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.

Feb 11, 2017

Hillbillies and Cultural Capital

Every time I open Amazon and Audible they recommend J.D. Vance's dumb book Hillbilly Elegy, and it reminds me to make a point I failed to mention in my previous post on it. This is about his story about attending a private function while he was attending Yale Law School, and his social anxiety at trying to navigate the weird norms of the upper class.

It's a great microcosm of the book's jarring contrast between fairly well-done memoir and idiotic political interpretation thereof. He relates going to some kind of Yale-sponsored dinner, and at one point having to hide in the bathroom to call his girlfriend and ask why there were four different kinds of forks, and just what in God's name he's supposed to do with each one. It's funny, charming, and relatable.

Yet later he includes this sort of thing as part of the list of hillbilly cultural deficiencies. If these poor white people would drop their brash and unsophisticated fork practices, they might be able to leap up into the middle class. And indeed, that was part of a process which worked out relatively well for him.

Yet it never occurs to Vance that the entire point of having Four Forks-style norms is to set up arbitrary social barricades in the service of upper-class self-dealing. There is nothing inherently dignified or superior about eating with more than one fork. It just happens to be the upper class way of doing things. Familiarity with the Four Forks signals that you are a member of the upper class, and therefore a reasonable candidate for jobs, grad school slots, and so on. That sort of thing is most of what people call "cultural capital." And in a hugely unequal society, there are only so many upper class slots to go around. Set up a Fork Instruction Institute in Kentucky someplace, and the elite would merely shift to a different obscure method of signaling the right background.

Of course, these sort of systems are not totally impervious to the lower class, as Vance's story demonstrates. But overall, America's class structure is quite rigid: College dropouts from the top income quintile are 2.5 times more likely to remain in the top quintile than college graduates from the bottom income quintile. Stories like Vance's are nothing more than a meritocratic veneer on top of a massively unfair system of entrenched privilege.

Dec 29, 2016

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included. But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that.

So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms.

The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no social project that cannot be corrupted by human frailty and viciousness. Many people looked to Karl Marx as a sort of pope whose words might save them from disaster. Doesn't work like that. But on the other hand, one cannot dismiss socialism merely because some people calling themselves such were or are monsters. That's human beings for you and it applies to any political ideology.

So that said, my vision of socialism is fairly loose and freewheeling. I've read quite a bit of Marx and gotten a lot of out him, but I think it's a great error to treat anyone as a prophet. I like Polanyi's definition of socialism, but precisely because it is broad and not a highly detailed program:
Karl Polanyi
Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. 
For me, that is the animating instinct of socialism: conscious decisions and policies to adjust the institutions of society so that they serve the common interest, broadly defined as a rough and ready egalitarianism. (One can slot in some Rawls or Sen as a more sophisticated moral justification for this, but Jesus Christ might serve equally well.) Those least well-off get the greatest moral priority, and inequality is acceptable only insofar as it necessary to generate a sufficiently large economic product so that everyone can have a decent standard of living and pursue what they have reason to value.

By this view, capitalism is problematic because it only distributes income to the factors of labor and capital. Its engine is the coercion of labor from people who don't own anything, because they would otherwise starve. In its early days capitalism was insanely brutal about this, shredding the social fabric with its voracious demand for work. It is better today — though still terrible for many people, especially in the US — but insofar as it is has improved, the reason is precisely the basic instinct of socialism, which produced the welfare state.

The weak and vulnerable poor, which in a capitalist system means those who own nothing but find it impossible to work, must be protected. Capitalist institutions are only useful insofar as they serve broad human needs — they are not ends in themselves.

The polar opposite of socialism, then, is classical liberalism (or libertarianism today) — which says that capitalist institutions are ends in themselves. This view holds that property rights should be sacrosanct, and all social relations should operate through capitalist market mechanisms. Not many people are full libertarians these days, but the ideology was and is extraordinarily influential — just witness the titanic effort that went into badly simulating a market in the Obamacare exchanges.

Polanyni notes a deep irony — capitalism was developed along highly utopian, planned lines, to which elites clung so hard during the Great Depression that the entire thing almost came apart. A large part of the initial socialist impulse was a fundamentally conservative, then: a desire to preserve existing society as capitalism ripped up the social contract. But mature socialism — an approximation of which can be seen in the Nordic countries today — is more forward-looking than this. The damage of capitalism has already been done, and there is basically no going back. The key is to harness the machinery and technology built up under capitalism to create a better society that works for everyone, without exception.

