Feb 18, 2020

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over.

I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up. They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins the nomination will beat Trump.

As an initial matter, as I wrote in the article, it is not at all clear that Bloomberg would do a damn thing to stop Trump's various racist atrocities. This is a guy who turned the NYPD into an occupation force in New York's black and brown neighborhoods, who has been accused by at least 64 women of sexual harassment, and who set up a police state for New York Muslims. He is also patently untrustworthy. This is a guy who is talking a big game about "LGBTQ+ youth" when less than a year ago he was calling trans people "it" and asserting that talking about "some guy wearing a dress" was a losing issue politically.

But a lot of the people yelling at me on Twitter insisted he would still be better, howling that I am basically endorsing Trump's racist acts by not getting behind Emperor Mike. So let's stipulate the absolute best case, where if Bloomberg wins we will get a president who is like Trump in most ways that matter but marginally less horrible.

I say that would be an awful outcome. At the risk of stating the obvious, the reason to muster all possible effort to beat Trump in November is not simply to replace him with someone maybe slightly less bad — but to replace him with someone who is actually good. This country very badly needs a president (plus members of Congress, etc) who will actually try to achieve the total structural overhaul needed to undo the carnage wreaked by Trump, confront climate change, and start reversing the last 40 years of neoliberal market fundamentalism.

In a country as corrupt and unequal as ours, it takes an immense effort just to create ordinary democratic institutions, where a party leadership honestly represents their constituents instead of selling out or collecting bribes. The Democratic Party basically took the bribery route for the last generation, supporting at best crappy half-measures, or at worst selling its constituents to Wall Street, all while pointing to Republicans and saying "at least we aren't them." But as the utter catastrophe of neoliberalism has become undeniable, new institutions and candidates have sprung up to attempt to force the party to seriously live up to its rhetorical commitments.

As Tom Scocca writes, Bloomberg is trying to halt that process and stop small-d democracy from taking root in the Democratic Party. He is leveraging Democrats' fear of Trump to position himself as the "electable" candidate, and using his billions to buy endorsements or silence from Democratic elected officials, liberal think tanks, cable news hosts, and so on. (So far, it seems about half of them are openly for sale.) It is utterly shameless political corruption. His desired end goal is clearly to wrench the party dramatically to the right from where it was even in the Clinton years.

So the point of promising that I (and by extension a big swathe of the rest of the Democratic electorate) will not vote for Bloomberg is to blow up the only possible argument for his candidacy: that he could beat Trump. We are trying to force the party to actually represent its constituents — by at a minimum nominating a normal politician, not a cartoon caricature of a corrupt right-wing oligarch — instead of selling them out, again. The people who would get thrown in jail, or see their Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits cut, or killed in the wars Bloomberg would probably start, will take "at least he's not Trump" as cold comfort. Applying "vote blue no matter who" to a despicable racist authoritarian who was a Republican five minutes ago is a pathetic and contemptible abandonment of all the downtrodden people in the United States. The party could and should do better than that.

Conversely, attempting to scold people into committing to vote for Bloomberg if he wins enables his attempt to subvert American democracy. It communicates that he has the Democratic base in the bag, and hence strengthens his electability case.

But scold me all you want, my mind is made up. I will not vote for Bloomberg in November. So for all those Democrats who are laser-focused on beating Trump I'm telling you right now, in all seriousness, the leftists in this country will watch this party burn before we see it devoured by a Wall Street oligarch. Vote for literally any of the other candidates. But picking Bloomberg would be throwing the nomination away.

Aug 16, 2018

Centrist Liberals and Medicare for All

Off his usual beat of gravely intoning about how political correctness on elite college campuses is a philosophical threat to American democracy, Jonathan Chait noticed I took a brief swipe at him in today's column about Medicare. He was severely triggered, accusing me of being "deliberately dishonest," and whining about my supposed bad faith and lying on Twitter.

Fair warning: this is a pretty silly slap-fight, so people not interested in columnist beefs can feel free to skip. However I think it is an instructive event in some ways.

So let me rehearse the argument of the original article. The medical lobby is whipping up fear about Medicare for All by claiming it will cause people to lose their health insurance, and I quote a new lobbying group spokesman to that effect. I argue with a bevy of statistics that this claim is false as a factual matter, and to the extent people will be forced to switch, they will receive superior coverage than what they currently have. The intent is to try to convince people that this talking point is not just wrong, but actually backwards. Medicare for All will decrease the number of people losing their insurance.

