Category: Economics and Inequality

More Post-Election Musings

In response to my last post, my colleague Max Owre wonders why Democrats cannot convert the majority of voters who agree with liberal policy proposals (medicare for all, increased minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich are some prime examples) into votes for Democratic candidates.  And another colleague, Sabine Gruffat, tells us that her father voted for Trump on the basis of Trump’s being good for the economy and out of the conviction that the Democrats’ “socialism” would lead to economic disaster. (Their responses are on my Facebook page.) 

It doesn’t matter for many voters that any objective measure shows that Democratic presidents since 1930 (Eisenhower is a notable exception) have been better for the economy than Republican presidents.  (Greater over all growth rates under Democrats, and a more equitable share of that growth across the board. Links below.)  Similarly, surveys that show a majority supporting government financed medical care also show that voters don’t believe that Republicans have tried (and desire) to shrink Medicare and abolish the popular pre-existing conditions rule that is part of ObamaCare. 

But much more important than this ignorance is to realize (despite what political junkies would like to believe) that policy has almost nothing to do with how people vote.  The Republicans have won the rhetorical war over the past sixty years; they have managed, against all evidence, to brand the Democrats as socialist, unpatriotic, bad for the economy, and hostile to the economically bereft unless they are non-white.  The increasing “partisanship” of the U.S. political scene is a product of the deliberate strategy of demonization that was initiated by Newt Gringich in his attempt to delegitimize the Clinton presidency.  That effort was then taken up by the right wing media, has continued unabated to this day, and has been a fabulous success.

Recently, the novelist Joseph O’Neill has recommended a similar strategy for the Democrats.  They should, he argues, brand the Republicans as the party of incompetence and malevolence—a party that is unfit to govern.  Whether he is right or wrong on the specifics, the larger point is that it isn’t policies that win votes, but the “big picture” characterizations.

Driving this point home, of course, is the fact that the Republicans had absolutely no policy proposals for this election.  They dispensed altogether with writing a platform—and the voters barely noticed and certainly didn’t seem to care.  Policies are for nerds.

The reason this election has been so disappointing to Democrats is that, contrary to what we hoped and believed, Donald Trump has not hurt the Republican brand.  While his odious behavior turned off enough voters to give Biden the win, the craven enabling of that behavior by rank and file Republicans had no downside.  The Blue Wave (we had one in the 2008 repudiation of George W. Bush) did not occur.  Down ballot Republicans pulled more votes than Trump, with a gain in House seats (unusual for the party that loses the presidency) and holding their own in the Senate.  The country has not come to see the Republicans as a party unfit to govern.

Here’s where I don’t quite know what to think.  The down-ballot Republicans did better than Trump.  Yet I also believe that the strength of the Trump cult largely accounts for the huge turn-out on the Republican side.  After this election, will those Trump voters go back to not voting? The dilemma for the Republican party going forward is how to keep the Trump enthusiasts engaged even as the party either backs away from Trump-like antics or discovers that even would-be Trumps can’t reproduce his hold on the public imagination.  The Republicans are tied to the mast of Trump because of all the new voters he has brought to them, but will find it difficult to hold on to those voters to the extent that they act even semi-responsibly as public officials.  (“Holding on” here does not mean losing them to the Democrats; it means keeping them fired up enough to come out and vote.)

Doubtless, several Republican presidential candidates in 2024 will attempt to occupy the Trump lane.  But I suspect Trump will prove inimitable.  His ingenuous self-absorption, his lack of any filter between id and mouth, his ADHD coupled with third-grade verbal aggression, and his sheer delight in sowing chaos as a means of keeping all eyes turned his way will prove hard to reproduce via calculation.  The easiest part of his repertoire to imitate with be the endless self-pitying sense of grievance, of being put upon by all.  Expect lots of whining from the Republicans to continue.

