Coming to ‘Chimerica’

Chimerica at the Almeida Chimerica at the Almeida ChimericaThese days I go to the theater once in a blue moon. The last time I wrote a review of a play was in 1971, when I patronized a coffee house theater in New Brunswick, NJ. In college I majored in English lit, founded an arts supplement to our college daily (the storied Rutgers Daily Targum), and did what I could to boost the theater. Subsequently I left the realm of Culture for Social Science. Don’t laugh.

I realize now I can’t be much of a theater person. I’m too misanthropic. When the audience titters at lame jokes, it irritates me. I’d rather be alone to drink in the play or movie without disturbances.

The title of the play is from a neologism coined by Niall Ferguson, about which, or whom, the less said the better. The play doesn’t depend much on NF’s cartoon economics. The initiating premise is the search by a photographer for the man in the famous picture standing in front of a line of tanks at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I won’t rehash the plot. I hate when reviewers do that. I prefer to discover it on my own, if I decide to see the movie or play.

This play is long, over three hours. It takes its own sweet time, too. Despite that, I was never bored. One reason is that the staging is ingenious, what they do in a small space. It’s multilevel and multimedia. You have to be there to appreciate it, so I won’t try to describe it.

A lot of the dialog is loud, trite, and rapid. It was often hard for me to follow. If I got hold of a script for the play I would read it, and maybe think better of it. A fair amount of the dialog is in Chinese. I get that it is not supposed to be comprehensible to English speakers. It’s just that these interludes, of which there are more than a few, are unedifying.

There are stock characters — the crotchety newspaper editor. The cynical, hard-bitten reporter. The evil secret police. (I don’t mean they aren’t evil, just that they are predictable.) In that last regard, if you’re going to have brutal Chinese soldiers, they should look like goons, not junior high school students.

Some of the acting is good, some not. The lead Chinese, a teacher, is mostly wooden, occasionally weepy. The American photo-journalist is operatic. The British business lady is the best. The lesser characters did better.

The material they have to work with is not great. The story is thin and takes a long time to unfold. I thought it was soapy; maybe I’m too unfeeling (see ‘misanthrope’ above). One critic described it as a ‘pot-boiler.’

The grasps for profundity in re: what the U.S. and China have to do with each other are lost on me. China is capitalist and still brutally intolerant of dissent. The U.S. ‘loses’ jobs to China. (Actually, the U.S. gives jobs to China and could replace them, with the appropriate policies. Unlike Ferguson, I’m an economist.) Journalism is morally deficient. Tiananmen was horrible. Okay.

The GF points out that of all the shortcomings of China that might be keyed upon, smog does not necessarily belong on top of the list. China has been undergoing an industrial revolution with many beneficiaries, but also many casualties. The U.S. is complicit in both. In this respect, China and the U.S. have a lot in common.

Chimerica is playing at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C.

Ghettoside in Review

Jill Leovy’s book gets deep into the weeds of black-on-black homicide in Los Angeles. If it was on the syllabi of public policy/public administration courses, students would actually read it.

la-la-ca-0115-jill-leovy-285-jpg-20150121In the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ debates, black-on-black crime is often invoked as a tactic to silence legitimate protest over racist police misconduct, up to and including the misuse of lethal force. It would be a mistake to classify Leovy’s book as an instance of such callousness.

Before I get into the book, a few words about numbers. I’m no criminal justice expert, but I am numerate. A commonly-cited number is the percentage of African-Americans victimized by other African-Americans. This is an idiotic metric. The numbers for blacks and whites are similar. People who commit murder tend to murder people they know. More to the point is the percentages of different groups victimized.

The lowest-income groups suffer the more from crime, and African-Americans most of all. In this vein, a black-white comparison is not quite apples-to-apples. What would be more telling is such a comparison where the income distributions of the groups were made comparable in some way. That would isolate the racial disparity. In any case, there are data on homicide death rates by age and race. There should be no ambiguity that it is higher for blacks, by more than a few multiples. These lives matter too.

