BlacKkKlansman reviewed

Image result for blackkklansmanI saw Spike Lee’s latest movie, BlacKkKlansman, last night, and I have thoughts. (Spoilers ahead! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film, and if you haven’t seen it, do Netflix and chill with it.)

My interest is not in the movie as an artistic achievement. I’m not really qualified to judge it in those terms. In my untutored view, Spike Lee is really good at the technical side of making movies. I mean cinematography, editing, and music. As a writer, his dialogue is often very good as well. Otherwise, the content from one film to the next is more open to critique. At any rate, this film’s politics are my subject.

To cut to the chase, as a movie-watching experience the film is a pretty ordinary cops-vs-racists deal. As agit-prop, however, it is by turns engrossing and electrifying. I don’t mean to diminish it. By my lights, there is nothing wrong with a great propaganda vehicle, especially if it’s for causes I favor.

The racists in the film – Klansmen, including their national leader, David Duke – are caricatured as completely deluded, ignorant, vicious clowns. They are all fat, dumb, and ugly. There are two ways to take this. On the one hand, the underlying ideology deserves all the scorn that can be put upon it. On the other, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the enemy. Duke, for instance, is a much more imposing figure in real life than the pencil-necked Topher Grace could manage in the film.

There are hints in the film of the Klan’s ambitions to mainstream itself, but because the members are shown in such reduced terms, it is difficult to see this emerging from the withered roots on display. By contrast, the film’s inclusion of modern news footage at the close confirms that this is indeed what has happened. The problem is the gulf between point A – the setting of the film – and point B – the current United States of America. How did we get here from there? The film can’t tell us.

One facet of the bifurcation is the depiction of the Colorado Springs police force. Now by the testimony of the real protagonist in this story – police detective Ron Stallworth, whose memoir is the source – said depiction is accurate. Stallworth’s initiative in investigating the Klan was supported by his superiors and colleagues. Bully for them. But this is not a documentary.

Some events, including the climax to the story, are pure fiction. The decision over what truths to show and what story elements to dream up remains the choice of the auteur. The benign image of the police in the Lee’s movie may be true to the particular, real events upon which the film is based, but it is not true to the reality of law enforcement in America today. Not a few white police officers are aligned with the very same forces whose germination is targeted in this film. In short, today the cops need a lot of work in the field of race relations.

To his credit, Lee doesn’t shrink from contradiction entirely. Perhaps the central one in the film is the dilemma of a black police officer being sent to infiltrate local civil rights agitation, when he isn’t getting after the Klan. To emphasize this problem, Lee ingeniously invents a romance between the officer and the leader of a local Black Student Union. (In reality, Stallworth had a German girlfriend.)

Near the close of the film, when Stallworth’s membership in the police force is exposed, and notwithstanding his heroic role in destroying the local Klan organization, she rejects him for aligning with the enemy pigs. At the same time, the threat of a cross-burning outside their apartment brings them together in armed unity. There is a scene of the pair of them, each pointing pistols at the camera, floating almost ethereally towards the window.

The truth is, the radical politics on display here are pretty lame. The police are the pigs and Black is beautiful. Sure. There is one bit of a speech by Stokely Carmichael, which is just a string of clichés. Now back in the day I heard Stokely speak myself, and although I didn’t care for his politics, he was much deeper than his namesake in Lee’s film.

I do have to say at one point in the film, the members of the Black Student Union plus their police infiltrator are dancing and singing in a bar, to the sound of the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose (“Too Late to Turn Back Now”). The scene does go on for the better part of the song. Lee wants to say, these were my people, beautiful and graceful, who deserved better than they got. My late wife could have been one of them. Imagine seeing your spouse at age 19, dancing, being happy. It was sweet.

Another affecting aspect for me is Lee’s invention of Stallworth’s alter ego ‘Flip’ (short for Philip), the cop drafted to stand in for Stallworth when a personal appearance at a Klan gathering is required, as a Jew. He is played by Adam Driver, whom I had been ignoring since I first saw him in an episode of Girls (I’ve only ever watched part of that one episode). He didn’t stand out much in the newer Star Wars either, though I’m not much into Star Wars since it became a brand more than a movie serial. I’ve decided Driver is a damn good actor.

Lee’s Flip is secular and barely ever thought about his roots until his Klan infiltration. The anti-Semitism of the Klan makes him think more about those roots, something which most Jews have experienced now and again. The Klan’s historic anti-Semitism (among other prejudices) was a fact.

At various points in the film, assorted bits of Trump rhetoric crop up. One that caught my notice was the Klan’s espousal of “America First.” I thought it was a bit of a stretch. Of course, all students of U.S. anti-Semitism know the origins of the slogan in Charles Lindbergh’s 1930s campaign to keep the U.S. out of World War II. But for the Colorado Klan of the 1960s, as one reviewer pointed out, it turns out to be accurate as well.

The film closes with news footage of the president and the contemporary “alt-right,” better understood as modern neo-Nazis, highlighting their recent offenses in Charlottesville, Va. It effectively knits together the Black Klansman tale with our present dangers.

At bottom, the politics of Black Klansman hardly verge beyond liberal/anti-racist/anti-anti-Semitic. Its view of law enforcement is roughly benign. It is hard-core anti-Trump, though not especially anti-conservative. It’s obvious why it was a success with Hollywood.

More significant, I would say, is that it brings, or should I say returns, Jews to the civil rights struggle and signals the emerging common interests of people of color, Jews, Muslims, and everyone of non-standard sexual orientation or identity.

We still have some way to go for a genuinely epic, radical film. Lee got closer with his Malcolm X. Why hasn’t anybody ever done the story of Toussaint Louverture? That’s a hell of a fucking story. There are others.



