The Story of Trumpsgiving

Image result for puritan indian massacre

“It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it”.

– Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

The Story of Thanksgiving (updated)

MaxSpeak Summary: Among Puritan Christian fundamentalists, the Pilgrims were treacherous, murderous swine. The Pilgrims made a treaty with the indigenous people around Plymouth until they had enough forces to wipe them out. This they later did with smallpox and guns, unless they were able to sell them into slavery, all for the greater glory of God.

Wait a minute. That wasn’t quite right. Let’s try it again. Here’s how it goes.

The Puritans in England were subjected to religious persecution, lo unto death. They were not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ They needed borders, because without borders you don’t have a country. But in order to have borders, you need land. The Puritans tried to settle in the Netherlands, but the people there were all crooked; they refused to accept eminent domain, provide tax subsidies, or hand over land for free. The New World beckoned. It was a land without a people, with first-class hotels and golf courses, and they were a people without a land.

Upon settling around Plymouth, the first Puritans (Pilgrims) began to get along with the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoug were lovely people but subject to aggression by immigrants from other Native American groups, who sent murderers and rapists and bad hombres instead of their best. Sad! The Wampanoag provided thousands, no millions of jobs for the Puritans; their alliance became an outpost of peace and freedom in the New World.

As more Puritans arrived, they required more lebensraum. The Wampanoag, like other indigenous peoples, lacked a modern system of property rights. They did not see fit to build fences, put up street signs, or trade in mortgage-backed securities. The Puritans remedied these defects of indigenous civilization. It just happened that the Puritans ended up owning all the property, and Native Americans themselves became classified as property.

Taking umbrage at this advance of Judeo-Christian civilization, the indigenous people were reduced to terrorism. Some were sufficiently maniacal as to sacrifice their own lives in order to murder innocent settlers. There was a virtual cult of death. Underlying this irrationality was a primitive religious belief system that celebrated exterminating one’s enemies, as well as the consumption of locoweed and psychedelic mushrooms. Nobody knew how bad they were. In short, the natives hated America.

As a matter of self-defense, the Puritans were compelled to rise to the challenge of this war of civilizations; they had to get tough by exterminating both the terrorists, their families, and the societies that nurtured them. There was no middle ground; you were with them or against them. Those Native Americans that were willing to live in peace were provided with alternative living arrangements, under the protection of the new government. Sadly, they proved unequal to the rigors of modern society and eventually disappeared.

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving as a tribute to their memory, and to the invaluable assistance they unselfishly provided to the Christian conquest of America.

Now please pass the gravy, and have a Happy Thanksgiving, from all the MaxSpeak mispochah.

John Bolton, My Hero

Image result for anti-fascism

Many comrades have trouble getting their arms around the removal of the most depraved, reactionary president in memory. Not surprisingly, nobody in their right mind wants to launch a new Cold War against the Satanic Russians. Nevertheless, heartfelt encouragement of impeachment from the Left is fully warranted.

As the impeachment process struggles to be born, Democrats in Congress are cautiously constructing a case against the president on the narrowest grounds available – his attempt to extort the government of Ukraine to assist his 2020 re-election campaign.

It has not mattered that Donald Trump manifested his crookedness from day one, not to mention earlier. As one pundit noted, New York area elites have a lot to answer for, in failing to restrain this creature decades ago. His racist rhetoric, his vicious assault on immigrants, his indulgence of violence-prone right-wing street goons, his blatant attempts to obstruct justice, his myriad acts of garden-variety graft, none of this was enough to jump-start impeachment.

We have a lot to be bitter about. It’s turning out that the Democrats are impeaching Trump for being a bad Republican, for betraying the conservative principles of Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and their foreign policy attack dog, John Bolton.

Nevertheless, we are where we are. Democrats have Trump dead to rights on Ukraine. A vote to impeach in the House of Representatives is likely. Democratic Speaker-of-the-House Nancy Pelosi is not known for calling votes she will lose.

On the Senate side, of course a vote to remove Trump is unlikely. However, a weekly ventilation of evidence over the next six months cannot but have a salutary political impact on public opinion and on Democratic prospects in 2020.

One dubious objection is that failure of the Senate to remove Trump would enable him to claim vindication. As we speak, the president is shoveling money to Republican incumbent senators in danger of defeat next year. The legitimacy of their votes to keep him in office is vulnerable to derision. Trump’s burgeoning record of dishonesty increasingly diminishes the veracity of claims he will make between now and next November.

Another objection is that removal would give us President Pence. Of course, if the Senate doesn’t vote to remove, there will never be a President Pence. If it does, however, the ensuing intra-Republican bloodletting would cripple the party for several electoral cycles. Resentment of Pence and any traitors by Trump’s core deplorable voters would lead to a Democratic tidal wave of victories in 2020. Odds are that an embittered, vengeful Trump would facilitate it.

In criminal proceedings, it is common for lawyers to impugn the credibility of witnesses or defendants by reference to acts outside whatever offense is in question. Sometimes this is legal and sometimes it isn’t. The relevance is that while the House Democrats are pursuing a political project – impeachment – on the narrowest of grounds, no such scruples restrain the Left.

