Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mr. President, Please Don't Bomb Syria

I really liked James Fallows recent post about his readers' and his own doubts about the plan to bomb Syria in response to the horrific chemical attack that recently occurred there. I'd have to agree with him that Obama's "red line" statement turned out to be a major error on the President's part. As I see it the Administration greatly under estimated the possibility that Assad might use chemical weapons and then compounded the error by greatly underestimating Assad and his regime's ability to cling to power (or perhaps overestimating the capacities of the rebel groups).

This has put Obama in a tough spot, but it's utter nonsense that the President is now "forced" to respond militarily to uphold American "credibility" or anything else. Oh I'm sure if we don't bomb Syria there be a lot of blow back in the press about "projecting weakness" and such from the usual hawk suspects who have already jumped on the war band wagon, but there will be no lasting damage to Obama or American interests if he decides to just ignore his past statements and make new ones. All the usual suspects told us how terrible it would be if we just up and left Iraq for years. When we finally did just that, the sky didn't fall, no more than it would if we left Afghanistan next year. This same dynamic played out during the Vietnam era for years.

If I could give advice to Obama, and granted I really have no formal credentials or standing to do this, I would just paraphrase the character Marla Daniels from HBO's The Wire:

"If you attack Syria and the conflict escalates, or spreads to a neighboring country, you'll be blamed for that. If you attack Syria and it doesn't deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons or it doesn't cause him to fall from power, you'll be blamed for that too. If you attack Syria and it does deter Assad from using chemical weapons and he instead just uses conventional arms to massacre people, you'll also be blamed for that. The game is rigged. But you cannot lose if you do not play."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

While Miley Cyrus Was Prancing Around, And You Were Outraged...

...some important things were happening!

The fall out of The Great Miley Freak Out Of 2013 has moved on from it's initial stages of general outrage; to outraged paired with more outrage that your allies aren't being outraged in the right way: and finally into the loftier realm of "what-does-it-all-mean-ism."  While it's all been very fun pointing out that a 20 year old whose been basically raised since childhood in the spotlight of fame and privileged can act in a less than ideal way when put back in the spotlight of the VMA's, more important things have been happening.

In Michigan a few hours ago, Republican governor Rick Snyder teamed but with the state senate Democrats and another eight state senate Republicans to pass a bill allowing the expansion of Medicaid in their state under the terms of Obamacare. To review Obamacare is a giant bill with all sorts of provisions, but one of the most important ones is the expansion of Medicaid to cover all Americans who don't have insurance and live at, or below, 133 percent of the poverty line. This policy was enforced on states in the original bill by offering states the carrot that the federal government would pay 90 percent of all new Medicaid costs caused by this expansion and the stick that if the states didn't adopt the expansion of Medicaid they would risk their current Medicaid funds. The Supreme Court, in all it's glory, decided this was unconstitutional for some reason, and replaced this carrot and stick approach with an all carrot approach in which sates would get the federal funding, but could refuse and not risk their current monies if they chose to do so.

The result of John Robert's infinite wisdom is that a number of states have refused to let their uninsured citizen's get health care via Medicaid because Obamacare is bad and stuff.

But as the political scientists and economists like to say, incentives work. The money, and perhaps the moral reality of expanding healthcare to people needing it compared denying it to them out of a sense of pique, has enticed several brave Republican governors to defy The Crazy and try and expand health care access. As Snyder put it, "This is about one element that we control here in Michigan that we can make a difference in here in people’s lives.”

Of course this doesn't mean that other states will now fall like dominoes. If Michigan adopts the expansion of Medicaid as it's expected to do once the state house passes it only 24 states and the District of Columbia will have signed on to it. But this still represents that Obamacare is well on it's way to being ingrained into our society as well as being embraced by more and more states. In other words,basically all this nonsense over not funding Obamacare is squabbling over bragging rights about who held out the longest. Obama won a long time ago.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Some Thoughts On Syria

The other day I came across this opinion piece of what the US should do about the ongoing civil war in Syria. It's written by a fellow named Edward N. Luttwak who is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I found it to be one of the more clear headed views on the what's going on in Syria. And it was especially refresshing because it refused to accept the common underpinning of a lot of discussion about American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: that there must be an obvious and executable policy the US can do to solve a problem in another part of the world.

Luttwak argues that both a victory by Assad's government forces or a victory by the rebel forces fighting to depose him would be problematic for the US. As he puts:
Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel. 