Plan, Market, and Wal-Market

Image result for socialist planning“Men plan, and God laughs.” – Yiddish proverb, origin unknown

More and more people are talking about socialism, but nobody’s doing anything about it. If we’re talking about “nationalizing the means of production,” Bernie Sanders’ avowedly democratic socialist political revolution falls well short. Old notions of the state owning the “commanding heights” of industry and employing central planning to guide the economy fit a classic concept of socialism. Old-fashioned lefties are given to gripe that Bernie’s vision extends little beyond a beefed-up New Deal.

An extension of the space that Sanders has cleared is the new book by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski, “People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundation for Socialism.” Their elevator pitch could be, our largest, successful corporations are founded on extensive planning systems, and the success of these firms, such as Walmart and Amazon, demonstrates the growing feasibility of socialist planning.

Central planning means the government owns and directs the operations of the bulk of land, plant, and equipment – capital — used to produce most of the economy’s goods and services. It is distinct from the expanded public sector promised by Sanders that would provide more benefits, facilities, and services where the private sector is most delinquent. Health insurance is currently the most cited example.

In efforts to render ‘socialism’ more wholesome, some voices urge us to regard the humblest public facilities as examples. Your beloved library is Socialism! But this will not do. If we’re talking about planning, we are really referring to the next level of public provision of goods and services that are usually produced by business firms.

In centrally-planned economies, instead of business firms we have enterprises. These enterprises are given instructions from a central authority on what to produce, how to produce it, and what to sell it for. Capital investment is decided by the government, which owns all the capital goods. For an enterprise to expand, or to switch to some different production method, agreement must be secured from higher authorities. Moreover, ‘lower authorities’ – the enterprises – have to obey instructions finally arrived at.

An alternative to central planning is the market socialist model. In that system, individual enterprises are controlled by their own workers. They produce for profit and compete with other enterprises for market share. The authors are non-committal as to their preference for either model, though libertarian-socialist sympathies for market socialism are detectable in their account.

Central planning was taken up by the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and in recent decades, abandoned by them. State-owned enterprises were sold to private parties. Usually the beneficiaries of these transfers, at fire sale prices, were former communist bureaucrats. Meet the new boss, literally the same as the old boss. Exhibit A is the fabulously wealthy president of the Russian state, whose business experience was acquired in the KGB.

Market socialism never got much further than Yugoslavia and has also left the scene. Even so, the libertarian socialist vision scratches the right itches – decentralization, democracy, communal ownership, equality. Feasibility remains a question.

State-owned enterprises and state-run economies were famously unproductive, among other deficiencies. When it came to provide a competitive supply of consumer goods, central planning failed. Competitive in this context means that these planning systems could produce, but they could not produce enough at acceptable quality to discourage their citizens from envying capitalist alternatives in the west.

Yugoslavia’s story was different. The authors might have devoted more attention to its devolution, since it goes to the heart of their appeals. At any rate, there is little question that today, labor-managed firms, cooperatives, and non-profit organizations are ubiquitous in capitalist economies and have proven capabilities of producing marketable, profitable goods and services.

The burden of analysis from Phillips and Rozworski (P&R) is that communist planning systems, aside from their multiple affronts to human freedom, failed at logistics, and were further handicapped by the limited computing power available in their heydays. Now we have giant corporations that rely on planning, and they are doing just fine.

The authors are keen to emphasize that the prosperity of these firms does not hinge on market efficiency, since the internals of these firms are not organized along market lines. They are right to cite the economist Ronald Coase of the University of Chicago, who pointed this out in the 1930s, though they might have also given attention to John Kenneth Galbraith, who cultivated this field in more recent decades.

Under the hallowed theory of supply and demand, we get an efficient market when many well-informed buyers and sellers come together, prices are thrown back and forth, and equilibrium is reached.

The departures of really-existing markets from this best of all possible worlds were always obvious. Coase’s insight was that internally, business firms’ operations do not rely on market forces at all. The custodian summoned to fix the furnace does not begin dickering with the supervisor over his fee. There is no bidding war for who will sweep the floor. Workers on an assembly line do not auction off their services for each task performed.

Internally, business firms have always run as little command economies, or “islands of power.” What’s remarkable about Amazon or Walmart is not only the fact of this planning, but the scale at which it operates successfully.

The analogy of Walmart’s internal operations to central planning is tantalizing but limited. Our largest corporations’ outputs exceed the Gross Domestic Product of entire countries. Has planning become feasible for an entire nation? The differences between Walmart and an entire economy elaborated by the authors present a set of challenges for the advance of planning.

One reason that planning appears to function is due to what economists call survivorship bias. Walmart is successful, but what about firms with internal planning that are no longer with us, or that were never able to scale up in the first place? The authors offer one counterfactual bit of evidence – the failure of Sears, in which a scheme to organize competition among different subdivisions of the firm ended in fiasco.

Second, one feature of Walmart’s operations vociferously rejected by P&R – the cramdown of labor costs and the suppression of workers’ voices at work – could be reasons for its success. The authors are right to suggest that ‘flatter’ organizational pyramids with bottom-up participation can function effectively, but one must ask, if such alternatives are more profitable, why don’t more firms resort to them?

Third, another egregious practice that comes with the market power of Walmart and Amazon and helps them to succeed, planning aside, is a feature of their scale and dominance of their markets: the ability to grind down the prices paid to their suppliers. Moreover, not a small share of these suppliers operates in nations that suppress labor costs in ways that the worst American robber baron might envy. Neither state-owned nor worker-managed enterprises would necessarily be immune to such temptations.

