Doonesbury…

Roland B. Hedley Jr is Doonesbury‘s intrepid reporter, famous for seeking Reagan’s brain but now working for something resembling Fox News.

The Third Way Surrenders?

Never bring a chess board to a poker game…

It is almost certainly a stretch to take one person’s opinion to represent an entire political tendency, but Vox recently published a remarkable interview with Brad DeLong. Brad DeLong is in many ways an archetypical centrist Democrat. He had been a mid-level political appointee in the Clinton administration (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury) where, according to Wikipedia, he “and Lawrence Summers co-wrote two theoretical papers that were to become critical theoretical underpinnings for the financial deregulation put in place when Summers was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.”

Gee, thank you Professor DeLong: That was a fabulous Great Recession you gave us, not to mention NAFTA, the dotcom crash, and various and sundry currency crises. Sorry. I’m a tad bitter.

In any case, DeLong is now urging centrist Democrats to not simply support the left, but to look to the left for leadership. How did it come to this? This exchange between Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Brad DeLong gets to the nub of the matter:

Zack Beauchamp
What you’re describing is a broad theory of political economy, in which a vision for what economic policies are best is intertwined with a particular view of what makes policies popular and sustainable. You say something about this is wrong — do you think it’s the political part, the economic part, or both?

Brad DeLong
We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.

Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.

And [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and company say we’ve got to build bridges to the Republicans. We’ve got to let Republicans amend cap and trade up the wazoo, we’ve got to let Republicans amend the [Affordable Care Act] up the wazoo before it comes up to a final vote, we’ve got to tread very lightly with finance on Dodd-Frank, we have to do a very premature pivot away from recession recovery to “entitlement reform.”

All of these with the idea that you would then collect a broad political coalition behind what is, indeed, Mitt Romney’s health care policy and John McCain’s climate policy and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy.

And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?

No, they fucking did not. No allegiance to truth on anything other than the belief that John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are the leaders of the Republican Party, and since they’ve decided on scorched earth, we’re to back them to the hilt. So the politics were completely wrong, and we saw this starting back in the Clinton administration.

Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other. Except for our brave friends in exile from the Cato Institute now trying to build something in the ruins at the [centrist] Niskanen Center. There’s simply no political place for neoliberals to lead with good policies that make a concession to right-wing concerns.

Hah: “… tread very lightly with finance” indeed! Do you wonder why nearly no one went to jail as a consequence of the 2008 Crash and Great Recession, especially when there had been such blatant fraud and self-dealing? The answer is complicated and major corporations were fined billions, but much of the blame for the lack of criminal prosecution can be laid on Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder. Holder maintained that prosecutors should take “collateral consequences” into account when “conducting an investigation, determining whether to bring charges, and negotiating plea agreements.” In other words, a perpetrator can look at a prosecutor and say: “Nice economy you have here… pity if something should happen to it.” Oh, yes, those collateral consequences: too big to fail, too big to be criminal.

If you want to explore the issue of accountability for the 2008 débâcle in justice, American Public Media’s Marketplace had a reasonably detailed examination of the whys and wherefores that you can find HERE.

Contrast this with the late U.S. Representative Phillip Burton whose 1977 proposal for expanding the Redwood National Park, for example, was adamantly opposed by the timber industry. He showed them a plan that looked to put them pretty much out of business then he showed them his proposed compromise. Agree to the compromise by tomorrow, he told them in a meeting, or my proposal is what you get. Burton’s biographer (A Rage for Justice, University of California Press, 1995), John Jacobs, quotes Burton as saying, “If you show them the depths of hell, everything else looks pretty good.”

I don’t propose Burton as a role model. For one thing, Burton’s compromises tended to include provisions buying off the opposition, with the cost not very high on the list of considerations. In this regard, he was almost a living specimen of the conservatives’ “tax and spend liberal” stereotype. But at some point during the 1980s and onward, political professionals working the Democratic brand stopped playing poker and began playing chess instead. Unable to transcend the limits of calculated possibility, is it any wonder they kept getting their butts kicked? Is it any wonder an outsider, Bernie Sanders, came so close to defeating Hillary Clinton; that indeed no one else of any consequence had been willing to try?

