The DNC road show came to Baltimore

And I sat through a day of it so you didn’t have to. The purpose was to rally the troops and showcase candidates for Democratic National Committee leadership positions, especially the high-profile battle for the chairman position. The main contenders are Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Obama’s Secretary of Labor Tom Perez of Maryland. Ellison was a leading supporter of Bernie Sanders, while Perez endorsed Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

It was the first time I had ever been to one of these things. I may not be cut out for retail politics. The tedium and banality were daunting at times, but there were some good parts too. It was very well attended, and the audience was turned on.

The chairman candidates did a question and answer session. Both Perez and Ellison stuck to stump speeches. Perez made me think of someone coming from the somewhat genteel political setting of the Peoples Republic of Montgomery County, MD, where I lived for most of 36 years, trying to be earthy, and coming off as a little manic. Ellison is more of a natural politician. There wasn’t much content from either. Ellison had more of a Bernie echo about him, making frequent references to working people. Both brought big followings; Ellison’s looked bigger. There was a passel of other candidates, about whom more in a bit.

Of all of them, Perez is the only one who has run a big organization. Administrative capability for the others is more of a mystery. I suspect that, as for other elections, a person’s speech-making ability is over-weighted in voters’ decision-making. Running the DNC requires more than the ability to give a rousing speech. At the same time, since the next presidential primaries are years away, the DNC chair will get quite a bit of face-time in the media and has to be able to deliver the Democrats’ messages well. Being able to talk is important.

Perez is about as liberal as you can get and still have decided to endorse Clinton over Sanders. Now he can say all the right things, though during the primaries he talked a lot of rot about the futility of progressives’ demanding free stuff.

The campaign for Perez was an obnoxious echo of the Clintons’ evil gossip tactics in the primaries. Perez supporters ventilated rumors that Ellison was an anti-semite (he is a Muslim). We might have heard that about Sanders if not for, you know . . . Even Ellison’s ancient traffic tickets were brought into the mix.

A few of the other candidates were impressive. My favorite was the mayor of South Bend, IN, one Pete Buttigieg. He happens to have been a Clinton supporter. His line was to reject ‘factions,’ which makes sense for this DNC competition but would jolt the bullshit meter for anyone on the left. My spies tell me he hopes to be a compromise candidate if Perez and Ellison are deadlocked. Problem is nobody knows who the hell he is.

The other interesting guy was Ray Buckley from New Hampshire. He was non-partisan in the Bernie v. Hillary sense but seemed to have more of a grip on the organizational issues facing the DNC and more political experience. I liked it when he blasted people for thinking voters would reject Trump for his vulgarity when their own precarious economic situations are paramount among their concerns.

Jaime Harrison from SC sounded pretty sharp and competent. He and Buttigieg are relatively young. My opinion is that Buttigieg, Buckley, or Harrison would all do good jobs. The others were forgettable. In any case, the ideological struggle — Perez and Ellison as proxies for Clinton and Sanders — is still paramount.

One consensus among all the candidates that ought to interest uncritical Obama supporters was that Barack Obama screwed up, big time, in his handling of Obama For America (later ‘Organizing for America’). This was a debacle for the party and as it has turned out, for the country. The story is told in The New Republic by Micah Sifry. As we all remember, Obama put together an awesome ground game to win in 2008 and 2012. Then he just left it to disintegrate in the mistaken belief that such grassroots mobilization had no place in his vision of bipartisan political harmony. The Republicans responded to his olive branch by trying to rip his throat out.

Another consensus was that the party needed to integrate with all the protests going on, though exactly how was not clear. Everybody was for strengthening state parties, nourishing the grass roots, making the DNC and its workings more transparent. In this latter regard, my colleague Bob Dreyfuss tells me the only way to find out who is on the DNC is by writing a letter to one of the officers. It is not posted anywhere on the web. Buckley had been on the DNC but said he never could find out what the H was going on.

Another point of agreement was that the Clinton campaign dwelled on Trump’s undeniable perversities, rather than the merits of DP policies. You could also read this as a criticism of the Clintons’ decision to pretend that Trump was uniquely awful among Republicans. As we are seeing from day to day, most of them are no less awful. Hell, they gave him money, voted for him, and ignored his thieving ways. A broader critique of the Republicans’ depraved agenda might have lead to a better result. It’s hard to see how it could have gone any worse.