Fourth, Walmart and Amazon are in large part intermediaries – they don’t manufacture the products they sell. As large as they are, so too are the worlds of their suppliers and customers. The planning problem is largely solved for them. They can obtain information on costs of production and consumers’ willingness to pay for this and that by surveying markets external to them. They are similarly informed on whether to contract out some component of their production, such as custodial services. They know the prices offered by outside vendors. This information would be lacking under central planning, if not under market socialism.

Fifth, one feature of corporations is that decisions are made in a hierarchy. The results may be unlovely from a social standpoint, but they are arrived at more quickly. A drawback to the authoritarianism of extinct communist governments, was the tendency for the information flow to be stifled. The authors urge the replacement of hierarchy by democratic procedure: “Democracy is the beating heart of socialism.”

But democratic rule by councils of interested, not always unbiased or informed parties, brings its own costs, particularly in time. A decision arrived at by a central authority that must be run back and forth through subordinate councils, or councils of councils, takes longer to be resolved. By the time it is resolved, it could be rendered obsolete by subsequent events.

Great advances in computing power combined with big data certainly enlarge the ability to plan. The extent to which such capacity is adequate to the problem of determining production and consumption decisions in an economy is still an open question. Alongside the greater scope for calculation, moreover, comes the greater threat to individual privacy.

Socialism in the U.S. is back, at least as something to talk about, so chances are we are not done talking about planning either. A myriad of social problems cries out for the intervention of a higher, regulating authority to restrict or transform the way business firms operate. These interventions imply planning, though not necessarily of the sort hoped for in this book.

We need better planning for cities and regions. We need a plan to reduce carbon emissions through the reorganization of transportation and electricity generation and distribution. We need a plan to reverse the trend of residential segregation by race.

We need to ask which problems we hope for central planning to solve. Some of the most popular causes nowadays do not require planning. The lowest priority for planning may be the basic production decisions of corporations.

The government could require Walmart to phase into renewable energy. It could devise trade agreements that inhibit the super-exploitation of labor in nations that export to the U.S. It could put floors on the wages Walmart can pay its employees and indirectly, its vendors, and mandate equal pay by race and gender. It could tax the incomes and inheritances of Walmart’s chief shareholders and executives at progressive rates. It could purchase shares and expand public ownership stakes in corporations. None of these measures require central planning, but with their proliferation, the U.S. would be a different country. You might even call it “democratic socialism.”

Muellerus Interruptus

A great event can throw into sharp relief the virtues and flaws of political tendencies. Regarding the anti-climactic report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the greatness lies in the loudness of the dog that didn’t bark. Evidently there are no new indictments of Trump cronies, nor hard evidence of Trump collusion with the Russian state.

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For Trumpaphobic, MSNBC obsessives who have placed their hopes on the machinery of state bringing down the president, this Hindenburg ending leaves them deflated, if not in flames. Meanwhile, radicals who reject the legitimacy of that legal process remain in a political wilderness, armed with little more than their alienation. And finally, it hardly needs to be said, the glorious victory of another week without being indicted is just the latest dubious achievement of our toxic, ruling junta.

It happens a lot with some liberals. They focus their discontent on a clear but narrow point of criticism and work it energetically. But when it fails or falls apart, they are left at a loss. For instance, in the case of the run-up to the Iraq war, we got assorted procedural objections to invasion. There was no buy-in from the UN. We should keep inspecting for weapons of mass destruction.

The foundational point was glossed over. Iraq was no kind of existential threat to the security of the U.S., with or without WMDs, and in fact the entire enterprise was never motivated by any concern for U.S. national security. The same process is playing out now with respect to Iran and Venezuela. There is no meaningful liberal bulwark against some new U.S. military misadventure in either of those places. If you indulge economic warfare, it is not a giant step to the military kind.

Now in the case of Trump, liberal hopes hinge on a continuing uprising in the suburbs. To be sure, there is ample evidence of such discontent, mostly recently in the midterm electoral successes of Democratic candidates for Congress. The suburban campaign, however, is founded on generalized revulsion at the plethora of corrupt practices on display in the Administration, as well as the Russian suspicions. This posture is at odds with the actual habits of winning Democratic candidates in 2018, who talked more about health care and other pocket-book issues than about Trump. Matt Taibbi made a useful point, that raising expectations on the legal front will turn out to be unhelpful, if not backfire.

The shortcoming of the legalistic, suburban approach is that it fails to unravel the hard core of Trump’s support – the 35 percent or so who block most Republican senators from basic human behavior. They don’t care about Trump’s crimes; in fact, these crimes, as well as his Putin friendship, fortify his above-the-law, ‘big man’ persona, and his pretense to the power to right all wrongs.

Trump’s constituency needs to be demobilized, broken up, and ultimately eliminated as a political force. For one thing, it shelters a smaller but homicidal contingent from which terrorist attacks have been staged against an assortment of minorities. To impeach Trump, enough supporters need to be peeled off to flip the U.S. Senate. The same goes for winning the Electoral College in 2020. For that to be within reach, class politics are required. The extent of Trump’s support from the “white working class” has often been exaggerated, but it is not insignificant.

The fact is that, uncomfortable though it may be, racist voters can be mobilized to useful ends. The Democratic Party and the welfare state have advanced to their current state in no small part thanks to such votes. These voters can be approached without resort to racist appeals, which appeals would in fact be totally, stupidly counter-productive considering the trending, Democratic Party base.

For its part, most of the left rejected the entire Mueller project, and worked itself into a posture of quiescence with respect to an explicitly neo-fascist president. Imagine for a second that Russia is entirely out of the picture, as far as the 2016 election and the White House are concerned. In the face of the president’s lengthy criminal career and the avalanche of misdeeds by his cronies, his children, and his Cabinet members, is there not a target-rich environment for any garden-variety leftist?

