Saturday, March 04, 2017

Neo-Liberalism Revisited

A contentious debate has erupted amongst Democrats regarding the term neo-liberal.

Leftists (such as myself) use the term derisively to indicate that the Democratic party has become Republican-lite.  The Dems, according to this view, compromised too much since the time of the Reagan Revolution. Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it and declared the era of big government over.  The power base of the Dems shifted from unions to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.

Centrists argue that there is still significant space between the Democrats and Republicans.  Democrats still believe in Keynesian economics, and the role of government to regulate the economy, and stimulate the economy in times of recession.

In discussing these views, I was recently informed of an essay by Charles Pierce from 1982, entitled A Neo-Liberal's Manifesto.  I think it captures the essence of neo-liberalism, as neither a totally positive nor totally negative phenomenon.  It was well-intentioned, but not successful as the Republicans got what they wanted in terms of more unbridled capitalism, but surrendered nothing with regard to the economy.

In reviewing Pierce's analysis, the one thing that stands out to me (naturally, given my economic world view) is his "seriousness" regarding government finances:
Another way in which the practical and the idealistic merge in neo-liberal thinking is in our attitude toward income maintenance programs like Social Security, welfare, veterans' pensions, and unemployment compensation. We want to eliminate duplication and apply a means test to these programs. They would all become one insurance program against need.
As a practical matter, the country can't afford to spend money on people who don't need it... as liberal idealists, we don't think the well-off should be getting money from these programs anyway -- every cent we can afford should go to helping those in real need... We are, after all, determined to be practical, not to be the kind of liberal who spends without regard to income.
Politically, this turned out to be a disastrous approach.
  1. The Republicans gave only lip service to the deficit, while Dems were more fiscally responsible.  The effect was that Dems provided less stimulus than the Republicans with their multiple tax cuts.
  2. By means testing government programs, the Dems lost much of the middle class.  "Every cent we can afford should go to helping those in real need" may have been a noble idea, but practically it was not necessary, raised legitimate questions regarding incentives, and led to unnecessarily complex programs such as "ObamaCare".
I still like the Pierce's idea of neo-liberalism for the most part, but the emphasis on fiscal prudence at the expense of broad government programs (helping the middle class as well as the poor) should be changed.

A few additonal of Pierce's neo-liberal thoughts that have not fared well based upon the test of time:
Our hero is the risk-taking entrepreneur who creates new jobs and better products. "Americans," says Bradley, "have to begin to treat risk more as an opportunity and not as a threat."
My observation:  Entrepreneurial "heroes" have too often poisoned our society, whether it be the literal poisons of the fossil fuel folks (e.g. Koch brothers) or the financial poison that has come to dominate our economy.

Note also how poorly many of the cited 1982 neo-liberals have fared.  The Democratic politicians uniformly fared poorly and had little impact on the political landscape (Hart, Babbit, Tsongas, Bradley), while several of the journalists seem to have lost their way  (Kaus, Kinsley).  Charley Pierce himself seemed to devolve into something of a ranting crank.  Of all those mentioned, only James Fallows has my admiration.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Don't be Frozen Like a Deer in the Headlights -- Embrace Socialism

From my perspective, the world is spinning out of control.  I went to read my favorite blogs today, and all was gloom, doom, and, above all, disdain for others.

In desperation, I turned to Steve Randy Waldmann www.interfluidity.com, and was not disappointed.  Steve without fail writes thoughtful and constructive posts, without gratuitous name calling.  His post today commented on Ezra Klein's gloomy discussion of political polarization in the U.S.  Ezra concluded his post as follows:
Polarization is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better.
Waldmann points out some fundamentals of our political system that underlie the increasing polarization noted by Klein,  Professional politicians emphasize issues which differentiate the parties, while downplaying potential wedge issues such as immigration and trade.  Eventually, a politician like Trump comes along and hits on the populist issues which have been overlooked by the mainstream politicians.  

Commenters on Waldmann's post point out that the U.S. is not alone in experiencing increasing polarization these days.  So it's not plausible to assign all the blame to the U.S. political system and our rampant gerrymandering.

