No, the Mythical ‘Center’ Isn’t Sexy
Repeatedly, when asked to make policy changes favored by sizable majorities of Democratic voters (and often by majorities of all voters), party leaders said: We can’t do that: we need to win!

Remember when a majority of Democrats were against the Iraq war, but 29 Democratic Senators still ended up voting to give Bush the power to invade? Remember when, five years later, a war-weary 82 percent of Democrats wanted out of Iraq, but Nancy Pelosi said it was necessary to keep authorizing funds for the war to “support the troops” and “not leave them in harm’s way”?

Votes like this were always explained in terms of expediency, i.e., what was necessary to conquer the middle and win elections. On war issues especially, it was like Bill Clinton said: Scared people would “rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.” If Dems wanted to get back in power, they had to shelve conscience, at least temporarily, and embrace pragmatism.

But Iraq turned out to be a disaster, morally and politically. The party would have been better off listening to its voters. Party support of the invasion was based on fictitious pragmatic concerns, as were many positions it would take in defiance of constituents.

What actual people are against importing cheap Canadian generic pharmaceuticals? Where’s the group of people intent on protecting our thousand-headed hydra of insurers, so that doctors and hospitals can waste time and money on paperwork? What individual human being is out there who just can’t stand the thought of allowing Medicare to negotiate lower bulk prices?

For that matter, where’s that sexy vote-rich crowd of people who are hell-bent on making sure banks have easier stress tests, and don’t have to increase their capital reserves? Where’s the mob that really wants to preserve the payroll-tax cutoff for high-income earners? That wants desperately to remove Malaysia from a list of human traffickers so it can join a free-trade pact?

There are no such people. These are not human positions. These are the positions of health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, job-exporting manufacturers, defense contractors and other high-dollar donors.

Nobody sits around the dinner table demanding that we keep derivative exchanges opaque, or retain the carried-interest tax break. You’re not winning independents with those positions. You’re just stroking a few lobbyists and their clients.

This is what we’re really talking about, when we talk about the “center” in America. The interests behind these positions are only the “center” in the sense that they’re a numerically tiny group of fat cats sitting between two increasingly enormous populations of pissed-off human voters.
2 days ago
What really went wrong in the 2008 financial crisis?
Perhaps most startlingly, conservative politicians in the US, the UK and Germany successfully reframed the crisis as the result of out-of-control fiscal policy rather than the product of an out-of-control financial sector. Thus, George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy. German politicians shifted the blame for the Greek mess from their banks on to Greek politicians. Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the costs of welfare states they disliked.

Yet another of these big results is that power and politics are back. US power dealt with the crisis. German power shaped the eurozone’s response. Rightwing politics reimagined a financial crisis as a fiscal one. A similar politics also shifted the emphasis from the dangers of economic insecurity and inequality to the threat from immigration. The crisis has, alas, awoken the sleeping ogres of fear and hatred.
2 days ago
Ten Years After The Crash
I mentioned earlier that assets and liabilities always balance – that’s the way they are designed, as accounting equalities. But when we come to global wealth, this isn’t true. Studies of the global balance sheet consistently show more liabilities than assets. The only way that would make sense is if the world were in debt to some external agency, such as Venusians or the Emperor Palpatine. Since it isn’t, a simple question arises: where’s all the fucking money? Piketty’s student Gabriel Zucman wrote a powerful book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations (2015), which supplies the answer: it’s hidden by rich people in tax havens. According to calculations that Zucman himself says are conservative, the missing money amounts to $8.7 trillion, a significant fraction of all planetary wealth. It is as if, when it comes to the question of paying their taxes, the rich have seceded from the rest of humanity.
10 days ago
Trump is creating his American caliphate
To those of us who grew up in the Arab world, where Islam is often invoked by “secular” regimes in order to stem political opposition, and who are accustomed to this charade of piety, there is something chilling yet comforting in observing the authoritarian evolution of the Trump administration. There is a reason why some of those regimes will not do away with blasphemy laws, so handy are they in purging political opponents. It is chilling to see religion used this way in a supposedly sophisticated, liberal democracy, and in particular this element of it, which reduces politics to mere compliance. But it is comforting, in a macabre way, to have it proved that nowhere in the world have humans evolved beyond instrumentalising religion to justify tyranny. The most bewildering thing about US dictator creep isn’t that it’s happening: it’s that it is happening with such predictability.
4 weeks ago
Stumbling and Mumbling: Syria: the knowledge problem
The debate we should have – not just in the Syria context but more generally – is: how much can we know? But because many politicians and columnists have built careers upon being overconfident, this is a question they don’t want asked. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".
april 2018
Stumbling and Mumbling: Enlightenment & the capitalist crisis
 We must remember that capitalism was a force for progress in the 20th century in large part because it embraced anti-capitalist elements – a welfare state, mixed economy and progressive taxation – and began to stagnate as these elements were whittled away by neoliberalism.
march 2018
Genes & the left
My point here is a simple one. Maybe it is the case that some people, by virtue of their genes, have more chance than others of being at the bottom of the social heap**. How unpleasant life is at the bottom of that heap is, however, a political choice.
january 2018
The Psychology of Inequality
If this emotional response is experienced by toddlers, it suggests that it may be hardwired—a product of evolution rather than of culture. Scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, outside Atlanta, work with brown capuchin monkeys, which are native to South America. The scientists trained the monkeys to exchange a token for a slice of cucumber. Then they paired the monkeys up, and offered one a better reward—a grape. The monkeys that continued to get cucumbers, which earlier they’d munched on cheerfully, were incensed. Some stopped handing over their tokens. Others refused to take the cucumbers or, in a few cases, threw the slices back at the researchers. Like humans, capuchin monkeys, the researchers wrote, “seem to measure reward in relative terms.”
january 2018
Jackson Lears · What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking
This approach animates Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis, a 33-page document whose authors include Norman Solomon, founder of the web-based insurgent lobby RootsAction.org. ‘The Democratic Party’s claims of fighting for “working families” have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power, enabling Trump to masquerade as a champion of the people,’ Autopsy announces. But what sets this apart from most progressive critiques is the cogent connection it makes between domestic class politics and foreign policy. For those in the Rust Belt, military service has often seemed the only escape from the shambles created by neoliberal policies; yet the price of escape has been high. As Autopsy notes, ‘the wisdom of continual war’ – what Clinton calls ‘global leadership’ –

