Krugman, trolling . . .

pkselfiePaul Krugman does great work, but he’s still capable of bullshit. Exhibit Today is his gloss on a remark by Cornel West about the president:

There’s a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who ”posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” They’re outraged that Wall Street hasn’t been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ”neoliberal” economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have constrained even his much more modest efforts. It’s hard to take such claims seriously.

This is some tired anti-progressive treacle. PK debunks criticism by exaggerating it. The main line of criticism of Obama is not that he has declined to employ his magical rhetorical powers to get everything the left wants, nor is the left ignorant of the constraints Obama has faced. You can’t very well celebrate the president for great accomplishments — and I agree with a lot of the substance of PK’s subsequent discussion — at the same time you insist he has been constantly blocked. My responses to these memes are here, in assorted pearls of wisdom.

It is true that Obama posed as a progressive. He still does! As for Wall Street not being punished, is that not the case? Who has been punished? When it comes to big-time financial and war criminals, the president has said “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” When it comes to small fry, it’s terminate with extreme prejudice. PK acknowledges this himself later in this very article. Even when the left is right, it’s wrong.

I interpret this as the fatal, common affliction of all bigfoot pundits. You have to throw some obligatory brick at the left to guard against the suspicion that you are too far Out There. Actually, the fact that PK puts neo-liberalism in quotes proves that well enough.

On the big fucking deal of health care, PK tries to get the best of both sides of the argument. He acknowledges the left criticism of relying on health inscos to fill the coverage gap, then implies that the stupid left doesn’t understand a single-payer plan would not have gotten enough votes to pass. What the not-actually-stupid left really wanted and had a right to expect was the inclusion of some kind of public option, which was arguably not a manifestly disabling feature from a political standpoint. And even if it proved to be so, there is no reason to make a rhetorical virtue in the form of bogus celebrations of “the market” out of a political necessity.

On the wonderfulness of Dodd-Frank, opinions differ. I don’t know much about it so for now I’ll accept PK’s ringing endorsement: “[I]t’s a lot better than nothing.” Look for that as the next presidential campaign slogan — “We don’t suck as bad as they do!”

This problem of turning a practical limitation into a rhetorical virtue afflicted the inadequate stimulus plan as well. Instead of taking what could be gotten but acknowledging the level was insufficient, the Administration acted as if it was all good. It wasn’t. PK again agrees. He can say it but you can’t.

On climate change, I could accept for the sake of argument everything that PK says (though the omission of the letters “B” and “P” in justaposition is conspicuous). But, and this is not a criticism of Obama or PK, “almost” in climate change isn’t going to be good enough. It cannot be helpful for the Administration to be celebrating the greatly expanded exploitation of fossil fuel reserves in the U.S.

Progress never happens all at once. Everyone should understand that. If it happens at all, it is usually incremental. I’d admit that health care is a pretty big increment, and credit is due. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better, or that we can’t still do better.

All elected officials deserve unyielding, unending criticism. Anybody who complains about it is in the wrong game. Intelligent criticism notes where progress has been made, the better to ascertain where it can advance further.

In this context, trolling the left is little short of absurd. The left is where policy solutions reside, because the left is the transmission belt for the more humane social-democratic institutions of Western Europe. Neo-liberal reliance on “the market” here to provide social services is not a feature, it’s a bug. We have to be the RAID.


For lack of social insurance

This is not Matt, it's his avatar. If you can identify it, Matt will let you come into his tree house.

This is not Matt, it’s his avatar. If you can identify him, Matt will let you come into his tree house.

Somebody’s poking their stick into my cage again. Again with the UBI? Really?? Today it’s Matt Bruenig at Demos. Matt & Demos do good work. I’ll probably talk about it some time. Meanwhile, Matt suggests that social insurance needs its own insurance back-up, namely a UBI.

It is quite true that social insurance does not cover every curve that life can throw at you. It isn’t supposed to. It’s mainly insurance against the possible deprivation of labor earnings, which is what most people depend on to live. Loss of earnings in old age, in disability, in death, due to injury on the job. Even from that narrower standpoint, there are still some big holes in it. For one, with no work history you may not qualify for any benefits, even though you are unable to work. As Matt points out in the case of unemployment insurance, even if you fall into the category of nominally eligible, circumstances can conspire against you.