As DeLong said, you most certainly did see it “back in the Clinton administration.” But my mind boggles that, after having the 2000 Presidential election ripped off by the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), anyone would have any illusion that the conservative stance toward President Obama would be any different.

(Obama, at least, had a better excuse: to be President and to live to tell about it. Large parts of our country, albeit a minority of it, were not ready for him as President at all. To anyone under 40 years old, this may seem hyperbolic, but assassination was all too common in the 1960s and 1970s, much of it done from the right, much of it motivated by racism or bigotry. Also, remember Oklahoma City. It hard to imagine this not being a factor in Obama’s decisions.)

If that had not been enough, there were more clues about what awaited an Obama Administration in the healthcare policy debates prior to Obama’s election. These debates were done on the state level, including here in Illinois. When a task force appointed in Illinois to consider healthcare alternatives reported in favor of what was then Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan, that recommendation gained no favor among conservatives. To be fair, the left was equally unimpressed. See “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Universal Health Care How!

A lot of us on the left had been making this point since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election as President: Reagan was not another Eisenhower or Nixon or Ford, but represented a movement with an ideological agenda that would compromise only to the extent that it could be checked.* In Illinois, for example, we (DSA predecessor DSOC was a member organization) helped organize the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics to educate and agitate the public and public officials about the nature of this new movement. Some among liberals and labor were willing to listen; others had to learn through repeated experience.

Some Republicans saw this more clearly, even back then. In that 1980 election, Illinois Republican Congressman John Anderson ran for President as an Independent and earned 6.6% of the popular vote. As early as 1963, liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits (who spent a few years in the second decade of the 20th Century as a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League) was speculating on a right-wing takeover of the Republican brand, although as late as 1982, it was possible for a DSA member to be elected to a state legislature as a Republican: Tarrel Miller, South Dakota’s 14th District. This could still happen today, depending on the vagaries of state election law and local demographics; it’s all up to who wins the primary. But consider how unlikely that seems.

Well, whatever. Welcome to the Resistance, Professor.

(Watch your backs, folks.)


* I am aware of the irony: This is very much the stereotype that is held by many conservatives about socialists. Irony, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a dandelion in the field of politics. We exclaim over each delicious blossom but, bugger all, they’re everywhere. And their seeds are legion in the wind. I’m not unique in this attitude towards turn of the century conservatism, however. Consider Natalie Wynn’s informed and entertaining and (warning) ribald Decrypting the Alt-Right.

Wait! Look! There’s another irony in bloom: at least some of the current state of affairs could be blamed on a decades long 20th Century project by ideologues on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic brands. Among Democrats, this project dates back to the 1930s. On both the right and the left, this was accompanied by a desire for party government rather like what is found in most other countries but is discouraged by the U.S. Constitution. One could reasonably argue that the present polarization is yet another example of “be careful what you wish for.” On the other hand, the process hasn’t finished playing out.

And I would contend that some of the extremism on the right is a consequence of panic born of the 1960s and 1970s, aggravated and maintained by radical changes in the economy, means of production and demography of the turn of the century. Whoever is in charge gets to make the rules that will profoundly shape the nation for decades to come. But I’m getting into waters over my head here.

If you want to explore the current state of political polarization here in the States, I’d strongly recommend The Geography of Partisan Prejudice by Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y. He, posted this March at The Atlantic. Some of their findings are not at all surprising but some of the others are indeed interesting or unexpected.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Dude Sings

a rant by Bob Roman

No really, as of the January 26 – 27 weekend, the Federal Government was not entirely up and running. With President Trump’s promise to sign the legislation, Congress passed HJ 28 that pertains to spending for all the outstanding appropriations except the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has signed it, extending funding for those parts of the Federal government for several weeks. Money for the Department of Homeland Security is covered by HJ 31. Both the House and the Senate passed this bill, but the Senate had amendments that need to be reconciled with the House. These appear to be mostly proof reading changes, but it still requires legislative action by both chambers.