Although it requires getting more deeply into the weeds, the contrast between the current Administration and its 2016 alternative – the Clinton political machine – should be obvious. There is no category of domestic policy where anything that Hillary Clinton might have initiated could possibly have been worse than what Trump has either done, tried to do, or aims to do. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has not been paying attention. The gradient is clear – the Republicans are worse in every dimension, to a non-trivial degree.

This should be starkly obvious in the field of foreign policy. From this standpoint, the misgivings of those who failed to vote Democratic in 2016 because of purported dangers of Hillary starting World War III shift from misguided to idiotic. The greater threats of Trump to peace, compared to Clinton, are undeniable. What some have missed is that isolationism in the case of Trump does not mean abstention from violent meddling in foreign affairs. It means rejecting traditional alliances, but finding new alliances among less savory, traditional U.S. adversaries. It also finds political sustenance in threatening other countries. Fascists subsist on fantasies of violence. Fascists in power have the means to actually play out such fantasies.

But this still understates the reality. We need to step back to see the bigger picture: Trump would lead the U.S. into an international coalition of neo-fascist regimes. Some on the left might celebrate the passing of an ancien neoliberal regime responsible for numerous crimes since World War II. Its successor, however, promises to be worse. To their credit, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis have taken a stand on this front.

The prominence of Russia in this new, revolting constellation leads some to caution against Cold War or Red Scare rhetoric. But there is no communism under attack. An anti-Russian/Putin message has no negative implications for efforts in the U.S. to advance the welfare state or the well-being of the working class. There can’t be a Red Scare without Reds. Instead the Putin regime should be called what it is – an expansionist, authoritarian criminal syndicate that participates in attacks on the working classes of other countries, not least of all, our own.

Some folks are still running on the fumes of U.S.-Soviet Friendship Society talk. Sure, nuclear war would be really bad. Nobody wants it. We ought to seek peaceful coexistence with the Russian state. But there are a lot of ways to constructively reckon with the current, rightward drift of the Russia short of Armageddon.

Trump has advanced the interests of Russia in several overarching, strategic ways. He has downgraded the NATO alliance. This helps Putin. (That we don’t need that alliance is a separate question.) He has promoted the break-up of the European Union, through support for ‘Brexit’ and for neo-fascist regimes in continental Europe. (The EU has grave shortcomings, but not as many as a Europe salted with neo-fascist regimes, with no EU to check their worst anti-democratic impulses.) He has blocked aggressive implementation of sanctions enacted by the Congress. He has rejected the human rights framework, all its hypocrisies notwithstanding, that would be basic to criticism of Putin, and prospectively to other dictators. He seeks to bring discredit on the U.S. government’s own counter-intelligence capabilities while resting satisfied on the “very strong” protestations of innocence from Putin.

This is really a Marxian moment – Groucho, not Karl. Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin’ eyes? Trump collaborates with Putin. It could not be more obvious. And Putin does not have the interests of the U.S. working class at heart. The election is over; whether Putin decisively tilted the result, difficult to know under any circumstances, is secondary. It’s obvious which side he and his Wikileaks poodle were on.

Arguments about the degree and details of the collaboration, about its strictly legal ramifications, are all beside the point, if of great interest to journalists, political scientists, and lawyers. Under current circumstances, the Senate is not going to vote to impeach. We’ve got a neo-fascist president who has taken over the country’s conservative party, done considerable damage to the welfare state, and unleashed murderous hounds from the bowels of the Internet-fed grass roots.

The alliance with Putin is secondary in this sense, but salient in light of the international ramifications of the regimes and political tendencies to which Trump and Russia lend comfort. How about a little internationalism, comrades?

For his crimes, both past and ongoing, Trump should be brought to account. The political focus, however, should not be on graft and legally unconfirmable, politically invulnerable collusion with a foreign power. Rather, it should be twofold: on attacks on our basic democratic norms, economic security, racial justice, and environmental sustainability; and, second, on threats to peace embodied in aggressive acts towards countries who pose no threat to the security of the U.S.

The focus on scandal is analogous to the frenzied horserace coverage of polls in the heat of election campaigns. Scandal is diverting, and when sex is involved it is huge fun. It is also a distraction from the overarching ideological struggle – socialism or barbarism – on which our survival depends.

Universal Child Care, In View

In this era of progressive upsurge, we’re at a point where we should start translating aspirational demands, in other words, stuff that just isn’t going to happen right away, into practical terms, which includes consideration of potential difficulties.

One such demand that appears increasingly within reach is the goal of universal child care. Senator Elizabeth Warren has put a specific proposal forward, and Matt Bruenig has offered a full-blown program of aid to families with children. Kathleen Geier covers the Warren plan here, and she argues with Bruenig about one aspect of the latter’s plan here.

It should be clear that the world would be better with either of these options, as well as with Geier’s suggested modifications.

I only want to address Geier’s argument with Bruenig, which hinges on the issue of child care subsidies for at-home care, in other words, for parents (usually mothers, which is an issue discussed below) caring for their own children at home. Bruenig is for it, Geier is against.

Geier favors a network of excellent, tax-funded facilities, open to all. I would welcome this as well. The dilemmas arise not in the abstract, but in the real. In other words, what would we actually get if the government set out to construct a network of excellent, free facilities open to all? The point is to think about the consequences of implementation. What could go wrong?

