Friday, December 18, 2015

Some Thoughts On #VANgate

There’s a lot being said about how Bernie Sander’s campaign maybe, sort of, ummm tried to steal a bunch of the Clinton campaign’s data after a computer glitch in the Democrats VAN voter file system let them briefly on Thursday night. Suffice it to say much of the reporting about this issue (so far at least) has been pretty bad. Political reporters simply don’t know a whole lot about VAN (and haven’t really cared to learn anything until last night) and so much of the more specific write ups about what-this-all-means isn’t very helpful. Still if you are interested in learning about what was pretty bad about what the Bernie campaign did (and how the VAN works in general) check out this Twitter essay by Pat Raynard from the independent Iowa site “Iowa Starting Line.” 

As a Party Decides person and recent Hillary convert I’ll just say that this whole brouhaha doesn’t mean that much to me. The Democratic Party clearly coalesced around Hillary some time ago and so baring indictment or a meteor strike she’s going to be the nominee. Meanwhile the political media is having a field day with this because since Hillary consolidated her support sometime back in 2014 or early 2015 the Dem side of the race has been boring as hell, hence the media firestorm over #VANgate. Finally there’s something to write about other than Donald Trump!

Having said that I do think that this whole episode does highlight two big points about left-wing/progressive politics that a lot of lefty/progressive types miss. I’ll call them “the ethic of purity” and “the ethic of fairness.”

The ethic of purity holds that the key to winning political battles is to campaign as a new sort of politician that is pure as the driven snow and will use this purity to great political effect. Bernie does this a lot, hence his focus on “revolution” or his idea that by banning super PACs and such somehow American politics will become supper left-wing.  

The problem with the ethic of purity is that if you are going to campaign as a “new kind of politician” who is pure as the driven snow, you better be as pure as the driven snow or the whole narrative collapses. In other words once it appears that Bernie Sanders (or his campaign which in the political media’s eyes are the same thing) engages in underhanded political tactics too, he becomes just another regular old hypocritical pol. It’s like taking money from lobbyists, once you do it, even once, you can’t really criticize any opponent for taking that sort of money either. Or it becomes yet another case of “both sides do it.”

Bernie Sanders was clearly running an “ethic of purity” style campaign: and it seems to have blown up in his face (as it has for so many other progressive types over the years).

The second idea that comes up is Bernie’s claim that he’s being treated “unfairly” by the DNC. Again as a Party Decides person I think this is ridiculous. Of course party actors have favored candidates and try to help them out, deciding on a nominee every four years is one of the biggest things our political parties collectively do! Sorry, but claiming that Bernie should automatically get to keep his VAN access even after he broke a host of rules is favoritism and trying to help out your candidate too. There’s no way to “fairly” settle a contest where the rules are created and enforced by the party actors playing the game. Is this perfect? No, but letting parties fight it out themselves is a core part of what democracy is. And in my opinion the alternatives to this are worse, and fundamentally less democratic.

Meanwhile the whole “fairness” claim is utterly ridiculous when it comes to scope of Sanders’ ambitions. Does Sander’s think that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump is going to run a fair above board campaign? The Republicans have been pushing for years to make it harder for minorities, young people, and poor people to vote; of course they are going to fight dirty!

In other words complaining about how unfair Hillary and the DNC is being is basically just admitting you don’t have what it takes to become or be president. That’s a little harsh, but then again Bernie did just sue the party he hopes to lead, which is incredibly short sighted and irresponsible.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

We Get It, You Like The Nordic Social Model

One of the things that came up during the Democratic debate on Tuesday was an exchange over the Nordic social model after Bernie Sanders praised Denmark and Hillary announced that “We are not Denmark."

This provoke yet another round of the “why-I-love-the-Nordic-social-model” from a chorus from a number of left-wing/progressive types.  See Matt Bruenig for a classic example, he has some charts (some of which are pretty dubious) for the definitive case on why Denmark is better than America

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be emulated about the high taxes/high benefits model that a handful of Scandinavian countries embrace, but it’s pretty annoying to have to listen to these sorts of takes over and over again without any reference to why American (or most of the EU) doesn’t have these model and won’t anytime soon.

The US has a complex federal system, which diffuses power through different levels. This is something Denmark doesn’t have. The US has a very different political spectrum than Denmark as well. That is to say the main struggle in domestic politics is over whether we should dismantle our smaller welfare state (that’s what Republicans want to do) or keep it (like what Hillary wants to do). Moreover larger welfare states correlate pretty strongly with more ethnically and racially homogenous developed societies, something the United States has never been. And yes the US’s socialist movement, which Bruenig is a member, is both incredibly small and hopelessly bad at politics.

