The worst thing that Barack Obama has done

ScreenHunter_05 Aug. 31 19.31I don’t think I’m naive about the inflexibility of the political system, as far as its congeniality towards progressive policies goes. I have worked in and around Washington, D.C. since 1980. Big, liberal projects require overwhelming political support. Small gains are vulnerable to reversal. No victories are permanent. Public opinion is usually lacking and requires time to come together, solidify, and sustain. That is one reason among others I was unjustifiably optimistic about an Obama presidency. Obama did not just have the right approach on some issues. He had a movement. It was called Obama for America, or OFA. It promised to be a force in the future for continued progress by shifting public opinion and electoral outcomes. Obama himself alluded to the function of such a movement.

What would a vibrant, effective movement look like? First of all, it would be a place for inquiring persons to go. It would be built to expand. There would be regular meetings everywhere, with public participation. It would provide a social outlet, not one solely devoted to political meetings. There would be democratic discussion of social problems and remedies. There would be plans to mobilize ever-wider circles of people in a coordinated way. The gatherings would not resemble so-called “town meetings” routinely staged by politicians, which meetings consist of Numero Uno controlling the microphone and batting away serial remarks from the bleachers, to the cheers of his supplicants.

After the 2008 triumph OFA morphed into Organizing for Action. And just what is that? It’s an email-address-gathering machine for fund-raising. Visit the website. Sign a petition to raise the minimum wage, provide your email address, and sure as shooting you will start to get emails urging you to donate money to OFA, ostensibly to further that objective. Browse all the Administration propaganda. My favorite, the economy section. Boosts for the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. That’s it.

How about an event? Is there somewhere we can go, to do something? Under “attend an event,” I search for what’s happening within 100 miles of my zip code (just outside Washington, D.C.). Between today and the end of this year, there are two events. (Both proposed, neither set.) One is a voting rally in October, the other is a symposium on women in the arts. Organizing For America is organizing squat. OFA is big on voting, but on political participation, not so much.

merchFor all practical purposes, OFA is just another letterhead plus perpetual money vacuum. For a feeling for what real movements are like, read Mike Kazin on The Populist Persuasion, or Lawrence Goodwyn on The Populist Moment.

There is sad precedent for this demobilization. Jesse Jackson ran for president a couple of times. He too had the makings of a movement, and he too demobilized it. A fellow named Ron Daniels could tell you about that. Bill Clinton had the makings of a movement too. His administration launched a half-hearted bus tour to promote Hillary’s health care reform. The tour was viciously attacked, failed to organize serious support, and fizzled along with HillaryCare.

Why can’t leaders mobilize people on a sustained basis? Why is the Democratic Party just a shell run by elites? They don’t want people mobilized.

They’re afraid of you.


Unradical chic

Not Jonathan Chait

(Not Jonathan Chait)

Jonathan Chait did an annoying hit piece on _____ in New York Magazine. I put in a blank there because I expect to reuse the text. This time around the names to fill in are Cornel West, Tom Frank, and Mike Kazin. The subject is alleged “hatred” of the president. I will probably be able to reuse that sentence too.

Describing a position with which you disagree as motivated by “hatred” is one way to avoid engaging any actual arguments. Your adversaries don’t have any substance, they are just emotional: too stupid to be afforded the respect of having an argument worth acknowledging. These dummies have tenured positions at Princeton and Georgetown and/or have written well-regarded books.

Chait links to two offending pieces (linked above). His central point is common among defenders of the president: that critics fail to see any real constraints on what the president could have accomplished. Defense of Obama’s failures goes under assaults on the “Green Lantern theory of presidential power.”

While presidential power can be exaggerated, so too can the inertia of public opinion. There are positions that enjoy massive public support but little presidential effort, such as universal background checks for firearms purchasers. That doesn’t mean Congress will just roll over in support of positions that their constituents actually support, but it does indicate political potential. If nobody is talking about it, when does anybody think a change would be possible? There are other positions where public opinion is malleable.

Speaking for myself, I’d be happy to stipulate that Obama got most of what could be gotten in the realm of domestic legislation when he had Democratic majorities in the Congress. Health care could have been somewhat better, but not much. Ditto Dodd-Frank. The first stimulus was about as big as it could have been.

