be so large and powerful in the first place. It's a dynamic that continues through the whole book: a new industry starts, lots of competitors jump in, someone raises a lot of money on Wall Street, buys out their competitors, raises prices, cuts service/quality, bankrolls politicians and the media, uses their dominance in one industry to establish beachheads in another, and continues. The vast majority of people end up losers: workers have their pay cut and conditions worsen, customers pay more for worse service, communities are shuttered or dilapidated, citizens feel outraged and helpless; the only benefit flows to the monopolists, who collect obscene profits and built permanent dynasties.

The book slows down a little and gets more detailed in the early 20th century. Louis Brandeis emerges as the great leading intellectual light of the antimonopoly movement, and a wide variety of politicians arise offering solutions to the problem. Pretty much all of these politicians are flawed for various reasons - again, I'll have more opinions on this below - but Brandeis himself is easy to root for. Brandeis's great insight was that the bigness of companies was itself the problem, and in order for markets to flourish, they needed to be broken up. Communist, fascist, and capitalist movements all took for granted that consolidation of industry was good and inevitable and that the important decision was who would run these large organizations and for what purpose. Brandeis had a uniquely American vision and goal: return to a system with many buyers, many sellers, all competing against one another in a fair market following democratically-established rules. The government should pro-actively keep companies from gaining an unbalancing dominance in their market, rather than wait for the consolidation to finish and a crisis to occur. Stoller never uses this phrasing, but I kept thinking of the old phrase "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The goal of regulated competition was to remove the temptation to do evil, and eliminate the possibility of harm from an out-of-control and unstoppable force.

This period, maybe from roughly 1900-1935 or so, is one of the most intellectually interesting, with lots of competing philosophies, and I learned a ton about it. My shallow understanding had been that there was a "Progressive" movement, and I sort of lumped together all the opponents of Big Business into one group. In Stoller's framing, though, it wasn't so much a division between pro-corporate and pro-people; rather, it was a battle between Big and Small. As one major example, I tend to think of Teddy Roosevelt as being a progressive: a trust-buster who stood up to the giants of his day. As Stoller presents it, though, Teddy didn't object to the companies' size, but rather their behavior. He wanted them to be subservient to the government, to follow his plans for the country. This repeats over and over throughout the 20th century as a schism within the left/progressive/liberal side: on the one hand, followers of Teddy who like central planning, managed markets, national industries run for the benefit on the people; on the other hand, followers of Brandeis who want markets that are free but filled with small players, a government that sets the rules but does not direct industry.

This perspective was really interesting and leads to some (to me) unusual conclusions. There's a brief reference to the famed socialist Eugene Debs; as Debs devoted his life to fighting the same corporate villains as Stoller chastises, I was kind of expecting him to be lauded. But Debs, like all good socialists, believed (with Marx) that consolidation of industry was a historical inevitability, driven by ineluctable forces of efficiency. Debs didn't want to break up the railroads and other monopolies, he just wanted them to be run for the good of the workers rather than the benefit of the owners.

Of course, the US wasn't the only nation grappling with these issues. The specter of fascism looms over this era, and it's kind of creepy how close America got to adopting something very similar: a command economy, fusing together political, military and economic power. This, in fact, ends up being one of the more successful drivers for the eventual establishment of the New Deal and implementing something like Brandeis's vision. FDR and other politicians would eventually see diverse, decentralized economic markets as a key bulwark against political fascism, and intentionally crafted an American system that would resist the cartelization that IG Farben and other European firms established on the road to the Third Reich.

It wasn't an easily or quickly settled debate, and well into FDR's presidency there was still a powerful and active faction pushing for TR-style nationalization of industry. But managed competition eventually triumphed: in this setting, government is still an actor, but much more like a referee than a coach. It does act: it can legally block mergers, and can split up companies that have grown so large and powerful that they dominate their field. And sometimes the government will get more directly involved; one of the more interesting examples is the fight with Alcoa in the 1930. Alcoa had monopolized the aluminum trade, and, as the US started to get on a war footing, the military grew alarmed at the state of the industry: it could not produce enough aluminum to meet military needs, and they had grown complacent, slashing R&D and falling significantly behind European aluminum technology. The solution wasn't to nationalize Alcoa: rather, the government seeded competitors, providing capital and land and resources to highly-motivated entrepreneurs, and then signing favorable contracts that would support them as they ramped up production. This didn't just solve the aluminum shortfall, it also incentivized Alcoa to improve: to re-invest in its business, expand production, and actually get better instead of just collect on its dominant position. As a result, the American aluminum industry emerged far stronger after WW2 and would dominate for decades to come.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a constant yo-yoing: monopolies would grow huge, there would be a large financial bubble, the bubble would burst, the real economy would suffer, politicians would enact reforms, those reforms would be subverted or co-opted (as in the capture of the FTC by pro-business interests), monopolies would rise again, and the cycle would continue. This was finally broken by FDR and the New Deal. It was not easy! It was a long, decades-long struggle to bring giant corporations to heel, to embarrass the banks, to pass progressive legislation, to create a bureaucracy to carry out that legislation, to appoint a judiciary that would enforce the legislation. But, once it was in place, it was remarkably resilient. The boom-and-bust cycle finally paused and there was remarkable consensus across parties and generations. Even as late as Richard Nixon, anti-monopoly action was accepted as good. I'm not used to seeing Nixon presented sympathetically, and he's not exactly one of Stoller's heroes, but he does come off pretty well: Nixon's legendary bitterness was often directed against large corporations, and he's quoted as saying things like "I'd rather deal with an entrepeneur than a stuffed shirt at a department store" and "I'm not sure if we want to be a nation of supermarkets." Nixon wasn't a committed ideological adherent to antimonopolism, but his Justice Department vigorously prosecuted monopolies, and he saw these actions as being popular.

I tend to think of the Cold War Consensus as being all about foreign policy, of Republicans and Democrats agreeing on the importance of supporting western European democracies against the Communist threat; but there was an economic consensus, too: skepticism of banks, a "small is beautiful" ethos, a willingness to challenge concentrations of power. These weren't even controversial, political opinions, just technical details, like funding the military or collecting taxes. I suspect that at least part of the reason why the New Deal framework was so resilient was because so many people had lived through the Great Depression and never wanted to experience it again; they saw the New Deal as something that solved the problem and wanted to keep it. And, I suspect, it was at least partly due to that generation of people dying off that the New Deal consensus eventually dissolved and we got to where we are today.

Stoller's account of how it all falls apart is interesting. I tend to point to 1980, the rise of Reagan and trickle-down economics and the Chicago School. In Stoller's view, though, it was the left that destroyed itself, long before Reagan arrived at the White House. There was an interior, intellectual and moral rot that took hold within the Democratic Party, causing it to abandon its roots, alienate its popular base of support, and lose the Brandeisian legacy.

There are a lot of people Stoller points fingers at, but high on the list are public intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith. Several things started happening in the 1950s. The party grew increasingly under the sway of "eggheads", Ivy League-educated thinkers based in the Academy; in comparison with, say, President Truman, who had personal experience as a farmer and failed haberdasher, the center of the party drifted towards a more affluent, educated, white-collar leadership. The party grew increasingly elite, disdainful of its core membership. As monopolies ceased to be as threatening (since they no longer existed, or were thoroughly tamed), they were ignored, and leading thinkers once again fell under the lure of central planning. Mid-20th-century liberalism became a project of planned economies, of socialism. Big was no longer considered bad.

Of course, this wasn't happening in a vacuum: the Red Scare poisoned American politics and discourse, leading to widespread self-censorship and an upswing in Goldwater-esque conservatism. The field of economics stepped back from engaging with "political" questions, starting to view itself as a branch of mathematics or science rather than policy, intentionally removing consideration of values from its analyses. A nascent class of new billionaires, ironically funded by New Deal-era spending and protected by antitrust laws, emerged from the Texas oilfields and began funding right-wing academics and projects. This eventually organized around the Austrian and then the Chicago School of economics, led by Aaron Director and a network of like-minded academics and businessmen. But the struggle of the Chicago School against the New Deal regime took decades, and by the 1970s, their opposition had been hollowed out: not interested in defending the "small people," not recognizing any inherent problem with bigness, not viewing economic issues in general as particularly important.

Starting around the 1960s, there wasn't much economic ideology in either party, so individual behavior ended up seeming somewhat random. Nixon's Republican administration vigorously prosecuted IBM's computer monopoly and initiated the breakup of Bell Telephone. In the 1970s, Ralph Nader emerged as an anti-corporate crusader; but he was also reflectively anti-government and was not schooled in the history of the antitrust movement, and so the consumer-oriented movement he founded ended up unwittingly aiding in the dismantling of important antimonopoly systems because Nader didn't understand or care why they existed or how they worked. There is a real shallowness to the later years of this book that Nader helps exemplify: a group of self-righteous consumers demands that things be cheaper and more convenient. Businesses are all too happy to comply: they don't care about the prices they charge, they care about the profit they make. So consumer-rights groups ally with corporations to disable Fair Trade laws, to remove protections for workers and merchants, to encourage the growth of chain stores and monopolies. Workers get squeezed, or lose their jobs entirely as industries move overseas. And, in the long term, the consumers are defeated: with the rich variety of mom-and-pop shops vanished, they are not helpless against the whims of big retailers raising prices and slashing services, exactly what happened before the New Deal.

