More Notes on Police Reform

The Mind of Black Lives Matter | National Affairs

I would split the agenda into macro and micro pieces. Macro includes over-arching efforts in social transformation. Micro policies are aimed narrowly at policing.

In the Macro category, we could start with the agenda of the Movement 4 Black Lives coalition (M4BL), which includes Black Lives Matter (BLM) proper (but not Deray McKesson). Their program is mainline democratic-socialist, or if you like, social-democratic (there is really no difference, AFAIAC). Where it would differ from, say, the platform of Bernie Sanders is the inclusion of pointedly anti-racist planks, such as Reparations and “End the War on Black People.”

I’ve written critically about Reparations in the past and don’t need to rehash that here. The rest of the M4BL platform is broad enough to command wide support.

The political question is how an explicit call for “abolition” or “defund” is understood by the public. Without some elaboration, it could be taken to mean a complete absence of police, which is clearly a non-starter. The problem with a utopian demand is that we abandon the field to reformers about whom we might harbor serious reservations. For instance, most liberal mayors, both black and white, have failed to come through these past four weeks with enhanced progressive credentials.

The flip side of “defund” is that it tends to be reduced to “cut the police budget.” No doubt some of that money could be devoted to better purposes, but it doesn’t say much about changes in police practices. In that sense, it isn’t all that radical.

Politicians are skilled at moving money around in a way that looks like changes have been made, while underneath it all, the result is what the pols wanted to do anyway. One can only verify a change in a government budget by reference to an unobservable counterfactual, which requires analysis not easily conducted by the lay public.

There’s nothing wrong with a radical, vague slogan, as far as street agitation is concerned. And if you drill down into the details of, say, M4BL’s “End the War on Black People,” there are all sorts of things worthy of support. I’d say the challenge is to surface the most important bits, so that when people hear “Defund the police,” they know what the next steps should be.

Imagine that in response to huge protests, a local government convenes a task force to develop specific proposals. They could all agree to “end the war on black people.” But where would it go from there? In Jesse Jackson’s terminology, the “tree-shakers” make such meetings possible. But we need “jelly-makers” to Get. Shit. Done.

What to do? Most broadly, we need a major shift in the balance of resources from police to social services, or as M4BL says, “Invest in Care, Not Cops.” Much of what police waste time in now could be done more intelligently and more humanely by social workers, mediators, counselors, and others. We don’t need traffic cops to be armed to the teeth. We could also lighten the burden on police by decriminalizing more, if not all, drug offenses. We could de-incentivize arrests and citation-writing, especially for completely non-criminal acts, such as failing to pay a parking ticket.

As I’ve noted before, desires for any such shifts are confounded by the current, miserable condition of state and local government budgets. Thanks to the virus and the economic shutdowns, unless Congress acts, there will be no new money to expand non-police public services. The police may be defunded to some extent, but so will everything else.

Ultimately, we will need armed officers with arrest powers to deal with violent criminals. There is no getting around it. If there’s an armed bank robbery in progress, sending a squadron of social workers is not going to fill the bill. Denial of this will just drive potential supporters of BLM etc. to apologists for less meaningful changes.

Secondly, political leaders should command police to focus on public safety, not counterinsurgency. There is no reason to expend vast amounts of manpower herding around crowds of peaceful demonstrators. There is no reason to use violence against someone doing nothing more than blocking traffic.

Then there are some possibilities in the micro bucket. Here the “8cantwait” menu provided by Campaign Zero and Deray McKesson is more relevant, though it should be noted that M4BL has loads of fairly specific proposals as well.

I’d like to note that in the mainstream media, McKesson is commonly associated with Black Lives Matter. He’s been a guest on ‘Oprah.’ He is networked into the DNC. In 2016, he waltzed into Baltimore thinking that, with a bundle of tech and celebrity money, he could be elected mayor. He ended up finishing sixth in the primary. He is also reviled by BLM supporters on Twitter for appropriation of the protests’ energy.

The fact is that BLM and M4BL are separate organizations that do not include McKesson or Campaign Zero. BLM is a real organization with members, chapters, and leadership. Campaign Zero appears to be Deray and a handful of collaborators, more like a small think tank than a movement group.

They are all contending for brand ownership. They are all the beneficiaries of a new tidal wave of money from corporations and woke celebrities. That notwithstanding, their proposals deserve serious consideration. Their standing as leaders of the Revolution is a different matter.

There are definitely things to like in the #8cantwait litany, but also some items that invite ridicule (“Require officers to give a verbal warning in all situations before using deadly force.”—shades of Joe Biden). I’ve said before that much of it depends on police self-regulation, which begs the question of who will police the police. Elsewhere, Campaign Zero has spoken of civilian review boards, my own preference for an immediate, narrow demand.

If we can get effective governance of the police, by means of CRBs or otherwise, then all the suggestions in #8cantwait and M4BL become more salient. As long as police are out of control, we will have a problem.

Defund Tha Police? (draft)

I’m no expert on criminal justice, but that never stops anybody else from holding forth, so here goes. I did have a career in public policy, so I do think I have a few words of wisdom to impart. I’m also thinking aloud, since these issues are not cut and dried, as far as I’m concerned. As Marx (Groucho) said, “These are my views, if you don’t like them I have others.” Feedback is welcome.

