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Did Trump's top economic advisor endorse a wealth cap? - 3/16/18
Trump has tapped Larry Kudlow to head the National Economic Council, and I can't stop thinking about what Kudlow wrote a while back:
...while the Left has demonized Trump’s cabinet appointees as a terrible group of successful business people, free-market capitalists such as myself regard this group as very good indeed...Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.
Most pundits responded to this by explaining that the rich are often corrupt thieves, but what strikes me is how Kudlow is actually contradicting a major point of capitalist orthodoxy. In theory, the reason that we let the rich get even richer is that financial incentives motivate peak professional performance from our captains of industry. But here, Kudlow insists that the rich are not motivated by opportunities to make more money. If that's true, why not impose a maximum cap on wealth?

To appreciate just how off-message Kudlow's comment is, just look back to the 2008 financial crisis. As income inequality and executive pay came under more public scrutiny than it had in decades, here's how Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten, writing for the Cato Institute, responded:
Corporate boards design executive pay programs to attract, retain, and motivate executive to perform at high levels. Motivation plays an important role in companies' ability to achieve high returns and encourage executives to make decisions that increase shareholder values. Incentive pay programs are particularly effective motivators, especially at the top level of business.
This is all important, of course, because the "executive compensation system...has helped to generate great wealth for shareholders and millions of jobs for American workers." And that's how capitalism justifies itself to society: because income is what motivates our wealthy innovators and job-creators, we need to give them more money.

If pressed on this, Kudlow would undoubtedly revise his position and insist that the rich do need financial incentives - but that just exposes his comment as the empty rationalization of power that it is.
What do liberals mean by "authoritarian"? - 3/7/18
The discourse on authoritarianism has significantly ramped up over the past decade:

Though Google trends can be an unreliable guide, the growth here maps onto some intuitive milestones: the first major spike corresponds directly with Donald Trump's Super Tuesday victories in the Republican primaries, and the next corresponds to his general election victory and inauguration. Much of the talk about authoritarianism clearly owes to liberal anxieties about Trump, though it has also, by association, become a choice adjective for Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Nicholas Kristof, writing on Trump's Threat to Democracy, offers a telling formulation:
“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “...But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized...” 
That seems right to me: The system worked.
For most of history since the emergence of the left proper during the French Revolution, this phrasing would have been unremarkable. "The system," of course, is our government; to say that it is "working" is to say that formal democracy is checking the power of some central authority. Some two hundred years ago, that meant subduing the monarchy; in the twentieth century, it meant binding the hands of various dictators. An "authoritarian" is the ultimate "threat to democracy" because that is how power works: some ruthless and ambitious person tries to personally seize control of the government.

If this theory of power sounds familiar, there's a reason: it's capitalism. Capitalism is the ideology which teaches us that all power is government power; since the free market operates on a principle of voluntary exchange, coercion only emerges when the state tells people what to do. That's why the only real authority is government authority. For libertarians, that's all authoritarianism is: the government exercising power. Liberals, meanwhile, carry on the Revolutionary tradition of opposing monarchs and neo-monarchs ("dictators", "tyrants", etc.) who wield government power; this may seem distinct from the libertarian formulation, but both see power and authority as exclusive properties of the state.

This notion of the "authoritarian" ignores precisely what capitalism ignores: every other form of power.

A crucial contribution of the modern left to our understanding of power is the insight that power does not just come from the government. Live in a patriarchal household and you'll see the authoritarian in the domination of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Listen to the way black folks are talked to and you'll hear the authoritarian in a white voice. Work for a micro-managing boss, or beg a bank for a loan, and you'll meet the authoritarians of the bourgeoisie. Every day we encounter tyrants who do not control the state, but who threaten our freedom and even our lives in a million different ways.

Liberalism may co-opt the language of intersectionality, but fundamentally, it believes precisely what Kristof believes: if we can just keep the government under control, "the system works." That's why liberals reserve "authoritarian" for villains in the government - to remind us where authority is, and to insist where authority is not.
A few points about that study on so-called "call-out culture" - 2/20/18
Conor Friedersdorf, writing for The Atlantic, has called into question what he describes as "the excesses of call-out culture" - particularly on social media - and asks, "what’s your theory of how that could advance social justice?"