A full-spectrum assault on the Republican Party’s depredations over the past three years, under the leadership of their poster boy, Donald Trump, facilitates impeachment in the same way aspersions on a defendant’s character reduce his or her standing in the eyes of the jury. In court this can be unfair; in politics, it is fair. It also supplies much-needed progressive context to the proceedings.

The specifics of the Ukraine affair should not be off-putting on the Left. Whatever you think of the U.S./EU aligned government of Ukraine, itself chock-full of dubious characters, there is no good reason to favor Russian aggression against it. Nor is criticism of Russia really redolent of Cold War hysteria. Russia is no longer Soviet or Red. Arguably, it has drifted quite far from any such station. It is merely one of the larger autocratic adversaries of the U.S. Foregoing any sympathy for its conflicts with less-powerful, neighboring countries is no indulgence of U.S. imperialism.

So impeachment can be fun. Others may take different sorts of satisfaction with it, but our own interests can be furthered as well. Democratic Party victories open up space for challenges to incumbents from the left. It’s easier to consider a progressive challenger when the potential Republican alternatives have little hope of benefitting. A higher margin of D votes in Congress, as well as possession of the White House, puts a greater obligation on the party establishment to produce results for the working class. Instead of being embroiled in arguments with ridiculous Trumpist loons, we can look forward to more serious debate with Democratic centrists on neoliberalism vs. democratic socialism.

The alternative to progressive engagement in the impeachment drama is progressive invisibility, just as public opinion is moving left and crying for change and leadership.

It doesn’t pay to get too far ahead of where the heads of most people are at. Back in the day, at a certain point the anti-war movement that the Left had done so much to germinate became mainstream. Some radicals became bored when everybody started agreeing with them. It was no longer cool. They moved on to more distant concerns.

That was a mistake.

M4A is not easy

Image result for sisyphus

Jacobin tees off again on Elizabeth Warren’s M4A proposal. I’m afraid I don’t think much of Higgenbotham’s argument. At the start, he centers the political difficulty of M4A on the resistance of providers. That is certainly one pole of resistance. There is another that he fails to note until later in the article — the disruption entailed in changing financing from the status quo to something — Warren’s or Bernie’s — entirely different. Later in the piece he makes this explicit: “We can easily pay for Medicare for All. Let’s reject the premise that financing it is our main fight.” I call this whistling past the graveyard.

Warren’s plan is arguably crafted to resist political problems in the latter realm, and for this the author criticizes her. Another gloss on the difficult politics of finance.

Then the author echoes Bruenig’s arguments, which I addressed in my previous post.

Ultimately, for Higginbotham, the politics are magically overcome by political revolution, but while it should be clear that furious mobilization will be required to win M4A, simply invoking it doesn’t make the politics of a grand financing change go away.

Warren’s M4A, Round 1

Just read this blast from Brother Matt, lambasting Warren’s M4A financing plan as “a disaster.” Wrong on several counts. Every count, actually.


Matt castigates Warren’s employer tax as a “Medicare head tax,” contrasting it unfavorably with a straight payroll tax. (The ‘head tax’ in this case is a firm-specific dollar amount based on prior health insurance costs; a payroll tax is simply a rate — a.k.a. ad valorem —  applied to taxable payroll). Matt glosses over the fact that the status quo is also a head tax, also known as employer-paid health insurance, in his sense.

Warren’s tax is less disruptive than a straight employer tax. It would be lower for firms that had cheaper insurance, because of healthier workforces and/or more narrow coverage. I don’t know how it would apply to firms with no coverage.

Matt’s comparison of the head tax with a non-existent payroll tax does not follow. In public finance jargon, a head tax is the same fixed charge applied to all persons. Warren’s tax varies with prior health insurance premium costs, which are generally assumed to be borne by the worker.

That exemption of smaller firms would encourage a wave of outsourcing and vertical disintegration may be doubted. There are already incentives for this, and we are stuck with what we have, at least for the time being. Currently, employer provision of coverage is voluntary, so if their costs are not much altered under Warren’s ‘head tax,’ there is less reason to fear some wave of spin-offs. Firms are a bundle of non-market transactions for reasons that supersede the purported efficiencies of fragmented, competitive sub-markets, as someone wrote in the 1930s.

Matt gives the game away by acknowledging he might start with Warren’s plan, horrible though it may be, but transition it towards a payroll tax. At first blush I would agree this end result is preferable to a nationally-uniform charge per worker.

There are going to be plenty of reasons to take exception to Warren’s proposal, but these aren’t very good ones.

Bruenig & UBI

“Politics is not arithmetic.”

– Álvaro Cunhal, former Secretary-General, Partido Comunista Português

My friend, the semi-notorious Matt Bruenig, responded to my bit in Jacobin on Andrew Yang and Universal Basic Income (UBI) on his Peoples Policy Institute website, so here I return the favor. (An older piece is here.)

He leads off with a claim that there is five trillion in capital income available to pay for a three trillion UBI. There are two problems with this claim, one a matter in national income accounting, the other – much the more important one – in political economy.