This is one of the subtle shifts that I hadn't thought about before. For most of US history, political economy focused on the citizen as a worker, considering a person in terms of what they can produce and contribute to society. For the "children of affluence," the post-WW2 generation, political economics started focusing on the citizen as a consumer, considering a person in terms of what they can consume and receive from society. This is a radical re-orientation, and obviously causes a host of problems. Why worry about your neighbor getting laid off, so long as you can buy a cheaper car?

It took me a while to put my finger on what the vacillation between monopoly and antimonopoly policy reminded me of, but I've finally got it: it's like the Old Testament stories about the Israelites. They're in trouble, God saves them, they honor Him and follow His laws, the nation prospers for a time; gradually they lose their way, grow complacent, stop honoring Him, and fall into trouble again. Reading scripture, it's very frustrating to see the loss of hard-won wisdom and the entirely predictable, inevitable consequences of straying from the right path. That's exactly the sense I got reading through Goliath: We've been here before, we know enough about human nature and finance to understand what's going to happen, we know how bad it can be, and yet we forgot our way, forgot our history, and so fell back into a completely preventable catastrophe.

It was really interesting to read about the technical details of how things unraveled. On the economic front, Stoller focuses on Walter Wriston, a hard-charging banker who rose to become the CEO of Citibank. Wriston invented the Certificate of Deposit, which I've grown up with and have always viewed as a benign, responsible savings vehicle; but the CD was specifically created as a loophole around New Deal banking regulations, particularly the prohibition against "hot money" (spending money to acquire deposits). CDs supercharged the lending system, allowing banks to leverage themselves and engage in riskier bets than they otherwise would have been allowed to take. A key quote comes on page 314, describing the economic system around 1970 once these new innovations had been accepted:

There was now one financial system for normal people, which was heavily regulated in the lending and borrowing one could undertake. There was another for big banks and corporations, who could operate in an unregulated land of exotic financial instruments, all backed by the Fed in the event of a crash.

That last clause is key. The Federal Reserve, originally invented by progressive reformers to bring big banks under the watchful eye of the government, had now turned a corner, implicitly guaranteeing to step in and protect large, private financial companies that had gotten into enough trouble to threaten the economy. We had now entered the world where profits are privatized and losses are socialized, where once again big banks could call the shots and the American people would suffer the consequences.

The book continues all the way through to the present day, and I increasingly recognized the names in the book as people I've seen on TV or read about in newspapers and not as figures from history. The Reagan/Bush administration undoes the New Deal, and Bill Clinton ensures it stays dead, lending bipartisan consensus to the folly of opposing monopolies. There are several pages on technology near the end which are really well-written. It's very concise, but I think Stoller gets everything right, down to the Homebrew Computer Club's sharing culture and Bill Gates' early efforts to commercialize and then monopolize software. Reading this belatedly reminded me at how viscerally furious I felt at the Microsoft monopoly in the late 90s and early 2000s, at the peak of my Linux advocacy. It's interesting how I haven't thought about it for so long. I think that at the time I viewed it as a single, offensive, personally-relevant thing; I now can see it in terms of a long tradition of monopolistic predation.

Reading about the economic and political disasters that have struck during my own lifetime is frustrating. In an earlier era events seemed to be driven by malevolence, like Andrew Mellon and Morgan colluding to enrich themselves with the corruption and complicity of public officials. Today, though, events are driven more by ignorance. George W. Bush didn't even understand what was happening when Lehman Brothers collapsed. Most of the Democrats under Obama had no understanding of the New Deal, and the few who did, like Robert Rubin, had built their careers on opposing it. Earlier generations had at least understood the struggle between centralized market power and a dispersed populist citizenry, so financial collapse was always followed by political reforms. After the 2008 financial crisis, though, both parties had the same underlying belief in big business, and took the essentiality of supporting financial markets for granted, so no reforms were done. (The only slight change was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and even that was done to fit within the modern "consumerist" mindset of Nader and his descendants, rather than the worker- and citizen-oriented mindset of our predecessors.)

Okay! This is a long book and there's obviously a lot more (particularly more Andrew Mellon shenanigans), but that's a super-brief summary. Onward:

I thought a lot about Capital in the 21st Century while reading this. They aren't directly comparable, for several reasons. Stylistically, Piketty is very much based in data, with tables and graphs and charts, while Stoller is telling a story, with heroes and villains and plot twists. The timeline is different: both are especially interested in what happened before and after World War 2, but Piketty goes all the way back to 0AD and pays equal attention to many countries, including Germany and France and China and Britain and Japan, while Stoller is exclusively interested in the United States since its founding and particularly since the Civil War. And the scale is different. Piketty looks at the highest level, of the total wealth of nations, and at the lowest level, of how much wealth individuals hold. Stoller seems more interested in the midlevel: corporations, dynasties, specific industries and federal agencies.

That said, there are some meaningful intersections. I think their core argument is actually pretty similar: there aren't any natural laws that generate fairness or economic equality, and the mid-20th-century movement towards equality was largely the result of specific policies that were implemented in the West during that era. And, after those policies were unwound in the 1980s, vast accumulation of wealth (Piketty) and power (Stoller) resumed.

Capital in the 21st Century may be a little more pessimistic, as Piketty also argues that the postwar boom era was due to an incredibly unique intersection of circumstances (postwar reconstruction, technology advancement, a population boom AND progressive laws) that may not occur again in history. Stoller seems to imply (but doesn't flat-out state) that we could return to the good times of the 50s if we break the monopolistic chokehold on our democracy and return to New Deal-esque policies.

Stoller has a monomaniacal focus on bigness, while I don't remember Piketty making any particular arguments around the structure of the economy. It might be that Stoller's politics are a prerequisite for Piketty's economics: in order to reduce inequality, we will need to implement changes in our taxation and spending, but we won't be able to make those changes until we break up the power than monopolies hold over our government.

Once again, though, I think Piketty gives more reason for pessimism. If he is right, then equality tends to naturally increase as the economy grows, and decrease as it flattens (or declines). With that as background, there may have been natural forces at work that made it easier to implement some of the massive structural changes of the New Deal. Once again, Alcoa is a great example. There was a booming demand for aluminum at that time, and Alcoa couldn't keep up with all the demand that was out there, which made it relatively easy for the federal government to encourage competitors to start, and in doing so break up the monopoly. That would have been vastly more difficult, though, if growth had been stagnant and Alcoa could easily supply all the demand: simply starting competitors wouldn't have been enough if there wasn't unmet demand. So, as economic growth continues to slow in the coming decades, addressing monopolies in the 21st century may be significantly harder than it was in the 20th: governments will have fewer tools to address them, monopolies will fight harder to hold onto the existing pie, and there will be fewer natural openings in the market for new entrepreneurs.

And, I think the political and psychological dimensions may make it even more challenging to not just win reforms but to keep them enforced. FDR and his allies fought hard through the 30s and 40s to implement the New Deal, and that was followed by an unprecedented period of prosperity, which everyone could point to as proof that those reforms worked. But, if our economy is slowing now, then implementing those policies won't lead to a big boom: things will be fairer, more stable and more sustainable, but the actual size of our economy won't grow as much as it did in the 40s and 50s. Without as big and obvious of an economic reward, it will probably be more challenging to sell and sustain those policies over the long run, particularly since they will eternally be under assault from future would-be Mellons.

Not to mention that, as the economy slows and wealth and power are increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, it will get even harder to fight against those big companies... and, every year we wait, the harder it becomes to take them on. That's dispiriting!

All right, that's all stuff that's, uh, "good" about this book. As I noted before, though, I got pretty upset at a lot of what it does. I'm going to try and organize my thoughts here but they're probably going to end up sounding somewhat ranty, I apologize in advance for that.

One thing that this book has reinforced for me is that, while I increasingly want to view myself as a progressive, at the end of the day I'm probably a liberal. Those are terms that tend to get used and re-used and shift depending on your social circle and era, but in the current discourse, progressives are generally identified with the faction that wants big, structural change in our economic system, while liberals are more concerned with social justice and equality. Goliath is relentlessly a book about individual people making individual decisions, and at the end of the day I just can't make myself cheer on slavers and bigots, no matter how good their economic policy is.

It really is remarkable how, over and over again, the heroes and champions that Stoller identifies are people on the wrong side of history. Thomas Jefferson won office thanks to an image as a down-to-earth man of the plain people, but he was a slaver who owned hundreds of human beings, raped with impunity and lived a life of luxury and excess. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who segregated federal offices and screened Birth Of A Nation in the White House. Stoller's hero, Wright Patman, consistently voted against civil rights legislation throughout his career, opposed the integration of public schools, and supported the war in Vietnam.