As usual, this line of skepticism has prompted a broader discussion on all kinds of distinct questions (is call-out culture good? is it effective? does it ever warrant criticism?) - but here, I just want to touch on one narrow point. In response to the piece, Angus Johnston has pointed readers to an old study that has long circulated among call-out culture's partisans: Condemning and Condoning Racism: A Social Context Approach to Interracial Settings, by Blanchard, This study, Johnston says, establishes that "condemnation of antisocial behavior—and racially offensive speech specifically—is actually a tactic with a proven record of effectiveness".

While that may be true, this is a pretty ambitious reading of what that paper actually says. A few key passages, which its readers routinely neglect:

1. Online is not IRL. Blanchard notes,
Several features of our experimental paradigm may have contributed to the large social influence effects. Two of the elements of social impact theory (LatanĂ©, 1981), strength and immediacy, were set at high levels by our procedures. (996) 
By strength, I mean the...importance, or intensity of a given source to the target - usually this would be determined by such things as the source's status...prior relationship with, or future power over, the target. By immediacy, I mean closeness in space or time and absence of intervening barriers of filters. (344)
Obviously, both of these elements of social influence are experienced quite differently online than they are in Blanchard's experimental setting. Online, the socioeconomic status of the call-outer is often ambiguous or indeterminate; the prior relationship is typically non-existent, as is any "future power" over the target. Similarly, online call-outs are not experienced with any "closeness in space" or in the "absence of intervening barriers or filters." In other words, the very factors that Blanchard says are relevant - strength and immediacy - are both so diminished online that we can't just take for granted the relevance of this study.

All of this predicts quite directly the familiar dismissal of call-outs as coming from "trolls," "bots," "stans," "alts," and so on - critics who do not have status, and who therefore do not have influence. It is also quite consistent with the well-attested Online Disinhibition Effect, which emerges from all of the same factors: anonymity, lack of social proximity, and so on. There is, in short, no reason to assume that social media facilitates influence in the same way that real-world interactions do.

2. Influence declines among anti-racists. This is an effect that Blanchard noticed in a previous study, and that he set out to account for here:
Overhearing another person condemn racism yielded notably robust social influence on the two campuses where those who were exposed to influence were not already uniformly, strongly antiracist. (995, emphasis added.)
This could express what Blanchard calls a "ceiling limitation" (994)- the obvious fact that people who are antiracist (as measured by certain metrics) simply don't have much room to become less racist (as measured by those same metrics).

However - it could also mean that call-outs yield diminishing returns among people who are already "antiracist" in some general sense. I think it's easy to understand why: if you already think of yourself as an antiracist, and are already committed to various points of popular antiracist orthodoxy, you are likely to interpret a call-out as some kind of trivial "intellectual" critique rather than as a compelling attack on values. And as Blanchard notes, "judgmental issues (involving ethical, valued, or proper positions) are more likely to be susceptible to normative influence processes than intellective issues" (996).

If this reading holds, then call-outs may be the least effective where they often seem to emerge the most: in the context of "self-criticism", directed at subjects who see themselves as sharing the same values and same general political beliefs.

3. Influence may not be persistent. Blanchard:
...since we included no means of evaluating the durability of reactions to racism, the longevity of peer influences of the sort we investigated remains unknown. (996)
This point should be of particular concern to activists who are more interested in the long-term fight against racism than against the immediate gratification of fleeting shame or an insincere apology. As I noted previously, other studies have suggested that the "long-term effect" of shaming strategies can entail "a huge impact on one's identity...[it] has a strong impingement on emotional development" (Tanaka) which can precipitate a counterproductive, reactionary response to call-outs.

