Thursday, October 29, 2015

O'Malley is a more progressive candidate than Clinton

Hillary Clinton has benefitted from an exceedingly flattering comparison in recent months. With Bernie Sanders closing the polling gap, her campaign and media surrogates have had no choice but to argue, against all evidence and common sense, that Clinton is actually the more progressive of the two. Having framed the race as one turning on progressive credibility, Clintonites can then point to her persisting (though quite unrelated) lead in the polls as evidence of voter consensus.

This effect is quite obvious if we consider an alternative scenario: a successful campaign by Martin O'Malley. If he were polling in second place, Clinton would obviously sell the primaries as a contest of electability between two relatively "moderate" candidates. Ironically, in this scenario, we would have a far more realistic perspective of Sanders' plight: his leftist credibility would remain unchallenged, and everyone would get that his greatest challenges come from his relative obscurity and his adversarial positioning outside of the mainstream Democratic promotional and fundraising apparatus. No one bothered arguing that Clinton was more progressive than Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel in 2008 because there was obviously no political advantage in making such a patently absurd claim; Clinton 2016 only risks doing so now because they have to. When leftists aren't a threat, centrist Democrats prefer to embrace centrism as the "electable" alternative, and to dismiss leftists as unelectable novelty acts.

What's truly revealing about the O'Malley comparison, though, is that even he is arguably more progressive than Clinton. On foreign policy, O'Malley is openly ambivalent about promoting and expanding neoliberal "free trade", while Clinton, of course, is an active advocate. He has also voiced consistent aversion to international intervenionism, while Clinton still promotes the same "smart power" brand of war and empire that lost her the election in 2008. Domestically, O'Malley has taken the crucial (in fact, arguably decisive) step of placing the fight against climate change at the top of his agenda, while Clinton can't even make up her mind about the Keystone pileline. He has also promised executive action to limit deportations and favors a full repeal of the death penalty - two more extremely strong and categorical stands that place him in sharp contrast with Clinton's waffling on the former and continued support of the latter.

All across the board, in fact, Clinton's positions often compare quite unfavorably with her opponents. Chafee, too, was better on immigration, privacy, and frequently better on foreign policy; Webb was also often better on foreign policy and privacy, as well as trade.

Clinton's campaign is smart enough to recognize a comparative advantage when they see it. The ascendence of Bernie Sanders has given them no choice but to make outrageous claims about her own progressive credibility, and the media, as always, is reporting both sides of every political controvesy - no matter how ridiculous - as equally plausible. But strip away these perverse incentives, and it becomes perfectly clear that even Martin O'Malley's platform is arguably more progressive than Clinton, with Webb and Chafee marginally to their right, and Bernie Sanders definitively - and obviously - to their far left.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why does liberal feminism hate Photoshop?

A no-photoshopping clause in a recent endorsement deal by Kate Winslet has won a round of approval this morning from our liberal feminists, who see the deal as a victory against oppressive beauty standards.

What I find baffling about this gesture, and the positive response among liberals, is that it's all quite openly in the service of a modeling contract for a line of cosmetics. Winslet has agreed to promote a luxury product that allows women - quite laboriously, and at great expense - to adjust their appearance in order to conform to popular beauty conventions. She's been chosen to do this because she already conforms to them quite closely, in part by genetic luck and in part because, as Chris Rock puts it, money is the best lotion in the world. By any reasonable assessment, the beauty standards promoted by Kate Winslet, professionally made up by world-class cosmetologists, are already well out of reach of the average woman, and certainly just as capricious.

Since Winslet is promoting a cosmetics company, the problem is unusually vivid in this case - but it's always been a subtext of the broader photoshopping controversy. The issue only arises, after all, when a woman's image is being presented for public consumption. Particularly in the case of mass media, those images are already deeply implicated in the perpetuation and imposition of beauty standards well before anyone decides whether or not to use photoshop. I don't mean that in some abstract, critical theory sense, as if we are automatically fetishizing a woman's appearance as soon as we take a picture of her. Here, it's enough to point out that the women we have seen in these anti-photoshopping campaigns are nearly always professional models who only diverge from quite narrow aesthetic specifications - smooth, flawless skin, high cheekbones, wide eyes, lustrous hair, etc - by matters of degree. And whenever there is a divergence, it's always dwelled on in an extremely telling spectacle, like the racist who goes out of his way to brag about his black friend.

