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4/13/16

On blocking and the pathology of feud

A while back I wrote about a conference lecture I attended on Libertarian attempts to bring back feud culture in the modern world. Basically, Libertarians think that we can throw out most of our state apparatus of law enforcement and rely on a non-violent feud culture to adjudicate social conflict. Instead of attacking each other, belligerents would just sue each other, with the understanding that if they acted violently the state would no longer protect them from violent retaliation.

This is madness for all kinds of well-understood reasons having to do with basic anthropology and sociology. One major problem is that it seems like feud culture has to co-exist with a culture of avoidance; if people can't avoid each other, you get more conflict and a dramatically escalated risk of unilateral aggression. Feud culture is somewhat viable when relatively sedentary people spend their entire lives within a twenty mile radius and only ever run into a couple dozen strangers over the course of decades; it disappears as soon as you get cities and long-distance transportation.

A point I didn't bring up in that post, but that I'd like to consider here, is that avoidance doesn't just enable feud culture - avoidance encourages it.

As Freud argued in Civilization and its Discontents, social conflict is ultimately an expression of the fundamentally psychological drives that animate human behavior. It's only through our interactions with other people that we learn how to manage our infantile aggression, lust, and selfishness. Our relationships with our parents, Freud famously insisted, were the most consequential simply because they were the earliest and the most intimate - but this dynamic also holds at the broad level of society. Civilization is the process of people learning to peacefully interact with each other, directly and on a deeply interpersonl level; otherwise, psychological tensions go unresolved, and inevitably express themselves in aggression.

It's easy to see how avoidance culture can amplify this problem. People who don't interact with each other don't mature, don't develop their capacity for empathy, and don't broaden their perspectives. Avoidance culture doesn't just forestall conflict - it entrenches it through arrested development, epistemic closure and myopia, and atrophied tolerance. The institutions and customs we rely on for conflict resolution don't get built and maintined. Thus, when avoidance stops working, the stakes are considerably higher than they might have been otherwise, which is why feud culture provides little middle ground between avoidance and combat (and why the libertarian dream of civilized feuds is such a ridiculous fantasy).

Civilization, for thousands of years, has largely been a process of overcoming the feud/avoidance binary through the creation of all kinds of systems and norms that help humans live together. Our government institutions, our economic arrangements, our religions, our art, our entertainment - all of this contributes to that project. It's all driven by exponential population growth, the concentration of modern economies around cities, and the attendant increases in population density; all of these things shrink the world and force us to find ways to peacefully and sanely manage the fact that we're always up in each other's business.

So I think there is something genuinely new in the way that telecommunications has reintroduced avoidance culture into modern society. It facilitates not just the psychological process of socialization, but also the whole apparatus of attendant civilization - economic transactions, political negotiation, the dissemination of ideology, and so on - that sprung up precisely to mediate the kinds of interaction that came with the close proximity of dense populations.

But contrary to all of this, it also facilitates the kind of avoidance that is impossible in dense populations. You can now cut off socialization, economic interaction, political negotiation, ideological diffusion, and so on in ways that we haven't been able to for millennia - unilaterally, absolutely, and irrevocably. You can hang up phones, you can ignore emails, you can block social media engagement, and do all sort of other things to completely cut off and avoid interaction that you just can't do with people offline.

On one hand, then, things like astronomical population and economic growth, the rise of the modern nation-state and transnational institutions, the evolution of military technology and the explosion of income inequality mean that the potential and stakes of conflict are much, much higher than they were thousands of years ago. But on the other hand, civilization now facilitates, on a massive scale, a strategy of conflict management - avoidance - that we haven't seen in all that time, and that history and sociology tells us is inextricably linked with feud culture.

If this link is real, then much of our concern about the forces of alienation and atomization that characterize modern society may be too narrow. They aren't just personal problems that lead to things like loneliness and depression - they entrench us in ways of living and thinking that may be deeply incompatible with those of the people around us. Even as they sew anomie, they erode the social mechanisms we have to negotiate and reconcile divergent interests by attempting to finesse the problem through avoidance. This may work as long as controversies are purely digital, but when they have material implications, conflicts can't be finessed forever. Avoidance culture simply defers these conflicts, and guarantees that they'll be far more violent and powerful when they can no longer be avoided.