Still, the 2016 primaries already showed that Ted Cruz cannot attract the adulation Trump received and it is even more absurd to think Mike Pence could.  Without a cult figurehead on the right, there is a fair chance that voter turnout will return to earlier levels—and that such a drop-off (despite all those Democratic fantasies that large turn-out favors them) will benefit the left more than the right.  More accurately: in our polarized time, when the party’s “brands” and the loyalties of most voters are fixed in concrete, the biggest fight is the turn-out fight, and I think Republicans are going (post 2020) to have as tough, if not tougher, time getting their partisans to the polls as the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the claims in the left-wing precincts I frequent that it was the moderate Democrats who lost and the progressives who won (especially in House races) have begun.  The Democrats just need to move to the left to be more successful.  That analysis is willfully blind to the make-up of the House districts.  Of course, progressives win in overwhelmingly “safe” districts.  And moderates lose sometimes in “swing” districts.  Republican gerrymandering leads to more extreme House candidates on both sides of the aisle because there are so many “safe” districts now.  To ignore the nature of the districts to make the leftist argument is specious.

I get it.  It is frustrating as hell that the Republicans have achieved electoral success by moving further and further to the right.  Extreme conservatism does not (apparently) carry any electoral cost.  (Although Trump did lose.)  So why can’t the Democrats make a similar move to the left and reap the benefits?  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, as Kevin Drum is fond of reminding us by reproducing the long-running Gallup survey that shows over 35% of Americans self-identify as “conservative” while only 24% are willing to call themselves “liberal.”

If the Democratic party wants to move left, it has to create a left-leaning electorate first.  That’s the rhetorical task it has flunked since 1966  The reasons for that failure are complex—and intimately tied up with the ongoing narrative of American racism—but a failure it has been.

Of course, it is not just the Democratic party that must do this work.  It will also depend on vibrant, long-lasting, and active social movements.  The gay liberation movement (sorry for the ham-handed label; I grasp its various inaccuracies) has been a notable success over the past thirty years.  If many of my non-politically informed or engaged students are now knee-jerk Democrats, it is mostly because the right’s hostility to non-heterosexuals is baffling to them—and a huge turn-off. 

The spectacular failure of American politics since 1966 has been to develop strong social movements around economic issues.  Martin Luther King tried—and might have succeeded had he lived.  The unions have not gone down without a fight, but they have mostly gone down.  And nothing substantial has arisen in their wake.  The living wage movements have had some successes—and even Florida has just voted (by over 60%!) for the $15 minimum wage.  So it is not an utterly bleak landscape.  But there is much work to be done.  Reverend William Barber’s admirable attempt to revive King’s Poor People’s Campaign has not gotten much traction yet, but it is early days.

For me, that’s where the action is.  Creating that electorate open to the left’s bread-and-butter issues even as it acknowledges the inequities (not just economic) foisted on POC in our country.  And that work is going to have to take place as we leftists also watch how Republicans try to catch the Trump lightning in a bottle in their ongoing effort to direct America’s course in a vastly different direction. 

Links:

On relative economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents.

On voters’ refusal to credit actual policy preferences of the Republican party:

https://www.vox.com/21502189/preexisting-conditions-trump-republicans

Joseph O’Neill’s advice to the Democratic Party:

Survey of Americans who label themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal:

It’s Not the Money

Contrary to what the commentators on ESPN and Sports Illustrated are saying, the dispute between the players and the owners that is preventing baseball from coming to an agreement on how to have a 2020 season, is not about the money.  Everybody says it’s about money.  It’s about power.  America’s oligarchs hate employees having the slightest modicum of leverage.  The owners want to “break” the players, want to make them eat shit–and they will happily forego the season (and “damage the game” as all the commentators keep piously saying) to prove they hold the whip.

Not only are the sums they are haggling over risible in relation to the owners’ wealth (none of the stories even divides the gross sum by thirty to show what each individual owner’s losses would be), but (as a Five Thirty Eight article has shown in detail) the owners are also with 99% certainty lying about the financial hit they would take. [https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mlb-owners-say-they-could-lose-4-billion-even-if-games-are-played-does-that-math-add-up/] That, of course, is why the owners refuse to open their books to the players.

Another Five Thirty Eight article shows that the average player has a career of less than four years (thus failing to meet the five year minimum for a pension and other lifetime benefits) and makes less than two million dollars total. [https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-money-do-mlb-players-really-make/] And that is after losing money during their years of minor league play, where they do not receive a living wage.

This all, of course, is par for the course in the world of “private equity”: no accountability accompanied by every imaginable dodge to evade taxes, strip value, and move money from the bottom up to the top.

