Tag Archives: Doug Henwood

Terry Moran: How much fucking money do you make a year?

10 Sep

This morning, I had the following little Twitter exchange with Nightline host Terry Moran about the Chicago teachers strike.


In our exchange, Moran links to this New York Times article to justify his claim that “teachers make an average of $74,000/school-year in Chicago and most were offered a 19 percent raise.”

A few points, in no particular order.

First, the Times piece doesn’t say the teachers were offered a 19 percent raise. It says:

Late Sunday, Mr. Emanuel told reporters that school district officials had presented a strong offer to the union, including what some officials described as what would amount to a 16 percent raise for many teachers over four years.

I’m not sure how Moran went from 16 to 19. Perhaps he read this tweet last night from Bloomberg journalist and self-described “coastal elitist” Josh Barro, which was making the rounds, and mistook management for the union. Barro, like Moran, was also operating on the wrong information, and later had to walk back the claim.

In any event, a 16 percent raise over 4 years works out, at best, to a four percent annual raise.

Except that…

Second, as Doug Henwood points out, Chicago is also asking the teachers for a 20 percent longer school day.  Once you take that and inflation into account, the four percent annual raise works out to be a cut, not a raise.

Third, according to the Chicago affiliate of ABC News—Moran’s network—David Vitale, head of the Chicago School District, says that the city is offering a 3 percent raise the first year, and 2 percent raises for the remaining three years of the contract. That hardly works out to a 16 percent raise. 9 percent at best. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Chicago resident and history grad student at Northwestern, explains to me, the city hasn’t revealed how it came up with that 16 percent figure, but the best guess is that it includes other things like step increases, which are based on seniority. Contrary to what Moran suggests, it is in no way is an increase in base pay.

Fourth, as Doug also points out, BLS statistics indicate that the average pay for Chicago teachers is $55-60 thousand, not $74,000.

And fifth, the Times takes great pains to stress that it is citing management numbers. Setting aside the fact that those numbers appear to be wrong, how hard is it for Moran—a journalist—to take that into account in his statements? Even the most simpleminded definition of objectivity—report both sides of the story—would suggest a certain degree of skepticism on his part.

Okay, that’s all that the level of the facts. But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Moran had his facts right. There still remains this question, which I posed to Moran in a followup tweet and never got an answer to.

Just in case I wasn’t clear enough in my tweet, let me re-ask it here: Terry Moran, how much fucking money do you make a year?

Update (9:30 pm)

Doug Henwood just reminded me that his tweet about the BLS figure for average teacher salaries emphasized “Chicago metro area.” I left off “metro area.” That was my mistake. Should have caught that because it does make a difference.

Update (10:30 pm)

Washington Post blogger Dylan Matthews pointed me to various news reports and union fact sheets that state that the 20 percent increase in the school day for teachers never ultimately came to pass. The school day has been increased, but teachers’ hours haven’t, at least not significantly. It’s curious though how it is that a mere 500 additional teachers could cover the lengthened school day, as these reports suggest. Also the union fact sheet says that two holidays have been eliminated.  If anyone has any leads on any of this, please let me know. In any event, the 9 (ish) percent raise, over a four year period, works out to be…just about nada. As the commenter says, “So, to sum up, Mr Moron has managed to report a raise of under 2.25% [per year] for “many teachers” as a 19% raise for “most teachers.”

More on Alexander Cockburn

23 Jul

I wrote a longer piece on Alexander Cockburn for Al Jazeera.

Here are some other reminiscences, remembrances, and reflections:

One of the most thoughtful and comprehensive assessments from Kathy Geier, who also includes some great links.

Dennis Perrin on, among other things, Cockburn’s darker side.

I linked to this in my earlier piece, but here again is Jeffrey St. Clair, Cockburn’s comrade and writing partner.

More on Hitchens versus Cockburn from Jeff Sparrow.

An interesting appreciation from National Review‘s John Fund, who had once been Cockburn’s editor at the Wall Street Journal.

And another appreciation from the right: libertarian Jesse Walker.

Some tweets from his niece actress Olivia Wilde: “He taught me how to make coffee in a jar, how to listen to LPs, how to ride a horse through a river, and how to drive a classic with love.”

And the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Nation, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and the Los Angeles Times, quoting Marc Cooper: “He forfeited becoming a very influential writer in favor of becoming a mud-throwing polemicist.” Cooper means that as a criticism, but Cockburn would have worn it as a badge of honor.

The last word goes to Cockburn himself: a compilation by Jack Shafer of some of his best writings and an interview he gave to Doug Henwood last year.

Update (10:45 am)

Oops! I forgot to include this one from Louis Proyect.

Update (4 pm)

A late arrival by James Wolcott.  By far the best.  So worth the wait. Makes me embarrassed that I tried at all. Here’s a selection:

Alex might have been tagged with the label of “radical chic” were it not for the fact that he truly was radical, it wasn’t a passing phase or trend surfing or a temporary swelling of liberal heart; he was the son of the great Claud Cockburn (whom he would celebrate on the 100th anniversary of his birth as “the greatest radical journalist of his age”), he was and remained a contributor to New Left Review, he had an executioner’s gleam in his eye when he went after a conservative foe or a former comrade turned defector, something one didn’t quite picture in the caring eyes of Lenny Bernstein.

Even when he was at his most high-visibly productive, there were those who complained that he devoted and dispersed too much of his energies into deadline journalism and public addressing, riding the whirligig instead of delivering a “real book,” a stand-alone achievement that would have join the company of the best of C. Wright Mills or Saul Alinsky. It was a nagging shadow that would dog journalists and critics as different as Dwight Macdonald, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Seymour Krim, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ellen Willis–where’s the Major Tome, buddy? Since I’m a fan of collections and anthologies, believe that the best writing often shines in shards and galloping stretches, I never find myself lobbying for a writer I enjoy reading regularly to hole up in Heidegger’s hut for four or five years to bring forth a mountain. You want a tombstone masterpiece so much, go write your own, we’ll keep the landing-strip lights on for your victorious return.

Update (8 pm)

These two appreciations—from James Fallows and Michael Tomasky, liberals of the sort that Cockburn loved to flail—are worth a read.

And the Nation does a roundup, including two lovely reminiscences at the top from Cockburn’s niece Laura Flanders and the economist Robert Pollin, who says:

Alex also became good friends with our two daughters, Emma and Hannah, when they were about 9 and 6 years old. Emma once had a school assignment to write an essay on the person she most admired in the world. Without asking or telling anyone beforehand, she wrote it about Alex. After I had sent the essay to Alex, he told Emma how honored he felt. He said that nobody had ever captured him so well in words. I think he really meant it.

The true measure as to how much Alex respected my daughters occurred after he had written something very nasty in one of his columns about, of all things, Sesame Street. I told Alex that he had written many great columns about, say, Reaganomics or U.S. imperialism and Nicaragua, but that he had totally missed the boat on Sesame Street, which my kids, along with zillions of others, loved. After Alex heard confirmation on this directly from Emma, he published a lengthy retraction and apology. Since Alex died on Friday, I have seen many descriptions of him as a fierce and relentless critic who would never, ever back down. But my family and I knew otherwise.