In a parenthetical at the beginning, I note that both Chait and Paul Krugman have "made similar points." The intent of this sentence and putting it as an aside was to note that both of them have pointed to this same false point about losing coverage. But Chait interprets it as me saying he and Krugman are actually part of the medical lobby:
The number of words in Cooper’s column devoted to rebutting our actual case about the politics of single payer is zero. Cooper simply concludes “the medical lobby’s argument [is] mistaken,” and driven by “nothing more than greed.” Either Cooper has not bothered to read the columns he is claiming to rebut (they’re short!), or he cannot understand them (they’re quite simple!), or he is intentionally dishonest.
Chait is so laser-focused on his wounded vanity that he completely misread the quite obvious basic thrust of the article, which again is about confronting factual arguments, not political plausibility. The reference to Chait and Krugman is meant to be about how milquetoast liberals are enabling this false argument. I say the medical lobby's argument is driven by greed, which obviously includes neither of them (as they are not paid lobbyists).

I certainly could have worded that parenthetical better, but in context the meaning is clear. It's got nothing to do with politics qua politics at all.

Perhaps I was being unfair to these two gentlemen by not noting they claim to support Medicare for All in the abstract despite being against it in practice and constantly attacking any concrete proposal to put it into place. But the major argument of the article, again, is that Medicare for All would result in a large net decrease in the number of insurance loss events, and neither of them admit this in the articles I linked to. Chait: "First, most people who have employer-based coverage like it and don’t want to change." Krugman: "A far more important consideration is minimizing disruption to the 156 million people [note: this is about 5 years' worth of employer-based insurance loss events] who currently get insurance through their employers, and are largely satisfied with their coverage. Moving to single-payer would mean taking away this coverage ..."

Still, Chait now apparently admits this reality, so glad to see we've advanced the dialectic on this front.

I generally try not to make arguments about political plausibility (not always successfully). I am highly skeptical about anyone's knowledge of what is politically plausible, pundits more than most. We live under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, something almost all savvy politics insiders took for granted as absolutely impossible until he actually won. I much prefer to make straightforward arguments for or against particular ideas.

So when Chait says "If single-payer advocates can come up with a way to get around the political obstacles in the way of single payer, they should say what they are," that is exactly what I am trying to do here, by knocking down duplicitous medical lobby talking points. Maybe thinking people can be convinced in this way is naive. But it's certain to work better than constantly trumping up highly speculative political obstacles to Medicare for All, demanding the left get around them, and then attacking any arguments to that effect. One tends to wonder what the real goal of that behavior is.

Jul 23, 2018

Russiagate and the Left, Round II

Corey Robin has responded to my article arguing that the left should take the Trump-Russia story more seriously. I do appreciate that he considers me an ally, and I feel the same towards him. However I am not convinced. The points I want to make are somewhat disconnected, so I will just take them one at a time.

What should be done?

Robin complains that I don't give much attention to the question of how we should respond to Russian electoral espionage.

As an initial matter, the question of whether a problem is an important one is logically distinct from what the response should be. There is a sizable vein of skepticism about Russiagate on the left, and the argument of the post was that skepticism was misplaced. Solutions can be worked out later. This point is rather similar to the centrist argument that you can't talk about Medicare for All unless you've got a fully costed-out bill detailing all the necessary taxes and regulation.

However, I have advanced some policy solutions in previous writing, mainly centered around improving internal cybersecurity and regulating radio, TV, and social media platforms to deal with cancerous right-wing agitprop. Here are some more worthwhile suggestions about foreign policy. None of these are remotely close to neocon belligerence.

Putin really is benefiting

Robin asserts that under Trump, "the US is currently pursuing a very anti-Russia foreign policy, more aggressive than anything pursued by Obama (especially Obama), Bush, or Clinton." He notes that Congress has put through even more Russian sanctions. That much is true, and as I said in my article, the US security apparatus remains very hostile to Russia.

What he does not mention is that Trump refused to implement those sanctions for 7 months until political developments forced his hand. More importantly, he does not mention that Trump has caused enormous chaos and panic within NATO and US-EU alliance, and severely damaged the US internationally as well. Putin has by all accounts a fairly zero-sum view of international relations, and views endless NATO expansion (with some accuracy) as Western encroachment on Russia's legitimate sphere of influence. He also likely thinks sanctions were baked in no matter what he did (again probably accurately, American sanctions are notoriously difficult to remove), so they make no difference on way or the other.

Therefore, causing a huge disruption among anti-Russian coalition is thus a giant benefit to Russia by Putin's lights, and he's probably right. Questions about Ukraine and Crimea have moved to the back burner as world politics is consumed by Trump. Meanwhile, the perception that he's got the American president wound around his finger dramatically raises international estimates of his influence. Putin is a much more fearsome figure than he was before 2016.

