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.

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.