I speculate that for young blacks, the murder of one of their own by a police officer is more heinous than a murder by a neighborhood offender. After all, infinitely more is expected of a person in authority who has sworn to uphold the law, and who is supposed to be trained to do so effectively.

Feelings aside, it may appear to reasonable people that relief from police malfeasance is more available than solutions to crime in low-income neighborhoods. Law enforcement is susceptible to political control, criminal acts less so. So in general the focus of #BlackLivesMatter on police misconduct, as opposed to black-on-black crime, is well-taken, if susceptible to critique.

The fact remains, homicide of black males by other black males is real and alarming. Ideally, reform of law enforcement would pay heed to what police should do less of — indulge their racist proclivities — as well as what they ought to do more of — prevent crime and catch the bad guys. Ghettoside is only relevant to the latter objectives.

Leovy’s key point of departure is the very low (30%) ‘clearance rate’ of homicides in black neighborhoods. The immediate cause is the indifference of municipal authorities to the problem. Some factors seem specific to Los Angeles, such as the relative lack of prestige accorded detectives, compared to other lines of professional advancement in the police department. More generally, for one reason or another, resources go elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, homicide detectives were burdened with an extraordinary number of cases. They had to go begging for basic office supplies, as well as necessary equipment. They could have benefited from better support from uniformed officers. Meanwhile, resources did flow to dubious police strategies that looked ‘tough’ but were either ineffective or counter-productive. Shades of the ‘surge’ in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The baddest residents of the ghetto are seldom all bad. Leovy is able to delineate a range of characters. There are hard-core gang-bangers, reluctant recruits, hangers-on, and wannabee gangsters. Some get into the life purely as a defense mechanism; it’s either join or be subject to abuse. Others manage to avoid it completely. All kinds of folks are on view.

A striking feature of the effective police investigations chronicled in the book is the extent to which they rely on just one thing: witnesses. For many murders, the perpetrators are known to everybody but the police. The lack of resemblance to popular television shows about cops is stark. There is no CSI coming after you in the ghetto. It’s mainly asking people what they know, again and again and again. There is further the horrendously difficult task of protecting witnesses and their families, which goes back to the money problem.

Some of Leovy’s explanation for the racial disparity in murder verges on the anthropological. A concern in this vein is the tendency to assume that sole responsibility for misdeeds rests with those who commit them. The flip side would be to deny responsibility and arguably discount the humanity of those who commit crimes.

When it comes to root causes, I’d say Leovy hits a few relevant highlights.

First and foremost, the absence of law enforcement — in this context embodied in the failure to bring murderers to justice — facilitates lawlessness. When the State is absent, so is the force required to resolve disputes peacefully. People are left to their own lethal devices. Those who have good reason to expect they will get away with criminal acts are less reluctant to commit them.

Second, the evaporation of good-paying jobs elsewhere described by William Julius Wilson facilitates crime. When you have no income and the opportunities it provides, you have less to lose from incarceration. You also have fewer ways of escaping threats of violence. Interesting in this regard is Leovy’s claim that in her observation, the expansion of disability benefits reduces crime. These benefits move their desperate recipients one notch away from utter destitution.

Third, racial segregation makes everything worse. The geographic concentration of low-income residents and absent law enforcement is a flammable combination. It also isolates potential witnesses from legal shelter.

Fourth, not mentioned in the book but obvious from a reading of it, is the proliferation of guns. Murders tend to be quick in-and-out operations. With less efficient tools, those who might commit murder would be constrained. And if more good guys had guns, the predictable result would be more shoot-outs and random casualties.

Leovy is a reporter, not a sociologist or political economist. Nevertheless, I’d say she makes a pretty good stab at causality. The sources of municipal indifference to crime in the ghetto, the enduring extent of racial segregation, deindustrialization, and our libertarian gun control regime are grist for other books. Ghettoside doesn’t reveal everything, but what it does report leaves much to ponder.