The plutocratic-ethnonationalist alliance

Robin asserts, this time without any evidence at all, that Putin's electoral espionage was "not for any reasons of building an ethnonationalist alliance but simply because [they] believed they’d be better off with Trump than with Clinton."

I find this a rather incredible suggestion. Putin's base of support is a combination of plutocrats and right-wing nationalists, and he has built up pro-Russian factions in multiple countries by seeding and supporting exactly those sort of people, plus occasional electoral espionage. Hungary has become an ersatz Russian client through this process, and so has the Czech Republic. He tried to do the same thing in France, though with little success. Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, and Austria also suffered apparent cyberattacks over the last decade. Israel has turned towards the Russian camp more on its own, with Benjamin Netanyahu even attending Putin's recent inauguration ceremonies and cozying up to Hungary's Viktor Orban (who recently unleashed a Jew-baiting tirade against George Soros). The politics of apartheid fit quite nicely with European right-wing nationalism, as DF Malan could tell you.

This appears to be the playbook in the U.S. as well. A Russian spy apparently infiltrated the NRA, using bribes to turn the organization in a Russian direction — in addition to God only knows how much else in the forms of "hidden capital inflows." Mitch McConnell ran interference for Putin, threatening Obama that he would make it partisan issue if he spoke out on Russian electoral espionage. The rest of the GOP leadership gleefully chuckled at the idea. As Jugurtha supposedly said of Rome, "Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer."

And on the ground, the American far right has long admired Putin as the sort of leader they desire. The tiki torch Nazis in Charleston included "Russia is our friend" among their chants, and the League of the South launched a Russian-language page to reach out to Russian nationalists immediately after the Helsinki summit. "We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion," the organization's president wrote.

America is not a Russian client, of course, but this formula plainly did work to some degree.

This isn't a NATO-style overt political alliance, but the covert buildup of similar coalitions of right-wing nationalists, plutocrats, and corrupt political parties across many countries. Robin is just wrong on the facts here.

Broader political questions

Finally, Robin suggests that addressing Russiagate is inevitably going to feed into McCarthyite hysteria. "You think you can control the rhetoric; it controls you." Instead, "The Left’s position on all this should simply be that prudential measures should be taken to ensure democratic elections," while noting that electoral espionage is probably less of a threat to democracy to the Electoral College.

I think this is backwards. First, as noted above, there really is a compelling left-wing narrative about Russiagate, involving how extreme inequality and neoliberalism has subverted democracy and enabled right-wing extremism across the globe. It is a somewhat tricky rhetorical move, but it's certainly possible. Just emphasize that plutocracy and corruption are the internal problems that must be boldly attacked (in addition to election security, a full traditional policy platform, and so on), while diplomacy must always be the first option for foreign policy — especially when it comes to a nuclear superpower.

Because contrary to Robin's rather ungenerous suggestions that this is about appearing "serious" and not looking bad in the eyes of centrist gobshites, I think it would be a grave tactical error to allow neocons and cruise missile liberals to entirely occupy the Russiagate political terrain. The president being somehow compromised by a right-wing dictator basically can't help being a top political issue, and offering nothing but mild bromides about election security will make Max Boot-style hysterics the only option on offer.

Jun 5, 2018

Democratic Ideological History

I spent months working on an article — based on extensive interviews with eight different congressional candidates — about how the Democratic Party has failed to promulgate any strategic response from the Great Recession. Alas, online discussion of the article has been confined almost entirely to a setup historical phrase at the beginning. Matt Yglesias led the attack, accusing me of romanticizing the mid-20th century Democratic Party in order to slander modern centrist liberals.

I will admit that the phrase in question was too strong. In particular, it obscures the enormous split between more populist northern liberals and segregationist conservative Democrats in the South (who did indeed tend to vote for union-busting legislation), as well as the split between more left-sympathetic Democrats and fervent anti-Communists. I know this history very well, and simply got a bit careless with phrasing.

But what I meant to invoke is the obvious and well-documented fact that the Democratic Party as a whole turned hard to the right on economic questions — on labor, anti-trust, the regulatory state, welfare, and so on — from about the late 1960s through the 1990s. The party was a sprawling mess then as it is now, and it was a complicated process, but contrary to the ludicrous revisionism (based on frankly dishonest quote-mining) of Jon Chait, this did happen. Its previously dominant populist New Deal tradition was slowly extirpated from the party, and a more conservative neoliberalism became the hegemonic ideology.