An interesting wrinkle here, I think, is that photoshop is by far the cheapest and most accessible way that most women have to conform to beauty standards. For this reason, it's clear why cosmetics firms like L'Oreal and models like Kate Winslet would want to discourage a culture of photoshop use, since it so directly undercuts their business plans. None of this is to say that photoshop is Good, or even that cosmetic use is bad, but simply to point out that the liberal distinction being made between them seems to have more to do with business plans than with consistent, principled objections.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The racist heart of PUMA politics

It's surreal to recall just how twisted the racism of Hillary Clinton's 2008 PUMAs actually was. Consider, for example, their odious insistance that Barack Obama could only win the election as an affirmative action president. On one level, this was just standard-issue right-wing colorblindism, directly at odds with the foundational progressive position that affirmative action is actually Good. But the complaint was even more odious on another level given the fact that Obama was the better candidate with or without any special consideration. In this light, the affirmative action argument simply expressed the basic PUMA belief - obviously borne of racism - that Obama was inherently inferior and could only win given some kind of extra advantage.

The psychology here is relevant, because seven years later we're still seeing it in modern PUMA advocacy.

As Madeline Klein notes, one of the most common arguments for electing Clinton has been quite explicit: "after Barack Obama made history as our first Black president, it [has] seemed time for Clinton to make history again as the first female president." At this point, that refrain - "make history again" - has essentially evolved into an unofficial slogan of Clinton's 2016 campaign.

But I wonder what the President (and what other black Americans) think about this notion that we should vote for Clinton to make history again - as if we simply voted for Obama "to make history". There's an unmistakeable continuity between that premise and the PUMA characterization of Obama as an "affirmative action president" who didn't earn the nomination on his own. When you recognize this, you'll notice that the sentiment, among today's PUMAs, is everywhere:
I voted for Barack Obama during the 2008 primary. It wasn’t that I thought he was any better on the issues than Hillary Clinton—they appeared to be nearly identical in all important matters—or that I had any particular problem with Clinton. I just felt, all other things being equal, he was running a better campaign and I wanted to reward him for it.
It seems fairly clear to me what's happening here. Amanda Marcotte magnanimously "rewards" Obama for incidentally "running a better campaign" - even as she denies that he was the better candidate, and even (insanely) crediting his victory over Clinton to shenanigans by John McCain. And now that she's done Obama this generous favor, it's time to make history again.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with making history, just like there's nothing wrong with affirmative action! It would be perfectly legitimate to admit that Clinton is not a great candidate, but to insist that we should elect her anyway, since the good of putting a woman into the White House would outweigh all of her bad politics and personal failings. That's a completely orthodox progressive argument, and I would love to see the Clintonite honest enough to make it. What is not progressive is to pretend that Obama was an affirmative action president, and to expect us to make history again on that basis - either because it would be neat to do it twice in a row, or (gross) out of some weird sense of reciprocal obligation. Obama owes Hillary Clinton nothing for his victory, and neither do his voters.

Climate centrism is just another form of denial

More than a year after Naomi Klein published her bestselling This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Jonathan Chait has gotten around to posting some hilariously belated criticism. I'm not going to link to it - instead, read Ryan Cooper's decisive rebuttal in The Week, which walks through the basic science and policy issues with admirable patience and clarity.

