All of this writing and data analysis is a lot of work! So after more than five years of posting, I've finally launched a Patreon to help pay the bills.


The Soviets and Reagan's PATCO strike

Saturday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker repeated a claim that has become a truism among a certain genre of conservatives in recent years:
Walker contended that "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was then-President Ronald Reagan's move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.
"It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world," Walker said. America's allies and foes alike became convinced that Reagan was serious enough to take action and that "we weren't to be messed with," he said.
The PATCO strike was indeed big news in the United States, but it has always struck me as a bit odd that this would resonate the same way in the Soviet Union, much less significantly impact its decisions. Americans routinely overestimate the rest of the world's interest in our domestic affairs, and this particularly line plays a little too neatly on right-wing narratives about sympathies between communists and unions, the role of "credibility" in foreign policy, and the valorization of Reagan as the single-handed conqueror of the Soviet Union.

Looking into this has only deepened my suspicion. First, Walker has been caught in a lie about this before, when he claimed that "documents released from the Soviet Union showed" the impact of Reagan's actions. This was directly rebutted by Reagan's own diplomat to the USSR, who said that "There is no evidence of that whatever."

Beyond those fabricated documents, the only susbtantive claim I can find comes from Steven Hayward's book "The Age of Reagan," where he writes, "The White House realized it had gotten Moscow's attention when the Soviet news agency TASS decried Reagan's 'brutal repression' of the air traffic controllers."

But he provides no further details on this quote, and I have been completely unable to find it in TASS's archives. And Hayward is a conservative iconoclast who has spent his entire career riding the right-wing think tank gravy train, publishing climate change denial and Solyndra conspiracy articles in fringe outlets like The Weekly Standard and Power Line.

I see at this point no reason to take for granted the narrative about Reagan impressing the Soviets with his PATCO firings, and every reason to suspect fabrication in Hayward's book.


No, you should probably tip

For some time, I have been under the impression that our economy is defined by bourgeois control of the means of production. This was Karl Marx’s essential insight, and it goes a long way towards explaining the injustices endemic to our capitalist economy.

So I was surprised to learn in Jacobin that it is actually something about tipping that’s responsible for the plight of low-income service workers. “So long as the karmic tip jar clouds our perceptions,” Ian Svenonius writes in Against Tipping, “the insane injustice of an underpaid labor force reimbursed through only the guilty feelings of their coworkers will persist.”

It’s an interesting theory. But I’m not sure that it actually holds up! And if you look at it too closely, it even starts to look like a standard capitalistic prescription for consumer action – albeit one that’s unusually cruel to workers, even by capitalistic standards.

Tipping is not extortion

Svenonius elaborates at such length on the symbolic meaning and perverse outcomes of tipping that it can be difficult to tease out the basic mechanics of his theory. For instance, we are told that tipping is “erotic,” “highly kinky” and “practically psychadlic” – all undoubtedly true, but difficult to incorporate into a coherent, rigorous economic model.

Nevertheless, we do have the outlines of a simple economic model, relying on a few specific empirical claims. Tipping, we are told, “began essentially as a way to stave off violence by the indigent…adhered to by the privileged class who fear and disdain the less fortunate.”

This -- substantiated for some reason by the author’s travel anecdotes -- does not have much basis in the historic record. Scholars typically trace tipping back to feudal Europe, when as Segrave writes “the master or lord of the manor might give his servant or laborer a few extra coins”.  Since the power of feudal aristocracy was based on its control of arable land, it is difficult to imagine how serfs might have engaged in the “thinly veiled extortion” Svenonius identifies as the origin of tipping. The street urchin in his example is “someone who is not an employee of an establishment but works as an adjunct or as a free agent” – but the feudal serf was in the exact opposite situation, entirely dependent on the good graces of his lord.

So there is little reason to suppose that the “street urchin’s implied violence still hovers over the interaction” when tipping. Control of the land, established in law and enforced by the overwhelming brute strength of the warrior nobility, nullified opportunities for institutionalized extortion by the serfs.

Control of the means of production gives the bourgeoisie the same power today. Because of that control, it can determine the amount of variable capital to invest in wages – including money available to the proletariat for tipping each other. Note how this is functionally just another form of wage distribution laundered through a third party. Of course, service workers are also subject to more direct controls – hiring and firing, tip-pooling arrangements, adjustments in supplemental wages, shift scheduling and assignments – which can all impact individual incomes directly.  In all of this, the underlying circular course of capital – out of the pocket and back into the hands of the bourgeoisie – remains unchanged.

The tip boycott

To illustrate, consider the most likely outcomes of an actual tip boycott. With real unemployment hovering near 13% and a massive reserve labor army hoping for a job, service employees have little immediate leverage to bargain for higher wages. Fortunately, however, we do have a historic barometer to gauge how low wages can drop in the US tipping economy before service workers begin making significant political demands for compensation: the minimum wage. That’s where employers have been forced to adjust wages.

