Guess I’ll have to dream the rest

ObamaRally_012814-thumb-640xauto-10055The election of John McCain or Mitt Romney would have been a disaster. The election of Barack Obama, for whom I voted in both the primary and two general elections, has been a disaster of lesser order. A valid criterion for evaluating Obama is not “Things could have been worse,” or Republicans would have been worse. That is always true. It is too low a bar from any progressive standpoint. The right counter-factual is what he could have done, not some utterly miserable alternative. Nor would I give credit for what should have been minimally expected of him, such as supporting an increase in the minimum wage, extension of unemployment benefits, defending voting rights, or appointing moderate liberals to the Supreme Court. He deserves points for doing things that are difficult, that force him to stretch, not things that are politically obligatory.

Before I launch into my screed, I should acknowledge the main things Obama can take credit for. I’m using the Washington Monthly’s list as a reminder/cheat sheet, though some of what they classify as achievements I would describe as blunders or atrocities. Even comical, in a macabre way.

1. The original stimulus. It was too small, but it was probably the most he could have gotten. It was too heavy on tax cuts, which have less juice.

2. ObamaCare. This is a flawed program, but it is still better than nothing. It’s helping millions of people.

3. Wall Street reform, in the Dodd-Frank legislation. This was also flawed, but my go-to guy on this issue thinks it’s a net positive. This is too complicated to elaborate on in this post.

4. Saved the auto industry.

5. Advanced gay rights, directly in the military and indirectly in the states.

Rather than go negative laundry list, I’d come back to what I see as the main issue. What is the purpose of the Democratic Party? Has the president articulated it? Has he organized on its behalf? I understand he can’t just enact whatever he likes by force of will or oratory.

The purpose of the Democratic Party is to provide for an ample welfare state; to domesticate the lawless, out of control wealthy; to clear a path towards environmentally sustainable economic development; to defend civil liberties; and to judiciously restrict American meddling in the affairs of other nations.

The weapon of first resort for these projects is the president’s own rhetoric, which is obviously under his complete control. If nobody even breathes the reforms we need into words, there is no hope for any adoption by Congress.

You cannot prepare the public for an ample welfare state by upholding the false god of deficit reduction, by alluding to non-existent problems in Social Security, by floating bogus pro-manufacturing tax cuts, by upholding bankrupt nostrums about using “the market” to fix health care and public education, by glossing over the failure of welfare reform, by promoting the Horatio Alger myth, and by pretending that $787 billion was an adequate stimulus package.

You cannot curtail the depredations of great wealth by allowing the miscreants of Wall Street to roam free, immune from accountability, in the wake of their orgy of corrupt practices. You cannot fail to use the crisis as an opportunity to educate the public and ram through legislation, rather than tell bankers “I’m standing between you and the pitchforks.”

You cannot move us towards a sustainable economy and avert catastrophic climate change while boasting of record extraction of fossil fuels, the expansion of off-shore drilling, and bogus ethanol or ‘clean coal’ subsidies.

You cannot defend civil liberties by allowing the burgeoning national security state free reign to ignore the privacy rights of individuals, to concoct fake terrorist plots, to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and to execute American citizens without benefit of due process.

You cannot advance a vision of restraint in foreign policy by prolonging what will prove to be the fruitless occupation of Afghanistan; by deploying the indiscriminate use of lethal force that victimizes innocent people; by grossly exaggerating threats of Iranian nuclear power; by fomenting destabilization in the formerly socialist countries bordering Russia; and by giving the state of Israel a blank check for abuse of the Palestinians.

I’d like to note that in matters of civil liberties and national security, the president’s malfeasance in terms of actual policy, or lack of policy, is entirely of his own making. He can’t blame the Republican Congress for matters over which he has legal authority and actual control.

Now you could say none of this should have been expected of Obama. I might have expected too much myself. I thought he might have a liberal heart. He doesn’t. If somebody becomes head of Exxon, dude is gonna drill for oil, not plant flowers. That’s irrelevant. This is what we need a Democrat to articulate and to organize for. Presently the Democratic Party organization is nothing more than a fund-raising/vote mobilizing machine. It wants electoral power, but it is not interested in advancing democratic political participation. It sends you junk mail asking your opinion so it can use your answers to send you more junk mail later that has been tailored to your answers, to ask for money. They’ve got this down to a science.