But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquility on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria. 
In many ways I think this analysis is correct. Neither Assad nor the rebels are "good guys" or "bad guys" and neither wining would represent a transformation of Syria into a model democratic society that will make peace with Israel and vote to privatize their state dominated economy. If either wins, the defeated side will be ruthlessly crushed and there is little we can do to stop this if we are unwilling to invade and occupy the country.

This seems pretty obvious but it's remarkable how different it was from the discussion about how the US can approach the Middle East just a decade ago. Back then the obvious assumption among the vast majority of observers was that the Middle East was largely clay in the hands of the West. If we wanted to reshape Middle Eastern societies we could do so, and we should. It's hard to remember now, but the argument that was widdley accepted from everyone from The New York Times to Donald Rumsfeld was that with a application of military force and some political tinkering we could have changed Iraq into a highly functional democracy; a model for the Middle East. Now we realize that while we could put our thumb, or combat boots as it were, on the scales to determine the winner in Syria if we wanted to, we will have little control over what type of society emerges in the aftermath of the war. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately for all of Luttwak's (welcome) hard boiled realism there still are twinges of the old danger of what Matt Yglesias called "The Incompetence Dodge." The dodge refers to an article written back in 2005 by Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld about the tendency of liberal hawks to blame the disaster of post-invasion Iraq on incompetence and bungling by the Bush Administration. As Yglesias and Rosenfeld argue this only obscures the more important point that Iraq was a disaster because of the underlying deeply flawed concepts of "preventative war" or war as a means of constructing democracies in the Middle East. And like thelibe ral hawks of old Luttwak goes all in with an incompetence dodge aimed at Turkey in his analysis:
Back then [2011], it was realistic to hope that moderates of one sort or another would replace the Assad regime, because they make up a large share of the population. It was also reasonable to expect that the fighting would not last long, because neighboring Turkey, a much larger country with a powerful army and a long border with Syria, would exert its power to end the war. 

As soon as the violence began in Syria in mid-2011, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, loudly demanded that it end. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, Mr. Assad’s spokesmen publicly ridiculed Mr. Erdogan, while his armed forces proceeded to shoot down a Turkish fighter jet, before repeatedly firing artillery rounds into Turkish territory and setting off lethal car bombs at a Turkish border crossing. To everyone’s surprise, there was no significant retaliation. The reason is that Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army. The result has been paralysis instead of power, leaving Mr. Erdogan an impotent spectator of the civil war on his doorstep. 
Luttwak's answers his own question about why Turkey didn't basically invade Syria by saying, "Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army." But instead of acknowledging that these political realities constrain what Turkey can do, he simply blames the constraint on "paralysis instead of power" right after explaining that it's not paralysis by Turkish leaders at all that's constraining Turkish action, but the political realities that underpin Turkish society! 

It's great that we've moved past the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, but we still have a ways to go.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Health Care Costs and St. Elsewhere

The slowdown of health care inflation is one of the most under-appreciated stories out there right now. Matt Yglesias had a good summery earlier today and made the really important point that health care cost inflation is in many ways a self fulfilling prophecy. If big companies think that health care costs are going to keep skyrocketing they are going to invest in a higher number of larger and more expensive hospitals. If they think the curve is being bent by policy now, or because future policy makers will work to bend it they will stop planing and building so many larger and more expensive hospitals. In essence the perception of reality becomes a reality, if enough of us believe it. The same way that if enough of us think the economy is going south and act accordingly, that's exactly what it does.


Over at the Good Men Project I talked about how I don't think Jesse Jackson Jr. should be treated as a hero; problems with the Republican's "replacement" for Obamacare; why Rick Santorum is not going to be the GOP nominee in 2016 and the curious phenomenon known as the conservative information feedback loop.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Some Thoughts On Cory Booker

So Cory Booker won the primary special election and is now the Democratic nominee for Frank Launtenberg's old Senate seat. He was of course the favorite to win it. He has a national media brand, a huge fundraising network and a million followers on Twitter. Beating him was of course going to be a long shot. Interestingly enough though, a number of progressive leaders took it upon themselves to try and stop the Booker juggernaut. Alex Pareene argued that he's a product of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and so is not to be trusted. Non-progressive Dave Weigel argued (indirectly) that Booker will be bad for progressives because he doesn't support, "neither a carbon tax, nor a new Glass-Steagall, nor a ban on NSA snooping." If you cruise around the internet you can find a lot of this stuff.