In other words, a tip boycott is unlikely to even begin placing demands on the bourgeoisie until we’ve managed to dramatically slash the incomes of service workers all the way to our nation’s despicably miserly minimum wage.

Suppose, then, that the tip boycott becomes so successful that employers are finally forced to pay the full wage. They will do this first by simply cutting payroll in other ways – laying off workers or reducing hours – keeping the financial consequences of the boycott on the very service workers it was meant to help. Or, the bourgeoisie will shift the consequences onto everyone else by raising prices. This effectively cancels out the surplus wages that they had previously paid non-service workers to be passed along as tips.

What, then, has the tip boycott accomplished? Service workers have exchanged wages that are variable but modest for wages that are static and extremely low – not necessarily an advantageous trade. More importantly, the essential relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie remains unchanged.

The first barista

So we come to to the article’s second – and central – empirical claim: “When the first barista refuses the enforced gesture of happy-go-lucky largesse by their off-work co-worker, then the whole stinking system will collapse in a mound of idiocy and be revealed for the indentured servitude that it is.”

This, to Svenonius’s credit, is a specific and completely falsifiable claim. But again, unfortunately, it’s demonstrably false.

To test it, I asked a good friend who works as a barista at a local coffee shop to reject a tip during her next shift. A good comrade, she played along – but the results were underwhelming. The customer was initially flustered and even persistent, but eventually just shrugged and walked away. Her comrades were mildly irritated since they pool their tips, even after she explained her logic. And of course, rather than collapsing, the tipping system resumed immediately.

In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to understand why the experiment failed.

For one thing, everyone involved was already perfectly well aware of the pros and cons of tipping. Svenonius proposes that service workers are “placated by the idea of chance,” but no one at her coffee shop is actually expecting “a Saudi Sheik to tip them a million dollars”. Just listen to service workers talk to each other about incomes: they’re usually acutely aware of what they can actually expect to make, not just at any given workplace but at any given time of day and on any given day of the week. They do not talk about their jobs like one talks about buying lottery ticket. Moreover, service workers aren’t somehow blind to the fact that their customers are typically their comrades. They’re often extremely perceptive about the finances of potential tippers, and develop a refined sense of what they can expect from who. They get that economic hard times can lead to lower tips from fellow workers, and they’re acutely class conscious when obviously bourgeois customers don’t leave better tips.

Customers, meanwhile, are themselves under no illusions. They get that an assumed tip has been factored into the bourgeoisie’s wage and price-setting calculus. They get that stiffing comrades on a tip amounts to leveraging their incidental position in the tips-as-laundered-wages scheme to personal advantage. So of course they experience “guilty feelings” for further exploiting an already exploitive system – but that doesn’t mean that they’re responsible for anyone else’s tips, or for the system of tipping in general.

That’s because – and this is the main reason why our experiment failed – it is not some failure to understand our “simulated affluence” as “the indentured servitude that it is” which forestalls the end of tipping and the end of capitalism. What forestalls the end of capitalism is a failure to seize the means of production.This, and only this, is what will bring an end to the ruthless exploitation of workers, of which the tipping system is but one expression.

Service workers who live on tips don’t generally think of themselves as affluent. They don’t need lectures about their poverty and economic insecurity, and they certainly don’t need some overly clever contrarian campaign to bring down their income.  


Rand Paul's Ferguson article is a compelling critique of private property

Rand Paul, on Ferguson:
In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America. The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.
In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft. But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy. One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Paul is right that the War on Drugs has contributed to poverty in Ferguson, but the evidence he brings up is pointing to a bigger cause. Michael Brown was killed for violating rules about private property. Eric Garner was killed for violating rules about private property. Georgia's SWAT team used force to break into a private residence (culminating in the use of the grenade) because of rules about state access to private property.

It is profoundly stupid to rely on a handful of anecdotal examples to make a highly controversial policy argument, which Paul knows perfectly well. But as long as we're doing that, we might as well note that what every given instance of police violence has in common is an attempt to observe and enforce the rules of private property. Ergo, the obvious solution is to eliminate private property. Right?


The right's conception of power is completely upside-down

Some guy named Chip Jones, writing for some blog called Conservative Report:
When management issues arise in large corporations that are due to size, reorganization ensues. Most often, affiliates are created that maintain their own individual CEO’s, yet answer to a common board of directors, who share a common membership. But isn’t this the exact model our Founding Fathers created for this great Republic? A common board with limited powers overseeing affiliates? The Federal government, limited in its powers, over empowered States?
You could, I suppose, compare our government to a common board with limited powers overseeing affiliates - but that's not how corporations operate. The board of a corporation is absolutely sovereign. Corporations are almost always structured like absolute dictatorships, with an extremely vertical hierarchy of power and ambits that only have upper limits. If a corporation operated like American democracy, then (to take one obvious but crucial example) workers would be able to elect their managers. That is the exact opposite of what actually happens in a corporation.