I agree that polarization is a global phenomenon, with, for example, Corbyn and Hamon demonstrating leftist strength in Britain and France (also Beppe Grillo in Italy). On the other side you have Putin in Russia and Duterte in the Philippines. Populism is the single underlying factor. To put it in crasser terms, it’s the economy, stupid.

Capitalism makes the economy paramount, so it’s not surprising that our neo-liberal, capitalist global consensus is churning in favor of popular demand for ever increasing economic strength. The right wants to deliver by removing all impediments to national prosperity, despite the obvious need for many of the impediments (fairness, environmental protection, compassion, maintain peace). The socialists want to derail the train whose momentum is heading to the competitive abyss.

Ezra Klein and other centrists hand-wringers seem to see where the train is headed, but remain frozen like deer in the headlights. In my opinion, we all should join with Sanders, Corbyn, Hamon, the Pope, and other socialists and deal with pressing human, and populist, human needs.  There is a significant movement, heavily weighted toward youth, that is leading the way.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sanders, Corbyn, Hamon

We now have strong showings by socialist politicians in France, as well as in the U.S. and Britain.  From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beno%C3%AEt_Hamon

Hamon announced his intention to seek the French presidency in August 2016. Critical of the social-liberal politics conducted by Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, he represents the left-wing and politically green side of the Socialist Party during this primary. Hamon is considered an admirer of United States Senator Bernie Sanders.
He wants to rethink society and its relation to work by giving a basic income to all French citizens, believing that the availability of work will decrease due to automation. He supports a 35 hour workweek, and less if a worker chooses in exchange for state compensation, and supports the legalization of cannabis and euthanasia. He also argues for huge investments in renewable energy, aiming for renewable sources to provide 50% of French energy by 2025, and wants to protect the "common goods" (water, air, biodiversity) in the Constitution. Hamon is also very critical of the neoliberal "myth of infinite economic growth", which he blames for "destroying the planet" and argues is a "quasi-religion" among politicians. "There is an urgency to change now our way to produce and consume. [...] We can negotiate with bankers, but we can't negotiate with the planet."
While Hamon's project is seen as credible and coherent about the future evolution of society by some commentators,[10] it is seen by others as utopian.
Polling in January 2017 showed that his support had tripled and put him into serious contention.

The center will have a hard time holding.  On the right, we have Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen.

Here are some of the major mistakes made by the U.S. center in recent years:
  1. Iraq War
    - Syria (indirectly supported Al Qaeda type rebels)
    - Ukraine (cold war mentality has backfired)
  2. Taking ownership of economy after Republican obstruction
    => Trump victory
  3. Budget / fiscal stance
    - top economists flat out wrong
The Democrats should turn around on these three points.  This will win back the Sanders faction and unify the party.

  1. Few people care strongly about the deficit (and those that do are misguided).
  2. The economy is weak when considering pay and benefits, including social benefits provided by other nations.
  3. A good relationship with a strong Russia is in the U.S. best interests.  Al Qaeda in Syria has devastated European politics by generating a flood of refugees.  Obama and Clinton differed on this.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Thoughts on the Trump Presidency

Here are two complementary articles on the prospects for the Trump presidency:

I've copied below emails that I've written on these two perspectives.

How Trump's Personality may Shape the Presidency

Here is a quote as to the gist of the article in the Atlantic on Trump's mind:
While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.

Here are some further excerpts, which form a somewhat coherent summary of the long article:
because he is viewed as markedly less ideological than most presidential candidates, Trump may be able to switch positions easily, leaving room to maneuver in negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders 

 The Art of the Deal, Trump counsels executives, CEOs, and other deal makers to “think big,” “use your leverage,” and always “fight back.” When you go into a negotiation, you must begin from a position of unassailable strength. You must project bigness. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after,” he writes.
Trump’s focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating pays respect to a venerable political tradition. For example, a contributor to Lyndon B. Johnson’s success in pushing through civil-rights legislation and other social programs in the 1960s was his unparalleled expertise in cajoling lawmakers. Obama, by contrast, has been accused of failing to put in the personal effort needed to forge close and productive relationships with individual members of Congress.

