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.

1/16/16

Clinton's utopian health care dreams are obviously politically impossible

An endless parade of starry-eyed utopians have spent the last several days advocating for Hillary Clinton's health care plan. As a lifelong progressive, I am of course very sympathetic towards any plan to bring affordable health coverage to all Americans. But as a savvy, pragmatic realist with both of my feet firmly on the ground, I fear that Clinton's lofty idealism is leading Democrats astray - because it is completely obvious that she will never be able to sign her reforms into law.

Here's the kind of thing Clintonites are saying. Harold Pollack writes that "Progressives should still push for basic reforms that improve our current system." Digby writes, "Most of our big social welfare programs have been implemented incrementally, even Social Security, and I cannot see how this would be any different under the current circumstances." And even Clinton herself is claiming that she will "build on the successes of the Affordable Care Act and work to fix some of the glitches".

This kind of wishful optimism may play well on the campaign trail for Clinton, but it will obviously - obviously - crash and burn as soon as it gets anywhere near the Republican Congress.

Because if the past eight years have taught us anything at all, they've taught us that the GOP has settled on absolute obstruction as its best and most reliable political strategy. They have every single incentive to stick with this and zero reason to abandon this. They are not going to cut deals with Hillary no matter how nicely she asks and no matter how hard to the right she tacks, because they do not want to hand her any policy victories. They have spent literally thousands of days proving this point with Obama.

I wish things were different! Like so many Clinton supporters, I wish that we lived in a world where Republicans would respect democratic mandates, pick their battles, and negotiate. I also wish for world peace, and the abolition of private property, and all of those other naive dreams that you have when you are a child.

But part of growing up and maturing and becoming a wonkish politics-knower involves learning to work in the real world. That means accepting hard facts that we may find unpleasant, disagreeable, and inconvenient for our aspirations. I hope that one day we will live in a world where passing incremental progressive health care reforms through a Republican Congress is even remotely possible, and not just a happy fantasy. But the stakes are too high for us to pretend like we're already there.

1/11/16

The Matt Bruenig Election Team has called the Democratic age divide for months

The Matt Bruenig Election Team's advanced models and top-shelf data journalism is so untouchable that the pundits can only stay in business by doing two things: ignoring us, and trivializing us. The smart ones just pretend that we don't exist; the less clever ones try to pretend that we're just joking around, even though we have the most diverse team, the most impressive resources, and the biggest fan base in the game.

But just to hammer home how legit we are: notice how everyone's suddenly talking about the age divide in the Democratic primaries after USA Today reported on Sanders' 20 point lead among young women? They weren't talking about it before - but the Matt Bruenig election team's been talking about this for months. Just a few reasons why we're you're #1 source for groundbreaking, fact-driven election coverage:


ARTICLES

October 26: Matt writes about the "very significant age divide" among D voters

October 27: Matt writes about "an emerging feminist age divide"

November 19: Carl writes that Clinton is "the last gasp of the baby boomers"

December 11: Matt debunks Marcotte's claims about a gender gap among young voters with numbers showing a substantial lead for Sanders among voters under 30

January 6: Carl argues that poverty among young women may explain their support of Sanders

January 10: Matt notes that most Clintonites (besides DWS) cannot explain the age divide


TWEETS








1/11/16

LOL, war against North Korea is a really terrible idea

Suki Kim, an aspiring foreign policy analyst with a bachelor's degree in English, thinks that we should go to war against North Korea:
If negotiations and sanctions do not work, then all we can do is to continue paying North Korea off with an aid package to keep it contained until the next threat, which might or might not be the real hydrogen bomb..I often think that is what the...six-party talks were really about - to ensure that North Korea never collapses, no matter what the cost.
This would all be logical, if not utterly inhumane, if North Korea weren’t a nuclear force with a potential hydrogen bomb in its possession, holding hostage 25 million human beings. Then what are our options?
One of the interesting points here is that Kim never actually challenges the effectiveness of "paying North Korea off" as a containment strategy. It is clearly the preference of the international community, it has so far absolutely succeeded in preventing any nuclear attacks, and Kim gives us no new reason to expect it to fail.

