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4/6/16

The obvious hypocrisy of pro-outsourcing punditry

Freddie deBoer had a Fantastic Take earlier today:


I'd like to expand on this, because as it happens I have some directly relevant professional experience. As a managing editor who has run several international news sites, I've built significant stringer networks in almost every part of the world, from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Maghreb to Latin America to East Asia and, yes, India. I've worked with significant budgets, and the main reason that I've done this is that it's given me the opportunity to redistribute that money to embattled and often impoverished journalists throughout the developing world.

As I argued yesterday, this is not the best or even a particularly good solution to global poverty - but until we bring down capitalism, it's at least a minimal form of damage control. If that money stayed in some bourgeois pig's bank account it would be useless. Even if it went to a working class journalist in the US, a significant amount of it would be going into fourth meal runs to Taco Bell, Netflix subscriptions, and so on. Those are entirely reasonable luxuries, but they are luxuries, and as merciless Singerian utilitarianism teaches us,
we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility - that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift. This would mean, of course, that one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee.
This, of course, is exactly where the critique of Sanders on outsourcing and protectionism brings you. If neoliberal journalists were being morally and intellectually consistent, and holding themselves to the same standards that they hold Sanders to, they would live in utter austerity and accept only sustenance-level wages, knowing perfectly well that every penny they spend on frivolity is one that could be saving an international journalist from utter immiseration.

This isn't hyperbole. The journalists I worked with are generally among the more prosperous people in the developing world - that's how they're journalists and not beggars or farmers - and even they live in conditions completely unimaginable to the neoliberal pundits. Most were homeless for significant periods of time within three years of our collaboration. Most were living paycheck-to-paycheck and faced a full range of eviction, medical, legal, and serious financial dangers if their checks came late. Most were supporting not just immediate family but all kinds of extended family members and acquaintances. Almost none of them had cars. Most were paying extortionary per-minute rates working out of internet cafes because they couldn't afford a computer, much less home internet access. For most of them, journalism was a second or even third job that supplemented some kind of unskilled labor in the service industry.

The leftist solution to this kind of poverty mainly relies expropriating wealth from the rich through the state and redistributing it to everyone else. If that's your approach, and if you see laissez-faire capitalism as an ultimately exploitative process that slowly but surely transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, it makes perfect sense that you would be skeptical of private altruism and market liberalization solutions. But if you're a neoliberal pundit who thinks that outsourcing is the appropriate solution, then why not, as Freddie proposes, be the change? Could it possibly be because you're hoping that other working-class Americans give up what little they have while you hold on to yours?

4/6/16

How did media get it so wrong on Sanders and banking?

Mike Konczal is a respected economic scholar. He has multiple directly-related science degrees, including an M.S. in Finance. This, to use a much-neglected concept from science and academia, is his "field". While he naturally wanders into other topics from time to time, the overwhelming majority of his work focuses, as he puts it, on "financial reform, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy"; these are the things that he has produced original scholarship on, that he has studied and kept-up with deeply and rigorously, and that we know that he knows about.

Similarly, Peter Eavis has been a financial reporter for over twenty years. To use another much-neglected concept, this one from journalism, this is his "beat". While he does not have the formal academic background that Konczal has, and does not participate in the scholarly community, he has decades of professional background under his belt. This is how journalists build knowledge: by immersing themselves in a particular world over a long period of time. We can't expect them to have the deep and sophisticated knowledge that academics have, but we may eventually expect them to know more than the average reporter or reader.

So when both Konczal and Eavis consider Bernie Sanders' recent comments on breaking up the banks, we shouldn't be surprised that they arrived at similar conclusions. Konczal:
Bernie Sanders gave some fairly normal answers on financial reform to the New York Daily News editorial board. Someone sent it to me, and as I read it I thought “yes, these are answers I’d expect for how Sanders approaches financial reform.”
Eavis:
Bernie Sanders probably knows more about breaking up banks than his critics give him credit for.
And we should not, for that matter, be surprised that they consider Sanders' comments fairly sensible. After all, Sanders, too, has focused on this field of policy for much of his national career, and he's advised by professionals who research this stuff for a living.