To his credit, Stoller doesn't hide this dark side of his protagonists, and he duly notes their sins (though I feel like he does excessively airbrush Jefferson). In Stoller's telling, though, these are unimportant or irrelevant details that should not distract us from the enlightened wisdom of their economic plans.

It cuts both ways, too. Walter Wriston is one of the main villains of the book, right up there with Mellon and Bork, a prime architect of the financial trickery that will lead the country to ruin. And yet, Stoller concedes, Wriston also marked a break from the past. In a previous chapter, Stoller lauded the chastened bankers of the 1950s: men who were timid, boring, unintelligent. Banking was a profession where you would stash the wealthy and underwhelming scion of a local magnate. This was also a field that was universally staffed by Anglo-Saxon protestant men. Wriston, as part of his hard-charging ways, broke the mold, gleefully hiring Catholics, Jews, blacks, women: he liked all talent, no matter where it came from or what it looked like. Stoller explicitly decries the idea of a meritocracy, but never really gets around to defending his alternative. Once again, the advancement of gender and racial inequality is treated as an unimportant distraction, not meaningful in the same way that economic power is.

Of course, we need to do all of the above: make an inclusive society, promote both economic and social justice. We talk all the time about how the moneyed class uses racial tensions to divide and conquer the working class, pointing to racial minorities as bogeymen to undercut labor solidarity. But racial unity can also be used to distract from issues of money; this is most pronounced in the modern Silicon Valley monopolies, where companies like Google and Facebook are strong champions for liberal social issues like gay rights and invest real money and influence in advancing those causes, but also use those liberal alliances as a smokescreen to shield their greed from scrutiny and regulation.

Given all the above, I found myself morosely asking a question throughout the book: Why does it seem to be so rare for a politician to have been good on both social and economic issues? In the real world, at the end of the day we're eventually casting a ballot each November, and all too often are confronted by a choice between, at best, a racist warmonger with a progressive and populist economic agenda, or a tolerant champion of freedom and equality who will turn a blind eye to the concentration of capital. Stoller doesn't attack this question head-on in the book; my current, weak theory is that most societies will only tolerate a limited amount of change in a given amount of time. You can plausibly move the needle on economic issues, or you can plausibly move the needle on social issues, but if you try to change both then you start being identified as a radical or revolutionary, and can't win the popular support required in a democratic society to implement those changes.

Which isn't to say that there haven't been people who have called for both, of course. The very first name that came to my mind, who I think is completely missing from this book, is Martin Luther King Jr., who famously saw the struggle for racial justice, for improving the lives of poor people, and for ending the imperialist war in Vietnam as inextricably linked. And, MLK was assassinated for it. Stoller seems much happier with Wright Patman compromising on racist legislation throughout his career so he could keep getting re-elected and pushing forward New Deal policies.

There might be some parallels to draw with intersectionality. Intersectionality seems to be helping the left be far more effective now than it was in the 1960s, at least on the social justice side, as we now have a vision of a shared struggle where an advancement by any group helps every group, unlike the factionalized orientation of the 60s and 70s that saw justice as a limited resource and correspondingly fought to determine who was most oppressed and needed attention at the expense of others. It feels to me, though, like we're lacking that sense of shared struggle between the economic left and the social left. At least in my media feed, there's at least as much criticism about "identity politics" coming from the populist economic left as there is from the entirety of the right. I think that the alliance between economic and social leftists will be critically important in the near future. A lot of this stuff got raised very explicitly in recent weeks when Joe Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders, which got a lot of people asking: Is it worth embracing someone with bigoted views if their support will help you achieve a bold economic agenda? To be fair, many victims of bigotry answered "Yes!" The intersection of economic populists and social liberals is a minority in the American population; the union of the two is a majority.

Throughout the book, Stoller implicitly denigrates the importance of gay rights, civil rights, racial rights, war and peace and so on, at the expense of economic justice. To be fair, this is a book about monopolies, so of course it's more interested in monopolies than it is about the civil rights movement. But it's an unfortunate consequence of the otherwise compelling decision to make this a personal book about real people and the real struggles they had, and makes it incredibly hard for me to get excited about the movements and people that he champions. I mean... having read the book, knowing everything that I know now about monopolism and the New Deal and the Watergate Babies and the Chicago School, if I was sent back in time to 1974, would I vote for Wright Patman? Hell no! Our country was responsible for over a million deaths in Vietnam, and for all the misery and injustice the return of monopolies has unleashed on America and the world, they still haven't murdered as many Americans and Asians as the policies enabled by Patman and his fellows.

This tension over Patman's legacy echoes similar tensions throughout the book. I think I (predictably) got off on the wrong foot with the very opening about the Hamilton/Jefferson struggle. I've been nursing an anti-Jefferson vendetta for over thirty years, and the pendulum has swung much more pro-Hamilton in the last few years, so overall I'm feeling much more charitable about pro-Jefferson, anti-Hamilton perspectives than when I was younger. Nonetheless, I'm still stunned that a wealthy plantation owner and slave-holder still gets lauded as the plain, common man of the people, while someone who was born into poverty and out of wedlock, who inherited no wealth, who repeatedly divested himself from lucrative opportunities for enrichment to dedicate himself to public service, still gets remembered as a figure of greed.

But, of course, Stoller doesn't generally care about personal biography, just about policy. Jefferson's hypocrisy doesn't bother him, and Hamilton's personal life doesn't interest him, just their respective policies. Which, fine, that's a fair perspective. That said, I got really upset and argumentative during the early chapters. Why was it bad for Hamilton to establish a bank, and good for Wilson to create one? Why was it bad for Hamilton to create new taxes, and good for Wilson to create new taxes? Why was industrialization bad when Hamilton was promoting manufacturing, and good when Wilson was building up pre-World War I arms manufacturing, or when FDR was pushing for more aluminum? Stoller is continuing a centuries-long tradition of painting Hamilton as the villain, the original satanic devil responsible for all subsequent ills in America, and it feels like he often takes Hamilton's badness for granted, seemingly arguing that a thing is bad because Hamilton supports it.

All right, those were the things I disliked about the book! Finally, here are some muddled thoughts-in-progress on how I'm applying the book to the present day.

I've been reflecting a little on how to define and present my own personal political beliefs. Part of that is the above discussion about progressivism versus liberalism. Goliath's discussion about the changing meaning of the word "Liberal" has been very helpful to me, tracing its origins from classical liberalism through its New Deal incarnation and forward into the neoliberalism of today; I really like FDR's definition quoted here on page 202-203:
Roosevelt called himself "a liberal." This did not mean, as classical liberalism had meant in much of the previous era, protecting the rights of industrial barons using the rhetoric of self-sufficiency. It meant moral leadership, the willingness to address a civilizational crisis by updating the machinery of governance. A liberal, Roosevelt said, broke from the past, but not too quickly to provoke violence.

The struggle between liberalism and progressivism is important, but the more important division in this book is between populism and elitism. Populists are almost invariably the heroes of this book: down-to-earth men and women, independent farmers and small shopkeepers, and the politicians allied with them. I'm slowly recognizing what I think is an anti-populist (and, thus, pro-elitist) bias on my part: to some extent that's due to the past association of populist movements with nativism and racism, but I think it's deeper than that. I wonder if part of it might date back to my childhood when I was tagged as "gifted and talented" in elementary school; I definitely went through a long period in my pre-adolescent and teenage years when I proudly thought and said stuff like "Most people are too dumb to vote correctly!" and "People who are smart deserve to be rewarded for it!"

These days my conscious thoughts are much more egalitarian, but I think I still have a knee-jerk aversion towards purely popular movements. I'm much more comfortable engaging with an intellectual "egghead" framework, tend to trust the words of credentialed experts over man-on-the-street anecdotes, and carry some deep-seated misgivings that populist movements will slide into demagoguery and chaos.

One big point that the book makes, over and over and over again, is that it is the elite, educated, credentialed intelligentsia that frequently and easily falls under the sway of business and moneyed power, and so is often the lever that enables economic chaos. Just because someone is smart does not mean that they are wise, and most people aren't as smart as they think. (Including me!) One particularly resonant era is the mid-70s, with the sea change of the Watergate Babies and Nader's Raiders. The dominant attitude of that time was "The system is terrible, we need to throw it all out and start all over again!" And... the system definitely had problems, but it did a lot of good, and those people didn't understand their history (or their present!) enough to recognize that they were throwing out their babies along with the bathwater. It's very easy to connect that with the present day, with the general sense of disgust and distrust at the system, that has enabled the rise of Donald Trump and drives our daily politics. It's tempting to say "Things can't possibly can't get worse," but yes, yes, they definitely can.

How do we solve this in the future? Taking on the monopolies in the 2020s may be harder than ever, and how to we ensure that our descendants won't return to worshiping golden idols? My initial thought is that, in addition to political policy, we need to focus on culture and media, creating art and stories that communicate the threat to future generations even when they don't face an imminent threat. But, that's kind of what we did before: there's a rich heritage of powerful political cartoons from the 1800s, novels by John Steinbeck, plays by Brecht; those have all endured as works of art, but don't seem to have helped at all as relevant expressions of alarm.