more often than not, narcissists wear out their welcome. Over time, people become annoyed, if not infuriated, by their self-centeredness. When narcissists begin to disappoint those whom they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous. 

the fundamental backdrop for his life narrative is this: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” The protagonist of this story is akin to what the great 20th-century scholar and psychoanalyst Carl Jung identified in myth and folklore as the archetypal warrior. According to Jung, the warrior’s greatest gifts are courage, discipline, and skill; his central life task is to fight for what matters; his typical response to a problem is to slay it or otherwise defeat it; his greatest fear is weakness or impotence. The greatest risk for the warrior is that he incites gratuitous violence in others, and brings it upon himself. 

you will rarely, if ever, witness his stepping back from the fray, coming home from the battlefront, to reflect upon the purpose of fighting to win—whether it is winning in his own life, or winning for America... Trump’s persona as a warrior may inspire some Americans to believe that he will indeed be able to make America great again, whatever that may mean. But his narrative seems thematically underdeveloped...  It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. 

Structural Factors that Shape the Presidency

I ran across another article about what we might expect from the Trump presidency.  While the last article discussed Trump's personality and how that might affect his performance as president, this one looks at the political landscape and how the Trump phenomenon may be the dying spasm of the Reagan era.  

The author, Corey Robin, makes a strong case, in my opinion.  This article and the Atlantic article about Trump's personality complement one another nicely.  

The whole article is good, and shorter than the one about Trump's personality.  So I encourage you to click on the link above and read it.  It's hard for me to pull out a few excerpts to make the case as effectively as the author, but here are some excerpts:

Yet when Carter won the presidency in 1976 in the aftermath of Watergate, with congressional majorities far greater than Trump’s, many also believed that he might save his party by renovating it from within. Carter expertly set the scene during the campaign, repeatedly declaring himself an “outsider” who would take on the established interests of not only the GOP but his own party as well. “They want to preserve the status quo,” he said of Democratic leaders. They want “to preserve politics as usual, to maintain at all costs their own entrenched, unresponsive, bankrupt, irresponsible political power.”
This wasn’t just posture; it was also policy. Carter railed against the “horrible, bloated, confused . . . bureaucratic mess” that was the New Deal state, “the layers of administration, the plethora of agencies, the proliferation of paperwork.” With almost Trumpian crudity, he decried the liberal tax system as “a disgrace to the human race” and wrote off Congress as “disgusting.” In a frontal assault on the legacy of FDR and LBJ, he declared welfare a “failure” in “urgent need of a complete overhaul.”
We remember Carter as an extraordinarily hapless President, but for a time he was remarkably effective at scrambling the political map. (Both Tip O’Neill and Robert Byrd marveled at his success.) Delivering on his promise to abandon old ways of doing things, Carter deregulated the banking and transportation industries...

His reconstructive achievements—particularly toward the end of his Presidency, when he elevated Paul Volcker to the Fed, slashed social spending, and increased the military budget—became the signs of his disjunction. Like Herbert Hoover a half-century before him, he was the last man standing, the poor schmuck who came into office to nudge his party away from its commitment to a weak regime, only to be deserted by his party and tarred by his opponents as that regime’s most orthodox defender...

Carter shyly confessed to having “committed adultery in my heart”; Trump brags about grabbing pussy. Carter was a moralist and a technocrat; Trump, an immoralist and a demagogue. Carter was a state senator and a governor; Trump has no political experience. Carter wouldn’t hurt a fly (or a rabbit). Trump takes pleasure in humiliating others, particularly women and people of color...

However tempting it may be to ascribe these phenomena to Trump alone, some part of the specter of illegitimacy and disapproval that has enveloped him is due to the increasingly fragile nature of the Republican regime itself. In the same way that Carter was saddled with a debilitated New Deal regime, so has Trump, despite his moves toward heterodoxy throughout the campaign, hitched himself to Reagan’s free-market regime, with its worship of the man of the market and the man of money, and concomitant commitments to tax cuts and deregulation. That regime has been in a slow free-fall for several years.

