Bitches Get Shit Done

With all the loose talk about negotiations over the next stimulus package, I am compelled to rise in defense of Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi. This is a new role for me. She is getting grief from the so-called Problem Solvers’ Caucus in the House and that nitwit, Andrew Yang. Rep. Ro Khanna, of whom I think well, has also brought some shade. The question has blown up in recent days after an interview Pelosi did with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

The short and inadequate summary of this debate is that the Administration has offered a $1.8 trillion relief package, in response to the Democrats’ proposal for a somewhat higher number. People hampered by low information, such as Blitzer, can’t really evaluate either proposal because they have no clue as to the contents of either proposal. In the interview, Blitzer just kept repeating “$1.8 trillion” as if he had an actual argument. He does not. The government does not necessarily solve problems by spending money. It matters how it is spent.

The conservative bias against the public sector is to apply reductionist criteria to policy. In this case, we are asked to fixate on the total ‘headline’ number in a proposal, or to elevate sending cash to individuals as the be-all and end-all of public policy. Even then, it matters how much cash, and to whom. From a radical standpoint, this is commodification writ large. Even from a mainstream economic standpoint, cash assistance is not a substitute for public services. In particular, we need money spent on services to deal with the pandemic, and we need aid to state and local governments, so that they can maintain the services that make civilized life possible.

The reductionist frame for stimulus is being championed by the right wing of the House Democratic Caucus, the aforementioned ‘problem solvers.’ This caucus consists of both Democrats and Republicans and thrives on the bogus polarization frame of U.S. politics: why or why can’t ‘both sides’ get together and get things done? The simple answer is that one side is deeply insane. A massive rebuke at the polls next month might bring some of them back to Earth, or it may simply shrink the Republicans in Congress to a more intransigent, hard core. That is a problem for later.

Blitzer accused Pelosi of being narrowly concerned with denying Trump any possible boost to his campaign. A compromise would give the stock market a bump up and provide a political win for Trump, but it is too late for the money to have any political effect on the ground before November 3. Even so, there is a case for denying Trump any such benefit, because he is the most awful president ever, remember?

It can also be said that Pelosi has the leverage. It’s a curious progressive critique to fault a Democratic leader for failing to exploit any such leverage. The criticism from the “problem solvers” makes more sense. The problem they are dedicated to solving, including a Member in my own state of Virginia named Abigail Spanberger (a former CIA agent), is getting elected in Trump-friendly districts.

Blitzer’s elementary-school understanding of politics, besides the implied, bogus “gridlock” idea, neglects the fact that there is no reason to think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would let any compromise measure to come up for a vote in the Senate. Arguably, Mitch is looking past the impending defeat next month to considering how to sabotage a Biden Administration. Blocking stimulus now or before January 20 is one way to do that. Blitzer also asked, without embarrassment, why Pelosi didn’t call up the president and do the deal. Trump doesn’t operate that way. He doesn’t do things. He tweets.

I’ve never had much use for Pelosi. She’s a skilled legislative operator but has no policy vision. She needs a president to follow. In this case, however, grounds for criticism from the outside seem notably thin. Unless you can read minds, you don’t know the details of what is at issue in the negotiations. My guess is that the Democratic bill reflects a constructive use of funds, while the Republican proposals are a pile of stinking monkey crap. Which side are you on?

“The Comey Rule” and the Resistible Rise of Trump

Live Updates: James Comey testifies on Russia probe, FBI's actions | Fox  News

Showtime’s two-day replay of Trump’s ascent to power is a useful repackaging of the entire disgraceful episode. It is evidently based on the perspective of James Comey himself, with all the possible biases that might entail.

The foundational bias is Comey’s judgment that he was compelled to torpedo the candidacy of Hillary Clinton to protect the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There is an historical parallel in the colossal flop of the Mueller probe. Mueller was similarly constrained in his pursuit of Trump, evidently in observance of Department of Justice conventions.

In both cases, neither of these lifelong Republicans seemed to have considered that their attempt to protect institutions in the near term would set the stage for their utter corruption subsequently. We see that now in the form of Attorney-General William Barr’s rubbishing of the Department of Justice.