The main problem in the big domestic policy cases was the cynicism that the Administration and its apologists share: that public opinion is something they are stuck with, rather than something they can influence. I do not suggest this could have been changed enough in real time to affect the legislative result. I am certain if no ambitious policies are ever put forward and motivated, we will never get them. That’s the defensible truth of the West/Frank/Kazin critique: it’s not so much the policy compromises at the end of the process, it’s the rhetorical compromises at the beginning and right on through to the end, and beyond. It’s the lack of any sustained focus on any big, affirmative national goal (Kazin’s point). The prospect of some future innovation in policy seems foreclosed. The Obama presidency is over. He has turned himself into a lame duck.

An example. Obama’s own advisers knew a bigger stimulus was needed, one larger than $800 billion. (With the benefit of hindsight, even the bigger numbers would have been inadequate.) So the Administration took a deal for $800 billion. Fine. The problem was, they never motivated the need for something much larger. Their rhetoric was further crippled by the false notion that deficit reduction was something we needed to worry about any time soon. Even now, they tout deficit reduction, notwithstanding its harmful effect on employment. The advocacy for infrastructure, never incidentally put forward as any kind of strategy, is a sideshow. It should be the main event. If the GOP won’t give you the $20 billion you’re asking for, why not say we need $200 billion more? (Which we do.)

Perhaps at every point the president believed deeply everything he said. That brings up the bamboozle issue. A different person contested in the primaries in 2008. I’ll give you another example. In the debates Obama upheld the value of increasing the payroll tax to “fix” Social Security. Not my preferred solution, but whatever. After the election that notion sank beneath the waves, never to reappear. Instead we got support for the Simpson-Bowles bullshit: benefit cuts amidst a bouquet of other policy canards. That’s not a minor difference on a major issue.

Even presidential speech with no immediate legislative implications can be important. Here again the president a) failed; and b) contradicted prior stances. Two examples: during the goings-on in Wisconsin, the president might have said more than public school teachers ought to be respected, even though in the campaign he was Mister Labor Movement. This was a huge leftish uprising. Of white people. The White House was mute. For Occupy Wall Street, there was a national pattern of police abuse, including numerous violations of civil liberties. Ditto in Ferguson, MO. Did our professor of constitutional law president say anything? If Kennedy could deploy the national guard to protect black school children in Alabama, isn’t there something the Department of Justice could have done to defend the right of protesters to stand in the street in Missouri?

There remain huge areas of executive authority for the president that are not subject to micro-management by the Congress. One is foreign policy, another is homeland security, another still is law enforcement in regard to the financial crisis. Elaboration in these areas is left for another time. The point here is they are vital areas where the White House had substantial freedom of action. You can’t blame the manifest deficiencies on the Republicans.

The bit that has most got Obama’s dander up lately is the barbaric beheading of an American journalist by the latest Hitler-of-the-month, the so-called Islamic State (‘ISIS’). Events in the world have handed him a focus he could not bring himself to gin up on his own.

(Evidently not so barbaric are beheadings carried out on a routine basis by staunch U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. About some recent U.S. exercises in capital punishment, the less said the better. More barbaric, there’s the Israeli pummeling of Gaza, supported by the Orwellian rhetoric of an Israel besieged.)

ISIS now threatens to absorb all the political oxygen. Nothing else of consequence will be done. What does beckon is the morass of interventionism, and the way is prepared for the person who promises to outstrip Obama in this regard: Hillary Clinton.

The way is also open for a peace candidate in the 2016 primaries. More generally, there is space for new voices on the left willing to contradict the awful inevitability of a second Clinton presidency (again). A critical spirit must begin with the inadequacies of the current Administration. For that we will need other sources than New York Magazine.


“We are blues people. The blues aren’t pessimistic. We’re prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That’s different.”

— Cornel West

Today in liberal self-abuse


Hammer time

Hammer time

There’s a bit of a boomlet in counter-intuitive liberal assaults on the corporate income tax.

Bob Reich, amplified by Markos on Daily Kos, suggests we ditch the CIT and increase other taxes we like (on capital gains or stock transactions). My friend and brother from another mother Dean Baker has a baffling column on how eliminating the CIT would somehow cripple the tax avoidance industry. For a counter-argument, see Jared Bernstein. For the Slatepitch approach, see Matthew Yglesias.

While there is empirical research to support the premise that at least some of the CIT is borne by workers, 1) that isn’t the worst incidence one could imagine (consumers would be worse); and 2) that still leaves some of the burden on capital. (There is no evidence, none, contrary to Reich, that the tax is borne by consumers.) That hardly provides a good reason to pee on an existing revenue source in favor of politically dubious alternatives, especially now. Repeal of the CIT is likely to lose revenue, on net.