First we have to back up a bit. Do we think we are going to smash the capitalist state? If we do, I’m afraid we are drunk. As long as there is a State, it will have a police force, or under current circumstances, several police forces. Not surprisingly, these police forces will be obliged to preserve the power of the State.

Next question, do we think the State is an irremediable institution impervious to reform? If we do, we can simply stop reading now. We are doomed. But like the joke about the man who responds to a dire medical diagnosis by resolving to find a different doctor, we could choose to begin with different presumptions.

A more optimistic view is that the State is a contested field. It can do both good and bad things. The idea that it cannot possibly do anything good is usually cast in illogical terms, and usually by people with a weak grasp of the details of policy. If for instance you are moved to denounce some new act of commission or omission by the State, I’m afraid you are stuck with the idea that constructive reform is indeed possible. After all, if you are outraged by some new, terrible development, it means that ex ante, things were somewhat better, or less bad.

What Lenin referred to as special bodies of armed men are surely one of the tougher nuts to crack, among other State institutions and policies. Unlike Lenin, we are not confronting a czar, at least not yet. In the interest of honoring #BlackLivesMatter, we should be interested in measures that are both effective and practical. In that spirit, I want to try to sort out the proposals that are floating around right now.

In one corner is the slick #8cantwait campaign promoted by Campaign Zero, under the leadership of Deray McKesson. This is often identified as a Black Lives Matter project, and McKesson has claimed to be a leader of BLM. The truth is that Black Lives Matter is a wholly separate organization that does not overlap with Campaign Zero.

McKesson came out of the anti-union ‘Teach for America’ operation and is networked into the Democratic Party and the NGO/foundation world (as was I, on a limited, obscure level). From where I sit, #8cantwait’s reform proposals are a mixed bag, and certainly wonky food for thought. Whatever you think of it, however, it is not the product of any sort of consensus among BLM activists. To the contrary, the project looks like a one-man operation by someone who rejects working directly with the plethora of BLM groups around the country. Campaign Zero is really striving to take ownership of the BLM brand.

Unfortunately, to some extent the protests have gravitated to a polar opposite of Campaign Zero, an abolitionist “defund” stance. Now I understand that can be an abbreviation for some kind of radical restructuring of policing, or a kind of opening bid to generate political pressure. We could reduce police budgets and allocate the funds for other purposes. It’s all good.

“Defund” does not necessarily mean a fantasy world without any police, but it does beg the question of alternatives. What it would look like is often left to the imagination, and there are voices literally calling for zero police. After all, abolition is an entirely negative position. Absent some more substantive proposal, the audience for this slogan is likely to default to a literal translation, namely that we will not have a police force.

That’s just ridiculous. It’s a dead end. It will never happen. People can keep yelling it, but eventually the protests will thin out. People have lives to get back to. There is burn-out. Police enforcement magnifies the attrition, in the form of physical injury and legal entanglement.

One angle to keep in mind, reminiscent of my younger years, is that the intensity of the moment drives one to seek deep, radical explanations. Back in the day, the twin evils of the Vietnam War and racism drove students like myself to hackneyed vintages of Marxism-Leninism. A tough problem required a tough solution. Today we see a tendency to reject reforms with tortured arguments that they are not sufficiently radical.

So in the other corner, a prime example of the desire for ruthless criticism, which I share, is this well-circulated graphic. Its authors are obscure, if not anonymous. The basic frame for criticism is the above-cited principle of abolition. Reforms must reduce the power of the police, regarding which “defund” is the signifier. The desired alternatives are reforms that challenge the legitimacy of policing itself. This is a horse of a different color.

My preferred remedies lie somewhere in the space between #8cantwait and abolitionism. I share some of the abolitionist critiques of #8cantwait proposals, though for different reasons. For instance, the plea for better police training. The wave of assaults on demonstrators and innocent bystanders that we observe are not the result of inadequate training. To the contrary, they are the fruit of malice unencumbered by fear of consequences.

I’ve also a jaundiced view of ideas that rely on what could be called self-regulation of police behavior, like an honor system, such as the demand for body cams. This requires that officers actually turn their body cams on, or leave them on during times when they have a substantial interest in turning them off. Another is the plea to show badges not covered by tape to prevent their identification.

In principle the government can discipline police who failed to self-regulate. In practice this is difficult. Police are a political power unto themselves. They can make life difficult for citizens and business owners. When they unionize, their power is enhanced. When one or a few screw up, the rest rally in support.

We ought not neglect low-hanging fruit – changes that are simple and easy to verify. For instance, deprive the police of military equipment that has no place in the community. Problem is, this has little practical import. Police brutality is not committed by fancy equipment, but by means of the most primitive of instruments – the billy club. The exception is weapons of chemical warfare. Removing that from the police arsenal would be welcome and is simple enough to implement.

The most relevant policy neglected in the protests is a demand for institutions capable of policing the police, what used to be called civilian review boards (CRB). In my ideal set-up, these boards would command the internal affairs division of the police department and have the power to investigate, discipline, fire, arrest, and prosecute police officers guilty of misconduct.