  • Free, open-access facilities do not necessarily escape falling into patterns of stratification by class, and in the U.S., inevitably by race as well. In other words, the quality of the service tends to mirror the incomes or, in the U.S., the caste status of its local consumers. An old book by Julian LeGrand, The Strategy of Equality: Redistribution and the Social Services, discusses this in the British setting.
  • If the supply of a really-existing network of child care centers is limited, then the alternative of support for home care becomes more important. In the same vein, the inclusion of community organizations, including the “faith-based,” looked upon by KG with well-deserved skepticism, becomes more important.
  • The interest in quality services, which entails well-appointed facilities and well-qualified, well-paid workers, goes against the grain of ordinary budgeting constraints, with the possibility of additional, negative ramifications for the first problem bulleted above.
  • The chief dilemma of the at-home care subsidy is that it reinforces existing gendered social and employment realities. While a male partner or spouse could choose to perform the care-giving role, the likelihood is that for a heterosexual couple it will be the woman. (And by the way, the likelihood is also that most workers in public facilities will also be women.) One response is to split the weeks of support between partners. Denying flexibility in this way could have a significant financial impact on a family, where one or the other partner’s earning power is much higher. The underlying motive for such a policy becomes absurd in the case of single-sex couples, which are growing in number. I would also look askance at any policy wherein the State seeks to re-engineer, by fiat, family roles at this intimate level. Suppose Mom really, really wants to be home with the baby or toddler? The family could abstain from the public facilities, though their taxes would continue to pay for them. In other words, there would be an implicit tax on home care. Philosophy aside, do child care advocates really want to fight this one out politically? Is this the best hill to die on, when it comes to combatting sexism in the U.S.? I frankly don’t know. I will defer to the movement, either way, but hope that the leaders have thought of how it would all go.

The bottom line is nothing is easy. Every positive feature of a new arrangement entails a possible trade-off with some other desirable attribute. I can’t tell you where to come down among these alternatives. I can say with confidence that these issues are likely to loom over the realization of any new system.


Fun with the Family Fun Pack

Another interesting policy proposal from Matt Bruenig inspires some comments here.

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The proposal’s framework has more potential than might be evident. In particular, with regard to problems with the availability of child care services, since school districts (which are everywhere) would administer the program, they could provide facilities too. There is money in the program for capital expenditures. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to include churches in the system as well (which could be done with school districts as intermediaries). The program also supports child care in the home.

I appreciate the interest in the child care of high quality. I’ve needed some dodgy caregivers in my time. We ought to be careful not to raise standards to the point where the supply of care is unduly restricted, especially in low-income locations.

Many school systems are run by local governments, not school districts. I presume they would be part of what grant wonks call the ‘geography’ of the program. This geography (the array of school districts plus local governments) is severely underserved in the Federal grants-in-aid system. Not incidentally, it reflects deep racial disparities. Instituting a new pipeline of funds into it could end up with a broader scope than the Family Fun Pack. School districts and local govts could expand their provision of other social services, the subject of decades-long austerity.

The lack of attention to reproductive rights is well-taken. Of course, family planning is intrinsic to family well-being. There is no reason to classify it separately under health care. I wouldn’t say the choice is a sin or indicative of any buried, malignant bias, but it is an oversight.

Accusations of “natalism” are a bum rap. The proposal significantly increases the EITC for childless singles and couples. Of course, the bulk of the money is for children. The notion that the program fails to serve childless families is equivalent to saying the problem with a car is that it isn’t a bus. This program is no more natalist than dependent exemptions in the individual income tax. I doubt that anybody thinks policies to arrest climate change are only of interest to environmentalists.

Reducing the decision to have (or care for) children to a consumption decision or a matter of individual taste is just weird. People are going to have kids, and kids need care. (The program is neutral with respect to birthing children or adopting them.) There is something to be said about limits to support for children, in terms of numbers. Last time I looked, most families with children in poverty averaged fewer than three children.

One angle that cuts against the cultural conservative rap, evidently inspired by the fact that Matt’s wife Liz makes people giddy, is the program makes no allowance for home schooling.

In general, this proposal opens a fertile field for debate. It should be considered along with Liz Warren’s new child care proposal.



Amazon, Coming ‘Atcha

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Recriminations are thick on the ground in New York City, as retail and cloud-service giant Amazon announced the cancellation of plans to locate a new facility in the borough of Queens. The state and local governments offered them $3 billion in incentives, in the form of tax abatements. The company promised that the new facility would provide 25,000 new jobs. In the face of the ensuing uproar, they tucked tail and ran. The most talked-about alternative location is Arlington, Va., less than an hour’s drive from my country estate.

Mayor Bill DiBlasio, a lead architect of the deal along with Governor Cuomo, was very unhappy.

Local real estate nabobs described the debacle in apocalyptic terms

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as a victory for popular mobilization against greedy corporations.

“Morning Joe” Scarborough, who helped to bless us all with the current incumbent of the White House, declared that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez “only cares about herself.”

Some on the left, as well as some local residents, denounced the bourgeois NIMBYism of those indifferent to the well-being of the local economy and its unemployed.

Since everybody is accusing everybody else of moral turpitude, I should declare my own interest, and you can draw any conclusions you like. I get huge benefits from Amazon Prime, from the consumer information and pricing, from the free shipping (which indulges my stay-at-home proclivities), and from some of the video content (e.g., ‘Goliath’ or ‘Bosch’). If they come to Arlington, it will further snarl up traffic, which is totally screwed to begin with (but remember, I never go out), and could put upward pressure on real estate prices (good for me, as a homeowner).

So how should we think about the Amazon deal? I’d say there are at least three main issues.

The government subsidies are probably a financial boondoggle. These deals are always difficult to evaluate objectively. What’s in question are foregone tax revenues up front (the government subsidy to locate), juice for the local economy, and increased tax revenues in the future. The good people at Good Jobs First have been on this beat forever.

There is a lot of academic literature on these location incentives, and the results are never praiseworthy. They do not usually benefit the jurisdiction. Yes, there could be some boost to future revenues, but their magnitude is hard to predict. There will also be some future costs, in the form of public services required for any new, large facility.