The right makes this sort of error because it has become hyper-sensitive to the problems of government hierarchy - and completely numb to the problems of hierarchy, and power in general, in the private sector.


I shouldn't have to do this

And yet here we are: a point-by-point rebuttal of H.A. Goodman's ridiculous I'm A Liberal Democrat. I'm Voting For Rand Paul:

1. Rand Paul will be more hawkish in office than Clinton.

To paraphrase the Rep. Barney Frank, Senator Paul has always been able "to luxuriate in the purity of his irrelevance." He has spent most of his political career not facing election and not facing difficult votes. His two nays on defense budgets, for example, were predictably inconsequential protest gestures against bills that were always going to pass with 90+ votes.

When you look at the few times Paul has faced any kind of significant pressure or incentive to change his dovish posture, his response has been telling. Under fire by Republican hawks like Cheney and Guiliani when he sought the Republican nomination, Paul's campaign released statements like "Bottom line, Rand is not in favor of closing down Guantanamo Bay" and "He is not for wholesale withdrawal [from Iraq and Afghanistan] that were there we have to win." And as Paul closed in on that primary victory, the National Review noted that he avoided difficult foreign policy questions, since his opponent "Tray Grayson might have been able to paint him out of the GOP mainstream."

Now that Paul needs the GOP mainstream's support again, he is once again adopting a hawkish posture. As Olivia Nuzzi writes, "these days, Paul is publicly entertaining the idea of bombing Iraq, while his advisers have touted him as the second coming of Cold warriors like Dwight Eisenhower...George H.W. Bush....and Ronald Reagan".

The point here is not that Paul is secretly a hawk, and his image as a dove  deceptive ruse. The point is that Paul, like most politicians, is whatever the politics of the moment need him to be. On the many occasions when it's been useful Paul has railed against war and empire, and on the few when it's been useful he's sounded exactly like every other interventionist in Washington.

When we abandon the naive idea that an idealistic politician is going to single-handedly reign in US empire, a different picture of Paul emerges. He would be beholden to the same hawkish constituency and the same network of Republican warmongers that every Republican president is. Like Clinton, many of his allies will be those in Washington who are already calling for war in Iran, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Unlike Clinton, he will have few political allies calling for peace.

2. Rand Paul's position on the NSA is correct - and relatively trivial.

Goodman complains that none of the other candidates for President have made opposition to NSA spying "a top priority in their campaign." Thank god. The NSA surveillance programs may be in direct and obvious opposition to both the rule of law and liberal privacy ideals, but they are also among the least oppressive and least consequential injustices known to man. No liberal who cares about the problems of yawning inequality, increasingly violent racism, pervasive poverty, or any of the other hallmark concerns of the left can look at NSA surveillance and pretend that it hurts Americans more than those more urgent issues. Even if Clinton comes down on the wrong side of this issue, it is largely a first work boutique problem frantically hyped by Libertarians hoping to turn Americans against the government.

3. Rand Paul has teamed reform the criminal justice system.

Again, it's profoundly misleading to take Paul's political maneuvers as an irrelevant Senator as precedent for his potential as president. There is no reason to believe that this kind of legislation would ever reach Paul's desk given the still-overwhelming bipartisan opposition in both chambers of Congress. To accept this as a consideration is to prioritize aspirational pipe dreams over the actual practical consequences of a Paul presidency.

4. Paul is worse than Clinton on Wall Street.

This is one of the most egregious problems with Goodman's argument, and frankly calls into serious question his credibility as any kind of liberal. Paul is a libertarian radical who believes that Wall Street can regulate itself and that problems of economic corruption / injustice are necessarily problems of government intervention. His critique of "the GOP's love affair with corporations" is transparent populist demagoguery built entirely on the right-wing premise that big corporations will spontaneously wither away in the hyper-competitive market of a laissez faire utopia.

Clinton, like Obama, is a liberal state capitalist who will maintain a corporate welfare state and turn a blind eye to financial corruption. But she will also do all of the minimal things that Democrats do to make late capitalism slightly less horrific than it could be - like promote imperfect legislation to patch systematic problems, not destroy the Federal Reserve, and so on.

5. Rand Paul thinks Edward Snowden

lol, see 3

6. Rand Paul publicized the issue of a possible government drone strike, on American soile, against American citizens.

This is if anything a great reason to vote against Rand Paul. As I wrote elsewhere, this is ridiculous for three reasons. First, there is no coherent reason why we should expect a separate legal or ideological disposition for one form of state violence as against all of the others we do accept - simply because it's delivered by a drone. Second, a related point: if we are concerned about state violence against Americans, there are much bigger and more urgent issues than drones, as anyone in Ferguson right now can attest. And third, even if we are specifically concerned about state violence via drone, drone strikes against Americans should still be at the bottom of our priority list, since the overwhelming majority of victims aren't Americans. And Paul, incidentally, is on record supporting drone strikes against them.