Update (10:30 pm)

Two more before bedtime: one from Doug Henwood (including a Skype interview with Cockburn), and one from James Ridgeway, who was Cockburn’s writing partner in the 1970s at the Village Voice.

Update (midnight)

Still awake, and stumbled across this one from Jack Shafer.  It includes this brilliant excerpt from Cockburn on how to write an earthquake story:

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in “remote Eastern Turkey” or in the “arid center of Iran.” But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then “for six seconds the earth shook.” Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

And also ends on this perfect note:

He routinely sided with the powerless, sometimes even when they were wrong, and sometimes, I suspect, precisely because they were wrong. That was Cockburn’s kind of fight.

And that really is all.  For now.

Gordon Lafer Weighs in on Wisconsin, again

3 Jul

At the Nation, Gordon Lafer responds to some of the criticisms of his original article. Here are some highlights:

My disagreement with Doug Henwood has nothing to do with whether unions should be “sucking up to Democrats” or pursuing “business as usual.” I believe that Doug and I see the same crisis; we disagree about what caused it, and what is to be done.

Public confidence in unions has declined, which Henwood insists is because the public correctly perceives that unions are selfish and fail to promote the common good. Yet the most important facts at the heart of Henwood’s argument—42 percent of the country would like to see unions have less influence, and only 30 percent want more influence – are a product of the last five years. Another part of the same poll, which Henwood chose not to discuss, shows that as recently as 2006, the proportions were reversed, with 38 percent of Americans wishing unions had greater influence, and only 30 percent preferring less. So something happened in the last five years to turn public opinion against unions. What’s the more likely explanation—that unions actually became more self-serving in the last five years, and the public correctly perceived this? Or that a massive campaign of corporate advertising and right-wing newscasters encouraged downwardly-mobile Americans to vent their anger on unions?

For that matter, these same polls show that desire to limit union influence is overwhelmingly Republican; 69 percent of them want to see union influence curbed, compared with only 17 percent of Democrats. So for Henwood’s theory to be true, it would have to be the case that Republicans are much better than Democrats at perceiving the truth about unions, and that many Republicans would turn pro-labor if only they saw unions advocating for Canadian-style healthcare. Uh, right.

The point of highlighting these and more recent campaigns is not to be a cheerleader for union accomplishments, but the opposite: to be clear-eyed about the fact that if all it took to win was unions’ willingness to think outside the box, we’d have been celebrating a long time ago.

Why focus on the labor movement? After all, 93 percent of the private sector is unorganized. If the primary barrier to progress is bureaucratic union leaders, the field is – unfortunately – wide open to go around them. Why not create the people’s movement in the 93 percent of the economy, instead of harping on the 7 percent?

Read the rest here.

In related news, it looks like Bill Moyers is going to be having a terrific discussion with Steven Lerner and Bill Fletcher.

With a sharp decline in union membership, a legion of new enemies, and a series of legal and legislative setbacks, can American labor rebound and once again act strongly in the interest of ordinary workers? On this week’s Moyers & Company, Bill talks to two people who can best answer the question: Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher, Jr. The architect of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors movement, Lerner directed SEIU’s private equity project, which worked to expose a Wall Street feeding frenzy that left the working class in a state of catastrophe. Fletcher took his Harvard degree to the Massachusetts shipyards, and worked as a welder before becoming a labor activist. He served as Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, and is author of the upcoming book “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.

Wisconsin: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable on Labor, the Democrats, and Why Everything Sucks

7 Jun

The defeat of the recall effort in Wisconsin has, understandably, troubled the waters on the left. Everyone from Ezra Klein to Doug Henwood to Josh Eidelson is trying to figure out what it means. I’ve been doing the same, though I’m still not sure.

So I put the question to my Facebook friends.  Lots of folks participated in the discussion: bloggers like Aaron Bady and Seth Ackerman, political scientists like Scott Lemieux and Alan Ryan, journalists like Doug, and labor experts like Gordon Lafer, Stephanie Luce, and Nathan Newman.

The discussion was kicked off by my posting Klein’s observations on FB, and everyone took it from there.

• • • • • •

Corey Robin Here are some sobering thoughts from the preternaturally middle-aged Ezra Klein. Curious to hear folks’ thoughts on this.

Paul Heideman Very telling that Klein’s key concern here is how to reduce corporate power over elections, with no words about corporate power over workers.

Corey Robin Just to clarify: Klein’s stuff about getting money out of politics seems like pabulum; more curious to know what you think about what he says about labor and balance of power within and between parties.

Corey Robin ‎Paul, you beat me to the punch!

Nathan Newman I posted this in my thread, but Ezra has never been particularly loyal to labor as an institution (pissed me off royally when he attacked the anti-Walmart movement in Chicago when I was working with that campaign), so this is hardly a new theme with him.

First, the inevitable decline of labor has been happening supposedly for decades. And I can list the ways in which Dems actually more uniformly favor labor in voting patterns than they did thirty years ago. No doubt the GOP has gained seats because of the weakening of the labor movement, but there is little evidence that labor wields less influence within the Democratic Party than they did a generation ago. Labor still raises over $8 billion per year, where even a small part devoted to politics makes labor a decisive support for Dem elected politicians– plus the millions of remaining labor members that are contacted by and mobilized by labor in elections.

Honestly, labor is smaller than thirty years ago but far more innovative and effective out of necessity. Not perfect, but look at the list of major labor leaders from the early 70s (from George Meany on down) and compare them to those leading labor today– it’s hard to argue progressives are worse off today. It sucks for workers day-to-day in the workplace to have lower unionization rates but I’m unconvinced that labor matters less in the political sphere. (Remember, labor came closer to getting labor law reform under Obama than they did under LBJ or Jimmy Carter)

Corey Robin One question about that last point, Nathan: My impression of labor law reform under Carter is that while you’re right about the final outcome, business did a much bigger mobilization against it then; I mean it was the real line in the sand on which they made their stand. So initially labor law reform had very strong support and it was whittled away with time. If it had seemed like labor law reform was going to be a possibility under Obama — had the Dems really had the votes — I do wonder if business couldn’t have done the same. There wasn’t the same titanic struggle over it.

Aaron Bady Wisconsin doesn’t “show” anything that the person saying it wasn’t already convinced of. In other words, yeah, unions are in a bad way, but we all already knew that; Scott Walker is himself a great demonstration and advancer of that fact, and it would still be true even if he had lost. Election results are always caused by lots of different factors, and this one was no exception: one of them was union weakness, but to claim that it shows us something new about union weakness is vacuous. Or, rather, it demonstrates something about the ideological desire of the writer: because election results are always over-determined, you can tell a lot about a person by what they look at the ink blot and perceive it as being.

Nathan Newman Corey, there was a very titanic struggle over labor law reform by business. Remember, corporate interests pushed through multiple state referendums challenging card check before it got close to passage. I would say the skirmishing was slightly less public inside the Beltway, but out in the states where I was doing a lot of work, literally thousands of state legislators were mobilized on both sides of the issue.