A couple of characters’ reputations are well skewered in this account. The lead shitweasel is Rod Rosenstein, who betrayed Comey and the FBI. He had been on a high-level career track but was used and discarded by Trump. He is now mothballed at the elite King and Spaulding law firm. There are worse fates.

A bit more surprising was the nonfeasance of Obama Attorney-General Loretta Lynch, who permitted Comey to destroy Clinton and committed the blunder of meeting with Bill Clinton in the middle of this clusterfuck. She is now ensconced at the elite Paul, Weiss law firm. Obama himself could be accused of low energy throughout the affair.

And then there is Comey himself. Jeff Daniels plays him as if he has a stick up his arse. I wonder, does Comey realize it? If not, it explains a lot.

The story takes decided note of the Russia connections but does not overplay them. Indeed, there is no way to confirm the true extent and impact of Russian interference. Proof of collusion is also murky. And there’s not a lot of evidence the public cares much about Russia, one way or another. We’re a long way from Ronald Reagan’s bear-in-the-woods commercials.

The real locus of Trump Administration criminality is less in the Russian agent sphere than in the dazzling display of abuse of power and garden-variety graft, all for the most part arcane matters that fail to excite the public. The Democrats’ signal failure in this vein was trying to make more of the Russian side than could be supported and making little or nothing of all the other shit.

The Left’s conceptual difficulties here are twofold.

One is indifference to the national security frame used by the House, especially in the impeachment resolutions. Not surprisingly, the left is internationalist in orientation. There is no moral case for criticizing Russian interference, such as it was and is, while ignoring the long history of much more egregious acts by the U.S. government.

However, the case need not devolve to Cold War jingoism. After all, Russia is no longer Red, and V. Putin is no friend of the international working class. Any interference by Russia in any other nation’s politics cannot be welcome.

Second, we on the left are not instantly motivated to rise in defense of “The Rule of Law.” In the past, this formulation, or its more agitational cousin “Law and Order,” have been deployed against both legal protest and non-violent civil disobedience, frequently to justify criminal behavior by the authorities.

But there is a use for the law. Otherwise thousands of attorneys in the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, etc. have been wasting their time. We want public officials to be bound by the law, rather than able to ignore it willy-nilly, as Trump does. We spend a lot of time trying to improve the law. The rule of law is flawed but potentially benefits us, at least to some extent. At the very least, it would be impossible to protest, organize against, or vote out a completely lawless regime. So be careful how you discount the Rule of Law.

“The Comey Rule” ties up with a bow the utter failure of ordinary criticism of Donald Trump and his Republican Party. As the recent debate showed, we are no longer in a political contest. Trump is running against democracy, and democracy is a law we need.

Means-Testing Without Tears

For some time now, people on the left have been trying to compare universal benefits favorably to means-tested programs. A new effort by Meagan Day is highly debatable on basic points.

Means-tested benefits are said to limit eligibility and leave many needy behind, unlike ‘universal benefits.’ Unfortunately, there is no really existing universal benefit that remedies this problem, so we are committing the basic fallacy of criticizing an existing program by comparison to an idealized alternative. There is no reason a benefit founded on a means-testing formula could not be provided to anyone you might like.

The real rationale for means-testing is not that it deprives the unworthy of assistance. That is a straw man often deployed by the less progressive among us. It is that for any sub-group of the population, a means-tested program will be cheaper, or for any given amount of money, it can provide more assistance than a universal one. Advocates for universal benefits must compete with equally righteous left advocates for other types of spending. In practice, public funds are limited. (Also true in an MMT world, by the way.)

Another knock on means-testing is that it is more politically vulnerable to cuts. But this isn’t quite right either. In the U.S., cash benefits have certainly been obliterated, but health care benefits have expanded significantly, if one cares to track the trends in spending under Medicare and Medicaid. The food stamp program is still cranking as well. Here again, the non-existent universal cash benefit is held up as a superior alternative.

Right now (Sept. 2020), the case for Medicare For All is stronger than ever, but there is no evident parallel opportunity when it comes to cash assistance. The so-called Universal Basic Income (which is neither universal, nor basic) has become a popular subject of discussion, but its cost renders it a non-starter in any realistic budget debate.