As I have argued at length before, and demonstrated empirically to some degree in my recent article, this has become a very serious problem for the party, because neoliberal Democrats have tended up line up behind disastrous policies like austerity when unemployment is 10 percent, causing human carnage and political disaster. It could be that leftists are romanticizing the past. But it also seems possible that neoliberals tend to get squirrelly and nitpicky about these sorts of arguments in order to distract attention from the world-historical failures of the ideological tradition to which they are committed.

Apr 1, 2018

The Conversational Downsides of Twitter's Structure

Over the past couple years, as I've had a steady writing job and ascended from "utter nobody" to "D-list pundit," I find it harder and harder to have discussions online. Twitter is the only social network I like and where I talk to people the most, but as your number of followers increases, the user experience becomes steadily more hostile to conversation.

Here's my theory as to why this happens. First is Twitter's powerful tendency to create cliques and groupthink. Back in forum and blog comment section days, people would more often hang out in places where a certain interest or baseline understanding could be assumed. (Now, there were often epic fights, cliques, and gratuitous cruelty on forums too, particularly the joke or insult variety, but in my experience it was also much easier to just have a reasonable conversation.) On Twitter, people rather naturally form those same communities of like interest, but are trapped in the same space with different groups — many of whom absolutely despise each other.

Twitter is also much faster and wider than those more restricted communities. Not only can one comment reach nearly the whole world in a matter of minutes or seconds, outside media also pays very close attention to what is trending on the platform. That places a huge premium on the funniest jokes, the most savage put-downs, the wildest breaking news, and the most overheated reactions — but much less premium on accuracy (though large corrections do generally circulate quickly), and almost no premium on good faith or considered thought. As Dave Weigel once said, "Twitter is a much more dangerous cauldron of groupthink than happy hours or dinners. On Twitter the reward comes from agreeing or loudly disagreeing with the joke, or the 'smart take.' In person you hash things out."

It makes Twitter a great place for instant communication, funny content, and witty writing — one of the reasons I continue to like it and stay there.

But it also combines to make the platform a potentially bottomless pit of hostility and bad faith. The dissociative properties of all internet-mediated communication are even stronger here. Cliques can and do spend hours obsessing about their enemies' annoying tweets. The high premium on amusing cruelty and hysterical overreactions tends to create a Manichean bifurcation in perception, where people are either perfect and good allies, or vile enemies who deserve zero sympathy or fairness. Often a transition from the first category to the second happens purely as a result of shifting clique politics and guilt-by-association.

When I was totally unknown, I would often see an odd-sounding accusation about someone or something I knew, and find (after untangling the thread of internet telephone and tendentious bullshit) a severe distortion or even the complete opposite of what was being claimed. Now that happens to me on a near-daily basis, in addition to the usual tide of insults, and I confess it is pretty damn obnoxious. Where before I would often attempt to reason with people, to prevent a lot of wasted time and annoyance I now just mute anyone who is at all hostile. I just don't have time for that anymore. (Unsurprisingly, that in turn gives people a new angle of attack, as me not wanting to talk to the 47th egregious asshole that hour becomes an unwillingness to listen to good faith criticism.)

Now, of course I often participate in these sort of bad habits as much as anyone. It's a feature of the platform and while I try to be a bit more generous, it's very easy to get sucked in. I hope that by thinking about these structural effects, we on the left (myself very much included) might be a bit less willing to spend so much time on pointless axe-grinding, and focus a bit more on substantive discussion.

Mar 4, 2018

The Neoliberal Retreat

I wrote a book review for The Nation on the rise and fall of Clintonism, in which I labeled his general political tendency as a sort of left-neoliberalism. I argued (in part) that neoliberal Democrats, who gained hegemonic ideological power within the party from Clinton through Obama, advocated laissez faire-inflected policies that contrasted sharply with the old New Deal approach. That explains both stuff like the goofy market mechanisms in Obamacare, as well as repeal of New Deal items under Clinton like the Glass-Steagall banking regulation (passed in 1933) and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (1935).

Turbo-loyal centrist Dem apparatchik Tom Watson glommed onto the article several days after publication and insisted that neoliberalism does not exist (and spent hours flipping out about it).

In this Watson follows the lead of Jonathan Chait, who has previously insisted that neoliberalism is merely an epithet, and that there was no significant ideological change between FDR and Obama within the Democratic Party. He quotes the classic history Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, by William Leuchtenburg, citing FDR's "determination to serve as a balance wheel between management and labor … Despite the radical character of the 1934 elections, Roosevelt was still striving to hold together a coalition of all interests, and, despite rebuffs from businessmen and the conservative press, he was still seeking earnestly to hold business support."