So how did so many critics in the media, in direct opposition to this scholarly consensus, conclude that Sanders' ideas about breaking up the bank were so radically off base? Some brief quotes and CVs from the pundits Konczal mentions:

  • Caitlin Cruz wrote that Sanders "struggled to detail how he would break-up the big banks". She is a journalist who started writing cultural pieces in 2010, moved on to local reporting, and has since generalized into covering "politics, policy, and national news".
  • Chris Cillizza called Bernie's comments "pretty close to a disaster" and accused him of "dodging as he sought to scramble back to his talking points." He has an English degree and writes generally about national politics.
  • David Graham said that Sander's answers "raises some questions about his policy chops." Graham has a B.A. (B.A.s?) and studied history, Arabic, and Islamic studies.
  • Tina Nguyen says that Sanders "displayed a lack of familiarity with economic principles" and "isn't sure how to break up big banks". She has a B.A. in government and covers "politics, current events (domestic and global), the media, fools and trolls".
One could go on. Some of the more serious journalists have been relatively even-handed: for example, MarketWatch fiscal policy reporter Robert Schroeder, who Eavis cites, avoids editorializing and merely reports what relatively credible critics have said. But for the most part, the media is crawling with generalists and dilettantes who have no significant background in the field. And they are loudly declaring - at odds with the assessment of actual scholars and credible professionals - that a major national figure advocating an agenda backed by millions of Americans doesn't know what he's talking about.

Much has been written on the media's cult of the expert, which usually amounts - as Adam Johnson puts it in this excellent piece - to "a lazy appeal to authority that shortcuts actually showing one's homework - how one got from premise to conclusion". But objections to the rhetoric of expertise should not be understood as objections to expertise itself. 

In fact, as we see here, a major - major - problem in modern journalism is a widespread lack of expertise. It's not just that journalists are editorializing; they're editorializing on topics where they have no background or claim to knowledge whatsoever. Pundits who know little more than their readers, and often demonstrably less, are given massive corporate platforms to do this; their misinformation is relentlessly marketed and disseminated with massive promotional budgets, quite often under the imprimatur of prestige publication brands. 

This is not entirely the fault of the names in the bylines; journalists have bills to pay like the rest of us, they have often ruthless content quotas and deadlines to meet, and they often don't even have the luxury of taking their time and getting it right. The problem is structural, and ultimately comes down to the ways that capitalism 1) places unreasonable production demands on workers and 2) systematically incentivizes biased reporting. Regardless, the Sanders banking debate is a paradigm example of how this plays out in practice, and how it warps our discourse and our politics. The relatively tiny fraction of writers with even minimal credibility, who spend most of their time researching and toiling in obscurity, are inevitably drowned out by this enormous machine of elite infotainment.

4/4/16

RE: Clinton 2016's "The facts on where the race stands"

Clinton 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook has posted a thing making a few claims about where the race stands. Eight quick points:

1. Bernie Sanders is winning with Americans. In fact, Clinton has not lead Sanders in national polls since December 9 of last year. When Mook says that "Clinton is winning with voters," what he specifically means is that she's winning Democratic primary voters. If you're a democrat, and not simply a Democrat, you might actually be interested in what other Americans think, too.

2. Sanders is winning most major constituencies of the Obama coalition. As I noted a few days ago, this includes women, voters of color, the LGBT community, the poor, and the young. And while there is little recent polling on the national union vote, Sanders typically wins union endorsements when their members have any say. When Mook says she is winning "key parts of the Democratic and Obama coalition", this is only partially true of black Americans; for everyone else it's demonstrably incorrect. In particular,

3. This is part of an escalating, official attack on young voters. On Tuesday, Clinton suggested that young voters are lazy; on Sunday, she suggested that young voters are uninformed; and in Mook's post, her campaign is joining ongoing efforts to kick young voters out of the Obama coalition:
She has received 58 percent of the popular vote. That support includes key parts of the Democratic and the Obama coalition, including African American voters, Latino voters, union households, women, and seniors [emphasis added].
Obama lost seniors by 8 points in 2008 and 12 points in 2012. More generally, seniors have been a reliably Republican-leaning constituency for decades. Pretending that they have been members of either coalition is obviously false, and the omission of young voters is both necessary and deliberate.

4. Mook is using Clinton-leaning states to make claims about Sanders-leaning states. As David Dayen explains, Clinton's lead at this point is significantly an artifact of a primary schedule that was frontloaded in her favor. Sanders is expected to do significantly better moving forward, which means that all of his past-is-precedent spin is directly at odds with both the polls and conventional wisdom about Clinton's challenges moving forward.

5. The delegate math gives Sanders a direct path to victory. As Connor Kilpatrick notes, it's pretty straightforward.

6. Both the polls and credible analysis still suggest that Sanders is a stronger candidate against Trump than Clinton is. The polls have been clear on this for months (Clinton, Sanders vs. Trump). This is why Mook has to try to dismiss "general election polls this early in the race" while relying on even weaker indicators (EG what "Democrats believe" in select states, which might be interesting if only Democrats could vote). Nathan J. Robinson ably dispatches his other points here.

7. It is Clinton's path to victory that relies on "overturning the will of the voters". See (1). And recall that this is the exact same complaint Clinton made against Obama.