In other words Hillary is right “we aren’t Denmark.” And Ireland, Italy, and Bulgaria have different models too.

I guess there should be some room for bringing in ideas with little relevance to actual American politics, but writing yet another article about why the Nordic social model is so great while ignoring the very real reasons why we don’t have it makes nonsense of the actual reasons for what’s actually going on. In other words Bill Clinton signed welfare reform (after vetoing two Republican bills first) because it was supper popular and was passed with big majorities in Congress. Not because of “neoliberalism.”

We get it, you love the Nordic social model. Now how about you move on to what could in actuality changed about American social policy to make the country better. Or run away and hide in academia and talk about how great the Nordic model is in various seminars. Just don't pretend that pining away for some Nordic prince to come and rescue you is a substitute for real political, or policy, analysis. Especially when it's what you do over, over, and over again.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Inside The Mind Of A Mass Murderer

I want to address nagging question of what's going on in the heads of the (largely) angry young men who go out and commit these mass shootings that seem to happen every few months or so. Personally I've seen a lot of hot takes from various left-wing types trying to tie these events to the author's pre-existing arguments about American society. Lots of writing about about race and gender based in critical studies using the terms like "privilege" a lot,. That sort of thing.

Is there any truth to those takes? Well there might be, but I'm deeply skeptical of explanations for individual behavior based on what Noah Smith likes to call "cultural essentialism." After all there's no way to prove arguments that "culture" causes these things to happen wrong. Does the changing racial makeup of American society "cause" young white men to go on rampages? Did Andrew Cunanan's sexuality contribute to his killing spree? These are not the sort of questions you can ever really answer.

Meanwhile things like the large scale available to high powered weaponry and the media's treatment of mass murders as anti-heroes of a sort are things that can be tested and linked to the prevalence of mass shootings. Especially when we compared the US's record on these sorts of thing with other anglo-phone countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Anyway, I don't really have anything to prove this, but I still think the best explanation of what it's like to be inside the mind of angry young man about to go on a rampage that I've ever read comes from cult horror writer Thomas Ligotti's short story "The Nightmare Network." Like most of Ligotti's work is absolutely amazing and totally bizarre. In essence it's a series of found documents and movie script note, detailing the struggle between a Kafkaesque corporation known as Oneiricon and another group call The Nightmare Network. Oneiricon's goal is to own all that ever was, is, and will ever be. They have the following mission statement:


While the Nightmare Networks goals are harder to explain to outsiders. Here's their mission statement:
Our names are unknown and our faces are shadows drifting across an infite blackness. Our voices have been stifled to a soft murmur in a madman's ear. We are the proud failures with only a single joy left -- to inflict rampant damage on those who have fed themselves on our dreams and to choke ourselves on our own nightmares. In sum, we are expediters of the apocalypse. There is nothing left to save, if there ever was anything...if there ever could be. All we desire (in all our bitterness) is to go to our ruin in our own way -- with a little style and a lot of noise.
Does that make any sense to you at all? Probably not, but I think I sort of know what it means, sort of. But that's the whole point, you'll probably never really know what goes inside the head of a rampage killer. So focus instead on the policies that affect the possibility that allow things like this to happen, not on inner lives of madmen.

Or not, I just really doubt this has much to do with "privilege" or anything like that.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Social Media Hot Takes Are A Bit Much

Okay let's just clear thing up. The modern divide in American political division between liberals and conservatives largely comes out of events of the 1930's. The major party based divisions division over race and civil rights largely emerged in  in the 60's and 70's, after all for  several decades before then both the Republicans and the Democrats had pro and anti-civil rights wings. Moreover the partisan division over same sex marriage largely emerged in the last 15 years. Remember Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church has been around for 2000 years more or less. 

So yes the views and actions of the Pope don't easily translate onto our contemporary American map particularly well.

Sorry about the polite rage, but even for a partisan hack like me the social media "hot take" response to what the Pope does or doesn't do, or does or doesn't say is getting a bit much. It's perfectly fine to say, "I agree with the Pope on this, but not on that." But trying to determine if the pope is "liberal" or "left" or "conservative" compared to other political figures is just silly.

The Pope is the Pope, and while the priorities of Catholic Church are important for our politics (yes climate change is more important than gay marriage!) trying to cram thousands of years of thinking into our current American political lexicon is just weird.