Another big hole that will be dawning on the U.S. before long is the lack of coverage for long-term care. If you don’t know anyone who has gotten very ill, you might not know that health insurance and Medicare only apply to the services of medical providers — doctors, hospitals, drugs, some medical supplies. You could have a chronic condition that prevents you from being able to take basic care of yourself — dress, bathe, go to the bathroom, eat, etc. In insurance lingo, they’re called “activities of daily living.” You might need 24-7 care. You might need somebody to tend to IVs every day, or change bandage dressings. There is scant help for that under health insurance or Medicare. If you don’t mind spending all your money, you could get onto Medicaid and go into a nursing home. Probably not a great nursing home. A nursing home that provides a few skilled nursing services that you may need can be hard to find. I know; I’ve been there. Social Security Disability Insurance can replace some lost wages, for those who qualify, but it isn’t enough to pay for 24-7 nursing care, even unskilled care. Unless you have very good luck with employers providing group coverage, long-term care insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

So there is no question that social insurance is not the end of what an ample welfare state should provide. The question is, is the UBI the most logical supplement to social insurance? I would say no.

Would you say $10,000 is an adequate UBI? If you would, then the cost for the U.S. is upwards of $3 trillion-with-a-T. As I’ve noted in the past, this exceeds the entirety of Federal revenue expected next year. How would any UBI — you tell me for how much — fit together with the rest of the safety net? What would go and what would stay?

I too would like to attack the deprivation remaining after our social insurance programs do all they can. How to do this? I’ll have to repeat myself at this point. My exceptions to the UBI are pragmatic and political. I’m looking for more likely ways to skin that same cat.

One channel is to socialize services that are both central needs of those left behind by social insurance and desired by everyone. So universal pre-K, subsidized child care, community walk-in health clinics, drug treatment, free public transportation. Not all of these are logically national programs. We have over 90,000 local governments with a role to play as well. The key principle is that collective consumption — public goods — can be more economical than individually-purchased services for the same purpose. Make your own list! Dream big. It’s fun.

People will still need cold cash. People want to buy their own damn groceries. Food, clothing, and shelter. So we will need some kind of public assistance too. Why not a UBI?

A politically-acceptable UBI would be too low. (See $3 trillion, above.) It’s true that universal benefits are more popular than targeted ones, but that’s a bit of a circular assertion. You only get universal benefits if the idea is popular in the first place, notwithstanding the inordinate expense. Most people will be able to compare their financial well-being if they receive a UBI but also pay the taxes to finance it. Many will not be enthused by this knowledge.

I agree with Matt that a safety net of some type, but not necessarily a UBI, complements social insurance. I’ve mentioned before that the politics of means-tested or unconditional benefits might be easier with adequate social insurance for everyone else. My political antennae tell me Il Manifesto is the correct line. I’d say the case for a UBI depends on specifying some of the pesky details and then laying out a political scenario wherein the scheme could come to fruition. In a country where thirty percent of the population can’t decide whether Obama is a Muslim or an extra-terrestrial lizard.

If I start arguing with Twitter, my life would be near forfeit, but to the notion that the U.S. could do what Alaska does, I’d note that the total profits of the big five oil companies is reported as $93 billion. Remember trillion-with-a-T? Suppose Michael Moore led a revolutionary uprising and nationalized the oil, with zero compensation to the owners, which includes some of you and your paltry IRA accounts. $93 billion would be one piss-poor UBI.

This is an ancient problem. If it were as simple as a UBI, it would have been solved long ago.



Global citizens and the global government

global-citizenTrigger warning: going into full Grinch mode!

Why is there poverty? The Occupy movement pointed to the illegitimate appropriation of wealth by “the 1%.” I am looking in vain for a glimmer of that understanding in the Global Citizens Movement. I see a noble desire to assist those less fortunate, so we are intrinsically addressing the more fortunate, or those who count themselves as such. The call for struggle by the oppressed is displaced by a call to altruism. I also see a pack of craven corporate sponsors and non-profit spin-offs from the 1%, all brought to you by MSNBC. It pains me to say this, since I think highly of certain MSNBC hosts and their work.

