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enough landslide to take Congress, then Dems could put through card check, repeal Taft-Hartley, and dust off the rather outdated structures of the NLRB.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?

Sep 13, 2016

Educational Trends Within 35-and-Up Wealth Quintiles

Previously I wrote about educational composition within under-35 wealth quintiles as a way of testing the reliability of a prison study which used wealth at 20-28 as a marker for class. (Again, I must note that I had much help from Matt Bruenig, both for the idea and the execution.)

My main result was that the bottom wealth quintile for 1989 (near when their study was done) was unusually well-educated, thus demonstrating that wealth at a young age is not a reliable marker for class.

I thought I would confirm this result by looking at 35-and-up families in the Survey of Consumer Finances. It's the same calculations, just with different families. If the previous hypothesis is correct, in this group we should see a smooth increase in educational attainment with increasing wealth. Here's the chart:
As I suspected. Not quite perfect, but very close.

Now, just for fun, here are the same time series charts I did for each under-35 wealth quintile in my previous post, but for 35 and up.
No real big trends to notice here, except for a general increasing educational attainment as we go up the wealth quintiles — and an odd sustained increase in grad school in the third quintile. No idea what that's about, honestly.

Up next: determining the break points separating the wealth quintiles.

Sep 6, 2016

Educational Trends Within Under-35 Wealth Quintiles

Last week, with much help from Matt Bruenig, I wrote a post using microdata analysis of the 1989 Survey of Consumer Finances. Since I have the script, I figure I might as well make full use of it, both for practice and to see what I can find.

So for a start, here are some time series trends for educational attainment within income quintiles for under-35 families. Basically what we're doing here is breaking the under-35 population into fifths based on their wealth, determining the educational background of each fifth, and plotting the change over time using the SCF surveys, which are done every three years. (This starts at 1989 and runs through 2013, the most recent survey.)

I bet there is a way to cram all this into one graph, but for the time being here are some simple line charts for each income quintile.

A few things jump out here. The education level of the top wealth quintile is increasing over time, which makes intuitive sense. 

But surely most striking is the high level of education in the bottom quintile. This group is not the least educated, and its education level has increased over time. The share of people with any grad school education and up has doubled for this group, and the share of college graduates has nearly tripled. Interestingly, in the 2013 survey the quintile with the absolute lowest share of less-than-high-school educated families (with 3.3 percent) is the bottom one. 

As I argued in my previous post, wealth at a young age is not a great proxy for overall economic class, because a substantial number of future rich people will appear wealth-poor due to taking out loans for education and not having inherited yet. The wealth brackets for the bottom quintile will probably be massively negative (more on this later), and most high school dropouts will not have the credit rating to take on that kind of debt.

Not much is going in with the middle charts, but it's still kind of interesting to see.

May 23, 2016

Matt Christman on Twitter Politics

I've been meaning to write something about how politics is conducted online, but in the latest episode of Chapo Trap HouseMatt Christman hit most of what I was going to say, only better. He meditated on the fact of hundreds of people (both Clinton and Sanders partisans) taking this tweet seriously:
Here's Matt:

"Politics in America is dead as a part of your life. We think of politics all the time but it's generally as this spectacle we absorb. We don't have a praxis, as they obnoxiously say in Marxist lingo. There's nothing we do on a day to day basis that constitutes making a political choice and asserting political ideology. We observe, and then we spout off online.

"What happens is on the internet, specifically on Twitter, is millions of people — fans of every candidate — basically have volunteered themselves to be part of the rapid response crew of a given campaign. They're going to respond to everything thinking that they're helping — having the psychic satisfaction of thinking that they're helping the campaign.

"And because Twitter is this fucking insane asylum of undifferentiated, context-free streams blasting into your face, it strips your ability to do any kind of rational, balanced analysis of things, any ability to challenge whether it's true.

"So you just become this raw nerve of response. You just have to reflexively respond to any stimuli, in this way that's instantaneous. That, I think, is the generator of a lot of this shit. It's not coordinated — it doesn't need to be. It's basically the pent-up and unexpressed, frustrated political will of millions of people being jizzed out onto the internet at the same time."