Democracy can sometimes seem like a failed system for confronting monopoly power, as monopolies can all too easily buy politicians, fund think tanks, and otherwise use their wealth and influence to subvert policy. But I don't think the answer is to eliminate democracy; I'm tempted to think of a mechanism like Prop 13 that both closes the gate and makes it incredibly hard to unlock in the future; but implementing unchangeable antimonopoly laws doesn't seem like the best approach, we want something that's resilient instead of rigid, that can be flexible enough to adapt and meet the challenge of future Walter Wristons who create the next financial risk that none of us have considered yet. It's important to be clear and steadfast in our principals, while still allowing our system to grow and evolve.

I dunno, it's hard! I think there's an innate human tendency for future generations to want to do their own thing, to discount the experience of their ancestors, to swing the pendulum in the other direction. And the capitalist side can afford to be very patient and relentless, spending decades lying low and laying the groundwork, and then suddenly seize a six-month opening when a chink appears in the antimonopoly armor.

One silver lining is that there is now a lot more interest and attention being paid to high-level economic policy: not just battling over what the top marginal tax rate should be or the relative importance of entitlement payments and military spending, but wonky discussions over tariffs and interest rates. I have to confess that my economic thinking is often driven by my political leanings and not the other way around. For example, I've spent most of the Trump presidency grousing about the low interest rates at the Federal Reserve: decrying the obvious political interference over economic policy, and worrying that the low rates are further inflating an already-stretched bubble, buying a few years of illusory good times that will just make the eventual reckoning and collapse far worse. Goliath, though, repeatedly presents low interest rates as good in their own right: they help independent farmers and small businesses borrow to survive rough patches or (reasonably) grow, help state and local governments provide essential services at reasonable cost, and put fewer dollars in the pockets of the banks. This reminded me of a recent congressional hearing where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned the Trump-aligned Jerome Powell over interest rates; where most Democrats lambasted the Fed's acquiescence to political power, AOC extracted an admission that low rates do help grow the economy, and probably should have been lower before and for a longer period of time. Anyways, this is all a reminder that I should check my knee-jerk tribalistic responses and think more carefully about the impact of underlying policies.

As a tangent to the above: Stoller does spend several (righteously furious) pages covering the 2008 collapse and the subsequent bailout, but doesn't specifically cover the slashing of interest rates and quantitative easing, and I am a little curious about his thoughts on that. Throughout the book, high interest rates are treated as bank-friendly (which makes sense, as every dollar of interest is a dollar going to Wall Street), so I assume that lower interest rates are bank-unfriendly. But that seems a little weird: if Mellonism is back and Wall Street controls both parties, then why are interest rates still so low? I'm not informed enough to answer, but I found myself wondering if this also might be related to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Now that all deposit-taking banks are also investment banks, they can profit from speculation in the stock market, and I suspect that the latter activity is a lot more profitable. One of the huge changes of the last 12 years has been the collapse of rates on personal savings (bank savings accounts, Treasury bills, etc.), which has led to a massive migration into the stock market (abetted by the GWB capital gain tax cuts), which has supercharged and probably inflated the market. As always, Wall Street profits enormously from this expansion, and will pay little or no price when it collapses. So, on balance, maybe they're fine with low interest rates, so long as they still get to capture the savings dollars that are now going elsewhere.

Much like the Federal Reserve, I was surprised that the book makes positive references to the Tea Party, noting their billionaire backing but also casting them as channeling genuine populist disgust at the banks. That kind of caught me off guard; in my memory, the Tea Party gained steam in response to the bailout of the auto industry, not bailing out the banks. But, based on my light research since then, I was incorrect: the immediate impetus behind the rise of the Tea Party was, in fact, the Bush/Obama bank bailout.

The end of the book segues directly into today and feels very relevant to the 2020 race, not least because Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren get cameos in the closing pages. Warren comes off particularly well as a rare, effective champion of reform, and is specifically thanked in the (long!) acknowledgements; Sanders gets a much briefer but still positive reference for running a populist Presidential campaign in 2016 that resurrects the forgotten promises of the New Deal.

One immediate impact of the book has been prompting me to re-think some contemporary monopoly-related topics. Over the past year, Warren has been a particularly vocal trust-buster, with "break them up!" as her go-to solution to the bad actions of Silicon Valley tech giants. In the past I've appreciated the sentiment but haven't been particularly enthusiastic; there are a lot of different tools at our disposal, in addition to breaking up companies. For example, I would love to nationalize the monopolistic Internet telco providers like Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T: I think we should run them at cost, for the benefit of the public, while ensuring access to all Americans, just like we do with the Postal Service and physical mail. In the past I've said that I don't see much benefit to seeing a lot of smaller Facebooks, but I do think that Mark Zuckerberg should be in prison, and probably Sheryl Sandberg too.

After reading Goliath, though, I do see the logic in breaking up companies like these, instead of nationalizing them or replacing bad actors at the helm. Social media is a particularly compelling case: having a wide variety of competing social media sites would do enormous good in diminishing the power of echo chambers, making our elections less vulnerable to internal manipulation and foreign interference, and limiting the spread of viral falsehoods. Managed competition could work very well in that industry. And ISPs might work better as smaller utilities rather than a federal agency, returning to state-level regulation of smaller and mid-sized providers; we definitely need more regulation there, not just managed competition (it's wasteful to run duplicate wires to the same dwellings), but keeping these entities small would reduce the risk of future consolidation and too-big-to-fail abuse.

Along the same lines, I've been thinking a lot about what we should do with PG&E here in California. I've been a big advocate of having the state of California take it over, and have preferred that approach over alternative proposals to split it up into municipal or smaller private power companies. I think that, like many of the eggheads in Goliath, I tend to view larger companies as being more efficient and productive; the cautionary message of the book, though, is that large entities can be inherently dangerous. In the future, a statewide PG&E could more easily be re-privatized and return to unduly influencing our elections (PG&E had a terrible record of using ratepayer money to fund ballot initiatives that helped the business and harmed the state). Keeping smaller (hopefully publicly-owned but maybe not) utilities might result in slightly higher rates than a unified statewide utility would, but it might also be more responsive to the needs of the diverse communities (rural and heavily forested regions have substantially different risks than densely urban environments), and even a private company might ultimately lead to a genuine sense of service and partnership with the community, rather than overseeing an empire to extract profits from.

The biggest topic in the Democratic primary thus far has been Medicare For All. Stoller doesn't really talk about health care in the book, other than briefly describing the merger wave that consolidated hospitals. This is another topic where I'm curious about his thoughts on the single-payer debate, given his monopoly-oriented perspective. On the surface, it seems like he would be opposed, and would prefer having multiple insurance companies competing against each other, rather than a single, centralized, command-oriented federal payer. Or maybe single payer would be fine, but he would prefer multiple providers, more like the Canadian system than Britain's NHS.

Other people have written about how the healthcare market is different from other markets, particularly when it comes to cost. Historically, having fewer insurers has been more effective at keeping costs down, as hospitals need to agree to limited payments in order to retain their customers; when there are many weak insurers, it is easier for hospitals to play them off against one another and extract higher prices. I'm curious whether health insurance is a specialized one-off case that breaks from the "big is bad" rule, or whether it follows the same principles that consolidation is bad.

Anyways, happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 07, 2020

Political Power Grows Out Of The Barrel Of A Blog

Hey-hey, it's 2020 let's vote! As usual California is making it easy to do so, with an all-vote-by-mail primary. There's a lot of attention on this election: it's a big presidential one with a competitive Democratic primary, and, unlike many other years, California is participating in Super Tuesday, so our votes may actually matter for once.



I am a little curious about how this race will play out. Many of the candidates printed on my ballot have already officially dropped out of the race, and many Californians will vote before results in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina (and, heck, maybe even Iowa!) are known. Depending on how early folks mail in their ballots, people who have dropped out and endorsed other candidates may still end up with a not-insignificant number of votes. And of course California's generous election rules (ballots only need to be postmarked by Election Day and will still count even if received a week later) may make it hard for people to determine who "won" California.

But, that's what makes this all exciting!

Without further ado, here's who I'm voting for.

President: Elizabeth Warren

I've been kind of obsessing over this race for years; but filling out this ballot is a gentle reminder that my vote in other races matters far more. More than five million California Democrats will be weighing in on who should lead our country in Washington, DC; just a few thousand will be deciding who should set the policies that impact our daily lives far closer to home.

I'll cheerfully support any nominee to come out of the primary heading into the general election. I think that Bernie Sanders has it right: we need to stop thinking of politics as something that happens once every four years. Instead, we need a continually engaged public movement applying constant pressure through the political system in order to achieve meaningful change. The good news is that, while some candidates will head into that office with better policies than others, every one of them will be vastly more receptive to public pressure to do the right things. We'll just need to work harder on some of them than others... but that's what democracy is all about, and we need to recognize that the ball is in our court.