I guess I'd have to agree with Pareene and Weigel, but would add, so what? Yes Booker isn't a fire breathing class warrior, but I'd challenge you to find more than a handful (or even one) of them in the United States Senate, a body composed of millionaires. And yes Booker isn't leading the charge on global warming, but considering that the Republicans will likely control the House of Representatives through 2016, it's not like cap and trade (or Glass-Steagall reloaded for that matter) is going to need a tie-breaker vote in the Senate to become law anytime soon.

Matt Yglesias rose to Booker's defense to point out that while Booker might not be Glenn Greenwald when it comes to NSA leaks, he does appear to care a lot about child poverty. Which is something that in our rush to focus on defending Snowden, we sometimes forget about. As Yglesias explains:
Booker's campaign website does feature a 15-page policy paper on ending child poverty and I think it's pretty smart. He cites Harry Holzer's research on the macroeconomic impact of child poverty, and manages to acknowledge the obvious-but-weirdly-controversial truth that better schools are an important part of the solution to poverty but that direct financial assistance is also needed. The plan calls for smart interventions like Nurse Family Partnerships and the use of Medicaid to promote overall child health and not just narrowly deliver health care services. There's stuff about higher minimum wage and more generous EITC and the need to fight cuts in SNAP and a call to expand Section 8 housing vouchers. Lurking in the affordable housing section there's an intriguing reference to how "New Jersey's more affluent towns" ought to have "greener, denser, more vibrant downtowns."
This might not be the platform of MoveOn but it is highlighting an issue that's often ignored. And an issue that should be of vital importance to progressives. In addition, for someone like me who is interested in density and how we can promote it, the more obscure reference certainly makes up for a lack of zeal on NSA leaks.

One of the more frustrating thing about the whole discussion over the purity of Booker's immortal soul is that it seems to operate in a world unencumbered by the reality of our politics in right now. Rush Holt might have led the charge more on NSA leaks and cap and trade, but the voting records of hypothetical Senators Holt or Booker won't be that different. Both will be against ending food stamps, against impeaching Obama, for the constitutionality of the minimum wage etc. In short, both would be Democratic senators well within the mainstream of their party. And while they might emphasize different issues, their is no progressive holy writ that says that child poverty is less important than reigning in the NSA.

On a larger note, even if he does turn out to be a disappointment Cory Booker doesn't strike me as being some kind of disappointment for progressives. Rather, if he is a disappointment, he's more of a representation of how we as progressives have failed. The fact remains that Booker won almost 60 percent of the vote while Rush Holt came in third with 17 percent. If Booker turns out to be the turncloak we've been warned of, that's not an evidence of Booker being a bad guy, it's evidence that we as progressives aren't don't a good job of advancing our movement. I guess I'm going to look like a neoliberal sell out by doing this, but I think its really important to link to a post from Matt Yglesias back in 2011 about politics in general.  Matt was responding to a self described, “well-educated, politically literate, 30-something person with a job and a kid" who felt that while she did know a lot about politics, she was doing nothing to influence it. As Matt explained, "She wants to know what she should actually be doing to try to create change, since '[w]atching Jon Stewart tell me things I already know in funny voices is starting to seem hollow.'" Yglesias went on to lay out a brilliant internal critique of the progressive movement:
If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing. And I do think there’s a lot of wisdom to the old Le Tigre song “Get Off The Internet.” Reading and talking to like-minded people about how powerful people are failing can seem like action, but it really isn’t.
Exactly. Posting on Firedoglake (or longwalkdownlyndale) can be fun and fulfilling, but it almost certainly won't influence the next vote in Congress.

After Matt posted that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a great follow-up, entitled "Liberal Sorcery." As he sees it the progressive critiques of things like Obama's job plan get you only half way there:
The other day Tavis Smiley made the point that president's job plan didn't go far enough. I'd bet a lot of progressives concur and I think pushing the point is healthy, legitimate, essential and fair. But it's also healthy, legitimate, essential and fair to then ask, "What would make more progressive legislation possible?" That line of thinking has to confront the kind of statements and action by Democratic Senators who evidently feel little or no pressure from their progressive base.
Coates then went on to put it in a blunter way, "Somehow we got in our head that the Civil Rights movement happened because Martin Luther King was a really nice guy. We don't really talk about the movement as an actual force, as applying force." I would argue that politicians respond to incentives, show them that their progressive stands will help them and they will be embolden by their progressiveism. Show them that support for mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws and foreign wars will be punished, and they will respond accordingly. Conservative activists have known this for quite some time.