So why change our approach? Everyone already gets that North Korea is extorting aid from the rest of the world, that it is riddled with human rights abuses, and that its nuclear weapons, in an extraordinarily unlikely nightmare scenario, could find their way into the hands of a rogue terrorist. Having considered these problems in the past, we've generally conclude that they're ultimately outweighed by the massive suffering and chaos that war would certainly inflict on the region.

Kim dramatically misunderstands the history of diplomatic and public opinion on North Korea when she asks "Why does no one ever talk about the obvious solution of an intervention?" - as if this approach has not been repeatedly considered, and duly rejected. All of the dangers she invokes were already well understood a decade ago, when we were already making popular movies with puppets ridiculing this sort of warmongering. At the very most, Kim's game-changer revelations just affirm everything we already knew.

1/10/16

What do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have in common?

Given the recent spate of comparisons to Sanders, I thought it'd be useful to put together a reminder that Trump has far more in common with Clinton than with any other Democratic candidate. To spare the reader any further 7,000 word essays, I'll try to keep this concise and readable, though I suspect the list will grow:

  • Trump and Clinton both have household wealth ranking them in the upper .02% of the US.
  • Trump and Clinton both have campaigns that are significantly funded by the real estate industry.
  • Trump and Clinton are both white Ivy League baby boomers.
  • Trump and Clinton both have their campaign headquarters and central political networks based in New York City.
  • Trump and Clinton have both been planning their presidential runs for over a decade.
  • Trump and Clinton have both built their campaigns on the built-in advantages of name recognition and major imbalances in corporate media coverage.
  • Trump and Clinton have both advocated deterring crime with more aggressive policing and more draconian penalties including longer prison sentences.
  • Trump and Clinton have both openly opposed gay marriage.
  • Trump and Clinton have both championed wall-building as a primary approach to immigration control.
  • Trump and Clinton have both proposed Ukraine accession into NATO, which would legally obligate the US by international treaty to enter into war against the Russian Federation.
  • Trump and Clinton have both blamed poverty on lazyness and have both advocated harsher welfare restrictions and cuts.
  • Trump and Clinton have both actively criticized the Obama administration's foreign policy as too doveish.
  • Trump and Clinton both rely significantly on nationalistic rhetoric about American greatness.
  • Trump and Clinton have both actively campaigned for candidates from the opposing party.
  • Trump and Clinton have higher unfavorable ratings than any other candidates in their parties.
  • Trump and Clinton are both running directly against their own past positions on multiple major issues and relying on convenient and largely unverifiable claims that their views have evolved.
  • Trump and Clinton are both, of course, open capitalists who have directly rejected socialism in their campaigns.
  • Trump and Clinton have both been credibly accused of buying / intimidating into silence victims of sexual assault.

1/8/16

The Trump confidence game analysis has no basis in fact

Vox has published another piece predicting that Trump will lose. This latest variation on the theme, written by David Roberts, will likely be new to liberal readers - but he is really just rehearsing an analysis that has been floating around the American right for months. Here's The Federalist, predicting The Beginning of the End for Donald Trump:
Trump’s candidacy has been propelled by a kind of macho bluster, with Trump portraying himself as a winner who is amazing—terrific!—at everything he does, who can afford to laugh off all those other losers...But what if Trump stops winning? ...Trump’s campaign has so far been based on the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. But the flipside is that nothing fails like failure.
 That was back in September after the first Republican debates. Here's what's happened since then:


One can persuasively argue that Trump lost several of the early Republican debates, and that those losses indeed impacted his lead. This seems particularly clear in the case of the Carson surge in October, which saw not only a narrowing lead for Trump but an actual drop in his numbers.

But the rest, of course, is history. Even as the Federalist was declaring the end of Trump, the Matt Bruenig Election Team was predicting an end to the Carson surge - and that's exactly what happened. At his best, Carson could only cut Trump's 12 point lead down to 7 before he ran out of steam.