In general, the encouragement of bidding wars among local jurisdictions for corporate hosting is toxic for local public finance and from a national standpoint, pure economic waste. A company that needs to expand, invariably for reasons outside local taxation, will find some place in any event. The firm’s choice of a location usually does not hinge on local taxes, but on other benefits of the location (e.g., shipping costs, local infrastructure) and the local supply of labor. Amazon’s refusal to negotiate in the face of the opposition, criticized by Mayor Bill himself, reflects the brute exercise of corporate power in play. This arrogance was also on display in Seattle, as the company blew away local plans for modest taxation of their payroll.

The local economic benefits are mixed and ambiguous. Local property owners will benefit, though some local merchants might be displaced, as national chain retailers serving new, upscale residents replace local bodega-scale operations. Higher real estate values will drive up rents, forcing some residents and business firms to relocate. The increase in local labor demand (also highly uncertain, given the potential variation in mix between newly resident, highly-paid employees from Seattle and local, minimum wage jobs) will drive up wages, good for workers in general, bad for local employers.

Amazon said the new facility would employ 25,000 people. None of them would necessarily be locals. The authors of the deal have an incentive to inflate that number. It was reported that the company itself promised just 30 jobs (for a call center) to local residents of public housing.

The local distributional implications reflect a many-sided conflict. Workers who need jobs, or better jobs; homeowners with secure jobs who fear the impact on their neighborhoods from increased traffic or gentrification; trade unionists who resent the arrival of a new, notoriously anti-union boss (whose net impact on wages could actually be negative); idealists who hate Amazon for its execrable corporate behavior, its treatment of its own workers, its collaboration with the hated Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and its massive challenge to anti-trust concerns.

What should be clear is that any net benefit you think derives from Amazon’s arrival in New York City would be equally available to any other place to which it decided to go. There is no conceivable moral case for favoring the needy unemployed workers of Queens, god bless them, over any other benighted locale.

Amazon is a terrible corporate citizen. Amazon’s corporate behavior will be no less evil, regardless of where it sets foot. It will cooperate with the satanic ICE regardless. You might want to limit Amazon’s expansion because it is a terrible company, but in so doing you only indulge the space for other terrible companies. (Hello, Walmart!) Bad corporate behavior demands a national response.

Subsidies aside, whether Amazon should set its big foot in Queens should be up to the people there, even, or especially, acknowledging the widely divergent local interests enumerated above. That’s why we need democracy to make such decisions. It will undoubtedly leave some people unhappy, but there is no better way to decide.



Hands Off Venezuela, 2019 Edition

american imperialism | spanish american war imperialismHere we go again. Another crisis in a nation ruled by an unfriendly regime made worse by U.S. policy for the sake of running sanctions as prelude to military action. We’ve seen this movie before.

  1. The inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy regarding human rights is a scandal. That it has always been so, or that such behavior is inevitable for a powerful nation, does not detract from its fundamental immorality.
  2. Dwelling on the shortcomings of targets of phony U.S. human rights campaigns provides no benefit to the victims of those regimes. All it does is enlarge the political space for future, disastrous U.S. military intervention. It also glosses over the history of U.S. assaults on the sovereignty of the targeted nation.
  3. The resort to “soft power” should be viewed as a compromise of the USG with political exigencies. Given a determination to destroy an unfriendly regime, there are no other effective constraints. Soft power itself should be regarded as a political campaign to pave the way for more aggressive tactics, up to and including military intervention.
  4. Actual intervention has usually been justified with outrageous fabrications: Noriega’s cocaine that was actually tortilla powder, the fable of Iraqi soldiers overturning baby incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital (exposed by one A. Cockburn), Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMDs, and of course the legendary Gulf of Tonkin story.
  5. The apparent fact that presently the USG lacks the political and military wherewithal to mount a serious invasion means that instead there will be a continuation and escalation of measures that deepen the misery of the people of Venezuela. These sanctions, by worsening conditions on the ground, provide fuel for denunciations of the regime and aggression against it. That is their purpose.
  6. Trump’s anti-interventionist proclivities are substantially offset by his employment of depraved neo-cons, his innate tendency to macho bluster, his ignorance of the limitations of U.S. power, his infantile designs on the country’s oil resources, and the need for a new distraction from his own political and legal jeopardy.
  7. A drawdown of all U.S. offensive policies in re: Venezuela should be a litmus test for the support of any candidate seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
  8. U.S. Imperialism is still a thing.


Trade the Wall?

Image result for the wall

The actual construction of a big, beautiful wall, along the entirety of the U.S./Mexican border, in concrete, steel, or whatever, sends a horrible message. That is the intention. It’s a metaphor of bigotry, not to mention ignorance. But such a structure, The Wall, will never be built. Instead, we have the spectacle of $5.6 billion that will merely pay for some additional fencing.

There are already walls and fences, here and there. The border is anything but open. Nevertheless, that $5.6 billion, a pittance of funds compared to the actual cost of The Wall or to the total Federal budget, is solidifying as The Wall itself in the public’s mind, and especially in Trump’s.

On the other hand, given that DT is hardly versed in the details of immigration, giving up on some of the $5.6 billion seems like it could gain significant concessions on DACA, etc. Any immigration activist could come up with a bunch of things that are more important than that $5.6 billion, either as symbol or reality.

The same holds true, incidentally, for anti-immigration activists. They are being set up for a big defeat, if Trump trades more significant concessions for some additional fences.

On top of the threat to DACA, the government shutdown promises serious harm to other vulnerable constituencies (e.g., EITC and SNAP beneficiaries). The thought of DACA kids and anybody else who has lived here for years being deported is unbearable. So, the case for refusing to give up even one dollar for The Wall, as opposed to some additional fences, seems rebuttable.