was far clearer to the party’s standard bearer [in 2016] than it was to people in the US communities bearing the brunt of combat deaths, injuries and psychological traumas. After a decade and a half of non-stop warfare, research data from voting patterns suggest that the Clinton campaign’s hawkish stance was a political detriment in working-class communities hard-hit by American casualties from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota and Douglas Kriner of Boston University analysed election results in three key states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – and found that ‘even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump.’ Clinton’s record of uncritical commitment to military intervention allowed Trump to have it both ways, playing to jingoist resentment while posing as an opponent of protracted and pointless war.
january 2018
Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker
Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)
november 2017
They’re back, as wrong as ever. Enough of Nigel Lawson and his band of 80s ultras | Will Hutton
In any league table of national figures who have been consistently wrong on almost every major judgment Nigel Lawson must rank close to number one. As Britain and his party reel from the impact of intolerable intergenerational and geographical inequality, stagnating productivity, a vast personal debt burden, and now the poison of Brexit, Lawson is the man most closely associated with the ideas and policies that have brought us to our current pass.

With a wholly unjustified reputation for being an economic superman that buoys up his no less unjustified self-confidence, Lawson remains an insidious, if wizened, scorpion, as indiscriminately dangerous to his own side as to his ideological opponents.
november 2017
Stephen Bush: If you sneer at Wetherspoons, you've never feared splitting the bill
There’s a bigger point here than appreciating the joy of a sit-down meal you can afford in the company of people you like. Slating Wetherspoons in the pages of The Sunday Times shows how easy it is to forget what not having very much money is actually like, and how little sympathy we have for people who fall on hard times.

That’s why punitive policies which punish the poor – like the cap on child benefit after the second child, or sanctions for missing appointments at the Job Centre even if it is due to sickness or bad transport – are so popular: because increasingly large parts of society can’t comprehend what it’s like to be frightened of splitting the bill.
november 2017
The poppy has lost its original meaning – time to ditch it
With each year, the run up to Remembrance Sunday seems to become less about paying tribute to the fallen and more a litmus test for a particular sort of nauseating pub bore nationalism, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the great sacrifice of war.
november 2017
Krugman: The Schlock Of The New
True, nobody saw the crisis coming. But that wasn’t because orthodoxy had no room for such a thing – on the contrary, panics and bank runs are an old topic, discussed in every principles book. The reason nobody saw this coming was an empirical failure – few realized that the rise of shadow banking had done an end run around Depression-era bank safeguards.

The point was that only the dimmest of free-market ideologues reacted with utter bewilderment. The rest of us slapped our foreheads and said, “Diamond-Dybvig! How stupid of me! Diamond-Dybvig!”