Today (as I write) the Global Citizens festival takes place in Central Park, amidst the headquarters of corporations and the homes of plutocrats who run the Global Government and bring us world poverty. Will they be called out? I doubt it. To get a ticket, you have to acquire points on the website for doing global citizen-y things. If I strangle an Exxon lobbyist, can I come?

The best interpretation that can be put on this is that it is a call on global governance, such as it is, to finance greater aid to the least-developed countries. So global public goods, with an appeal to enlightened self interest (disease that begins in Bengla Desh can come to Hackensack), which as far as it goes is fine.

I have to hope it could all be a springboard to higher political consciousness. My misgiving derives from people mistaking fairly anodyne policy advocacy for political struggle, from mistaking the character of the global government. Given the poverty of our democratic institutions, what is most called for is a resurgence of extra-parliamentary action. Strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts, disruption. Organization outside the Democratic/Republican duopoly.

modiA prime example of mistaken character is the provision of the stage to the new Prime Minister of India, one Narendra Modi. Who is Mr Modi? Well he’s a fucking fascist, is what he is. He has been implicated in communal massacres in India. For CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, avid recycler of prose, he is “development man.” For comic relief, Modi was introduced by Hugh ‘Wolverine’ Jackman, professional Walmart suck-up.

At least one theme in the movement is the need to teach the poor how to take care of themselves, for instance by washing. Melissa Harris-Perry had a segment on this topic employing a Sesame Street-style muppet and the assistance of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL). It’s hard to imagine children sitting still to watch MSNBC, unless Mommy’s on the teevee, but it supports the impression of talking down to the world’s benighted peoples from the elysian heights of the First World, not least with the participation of a representative of the political faction that is a threat to all that is good in the world, including more development assistance — the House GOP caucus.

I wouldn’t put this on MHP, but more broadly there is the prevailing delusion that what the poor need is to know how to care for themselves. Condescension aside, this glosses over the capacity of a high employment economy to eliminate a good share of poverty. It was amusing to hear a Global Citizen fellow talk about how “we” had reduced global poverty. The truth is that rapid economic growth in India, China, and the “Four Tigers” has produced a ton of poverty reduction, along with many human and environmental casualties.

Currently what we need in the U.S. for more growth is more deficit spending, not more babble about the Federal debt. Some of the poor really do need the sort of counsel that social workers can provide, but more of them with paltry labor market opportunities just need money, health insurance, and access to child care.

As for the poor in the global south, the chief objects of Global Citizen’s altruism, of course they need assistance of the type that Global Citizen is supporting. But they also need to throw off the yoke of corrupt autocrats of the Global Government, such as the aforementioned Mr. Modi.

In a similar vein, we recently had a no-politics (or all-politics) climate march in New York City. If I had been in town, I would certainly have gone. But . . . what exactly is going on with the climate, you might ask? Climate negotiations are aimed at an agreement to do nothing about climate change, since the negotiating partners represent corporate interests and popular political prejudices favoring continued carbon emissions. Never fear, Leonardo DiCaprio has been doing “work” on climate change. (Unfair snarky coverage here and here.)

If you wanted one book to introduce you to development issues, this would be a good one.



“We interrupt this genocide to bring you . . . “

avatar-promo-merchandise-thumbLast night was a deeply weird experience — watching the “FX Download” version of the movie Avatar. I’d seen the movie when it first came out, thought I’d do it again. Mistake.

I’m aware of all the clichés in the story — white dude goes native, rescues indigenous people from evil Commerce, fucks the chief’s daughter, becomes Warrior Numero Uno. The look of the film in the theater, with the 3D glasses, was enough to prompt me to give it another look.