Country Committee: Nick Akers, Ashleigh Evans, Sandra Lang, and David Burruto

14th Congressional District: Jackie Speier

I've been increasingly impressed at her performance in recent years. The Bay Area has a stellar congressional delegation, and Speier doesn't seem as visible as members like Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Eric Swalwell, Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee or Nancy Pelosi. But Jackie has been a great voice in the #MeToo era, and I'm proud to have her representing me on Capitol Hill.

13th Senate District: Sally Lieber

An actual competitive race for once! I spent longer researching this than all other items put together (though still just a fraction of the attention I've paid to the presidential race, of course!). There are lot of good options here. I'm voting for Sally Lieber, who has a bold vision that includes implementing a single-payer healthcare system in California. She has previously served in the Assembly and delivered big wins like a minimum-wage increase, so I think she'll be able to hit the ground running in the state Senate. And it's hella cool that she's picked up the local DSA endorsement!

22nd Assembly District: Kevin Mullin

1st District Board of Supervisors: Dave Pine

Prop 13 ($15B bonds for school construction): No

Ever since reading Capital in the 21st Century I've grown even more bearish on the government borrowing money to fund projects: it accelerates inequality by taxing the population and paying interest to the already-wealthy people buying muni bonds. We badly need to return to a system where we (gasp) tax ourselves and (gasp!) spend the money on things that need to be done. Unfortunately, California's past idiocy has made the more frugal and moral tax-and-spend vastly more difficult than the wasteful and immoral borrow-and-spend. Still, we need to stop this sometime, and I'm starting now.

Measure L ($385M bonds for school upgrades): No

See above. We need to repeal all of Prop 13, not least the asinine requirement for a 2/3 vote for local taxes. Bonds are Bad, Taxes are Terrific!

Now, let's grade me on how well I voted last time:

I grudgingly approve of the job Gavan Newsom is doing. I'll probably never admire him the same way I did Jerry Brown, but he's been more forceful than his predecessor on some important issues. I'm particularly excited by the pressure he's currently applying to PG&E, and am dreaming of a world where the people literally take back their power.

Xavier Becerra is killing it, too. Most of the headlines related to him are the "California Sues Trump!!" variety, but he's no showboat, and is working hard on local issues and implementations of law. I recently heard a great interview about how his office is gearing up to crack down on CCPA violations, and he's coming out swinging against Uber and Postmates in defense of AB 5. He's also using his office to slow or block the controversial selling of the .org top-level domain registry to a greedy private equity firm. More of this, please!

On a more sour note, I'm regretting my support of Feinstein over Kevin de Leon. She isn't terrible, but she's far from the best our state has to offer. I am glad to have Kamala Harris representing us, and look forward to a newer, more responsive generation of leadership.

I'm thrilled that Prop 6 failed! I think that really helps show how much smarter and better Californians are today than they were in the 70s: There was literally a ballot measure that asked "Do you want to lower your taxes?" and people voted "No" en masse. It gives me enormous hope for the future.

The Measure II failure kills me. 62% of residents voted to support it, and it still failed! We need to repeal Prop 13 yesterday. It is good to see that the city council is still moving forward and identifying funding, but geez, this dumb state.

And I'm correspondingly thrilled that Measure W passed. It needed 66.67%, and got 66.87%! This dumb state, but this great county, I'm proud of you. I've already seen first-hand some of the great improvements this has enabled: electric buses, the return of the ECR Rapid express service, and the return of the airport shuttle. Those last two services were eliminated during the 2008 recession, which blew up the county's asinine insistence on funding transportation solely through their general revenue services (see also: their shameful treatment of BART). As noted before on this blog, in an ideal world I would prefer progressive funding over a regressive sales tax, but sales tax revenues are far more predictable and less volatile than those based on Silicon Valley profit-sharing, and until we have a better system for smoothing out the spending from progressive income (or wealth!) taxes over many years, I'm glad that we'll have a solid sales tax to rely on.

That's that! On the whole I feel pretty happy with how things turned out in 2018, let's keep this party going!

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Take Me To Funkytown

I'm really getting into Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It's one of those rare, special games that opens up entire new dimensions of gameplay as you get further along, somewhat like Mask of the Betrayer. I'm now close to the end of Chapter 2 and so have gotten to see the other part of the "Kingmaker" title, actually building a kingdom, in addition to completing the next major plot arc of the game. I'm liking it more and more, and even many of the specific gripes I had about Chapter 1 have now gotten better.


I complained a lot about weight: it feels micro-manage-y, and your early companions' builds seem particularly designed to make weight as painful as possible (Valeria being unable to carry her own equipment, and people like Linzi are min/maxed with STR as a dump stat, penalizing the whole party's carry capacity). But, one of the best things about the start of Chapter 2 is that you can buy a Bag of Holding (and a second Small Bag of Holding comes later in the chapter), which helps immensely with your quality of life. They're implemented in a very clever way, too: I was expecting something like the old-school Baldur's Gate bags, where you have to manually open them and slot items in and basically have limited slots but unlimited weight. In P:K, it's a lot simpler: they're just ordinary inventory items, but with a negative weight. A regular Bag of Holding weighs -200 lbs, so once you have one, your party can haul up to 200lbs of stuff and still act as if you aren't carrying anything. This makes going on quests a LOT more enjoyable, as you can effectively start at 0 and then gradually pick up more loot before you're forced to return to a store to liquidate it.


Even the insanely heavy Rations items become more feasible once you have a Bag of Holding: 6 rations weighs 60 lbs, which is a lot but can be totally covered with a single Bag. And, thanks to the importance of passing time in this game, they start to make a lot more sense in the second chapter. You do periodically need to rest in order to refresh your spells, remove exhaustion and perhaps heal. You can rest for free without using any Rations, but it may take 20 or more hours to successfully hunt the food you need and rest. Or, you can have a complete rest in just 9 hours, at the cost of consuming rations (and the gold they required to buy, and the weight they demanded you to carry). This turns into a classic tradeoff: purchasing rations will let you complete your quest and return to the capital more quickly; you will profit a little less from the quest, but you may be able to make up that cost by doing more quests in the time you (eventually) save. And even the weight becomes less of an issue once you start to plan your expeditions. You'll be collecting loot gradually as you progress through your quest, while periodically consuming rations, so your total weight may not change that much. I'm starting to view this as an interesting part of planning: anticipating how often I'll want to rest for a given expedition from the Capital, and bringing along enough rations to support that timeline.


I think I've now set a pretty good cadence. This isn't explained very well in the in-game UI, but the best overall approach seems to be to appoint a Hunter and to check the "Use Rations" option. This way you'll still typically collect ~2-5 rations and be able to do a 9-hour rest.  Even better: if you've used a Region Project to expand the borders of your Kingdom, your Player Character can use their Special resting ability to collect free rations from the populace! At this point, Resting becomes trivial: there's no need to Hunt, so you can just focus on the Meal and have the rest of your party do double-duty on Camouflage or whatever else you need.


I'm really digging the kingdom management stuff in general. It's a lot more game-y than I expected, in a really good way. I'm used to stronghold management in an RPG generally being a particularly complex and well-crafted dialogue tree, with various choices to spend money and get intangible results. P:K, though, has its own separate system and game mode with unique views, including city planing (an ultra-simple version of Sim City), strategic maps for planning settlements, a sort of clearinghouse Events and Projects view that allows you to view ongoing and potential endeavors in parallel, and so on. This is a Pathfinder game, so most things still come down to a D20: Solving a Problem will require you to match the Difficulty rating of that particular problem, and you can gain bonuses based on your advisor's stats (say, Amiri's Strength as the General or Valerie's Charisma as the Regent); your Kingdom ranking based on prior investments and accomplishments (an Economy rating of II will grant a +4 on all future tasks performed by your Treasurer); some miscellaneous improvements you can make (a +2 to all challenges in a region from putting up a Bulletin Board attracting adventurers, or a +1 to all Military challenges due to selecting ambitious recruits); and even consumables, reservoirs of goodwill from previous advancements that you can strategically spend to give a bonus to your dice roll. There are equivalents of "Crits" (exceeding the DC by a large amount to get a particularly beneficial outcome) and "Fumbles" (failing it by a correspondingly large amount and actively hurting your barony). Anyways, it's all very fun, both congruent to and distinct from the other D20s you roll while slaying trolls.


That said, as with the more traditional systems in the game, I do wish that the game more clearly described how these systems work. One major example: The game does warn you early on that, if any of your kingdom stats drop below 0, it will cause unrest and make your rulership more difficult. So, you naturally keep an eye on, say, your Economy and your Loyalty and so on and try to keep them positive. But, what the game doesn't say is that your BP (Build Points) also count as a kingdom stat. You can't ordinarily spend them to negative amounts, but certain throne room events will auto-deduct a fixed amount of BP. This can put you in the negative without even realizing it. And worst of all, this can lead your kingdom into a death spiral: insatibility causes a malus on all Kingdom challenges, so you may end up failing previously-scheduled Problems that you thought were under control. Those disasters can further lower kingdom stats, plunging you deeper into stability and worse penalties, and so on. Fortunately I only lost about a day of in-game time before I realized what was going on and was able to reload a prior save (I have around 50 separate saves by this point), but it's the sort of situation that could have caused me to rage-quit otherwise.