In an era of ubiquitous camera phones where police are under constant threat of being recorded committing crimes, the workings of a CRB could have a significant impact on behavior. The abolitionists reject CRBs on the ground that they have never been effectively stood up before. But on these grounds, we could reject the entire abolitionist platform.

Finally, there is the matter of policy, which goes to whom we elect to public office. Over the past few weeks, a wide assortment of liberal mayors, both black and white, have been exposed as either incapable or unwilling to direct their police forces to focus on public safety, rather than counterinsurgency. In other words, if less police manpower was wasted on the pointless task of moving around large crowds of law-abiding demonstrators, they could be deployed to prevent property damage.

The failure of local governments in this regard is mystifying. You might say they need to demonstrate the power of Capital to brutalize the population, to assert control, or ‘domination,’ as the president demands. I’m skeptical. Or perhaps police forces in conditions of mass upsurge are simply impossible for their elected bosses to control. I don’t have a better explanation. Maybe you do.

In any case there is a lot of good that could be done, by ongoing mobilization. Pressure works, and the State will react. Its legitimacy, which underlies the consent of the governed, is in worse shape than ever before. Even the Amish have come out.

The failure of a medley of liberal mayors opens up a new political space, but to fill it, a new movement needs organization and an appealing program that goes beyond three-word slogans. Thus far the local BLM agitation has a way to go in this regard. A demand to defund the police might fill a town square, but it will not win an election. In the vacuum, the danger is that an #8cantwait posture of noodling with reforms and herding people back to supporting lackluster Democratic politicians will coopt protest energy and stave off more compelling solutions.

The new political opening places a new burden on the opposition. It will have to get more specific about positive reforms and self-avowed reformers. After all, some of the failing mayors themselves came up as critics of police misconduct. Now more than ever, there is potential for progressive electoral campaigns, founded on candidates who make hard commitments to reforms. In this context, the Democratic Socialists of America, to which I belong (but do not speak for), could play a crucial role.

An account of the right way for DSA to engage the agitation, from my standpoint, is here. I am not referring to the demands themselves, which smack a bit too much of the abolitionist error discussed above. The two key takeaways for me are: 1) cooperate with local leadership of the protests, and do not pretend to be leading them, unless there really is no other leadership; 2) be clearly identified as DSA, with banners if possible, and do not be shy about inviting others to learn more about DSA (literal recruiting on the spot would be ham-handed).

We should not require candidates to declare themselves socialists; such affirmations are as easily abandoned as anything else. But we can take steps to cement them into progressive positions. The key disciplining mechanism is the establishment of independent progressive organization, which can make credible threats to withdraw political support when necessary. An added source of flexibility is that third party candidacies are more feasible at the local level. There is not as much of a penalty if a left campaign causes a centrist to lose to a right-wing candidate. We can survive conservative mayors. Surviving another four years of Trump is altogether a different thing.

In general, the objective should be to create something durable out of the current, unprecedented upsurge. Very few such opportunities present themselves. It would be a tragedy to let one pass by, not least considering the burgeoning, multiple crises with which we are now confronted.

The Real Bernie-Haters Are in DSA

The National Political Committee (NPC) of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which I am a member (DSA, not its NPC), has voted 13 to 4, against the following resolution:

“Should DSA ask members in swing states to consider voting for Biden?”

I joined DSA after leaving the Federal government in 2017, enthused by the wave of support for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. It seemed well-positioned to take that wave forward into something enduring. My optimism was elevated by the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad.” This sort of political success was associated with the growth of DSA to an organization of over 60,000. There had been nothing like it on the left for decades.

Defend “The Squad” against racist, sexist attacks - Freedom ...

It should not have been surprising that such growth also attracted those to the left of DSA. Some were like me, resigned to the impossibility of revolutionary transformation, looking for constructive, realistic alternatives with some promise of winning incremental, progressive reforms. In our flaming youth, DSA’s entrapment in Democratic Party politics was viewed as bankrupt, and DSA leaders like Michael Harrington viewed with contempt.

It cost decades of unproductive activism and disappointment, but eventually it became clear that the old DSA view is now, if it wasn’t always, the best of a bad set of political options. The political rules in the U.S. render third parties impractical, and the social reality makes socialist revolution impossible.

Others are fully committed to one or another form of left politics that is founded on third party initiatives or some kind of unstated, hallucinatory scenario of smashing the State. These latter types are practicing what is sometimes called “entrism.” When you can’t make any catches in your own little pond, you go where the fish are. If I were of like mind, it’s what I would do too. I can’t fault their intentions.

Like these folks, who are mostly young, my twenty-year old self wouldn’t have listened to me today either. It was great to know everything. The recent appeal by veterans of Students for a Democratic Society was met with scorn. You could reanimate Gene Debs or V.I. Lenin and they would get the same reaction. Scolding doesn’t work.

The problem now is that this view effectively controls DSA and will drive it into a ditch. There is a fundamental difference between voters energized by Sanders, AOC, and the like, and a DSA leadership that can’t bring itself to urge a vote against Donald Trump. The issue here isn’t the electoral outcome. I doubt the NPC’s utterances will have any appreciable impact. What is more at stake is DSA itself and the future of the U.S. left.