Jay Driskell I think Ezra Klein’s concern over the fate of labor conflates a mixed result in this battle with losing the entire war.15 months ago, Wisconsin’s labor movement was not nearly so mobilized. Walker-style anti-union bills were cruising through the state legislatures of MO, IN and OH and the Dems hadn’t really aggressively organized in the red counties of WI for decades.

Here’s what we’ve accomplished since then:

1. WI labor – though bloodied is more mobilized than it has been in a long time – taking the fight into the reddest of red precincts in the state.

2. The Walker agenda has been derailed in WI esp since the Dems took back the state Senate. It’s also been derailed throughout the Midwest – as the defeat of Ohio’s SB 5 attests.

3. They did all of this without the help of Obama or the DNC (though to his credit, Obama did trouble himself to send a tweet in support…)

4. With the backing of labor, the WI Dems made it a real fight even while being outspent 10 to 1.

5. The folks in WI have helped inspire OWS (which has wrested the national debate about austerity and failings of capitalism from the control of the Tea Party).

I don’t think that last night’s election indicates a decline of labor at all. I think it indicates that it is quite healthy. We didn’t win everything, but we fought hard. I don’t think that Ezra Klein seems to care all that much about working people (see Paul Heideman’s comment above). His hand-wringing comes I think from his concern over Obama’s re-election prospects in 2012. That’s all that’s going on here.

Nathan Newman Also note that Ezra’s ax to grind is actually that labor has TOO MUCH political influence in the Democratic party and opposed his favored solution, the DISCLOSE Act.

Erik Loomis What I took from this is that Ezra thinks of labor as nothing more than an interest group whose primary mission it is to support the Democratic Party. Thus, what’s important for Ezra is how the Democratic Party survives in a post-Citizens United world. Which suggests that he doesn’t really understand what the point of labor unions are.

Corey Robin I guess I’m more interested in the substantive point Klein raises — re the declining power of labor, politically (and, it goes without saying, in the workplace) — than in Ezra Klein. Nathan and Jay have spoken some to this. I wonder what other folks think.

Nathan Newman Erik- Um, yes. Ezra built his blogger reputation around the health care issue, largely by trashing unions for establishing health care benefits for their own members instead of supporting Ezra’s favored solution of individual health care benefits backed by an individual mandate.

Here is a post I did back in 2006 about Ezra’s tendency to oppose labor politics to “progressive politics” represented by people like himself.

Ben Alpers Ezra Klein was middle-aged when he was an undergraduate (indeed that’s practically his explanation for why he supported the War on Iraq…he couldn’t abide those hippies among his fellow UCSC students). “Neoliberal cries crocodile tears over the death of old-school liberalism” was already old news twenty years ago.

Corey Robin Okay okay okay: really not looking for a trash Ezra fest, as fun as that can be. Try to stick to the substance of the issue, please!

Ben Alpers ‎This is key, Jay: “3. They did all of this without the help of Obama or the DNC (though to his credit, Obama did trouble himself to send a tweet in support…)”

There’s a lot to build on in Wisconsin and none of it came about because of the Democratic Party. Our political system for decades has functioned as a kind of a ratchet, in which the GOP makes things worse for working Americans, and one votes for Democrats to slow the process a little, before the GOP comes back to power and makes things worse again.

Ezra Klein defines the problem as: how do we elect more Democrats? I think the larger problem is that electing more Democrats, while certainly less bad than electing more Republicans, has not made things better for average Americans in at least thirty years. And Ezra Klein is part of that problem (which is why “trashing” him is actually entirely germane).

Nathan Newman But Corey– it matters for this debate since if labor is declining, it strengthens the political position of those like Ezra who argue for a pure “electoral” view of progressive politics. Taft-Hartley was passed in 1946 and lots of conservative Dems supported it back then, so the meme that “labor lost this battle so Dems should loosen their alliance with unions” has a long history.

Scott Lemieux I guess one can argue about whether the fatalism is correct, but I find the general point unexceptionable (and very much not “neoliberal.”) Unlike some pundits who talk about the value of redistributive politics as opposed to labor, Klein’s point in this post is that progressive policies without labor unions are very unlikely to happen, and this is a serious problem. I see this as an important point, and I also note that more corporate-dominated Congresses are certainly relevant to corporate power over workers.

Thomas Nephew Echoing Ben a bit here: with all due disrespect to Klein, he’s not the one who decided to frame this as an electoral struggle, rather than a labor one. As far as I can tell sitting on the East Coast, that was a mutual labor/Democratic Party choice, but it meant the Wisconsin fight mutated from a labor/mobilization struggle — which might have instead led to, say, general strikes — to an electoral one for a Democratic party candidates. Klein doesn’t put it this way (of course), but it’s not out of bounds to see the failed Walker recall vote (and the failure to win enough recall elections last year) as illustrating the limits of the electoral approach for labor unions.

Ben Alpers Scott: given the state of electoral politics in America today, understanding politics as no more or less than electoral politics is a recipe for progressive failure.

Nathan Newman Scott- I don’t think that’s Ezra’s point. He pretty much explicitly calls for Dems switching to an attack on “all interest groups [as] having too much political power, and unite behind legislation that would weaken them.” So don’t defend unions– go after corporate and union power in a combined legislative assault in hopes that small progressive donors can replace union and corporate money in elections.

Scott Lemieux Saying that electoral politics matters (which it obviously does — the decline of labor mobilization after Taft-Hartley is hardly a coincidence) doesn’t mean that all politics is electoral politics.

Thomas Nephew Scott: true, but if labor itself acts like all politics is electoral politics, it’s going to lose more often than it needs to and more often than we can afford for it to. Were recall efforts really the best way to go? Where will the remaining (or for all I know, increased) energy go now — to Obama? Will that help labor and those it has traditionally helped the most, or will it mainly help Democrats like Obama who have failed to keep their promise to “put on some comfortable shoes and walk the picket line” with them?

Ben Alpers To me the political question coming out of the failure of the recall efforts is not “how do the Democrats survive without labor?” but rather “how do progressives build on the Occupy model?”

Stephanie Luce On the general point about labor losing power: I think Klein is right. Though as others have said – this is nothing new. But WI (and OWS) showed an opening for unions to get creative and bold.

Some took the chance but for the most part, I think we see either:

1. Big unions that simply can’t break out of their old thinking, who think they can play the same game as usual, and who operate on short-term thinking that takes current consciousness as a given and panders to it rather than trying to change it. (e.g., downplay union issues, play up “middle class” noncontroversial language).

2. Union leaders with more vision, who may be ready to be bolder but realize they have a demobilized and demoralized base of members.

The signs of larger defeat are everywhere. Look at labor’s top 3 priorities after electing Obama; look at Democratic mayors like Rahm Emmanuel and in San Jose, CA where the mayor just helped push through major cuts to public sector pensions yesterday. Look at Dem Governors like Deval Patrick. Look at what Barrett himself did as mayor in Milwaukee. When the Dems join the Republicans in targeting public sector workers as the cause of budget crises and unions won’t or can’t fight back, I think it’s over.

