Thursday, December 21, 2017

Neoliberalism: Still An Unhelpful Word

Recently Ta-Nehisi Coates decided to delete his Twitter account after his fellow big time public intellectual Cornell West denounced him as a "neoliberal" in a angry rant published by The Guardian. I'll leave blogging about this whole kerfuffle for a latter date, but it did spark up some discussion about one of my own favorite hobbyhorses. That is how the term "neoliberalism" isn't a very helpful political descriptor.

The problem in my mind isn't so much Jonathan Chait's view that "neoliberalism" has been become a catchall insult for people on "the left" who get annoyed at conventional liberals like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, although it certainly is used that way an awful lot these days. Rather it's that the term itself has so many different meanings it's just not a helpful thing to say.

Illustrating the problem recently was a long post by The Roosevelt Institution's Mike Konczal, updated to reflect the whole Coates vs West fight, arguing that "Neoliberalism isn't an empty epithet. It's a real, powerful set of ideas." To begin with I think Konczal kind of reinforces my point about the word being hopelessly vague due to its plethora of meanings when he tells us that it means three pretty different things. He breaks these definitions down as:
  • "In political circles, it’s most commonly used to refer to a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s."
  • "In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s...These policies included reduction of top marginal tax rates, the liberalization of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation.
  • "The third meaning of “neoliberalism,” most often used in academic circles, encompasses market supremacy — or the extension of markets or market-like logic to more and more spheres of life." 
The third point here strikes me as being totally unrelated to the first two and personally I think we already have a good term for talking about this in academic circles. The second point may be right about the so called "Washington Consensus", at least in terms of policy prescriptions written by foreign policy types in Washington for Latin America in the last three decades of the 20th Century, but it's not very relevant now as most governments in Latin America abandoned it a while ago and embarked on a path of what you might call "leftist populism". Some of which has kind of worked, some of which hasn't.

As Jonathan Chait pointed on on twitter though the second point hardly describes the politics of so called "neoliberals" like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. After all both Obama and Clinton presided over tax rates going up on the rich not down. Bill Clinton did support some deregulation of Wall Street yes, but Obama made tightening regulation of the finance industry a major focus on his presidency. People like Konczal might argue he didn't go far enough, but the Dodd-Frank act was a real thing and certainly no "deregulation." I'm not aware of any major "privatization of government services" going on under either administration either. And sorry but "free trade" has been the mainstream Democratic position for a pretty long time indeed.

So what about the first point? To be blunt the evidence Konczal rolls out to back up the idea that there was, "...a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s" is pretty weak. He cities a number of books and articles by various public intellectuals who wrote about Democratic politics in that era, but there's little evidence theses sorts of articles-takes as we'd call them today-drove policy in the Clinton White House or the 101st Congress. Public intellectuals love to exaggerate the role of their fellow public intellectuals in politics, but someone like Sam Nunn was probably more important to politcs in the early Clinton years than anything Charlie Peters ever wrote. 

Likewise Konczal constantly goes back to changes to the 1992 Democratic Party Platform as an example of this "move to the center". But this is pretty weak evidence too. Back when political conventions where actual deliberative events where parties made choices, platforms were an important way for party factions to fight out differences, cut deals, and arrive at consensus. But for a long time now conventions have basically been just four day long infomercials where parties showcase themselves and their nominees to voters. This is why celebrities keep popping up in them, not forge a new policy on international trade or health care reform, but to try and keep things interesting between the boring politicians who want to yammer on about those things.

Moreover if you take a broader look at American politics than one focused on the Clinton White House, obscure articles in policy journals, and convention platforms you see a very different picture. Let's just focus on 1988, a year Knoczal seems to think is key to this "move to the center." In the House you have the Democrats led by Speaker Jim Wright, who was something of a moderate. By year's end he has to resign as is replaced by his more liberal deputy Tom Foley. The Democrats go into the minority after their 1994 shellacking and pick noted longtime friend of organized labor Dick Gephardt as their leader (here's Dick on free trade when he ran president back in 1988, he doesn't sound very "neoliberal" to me) and he's ultimately replaced by Nancy Pelosi, probably the most liberal Speaker in history. That's not a "shift to the center" at all, it's pretty clearly march "to the left" ie a more liberal Democratic Party.

Does Wright represent the crucial shift to "the center" then? Well he was more of a moderate than his predecessor Tip O'Neill, but then again he came to congress in 1955 and his politics were heavily linked to the New Deal. Likewise his tenure as Speaker of the 100th Congress was largely defined by passing big infrastructure bills over Reagan's veto, fending off attempts to cut the non-defense parts of the Federal budget, and working to end some of the Reagan Administration's proxy wars in Central America. That doesn't sound like what Knoczal calls "neoliberalism" at all.

And O'Neill didn't exactly come from a long line of committed liberals either. O'Neill's predecessor was Carl Albert who championed Medicare in Congress, but was something of a moderate who also chaired the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, (which had a platform that did have a plank about full employment in it but also wasn't exactly something liberals look back fondly on). His predecessor as Speaker was John McCormick who was a big fan of the Great Society yes, but was basically forced into retirement by liberals furious at his refusal to confront Johnson over the war in Vietnam and who once killed a bill to provide more Federal aide to schools by demanding it include funding for Catholic schools as well, that doesn't sound that liberal these days. If you want to go back further you get Sam Rayburn who's a good guy in a lot of ways but not exactly high on the list of liberal political heroes today either.

How about the Senate? Well in 1988 you have Mr. Blue Dog Democrat himself in the form of Robert Byrd as majority leader, who replaced by George Mitchell in 1989 in no small part because he was too conservative in the eyes of his more liberal caucus. Mitchell is followed Tom Daschle who is followed by Harry Reid who is in turn followed by Chuck Schumer, all of which are pretty conventional liberals.

And if anything the changes among the Democratic membership in Congress were even bigger than the leadership changes over the years. Reagan was able to get his tax cuts through in no small part because of conservative Democratic representatives from the South who styled themselves as Boll Weevils getting on board, there's pretty much no comparison to them in this day and age. Likewise in the Senate conservative Democrats like Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell quite literally switched parties in the 90's and became Republicans. Sounds like a more liberal Democratic Party to me.

The thing here to remember is that this is about a lot more than Mike Konczal being wrong about the history of the Democratic Party (although I think he pretty much is). Or the the fact that some people on the internet come up with a multitude of definitions for a word and then throw it around as an epithet (although people clearly do that with "neoliberalism"). It's about where the "the left" is going to go during this Age of Trump we are in. A "Unified Theory of the Democratic Party" based on made up never was history and the idea that some liberals (oftentimes it seems like basically all liberals) must be denounced for betrayals that never happened doesn't strike me as a firm foundation to build a functional and effective "left" political movement.

Let's put this another way. Imagine the alternative history where Bill Clinton imploded after the Jennifer Flowers presser in the fall of 1991 (seems to be a scenario folks like Konczal would have liked). Bob Kerrey becomes the Democratic nominee and thus president due to the 1991-92 recession. In this universe does anyone really think the profound forces of global capitalism and technological change that have driven the things Konczal talks about have been abated? Or would Jacobin Magazine on Earth Two be cranking out articles about how Bob Kerrey betrayed liberalism forever after he negotiated a welfare reform package with Newt Gingrich rather than do nothing and risk a bipartisan veto override of a bill he'd had no influence in crafting? If the 1992 Democratic Platform under Kerrey had included a sentence on why full employment is good how different would our political economy really be?

Basically I see two sort of "lefts" when the charges of "neoliberalism" start getting thrown about. One is the "left" of Konczal that might be wrong about things in my view, but at least realizes there's probably a better way to talk about this stuff. As he puts it in his piece, "Whenever I find myself reaching for “neoliberalism,” I look for a different phrase, simply because it will better communicate what I’m trying to convey." This is the "left" that has something valuable to say and might be even be able to offer some constructive criticism for us liberals or the Democratic Party at large.