As history, this is absolutely preposterous. Aside from neoliberal Clinton literally dismantling several New Deal programs, one can just read a bit further in the book Chait is citing. FDR was no socialist or even much of a labor unionist, and did want to include some business elements in his New Deal coalition initially. What Chait does not mention was that FDR was consistently skeptical of big finance (blaming them for the 1929 crash), and more importantly, he failed to receive the other business support he craved.

The whole point of the section of the book Chait is quoting is to tell the story of how FDR lost his "balance wheel" notions. The denouement starts on the page just after the latter portion of the quote: "It was less the dismay of Roosevelt's progressive supporters than business' own actions that led him to question the viability of the all-class alliance," Leuchtenburg writes, detailing the decision of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to denounce the New Deal in 1935. More left-wing advisers like Felix Frankfurter seized the opportunity to argue the time had come to ditch business:
The Harvard professor insisted that the attempt at business-government co-operation had failed, and urged Roosevelt to declare war on business. Once the president had understood that business was the enemy, he would be free to undertake the Brandeisian program to cut the giants down to size ...
By Black Monday, the president had already begun to move decisively in a new direction ... Roosevelt insisted on the passage of four major pieces of legislation: the social security bill, the Wagner labor proposal, a banking bill, and a public-utility holding company measure. A few days later, he added a fifth item of "must" legislation: a "soak the rich" tax scheme. In addition, he demanded a series of minor measures, some of them highly controversial, which in any other session would have been regarded a major legislation ... Thus began the "Second Hundred Days." Over a long period Congress debated the most far-reaching reform measures it had ever considered. In the end, Roosevelt got every item of significant legislation he desired. 
This is elementary historiography of the New Deal, and Chait's use of quotes here is borderline dishonest. Indeed, as Corey Robin discovered, all this was old hat to Chait himself as recently as 2013:
[T]he neoliberal project succeeded in weaning the Democrats of the wrong turn they took during the 1960s and 1970s. The Democrats under Bill Clinton -- and Obama, whose domestic policy is crafted almost entirely by Clinton veterans -- has internalized the neoliberal critique. 
Aside from the odd choice of decades here — the neoliberal turn started in the 1970s, and what they were turning against was as much the product of the 1930s as it was the 1960s — that is more or less exactly the scheme in my article. 

So what is going on here? 

As I argued in my article, it's basically impossible nowadays to ignore the carnage wreaked by the neoliberal turn. Inequality is way, way up, growth is down, welfare reform increased extreme poverty by 150 percent, free trade helped wreck the American industrial base, and so on. Not all that is Democrats' fault of course, but they collaborated on most of them. Especially since the rise of Black Lives Matter, the role of neoliberal Democrats like Joe Biden and the Clintons in stoking mass incarceration has come under severe criticism.

It's also clear that by far the greatest energy among Democrats is on the left. New Deal-ish Bernie Sanders is the most popular working politician in the country — and largely on the strength of gargantuan margins among the young. Just in the last few days, a brushfire outbreak of labor militancy has swept from West Virginia to Virginia and Oklahoma.

These are trying circumstances for the advocates of education "reform" (and teacher union busting), means testing, and other such free-markety claptrap. So advancing a ridiculous revisionist history of Democratic Party ideology is, in the first place, a way to hide behind FDR's skirts, where one can continue to attack the left as interlopers instead of heirs to a legitimate tradition.

But that also makes it, partially at least, a tacit admission that the whole neoliberal project has failed. Even a warped version of 1930s-style policy would be a gigantic change from the Democratic status quo, no matter what bizarre label Chait and Watson try to pin on it. And it needs to happen, quite obviously, because the neoliberal turn was a disastrous mistake that needs to be reversed.

Jun 17, 2017

Trash Arguments from Lukewarmer Oren Cass

For those just tuning in, let's have a quick recap. Here's the argument in favor of strong climate policy: Unchecked climate change looks bad, potentially very bad, therefore we should cut the greenhouse gas emissions which cause it.

In his "lukewarmer" manifesto articles, Oren Cass disputes the "potentially very bad" clause of the argument, asserting that there is no scientific consensus behind predictions of extreme devastation from climate change, and that continued economic growth would allow us to buy our way out of any problems we might have.

In my response, I argued this was improperly conflating predictions about possibilities with ones about what is most probable. It is true that the IPCC summary of what is most likely to happen does not generally track with the most alarming predictions (though as Michael Mann — an actual climate scientist, unlike either of us — points out, Cass rather understates the actual level of alarm in the IPCC and also its track record of overly cautious predictions).