It's Cooper's patience that I find most striking, because when I read through this article I can't help but notice that this is the exact same argument we've been having with climate change deniers for years. The right's denialism has rarely been absolute. House Republicans and AM radio demagogues may gleefully insist that it's actually getting colder every time we have a blizzard, but for the most part the political opposition has relied on two basic claims:
  1. Climate change is not an urgent problem. Invariably, the ostensibly respectable opposition has tried to claim the moderate ground by conceding that climate change is happening - but that it's simply not as urgent as the "alarmists" claim. Their typical position is that climate change is a cyclical process that proceeds gradually over millions of years. This is actually more coherent than Chait's position, which is that predictions placing the tipping point within a matter of decades are "alarmist" - for reasons that he never bothers to actually specify. Both, in any case, are at odds with the same clear and uncontroversial evidence.
  2. The technological solutions to climate change and their implementation are within timely reach of the market. The Republican variation on this position does not bother with any analysis of the rate and capacity of technological innovation, but simply assumes that a magic solution to fix climate change will appear when the time comes because capitalism. Chait (probably) has some basic understanding of what we can expect from technology within predictable market conditions, but because he underestimates the urgency of the problem (1) he overestimates the ability of tech within the market to deal with it. This point is crucial, because scientists (who are generally not economic radicals) mostly share Chait's views about the market and technology; but because they differ on the magnitude of the problem, they're arriving at drastically different conclusions.
So what this comes down to, as it always has, is whether or not we take climate science seriously. If we do, then our understanding of climate change dictates quite strictly how much time we have and what solutions are available. Like the right, Chait can only get out of this by denying objective and uncontroversial points of scientific fact.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the major difference seems to be that while the right has by now an extremely elaborate apparatus of rationalizations for denying climate change, and a massive culture of indoctrination that pressures them into accepting these rationalizations - while all of that is happening, centrist deniers seem to be relying on nothing more than their instinctive aversion to radical prescriptions. Chait doesn't offer any particular reason to be skeptical of the science, and indeed doesn't challenge it at all; as far as I can tell, he may even think that climate scientists are on his side, which actually makes him more ignorant than the deniers who think that scientists are lying to them.

Regardless, there is really no reason to think of Chait and his climate centrist colleagues as any better informed or any more committed to science that their right-wing counterparts. They're both in denial, and they're both equally dangerous.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A political etymology of the Bernie slurs

In recent months, Hillary Clinton's media surrogates have rallied around a profoundly revealing effort to villify supporters of Bernie Sanders. The effort is telling first as a testament to the abysmal failure of efforts to attack Sanders himself: when attempts to cast him as a sexist, a racist and an economic materialist have failed, critics have invariably shifted the accusation to vague complaints about people who support him.

Perhaps even more telling, however, is the rather less substantive but increasingly popular attempt to compare Sanders supporters to other marginalized constituencies. Notably, these moves are almost always attempts to reverse standing criticism. Thus for example most of the earliest references to "Berniebots" come from supporters of Ron and Rand Paul:

Clearly, this is just an attempt to repurpose the "Paultard" and "Paulbot" slurs that Paul supporters have endured since at least 2008. What I'd like to reflect on here is the fundamentally reactionary psychology at work. The critique here is entirely derivative: it emerges not from a substantive assessment of Sanders supporters, but instead mimics another critique, albeit one severed from its original subject (Ron Paul). As Barthes wrote about this kind of right-wing rhetoric, it "is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things; in it, things lose the memory that they were once made." It is, in other words, an empty burn, and the Paulites are only using it because they hope that we'll associate Sanders with everything we dislike about them.

The reality that mobilizes this sort of attack is not historical reality - it is the psychological reality of ressentiment. Haggerty is aggrieved, not only because he has been hurt by ridicule, but because he believes that the right to ridicule is fundamentally his and has been unjustly stolen. When he commandeers that ridicule, it is at heart an act of bitter, compulsive revanchism; it is the reflexive backwards-looking entitlement that definitively governs the reactionary mind, and any rationalizations are just being backfilled to justify it.

This psychology is worth remembering when we consider another unlikeable constitutency Sanders supporters are being compared to: the PUMAs. Autodadict politics-knower Amanda Marcotte:
[PUMA]...were a small subset of Clinton supporters who became so sure of the dark motives of Obama supporters that some ended up turning their backs on the Democrats entirely. But their real impact was during the primary season, where they left an indelible impression, especially online....This time around, it’s not Clinton supporters who are the problem, but her detractors. As I wrote on Thursday, some Sanders supporters have taken to trading ugly accusations, verging on conspiracy theory...
It's true that PUMAs occasionally indulged in conspiracy theories, but Marcotte is misunderstanding them here on a fundamental level. The PUMAs were not a cause of Clinton's problems so much as a reaction to her problems. They only emerged when it became clear that she had a significant chance of losing the nomination to Barack Obama. What people found so revolting about the PUMAs was not their occasional flights of rhetoric so much as their sense of absolute, deranged and occasionally racist entitlement - definitively expressed in their threat to vote against Obama if he won the nomination (hence their acronym, Party Unity My Ass).