I'm still coming to grips with the risks and tradeoffs in the kingdom management system. One common quandry is whether to start a long-running Project, which might tie up an important advisor for 30-60 days and leave him or her unable to respond to more urgent Problems that arise in the meantime. And the most important projects in Kingdom Management (annexing new realms, advancing your barony's rankings) require your personal attention for two whole weeks; more problems can crop up during this time, not just in the kingdom management interface, but out in the real world of adventuring and dungeons, too.


Your quests feed into the kingdom management: you might recruit a new party member who then becomes an key advisor, or encounter a traveler on the road who pleads for you to start a new project to repair a bridge. And it's particularly fun when your kingdom management feeds back into the quests: you can decide where to found a new settlement, and then it will show up THERE, on the OVERWORLD MAP. And if you decided to build a Temple there, why, then you can visit the Cleric and purchase healing scrolls; if there is a Shop, you can visit the trader and sell off all your damn heavy loot. I find myself mulling over these considerations now as my dominion expands: where do I, selfishly, want this outpost to be located to best support my future excursions as a chief executive with a careless disregard for her personal safety?


That said, I have felt a little conflicted about the way the game treats me as a ruler. It's slightly disconcerting to walk into your capital for the first time and be greeted by your minions, bowing and scraping before you, calling out "Your Grace!" It's probably because I've been immersing myself in social-democratic writing recently, but my immediate reaction is "Ew! Down with autocracy!" I find myself wishing that the game would let me organize my "barony" as an anarchist utopia. But... I'm Lawful Neutral! Not Chaotic Good! Argh!

MINI SPOILERS

My party is a lot bigger now, and more flexible too. In my previous post I talked about wanting to respec Linzi, but now I think I'll probably just fill her slot with another person on the team. I now have multiple options for tanking, damaging, supporting, spellcasting, and so on, giving me plenty of options in pulling a gang together.


I even went so far as to spend real-world money to build my party! PK has a few DLC, including a couple of free ones and some paid ones. I sprang for the Wildcards DLC and have been happy with the purchase. My immediate motivation was to acquire a Treasurer, as that's the one advisor slot that's empty at the start of Chapter 2. In retrospect that was a poor reason; the standard treasurer is actually a lot easier to recruit (just 1 space away from your Capital, versus a medium-length expedition into a mountain range), and his higher INT stat makes him perform better than Kanerah. But I'm still enjoying it immensely; the storyline is really cool, with some really unique mechanics above and beyond the Kineticist class that makes her really interesting to include in my party. It opens up some additional side quests that I'm still working through that are adding some more fun flavor to the game.


I like how this game gently encourages you to use the new party members, without forcing them on you. It's a well-known problem in RPG design, where most players will just stick with the initial party they receive and not try all the cool new people who arrive later on: you've already learned how to roll with the original team, and it doesn't feel worthwhile to switch it up. In P:K, you usually get the option for a new character to join your party immediately; but you don't have to take them, and can send them to your capital instead. The new members have personal quests that bring you to the same place you need to go for the main chapter story quest; you don't have to bring them with you, but it feels efficient to do so, getting to knock off four quests for the cost of one.


My party to the troll hideout ended up being:
  • Valerie, again, who is hands-down the best tank in the game (as you would expect from a Tower Shield Specialist!).
  • Harrim the cleric, who is probably the best off-tank. He can wear heavy armor and a heavy shield, with some racial bonuses to movement. I've built him as more of a buffer than a healer, so he ends up kind of filling the role Jaethal played in Chapter 1.
  • Ekundayo the ranger. His pet Wolf is another front-line fighter, not nearly as survivable as Valerie but able to plug up the front and protect the rear row. Ekundayo shoots lots of arrows, very fast, and with great accuracy. I guess he's a little like Amiri in terms of being focused on raw damage output, though he lives a lot more! It's cool to have an archer with high STR, and he puts my various Composite bows to great use.
  • Jubilost the alchemist. His acid bombs were key to dispelling the troll menace. I've taken the "Extra Potions" feat a few times, granting him a ton of them to use; he'll also attack with a crossbow at times, but I rarely need to worry about running out of bombs.
  • Guchok, my player character Bard, still mostly focuses on buffing the party, and contributing some damage with her own bow and arrow. I've recently unlocked some more compelling debuff songs that I should play around with, I'm curious how they compare to the normal Competence-boosting ones. 
  • Octavia returns as my spellcaster-and-thief. I've now officially combined the roles and made her an Arcane Trickster. She mostly focuses on direct-damage spells, both single-target and AOE, leaving the arcane buffs to Guchok and others. She can also push out a lot of physical damage with her Hurricane Bow. I liked her combat a lot more once I learned the trick to making her default to using her crossbow instead of Acid Split (set a damaging ability with limited uses, like Telekinetic Fist, to her auto-attack, and then she'll fall back to using her weapon once they're exhausted).

That was a pretty good loadout; Harrim is on the weak side as a healer, but Guchok can fill in the gap, and by this point I was carrying around about 20 pounds of healing potions and another 10 points of healing scrolls, so it actually felt good to use those consumables when needed and lighten the load.


In my journeys since then, I've continued to adjust my party, prioritizing any active companion quests and filling in the remaining slots with people to balance out our roles or just add some personalities I like. I think that my all-purpose go-to party for the near future will look like:
  • Valerie, as before. She's recently picked up some levels that decrease the Tower Shield penalties, making her more effective.
  • Amiri. She hits like a tank and absolutely shreds opponents, even more so while raging.
  • Jaethal. She's surprisingly tanky, has great buffs for the party and herself, and does good damage. These three front-liners also share many Teamwork Feats; I'll often keep them focused on the same opponent, but even without spreading their targets they form a solid line and protect my rear.
  • Guchok sings.
  • Tristian doesn't contribute a whole lot during combat, but has a lot of great buffs for the pre-fight, and practically unlimited heals for the post-fight. He knows great cures and situation-specific buffs, but it's hard to know in advance which will be useful.
  • Octavia continues being a great offensive mage and reliable ranged fighter. I've spread her memorization across a range of types (single-target, DOT, AOE) and elements (fire, acid, cold, electricity), so she'll typically have something for almost any situation.

I am still feeling some mild aggravation at not being able to anticipate obstacles, particularly with characters like Tristian and Octavia that use Vancian magic which requires you to memorize specific spells while resting before encounters. As one example, when you visit an island in the middle of a lake, you will find a ton of Wisps. They can be deadly, but get a lot easier with Protection from Electricity (Communal). Tristian knows that spell, but never bothers to have it memorized, since he has precious few slots and nobody else in the game uses electrical attacks. And, to the best of my knowledge, there's nothing in the game letting you know to expect wisps prior to you arriving on the island. So, you to go the island, fight a little, experience a near TPK with multiple Death's Doors, reload a saved game, swap out your spells, rest, then visit the island again. Which, I mean, it's fine, but it's really clunky. It feels like very old-school, late-90s/early-2000s RPG design. Which might be good for many people! It's just not something I enjoy these days. It feels way more rewarding for me to adjust and respond to overcome a challenge, rather than relying on the meta-magic of Save and Reload.


Let's talk plot!

MEGA SPOILERS

So: I've been playing a Lawful Neutral character. I've been very focused on eradicating the Troll menace from my lands, hunting them down and tracking their lair. This situation got considerably more complicated when I met Bartholomew Delgado, a reclusive (but surprisingly friendly) mage. It turned out that he has been carrying out research on trolls, having captured a specimen and running experiments on him. This is slightly grisly, but I was even more disturbed to find that this specimen was capable of speech and demanding release. I'd thought that trolls were part of the general mass of anonymous monsters, and hadn't realized that they were sentient beings.


This led to a tricky and tense situation, particularly as Octavia, my ostensible (co-?) girlfriend emphatically demanded his release. But, I mean, every single other troll I'd encountered had attacked without provocation, and I felt a responsibility to my citizens, so I reluctantly backed Delgado's research.

I felt even worse about this after finally arriving at the troll stronghold, where right off the bat you're greeted by a friendly and loquacious troll named Jazon. I was nervous but delighted to get to use my [Diplomacy] to secure an audience with the troll leader. That's right: there is a King of the Trolls, who, it turned out, had founded a new society and government, with the aim of establishing a sovereign Troll state that can exist alongside Human ones.


Which is all pretty fascinating! I mulled over the prospect, eventually deciding that I saw the value in forging peace with these creatures. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be in the cards: the king is under the sway of Tartuk, the reincarnated kobold leader, and the two will attack you no matter what. I eventually defeated them and the troll threat. It was fun, and felt like a big, weighty, challenging achievement, but I am still left with some nagging worry that I might have done a genocide. I don't think that the game has a peaceful way out of this, though.