Dec 10, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy and the Culture Argument against Welfare

During Thanksgiving, a relative happened to have JD Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy lying around, and so I picked it up out of curiosity. As other reviewers have said, the politics in it are pretty terrible. However it was better than I was expecting it to be. Mainly, it's a book about growing up in a fucked-up family, and Vance ends up emphasizing how his surroundings more or less controlled what kind of a person he ended up being. He made it out of Kentucky and Ohio and ended up graduating from Yale Law school, but unlike most conservatives, he doesn't paint that as some Randian heroic act of self-bootstrapping. Over and over he notes how lucky he was to have people to help him sort out his problems. "I am one lucky son of a bitch," he concludes.

The few areas of explicit conservatism — whining about white welfare queens, or dumbass libertarian notions about being coerced into paying taxes — fit very poorly with the overall thrust of the book. (Don't read National Review, folks.) With only a few alterations it could have pretty ordinary liberal politics.

But like Jonathan Chait, he does conclude that hillbilly culture is in part responsible for why poor whites are doing so poorly these days. If downscale white people are to become healthier, "we hillbillies must wake the hell up," he writes. It's not an argument I accept, but it does have some surface plausibility. Poverty leaves scars; poor people often make maddeningly terrible decisions (though they often make more sense than it may appear from the outside).

But let's suppose that Vance is right, and culture is dragging the hillbilly population down. The problem with this and his conservative politics is that Vance does not even try to show that conservative policy — making welfare benefits hinge on work, or cutting them altogether — will help hillbillies sort out their culture problem. The theory behind conservative social policy is that by taking away benefits from people who have been lulled into the hammock of dependency, as Paul Ryan calls it, or building in some work requirements and time limits as happened with welfare reform, will give people the kick in the ass they need to buckle down and get to work.

But the whole point of Vance's culture argument is that hillbillies are often impervious to economic incentives. One example he leans on is a time when an owner at a tile factory where Vance worked bent over backwards to provide a good-paying job to an unemployed young man and his pregnant girlfriend. The woman was soon fired for absenteeism, and the man didn't last much longer. And fair enough, that is pretty dumb. But if actually having a good job isn't enough to make someone work hard enough to keep it, then it seems rather unlikely that further deepening the abyss and desperation of unemployment (already very bad in this country) isn't going to do it either.

And on the other hand Vance dedicates a long and rather good section of his book to how the terrific stress of growing up in poverty and an unstable family gives his people a condition akin to PTSD — emotional distance, a hair-trigger temper, and a constant readiness to fight. It might be that completely axing all unemployment insurance and other welfare would have made the above-mentioned person so desperate that he would have shaped up, but it seems just as likely that the additional stress would simply worsen his psychological problems and make him even more unlikely to stick with a job. (And in point of fact, all that welfare reform achieved was an increase in extreme poverty of 150 percent.)

It seems to me that if you really believed this culture argument, you'd start by putting an economic floor under everyone, without exception — health insurance for all, retirement for all, some level of income for all, and so on. (Universal programs would also remove much of the welfare stigma, which has its own horribly damaging psychological effects.) An uninsured relative getting a very expensive illness can tear a family apart, easily. Conversely, knowing that no matter what happens, absolute destitution can be avoided is a great relief.

With some basic stability achieved, then social critics like Vance — together with social workers, job trainers, and other such people — would have a lot more purchase on the people he's ostensibly trying to help. It seems like the only people really paying attention to him right now are rich coastal elites looking for an Appalachia Translator.

Dec 6, 2016

Matt Christman on the Chaos of Capitalism

On the latest Chapo Trap House Matt Christman discusses (starting about 1:03:00) the job-seeking advice contained in Megan McArdle's 2014 book The Up Side of Down.

She makes "two incredibly banal points...Advice for job-seekers 1: keep applying! Don't give up, keep it up, keep applying, even though it's discouraging...The other one that is duh and also vile is: Oh, and have you considered moving? The Kevin Williamson shit...

"Nothing highlights libertarianism's cold-blooded disconnection from any notion of human interaction or society better than their penchant for saying that people should just move around to the jobs and create these atomized pinball-humans moving from shantytown to shantytown looking for employment, and just sundering all communal bonds along the way. Nothing makes me more sympathetic to the trad caths than reading this fucking garbage..."

McArdle suggests that people could be helped to move to North Dakota where unemployment is low: "There are two hilarious things about that. One is now, in the last couple years, because of the falling oil prices, all those jobs in North Dakota have dried up pretty quickly. So joke's on you if you fucking piled in the minivan and spent your last 50 bucks to get to North Dakota to show up and find out all those jobs are gone.