8. Clinton's campaign is doing this because they're shook. That's why we're seeing a post that is this radically dishonest, radically implausible, and radically hostile to major Democratic constituencies: Clinton realizes the danger that her campaign is in. Expect more of this in the weeks to come.

4/2/16

The privilege of #NeverHillary's aging critics

Earlier this week, Susan Sarandon spelled out a variation on the standard argument against lesser-evil voting. Though she put it in (self-consciously) melodramatic terms, the two basis premises were both there:
1. Lesser-evil voting guarantees that Democrats will continue their rightward drift, maintaining a destructive and oppressive status quo ("it's dangerous to continue thinking that we can continue the way we are")
2. If losing this election upended that status quo and forced a radical shift to the left among Democratic candidates (if it would "bring the revolution"), the long-term decrease in suffering would be worth the short-term increase in suffering.
Setting aside Sarandon's rhetorical flourishes, it's worth noting that the #NeverHillary argument is really just a delayed gratification argument. It advocates a net reduction in destruction, suffering and oppression by putting an end to a Democratic status quo that, over the long-term, would be worse for everyone than a single Republican administration. This is the exact opposite of a "tolerance for human sacrifice", as Michelle Goldberg puts it in her critique of #NeverHillary voters. If Sarandon is right, it is in fact liberals like Goldberg who wants to exact a greater human cost over the long term.


Here, I just want to make the simple point that there's a demographic with a powerful, privileged incentive to reject this logic: olds.

Old people have no direct personal stake in long-term political outcomes. They have the luxury of only having to worry about what happens in the short term. They don't have to worry about what happens over the span of decades if you keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats, because most of them will either be dead or enjoying a comfortable retirement. They have almost nothing to gain by using their votes to discipline the Democrats into running better candidates, because that is a long-term political project that doesn't yield them immediate advantages.

When olds like Joan Walsh and Michael Tomasky lecture young people for worrying about their future, they are doing this from a position of absolute privilege. For them, a Hillary Clinton presidency is acceptable, because they get all of the advantages and none of the disadvantages. They get low energy prices that come from Clinton's middling climate-change incrementalism, and none of the droughts, rising oceans, and global instability that we'll see by the end of the century. They can tell young black people that their votes don't matter, because olds won't be around to see the devestation wrought to black communities by Clintonian economic governance; olds will, however, get the nice short-term bump in their 401(k) that comes when Hillary inflates the next bubble. They can tell young women that their fights for childcare and family leave are overhyped, because the boomers have already sent their last children to college.

Young people have no choice: they have to play the long game. Some of them may decide that the grim future which lesser-evil voter guarantees them just isn't acceptable. They might even conclude that it would be preferable to endure four years of a Republican administration if it means that Democrats nominate an acceptable candidate the next time around. This calculation is debatable, but it's absolutely ridiculous for olds that #NeverHillary voters are trying to increase oppression and suffering. That analysis only makes sense if you have the privilege that old people have: the privilege of not caring about the future.

3/30/16

If you're concerned about money in politics, stop gaming the FEC

Hillary Clinton's campaign is gaming the Federal Elections Commission. They have explicitly admitted this. They are openly coordinating their messaging with super PACs, which in turn have direct ties to media outlets like Peter Daou's Blue Nation Review. As the Campaign Legal Center's Larry Noble notes,
you start a quick slide down a slippery slope and begin to lose credibility as a champion of campaign finance reform when you follow the herd and claim independence from your super PAC while taking actions anyone in the real world would consider coordination, relying on a useless FEC and a 9-year-old’s “everyone is doing it” defense...And you slam into the bottom of that slippery slope when you create loopholes that undermine the law.
Here, I just want to elaborate on a related point I made here, which is that if you're a journalist who's helping the Clinton campaign get around FEC regulations, you, too, are abdicating any credibility you have to talk about campaign finance.

It is perfectly clear that dozens of journalists and columnists are coordinating their efforts to campaign for Hillary Clinton. At least some of them are doing this quite deliberately and formally, through things like mailing lists, conference calls, and so on. More often, it's "spontaneous" in the trivial sense that no one is explicitly telling them what to do. Writers see each other pick up on certain talking points and themes, and they start signal-boosting: they churn out a variation on the same article, they name-check each other on broadcasts, corporate-promoted social media feeds, and so on. They do this because they understand that a message is much more persuasive when it's everywhere and coming from multiple channels at once.

So what's the problem?

This is campaigning. If you are a writer who publishes in a major publication with a marketing budget, or who has access to a social media channel (even "yours"!) that gets promoted by that company, you aren't an independent voice. Sorry. And when you use your platform to campaign, you're making the sort of massive in-kind donation that's ordinarily subject to FEC regulation. Trying to get around that regulation by coordinating "spontaneously" doesn't justify what you're doing - it just makes you an enemy of democratic sovereignty in addition to being a shill.