The five trillion (line 9 in BEA Table 1.10) of Matt’s “Net Operating Surplus” includes the incomes of proprietors, much of which is implicitly labor income. If you run a candy store you record your net income as profit, even though it’s basically a wage. In the same vein, another component, rental income, is received by Uncle Joe who rents a house as well as by the Trumps. Some corporate profits and interest are received by workers as a return on their savings.

I note in passing that Matt characterizes capital income as passive income paid to those who do not have to work for it. This is not exactly right. Besides the candy store and Uncle Joe, if I save part of my wage and receive interest, dividends, or capital gains, the latter types of income are not quite benefits for which I did not have to work. And finally, a piece of that is tax already being paid, which can’t be paid again to finance a UBI.

I would grant that the bulk of the five trillion is received by the top quintile of the population, with a disproportionate, gross amount to the top tenth of a percent.

This is quibbling in light of the larger point, which is that financing a UBI is not a matter of arithmetic, but of political economy. The Federal budget includes about $4.4 trillion in spending. Diverting one-tenth of the cost of the UBI from other uses would be daunting. Three trillion? End of story. Carving it out of capital income? Ambitious goals deserve praise. But at some point ambition can give way to hallucination. Matt acknowledges this, saying “Liquidating the capitalist class will of course be difficult to pull off politically.” Ya think? When he says “pull off,” I think of the difficulty of pulling off a thirty-foot putt or winning a tango contest.

Matt wants to distinguish between political difficulty and “what is possible as a policy matter.” Policy requires arithmetic, but it is never reducible to arithmetic. It is only made possible by struggle. Power concedes nothing, notwithstanding the technocratic elegance of any proposal.

The distraction implied by UBI chatter is underlined by the primacy of other priorities on the Left, especially Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, neither of which individuals could buy on their own with a UBI check.

The way things look now (9/4/19), I’d say we have an excellent chance in 2020 for a President Sanders or Warren, and a conceivable opportunity to flip the Senate. In that scenario, we can look forward to non-trivial expansions of health insurance coverage and the green transformation of the economy. Liquidating the capitalist class is about as likely as that dude Andrew Yang being elected president.




Liz Warren and the Correct Line

Every sane American will be greatly relieved if any Democrat displaces the current occupant of the White House in 2020. However, we should be positively thrilled if that person is either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They have contrasting strengths and weaknesses, but their most impassioned supporters are dwelling on points of contention that are either trivial or specious. We would have a much better debate if the important differences were hashed out.

Some of Sanders’ support is founded on his radical bona fides. This interests me because I happen to come from an odd place in the distant past, as someone with a prior commitment to doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism (no Mao Tse-Tung thought, thank you very much).

I’m not the only such type who has migrated to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We know a few things. We know there isn’t going to be any smashing of the capitalist state. Marx is still enlightening, “Revolutionary Marxism” is a fantasy. Been there, done that. Now we could be on the right wing of DSA. Given our background, the radical postures of some Sanders and DSA peeps can be adorable.

By now it is a commonplace that Bernie Sanders’ version of “democratic socialism” is not different from FDR’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Sanders evinces no interest in nationalizing the means of production, the traditional socialist touchstone. In his recent speech aimed at elaborating his own vision of democratic socialism, Sanders invoked the ‘Four Freedoms’ of FDR, and more generally the idea of economic rights. Every single one of these rights (to a job, to health care, to education, etc.), which I enthusiastically endorse, can be satisfied with an expanded welfare state. Socialism in the traditional sense is not necessary.

A much-discussed point of distinction for Elizabeth Warren is her insistence that she is a capitalist and believes in markets, rather than a socialist like Sanders. Both campaigns get more exercised about this than is warranted. Sanders would not nationalize the means of production. The government would not end up owning IBM. Nor has Sanders shown any interest in any sort of economic planning. The inescapable implication is that a Sanders economy would continue to rely on markets.

Guess what? Sanders is no more opposed to markets than Warren, and Warren is no more dedicated to them than Sanders. Their differences are purely rhetorical, or what economists call “product differentiation”—the practice of inventing cosmetic differences in otherwise identical products for the sake of marketing advantage. These days they call it “branding.”

I could note that the idea that somebody is a “capitalist” by virtue of some accumulated wealth is also a non-sequitur. Of course, both Sanders and Warren are considerably better off than the average person, but properly speaking, in Marx the term “capitalist” refers to a collective body – a class. “Capital” is not a hoard of wealth but a social relation. If you owned a thousand shares of Amazon, you would be worth nearly two million dollars, which would be glorious, but it wouldn’t give you any sort of lever over the means of production. Even Trump as a Manhattan real estate hustler had little control of that sort. From a radical standpoint, neither Sanders nor Warren are capitalists in any meaningful sense.

Sanders’ commitment to socialism, if we’re talking about current or recent times, has never quite hung together. The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has proposed an interesting explanation for Sanders’ rhetoric. By relating his program to the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sanders is making socialism wholesome, even if it isn’t what his real hero Eugene Debs espoused a hundred years ago. After all, a genuine socialist of the 1930s, Norman Thomas, remarked that FDR carried out the socialist program “on a stretcher.” For Sanders, FDR’s economic rights are a point of departure from which the road leads, and for which the destination is open-ended. Today, this is the radical aspect of democratic socialism.