True, a deal would let Trump claim victory, and many of his deplorable, ignorant supporters would be happy. But the knowledgeable anti-immigration factions would be enraged, since The Wall nor a pissant $5.6 billion are their highest priority. Neither are the politics of concession so cut-and-dried.

It’s true that this kind of deal was available in the past. Trump went for it, then reversed himself after protests from the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. The problem for the latter is that as we go forward, The Wall becomes increasingly important as political symbol to the nativist Right, without gaining any importance as a concrete policy measure. So it becomes increasingly easy for Trump to sell out the anti-immigration freaks. We need some word for a pyrrhic victory where the victors are unaware they have actually lost.

Suppose Trump folds and we get a budget but no $5.6 billion for some additional fencing. It’s likely he will freeze up on other, more important immigration matters. The politics of Democratic victory are not so obvious either.

I have to wonder what Pelosi and Schumer’s end game is. Perhaps it’s to do to Trump what McConnell did to Obama – put up a prevent defense and just block everything. I’m not sure this has the same value to our side. To begin with, Trump and his minions thrive on rejection. They revel in their imagined grievances. Trump himself is not burdened by a deep commitment to any policy, except one of enriching himself and his family.

I suppose that in the end, the Democrats have the upper hand on the shutdown. People hate it. Trump is likely to fold, and then the job is to just administer further beat-downs. There will be further harm in the meantime to the undocumented, among others. The victories will not be without casualties.


Every act gets old, and we will see the Pee Tape.

At the start of Trump’s presidency, I predicted he would be gone in nine months, because he is such a defective individual. I was certainly vindicated on the latter score, more than anybody knew, as he would say. Now it’s time to predict his removal from the White House in calendar 2019. Like all wild predictions, you will only remember this if it proves correct.

The key ingredients of his impending, ignominious descent are as follows.

The Resistance grows. With every passing day, Trump commits another disgusting or patently stupid act of one type or another. A gross tweet, consigning another innocent group to the threat of deportation, the death of an innocent immigrant, and so on. An endless series of straws for the beleaguered camel’s back. This stimulates erosion of electoral independents and threatens incumbent Republican senators, about which more below.

The Left grows, and drags more Democrats along with it. Instead of lame appeals to moderation and bleating about polarization or fairness, the message transforms into the giant Fuck You that the Administration so richly deserves. One constructive component is the advance of bold policy proposals – abolish ICE, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal – that provide political ballast to the critique.

With enemies like this, the president badly needs friends. But Trump has exhausted his usefulness to his assortment of allies.

One crucial ally was the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which Trump has destroyed. In its place we will have a fusillade of subpoenas from the Democrats. Once they have been fortified by the Mueller report and ensuing indictments, there will be a successful vote to impeach. Worsening legal troubles will exacerbate the frenzy of his tweets, leading to further alienation of rational persons.

The Senate remains on his side, but cracks are beginning to show. Until now Trump could guarantee primary losses to any senator who defied him, but his removal next year will leave time for potentially endangered politicians to mend their fences by 2020. Moreover, Trump will not be well situated, nor probably personally committed, to wreaking vengeance on his enemies. He will have bigger worries, and we know he’s not much of a worker to begin with.

One crack is the recent repudiation of Trump’s love affair with the homicidal Prince MBS (no relation) of Saudi Arabia, in the form of a bipartisan rejection of support for the genocide in Yemen. Another is the manifest lack of enthusiasm on the Right for the Wall, as far as funding goes, something Republican majorities in both the House and Senate were not inclined to deliver. Another is admittedly faint signs of opposition to a few judicial nominations.

As far as policy goes, Trump has already delivered the tax cut, a raft of Heritage Foundation-approved Federal judges with lifetime appointments, and an enduring Supreme Court majority. In other words, he’s shot his wad. There isn’t much love for his further commitments, such as the trade war or infrastructure.

The greatest concern of incumbents, of course, is reelection. While the bias of the Senate is conservative and rural, the “map” – the array of seats that will be contested in 2020 – is unfavorable to the GOP. Red states are bleeding and turning less red. I would not expect a vote to remove Trump in the Senate, but the reality that such a vote is in play will encourage Trump to leave.

Trump’s friends in Russia have little further use for him. He has already done what he could to advance their strategic goals, which included Brexit chaos in Great Britain, promotion of alt-right politicians across Europe, increased aggression towards Ukraine, and the downgrade of NATO. There could also be favors for Russia from China, in exchange for eliminating disruption of their economy by Trump’s clumsy trade war tactics.

Once an asset has been fully exploited, the logical step is to discard it for its scrap value. That means releasing information that further imperils Trump and foments turmoil in the U.S. It means we will see the Pee Tape, which was too crazy not to be real, and related material.

The combined impacts of Mueller disclosures, indictments, House subpoena gold, and Russian machinations will cause Trump’s political standing to crater. Fears of legal assault will lead to his willingness to make a deal with prosecutors – resignation in return for some measure of legal immunity. In other words, he will be run out of office.

He will explain that the fundamental unfairness of the legal assaults is a distraction from the needs of the Nation, so for the sake of the country he will leave the Administration in the capable hands of Mike Pence, who has done an incredible job.

Pence is a lackluster politician, never especially loved in his own home state of Indiana. His intelligence has never been overestimated. The fall of Trump will provoke hysterical intra-Republican infighting, including demonstrations of nakedly neo-fascist components that further discredit the GOP. A Pence Administration will be a weak, lame-duck affair, not something to be feared. It’s hard to see Pence essaying brinkmanship in dealing with the House Democrats.