"And the other is that even when that boom was happening, those oil towns in North Dakota were basically dystopian nightmare hells, like Philip K. Dick mining colonies. The kind of thing that no one on Earth would want to live in, the kind of place where community is basically impossible to form. So like Kevin Williamson, her recipe is basically 'have you considered turning the world into a sci-fi dystopia?'"

Nov 15, 2016

The Economic Aspect of Redemption

A common take on the election of Donald Trump is by analogy to the Redemption of the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when white supremacists took over the Republican governments of the southern states and stood up Jim Crow. Here's one from Adam Serwer, here's one from Jamelle Bouie, here's one from Donald Neiman.

I think this is a reasonable way to think about things, so long as we don't lose sight of the fact that nothing on the horizon is remotely as bad as the terrorism-enforced caste system of Jim Crow as yet. However, none of the above takes mention the Panic of 1873, something that was absolutely critical to the death of Reconstruction. This was the second-worst economic collapse in American history, and as tends to happen to the party in power, Republicans were utterly obliterated in the 1874 midterms. They lost 93 seats in the House, and enough state legislatures that 7 Senate seats were lost as well. It was the single biggest wave election of the 19th century.

Elements within the Republican Party tried in 1874 to pass an inflation bill to increase the supply of currency and hopefully restore jobs and output. But they ran headlong into the ideology of the upper class. "To the metropolitan bourgeoisie, it epitomized all the heretical impulses and dangerous social tendencies unleashed by the depression," writes Eric Foner in Reconstruction. Under their pressure, President Grant vetoed the bill.

The Reconstruction-era Republican Party was a coalition between whites in the North, many of them well-to-do, and largely poor blacks in the South. When capitalism had one of its periodic meltdowns, and push came to shove, rich Northern whites decided they would rather have property than democracy. "The depression also pushed reformers' elitist hostility to political democracy and government activism (except in the defense of law and order) to almost hysterical heights," writes Foner. He quotes The Nation explicitly warning of poor southern blacks and poor northern whites forming a "proletariat" that would be "as if they belonged to a foreign nation."

The background to this, of course, is the ongoing debate over the role the unquestionable economic failures of the Obama administration played in Trump's rise. I think Sam Adler-Bell strikes the right balance — not only is this a false dichotomy, it is simply preposterous to think one can provide a full picture of racism without considering class, or vice versa. But when we're talking historical lessons, the one I see from Reconstruction is that any political formation dedicated to protecting broad civil rights must also avoid economic calamity, or fix it immediately if it does strike. Social justice politics cannot survive coupled to neoliberalism and austerity — and conversely, full employment and a strong welfare state are powerful weapons against bigotry.

Oct 31, 2016

Socialism, Neoliberalism, and Competence

Alon Levy has an interesting post about ideology, technocrats, and public works. He suggests that competent socialism is impossible, because any extensive program of public works will of necessity end up being more interested in competence than ideology, and therefore will invariable slide into neoliberal technocracy.

This is based partially on what he see as an actively anti-competence spirit in the American left. After giving a reasonably fair definition of neoliberalism, Levy concludes:
The populist left today defines itself in diametric opposition to some subset of the above points, and this requires defining itself against the notion that competence in governing is important. This is unmistakable in Jacobin, the most important magazine of the American far left today...see [Jacobin editor Bhaskar] Sunkara in this extended rant, calling Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias less than human. Klein is "a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet." Per Sunkara, political success comes not from understanding policy but from emotional appeal, as in the Reagan Revolution, which, he concludes, "wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution."
I don't think this is a remotely accurate reading of what Sunkara is saying. Though he is having some fun at Klein and Yglesias's expense (calling them robots and such), in no way is he saying an understanding of technical details is actually bad; instead he is saying that an understanding of technical details cannot substitute for politics. The problem with liberal technocrats is that they tend to assume you can get past ideological differences with better data, which can lead to extraordinary errors of interpretation. That's how Klein got snookered by Paul Ryan, a lying poor-starving snake who can do a passable impersonation of a Serious Policy Guy.

Indeed, one odd thing about the "wonk"-branded crowd, including Klein and Yglesias, is that virtually none of them have any really serious expertise in anything. There are not many such people who can actually decode the complicated math in cutting-edge economic models, or conduct custom analyses of government survey microdata, or understand the fine details of climate models, and so on. Instead what they do is half pay attention to the abstracts of published research, the policy books that come out (and get promoted properly), the opinions of actual experts, and provide an intelligent layman's translation.