It’s possible that “socialism,” as opposed to socialism, will be the central bogeyman in Trump’s 2020 campaign. It could become an election problem for Democrats, or it might prove energizing. For the past hundred years, Republicans have described most anything proposed by Democrats as socialism. They may have exhausted its shock effect. Sanders chooses to own the term, rather than run away from it.

Political predictions are more hazardous these days than ever. But socialism as epithet should really be retired, as far as the intra-Democratic primary campaign is concerned. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper might testify to that, as the ship of his campaign sinks before leaving the harbor. By dwelling on it, more important matters are neglected. And the more contenders for the nomination invoke it as a negative, the more it will prove useful to Trump in the general election, regardless of whom the Democratic nominee may be.

One important policy difference between Sanders and Warren is foreign policy. Sanders breaks new ground in several places, such as Israel/Palestine and the international neo-fascist surge, which has to hearten any erstwhile anti-imperialist. Still, one would be at pains to discern much of a difference from, say, George McGovern in 1972.

Regarding the national security state, Sanders still hasn’t caught up with Senator Frank Church (from Idaho, of all places), circa 1975. To be clear, it’s all still a breath of fresh air, so leaden at the highest level has been the foreign policy debate for the past forty years.

Thus far, Warren has resolutely avoided any heterodoxy in foreign policy. She might be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party in this respect, but the mainstream leaves much to be desired. To her credit, Warren has recently taken steps to stand against a potential war with Iran, co-sponsoring a bill to this effect authored by, you guessed it, Sanders. At best, she’s playing catch-up.

Sanders has gotten lefty black marks voting for defense budgets. This reflects a failure to understand how the Congress operates. Sanders is a Democrat in all but name. He caucuses with Senate Democrats, he votes with them, and he is assigned leadership tasks by them. It is amusing to note that some senators, such as unlamented alumni like Claire McCaskill or Heidi Heitkamp, routinely classified as Democrats, may have voted differently than their caucus more frequently than Sanders, while the Sanders-is-not-a-Democratic wailing from Hillary dead-enders continues.

When the Democratic caucus arrives at consensus on their budget proposals, including defense, he is obliged to keep in step. The alternative is to have none of his concerns considered. Sanders abstention would have no positive impact on the outcome. There is no socialism in one senate seat.

Candidates are often rated against a menu of desirable stands. Items in the litany include Medicare for All, the Fight for 15, reparations, abolition of ICE, reproductive rights, Black Lives Matter, and the Green New Deal.

Ambitious, “aspirational” demands need not be scorned. They get the political juices flowing. Beckoning towards Utopia inspires people and stokes mobilization. Simplification helps folks to sort themselves out. It intensifies the energies of those already focused on a specific objective.

The downside of binary check-the-box tests is twofold. One is that an intense minority does not necessarily prevail politically, which can lead pragmatic politicians to consider incremental changes that appeal to a broader constituency. Of course, for some candidates, rejection of an ambitious goal can be a refuge from commitment of any sort.

Two is that when it comes to actual policymaking, a binary framework obviates any tactical considerations bearing on the practical disposition of issues – on actually getting shit done.

The health care debate encapsulates the most important difference between Sanders and Warren, one that does not necessarily credit either. There is a continuum of health care reform options from ObamaCare to Medicare For All. The likelihood is that under the best of circumstances, we will end up somewhere on that continuum, short of the maximum program. (The real socialist option in health care is actually a bridge further than the Sanders plan, something like the British National Health Service.)

There are multiple channels through which more uninsured Americans could obtain insurance, or better insurance. Subsidies under ObamaCare could be expanded. The minimum age for Medicare could be lowered. The income limits for Medicaid could be raised. A robust public option for insurance could be made available to all. Automatic enrollment in a universal Medicare plan – the Sanders option – is not the only possible remedy for the uninsured.

The Sanders approach entails a significant shift of finance from the private to the public sector, and the elimination of private health insurance. The merits of this option aside, its political prospects are undeniably uncertain. While it is possible that the total cost of health care could be reduced, what would be in prospect is a massive shift in payments from individuals and their employers to taxpayers. In the process, many will find their costs have decreased, and many others – perhaps not as many – could see increases. In advance of the implementation of any such reform, many will prefer the devil they know to the other kind. The vast majority might be persuaded to expect that they will benefit, but the vast minority could become a huge political obstacle to change.

Warren has shyed away from ‘M4A’ and failed the popular lefty litmus test, though in the first debate she endorsed it. For her ambiguity she is criticized. For instance, Tim Higginbotham in Jacobin asks why Warren has no plan for health care. In fact, along with her pro forma endorsement of M4A, Warren has related her own plan. It is threefold. First, it is to defend ObamaCare, to block Republican efforts to squeeze enrollment. Second, it is to target some narrow, attainable objectives, such as reducing prescription drug prices. And third, it is to pursue what she judges to be more politically tenable devices for expanding coverage.