Meanwhile partisanship drives everything these days so everyone will just focus on the points where the Pope is on their "side" in our national debate and ignore everything else. So let's just focus on jokes about wearing white after Labor Day alright?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Eichmann On Twitter

Jeet Heer made some interesting points on Twitter recently about the tendency on social media these days to create the phenomenon of "minions" (his word) to join up with social media harassment campaigns at the drop of a hat. The obvious recent case was that of a young woman, named Monica Foy, at Sam Houston State University who made what could be at worst describe as a "too soon" joke on Twitter about a recently murdered Texas police officer.

Foy had less than 100 followers on Twitter, and made the joke because she was sympathetic to the whole Black Lives Matter movement and felt it was unfair how everyone in Texas goes into morning over the death of a cop while ignoring the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement.

The reaction to Foy's joke was swift and brutal. The website Breitbart, named after Andrew Briebart who never struck me as a particular nice person, declared Holy War and basically tried to turn Foy into the most hated person in America. Read the New York article linked above if you want to know about the details, but the reality is that death and rape threats are pretty common for women who cross what Jill Filipovic calls simply "The Right-Wing Hate Machine."

Anyway Foy got both barrels when it came to online harassment, and Jeet Heer asked the interesting question of why so many people pile into these things. I think it part of it is what you might call "Trumpism", that is the phenomena of many white heterosexual men being unable to deal with a changing society that is reducing their once sacrosanct privileges. This has been going on for a while, but it's important to point out that we really are living in a period in American history where gay marriage has been legalized and a black man is president.

A significant number of Americans really don't like these trends.

But let me suggest an alternative motive for people who join in on the whole right wing Twitter hate machine phenomenon. That is the need for people in an increasingly atomized and individualized world to find meaning and purpose. Social scientists have pointed out for a while now that many of the old social organizations and groups that people belonged to to find social structure in their lives are in decline. And so many Americans, especially white heterosexual men who where once the mainstay of bowling leagues, now find themselves in a world that no longer gives them the meaning and purpose of running society or defeating communism. Indeed it's not even clear if they are suppose to run their families, or even form families.

Hannah Arendt saw a familiar phenomenon when it came to the life and crimes of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust. Arednt was writing about totalitarian societies and genocide but some of the phenomena she documents are helpful when it comes to understanding what's going on.

Heer was baffled by the appeal of, "The pleasure a minion gets from service -- they joy of executing someone else's plan -- that's hard for me to fathom." And as he put it that way it is kind of baffling, who wants to be some sort of evil automaton? But as Arendt pointed out there is a certain joy, a sort of fulfillment in shrugging off your individuality and losing yourself in some great project far bigger than yourself. The Nazi rallies at Nuremberg where a classic example of this. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people would shrug off the individuality and lose themselves in the sea of their volk, their nation, their "Cathedral of Light."

Which brings me to Arendt's points on Eichmann. To be sure smearing some college student (or even issuing threats of rape or death as Foy received) for making inappropriate jokes on Twitter is astronomically less worse than the crime of actual genocide. But many of the political themes of Arendt seem to run through these disparate topics. As Roger Berkowitz put it when it came to Arendt's view of Eichmann:
In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Arendt insisted that Eichmann’s professed fidelity to the Nazi cause “did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.” An “idealist,” as she used the word, is an ideologue, someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the “idea” of the movement that gives life meaning. Evil was transformed from a Satanic temptation into a test of self-sacrifice, and Eichmann justified the evil he knowingly committed as a heroic burden demanded by his idealism.
Thus the Twitter harassers who constantly threaten liberals and feminists with rape and death may very well see themselves are heroes. They do things they don't like to do in order to fulfill a higher mission and be able to be part of an online community, that while horrible, at least welcomes and values them.

You can see a similar phenomenon in interviews with people about why they join gangs. Gangs can be a family and purpose for people who have no other.

Rituals of mass hate might be morally wrong, but their not necessarily unpleasant for the participants: it's a lot of fun to throw Guy Fawkes on the bonfire. Thus these sorts of hate campaigns can be seen as a way of finding mean and purpose in a world that won't let you be in charge of everything anymore. This of course doesn't make it right or acceptable, but like Arendt's points about why millions of ordinary people supported things like Nazism, it at least makes it understandable.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Why I'm (Sort Of) On The Hillary Train

I got asked a question on Facebook the other day about why I've been rather dismissive of Bernie Sanders and basically have gotten on the Hillary bandwagon. I've done this for two big reasons. First of all I think that the whole nominations battle at this point is really a moot point, Hillary has already almost certainly won the nomination. Simply put I really subscribe to the idea about presidential nominations laid out by several political scientists in their book "The Party Decides" (which is the distillation of a whole lot of research done by a branch of the so called "Americanist" tradition of political science) which basically argues that nominations are chosen not by voters and caucus goers, but by the parties themselves and all their actors aligning around a largely consensus nominee. How does this work? Well basically a party's expanded network of interest groups, donors, elected officials, campaign and governing professionals, activists, and elder statesmen (and women) coordinate resources by doing things like raising money, endorsing candidates, and signaling to the rest of the network who to support