But there is generally a scientific consensus that those really terrible predictions are at least possible, even if they aren't most likely (for example, a recent paper predicted a sea level rise of several meters over the next century, along with many other disasters). And if they are possible, then they must be factored into our risk management thinking. Even if the chance of a civilization-threatening outcome is only, say, 1 percent, it's still worth a great cost to avoid that risk. Would you bet your life on a 1 in 100 chance? Or a 1 in 20 chance? Even the IPCC says there is a 17 percent chance sea level rise will exceed 98 centimeters by 2100, on a bad emissions trajectory, perhaps by a lot. There are over 30 million people in Bangladesh alone living below that level.

Cass, by contrast, implicitly treats a lack of consensus about whether worst-case scenarios will happen as a consensus saying they definitely will not happen. Which is dumb.

I further argued that predictions of future economic growth over the next century were a thin reed to hang on, in two ways. First, Cass leans heavily on a simulation by William Nordhaus predicting only minor damage to GDP a century out from climate change. To get this result, Nordhaus simply assumes that growth rates will not be harmed by climate change. A survey of 1,103 experts on the economics of climate, by contrast, found that 78 percent thought it would harm growth rates — making for vastly larger economic damage.

Second, I argued that economic predictions of any kind over a century were at least as uncertain as the most wild-assed climate change predictions. Not only is there no consensus theory explaining why there will be steady and continual increase in productivity and growth over the next century, there is not even a consensus theory about why productivity growth happens in the first place. (People argue, necessarily rather hazily, that it's probably technology and efficiency, or something.)

Economics, being a social science, is simply not as predictively rigorous as physics and chemistry. Cass's credulous approach towards highly uncertain and non-consensus economic predictions illustrated the overall unsoundness of his argument. He is cherry-picking his evidence and using an epistemic double standard.

Now Cass is back with a response, and unsurprisingly he has completely failed to grasp the argument. Here's how he recapitulates the above:
Let’s try to untangle this.  
The flow of the argument is: A: "Climate change will be a catastrophe that kills billions."  
B: "Actually, the costs look manageable given the expected rate of human progress."  
A: "That’s only true if human progress continues; what if it halts? I don’t think it will. But it could. So much uncertainty."
Everything about this is wrong. First, climate change might be a catastrophe that kills billions, and therefore we must treat that danger seriously. Second, the economic point above does not rest on zero growth. In my article, I used a total flatlining of growth as an extreme example, both because economists can't rule it out and because US productivity growth was negative in 2016 (also note the entire Eurozone just had zero GDP growth for eight years), but not the only one.

It does not take a total cessation of growth to blow apart Cass's Panglossian economic future. Because it relies on piling up a huge GDP by steady growth, it would be called into question merely by coming in consistently slower than the Nordhaus prediction (as productivity growth has been extraordinarily slow since 2009). Or, as referenced previously, if climate change harms growth rates instead of levels, the cumulative economic damage will be larger by "many orders of magnitude." So actually, there's a pretty good chance the costs will not be manageable even if growth continues, and something like a carbon tax (which incidentally even Nordhaus supports, unlike Cass), looks a lot more responsible.

So the whole response is epically botched. But later in his article Cass makes a couple more erroneous arguments that are worth addressing. Still obsessed with the zero growth canard, he argues that this would be a catastrophe worse than climate change:
And in that case, climate change would be really bad. Of course, another thing that would be really bad is the halting of human progressWorrying about climate change in a zero-growth world is like worrying about the difficulty of achieving universal health insurance coverage in the midst of a second U.S. civil war. Sure, that would be a problem. Just maybe not the one to focus on.
This does not follow at all. If growth does stop, then that increases the necessity of climate policy, precisely because we won't have the future wealth to buy our way out of trouble, as Cass assumes we will. If we do define human progress as continued economic growth (highly contestable, but never mind), then that's a problem that might be fixed at a later date, as human society existed for thousands of years with zero growth in the past. That means the key task for people stuck in a zero growth rut would be to preserve society in as good a condition as possible, so future generations might figure it out. That means strong climate policy.

Second, Cass makes a serious factual error:
There’s also the awkward detail that forecasts of rising fossil-fuel emissions, and thus rising climate risks, themselves rely on continued growth. Cooper is describing a contorted scenario where the growth exists for purposes of creating the climate change but not for purposes of coping with it.
This is wrong. It's true that the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) used by the IPCC to model the entire world climate system generally predict continued economic growth, but they also contain confounding assumptions about increased efficiency and other factors. All but the worst have emissions peaking sometime this century — the aggressive one actually has negative emissions starting towards the end of this century.