Equity is the operative term here. The owners’ complaints about lost revenue are mostly a red herring.  Owning a baseball team is more like owning a house than owning a business.  The big return on investment is not from revenue, but from the growth in the value of the franchise over time.  You cash in big time when you sell the team, not during the years that you own it.  Plus you get the status of belonging to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Only thirty members.

The fury against workers on the part of employers (how wonderful that in baseball they are called “owners”) is part of the ugliness of our time, when the worst impulses of the powerful are openly, even proudly, on display–and the relentlessness of their sadism (a greediness that gains its edge, its frisson, by being augmented by cruelty) dismays, appalls, and baffles.  Such an expenditure of energy on nastiness.  Don’t the uber-rich have better ways to spend their time and money?  What happened to pleasure?

The players’ resolute (thus far) stand really is the proletariat striking back.  And similar to the ways that George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests have changed perceptions of racism and the police, the needle of public opinion has moved somewhat (although not quite enough).  Unlike what happened in previous labor disputes in baseball, this time the players are not getting all the blame from the public.  Opinion is more divided, although nowhere close to all in the players’ favor.  The success of neoliberal ideology is manifest every time the public echoes the hatred of unions–a hatred that goes hand-in-glove with the concerted efforts by business (aided by the courts, Congress, and the regulatory state) over the past eighty years to destroy unions.

Milton Friedman claimed capitalism could not be discriminatory because that interfered with economic efficiency.  Surely, some competitor would arise who didn’t have those sexist, racist, and/or religious biases and would, because more profitable, drive the discriminators from the field.  Laughable in its naiveté and in the ability of theory to blind you to what is right there in front of your eyes.

The overlords hate it when people get “uppity”—whether the offenders are workers or people of color or “the weaker sex.”  Keeping—or putting—people back in their place is priceless, a motive worth every penny lost for it.  The economic history of the American South shows that Friedman, in a certain way, was right.  Discrimination does lead to poorer economic outcomes.  But the profit motive isn’t strong enough to overcome the will to discrimination.  The baseball owners will bite off their nose to spite their face.  They will destroy baseball rather than enter into a partnership with their players, a partnership that would introduce a modicum of equality into the relationship between capital and labor.

Economic Power/Political Power

A quick addition to my last post.

The desire is to somehow hold economic power and political power apart, using each as a counterbalance against the other.  To give the state absolute power over the economy is to insure vast economic inequality.  Such has, generally speaking, been the lesson of history.  Powerful states of the pre-modern era presided over massively unequal societies.

But there is a modern exception.  Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe did produce fairly egalitarian societies; in that case, state power was used against the accumulation of wealth by the few.  There still existed a privileged elite of state officials, but there was also a general distribution of economic goods.  The problem, of course, was a combination of state tyranny with low productivity.  The paranoia that afflicts all tyrannies led to abuses that made life unbearable.

But (actually existing) communism did show that it is possible to use state (political) power to mitigate economic inequality.  Social democracy from 1945 to 1970 was also successful in this direction.  Under social democracy, the economy enjoys a relative autonomy, but is highly regulated by a state that interferes to prevent large inequities.

Where there is some kind of norm that political power (defined as the ability to direct the actions of state institutions) should not either 1) be a route to economic gain or 2) be working hand-in-glove with the economically powerful to secure their positions, the violations of that norm are called “corruption.”  The Marxist, of course, says that the state in all capitalist societies (the “bourgeois state”) is corrupt if that is our definition of corruption.  The state will always have been “captured” by the plutocrats.

What belies that Marxist analysis is that the plutocrats hate the state and do everything in their power (under the slogan of laissez-faire) to render the state a non-player in economic and social matters.  Capitalists do not want an effective state of any sort—either of the left, center, or right.  A strong state of any stripe is not going to let the economy goes its own way, but will (instead) fight to gain control over it.  I think it fair to say that the fight between political and economic power mirrors the fight between civil and religious power in the early days of the nation-state.  The English king versus the clergy and the Pope.

The ordinary citizen, I am arguing, is better off when neither side can win this fight, when the two antagonists have enough standing to prevent one from having it all its way.

Our current mess comes in two forms, the worst of all worlds.  We have a weak state combined with massive corruption.  What powers the state still has are placed at the service of capital while politicians use office to get rich.  We have a regulatory apparatus that is almost completely dormant.  From the SEC to the IRS, from the FDA to the EPA, the agencies are not doing their jobs, but standing idly by while the corporations, financiers, and tax-evading rich do their thing.