The end result is that voters and caucus goers only really come into play at the end stage of this process and oftentimes just winnow candidates out until one consensus nominee remains. So from contemporary news accounts the 2000 race on the Republican was this harrowing battle where Bush took Iowa, the McCain stormed back in New Hampshire, and Bush was only able to win due to Karl Roves diabolical dirty tricks. The party decides account of that race (which I follow) is totally different. Basically Bush had things sown up after all those Republican governors started endorsing him back in the summer of 99', the rest was just New Hampshire voters being ornery.

Now I know, this whole idea about how presidential nominations are decided is totally contrary to how the media covers races and how we liberal/progressive types are generally taught to think about politics. It's "the people" who should decide races, not those dreaded "special interests." There's some wisdom in that when it comes to other primary fights, but the nomination for the presidency is probably the most important decisions our two great political parties collectively make. And it's in every party's actor interests to get an electable candidate that will carry out the party's agenda once in office. So since the stakes are so high party actors have strong incentives to do what it takes to make sure they coalesce around a nominee that can win and will follow through with the party's wishes if they get elected.

This process basically evolved after the post 1968 nominations reforms. During the 70's it didn't really work because party actors hadn't figured out how to coordinate outside of literally being inside a smoke filled room, but by the 80's it was up and running. Does 2008 disprove it? Not really, then you basically had a party deadlocked between Hillary and Obama (no consensus nominee!) as so then things like wining delegates did matter (voters play a roll at the end of the process!) but that was a special case and unlikely to repeat itself. Remember there were a host of other qualified candidates that cycle and they were winnowed out pretty quickly.

Which brings me to Hillary. I think the it's pretty clear that the Democratic Party has already decided on Hillary as the 2016 nominee but let's run through the evidence:
  • Endorsements: Check out out FiveThiryEight's fun endorsement tracker. Hillary has literally dozens of of endorsements from governors, House members, and senators. Bernie Sanders has none (he has been endorsed by the Vermont State Auditor of Accounts however). Martin O'Malley is in second place in the endorsement hunt with one House member on his side.
  • Staff: Hillary has a really broad based staff composed of Hillary loyalists from 2008 and beyond; a lot of people from Team Obama; and other folks. Basically it's a party wide staff, not just a Hillary staff. Sanders does not have this at all.
  • Money: Hillary has a lot of it, Bernie has raced an impressive amount via small dollar donations, but still has much less. Martin O'Malley even less so.
Put another way Hillary is father ahead in terms of "the party deciding" at this point than any other Democrat since the modern system emerged. The only comparison would be Al Gore in 2000, and he won every single primary and caucus. And don't get me started on the fact that Bernie is not actually a Democrat.

So long story short, I am a liberal and progressive (although I'm increasingly not sure what that word even means anymore) but I'm also a party hack (indeed in my own small way I guess I am sort of a party actor) and my party has decided on Hillary already. So I guess it's time for me to get on board the Hillary Train.

To be sure there is some greater than zero chance that Hillary won't be the nominee. But basically she'd have to get hit by a meteor, become terminally ill, or have some career destroying scandal emerge. I don't think any of these things will happen, but yes if there was some earth shattering scandal I suppose I would reconsider. Or I guess this whole theory could be wrong, but again the evidence for it is very strong and I don't see that happening.

As for Bernie Sanders (and my second reason) I don't really have anything against the guy. I actually kind of like his gruff but compassionate demeanor as well as his passion. The last of the Jewish socialists! Well maybe not the last...

But honestly he's not going to win and yes I think his views are so out of the mainstream of the American electorate that they would hurt him in a general elections, much like McGovern or Goldwater.

And he's not a member of my party and I'm a party hack so...feel free to finish this line with the epithets of your own choice.

I actually like Sander's focus on income inequality and his big meaty policy proposals to try and deal with it. But (and I know I sound like a heretic) I really don't agree with his "good government" reforms around money in politics (yes I know). And to be sure inside the world of liberal Democratic politics Hillary is a bit of a hawk on foreign military adventures and a bit of a dove when it comes to education reform. I'm basically the flip of that.

But even so if she's already won, well then there's really nothing left to talk about.