The incident is instructive because it illuminates the essential analytical problem all of the pundits are running into: Trump is much, much more popular than his opponents. If you really wanted to, you could try to nickle-and-dime his advantages away with a lot of small-bore, circumstantial data analysis - but 22 points are a lot to chip away at. So the temptation is to just develop an easy silver-bullet argument that could nullify his entire lead.

Unfortunately, it's hard to do that without inventing an argument so powerful that it could vaporize any lead. This is where analyses like Roberts' run into trouble:
Trump will lose something — maybe Iowa, maybe New Hampshire, maybe just a couple of news cycles...He'll enter a negative spiral as self-reinforcing as his rise has been.
Obviously, this sort of "negative spiral" argument could hypothetically cancel out anything from a 22 point lead to an 88 point lead. Roberts does nothing to quantify or at all constrain the impact of this potential effect, even though it seems ridiculous to suppose that it could actually topple any imaginable advantage in the polls. And this becomes a particularly difficult hurdle for Roberts because we've seen identical predictions before: we've seen Trump faced with bad news before, and it turns out that the "negative spiral" effect barely cost him five points.

The Matt Bruenig Election Team's proprietary models account for this sort of negative feedback effect, but we simply note that the larger Trump's lead gets, the less likely this sort of thing is to nullify it. And at this point, Trump's lead is so enormous that neither a few primary losses nor a few bad news cycles are at all likely to break it.

1/7/16

Why are Bill Clinton's alleged crimes and scandals relevant to Hillary?

...airing these topics should be clear and direct on why or how they are relevant to the presidential race and to how we should judge Hillary’s case for the presidency. If they are, tell us why and tell us how. - Greg Sargent
This seems fairly straightforward:
  1. You do not actually have to accuse either Clinton of any wrongdoing to appreciate that the entire controversy significantly threatens Hillary's ability to govern. As it is doing already, it will continue to drain time and resources from any agenda she hopes to advance. It will also, of course, be weaponized against all Democrats and progressive causes, not just the Clintons. This may all very well be a tremendous injustice to the Clintons, but the stakes here are a lot bigger than whether Democratic voters should do right by Hillary. So regardless of how the conversation starts, as soon as it does, progressives have every reason to ask whether or not the mere persistence and magnitude of the controversy disqualifies Hillary from office.
  2. Americans have historically considered enforcing an ethic of personal honesty and transparency in elected officials crucial to the integrity of democratic representation. The implicit logic is that people can only participate in power if they know who they are voting for. For that reason, there is an essentially procedural argument that, if Hillary is participating in any lie or deceit about her husband's past, the public may hold her accountable for this for the sake of defending democratic norms.
  3. Similarly, Americans tend to believe - however naively - that personal honesty and integrity play crucial roles in an elected official's performance. This is particularly true in cases where political incentives are undecisive or ambiguous and an official has some discretion to make judgment calls. If (as alleged) Hillary is willing to silence a rape victim for the sake of political expedience or personal convenience, one wonders who else she would be willing to betray.
These are just three of the most obvious reasons why Americans might be concerned by Hillary's proximity to an alleged serial rapist.

And it seems a little odd to have to spell this out. Sargent is correct when he notices that these arguments often rely on a lot of rhetorical shorthand and polemic assumptions, but it does not at all follow, as he suggests, that they're actually meaningless. This is just what happens when a complicated controversy gets baked into our political discourse for several decades: the terrain of disagreements gets exhaustively mapped out, people internalize the stakes and the arguments, and multiple, elaborate positions get coded into overdetermined slogans like "Bill is fair game".

It's fair enough to ask for clarification, but Sargent goes too far when he uses the casual way that we naturally articulate familiar arguments to suggest that Clinton's critics have no case. The multiple examples he gives of hypothetical arguments her critics could be making is evidence enough that he knows perfectly well why people often think that "Bill is fair game", whatever that happens to mean in any particular interview. Sargent would do better to address those substantive arguments than to spend much time policing the eloquence of our pundits.