The Anti-Trump Grassroots Rundown

(Updated) We’re observing some chin-stroking to the effect that demonstrations, even gigantic ones, will be inadequate in blocking the medley of egregious policies oozing from the White House. The fact is that there is a lot of organizing going on, some of which can be credited with producing the impressive turn-outs we have been seeing, not just in big cities but in many other locales, off the beaten track. How far off? How about Antarctica.

Whenever I see some dilettante going off on how demonstrations are not a substitute for organizing, I am going to put up a link with the information that follows, a catalog of grassroots efforts, in alphabetical order. Undoubtedly it will be incomplete. If you know of ones I’ve left off, please post them here and I will maintain a running list.

When Nixon invaded Cambodia (geezer recollection alert), my entire campus rose up. People  took over the student center, and it became a hive of organizing. It was totally fragmented. All sorts of different schemes were being cooked up. One was to boycott Coke. I forget the exact argument. At any rate, the purpose of this post is not to tell anybody what to do or not do. My own choice is indicated below.

My friend Joshua Holland provides more information on the array of initiatives at The Nation. I have pillaged his article to update the list below.

#AllOfUs2016. Anti-Trump/anti-Wall Street.

#KNOCKEVERYDOOR. “Organizing against Trump and the Republican agenda” by canvassing. Be the one who knocks.

Americans for Democratic Action. Venerable liberal group that I used to be in and will probably join again. Pro-Sanders, but connected to the liberal Members of Congress, most of whom endorsed Hillary. Sad!

Americans Take Action. Impeach Trump. If you needed one, here’s a bill of particulars.

Black Lives Matter. Not kidnapping white kids and torturing them.

BYP100. Black youth project.

Campaign Zero. Deray McKesson’s project to address police misconduct. Useful wonky proposals.

Cosecha. Focus on the undocumented. Daily calls for mobilization.

Democracy for America. Founded by Howard Dean, now run by his brother.

Democratic Socialists of America. Founded by Michael Harrington, long ago, now recruiting like crazy. (I joined.)

IfNotNow. Jewish resistance.

Impeach Trump Now. Self-explanatory. It’s the humane alternative.

Indivisible. “A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.” This has become a huge effort in a very short time.

Jewish Voice for Peace. Defense of Palestinian rights, against the Zionist occupation. (I’m a member.)

Justice Democrats. Why not you? Run for office.

Movement 2017. Directing contributions to smaller, local groups.

Movement Match. Take an online quiz, get suggestions on which groups to join.

OPERATION 45. Doing an FOIA blitzkrieg of Federal agencies.

Organizing For Action. This was the Obama vehicle that was basically shut down once he was elected. Bad mistake. Now it is waking up.

Pantsuit Nation. Enraged Hillary people forming local groups on Facebook, some of them closed to block harassment. Search on FB to find them. Chances are a friend can get you in if your local group is closed.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Been at this for a while.

Progressive Democrats of America. Begun with alumni of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns of 2004.

Public Leadership Institute. Aiding the defense of reproductive rights in the states.

The Pussy Hat Project. Activist knitting circles. I am not making this up. Supplying hats to the masses.

Run for Something. Focused on millennials, otherwise self-explanatory.

Scientists’ March. Real scientists to protest Trump. Sadly, economists not allowed to participate.

SwingLeft. Flip the House. Does it ever need it.

Townhall Project 2018. Go to your congresspersons’ local “town hall” meetings and torment them.

Unite for America. Calls itself “cross partisan,” which triggers my bullshit detector. But probably anti-Trump, so that’s something.

Women’s March on Washington. On short notice they organized one of the biggest set of marches in history. Connected to local affiliates, and still running.

Working Families Party. Active in some states, huge in New York. (I know, I know.)

Many more here. I can’t vouch for all of them. The ones above are all legit. Some I like more than others, but YMMV.

Have fun and kick ass.



“But Obama . . . !!”

(No longer the president)

Some friends like to remind us that Hillary voted for fences and Obama deported lots of folks and did something or other with Trump’s seven bad Muslim countries.