Now I know a lot of other liberal/progressive types really disagree with this worldview and my stances on some or all of these issues, fair enough. But this is basically where I'm at right now. So yes it makes a lot of sense for me to get on the Hillary Train. Hopefully our engineer won't crash it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The New New New New Republic

Pyonter had a nice run down about the new face of the (new) New Republic and some of changes that have gone down since last December when most of employees quit/were laid off after it was bought out by Facebook zillionare Chris Hughes. The fallout from the whole affair showed the political media at it's worst in my opinion. TNR loyalists like Jonathan Chait were morally outraged that such an important media institution was being destroyed (meanwhile local papers seem to be downsized or fold every week), while long time critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates basically did a "ding dong the witch is dead" dance and cited Buzzfeed as a better model for the future.

Media people are weird...

Either way it showed the political media's tendency to always assume whatever is happening in their industry is the most important thing in the world. Personally I never read the old magazine that much, other than Chait that is, and it kind of makes sense that it would have to change. There just isn't much room for a liberal magazine with politics largely devoted to hawkish foreign policy and critiques of traditional liberal policy prescriptions. Maybe that made sense in the 70's and 80's when arguably liberalism and the Democratic Party really did need to make some changes, but by the age of Obama the country was clearly facing problems far removed from the single mothers on welfare and Soviet aggression of old.

What Hughes has come up with though is so far removed from what the New Republic was as to make a claim to any continuum outside of a brand name and a few old hands pretty silly to a non-media person. Don't get me wrong, I like the new New Republic, it has a number of writers I enjoy reading and following on twitter, but the Hughes apple as fallen pretty far from the "in flight magazine of Air Force One" tree. Just take it's new mission statement, “The New Republic is a mission-driven media organization. We promote novel solutions for today’s most critical issues.” Here I thought I was going to read a magazine about politics, but I guess we are more interested in novel solutions to mass species extinction or something instead. Actually that brings up a substantive point, their coverage of climate change is pretty thin gruel so far, so I guess we don't have solutions for all of "today's most critical issues" yet, but hopefully they'll get around to it at some point.

Hughes has pumped a mind boggling amount of money into his new venture and considering the economic state of the news media these days he's really doing the Lord's work. But coming from tech world has resulted in some pretty jarring changes. Basically his higher ups talk in a hip pseudo-modern tech jargon that no one outside of silicone valley understands (for example the new mission statement is "a crystallizing force"), a lot like the Stewart Pearson character from the great British comedy The Thick Of It. Again this couldn't be further removed from the late night dorm room bull sessions or Marty Peretz meltdowns of TNR's past. This of course doesn't make the new style necessarily bad, it's certainly better than "The Great Comma Debate" it's just hard to see what connects the new TNR to the old one other than a brand name.

When it comes to political writing the break is even bigger. Old TNR would hire smart young white guys from the Ivy League to explain what liberals (and some times racial minorities) were doing wrong (too much welfare, not enough Contra aid) the new TNR hires people like Jamil Smith who used to work on Melissa Harris-Perry's TV show to write about what liberals are doing wrong. For example, Martin O'Malley has great policies but is "too imperfect a messenger" so boo to him! In addition he hosts podcasts on the nebulous feminist concept known as "intersectionality" and writes posts saying Black Lives Matter protestors are right to disrupt Bernie Sander's events (old TNR would probably have hated Bernie Sanders too, so hey common ground!) In addition you have folks like Canadian left-wing journalist Jeet Heer who is great on Twitter, or Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig who writes about public policy issues from a Christian feminist standpoint (yeah that's really not what TNR used to be like).

Anyway the new New Republic is a nice site and totally deserves to exist, but it doesn't seem to make much sense to my why its named after a magazine whose record it seems to reject and entire ethos it seems to not so much throw out the window as jettison into the sun.

Which I guess is a long way of saying that media conventions are pretty strange, and I'm sort of glad I don't work in that industry.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gawker and Why Americans Hate the Media

Back In 1996 Jim Fallows wrote one of the best analysis or the media I've ever read, and it was appropriately titled "Why Americans Hate The Media." Fallows talks largely about the dysfunctional and gross pathologies that plagued the Washington press pack during the Clinton years (and he wrote it before the absolute hysteria surrounding the whole Monica thing) but it's a remarkable, prescient, and well argued case about what's wrong with the profession of journalism as a whole.

The media of course doesn't like talking about this, and since they control the debate it's rarely mentioned.  But it's an empirical fact that the American public take a pretty dismal view of journalists as a profession. Simply put journalists are one of the most distrusted professions in America life, only business executives and lawyers are more hated.

I'd add one more dynamic to Fallow's mix though. I think one of the reasons people became so incredibly angry at Gawker after their destructive and morally repugnant "outing" story was Gawkers' combination of enormous power with an arrogance and total lack of responsibility. As in, "We will gladly destroy some random person's life for no real reason, but I now demand you get as upset as we are about how our editorial process isn't being respected by the CEO!"