    1/6/16

    Young women aren't "complacent" - they're struggling

    Debbie Wasserman Schultz sparked a significant backlash this morning when she accused "young women" of political "complacency." The Hillary Clinton surrogate, who also serves as Democratic Party chair, made her comment in an interview when Ana Marie Cox alluded to the "generational divide" among young women in the Democratic primaries.

    That general divide should be common knowledge by now: young people like Sanders and don't like Clinton. Among the overall population, in fact, Clinton hasn't been able to win a majority of voters born after the 60s. Matt Bruenig notes that a variation on the pattern holds among women in particular:


    So there clearly is a generational divide among women - between those older and younger than 30. But if DWS is wrong, how else can we explain this? One simple explanation presents itself if we look at the economic situation of each age bracket:


    The most striking fact here, of course, is that no matter what age group you are in, at least half of all women are making less than $25,000. This is a difficult number to get past, but once you do, you'll notice that it skyrockets to nearly three quarters of women currently under 30. Right now, the youngest generation of women only has a one in four shot of earning $25k; DWS's generation has a one in four shot of earning twice that. Similarly, women in the 30-64 age brackets are more likely to make $75k than the youngest generation is to make $50k. And only about 2% of all women under thirty make $75k or more, compared with more than 10% of women between 30 and 64. It's only when you reach retirement that income levels for women even start to return to what they are for the youngest cohort.

    All of this makes the political trend easy enough to explain: Sanders has more to offer struggling young women than Clinton does. His education plans, including free tuition at colleges and universities, would help young women complete their schooling and pay off their loans. His superior child care and paid leave plans would help women who are starting families. And evidently, Sanders' record on reproductive rights has won the confidence of age cohort who give birth to 60% of America's children. Sanders also, of course, is likely to offer a much more vigorous defense of other general welfare programs that would come in handy for poor women, like food stamps - programs that Clinton is best known for loudly opposing.

    If you're an older woman who personally has no student loans to pay off, no need for child care and paid leave, a diminishing need for abortions, and no need for food stamps, you are probably less likely to be impressed by Sanders' platform, or off-put by Clinton's. In that case - particularly if you're a humanities professor or an established media figure - you're more likely to care about nebulous symbolism, and to consider poverty a worry for another time.

    1/4/16

    The Oregon insurgency has already failed

    "These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States." - David M. Ward, Harney County Sheriff
    None of this should come as any surprise to anyone at all familiar with the American militia movement: it's the standard game plan of right-wing insurgency. You find it everywhere, from the insane fever dreams of right-wing comments sections to the hilarious alternative history of mainstream militants like Kurt Schlichter. The problem is always the same: the federal government is obviously way too powerful for any local club of grandpa gun enthusiasts to overcome. And their solution is always the same, too: domino effect. Local rebellion sparks national rebellion sparks military coup.

    This of course simply declares as a non-problem the most difficult problem of large-scale politics: mobilization. As a rule, local incidents do not metastasize into larger ones. Activists and communities are so alienated and isolated from each other that it's almost impossible to get them to make significant investments into broader concerns. You can get them to make symbolic gestures and trivial investments into online fundraising campaigns, but it's extraordinarily difficult to get them to do anything more substantial - particularly when their personal interests are at stake only implicitly or indirectly.

    That Bundy's militia largely failed even in its local recruitment efforts testifies to just what a futile enterprise all of this actually is. As I elaborated elsewhere, the history of militant insurrection against the federal government is entirely a history of failure - and usually, a history of catastrophic, embarrassingly inept failure. This campaign has already failed to earn any significant national solidarity beyond the belligerent rhetoric of aging #tcots, and the savvier ones are already distancing themselves from its inevitable collapse.

    1/4/16

    Another iteration of the odd anti-economism critique

    The idea that Trump’s popularity can mostly be explained away as misplaced economic anxiety, though, fails to account for the fact that Trumpism isn’t expressed as an economic program, but as a way to, as Greg Sargent put it, “keep the darkies out.” - Beutler
    Brian Beutler has had some fun over the past few weeks ridiculing references to "economic anxiety" as euphemisms for racism. I can see how this would hypothetically be an issue, but am as always baffled by this line of criticism, since the class-only leftists pretty much died out a century ago. No one actually believes anymore that racism is just some kind of illusory epiphenonemal artifact of the material economy, so who exactly does he have in mind?

