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2/7/19

The Green New Deal's magic word

From November's original draft text for establishing a select committee for a Green New Deal:
The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall be developed with the objective of...making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
From the Green New Deal resolution released today:
the "Green New Deal mobilization"...will require...promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal
This is the most important word in the entire text. The first draft text, as I noted when it first appeared, made no reference whatsoever to funding for international development, which has always been and remains the central challenge of climate change. The domestic policy proposals that have dominated our plans for climate change are important, but they are completely inadequate without attention to international development.

The new draft has that magic word - "funding" - but I don't really see the mere acknowledgment of a need for funding as a step forward so much as a return to the status quo. Before Trump, token contributions to the Green Climate Fund were the norm, even from Republican presidents. The challenge facing the left today is not to win mere recognition that climate change is a global problem - it's to get people to recognize that climate change is a massive global problem, requiring international funding on a scale that is both historically unprecedented and well outside the scale of what Washington is presently willing to even consider.

Until we are talking about hundreds-of-billions-to-trillions in funding, we're really just spinning our wheels. Getting the word "funding" into a resolution is a step back to the era of Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush, but we have to do much, much better than that.

1/26/19

What historical materialism can tell us about Trump's shutdown

Capitalism endlessly intensifies the suffering of the poor, places a hard ceiling on the upward mobility of the middle class, and constantly threatens to drop them back into poverty. This is why Donald Trump got elected: his opponent inspired no hope that she could fix the problem, and he offered to the Republican base a ladder of white supremacy. Trump is politically viable as long as he can channel the anxieties of the middle class towards rage against immigrants; he fails as class consciousness, fostered by the lived experience of oppression under capitalism, exposes his ethnonationalist scapegoating as the ruse that it is.

This is the basic shape of the material forces at work in contemporary politics. They are, incidentally, the same dynamics at work in every administration that has failed to confront capitalism: liberals try to finesse it with increasingly futile welfare and regulatory measures, reactionaries double-down into increasingly rabid bigotry, but both are caught in fascism's pincer. The explanatory power of a materialist understanding of history is not that it can predict every incident and micro-trend that emerges within this framework: historical materialism allows us to understand the cumulative trajectory of all of these different moments, and to anticipate the choice between socialism and barbarism that they will, with increasing force, impose upon our politics.


So let's return, then, to the specific question of Trump. Historical materialism does tell us that, pending a real confrontation with capital, we are increasingly likely to see reactionaries take power - but that does not mean that Trump was destined to win the Republican primary, or that the Republican was destined to win the general election. Historical materialism does tell us that reactionaries will try to channel class anxieties towards various sociocultural scapegoats - towards constructed identities like race, gender, and nation - but this channeling need not occur in any particular way, so long as it happens. One way you can do this is to fixate the reactionary id on building a giant wall against immigrants; but as we have seen in the past, you can also do this by ginning up resentment against the racist image of an indolent welfare queen, or against the devious careerism of the affirmative action beneficiary, or against the anti-Semitic figure of the parasitical Jew.

And indeed, we have seen all of these currents at work in Trump's base - nothing about historical materialism predicts that he would need to focus his politics on any one of them in particular. Nor does it predict that he would need to rely, in particular, on the tactic of a government shutdown in pursuit of that agenda; you can play wall-politics without that, just as he has until now. Nor, moreover, does it predict that he would draw out that shutdown for 35 consecutive days - another tactical choice that might have easily gone another way.

From a materialist perspective, the most we can really say about this shutdown is that capitalism makes the election of reactionaries likely, and makes it likely that they will try to channel class anxiety into a reactionary agenda, and that opposition to these trends will increasingly take the form of class warfare (like labor strikes). But historical materialism is not a crystal ball that lets us predict or explain every little detail of our world within infinite precision and clarity; if you want to understand why the shutdown lasted as long as it did, then it probably makes more sense to look at things like psychology and Trump's ego-entanglement in an escalation of commitment. For the socialist, understanding the explanatory boundaries of historical materialism is just as important as understanding its potential.