Gordon Lafer I think Klein is both right and wrong. There’s no getting around the fact that the recall, and other things happening in the states for the last two years, signal the impact of Citizens United on state politics — i.e. someone can do something quite unpopular, and still survive politically by massively outspending the opposition, including ways that fundamentally mislead the electorate as to the truth of issues. Fortunately, sometimes this power doesn’t work, and is still outdone by people-power. But there’s no question that there’s a qualitative increase in the power of corporations and the very rich’s influence on politics. What I think Klein gets wrong is the idea that it’s going to be easier to pass campaign-finance laws than progressive labor laws—and the faux-cleverness of thinking that you can fool corporate lobbies or the GOP into policing corporate power by saying you’re against all “interest groups,” workers and corporations together. That never works. The more offensive part of this is his treating this like it’s an attack on a limited special-interest group, which at the end he of course chooses to join in the attack against. The biggest blind spot in his analysis is not seeing that what the real agenda behind the destruction of public sector unions in Wisconsin and the other anti-labor initiative in state legislatures is not about unions per se; it’s about getting unions out of the way in the political process so that corporations and the rich can remake the economy at will — in ways that affect everyone, not specific to union members. That’s why the same people pushing Walker’s bill also push anti-minimum wage, pro-”free trade,” anti-consumer rights, anti-pay equity, slashing unemployment insurance, lifting caps on school class sizes, etc. Organized workers are the one thing that significantly stands between the Kochs, the Chamber, et al, and an even more radical neoliberalization of America — that’s why unions are first on the chopping block. To cast the story so narrowly as Klein and others do is the biggest blind spot here.

Nathan Newman Thomas- I actually agree that labor can get diverted into electoral politics but I’m not sure how Wisconsin recall fights were in the interest of Obama in particular? Obama has done more for labor than most other Dem Presidents– good NLRB appointments, lots of stimulus money for unionized teachers and nurses, and so on — so I’m not sure what the point is there.

My worry on labor is that too much energy is going to electoral politics and not enough into new organizing campaigns and rallying the same kind of public support for those fights as was applied in the recall efforts. The question is whether there is really a well of support among non-union progressives for supporting those non-electoral organizing campaigns by unions for economic justice in the workplace. That is the test that needs to be pushed.

Alan Ryan What do you make of the fact that the male vote was overwhelmingly pro-Walker, the female vote heavily anti-Walker, and the black vote overwhelmingly anti-Walker? I incline to think that women voted against “divisiveness,” and mean against recalling anyone for anything other than blatant corruption; and the exit polls suggest people voted for Walker yesterday who will vote for Obama in the fall. What conclusions one can draw from that, heaven only knows.

Scott Lemieux I do agree with a lot of what Gordon says — I think Ezra greatly overestimates the efficacy of stuff like the DISCLOSE act and ignores that it’s almost as hard to pass that kind of bill as, you know, real pro-labor legislation. I don’t have a silver bullet solution, but to the extent he sees campaign finance restrictions as an adequate substitute for real pro-labor legislation he’s wrong. OTOH, I think that to think that a radical, effective labor movement will develop alongside radically pro-corporate legislatures that are gutting labor protections is a fantasy.

Thomas Nephew I didn’t mean the recall efforts were in Obama’s interest, I meant they were in the WI Dem party’s interest and only of prospective, postponed, and now near-zero benefit to labor. I was speculating that Obama would be the next such beneficiary. I felt like the EFCA failure and his failure to show up for WI labor either in winter 2010/2011 or now were strikes against him, but bow to your assessment. Again, though, to what overall gain? The question is not just Klein’s “should Dems cut loose from labor”, it’s “should labor cut loose from Dems” and a largely electoral strategy. We seem to agree that some of the latter needs to be explored.

Thomas Nephew ‎Scott: I think radical labor movements have arguably often developed alongside radically pro-corporate legislatures, often precisely because of what those legislatures were up to. But their effects were delayed, it generally wasn’t pretty, and the radical unionists often didn’t get the credit they deserved years later. Perhaps an example: Those guys didn’t leave it at canvassing for Dems. :)

Scott Lemieux I said radical and effective. If the late 19th century is an example of social justice winning I’d hate to see an example of things getting worse. (Which, of course, absolutely does not mean that unions should leave it to canvassing for Democrats.)

Corey Robin ‎ Scott, you’re not responding to Thomas’s point. He’s not saying they were a model of winning or effectiveness; he’s saying their victories came later but could not have happened without those years of defeat. And indeed it’s hard to imagine any effective social movement that didn’t spend years in the wilderness first.

Nathan Newman Sometimes the prosaic answer is BOTH. Labor can’t ignore politics if only to avoid devastating anti-union legislation but also for the positive gains you get, but it’s not sufficient.

And I am a great believer that labor law reform will come from radical, innovative union organizing, some of which will inevitably have to be illegal under current laws, in order to force a legislative compromise that re-channels that organizing energy back into a legal, but more pro-labor framework. Note that the only major pro-labor legislation enacted post Taft-Hartley were the 1974 amendments legalizing hospital-related union actions which followed a range of illegal strikes hospital workers.

Unions need to figure out the forms of solidarity that will resonate with the broader progressive movement, engage public sentiment, and challenge corporate power. Justice for Janitors fit that bill and had some success. We’ve seen some recent health care fights that have done that. But the major unions seem to have backed off from the big organizing drives in the last year or two and that’s the most worrisome thing to me.

Scott Lemieux Well, if we’re going the full heighten-the-contradictions mode, should we actually be celebrating Walker’s victory? As Republican after Republican crushes the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, this will surely radicalize some union members who have been denied their rights. This doesn’t make that a good thing; radicalism isn’t an end in itself. Again (and I endorse everything Nathan says above) this doesn’t limit politics to electoral politics, but crushing labor rights isn’t going to lead to a more effective labor movement and more than Taft-Hartley did.

Nathan Newman Yeah– losing is not a political aphrodisiac, except for masochists. Losing mostly begat losing in the late 19th century– and the federal troops breaking strikes didn’t help (ie. slightly more effective politics would have helped then as well). Time in the wilderness usually breeds bizarre sect-like behavior, not effective engagement with the broad public.

The recipe for social movements is not always clear, but the literature is pretty clear that straight up repression doesn’t breed mass action. Usually, it’s small successes building towards greater success– often with a dose of rising expectations from outside environmental factors.

One problem I see in the present period is that the public is so cynical that they almost accept that they will get screwed by corporate interests. They don’t like it but they don’t really believe there is an alternative. But what this means is that leftist harping on corporate power and greedy actions is almost self-defeating, since it just feeds that same cynicism.

What would be helpful is more leftist harping on progressive successes, so that people can actually believe that we can build on those successes for something more. One reason I will come off as an Obama apologist is that I think talking about what has been accomplished as President– and only with progressive mobilization — is the best way to get people excited. And at that point, it’s worth raising the issue of why more hasn’t been done.