An article in Politico from December 2019 detailed the shape of Joe Biden’s inner circle or ‘brain trust.’ This claque stinks to high heaven. The story makes it clear that absolutely nothing new will come out of his Administration, aside from the non-trivial facts that it will dethrone a neofascist regime, will probably shore up the right to vote (for its own sake, if no other’s), and will hopefully alleviate the impact of the current pandemic.

The argument that renunciation of progressive initiatives by a Biden Presidency paves the way for the next, worse version of Trump has merit. But much more so does a second Trump term, given its likely damage to our surviving democratic institutions. The DSA proclamations may have little electoral impact, but the course of the U.S. left will matter for resistance to fascism, as well as progress beyond neoliberalism.

I want to acknowledge that at the local level, DSA people are doing many useful things, including supporting viable progressive electoral campaigns. I am not announcing my resignation – nobody would care, obviously – nor would I urge anyone else to leave. Quite the contrary, by all means, join DSA and find some congenial activist project. They have many. Only then would you have any chance of influencing the trend of the organization.

That notwithstanding, to my way of thinking the good local work lacks any national coherence. That is supplied by an NPC dominated by political naïfs. Some in DSA would oppose a Sanders endorsement if he ran for president as a Democrat. DSA includes a caucus under the rubric of libertarian socialism. There is a “communist caucus,” imagine that. The apple has rolled a good way from the tree.

These enragees are apparently unaware of the differences that Trump, Obama, and Biden have brought to actual policymaking. For instance, there is a difference between allowing DACA people to stay in the U.S., which Obama did, and the threat to deport them, which could not be more obvious, coming from the Trump White House. Don’t they know? There are many such examples. Speculation about Hillary or Biden wanting to go to war with Russia or whoever is not a serious response.

I am not going to bother posting this on any DSA forum, because I know the responses will be mostly inarticulate “LOLs” and “you condone rape.” It’s not worth my time. We need a political formation focused on fighting fascism as well as promoting progressive reforms. The fascist threat will not disappear after a Biden victory. There is no real space inside of DSA to promote such a view, but we could hope that DSA would migrate to it as its importance and popular support became more obvious. The cure for left entrism is to build something big enough to dissolve the irritants.

Class Always Tells

Class conflict - Wikipedia

At the risk of exploiting unforeseeable turns of events to validate all my priors, I want to argue that the unfolding of the 2020 Democratic primaries does not invalidate a class-based approach to politics. The exponent of this notion whom I want to criticize is Zack Beauchamp in “Why Bernie Sanders Failed.”

His basic argument is that the Sanders’ campaign strategy rested on two premises that didn’t prove out. One was to ground the appeal to the working class and youth, which fell flat because black voters supported Biden, white workers who flirted with Bernie in 2016 are now for Biden or Trump, and youth didn’t turn out.

Beauchamp concludes that identity and party affiliation trumped class. He fails to consider that those things are themselves founded on material self-interest, which is to say, class.

The normal reason to be interested in politics is out of an interest in policy outcomes. How will this candidate affect my life. Are her policies good or bad for the country. So the first question ought to be, what outcome should we prefer?

The horserace commentary seldom takes that concern as a point of departure, perhaps on the grounds that it reflects a bias. I would suggest that a neglect of policy is also a bias. Choose your poison.

There is widespread acknowledgment that Sanders’ proposals are popular, well beyond the boundaries of his actual electoral showings. If the usual warnings about climate change are taken seriously, then his proposals are not merely nice to have, but vital to the future of humanity. Beauchamp conflates a vote for Biden not merely with a rejection of Sanders’ proposals, but with a flight from material interest.

A different conclusion is that voters interpreted their class interest more broadly, and more pragmatically, than with support for Medicare For All, etc. In other words, they could have concluded that because Biden is the most electable of alternatives on offer, a vote for Biden was the best guarantor of their class interest. One could disagree with that reasoning, but it makes perfect sense, as far as it goes. Your class-obsessed author happens to think a second Trump term will create more irreversible damage and constitute a harbinger of a more open fascism. Defeating fascism is a legitimate, class-based interest too. The underlying sentiment is not necessarily detected from the responses to survey questions that ask, “What is more important, beating Trump or free college?” The refusal of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which I’m a member, to endorse the only candidate who can prevent a second Trump, namely Joe Biden, is a travesty.

One could make similar arguments when it comes to identity or party affiliation.

I’m not the person to explain African Americans to anyone, but it seems reasonable to suspect that Trump is viewed as profoundly inimical to black material interests, over and above his class warfare. Trump screws the working class, but there’s an extra turn of the screw for minorities. Nor does it take a genius in a minority group to realize that political power depends on alliances, which points back to electability and class consciousness. In other words, African Americans understand they have some common economic interests with a broader group – the working class, so they see the Democratic Party as most deserving of their support.

When it comes to women, anyone who does not think reproductive rights are unrelated to material interests just needs to fall back. As for racial or religious minorities, a pragmatic choice should not be conflated with an indifference to class.

It is true that minorities and women may perceive a material interest that is often not well-served by a narrow class-oriented politics. The dilemma is that there is no viable, alternative way to pursue that interest, other than accepting the limited rewards that come from Democratic Party rule. Support for an often disappointing alternative is somewhat compensated for by hopes of progress, and indeed progress – incremental, positive reforms – are often observed.