1/24/19

Which voter groups give you the biggest payoff at the polls?

One of the most puzzling things about Nate Silver's new method for evaluating Democratic presidential contenders - or as Libby Watson calls it, "the weird pentagon chart thing" - is his choice of "key" constituencies. Silver insists that his groups -
  • Party Loyalists
  • The Left
  • Millennials and Friends
  • Black Voters, and
  • Hispanic (with perhaps Asian) voters
- were "chosen because they represent the dividing lines in recent Democratic Party primaries"...but what does this mean? Wade into his rationale and it's just an endless parade of conjecture, holistic judgment calls, rehashed media narratives, personal intuitions, and isolated data points. Silver concedes that his approach "definitely reflects a mix of art and science," but there isn't any actual science to be found.

I've been thinking about how you could identify "key" constituencies with some minimal objectivity and rigor, and it seems to me that the main question is whether you care about potential margins or probable margins. On one hand, large groups obviously have the potential to give you larger margins than smaller groups can; that's why you can never take for granted groups that have a high absolute turnout. On the other hand, however, large groups often don't exercise this potential; instead, they split their vote, and smaller groups that overwhelmingly favor a given candidate contribute disproportionately large margins. This is the more probable outcome, which is why so many of these demographic analyses end up looking for decisive group preferences and disregard absolute turnout.

So it seems that there are two metrics one needs to look at to identify "key" constituencies: absolute turnout and absolute margins, which is what you get when you adjust the margin of preference by turnout. These numbers have changed over the years, but since Silver seems to be focusing exclusively on 2008 and 2016, I'll follow suit with an average of numbers from those years.

HIGHEST AVERAGE MARGINS:
  1. Black voters. No surprise here: black voters are typically less than a quarter (23%) of the voting public, but since they often have decisive preferences for particular candidates they end up contributing huge margins. On average, in fact, they end up contributing a ridiculous 13.3 points to their preferred candidate's total.
  2. Women. Women gave Clinton a 14 point bump in 2016 - comparable to what she got from black voters - but only gave her a 5 point bump in 2008, putting their average at nearly 10.
  3. Boomers. Strong preferences and superior turnout mean that olds still contribute significantly bigger margins than young people. Voters over 65, for example, have contributed 7 point margins on average, compared to 5 from those younger than 30.
  4. Electability voters. As with women, this number varies dramatically from election to election. In 2008, Clinton won a paltry .2 points from voters who thought she had the best chance to win against John McCain; but in 2016, she won 12 from those who thought she was better positioned to beat Trump than Bernie Sanders.
  5. Economy voters. Voters who rank the economy as their "most important" issue typically contribute about 6 points to a candidate's margins.

HIGHEST ABSOLUTE TURNOUT
  1. White voters. 2016 was a paradigm year for white voters: they made up nearly two-thirds of the voting electorate, but since they split their votes evenly between Clinton and Sanders, their marginal contribution was roughly zero. Nevertheless, their size means that even slight preferences can have big consequences. In 2008, for example, they gave Clinton nearly as many points as black voters gave Obama (10 vs. 13) even though their preference for her was much less strong than the black preference for Obama (55% vs 82%).
  2. Women. Women have an average turnout of about 57%.
  3. Liberal. This label is a bit misleading - as the leftmost option in polling that typically includes "moderates" and "conservatives", it probably encompasses respondents who would otherwise identify as leftists, progressives, and even socialists. In any case, whatever this group actually is, it typically gives you a turnout of around 54%.
  4. Suburban voters. 46% of primary voters, compared with 38% urban voters and 19% from rural areas.
  5. Economy voters. Also 46% on average, though in 2016 there were slightly more male voters (41% vs 42%).