Economists have been disagreeing on the incidence of the CIT (who bears the burden) forever. As the paper I link to shows, by the formidable Jennifer Gravelle of the Congressional Budget Office, it’s not easy to pin down. Ergo confident assertions of this or that are dubious on their face. First do no harm is a good principle to restrain repeal proposals.

Reich also supposes there is some secret sauce in eliminating the CIT effect on domestic production. Notable in BR’s blurb is the utter lack of empirical evidence. It is an argument based on pure logic, notwithstanding there are counter-arguments that are equally logical.

One ought to recall the late 90s when no such tax relief was required to observe remarkable gains in employment and wages. (Didn’t somebody write a book about that?) This unfortunately dovetails with Obama Administration’s cockamamie plans to doodle the CIT and somehow incentivize domestic manufacturing.

Then Dean weighs in suggesting that eliminating the CIT will cripple tax avoidance. Well sure that is one way to eliminate tax avoidance; eliminate a tax. But untaxed corporations will gain value as tax shelters and spawn tax planning aimed at extracting cash from corporations at reduced or no tax rates. Increased dividends to the rich will stimulate their own use of tax planning. The same for increased capital gains. Capital gains taxation is the Disneyland of tax avoidance. And then, as Dean acknowledges, there is also the possibility of individuals erecting personal corporations to shelter income, which possibility Dean imagines can be easily precluded.

It’s all about aggregate demand, folks. The only tax reform worth discussing is one that would increase revenue, once the economy gets back to full employment. In the meantime we need higher deficit spending and Janet Yellen sitting on interest rates. All the rest is noise.

Standing while black

ftpftpThe Obama Administration, aided by the civil rights establishment, has shut down the uprising in Ferguson, MO. They accomplished this craven feat through two channels.

On the ground, they permitted the local police free reign to extinguish non-violent protest. The mechanism was very simple. The police cordoned off the area and certain locations within to inhibit mobility. They prevented people from assembling on a street they had blocked off, instead compelling them to keep moving. They raided a church that had served as an operational support to the demonstrators and confiscated supplies like milk, to treat victims of tear gas. They even raided the home of somebody making T-shirts sympathetic to the action. They would periodically send lines of thuggish county police to scatter groups of innocent people. They applied liberal, indiscriminate doses of tear gas, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets.

The inability to assemble is key. That’s how the authorities busted up the Occupy sites, once again to the indifference of the White House. The legal issue is explicated here.

The other channel was political. It was Rev Al Sharpton to the not-rescue, reportedly the Administration’s man on the ground. What is the opposite of agitator? There was a movie called “The Cooler” starring Bill Macy. As a casino employee, his gift was showing up at a table where a gambler was on a hot streak; his mystical powers would cause the winning streak to blow up in failure. Al was the cooler, taking control of the Brown family’s message, telling everyone what they should and shouldn’t be concerned about, failing to defend against the blatant denial of constitutional rights.

The civil rights groups failed in similar fashion. So did local African-American politicians. How do I know this? It’s very simple. None of them at any point said, people, we have a right to assemble. I’m going to stand in the goddamn street and challenge the police to arrest me. If you can stand getting arrested, why not come along? Nobody did that. It was the key to promoting continuing mobilization. Nobody did it. We did hear them talk about voter registration, and bully for them. There are parallels in the latter respect to the dissolution of the actions in the Wisconsin state capital a few years ago (in response to which Obama was also mute).

In the same vein, aside from initial comment that the police ought not to arrest journalists — subsequently ignored by police — the president and attorney-general limited their remarks to perverse digressions about wayward black youth and promises to investigate the shooting. (The capacity of Federal prosecutors to do anything about the shooting is quite limited.)

It is of course true that the Administration cannot command local police to do this or that. They cannot micro-manage local police. But they can issue remarks on lapses that I think could have had a powerful effect. It would have meant calling out bad actors. Perhaps — I’m not a lawyer, so this is speculative — they could have supported the ACLU suit to defend the right to assemble and freedom of the press. More was called for besides showing up and hugging the folks.