Journalists don't like to think of themselves as 1) agents of capital or 2) subject to democratic regulation of their political advocacy. Unfortunately for them, when one is true, two is true. If you want to campaign for Clinton, don't use your platform as a journalist to do it. And if you actually care about campaign finance, stop gaming the rules.

3/30/16

EXPLAINER: Yes liberals, red-baiting is Bad

As the Cold War recedes into the increasingly distant past, we often suppose that the politics of the Cold War - including the bigotries of anti-communism - are disappearing as well. Sadly, this is not entirely true. Capitalism persists, and as long as it does, it will necessarily foment among its stakeholders all kinds of anti-communist attitudes and biases - and the left will have to keep fighting them.

Unfortunately, one thing that has faded from memory with the Cold War is the political language that the left has used to fight anti-communism. In particular, for decades, the left cultivated popular opposition to what was then known as "red-baiting" - but that term has long fallen out of our political vocabulary, and today the left stands relatively unarmed against the resurgence of anti-communism. It's long past time for the left to start defending itself, and that means bringing back its critique of red-baiting.

What is red-baiting?

Put simply, red-baiting is bigotry. Specifically, it is bias and prejudice against Marxism.

Note that this is different from mere skepticism and criticism of Marxism. Red-baiting is unreasoning opposition to Marxism, opposition grounded entirely in fear, intolerance, closed-mindedness, and hate. Instead of allowing people to draw moral and intellectual conclusions about Marxism based on rational evalution, red-baiting foments reflexive and unthinking hostility to its philosophy and its adherents.

How does red-baiting work?

Typically, red-baiting blames Marxism, without argument, for various atrocities committed in connection with communist governments.

The key phrase here is "without argument". Instead of establishing and defending this relationship between Marxist theory and its alleged consequences, red-baiting simply decrees that the relationship exists. Often, it relies on popular prejudice to get people to accept this decree: it's "just common sense" that Marxism is responsible, and good, decent people don't question that or think about it too hard. Other times, red-baiting relies on abusive shaming and intimidation: people who question Marxism's responsibility for a crime are accused of justifying the crime itself, or trivializing it, or pretending that it didn't even happen.

In this way, the defining feature of red-baiting is that it obstructs rational deliberation over Marxism. It relies on biases and bigotry to prevent us from thinking about it and talking about it, and indicts it while denying it an intellectual trial.

What's so illiberal about red-baiting?

In theory, at least, liberalism is supposed to be rational and tolerant. We should always be able to talk about ideas, to evaluate them intellectually, and to draw our own conclusions about them. They should be argued on the merits rather than imposed with rhetorical bullying that relies on popular biases and emotional manipulation.

Another major reason for liberals to oppose red-baiting is that historically, red-baiting is never just used against Marxists - it always becomes a weapon against liberals, too. As soon as it becomes socially acceptable to bully and oppress Marxists, reactionaries use that as an excuse to bully and oppress everyone to their left, from communists to socialists to progressives to moderates. Like all forms of bigotry, anti-communism is a cancer that inevitably metastasizes into broader forms of oppression.

Even if red-baiting is a problem in theory, what's the actual harm?

This is where historical amnesia becomes such a problem: as the decades pass, we gradually forget just how horrific red-baiting actually was.

For instance: right-wing revisionism aside, anti-communism was always one of the major components of twentieth century fascism. Communists were among the first victims in Nazi Germany's concentration camps, and the rhetoric of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini was riddled with anti-communism. The reason for this, again, is simple: once red-baiting becomes acceptable, it always becomes a potent weapon against all of the political left.

Similarly, in the United States, red-baiting became a major force during the great Red Scares of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Quite often, it fed into broader racist and nationalist bigotry against foreigners and immigrants suspected of harboring Marxist views - particularly against people who came from Eastern Europe and Asia. It also fed into bigotry against people associated in any way with the labor movement, including union members; into bigotry against people involved in just about any progressive movements you can name, such as the women's suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and so on; and into broader bigotries against Democrats that persist to this very day.

Moreover, red-baiting and anti-communism didn't just express itself in the United States as political opposition. Marxists and suspected Marxists were routinely harassed, assaulted, imprisoned, deported, spied on, fired, blacklisted from employment, defamed by the media, and legislated against. Major episodes like McCarthy's HUAC hearings and the Palmer Raids subjected Americans from all walks of life to monstrous incidents of state-sponsored oppression.

What does red-baiting look like today?