When it comes to party, of course Sanders has always based his appeal on not being a Democrat. But why are Biden voters Democrats in the first place? Is it possibly out of some conception of their class interest? I don’t think one can reject this possibility out of hand, or legitimately ignore it altogether, as Beauchamp does.

Another angle of criticism of Sanders is the claim that voters do not act on policy, so a programmatic campaign lacks the juice for voter appeal. This could be read as another knock on class politics, but here again a preference for an anodyne appeal based on ‘values’ or warm fuzzies, a performance rather than a platform (Hi, Senator Booker!), is not a neutral policy stance. By foregoing policy commitments, we simply cede decision-making flexibility to the powers that be.

I do think the Sanders movement is hampered by some misconceptions and biases.

One goes to a running argument I’ve had with anti-Sanders voices complaining that he failed to drop out in 2016 or this year when it became obvious he could not be nominated. My point was that the Sanders campaign is a movement, not a mere electoral vehicle. It’s raison d’etre is to be self-sustaining, indefinitely. No letting up, no permanent victories. A primary campaign is just another opportunity to preach the gospel, one that some on the left discount to their disadvantage.

It is possible to continue to campaign, even compete with Joe Biden, without diminishing his chances in November. In fact, I would argue that a continued campaign could enhance those chances, providing it focuses its fire on Trump. If I was Sanders, I would focus on the locales where I had the best chance of turning non-voters or Trump voters into Democratic voters.

Civil criticism of Biden is conducive to party unity and heightens the contrast with the current, barbaric administration. The contrast also tends to debunk likely Republican charges that Biden is some kind of crypto-socialist. Moreover, the other extreme of Bernie-or-nobody reduces the prospects for future contenders from the left for Democratic Party nominations. You can’t expect to be welcomed to compete within the party if you walk away after a defeat. Nobody wants to play heads-I-win/tails-you-lose.

Ironically the campaign itself may have lost sight of this, its fundamental mission. One factor is its failure to discipline the ranks of its most toxic supporters, which diminishes prospects in November, as well as for the indefinite future. I happen to think that factor is highly overblown, but it is not utterly without significance.

The other was the reported belief that Sanders could win the nomination if he could beat the other candidates one-on-one with pluralities of votes, what we could call a thirty percent strategy.

Both of those notions may have been magnified by the urgency of winning this year by hook or crook, since it will be Sanders’ last rodeo. But if we acknowledge the campaign is an ongoing movement to radically change capitalism, not just an electoral campaign, then it should be realized that this is not accomplished with 30 percent pluralities and a Congress full of meh Democrats. It’s a long-term project, a marathon rather than a sprint. Politically it requires not a thin majority, but a crushing one.

Moreover, it must be about more than Sanders. There ought to be a new raft of leaders that are being groomed to take over. I love AOC as much as anyone, but we need more than one or four of her, and probably some with a decade or two of additional experience. A singular leadership lends itself to personality cults.

I go back to the question, what do we want? If it’s ultimately the Sanders platform, the working class is the logical vehicle. It would be foolish to fail to appeal to all who would benefit from one’s proposals.

There has been an argument that racism has been indelibly ingrained in white people since the dawn of America, but in one sense that is beside the point. The nature and doings of racism are shaped by the social and economic environment. There have been periods when class power reduced the salience of race. In particular, the industrial union movement in the 1930s, which included not a few profoundly racist white workers, wreaked enormous, positive changes that benefitted the entire working class. Clearly those benefits were not uniform across racial lines, but they left everyone better off.

In more recent years, the Jesse Jackson campaign resonated with a noticeable slice of the white working class, and we also have stories about Obama-to-Trump voters. Given the closeness of the 2016 election, it only requires the defection of a slender margin of such Trump voters to swing the outcome to the Democrats.

The usual alternative proposed to class politics is an appeal to ‘the suburbs.’ This is a bit of a misnomer. Of course, there are working class suburbs. What’s really in question is politics without much of a redistributive edge. A ‘suburban strategy’ is just another way to evade class issues, an evasion that is equivalent to an anti-working-class posture. There is no neutrality in this dimension. You’re always on one side or the other.

A common attack on Sanders was his neglect of race and gender. While he is fair game for that criticism, when the choice was between him and Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, any hint of a relative shortcoming on issues of race is ridiculous. There was more grist for this mill in the case of gender, but only in comparison to Clinton.

It remains the case that removing the Trump Administration is a necessary condition for progress, since progress requires survival. Another four years of Trump further erodes voting rights, especially for youth and minorities, fills out the Federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues, and removes all regulatory constraints on capitalist predation. In that scenario, survival, much less opportunities for our revolution, look unlikely.

All indications are that the Sanders movement, the U.S. social-democratic movement, will keep banging away on its class program. It has obviously gotten the message that it needs better roots in African American communities, better turnout among youth, and more difficult work cracking the white working class.

Coming of age in the 60s, my awakening to the country’s racist and imperialist moorings led me to think a revolution was not just urgent, but because it was urgent, it would also be possible in a relatively short time. The former does not imply the latter.