A temporary version of UBI along the lines of assistance already rendered this year is more plausible. But that takes us a good way from the abstract ideal of a permanent, universal cash benefit.

Going forward, no UBI is going to provide an adequate or ‘basic’ income to all. It is worth focusing on reinstituting cash assistance, in the form of a negative income tax (which could be called a ‘family allowance’). The UBI chatter detracts from more likely efforts to provide income guarantees. The UBI is not the only way to provide a guaranteed income, and as I have argued elsewhere, far from the best way.

Our Genocidal President

People seem to be confounded by Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that more testing for the virus has generated more cases. It sounds incredibly stupid on its face. Even for Trump, it is hard to believe he is that stupid, or that anyone is stupid enough to believe him. Actually, his statement makes perfect sense, in one perverse respect.

When Trump refers to cases, he is referring to the tragedies suffered by other people, people to whose welfare he is explicitly hostile. It is well-known that people of color have been more stricken with the virus, on average. When Trump says more testing brings more cases, he means that more testing imposes a greater communal obligation on the country by revealing more black and brown people requiring medical care, more absorption of hospital capacity, and often depending on subsidies from the government.

Of course, in absolute terms, more white people are getting sick and dying. But as in the debates on poverty, welfare, or food stamps, this reality gets erased, not least by white people at risk themselves. Susceptibility to the virus due to benighted financial circumstances, as with poverty, is a source of shame that needs to be glossed over. The pretense of poverty or the virus being a racial matter helps to insulate the Administration from criticism within its own racist constituencies.

At this writing, in the U.S. there are 157,000 recorded fatalities, with an end nowhere in sight. Without doubt, the actual total is higher, but 157,000 should be quite enough to commend the worst fate possible for our current overlords.

The president’s more recent babbling about saving the suburbs testifies to his dependence on racial politics. And if that isn’t enough, we also have the more recent story of political calculations within the White House associated with the idiot-child Jared Kushner that the virus was mostly a blue state problem that could be discounted in hopes of a more rapid economic recovery.

It is impossible to imagine a U.S. regime deserving of a worse fate than the current one. There is no comparison to Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Suggestions to the contrary reflect profound ignorance. To be sure, previous presidents have visited disastrous harm on other nations, as well as on the original, indigenous populations of the Americas. Under current circumstances, however, these comparisons are meaningless since there is no telling what calamities lie before us. The U.S. is not merely a danger to itself. It is a threat to the world.

The current danger can be tied to two types of error on the part of some on the left. The obvious one is any ghost of an implication that Joe Biden would be no better than Trump. We might ask, is there any fatality count prior to the election that would lead one to reconsider this premise, assuming 157,000 is not enough?

The other is more arcane, the difference between cash transfers and what economists call “public goods.” Most of my career has been about cash transfers, to families and to state and local governments. Without doubt, people need cash. There is no getting around that. But people, especially lower-income people, also need public goods.

What is a public good? It is a good or service that can be shared without any reduction in a given individual’s use. If the government sends you $10 that you spend for personal consumption, nobody else benefits. The money could be subdivided into nickels, but the same stricture applies. But the extent to which that money is devoted to something that benefits many persons at the same time ‘supercharges’ the spending power of the government.

The preeminent public good today is public health. Free vaccines and treatments benefit the community as a whole, as do restrictions on behavior and regulation of commerce that reduce the incidence of the virus. Public goods equalize well-being by raising the floor of consumption, by expanding collective consumption.

Not a few on the left have become infatuated with schemes such as Universal Basic Income. Its other myriad deficiencies aside, no UBI can substitute for public goods. Only the very wealthy can afford to forego the benefits of public services and facilities, though even they are not entirely immune. Rich people have contracted and died from the virus too.

The obsession with cash is a surrender to commodification, a devolution from even a basic idea of communal well-being. Socialism means a lot more than equalization of personal money incomes.

More Notes on Police Reform

The Mind of Black Lives Matter | National Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defund Tha Police? (draft)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Bernie-Haters Are in DSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Always Tells

Class conflict - Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These States

Government Budget Cuts Programs for Elderly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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