The most blatant red-baiting today looks exactly like it did a hundred years ago: it's what we hear on talk radio when Mark Levin warns us that Obamacare's death panels are going to send everyone to the the Gulag. It's still a staple of Republican rhetoric against Democrats, particularly among older generations; as a rule, it creates a slippery slope between every Democratic policy and the crimes of Soviet Russia, between every Democratic official, Stalin, and Mao. Fortunately, this kind of hysteria is usually recognized for what it is, so it only remains influential in the fever-dreams of the radical right.

While the most blatant red-baiting may come from Republicans, the most pernicious and consequential anti-communism actually tends to come from liberal Democrats. This is due to a strange quirk of bipartisan consensus in the United States: albeit for very different reasons, both Republicans and Democrats think of liberals as friendly critics of the radical left. Republicans think this because they see liberals and Marxists as secret allies; Democrats, meanwhile, think this because they like to think of themselves as ideologically neutral and disinterested critics. These motives are at odds, but they both invest liberals with an air of credibility that Republicans lack.

For that reason, when a guy like Jonathan Chait goes on one of his periodic completely uninformed tirades about Marx (as he did again today), people who should know better are tempted to take him seriously. But make no mistake - when Chait writes (and New York Magazine publishes) garbage like this:
[Marxists believe] that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it...It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag.
He is rehearsing the exact same idiotic rhetoric that every red-baiter in history, from Joseph McCarthy to Rush Limbaugh, always wields against the left. Chait is not bringing up the Gulag because it is the inevitable conclusion of a carefully constructed argument about what happens when you insist that some political advocacy enhances freedom and other advocacy diminishes it; instead of actually putting in the work on the obvious task at hand, he is outsourcing his entire argument to the reader's "imagination" so that he can move on to his real goal, which is to scare the hell out of anyone at all sympathetic to Marxism. For Chait, the Gulag isn't a historical reality, a place where real people (including Marxists!) died for quite specific reasons that we should try to understand; it is a rhetoric bludgeon to be wielded against the left.

And ironically, it's Chait's rhetoric that has demonstrably and historically led to the sort of suffering oppression that he's scaremongering about. Marxists obviously won't be Gulaging anyone in the United States anytime soon, but Chait's personal habit of using scaremongering to attack the left has contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the last decade alone. With a bit less red-baiting and a lot more liberal-baiting, there's good reason to believe that our world would be a better place.

3/29/16

Five demographic arguments for Bernie Sanders

Clinton began the Democratic primaries with slight-to-significant leads across most demographic categories. Over the past year - even as the media has clung to that narrative - all of those leads have almost entirely evaporated. Here is a quick rundown of the state of the polls today; all of this data was taken from Reuters on March 25.

GENDER

Hillary Clinton's base of support is now largely men, and Sanders is supported by a majority of women.



RACE

Clinton maintains a significant lead among black Americans, driven entirely by the preference of older black Americans; black Millennials, however, prefer Sanders 59-31. Meanwhile, Sanders has built leads among Hispanics and other people of color, while maintaining a slight lead among white Americans.



ORIENTATION

Clinton is the candidate of straight voters. Sanders, by significant percentages, is the clear preference of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and other orientations.



INCOME

Clinton is the candidate of the rich, winning clear majorities with Americans who make $75,000 or more. Both candidates are effectively tied within the margin of error among Americans who make between $50-75k, and Sanders is the candidate of the poor, gaining slim majorities with voters who make $50k or less.




AGE

And finally, the most important demographic divide of this election: age. The story remains the same as it's always been. Sanders is the candidate of the young, winning an enormous majority of all voters under 30; Clinton is the candidate of the old, with support generally increasing as voters get older.



The story here is clear: one can only call Clinton an advocate of the powerless by ignoring women, Hispanics and other non-black voters of color, ~30% of black Americans, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other non-straights, the young, and the poor. The narrative being aggressively advanced by writers like Tomasky and Goldberg - that Sanders is the candidate of privilege - can only be made by a stunning degree of demographic gerrymandering that ignores the dramatic sea changes in preference that have taken place since the beginning of the campaign.

3/29/16

Tomasky just wrote another hack article

In his latest column for the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky makes at least three substantive claims that range from extraordinarily weak to flat-out wrong:
1. Tomasky claims that Clinton "has the strong backing of those who are the most dispossed and threatened," by which he means "mostly African American and Latino voters." But the polls indicate that nearly half of these people refuse to support her, and nearly 35% of them are actively opposing her by backing Bernie Sanders. 
2. Tomasky claims that their support is justified by considerations about "electability". But in 2016, Sanders has consistently outperformed Clinton in polls head-to-head polls by an average of five points, and on the merits Clinton is an extraordinarily inferior matchup to Sanders
3. Tomasky claims that we hear "so little about" Clinton's support among voters of color - but this is the opposite of true. On the contrary, it has become such a major narrative in the election that not only has the media coined a rhetorical shorthand for it - voters of color are her "firewall" - but there has in fact been a significant public backlash to the narrative by voters of color who support Sanders.
Again: these are, at best, openly disputed claims with little basis in fact. They're certainly important issues, and deserve more attention than just a passing reference; at the very least, a careful writer would defend them instead of simply asserting them. So why are they here? Why is Tomasky so eager to cram his writing full of dubious argument and demonstrable error?