Corey Robin I was hardly arguing for a heightening the contradictions or recommending failure as a way of doing politics or arguing that repression produces mass action; nothing in what I said entails or even suggests that. But every social movement begins, by definition, in the wilderness. Good leadership learns how to lead out of that wilderness. A lot of political education and leadership training and organizational learning are going on amid failures and defeats—all that often gets overlooked yet it can prove to be a school for long-term victory. Risking failure and coping with and learning from failure is a lot of what building a social movement is all about, Nathan, and if you truly want labor to engage in the kinds of disruptive and illegal organizing campaigns that bring about victories, it’s going to have to be able to risk defeat/failure—for workers, every day on a picket line can feel like a failure; you never feel like you’re winning till you actually win—to get there.

Corey Robin Here’s Doug Henwood’s take on the whole matter: curious to hear thoughts. I think this is a really important conversation to have, and I hope people can have it by actually speaking to each other’s points and not going after versions of each other’s points that they find easiest to parry. Oddly, it seems to me that Nathan and Doug—who I usually think of as on opposite sides of these debates—actually agree on the deeper issue: they both think labor is not doing enough to be a full social movement, and they both seem to think the fault for that lies mostly with labor itself. Nathan thinks perhaps labor is doing more than Doug realizes—and so wants to accentuate the positive in that regard (and that, I suspect, more than anything is what really divides him and Doug)—but on the basic question I don’t see them as all that different. Or am I wrong? Try to keep the personal animus and invective down, but let’s really argue this out.

Nathan Newman I probably agree with Doug that channeling all that energy into the recall election was a mistake, but activism is not a zero sum game. I wasn’t on the ground in Wisconsin and that may have been where the energy was—and Doug’s proposal for some general education campaign on living standards seems like a pretty weak alternative. Election campaigns naturally attract energy because they are concrete with real outcomes in some set time period that normal people can envision working on (and then stopping to go back to their lives).

Those of us with open-ended commitments to politics and activism can argue for long-term base-building fights without immediate payoffs, but that’s not always the best recruiting message :)

Doug Henwood ‎Nathan, a “general education campaign” was far from my only proposal. You saw the bit about single-payer?

Corey Robin One problem I have with Doug’s analysis, which draws so many conclusions about the state of unions from this recall vote, is that just across the border in Ohio, which is probably slightly more reliable as a Red state (I don’t know this for sure; at a minimum, it’s pretty close to WI), when there was a mass referendum on the almost-identical issue that propelled unions to push for the recall of Walker, voters voted with the unions. I’ve been reading a lot about how in Wisconsin the procedural qualms about a recall really did influence a fair number of voters. They simply felt that an election is an election; you don’t like what the guy or gal does, you vote against ‘em next time. Recalls are really rare, and so it was a very tough hurdle to get over. But anyway the point is that in Ohio they had the exact opposite result when the issue really was about collective bargaining rights for workers.

Doug Henwood I am insisting that people start by acknowledging that unions are not very popular, and for often good reasons. Anyone who evades that is sweet-talking him- or herself.

Corey Robin But in Ohio, when the issue was unions and nothing but unions, the voters voted with the unions. I was organizing in CA in 1997, when there was a ballot initiative against union dues check-off: the unions made the case about why unions matter to the public, and the public voted with them (even though this was an incredibly well funded initiative by the right). In WI, the issue got clouded by the procedural stumbling block of the recall. I’m all in favor of not sugar-coating things. But in the same way that I remain leery of Nathan saying we should talk up the positives for the alleged sake of a better political outcome—were I an organizer, I certainly would do that, but I’m not—so am I leery of talking up the negatives for the alleged sake of a better political outcome. I’d rather focus on the actual matter at hand.

Ben Alpers I think Corey and Doug can both be right: unions aren’t very popular, though in certain states they may be just popular enough to win certain elections. I think the Wisconsin vote reflects the relative unpopularity of unions, but it was about more than unions, so it is wrong to see it as simply a referendum about unions. I agree with Corey that we should focus on the actual matter at hand…but this actual matter at hand is fairly complicated.

Stephanie Luce I agree that both Corey and Doug can be right in part because of low voter turnout. The Gallup polls Doug cites show that just over half the population supports unions; it only took 30% of all adults to elect Scott Walker. So it depends in part on who shows up to vote. The other thing that I think is important is that public opinion can change quickly, and I think that goes for unions too. Those same polls show a pretty strong drop in approval in just one year, from 59% approval in 2008 to 48% in 2000. Public polling also seemed to show quick changes in public opinion around the time of the Wisconsin protests (and similarly, Occupy seemed to initially change public opinion around other, related issues). So I think Doug’s general point—that we cannot fool ourselves into thinking unions are popular—is a good one, but not static. Things can change quickly in times of struggle or “upsurge.”

Scott Lemieux Like Nathan, I don’t think that labor (or any other progressive group) can abjure either electoral or non-electoral politics. If “they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere” we still wouldn’t have single-payer because 1)public opinion isn’t the primary barrier standing in the way of enacting single payer, 2)that money would be easily matched by the lobbying of corporate interests, to the effect it would have on public opinion is unclear, and 3)the conservative Democrats who stand in the way of single-payer even in an atypically favorable environment sure wouldn’t be more likely to support progressive legislation if all of their money comes from corporations and none from labor. I’ll also note that the Tea Party channeling activism into electoral politics in Wisconsin worked out like gangbusters for them.

Doug Henwood What would the DP do if labor stopped writing checks and punching the phones? It’s like a third of their income, no?

Corey Robin I assume the Dems would hustle even harder for corporate money and drift even further to the right. We’d be back to 1892 or so in terms of the relationship between the two parties and labor and capital.

Doug Henwood So the choices are the status quo of a slow drift to the right, or labor withdrawing from the Dems resulting in a perhaps less slow drift to the right?

Scott Lemieux Corey is right—they sure as hell wouldn’t become more progressive. There’s more money in the corporate sector anyway.

Doug Henwood Dial me Sartre: Huis Clos.

Stephanie Luce Doug – according to an article by Peter Francia, business contributions to the Democrats in 2008 were 15 times more than labor’s contributions. (From Polity, July 2010 – let me know if anyone wants the pdf of the article). Still, I think it is a reasonable strategy, since the money could be used much more effectively in other ways.

Corey Robin ‎Stephanie, can you spell out that last part of your statement? And curious what you’d say to Scott above. And more generally to the position that labor needs both a mobilization, non-electoral strategy AND an electoral strategy. Seems like you’re saying the latter is…I’m not sure.

Stephanie Luce I would argue for a mostly non-electoral, movement building focus. I certainly don’t think engaging in national elections does much good, and it won’t help create a more favorable public image of unions. I think the labor movement should be putting more resources and energy into fights in the workplace as well as fights in the broader community (and this seems easy for public sector unions to do: e.g., rider/driver fights to expand transit; teacher/student fights for better funding and smaller class sizes; health care worker/patient fights to create more health care jobs, etc.). I don’t think labor can avoid electoral work altogether, but I think it could be much smarter about how it uses resources—focusing on local races and statewide issue campaigns, but instead of focusing on one election to the next, develop a long-term vision and work backwards from there. How do candidates or issues help build toward a longer-term vision of the economy, job creation, quality of work, work-life balance, etc.