None of this is to say that (for example) blocking the trolls on the internet is something that necessarily leads to conflict. In some cases, it may do more good than harm. But when avoidance strategies become a crutch for large groups of people who want to avoid the hard and often unpleasant work of material co-existence, they are symptoms of a deeper pathology with clear anthropological implications.

4/12/16

Anticommunist testimony and the red-baiting of Bernie

The Atlantic has published an article that ostensibly explains Why Soviet Refugees Aren't Buying Sanders's Socialism. On the merits, it never gets off the ground; as so often happens with these demographic arguments against Sanders, the author never gets around to factually establishing her underlying claim. Olga Khazan does not even attempt to survey a significant number of Russian immigrants, nor does she cite anyone else's polling on the matter. Instead, the piece relies entirely on two points of anecdote and conjecture:
1. Khazan conducts "Interviews with more than a dozen immigrants...in the bay area...part of a small circle - indeed, they know each other." 
2. Khazan notes that "some researchers have found that Russian Jews tend to be both less religious than their American counterparts and more conservative," and cites a potential 30-40 point swing in their vote towards Republicans since 2012.
I'll address these in turn. 

Soviet Jews for Sanders

The first point barely warrants a rebuttal: it's trivially easy to find a handful of people from any demographic who share any perspective, and this implies zero about the broader community. One doesn't have to look far to find prominent Jewish former Soviets who openly support Sanders, from Regina Spektor to Milana Vayntrum; but in about an hour, I was able to track down plenty of immigrants who, it turns out, aren't particularly concerned about the dangers of a Soviet Sanders regime.

"The claim that Sanders is anything close to a communist, or would bring about a communist revolution is absurd," said Alik, a Sanders supporter who grew up in Ukraine. "There is little evidence that we would turn into an authoritarian leader. In fact, some of his opponents are much more in line with the ideology of authoritarian leftism, enforcing what they believe to be the appropriate liberating policy on the people."

Phil Michalski, who immigrated from Poland in 1978 and who describes his parents as "staunch anti-Communists," also dismissed the idea that a Sanders presidency would bring anything like communism to the United States.

"I think it's an outlandish idea," he said. "More worried that if Clinton becomes [president], we'll go down the neoliberal tubes so far that the natural reaction by a working class ground down by Clinton, et all, will be fascist blowback".

"Bernie's clearly not a communist," said Yasha Levine, a journalist who grew up in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). "His policies are more in line with a New Deal Democrat than anything else."

Levine went on to observe, as most members of the community would confirm, that the Soviet diaspora in America often does include a distinct strain of immigrants - particularly the older ones - who conflate progressive / left politics with communism. "Can't blame the older generation too much," he said. "They're warped and broken politically. Life in the Soviet Union was hard - especially if you were Jewish, poor with no connections. It ruined the whole socialist thing, no matter how mild it may be."

What do the polls actually say?

This complicated reaction to their experienced in the Soviet Union, with its tendency to conflate all kinds of divergent politics, points us to problems with the article that are even more serious.

In passing, Khazan cites "preliminary data" that suggests a potential 40 point swing towards Republicans among Russian Jews since 2012. This is an odd point to make, since it directly defeats her argument: even if we attribute this entire swing to anticommunist fear of Sanders, 40% is a minority. Evidently, the majority of this community either opposed Obama in 2012 or would not oppose Sanders in 2016. However their experience of communism informs the politics of Russian Jews, these numbers just don't indicate any kind of unique concern about Sanders.

In fact, there's obviously no argument to be made about this statistic that could not be used against Clinton. It's sheer question begging to assume this shift is a referendum on Sanders - and to then appeal to that assumption as evidence of a referendum on Sanders.