The temptation is to insist that he's just shilling for Hillary Clinton, but it's actually even more ridiculous than that: Tomasky is just writing about himself. In the middle of one of the most hotly contested Democratic primaries in decades, with all kinds of grand questions about socialism, liberalism, class, race, and gender at stake, Michael Tomasky has now used his massive platform twice in the past month to write two columns insisting that he is not actually a shill.

The first came just a few weeks ago in An Ode To My Berniebro Trolls, where Tomasky insisted that "people can disagree with [Sanders] and not be monsters or corporate shills":
...that’s my take. It has nothing to do with loving Hillary Clinton or getting DNC talking points (by the way, I think Debbie Wasserman Schultz, payday-lender enabler, should resign from the DNC) or pining for invites to those mythic Georgetown cocktail parties that I get invited to maybe three times a year and go to maybe once. It’s just my take.
Evidently, however, this just wasn't enough - what this election really needs is yet another article explaining how Michael Tomasky is not actually a hack. That's why he rushes through the actually significant and important arguments in his piece. Obviously Sanders' supporters would respond that he is actually the defensive vote against a neoliberal centrist who will continue to wage war and gut welfare; obviously Sanders supporters would argue that his significant support among the poor, minorities, women, and the young also matters; obviously, they would also add that Clinton's central base of old rich white folks have less "skin in the game" than anyone.

But instead of engaging with these actual, substantive questions, Tomasky rushes past them to get to his personal concern: "Why is it we hear so much about [Democrats representing moneyed interests] and so little about [voters of color]?"

Presumbly, it's the second part of that question that we should actually care about - but it takes Tomasky eight paragraphs before he even mentions voters of color in his article. That's because he spends the first 500 words talking about the first part, scare-quoting "hack supporters" in the headline, dismissing criticism of "sellouts" as "a priori", and insisting that his politics actually come from "my core convictions" about offensive vs. defensive voting, etcetera.

Tomasky could have used his column to talk about voters of color, who they actually support, how the issues of electability bear upon their concerns, and so on - these are all weighty, fundamental issues that deserve more than a passing sentence or two. But instead, he's too busy relitigating the argument he made just a few weeks back; he only brings up voters of color as a way of proving that he's not a hack, and he drops them just as quickly, leaving objections like the ones listed above unanswered.

Unfortunately, for Tomasky, the more time you spend talking about whether or not you're a hack, the more decisively you settle the question.

3/28/16

How to social engineer women, pickup artists, and everyone you know

I've been waiting for Amber A'Lee Frost's article on pickup artists ever since she teased it over beers a while back, and now that it's out one passage in particular set me to thinkin':
...when I did a return tour through the sodden pages of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I was transported back to my job bartending in college towns, immediately irritated by memories of serving drinks to hostile frat boys. I remembered being stiffed, screamed at, shoved, and threatened, and once heading off what would have almost certainly been a date rape. No, I decided: I am not totally immune to disgust.
What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that from here my immediate instinct was to wonder what can I personally make these men stop these disgusting things?

First, I started thinking about all of the #problematic ways that I was contributing to the problem - for instance, years ago, I bought Neil Strauss's book The Game so that I could hate-read it, and more recently I watched a few episodes of The Pickup Artist when it was on VH1. These consumer practices, I thought, obviously have to go.

Then I started thinking about how my rhetoric and general behavior also facilitates pickup artistry. Should I even be laughing at these people, I wondered, as if they're a trivial source of amusement rather than a serious problem afflicting women every day? Perhaps the right thing to do would be to stop joking about pickup artists, and to even shame and pressure other people into not joking about them, either - I could try to create a culture where being a pickup artist is a grave, serious offense. But then, I realized, this might just politicize the problem, and polarize everyone into pro-and-anti-pickup artist camps. Perhaps, instead, we should create a culture where everyone ridicules PUAs? Maybe I should not only laugh at them, but get other people to laugh at them too, so that pickup artists are just too ashamed and embarrassed to keep up their schtick. But in that case, I need to push back against the humorless/pious types who are only empowering PUAs by forcing us to take them really seriously. But how can I do that? How can I make everyone adopt just the right attitude towards pickup artists so that they'll go away?