The declining trajectory of support for Republican Presidents—from Nixon’s 60.7 percent of the vote in 1972 to Reagan’s 58.8 percent in 1984 to Bush’s 50.7 percent in 2004 to Trump’s 46 percent—is one measure. The steady diminution of voters identifying as Republicans—Gallup polls consistently put Republicans behind Democrats and independents—is another... As multiple media outlets have reported over this past year, younger voters consistently voice a preference for socialist or anti-capitalist politics. The breakout support for Bernie Sanders offers an additional measure of dissatisfaction with the reigning neoliberal regime, as do Trump’s erratic jabs at crony capitalism and fitful defenses of Medicare and Social Security... Trump—elected with far less support than Bush and without, at least not yet, the ballast of a popular war—is the inheritor of this uneasy, increasingly fractious coalition...   
While Trump's personality will undoubtedly play a significant role in the upcoming years, I believe that extraordinary persons are the products of their societies, and that their extraordinary actions would be impossible without the social conditions in which they are born and live (i.e I don't believe in the Great Man theory).  Trump's popular success follows naturally from the Reagan-era globalization and ownership society, which has helped the rich (the owners) and hurt workers (who face more competition from 3rd world laborers).  Trump has made good political use of Twitter and identified the main weakness of the Reagan era, but has no coherent plans to address the problems he highlights.  He is a Reaganite Republican in a society that wants something different.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

More Democratic Twitter Needed?

Would Hillary have won if she had used Twitter more, in the fashion of Donald Trump?  It occurs to me that Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is another successful user of Twitter.  Twitter allows one to bypress the press corps, the gatekeepers with regard to the news that gets reported and discussed.  Could this be a good thing, or is it a necessary evil until we find something better?  Probably both of these are correct, and this is just aspect of the larger desire for change.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Sensible, Centrist Democrats Realize They've Been Had

Kevin Drum writes today that Republicans Don't Care About Keeping Jobs in America.  He writes that Obama tried to create incentives for multi-nationals to keep jobs in the U.S.,  but were ignored by Republicans.
Will concern for the working class finally outweigh concern for put-upon American multinational corporations? It never did while Obama was president, and there's no special reason to think it will now.
 He ignores the fact that Trump won the Republican primary on this issue.

The larger consideration is that some of us have been trying to get the attention of the Democratic party leaders (Obama and Clinton in particular) to make these points for the last 7-8 years:

  1. Dem leaders gave more credence to Republican nonsense than to  progressive opinions.  While the Republicans were clearly trying to obstruct governance by the Obama Administration, progressives were pleading for more worker friendly policies.  Obamacare is basically a Republican plan.  Progressive calls for single payer were ignored.  Similarly, the Obama Administration strove for a counterproductive grand bargain with Republicans on Social Security, and ended up getting the sequester (fiscal austerity).  Progressives arguments were ignored.
  2. In spite of recognizing and calling attention to the middle class stagnation caused by austerity and Republican obstructionism, Obama and Hillary claimed the economy as their own and took credit for it.  Drum spent 2015 saying that the economy was strong, for example.
Now Drum realizes that efforts to keep jobs in the U.S. were thwarted by Republicans.  
It does make me wonder, though. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but why didn't Hillary Clinton make this stuff into a major campaign issue? It would have helped her against both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but she barely ever mentioned these kinds of reforms. Odd.
That's what some of us were wondering before the election.  That why I voted for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.  Why would I vote for people who ignored me for many years in favor of Republicans.

UPDATE 12/7/2016:  Today Drum posts this:
Income Inequality Doesn't Have to Spiral Out of Control
Apparently you can run a thriving modern economy that benefits the working class as well as the rich. And note that this is pre-tax income. If social welfare benefits were included, the working class in France would be doing even better compared to the US
This from the guy who argued incessantly during the presidential campaign that the U.S. economy was doing great and therefore we should vote for Clinton over Sanders or Trump.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Brooksian Centrism

David Brook's latest column is entitled The Future of the American Center.