In the end our politics will be what we make of them. That doesn't mean Booker will be a great Senator (if he wins) or Alex Pareene or the whole crew at Firedoglake is wrong either. It means that rather than lamenting about our politics we have to go out and change them. Booker knew this, back in the dawn of time.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Perverse Incentives In The GOP

Grance Franke-Ruta has a piece up at the Atlantic trying to explain why House Republicans keep voting to repeal Obamacare in vain. As she sees it, it's because of an "ideological fixation" or the 19th Century psychological concept of an Idées fixes as seen in literary figures like Captain Ahab. It's one of those interesting arguments that makes for good filler on a website but personally I think these types of psychological explanations for problems in the modern GOP are less than helpful.

The main reason that Republican politicians do things like vote over and over again to repeal Obamacare while offering no counter proposal of their own is because of structural, not psychological reasons.  Over the last few decades the conservative movement has set up a huge infrastructure of money making ventures that conservatives figures and Republican politicans can tap into to make a lot of money. Like books, TV jobs and cushy think tank positions that are yours for the taking as long as you tote the conservative hard line. Boston based journalist David Bernstein has argued that a lot conservative movement works not as an ideological movement, but a private industry that creates conservative "products" to be sold to a vast market of older, white suburbanites with large amounts of disposable income. Think of Glenn Beck, who talks about the oncoming economic collapse we are facing because of things like deficit spending and then goes on TV and radio as a paid spokesman to hawk over priced gold coins as a sure fire way to protect your investments during the future economic collapse. Rick Perlstein once wrote a great history of the creation of this market in The Baffler.

The result is that perverse incentives are set up inside the GOP that leads intelligent, rational people to hawk bizarre conspiracy theories or push for "investigations" of made up scandals because there is a big pot of gold at the end of their career rainbow. Meanwhile, if you criticize the conservative movement for being unrealistic, bad for the country or not very good at stopping Obama, you get fired from your think tank job for writing things like this.

There are a number of other structural problems with the Republican Party right now, for example the massive policy gap that's opened between them and the Democrats. As well as an aversion to normal compromise and negotiation that we've seen in recent years. Indeed, a functioning political party would probably accept it's can't overturn or "defund" a law when it only controls one half of one third of the government. But the reason for this dysfunction isn't physiological manias, it's structural. Which is why the GOP won't fix itself just by getting rid of a few blow hards like Michele Bachmann.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Washington Post Post

The big news in medialand was that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos decided to buy The Washington Post for a cool $250 million, or about one percent of his net worth. It's probably a good thing for WaPo in the end. And even if it's not, throwing around huge chunks of money to keep newspapers running is a pretty good use for all our billionaires when all's said and done.

The Post, like basically all other newspapers, has been slowly dying since the 90s as publishing has gone through two technological revolutions. First it's gone from a delivery model where if you wanted to know about what's going on in the world you basically had to get a piece of a tree delivered to your door step every day to being able to read almost you want at any time on your computer. It's hard to understand if you are under 40, but it used to be if you wanted to read an out of town newspaper you had to spend a bunch of money or trek down to the library. At the same time add revenue dropped as the once all mighty classified section became increasing obsolete in an era of craig's list and other web posting boards. Compounding these trends were foolish decisions made by all sorts of papers and cuts in staff in coverage that in turn made the product worse and made paying for the piece of a tree make even less sense.

Now this sucks if you made a career out of working for companies steeped in the piece of a tree model, but then again a lot of paper boys went out of work when they invented the news paper vending machine. That's just the way of technological progress. For the rest of us, it's amazing the amount of content that is really out there just a Google search away.

Meanwhile the way content was created changed drastically. In order to pontificate on what you thought was going on if the world with any real megaphone as recently as the 80's or early 90's you had to get past a number of very few gatekeepers who made a living in no small part by not having to compete with people who might point out what they got wrong.To write about politics or Washington until quite recently you had to be a person that followed a very rigid career path starting with majoring in journalism and often writing for your college paper way back when. If you didn't do that getting to be able to put your ideas out there was next to impossible outside of publishing your own zine in your basement. Now it's possible to go from being an obscure political scientist, or amateur blogger or sandwich delivery guy to being a force in opinion writing. These careers are of course not typical, but they were basically impossible until fairly recently.

