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by danps

18th century political thinking in the 21st

6:26 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

In 2006 Matthew Yglesias posted “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” at the now-defunct site TPM Café. He wrote how he enjoyed reading Green Lantern comic books and briefly explained how the power rings from the series worked, then added:

The political mirror or an exhibition of ministers for April 1782

The political mirror or an exhibition of ministers for April 1782

But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

His frame of reference at the time was the neoconservatives’ push to start bombing Iran. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already going poorly, it would seem the case for yet another war was not compelling. But Yglesias pointed out that the neoconservatives’ rationale literally could not be refuted: “Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will.”

This was (and is) an appealing way to look at the mindset of the more bellicose foreign policy thinkers. Military power is treated in practice as omnipotent. There is nothing it can’t accomplish, as long as you apply enough of it for a long enough time and, to coin a phrase, stay the course.

Apparently that was too delightful a metaphor to leave to just one use, because it began to get adapted to new situations by liberal bloggers. Last week Richard Mayhew used it in the context of health care reform:

Again, in an ideal world, a Medicare buy-in at 55 or even better, full Medicare expansion to 55 would be a significant improvement over putting the 55 to 64.999 age cohort on exchanges. But just believing that there is an easy way to get there is Green Lanternism or belief in the power of the Bully Pulpit ™.

The new context, then, is that advocating for a better system amounts to insisting on an ideal world – and to also believing there is an easy way to get there. Invoking new Green Lanternism is especially popular among progressive defenders of the president. Criticizing Barack Obama from the left is unsavvy; lobbying for better policy is the height of impractical, self-defeating naïveté.

The other place I encountered this attitude recently was on the right. Earlier this summer I visited my state representative and voiced my concerns over this incident in Ohio. Within the first ten minutes he’d said words to this effect three times: The oil and gas industry is very influential, so nothing is going to get done.

Attitudes like this have nothing to do with having a level headed, non-magic powers based outlook. They have instead to do with inculcating a sense of fatalism and resignation among activists. It can’t be done, is the message, not because it’s impossible but because it’s hard. It’s something like a politics of Newtonian physics. Look at this big thing, it will be difficult to move, it’s too heavy, don’t bother, and especially don’t ask me to help. It’s a waste of time. It can’t be done.

That’s a very convenient way for leaders to let themselves off the hook for doing nothing, but really it’s a coward’s excuse. No one is asking you to do everything, and no one expects that a single application of sweet reason will entirely reform an entrenched system. The process of change – the point of engaging others unsympathetic to a position – is persuasion, which works on a smaller scale. Maybe even the political equivalent of a subatomic level.

I told my representative: I don’t expect you to turn Columbus on its head over this incident, just use it as an opportunity to discuss it with your colleagues. It’s a good example of why reform is needed. The spill was small not because there because was technology in place to limit it, or because there was effective remediation in place once it happened. It was small because there wasn’t that much to spill. We got lucky, in other words. Bring that up to other representatives.

Persuasion almost never happens like a thunderbolt. It happens with accumulated moments over time that lead to a tipping point. It’s not an event but a process. A refusal to persuade on an issue is a sign of indifference or hostility to that cause – not a reflection of sober judgment.

Political reality is not a fixed and unchanging quantity. Inertia is overcome when the mass of support for an issue slowly gets chipped away. That big heavy thing might not move today, but if nobody bothers then it never will. And you know what? Sometimes there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Sometimes the thing will move when the impact of a tiny action gets unexpectedly amplified. Either way, there is no reason for those who genuinely support an issue to sit on their hands – or discourage others from acting.
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by danps

Additional planks for the platform

4:10 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On Monday lambert posted a call for a re-formulated 12-word platform; Tuesday I responded with what I tentatively called the Bumper Sticker Platform (BSP). These may be two slightly different things though. My goal is to create a campaign slogan – something that easily fits on a sign or bumper sticker, describing policies voters would immediately see the value of. That means a narrower scope, and in this case a focus on pocketbook issues since those are the ones of most immediate concern to the largest number.

Lambert, by contrast (correct me if I’m wrong!) wants something like that as a hook, but more items behind it as well: a few extra planks that outline a rough governing philosophy. Additional planks would work as a hedge against the bumper sticker parts being hijacked by opportunists.