Lost in the history of the New Left, a wise woman once said something to the effect, “We had convinced ourselves we would make a revolution. But revolutions are not made. They are rare events.” Practical possibilities do not follow from moral imperatives.

These States

Government Budget Cuts Programs for Elderly

I ought to get my wonk on and write about the priority of bolstering state and local government resources, since I’ve worked on this intermittently since the 80s. This crisis will blow a huge hole in state government budgets, due to increased expenses and greatly reduced revenues. When I was at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), I worked with the group that designed the Medicaid bump-up for Obama’s recovery act to aid the states. I was in the formula gang.

Federal efforts in this regard were notably inadequate. The state-local sector suffered a huge loss during the Great Recession, which meant less money for the full gamut of public services that people rely upon, and a slower national recovery from the recession. At GAO, we couldn’t tell Congress how much to spend on aid, but we could suggest the most efficient way to distribute it.

Ezra Klein once remarked that the Federal government was like a huge insurance company with an army. I don’t know if that witticism was original to him. The basic point is that, aside from deploying military force all over the world, what the Feds mainly do is mail checks to health care providers (Medicare), seniors and the disabled (Social Security), and state governments (Medicaid).

Services are delivered by state and local governments. These governments lack the borrowing and money-printing capacities of the national government. They are obliged by law and by economic reality to balance their budgets, at least approximately. They need to keep spending in line with revenues, in order to convince lenders the government’s loan obligations will be honored.

An exception to strict budget balance is the practice of capital budgeting, which allows for long-term borrowing, principally for capital projects. The ability of governments to borrow, by selling bonds, hinges on their perceived ability to meet their debt-service obligations. If their finances are a mess, they must agree to pay higher interest. Borrowing will cost more. In any event, the scope for this “off-budget” borrowing is limited.

State laws regarding finance are relevant insofar as they are forced to rank debt obligations above other spending, even for basic services like public safety, water, or sanitation. It helps if a capital project comes with a guaranteed revenue stream, such as the tolls for a bridge. Those factors are what disciplines state and local budgeting. In a downturn, state and local governments can only deal with lost revenues by cutting services.

Years ago, I organized a seminar for a bond expert who noted that although the state government of Illinois was a financial basket-case, its law protected the bonds it sold. Creditors would be paid before anyone else. In this sense, state governments rarely go bankrupt. There are a few cases of local governments going bankrupt. Detroit, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are notable examples. In extreme circumstances, the local governments are effectively superseded by some kind of control board. The citizens bear the burden of a downturn, in the form of a contraction of vital public services. The creditors are usually made whole.

Two key considerations in designing aid provided according to formula are targeting and timeliness. Targeting benefits from more data, but in the case of state and local governments, some data is too infrequently available for use in combating a recession. Moreover, older data can fail to reflect changes on the ground, in the interim between when data is collected and when it is provided. Target effectiveness erodes over time.

Less data pertaining to state and local jurisdictions is available on a timely basis. You can forget anything like Gross Domestic Product at the state level. There are published numbers, but they involve some hocus-pocus.

The best option is the local unemployment rate, which is revised every month. It is widely understood (at least, people think they understand it), and it is sensitive to local business conditions. It was the key variable used to make the temporary increase in Medicaid grants sensitive to state economic conditions.

It isn’t perfect. The monthly state unemployment data is ‘noisy,’ meaning subject to error. Moreover, a pair of states could have the same unemployment rate but different levels of personal income or poverty. In principle, other data would be relevant to allocations, but other data are only available on an annual basis, and with a lag.

Below the state level, meaning counties or cities, there is even less information to go on: less reliable, and less frequent. One resort is to leave local distribution up to the states, on the grounds that state governments will have a better handle on intra-state conditions. Their considerations, of course, will also depend on the state government’s solicitude towards their local counterparts, which is not always forthcoming.

When Congress considers formula options, it is a seamy business. Often suggestions to include this or that variable are self-interested. Members want to see how the numbers come out for their own state. If they like the results, they volunteer high-minded arguments for their variation that purport to advance the national effort.

In the fight over recovery act money during the Great Recession, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia played the heroic, selfless role. Senator Max Baucus only cared about what was in it for Montana. Certain Republican Senate staff were most concerned with how to screw California and New York. There was one in particular, whose name I have forgotten, with absolutely the worst hair plugs you have ever seen. It looked like it had been done by a first grader with library paste and dog hair. It was painful to look at.

For the most recent annual data available, state and local governments spent $2,364 billion. A ten percent downturn in GDP, right now an optimistic estimate, would roughly translate to a $236 billion hole in their budgets. You could double or triple that number to simulate the impact of a 20 or 30 percent fall in GDP.

To some extent, state shortfalls will filter down to local governments. Services of all types will have to be curtailed. That means police, fire, corrections, education, sanitation, etc.

The latest Congressional action provides $150 billion to the states, clearly inadequate, and an unnecessary brake to economic recovery. At this point, it looks like the money will be distributed on a straight per-capita basis. It’s the simplest option, which may be encouraged during an emergency, since it minimizes arguments. More sophisticated designs are possible, but once politics is involved, it becomes more of a food fight. With a more enlightened Congress, better technical fixes would be more feasible.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has noted that the state aid breaks with usual practice and fails to treat the District of Columbia like a state. The aid has a floor for states with the lowest population counts. For no rational reason, the district’s allocation has been set well below that minimum, even though the district has higher population counts than several states. It’s a disgrace.