But there's the other "left" I see when charges of "neoliberalism" start flying. This is the left that tells us there is "no difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that declares a nomination contest "rigged" every time people disagree with them, that seems to have already written off a possible Kamala Harris presidency, that screams bloody murder when a politician behaves in a political manner, that blames everything bad in politics on liberals, that will never ever take yes for an answer and will always find a reason to justify their own self-destructive actions.

In other words the left politics that take the form of a bitter old man who's own left-wing anti-Obama intellectual allies think jumped the shark a while ago bellowing that once Ta-Nehisi Coates has been destroyed, the road to socialism will be open.

I would prefer the former "left", but when I see charges of "neoliberalism" thrown around I feel like I see a lot of the later. Either way it's not a very helpful term.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thoughts On The Franken Fiasco

Well that just happened.

I'll start by saying I'm coming at this whole thing from a different angle than a lot of the progressives who have been writing about it both here in Minnesota and the rest of the country.

I actually was never a really big Franken fan.

Back in the good ole days of 2008 I actually worked on this guy's campaign who ran against him. I did so under the theory that while Franken was a funny comedian and wrote some fun political books his background (he'd said a lot of offensive stuff over the years, he hadn't lived in the state for several decades etc)  as well as the nature of Minnesotan culture (see here for a good explanation of what "Minnesota Nice" is) meant he would be a weak candidate in a general election. I also thought that he didn't have the skill set to be a good Senator. And really needed a job, so off we went!

It didn't work. The Ciresi campaign was a bit of it's own mini-fiasco, while Franken ran a great  campaign headed by some serious political talent, the backing of major national money, and an army of progressive volunteers in support. Wisely the Franken camp had a multi-year long major wooing effort with Democratic-Farmer-Labor (the state Democratic Party in Minnesota) activists and other party actors to lock up their support long before I got involved. And since Minnesota has a caucus/convention process with an endorsement that still means a lot in the spring before the August primary, me and my clipboard just wasn't enough to turn back the Franken tide.

But even if I was stupid to try and stop him back then, on my first point I was obviously correct. Despite spending a eye-popping amount of money Franken only won by the narrowest of margins during one of the biggest Democratic banner years in recent times. In other words he was a weak candidate. On the second point up until a few weeks ago I'd say I was somewhat wrong. Franken is no Hubert Humphrey or Howard Baker but he did get a few good amendments in on some important issues over the years.  See Ian Millhser for the most optimistic read of Franken's legislative record, as well as a more pessimistic read on his ultimate legacy. But then again the last three weeks are...uh...kind of important so I guess I was right on those lines too. Good for me!

If I had to pick an Senatorial analogy for Franken I'd go with Gary Hart, that is a campaign showhorse who drew a lot of media attention over the years but didn't have that big an impact when it comes to legislating and ultimately blew himself up in a truly epic fashion.

But he did cast some crucial votes over the years for things I care about, and I grew to find he had a sort of quirky charm so it's not all bad, I guess. Anyway your mileage may vary.

Personally I'm not that interested in discussing the things he's have alleged to have done. It's not that I don't have opinions, I do, it's just I'd prefer to leave it to others to talk about that. I'd rather talk about the politics, especially since I think there's a major flaw in a lot of discussion surrounding the Democrats' response to this. So let's do that.

I personally think the Democrats did the right thing here morally and in some ways practically, there's really no way he could do the job of representing Minnesota considering the position he had placed himself in. Moreover it's pretty clear that his caucus in the Senate wanted to get rid of him, he didn't want to go quietly, and so he had to be shoved. You might think that was right or wrong, but it's seems to be what happened. In other words the Democrats decided to "Take A Stand", especially considering the cultural moment we are in.

And it's this "Stand Taking" that I want to talk about. Because while I agree Democrats are doing the right thing here, I think a lot of pundits, journalists, and other people are dead wrong arguing that is the "smart move politically."

Nate Silver gave a great example of this line of thought during a recent chat with folks at his 538 digs:
micah [Cohen]: Wait, so imagine a world where Democrats have forced out both Franken and Conyers. Is the party better off in that world?
I’m trying to get at whether the moral high ground is important politically? Whether message coherence matters, basically.
harry [Enten]: I don’t think they’re worse off.
natesilver: I think Democrats made a political mistake, yes.
micah: Nate, you’re not explaining how the mistake hurts them.
natesilver: Because they look like fucking hypocrites, that’s how.
Silver later elaborates his point this way.
natesilver: For one thing, Micah, the Democrats are supposed to be the “woke” party on treatment of women (and good for them). So they look more hypocritical if one of their members abuses or harasses women, in somewhat the same way that an anti-gay-marriage Republican would look more hypocritical than a liberal (ostensibly straight) Democrat if they had a gay affair.
I personally think hypocrisy is a pretty overrated political sin. And to be fair Nate wrote a follow up piece after Franken resigned arguing this will pay off for the Democrats as they no longer look like "fucking hypocrites Micah", and who knows, maybe he's right! But his "too little, too late" tone shows that it will be pretty easy for Republicans to make that argument, or "what about Bill Clinton!" as a effective defense as well.

Or just shrug or shout "You are fake news!" when asked questions about these sorts of things. Seemed to work for Trump around the Access Hollywood tape after all.

Likewise at Vox Dara Lind updated a post she wrote slamming the Democrats for not organizing their plan to make Franken resign and avoid a potential Shirley Sherrod type set up quicker (well she doesn't phrase it like that) to argue that now that now that they have done the right thing, Democrats will be handsomely rewarded. As she puts it:
It’s easy to see this as an act of shortsighted martyrdom: losing power by adhering to your ideals, winning a moral victory while losing the war. But that’s not actually how it works.

The Democratic Party isn’t just attracted to the idea of “the resistance” out of idealism. It’s attracted because that ideal — and the backlash against serial harassers in the post-Weinstein era (to the extent that the two are even different from each other to begin with) — reflects a new energy among certain groups of people (especially middle-aged suburban women of all races) that can be channeled into Democratic politics.
Don't get me wrong, I really hope Silver and Lind are right here. But the bitter reality of my experience is that the political gods don't in fact punish the wicked and reward the righteous. After all just two days after Nate assured us the Democrats where making the right call politically his own website published an article about how it's quite possible the Democrats will lose Franken's seat in the special election that will happen next fall. Sure 2018 is looking to be a good year for Democrats overall, but there will probably be a contested endorsement process (with lots of angry party activists who were the key to Franken winning back in 2008 just looking for someone to take it out on) or maybe even a bitter fight all summer long before the August primary. Add in that in terms of statewide politics Minnesota basically a purple state and Tim Pawlenty the popular former governor could be the GOP pick and, yeah, I'm still waiting for that handsome reward from Nate.

Likewise while I hope Lind's theory that an army of suburban women materializes to come save us here in Minnesota now that we are facing a pretty crazy election next year is right, I have my doubts. I mean, I'll look for them at the environmental event I'm going to tomorrow in the suburbs (yes I am actually going to an event), and maybe they will show up! But then again maybe not. Or maybe they'll start fighting with each other about who the next Senator should be.

But it's not just the fact that Silver, Lind, and others of the "chutes and ladders" school of "Taking A Stand" are wrong about political costs, although I think they are, in my opinion it's unfortunately actually worse than this. In a way they are, whatever their good intentions, peddling a bit of a con. It reminds me a bit of dieters who try some new fad diet for a few weeks, get frustrated when it doesn't work, and just give up. They end up in a worse spot because now they think there's no possible way they'll ever be able to lose weight (I tried the diet! It didn't work!) and might as well just not bother trying. The truth is that they'd have been much better off if they went in with both eyes open, and admitted it would be a long and at times difficult process, but ultimately worth it because they would be glad for any number of reasons down the line.

In other words, Roy Moore might win, the Democrats might lose Franken's seat, Ruth Bader Ginsberg might get replaced by a conservative, and Donald Trump like most modern presidents might win reelection. After all returning Harvey Weinstein's money, as many progressive writers assured us the Democrats simply had to do or they'd never win another election again, was rewarded by the RNC getting back into the Alabama race. While Ralph Northam's decision to take wishy-washy position on issues important to progressives like immigration, which lots of progressive writers assured us would mean he'd lose, resulted in the punishment of wining in a landslide.  Likewise the decision to dump John Conyers, while the right call in my book, was rewarded by the Republican Governor of Michigan deciding that much of Detroit just doesn't get to be represented in the House until next November.