Narrowing this down to five "key" groups would probably just be a question of strategy, though a few conclusions seem inevitable. There is certainly some overlap here with Silver's scheme (in particular, with black voters and the left); but these numbers also suggest groups that he omits (most significantly, women) and contradicts those that he includes (favoring olds rather than Millennials). Concerns about electability and the economy probably vary in importance from year to year, but their presence here suggests that Silver's omission of issue or priority defined groups is probably significant.


Thanks to Michael for helping me pull these numbers.

12/31/18

Racial polarization in the 2020 primary draft

How would you feel if Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2020? That's what USA Today and Suffolk University asked Democrats and independent voters in a recent poll - and the results, some pundits argue, don't look good for Sanders. "Sanders has the highest 'don’t run' of any candidate," John Aravosis writes. "Bernie’s negatives are shockingly high."

Shortly after this poll was released, however, Jacobin's Seth Ackerman spotted another curiosity:


There may be significant opposition to a Sanders run - but it overwhelmingly comes from white voters. Black voters, in contrast, generally want Sanders to run again. I was curious how these numbers compare with other candidates, so I looked through the rest of their data and pulled out the crosstabs:
These numbers simply subtract opposition from support for any given candidate among different groups. Visualizing the data this way, one can already see a few interesting patterns: for example, Beto and Klobuchar are the only two candidates with less support among black voters than white voters. Here, however, I want to draw attention to the polarity of support between racial groups. Bloomberg, for example, has more white opposition than black opposition - but only 5% more. Since the difference between white opposition and black opposition is so small, one might conclude that it isn't racially inflected - people just dislike Bloomberg across the board. With that in mind, consider the differences between black and white support among the candidates:


Here we see the real significance of Seth Ackerman's numbers: support for Sanders is extremely polarized on racial lines, significantly moreso than with any other candidate. His net 19 point support from black voters is separated from his net 23 point opposition by an enormous 42 point gap. 

Intuitively, my explanation is that Sanders is advancing a vision of politics that challenges white privilege in a way that black voters broadly support. But however one wants to explain these differences, it seems clear that broad declarations about opposition to another Sanders run simplify a much more complicated racial divide. 

12/29/18

Why Chait and Yglesias are arguing about the Sanders left

Friday morning, Jonathan Chait wrote that
Sanders attracts the intense support of a small left-wing intellectual vanguard who see American politics in fundamentally terms than most Democrats do. The primary struggle in American politics as they see it is not between liberalism and conservatism, but between socialism and capitalism.
Within hours, Matt Yglesias rolled out a response:
I think [Chait]...ends up wildly overstating the policy content of pro-Bernie punditry...it's not fundamentally "about" policy - it's about specific human beings' control over the levers of power...it's fundamentally about *who gets to be in charge* rather than about what the policy is going to be.
What's going on here? In the tradition of speculating about pundit motives instead of just asking them what they think, here's my theory:
  • Chait is simply rehearsing the core argument that centrist groups like Third Way will make against Sanders in the coming year: that democratic socialism is extremist and unpopular. He concedes that Sanders pundits have a distinct ideology - but he only does this because he wants to vilify it, and to insist that the broader mass of Sanders supporters don't actually buy into it.
  • Yglesias is positioning himself on the left wing of respectable punditry. Here, this means defending himself against Sanders pundits who threaten to outflank him by insisting that they're engaged in an empty power-play rather than in a substantive fight for policy.

This kind of disagreement will probably define Sanders-skeptical Democrats for the foreseeable future.

And for what it's worth, I think that Chait's camp has the clearer view of the fight at hand. Yglesias belongs to a camp of Democrats that forged its identity in reaction to third way centrism: skeptical of cooperation with Republicans, and even open, in theory, to politics once vilified as "leftist". Today, however, that position has become much less coherent as it encounters a left politics - democratic socialism - that it hesitates to take seriously. Yglesias is struggling to maintain a political identity that is somehow distinct from Chait's left-skeptical centrism, and that's why he keeps getting mired in speculation about the motives of his critics, or in definitional arguments about what "democratic socialism" really means. Chait, meanwhile, knows exactly what it means - and that's why he wants to see it fail.