Marcotte, meanwhile, seems to think that what people really hated about PUMAs was their audacious lack of deference to the expertise of our elite media politics-knowers. Thus "Sanders supporters are posting memes accusing the media of conspiring against their candidate...As with the PUMAs of 2008"! Hilariously, Marcotte thinks this outrageous show of insufficient obesiance makes them "run a strong chance of running off undecided voters who don't want to align themselves with a campaign that is attracting such maniacs [people who question journalists]".

Here, it's hard to miss the parallels to the Paulite attack. In both, we find the attempt to reverse historical criticism by severing it from its actual history. And beneath both, we find the same resentment and entitlement. Clinton's media surrogates are painfully aware of the conventional wisdom that many of her loudest supporters are unprincipled media shills; Marcotte herself has been pushing back on that since 2008, when she argued that the PUMAs were actually just secret Republicans. Calling Bernie supporters PUMAs is a purely reactive attempt to co-opt criticism that Marcotte finds extraordinarily scathing, particularly since it rejects both her claim to expertise and Clinton's entitlement to office.

Obviously not all of the slurs leveled at Sanders and his followers express psychology this toxic and perverse; but when Clintonites start throwing around words like "PUMAs" and "Berniebots," it's worth considering where those terms come from and the reactionary politics behind them.

The ruling class does not know much about Marxism and it wouldn't matter if they did

A Facebook friend pointed to Condoleeza Rice's writings on Soviet military strategy to make the perennially important point that our class enemy studies our thought and history closely. I would add that they do it with better funds than we. It is our duty to take the enemy as seriously as the enemy takes us. - Donny Diggins
As a matter of simple fact - and as I've written about repeatedly - this is demonstrably incorrect. The overwhelming majority of capitalists, including those who belong to the ruling class, are thoroughly unfamiliar with Marxist theory and Marxist practice. Our oligarchs, public officials and intelligentsia almost always derive the whole of their knowledge of Marxism from folk wisdom and cartoonishly ideological commentary. Their opposition is characterized not by cynical insight but by massive semierudition and plain ignorance.

Like it does with literally every other field of knowledge, Capitalism commodifies knowledge of Marxism by consolidating it into an increasingly specialized point of expertise. In practice, it is the province of a vanishingly small school of scholars like Rice - Soviet historians, Kremlinologists, and heterodox economists. For the most part, they simply exist as cogs in the machine of the academic-industrial complex, consuming and producing scholarship in order to enhance the credibility and prestige of Capitalism's central institution of accreditation (the university). Ideologically, they need only exist in order to maintain the pretense that hegemonic opposition to Marxism is informed. Operationally they have nothing to do with the day-to-day performance of Capitalism's definitive and most extensive task, the exploitation of labor. Just as it did before Marx was even born, the system can hum along quite effectively without knowledge of Marxism.

Ironically, this concern that "our class enemy studies our thought and history" emerges quite directly from the very ideology of liberalism - with its cult of individualism and rationality -  that Diggins aspires to oppose. Instead of understanding our oppression in a historical analysis of the material economy, it traces our plight to the intellectual savvy of personalities like Rice. She's a particularly good example of why this sort of analysis fails, because as a matter of fact Rice's personal influence in the Bush Administration was remarkably limited. In part because she is a woman of color, in part because she was outside of the Cheney-Rumsfeld clique that dictated much of Bush's foreign policy, and in part because her disposition was at odds with various political and economic incentives that drove the Administration, Rice's known misgivings about invading Iraq, for example, were stridently ignored. Her rotation from National Security Advisor to Secretary of State reveals her quite clearly as what she was: an interchangeable bureacrat, preceded and replaced by other bureaucrats with no claim whatsoever to expertise in Marxism or Soviet history, since none was needed.