The leftist response is to say that the whole set-up in unworkable.  We need a new social organization.  I have just finished reading Fredric Jameson’s An American Utopia (Verso, 2016).  Interestingly enough, Jameson also thinks we need “dual power” in order to move out of our current mess.  The subtitle of his book is “Dual Power and the Universal Army.”  More about Jameson in subsequent posts.

Here I just want to reiterate what I take to be a fundamental liberal tenet: all concentrations of power are to be avoided; monopolies of power in any society are a disaster that mirror the equal but opposite disaster of civil war.  Absolute sovereignty of the Hobbesian sort is not a solution; but the absence of all sovereignty is, as Hobbes saw, a formula for endless violence.  Jameson says the key political problem for any Utopia is “federalism.”  That seems right to me, if we take federalism to mean the distribution of power to various social locations.  Having a market that stands in some autonomy from the state is an example of federalism.  There are, of course, other forms that federalism can take.  All of those forms are ways of working against the concentration of power in one place.

Liberalism (Yet Again)

In his London Review of Books review (February 6th issue) of Alexander Zevin’s history of The Economist magazine, Stefan Collini makes a point I have often made-and which I presented at some length on this blog some eighteen months ago.  To wit, the term “liberalism” is used in such a loose, baggy way that it comes to mean nothing at all—or, more usually, everything that the one who deploys the term despises.  If John Dewey and Margret Thatcher are both liberals, what could the term possibly designate?

My take has always been that there are a number of things—habeas corpus, religious tolerance, social welfare programs, freedom of the press—that in specific contexts can be identified as “liberal” in contrast to more authoritarian positions, but that the existence of these specific things are the product of different historical exigencies and do not cohere into some coherent, overall ideology.  They may be a family resemblance among the positions that get called “liberal,” but there is no necessary connection between habeas corpus and religious tolerance.  You can easily have one without the other, as was true in England for several centuries.

In a letter to the LRB, Zevin objects to Collini’s refusal to credit the more generalized use of the term “liberal.”  I find his objection cogent and thus offer it here:

“Resistant, in general, to overarching categories, he [Collini] seems particularly sensitive when it comes to liberalism. ‘When people ask me if the division between men of the Right and men of the Left still makes sense,’ the essayist Alain once remarked, ‘the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.’  When someone says, mutatis mutandis, ‘all you mean by liberalism’ is ‘not socialism’ and ‘there is no such thing,’ it is safe to assume the speaker is a liberal, defensively protecting himself.”

So, yes, guilty as charged.  I am a liberal—and do have something at stake in claiming that the term ‘liberalism’ is used in too loose a fashion to do much good.  I want a finer grained statement of what specific features of the political landscape are desirable, are worth fighting to preserve where they exist, and to introduce where they do not.  We should know what we are talking about—and what we are advocating for.  Zevin’s point (not surprisingly) is that the liberalism of The Economist encompassed its support of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars; Collini, no doubt, would argue that many liberals opposed those wars, whereas they were the brainchild of many to the right of liberalism, those often called neo-conservatives.  The right, in other words, was more solidly unified in its opinion on those wars than a sorely divided liberal camp. Yes, some liberals supported those wars, but hardly all.  And it is very hard to believe that a centrist like Al Gore would have led the US into that “war of choice” in Iraq.  To which, the anti-liberal leftist says I have two words for you: Tony Blair.

The left, it seems, needs to continually assert its distance from a detested center that it calls ‘liberalism.”  It also needs to constantly trumpet the sins of that liberalism and to mitigate its differences from the right.  For the soi disant radical left, neo-liberal and neo-conservative become equivalent terms, with no appreciable difference between them.  Hilary Clinton is no better and no worse than George W. Bush.  And somehow both are liberals.

My defensiveness comes from wanting to save the term “liberal” to designate a raft of values and positions I wish to advocate.  Maybe I should give that up, call myself a “social democrat,” and move on.  I resist that move because there are values captured by “liberalism” (especially those connected to rights and tolerance) that aren’t covered by “social democrat,” with its focus on economic sufficiency and regulation of market forces and market practices.