There’s a lot of there there. Higginbotham pretends the only alternative to M4A is the preservation of the execrable private health insurance industry. Agitating for M4A is praiseworthy, but the notion that universal coverage cannot be obtained in a satisfactory way without the wholesale elimination of private insurance is simply false. The fact is that private insurance of different types survives in European social-democratic systems that provide universal coverage. As University of Chicago economist Harold Pollack recently wrote, the principle at stake is not “single-payer,” a mere means to an end, but the end itself of universal coverage.

The problem with the left critique of Warren is not that M4A is an unworthy objective, or that it is a political non-starter. It is that the practical, political difficulties of getting it are entirely glossed over. Sanders people envision the force of a mass uprising, non-violent of course, that will bludgeon the Congress into following orders from President Bernie.

This same distinction between Sanders and Warren affects virtually every item on the domestic agenda. It is less a disagreement on objectives than it is on process. But process does not typically enter the discussion.

The neglect of process, or more simply, the current political state of play, takes a lot of air out of the litmus tests. Of the House of Representatives’ newly triumphant Democratic majority, there are presently 27 members who have joined the “Blue Dog Coalition.” A hundred or so have declared fealty to the so-called “New Democratic Caucus” (descendants of the Bill Clinton political tendency, and not so new any longer). The Democratic edge in the House is fewer than twenty seats.

If the Democrats do well enough to retake the Senate in 2020, the incoming victors will be much like the moderates in the House. In this setting, the fate of the medley of ambitious criteria erected by the left is dubious, to say the least. It is fine to strive for consensus on ambitious goals. It is folly to insist upon them well in advance of any prospects for their achievement. One can make a case that polling supports the premise that the public favors major changes. But any radical analysis understands the barriers between public support and actual legislative accomplishment.

The implication is that the sparring over support or rejection of maximalist demands in the primaries, and not just in the Bernie vs. Liz conflict, is a waste of oxygen. The real action for a Democratic president may well turn out to be in the realm of executive actions, rather than legislation. A recent piece by Meagan Day in Jacobin acknowledges the near-term political obstacles to change and explores the executive orders that a President Sanders might issue. We could note that insofar as this is the most relevant field of play, whether any candidate gloms onto M4A or similar proposals becomes less salient.

I’m not suggesting that either Sanders or Warren are correct in their appraisal of the political prospects for reform. My point is that people are sorting themselves into opposite poles founded on vague intuitions: either very ambitious things will be possible, or that much less will be possible.

What should be undeniable at this point is that U.S. politics is in a fluid, not to say frightening, state. Shifts in public opinion and political forces, both good and bad, have come at a rapid and disruptive tempo. It’s hard to say how little or how much will be possible. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out in his advocacy of reparations, it wasn’t that long ago that support for gay marriage was a seriously inconvenient position for a politician. Now rejection of the institution is more of a burden. Ideally, voters would become versed in the full spectrum of progressive options and be prepared to go as far as they would like to go. Arguments about the political unfolding are a premature exercise in thinly sourced speculation.

The biggest difference between Sanders and Warren is outside the realm of legislative proposals, domestic or foreign. Sanders has been self-consciously building a movement that he envisions outlasting his own time on this Earth. He indicates that this movement and the greater mobilization it would attempt to foment is the essential foundation for genuine reform. Sanders’ organization links itself to progressive struggles outside of the campaign proper.

Sanders’ enemies have a difficult time understanding the concept of an enduring, progressive movement. Why didn’t Bernie go home once he had lost the nomination? Why does he keep grandstanding? Why doesn’t he just shut up?

I do have to ask why Sanders keeps his operations separate from the only bona fide democratic socialist organization on the ground, the aforementioned Democratic Socialists of America. Sanders’ is basically a top-down operation, not unlike the defunct Nader outfits, which raises the question of its democratic credentials.

By contrast, Barack Obama built a formidable organization to power him to electoral success, but he demobilized it once his electoral victory was secured. Of course it was never democratic either. In this way he was following the usual pattern of conventional Democratic politicians – excite the electorate up until the point where it has provided the donations and votes to attain office. After that, it’s goodbye Charlie. In this sense, Warren has thus far shown no indication of being any different.

The deck of American politics is increasingly stacked against progressive reform. We are looking at an enduring right-wing Supreme Court majority, an implacable Republican Senate elected by a national minority of white voters in rural states, the ongoing deformation of the political process by vast inequalities of wealth and unaccountable flows of money in service to that inequality, and the increasing disenfranchisement of people of color.

The likelihood is that for Warren or Sanders, and for most any other Democrat, continuous popular mobilization will be needed to advance their policies, if not to merely survive. There will be no permanent victories. Even venerable institutions of the public sector are not safe. The magnitude of the neo-fascist threat demands the reform of the Democratic Party itself.


Free Everything

Image result for abbie hoffmanNobody seems impressed by my point that the prospective incidence of benefits from Sanders’ plan for ‘free college’ will be different — and less regressive — than the retrospective distribution. So I will hit it again. But there is a bigger issue, see below.

