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?