Similarly, Khazan relies on sheer conjecture when she uses research indicating that Russian Jews are "more conservative" to establish some kind of unique opposition to Bernie Sanders. This is particularly true given the tendancy Levine cited: Soviet anticommunists in particular (and anticommunists in general) tend to flatten the significant diversity of liberal-left politics into a single, vaguely communist monolith. There's no reason to suppose that Clinton would escape this flattening, and as Khazan herself notes, "she’s far too left for them".

To establish some kind of unique opposition among Soviet immigrants to Sanders, you would clearly have to ask questions that are far more specific than anything Khazan can point to - or indeed, anything that any of the pollsters have asked.

To the extent that we do have anything resembling direct data on the topic, it does little to help Khazan's argument. Among the general populace, neither economic nor ideological indicators do much to suggest a significant role for socialism in this election. Among Americans who've experienced life in former Soviet states, about 75% support Sanders. If we're interested in Americans who've experienced the "mild socialism" advocated by Bernie Sanders, we could look at the countries he brings up constantly: the Nordic states. But there, the number is essentially the same: about 75% of American expats reporting from those countries also support Sanders.

When I spoke to Julia, a young Swede who lives in Stockholm, she suggested that even this degree of support could be misleading. "The most anti-Bernie people I've come across have been from the harder left who believe that our model of social democracy doesn't constitute real socialism, and this is a position a lot of leftists hold."

In other words, people from the European left - who have far more direct experience with variants of socialism and communism than their American counterparts - see Sanders' politics as relatively conservative.

"Support seems to range from leftists to social democrats to social liberals who would be considered right-of-center on the Swedish political spectrum," Julia said. "I think that has to do with the fact that even a lot of people who don't vote red have grown so accustomed to social democratic reforms such as free health care and higher education and a good welfare system that those things are now widely viewed as basic rights that should exist in any developed society."

Standard red-baiting

So while Khazan's claim that "Soviet refugees aren't buying Sanders's Socialism" may survive in the utterly trivial sense that she found some anticommunists at a San Francisco birthday party, she provides no direct evidence to believe that Russian Jews are significant opponents of Sanders in particular, or of his social democratic agenda.

And of course, there's only one reason to believe that their particular experience would be relevant in the first place: what Alan Barth, in his classic work on anticommunism The Loyalty of Free Men, describes as "the eager credence" red-baiters give to the testimony of former Soviets. Writes Larry Ceplair in Anti-Communism in Twentieth Century America: A Critical History:
Louis Budenz, who became the most ubiquitous professional witness, stated that "the most truthful people in the world are the ex-Communists." Arthur Koestler, perhaps the most famous ex-Communist, wrote that "only those who have worked inside the hermetically closed regime know its true character and are in a position to convey a comprehensive picture of it."
Not all former Soviets are former communists, of course, but the logic of identitarian deference holds, particularly among the left's critics: people who have lived under communism have authoritative testimony on its defects. Of course, no one ever extends this logic to everyone who happens to live under a capitalist regime, and few of Sanders' Democratic critics would even extend it without reservation to Soviet dissidents, particularly if they have names like Ayn Rand.

Still, Ayn Rand is famous for a reason. Democrats may not be willing to give radical Objectivists a platform themselves - but when they indulge in the old red-baiting trick of parading around cherry-picked Soviet defectors to punch left, they're legitimizing the politics that put Rand on the map. More thoughtful liberals learned that they need to engage their left-critics on the merits, rather than trafficking in sensational anecdotes; and above all, they needed to make careful distinctions among the many varieties of progressive, socialist and communist thought. After all, once social democrats are tarred as communists, liberals won't be far behind.

4/11/16

Check out the latest Chapo Trap House y'all

The problematic bros at Chapo Trap House were kind enough to invite me on their latest podcast to talk about right-wing militants. Will Menaker, Matt Christman, and Felix Biederman are easily three of the funniest guys on the internet right now, and CTH is an insanely good forum for their riffs on the news, politics, media, and so on. It already has a central place on my podcast rotation, right up there with Steve Austin Unleashed and The Mark Levin Show; if you aren't listening to it already, subscribe, ya dopes!