Doug Henwood ‎Stephanie speaks much truth.

Bruce Bernstein I haven’t read every single comment above, but I haven’t seen anyone mention the severe decline in Wisconsin AFSCME and AFT membership, as reported in the WSJ, since the Wisconsin law took effect. I think AFSCME dues paying membership in the state was cut by 66% or some similarly ungodly amount.

In Ohio, I believe the law was an across the board right-to-work law. In Wisconsin, Walker went after the public sector unions first in a divide and conquer strategy. This is a big difference in the politics.

Romney has the position that there should be a national right-to-work law.

Rachel Maddow has been making the point that AFSCME and SEUI are the only two organizations in the top ten national party funders that mainly support Democrats. And obviously the Republican strategy is to eviscerate these and other relatively “rich” (ok, middle class, compared to the corporate funders) pro-Democratic funders.

The point is not the funding of the Democratic Party. The point is the institutional base for progressive politics. It is not that the unions just fund Democrats; it is that they fund the progressive agenda, such as it is… and serve as the “institutional base.” And the main area of growth and strength has been the public sector unions and SEIU, which is quasi-public sector. The UAW and the other large private sector unions are shadows of their former selves.

Scott Lemieux Personally, I’d rather if the Tea Party and the religious right followed the advice here and abstained from electoral politics instead. Public sector unions in Wisconsin would still have collective bargaining rights, for one thing…

Nathan Newman Bruce touches on a basic point about the favorability of “unions”—a lot of the backlash against unions currently is when they are seen as purely public sector entities and you stoke the budget cutting energy of the Tea Party, which sees the public sector as bloated and privileged. Private sector unions are still pretty popular, so the question is which kind of unions the public is thinking of. You can push on why public sector unions are not so privileged but that’s a basic reality we are engaging with.

As for unions disengaging from most national electoral politics, folks do too easily discount what federal spending does for students, local economic development, food stamps, Medicaid and so on—and any union disengagement and weakening of the Dems will just screw those programs. Unions still play a critical role in keeping many basic progressive coalitions around many of those issues afloat and keep politicians supporting those issues in office. And yes, as Bruce notes, union money matters not just for the unions but all those other groups and coalitions they keep going.

But I return to what should unions be doing as unions? What campaigns could they do that would grow the union movement, especially in the private sector, and build their membership more beyond the reach of these politicians. What are the popular workplace organizing campaigns that could rebuild public support for unions?

Corey Robin ‎Stephanie and Doug: These public fights you both advocate would require resources. Resources mean dues. A lot of the folks on the left are very disdainful about unions collecting dues. And to collect dues that go to non-workplace fights is even harder to get a membership to support. The only way I know of to do this is to make sure the members are getting good contracts for themselves—something Doug seems to be really disdainful of—AND then organizing them to support using their union resources for larger fights, which means more staff organizers and leadership of the sort that many on the left have a tough time with. This comment might be more posed to Doug than to you Stephanie—I don’t know—but it’s really for everyone: doing the non-contractual stuff that unions do—whether it be electoral or non-electoral—requires dues money and staff. But to a lot of people that means union bureaucracy which they can’t abide. How’s all of this going to work out?

Doug Henwood I’m not disdainful of contracts—just the exclusive focus on them. That aside, unions have shitloads of money. They’ve given $40+ million to largely worthless Dems this year and over $500 million over the last decade.

But also: the contract thing may be going the way of the wild buffalo. It’s less and less of an option every day. So they going to stick to the old way of doing things until there’s just one shop left, or do something different? I suspect I know the answer, but it’d be nice to be wrong.

Gordon Lafer What unions are—are supposed to be—is a group of workers who get together in order to better their own conditions, to earn a decent living and have a bit of control over their working conditions. That’s the main thing that unions are, and that is as it should be. The main need is for more people to have more of that. By its nature, of course, a union is an organization of people improving their working conditions, so of course it’s mostly about the members. It’s not like the Sierra Club or some other advocacy organization—although both the strategic reality and the moral principle of solidarity mean that unions do more than any other organization in the country on behalf of working people in general.

This seems to be what the Kochs understand and Doug—who I don’t know if I’ve ever disagreed with before but certainly do now—does not. The Kochs, Chamber of Commerce, Club for Growth and the rest of them are going after public sector unions above all because they want them out of politics. Why do major private sector corporations give a lot of money to fight public sector unions? Cause they want to pay lower taxes? Not much. Cause they want to elect Republicans? Maybe some. But the major reason is because when you look at the legislative agenda of the Chamber of Commerce for instance—more free-trade; blocking cheap drug imports from Canada; privatizing schools and ending the public right to a decent education; keeping the Bush tax cuts and lowering taxes on the wealthy even further; undoing any progressive health insurance reform; no OSHA for repetitive motion injuries; no whistleblower rights for employees; no pay equity laws for women; no effective EPA or EEOC; more cheap foreign guest workers and subminimum wages for youth; relaxing child labor laws—none of these things are union issues per se, and on every one of them, these business lobbies see organized workers, in the form of unions, as the main opposition.

This is the main reason for the attacks on unions—and if people have been paying attention they’ll see that the companies and donors behind the attacks on public unions are also funding and fomenting attacks on private sector unions through Orwellian-named “right to work”, “paycheck protection” and other laws.   So the people talking as if the answer is to diss public employees are misguided in thinking the real issue is the compensation of public employees; that’s just the first strategic move of corporate lobbies whose agenda is to clear away whatever political opposition remains to accelerated inequality in the country and denying the non-rich any ability to exercise a measure of popular control over the economy.

Furthermore, Doug writes, I believe, with zero evidence or knowledge of what actually happened in Wisconsin. I believe there were tons of conversations talking to people one-on-one about exactly what he suggests—the importance of workers being able to bargain on their own behalf, of public services, of economic fairness, all of it – both in the 2011 protests and around the 2012 recall election. His proposal is…what? To have a bunch of people in the abstract and unconnected to any campaign, knock on people’s doors to educate them about economic justice?  Fine – go ahead.  But let’s not pretend this is some brilliant new idea or that it’s likely to be more effective than what people are already working at.

I don’t mean to be overly biting here, but the whole critique just seems divorced from the actual reality of what it is to build or have an organization of workers, or how union organizing or neighborhood organizing or economic/political education actually happens.

Bruce Bernstein Public sector unions making political contributions has a lot to do with contracts. The right and even the center criticize this as a form of corruption, but public sector unions tend to—not always, but tend to—get better contracts when they elect friendly people.

This is also true in the not for profit sector. For example, in NY State, in the health care sector. This is not the public sector per se but 1199 / SEIU has been very astute in tying the sector together and getting it funding… which results in better contracts, and also in some cases organizing the unorganized (home health care workers, for example).

There actually is not all that much new here, conceptually. The old garment unions—ILGWU and Amalgamated—actually tied the sector of small disparate shops together and were able to serve as the glue in terms of things like health care, housing, and even benefits for the industry (trade legislation, for example).

