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Can niche market capitalism protect minorities? - 8/12/18
Reading through Connor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I'm struck by how much of his argument depends on the magic of niche markets. Democracy, he argues, can't "render reliably just judgments about how an entire society should produce and consume" - especially when it comes to providing for the needs and rights of minorities. But capitalism can handle this, because capitalism has niche markets. 

The beauty of niche markets is that businesses, "per their preference," can always provide for minorities - "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". In this way, "capitalism...frees us from the preferences of the majority". Most of Friedersdorf's article is devoted to listing all of the products capitalism's niche markets can provide:
Muslim prayer rugs...Korans...head scarves...halal meat...new mosques...vegan meat or milk substitutes...hair products for African Americans...sex toys...binders for trans men...sexually explicit artwork...birth control... 
This goes on for five paragraphs. What I find curious, in any case, is that there's evidently one niche market that capitalism can't protect from the tyranny of the majority. Friedersdorf, again:
Today, if I went out into Greater Los Angeles and chatted up owners of mom-and-pop restaurants, I'd sooner or later find one who would decline to cater a gay wedding... Should we destroy their livelihoods? If I recorded audio proving their intent to discriminate against a hypothetical catering client and I gave the audio to you, would you post it on the Internet and encourage the general public to boycott, write nasty reviews, and drive them out of business, causing them to lay off their staff, lose their life savings, and hope for other work? 
...I believe that the subset of the gay-rights movement intent on destroying their business and livelihood has done more harm than good...
 There's a real contradiction here! Friedersdorf has given us two theories of capitalism:
1) When it's time to defend capitalism, niche markets are a reliable bulwark against the tyranny of the majority; business owners can serve whoever they like, "the preferences of a majority of people around them be damned". 
2) When it's time to defend homophobes, however, capitalism can't defend niche markets from the majority: all it takes are boycotts and some nasty reviews to drive them out of business.
This is really just the latest variation on a phenomena I wrote about a month ago: when the left fights for socialism we are told to go to the private sector, and when we fight in the private sector we are told that this won't do, either. Still, it's remarkable how completely Friedersdorf, in making this move, buries his own defense of capitalism. If the second theory holds, capitalism can do nothing to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority; its niche markets are always a boycott away from oblivion, and not even the homophobic pizza industry can escape the invisible hand.
Conor Friedersdorf can't make up his mind about democracy - 8/9/18
Reading through Conor Friedersdorf's latest attack on socialism, I've been able to tease out two distinct critiques:
1) First, "minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained" under socialism; the virtue of capitalism is that "it frees us from the preferences of the majority" through various "anti-democratic protections" and "anti-democratic methods". 
2) Elsewhere, however, the problem with socialism is that "the increased 'democracy'...revolution would supposedly harken in" never actually emerges; thus "socialist experiments end in atrocities precisely because extreme consolidations of power are necessary to attempt them".
So is the problem with socialism too much democracy, or not enough democracy? The answer, of course, is both. When socialism promises to put an end to the terrors of capitalism through the power of the state, it's time to start warning about the "unaccountable bureaucrats" and "regimes" that impose "socialism from above" (see Friedersdorf's previous article). When we clarify that we'll rely on a democratic state, however, the critique reverses: first the bureaucrats were unaccountable, but now "their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will".

Some readers will see this move as the worst of all possible worlds for Friedersdorf: not only does his new argument contradict the old one, but it now accuses socialism of something people generally approve of. The author realizes this: "To most Americans," he sighs, "democracy always sounds appealing." But just consider this nightmare scenario:
If a majority elected a populist demagogue like Donald Trump—which very nearly happened in 2016 (when he lost the popular vote) and may well happen in 2020—he would preside over not only our government, but also over our social and economic realms.
The problem with democracy, it turns out, is best illustrated by the case of a man who became president even though he lost the popular vote; if you want to appreciate the virtue of "anti-democratic protections," and especially what they can do for minorities, look no further than the Electoral College that elected Donald Trump.
Did Russian intelligence inspire Trump to depress Clinton turnout in Michigan and Wisconsin? - 8/2/18
A reader has asked:
I agree with your latest blog post on the points it covers, but what of the allegation that Russia could have provided the Trump campaign with DNC analytics?
This theory was recently popularized by Rachel Maddow, who argues that it was this data which inspired the Trump campaign to hone in on Michigan and Wisconsin with "three major voter suppression operations" targeting Clinton voters. If this campaign were successful, one would expect to see a significant drop in her numbers. Instead, here's what they looked like in both states during the final two months:


In both states, Clinton's numbers were actually higher by the end of October than they were at the beginning. Insofar as there was any real movement, it came from Trump's last minute three-point surge in Michigan, which overwhelmed Clinton's trivial gains.

One can try to salvage Maddow's theory with a few tweaks, but none of them are very convincing. For example, one can imagine that, instead of telling Trump to suppress votes, the Kremlin advised him to win them - but this fares no better at explaining Wisconsin's flat lines. One can also imagine that the Russian strategy (whatever it was) had an effect on the polls, but that this effect was cancelled out or buried inside countervailing trends; perhaps Clinton was going to enjoy a last minute surge, for example, until Trump's voter suppression campaign - which not only nullified her surge, but also nullified any detectable change in the polling. One can also insist, correctly, that the polling we have for these states was clearly incorrect - and then imagine that in a world of accurate polling, we would have seen shifts in Clinton's numbers that directly coincide with Maddow's theory.

Regardless, it should be clear that the point in my previous post holds: the case that Russian intervention was decisive ultimately depends not on anything we can see in the data, but on completely unsubstantiated theories about what's going on inside of the data, buried beneath an massive avalanche of statistical noise, bad polling, underdetermination, and pure fantasy.
The left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct - 7/30/18
Leftist writers and activists are still generally skeptical of allegations that the Russian government significantly influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. Their liberal counterparts, predictably, find this inconvenient. And now, of course, the dialectic of Russiagate has given us a synthesis: a handful of leftists who voice some skepticism of the liberal position, but who insist that their leftist comrades are getting it wrong, too.

I'm not going to wade through all of the nuance and hedging in this latest genre of take, but I do want to touch on one issue that's emerged time and time again. David Klion insists that "Russian interference was real and significant."

Sarah Jones:
It isn’t clear that Russia influenced the outcome of the 2016 election...But it seems increasingly likely that there will be more hacks, and the consequences could be more explosive than John Podesta’s risotto recipe. 
  Ryan Cooper:
...whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary...is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence...It probably won't move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with.
What do all of these takes have in common? All three writers call for policy responses to the threat of Kremlin meddling - and justify this by entertaining theories that the Kremlin had a significant influence on 2016's outcome. And for that reason, all three takes are factually not credible.


What We Know About Kremlin Vote Acquisition In 2016

Three simple points.

1) There is still no direct evidence that the Kremlin managed to change election 2016's outcome.

The task is simple: one has to prove that Russian influence operations won Trump at least 35 votes in the electoral college. This means crediting the Kremlin for his margin of victory in enough states to give him those votes. There are all kinds of ways that you could set about drawing a line from the Kremlin to those margins - and yet no one has actually done this.

Look at our major media outlets, and you might think otherwise. Through blatant implication and just-so proclamation, our pundits routinely declare that the matter has been proven; and even the judicious agnosticism of "it isn't clear" statements can create the impression that there is some real controversy at hand. But this is not a matter of contradictory studies creating uncertainty, or of researchers establishing a probability and skeptics demanding proof - the problem here is that no one has successfully made the specific demonstration that needs to be made. Look for yourself: the studies just aren't there.


2) There is not even direct evidence that the Kremlin even managed to win Trump 10,704 votes in Michigan.