END SPOILERS

I seem to now be in a period of respite. There's a sort of clock ticking down in my journal to the next major event, giving me about two months of in-game time to bum around and do stuff: explore the map, claim resources, clear zones, and, best of all, do some Kingdom Management! I'm still trying to find the right balance between doing Kingdom things and doing questing things. I think questing stuff will be the most important overall, as it's the only way to get XP and Gold; Gold can always be turned into BP, but BP can't be converted back into Gold. And the items and levels I gain can help increase my advisors' stats for better Kingdom actions, but Kingdom actions have (at least so far) only a nominal impact on your questing ability.


So, yeah, this game is really fun! I find myself thinking about it a lot even between sessions, which hasn't happened with a game for quite a while. There are lots of really complex systems that interlock in interesting ways, and now that I'm getting a handle on those systems, I'm finding it especially compelling.

Monday, February 03, 2020

My Favorite RPGs

So I've been playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and liking it more and more the further along I get. I've started mentally sorting it - "Definitely better than Pillars of Eternity. Is it better than Shadowrun: Hong Kong, though? How would you even compare a massive, crunchy, 100+ hours FRPG with a svelte, modern, streamlined 20-hour cyberpunk RPG?" And it occurred to me that, hey, maybe I should just go ahead and rank ALL THE RPGs!

More specifically, this is a belated list of my favorite RPGs of the 2010s. I came up with this list by reviewing all my blog posts with the "rpg" tag, published between January 1 2010 and December 31 2019. Some of them are arguably not RPGs, but I don't feel like re-tagging my post history. Items in [brackets] were released prior to 2010 but first played by me in this decade. (I have also bracketed Remastered/Enhanced versions of games I played in previous decades.) Items with stars* are games that I wrote one or more blog post about but never finished. And, I'm not listing games that I played but never blogged about, including the first two Witcher games. In most cases I included DLCs and remasters with the original games, except I have split out the various Neverwinter Nights expansions into separate entries.

This is a straightforward "What I enjoyed the most" list, as opposed to the more forceful and controversial "best" or "most influential" lists. As with previous lists of this type, I'm basing this on my current feelings in 2020, and not how much I loved a game at the time that I played it.

Without further ado, here are My Favorite RPGs of the 2010s!
  1. Dragon Age: Inquisition
  2. Fallout: New Vegas
  3. Divinity: Original Sin 2
  4. Shadowrun: Dragonfall
  5. The Witcher 3
  6. Sil
  7. [Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines
  8. [Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer]
  9. Siege of Dragonspear
  10. Shadowrun: Hong Kong 
  11. Mass Effect 3
  12. Sunless Skies
  13. [Fallen London]
  14. Dragon Age 2
  15. South Park: The Stick of Truth
  16. [Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition]
  17. Dex
  18. Lord of the Rings Online
  19. [Neverwinter Nights 2]
  20. [Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition]
  21. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  22. Torment: Tides of Numenara
  23. Pillars of Eternity
  24. [Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark]
  25. Wasteland 2*
  26. Shadowrun Returns (Dead Man's Switch)
  27. Mass Effect Andromeda
  28. [Fallout 3]
  29. Divinity: Original Sin*
  30. [BioShock]
  31. [Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide]
  32.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  33.  BioShock 2
  34.  Star Wars: The Old Republic
  35.  [Neverwinter Nights]

I do like RPGs a lot! Even the games near the bottom gave me a lot of pleasure. For example, I still have very fond memories of the Imperial Agent storyline in SWTOR; in that case, my memories of grind diminish it somewhat, but I still have no regrets about playing it.

I'm still in progress on Pathfinder: Kingmaker, obviously, but at the moment I think I would slot it at #5, between Dragonfall and The Witcher 3. Yes, I'm liking it that much!

Friday, January 24, 2020

Let Me Shake Your Hand!

I've reached the end of the first chapter of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, which seems like a fine time to check in on my progress!


Speaking of time: As noted in my inaugural post, I'm mostly pleased with how the time system works in this game. There's a time limit of 90 days (I think) to complete the first chapter, and I accomplished the main task with 46 days remaining. So it's definitely on the generous side, while its mere existence solves the "problem" of just resting to full health after each and every fight. This was a decently completionist playthrough, too... I think I had visited every area accessible through the fog, and had cleared all but two maps, both of which had extremely high-level enemies.


I'll start out with a bunch of random petty complaints:

Speaking of those two maps: I strongly suspect that P:K will be a lot like BG in that it would be more enjoyable to replay than to play the first time. On the one hand, it's fun to explore new areas and not know what to expect; on the other hand, it's extremely un-fun to be ambushed by a bunch of invisible wererats and annihilated without being able to respond. These sorts of encounters can only be solved with meta-knowledge that you, not your character, possess: that this one particular map, unlike all the other maps around it, is an especially high-level challenge and you need to come back later. As a player, all you can do is reload a previous save game and leave; as a character, all you can do is die.


I really enjoy the idea behind camping and cooking, making its own system with resources and trade-offs, but there are tons of mechanical and lore aspects of it that irritate me. For starters, camping is by far the biggest time-sink in the game, with most of that coming from hunting. Which... if I'm cooking a recipe that's consuming a slab of beef AND a bag of flour AND a bag of rice, why am I also hunting deer for 20 hours? I'd expect to either hunt (more time but less resources) or use recipe ingredients (more resources and less time), not both.

Instead, if you want to skip the huge time devoted to hunting, you need to use camping supplies. These are ridiculously heavy! For a while I was carrying one for each party member, and it was more than half of the total weight carried by my party, at a whopping ten pounds per person. I think that I finally get the purpose of this - it's so you can rest while inside a dungeon, without returning to the overworld map for hunting - but ye gods, the weight is absolutely terrible. I finally stopped carrying the supplies and am glad I did, they aren't remotely worth the encumbrance.

In general, I'd like to be able to:
  1. Store all my cooking supplies in my shared storage back at base.
  2. Look at my known recipes.
  3. Decide what dish(es) I'm going to make.
  4. Take those ingredients with me.
  5. Leave everything else back at base.
Except... as far as I can tell, there's no way for you to view your recipes unless you're actively camping. And you can't bring up the camping UI while you're in your base. So, you don't know what food items you need to bring with you. And so you end up lugging around a bunch of heavy food that's useless because you don't know any recipes that require it. (I think this will get better once I have enough recipes and raw supplies to, say, just bring along 15x meat and potatoes and flour to bake a bunch of shepherds' pies; but in the current game, where I know about six recipes and have 3-4 each of like 15 different ingredients, I don't have that luxury.)


And speaking of weight: I'm a little baffled why the game has a whole system around using Lore (Nature) to skin wild animals for their pelts, when those pelts turn out to be totally useless. They aren't used in anything or for anything, and are only valuable to sell; but their price-per-pound ratio is some of the worst in the entire game.  Likewise you can pick up bottles of wine and mead and stuff that seem like they must be useful, but nope: They're just practically-worthless vendor trash.

The user interface definitely isn't the worst I've used, but also isn't the most helpful. I didn't realize until reaching Level 3 that my PC's cantrips weren't appearing on my quick-bar to cast. It took me an embarassingly long time to figure out how to assign them. Likewise, I didn't realize until even later that my mage had more memorization slots after leveling up that she hadn't yet filled: new spells are automatically memorized into slots, while newer slots for older levels just hide way back in your Spellcasting screen until you go hunting for them. Anyways, it's all fine once you know where things are, but it doesn't seem super-learnable in-game, compared to other RPGs I've played that have more detailed tutorials or friendly-nag prompts.

Economy-wise, I'm experiencing my standard generalized paralysis of whether stuff is worth buying or whether I should be hoarding my gold; I'm now up to around 10,000 gold pieces and haven't bought anything interesting. There's, like, a +2 belt of Strength for 2,000 gold; that sounds good, but will I be seeing +4 belts in Chapter 2? Will I find more free belts while questing? I just don't know!

Finally: it's a tiny interface thing, but I really with that you could use your numpad to select dialogue responses, instead of needing to use the mouse or the top row of number keys. I've gotten used to driving conversations through the numpad in the Shadowrun games, and Divinity games, and the Dragon Age games, and pretty much every other PC RPG with branching dialogue, and it feels weird to be playing a game without it.


Okay, with random pettiness out of the way, let's move on to random compliments!


In my first post I'd noted that the maps in this game feel small. I'd wondered if that was an engine limitation, but nope, I see now that they're capable of being very large, indeed! Old Sycamore is probably my favorite area in the game so far and has great design. Each individual level is big and varied and filled of interesting stuff and routes; and the system as a whole is cool and nicely interconnected. It reminded me slightly of the Nashkel Mines, for giving me the sense of venturing into a proper dungeon for the first time after wandering the surface for weeks. At the same time, after experiencing Old Sycamore I'm glad that most other maps are on the small side. In my opinion, the density is what's important, having interesting and worthwhile stuff accessible, and there doesn't seem to be much useless padding in this game. A typical map might have one big fight against a tough opponent, a treasure cache, and a hidden secret with some more treasure, and that's it. You don't need to wander for long to confirm that you're done before moving on.