12/25/18

Why Sanders supporters are attacking Beto

On November 26, Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke announced that he would not "rule anything out" regarding future political ambitions - which the media unanimously reported as a sign that he might run for president.

Immediately, O'Rourke received a surge of positive coverage from pundits like Chris Cillizza, Dan Pfeiffer, and Timothy Murphy. A new Political Action Committee launched dedicated to drafting Beto. The Hill reported a "lovefest for O’Rourke"; Vice Asked Beto's Biggest Fans Why They Love Him So Much, Newsweek headlines declared "Beto O'Rourke 2020 wave grows" and TMZ breathlessly informed us that Beto wanted to be in the Beatles.

All of this happened before the major milestones in the Vast Anti-Beto Conspiracy: a banal tweet from David Sirota on December 2nd, and a Washington Post column from Elizabeth Bruenig on December 5.

People are talking about Beto because the press gave him a massive wave of swooning coverage at the end of November. Critics are responding to this because people tend to talk about what is going on in the news. Clinton partisan Jill Filipovic criticized the press's "Beto-mania"; reactionary and rumored vampire Kevin Williamson declared that Democrats are "mad for Beto"; and yes, socialists like Branko Marcetic also noticed the "Beto-for-president mania sweeping liberal America".

Of course Sanders supporters are talking about this too. The only real mystery is why so many journalists are playing dumb about it, and pretending that there is some unique significance in the Sanders camp responding to the same news that everyone else has been responding to. 

12/24/18

How has the intensity of support for Sanders changed since 2016?

We don't know.

This point is worth stressing: since 2016, there has been no national polling on anything resembling the "intensity" of support for Bernie Sanders. There have been occasional favorability polls, but they measure whether people like Sanders - not how much people like Sanders. What we specifically need are polls that ask for ratings like "very" or "somewhat," and most polling firms stopped asking questions like that when the 2016 primaries ended. Until they start up again, there's really no reliable way to tease the information we need out of the available data.

That said: recently, Nate Silver suggested that you could get some indication of a "candidate's chances" - nationally? - by looking at their numbers in Iowa. And we do have intensity data for Sanders there. So bearing in mind that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison between national Democrats and Iowa Democrats, here's what the trend looks like:


Sanders' positive intensity score simply tracks what percentage of his favorable ratings are "very favorable" (as opposed to "somewhat favorable"). I pulled the 2015-2016 numbers from Yougov / Economist polls of Democrats, and the 2018 numbers from the December CNN poll that Nate Silver used.

My reading of this poll is that not much has changed. The intensity of Sanders' support has always drifted around within a 10 point range - 52% when people barely knew him, 62% when Democrats were in full-on convention mode. Right now, his support is a bit higher than usual, but nothing extraordinary is happening.

My guess it that these numbers will probably continue to fluctuate within this range in the coming months. To the extent that they pay any amount of attention to the numbers at all, opponents of Sanders in the media will probably blow the statistically inevitable drops way out of proportion, and maintain conspicuous silence about the inevitable rebounds. Regardless: if the Iowa numbers mean anything, they mean that Sanders is doing just fine.

12/17/18

Nate Silver, the Democratic primaries, and the trouble with Likert scores

Yesterday, Nate Silver tweeted out a table purporting to calculate Likert scores for a list of potential contenders in the Democratic primaries:

This ranking, he added, "isn't that far from how I'd rate the candidates chances." But is this actually a plausible way of assessing a candidate's chances? And did he even calculate the Likert score correctly? Spoiler: no, and no.

Calculating the Likert score

The first problem here is that Silver begins his calculation by casually omitting a huge fraction of the data: "voters who didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate". Even if we assume that none of these voters knew who the candidate was, this immediately introduces significant uncertainty. For example, by Silver's accounting, only 17% of the voters had an opinion about Andrew Yang. Can we really make an apples-to-apples comparison between him and Hillary Clinton, who received favorable/unfavorable answers from 94% of the voters?