It's not that crazy to imagine a Democratic Party that after a few years of constantly being told they will be richly rewarded for "doing the right thing" and instead getting things like Senators Moore and Pawlenty voting to privatize Medicare, getting so frustrated they decide like the GOP in 2016 that winning is more important than any precious moral principles and acting accordingly. I think something similar happened in the 90s where liberals and Democrats got so fed up with the never ending stream of made up "scandals", the double standards, and lost elections a lot of them decided they just didn't care what happened when a legitimate scandal rolled around. I was just a kid but I sure didn't, and quite frankly I'm pretty "meh" about it to this day. Or feel free to ask James Carville about what's really at stake.

Doing the right thing is often times not the easiest thing in the world of politics, especially when the other side decides to turn that into yet another way to put you at an institutional disadvantage, after all if it was easy I'd be out of a job because nobody would be screwing up the environment in the first place! And despite claims otherwise doing the right thing can have real costs associated with it, (see noted political theorist Jimmy McNulty for more on this). Trying to wish these these hard truths away in the end doesn't really help anyone. I think (hope?) that doing the right thing now will pay off in the long term, maybe not at the ballot box but in functional political party that can get things done when it gets back in power. But this might not be true. Either way we'd be better off if people who thought Democrats should make real sacrifices on issues they care about like choice, health care, the environment, or taxes because establishing new norms around sexual harassment is worth it just came out and said that. At least then we could have an honest debate about trade offs and where lines should be drawn. And to be blunt ignoring these hard truths is making things worse.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Superdelegates Are Super

So in light of a lot of crazy things going on in national and Minnesota politics these days how about a more obscure topic to chew over (sorry) this Thanksgiving weekend? I am of course talking how Tim Kaine destroyed the Republic by foolishly choosing to endorse ending unpledged "superdelgates" in the Democratic presidential nomination process.

Superdelegates were a pretty controversial thing during the 2016 cycle, with all sorts of progressives and Sanders supporters writing and sometimes shouting (yes I was at a Senate District convention where people started shouting) about why they are bad. The arguments are numerous but they largely boil down to the idea that unpledged delegates for the national party convention are "undemocratic" and "corrupt" and that the key to winning future elections is to embrace political "reforms" because that's what voters really want. See Bernie himself for the full argument.

My view is that this is total hogwash. Superdelegates fulfill an important roll and getting rid of them would be bad for the Democratic Party for a number of reasons while yielding few if any tangible benefits.

Let's start with the history. Superdelegates such as they are are a relatively new concept in Democratic politics. They were only introduced in 1984 in an attempt to solve very real problems that had emerged after the presidential nomination system was "reformed" under the McGovern-Fraser Commission's reforms in the run up to the 1972 presidential cycle.

The general view of Democrats by 1984 was these reforms, whatever their good intentions, had led to some major problems emerging when it came time for the party to select presidential nominees. In 1972 the party had been stuck with a unpopular liberal nominee, George McGovern, who presided of a very contentious and bizarre convention and then went on to lose in one of the biggest landslides in American history. To make matters worse the "reformed" system in 1976 produced a nominee whose dysfunctional relationship with his own party was the stuff of legends and led to another inter-party brawl in 1980 that helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan's triumph at the polls and all the legacies that flowed from that.

In other words superdelegates didn't begin as some nefarious plot to "rig" the nominations process against Bernie Sanders, but rather as a sensible reform to make sure that pushes for what the late great political scientist Nelson Polsby liked to call "factional candidates", be that an ideologically liberal factional candidate like McGovern or a candidate like Jimmy Carter's whose backing was largely based on his own personality and personal relationships, could be tempered by party actors who would want candidates more interested in coalition building and be able to appeal to broader swathes of the electorate that committed liberal activists.

But that was a long time ago right? Well yes but the whole point of superdelegates remains very real, even if Jimmy Carter isn't a powerful political force anymore. Jonathan Bernstein summed this up pretty well recently this way:
Supers have several practical functions. Their votes for the winner of the primaries and caucuses extends the delegate lead, adding both legitimacy and certainty to the nominee. That's something they've done in close contests, such as the 2008 cycle. But they're also a fail-safe if something goes wrong. The proportional system of delegate allocation makes it possible that the winning candidate will fall just short of a delegate majority if one or more spoiler candidates hang on and accumulate delegates even after they no longer have a chance to win. Supers, if that happens, would presumably put the plurality winner over the top, avoiding an ugly and counterproductive deadlocked convention.
In other words Supers don't just act as a way to bind the nominee and the party together, but as also a way to pick a winner in a more functional way overall, and especially to avoid a convention meltdown. Don't get me wrong, journalists and political junkies would love something like that, but political parties have strong incentives to write rules that will prevent another one of these from happening.

Moreover supers exist as an important backstop, even if the Democrats have never had to use it. Again Bernstein:
More controversially, it is possible to imagine the supers as the last line of defense against a Trump-like candidate -- one who is a true party outsider, had won with a factional campaign that alienated everyone else in the party, and who party actors believe would make a weak candidate and a terrible president. Supers will not be eager to act in such a case, in large part because the supers are almost all either directly or indirectly chosen by party voters. That's why they wouldn't normally overturn the results of the primaries and caucuses. But in an extreme case, a Trump-like case, they might.
This isn't an abstract danger. There's good evidence Mark Zuckerberg is looking at running for president for example and it's easy to imagine him using the Trump play book to stage a "hostile takeover" of the Democratic Party in the 2020 cycle. The media coverage of him could easily follow the "Missing Airplane" genre of Trump coverage in 2015-16 where the story becomes Trump, not the actual race. As political scientist Matthew Dickinson pointed out in the summer of 2016, there's good evidence that just getting lots of coverage, of any kind, is a winning strategy when it comes to presidential primaries.

I can imagine it now. It's the fall of 2019 and things are heating up. Kamala Harris is giving a series of speeches about her campaign's new white paper on how to close the achievement gap in primary education. Meanwhile Kirsten Gillibrand is working on key union endorsements and barnstorming New Hampshire about increasing middle class wages. While Cory Booker is cramming food into his mouth at a never ending series of coil boils in Iowa....and reporters just don't care because Mark Zuckerberg is going to do an insane media event with lots of giant screens where he will say crazy nonsense ("Why have a Congress? Let's just all vote for laws by liking or angry facing things on Facebook...disruption!")

Journalists and some of the public would probably love such a race, just as Trump, while hated by most reporters, is a pretty great news story and seems to be driving a lot of people to subscribe to newspapers again. But for parties? Well for the GOP Trump is already something between a disaster and an epic disaster, just as I think Zuckerberg or Oprah would be for the Democrats. I can assure you, Democratic party actors would much rather have a nominee with a grasp of the issues and proven political skills, things that come out in a contested presidential nominations contest, than someone who is great at hogging the media spotlight.