Because Diggins' analyis is contingent on claims about Rice's expertise, it is vulnerable to what is, in the grand scheme of things, an utterly trivial incident of history. Ultimately, what we should "take seriously" about our enemy is their control of the means of production. Whether at the moment they happen to maintain that control through intellectual expertise, brute strength or dumb luck is entirely circumstantial, and as a matter of class consciousness it's entirely beside the point.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bernie's theory of change

I've seen Jeet make this point twice today but I don't think it's actually correct. As I understand it, the Sanders theory is that his agenda will mobilize a constituency of voters so large that it will actually realign the electoral dynamics that have led to Congressional gridlock. As the argument goes, Democrats have been unable to do this because they have been unwilling to advance an agenda as radical as his. By tracking left, Sanders hopes to mobilize America's huge population of non-voters and even, counterintuitively, a significant number of self-identified Republicans. With large enough coat-tails Sanders can reshape Congress, and with a large enough mandate he can cow the remaining opposition into self-interested negotiation.

This is of course a fairly common perspective on the left, holding that the internecine war of partisan tribalism hides latent consensus centered on class interest. Any politican who can tap into that interest will necessarily mobilize an enormous constituency that Democrats have not been able to mobilize given their investment in the status quo.

Whether you buy this is another matter, but it's all pretty straightforward and familiar to the point of political cliche. FWIW I think that it's basically correct, though I have my doubts that Bernie's agenda is actually revolutionary enough to get the job done. In any case, one can dispute his theory of change, but one can hardly say that it doesn't even exist.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Your periodic reminder that "the economy" still tells us little about individuals

Lots of well-deserved heat on Annie Lowrey's noxious "No, Depressed American Towns Do Not Look Like Zimbabwe," where she argues that "in human terms, globalization has absolutely, completely proven positive-sum."

Jeff Spross insists that Lowrey's argument "doesn't justify calling on Americans to ignore their own immediate experience in favor of viewing all economic matters from 30,000 feet." Matt Bruenig observes that she hasn't "actually responded to the point that oursourcing has hurt specific groups of people...[she] retreat[s] back into pointing to aggregate gains." And Loomis, too, criticizes her failure to "ground her ideology about globalization in the lived experience of workers".

The consensus, it appears, is that Lowery's understanding of the economy fails to account for the plight of its individual members. And while there are all kinds of contributors to this failure, I'd like to focus on one in particular: the inability of capitalist theory to aggregate individual utility into social utility. Steve Keen:
However, to be a theory of economics rather than one of individual of psychology, [the neoclassical] model of the individual must be aggregated to derive a model of a market, where many individual consumers and sellers interact...In literally every case, the attempt to move from the analysis to the individual to the aggregate failed - in the sense that results that were easily derived for the isolated individual could not be derived from the aggregate. (Debunking Economics, 19)
I've elaborated on this elsewhere, though Keen does a significantly better job. Bottom line is that Lowery's pro-globalization arguments rest on an intellectual foundation that crumbles under minimal scrutiny. (All it took here was Spross pointing out that she's relying on an average.) She doesn't have some kind of special scientific insight into how we should measure prosperity that the victims of globalization and their sympathizers lack; it is not as if she has spent any kind of significant time studying Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu conditions and harbors some kind of secret proof that they actually hold. In fact, despite her article's charming reference to the "economically illiterate," it's not clear that Lowery has any formal education in economics beyond any gen eds she might have taken towards her B.A. in English. And when she claims that Zimbabwe generates about $1,700 in "goods and services per person every year," it's not even clear that her own autodidactic efforts are going so well. Could she possibly mean Zambia?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sanders critics and the denial of structural racism

The increasingly suspicious campaign to attack Bernie Sanders on race issues has repeatedly accused him and his supporters of maintaining an oversimplistic understanding of racism. This never had any basis in reality -- but as the argument goes, the Sanders camp is just reducing the problem to economics and ignoring all the other complicated factors that perpetuate racism in America.