While I understand his approach, I still think the BSP is the way to go. It’s not the hill I’m prepared to die on though. If in the end the consensus is for a 20 word platform or something like it, fine. Finalize it and preach it to the heavens. My BSP posts will still be there if anyone wants to refer back to them.

Should lambert’s approach prevail, here are some additional planks I’d like to offer, along with some explanations and references back to lambert’s post.

  • End corporate personhood
  • A job guarantee
  • National voter registration
  • Boring federal banking
  • Energy freedom


  • Live off the land

End corporate personhood
A Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

A job guarantee
Straight from Dr. William Darity’s proposal. He has developed the idea in several other papers as well. Here he argues why it makes macroeconomic sense:

The federal job guarantee would function as a classic automatic stabilizer. Its provision of employment would expand on the downswing and contract on the upswing of the business cycle.

Elsewhere he (along with Darrick Hamilton) explains how it harmonizes with contemporary racial discourse:

Despite these glaring and persistent racial disparities, the growing “post racial” rhetoric has led to a political environment that makes it increasingly difficult to use race-specific polices to address these inequities. The post-racial rhetoric is a narrative that our society has transcended the racial divide and that the remaining racial disparities are due primarily to self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors on the part of blacks themselves. In sum, the post-racial ideology represents a shift from a public acknowledgement of a social responsibility for the condition of black America to a position where individual blacks need to “get over it” and “take personal responsibility” — and discrimination and other social barriers are deemed largely things of the past.

In such an environment, a jobs guarantee is one of several possible “race-neutral programs that could go a long way towards eliminating racial inequality while at the same time providing economic security, mobility and sustainability for all Americans.”

National voter registration Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Bumper Sticker Platform, 2013 edition

1:15 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On a Saturday morning a few years ago I dashed off a quick caffeine-fueled post that tried to formulate a simple but substantive platform for the left. It was partially a reaction to the prior couple years of conservative rhetoric. During the 2008 campaign the right insisted Barack Obama was a socialist; once elected his signature initiative – the Affordable Care Act – was also called socialist, which must have been news to the for-profit private insurance industry.

So someone repeatedly called a socialist was elected, and a relatively modest change to an existing system was called socialism yet still passed into law. There seemed two lessons from that. The first was that America must be comfortable with socialism, because otherwise Obama wouldn’t have won. The second was that since liberal policies – even incremental ones – were going to be called socialist by conservatives, why not just go for the best policy? Why worry about trying for some lesser thing in a fruitless attempt to court the unalterably proposed?

My short, punchy version of going for the gusto was this: Medicare for all, end the wars, soak the rich. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive platform but an attempt to advocate for a small number of consequential policies; something with popular appeal that would fit on a sign or bumper sticker. I wanted to keep it short because liberals are prone to getting too wonky for their own good. Laundry lists full of prescriptions for all society’s ills, each spelled out in excruciating bullet point detail, turn off all but the true believers.

I think it’s better to have a few items and say: these are the things I will fight for. Other issues will come up, but here are the things I will make noise about and I will agitate about over and over. If they are not implemented, then at an absolute minimum I will force those who don’t want them to be public in their opposition. I will hammer away at them, run on them, make campaign issues of them, and so on.

The original post bubbled away at Corrente and a few other places for a while. I posted an updated list a few months later which included a job guarantee. That may sound too ambitious, but according to Duke professor William Darity it only requires a president with the will to create it:

Persistent high unemployment has produced a crisis for virtually all Americans. But we can resolve the crisis by adopting a federal job guarantee for all citizens. A system of job assurance, rather than unemployment insurance, could have been implemented at any point by presidential directive under the mandate of the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 (popularly known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act).

Of course, that’s not the same as a critical mass of support. For as much as I like the idea, I haven’t seen any signs of it catching on with either activists or officials. In light of lambert’s Monday post asking for a re-think of the platform, the jobs guarantee may need to be dropped (for now).

The same goes for End the Wars. The Iraq war actually has ended since the original post, and Afghanistan seems to be proceeding at an acceptably low level of carnage. Drone strikes and other dirty wars are largely off the public’s radar as well. Metaphorical wars at home (the war on drugs, draconian sentencing, the militarization of police, the creation of a domestic army, etc) also seem to not have captured the public’s imagination. While I think ending the literal and metaphorical wars is one of the most urgent moral issues of our time, I don’t see it being a tent pole issue in a campaign.