First off FX butchered the film by chopping off pieces. Second, more than the usual number of interruptions. Third, totally cheeseball discussion of the film and its technical gimmicks by a pair of young persons. I don’t want to know about the film, I want to watch it. Plus the interruptions by the chirpy nitwits totally breaks the mood and pace of the story. Of course since I had recorded it, I just fast-forwarded through the crap as best I could.

Most of all, you have a story about Commerce undertaking genocide for the sake of natural resource extraction — a story with numerous real-world analogs — broken up by happy talk about how this or that was done in the film, not to mention commercials. Like I said, deeply weird. It would be like watching The Sorrow and the Pity interrupted with commercials for Subway and the Gerber Life program. With any sense of empathy, even for a completely fanciful sci-fi tale, it’s off-putting. The overall presentation spoke to the most witless sensibility.

FX does some great series. I’m totally into The Strain and The Bridge. For movies I’ll have to look elsewhere.


Attack of the Techno-Libertarians!

invasionAfter my response to Steve Randy Waldman on the Universal Basic Income proposal, I got into a Twitter scrum with one Morgan Warstler (MW) and Bro. Waldman. I was under the impression that MW was promoting the UBI and promised to respond to his arguments. Turns out he is not promoting a UBI at all. He’s got a different scheme to replace the social safety net. I’m afraid I can’t endorse it.

MW wants to subsidize wages and require work. Jobs bubble up by virtue of a huge Federal wage subsidy and an online labor exchange. Employers can pay as little as a dollar an hour. The Gov tops up the wage offers to minimum wage levels (along with abolishing the minimum wage). You are required to accept one of the jobs on offer. You don’t work, you don’t get any money. It’s workfare-by-software.

Fortune 1,000 companies are barred from participation in the program, so someone dismissed from such a firm gets routed to a smaller company. At the same time, employers must be located within some short range of employees. I don’t see what would stop small employers from flooding into the program, though the geographical requirement would drastically limit job offers, especially in very low-income areas.

Morgan makes a number of puzzling claims. One is that prices would go down in low-income/low-wage areas, I suppose because the wage subsidy pushes down employer costs and the prices they charge. Though we have assumed there will be employers and we are ignoring the extent to which people consume goods and services originating elsewhere. And we neglect the impact of higher incomes in an area not pushing prices higher. He also thinks competition would force employers kept out of the program to pay higher wages. Again this assumes that jobs are generated in sufficient volume to force such a move. And for some reason he thinks everyone could do a job they positively love, like delivering singing birthday cards. (I initially wrote ‘singing telegrams,’ but you might not know what those are. Were.)

This won’t cost anything, we are told, because it would replace unemployment insurance. So we are back to a failure to grasp the basic functions of social insurance and in this case, fiscal policy. So let’s back up. What problem is the scheme supposed to solve? Poverty, or low employment?

If it’s low employment, you could read the scheme as an elliptical substitute for public employment and fiscal activism (deficit spending). The Gov can create oodles of productive jobs much more easily than a wage subsidy to decentralized, and in this case fictitious employers. There is no lack of public work to be done. Do you want to pay taxes so that a jobless person can go to work tending somebody’s flower beds, or rebuilding America? (Cue the trumpets.) The Gov created lots of work in the 1930s, without benefit of the Internet or PCs. Too slow? Jobs can be created in real time by strengthening automatic fiscal stabilizers, such as the progressive income tax and unemployment insurance. These boost aggregate demand when the economy goes south. MW would replace unemployment insurance with his scheme.

If the problem is poverty, the implication of the scheme is that the problem of the poor is that they won’t work. Before I deal with that ancient prejudice, let me remind you of the social insurance argument underlying unemployment benefits.

Unemployment insurance allows workers to collectively prepay to insure against the risk of job loss. Part of the employer’s labor cost is dedicated to a fund that provides for some wage replacement in the event of layoff. Workers in effect pay for their benefits by receiving less labor compensation. It’s that contributory thing again, to protect against FDR’s “disturbing factors of life.” To be sure, the connection between contribution and return is rough, but there is a connection. It’s not welfare. There is no reason to fix unemployment insurance. It is not broken. It could be improved, but it is not broken.