We’re getting tales of lawyers and doctors making six figures who would get huge debt relief. But these folks were able to borrow is the first place because they were good credit risks — their families had money. Going forward, ‘free college’ would benefit a different class of people, including more of those who were not able to borrow in the first place. And the very rich don’t have to mess around with student loan applications. They wouldn’t qualify for loans in the first place. My daughter could hardly get anything when she was still a dependent, and I was very far from rich.

An obvious rejoinder is to limit the relief only going forward, but that has an ambiguous impact on the politics. Those who are currently indebted and done with school would get their noses out of joint. The reduced cost of the program reduces the ‘where’s mine’ objections but does not eliminate them.

More generally, in keeping with the reductionism of what the once-rational Mickey Kaus called ‘money liberalism’ and the narrowness of distribution calculations, there is the general interest in de-commodification.

The objection to Sanders’ plan as un-socialist comes mostly from people averse to socialism. It is dubious as a radical objection. Marx didn’t fuss around with distribution tables. He was interested in replacing markets. Reduce the extent to which people have to pay for stuff. To everyone according to their needs.

I’m duly cautioned by a point in this vein regarding organ traffic. When a trade is dominated by thievery and a gamut of horrific practices, a legal market could be an improvement. But just as I wouldn’t say either everything should be privatized or nothing should be, I would say some markets with real scarcity might be better off commodified (under regulation), while others might not be. The scarcity of higher ed is artificial — we could have as much as we wanted, tax-financed. The scarcity of organs (assuming humane collection procedures) is not artificial.

Another pet peeve of mine is the notion that $X billion could be better used elsewhere. Of course, there are always better allocations of resources than existing ones in the public sector. But that’s not the way decisions are made. If we ‘save’ money from one less fruitful purpose, it doesn’t mean it will be reprogrammed into something better.

So by all means push the envelope for more free stuff, as long as it’s the right stuff. The messaging would obviously employ different terminology, but that’s not my job.

BlacKkKlansman reviewed

Image result for blackkklansmanI saw Spike Lee’s latest movie, BlacKkKlansman, last night, and I have thoughts. (Spoilers ahead! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film, and if you haven’t seen it, do Netflix and chill with it.)

My interest is not in the movie as an artistic achievement. I’m not really qualified to judge it in those terms. In my untutored view, Spike Lee is really good at the technical side of making movies. I mean cinematography, editing, and music. As a writer, his dialogue is often very good as well. Otherwise, the content from one film to the next is more open to critique. At any rate, this film’s politics are my subject.

To cut to the chase, as a movie-watching experience the film is a pretty ordinary cops-vs-racists deal. As agit-prop, however, it is by turns engrossing and electrifying. I don’t mean to diminish it. By my lights, there is nothing wrong with a great propaganda vehicle, especially if it’s for causes I favor.

The racists in the film – Klansmen, including their national leader, David Duke – are caricatured as completely deluded, ignorant, vicious clowns. They are all fat, dumb, and ugly. There are two ways to take this. On the one hand, the underlying ideology deserves all the scorn that can be put upon it. On the other, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the enemy. Duke, for instance, is a much more imposing figure in real life than the pencil-necked Topher Grace could manage in the film.

There are hints in the film of the Klan’s ambitions to mainstream itself, but because the members are shown in such reduced terms, it is difficult to see this emerging from the withered roots on display. By contrast, the film’s inclusion of modern news footage at the close confirms that this is indeed what has happened. The problem is the gulf between point A – the setting of the film – and point B – the current United States of America. How did we get here from there? The film can’t tell us.

One facet of the bifurcation is the depiction of the Colorado Springs police force. Now by the testimony of the real protagonist in this story – police detective Ron Stallworth, whose memoir is the source – said depiction is accurate. Stallworth’s initiative in investigating the Klan was supported by his superiors and colleagues. Bully for them. But this is not a documentary.

Some events, including the climax to the story, are pure fiction. The decision over what truths to show and what story elements to dream up remains the choice of the auteur. The benign image of the police in the Lee’s movie may be true to the particular, real events upon which the film is based, but it is not true to the reality of law enforcement in America today. Not a few white police officers are aligned with the very same forces whose germination is targeted in this film. In short, today the cops need a lot of work in the field of race relations.

To his credit, Lee doesn’t shrink from contradiction entirely. Perhaps the central one in the film is the dilemma of a black police officer being sent to infiltrate local civil rights agitation, when he isn’t getting after the Klan. To emphasize this problem, Lee ingeniously invents a romance between the officer and the leader of a local Black Student Union. (In reality, Stallworth had a German girlfriend.)

Near the close of the film, when Stallworth’s membership in the police force is exposed, and notwithstanding his heroic role in destroying the local Klan organization, she rejects him for aligning with the enemy pigs. At the same time, the threat of a cross-burning outside their apartment brings them together in armed unity. There is a scene of the pair of them, each pointing pistols at the camera, floating almost ethereally towards the window.

The truth is, the radical politics on display here are pretty lame. The police are the pigs and Black is beautiful. Sure. There is one bit of a speech by Stokely Carmichael, which is just a string of clichés. Now back in the day I heard Stokely speak myself, and although I didn’t care for his politics, he was much deeper than his namesake in Lee’s film.