Whenever I raise these points on Twitter or in comments threads I still hang out on (yes I still do that) I often get a number of arguments pushing back. Let's go through them bullet point style.
  • "Superdelegates are undemocratic." This is a pretty common argument but I think it's thinking about these things the wrong way. To begin with lots of supers are themselves elected officials and thus obviously are "democratically elected" in a way. But more importantly this is just a weird bar to raise. Most people can't be bothered to cast a ballot in presidential primaries, so whatever system you use it's not going to represent "the people" but rather those most motivated people who turn out. Moreover in a system of sequential primaries the first ones are much more important than later ones. So the system is going to be "undemocratic" any way you slice it. To paraphrase political scientist Hans Noel giving power to party actors with strong incentives to winnow the field and settle on a nominee that can win and will act in accordance with the party's wishes strikes me as being a lot better than relying on eccentric gazillionaires or news directors at CNN to do the winnowing.
  • "Okay but that just shows we need a national primary." This is a common response to points about how the "undemocratic" arguments don't hold up when you're talk about low participation in a sequential process. We could do this, but a low turn out national primary to determine the nominees would probably make all the problems out outlined above worse. My view is if we are going to do this we might as well just have it in April of the election year as a reality TV show (we could get Blake Shelton the "The Sexist Man Alive" to host) and just all vote via text message after everyone does a sing...uh...speech/debate competition. Trump was inflected on us in no small part because the GOP treated their nominations process in the 2016 cycle as a sort episode of The Voice and I think that's bad. But your millage may vary.
  • "But superdelegates can rig the process against the will of the people!" I find this argument curious. After all members of "the expanded party network" that is elected officials, campaign and governing professionals, party aligned interested groups, activists, and hangers on like me are already working hard behind the scenes to try and advantage their chosen candidates. Bernie Sanders is clearly trying to pitch himself to the same "insiders" who "rigged" the process last time after all. In other words party actors and candidates will work hard to line up support for very real reasons, ending superdelegates won't change this, but will end the positive outcomes they are responsible for.
  • "If superdelegates did overturn the choice of most voters there would be a [insert bad thing here]!" Don't get me wrong, this would be an extreme step and it hasn't happened before, but it's not clear that the party would die or whatever at all. After all the Democratic Party didn't end after the 1968 or 1924 fiascos. No more than the GOP would have "ended" if they had superdelegates and they stopped Trump at the convention. In fact in someways Democratic style rules, that is proportional representation for delegates and supers, might very well have stoped Trump either during the primaries or at the convention! Marco Rubio or whoever might very well have rallied the party in the aftermath of such a convention and won anyway (Hubert Humphrey came very close to winning after the 1968 debacle after all). I'm no fan of "Lil' Marco" but I think he'd make a better president that Trump. Certainly he wouldn't be Tweeting about starting World War III every other week. The big point is the GOP would probably be fine in the long run in this scenario and would be focusing on 2018 and 2020. In the universe we live in the GOP sticking to the "choice of the people" has raised some very real short and long term problems for them. Problems that will probably only get worse.
  • "You're just a smug party hack opposed to democracy aren't you?" I'll cop to the first two points, but I think this is a narrow and limited version of what "democracy" is to begin with. In other words I follow the Achen/Bartles theory of "democracy" when it comes to these sorts of questions, and find the "folk theory" of democracy to be wrong in a lot of ways. For more see noted political theorist "Super Hans" from the great British comedy Peep Show.  
Bernstein closes his argument with this:
Eliminating them entirely, however, would eliminate something that's worked pretty well for over 30 years. It would eliminate some of the fail-safes built into the system and leave the overall process more vulnerable to catastrophic errors. In the short term, it would be destabilizing -- parties thrive on stable rules and processes.
I think that's exactly right. Supers have done a good job of staving off disaster for 30 years and getting rid of them poses short term destabilization and a more long term threat that a "long tails" disaster type scenario could play out. I get that some people are still mad at Hilary and think Bernie Sanders was morally entitled to the nomination, but lots of people think that about their candidates. You may think the key to winning elections is for the Democratic Party to embrace your policy preferences and favorite style of politics, but there's no reason to think you're anymore correct than Martin O'Malley dead enders.

Process reform because process reform because process reform may sound like a good strategy but it has real costs in terms of long term political outcomes (see Carter, James Earl) and saps energy that could be used for something else more productive.

In other words Superdelegates are, well, super.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Post On Single Payer

I'll confess I am something of a politics junkie (in case you hadn't puzzled that one out already!) but keeping up with this week's insane Trumpapalooza has been a bit much for me. I honestly started to tune it out and had to read Matt Ygleisas's "Voxsplainer" on the Niger-Ambush-Gold Star-Phone Call-Kelly-Tape Affair (or whatever we are going to call it) matter Friday afternoon.

So let's talk about something other than Trump or the likely upcoming LA vs NYC World Series that will probably suck.

Recently Ed Kilgore wrote a nice piece about the politics of converting our healthcare system to some sort of single payer model. Here's how he sums up the political reality of what single payer advocates are asking for:
Yes, Medicare for All would almost certainly improve insurance for all but a small minority of Americans, and, yes, the tax increases might be more than offset by the abolition of premium payments and big out-of-pocket expenses. But these are arguments, not instantly appreciated facts, and any serious push for single payer will face the largest and most expensive campaign of conservative and insurance industry pushback in the history of public policy. A political calamity not just for health-care policy but for Democrats is a distinct possibility.
If anything I think that's a bit of an understatement. Remember 150 million Americans get their health care coverage through their own or a family member's employment. Market surveys of these people generally show their approval of their plans in the mid to high 60's, which is lower than Medicare enrollees'  satisfaction. But those numbers tend to be in the low to mid 70s so while Medicare-for-All (or whatever) might be more popular than "Obamacare", I really doubt "you lose your nice healthcare plan and existing medical networks for an vaguely government program" would poll that high.

To put it another way, the Obama Administration caught holy hell for presiding over the cancellation of a few million shitty health care plans that didn't cover much of anything for years. Canceling 150 million employer provided plans that most people like would be YUGE political problem. Even if you promise on scouts honor the new government program is going to be wonderful.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to a single payer in the least. I think having such a program could have a lot of advantages over our strange jerry-rigged health care system we have now. But I think it's a lot more helpful to think about political efforts in tangible and practical ways, rather than vague platitudes about making something a "right".

Long time health care researcher and writer Harold Pollock put it this way in an excellent article entitled "Single Payer Is Not A Principle":
Single payer is not, in itself, a principle. It is one way to organize health-care financing. A regulated patchwork of private insurers undergirded by public subsidies and the individual mandate is another. In other words, these arrangements are means to an end, not ends themselves. After all, most American progressives would be thrilled to see the Dutch or German health-care systems enacted here, though neither of these is actually single payer in the sense that Medicare is.
Now normally when someone like me whines about the vagueness of slogans like "single payer" or "health care is a right", or reads the laundry list of massive political hurdles that would have to be overcome to enact a Medicare for All system (the fact the Roberts Court would probably rule such a law unconstitutional is my favorite) there is a typical response that goes like this: Most ideas about positive social change begins as a crazy harebrained idea! Be that the idea of a "March of Washington" or letting gay people get married! And yes whinny white liberals like you Longwalk often come up with reasons for why "now not the right time!"

These are fair points, but as I see it this back and forth just sort of shows that there are two possible scenarios for the outcome of what will happen when it comes to the politics of single payer health care. The "optimistic" or "Longwalk is a idiot" school of thought would say that the recent rather impressive move among Democratic elected officials towards embracing Bernie Sanders recent Medicare for All bill is, well, a great first step! Like gay marriage or women being allowed to vote it once seemed crazy, but is now becoming more normal, and liberals like me should embrace this new path or get out of the way.

But as much as I'd actually like this to be true (yes I want to be seen as an idiot on this occasion) I am also growing concerned that single payer is becoming a sort "identity politics" for lots of liberals and more "left" people, even as it remains as devoid of substance as it's ever been. In other words I worry about a "pessimistic" or "Longwalk is a cynical genius" possibility where people keep going on about about "single payer" as an abstract ideal that they demand politicians adhere to, and become cynical and jaded when the "sausage making" of crafting actual legislation fails to live up to these ideals.

In this is "pessimistic" account single payer dreams are becoming something a bit like Trump's famous wall. That is a sort of absurd promise that supporters none the less believe in and become quite jaded when they learn it was a "metaphor" or something.

And we're seeing this all over Republican politics these days. Its' not just that there won't be a wall and Hillary also won't be going to jail. It's also that coal jobs aren't coming back. Culture will keep becoming more liberal. And Trump's "winning" seems have been reduced to shouting at various professional athletes on Twitter.

Political scientist David Hopkins's summed up the price of this style of politics for the Republican Party pretty well back in the summer. As he put it:
...a party that rewards skill at stoking such sentiments rather than policy fluency or governing competence is asking for trouble—and now the trouble is here. Democrats, of course, find nothing to celebrate in Trump's record so far. But Republicans who prioritize the implementation of sound conservative policy are also being primed for disappointment. The GOP is in such a state that it cannot, by its own admission, be counted upon to avoid a government shutdown or a possible default on the national debt this year—much less to develop and enact successful initiatives on health care, taxes, financial regulation, and other topics.