7. Rand Paul could bring back an era in American politics when conservatives and liberals socialized with one another.

This is crazy, utopian thinking, though it certainly reveals much of the motivation behind Goodman's endorsement. The partisan divide in America is not some superficial controversy imposed by evil or inept politicians; it is the expression of real and substantial disagreements and the collision of powerful socioeconomic interests that we're all invested in. Rand Paul is not going to magically cause racism to disappear or ameliorate class antagonisms - more than likely, in fact, he would make both worse.

8. Rand Paul will not gut the economic safety nets of this country

This is completely false; Goodman is either uninformed or deliberately misleading. For example, Goodman claims that Paul "doesn't want to dismantle Social Security," but Paul is on record calling it a Ponzi scheme, calling for its privatization and implementing other policies (like raising the retirement age) that fall under every definition of "dismantle Social Security" there is. His rhetoric mirrors the rhetoric of every Republican, and if anything he is more ambitious.

9. Neoconservatives hate Rand Paul.

This is only a half truth, since - as mentioned in point one - Paul will still be politically dependent on them. Neoconservatives are a large and influential faction of the Republican coalition, and unlike Clinton, Paul has to bargain with them. Personal rivalries with the Cheneys are mostly irrelevant.

10. Rand Paul could be the answer to our philosophical conundrum as a nation.

It's unclear what Goodman thinks this "conundrum" is, but he does take the opportunity to complain about "a Democratic Party more focused on defending Obamacare than stopping endless wars or protecting civil liberties". It's unclear why he thinks this some kind of self-evident problem. Government threats to our civil liberties are a much less pressing problem than the basic issue of affordable health care; we should be more concerned about preserving Obamacare. Regarding war, the left has clearly made a tactical calculation that its energies are best spent keeping right-wing radical hawks (McCain, Romney) out of office. This is not a great solution, but there's no reason to suppose that Rand Paul provides any kind of alternative.


Friedersdorf disappointed that Obama governs like an American president

For the paradigm example of Conor Friedersdorf's critique of the Obama Presidency, skip down to grievance number five:
Obama took...actions that set extremely dangerous precedents...he waged a war of choice in Libya without permission from Congress.
There is no universe in which this works as an Obama precedent. The military actions that presidents have authorized without Congressional approval have numbered, historically, in the triple digits. Which ones count as "wars" and "wars of choice" will depend on who you ask, but Friedersdorf has a hilariously steep hill to climb if he's going to exclude all of them, while singling out Libya as the camel's nose in the tent. There's an extensive history of critics alleging precisely this point of unconstitutionality against presidents, and if Friedersdorf is unacquainted with this it can only be because he's completely unacquainted with the anti-war left.

None of this absolves Obama, of course, from any kind of moral judgment. But as a simple matter of practical assessment, it does lay down a marker of what we can expect from a modern American president. To support Obama and approve of the job he is doing is not to endorse him as an ideal - it is to compare him to the alternatives on offer. Not in Imaginationland, but in the grim reality of 21st century American politics.

This perspective is worth consulting when critics like Friersdorf characterize Obama's defenders on the left as blinkered Pollyannas failing "to see it all with open eyes". It's precisely because we see history - all of it - that we judge Obama accordingly. When demagogues like Rand Paul float visions of world peace before us, and ask us to judge the sitting president by that standard, we think back just six years ago when another Senator said the same things. We remember.


The federal government would easily destroy Joni Ernst and her family

Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst has openly admitted that she carries a gun "to defend myself and my family...from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important."

Obviously Americans should probably think twice about electing a violent radical who openly admits her contempt for democratic governance, and plenty of people are going to point this out. So instead, it's worth reiterating a point that should be equally obvious but that'll almost certainly get lost in the furor:

There is no way Joni Ernst and her gun could do a thing to stop federal government.

This is a perfect example of the delusion, impotent posturing I've addressed at length. Suppose that government agents came to arrest Joni Ernst for whatever reason, and that Ernst, in defense of whatever "rights" she thinks are being violated, attempts to open fire on them. If this happened in the open, any officers on hand would return fire and immediately subdue her. If she managed to barricade herself in her home or whatever, officers would just call in reinforcements and either pin her in her home until she surrendered or take her out in a standard police raid. The chance that she would successfully evade capture - not just immediate capture, but eventual capture - are less than zero.

If gun nuts learn one lesson from the all-too-familiar scenario of a lone gunman trying to take down the state, they should learn that basic, modest forms of gun control are probably a good idea. But if they don't learn that, they should at least learn that armed attacks on the state basically never work.