I do have to say at one point in the film, the members of the Black Student Union plus their police infiltrator are dancing and singing in a bar, to the sound of the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose (“Too Late to Turn Back Now”). The scene does go on for the better part of the song. Lee wants to say, these were my people, beautiful and graceful, who deserved better than they got. My late wife could have been one of them. Imagine seeing your spouse at age 19, dancing, being happy. It was sweet.

Another affecting aspect for me is Lee’s invention of Stallworth’s alter ego ‘Flip’ (short for Philip), the cop drafted to stand in for Stallworth when a personal appearance at a Klan gathering is required, as a Jew. He is played by Adam Driver, whom I had been ignoring since I first saw him in an episode of Girls (I’ve only ever watched part of that one episode). He didn’t stand out much in the newer Star Wars either, though I’m not much into Star Wars since it became a brand more than a movie serial. I’ve decided Driver is a damn good actor.

Lee’s Flip is secular and barely ever thought about his roots until his Klan infiltration. The anti-Semitism of the Klan makes him think more about those roots, something which most Jews have experienced now and again. The Klan’s historic anti-Semitism (among other prejudices) was a fact.

At various points in the film, assorted bits of Trump rhetoric crop up. One that caught my notice was the Klan’s espousal of “America First.” I thought it was a bit of a stretch. Of course, all students of U.S. anti-Semitism know the origins of the slogan in Charles Lindbergh’s 1930s campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II. But for the Colorado Klan of the 1960s, as one reviewer pointed out, it turns out to be accurate as well.

The film closes with news footage of the president and the contemporary “alt-right,” better understood as modern neo-Nazis, highlighting their recent offenses in Charlottesville, Va. It effectively knits together the Black Klansman tale with our present dangers.

At bottom, the politics of Black Klansman hardly verge beyond liberal/anti-racist/anti-anti-Semitic. Its view of law enforcement is roughly benign. It is hard-core anti-Trump, though not especially anti-conservative. It’s obvious why it was a success with Hollywood.

More significant, I would say, is that it brings, or should I say returns, Jews to the civil rights struggle and signals the emerging common interests of people of color, Jews, Muslims, and everyone of non-standard sexual orientation or identity.

We still have some way to go for a genuinely epic, radical film. Lee got closer with his Malcolm X. Why hasn’t anybody ever done the story of Toussaint Louverture? That’s a hell of a fucking story. There are others.



Plan, Market, and Wal-Market

Image result for socialist planning“Men plan, and God laughs.” – Yiddish proverb, origin unknown

More and more people are talking about socialism, but nobody’s doing anything about it. If we’re talking about “nationalizing the means of production,” Bernie Sanders’ avowedly democratic socialist political revolution falls well short. Old notions of the state owning the “commanding heights” of industry and employing central planning to guide the economy fit a classic concept of socialism. Old-fashioned lefties are given to gripe that Bernie’s vision extends little beyond a beefed-up New Deal.

An extension of the space that Sanders has cleared is the new book by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski, “People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundation for Socialism.” Their elevator pitch could be, our largest, successful corporations are founded on extensive planning systems, and the success of these firms, such as Walmart and Amazon, demonstrates the growing feasibility of socialist planning.

Central planning means the government owns and directs the operations of the bulk of land, plant, and equipment – capital — used to produce most of the economy’s goods and services. It is distinct from the expanded public sector promised by Sanders that would provide more benefits, facilities, and services where the private sector is most delinquent. Health insurance is currently the most cited example.

In efforts to render ‘socialism’ more wholesome, some voices urge us to regard the humblest public facilities as examples. Your beloved library is Socialism! But this will not do. If we’re talking about planning, we are really referring to the next level of public provision of goods and services that are usually produced by business firms.

In centrally-planned economies, instead of business firms we have enterprises. These enterprises are given instructions from a central authority on what to produce, how to produce it, and what to sell it for. Capital investment is decided by the government, which owns all the capital goods. For an enterprise to expand, or to switch to some different production method, agreement must be secured from higher authorities. Moreover, ‘lower authorities’ – the enterprises – have to obey instructions finally arrived at.

An alternative to central planning is the market socialist model. In that system, individual enterprises are controlled by their own workers. They produce for profit and compete with other enterprises for market share. The authors are non-committal as to their preference for either model, though libertarian-socialist sympathies for market socialism are detectable in their account.

Central planning was taken up by the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and in recent decades, abandoned by them. State-owned enterprises were sold to private parties. Usually the beneficiaries of these transfers, at fire sale prices, were former communist bureaucrats. Meet the new boss, literally the same as the old boss. Exhibit A is the fabulously wealthy president of the Russian state, whose business experience was acquired in the KGB.

Market socialism never got much further than Yugoslavia and has also left the scene. Even so, the libertarian socialist vision scratches the right itches – decentralization, democracy, communal ownership, equality. Feasibility remains a question.

State-owned enterprises and state-run economies were famously unproductive, among other deficiencies. When it came to provide a competitive supply of consumer goods, central planning failed. Competitive in this context means that these planning systems could produce, but they could not produce enough at acceptable quality to discourage their citizens from envying capitalist alternatives in the west.