A truly democratic organization would be a place where people could go any time to socialize and chew the fat about issues, in conversations as equals. Instead we have election campaigns where all the positions are pre-ordained and supporters are driven like draft horses. We have ludicrous “town halls” that are mere platforms for politicians to pontificate, to always control the microphone, and to reserve for themselves the last word. We have elaborately scripted conventions while protesters outside are penned at a remove into “free speech zones,” if they are not just beaten by police acting on orders from liberal mayors. This is your Democratic Party! 

Obama might have initiated a change in course. After the 2008 election he owned the base. He could have mobilized it. But that’s not who he is. His chief operatives, the windows to his soul, are openly contemptuous of progressives. They have gone on to work for an assortment of scumbags, for retrograde causes. There is nothing new here. Could it have been different?

Here is Tom Frank’s take. I’ll let that stand on its own but respond to my friend Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones. Kevin defends the president by noting, accurately, the sadly passive state of public opinion. We all failed. Obama could not have sold out an upsurge that never occurred. This is perfectly consistent with my argument: Obama abdicated a leadership responsibility. As for how great the economic policy was, such that no upsurge was needed, there are actually good arguments that bailing out the ‘too big to fail’ bankers was neither optimal nor necessary. Moreover, the weak recovery implies enormous, possibly persistent economic costs. Kevin seems to think that you can’t accept compromises if you uphold ambitious goals. But of course you can. Republicans in the Senate do it all the time. In fact, sometimes they get just what they want.

Kevin suggests we have a collective failure and it’s unfair or inaccurate to pin the blame on the president. This is actually what an Obama organizer said to me years ago. You want more, go organize for it. Well fuck you, Obama organizer. To whom much is given, much is expected. We gave you the goddamn White House. We had a right to expect more.



Anybody but Hillary

HillaryClinton-HardChoicesWith the coronation of Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 all but certain, we are getting flashes in the pan of desperate alternatives: thus far Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I say desperate because the objectives that are floated seem murky. Everybody seems to acknowledge that Clinton would prevail, so what’s the point?

Let’s put aside the goody-goody, Boy Scout line that a primary contest is to be hoped for because it will help Clinton, or because it is some kind of healthy political hygiene. A useful primary effort should be dangerous.

The sort of campaign that can have some constructive effect is one that imposes costs on the front-runner and by extension, the party’s national elite/big donor/consultant machine. One cost is to compete with Clinton in such a way that she is obliged to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do, spend money and political capital she would prefer to deploy elsewhere. A critique of her centrism that effectively alienates potential liberal supporters is the obvious approach. But this would have to be quite a critique, to discourage support to the extent of depressing turn-out in a general election with very high stakes. To be clear, the ideal outcome is not to sabotage her campaign, it is to force her to commit to positions that are hard to reverse later.

Of course candidates’ primary campaign promises are never worth very much. I have a different, principal objective in mind. The Democratic Party needs to reconsider its purpose, since (like the Republicans) it is presently committed to policies that harm the nation and threaten the very survival of humanity. It needs to abandon the religion of deficit reduction. It needs to get serious about public investment, not content itself with a sprinkling of additional money (on top of a reduced baseline). It needs to reject its love for the corporatization of public K-12 education. It needs to reverse so-called welfare reform. It needs to be serious about climate change, rather than embracing the bogus theme of energy independence. And it needs to get out of the Empire business, not the least of which should include refusing to indulge every new barbarity committed by its Israeli allies.

I don’t see Warren or Sanders as especially dangerous for Clinton. I would support either in a heartbeat. They are fine public servants and invaluable Members of Congress, but they are vulnerable to the popular albeit misguided charge of being too liberal for the country. The guy who could really give HRC grief is not them but . . . Jerry Brown. He could outflank her on both left and right, which is both a curse and an advantage. Unlike these others, and unlike HRC, he has actually run things — the state government of one of the largest economies in the world, twice, plus a challenging local government. He has done real things as a public official. You may not like some of it — I sure don’t — but what has HRC done? She led an abortive health care effort and sponsored some bills in Congress. Really, any fool can sponsor a bill, though it took talent to screw up health care in the 90s. What did she do as Secretary of State, besides make speeches? The talk has been that foreign policy was actually run out of the White House, that HRC was more the figurehead on the ship of state, not the captain or the first mate.