Brooks makes a good point in noting the following:

the coming Congress may not look like the recent Congresses, when party-line voting was the rule. A vote on an infrastructure bill may look very different from a vote on health care or education or foreign policy. This may be a Congress with many caucuses — floating coalitions rather than just follow-the-leader obedience.

Meanwhile, as Christopher DeMuth wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, committee chairmen may reassert authority against the executive branch. Trump’s authoritarian style represents an assault on the traditional separation of powers. He may end up energizing all those constitutional forms and practices he stands against.

What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War — bipolarity gives way to multipolarity. A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers. Instead of just R’s and D’s, there will be a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus, a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi Democratic old guard.

I’ve been trying to figure out where we’re headed after this election, and I really don’t know.  Trump is unpredictable.

But then Brooks goes off the rails, in my opinion:

The most important caucus formation will be in the ideological center. There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism…

suddenly there’s a flurry of activity between the extremes…  For example, Bill Kristol and Bill Galston have worked in the White Houses of different parties and had voted for the opposite presidential candidates in every election for four decades. But Donald Trump has reminded them how much they agree on the fundamentals.

The most active centrist organization, No Labels, began six years ago in opposition to polarized, cutthroat politics.

Much of the rest of Brooks column sings the praises of No Labels.  

Simon Maloy at Salon wrote what is, in my opinion, a cogent rebuttal -- More bogus “new centrism” from David Brooks.  Excerpts from Maloy’s critique:

“We stand together against an alternative right disdainful of the traditions of American conservatism and a vocal left that blends socialist economics with identity politics,” Galston and Kristol wrote, echoing Brooks’ alt-right/”alt-left” dichotomy.

This is completely blinkered, so let’s set a few things straight. The “alternative right” is not defined by its disdain for “the traditions of American conservatism.” It’s a racist, white-nationalist, pseudo-intellectual agglomeration of cranks and bigots who now have a direct line to the Oval Office. Only by denuding it of its core evils can one even begin to draw any sort of comparison between the “alternative right” and the “vocal left,” whose disqualifying sins apparently include pushing for universal health care and advocating on behalf of those marginalized by the political system...

No Labels and the rest of the centrist bleaters will instead celebrate the transparently false promises of a balanced budget that will surely attend all this ideological warfare... Toothless centrism appeals exclusively to “retired establishment types,” financiers and “think-tank johnnies” precisely because it is divorced from practical concerns: When you don’t have to worry about rising health insurance premiums or unaffordable mortgage payments, it’s easier to think of a balanced federal budget as the greatest good that government can aspire to.

I looked at the No Labels Four Goals, and sure enough two of them are about balancing the budget:

  1. Secure Social Security & Medicare for the next 75 years
    Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable on their current trajectories due to the retirement of the enormous Baby Boom generation, falling birth rates, and rising healthcare spending.
  2. Balance the federal budget by 2030
    If the money we spend as a nation consistently outpaces the money we bring in, the burden of our increasing debt — including the interest we pay on it — will crush us.  Unfortunately, that’s where we’re headed.

In summary, Brooks’ advocacy of centrism seems reasonable enough, and much of it is intelligent and constructive, but he makes two serious errors, in my opinion:
  1. False equivalency between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.
  2. Counterproductive obsession with national debt.  See Socrates interview with Pete Peterson.

As a final thought, the Democrats have been played (taken advantage of) by the Republicans on the issue of the national debt for the last 40 years.  There is no doubt that the Democrats have been more serious about the debt, and it has cost them politically.  Reagan, for example, gave lip service to the debt, but increased it with tax cuts and big military spending.  George W. Bush likewise cut taxes while invading and occupying Iraq.  Obama was more frugal.  Trump seems to be well aware of the advantages of the Reagan approach.

People like Brooks genuinely believe the national debt is just like private debt, as do most well educated people.  It’s analogous to the widespread acceptance of the validity of the patriarchy based upon Biblical teachings.  Probably in 100 years my descendants will be bemoaning the side effects which have arisen following the otherwise positive realization that we’ve been guided by economic mythology with little basis in fact.