After just four months, a remarkable despondency has set in within Republican ranks about the prospect of a legislatively productive 115th Congress. Despite holding unified control of government, the party is simply unequipped for serious policy-making—a deficiency for which Trump is both cause and symptom.
Does anyone think things have gotten better for the Republican Party since early June when Hopkins wrote that?

One of the stranger and seemingly easiest tasks a political party that's out of power has in our system of democracy is to, well not get all crazy. The Republican Party clearly failed on that part when it came to the Obama years, and thus when the cyclical nature of elections returned them to power the result was the insane Reality TV show that is the Trump White House and a do-nothing Congress that could very well shutdown the government over Christmas.

In other words I hope that I'm an idiot, but I'm growing increasingly concerned that far to many liberal and "left" people are emulating some of the same political pathologies that have made the GOP incapable of functioning nationally.

The last thing we need is outraged liberals screaming about how Sanders betrayed them after he realized on January 22nd 2021 that ending all union negotiated health care plans overnight would be less than ideal. This may seem crazy, but then again lots of people seemed to really have believed, or said they believed, that there would be a giant wall come 2018 that Mexico would pay for.

One dysfunctional political party has already brought the Republic to it's knees, we don't need another.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Clay Davis Was Right

Recently political scientist Scott Lemiuex had a nice rejoinder to a piece written by Libby Nelson at The Splinter about the fact that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee received political contributions from already former Hollywood kingpin and allegedly monstrously evil person Harvey Weinstein.

I will leave it to others to discuss the life and acts of Harvey Weinstein, but I was struck by Lemiuex's title that "Unilateral Disarmament Is Not A Great Plan" when it comes to how Democrats ought to approach raising money.

Lemiuex quoted the meat of Nelson's argument as follows:
But finding the thousands of dollars Weinstein donated over the many years he has spent as a major Democratic donor, and dutifully Doing Something with it, does not solve The Harvey Problem. The problem does not go away along with his money. Instead, the Weinstein story—and the collateral damage it has caused Democrats—should provoke a moment of reflection: As long as they keep taking money from the super-rich—as long as sustaining the party depends on huge sums of money from people like Harvey Weinstein—things like this will happen. It’s not that every super-rich guy is a predator, though wow, a ton of them are; it’s that when you run your campaigns largely on the donations of rich people, you tie yourselves to them, whether you like it or not, whether you mean to or not.
I'll give credit to Nelson, she points out the ridiculousness nature of some Republicans trying to turn this into some sort of Hillary Clinton "scandal." In addition, she points out some of the very real problems that having a politics dependent on raising large amounts of campaign cash cause in a more sophisticated way than complaining for the umpteenth time we need to "get big money out of politics" because it's "corrupt." And she has the honestly to admit she has no idea (okay she implies she has no idea) about how a "better" way of winning elections could be created. As she puts it at the end of the piece, "If Democrats want to avoid the stink of abusers and untouchable criminals following them to Washington, they’ve got to find a way to get there without their rancid cash."

So there were some fair points, but I have to agree with Lemiuex's response to the implied argument that what the Democratic Party needs to do to win elections is "unilaterally disarm" when it comes to raising money from rich people As he puts it:
I’ve mentioned before how a lot of online lefty discourse — and this tendency, ironically, is particularly strong among people who define themselves as non- or anti- liberal — takes a liberal individualist approach to what are primarily structural problems. The idea that the Democratic Party is just making an unfettered choice to be reliant on rich donors to be competitive is problematic, to say the least. Because of Buckley v. Valeo and its progeny, there will be tons of money in American politics whatever the Democratic Party does. Bernie (and to a lesser extent Obama) may have shown that you can run a presidential campaign relying mostly or exclusively on small donors — but it just doesn’t scale down. There just aren’t enough small donors to competitively fund every marginal congressional and state or local race. And it’s not just venal Democrats who are vulnerable to this money — Russ Feingold can be drowned by PAC money just like Evan Bayh. 
While I think Lemiuex is dead on about this weird tendency in some lefty discourse, if anything I think that he doesn't go far enough. The "collateral damage" Nelson refers to is probably zero when it comes to any upcoming election. And how do I know that? Well because the fact that Donald Trump boasted about doing similar things to what Weinstein is accused of doing on a tape that was then broadcasted on national television over and over again didn't stop him from becoming president!

And Lemiuex is certainly correct that the number of people who can run Bernie style campaigns based on a gazillion small donors is incredibly small, especially considering we live in a polity with literally thousands of elected positions of some importance.

Oh sure there's a moral question about who it's okay to take money from when it comes to legal campaign contributions and who should be refused. A panel of ethicists and philosophers could conduct a very interesting seminar on what constitutes a "deal breaker" when it comes to political donations.

But on a practical level Senator Clay Davis' vulgar maxim about who it's okay to take money from is how campaigns tend to operate.

In a earlier, more simple political time (ie 2012) Lemiuex once wrote a nice post on Garry Wills' review of Robert Caro's classic second book on LBJ Means of Ascent. Lemiuex is a fan of Caro and the book series as a whole, but, well really didn't like that one. There are several reasons for this, but a big one seems to be that Caro spends lots of time talking about Johnson's vulgarity and...uh...questionable campaign tactics, while ignoring what the Good Ol'e Boy LBJ was running against named Coke Stevenson was all about.

In other words LBJ's vulgarity becomes less important when you think of him as a New Dealer who'd be instrumental in helping to bring about the downfall of legal segregation. While Stevenson's "honesty" and anecdotes about his ole timey battered coffee pot and cowboys saluting him as he rode past seem different when one thinks of him as the staunch segregationist and man ideologically opposed to any sort of federal spending on the welfare state that he was as Governor of Texas.

Wills' sums up the problem with this approach to political biography beautifully:
Caro has touched on a serious matter, the problem of maintaining human values in the scramble for power. Seneca faced this challenge in its most acute form, as the court adviser to a corrupt emperor. Addressing it in his dialogue on the tranquil mind, he admitted that honorable men cannot serve in some foul regimes. But even then, he argues, the virtuous man should “disengage with a dragging foot, retiring the standards with a military discipline retained.” It is too easy to conclude, prematurely, that the only “way to save oneself is to bury oneself.” 
In other words while it's true morality has a place in politics, it's not enough for that to be the be all and end all. In fact:
Seneca would judge that a politician who refuses to answer questions has barely been engaged in the first place. Those who decide they are too good for politics may be right, but they are often the least qualified judges, either of their own virtue or the system’s viciousness.
For better or worse money is very important in our political system. You could work to try and change than, but that just means you'll have to find a way to win elections in the "corrupt system" if only to create a new and better system. A system in which say relationships and information would be the driving force, because obviously there's no way for an elite few to monopolize those scarce resources.

Oh wait, that's kind of how Hollywood works?

Nelson may be correct that our current campaign finance system is gross and taints the Democrats in ways that can't be redeemed. But she's probably not that qualified to judge. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who made her choice on the compromises associated with choosing to live a political public life long ago.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Joe Biden Explained

There's a Hurricane headed towards the Gulf Coast, the President is making not-so-veiled threats towards North Korea, and it looks like the next season of American Horror Story could be based on real life and set in Hollywood.

Also the Twins made the playoffs! And were then promptly bulldozed by the Yankees.

So let's talked about something that's not about Trump or baseball.

Recently political scientist Scott Lemieux said on Twitter: "I kind of want Biden to run in '20, just to end the ridiculous fantasy that he wasn't the nominee because Hillary CLEARED THE FIELD" And  my immediate response was along the lines of "But I like Biden, he's a good guy in a lot of ways, and I don't want to see him humiliated...But yeah Lemieux is right about 'Biden Would Have Won' takes."

Let me just say up front that I love Joe Biden in many ways. I love his his ridiculous "Joe Diamond Six-Pack" caricature in popular media. I love his "ladies and gentlemen" line when he wants to emphasize his point. I love the ridiculous anecdotes about him that are apparently all true from Richard Ben Cramer's masterwork "What It Takes" about the men (yeah they were all men) who ran for president in the 1988 cycle.