A postscript on job guarantees

JobPeople2_crop380wI want to respond to this post by Professor Pavlina Tcherneva of Bard College on job guarantees. She seems at pains to distinguish such a guarantee from “big government.” I have no such need. We still live in a society described long ago by the great John Kenneth Galbraith as one of “private affluence and public squalor.” I’m afraid both have been magnified in the years since.

In the Tcherneva version of the government as an employer of last resort (‘ELR’), public employment would respond rapidly and precisely to ebbs and flows of the business cycle, but no more than necessary. I prefer to imagine sizable new public enterprises with the capacity to shrink and expand, but always continuing to function and produce.

One of the issues raised by Tcherneva as well as by Matt Bruenig is the flexibility of public works projects as counter-cyclical tools. I don’t think this is a problem. One wouldn’t want to turn jobs on and off, but it would seem possible to speed them up and slow them down. Remember, in my ELR system, there is a goodly core of permanent employees and on-going projects. There could also be smaller-scale projects noted by Tcherneva that can be completed as labor availability dictated. One wouldn’t halt such work prior to completion, but I  don’t see why an ELR enterprise couldn’t finish jobs in time to release labor back into the private sector.

I do have to take exception to the premise that an ELR completes the social safety net. Unfortunately, some of those pushed into destitution in the current age have difficulty functioning in the labor market. We will still need some kind of income guarantee to backstop public employment.


Looking forward on #BlackLivesMatter

If this is an ally, I'd hate to meet an enemy.

If this is an ally, I’d hate to meet an enemy.

Let’s take #BlackLivesMatter seriously. I see two different sides to the campaign, as it relates to the Left.

One is rejection of the idea that universalist policies take pride of place over anti-racist ones. I couldn’t agree more. On an intellectual level, I don’t see how you can talk about structural or institutional racism without talking about capitalism, and vice versa. So that angle of intervention has brought about an improvement in the presentations of Sanders and, if you care, O’Malley. (Hillary is still “listening.”) The Sanders improvement, by the way, was in the works before the Seattle action.

The extent of historic indifference of white-dominated progressive movements to racism is salient. Progressive policies do not preclude racially-biased outcomes. In fact, they don’t preclude class-biased outcomes either. The initial establishment of Social Security, for instance, excluded minorities in agriculture and other very-low-wage sectors.

The other level is the idea of an emergency that requires putting #BLM front and center, and relegates “weirdo populist economic determinism” (in the words of #BLM activist Alicia Garza) to the background. To me the emergency is political — the ubiquity of cell phone cameras exposes the abuses of police to an unprecedented degree. Who is to say it hasn’t always been this bad? In any case, failure to ‘bow down’ to this attempt to take over the agenda tends to be easily conflated with white racism and to serve as a basis for more general attacks on liberals and on liberal policies.

The latter happens to advantage Hillary Clinton and centrist Democratic types who would like to keep ‘wine track’ liberals with nutty ideas like single payer and reinstating Glass-Steagal in the back of the bus. The advantage is compounded by #BLM’s pussy-footing with Hillary Clinton herself, relative to Sanders. For some reaction, check out this August 13 interview of the very astute R.L. Stephens II by Doug Henwood (second half of show).

I am impressed by the idea that the Seattle action was inspired by the indifference of Seattle’s well-to-do white liberals to minority concerns in the city. I don’t doubt there are real grievances that need airing, in Seattle and elsewhere. The disruption makes sense in that context. You can be honestly pissed off. It’s not a hanging offense.

How it might have been done more effectively is another question. I completely reject anybody’s contention that the issue is the property of any particular group, movement, or race. Nobody is above criticism. I might note that the Seattle disruption was not a Sanders rally. It was staged by my fellow geezers on the issue of Social Security. I can’t imagine anyone thinking SS is of no consequence to African-Americans. After all, most retired people have nothing else to live on. Given racial disparities in wealth, this has to be especially true for minorities. Old and very poor black folks are not being gunned down in the street. Instead they are fading away, out of sight and mind, going without proper nutrition, medical care, or even shelter.