These points, of course, are just caveats. It may be the case that online call-outs are effective even when we do account for these considerations. And even if they aren't tactically effective, of course, one can still argue for them as expressions of solidarity, as speaking truth-to-power, and so on. But however the evidence shakes out, the case for online call-outs is not well-served by appeals to a study that does not ultimately make that case.
A brief note on the Modern Bourgeoisie series - 12/15/17
A while back I began a series about Marx's theory of "the bourgeoisie" and the relevance of this nineteenth century concept to the modern world. In the first part, I discussed how the economy has become more complex than it was in Marx's time, dealing in particular with the problem of financialization. In the second part, I discussed the way that imperial domination seems to have replaced control of the means of production as the primary locus of economic and political power. In both cases, I came to the same conclusion: though they are certainly relevant and important, these developments do not fundamentally challenge Marx's great insight that political power is ultimately located in control of the means of production.

These were parts one and two - but the careful reader will remember that there is also supposed to be a part three, focusing on identity. How does race fit in to our theory of the bourgeoisie? What about gender? What about all of the different forms of identity which we see at work in our politics, and which are clearly relevant to any conversation about political power?

Part three is coming, but I want to do it justice. Which means a lot of time on research and even more time working out my thoughts. In the meantime other takes will keep coming, but rest assured that part three is on the way.
Centrists are going to learn the wrong lessons from Doug Jones' win - 12/13/17
If we are even minimally concerned with social justice and equality, it's pretty simple to make the case that Democrats should fight for the interests of black voters. In recent years, however, a different argument has become popular: Democrats should campaign for black votes because this is a strategy that wins elections. It's a line of argument that lends itself to the sensibilities of a calculating, mercenary, and partisan political class of armchair quants and "data-journalists", so I don't think that we should be surprised by its popularity - but I also think that it's deeply suspicious, and extremely dangerous.

Consider last night's victory by Democrat Doug Jones over Republican challenger Roy Moore. Already, we are seeing headlines like African American Voters Made Doug Jones a U.S. Senator in AlabamaBlack voters just saved America from Roy Moore, and How Black Voters Lifted Doug Jones Over Roy Moore. And by some measures, that's exactly what happened. Jones has the backing of 96% of black voters, and black turnout was high at 29% - about three percentage points higher than their representation in the electorate would predict.

But if you insist on being a bottom-line obsessed demographic wonk, then I promise you, those aren't the numbers that the Democratic Party cares about. When a campaign strategist looks at race in Alabama, this is what she's going to see:

Yes, black Alabamans supported Jones almost unanimously - though they always support the Democrat almost unanimously. Yes, black Alabamans had good turnout - though they always have good turnout. Those numbers only improved on 2012 by a few percentage points at the very most, but none of this was decisive. 

What clearly changed between 2012 and 2017 is that Jones won 10% more white votes than Obama, while Moore earned 12% less than Romney - a swing of over 20 points. In comparison, black voters only gave Jones a 1% higher margin than Obama had.

Again: if you are a mercenary Democratic strategist, you are going to look at these numbers and decide that Democrats can take black voters for granted and need to focus on white voters. This is the lesson that Northam taught them in Virginia, and this is the lesson that Jones is teaching them in Alabama. The way you combat this is not to promote a politics of amoral demographic gaming, but to insist that Democrats need to fight for black voters regardless of what opportunistic (and largely superficial) data-wonkery suggests.
Trump and the failure of incrementalism - 11/29/17
Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are advancing an epochal tax bill "that could reshape major areas of American life," the New York Times reports:
Some see in this tilt a reworking of basic principles that have prevailed in American life for generations... 
“This is a repudiation of the social contract that Franklin Roosevelt announced at the New Deal,” Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, said...
This may seem like unusually apocalyptic prose for a news report, but we've heard a lot of this in the past year. The American Healthcare Act, Esquire warned in May, would "fundamentally reshape the American healthcare system" if passed; in June, Time Magazine explained that "the Paris Agreement represents a...decade of international discussions on climate change" and that Trump's withdrawal would "toss aside years of grinding work from the global community."