For example, there was a night called "The Night of The Bronco." This was the night when Biden drove some of his most important staff around all night, in his Bronco in the mid-80s to look at possible houses to buy (Biden is a guy with strong opinions about houses being over or undervalue in the Delaware market in the 80's), and yeah...oh tell them he was going to run for president.

Buy this book. It's just so good.

I also love Biden's successes, most Millennials don't know this but he was instrumental in keep Robert Bork off of the Supreme Court (full argument on why Bork was bad here!) 

And I stand in awe of the most terrible moments of darkness in Joe Biden's life. Such as the horrible car crash that killed his first wife Neilia (nee Hunter) and his one year old daughter Naomi Christina and severely injured his sons Hunter and Beau. Neilia went out to do Christmas shopping with the family when a semi T-boned their station wagon.

According to Cramer, and as far I can tell Biden has never disagreed with this, after the accident (note the use of periods are Cramer's own) this was where he was:
The hospital was in a tough neighborhood, bad streets, and dark. If the boys could sleep, Joe and Jimmy [his brother] would walk those streets, half the night. They'd tell the nurse they were going out for pizza . . . but they wouldn't eat.

They didn't even talk. The sound was their shoes on grit, on broken glass,  . . . Joe was hoping someone would jump out from an alley, come at him. He would've killed the guy. He was looking for a fight. There was no place for his rage.

Sometimes he though it would be easier . . . if he were the only one left . . . then he could kill himself. It was the boys, kept him alive.
Note this happened a month or so after he shocked much of the political world in 1972 by winning a Senate election as a obscure, but charismatic, county commissioner with a hansom young family in tow against an incumbent named J. Caleb Boggs who'd been in Delaware politics since time immemorial.

So yeah I like Biden the guy, and thought he was a pretty good Vice President.

But he's almost certainly not going to be the 2020 Democratic nominee. Nor would he have "won" in 2016 either. Lemieux, who describes himself as a Biden fan, wrote it this way when it came to Biden's previous very real runs for the nomination:
In 1988, Biden was forced to drop out of the race amid a plagiarism scandal. This race was ultimately won by noted superstar political talent Michael Dukakis, who really did run the inept and underachieving campaign Clinton is accused of running. In 2008, when Clinton barely lost to arguably the foremost political talent the Democratic Party has produced in a half-century, Biden ran a bungling, ineffectual campaign that ended in Iowa with zero delegates.
Lemieux is...well...not being that unfair.

And that's not to mention the reality, summed up well by Jamelle Bouie, that lots of black people and younger liberal type people might have found real reasons to object to a President Biden in 2016 due to his work in the Senate. But because Biden really didn't run (at least formally) in the 2016 cycle, because his son was well dying of brain cancer among other reasons, the argument remains theoretical.

The point here is that the "Unsinkable Biden" dream I've heard from people about how he was sure to win in 2016 (or somehow will crush Trump in 2020) only makes sense in the abstract dreamland of a political reality where Biden never actually do the things that "running for president" actually entails.

Lemieux makes the point in his piece that "Joe Biden The Invincible Candidate Of Destiny" arguments are a way of eliding around a major issue about "Hillary Clinton Most Terrible Candidate In History" arguments we are all so used to:
If I may state the obvious, there is zero chance that a woman with that track record would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. If the answer is that she would if she were vice president, the odds that a woman with Biden’s track record would be nominated as vice president are also roughly 0%.

It’s also not a coincidence that Clinton is treated with far more vituperation on the left than Biden is. Biden is very similar to Clinton — if anything historically a few clicks to the right. But can you imagine, say, Doug Henwood publishing His Turn: Biden Targets the Presidency if Clinton had announced she wasn’t running? And can you imagine a book title implying that it’s somehow unusual and unseemly for a male politician to seek power.
To paraphrase another political scientist I deeply respect but won't name, "'If only Hillary had been a likeable white dude with a lunch bucket in one hand and a Miller Lite in the other she would have a stupid fucking argument!"

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election for a number of reason. The Electoral College is one. The political media's decision to cover emails servers more than all other policy issues combined is another. The phenomenon of what I like to call "White Rural Rage" in my Great Lakes States neck of the woods was too.

But Biden wasn't the panacea to this. And he was never a magician who could pull the presidential rabbit out of the hat, as his past campaigns for that job illustrate. As a candidate for the presidency in 2016 he would have probably run into many of the same problems Hillary did, and some more as well.

People who want to be serious about what happened in 2016, or what Democrats should think about when it comes to 2020, should acknowledge this reality.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tom Price's Real Sin

If it's Friday in the Trump Era then it's apparently time for someone to get voted off the island. And just like clockwork this week it was Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who got the hook. The headline reason for his departure was that he had racked up more than $400,000 in expenses taking private jets all over the place including having lunch with his son.

Liberals reacted to the news with a good measure of glee and I'm no exception. And the fact that Price's downfall was a metaphor for how so many of our contemporary elites can seems so detached from the lives of normal Americans and think they can behave anyway they damn well please made it even juicier.

But I think "PlaneGate", or whatever we are going to call it, analysis is a little bit shallow when it comes to Price's downfall, and shows the tendency of liberals to sometimes miss the big picture when it comes to politics.

Certainly racking up those bills was the catalyst for why Price was forced out. But it's pretty clear to me that this story is really about the failure of the GOP to be able to "repeal and replace" the ACA despite promising to do so for seven years and now finally controlling the federal government. This is going on for a number of reason, some of which are all about the nature of the GOP these days and have nothing to do with Price the man. But Donald Trump doesn't want to hear these sorts of excuses and nothing about his life before the White House, or tenure in it, points to him being willing to accept his own responsibility for failures either.

Hence Price gets the blame.

But while I think liberals are right to make fun of Price when it comes to his downfall, or the fact that the Trump White House really does seem to be like a reality TV show at times, I think that loses sight of a more important issue.

Price's real sin wasn't footing Uncle Sam with a bunch of bills for chartered jets to have a good time. Don't get me wrong, this is clearly a fairly gross and entitlted way to behave, and I suppose could be considered an abuse of his office to some degree. But this is honestly just small potatoes stuff.

Price's real sin is being a point man for the Trump Administration's long going campaign to wreck the ACA's system of state based insurance marketplaces for individuals without coverage to buy legally required insurance plans. It's been going on for a long time, and includes everything from Price using HHS money to buy ads telling people the ACA is terrible, to deciding to shut down the federally run marketplaces' websites for 12 hours a week, every week, for "maintenance."

On a local level here in Minnesota the Trump Administration has been engaging in a mixture of pointless foot dragging and hostage taking about if the state will be granted a waiver to help stabilize our state's marketplace with an ambitious "reinsurance" program approved by the legislature earlier this year. Governor Mark Dayton referred to the whole process of dealing with the Trump Administration about this in general and HHS in particular as "nightmarish."

And since Trump has said he's going to issue an executive order about health care sometime in the future these sorts of problems might honestly get worse. As Jonathan Bernstein put it recently:
...deliberate actions by the administration to dissuade people from getting the health insurance available by law, or to make it more difficult, are monstrous, and essentially without precedent. Barack Obama, upon inheriting a war he didn't support, did not choose to deliberately lose it. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush inherited plenty of liberal programs they didn't support, but they didn't try to undermine them at the expense of the American people.
Here's my big point. Price's jet setting is the sort of thing reporters love to cover. After all it's an easy to understand scandal that fits into all sorts of generic "politics" news stories. ("Area politician wastes your hard earned tax dollars blah blah blah" etc.) But the real harm here isn't that Price wasted some money, the military wastes money on poorly thought out boondoggles all the time after all. The real harm is making people pay more for health insurance and destabilize insurance markets out of a mixtures of spite and desire for short term political gain.

In other words the heavy focus on "corruption" is probably the wrong tactic for Democrats between now and election day 2018. Don't get me wrong, "PlaneGate" is a fun way to think of the downfall of a pompous and in my opinion bad man, and the grifting nature of Trump and his Royal Court is no small thing. But it's not clear to me that this is going to move any swing voters over the next 13 months. In fact Trump could easily blow this story off the front page by just getting into another Twitter fight with some professional athlete quite literally tomorrow.