The reality is that no progress will be made on the #BLM front unless there is a coming together of the Sanders constituency and the #BLM movement. Any supposition that the Clintons and the multi-cultural Democratic Party establishment will be more committed to this cause signals profound delusion. Consider that one of Clinton’s most vocal supporters and critics of Sanders, Senator Claire McCaskill, hails from the profoundly fucked up Democratic Party of Missouri. I don’t have to tell you about Missouri. Or consider that the recent carnage in Baltimore has been overseen by a mostly African-American political establishment, and before that, by one Martin O’Malley.

Hillary Clinton will probably be the nominee and ultimately president, though I’ve taken some bets (with odds) that it will be Bernie. Now if you wanted to put heat on Ms Clinton, what better vehicle than the Sanders campaign?

Jobs for all–the impossible dream?

WPA+StrikeMy friend Matt Bruenig does consistently great stuff, but I have to object to his recent critique of the idea of a Job Guarantee (often called the government as an Employer of Last Resort, or ‘ELR’). I want to walk through his arguments, point by point.

This explainer by the illustrious Randy Wray provides background on the entire idea, including the macroeconomics of ELR, while Matt and I mostly stick to the mechanics.

He starts well, noting it isn’t the 1930s and you can’t put people to work by just handing them a shovel. Jobs require capital, quite true. I’d go further, jobs require capitalized organizations with plans. Call them public enterprises. Decide what sort of work ought to be done and set up assorted enterprises to tackle different jobs. They would provide public services and construct and maintain public facilities. They would supplement the efforts of state and local governments that in many cases fail to do what ought to be done, sometimes for lack of capability. They would utilize workers with a wide variety of skills. And they would be organized to handle more fluid ebbs and flows of employees.

Matt fears the supply of labor for such purposes as too variable to staff permanent organizations in continual operation. It seems to me that jobs could be provided in six month stretches, with the opportunity to re-up. Some employees would be permanent, and paid commensurately.

Work could focus on a sequence of one-off projects. With higher private employment and fewer ELR applicants, projects could proceed more slowly, or be postponed. Just because a project isn’t essential doesn’t mean it would not be worthwhile. Some applicants will have more skills than others, and some work will require more or less in the way of skill. There is already a lot of ‘churning’ in the labor market (people moving between jobs greatly outnumber those in and out of work). Business firms cope with it.

Permanent ELR-staffed operations would reduce unemployment and oblige the private sector to be more flexible. They could be focused on the most benighted localities that lack the resources to provide ample services and facilities. For instance, if the state of Texas won’t build sewers for people in the Rio Grande Valley, the Feds could set up there, train and employ local labor, and situate such communities to exercise more political power in the future. This bears some resemblance to the original War on Poverty, before the community action angle got smothered in 1967, when state and local politicians gained substantial control of the program.

What kind of work is worth Federal support? Day care centers and public schools could use teachers’ aides (properly vetted). Small-scale infrastructure work. Reclaiming unused urban land. Green retrofits of public facilities, and maybe privately owned structures and homes. There’s nothing to prevent a public enterprise from owning any kind of equipment it needs.

Training someone who subsequently leaves the ELR service doesn’t strike me as a problem. We train people now who never work for public institutions. There is a public value to job training. Nor is it a problem if people leave the service because they find something better. That’s the whole point: to force employers to compete for labor with institutions with better standards of employment. If nobody needed the last resort of public employment, that would be fine.

In general I think Matt’s notion of how an ELR system could work is too narrow. He ends by suggesting a modification in line with my discussion above, one that I don’t think goes against the grain of an ELR system.

Black lives and white lies

march1Even though it now seems like a long time ago, I freely admit the Bernie blow-up at Netroots Nation has made me a little crazy. Today I finally watched a video of the entire episode and I have to say the media reports severely distorted what actually took place. The story was of some huge confrontation between Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists. Sanders was said to be tone deaf to the urgency of racist police misconduct.

In the video, there is some very limited disruption of Sanders’ speech near the beginning and scattered, intermittent yelling afterwards. Mostly he was able to talk over them and get his message out, and mostly they let him. He could have handled it better by being more forthcoming in responding to the protest, but he did respond. I doubt anything he could have said would have made them all stop. (Martin O’Malley got much of the worst of the protests and was at least as clumsy in responding as Sanders.)