Notably, this criticism rarely specifies the problems and solutions that Sanders is supposedly ignoring. Mostly this is because Sanders is on record addressing most of the problems they'd mention, and has proposed a whole host of non-economic solutions (I listed this out previously). But in part, I suspect this is also because the critics are themselves oversimplifying the problem. Consider for example this complaint by (yet another politically-and-media-connected professional activist with an elite CV) Brittany Packett:

As far as I can tell, Packett seems to think she has caught Sanders in a moment of racism; the assumption is that he's implicitly blaming black Americans for gun crime in major cities. Notably, this assumption only works if we dismiss any other possible explanation for the disparity in crime that Sanders could have in mind. So we would, for example, have to ignore explanations like this:
"If you got a nice house, you live in a nice neighborhood, then a security point. You don't need no protection. But if you grow up in a place like this [Chicago], housing sucks. When they tore down the projects here, they left the high-rises and came to the neighborhood with that gang mentality. You don't have nothing, so you going to take something..."
That's Chicago activist Billy Lamar Brooks Sr., quoted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' celebrated essay The Case for Reparations. Note how, without blaming black Americans, he can still - like Sanders - acknowledge the empirical fact that Chicago is more violent than Vermont. Brooks can even explain this because, like Coates and Sanders, he has an understanding of racism that is structural. It's grounded in historical knowledge of Chicago's redlining practices and the way that they've systematically cultivated violence. By this analysis, there's simply no reason to suspect that Bernie thinks that black Americans are somehow inherently violent.

Unless, that is, you have really simplistic ideas about racism. That's the real irony here: Packett is relying on the most pernicious and reductive simplification of racism there is, talking about Sanders as if racism only exists as a matter of personal bigotry and secret animus. Meanwhile, we have to pretend that more subtle, systematic and historically contingent forms of racism like redlining don't exist and don't have any consequences; that way, if Sanders points out that Chicago has more gun violence than Vermont, he can only mean one thing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Let's deter the rich from having kids

As Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century so painstakingly argued, inherited wealth is a primary driver of global inequality and poverty. Today, he writes, "inheritances (of fortunes accumulated in the past) predominate over saving (wealth accumulated in the present)." Elsewhere, Matt Bruenig gives a sense of the scale of the problem: "the wealthiest 1 percent of families have received, on average, $2.7 million in inheritance" - about 447 times what the least wealthy receive.

Clearly, any economic agenda aspiring to reduce inequality and poverty has a significant interest in doing what it can to minimize inherited wealth among the rich. So why not do what we can to deter the rich from having kids?

This of course is a mirror of the recently popular scheme of funding contraception to keep the poors from making so many welfare babies. What I find interesting is that we literally never talk about this, even though it relies on the exact same rationalizations as the other scheme, and has significant additional advantages.

As the argument goes, it's completely legitimate to implement class-based population controls as long as they are not coercive. Obviously providing free contraception will not be a particularly effective approach for the rich, but one can imagine all kinds of alternatives. For example, the government could provide a tax benefit for wealthy, childless parents who voluntarily undergo free sterilization. It could actively promote the virtues of sterilization for the rich in aggressive, massively funded public service announcements and marketing campaigns. And government prosecutors could as a matter of policy always offer sterilizations when plea bargaining with the rich.

A crucial point here is that because inheritance among the rich is such a costly problem to society, absolutely extraordinary investments and measures are justified in curbing it. Just consider Fred Koch, for example, who left a $5.6 billion estate when he died. The potential returns on investment here are huge. An even more crucial point is that when the investment is successful it's also somewhat temporary, since it isn't trapped as unproductive, inherited capital.

There are of course some complications with this approach, but they don't strike me as particularly decisive. For example, if your goal is to prevent any inheritance, you would hypothetically have to deter the birth of any potential inheritors. This certainly expands the program, but we are still talking about potential heirs to just 1% of the population. Moreover, there's probably reason to suspect that this kind of deterrence can work in degrees if we assume that the rich are more motivated to hoard wealth for immediate heirs than for more distant relatives. I suspect you would also want to create some supplementary programs to deal with other avenues of inheritance, like adoption and nepotism, but we can still leverage many of the same incentives.

Again, it's notable that we never see technocratic capitalists consider population engineering for the rich, even though the rationale is almost completely identical. By the way, another advantage to targeting the rich is that it completely avoids the standard concerns about economic coercion that naturally emerge when you engineer a system that encourages - er, "facilitates" - the most powerless people giving up even more.