Worse (and this is where Silver really gets into trouble) "didn't know or had no opinion about the candidate" is not an option on the survey. The actual data he is throwing away is the answer "not sure" - and this can include voters who have neutral or ambivalent feelings about the candidate. This is a response you can include in a Likert score! And if you include it, the rankings change:

Here, I've ranked them on a 5-point Likert scale; I've also made a proportional adjustment to Silver's 4-point Likert scale, just for the sake of comparison. Admit that some candidates may just inspire neutral or ambivalent responses, and suddenly O'Rourke, Harris, Booker and Klobuchar take massive hits to their Likert score.

Of course, the most realistic scenario is that some "not sure" answers were ambivalent or neutral, and some expressed genuine ignorance about the candidate. But granting that, the appropriate conclusion is that the data we're working with here just isn't granular enough to calculate legitimate Likert scores.


What does this tell us about electability?

Silver thinks that Likert scores give us some insight into the "chances" that a candidate could win. There is, of course, a pretty simple way to test this: just look at what they predicted in previous elections. Here's one I put together based on early favorability polling of the Democratic candidates in 2016:
This is obviously wrong on multiple levels. Sanders, though he had the highest Likert score, was never favored to win. Clinton was a significantly stronger candidate than Biden, and both were certainly much stronger than Jim Webb. Likert scores could not predict the massive institutional advantages that Clinton would bring to the race, they could not predict the combination of political pressure and personal tragedy that would force Biden to drop out, and they could not predict the way that Sanders' populist message would undercut Webb's campaign and leave O'Malley as the only third option. (Admittedly, it seems to have got Chafee right.)

I don't recall Silver posting a table like this in 2016, for obvious reasons.

12/8/18

Third parties and the shadow primary

Two talking points circulating among Democrats right now:
  1. Because they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must promise to vote for whoever the Democrats end up nominating as the most viable opponent to Trump.
  2. Even though they are likely to run and win significant popular support, we must not criticize or judge potential Democratic candidates for the presidency until they formally announce their run.
Seems pretty clear what's going on here. As I write this, multiple candidates are rallying donors, party elites, and key personnel, and building public support with deliberate PR, setting in motion campaigns that will work to monopolize opposition to Trump over the next year. The first talking point insists that we acknowledge this - it's why we can already dismiss the possibility of a viable third-party challenge as a non-starter. But the second talking point asks us to play coy about this, and pretend that there is no power play at hand, as a way of shielding likely candidates from criticism.

Say what you will about these arguments - I find them pretty ridiculous - but it just isn't possible to make both of them at once. You can admit that Democrats are already consolidating their power in a shadow primary, which means that it's legitimate to criticize them, or you can pretend that they aren't, which means accepting the possibility that a third party candidate could lead the opposition. Try to do both, and it looks an awful lot like you are just demanding unquestioning submission to the Democratic Party, regardless of what the future has in store.

12/6/18

The Green New Deal is a good plan. It's not a socialist plan.

You can't beat climate change without a massive transfer of wealth to the developing world. Credible estimates range from $400 billion to $2 trillion every year. But there is no political will in the US to accept this responsibility, particularly among the ruling class.

Historically, capital has had a go-to solution to this sort of problem: imperialism. Instead of redistributing the wealth, you can actually extract more wealth from the global south through loans, and by selling it necessities at a profit. Placing the developing world in debt also gives you political leverage to make all sort of demands for things like austerity and deregulation.

This is the context in which the politics of climate change in the US have to be understood. Against all odds, left demands for the US to facilitate green development in the global south may actually succeed. But if that demand maintains a place for the private sector, the politics will default towards a predictable outcome: green imperialism.