This is the sort of thing that liberals think about constantly. Incidentally, there's another group of people who think about how to manipulate other people in the exact same way: pickup artists.


Liberals as pickup artists

One of the more bizarre features of modern liberal discourse is the degree to which it depends on interpersonal social engineering. The basic premise is that through all kinds of influence tactics (example-setting, call-outs, signal-boosting, legitimizing / delegitimizing, enabling, and so on) you can get the people around you to behave certain ways. If for example I "normalize" something, I can in some real, empirical way actually get other people to behave as I want them to. Liberals call this "normalizing", PUAs call this "patterning" or "programming", but it's operationally identical. It assumes that people basically just mimick each other, and has its conceptual roots not in a scientific understanding of human behavior, but in pre-scientific theories of sympathetic magic. This kind of pseudo-science characterizes most of these theories of social engineering; they rarely have much basis in hard science, if any at all.

Let's dig into this a little: consider, for example, the liberal notion of "shaming". Though we usually take it for granted, there is in fact an empirical theory of behavior being stipulated here: if I give someone negative feedback, they will be less likely to engage in associated behavior in the future. Perhaps this is because I have intellectually persuaded them in some way; perhaps this is because I have made the behavior psychologically unpleasant, and they are simply avoiding negative stimulus; perhaps there is some other mechanism at work here - it doesn't really matter. For shaming to work, it's both necessary and sufficient that my negative feedback, for whatever reason, puts an end to undesirable behavior.

This, hilariously, is the mirror image of the PUA theory of "negging" - which stipulates that you use negative feedback to provoke desirable behavior. And it turns out that both theories fail in the exact same way: they don't consistently work. Shaming a bro who's using racial slurs may deter him from doing so in the future - but it might also get him to double-down and use them even more. Negging a lady might very well grab her attention and prey on her insecurities - but it might just make her mad enough to throw a drink in your face. These tactics both try to elicit a predictable responses from people through negative feedback, and they both fail because people are unpredictable.

And that's the standard failure of both liberals and pickup artists, isn't it? Liberalism proposes that I can make sexism go away by using gender-neutral pronouns - and then some sexist laughs at me for using s/he or zhe. Pickup artists propose that I can turn women on by using tons of double entendres - but watch what happens when you try one of these. These are all failures that come from trying to find simplistic ways to control people who are extraordinarily, almost unthinkably complex. They have nothing to do with a rational, empirical understanding of human behavior; they just reflect the will to dominate others, and the condescending belief that other people can be easily manipulated with simple tricks.


The left alternative

Fortunately, social engineering is not actually a lost cause. There are in fact things we can do to build a world where people have more progressive attitudes and behavior. These things are a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult than the interpersonal gimmickry of liberalism, but they do have the advantage of actually working.

Consider, for example, Katie J.M. Baker's now-classic Cockblocked by Redistribution. Here, Baker reviews the experiences of a semi-famous pickup artist named Roosh, and arrives at a remarkable observation:
Marginalized women who need male spouses to flourish might, indeed, find pick-up artists alluring. But women in countries that have gender-equalizing policies supported by an anti-individualist culture may not.
The implications here are quite direct: if you are a pickup artist who wants to manipulate women into fucking you, you should agitate for a government that is as economically inequitable for women as possible. Specifically, you should oppose free health care and education, generous maternity pay and parental leave, paternity benefits, universal child care, and so on - all policies that Baker identities as cultivating an egalitarian culture inimical to pickup artistry. Neurolinguistic-programming and elaborate kino strategies probably won't do much to land you a woman, but if you vote the right way, you can create a patriarchal society where you can get all the women you like.

Or perhaps, instead, you want to make people behave quite differently - you want a world where women can exercise greater autonomy, and where men stop behaving like pickup artists. There's a proven way to do this, too: it's called Denmark. Just ask Roosh. The liberal tactics I briefly considered, like shaming and ridicule, seem to be unreliable at best; but if you create a generous and egalitarian welfare state like the Nordic social democracies, it appears that you predictably create a more egalitarian society where pickup artists quickly become an endangered species.

Either way, note the profound difference between left social engineering and the liberal / PUA approaches we described before. To put it simply, leftists believe that you can only engineer widespread changes in behaviors and attitudes by dramatically changing the circumstances that people live in. This usually involves direct interventions by the state. Liberals and pickup artists believe that it doesn't take anything nearly this big; getting people to behave certain ways is just a matter of personally manipulating them the right way, through persuasion or guilt-tripping or inspiration, etcetera.