Now, of course I am not a true expert in anything either. But Vox is not remotely what it would be if it were staffed by a bunch of practicing academics. For one, people actually read it, but for another, it is notorious for rather amateurish errors.

This complicates Levy's assertion that the center-left is the place for detailed policy expertise these days. Rather what they have is a technocratic ideology — a belief that detailed policy expertise and lots of empirical study is the best way to make decisions rather than the actual expertise itself.

But as I said above this is impossible. Virtually every policy question is deeply entangled with unavoidable normative questions. Hence technocratic ideology, like any ideology, has a basic moral framework. Right now that framework is heavily neoliberal, as seen by the goofy-ass market mechanisms built into Obamacare (which incidentally don't work that well, but that's another post).

But my suspicion is that what technocratic ideology really is, deep down, is just a belief that whatever the hegemonic moral ideology happens to be is by definition correct. You take whatever the most powerful people think, and just build that into the background of every technical analysis.

Again, details definitely do matter, and Levy is right to say that the left doesn't have a really deep bench of credentialed experts. But that is a case of being out of power for a very long time. If, say, Bernie Sanders were headed to election as president, whatever left-wing experts there are out in the woodwork (and in a country this big, there are surely quite a few such people) would be getting ready to head to Washington. Other elite left-liberals who hadn't totally alienated themselves from the Sanders wing of the party would be patching things up and adjusting their politics to suit the new party reality.

After a presidency or two of that sort of government, the technocrats would be saying that universal social insurance is clearly the way to go when it comes to service provision. And I think they'd be more right than they are today.

Oct 20, 2016

Racist Whites, Union Organizing, and Political Coalitions

Some aggro person on twitter reminded me to respond to this from Elias Isquith:
I'll quote so everyone can read clearly:
If we agree that the Southern Strategy was premised on leveraging white racial resentment against economic liberalism — that working class whites were more willing to give up liberal economic policy than whiteness — then how do we imagine a coalition that is racially egalitarian and economically leftist will function if allowing the white working class to go its own way is not an option.
First, let me restate: my point about downscale whites and coalition building applies specifically to union organizing. If we view all Trump voters as irredeemable racists who must be shunned and cut out of any sort of leftist institution (as this person appears to be arguing here), then that leaves a big chunk of the working class able to serve as scabs and a reserve labor supply to hold down wages. Trump is, at least as of a few months ago, winning white people without a college degree by something like 30 points. Such people are likely to be concentrated in certain places and in certain industries, making those workplaces nearly impossible to organize without at least some buy-in from Trump supporters.

The reverse situation — when minorities were left largely unorganized, partly due to racism within unions and partly due to fanatical resistance on the part of southern state governments — was a major factor in why postwar unions were able to be slowly crushed by business. This is a simple point and has been obvious for a century.

Isquith's making a different point about electoral political coalitions. This is a much easier question. Racist whites are small enough in number that they aren't needed to assemble a winning national coalition anymore. You simply win power and steamroll them, as Hillary Clinton is close to doing right now.

Indeed, if the Democratic Party were actually committed to labor, then the immediate future would look pretty promising for unions and the country as a whole. If Clinton wins by a big enough landslide to take Congress, then Dems could put through card check, repeal Taft-Hartley, and dust off the rather outdated structures of the NLRB. That might enable a new wave of organizing, and with a bit of luck, perhaps even draw mass numbers of working class whites into unions with ironclad racial egalitarian protections, thus moderating their prejudice and driving home their common class interest with working class minorities, as Seth Ackerman argues.

The problem, of course, is that the Democratic Party as currently constituted is tolerant at best of labor and not remotely interested in replaying John L. Lewis's mass organizing of the 1930s. Neither is it interested in balls-to-the-wall economic stimulus, nor in cutting the size of Wall Street back to its postwar share of GDP, nor in massive expansions in the welfare state to slash poverty. Instead it's the same old cosmopolitan finance capitalism with moderate restraints and piddling little new benefits here and there, often restricted to the working poor only.

