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.

Check your credibility


Herein an odd recap of the New Left (circa 1968-72). The differences suggested between Lefts, ‘New’ and Newest are more superficial than real. Most of it has to do with the novel terminology one finds today, which I assume stems from arcane post-modernist academic discourse.

As in the olden days, characteristics of a tiny minority of the already tiny left tend to be attributed more widely than is justified. When you say New Left, a frequent association is to bombings by the Weatherpeople. This was a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that became even smaller when they started running amuck in 1969. SDS actually had an extended sequence of different vintages of Left, starting in the early 1960s, ranging from old-fashioned democratic socialists inside the Democratic Party to a smorgasbord of assorted Marxist and anarchist factions. One such faction, the widely reviled Weatherpeople (a minority, in numbers), were responsible for some tragic deaths, including a few of their own people, though compared to the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Japanese Red Army (sic), Weather was a bunch of bratty teenagers.

Today you can find talk of “intersectionality,” “positionality” and privilege checking, but this too is a feature of a minority of a minority. Typically the setting for this discourse is not activism. It is the pastime of people who tweet. I’d be amazed to hear there were challenges of privilege checking at gatherings of Moral Monday in North Carolina. Or the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building. Or the sit-ins of the Dream Defenders in Florida. To quote an old old lefty, it’s a “hurricane in a drop of water.”

Much that is old has become new again. Intra-left racial exchanges today echo the split in the civil rights movement that launched Stokely Charmichael’s “black power” message and black nationalism more broadly. The original Black Panthers, with their interest in cross-racial coalition, actually did a lot to offset that divisiveness, until the cops shot them up.

Gender conflicts originally broke out as women’s groups started forming around 1969, if memory serves, in reaction to cloddish behavior and deficient analysis by radical men. (Men’s groups formed quickly after, but as a much less common activity. You couldn’t have dragged me to one at gunpoint.) Since then gender identification has gotten much more complex. So that’s one genuinely new thing that would have mystified a time-traveler from 1968.

Finally, class. The New Left was substantially middle-class or greater, though this tends to be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that there was parallel, connected agitation in the labor movement and among veterans. No less than today, the class issue provoked endless navel gazing, since the objects of New Left students’ organizing were racial minorities and/or the working class. Historically, the leaders of insurgencies often come from privileged backgrounds. How much time is it worth dwelling on this? I’d say not much. It’s old news. A fair amount of the self-examination focused on racial bias. I wouldn’t say that none of it was productive. It’s certainly not new.

How much of the problems with the left today are due to bias stemming from the racial, gender, or ethnic identities of its members? I would suggest for all practical purposes none, zero, nada, zilch. The left’s problem is that it is small. You might quickly note the left is also fragmented, not least by identity-connected concerns. I suggest that if the left was larger — if it had larger, all-inclusive organizations — the fragments would come together to advance their concerns, and legitimate concerns would be well-served. How to grow the Left? Damned if I know.

The masses are not abstaining from left politics because of identity bias within the left. Rather, a certain notion of identity in the white middle class or working class, particularly in the South, has become a pole of attraction that animates the GOP and a nasty assortment of neo-fascist groups that blow up buildings, shoot doctors, and assault people with dark skin. That is the principal identity problem in the U.S.

The recent Stephen Colbert brouhaha is instructive. What began as Colbert’s sortie against racism out in the world, through SC’s defense of native Americans against racist epithets, was preempted and transformed into a complaint about Colbert. That sort of intervention does not contribute to any plausible concept of progressive activism. It is at best a distraction, at worst a modern echo of COINTELPRO.