Sunday, November 16, 2014

Labor and labour, Democrats and demography

If we are indeed in an era where identity politics wins elections, and the right is the natural winner of such contests because it's well versed in operating sans policy, what is to become of the left? This is the focus of a lot of navel gazing in America right now post the disastrous midterm elections. For example, this NYT piece lays out a battle between the populism of Elizabeth Warren and the elitism of Hillary Clinton. I've written before about elitism versus populism, which I think is the most important political dialectic of our age, so I'm very much on board with that characterisation of the situation.

The first possible solution is to do nothing. And yes, there are valid arguments for waiting for the cycle to turn by itself. Especially in America, the current trend of old white people having a disproportionate say in politics is an artefact of the Baby Boomer generation growing haggard and conservative. The boomers have dominated politics and general society since the 1960s, and this is their last struggle before their bulge finally disappears from the other end of the Python Stomach Of Demography. The Tea Party is filled with boomers who enjoyed the fruits of the welfare state, including free education in some cases, but they don't want to share the wealth any more and can't see the point of planning for beyond their own mortality. In the face of harsh electoral reality of voting patterns, it's a perfectly legitimate tactic by Generation X to shrug our shoulders, sigh and bide our time until we can wave the most selfish generation in history goodbye as they roll past in their pine boxes. We've waited this long, a few more years won't be so bad.

If you read a lot of American leftist bloggers - and I have been doing so lately - the clamour is now to embrace Warrenite populism, otherwise known as class warfare.
The Democrats will still keep the presidency most of the time and the Senate at least some of the time, but our country will remain stuck, our government will remain dysfunctional, and the people will suffer. The Democrats have to address middle class economic and social anxiety, and that means they have to focus on class more than race. This isn't a recommendation that the Democrats make winning over the elusive white male voter their top priority, at least not in the ways this has been attempted in the past. It's a recommendation that the Democrats begin focusing heavily on the issues that are making middle class folks from all backgrounds so anxious. I'm talking about the fact that people can't afford college, that their kids can't afford to move out of their homes, that formerly "good" neighborhoods are being decimated by opioid addiction, and that our infrastructure is crumbling.
Government action can't be seen as a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the poor or from whites to minorities, but as investment in our communities that used to be made as a matter of course.
The Democrats have to wage what the Republicans derisively call "class warfare" or this country is going to remain hopelessly polarized with no way in sight to stop the rise in income inequality.
There has been a lot of angst in the US left about the loss of the white male voter, as the Democrats have failed to offer the middle class worker much in the way of a helping hand even as the economy recovers from the 2007 crash. Wages remain stagnant, the recovery has produced a lot less jobs than previous such periods, and the guilty parties in the banks have not been punished while the middle class continues to suffer. Some of these things are not the fault of Obama, I know - I'm no supporter of the Green Lantern theory. Many Democrats are nonetheless just another part of the Washington village elite these days - albeit less of them since the Blue Dog Democrats were obliterated in the midterms - and the lack of a groundswell of support from elected officials behind Obama's jobs programs which are stuck in the GOP-blocked Congress speaks to their priorities. Warren isn't going to run for president, though, and the Clintons aren't known for being particularly leftist. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hillary will jump significantly to the left in the peaceful coronation that will be the Democratic nomination process for 2016 before stepping to the right during the campaign. She remains in control of the destiny of the party, so the conversation the left is having is mostly about where she will take it.

One other, related solution has been raised by various leftist bloggers: resuscitating unions. Newsflash: that's a dead parrot. Now, it's true that the right and the left used to be champions of capital and workers respectively, and that it is a big problem that the left's politicians in Western countries have moved away from unions and towards business, and this has caused a disconnect between the middle class and the left. Nevertheless, a reversion to the old Marxist dialectic is not going to work. Unions don't have solutions for the dilemmas of the future. As an example, witness this argument by Erik Loomis against the mechanisation of work. His postulation is that a Star Trek post-scarcity society is far less likely than a Player Piano scenario where automation removes human dignity.
Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.
Erik has spent too much time living in the moment of the Great Interregnum, and has not lifted his head and remembered that it is possible to disrupt power. I lived through the 1990s as I believe Erik did, so he should recall that the wheel of history may grind slowly, but it does turn in the long run. Eternal corporate zaibatsus are not inevitable. He and other leftist bloggers make dark jokes about tumbrels dragging the 1% of the New Gilded Age to the guillotine, and for good reason because the French Revolution is another salient example of how elite overreach will always fail.