Unemployment insurance provides an incentive for workers to seek jobs in the first place (since the risks of impoverishment during layoff are reduced), and to keep searching if they have lost their job (to get benefits, you have to look for work). Unemployment insurance is not welfare. The problem with unemployment benefits is not that workers are refusing to work; it’s that they lost a damn job.

To address poverty, MW wants the beneficiaries of his program to work for their benefits. Of course, this is what state governments are doing now with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (not social insurance). How’s that going? In a nutshell, for this approach to be valid, two things have to be true: the poor will work if jobs are available, and jobs will be available. Neither are true.

Jobs are not available in sufficient number to employ the poor and unemployed. If the Gov poured more money into job creation, as noted above, this problem could be addressed. But MW’s scheme is not the only way to do that, and I would say far from the best. Second, many among the poor are either children, disabled, or elderly. They are not expected to work. Among the able-bodied of working age, for many, labor market attachment is precisely their problem, even if jobs are available.

Given the chance, MW would fold in other programs providing means-tested benefits. This is a little careless, even if it’s in the realm of fantasy. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, churning existing benefits into some new system creates huge numbers of losing parties. Ordinarily that is not a disabling criticism, since any big change is going to shake things up. In this case, however, there is no well-defined rationale for the pattern of redistribution from existing beneficiaries to new ones. This follows especially if we are rerouting funds dedicated to those not expected to work into some kind of wage subsidy scheme.

As I cruise into my dotage, I am increasingly aware of age differences with others. Part of the me vs. UBI vs. MW vs. etc. I suspect is an age thing. Younger folks are looking for new things, of course you are. Away with the old and moldy! But one needs to be aware of value in what might be lost.

Social insurance is the greatest achievement of the modern liberal state. It is the most important institution protecting hundreds of millions from penury. If you haven’t looked into it, you really should. I would further argue that when most enjoy protection from the “great disturbing factors of life,” they are more indulgent of public altruism. Poverty and inequality are alleviated. That is the real historical experience of modern social-democracy.oldmanyellsatcloud_thumb

Economic security and “the great disturbing factors of life”



“I am looking for a sound means which I can recommend to provide at once security against several of the great disturbing factors in life–especially those which relate to unemployment and old age. I believe there should be a maximum of cooperation between States and the Federal Government. I believe that the funds necessary to provide this insurance should be raised by contribution rather than by an increase in general taxation.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt, June 8, 1934.

Steve Randy Waldman of the interfluidity blog pulls me back into Universal Basic Income (UBI) land. I appreciate the compliments, but let’s get to the cheddar.

I share his foreboding of a political future without a labor movement. It’s unpleasant to imagine how bad things could get, even aside from that whole destruction of the planet thing. In troubled times, there is a natural conflict between trying to preserve old, embattled forms of social protection and casting about for new, more viable ones.

In general I have no problem with providing unconditional cash money to the poor rather than in-kind benefits. The problem of course is that we have in-kind benefits for food and housing because of the historic, political weakness of free-standing cash assistance. So we need a political environment that would be conducive to some kind of conversion.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “Food Stamps,” got its political boost from agri-business interests, support which is waning. Rep. Ryan wants to turn SNAP into a block grant, a type of death sentence. Not the sort of conversion we want. (With the advent of payment cards, SNAP benefits are more like cash.) By contrast, there is a very good reason for in-kind benefits in the form of health insurance. You don’t want to cast people into an individual market with some kind of voucher. I’m puzzled by SRW’s suggestion that public provision of health care has become infeasible, though later he seems to say it isn’t.

I believe SRW’s characterization of the libertarian impulse is wrong. At its root I would say is not some desire for minimal bureaucracy and free choice, but a drive to drown a whittled-down welfare state in the bathtub. If you don’t like bureaucracy, try not to spend much time dealing with private health insurance companies. The Koch-fueled libertarians use UBI to trash existing programs and advocate a wholesale trade. Big government for all its flaws provides some measure of protection from predators that abound in the private sector.