Then we have the media on site. One obnoxious narrative was the twinning of “violence” (meaning looting and throwing water bottles; as far as I could tell, the use of Molotov cocktails was much more limited) with peaceful protest. Of course, most of the violence was coming from the cops, and the priority should be defending basic rights of protesters. Notwithstanding that simple principle, we had the absurd adulation of good Captain Ron, beneficiary of softball interviews punctuating his direction of police violence and the arrest of journalists. Journalists against journalism, indeed.

I did see some signs of life on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and in Michael Eric Dyson’s column. They are both sensitive to the wayward black youth dodge, but not so much to the real-time demobilization tactics of the local authorities and the parallel indifference of the Administration.

A few types of distractions have become more clear in the wake of this event. One is that the demilitarization of the police, something for which I had a good word myself, is pretty superficial. You have a disenfranchised, impoverished community being preyed on by local elites and beat on by racist, not-even-professional cops. That they have tanks is beside the point. Michael Brown did not fall victim to a tank.

The other distraction is the default objections to violence and the obligation of the police to do something about it. There will always be anti-social elements at any agitated, mass gathering. The job of the police is to let people do what is legal and arrest people who do things that are illegal. This does not imply mass punishment in the form of tear gas assaults on undifferentiated crowds of people. Not letting people assemble is illegal. Pointing guns at people is illegal. Shoving them around for non-violent assembly is assault; it’s illegal. The police ran riot. They didn’t prevent disorder, they preserved disorder.

Unfair? Inaccurate? Feel free to weigh in.

P.S. See also Brittney Cooper in Salon and Glen Ford in Black Agenda Report.




The other bad shoot in St. Louis

A fellow named Kajieme Powell was shot dead by police in St. Louis on August 20th. This case is not as egregious as what we know about the Michael Brown incident. It just speaks, at the very least, to the lack of professionalism in St. Louis law enforcement. Powell was not in his right mind and had a steak knife. It seems to me that police are sufficiently well-paid that two of them could have taken a chance on arresting Powell without killing him. As explained here, the initial police error that made the ensuing tragedy nearly inevitable was their failure to stop and get out of their cruiser a sufficient distance away, rather than put one of their own in immediate danger.

By contrast, see below the video of a confrontation in London between unarmed police and a black man swinging a machete. (It is not obvious from the video that Powell was set to use his knife, though he was advancing on one policeman.) The London police are patient enough to eliminate the threat without violence.


Real libertarians step up

I am no libertarian. I desire a ginormous welfare state, and I love me some trade unions. I stipulate that as preface to a comment on some of the grousing by some liberals on the alleged evanescence of the “libertarian moment.” The civil liberties catastrophe in Missouri was a chance for them to demonstrate their bona fides on liberty, and supposedly they blew it. As examples we hear cited the failure of politicians like Rand Paul and writers like — I can hardly bear to type this — Jonah Goldberg. Fellas, you just haven’t found real libertarians. You need to look harder. Try Radley Balko. Try Brian Doherty. I couldn’t bring myself to look at anything Goldberg may have excreted, but Paul did publish a pretty good column that I previously referenced. He might have said more, but he didn’t.

There is also an interesting packet of articles on the bizarre local public finances of Ferguson, again from libertarians like Alex Tabarrok and Anthony Fisher.

Meanwhile, what about the goddamn Democrats? Would anybody, oh maybe the president, have the temerity to comment on the disgraceful performance of the state and local authorities in Missouri? Please spare me the babble about studies, commissions, hearings, and investigations. Couldn’t anybody utter a simple word, calling out the authorities for their denial of basic rights when it counts, in real time? No?

This was at least as much a failure of liberalism as of libertarianism. It’s not so hard for conservatives to heckle Democratic office holders; they don’t need an intellectually honest reason. It’s a cheap date. Of course they do not apply the same standards to their own team.

What are the liberals’ standards? You need a bloodhound and a magnifying glass to find them, when it is Democratic officials whose performance is in question.



On the suspension of the Constitution

This just drives me crazy. To add insult to injury, this whole debacle is under the jurisdiction of Democrats, though they are Missouri Democrats, for whatever that’s worth. Any political leader who fails to speak out is an utter failure, and as far as I can tell, very few have spoken out. Certainly not the President or his Attorney-General.

The ACLU went to Federal court asking for a restraining order on the police, in defense of the people’s right to assemble. It was denied. Defending the abrogation of civil liberties was the state attorney-general, one Chris Koster, another Democrat.