I am not nominating Brown as my preferred standard-bearer. He is not an exemplary progressive figure. I do think he is crafty enough to break open the primaries, to replace formulaic debates about gradations of liberalism and centrist clichés with more interesting conversations whose destinations are not easily predicted. That’s what I mean by dangerous. In that environment, a more free-wheeling discussion could flourish, and perhaps other figures could emerge. The biggest enemy of political enlightenment is predictability. Predictability encourages boredom, and boredom precludes rethinking.


A turn of the screw

Tree, say goodbye to Apple.

Tree, say goodbye to Apple.

It’s Bash Bad Democrats Week on MaxSpeak. We have a target-rich environment. Today’s clay pigeon is Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.

We shouldn’t expect much of Democrats in the god-forsaken places of Redstate America. (Sorry, just look at whom you’ve sent to the U.S. Senate like, forever.) These days the best they can do is get elected by hook or crook and vote for a Democrat to be Senate majority leader or Speaker of the House. Elsewhere, however, we would like Democrats to be all they can be, in the liberal sense. I want to see Democrats push the envelope of what’s thought to be possible, rather than tacking to the center in order to maximize political support. People need to think differently, and leadership in that endeavor would be welcome.

If any place and any political office is ripe for this sort of adjustment, it is the governor of the deep blue state of New York. That’s why the machinations of Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu elaborated by Matt Stoller are worth some attention. (See also Curmudgucation and LOHUD.) The surprising New York City mayoral contest showed that the state is fertile ground for a progressive, populist shift.

andyclintonGovernor Andrew Cuomo rolls in the Clinton/Obama tradition. It’s not that he is no better than Republicans, or that he has done nothing. It’s that he could do more. We can applaud his moves on gay marriage, but the bar for endorsement should be higher than that. Everybody knows his centrism is motivated by presidential ambitions, if not his personal views as well, assuming he has some personal views. The people of New York are not obliged to subsidize his ambitions.

The best face you can put on this sort of political career track is that pragmatic, defensive politics are the only bulwark against Republican takeover and ensuing catastrophe. As I opened by acknowledging, in many places this is true, and it is at least arguable if we are talking about the White House, but New York doesn’t require pragmatism. A Republican couldn’t ruin New York. He or she can only occupy space there.

Defensive politics contains a malignant internal logic. By relying on clever deployment of conventional wisdom, it precludes the encouragement of changes in public opinion. Conventional wisdom supports terrible policies when it comes to budgeting, the welfare state, social insurance, public investment, climate change, and foreign policy, to name a few.

An example is Democrats’ perennial attack on Republican tax cuts for expanding the deficit. Deficit-reduction is usually bad policy. It has been used to justify the erosion of domestic public spending and attacks on Social Security, though never military spending, never tax cuts. By upholding this bankrupt fiscal doctrine, this folk wisdom, even in the absence of determined action on its behalf, the Administration leaves the notion to ripen and await the election of someone with the political wherewithal to exploit it with the most regrettable consequences.

The mission of a liberal opposition is to never be satisfied. Give credit where due, but then move on to new objectives. Maintain pressure to move leftward, otherwise witness political regress. Elevate substantive principle, threaten abstention of support for political leaders who fail to respond. Without the threat of abstention, there is no pressure on those in power to change. Promise to support them in the end no matter what, you might as well go home. The chief weapons besides negative publicity are primary campaigns and independent electoral campaigns.

So far Teachout and Hu are being good Democrats by going the primary route. I’ve never seen Hu in action. Teachout is very smart and very slick. She’s almost too good; it makes me a little suspicious. The fact remains, she is bucking the Cuomo machine, which automatically gets her points in my book. She won’t win, but she could be useful trouble for randy Andy.