Erik's piece could have been written by some reactionary old racist in the 1850s playing up fears of the Yellow Peril. The White Australia policy was largely driven by unions reacting against Asian immigration, just as the Tea Party is reacting against Latino immigration in the present day. Substituting machines for non-white humans does not improve the underlying argument. The union reactionaries were wrong then, and the anti-robot nativists are wrong now. The correct conclusion is that Asians, Latinos and androids all add to the sum total of wealth in a society, and fighting against their advent is the wrong war to wage. Better to focus on the distribution of wealth than prevent the accumulation of it.

He's right, though, that the future doesn't hold much in the way of power among workers. When there are no workers left to unionise, what use are unions? The left has to move on past the old bearded German, not to abandon the principles of protecting the middle class from the depredations of capitalism but to seek other ways of accomplishing the same outcome in less combative fashion.

Thus we come to perhaps the most tantalising prospect: the left as technocrats. In this scenario, the government does not stick rigidly to a single ideology, but acts like a market research firm. If leftist ideology doesn't work under the microscope of A/B testing to maximise whatever outcome the public wants (and/or is good for it according to a more amorphous definition of leftism), try another one until something does work. The Piping Shrike has long thought that Labor's technocrat moment has passed since a brief era from 2007 to 2009 under Kevin Rudd, but I'm not sure that is quite true. His position on this required him to pooh-pooh the Gillard government's achievements almost in entirety, which seems to me to be rather uncharitable, and constantly praise Rudd for his anti-politics posturing (which produced short term electoral results) when it became clear that his technocracy skills were severely lacking. Rudd disrupted Labor's old way, but he didn't have a Third Way worthy of the name to replace it.

My vision of the solution takes some elements from all of these approaches. This post is already too long, though, and it will have to wait for my next post, which will be this blog's 100th.

UPDATE: Apologies to Erik, who reacted on Twitter my above comments rather strongly. I did not mean to imply that he was racist in any way. I will not amend the text, but I will explain here that I was using rhetoric to try to make a point. Evidently I made the point badly, and I should have been more sensitive to the implications of using such an argument. Sorry, mate.

No policy for you! Seinfeld identity politics

There are a lot of parallels between Australian and American politics at the moment. Last year, Tony Abbott won government by running an almost entirely negative campaign, such that he has no meaningful mandate to accomplish any policy goals of his own once in power. This year, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate in a wave election fueled by a similarly Seinfeldian campaign about nothing, dominated by short-term non-policy issues.

Last year, Abbott's main policy was that he wasn't Julia Gillard; more cogently, he represented an older, whiter, more traditional set of values than the progressive feminists and watermelon greens. This year, the GOP's main policy was that none of its politicians were Barack Obama; specifically, very few of them were non-white or were younger than baby boomer age.

Last year, Abbott swept into government despite the electorate largely preferring the left's policy platform. This year, Republicans now enjoy control of both houses of Congress despite America as a whole (as opposed to the minority who vote in mid-terms) consistently polling favourably towards the Democrats' policies.

So we come to the rise of what is called "identity politics". Policy doesn't mean much in this framework. Who you are is much more important than what you say or do. Tribalism has been used in politics to further policy ends, but this is tribalism as an ideology in itself. There is an argument to be made that this is just tribalism being used as a pretext for running far-right ideology, and there's something to be said for that since I'm sure there are operatives who think that way. Just as Seinfeld was a show ostensibly about nothing but really about the self-centred obsessions of borderline autistic arseholes, identity politics is now being used as a front for the Koches of the world to further their ideological goals. The effect is the same in any case: old white guys running the show and doing what they like.

It's a cliche of Australian politics by now that since the Hawke/Keating era, the big policy reforms have all been accomplished and there are no "low-hanging fruit" left, thus policy-based politics is bloody hard yakka. Most posts by the Piping Shrike riff off this meme, along with the related one about unions ceasing to be relevant and thus rendering Labor without a mission. The right never really had a mission either except to oppose the left, so they should be vastly more experienced at governing without policy.

However, it's much easier to run identity politics in America with its sharply delineated white, black, Latino and Asian communities, which despite generations of effort still remain segregated to a significant degree. Here in Australia, Abbott is reduced to the rather feeble formulation of "Team Australia" to push his version of identity. Pauline Hanson literally wrapped herself in an Australian flag, and Abbott's attempts to figuratively do the same just make him look rather lame. At least John Howard's green and gold tracksuits came from a genuine place in his heart, and didn't try to exclude anyone. It's just another example of Abbott's tin ear.