Just take this piece by Gawker writer Jim Juzwiak who wrote a lengthy defense of the piece dripping with entitlement, self-righteousness, and a sense that Gawker writers being called out for behaving unethically means they are the real victims here.

He might as well have just said, "everything and anyone is fair game, except us and our God-given right to do whatever we want."

We of course see this anger in other walks of American life. Even now people are furious at Wall Street for literally destroying the national economy and facing no consequences. Or you can see it in people correctly outraged at incidents where police officers act like little more than violent thugs with badges.

Why should the media be treated any different?

If that's how journalists are going to behave, well okay, but don't ask the rest of us to stand up and defend your profession and institutions. Declining ad revenues and another round of layoffs? Haha, you probably should have gone to business school Jimbo. A reporter thrown in jail for not reveling their sources? Who gives a shit, and yeah you guys probably just make it up anyway. No access to the president at press conferences? Cry. Me. A. River.

Maybe we should just put Malcom Tucker (NSFW link) in charge of your newsroom? How would you like that?

These aren't good thoughts to have: I think it's bad for our democracy that so much of the public hates the media, but there are very real reasons for this. I really wish it could be different.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Some Thoughts On The Trans-Pacific Partnership

So it looks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership is going to be a thing, even though it seemed to be on the ropes just last week.To be blunt, these sorts of issues aren’t something that really gets me fired up one way or the other. I basically think that the forces that are driving globalization forward (new technology, global capitalism, the interests of elites in developed societies in creating a more interconnected world etc.) mean that globalization is coming, whether we like it or not. And since the only thing that really stopped it from happening (in the modern era at least) was a World War and a Great Depression, it’s not clear that the alternative is feasible, or desirable. So personally I'd rather spend my time on other issues.

But to be blunt I think a number of groups came out looking pretty bad during this whole debate. Here’s my run down.

Pundits: Remember when Obama’s presidency was doomed because many of the members of his party in Congress disagreed with him over a trade treaty? (This had never happened before of course.) I wonder if any pundits do too? Personally I think Obama should just paraphrase Malcolm Tucker and announce at his next press conference, “Before you get any ideas just remember that I’m Lazarus, and not normal boring Lazarus, no no no, I’m self-resurrecting Lazarus!”

Free Traders: There used to be strong arguments for lowering tariffs in general, but that debate should be over because tariffs are incredibly low globally and especially in the area that is affected by the TPP. The old school Ricardian arguments about comparative advantage just don’t make a whole lot of sense anymore and free trade advocates and their economist friends should stop treating up like children and pretending we are creating another European Coal and Steel Community or something. The TPP is largely about things like patents and copy right protections, and that’s fine, but if people want to advance those policies they should explain why copy right and patent protection is so important, not pretend we are still living in 1956 or something.

Anti-TPP People: I am sympathetic to a lot of the arguments that people who oppose the whole TPP thing have made over the last few months. It’s true that globalization seems to create a small group of supper wealthy winners and large groups of losers. Likewise the labor and environmental records of many of the corporations and countries that stand to benefit from this agreement are pretty awful.

Having said that, the opposition against fast track negotiating authority and demands that every negotiation be put on YouTube or something is totally insane. All serious negations of this magnitude (in business, labor negotiations, or foreign affairs) have to be carried out in some degree of secrecy or they rapidly collapse or just turn into pointless displays fake negotiations where everyone just recites per-written talking points and no one offers anything and nothing is decided on. The only way to do anything like this is to hammer out a deal and then take it back to your respective sides and see if you can sell it. Otherwise the negotiations collapse as outsiders start screaming about “YOU CAN’T GIVE THAT AWAY!” or "THAT'S NOT ENOUGH FOR THAT!" or whatever. Otherwise they become pointless kabuki theater of people pretending to negotiate.

If you want to criticize or defend the deal fine (personally I think it is marginally worse than break even overall, but sort of inevitable anyway) but please do on substantive points. Nobody is served by these pointless and ridiculous arguments to nowhere.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Comics Are Overrated

I've noticed a disturbing new trend online lately: everyone is talk about how awesome comics are. See Vox's whole section on comic books, or Ta-Nehisi Coates big think piece on the medium, or the Twitter feeds of Jamelle Bouie's or Jeet Heer. Anyway you slice it, everyone is talking about how great comic books are these days.

Which I think is outrageous because the whole genre is massively overrated.