On the other hand, the fight for a living wage has become a huge issue in the last year or so. It’s definitely an issue with a constituency. With those changes in mind, here is my 2013 proposal for the Bumper Sticker Platform:

  • Medicare for all
  • Tax the rich
  • A living wage

Medicare for all is self explanatory. Tax the rich: a new “super rich” marginal rate of 70% starting at $5,000,000 per year, and maybe eliminating the carried interest loophole as well if possible. A living wage: $15 an hour minimum wage. Nine words, three policies. Substantive, popular and fits on a bumper sticker. Anyone who ran on that would probably have a receptive audience just about anywhere, no?

One more political note: each of these policies is fiscally responsible. Medicare for all would save $600 billion in private insurance charges. Take out the $350 billion that extending coverage would cost, and that still leaves a savings of $250 billion per year. While those who hate all government spending on principle would surely object, I think most citizens would be more practical: If the result is savings, that’s all that matters.

Taxing the rich is obviously a fiscal plus. And a living wage would force deadbeat companies to stop paying so little that their employees end up on Medicaid or other government programs. (Not to mention that paying a living wage is also the decent thing to do.)

So there’s the first stab at the latest Bumper Sticker Platform. I think it’s got a lot to recommend it. Now we just need some candidates to run on it.


I exchanged a few emails with lambert while working all this out. He thinks Bumper Sticker Platform will be disparaged as BS Platform, and prefers the (#) Word Platform as something that helps manage the development as others contribute. I think BSP is good because it can get updated every few years with the same title, as opposed to having a 9 word platform one time out and a 12 word platform the next time. So even the branding is up for debate! Feel free to chime in.

by danps

The Persistence of Selfishness

2:32 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

While reading ECONned by Yves Smith I was struck by the following from her coverage of neoclassical economics (p. 99):

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen uses an anecdote to illustrate the problem of assuming actors act solely out of self-interest:

Central to [the] problem is the assumption that when asked a question, the individual gives an answer which will maximize his personal gain. How good is this assumption? I doubt it is very good. "Where is the railway station?" he asks me. "There," I say, pointing to the post office, "and would you please post this letter for me on the way?" "Yes," he says, determined to open the envelope and check whether it contains something valuable."

Sen’s story illustrates that society rests on the assumption of a basic level of cooperation and trustworthiness, since the behavior he parodies, of extreme self interest, does not jibe with what most of us experience on our day-to-day lives. But neoclassical economics offers a polar view, that people are strictly self-motivated, and then assumes a simple solution, that they will nevertheless be bound by the agreements they enter into. You can see how this breaks down: if individuals aren’t restrained by morality or the need to maintain appearances, why wouldn’t they cheat on their promises?

The belief that people are strictly self-motivated is an idée fixe among economists, yet it is obviously false. Smith gives several counter-examples, such as altruism and church attendance, along with the neoclassical-confounding case of self improvement. (Trying to quit smoking, lose weight or do any other kind of self-denial with a long term benefit is literally inexplicable in neoclassical terms of self-motivation.)

One of the Smith’s theses seems to be that over the past few decades economists aspired to "elevate" their work from the relatively unglamorous and plodding realm of engineering (number crunching) to the rarefied air of science. They fell in love with mathematical modeling and endeavored to find an equation for everything. Unfortunately, they appropriated scientific airs without bringing along scientific rigor.

For instance, if a theory confronts a counterexample, the theory is no longer valid and must be changed. A properly disciplined investigation of the self-motivated hypothesis would look like this: "Proposition: People act solely out of self interest. But altruism exists and has no obvious element of self interest. Therefore the proposition is false."

Neoclassical economists did the exact opposite; they conjured up extravagant fictions to explain why counterexamples actually fit the theory (altruism really is about self interest) or else dismissed them as noise that had no impact and could be ignored. Yet in a proper scientific environment the response would be: back to the drawing board.

Now, even scientists have been known to fall in love with their models and theories, and to ferociously attack those who challenge them. Even taking that into account, though, it’s remarkable how widely believed the self-interest model still is. It is so easily falsified that something else has to explain its persistence. The something else is on Wall Street and in Washington.

From a business perspective, nothing is better than a model that basically says, every man for himself. Everyone goes after what they want, and not only does it all work out in the end but it produces the best of all possible outcomes. In an environment like that regulation is oppressive and government can only make things worse. In practice it is something close to a state of nature; this is why libertarianism makes the most sense when you are healthy and well off.