I have a feeling that lefties like Doug will poo-poo this, but I would like to see unions actually take over and run enterprises… cooperatives, etc. There is a movement called the Solidarity Economy that talks about this. Their model is the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. Sure, there are a thousand difficulties and contradictions with this model. But how else do unions and true popular institutions gain traction in the private sector?

The old garment unions built housing, owned a bank…

Nathan Newman ‎$40 million in a year or even $500 million in a decade is pretty small amounts of money for unions. $500 million is something like the equivalent of 1% of the dues unions collected over a decade. (If you include staff time, I would bet unions actually spent a bit more than $500 million actually).

So it’s hardly a question of either spending money on “worthless Democrats” or spending on other things. Unions spend most of their money on basic union stuff: administering contracts, running pension funds, occasionally (and now very occasionally) paying out strike funds and so on.

I actually support unions continuing to spend money on elections, although I think it’s more cost effective to spend it mobilizing their members directly than giving out campaign contributions. But the question is not whether unions should spend the 1% or even 5% of the money they raise on electoral politics. The real question is what they should spend the 90-95% of the money they raise that doesn’t go to electoral politics?

That is the money that should be building the union movement directly in the workplaces across the country, yet mostly hasn’t done so well. But then, non-union progressives mostly don’t help. Union picket lines just don’t pull many progressives these days. I went to a CWA protest against Verizon last fall that was explicitly linked to the Occupy Wall Street movement, was pretty well publicized, and was just a couple blocks from the active OWS site, yet still it had almost exclusively labor folks there.

I actually did a bunch of work around the AT&T – T-Mobile merger, which was a chance to add basically the largest number of private sector union members at one sweep that we’ve had in decades—and a lot of progressive groups opposed the merger because they were worried about cell phone rates going up a few cents. This was a situation where 20,000 T-Mobile members would have automatically had the right to join the union movement—AT&T has probably the best card check agreement in place in the country—yet most progressives ignored the fight, or even took the other side.

Bruce Bernstein I too don’t understand Doug’s proposal in the referenced piece. He seems to have two proposals. Doug said:

Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

And…Doug said:

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

Let’s just dismiss the second point as rhetorical overkill. The unions were fiercely attacked in Wisconsin (and Ohio and Michigan). Lobbying for “single payer” in that situation would be to simply ignore a direct political attack against their very being.

Doug’s first point doesn’t have any political focus. The movement in Wisconsin was a POLITICAL movement. It arose because of a political attack — a specific piece of legislation. The movement attempted to stop that legislation through the streets. It did a damn good job. But it failed.

It then adopted the political tactic of recall — first of 6 state senators, then of a governor and more senators. This is political struggle, American style.

Doug’s suggestion is a broad educational campaign. Fine, but as any organizer knows, this has no specific goal, no fulcrum, no target. There is no political dynamic to it. It does not mobilize people in the same way. It does not show a path to victory.

Doug ends by saying:

That means that if unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to operate in this new reality. Which means learning to act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.

The irony here is that in fact the unions in Wisconsin DID act politically, on behalf of the entire working class—and Doug is saying they should not have done so.

Doug, it seems if you want to critique so toughly, you should propose an alternative POLITICAL strategy for labor to turn back the Walker / Koch class warfare political attack. Maybe you have one that is better than what they did… but I don’t see it in your piece.

Stephanie Luce But Gordon, I think part of the argument is exactly that the right is attacking unions in various ways, including through the political arena, and unions don’t seem to have enough power to stop those attacks for the most part. They don’t seem to have enough power to win strikes in many cases, and they don’t seem to have enough power to win many legislative battles. So I don’t think the idea of unions building broader coalitions around economic issues is just for charity or to do good. I just think their survival may rest on finding other sources of power. One source of power might be better relations between unions so that they honor each other’s picket lines if there is a strike. Another source of power might be better relations with those who are “consumers” of public services, so that there are stronger electoral alliances. I agree completely that it is not easy to do. And I agree that it should not just be up to union members to do this work. But I don’t see where unions expect to get their power to win in the workplace, or in the electoral arena, without a new approach.

Gordon Lafer ‎Stephanie, you’re right that building broad alliances is often important and effective, though it’s not like this is a new idea—you’ve written about those kind of campaigns for a long time, and many many unions are involved in exactly these kinds of efforts, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It’s easy to say more of everything would be better, but this isn’t an issue of people being blind to the benefits of this kind of effort – it’s just a question about where and how it makes most sense to allocate resources.

Seth Ackerman Unions—i.e. top leadership—run big institutions with obligations to members and a lot to lose. So what they do is mostly determined by the conditions they exist in. For example, top leadership (e.g., of the UAW) could adopt a take-no-prisoners militancy when it comes to contracts, but the result would be that they’d probably lose catastrophically. So they don’t. Top leadership could announce a total moratorium on supporting most Dems in elections, but the result would probably just be Republicans winning more elections, leading to more Walker-style assaults. So they don’t. If a change were to happen, to break the cycle, it would come from below. That’s what Labor Notes types have been plugging away at for years, and they’re doing exactly the right thing.

Seth Ackerman The real problem is what Nathan mentioned. There’s very little support from the wider grassroots left/liberals. People don’t want to go to picket lines. They don’t understand that a fight over $3 an hour or health insurance contributions is actually a struggle with far more profound implications.

Seth Ackerman You so often see people on the left making these supposedly judicious arguments about how “conventional” unions maybe used to be important to the left but aren’t anymore, because of the way they’ve degenerated. The implication—whether intended or not—is that we shouldn’t support “conventional” unions, but should “look elsewhere,” to other kinds of organizing. Obviously this mentality, which is endemic, discourages grassroots left/liberal support for “conventional” union struggles. The result, though, is that this attitude cements the very sclerosis that it criticizes. If the left disengages from unions, unions will not be engaged with the left, leaving them as nothing more than dues-collection agencies, weak, ineffective, uninspiring, etc. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it requires a certain political culture to understand that, a culture that’s missing. I’m not on the ground in WI, but maybe one silver lining from that fight is that it reengaged grassroots liberals with labor, allowed connections to be formed, etc. Or maybe not, I don’t know.

Nathan Newman Seth: And we still have all these left-liberal folks bemoaning rising inequality while ignoring the fact that de-unionization lies at the heart of the problem. If workers are ripped off at the point of production, that’s what gives the corporations all the money in profits to spend on politics to make sure inequality isn’t addressed in any other way.

Campaign finance reform is ultimately ridiculous, since big money will find a way to spend if their interests are at stake. Unions are the only significant form of campaign spending reform, because it both makes money available for progressive politics AND reduces the profits of the plutocrats so they have less money to spend against our interests.

Walking a picket line to raise wages by $2 per hour is also walking a picket line to reduce the money available to corporations to spend in politics by $2 per hour per worker. So anyone concerned about corporate money in politics should be fighting with unions. But mostly they don’t.