One available pipeline to increase aid, used after the previous recession, is the Medicaid program, as the National Governors Association has proposed. What’s also in store, on top of the $150 billion noted above, is an increase in Medicaid matching rates for all states. Insofar as Medicaid eligibility expands, this will be eaten up in increased medical services. The rest is effectively unrestricted fiscal assistance, not a bad thing.

An even percentage expansion of Medicaid matching rates has the advantage of being somewhat sensitive to state conditions, but the data employed to determine the rates is not current. In the Obama recovery package, the increase in the matching rate was further modified to reflect up-to-date state unemployment rates.

The advantage of distribution by formula is that it broadcasts what every state will get, which facilitates planning. It is easy to agree upon and the mechanisms are already in place, so the money can be moved quickly. The provision of unrestricted funds in the current moment is justifiable, since it affords discretion to state governments that are better situated to assess needs in their own budgets than is the U.S. Congress.

State governments are not always the most solicitous of local needs in urban areas, but we have to go to this war with the system we have. Whether the politics of this struggle will yield a better system for the future remains to be seen.

32 Poems: Republican Debate Liveblog with Allen Ginsberg

Killing Us: The Genius of Capitalism

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The title was a phrase that I believe emerged after the 2008 financial meltdown. There was also a book title about a hedge fund that effectively went belly-up but was saved by action of the Federal Reserve. The latter title was “When Genius Failed.” Failure is much in evidence now.

The most recent press conference atrocity had an interesting exchange between Trump and a reporter about the Defense Production Act. The president went on a riff about the shortcomings of nationalization. His basic example was the hypothetical of telling a company to produce ventilators, and “they have no idea what ventilator is.” This sort of stupidity is killing us, in real time.

Behind the scenes, it has been reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying against implementation of the DPA. So the Chamber is killing us too. Their members, not surprisingly, don’t want to be told what to do.

For his part, I imagine the president likes the idea of dickering with specific companies, which he imagines he is good at, trading favors. His idea is that business firms will volunteer to produce what is in short supply. In the fullness of time, they probably will. But that will be too late, and the cost will be needlessly high. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York noted that face masks that used to cost 80 cents are now being hawked for $8.00. This is indeed the genius of capitalism.

Trump wants to apply the Department of Defense model to virus-related purchases. In that model, the “market” is reduced to a sole-source contract with soft constraints on cost overruns, guaranteed minimum returns for the company, and concealment of all details of the transaction on proprietary grounds.  

The point of nationalization, even if temporary, is to nail down specific production targets and fair prices. There are undoubtedly business firms in the U.S. that can produce anything that is in short supply. New York State seems to be doing it all by itself, if Governor Cuomo is to be believed.

When a bank fails, the government’s regulators march in after Friday close-of-business. The owners and top managers are dismissed. Shareholders and debtors are given haircuts or beheadings, depending on how bad things have gotten. Depositors are made whole, with capital infusions if necessary.

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation model is relevant here. A firm that fails to produce what is needed, when it is needed, can be propped up with loans or grants, or taken over if necessary.

What’s in question here is not planning versus “the market.” There is no market in any meaningful sense of the word for critical items. Failure to generate necessary supplies, relying on volunteers, is a plan in its own right. A very shitty plan. We can do better.

Cash Me Out

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It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and more recently, no fiscal conservatives in a recession. In the same spirit, calls for the Federal government to send money are coming from some unlikely quarters.

There are obvious reasons to proceed.

  • Sending individuals money encourages consumer spending, which supports the employment of those producing and distributing the goods and services which are purchased. This boost to spending alleviates the negative impact of workers’ reduced spending resulting from layoffs and business shut-downs;
  • The families of workers who are forced to skip paychecks would suffer losses of food, clothing, and shelter, absent cash assistance from the Federal government;
  • An economic slow-down will generate business bankruptcies and investment reductions that will detract from future economic growth and well-being.

Before consorting with strange bedfellows, it is best to get prior agreement on unorthodox practices

Remedies that have been proposed include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, cutting the payroll tax, and sending individuals money directly. Aid to business firms or to state and local governments is a separate can of worms, important but not discussed here.

When it comes to giving individuals cash, the two values in principal tension are the desires to stimulate the economy, and to provide relief to families in greatest difficulty. In one sense, these could be seen to be complementary, but in another, they are not.

They are complementary in the sense that families in the greatest economic distress are also the most likely to spend any Federal aid. The higher one’s income, the less this crisis is likely to detract from one’s routine spending. So what could be seen as fair also happens to yield the biggest ‘bang for the buck.’

This is a little too easy a judgment, however. The reality is that any Federal aid program will be constrained to some finite allocation of funds. We can think of reasons to forego any such limitation, but for political and economic reasons, a ceiling on aggregate aid is likely. That brings up the issue of targeting by means-testing, something that has become anathema on the left.