The liberal adulation received by Eric Holder for paying the residents of Ferguson the honor of his visit, is a total bafflement. This is a fellow who could not bring himself to say word one about the denial of elementary civil liberties.

An example is this atrocity of a statement, including:

We commend the actions of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and other elected officials for their strong stance against the senseless use of deadly force and the militarization of law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri.”

This claptrap was actually cosigned by the ACLU and a flock of civil rights organizations. All evidently in the tank for Obama.

The emphasis on militarization in context is really a dodge. What has transpired in Ferguson is worse than militarization. It is the denial of basic rights. Freedom of the press. The right to assemble. Basic.


Agitators, inside and outside

rosa parksThe outside agitator charge is one that has historically been invoked by authorities with bad arguments. Whatever misdeeds they have committed to provoke protest are indefensible, so they resort to canards. Usually the target is some sort of lefty agitation.

Any fool should know that an unimpeachable movement, for civil rights, was fueled by outside agitators, as well as inside ones. Civil rights workers came to the South from all over the U.S. to help register black people to vote. Union organizers often come into places they’ve never lived in before. So to suggest there is something inherently bad about outside agitators is usually reactionary bullcrap.

Of course it matters what sort of agitation is involved. Bad or unwise agitation is what it is, aside from its authors. When Al Sharpton was ranting about Korean grocers, that was inside agitation.

The other reactionary angle to outside agitator mongering is the implication that protest be confined to narrow subjects and goals. Politics is all about motivating big ideas by reference to specific incidents, among other things. So resistance to broadening protest is another form of reaction. I’m not on the ground in Ferguson, so I can’t say who is doing what to whom. All I can say is that justice for Michael Brown is a laudable objective, but it is not ambitious enough. What about the next Michael Brown? You know there will be one.

There are some visible outsiders in Ferguson who are very unlikely to make any sort of productive contribution. Making it easier for police to attack non-violent protesters by chucking shit, besides being cowardly, is a sure way to shut the whole thing down. On the other side, it’s possible that some local leaders would like to chill things out as much as possible, which means demobilize people. I don’t fault their intentions, but demobilization is not something to hope for.

There would be less downside to demobilization, which seems to be happening, in light of the evident lack of any organized action. If the only thing people are going to do is walk up and down the street saying justice for Michael Brown, they might as well go home. That message has been delivered. Absent any expansion of the protest, both thematically and politically, I’m not optimistic about the outcome.


Who’s the man?

sharpton-jewishThe vacuum of organization on the ground in Ferguson remains apparent. What do I mean? We see no public organized face to the protest, just a set of rotating independent actors, some honorable, others not so much.

At minimum, somebody needs to call themselves a damn committee, meet, and publish a leaflet (I know, that’s old fashioned; maybe a web page) with some minimal demands. First and foremost is a demand for the right to assemble, as purportedly guaranteed but-not-really by nothing less than the Constitution. Jim Dalrymple II of BuzzFeed and @adamserwer described how this right was denied, in daylight, Wednesday morning. There had been no violence, no shadowy figures running around in the dark.

There is organization on the side of counter-insurgency. First and foremost is former FBI informer the most Reverend Al Sharpton. He can lead rallies calling for justice for Michael Brown and admonish others to stay within boundaries ostensibly set by the family, in whom he has sunk his vampiric fangs, but apparently he can’t bring himself to join the protesters in the street and defend their right to be there. There is also the talk about ‘outside agitators’ (never in reference to the Rev), which is another way of saying protest must not exceed certain political limits.

Then we have the cult of Officer Friendly, a.k.a. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police. He babbles about ‘transparency’ in front of the television cameras, later directs the thug police to scream at people, shove them around, point their shotguns, arrest journalists, and the like. I’m not there on the ground, but I’m not so sure about the large fellows roaming around with shirts that say “Peacekeepers.”

There are some genuine out-of-town loonies in Ferguson. They are helpfully identified by their T-shirts. Older white dudes, invariably. I’m not giving them the respect of naming them, but I’ve seen them in action for forty years. Their game is to come out of a crowd of regular folks, do something to provoke police, then run back into the crowd. Or from within the crowd, provoke the police by throwing shit. The surest way to shut down the whole protest is to give police more excuses (though they can and will always invent some) to assault protesters and media.

The bottom line is that any political leader, including Sharpton, A-G Holder, and the president himself who fails to defend the elementary right to assemble is part of the problem, not part of the solution.