I personally I am not a fan of the politics of "good government reform" (or googoo as we critics like to say) for these sorts of reasons. Trump's egregious violations of any possible ethical standard (Running a scam university! Refusing to pay small businesses in Atlantic City! The Access Hollywood tape thing!) were all great reasons for political elites to turn on him, but in this age of partisanship it didn't really move the needle when it came to the electorate. Accordingly Democrats are right to highlight things like Price's gluttony when it comes to travel budgets, but voters ultimately care about outcomes, not process. And as Hillary Clinton learned changes of "Corruption!" can be lobbed at pretty much anyone, even the heads of a charity that quite possibly saved millions of lives.

So have fun on Twitter mocking Price, I know I have, but focus on policy and outcomes if you want to win elections in the long run.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Hillary Wrote A Book

So in case you missed it, Hillary Clinton, yes the one and only, wrote a book about "What Happened" in 2016 and it's coming out next week. Personally I don't plan on reading it. Hillary likes to write doorstoppers as memoirs and this one apparently tips the scales at 463 pages.

But we are already getting reviews, takes on reviews, and arguments on Twitter about it. So I might as well jump in and give my two cents.

Again, I'm not going to read it, and really don't want to get into the weird parlor game of trying to psychoanalyze Hillary Rodham Clinton. But I will say that the preview/review CNN wrote a few days ago gives the picture of a lengthy book that basically gets it right.

To begin with it looks like we can now point out that people who keep claiming that Hillary won't "apologize" or "take ownership" of her loss are just being ahistorical. According to CNN the book has this paragraph:
I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want -- but I was the candidate...It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.
Honestly she's taken responsibility before, but hopefully we can finally end that dumb whinny talking point about "ownership" once and for all.

Likewise, apparently she spends a lot of time criticizing the choices of one time FBI director James Comey. We of course will never know what could have happened if Comey hadn't decided to throw his weight around about Anthony Weiner's laptop a few days before Halloween, or if the media hadn't decided that EMAILS! was a more important issue than all policy issues combined, what might have happened. But the evidence that Comey and media norms, not Dumb Robby Mook Being Dumb, was what tipped the scales is pretty strong.

Early today Matt Yglesias, who I am a big fan of, Tweeted out that "Even some very close Clinton allies I’ve spoken to have questioned the wisdom of picking at the primary sore like this right now." He's talking about the parts (of a 463 page book!) where Hillary Clinton has the temerity to criticize Bernie Sanders for among other things not being a Democrat.

I agree with Matt that re-fighting that old war is pretty stupid now that we are in the Age of Trump (if you really must know why I never "felt the Bern" Elie Mystal summed by my views pretty well, except I wouldn't be so harsh on Hillary). But Matt's criticism strikes me as being profoundly unfair when you get right down to it. In fact as far as I can as I can see it there's no possible way for her to behave that would make her critics give it a rest, so she might as well get her side of things on the record for everyone, including future historians, to be able to view.

Indeed trying to find the "correct" time for Hillary to release her book seems like a bit of a fool's errand to me. Here's basically how media reactions would go to any sort of hypothetical Hillary book about 2016 based on when it was released:
  • Fall of 2017: I can't believe she is opening these old wounds!
  • Spring of 2018: It's simply disgusting and outrageous that she puts her self and her damn book sales above the midterm elections!
  • Winter of 2018-19: LOL, she's running, how pathetic. Sorry sweetie you had your chance and blew it.
  • Spring of 2019: Typical Hillary, typical Clinton. She thinks she's more important than beating Trump!
  • Fall of 2019: Can this old crone please shut up? We are talking about Booker vs Kamala!
  • Spring of 2021: [In The New York Times columnist voice] "Even as her one time protegee Kirsten Gillibrand is being sworn in, Hillary's desperate need to hog the spotlight showed yet again as word surfaced she's finally publishing a book about what went wrong in 2016..."
It's kind of funny how nobody cares how John Kerry acted after he lost the "easily winnable election" in 2004 and instead of going to live as a monk on an island in the Black Sea and contemplate his sins did this. Just like it's also funny nobody cares that John Edwards went back to practicing law. And funny that Richard M. Nixon, one of the most destructive American politicians of the 20th Century, wrote books too.

A lot of smarter people than myself have written about what Hillary Clinton's rise and fall says about how American society responds to the idea of women in power, and indeed gender itself in our society. I won't try to add to that work. But I would add that the contempt towards a woman involved in American politics since the Watergate Hearings having the temerity to publish a book probably has something to do with the how so much of culture treats political losers.

Probably the greatest book ever written about American Presidential Politics is Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" about the road to the 1988 presidential election. After spending over a thousand pages getting to meet one time presidential hopefuls named Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, and some guy named Joe Biden we arrive at Election Day. Cramer puts witnessing the day and it's events in this way:
Blood-roar. . . the nation seemed to demand it, or at least to expect it, in the closing days. How else to explain those gatherings of thousands where the candidate screamed and people screamed back, no one said anything, and the papers wrote it up as the campaign "picking up steam". . .blood-roar homage to our political lineage, to vengeful northern conquerors and their forest-gods (Normans, surely-French cuisine for state dinners, with five forks gleaming beside each plate, but give us the heads of our enemies on pikes)...A hundred time, his [Bush's] White Men, or his family, old school friends, or someone else who mistook breeding for behavior, tried to steer Bush off the Pledge of Allegiance, or Willie Horton, Crime 'n' Commies, Furloughs, Flags and Read My Lips! It was ugly, brainless, Bush had worn it out. . . but Bush kept at it. He understood what the forest-gods demanded, what the people wanted in a chief, his enemies felled and bleeding, drawn limb from limb and thrown to earth for the people to dance, in blood-roar. America defiles its losers. [emphasis added]
Trump of course is no Loser. Trump is the ultimate Winner. Trump is the man who gets to skate through life armed with daddy's money, the celebrity worship of the New York press, TV shows, book deals, casino swindles, four draft deferments from the Army, and a retinue of courtiers paid to never tell him no. All the while leaving a trail of wreckage in his Winner wake that he'll never be called to account for.

Our new president would never be the sort of loser who'd dedicate her life to public service and a belief that the world can be made better one step at a time. Let alone take responsibility for something.

No no no. That's Loser talk. Only Winners can fix the evils and ills of the world, through great deals, biggly.

That seems to be in part why the contempt seems to never end. Hillary was a woman who came so incredibly close to true power, it was almost in the palm of her hand! But, alas, she perhaps overreached, and fell. And now it seems as part of our media culture for us to be told why we need to to embrace the blood-roar and show why we defile our losers so much.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hurricanes and Pardons Oh My

As I write this a category four hurricane is smashing into the gulf coast of Texas and barring some divine miracle a lot of people are probably going to die.

I don't have a whole lot to say about that other than Jonathan Bernstein (who lives in San Antonio) wrote a very nice post this morning on what political science tells us about "natural disasters" and some of the ideas that under-grid the whole idea of democracy itself. Very good stuff.