This is the same point that I made above, but I want to press on it a bit to show how flimsy the Russiagate narrative is. Routinely, the left's critics point to just how small Trump's vote margins were as proof that Kremlin meddling probably made a difference. That's why Cooper writes that "Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with." Elsewhere, Kevin Drum puts it explicitly:
given how close the election was, there’s a pretty good chance that Putin’s campaign of cyber-chaos had enough oomph to swing things all by itself.
This logic is absurd. The likelihood of a Kremlin-swung election depends on the size of vote margins and the Kremlin's absolute capacity to win Trump votes. And that latter point - not the size of the vote margins - is obviously the point in dispute. Even if we focus on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where Trump won by the narrowest of margins, there's just no reason to take for granted that the Kremlin won the votes he needed. Not even in Michigan, where Trump just won by 10,704 votes.

Again: the bottom line here  is that we have no research, no polling analysis, no systematic investigation of probable ROIs that takes into consideration Russian spending, message propagation, and estimates of votes earned - nothing that demonstrates over 10,000 votes won by the Kremlin in Michigan. The left's critics can talk about denialism or call for agnosticism all they like, but this remains an extraordinary claim that lacks even ordinary evidence.


3. There is significant reason to believe that the Kremlin did not change 2016's outcome.

Let's stay with Michigan. Here's what we do know:
  • Throughout the month of October - when the Podesta Emails, allegedly a major prong in the Kremlin's influence operation, were released - Hillary Clinton's numbers in Michigan actually improved. [1] This is consistent with Mike Enten's observation for FiveThirtyEight about the national trend: 
Clinton’s drop in the polls doesn’t line up perfectly with the surge in WikiLeaks interest. When WikiLeaks had its highest search day in early October, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising. They continued to go up for another two weeks, even as WikiLeaks was releasing emails. 
  • In the same article, Enten relies on Google trends to argue that "Americans were clearly paying attention to the WikiLeaks releases". Thomas Ferguson, however, observes that
outside of Washington, D.C., it is not obvious that that these details engrossed many voters, particularly in the battleground states...This claim is testable...Google Trends allows one to compare the relative volume of searches on topics by state and time. 
The evidence seems to bear this out in Michigan: there, interest in the Podesta emails was less than half what it was in DC. And this, in turn, supports a common intuition on the left: a lot of the palace intrigue and media controversy that captivates our pundit class just isn't that interesting to the rest of the country.
  • As we learned during the Senate's 2017 hearing on "Social Media Influence In The 2016 U.S. Election," the "Russian-linked Facebook ads [that] were specifically aimed at Michigan" represented a total investment of...$827 dollars.

    To put this into perspective, a widely-circulated investigation by Business Insider concluded "that to sway about 10,700 voters you'd need a budget of $42,800." And even this number was (correctly) dismissed as "fantastical" and "utter bullshit" by reporters and digital marketers; as NYMag's Brian Feldman pointed out, the $42,800 figure "represents an absolute edge-case scenario, in which Facebook ads are supernaturally effective and persuasive", winning over Trump voters at $4 per voter. So even with that kind of magical RoI, we have, at best, evidence that the Kremlin might have won over 206 voters - less than 2% of what it needed.
That's what the case looks like in Michigan, where the lift for anyone who wants to argue for decisive Kremlin interference is the lightest. Elsewhere, of course, the burden gets even heavier: by the time you get to Pennsylvania, you have to argue that the Kremlin won more than four times as many votes for Trump as it needed in Michigan. Generally, the reasons to doubt that this happened are identical across the board: no analysis suggesting adequate investments or capacity on the part of Russia, and significant evidence that it was nowhere near up to the task.


What This Means For Critics of the Skeptical Left

So where does this leave the left and its critics? In general, I think it demonstrates that the left's take on Russian election meddling is basically correct, and has been for quite some time.

The question at hand is whether Kremlin influence operations in the United States warrant a significant policy response from the left. You could, I suppose, make absolutist arguments about protecting the integrity of our elections from even one sullied vote - but generally, even the left's critics tend to recognize that it's worth asking whether the Russian government actually swung our election. If they didn't even manage to do that, one begins to wonder why we should prioritize Kremlin meddling over voter impersonation or the malevolent propagandizing of Lyndon LaRouche.