Three green new deals

One can see how this dynamic is playing out in left policy planning by looking at three "Green New Deals" that have rolled out in recent years:
  • The first, released in 2015 by the Green Party, proposes creating 16 million public sector jobs, though with no indication that any of this will involve international development. It proposes investments into green technology research, but with no indication of whether this research will take place in the public or private sector. It also explicitly proposes to "invest in green business," and notably insists on keeping "wealth created by local labor circulating in the community."
  • The second, developed by Greg Carlock at Data for Progress, proposes creating 10 million new jobs through a Green Job Guarantee, workforce development and job training programs - and private sector growth. There is no reference to international development, though it does note, in passing, that this plan "will produce immense demand for new goods and services that the private sector can provide."
  • The third, proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aims to make "green technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the United States" through a whole arsenal of initiatives - from a green job guarantee to "massive investment" in R&D to "measures...to promote...labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism".
These proposals have typically been promoted on the left as job guarantee proposals, and they are. But they are also proposals to significantly expand the private sector. And insofar as they mention international development at all, they envision the creation of a global market centered around the profit models of US business.


A Green Marshall Plan

Even in the best case scenario - a United States that develops a massive capacity for green development, ready for export - none of these proposals mention how the global south will pay for any of this. Again: the standard solution to this problem, and the one that our ruling class will default to absent enormous popular resistance, has been to place poor countries in even greater debt, often with interest, and potentially with various neoliberal policy strings attached. The rapid expansion of the so-called "green bond" market in recent years suggests that this approach is already putting down roots.

As an alternative, some academics and politicians have called for something like a green Marshall Plan. Al Gore, for instance, argued in 2006 that in "a Global Marshall Plan...wealthy nations can no longer insist that Third World countries pay huge sums of interest". A more ambitious model might resemble something like Bernie Sanders' 2017 "Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico," which proposed $146b in grants, debt relief, and mandated all kinds of protections against typical liberalization efforts (EG, calling for "labor protections, public input, local and municipal governing power" and insisting that "efforts to privatize public institutions must be rejected").

This approach to international development does get around some of the more sinister traps of international aid, and some of the principles at work here - grants rather than loans, and protections against liberalization - have to be the foundation of any left campaign against climate change.

Nevertheless, none of these funding plans manage to finesse the exploitative dynamic created by a privatized Green New Deal. At best, they create a simple wealth transfer that begins with the federal government; circulates to the developing world as grants; and then returns back to US-based capital as payments for our green exports. This, Chomsky notes, was the basic dynamic of the original Marshall Plan:
It’s talked about as an act of “unimaginable benevolence.” But...of the $13 billion of Marshall Plan aid, about $2 billion went right to the U.S. oil companies. That was part of the effort to shift Europe from a coal-based to an oil-based economy, and parts of it would be more dependent on the United States...You look at the rest of it, very little of that money left the United States. It goes from one pocket to another.
How this would play out for the global south is unclear. Immediately, the Green New Deal / Marshall Plan approach places the these countries in a relationship of dependence - on the north for funding, and on the US for ongoing green development. Hypothetically, one can imagine them growing their way out of peonage, funding their own energy and development through supercharged green economies. But this, of course, is just the standard argument for capitalist globalization: it's an argument that opening up the world to profit-seeking US firms, subsidized perhaps with public funding, can lift the third world out of poverty and eradicate international inequality.


Still better than climate change

A "socialist" plan for tackling climate change would have to begin, necessarily, by placing the means of production in the hands of workers who control it through the arm of the state. From there, the global socialist state would simply redistribute resources and direct production as needed to curtail carbon emissions. Say what you will about plans that fall outside of this framework - but they can't be described as "socialist" in any meaningful sense. A plan that leaves control of the means of production in the hands of private owners necessarily maintains a fundamentally exploitative relationship between capitalists, workers, and the earth.

This does not, to be clear, mean that the left should abandon support for something resembling a Green New Deal / Green Marshall Plan. Given the choice between apocalyptic, runaway climate change and a stopgap investment program that leaves the private sector in place but brings down emissions, most of our planet would probably prefer the latter. Nevertheless, socialists should proceed in this fight with their eyes wide open: the problem of redistribution has not been solved, and US capital is still firmly in control.