The political culture has absorbed that message too, which is a great relief to conservatives. If government can only make things worse, then the obvious response is to do nothing (which the GOP has become phenomenally skilled at). That is tremendously appealing to much of the governing class – including many ostensibly on the left. Doing something is hard; doing nothing is easy. If the economic system produces the ideal result on its own then that certainly takes a lot off the federal government’s plate doesn’t it?

Smith thoroughly examines the vast disservice done to us by neoclassical economists, and there is obviously no way to do justice to her whole analysis in a single blog post. One of the themes she returns to a number of times, though, is how they celebrate selfishness (let’s call it what it is already) as a virtue. Hell, their patron saint put it just that simply. And even though it has been overwhelmingly disproven both in theory and in practice, it remains in favor because it is terribly useful to the political and economic elite. Which means, unfortunately, that changing that belief requires more than just demonstrating its falsehood.

by danps

Liberal Politics May Be Messy, But It Beats the Alternative

2:15 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.
- Will Rogers

Frustration with Democratic leadership seemed to boil over in the last week or so. It began (as far as I can tell) with John Aravosis’ withering criticism of the president over his speech last weekend at a Human Rights Campaign event. He wrote of “concerns about President Obama’s inaction, and backtracking” on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy towards gays. The criticism led to backlash (here is a good example) and tensions have been high all around since. In a way Obama is not the right target, and some have acknowledged that even as they urge him to act. Vermont Law School Associate Professor of Law Jackie Gardina advocates his taking action on DADT, but acknowledges all he can change is the implementation. Overturning it can only be done by Congress. The same is true for DOMA. While it may be more appealing to focus all criticism on a single target, the fact is that these changes will only be durable when the legislature acts. The president is obviously not a passive figure in all this – he can urge Congress to act, give moral support to the effort through his rhetoric (something that has curiously been treated as largely irrelevant on this issue) and otherwise encourage action on these issues, but in the end the action is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Leadership there has been getting lit up as well, mainly focused on Harry Reid. No bargain in the best of times, he just pulled off his patented Weak Tea Blustery Surrender move on health care reform. Named after the tough talk on defunding Iraq that immediately preceded total capitulation, this week he used it on former Democrat Joe Lieberman. Recall Lieberman was allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee after the election, which Reid claimed the “vast majority” of the Democratic caucus wanted – even though “his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many” in it. Reid initially floated the idea of substituting his Homeland Security chair with that of some lesser committee in exchange for caucusing with the Democrats. Lieberman countered with I’ll keep Homeland Security and you can take a hike Harry, and Harry decided that was a fine compromise. Now we are seeing how well Mr. Democrat on Everything but Iraq is working out – David Waldman is tracking Lieberman’s firm stance against health care reform. Harry says he needs to accommodate as many people as possible to overcome a Republican filibuster which, as Markos points out, does not exist. Pushed to impose consequences for those who vote against the Democrats’ most important legislative priority, Reid’s lieutenants lashed out…at the protesters.

Before I make my next point, let me be clear: candidate Obama gave the impression that he would be much more active and visible on DADT and DOMA than he has been to this point as president, and Harry Reid has been relentlessly, aggressively ineffectual as Majority Leader. There are very legitimate complaints against both of them on these issues, and more generally about the establishment Democrats being too close to those who actively oppose the goals of their base. These issues are real and I do not want to be seen as minimizing them.

But it is also fair to point out that Democratic party (and the left generally) is more fractious by nature than the right. Conservatives talk about having a big tent, but liberals really have one. The result is a lot of different voices, each one trying to get things moving in a slightly different direction. It can be frustrating and for newcomers bewildering; John Cole recently wrote “some days I hate Democrats more as a Democrat than I did as a Republican.” For better or worse that’s how we do things. We may envy the party discipline of the Republicans, but look at where it has gotten them – does anyone envy their position in the wilderness? More importantly, we just witnessed the apotheosis of conservative rule, with its ideology ascendant and the GOP in control of all three branches of government. Its highlight was George Bush lionized as Commander In Chief, Leader of the Free World, Ruler of the Party and president of the United States (in that order). That is where the fall in line approach to politics got us. For as frustrating as the cacophony now is, it’s a damn sight better than what preceded it.