The great danger I see for the currently popular brand of milquetoast liberalism is that some post-Trump Republican will stumble onto the fascist formula of authoritarianism plus Keynesianism I mentioned in my last post, and Dems will be unable to meet the challenge due to excessive reliance on and deference to the ultra-wealthy donor class. If the Republican Party becomes the place for all-out stimulus plus aggressive attack on Wall Street parasitism and corporate monopolies (perhaps tailored for whites and Latinos against blacks, or for whites and blacks against Latinos); as against a Democratic Party of balanced budgets, somewhat more partially-refundable tax credits, and secret speeches to Goldman Sachs, I worry that furious attacks on Republican-sympathetic voters as despicable racists will simply lead people to embrace the label and lead to electoral defeat.

Oct 19, 2016

The Political Economy of Trumpism

Mike Konczal has a pretty good post discussing whether or not left-wing economic policy might win over white working-class Trump voters in the future. He discusses four broad policy directions: "a more redistributive state, a more aggressive state intervention in the economy, a weakening of the centrality of waged labor, and a broadening, service-based form of worker activism," and argues that all of these will repulse white conservatives even more from the left.

Konzcal aptly notes that the major engines of conservative politics are highly moralized notions about desert (to wit: poor people, especially minority ones, deserve their fate) and a love of coercive hierarchy as such, the most important of which is the racial hierarchy with its roots in antebellum slavery. Therefore, those four policies, which involve new transfers and government action to benefit the disproportionately black and brown bottom of the income distribution, and union organizing among increasingly black, brown, and female service workers, will inspire snarling outrage among Trump-inclined white voters.

This is a good excuse to get down something I've wanted to outline for awhile: my napkin sketch theory of Trump. Let me start with that.

Alf Landon
In pre-Great Depression capitalist politics, the impulses Konczal mentions were translated into a basically libertarian economic ideology insisting that enforcing markets and (ludicrously lopsided) contracts was the only proper role of economic policy, and that business should rule the economy. As Michal Kalecki wrote, "The social function of the doctrine of 'sound finance' is to make the level of employment dependent on the state of confidence."

The Depression broke that ideology to smithereens. It turns out the bigger and more sophisticated a capitalist economy becomes, the more direct a role government must play in its management — otherwise disaster results. The New Deal and especially WWII cemented a new bedrock ideology that the state must use monetary and fiscal policy to prevent mass unemployment, regulate industry to some degree, and provide at least a meager welfare state. After losing every presidential election from 1932 through 1948 (and most of the midterms), even Republicans accepted this as a fact of life.

Conservative politics for the past 80 years has been dedicated to ripping up that bedrock ideology and replacing it, brick by brick, with the pre-Depression version. They want to return to the gold standard, (or failing that, to disembowel the Fed's ability to fight unemployment), deregulation, and privatization or abolition of the welfare state. That ideological project is largely complete, assisted greatly by the Democrats' turn towards neoliberalism starting with the election of Jimmy Carter. Any trace of Eisenhower Republicanism has been purged from the GOP, and the vast majority of conservative elites now reject the basic legitimacy of the postwar welfare and regulatory state.

Importantly, the raw political fuel of this movement is still the same largely sociocultural factors as before. But the striking thing about conservatives in the Obama era is how the expression of these has been turbocharged, culminating with the nomination of Trump. Republican voters are more comfortable now with open bigotry than at any time Wallace voters in 1968 — and not only that, they nominated a candidate who is also egregiously unqualified according to any respectable notion of what sort of person should be president.

Much of that is no doubt due to the browning of America, the first black president, and the absolutely debauched state of the conservative intellectual apparatus. But I think another factor must be increasing material desperation. Among the bottom half or so of the white population, wages are flat or declining and have been for decades, mortality is up, and opioid addiction is an ongoing catastrophe.

Now, as Steve Randy Waldman notes, desperation doesn't translate automatically to political change — among many other reasons, because the most desperate people generally don't vote at all. It's a chaotic and weird process. But the severely-underpowered arguments that attempt to pin Trump's rise on 100 percent ex nihilo racism are unconvincing, not least because they fail to explain the character of Trump's racism and overall candidacy (and contain more than a whiff of apologia for cosmopolitan finance capitalism). Again, Trump is not just a racist, but the first presidential candidate in American history with precisely zero relevant experience.

Desperation fuels a search for scapegoats and thus a more and more open bigotry, in addition to furious contempt for elite political norms in general. Outside a US electoral context, this is a trivial observation about the rise of Nazi Germany — is it simply a coincidence that their best electoral result happened in 1932, when unemployment was nearly 30 percent?