Right-wing militancy is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented political phenomena in America today. I wrote on this at length here, but the gist of the point is that the radical right isn't a reserve army of Jason Bournes and Solid Snakes - demographically, they tend to be aging doughy pampered suburbanites. And while the right likes to imagine leftists as hapless peacenik Pajama Boys, we in fact count among our ranks a growing number of police, military, union thugs, people of color who live under siege by violent cops, and (like me) working class radicals who grew up around guns.

One point we didn't get to on CTH, but that I'd like to touch on here, is how these misconceptions also get promoted by liberals. These are the people who, out of sheer contempt, like to portray the right as a movement of barbarians - and who like to glamorize themselves as besieged guardians of civilization holding the line against the brute savagery of the mouthbreathing rubes. They exaggerate the danger posed by the right as a way of flattering their own valor and courage.

And worse still, even as they do this, liberals routinely endorse right-wing stereotypes directed at their own left-flank. Thus, we get garbage like this from Michelle Goldberg:
It’s certainly possible that a Trump presidency could lead to violent political conflict. If it comes to that, however, my money is on the side with all the gun fetishists, not subscribers to Jacobin.
This burn only makes sense, of course, given the subtext that radical Jacobin subscribers don't have guns and wouldn't be able to defend themselves from right-wing militants. It's an obvious dog whistle to Republicans and liberals who like to think of leftists as sheltered white college communists; and it clearly revels in the implicit dependence of radicals on the magnanimous political alliance of centrist Democrats. "It'd be a real shame if the fascists were to take power and mow you down like the powerless fringe that you are," they gloat - "so are you going to vote for Hillary, or not?"

In its crass red-baiting, its factual naivete, its sad self-flattery, and its implicit leveraging of the threat of violence for political advantage, this genre of liberal rhetoric isn't particularly distinct from anything the #MolonLabe types have to say. When you listen to the latest Chapo Trap House, bear that in mind: the major difference between Republican militants and left-punching liberals is often just a matter of decades.

4/10/16

Calling it: Safe-state "leftist" Clinton advocates will not campaign for Jill Stein

A while back, several of Hillary Clinton's media surrogates gleefully circulated an article in which Noam Chomsky appeared to endorse her for president. In fact, Chomsky was simply rehearsing the same strategic voting argument that he has advocated for decades, insisting that he would only vote for Clinton "if he lived in a swing state such as Ohio." Consistently, Chomsky has always added to this the second rule of the so-called "safe-state strategy":
I happen to be in a non-swing state, so I can either not vote, or - I probably will, for Jill Stein, in the hope that it might be beginning of some genuine electoral alternative over time.
That quote comes from 2012, but it's particularly relevant in this case, because Jill Stein is running for president once again in 2016. And on the merits, Stein is far and away a preferable left-alternative to Hillary Clinton. She brings with her an ambitious and compelling platform that is far more progressive than anything Clinton has put on the table, and adds to that all the symbolic and representational value of a woman in the White House.

If guys like Tom Watson lived in Ohio, of course, Chomsky would advise voting for Clinton over Jill Stein. But Watson does not live in Ohio. Watson lives in New York - and New York, like most of the states that are home to prominent Clinton media advocates, will obviously vote Democratic in the general election. Here's how California, DC, and New York looked in 2012:


And though it's hard to get a read on how these numbers will change this year, early indicators suggest: not much.

Watson, of course, was clearly being cynical when he appealed to Chomsky, and would obviously be more likely to vote for Donald Trump than Jill Stein; still, a whole genre of Clinton advocates clearly think of themselves as leftists, and have consistently insisted that they support Hillary because she's a woman who's running the most progressive campaign. Jill Stein annihilates that argument completely, and living in a safe state nullifies any strategic argument Clintonites have for opposing her.