There has been more vitriol in the aftermath than at the event itself between often white Bernie supporters and often black supporters of the #BLM movement. Criticism of the anti-Bernie initiative is in my experience falsely interpreted as attacks on the intelligence of everyone in the movement, if not all black people. (I say anti-Bernie initiative because there has been no parallel criticism of Hillary Clinton, much less any intervention at her campaign events.)

At my family dinner table, growing up, “You’re nuts” (usually from my father) was never fighting words, much less grounds for lasting animosity. It was a normal part of argument. To me, criticism does not imply any lack of intelligence or sophistication on the part of anyone I criticize. If I want to insult you, you will know it. Indeed, any intense political activity is likely to be rife with criticism, flying in every direction. Why should #BlackLivesMatter be any different? The alternative is a movement of zombies.

I’ve participated in disruptions of speakers in the (distant) past, and with less justification than #BLM. My issue here is practical, not moral. What is the political fall-out from dumping on Bernie?

The good fall-out is that he has revised his platform to explicitly grapple with issues pertaining specifically to racist police misconduct. This was overdue. From this standpoint, he deserved a bonking. At the same time, some of the ‘demands’ of some in #BLM are ambitious to the point of fantasy. (My basis for this is the remarks made by protesters during and after the speeches.) How exactly is a candidate supposed to explain in five minutes how he or she is going to “end structural racism”? Does anybody really want a dissertation on how to perfect all the laws barring discrimination in employment, housing, and the like? It’s the kind of question that is not designed to elicit an answer.

The bad fall-out is the false impression that Hillary Clinton has some advantage on these issues. This is complete hogwash. If you examine her statements, you will find the actual policies aimed at racist police misconduct to be very thin. Body- and dash-cameras. Or course, we are finding out about police atrocities precisely from these cameras.

Hillary is good at providing anti-racist mood music but abstains from endorsing much in the way of specific remedies. She has the best PR that money can buy, and she has a lot of money. Hillary’s record includes support for hubby’s boost to mass incarceration and malignant “welfare reform,” among other dubious achievements. Bernie’s record is uninterrupted support for African-American interests, for fifty years. To date, there has been no parallel #BlackLivesMatter intervention in a Hillary event. Why not? Shouldn’t there be?

Who were the #BLM activists at Netroots Nation? My Facebook friend Bruce Dixon, a Black Panther back in the day, rips them up and down, asserting attendees at this conference are only interested in getting jobs and grants from liberals and Democratic Party apparatchiks. I think this is a little strong. First of all, there is often no way to know who is on the make and who is sincere since none of us are mind-readers. Second, it’s no sin to hope to advance the cause by working for Democrats. It may be a debatable political premise, but that’s a different matter, not a question of bad faith.

The real story here is not what happened at the conference, but post-conference commentary that invents contradictions between Bernie’s social-democratic politics and African-American interests. Such concoctions are deeply antithetical to any prospects for relief from racist police abuse, much less the entire menu of progressive concerns. There is a case for preferring Hillary to Bernie, on the grounds that she seems to have a better chance of beating any Republican (or did, until recently). There is no case that she provides more support for #BLM concerns.

Currently the Democratic primary is between two people. There is no getting around that. You ding one, you help the other.





The oppo on Bernie

140228155048-whispering-gossip-story-topAssorted Hillary Clinton stooges are telling lies about Bernie. I suspect that the HRC camp is seeding the ground for this effort, because paranoids have enemies too.

One area is immigration reform. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), supporter of Rahm Emanuel against Chuy Garcia for mayor of Chicago, has said “I don’t know if Bernie likes immigrants . . .” In 2007 Bernie voted against an immigration reform bill. It was co-sponsored by Teddy Kennedy, so it is fair game to question Bernie’s vote. It is not fair game to neglect his reason–that he thought the bill would further drive down wages. Not immigration in general, but that particular bill.