So there is a feedback loop here. Conservative and neoliberal austerity fuels a harder-edged reactionary movement, which elects more and more reactionaries to political office, who then put through more austerity. But austere libertarian economics has not gotten any more workable since 1929 — on the contrary, active policy is more necessary now than ever. So this process continues until taxes and government services have been cut so far that the basic structure of the state starts to come unglued. This happened in the nation as a whole from 1929-32, it has happened in Kansas and Louisiana today, and to a lesser extent in most other conservative states, as Chris Hooks notes.

There are two basic paths from there. One is for voters to turn out Republicans made hideously unpopular by their destructive policy and elect Democrats who can undo the damage (Louisiana). The other is the basic fascist formula: a truly vicious conservatism translated into a Keynesian economic ideology — basically, full employment plus the secret police. Trump, with his demagogue's ear for what people want to hear, has stumbled close to this formula — but because he is a complete ignoramus about all policy and theory, he can't make the full leap to Keynesianism.

All this means is that to a very great extent I think it will be completely impossible to win over Trump supporters to actually vote for Democrats. However, more left-wing policy might go a considerable distance towards defusing Trumpism and nudging Republicans to vote for less deranged candidates. It's quite plausible to think that if in 2009 Democrats had put through a big enough stimulus to quickly restore full employment, Medicare for all, cut the size of the financial sector in half, and not enabled the foreclosure epidemic, the 2010 and 2014 midterms would not have been lost, and Republicans would have nominated an ordinary politician in 2016. (Equally important, the Democrats might have made serious inroads into the huge population of nonvoters.)

I think the political stance of the broad left should ideally be something like this. We should confidently push forward on social democracy wherever possible, blithely ignoring the furious protests that are sure to result from white conservatives, and build on the hopefully resulting coalition to further entrench new benefits. After a few more shellackings at the ballot box, Republicans will hopefully calm the hell down and again accommodate themselves to the welfare state, and we can start the whole merry process over again.

One final note: three out of four of Konczal's policies are mostly about government policy. The final one, labor organizing, seems like a much more difficult nut to crack, at least in theory. As Jamelle Bouie notes, any sort of revitalized service worker organizing must be cognizant of the fact that working class service jobs are disproportionately held by minorities and women. Therefore, he argues that racist whites must be kept out of the organizing effort, "lest you undermine the larger effort."

That's probably a good idea for any particular union looking to expand. But I suspect such a situation will be long-term poison for any labor movement, for the exact same reason that keeping minorities out of most of the postwar unions helped lead to their downfall. Keeping a large slice of the working class un-organized means a big population of reserve labor that can be exploited as competition and scabs by business. And while America is browning fast, service jobs are the jobs of the future, and white people will be by far the largest ethnic group for decades and decades at least.

I honestly don't have the slightest idea what to do about that (and it goes without saying I am piss-poor at organizing). But I do think organizers and thinkers should continue to hammer home the fact that the economic fortunes of working class whites are inextricably tied up with those of minorities. The more people you can cover with union contracts, however grudgingly, the greater the potential staying power of the labor movement — and you might even help erode racist attitudes to boot.

Oct 18, 2016

Chase Madar on Samantha Power

A recent episode of Chapo Trap House featured Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney in New York. Here's an excerpt dealing with Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell. This starts at about 20 minutes in:

MADAR: It's a 600-page book subtitled "America and the Age of Genocide." And what's most striking about it is really what's not in this 600-page book — again, subtitled "America and the Age of Genocide." Those postwar genocides that the US had some kind of hand in — supplying intelligence, condoning, complicity — are airbrushed from this.

The Indonesian massacre of Communists and fellow travelers in the 1965-66, death toll in the hundreds of thousands, we don't know how many, is simply not mentioned even once in this book...the word "Guatemala" is not even in the index.

In fairness, East Timor — this was a genocide committed by Indonesia when they invaded in 1975 — that gets exactly one sentence. She even gets that sentence wrong, saying the US "looked the other way." In fact the US was looking right at it. President Ford and Henry Kissinger spent the night in Jakarta meeting with the dictator of Indonesia, Suharto, literally the night before. There was a kind of green light given, and they provided military training and weaponry...

What I found also kind of barf-worthy was some liberal handwringing after [the infamous picture she tweeted with Henry Kissenger] saying "oh, it's so sad how Samantha Power has really compromised her values, because that book she wrote about genocide was so good" ...

But I think Samantha Power's scholarly career shows an incredible lack of integrity. To leave out the genocides that her country and my country had a hand in borders on genocide denial. What would we think if a Polish intellectual wrote a 600-page book subtitled "Poland and the Age of Genocide" and then just somehow forgot to mention those death camps that were set up with some complicity of Polish people in Poland?