Means-testing may be conflated with a bias towards a small program with less cash forthcoming, in contrast to a universal program. To the contrary, a means-tested program can be huge, and a universal one can be small. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, ‘food stamps’), for instance, is a large means-tested program. So is Medicaid. Total expenditure is a separate decision. There should be little doubt that the circumstances call for a new, very big, ongoing program.

Size matters, but for any given allocation of funds, means-testing can improve both the spending impact of aid during an economic downturn, and the fairness of the allocation of funds (meaning those of less means get more).

Size aside, another nostrum is that a universal program is more politically durable than a means-tested one. Typical examples are Social Security, as the universal case, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, or popularly, ‘welfare’) as means tested. This is not a good argument.

Here durability is not an immediate concern. The priority is to get through the crisis. That aside, Social Security in the first place is not universal. It requires somebody to have a record of labor earnings. Moreover, it is more than a universal program. It is social insurance, the political strength of which rests in great part on its contributory nature. To be eligible (or for one’s dependents to be eligible), one must have paid into the program directly, via the payroll tax. People can say, “Don’t you dare cut my Social Security; I paid for it!” And they did. Besides not quite being ‘universal,’ Social Security benefits are determined according to a progressive formula, itself a type of means-testing.

The unpopularity of AFDC rested to a great extent on its racialized and gendered connotations. It was viewed as an inducement to irresponsible behavior by poor, black women with illegitimate children.

Both Medicaid and SNAP are means-tested and have proven politically robust. Medicaid in particular grew by leaps and bounds during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It is also true that Social Security has been under assault since the 1990s, its so-called universal status notwithstanding.

Where does this leave us as far as sending folks money goes? We should keep in mind that in isolation, no program can live up to an idealized scheme. It is always a question of tenable alternatives. We could readily acknowledge that in the current crisis, most any program is better than none. But we ought to do better than “better than nothing.”

Sending everybody (or every adult) a fixed payment, these days, often described as a Universal Basic Income (UBI) grant, is a poor allocation of resources. Those of greater means will spend relatively less of their aid. So the flat payment is inefficient. At the same time, those with lower income have greater need for aid, so a flat payment is arguably unfair as well.

My friend Dean Baker disposes of the “send everybody a check” idea, though a close reading reveals that he says the idea provides both too much and too little. Too much to those who would not spend the money, and too little to those in greater need, who would spend their assistance. In other words, it lacks the impact and efficiency of a targeted program.

Sending everybody a check appeals because it sounds simple and could readily gain political approval. Yes, but that’s because it is less progressive than alternatives. It’s easier to do because it isn’t as good. A concession to conservative politics may sometimes be necessary, but it’s still a concession.

A payroll tax cut is an even less fair or efficient allocation, since there is more relief, the higher one’s salary. Moreover, it provides nothing for those unable to work, those who have been laid off, or retirees whose working lives are over, many of whom have low or zero income.

Bumping up the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) brings up similar gaps as a payroll tax cut. Apparently the temporary payments supported by the Republicans resemble an EITC: the benefit starts at zero for those with no income and increases as income does over some range. Then it phases out over some higher range.

For any fixed amount of funds, there is no getting around the superiority of a negative income tax (NIT) scheme. It would provide a fixed payment that decreases as income increases. Benefits could be as high as you like.

It is true that such a scheme would not easily gain political approval, but that’s because it is better – more progressive – not because it is complex. On the complexity front, there is one extra parameter to stipulate – the rate at which the benefit declines as income increases. That’s it. Individuals would have to apply for it and report income and, if you like, dependents.

Remember, the right way to evaluate an option is in light of alternatives. Sending everybody a check sounds simple. It is not, either administratively or politically. For one thing, there is no unified list of “everybody.” And who is everybody? The incarcerated? The undocumented? Ex-offenders? The homeless?

We have existing pipelines that can be used for assistance. The IRS knows who files income tax and pays payroll tax. A problem is that many low-income persons need not file an income tax return. They are invisible to the IRS. The undocumented and the homeless are invisible to the authorities entirely. The states’ Unemployment Insurance systems stand ready to pay workers. But these sources also neglect many in greatest need, who would spend every nickel of their assistance.

Administration is not the only basis upon which to judge a proposal. Administration can be enhanced with a relatively modest expenditure of funds, compared to the size of any significant program. The IRS needs to be scaled up anyway. Moreover, all alternative schemes would have administrative costs.

The difficulty of immediately implementing an NIT scheme suggests the option of providing a fixed payment for a limited period of time, until the NIT could be stood up. The point is that a progressive distribution, as soon as it can be achieved, is both more equitable and more effective.

Every aid program is proposed and evaluated considering some total expenditure. There is a continuous back and forth between adjustments in proposals and their cost estimates. Whether anybody likes it or not, that’s just the reality of how these laws are written. There is competition for every public dollar among Members of Congress. Other worthy causes are crying out for resources.

From the standpoint of fighting the coming recession and providing the greatest possible relief to the working class, the negative income tax is the best option. Assistance should be large and quickly forthcoming, and nostrums about the public debt should be left by the wayside. The permanent well-being of tens of millions of families depends directly and significantly on the relief that is provided over the next six months.

The Story of Trumpsgiving

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“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

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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

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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.