SRW says the UBI is social insurance. It’s America, and we are all entitled to our own definitions. So what exactly is social insurance? It’s not clear. SRW claims the support for a program depends on the extent to which its benefits are general to the politically-enfranchised. Well sure, but what was it about the program that won the support of the politically-enfranchised in the first place? I still think it’s the contributory rubric. FDR thought so too.

Of course the public has no clue as to the actuarial connection between any social insurance benefits and payments. The thing that matters, however, is that they think there is one. The popular sense of a difference between the dole and “stuff I paid for myself” is strong. Underlying this is the general approval, however unethical, for benefits in excess of any contributions for the deserving. The deserving are those who work or who acquire by fair means or foul some reward for private sector activity. (An exception is the bank bailouts.) I didn’t say this is fair. I only claim it has durable political salience.



Steve claims the UBI is a bridge from the U.S. to welfare states that are more effective in addressing poverty. By this criterion the U.S. certainly ranks comparatively low. The question is where such a bridge would lead. Existing, more effective welfare states are built on big social insurance, not UBIs.

The preference for big, universal programs over narrow, targeted ones to reduce poverty is well-taken. It is usually advanced for the promotion of social insurance, not UBIs. For the reasons I’ve proposed, contributory social insurance is the best existing vehicle. The basis for solidarity is mutual recognition of ‘desert,’ and such recognition rests on contribution. That’s my story.

On a liberal plain, UBI does look better than targeting and means-testing. The tricky problem here comes down to specifics. I noted this in previous posts. Something that sounds good in the abstract can founder when it is spelled out. This actually was the fate of negative income tax proposals in the 70s. They enjoyed bipartisan support, including from Richard Nixon, but the proposals blew up when Congress considered some relevant numbers.

If we are talking about a swap of UBI for means-tested benefits (SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, and the EITC are the big ones), the money formerly used to finance these benefits, once spread out over the entire UBI-eligible population, brings huge hits to existing beneficiaries. Of course there are other possible, supplemental sources of funds. We need to imagine ways to get at them that have some political plausibility — where losers don’t overwhelm winners. It isn’t easy.

One sort of compromise between our positions lies in the universalization-by-socialization of certain types of services. Mickey Kaus used to write about this, before he went insane. Universal pre-K, for instance, is a variation on the theme of UBI that enjoys some support. But notice, in the realm of universal K-12 there are huge distributional struggles, for a function with a constitutional foundation that enjoys widespread approval. In practice, K-12 is substantially financed on a quasi-contributory basis through grossly unequal local property taxes. But by all means, let’s push for free pre-K, free mass transit, a public option within ObamaCare, etc.

Another potential area of mutual interest is TANF. On what basis could TANF be moved closer to a national not-U basic income? Take it back to the Federal budget, minimize benefit reduction rates, cut back on annoying behavioral requirements, raise the benefit floors in the states of Jesusland. What to call it? Family allowance, children’s allowance, I don’t know. I do know that’s where the most deprivation can be found.

It would be great if some enterprising persons could set up a well-designed poll to test the fundamental political question in this debate: does support for benefits hinge on universality or on ‘desert’ based on contribution. An historical analysis would be revealing as well, though as always, past performance does not guarantee future returns.

Thanks to Steve Randy Waldman for a provocative exchange. See also Josh Mason at Slackwire.



Good cops

mankell-wallander-10-luftslottet_572In matters of criminal justice, in contrast to all my hippie, crunchy, rec-room-Bolshevik tendencies, I lean towards an Old Testament posture. I relish revenge, not excluding associated righteous violence. This is purely on a fantasy level. Governments in the U.S. are too racist and incompetent to administer something as serious and irreversible as capital punishment.

I’m always amused by moral condemnation of capital punishment from revolutionaries. Do they not know what happens in a real revolution, not to mention afterwards?

So my prejudice is not necessarily inconsistent with hard-left philosophical sentiments. There could be deeper psychological roots which we will not be going into here. In college I did a course in “revenger tragedies” from the times of Shakespeare and Marlowe, so the impulse obviously has an ancient lineage. (The course was as dull as everything else about Shakespeare.)