But how about the “not socialism” broad brush?  Michael Clune, in an essay entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2019, pp. 910—917), repeats the by-now familiar dismissal of liberalism’s individualism, its reduction of everything to “choice,” to “consumer preference.”  Even a cursory reading of 20th century liberals such as Dewey or Charles Taylor would indicate how sloppy a vision of liberalism such a charge demonstrates.  Not to mention that one standard conservative charge against liberals is precisely that they negate individual responsibility in their emphasis on the social determinants of behavior.  Which is it?  Liberals are full-scale believers in heroic individual autonomy, or they are apologists for the impoverished and the misfit, blaming social conditions for their perceived failures?

Still, Clune does make a concrete claim: “The liberal tradition supports the effort to correct egregious market inequities through policies that leave the market intact” (928).

Now we are talking.  I do think that the commitments I think of as liberal include an acceptance of the market.  That acceptance is, partly, pragmatic (in the vulgar, not philosophical, sense of that term.)  I think the chances of overthrowing the market and installing something different in its place are nonexistent.  In that sense, there is no realistic alternative at the current moment.  So, says the radical, you and Thatcher are the same.  Told you so.

Not so fast.  What I am saying is that the consequential political battles of our time are going to be fought over what kind of market we are going to have.  This is a real battle, with real stakes.  The right over the past seventy years has fought tooth and nail to discredit social democracy, to roll back any state (or other) regulation of the market, and any mechanisms (from unions to minimum wage laws to other forms of state involvement in wage negotiations) that would overcome the imbalances of power existing between employers and workers in an unregulated market.  We know two things: one, that the right has been largely successful in this battle; two, that the vast majority of workers in the West are worse off now than they were in 1960.  Social democracy was a better deal for workers than the present regime (call it neo-liberal if you like, although that term ignores the liberalism of the twentieth century in favor of the “classical liberalism” of the 19th).

Another (contingent) feature of liberalism is its distrust of concentrations of power, its desire to share power around, to create “checks and balances.”  Currently, that entails a recognition that economic power is over-concentrated; that we need state power to counterbalance it because the collective power of workers (through unions or other mechanisms) is hard (if not impossible) to mobilize under present economic conditions.

It is fair to say that the founders were more concerned about concentrated state power than about concentrated economic power.  It is a stretch, I believe, to see Jefferson as a laissez-faire classical economist, but his words and ideas can be wrenched in that direction (by historians like Joyce Appleby) because he wanted to establish sources of power outside of the state’s reach.

I think economic sufficiency does provide a citizen with some independence from the state.  Therefore, I am also willing to argue that acceptance of markets is not just a pragmatic expediency, but also justified in its own right.  Economic bases of power apart from the state are not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is overweening economic power, just as tyrannical state power is a bad thing.  Markets, like states, tend toward the abuse of power.  We need mechanisms, enforceable regulations and structuring rules, to curb market power.  We also need to identify various basics—like health care, education, transportation, clean water and energy—that are not well served by markets and create alternative institutions for their provision.  The best guideline for these alternative institutions is that old liberal standby: equality of access for all.

There are three very strong arguments against the market.  One, the market inevitably produces wildly unequal outcomes.  The liberal response: there are mechanisms, including unions, taxes, and redistributive policies that can combat those unequal outcomes.

Second, markets are inimical with democracy.  The liberal response: workplace democracy is possible, as is political democracy.  Its achievement depends on active mechanisms of participation which must be mandated as part of corporate and state governance.  But there is no absolute bar to the existence of such mechanisms.

Third, economic power always overwhelms political power—if it does not simply convert itself directly into political power.  The reforms that liberalism envisions as answers to numbers one and two never happen because the opponents of such reforms always already have power—which means the power to perpetuate existing inequalities.

That last argument is the killer.  It simply seems true—and then the issue becomes how best to diminish the power of the wealthy, how to turn plutocracy into democracy, and use the democratic state to rein in the inequities of the market (not to mention its environmental degradations).

At this point in the argument, I don’t think the leftist and the liberal have very different goals.  They just differ strongly on tactics.  Is it better to aim to win the way to reform of the market?  Or is it better to work toward the total overthrow of the market?  I don’t see any remotely realistic pathway to that second goal, which is why I remain someone committed to the re-emergence, in even stronger and better form, of social democracy.