So new economic thinking since the crisis has proved, for the most part, to consist of bad ideas that serve a conservative political agenda. Not exactly the script we were promised, is it?

And while there are such people on both left and right, there’s a huge asymmetry in wealth and influence between the two sides. Confused views on the left get some followers, provoke a back-and-forth on a few blogs, and generate some nasty tweets. Confused views on the right get mainlined straight into policy pronouncements by the European Commission and the leadership of the Republican Party.
november 2017
Stumbling and Mumbling: Yes, the BBC is biased
This corroborates Tom Mills’ point, that “the BBC will aim to fairly and accurately reflect the balance of opinion amongst elites.” Or as Cardiff University researchers put it (pdf):

"The paradigm of impartiality-as-balance means that only a narrow range of views and voices are heard on the most contentious and important issues."

This, though, is not just unbalanced, but also a way of excluding and alienating outsiders – not just women (that rape “gag”) but also the working class, minorities and, we might add, the economically literate.
october 2017
Stumbling and Mumbling: The impact bias against Labour
This week’s prize for an epic lack of self-awareness goes to Philip Hammond, who told us that a Labour government would lead to “a collapse in business investment and a crash in the value of the pound, causing a shockwave of inflation”

How will we tell the difference from a Tory government?

The Tories have given us not one, not two but three of the worst economic policy errors of modern times: austerity; the vote to leave the EU (which was due in part to austerity); and then the pursuit of a hard Brexit. They have set the bar for economic competence lower than a snake’s belly. Even if you think Labour’s policies leave much to be desired*, they clear this low hurdle.

How, then, can anyone believe otherwise?

One answer, of course, is motivated reasoning: it’s easy to believe what you want to believe.

Another is ambiguity aversion. To people accustomed to 30 years of neoliberalism, Labour looks like an uncertain prospect even if it is offering what is really only mildish social democracy – and people hate uncertainty.

A third answer is that Tory policies favour the 1% whereas Labour’s don’t, and these have massively disproportionate political influence. They also – unlike the poor – have an over-inflated sense of entitlement and take umbrage at Labour’s challenge to those entitlements.

But there’s a fourth thing I’d like to emphasize. It’s adaptation.
october 2017
Colin Kidd | Gove or Galtieri
There is an air of wistful regret to Ziblatt’s conclusion that ‘a viable and robust conservative political party’ with a ‘chance of winning elections at least some of the time’ is the price we pay for democratic stability. The alternatives, he contends, come at a much heavier price. Churchill once joked that ‘democracy was the worst form of government, apart from all the others’; but in Ziblatt’s bleak refinement of that insight, we wouldn’t have a functioning democracy at all without a viable Conservative option at the ballot box.
october 2017
How the Elderly Lose Their Rights | The New Yorker
Guardians can sell the assets and control the lives of senior citizens without their consent—and reap a profit from it.

By Rachel Aviv
october 2017
How house flippers, not poor subprime borrowers, triggered the US housing market crash — Quartz
Analyzing a huge dataset of anonymous credit scores from Equifax, a credit reporting bureau, the economists—Stefania Albanesi of the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Geneva’s Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal of Boston College—found that the biggest growth of mortgage debt during the housing boom came from those with credit scores in the middle and top of the credit score distribution—and that these borrowers accounted for a disproportionate share of defaults.

As for those with low credit scores—the “subprime” borrowers who supposedly caused the crisis—their borrowing stayed virtually constant throughout the boom. And while it’s true that these types of borrowers usually default at relatively higher rates, they didn’t after the 2007 housing collapse. The lowest quartile in the credit score distribution accounted for 70% of foreclosures during the boom years, falling to just 35% during the crisis.
october 2017
Stumbling and Mumbling: The crisis of positive-sum capitalism
From the mid-40s to the mid-70s, high wage growth and full employment were in capitalists’ interests. Rising wages sustained aggregate demand not only via consumer spending growth, but also because higher wages gave firms incentives to invest in labour-saving technology.

In the 70s, though, this ceased to be the case. Wage growth then began to squeeze capitalists’ profits. The positive-sum game became a zero-sum one, as Marglin and Bhaduri have described.

The solution to this was Thatcherism, or if you prefer neoliberalism. Policies aimed at restoring profit margins by weakening trades unions and the welfare state and creating job insecurity helped to raise productivity, profit rates and growth.

But we might now be back in a phase of a positive-sum game.
october 2017

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