Yugoslavia’s story was different. The authors might have devoted more attention to its devolution, since it goes to the heart of their appeals. At any rate, there is little question that today, labor-managed firms, cooperatives, and non-profit organizations are ubiquitous in capitalist economies and have proven capabilities of producing marketable, profitable goods and services.

The burden of analysis from Phillips and Rozworski (P&R) is that communist planning systems, aside from their multiple affronts to human freedom, failed at logistics, and were further handicapped by the limited computing power available in their heydays. Now we have giant corporations that rely on planning, and they are doing just fine.

The authors are keen to emphasize that the prosperity of these firms does not hinge on market efficiency, since the internals of these firms are not organized along market lines. They are right to cite the economist Ronald Coase of the University of Chicago, who pointed this out in the 1930s, though they might have also given attention to John Kenneth Galbraith, who cultivated this field in more recent decades.

Under the hallowed theory of supply and demand, we get an efficient market when many well-informed buyers and sellers come together, prices are thrown back and forth, and equilibrium is reached.

The departures of really-existing markets from this best of all possible worlds were always obvious. Coase’s insight was that internally, business firms’ operations do not rely on market forces at all. The custodian summoned to fix the furnace does not begin dickering with the supervisor over his fee. There is no bidding war for who will sweep the floor. Workers on an assembly line do not auction off their services for each task performed.

Internally, business firms have always run as little command economies, or “islands of power.” What’s remarkable about Amazon or Walmart is not only the fact of this planning, but the scale at which it operates successfully.

The analogy of Walmart’s internal operations to central planning is tantalizing but limited. Our largest corporations’ outputs exceed the Gross Domestic Product of entire countries. Has planning become feasible for an entire nation? The differences between Walmart and an entire economy elaborated by the authors present a set of challenges for the advance of planning.

One reason that planning appears to function is due to what economists call survivorship bias. Walmart is successful, but what about firms with internal planning that are no longer with us, or that were never able to scale up in the first place? The authors offer one counterfactual bit of evidence – the failure of Sears, in which a scheme to organize competition among different subdivisions of the firm ended in fiasco.

Second, one feature of Walmart’s operations vociferously rejected by P&R – the cramdown of labor costs and the suppression of workers’ voices at work – could be reasons for its success. The authors are right to suggest that ‘flatter’ organizational pyramids with bottom-up participation can function effectively, but one must ask, if such alternatives are more profitable, why don’t more firms resort to them?

Third, another egregious practice that comes with the market power of Walmart and Amazon and helps them to succeed, planning aside, is a feature of their scale and dominance of their markets: the ability to grind down the prices paid to their suppliers. Moreover, not a small share of these suppliers operates in nations that suppress labor costs in ways that the worst American robber baron might envy. Neither state-owned nor worker-managed enterprises would necessarily be immune to such temptations.

Fourth, Walmart and Amazon are in large part intermediaries – they don’t manufacture the products they sell. As large as they are, so too are the worlds of their suppliers and customers. The planning problem is largely solved for them. They can obtain information on costs of production and consumers’ willingness to pay for this and that by surveying markets external to them. They are similarly informed on whether to contract out some component of their production, such as custodial services. They know the prices offered by outside vendors. This information would be lacking under central planning, if not under market socialism.

Fifth, one feature of corporations is that decisions are made in a hierarchy. The results may be unlovely from a social standpoint, but they are arrived at more quickly. A drawback to the authoritarianism of extinct communist governments, was the tendency for the information flow to be stifled. The authors urge the replacement of hierarchy by democratic procedure: “Democracy is the beating heart of socialism.”

But democratic rule by councils of interested, not always unbiased or informed parties, brings its own costs, particularly in time. A decision arrived at by a central authority that must be run back and forth through subordinate councils, or councils of councils, takes longer to be resolved. By the time it is resolved, it could be rendered obsolete by subsequent events.

Great advances in computing power combined with big data certainly enlarge the ability to plan. The extent to which such capacity is adequate to the problem of determining production and consumption decisions in an economy is still an open question. Alongside the greater scope for calculation, moreover, comes the greater threat to individual privacy.

Socialism in the U.S. is back, at least as something to talk about, so chances are we are not done talking about planning either. A myriad of social problems cries out for the intervention of a higher, regulating authority to restrict or transform the way business firms operate. These interventions imply planning, though not necessarily of the sort hoped for in this book.

We need better planning for cities and regions. We need a plan to reduce carbon emissions through the reorganization of transportation and electricity generation and distribution. We need a plan to reverse the trend of residential segregation by race.

We need to ask which problems we hope for central planning to solve. Some of the most popular causes nowadays do not require planning. The lowest priority for planning may be the basic production decisions of corporations.

The government could require Walmart to phase into renewable energy. It could devise trade agreements that inhibit the super-exploitation of labor in nations that export to the U.S. It could put floors on the wages Walmart can pay its employees and indirectly, its vendors, and mandate equal pay by race and gender. It could tax the incomes and inheritances of Walmart’s chief shareholders and executives at progressive rates. It could purchase shares and expand public ownership stakes in corporations. None of these measures require central planning, but with their proliferation, the U.S. would be a different country. You might even call it “democratic socialism.”