When Bernie Sanders drops out, historical precedent makes it clear that most of his swing-state supporters will ultimately back Hillary Clinton. If they were consistent, supposedly pragmatic Clintonites bringing up Chomsky would also take up the swing-state strategy, and that means that most of her media advocates should be knocking on doors for Jill Stein. Are they? Will they? Of course not.

4/8/16

Ds will rally around the nominee - but not because they like it

Matt Yglesias has written a thing arguing that the Democratic primary schism on Twitter is misleading, and that it actually veils an underlying consensus among the American left. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances where what's true isn't what's true isn't new.

First, to get the latter out of the way: Yglesias's publication has spent the past year or so breathlessly hyping Twitter controversies about the Democratic primaries, so it's nice to see Vox admit that this major staple of its political reporting is actually entirely irrelevant. But this point that Twitter is a dumb basis for political reporting isn't just something writers like  me and Matt Bruenig have been saying for months and months - it's data that we've had for years, and it's mostly common sense for anyone who lives outside the elite media bubble.

From here, Yglesias makes his own contribution, arguing that Twitter isn't distorting a Democratic schism so much as inventing it entirely. "In contrast to casual sample taking on Twitter," he writes, "statistically valid surveys done by places like the Pew Center consistently show that Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters have similar views on the issues."

But there's a reason why Yglesias has to immediately add that "One can, of course, quibble with these findings." Consider this finding from the very survey he cites:


Clinton is closer to Trump on this issue than she is to Sanders, and only slightly further away from Kasich. And hasn't precisely this divide been at the center of so many Democratic primary controversies? Clinton argues that we just need to "save capitalism from itself," that her ties with Wll Street are no big deal, and that we mostly just need a more diverse cast of plutocratic overlords; Sanders declares himself a democratic socialist, argues for breaking up the banks, and refuses to work with super PACs. These aren't peripheral or superficial debates; they are substantive and at the center of controversy in the Democratic primary.

One point that Yglesias gets right, unlike pundits who are opportunistically hyperventilating about the so-called #NeverHillary campaign: most Democrats are obviously going to rally about the nominee. But this only reflects a "consensus" in the same way that polling on some of the issues reflects a "consensus": by virtue of framing.

If you set up a two-party system that forces Americans to make a binary choice between Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, obviously anyone who is oriented to the left is going to prefer Clinton. This is a comparative preference, not an absolute preference; all it tells us is that Cruz and Clinton are more different than Sanders and Clinton are. (The point holds for Republicns and Trump too, by the way - despite the #NeverTrump posturing, they will obviously rally around the nominee, just as Romney's totally antiestablishment, principled Tea Party critics predictably rallied around Romney.)

Similarly, if you only ask Americans "does the government have some vague responsibility to provide health care in some unspecified way (y/n)", obviously liberal centrists, progressives, democratic socialists, hardline Stalinists and third-world Maoists are going to tend to agree. This does not, when it comes down to policy specifics, imply any sort of actual, substantive, and meaningful consensus whatsoever; it mostly just means that a diverse political coalition rejects a major premise advanced by libertarian reactionaries.

Yglesias misses this diversity because he sees the right's "silent conservative majority vs. liberaldemcommiecrats" framing as essentially correct; he then reads the choice we are forced to make by the two-party system through the lens of confirmation bias, and concludes that the liberal Clintonites and socialist Sanderistas are basically the same. Twitter is a bad place to look to understand the Democratic primary, but the essentialisms of right-wing framing aren't much better.

4/6/16

Sanders on foreign policy: basically fine

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I haven't seen anyone do for Sanders on foreign policy what Mike Konczal and Peter Eavis did for him on the banks - so here, I just want to point out three instances where supposedly inadequate answers he gave in his Daily News interview were perfectly fine. This is not to say that I necessarily agree with all of them, but they certainly demonstrate the competence and fluency in foreign policy that one would reasonably expect; when he's wrong, he's wrong for the exact same reasons that Clinton is wrong, which is why you won't hear any of her apologists correcting him from the left.