Throughout the 90's the gatekeeper effect was a huge part of why pundits and newspapers got thing so wrong. Back during the Healthcare Reform Wars under Clinton Andrew Sullivan, then editor at The New Republic, published a controversial article called "No Exit" filled with outright lies and distortions about the Clinton Plan. The piece won a National Magazine Award and was celebrated in Washington as the piece that torpedoed Hillary's dreaded bill (in my view journalists tend to heavily overestimate their impact in these matter). Some people pushed back at Sullivan and the piece's author, conservative activist Elizabeth McCaughey, ironically quite a bit in The New Republic itself. But the piece, while containing the lie that the Clinton Plan would make it illegal to pay out of pocket for health care, was never really discredited until a decade and a half latter after a lot of bloggers like Ezra Klein began hammering Sullivan with his past misconduct. In 2009 Sullivan, who had defended the article to hilt for 15 years, wrote:
But its premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried...I was the editor; I threatened to quit on another occasion; it was my call; and I took credit for its impact; and did not criticize her (and praised her tenacity) subsequently. No one else is responsible. In retrospect, it was not my finest hour.
The one time editor of "the inflight magazine of Air Force One" begs forgiveness for his sins 15 years after publishing an article. There was a time when this was unthinkable.

The changing nature of journalism aside, Bezos's decision to buy a newspaper seems like a good idea for the rest of us. Finding something to do with the large number of hyper-rich millionaires and billionaires being produced by our global economy and rising inequality is actually and interesting question for our society. Once you've become that rich finding something to do with the rest of your life probably becomes a major concern, as the kings of our "meritocracy" are not very good and lounging around or organizing shooting parties in the country like they did 100 years ago. These tycoons can become like the Koch brothers and spend their fortune trying to advance their classes' own interests to the detriment of the the rest of us. Or they can spend their days just trying to make more money for no other reason than make more money, like Steve Jobs. Ideally the hyper-rich would spend their days giving it away to forgotten billions in the developing world Bill Gates style, but if they don't want to do that, having them play newspaperman and pump some money into legacy newspapers is better than the more negative alternatives. Besides it's not like anyone is going to start using Amazon because of a George Will column. If he wants this toy, I say no harm in letting him have it as long as he is interested in supporting the newspaper. If not, well then that's another question. But WaPo was basically headed for bankruptcy anyway, so what have we got to lose?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Today In Bad Arguments For Affirmative Action

The American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie (who I like a lot) recently posted a piece on his personal blog detailing his support for affirmative action which he wrote after he got in a big twitter fight with some fellow from Chicago who doesn't like affirmative action policies. He felt the guy's arguments were poorly constructed, or as he put it, "This is a greatest hits of cliches, bad arguments, and historical obtuseness." And while I don't really support what anti-affirmative action guy was saying on twitter, I do feel that Jamelle Bouie's own take is well, pretty historically obtuse.

We can argue all day about the merits of affirmative action, but one thing I don't think we can argue about is the political effectiveness of it. Basically while being a major issue of public debate for some time now, affirmative action policies have never been particularly popular with the American electorate. In fact whenever it's been forced to prove it's merits outside of the stuffy confines of academy or the liberal blogosphere and inside the political arena, it has had a tendency to go down in flames. And to make matters worse for affirmative action advocates, the Robert Court has been sending strong signals for quite some time that race based admissions policies to colleges days are numbered. I'm not saying that affirmative action policies in higher education are inherently unjust or should be ended, I'm just saying that they don't appear to be particularly politically sustainable.

I've been getting some push back on social media for blogging too much about many of the mistakes we progressives make. And while I am sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings I think these types of conversations are really important to us. In fact, I'd say that the whole affirmative action debate gets to the heart of one of the bigger problems that we progressives have been facing for quite some time now: how do we sell our ideology to the American people? There's one thread of thought that seems to think that if we have enough conversations about things like "privilege" or the legacy of racism in American social policy, the American electorate will come around and see how right we have been all along. It's not that far conceptually with the argument that if President Obama goes on national television and lectures us long enough about the wisdom of Keynesian Economics, the American public will come around and see the wisdom of deficit spending in an economic downturn. The problem I have with these types of arguments is that they strike me as being wildly unrealistic about the people who actually live in our society. Basically the public doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to economic theory and tends to associate the word "deficit" with the concept of "bad stuff" as thus oppose things like "deficit spending." Likewise the American electorate by and large might agree that racism is bad and we should find ways to help people who've been the victim of it. But few people are going to accept the idea that their child in particular should have to go to Oakland County Community College instead of the University of Michigan because as Bouie puts it, "The redlining and forced housing segregation of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are one reason African Americans are disproportionately concentrated in poor urban areas." Bouie is of course right, but in my experience housing segregation in the 1930's doesn't weight that heavily on that many voters' minds.