As far as I can tell, that is the question still facing critics of the skeptical left. There may very well be legitimate grounds for arguing that the left should change its politics towards Russia, but if critics want to argue that the Kremlin elected Trump, their work is still ahead of them.
The "Russia is backing the US left" conspiracy theory has a major flaw - 7/22/18
Harper's columnist Scott Horton has blown the lid off of an international conspiracy:
European intelligence analysts I have spoken with over the last month say that they have picked up clear data suggesting that Putin has authorized and put in play a major active measures campaign designed to split and disable the Democratic Party...The method used...will generally follow what was done during the 2016 campaign...persuading key Democratic constituencies that it wasn't worth going to the polls to vote. This included general demonization of Hillary Clinton and other candidates as "establishment" or "organization" candidates, and repeating claims that the DNC had "rigged" the vote against Sanders (designed to persuade Sanders supporters not to vote or to vote for another Russia-backed surrogate, Jill Stein); alienating blacks and Hispanics, and persuading them that the Democratic candidates really did nothing for them, etc. The Russian operation will also aim...to pick Democratic candidates in the primary period who, for whatever reason, are seen as likely not electable. Some evidence of this is clearly at play now. The key thing to look for is...negative messaging attacking other Democrats.
I'll be blunt: I think that Horton is lying. Either by fabricating the whole thing, or - more likely - by presenting as substantiated what is in fact pure speculation from like-minded "analysts".

Consider for example the claim that there is "data suggesting" that the Kremlin is supporting "Democratic candidates who...are seen as likely not electable." What kind of "data" could actually prove this? It wouldn't be enough to prove that the Kremlin is supporting particular candidates. It wouldn't even be enough to prove that these candidates "are seen as likely not electable" by various pundits. The thing you would specifically have to prove is that the Kremlin also sees them as unelectable, a necessary assumption if what they are trying to do is sabotage Trump's opposition. But Horton does not actually make this claim, which is why he uses the passive voice ("are seen as"); so what this comes down to, in other words, is pure inexpert speculation about who is "electable", projected onto the Kremlin, with a whole massive conspiracy theory built around it.

That said, let's suppose that Horton happens to be right, and that the Kremlin does indeed see certain Democratic primary candidates as unelectable. So what? Unless the theory is that the Kremlin has also been conducting a massive, ongoing and somehow-still-under-the-radar national polling operation compiling data on how different candidates would perform against Republicans in head-to-heads, the Kremlin's conclusions would be utterly baseless. Even US-based firm have barely conducted any of the relevant polling, and as we were constantly reminded during the 2016 primaries, polls taken this far out are not necessarily all that reliable anyway.


Which brings us to the major flaw in Russia's alleged "back the left" strategy: to defeat it, all you have to do is vote for left candidates. Whatever Horton, his "European analysts" and these mysterious Russian operatives may think, there is in fact no reason to believe that leftists are "not electable" - so to beat Putin at his own game, all you really have to do is just vote the way he wants you to vote, and then laugh when his kooky chessmaster sabotage scheme backfires. Fortunately, this happens to align exactly with how you should vote even if Horton is making the whole thing up.
A brief defense of election meddling - 7/16/18
The nation-state is a reactionary social institution built around accidents of geography, the historical legacy of war, and the dangerous pathologies of tribal identity. We all live in the same world, and we all have a stake in everything that happens everywhere. This is particularly easy to see when you look at problems like climate change and global inequality - problems that have emerged, in part, because the victims have little-to-no control over the nations that are causing them.

Those victims should have a democratic voice in decisions that effect them. Since current international arrangements (borders, privileges of citizenship, etc) prevent this, they should be torn down - and while they are still standing, resisted. Particularly in the United States, which controls a wildly disproportionate share of the earth's resources, and which wreaks havoc on so much of the world through our military and economic power, the left should welcome a voice in our elections from the international community.

This does not, of course, mean that everyone living outside of the borders of the United States has an agenda amenable to the left. The international bourgeoisie - embodied in multinational corporations, capitalist governments, and sundry oligarchs - has always been the primary culprit in so-called "election meddling", and they should be stripped of their influence altogether. But the way you do that is not to divide the world into exclusive jurisdictions and then enforce reactionary restrictions on democracy, fetishizing the nation-state, praising its allies as "patriots" and its enemies as "traitors"; the way you prevent election-meddling by the bourgeoisie is by destroying the bourgeoisie.