Full disclosure, I didn't grow up wasting time reading comic books, those are the sort of things for children to read. And while I might have been a 13 year old nerd, I was never a 13 year old child. Instead I would read big fantasy door stoppers by folks like Robert Jordan or dense history books that I often didn't understand but would solider through anyway. This is what serious people do!

To be sure this method of reading has it's draw backs. I didn't really understand that "literature" could be both important and a great read until my 20's. I suspect that this was largely a product of Southwest High School making me read "important" works that I found incredibly dull and not very insightful. I could make a list of these but but won't, instead I'll just say that I wish B.R. Meyer wrote more book reviews of what they made me read in the 11th grade. Anyway the point is that For Whom The Bell Tolls is an important part of the American cannon AND a one hell of a read. Many other books that are now "important" pass the former test, but not the latter.

I get the idea of making the written word accessible to everyone, and finding ways to get kids interested in reading. This is a good thing. But to me the whole medium is very frustrating. You have pay out a bunch of money to buy them on Amazon (or whatever) to get a product that from a time standpoint doesn't provide a whole lot of entertainment. Battle Cry Of Freedom takes a while to read. I can go through a 6 part Sandman paperback in about 45 minutes.

Look I get that everyone has a right to their own tastes in what they like (actually that whole idea is under assault right now but that's another story) but I still want to make the con argument here. Yes some comics can be cool, but a lot of them are just the same stuff happening over and over again (yes I've read some X-Men comics which is basically what they are). Likewise the greats of the genre, like the Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics (which I've gotten half way through), are pretty good but not life changing good. It's not like reading Gatsby in terms of thinking about yourself. Or reading What It Takes in terms of thinking about a field you're interested in. Let alone the emotional impact of reading Black Hearts. Which among other things entails reading about real heroes who are real human beings dying, and then learning that Jim Frederick the brilliant journalist who wrote this towering work of modern journalism about modern war himself is dead when you Google him so you can email him about how great his book was.

I never heard of a comic book doing these things. Maybe they do for some people, but they certainly don't do them for me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How Journalists See The World Example #34712

Over at the normally really good Vox, Amanda Taub wrote an epic rant about why she thinks Obama is the worst person in the world really doesn't like the president's foreign policy.

I thought it was a good example of what goes wrong with a lot of foreign policy writing these days. That is to say she denies the existence of other groups' agency while massively overestimating our own agency and power to turn Yemen into some type of wonderful place. It's written in a sort of hysterical tone where making fun of people is seen as being the height of serious discussion. Furthermore she follows the foreign policy writing convention of treating current events in the Middle East as happening only in the context of what the current American president as done or not done as of late, while ignoring everything that came before. As Adam Curtis once observed, "What I find so fascinating about the reporting of the War on Terror is the way almost all of it ignores history - as if it is a conflict happening outside time."

And don't get me started on how she uses "foreign policy" as short hand for, "what's happened in the Arab world outside of Tunisia in the last few years."

In response I'd say something like this: yes Yemen is a giant mess, but it's been a chaotic and violent place for decades now, and that has to do with things like a lack of viable state institutions, poverty, ecological catastrophes, and a long running ethnic conflict that's been going on for over 20 years. All of which Taub ignores or glosses over in her piece.

Meaning the president has made mistakes, all presidents do, but it's not clear at all that the situation today is relatively worse than other potential outcomes. Indeed since American's aren't dying in Yemen I'd argue the outcome isn't that bad.

Furthermore it's not clear that any magical "policy" would have made anything better at all. Indeed she basically admits that she has no earthly idea what to do in her second to last paragraph where she lays out her alternative vision which consists of:
Obama seems to assume the only two options are either short-term thinking or hubristic, Bush-style attempts to remake the region in America's interests. But surely there is some middle ground available that takes underlying political problems into account, and accepts short-term costs in exchange for pursuit of long-term gains.
When it comes to these sorts of analysis I really still believe something that one of my professors on national security said when I was in college. It was something along the lines of, "if you have an analysis and no policy prescriptions, you don't really have an analysis." And this makes a lot of sense, after all it's easy to be critical and pessimistic when analyzing a messed up world, but that doesn't mean that you are actually analyzing anything, in many ways you are just complaining. And that's exactly what Taub has done here. She demands some other policy that gets "long-term gains" without having any earthly clue about what those policies or even those gains would be.

In other words Taub's analysis and a case of beer, will get you a case of beer.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. Rather it's this little gem she sticks in there while pointing out that Yemen is a mess (as it has been for a long time):
And that led to the bizarre spectacle, last Wednesday, of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest flailing haplessly in response to questions about how Yemen could be considered a success. He lamely contended, "We have not seen that kind of — of — of progress in terms of strengthening the central government. I think you could make a pretty strong case that we've seen the opposite of that. But we do, you know, we do continue to enjoy the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security relationship with the security infrastructure that remains in Yemen."
This is a classic example of how journalists see the world. That is the big problem here is Washington press optics. I know it's weird to think about, but jouranlists really do obsess over this stuff, and really seem to think that a press secretary not answering a question perfectly is the root of the problem. 