I don’t begrudge the Working Families Party their deal with Cuomo and DiBlasio. I hope they get what they bargained for. But in New York there is room for another turn of the screw.

Go get 'em!!Go get ’em!!

Jonathan Chait wields the power of logic

Alerted by the lovely and ferocious Jane Hamsher, I was treated to the display of Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, promising to deploy the power of logic. badteacherJC defends eliminating teacher tenure standards, joining a movement that is now spurred by the recent not-Sophia Vergara court decision in California. (Showing my mad SEO skillz.) I regret to report that his use of the power proves somewhere short of awesome.

JC notes correctly that due to tenure restrictions a government’s need to lay off teachers in the teeth of the Great Recession causes the bad to be released along with the good.

This immediately raises two issues with which JC’s power of logic fails to reckon. One is, who says there had to be all those lay-offs? My answer is Federal policy that failed to backstop the inevitably pro-cyclical (meaning counter-productive — lower spending/higher taxes) state fiscal policy during the economic downturn. Two is, supposing there is no tenure, how do we know that administrators, given the opportunity, would effectively cull the chaff from the wheat, in terms of teacher effectiveness? Who after all are these administrators, but people who decided they’d rather do something other than teach?

It should be noted that tenure rules vary by state. Many teachers lack union protection. Even with tenure, there could be a probationary period of years that provides principals the opportunity to reverse their bad hiring decisions. Insofar as there are bad teachers, this apparently hasn’t worked. If principals have been bad at managing teachers, why would higher-level administrators be good at managing principals, who as managers have no tenure?

A third question that JC does consider is, assuming some job security protections are eliminated, how would the public sector attract better teachers? JC suggests that weaker job security could be accompanied by higher pay. My question, following his logic, is do we observe this in practice, ever, or more than occasionally? In that case, are we observing genuinely elevated pay scales or mere hyping of limited bonus schemes? I don’t know the answer. I would like to.

A settled fact about public sector employment is that workers accept somewhat reduced salary in exchange for greater job security. I suggest that low turnover among teachers is a good thing, and a move towards more of a spot market in teachers goes against the grain of stable employment.

JC relates a theory that is out there:

The liberal education-reform theory is that the public will be more open to higher taxes to support higher levels of teacher pay if teachers are accountable for their performance. Likewise, those dollars will be spent more effectively if they are related to performance rather than to years on the job.

Which raises another question: can performance be effectively measured? JC thinks so. I am skeptical. Sadly, this is not susceptible to JC’s power of logic. It is a matter of empirical evidence. Jesse Rothstein is your go-to guy on that issue. (Here’s Jesse on not-Sophia Vergara.)

Then JC offers an explanation of the labor market:

In most fields, your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job. 

Sorry, this logic is simplistic to the point of being just . . . wrong. Labor is not a spot market. Labor markets do not inexorably march towards equilibrium. The marginal product of labor is a non sequitur. The public sector is not a profit-maximizer. Both the seller and buyer of labor comprehend non-monetary factors, not the least of them being job security. Wrong wrong wrong. To this ever so slightly advanced level of labor economics I would propose my own maxim: a government that manages tenured employees badly will hire and fire untenured employees inefficiently as well, since bad governments are going to be . . . bad.

How many bad teachers are out there? JC offers a report written by his wife, which connubial support I think is commendable, no snark intended. The evidence for the frequency of bad teachers cited in the report consists of surveys of teachers and administrators. It is thin. Moreover, the magnitude of bad teaching as claimed and summarized here is also not much. After all, one has to weigh the negative impact of reduced job security on the majority of teachers, evidently not-bad in light of the report’s evidence, against the benefits of nailing the purportedly bad teachers. Ms Chait provides estimates of the benefits of removing bad teachers but a) assumes you can accurately single them out in the first place, and b) test scores are a legitimate criterion for success.

Powerful economic forces beset the teaching profession. Those with the capacity to be good teachers can make more money elsewhere. The public sector and the labor market in general are going backwards in labor standards. The effectiveness of schooling depends hugely on factors outside of the school, as Jesse’s pappy has written. And finally, education reform schemes can be taken up under a lack of supporting evidence.