After all the violence porn of the homicidal Kojak, Dirty Harry, and their legions of imitators, it is a pleasure to see a completely different approach to police work in the Wallander series, based on novels by Henning Mankell.

There are actually three different Wallanders. One is the original Swedish character, played by Rolf Lassgård, which I’ve never seen. Two is the successor, played by Krister Henriksson, in the second and third seasons. I’m presently working my way through the third, final season. I will regret not having more to watch. Third is a BBC/British version, starring Kenneth Branagh. I’ve seen three of four episodes with KB. Lots of these are available on Netflix.

In Sweden everything is better, including the police. (Well, I doubt the food and music are better. Plus it’s really expensive. And cold.) But that aside, the Swedish police imagined in the series are a model for their trigger-happy American counterparts to envy.

First and foremost, they don’t rack up nearly the same body count as U.S. television cops. Second, they treat suspects with a respect that looks positively outlandish. This is a little overstated, because the sort of criminals they deal with, on average, are not nearly as savage as what we find in our own fictions. Third, they are a model of competence, including the SWAT teams. This latter I think is partly a facility in story-telling. If you need people to keep doing stupid things to move a story along, you’re not telling a good story. The same goes for incredible turns of luck or coincidences.

The lead Wallander in the second series noted above is a model of all three qualities. This is best illustrated in his low-key interrogation technique, as well as his nearly overwrought efforts to avoid shooting somebody who is resisting capture and really deserves to be shot. It’s a really humane performance.

I’m not crazy about Branagh’s Wallander. He’s too weepy. Overcome by his personal problems, and overwhelmed when he actually has to shoot somebody, he needs to keep his shit together more. Henriksson usually keeps his cool.

Why in U.S. cop shows are the criminals always more amoral, the cops more incompetent and unprofessional, the stories less intelligent? British cop and spy stories, which I consume avidly, are much better in these respects as well. In this sense the Dragon Tattoo films, which are all great, are more American, though some of their impact derives from a more civilized background against which evil looks even more evil.

Two current U.S. exceptions are Longmire, which has been cancelled, and Justified, entering its final season. Longmire is a sheriff in Wyoming. He doesn’t act tough, he just is tough. With bad guys he is firm but not blustery.

Justified is about a U.S. Marshal in Harlan County, KY. He racks up a very high body count indeed, but he is always . . . justified. The novel difference is he goes out of his way to respectfully explain to bad guys why they should surrender. They often prove too stupid or bull-headed to acknowledge their disadvantageous position, at which point the quick-drawing, crack shot marshal is obliged to shoot them dead, which he does with stunning accuracy and efficiency.

Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins

Both shows are rich in local color and forego stereotypical images. Most of the bad guys are white. Some are rich and some are poor. The recurring bad guy in Justified — Walton Goggins — is far and away the most interesting character in the story. Minority characters (African-American and Native American) are resourceful, intelligent, ethical, and flawed. Like white people. Both shows are one long story as well as modular short ones. Justified in particular wants to be seen from the beginning.

See also Louis Proyect on Marxist crime stories.

The people versus St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch

mccullochAnnals of the United States of Lyncherdom: the fix is in for the murder of Michael Brown. By now there are six witnesses to the incident. Their stories are all pretty much the same. In the face of this, “Prosecuting Attorney” Robert P. McCulloch, Democrat, is angling for worst person in the world in the year 2014. (Turns out there is quite a bit of dirt in his background, if you believe Wikipedia.)

Turning to the current ongoing scandal, the indictment against McCulloch for malfeasance to date includes:

*   Failed to file charges against Wilson, which would not have required the convening of a grand jury;

*   Did not propose to the grand jury that Wilson be indicted, which is normally what prosecutors do. Instead he is just dumping all the evidenc in front of them. This amounts to a signal to the grand jury to forego an indictment;

*   Permitted Officer Wilson to testify for four hours before the grand jury considering his indictment; very rare.

If there are no qualified attorneys on the grand jury, the non-committal stance of McCulloch’s office could lead to an indictment on charges that do not fit the crime and result in an acquittal on technical grounds. Ordinarily the prosecutor provides guidance in this vein.