Incidentally, one lever that Mueller and company have over the Republican Senate is possible charges against Pence. Removal of both Trump and Pence puts the Speaker of the House next in the line of succession. If anything could get the Republican Senate to impeach, it would be the specter of President Nancy Pelosi.

The economic trends will not be helpful either. Presently the economy is in passable shape. The stock market ought to recover for a while, but in the longer term, say twelve months or more, a market drop and recession are quite likely.

So Trump is toast. Lame attempts to corral Democrats into some kind of alliance with neo-con #NeverTrumpers in the form of the #NoLabels fiasco or the absurd suggestion of a Biden/Romney “unity ticket” in 2020 crumble at the touch. The future is Blue. How much so is the only question.

Labor’s Stake in Immigration: the Nagle Attack

After publishing my “Send More People” piece in Jacobin, I decided I ought to offer a rebuttal to this junky essay by Angela Nagle on the purported ideological travesty of the “open borders left” (sic). By now this subject is a little dated, but that’s because this draft languished in an editor’s slush pile for a week, only to be passed on. It’s also been superceded by recent remarks from Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton story is a bigger can of worms. A recent speech by her in the U.K. provides the relevant context, but for the sake of putting this essay to bed I’ll stay on Nagle.

The crucial caveat to this entire post is that immigration is associated with bigotry, and I don’t offer a cure for that. Here the focus is on economic misconceptions that stimulate and amplify bigotry.

The following claim near the top of Nagle’s piece embodies much of the wrong that follows:

While no serious political party of the Left is offering concrete proposals for a truly borderless society, by embracing the moral arguments of the open-borders Left and the economic arguments of free market think tanks, the Left has painted itself into a corner.

We ought to first reject the false binary implied by the scare terminology of ‘open borders.’ One can favor lots of increased immigration without embracing unlimited immigration. One can have requirements for asylum applications that are tight or loose. One can have arrangements for housing immigrants awaiting disposition of their status that are benevolent or perverse. With the benefit of this Manichaeanism, Nagle is able to equate appeals for humane consideration of immigrants (e.g., “no human is illegal”) with open borders, or more extravagantly, a wholesale rejection of sovereign nations. Small wonder indeed that ”no serious political party of the Left is offering concrete proposals for a truly borderless society.”

On a more practical level, Nagle asks what unlimited immigration would mean for leading left initiatives in social welfare – single-payer health care, free college, or a jobs guarantee. The implication is that public programs would be overwhelmed by participants, as if such programs are just a garbage pail for resources. To the contrary, the programs are investments in a healthy society, and I think that can be supported in concrete, economic terms, not just in humane moral values.

No doubt there is a political problem signaled here; many suffer from the same misconceptions as Nagle, but the economics are just bunk.

Besides being nice to have around, immigrants are a resource. You don’t have to suffer the delusions of “the free market” to agree. Educated, healthy immigrants, given the chance, will be productive. To imagine otherwise connotes some kind of zombie-apocalypse, forage economy. This sort of angst has been standard on the nativist Right for generations.

Nagle’s other unfounded economic implication is the threat to labor implied by immigrants. Like many pundits who opine on policy issues, her analysis is bereft of quantitative content. That immigrants take the jobs of Americans is simply economic illiteracy. The U.S. government can expand employment at will. When and why it declines to do so is a political problem, not an economic one. That immigrant labor pushes down wages is an empirical question, but as noted, Nagle doesn’t do data. Evidence on this from labor-friendly researchers is for small, limited effects that can be remedied by other means. One need not rely on the Cato Institute or George Borjas for guidance here.

The organized labor movement has been susceptible to these fears in the past but is now mostly on the same page as the immigrant-welcoming left. Nagle’s appeal to labor’s progressive authority harkens back to the era of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, who are dead and gone. She is out of step with today’s labor movement. (One should not equate opposition to specific, narrow public policies aiming to undercut U.S. workers, such as rules pertaining to tech workers and H1B visas, or the history of agribusiness and guest workers, to all-around hostility to immigration.)

The root of Nagle’s error is her narrow view of power, to wit: ”[the] power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced.” Of course, nowhere near the “entire workforce” is in any danger of being ‘replaced’ (note the jobs point preceding). That nonsense aside, we could suggest an alternative formulation: the power of unions depends on the power of the working class writ large, a power that among other things fosters a climate conducive to labor militancy and that agitates for the expansion of employment and consequently, the tightening of labor markets and upward pressure on wages.

Some of Nagle’s arguments are not really about labor migration, but globalization more generally, such as in the cases of trade agreements and deunionization. NAFTA’s harm to Mexican agriculture is not founded on Mexican workers entering the U.S. Nor is U.S. capital flight to low wage countries facilitated by neoliberal trade agreements due to the in-migration of workers.

A more reasonable concern is the ‘brain-drain’ of those with greater educational attainment from less-developed countries who come to the U.S. Our gain is their loss, but this is not really a problem for the U.S. working class, whose interests Nagle places foremost. We might note that these migrants send a lot of dough back to their countries of origin. The point remains that a better model of development than what prevails under globalization is essential.

Nagle’s remedies, besides taking pains to eschew bigotry (thanks!), boil down to forcing employers to verify the immigration status of their employees. Here again we have an overly narrow view of what is needed. We need to rejuvenate the enforcement of labor standards across the board, including but not limited to residency status. Higher wages and benefits eliminate the employer’s incentive to troll for cut-rate labor.

It is certainly true that migration is unpopular, to put it mildly. Failure to cope is destroying center-left political parties across Europe. Moreover, establishing a nice social-democracy does not necessarily eliminate the problem, as developments in Nordic nations attest. Unfortunately, the arguments put forward by Nagle, replete with economic misconceptions, are more likely to animate the neo-fascist, nativist right. It is not ‘moral blackmail’ to point this out.