GAZA BODY COUNTS
Sanders: I'm just telling you that I happen to believe...anybody help me out here, because I don't remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right? 
Daily News: I think it's probably high, but we can look at that. 
Sanders: I don't have it in my number...but I think it's over 10,000... 
[snip] 
Daily News: Okay, while we were sitting here, I double-checked the facts. It's the miracle of the iPhone. My recollection was correct. It was about 2,300, I believe, killed, and 10,000 wounded.
Sanders' substantive argument here is that "the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed." This conclusion is directly at odds with Clinton's refusal to acknowledge those deaths, and it also happens to be correct. That he got there by on-the-spot conflating the dead with the injured does zero to undermine his reasoning, which merely needs to maintain that the violence was unnecessary and disproportionate.


DRONE GOVERNANCE
Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the U.S. military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he's got the right policy there? 
Sanders: I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that drones are a modern weapon. When used effectively, when taking out ISIS or terrorist leaders, that's pretty impressive. When bombing wedding parties of innocent people and killing dozens of them, that is, needless to say, not effective and enormously counterproductive. So whatever the mechanism, whoever is in control of that policy, it has to be refined so that we are killing the people we want to kill and not innocent collateral damage.

Sanders has correctly identified the central problem of drone warfare as laid out by essentially every major figure out there, from Rand Paul to Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky. The best solution is obviously to end US military interventions altogether, but as long as you are blowing up terrorists, the basic challenge is to avoid killing civilians while you're doing it.

This kind of problem doesn't have some kind of correct, abstract / acontextual solution: it depends just as much on the political circumstances of the moment, of what you can get through Congress or get away with unilaterally, as it does on all of the organizational and operation considerations that determine military policy. Coming into this with some set answer based on whatever whitepaper you commissioned and memorized a few weeks before would if anything be misleading about the fluidity of the politics at play, and would suggest precisely the sort of intellectual and analytical rigidity that one must avoid when approaching such problems. What Sanders needed to demonstrate here is that he is thinking about this the right way and has in mind the fundamental considerations that most Americans do.

Here, he makes a point of demonstrating sympathy for the victims and concern about the problem of blowback, two major priorities that most on the left share and that most of his opponents lack. Clinton, for example, has explicitly said "numbers about potential civilian casualties I take with a somewhat big grain of salt because there has [sic] been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties." While her supporters may be impressed by her detailed fluency in studies that downplay the human cost of drone warfare, many Americans (and many drone victims, for that matter) may not be.


TERRORIST CAPTIVITY
Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander? 
Sanders: Imprison him. 
Daily News: Where? 
[snip] 
Sanders: Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot. I suppose, somewhere near the locale where that person was captured. The best location where that individual would be safely secured in a way that we can get information out of him. 

Again, Sanders is being asked a question with an answer that is utterly contingent on particular circumstances, including the nationality, of the terrorist; the location and circumstances of her capture, and the particular treaties and diplomatic relationships in play; and the various political constraints and considerations of the moment. Sanders hasn't thought about it precisely because this is not even necessarily a Presidential-level decision, and certainly not one you would lay out beforehand; it is very close to asking Sanders where the SOCOM commander should visit three years into his term.

The actual problem here is that the interviewer is playing coy with too-general phrasing; what he is really asking, as he later admits ("Yeah"), is "do [you] believe that terrorists could be safely imprisoned in the United States". And Sanders' response to this substantive question is specific and direct: "the answer is yes". This, incidentally, is the standard Democratic position endorsed by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.


Note that these three answers don't just demonstrate that Sanders has the competence and expertise in foreign policy that his critics say he lacks; they also happen to be better than Clinton's position in two cases, and identical to it in the third. Moreover, they demonstrate a sharp and insightful analytical disposition that hones in on fundamental considerations and points of disagreement that is quite at odds with Clinton's tendency to get lost in completely frivolous technocratic trivia - one that, if it's more than a show and is actually influencing her judgment, appears to routinely make her miss the forest for the trees.

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.