Leftist approaches to social progress are often accused of oversimplification, of "reducing" human behavior to economic determination - but really, the opposite is true. Liberalism is the truly reductive and simplifying ideology. It asks us to regard each other with absolute condescension, as if all it takes to change someone is the right persuasive or manipulative gimmick. Liberals are the people who tell us that Trump voters can be seduced with just the right John Oliver zinger, like Mystery getting a woman's number by using just the right pickup line; liberals are the people who, like pickup artists, always think "no" just means "try a little bit harder to persuade me". Leftism, however, respects the complexity and autonomy of the individual so much that it suspects nothing short of a political and economic revolution can fundamentally change the way people relate to each other - and that ultimately, we can only make this happen by working together. When's the last time a pick-up artist said anything like that?

3/22/16

Clintonites are kicking young people out of the Obama coalition

I understood that the Democratic Party owes its occupancy of the White House to the Obama coalition: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, LGBT folks, and single women... Somehow Sanders doesn’t seem to see that. - Joan Walsh
In case you missed it, there's a glaring omission here: young people. This is not an aberration:

  • Here's Jannell Ross in the Washington Post identifying "each element of the so-called 'Obama Coalition'" as "non-white voters and progressive whites" - as opposed to the "young, white, liberal voters" who support Sanders.
  • Here's Mark Sappenfield in The Christian Science Monitor arguing that "Clinton’s victory Saturday suggests that Obama’s coalition might not be a fleeting phenomenon connected only to him" - a coalition of "minorities and, to a lesser degree, women".
  • Here's Clay Shirky, in a much-cited Tweetstorm, arguing that "Clinton is not re-running her '08 campaign. She is re-running Obama's '08 campaign" by winning "the Obama coalition," by which he means a "black-white progressive coalition."
  • And here's Sady Doyle, insisting that "the lesson of the Obama coalition" is that you can win "without white guys."
Obviously voters of color were crucial to Obama's victories and will remain a central Democratic constituency for the foreseeable future. But the same goes for young people. Obama won an extraordinary two-thirds of young people in 2008 and sixty percent of them in 2012. Until recently, this has always been understood as one of his major achievements - especially since young voters, including young voters of color, represent the future of the party. Standard analyses from Obama's various victories:

  • "Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have divided the Democratic Party by race, income and education, but there is no demographic indicator that sorts the Democratic vote as starkly as age. If you voted in one of the Democratic primaries or caucuses, your age probably determined your vote: The older you are, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the younger you are, the more likely you were to vote for Obama." - NPR 4/30/2008
  • "They were the initial cheerleaders of Barack Obama’s candidacy who stuck with him on the long slog to Nov. 4. And on Election Day, young people voted overwhelmingly to send him to the White House while exceeding their 2004 turnout levels by at least 2.2 million, according to researchers who track the voting habits of youth." - New York Times, 11/5/08
  • "Obama’s campaign...aimed exclusively at the key constituencies that make up Obama’s coalition: African Americans, Hispanics, young voters and women (particularly those with college degrees.)" - Washington Post, 11/7/12
  • "Romney lost embarrassingly among young people, African-Americans and Hispanics, a brutal reminder for Republicans that their party is ideologically out of tune with fast-growing segments of the population." - CNN 11/7/12
Supporters of Clinton who routinely invoke Obama's coalition while omitting young people are blatantly rewriting history - and it's easy to see why. This is more of what Matt Bruenig called "get-off-my-lawnism": the tendancy of Clinton supporters (particularly the ageing ones) to attack young voters. Old people are mad that young people reject their politics, and they're embarrassed that youth culture rejects their pandering as lame. To save face, they've got to pretend that Hillary Clinton isn't abandoning a key bloc in Obama's legacy, and that means pretending that young people were never a part of the Obama coalition in the first place.

This isn't just ridiculous and inaccurate - it's reckless. Walsh, in her article, crows that Clinton beat Sanders "even among black millennials" 61-31 among nine Super Tuesday states. Nationally, however, that number effectively reverses:

Black Voters 18-29, Reuters

And while Walsh cites an article on attn.com as evidence of support among black youth for Clinton, the article actually makes the opposite case: "Black millennials aren’t as swayed by Clinton’s largely successful attempts to connect with Black voters across generations." Political scientist Michael Dawson explains,
I think that generally when you look at Sanders support, the country is not working well for young people, particularly for young Black people right now; they’re looking more toward a candidate who will shake things up significantly.
This weakness of the Clinton coalition underscores an obvious point: if you care about the future of the party, you have to care about young people. You can't even sustain a multiracial party if you abandon young voters of color. If you're an older American, you have the privilege to not care about this: you can afford to sacrifice the future for a short-term win. But by writing young voters out of the party's past, Clinton supporters like Walsh are also writing us out of its future.