Apr 12, 2016

Social Insurance and Leveling Incomes Is Pretty Easy

There's a new study out about income and life expectancy, and unsurprisingly it finds that rich people live much longer than poor ones — 15 years for men, 10 years for women. There's a smooth relationship between more money and more life, particularly at the very bottom of the income ladder, where there's a collapse of several years:

However, there are also apparently some geographic wrinkles here. Poor people do very badly in Nevada, West Texas, and Indiana, but much better on the west coast and Glenwood Springs. At the New York Times, Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui seize on locally-based policy as an interim step that would be much easier than fixing income inequality:
But the fact that some places have increased the life span of their poorest residents suggests that improving public health doesn’t require first fixing the broader, multidecade problem of income inequality. Small-scale, local policies to help the poor adopt and maintain healthier habits may succeed in extending their lives, regardless of what happens with trends in income inequality.
The sense of relief here is palpable. Thank Christ we don't have to change the distribution of income, because that is nigh-impossible.

But at least when it comes to policy design and implementation, the reverse is very obviously true. National-level programs to hand out checks to the poor — and thus level the distribution of income — are about the easiest policy it is possible to imagine. There is already a big check-writing bureaucracy, with detailed information about basically every person in the country. Adjust taxes a bit and send out more checks, the end.

Universal health insurance, or universal paid leave, or a child allowance would be somewhat more logistically challenging, but still easily within the remit of even the fairly incompetent American state.

By contrast, convincing thousands of local communities to drastically alter their local infrastructure and government programs would be a gargantuan political challenge. It means attention must be dispersed to thousands of simultaneous fights, tough in the best of circumstances — which this clearly is not, as most of the worst places are rural and conservative. Worst of all, local communities are generally far more resource-constrained than the national government. Poor people in Detroit do very poorly, for example. I'd say it's a safe bet this is because Detroit had most of its economic base torn out with a mellon baller a generation ago. Rest assured, Detroit knows all about this, and hasn't been able to do shit about it.

The only other obvious solution is that favored by conservatives: post-WWII-style population transfers from struggling to thriving communities. That would be hellishly expensive, probably not very popular, and has every chance of just creating a new struggling underclass in the previously-thriving location. San Francisco could not simply absorb all of Appalachia.

Anyway, that is not to say that improving local communities shouldn't be a high priority. It is, and should be. It's just vastly more difficult than using the tax system to shift money around, or creating universal social insurance.

I suspect Irwin is actually referring to wages when he says "income inequality," in keeping with the casual neoliberalism that dominates economics coverage in this country. This school of thought implicitly believes that wage labor is the only legitimate way of obtaining income (aside from capital rents, of course). Therefore whenever it might come up, welfare is either actively shunned, or more commonly excluded from the policy menu.

But the product of crummy social insurance and huge inequality is the exactly poor health and despair that is under discussion. So the "wonks" root around for any sort of wrinkle in the data that might suggest a course of action other than taxing the hell out of the rich and kicking the money down the income ladder. I dunno, tax credits for local wellness programs??

Don't be fooled. Simple transfers and universal social insurance are by far the most promising avenue for improving the lot of the American poor.

Mar 14, 2016

When outsiders get a chance at governance

Bernie's free college idea has convinced Matt Yglesias on the merits, but as he argues later, it's not that practical. Universities are run by states, and so Bernie's plan relies on matching funds at a 2-1 level. Total tuition at all public colleges and universities is only $70 billion, so the feds would pick up 2/3rds if states would pick up the other third.

Probably a lot of blue states would jump at this idea (the University of California alone contains 238,000 students), but as Yglesias notes red states assuredly would not. There's only so much leverage the feds have over states, and it's pretty tough to convince states that are dead convinced on pummeling their own citizenry.

And that's fair enough, policy design does matter. However, as with the single-payer scuffle and the ensuing extremely irritating debate about whether Bernie was being sufficiently deferential to the WONKS, I think much of unpolished policy can be chalked up to him being a political outsider for basically his entire national career before this year.

When you're a left-wing critic railing against centrist compromises like Obamacare, it's really not necessary or practical to have completely worked-out policy proposals for every single idea. For single-payer, for example, you just look at places like Canada or Taiwan, conclude that the basic idea is workable, add the obvious fact that Obamacare isn't going to cover everyone, and then put forward rough outlines or utopian bills.