Walls, fences, what’s the difference? I don’t see any. 2,000 miles or 700, who cares? You can build them inefficiently or otherwise, the ideas are the same. Ditto on deportations. Many or not as many, in stand-alone terms the principle is the same. I’ve always said Bush’s Iraq war was facilitated by Bill Clinton’s sanctions regime. We could go on. Horrible GOP policies often have precursors in bad Dem policies.

What’s actually central is the question of intra-Dem criticism in the midst of this glorious anti-Trump/GOP uproar. It has a place for purposes of pointing a way forward, but it can also be a distraction. The way it has tended to come up has mostly been the latter. If we’re serious, we would like to know about a progressive immigration policy and contrast that to the current atrocity.

Everybody is screaming about Trump’s Executive Order. Great. What is the value of the history lesson about Obama’s 7 nation whatever-it-was? I see none. Show me a progressive alternative, keep that in the foreground, and if Obama/Clinton people want to take issue, let it be their problem.

I am all about moving the D party forward. The way to do it is with constructive proposals, not backbiting. That only helps the bad guys.


The Day the Shit Came Down (‘TDTSCD’)

That was a hippie meme, back before there were memes, or the Internet, or cell phones, or personal computers. TDTSCD was a premonition of a future memory. When hippies were radical and Richard Nixon was president, fears abounded that he would cancel the 1972 elections and send everybody to camps. (Instead he cheated and won the election. For the second time.) I don’t think anybody really believed it, but it reflected the feeling that democracy did not rest on firm foundations.

Nixon went down hard, so things were not as bad as they appeared. Now we contemplate a new political apocalypse. Is it worse?

The speed with which the Administration’s combination of mendacity, malevolence and incompetence has manifested itself is daunting. The ease with which his spokespersons lie and evade responsibility transcends previous norms. We hear that court orders are being ignored or discounted as irrelevant. So far, the number of critical Republican Members of Congress could fit into a compact car. Please, don’t tell me you saw everything that’s been coming. You didn’t.

The day after New Year’s, I participated in an online debate with John Feffer at In These Times. The subject was whether Democrats in Congress should deal with Trump on an infrastructure bill. I took the affirmative side of the debate, on the dual grounds that jobs are still desperately needed, and rejection of a genuine proposal would wreck the Democrats politically. I also said that such dealmaking would be impossible if Trump poisoned the well with egregious attacks on immigrants and minorities. As it turns out, that’s where we are now, after just one week of his presidency. So the question of mass, full-spectrum non-cooperation comes to the fore.

I also put up a tweet to the effect that Trump wouldn’t last six months, that a banana peel is in his future. What has been magnified since the election is seemingly irrefutable evidence that the president is a deeply defective human being. I’m not talking about his crappy conservative policy nostrums. I’m talking about him as a person. The details need not be recapitulated. I believe the edifice of his political power is exceedingly fragile for this reason. If we keep pushing, it should be possible to send it tumbling to the ground. Any number of scenarios are conceivable in this most inconceivable political moment.

You’ve all heard the idea of the ‘wisdom of crowds.’ Information possessed piecemeal by individuals congeals in the social realm and works its will. The social realm in this case includes the outraged public, mobilizing civil society, disturbed elites in academia, politics, business, and national security. I make no claim to know exactly what will happen. I only know this: Trump is going down. It will be time to think about President Pence.



I felt obliged to get back online. Explanation hardly seems necessary.

In the past I’ve benefited from assistance in HTML programming. I’d be interested in more help in the future on this score. I could also use advice on all manner of newfangled social media. I never got past Facebook and Twitter.

I am not yet asking for monetary support. That will change before the year is over.

My big new project is www.ThePopulist.Buzz, with my ancient friend Bob Dreyfuss. Bob has written for all the lefty journals of consequence. We hope to go live in a couple of weeks. Details are forthcoming.

I had open heart surgery in 2015 to fix a valve. It worked, and I’m feeling fine. Hope you are too.

I did write some pieces recently for The Baffler, one for In These Times, and some months ago, a guest post at Kevin Drum’s place on Mother Jones. Use the Google machine and you should be able to find them.

I’ll be in touch.



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.