Beyond that, these bills place the situation approximately where it was right before Trump did his informal veto. The continuing resolutions were the final items on the 115th Congress’ agenda. When Trump humphed, Congress swore and went home. Trump must have felt this would inevitably put the blame on Congress. That it ended up splattering mostly upon him must have been an unpleasant surprise. Will he try it again?

There are some major exceptions to this status quo ante, however. One is the damage done to Trump’s political base of support, both within and outside the government. This has been much commented on, particularly with regard to the Fox News commentariat, blogs, and social media. But while Trump has been seen to jump in response to these folks, it’s also true that the House Freedom Caucus had lit their farts in support of a veto. Now that Trump has “caved”, it will be harder for Trump to assume their support. How badly does he want or need it? Depending on the answer, it may mean we will be facing a second shutdown when the clock expires on these two continuing resolutions.

Or it may mean that the House Democratic caucus gives Trump a piece of his wall. Because that is the other major change: the House of Representatives has changed from being run by the Republican caucus to being run by the Democratic caucus. What will the House Democratic Caucus be willing to give in exchange for keeping this assortment of government departments and agencies open, and how will that affect internal Democratic politics? And what shall we say of the Senate Republican caucus?

And then there is the prospect of a State of Emergency. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? With Trump in charge, you needn’t be an American lefty to start measuring the distance to the Canadian or Mexican borders. But in fact, a State of Emergency would not be anything new. These have been extensively if incompetently legislated. We’re actually living under several of them right now. This does not mean you should be any less concerned than you would be if asked to venture into a field of land mines. Congress today is potentially about as meaningful as the Roman Senate was under Caligula, and Trump is only the immediate hazard. My fellow Americans, Congressional incompetence has all our asses in the wind. If you are at all curious, I’d recommend this recent article by Elizabeth Goitein.

Keep in mind that walls and border police are in fact more effective at keeping people in than fencing people out. Gulag America?

Hail to the CreepAnd about round two? Oh, right. I’m supposed to be answering these questions, pretending to a punditry I do not possess; I’m not quite the walking definition of unhip, but the circles I inhabit are a long way from within the Beltway. Given that half to two-thirds of politics is gossip, I’m at a severe disadvantage. But the metric I’m watching (lacking, as I am, in gossip) is Trump’s approval polling, though not so much his disapproval numbers. Just what one is to make of them is hard to say as I believe it will depend on context. For example, is Trump cornered? What is the impact on Republican radicals?

An obvious strategy for Democrats is finding a way of splitting the Republican coalition. It seems unlikely that this would be fruitful in the space of a few weeks, but however long it would take, the resulting policies would not likely be thrilling for us lefties.

Yet these are just the latest battles in what will be a decades long conflict, the latest manifestation of a disease afflicting the American body politic like a recurring infestation of malaria. Trump is correct in identifying immigration as a major issue right now, though he sees it as means of mobilizing fear, bigotry, alienation and anger to his own ends. Indeed, that’s why he wants a wall rather than pursuing other policies. But I see migration and refugees as possibly a defining characteristic of much of the 21st Century. Granted, the 20th Century saw its share, but that illustrates how extreme I suspect the not-too-distant future will be. Even with Trump gone, this will remain a major issue.

If you judge that this is a thoroughly pessimistic vision, you’re quite right. People leave home for a foreign country mostly because their situation at home has become untenable in one way or another. And that’s pretty much what I see happening over large portions of the world. Historically, humans have attempted to deal with ecological collapse and climate change through military means. This is how I perceive much of what is happening along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coast, but it is happening elsewhere, too, closer to the U.S.A., with all the consequent people looking for new homes.

Would you stay, suffer and die if migrating were even a long-shot option?

Despite being a charter member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I don’t believe in uncontrolled borders for people, never mind goods and money. Regarding people, the most diplomatic way of putting it is that there is something about migrants that does not bring out the best in humans, most especially among the receiving population. The migration doesn’t have to be across international borders. Just think of the California of The Grapes of Wrath or the less than welcoming streets of northern cities during the Great Migration or the urban “hillbilly” slums that provided refuge for the Appalachian dispossessed. Nor are the newbies necessarily any more saintly; mostly they’re simply at a disadvantage.