But now that Bernie is a national contender making Hillary Clinton fight hard for the nomination, suddenly he's got to have "serious" proposals to impress the high-status DC gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, they're often bit rushed, and sometimes don't have all the t's crossed and i's dotted policy-wise.

I see no reason to be unduly concerned about this. So long as his ideas are not completely impossible (and he has gone too far in some areas, to be fair), then it's the basic workability that matters. If he were to win, the details can be filled in later, when he will have command of the Democratic Party intellectual apparatus. I think a lot of "wonk" criticism of Bernie is more about affect and cultural deference than it is about policy (recall how Ezra Klein, a prominent Bernie critic, was briefly snookered by Paul Ryan).

And speaking of free college, what about Freddie's idea for five big new federal universities? Simple, utilitarian, cheap, administrator-lean, and free for any American citizen. Put the enrollment target at 100,000 per school and go from there.

Jul 13, 2015

Introducing "Polit-euro"

Henceforth the political power elite of the eurozone (mostly the top German politicos) are now called the "Polit-euro". This phrase got cut from my last piece (justifiably so I suppose, for such a bad pun), but I still think it's pretty good. Billmon gave me the idea, but so far as I know nobody else has used it yet. Go forth and troll some German MPs.

May 24, 2015

George Orwell and the Essayist Style

I recently reread The Road to Wigan Pier, which I first read in the Peace Corps probably about five years ago. I remembered quite liking the first half of the book, particularly the vivid sections on what it's like to work as a coal miner, while disliking the second half, though I couldn't remember why. It was something about socialism and the middle class, and it seemed vaguely muddled.

This impression was confirmed on second reading. The description of coal mining indeed remains brilliant, especially in structure. Orwell maintains a great sense of pacing, carefully building up each new agony that the miners endure, so that by the end a real appreciation of the awesome difficulty of coal mining is developed, as opposed to simply reaching for analogies or hyperbole.

The second half, however, is pretty bad. On occasion, as when Orwell is describing the peculiar anxieties of having grown up middle class, and why middle-class people like himself struggle with embracing socialism, he makes some good points. But elsewhere, as in his description of machines, he's just blowing smoke. As part of a general tirade against machines civilization, here he tries for a reductio ad absurdum against the idea that people might cultivate deliberately archaic methods of production as a way of occupying themselves:
But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain ‘creative work’? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity—as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train—or by car or aeroplane. Here am I, forty miles from London. When I want to go up to London why do I not pack my luggage on to a mule and set out on foot, making a two days of it? Because, with the Green Line buses whizzing past me every ten minutes, such a journey would be intolerably irksome. In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where everything could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery.
I think we can conclude he was wrong here. In fact, the hugely advanced machine age (Wigan Pier was written in 1937) has not obliterated all desire for hand work. People are not very systematic about it usually, enjoying extreme conveniences like the airplane and the Internet without much thought, and even power planers, tablesaws, angle grinders, and so forth. But a reasonable number of people, like my friend Brad, do carry out basically manual manufacturing, by picking methods which usually use a lot of mechanical conveniences but also preserve a reasonable space for skill and hand work. Some even make quite a good living at it:

The Birth Of A Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making (by John Neeman Tools) from John Neeman Tools on Vimeo.

Of course, that is quite apart from the idea that one could provide for large-scale production and employment through adoption of deliberately inefficient and archaic methods. But in his contention that people would not possibly do this, Orwell was just wrong, as previously in the same section when he scoffed at the idea that white-collar people would stay in shape through working out with dumbbells.

That's the danger of the classic essayist method, which relies so much on the perspicacity of insight and quality of writing. When the subject is coal mining, and Orwell is down in the mine and speaking with the workers, his aim is true. But when it comes to the general politics of socialism, or future projections about the direction of civilization, a more systematic approach is a big help, I think, either with theory or some kind of systematic evidence. Simply relying on impressions for such large-scale phenomena risks allowing prejudice to creep in (Orwell clearly despised machines) and thus undercutting the authority of the writer's voice when he puts a foot wrong.