If I can get all  meta I would say this: journalists like Taub are trapped in the prison of their own experiences. Since they spend all day obsessing over press conferences, they then of course cite these press conferences as some sort of example of a failed foreign policy, while then later admitting they no earthly idea about what could be done better. 

Everyone is like that to some degree. Historians tend to be pessimistic because they have to show how the past of relevant today and thus how it repeats itself. Meanwhile politicians tend to be optimistic in their rhetoric because they want to mobilize support.

But this sort of obsession is fairly perverse in journalism, because they are the folks with the biggest bullhorns. Meaning they get to force their obsession with some press person not doing their job "the right way" on the rest of us as some sort of analysis. To paraphrase True Detective, this obsession and detachment from reality is the secret fate of all jouranlists.

Update: Vox just published a funny group piece about arguing about politics with your relatives over the weekend, one of it's authors is Amanda Taub. Here's the chunk about why Obama is terrible:

It's true that Obama has not gotten the US bogged down in any Iraq- or Afghanistan-style wars. And of course Obama has also had a more recent success with the new framework for the Iran nuclear deal. The terms of that agreement look very good, and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon would make the US and its allies safer for years to come. 
So if your criteria for success are "no new wars that require boots on the ground" and "keep Iran from getting a bomb," then Obama is looking pretty good right now. He campaigned on those goals and has stuck with them in office, and that makes a lot of people happy.
But there have been a lot of changes in the Middle East since Obama took office — and he has struggled to respond well to them. 
Conflicts have exploded in Syria, Libya, and now Yemen. But Obama has stuck with the same policy of limited engagement each time, even though it doesn't seem to be working very well. He has partnered with local proxies, including dictators, and sent drones and small numbers of special forces troops to back them up, but those countries are still in chaos, and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are reaping the benefits. It's pretty hard to look at all of that and feel thrilled at how things are going.

I don't know about you but I can't read that any other way than being a massive refutation of Taub's own piece. Basically she now agrees that Obama is doing stuff around the whole "long-term gains" thing (something about Iran maybe?) and that from a hard nosed realist perspective the fact that Americans aren't dying in these terrible wars is the right choice. Sounds like a good foreign policy to me!

As for the last two paragraphs, well, I don't know what to say. Other than yes, war and revolutions are often chaotic and terrible events, and they are really hard for America to control. Every president since Washington has struggled with this reality and thus by Taub's logic they should all be characterized as failures.

Anyway I know this sounds petty and vindictive (area writer is wrong about something on the internet!) but so much of Vox's (and Taub's) other writing on foreign affairs is so good, it's really annoying to encounter this sort of stuff.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Netanyahu's Folly

The New York Times had a nice round-up piece describing the recent massive break down in American-Israeli relations. Simply put American relations with Israel are probably at there lowest point since, well ever, largely due to Netanyahu's stance of having nothing but utter contempt for Barack Obama and trying to make an end run around the president by giving a speech to congress calling for war with Iran and himself being relected disagreeing with the president over ongoing negotiations with Iran about it's nuclear program.

Basically everyone but John Boehner and former GOP congressional staffer turned Likud spokesman Ron  Dermer, who has seemed to have engineered this whole fiasco, thinks this speech is a terrible idea. None other than Jeffrey Goldberg, very much a beltway hawk's hawk, who normally backs the Israeli line to the hilt thinks the whole speech thing is a terrible idea.

Like most things in life Benjamin Netanyahu's disastrous political leadership is best understood through the works of George R.R. Martin. Tyrion's put it this way when he expressed his views about his sister:
She never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love. Tommen's rule is bolstered by all the alliances that my lord father built so carefully, but soon enough she will destroy them, every one.
That's remarkably close to Netanyahu's record. He really does seem to take dissent from say the Israeli military as defiance and really has been destroying Israel's alliances that his predecessors built so carefully over the decades. Or if you want another cultural reference the whole "let's invade Cambodia" scene from Oliver Stone's great movie Nixon strikes me as being close to what the decision process behind last summer's horror show in Gaza was like. Or if you'd like a final comparisons try this: if the worst sin in American public life is the celebration of ignorance, the worst sin in Israeli public life is probably the celebration of brainless chest-thumping machismo.

Anyway, Benjamen Netanyahu: probably the worst prime minister in his country's history.