But that's not while I'm writing this post, I'd rather make a few quick points* about the President's decision pardon to Joe Arpaio the former Sheriff of Maricopa County Arizona, which he decided to roll out tonight of all nights because...I'll get into that. Let's do this bullet point style:
  • Is this some brilliant strategy Trump or Jr. or Kelly has cooked up to bury the coverage? Maybe, I guess, in which case it probably won't work at all. But it could just as easily be Trump being a coward, or his strange whims. Maybe Jr. was like "Hey dad, let's just do it and be legends." With this president policy is a mixture of random and rent seeking, so who knows why a choice gets made.
  • Arpaio is a bad person in my book and there's a lot of good pieces out there about why this is. If you need a good rundown of his greatest hits Mother Jones had a nice retrospective after Arizona voters finally gave him the boot back in November. 
  • There's a lot of talk on Twitter about this pardon being "unconstitutional" because Arpaio was facing possible jail time of his own after he was found in criminal contempt of court for continuing to enforce his racist policies after the federal courts told him to stop and then lying about. The very deep concern over this issues is well founded, but from a hard nosed reading of the Constitution I think this is wrong. Trump is well within his constitutional rights to do what he did.
  • But by the same token Congress is well within it's rights to do things like censure or even impeach the president, for among other things, abusing his office by pardoning his buddies.
  • So the question isn't so much about the Constitution or "the rule of law" as much as it really is about the institutions and norms of American democracy. As political scientist Greg Kroger put it on the Mischiefs of Faction Podcast, and he's talking about why Trump is like but not like Andrew Jackson, ""Andrew Jackson had udder disregard for the institutions and norms of American democracy...yeah." (Greg starts about 29 minutes in, also note Greg's point about how "Andrew Jackson ruined the economy with his stupid populist ideas." Seems relevant with the debt ceiling coming up in September.) 
  • In other words Trump's pardon represents not some some major breach of laws, but rather yet another example of him smashing down the norms of our democracy. Presidents can pardon, yes but historically they do in extreme circumstances, after the pros and cons were weighted, and institutions like the Department of Justice were allowed to have input into one of the most expansive forms of presidential power in domestic affairs out there. Yes presidents have bent these rules in the past, but Trump's decision seems to be based on the principle that Arpaio is a swell guy or something and thus the President seems to have basically decided to pardon "Sheriff Joe" in the dead of night in the midst of a massive natural disaster because...reasons? So yeah this is different that the Marc Rich fiasco of 2001.
  • How does it end? I dunno, the big question is when the Congress will finally decide that enough is enough and it's time to stand up to Trump. Maybe we'll have to wait for the 116th Congress to do this, or maybe Republicans in the 115th will try to take a stand. We shall see.
*Oh, and obviously this whole pardon thing is yet another example of why the whole argument that there was "no difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump we got to hear a lot last year was ridiculous. And no I'm not making this point over and over again just because I am still bitter about some of the more ridiculous things said by well paid columnists and people on "the left" 12 months ago. No you're the one who's bitter, and no I'm not still mad about this. You're the one who's really mad.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Theory Of Google Memo Guy

In case you missed it there was a bit of a controversy over a Google programmer (or "googler" to use the company's terminology) named James Damore who wrote a 10 page memo about his thoughts on gender and Google's various diversity and human resources policies and fired it off to a bunch of folks in his company.

Suffice it to say many people inside Google weren't exactly pleased with this and so it became pretty controversial inside the company. It was then promptly leaked to the tech industry press, I think Wired had it first, which in turn resulted in it turning into a Big Internet Deal with all sorts of people talking/fighting about it on social media and ultimately writing lots and lots of pieces on basically every aspect of Google Memo Guy and his memo.

Feel free to Google (or Yahoo/Bing) it if you'd like to read the original memo, but here's a decent summation of what Google Memo Guy has wrought as of August 10th.

These pieces, or takes as well like to jokingly call them on Twitter, ran the gauntlet from "eh Google Memo Guy made some good points" to "I Have Very Serious Concerns" to  "As a philosopher here's what I think about corporate HR policies in tech" to "thank goodness someone in the tech industry stood up to this creep" and every other position you could think of.

Even David Brooks wrote a column about it, seriously when Brooks is writing about you, you know you've hit the big time.

Did Google do the right thing? I suppose so, but regardless of it Google Memo Guy should have gotten the hook, Google obviously was well within their rights to do so. After all this is a at will employee who decided to write some manifesto about why a bunch of policies corporate leadership and HR obviously spent a lot of time crafting are terrible and then blast it off to a bunch of people. This memo violated a number of company policies and thus probably exposed Google to lawsuits about hiring and discrimination from other employees. And while I'm no employment law professor this memo possibly created a "hostile work environment" as they say thus causing even more problems for Google.

Oh and it made the company look terrible in the industry and then mainstream presses.

So yeah, that'll get you fired.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. Instead I'd like to posit my own theory about what might be going on here, and the troublesome questions it raises for people like me.

Kevin Drum, who worked for years in tech in California before he became a full time blogger back in the early aughts (those were the days!), pointed this out back on August 8th that there was something a bit weird about how the memo is written. That is to say there were ways to make the same arguments making the same general points and not get fired if you thought about it, as he obviously did while writing a 10 page memo. As Drum puts it:
Maybe I’m over-reading things, but it seemed like Damore very calculatedly went further over the line than he needed to. For example, he didn’t need to argue that women are biologically unsuited for engineering jobs, something that he must have known would be both stupid and galactically incendiary. If he had simply said that women pursue software engineering careers in small numbers thanks to cultural and societal norms, it would have been less contentious and it wouldn’t have hurt his point. In fact, he really didn’t need to argue anything at all about the capabilities of women. He could have written a one-paragraph memo pointing out that, for whatever reason, female IT grads make up only x percent of the total, so it’s just not feasible for Google to employ very many women. He could bemoan this state of affairs, but point out that it has to be addressed starting in primary school, and by the time Google is involved there’s nothing they can do about the pool of applicants. So can we please knock off the sackcloth and ashes routine?
I thought the same thing, especially if you read the memo's beginning (not going to quote the lines because I've just seen it as a PDF) where he talks about "our shaming culture" and "fear of being fired." In other words, "Here's a memo I wrote about how afraid we all are about being shamed and fired for saying the things I will now say which I will be shocked if I get fired for." Or as Drum puts it:
There was something about the amateurishness of his analysis that seemed strained, as if he was playing a role. And that role was simple: not to write about why he thought Google’s diversity programs were misguided, but to write something as offensive as possible in a way that allowed him plausible deniability. In other words, he was trying to get fired so he could portray himself as a lonely martyr to Silicon Valley’s intolerance for conservative views. Maybe he could even go to court, funded by some nice right-wing think tank.
Now of course the big problem with this analysis is that me and Drum could easily be being too cleaver by half. Google Memo Guy might be a huge sexist, or an idiot, or any number of any other things. I have a vision of the social scientists who I pal around with online reading this post right now and responding with something like, "Longwalk! The human brain is hardwired to find patterns where no patterns necessarily exist! You and Drum are ascribing some brilliant plan to some weirdo who probably has none!"

That's a fair point.

But the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to Sarah Palin. She was after all a woman who decided to trade in her hard, boring, (comparatively) low paying job as Governor of Alaska for a lucrative media career. Maybe something similar is going on with Google Memo Guy. That is being a "googler" is probably a hard job that involves banging away on a computer all day. It's probably well paid compared to other computer programming jobs, but compared to a Fox News host?

In other words I think there's a good chance Google Memo Guy was tired of his hard and boring job, and like so many other conservative media figures (Milo! The "Gorilla Mind" guy! A whole lot of people who are on Fox!) decided it was time to cash in on the very lucrative markets that exist by producing "products" for conservatives to latch on to.

Why be a nobody when you can be someone who, while hated by lots of people, is on TV! Why be yet another white male computer programmer in a world filled with those when you can be The Next Big Thing for the "alt-right?" 

Maybe this was the plan all along, or maybe not, but either way our boy Google Memo Guy seems to be doing alright for himself. He's recently joined Twitter and as I write this is at over 52,000 followers. He's also booking himself on media outlets. An appearance on Hannity could be close at hand. A book deal could be not that far off. Whatever his motives or plans he originally had he seems to have found a more lucrative and easier career than writing the code that pulls up those bizarre Youtube videos I don't want to see in my suggested box.

While it's fun to point these things out, what's not very fun for us liberals (well in addition to regular reminders about how awful women are often treated in the American workplace, that's...uh...a not very fun thing too) is the hard questions it asks about how to respond. If someone only gains money and power by us liberal types pointing out on Twitter how wrong/terrible they are what's the right response? Should we point it out knowing it might help them out of principle? Follow Lisa Simpson's theory of the advertising industry and "if you just don't look the monsters will go away"? How should each individual respond? Is it possible even to formulate some organized strategy over the vast liberal/left/progressive online-verse? Or is that as silly as Google Memo Guy's theories about genetics? Is my referring to him by the silly nickname I made up part of the problem? Or a way to limit the times we say his name to keep him from rising in Google's own algorithmic search patterns?

I have no idea what the right answers are to these questions. But I think we should be asking them.