During this Great Interregnum, as the world (apart from China) deleverages together, we are in a global Green Room, waiting for the show to start. What's the next act? Is it China imploding? Is it Hillary Clinton turning the tide against austerity? Is it Germany losing its fear of Weimar-era inflation and removing their economic jackboots from the earholes of Europe? Is it a massive El Nino to finally remove all doubt as to the effects of climate change? Cue the bass guitar and synth riffs, and we'll find out after the break.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wave comes in, wave goes out

The quantum entanglement of the quants over the 2014 midterm elections in America has collapsed, in the form of a wave for the Republicans. Sam Wang and Nate Silver were locked in a polarised battle of spin over which side had momentum. Wang's position was that the polls all showed that Democrats might hold the Senate. Silver pointed to the correlation of the "fundamentals" of midterms which all favoured low turnout which would lead to a particular result favouring the GOP.

Silver tries desperately not to run up the score, Bill Belichick style, in his declaration of victory, but the numbers he quotes (graphed above) do not lie: the poll of polls was off by four points. Only one US federal election in the last twenty years has been skewed to the Democrats at anything like that level.

The post-mortems are coming thick and fast with all sorts of post-justifications. This one from Lawyers, Guns and Money is representative, if only for this sarcasm-laden retort from the comments section:
The objectively smartest political strategy for the Democrats to pursue is to push for a platform that just happens to line up with the preferences of the author. I don't believe I've ever read a piece like this before on the internet.
Yes, there is a lot of talking one's own book in these post-mortems, which makes finding worthwhile analysis more difficult. There have been the Captain Obvious pronouncements about the adverse map in mostly red states, the Boomer-heavy demographics of the turnout, and the lack of motivation to vote for hope and/or change. In fact, it may be that not much at all can be concluded for the long term, unless a Supreme Court justice dies in the next two years. Waves come and go, as Markos Moulitsas explains with palpable disgust. There have been some weaksauce attempts to pin the losses on Hillary Clinton, but the map is much more favourable in 2016, and the tide will inevitably turn.

I think digby digs a little closer to the reason for that four point discrepancy.
Nobody seems to be talking about it today but ISIS and ebola and the Border and Ferguson were all huge stories in this campaign and I have to think these stories may have inspired the GOP turnout more than they're being given credit for. They are classic fear motivators for the conservatives and the timing was very good. I would not be surprised if they played a part in making the GOP victory as substantial as it was. And this could be a factor in 2016, so stay tuned.
My suspicion is that the polls aren't skewed as such, they just don't capture very late shifts in mood. Just as the wingnuts complained about Hurricane Sandy being a late boost to the Democrats in 2012, the left could have a justifiable whinge that the Ebola outbreak, building on the aforementioned scare stories, led to a more scared and conservative electorate, and/or scared off people who self-identified to polling outlets as "likely voters" into discouraged non-voters. Why didn't it show up in the polls before election day? How can I prove this conjecture? I can't, I suppose, unless I had control over some expensive polling infrastructure. That Schrodinger's cat will have to stay in its box.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

One foot in the nursing home, the other in his gob

I am still reading a lot of poliblogs in between childrearing, just not posting much. I really should learn how to do shorter posts.

In that vein, I can't help but note how comprehensively stupid this piece is. Steve Kates, the most foolish man in Australia, not only posts complete faff from Ohanion and Cole attacking FDR's role in saving America from the Great Depression, he treats the linked press release as if it is new when it was written more than ten years ago, and the poliblogosphere's absolute smashing of the thing to pieces occurred three years ago when the authors got some undeserved WSJ publicity.

And if you don't like that repudiation, try this much similar C&O article mere days after Obama's inauguration, no doubt intended to scare him off any FDR-like heroics in the face of another Republican-created economic disaster, and compare it to actual reality since its publication in 2009. Wherever austerity has been tried, it has only exacerbated the pain. Wherever stimulus has been applied, it has worked (until, as in Japan recently, sabotaged by further austerity). Austrian economics teaches us nothing about how to solve today's problems. While no one is trying anything like the New Deal these days - more's the pity, because that's a lot of what we need right now - Keynesianism is still the best way to understand and address the situation in which we find ourselves.

It's as if Kates is not actually a professor of economics at RMIT at all, but some emaciated hermit who lives in a deep, dank hole, is fed via a bucket on a rope by Sinclair Davidson and for education is only allowed access to dot matrix printouts of Powerline and Drudge links. He's a cross between a victim of Buffalo Bill and a Japanese holdout. It's the only lucid explanation for his ongoing display of economic Aspberger's syndrome. Nobody can be that clueless.