I do not believe Mr. McCulloch should have recused himself from the case because his father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. I believe he should just do his fucking job. Everything he has done to date suggests a desire to protect the police miscreants rather than “the people.”

I hope this case doesn’t drop from the national radar, for two reasons. The obvious one is justice in this particular case. The second is that the specifics point to great national issues of race and class. Contrary to President Obama’s emissary Rev. Sharpton, the comatose U.S. Department of Justice, and the somnamblulist Attorney-General Eric Holder, I hope people use this case to raise the broader problems.

Addendum: Related, this column by civil rights veteran Charles Cobb is worth a look. He alludes to the reality that most of the protest around Ferguson has taken the passive form of writing stuff on the Internet, rather than organizing to get people into the street.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting in downtown D.C. about Ferguson. About fifty people, I was one of two or three whites, and the oldest one there by a good sight. A number of speakers and attendees had their own separate projects. The speakers were eloquent but there seems to have been no organizational follow-up, except some emails reminding me to vote. I’m no big activist, but I can get to meetings and marches with a little prodding. I could even do some work if I thought it would be useful. But it’s mostly been crickets. This has been a wasted opportunity.

Cobb is speaking to a mindset that expects deliverance from above, rather than self-activity. We’ve already seen what sort of help and encouragement we are getting from Democrats, including President Obama’s emissary the Rev. Al Sharpton.

It makes perfect sense to note that without marginal Democrats like the reluctant prosecutor McCulloch, the zombie-like Missouri Governor Nixon, and their political ally Senator Claire McCaskill, the GOP takes over and does unspeakable things. And so it would be. But that makes all the more urgent the construction of an independent politics that can expand as well as providing tactical electoral support for Democrats as the times demand.

P.S. If you follow Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, you would have known about this over a week ago.

MaxSpeak responds

earsWe speak but we also listen. Responses to commenters, in reverse order (most recent threads first)

Sandwichman: Sure a UBI on the receiving side, without disturbing anything else, is an unalloyed good. But there is more to it than that.

Paine: We’re on the same page.

Peter K: Sure employment is a priority. My posts were limited to benefit programs.

nihil obstet: I think my reforms are pretty ambitious. Just not too ambitious. Some of your specifics are in the spirit of social insurance, so not against the grain of my posts.

Rich C: UBIs as I noted are being proposed in a wide variety of forms. I think the basic thrust of the idea is to replace everything, more or less, with a UBI. As for Dolan’s numbers, it only adds up to $6K a year, which is a pretty skinny income for one person. It’s easy to imagine better uses for the dollars lost from tax expenditures. Others have their own plans for that money, which as you can appreciate is very difficult to crack for any purpose.

Nihil Obstet: We disagree about the basis for political support for SS. I think it’s the contributory/insurance angle, you think it’s universality. I don’t have any evidence to bring, so I guess we’ll have to let that sit.

I’m not sure I get the pensions/SS angle. I think hostility to pensions stems from envy of public employees, including misguided perceptions of how great they have it.

coberly: We’re in agreement about the focus on the cap, though it should be noted that the Medicare tax was uncapped with barely a whimper from anyone.

sglover: no I don’t buy the substitution argument (public benefits allow employers to pay lower wages). That’s another post, since it comes up all the time with the EITC. It follows even less with the UBI, as you say.

Alex B.: No, it is unattainable, but that’s not my argumment. Mine is that it distracts from more compelling objectives, as elaborated in my manifesto. The UBI is not huge enough to noticeably affect the national debate in the U.S., but it is still the wrong road to go down, IMO.

Bud Meyers: I totally disagree with the idea that jobs will be displaced by automation. The composition of jobs will change, but there is still quite a bit of useful work to be done. People were talking this way in the 1950s. There is always more automation, and always other kinds of new jobs.

JDG: You’re raising the same universal vs. contributory argument I picked up above. To be sure, the ‘earned’ nature of SS or Medicare is not precise; I would argue that it is broadly appreciated in any case. As for end of work, see the preceding.

The question of public employment is well-addressed in the comments so I’m not taking that bait.