What Cass gets wrong here is that rising climate risks track rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, not increased emissions, because emissions are already high enough to cause high warming, relatively quickly. Suppose carbon dioxide emissions are frozen at their current level (about 40 billion tonnes as of 2015), as part of the zero growth scenario. The folks over at Carbon Brief created this handy graphic, based on the IPCC carbon budget analysis:

A neat thing such a steady-state assumption allows, due to the linearity (hopefully) of climate sensitivity, is that warming will also happen steadily, so we can make a 4 degree estimate. At the 66 percent chance level, each degree takes an additional roughly 1,300 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and so at 40 billion tonnes per year, that will be accumulated after about 33 years of emissions.
Therefore, by 2103 — without any increase in emissions at all — the chance of keeping warming below 4 degrees will only be 2 in 3, and fading fast. That would be among the worse RCP trajectories. Here's what the IPCC says about that level of warming:
Global climate change risks are high to very high with global mean temperature increase of 4°C or more above preindustrial levels in all reasons for concern...and include severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors in some areas for parts of the year (high confidence)...precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).
So, something like a 1 in 3 chance of very serious impacts on all sorts of critical social systems (growing food and being able to go outside are generally considered important activities for people), and an uncertain but nontrivial chance of having hit some tipping point that will cause warming to spiral out of control, with risks rising fast. And after that, every 3-4 decades we'll have racked up another degree of warming.

Let me emphasize again, at no point does any part of my argument actually rely on zeroing out growth, as he bizarrely suggests over and over. I addressed these latter points only because they illustrate Cass's slippery reasoning.

Back in 2014 I described Ross Douthat's thinking about climate change as "vague handwaving that reads very much like he has cherry-picked a bunch of disconnected fluff to justify doing nothing." I can see why he's drawn to this sort of garbage.

Jun 10, 2017

What Happens to the Electoral College under an Expanded House?

Awhile ago I idly speculated that the size of the House of Representatives should be increased. From back in 1913 when the size of the House was fixed at its current 435 seats, the number of people represented by each member has increased from a bit over 210,000 to over 700,000 today. Insofar as each member is supposed to be in contact with his or her constituents, that's rather straining the point of the body.

So suppose we fixed the size of the House based on a desired district size of 150,000 people (incidentally over twice the size of the average constituency in the UK Parliament). The way House seats are currently apportioned is a real pain in the neck because first you have to dole out one seat to every state, and then the rest according to a complicated population-based formula — necessary because a few tiny states like Wyoming have less than 1/435th of the population.

But if we select 150,000 as the desired district size, we can simply divide each state's population by 150,000 and round to the nearest whole number. That way even Wyoming starts out with 4, and we don't have to worry about everybody getting at least one. So calculated, the New House would have a total size of 2055 members. No doubt states with unlucky fractions would complain about getting rounded down, but it's far more fair than the current system.

This would also affect the Electoral College, because electoral votes are allocated based on votes in Congress: states get one for each representative and one for each senator (and DC gets as many as the smallest state). And because it would reduce the over-representation of small states somewhat, it would make the Electoral College substantially more fair. Here's the 2014 voting-eligible population per electoral vote:

And here's the same population under the New Electoral College:

Note how the distance between the most over-represented and most under-represented states has been sharply compressed. Still a bit unfair, but vastly less so than the current system.

Now, the Electoral College is still a stupid system and should be replaced with a simple popular vote. And a first-past-the-post district system is far inferior to a proportional parliamentary system (or MMP system, etc). But this is a quick and easy way to at least wound two birds with one stone — requiring nothing more than an act of Congress.

May 25, 2017

Socialism and the Welfare State

Here's a tweet from Matt Yglesias that bears on my definition of socialism from December.

I think it's fair to say that my definition is both less radical than traditional socialism and many more hardcore radical perspectives today. However, I think it's important to be clear that this definition demands a complete welfare state, not just a larger one.

From the perspective of the working class, the point of this brand of socialist policy is twofold. First, we must provide all people who cannot work (children, students, disabled and unemployed people, etc., who make up the super-majority of the poor) with a decent income. Second, we must make sure that every single person who can work has a decent job ready and waiting for them (through full employment policy) — or failing that, that they have unlimited unemployment insurance and retraining/job placement assistance (through active labor market policy).

This mostly removes the traditional capitalist coercion to work. Now, under my scenario, if you are an able-bodied adult out of school, and you refuse to accept an offered job or to look for work, then it is possible that you will fall into poverty (though of course there should be a further safety net to prevent actual starvation). Given that a tremendous volume of labor is simply necessary every day to simply push human society forward through time, I think that there is no getting around at least some level of coaxing people towards work.