On front after front, the Trump Administration is teaching us the same lesson: in just a few moments, the right can completely nullify decades and decades of patient, pragmatic, hard-won incremental progress. This point is not really all that controversial: the night before her 2016 loss, Hillary Clinton warned that Trump would "rip away the progress we’ve made and turn the clock back, sending us back in time"; similarly, President Obama warned that Trump "in the first couple of weeks sitting in the Oval Office [could] reverse every single thing that we've done."

But contrast that warning with Obama's own words just a few weeks later during his farewell speech:
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion...
This theory of "forward motion" may be a truism among American liberals, but it's directly at odds with a point liberals will themselves admit in moments of insecurity: you can lose every inch of progress in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a sufficiently ambitious right or some unusually bad luck. More often progress can die the death of a thousand cuts, as one can see in the steady, deliberate erosion of the welfare state in the US; but occasionally you get a Donald Trump, and then the reversal becomes impossible to miss.

The theory of incrementalism, as far as I can tell, is that we should prefer the guarantee of slow-but-steady progress, which is achieved through modest ambitions, to the risks of immediate victory. What Trump is showing us, however, is that even if you win a short-term incremental victory, you can still end up with nothing in the end. You can engage in years of modest pragmatic compromise climate change diplomacy and find yourself right back where you started a decade later; you can pass "achievable" business-friendly health care legislation on the assumption that this will engineer some kind of universal coverage down the road, and then have it gutted as soon as the opposition takes power. If what we care about is progress, an incremental victory can easily leave you in the exact same place as you'd be if you'd taken a big political gamble and failed.

The only way the progress rationale for incrementalism survives is if you accept liberalism's mystical theory that for some reason (Providence? American exceptionalism? Wishful thinking?) progress never gets completely reversed or eroded away. Perhaps there are other reasons to prefer incrementalism as a political strategy, but if we take the threat of Donald Trump seriously, we should abandon this "forward motion" ideology once and for all.
Most liberals support violent sex offenders - 11/23/17
YouGov has conducted some polling on American politicans embroiled in sex scandals, and the results are not particularly flattering for liberals.

An extraordinary 71% of self-identified liberals still approve of Bill Clinton, compared to 52% of moderates and 19% of conservatives. That majority is even stronger among Democrats (at 77%), especially compared to independents (37%). This despite the fact that 75% of liberals and 68% of Democrats believe that he "probably" or "definitely" committed sexual assault.

Similarly, Al Franken retains majority support among liberals (at 54%) and plurality support among Democrats (at 42%), compared with plurality opposition among independents and moderates. This, even though most liberals (66%) and Democrats (64%) believe that he's guilty of sexual harassment.

Two simple points:
1) Particularly over the past year, it has become popular to insist that only a trivial number of unusually vocal liberals are reactionary, while an overwhelming majority are quietly sympathetic to left politics. For example, this was the standard (tortured) reading of a poll a while back which demonstrated that only 8% of Democratic voters oppose Bernie Sanders. But what polls like this show us is that in fact significant majorities of Democrats are quite willing to take reactionary positions when it's politically convenient. 
2) A similar line of rationalization spares liberals from critique by bracketing off reactionary politics as a problem of so-called moderates and centrists - the toxin hasn't spread among liberals per se, just among an odd and distinct species of fence-sitters and No Labels enthusiasts. In fact, however, what we see here is that support for dangerous misogynists is actually stronger among liberals and Democrats than among independents and moderates.
In my view, all of this is pretty easy to understand once we accept that ideological and partisan labels often have more to do with tribal identity than with values and political committments. A third or so of all Americans grew up in liberal Democratic families, socialize in liberal Democratic communities, and live in liberal Democratic districts. Predictably, these people will tend to think of themselves as liberals and Democrats, and they will tend to cheer for causes and positions aligned with liberals and Democrats. This only implies so much, however, about their personal priorities, interests, and sympathies.

When Phil Ochs famously said that American liberals are "ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally", he was making this basic distinction between politics and cultural identity. As the response to Clinton and Franken is demonstrating, this is a distinction that the left would do well to bear in mind.