The maps are pretty, and good, though in my opinion a notable step down from Divinity: Original Sin 2. The first thing I notice is much less verticality: the terrain is three-dimensional, with rolling hills and occasional cliffs and chasms, but that's really just important for pathing and choke-points, there isn't an advantage to being on higher ground. That isn't necessarily a problem in this game; I loved the combat in DOS2 but the arenas did feel contrived sometimes ("Here's another ladder climbing 50 feet up into a tree!"). Where DOS2 combat was very tactical and focused on fine positioning and sequencing of actions, P:K combat feels more strategic: it's about resources and focused targets, is very forgiving about line-of-sight and positioning. One of the best examples might be how sneak attacks are handled: other RPGs will require you to move a rogue into a spot directly behind a foe and unleash a melee attack with a specialized weapon in order to get a sneak attack bonus. P:K's requirements are far simpler: if you have the sneak attack skill, and are "flanking" an opponent, you get the bonus. All that is required to "flank" an opponent is for at least two party members to be in melee range of the target. This makes good intuitive sense: if a foe is distracted by the big scary tank in front of them, you'll have an opening to slip a shiv through their armor. But it also opens up some really interesting scenarios: now you can sneak attack with projectiles, or even spells, letting you build proper rogues that don't need to directly expose their bodies.


Speaking of rogues: I'm planning on resetting at least a couple of my party members, and rogues are the main reason why. One thing I didn't fully grok until recently is that thief and rogue are two pretty distinct roles in this game. You do need a thief, someone who can pick locks and disarm traps. But that person does not need to be a rogue! Your rogue class is all about your combat skills, the sneak attacks and so forth. Your thief role is all about your Trickery ability, which is open to every class; it is improved by your DEX, so there is synergy with Rogue, but it's definitely not necessary. I do like this trend in RPGs of separating out combat and non-combat skills to different progressions, somewhat like the Inquisition Perks in DAI or like skills in Pillars Of Eternity, though the ability system in P:K makes more sense to me than the skill system in PoE did.


At a high level, I'm really digging the party composition so far. I'm guessing the order of recruitment varies depending on the initial choices you make during the prologue, but in my game, the first three companions after the prologue were all women, and five of the first six recruits were as well. This has been a really nice change of pace from DAI and PoE, which were both 2/3 male. There's some fun subversion of stereotypes here, too: your tank and your heavy hitters are women, while the first (and so far the only) healer is a man. You have a ton of flexibility in how you grow your party, which I think helps you pick companions at least somewhat based on their personality and then level them up to fit your party: you're stuck with their alignment and initial stat choices, but otherwise can choose any legal class each time they level and have total control over their skill progression. There are three free respecs, and more respecs at a cost after, so once I'm confident I've recruited most of my party and have a handle on combat synergies I think I'll go back and redo a few of my favorite characters so there's less overlap and more capabilities in my party loadout.


Those characters themselves are good. The "Getting to know you" conversations with companions back at your base can feel a little wall-of-text-y, and tend to feel more like lore dumps of the world than personal anecdotes from a person. The dialogue usually sounds like "I'm X, I'm a citizen of nation Y, I come from city Z, I worship god A [APPROVE/DISAPPROVE?!], I belong to faction B", etc., etc. It's very exposition-focused and doesn't feel directly relevant to my immediate circumstances or quests, so I end up just kind of glazing over.

That said, the characters are a lot more fun pretty much everywhere else. They aren't super-chatty in most dialogue, but will occasionally jump in when you're facing a decision that they feel very invested in. As I noted before, they have wonderful banter in the camping interface whenever you rest. I've recently been pleased to see that they can also appear in the storybook segments (which I think is just flavor, but very welcome flavor!)


The voiceovers seem kind of inconsistent. Some companions are pretty much fully voiced, with all lines read out in full. Others aren't voiced at all, except for their fireside banters. Some (apparently) minor NPCs get voice acting, while (apparently) more important ones do not. The quality varies a bit from person to person, and in one or two cases it sounds like someone may not have great microphone equipment or technique, but everyone is pretty good, and I don't generally find myself skipping past spoken lines.


I'm starting to hit some of the very early romance content, and, well, I'm glad that this game has romance! So far it feels a bit on-the-nose, with both your dialogue prompts and your companions' responses sounding extremely flowery and over-the-top. But I shouldn't complain, I'm just happy for it to be here!


I don't have much plot stuff to share yet, but some minor characters to chat about, so let's visit

MINI SPOILERS

Speaking of romance: so far I'm flirting with Octavia. I kind of hope Amiri is a romance option, but haven't seen any clear openings there yet. It looks like Valerie is romanceable. The game acts like Valerie is the most beautiful creature to ever exist on the planet, and... I just don't get it? I mean, she's definitely fine, but her portrait, model and description don't seem drop-dead gorgeous. Of course, taste is unique, but the game wants to emphasize that everyone finds her extremely attractive and are instantly smitten by her beauty, and it's a weirdly hard sell.


I do dig her as a character, though. At least her personality, which, despite her being a Tower Shield Specialist, tends to sound very paladin-esque, befitting her Lawful Good alignment. Mechanically, she can be pretty challenging, mostly due to my biggest frustration in this game, weight. She has surprisingly low Strength, which in most games wouldn't be that big of a deal since her job is more to absorb damage than to deal it out; but because this game has both personal and party-wide encumbrance, and she's lugging around freaking heavy armor and a super-freaking-heavy shield, she's constantly under a malus that diminishes her effectiveness at everything. I've been mitigating that a little by giving her a STR-boosting belt and dropping all unnecessary equipment, but still, if I had rolled her stats I would have respecced her long ago.

My current party loadout looks like this:
  1. Valerie takes point in our flying "V" formation, usually drawing threat on new engagements. She's single-classed as a Tower Shield Specialist, with very few active skills but some passives that boost her survivability and support other melee fighters.
  2. Jaethal is single-classed into Inquisitor. I've started loading up on Teamwork feats for her since she can proc them herself, but that's leading me to put those feats on Valerie and Amiri as well. I'm still using her scythe. She'll bless the party before a fight, and can hit damn hard. She's surprisingly survivable, probably thanks to her decent armor and Valerie's threat acquisition.
  3. Amiri is my glass cannon. I gave her one rank in Vivisectionist, which gives her Sneak Attack (any time she's flanking, which is always) and a once-per-day mutagen that boosts her STR and AC. Everything else goes into Barbarian. I think she should get some durability buffs at higher levels, which will help a ton, because she's by far my most vulnerable companion at the moment. I need to micromanage her a little so she doesn't rush ahead of Valerie and get slaughtered. During more complex fights, I like to have Amiri juke to the side while Valerie and Jaethan meet the front line, then have Amiri rush to the enemies' back line and destroy the casters and archers there. 
  4. Guchok, my PC, is a single-class Bard. I'll often open up fights by having Guchok summon a monster next to my foes, which will cause them to burn abilities and a round of actions targeting it, while my party can do real damage to them and close ranks before they respond. Once the fight is joined, Guchok usually just attacks with her light crossbow from the rear. After it's done she'll help heal wounds incurred. She has a set of utility spells that are situationally useful.
  5. Linzi is another Bard! I gave her one rank in Thug, which gave her Sneak Attack and some other goodies. She's usually the one singing morale for the party, though on very long adventuring stretches between rests she'll eventually run out and Guchok will take over. Otherwise she's mostly overlapping Guchok, but with a slightly different spell loadout.
  6. Finally, Octavia, who seems like a great party member but I can't quite decide how to build her. She has fantastic thief abilities and is my go-to for out-of-combat thievery. In combat, I mostly use her as a mage, focusing on direct damage spells (which can land sneak attacks!).
I really like the mix of personalities in that group, but there's a weird mish-mash of arcane and roguish stuff going on between Guchok, Linzi and Octavia, so I think I'm going to eventually respec them into more discrete roles.

In terms of story: Guchok is Lawful Neutral, and I've been trying to follow that, but do definitely find myself veering towards the Lawful Good side fairly often. Like a lot of D&D-inspired games, it can be really hard to make a compelling "Evil" side, which pulls the whole center of gravity towards the "Good" side of the scales. I am digging how the game handles alignment stuff. You get ample opportunities through dialogue to take actions that will shift your alignment, and those are clearly marked. And, more rarely, your alignment will unlock specific outcomes: by being Neutral, I could negotiate an armistice with two warring factions at Old Sycamore, for example. I do like this, as it feels like cases where your reputation would realistically open up a certain possibility that might not be available to someone else.


I don't feel like there have been many proper, big-picture choices so far. It sounds like there was a chance to capture Tartuccio alive, but if so I didn't have the opportunity to do so. I'd wondered if you could persuade the Stag Lord to stand down, but it doesn't seem like that can be done, either. There are plenty of smaller choices along the way, though. As noted above, I avoided fighting either the Kobolds or the Mites, and ended up re-establishing peace between the two; I'm not sure yet if that will have any longer-term consequences.

END SPOILERS

Yup! This is A Game. I think I'm going to start getting into the Kingdom Management side of things soon, which is very exciting. I've always loved stronghold-management stuff in RPGs, and kingdom decision-making since the old Castles game, and am really looking forward to seeing whatever Kingdom stuff is in store for me.