    The problem, of course, is that these sustained objections amount, when they cannot be specified, to a campaign against any discussion of the role of economic anxiety of racism. I am completely unclear at this point how one can acknowledge even a minimal role for this dynamic in a way that does not run afoul of Beutler's critique. In the above article, for example, he doesn't bring up any particular example of anyone explaining away Trump's racist ad as a mere expression of economic anxiety - instead, the ad is just an opportunity for him to shadowbox against anyone who might.

    So who is the target here? Are the 19th century vulgar Marxists still a significant political force in a way that is worthy of our attention and ongoing critique? And in a way that we can talk about with any amount of specificity?


    UPDATE: Some welcome clarification from Beutler:

    I'm admittedly unfamiliar with this tendency, since I tend to focus on the radical-right and center-left of political discourse as the borders of respectable opinion in our country; but the explanation makes sense, and I'm fine with conceding I misread him.

    Worth adding that my misreading only illuminates a second, serious problem with the liberal critique of left economics: it is dangerously misdirected. American politics certainly downplay racism and rely on bogus economic analysis - but this is a symptom of the right, not the left. As McElwee ably demonstrates, it is American conservatives who have built a giant ideological apparatus for explaining away racist outcomes as economically justified. The left critique of capitalism is a crucial part of debunking that discourse and bringing the role of racism back to the surface, as are efforts like Brian's.

    1/4/16

    More rich people challenging democratic sovereignty

    The Oregon militia's occupation of an office building in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is just the latest episode of our ongoing plutocratic mobilization of the poor against the sovereignty of the democratic state.

    This is an ongoing pattern of class warfare in the United States that the left must learn to recognize and successfully combat. The Hammonds and the Bundys are both wealthy ranching families that have repeatedly and deliberately defied basic exercises of federal governance, such as tax collection and land regulation. This is a fight on their behalf.

    And while little is known about the militia involved, what we do know suggests the opposite of a democratic movement. It did not emerge locally; it was evidently raised through a persistent, aggressive recruitment campaign by Bundy and Ryan Payne, a militant from Montana, one that sparked repeated reports of "harassment" by residents of the area, EG:
    The sheriff said three militiamen and one woman, one with a gun strapped to his hip, engaged his 74-year-old mother and 78-year-old father at a yard sale being held at the American Legion. When the men criticized the sheriff, his mother bristled, and said she didn't need their protection from the government...
    In his creepy "goodbye" video, Jon Ritzheimer alludes to his own months-long recruitment campaign in the area. This does not appear to be a movement that grew organically out of popular concerns of government tyranny, and there is no reason to assume it's anything other than the astroturf campaign it almost certainly is, funded by people like Bundy and promoted by Koch funded propaganda organs like Reason.

    The militia occupation continues a tradition of class warfare that stretches from the Tea Party brand all the way back to the Civil War itself, which working-class Southern conscripts called a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight". That fight has important lessons for the modern left. As David Williams documents in Bitterly Divided, the Confederacy was largely undone not just by opposition from the North, but by internal dissent and attrition by working-class Southerners, who had no stake in the battle and no interest in dying for the business interests of wealthy plantation owners. Crucially, hundreds of thousands of those dissidents (along with enslaved black Americans) not only fled the Confederacy but actually joined the US Army in its defense of the federal government. It was that alliance between the North and its allies in the South that guaranteed the Union's victory.

    One is tempted, when reflecting on the Oregon occupation, to view it through the purely tribal lens of partisan politics, and to vilify the militia fighters as white trash terrorists who deserve to be treated as such. This doesn't just grossly misunderstand the nature of the conflict - it serves to alienate from the left members of the working-class who are rightly our allies, and threatens us with a weakened coalition against a plutocracy intent on destroying our democracy. Contrary to the what they would have us believe, it is the rich, not the government, that is dividing the working-class against itself. The solutions are the same as they always are: solidarity, and class war.