Having said that, keep in mind that people are going to do what people want to do or feel they need to do. After a while, setting up a system of rewards and sanctions whose consequence make whatever it is (in this case, immigration) impossible, it becomes an exercise in malice and stupidity: exactly what we have with our current laws regarding immigration and asylum.

I don’t have much optimism that the left, including DSA, will come up with a workable solution to this issue. Calling for the abolition of ICE, for example, is a fine way of throwing rocks through the windows of the Establishment, but anyone governing will end up reinventing that institution. (Which could still be a step forward.) At best, along with the labor movement, I might hope for some mitigation of what big business clearly would love: some system of indentured servitude, something the current system of H-2B visas closely resembles.

If I could speculate on what a workable system might look like: allow people to come to the States under normal tourist or student visas. If they intend to look for work or if they are offered work, charge them (and perhaps their employer) a fee for a taxpayer ID number that would be partially refunded if they choose to leave. It could be paid in installments in lieu of Social Security deductions, for example. The cost for migrants would still be far less than what a smuggler would charge, these days at least. Depending on your level of bigotry, one might propose further punitive details involving criminality much like the last so-called “compromise” regarding immigration did, but I leave these as an exercise for your sick imagination.

Incidentally, don’t assume that U.S. citizens are automatically welcome and accepted elsewhere. It hasn’t become an issue, but various countries (Mexico and Costa Rica for examples) have populations of U.S. citizens resident with dubious documentation: retirees, mostly, but one could easily imagine circumstances where we come to work. I recall that some of the proposed “free trade” agreements in the past had provisions for numbers of foreign workers to come here. There really should be reciprocity in these agreements.

Refugees are a special category of migrant. Keep in mind that some of them will be U.S. citizens: think Louisiana, Puerto Rico and California as current examples. There will be more in the future. It’s time we start dealing with this in a more systematic way, and we may as well include provisions for foreigners as well.

One last word, this about conservatives: One ongoing point of conservative agitation is the charge that Democrats and the left (oddly synonymous among right-wingers) favor open borders because the migrants (Mexican and Central Americans in particular) will therefore end up voting for Democrats. In its more delusional manifestations, said migrants end up voting for Democrats long before they even become citizens.

Conservatives have some reason to worry about this, though realistically it’s mostly because of their own behavior. Such an unwelcoming political brand! But in the past, conservatives were steadfastly in favor of admitting migrants from communist countries: Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Cubans. And those groups did tend to vote Republican once they became citizens. Providing them a new home was the right thing to do even if it was also blatantly hypocritical. For example: the Haitian human rights record was far more sordid than Cuba and the Haitian economy every bit as wretched or worse than Cuba. Upon setting foot in America, Cubans could stay but Haitians go home! Since immigration policy has been so plainly political for conservatives, it’s easy to see why they’d be prone to panic and to assume hostile motivation. Asking conservatives to get over it is probably futile, but…

Get over it.

End the Shut-Down

Unions representing employees of the Federal government rallied at the Federal Plaza, Dearborn & Adams in downtown Chicago at Noon on Thursday. This was part of a nation-wide series of demonstrations protesting the budget stalemate that has shut down portions of the government, leaving some workers at home and others still at work but all without pay.

The event was probably better characterized as a press conference on steroids. The crowd was not large, considering the number of workers affected in the Chicago metropolitan area, considering, indeed, the number of Federal employees based in the immediate vicinity of the demonstration: say about 150 attendees, give or take a few dozen. As a press conference, it was highly successful with a large turnout from TV, radio and print. Better still was the opportunity for journalists to interview affected workers as nothing makes a story like putting an individual face on it.

There will be a protest at Noon in Federal Plaza (Dearborn & Adams) every Thursday in Chicago as long as the shut-down continues.

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A sampling of some of the signs at the demonstration, shortly before the event. Photo by Roman.
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Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who also spoke. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs with Justice. Photo by Roman.
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It was good to see Jorge Mujica: well met! Photo by Roman.
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Charles Paidock, representing the Machinists’ Federal employees. Photo by Roman.
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It could happen. Photo by Roman
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I seriously love the hat. Photo by Roman.