The 2007 bill was also opposed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Immigrant Lawyers Association, the AFL-CIO, 15 Senate Democrats, and depending on how you keep score, Senator Barack Obama. Any honest liberal who looks at the bill can find some bad stuff in it. Bernie did back an immigration reform bill in 2013. Hence, summary invocation of the 2007 vote as a definitive indicator of anti-immigrant views is simply libelous and prima facie evidence of bad faith, or at the least, lazy-stupid recirculation of Internet bullshit.

Guns. Here is a list of Bernie votes. Some could be classified as supporting gun control, others as not supportive. You could cherry-pick from either to exaggerate in either direction. If you say he is all one or the other, you’re lyin. You could say accurately that he has been on both sides of the fence. If you were generous you would say he was faithfully representing the people of Vermont.

Bernie and the Minutemen. A blogger I never heard of until today (too dumb to link to, who has now banned me from his comments feed) claims “[H]e is on the record supporting the vigilante and racist border militia group ‘The Minuteman Project’.” Really? This gentleman needs to bone up on the meaning of ‘on the record.’ What actually did happen is that Bernie voted for an amendment to an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security that included language prohibiting the Federal government from “provid[ing] a foreign government information relating to the activities of an organized volunteer civilian action group, operating in the State of California, Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona, unless required by international treaty.” This could be criticized, but not as supporting any racist militia group.

Why did he vote for it? I don’t know. A diligent blogger might have asked him. Appropriations bills for entire departments are voluminous affairs and votes are often cast to keep the process moving along, sometimes with inattention to obnoxious details.


I’ll be keeping up with this drivel as we go forward, since stupid things can grow in the intellectual wilderness of the Internet.



Hillary speaks

My friend and former boss Larry Mishel has an early take. Here’s another at TPM. And here’s the awesome Joe Stiglitz phoning in a very not-awesome plug (“Today Hillary Clinton began to offer . . . ” Began? How much more time does she need??)

Her main theme is raising middle class incomes by reversing wage stagnation. This is a good start, though any candidate could claim the same point of departure. Even John Ellis Bush Bush adviser Glenn Hubbard (“Grrr. Give it your best shot.”) acknowledges the need to reverse wage stagnation. It’s where you go with it that matters.

If wage stagnation is the result of “policy choices,” what were those choices, and what policies would reverse them? EPI where I worked for 18 years has been on this forever and arguably has moved the Democratic Party in this dimension, so for that kudos to them.

HRC’s biggest remedy is a $12 minimum wage. I would agree this would be a fine thing. The other measures on wage theft and overtime are welcome but second tier issues to me. More to the point is the discussion of the right to organize, so I ask again what we could rightfully expect in light of past, lackluster pursuit of this goal by Democratic politicians?

The commitment to full employment is another one of those things that everyone is always for. Or nearly everyone. How to do it? I don’t think she has the goods on this one. In her prepared text we can still see some phobic references to the national debt. There are references to the 90s boom, with the implication that it was due to deficit reduction. Wrong wrong wrong. She gets the relevance of tight labor markets, which is crucial, but how to get them?

I have to laugh, or cry, when I think back to the chatter that Bernie doesn’t care about black folks, and HRC does. Her remedy for the ‘hood is “empowerment zones,” which is Ronald Reagan/Jack Kemp bullshit. I could also note with displeasure her 50s nostalgia about how great the middle class had it, since the greatness was limited to white people.

The speech is being played as providing a concession to Bernie Sanders with a commitment to ‘fairness,’ while also nodding to the center with an affirmation of the centrality of growth. The former is said to be dependent on the latter. To the contrary, as a narrowly economic matter, OF COURSE we could have more ‘fairness’ right now at the same level of economic output. This would seem to make fairness contingent on future growth, which is not looking spectacular at the moment.

To be clear, there is some good stuff in the speech. My preference is to illuminate the sucky parts. She’s going to be the nominee, I’m going to vote for her, and she will probably win. In light of all that, I’d prefer people have a better idea of the gaps in her platform.