Back in 2005 Matt Yglesias wrote a great piece about the danger of Naomi Klein style anti-matieralizism in liberal politics. As he saw it:
Anti-materialism on the left tends to reflect, I think, a kind of moral vanity. Many of us, especially during an era when we haven't been very good at winning elections, like to think that not only are our adversaries mistaken about what the best policies would be but also that we're morally better than they are. On this view, liberalism is a kind of charity venture undertaken by kindhearted people, while our opponents on the right are greedy. To win, we need to make more people kindhearted and charitably inclined, hence the need to combat materialism.

One problem here is that it's not going to work. People are not averse to doing one another a good turn now and again, but fundamentally we're an acquisitive, status-conscious species. Given the option between more stuff and less, people are going to want more. And with reason: Stuff is great! More fundamentally, liberalism-as-charity is self-defeating. If you really could persuade most people to put their greedy instincts aside and sacrifice for the sake of others, there would be no need for liberal policies that deliver the groceries. When you think about it, the project of trying to transform Americans into a self-sacrificing, charity-oriented race is fundamentally a conservative one, especially in its "compassionate" form. This view holds that we don't really need government action to tackle public problems. Instead, moral leaders will simply exhort citizens to volunteer time and donate to charity as a way of making a better country and taking care of the poor. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't work. People give and people volunteer, but not on the scale necessary to do more than rub off some of the rough edges of serious problems. This is because people like stuff, and they like freedom; they want more, not less, of the stuff they've worked hard to acquire. Our economy is based on this principle, and our politics need to be, too. 
This is part of a bigger post about what progressives should focus on after their disappointing loss in 2004, and I think it is one of the best critiques of the self-defeating tendencies of progressivism that I've ever read. I also think it applies quite well to problems with selling affirmative action. You can see Lee Atwater's infamous "Hands" and Willie Horton themed campaign ads from the 80's as offensive race baiting trash (and they were offensive race baiting trash) but they were also devastatingly effective. They link some of the most powerful negative emotions we can experience in our ordinary lives, the frustration with not getting the job that you need, the fear of being the victim of brutal violence, with a politician you can vote against. That's why they worked so well, it's hard to remember now but it the spring of 1988 Michael Dukakis really was beating George H. W. Bush by double digits in most polls. It would be nice if we lived in a world where people ignored or were offended by things like "Hands," but we don't. What we need is not an attempt to radically change the nature of American society, but our own devastatingly effective ads. And promoting unpopular policies just won't cut it.

I'm not saying that we should do away with affirmative action. As I see it, the affirmative action policies we do have have proven to be woefully inadequate at tackling entrenched social pathologies like inter-generational poverty and racism. But that doesn't mean we should double down on policies that have never been very popular with American electorate. I'd argue that we should do things like create more effective charter schools that send minority kids from impoverished backgrounds to college or adopt central banking policies that seriously attempt to reach full employment or increase the size of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The bad news is this list could go on for pages. But the good news is that things like good schools, more jobs and more money are super popular, and that's why we should sell those ideas.

Long ago a very smart man pointed out that trying to redivide our economic pie in a "fairer" way to make up for the fact that in the past some folks only got crumbs would never be a viable political option for us liberals. His name was Hubert Humphrey and Rick Perlstein summed up his argument as:
And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.” 
He was right then, and he's right now.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mitch McConnell and St. Elsewhere

 It's pretty amazing that Mitch McConnell is doing so poorly in a lot of early polling. After all Kentucky is a pretty red state. He has plenty of time to try and turn it around, I imagine we are in store for a lot of super pac ads calling his opponent a crypto-Muslim socialist terrorist. But few people have done more to screw up our government in recent years, and a Senate without McConnell would be fairly amazing to behold.


Over at the Good Men Project I talked about what the demise of the THUD (transportation and housing and urban development) bill in the House tells us about the state of the GOP. I also wrote about how to go about  ending the NYPD's controversial Stop and Frisk policy.