Socialism has always aspired (in the long-term, if not the short-term) towards some form of global governance that can embody the will of the international proletariat. As much of our political class broods over the dangers of "Russian" influence in our elections, we should guard against the ways that this discourse casually implicates an entire nation in the crimes of its bourgeoisie. If Russiagate were simply a matter of ordinary Russians fighting for some minimal influence over a global power that touches their lives, too, why would the US left consider this a scandal?


UPDATE: In the few hours since I published this, a video has emerged that illustrates my point quite directly:

CARLSON: I don't think Russia is our close friend or anything like that. I think of course they try to interfere in our affairs. They have for a long time. Many countries do. Some more successfully than Russia, like Mexico, which is routinely interfering in our elections by packing our electorate.

The obvious objection here is that undocumented immigrants from south of the border are not "packing our electorate" - a typical study on the topic by News21, for example, found only a couple dozen instances of noncitizens voting since 2000. Still, I think the left should at least consider a more controversial objection: who cares? Imagine that every undocumented immigrant in the United States were an active voter - would this not have an instant and enormous salutary effect on our politics? And would it not, moreover, give people who have been dominated by the US government for decades some minimal voice in how it exercises its power?

Correctly, the liberal-left backlash to Carlson's statement has overwhelmingly recognized it as the flailing of a racist man. And a huge part of that racism, of course, is expressed in his paranoia: he doesn't have a reality-based understanding of the scale of voter fraud in the United States because his tribal fear of Latin Americans is blowing it all out of proportion. But another part of that racism, we should recognize, is expressed in Carlson's entitlement: he believes that certain people should not be able to democratically participate in power, even though that power is routinely exercised over them and against them.
No good activism - 6/26/18
Was catching up on some reading about restaurant protests, which deserves to be quoted at length:
We can easily imagine scenarios in which private nonviolent action could pressure bigots into changing their racial policies. 
But we don’t need to imagine it. We can consult history...It happened not out of the goodness of the racists’ hearts – they had to be dragged, metaphorically, kicking and screaming...Starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, lunch counters throughout the South began to be desegregated through direct but peaceful confrontation – sit-ins – staged by courageous students and others who refused to accept humiliating second-class citizenship... 
Students were beaten and jailed, but they won the day, Gandhi-style, by shaming the bigots with their simple request to be served like anyone else. The sit-ins then sparked sympathy boycotts of department stores nationwide. The campaign wasn’t easy, but people seized control of their own lives, shook their communities, and sent shockwaves through the country.
So who wrote this - a radical leftist calling for direct action? An outraged liberal finally growing a spine? Nope: this one's from Sheldon Richman, a radical libertarian capitalist who's worked for the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Cato Institute. And predictably, he's not arguing for a left agenda: he's arguing for the demolition of the Civil Rights Act:
...the owner of property should be free to set the rules of use, the only constraint being that the owner may not use aggressive force against others... Admittedly, that leaves room for loathsome peaceful behavior, such as running a whites-only lunch counter. Who imagined that freedom of association couldn’t have its ugly side? ...Nevertheless, individuals are either free to do anything peaceful or they are not. 
...Why is this inspirational history [of protest] ignored in the current controversy? I can think of only one reason. So-called progressives at heart are elitists who believe – and want you to believe – that nothing good happens without government.
If this seems out of character for a capitalist, it is - and it isn't. For reactionaries, the rule for fighting injustice always changes depending on where the threat is coming from. If the left has been shut out of power, and is left to its last-resort shaming and disruption tactics, reactionaries will insist that even these tactics are illegitimate since they violate various norms of civility and rationalistic discourse. But if, on the other hand, the left is actually in a position to exercise power, then we get arguments like this: capitalists graciously let us have our shaming and disruption, while insisting that we should not actually govern.

Socialists, of course, should reject even that deal - what makes us socialists is that we will not limit our fight against reactionaries to the private sector. If the worst the right has to fear from us is a little incivility, we aren't doing our job.