However, I think there is a fundamental difference between that sort of pressure and coercing work through the threat of total destitution. If we have structured our economy well, work should be useful — dedicated towards advancing society through time, or solving some problem or another. I believe that virtually every person wants to participate in society, to perform some useful task, and that if decent jobs are readily available — that is, jobs which are safe, well-paid, leave you with plenty of free time, and are socially necessary — then people will do them willingly.

The quintessential Bad Job is flipping burgers at Wendy's. Yet it is doesn't get much more socially necessary than keeping the citizenry fed. And indeed, food service can also being one of the highest-status jobs there is, given the right social context. Fast food work is a bad job because it is low-paid and exploitative, not because there is something inherently undignified about cooking burgers.

I think both liberals and hardcore leftists underestimate the transformative potential of a complete welfare state. If the hand of government is there to catch everyone who has a run of bad luck, provides healthcare, childcare, and leave for all, and structures labor markets to coax people into good work (as opposed to brutally scourging them into whatever jobs capital happens to have on hand, whether they exist or not), people's lived experience of freedom is tremendously expanded. The effects of this can be profound — Katie Baker, for example, once wrote an excellent piece about how the profound generosity of Denmark's system makes Danish women significantly less vulnerable to predatory men.

But it's the completeness that is key to this effect: it means that no matter who you are or what happens to you, so long as you're alive you'll be looked after.

May 12, 2017

Climate Bullshit at the New York Times

Bret Stephens
Apparently the New York Times lost a ton of subscribers for hiring the climate denier Bret Stephens (who, it should be noted, is also a bilious anti-Arab racist who supports torture). Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote an email to subscribers who had canceled their subscriptions addressing the issue. He made two arguments: first, that the Times pays a lot of climate reporters. That is a fair point. Second:
Sulzberger wrote that, with so many people "talking past each other about how best to address climate change," putting different points of view on the same page will hopefully help advance solutions.
"Our editorial page editor, James Bennet, and I believe that this kind of debate, by challenging our assumptions and forcing us to think harder about our positions, sharpens all our work and benefits our readers," he wrote. "This does not mean that The Times will publish any commentary. Some points of view are not welcome, including those promoting prejudice or denying basic truths about our world. But it does mean that, in the coming years, we aim to further enrich the quality of our debate with other honest and intelligent voices, including some currently underrepresented in our pages. If you continue to read The Times, you will encounter such voices — not just as contributors, but as new staff columnists."
This is bullshit.

First, climate denial — which Stephens repeatedly espoused at the Wall Street Journal, before he retreated a bit so he could keep his job — is beyond question a viewpoint which should not be welcome on op-ed pages. Scientific consensus is as reliable a guide as there is to "basic truths about our world," and Stephens was quite recently a science denier. (Naturally, Sulzberger does not even address Stephens' anti-Arab bigotry.)

Second, while a debate about climate policy and strategies would be extremely welcome on the Times op-ed page, Stephens is not the man for the job. As I have explained in detail (and will explain further on Monday), he is neither honest nor intelligent. His very first column was about climate change, it had one scientific fact, and he got it wrong. I almost could not imagine a more humiliating start to a new columnist position.

An actual climate policy debate would tackle questions like: what are the relative strengths of various policy approaches — eg, carbon tax versus a total war on carbon? What are the most promising zero-carbon technologies, and how might they be developed faster? Should we prioritize rollout of existing tech or moonshot ideas? Given that some warming has already happened and some more is already baked in, what are the best amelioration and resilience policies? How can we accommodate climate refugees? What are the various geoengineering options, and what sort of risks do they present? Those questions intersect with politics in all manner of ways, presenting a nigh-inexhaustible vein of material for the opinion writer. (At the risk of self-flattery, I think this sort of writing actually is fairly well-suited to advancing climate policy in a way that is understandable to the lay public.)

Sulzberger's point about people "talking past each other about how best to address climate change," and the desirability of advancing solutions through debate, presupposes an agreement about climate change being a serious problem. Stephens clearly does not agree, and what's more, he very obviously does not know what the fuck he is talking about. His whole shtick is making meta-debate points so as to game centrist discourse norms and set himself up as the Open Debate Avatar without actually debating anything.

If the Times wants a real debate about climate policy in its op-ed section (as opposed to soothing centrist liberal neuroses, or a blinkered attempt to advance the realpolitik of the Times' cultural legitimacy) it will at a minimum need to hire a writer or two who understands and accepts climate science. So long as Stephens is a columnist there (no doubt being paid well into six figures), I'd say you're well justified in taking your journalism subscription dollars elsewhere.