And so labor leaders know that if they mount a union organizing campaign, they are on their own. But if they launch a recall election campaign against Scott Walker, they get lots of allies in that electoral fight. So guess what? They choose to recall Scott Walker because at least then they have some allies.

Seth Ackerman Yes, Nathan—especially like your last point

Stephanie Luce ‎Gordon, I agree. It is very hard work and takes resources and time. And there are lots of other pressures and immediate needs. Unfortunately, there is also still some pretty old-school thinking out there which is discouraging—i.e., union leaders who really don’t seem to think they need to work with other unions, let alone other organizations. I think that was a big factor in Wisconsin, actually. It seems to me that if you are going to go big and try for a recall, you might want to get some level of coordination about who your candidate might be and what you might be able to do as a larger coalition. Nathan’s point is a good one—that the unions got a lot more support from allies in this recall battle than they did for organizing drives (or the IAM strike in Manitowoc last fall). But a few of the big unions did not exactly function as partners in the initial protests, or in the recall process. Including “choosing” an initial candidate, Kathleen Falk, who I don’t think anyone else in the labor movement wanted, let alone the broader community.

Gordon Lafer One more thing strikes me about Doug’s column. He starts off stressing the importance of not running away from hard truths. But then the column ends up doing exactly that, by declaring that workers’ efforts to secure decent working conditions in a contract with their employer is a “dinosaur” that should be cast aside. I’m sure this is unintentional, but this seems to me exactly to be running away from the hard truth.  Figuring out how normal working people can win a fair deal from their employers remains the most important thing to focus on.  Because it’s gotten harder as labor laws have been so weakened, the union-busting industry so much more aggressive, and the power of money in politics so much more pervasive – does not mean the right thing to do is to give up.  Or at least, if that’s what Doug or others want to do, call it what it is: that you’re giving up because the effort has become too hard for you, and don’t pretend that you’re really boldly offering some brave new strategy.

A lot’s changed in the economy, but the basic power relations between employers and employees has only intensified.  The challenge is not to do something totally new, as if we inhabited a totally different kind of society. The challenge is to figure out how to do the same old things, i.e., get fair contracts in the workplace and pass laws that help the majority instead of a tiny minority.  I’m not being pollyanish about what it might take to do this, and I don’t have a silver bullet.  But to pretend this is not the right place to dig in and work is, I think, defeatist and delusional.

Doug Henwood I’m kind of amazed at the misreadings of my piece that I see above.

First, in other countries unions are about more than contracts, and have done a lot better job fighting for broad public benefits rather than private welfare states. Second, I keep hearing about all the great things that unions did in Wisconsin – just the sort of thing I was urging. But that was all subsumed to a stupid electoral campaign that has ended up only promoting Walker’s prestige and power. Now that that campaign is over, all the resources are going to go into re-electing Obama, who barely gave Wisconsin Dems the time of day. (He did tweet something supportive, right?) I’m talking about long-term campaigns. And third, the whole model of union organizing is dead, comrades. It’s been dead in the private sector for ages, and now it’s mortally wounded in the public sector. You can talk all you want about the sacred grail of the contract, but good luck getting one now. The game has changed utterly, and all I hear are impassioned pledges to do the status quo more enthusiastically.

Oh, and how about those pension votes in San Jose and San Diego. Huge margins to cut. Like it or not, people with shitty pensions or none at all look at government worker benefits and say “If I can’t have those, they can’t either.” Unions have to recognize that and rethink. It’s time to refocus on raising Social Security benefits for everyone instead of protecting, yes, fiefdoms.

Seth Ackerman If unions are going to not seek better contracts, why should anybody join a union? I mean, if you’re a radical, sure; it would be like joining the Socialist Party, you’d get a neat membership card and join the email list. But if you’re not already a radical, what’s the pitch? “You should join this union because it will fight for single payer”? The number of people who are interested in fighting for single payer is very small. The number of people who are interested in better health benefits—assuming they can be convinced it’s possible—is very large.

Doug Henwood I really don’t know how many times I have to say this. 1) Seeking better contracts is fine. Having that as the major goal of the labor movement is not. 2) The game has changed. There will be few new contracts. Labor needs a new angle. The old way is dead, man.

Seth Ackerman Okay, so labor should still seek contracts, but it should also be pushing for broader political change. But the AFL-CIO is already involved in myriad worthy causes—some highly worthwhile, many uninspiring, a few maybe with some limited efficacy (like lobbying). If there were some obvious and promising avenue of initiative that the unions were passing up, that would be one thing. But I don’t know what it might be. My general line is that it’s wrong to attribute the current morass to any set of “wrong decisions” by labor bureaucrats, and therefore wrong to look to some “better strategy” from them as an answer. No better strategy has been forthcoming because there is none that union leaders, as leaders, could effectively implement under the current conditions. It’s the conditions themselves that have to change and that can only come from the ground up.

Doug Henwood That “ground-up” change isn’t going to come from doomed struggles like the Wisconsin recall. I know that it’s impossible to imagine this happening but they’re going to have to give up on the electoral crap and devote their still-substantial resources to broader, longer-term fights. The AFL-CIO is actually a rather weak entity, and their dedication to those myriad worthy causes barely extends beyond press releases. As long as they and their member unions keep writing giant checks to Dems and consider that their political engagement, density will continue to fall. At recent rates of decline, private sector density will hit 0 around 2030.

Corey Robin Let me add two things to what’s already been said.

First, the American state. One of the reasons the American labor movement settled for the route that it did — pushing for employers to take action rather than the state — was that the state historically was so much more hostile to labor, in ways that were distinct from Europe. Here we had this judiciary — which, Doug, is one of your other frequent targets — that was able through injunctions to stop labor from doing much of anything. Though labor finally was able to get that judicial power taken away, to some degree (Taft-Hartley helped bring it back), labor has always had good reasons to be wary of the state route.

There’s a corollary to this: while the judiciary was capital’s friend, and could act with relative impunity, the legislative path, which had been at various points labor’s friend, was frequently — and as we see now, still is — checked. That old separation of powers thing really fucks thing up here.

So while I’m a strong supporter of state strategies, it’s wrong to act as if labor’s focus on the contract as opposed to state strategies (which of course is also overdrawn: as lots of people pointed out here, most progressive legislation is pushed by labor), is wholly voluntary. There are good reasons for it (whether or not contracts are dead).

Second, when Doug says contracts shouldn’t be the main focus of the labor movement, I wonder if he really means that. Just think of a worker in a non-union workplace. Think of how precarious, arbitrary, lawless, and, yes, feudal is her relationship to her employer. Forget wages and benefits. Just think of rules and procedures — or lack thereof. Most of us here work at home or have significant autonomy in our lives — that’s why we’re able to talk freely here all day. No one tells us what to do. Workers are told what to do all day long. A contract is one of the few things they have to give them some semblance of autonomy, that they aren’t just the playthings of their boss.

Of course that should be the main focus of the labor movement! How could it not be? Why would anyone, as Seth points out, join a union if it didn’t first and foremost give workers that sense of control over their own lives?

Now whether contracts are dead or not, I don’t know. But I think there’s a tendency to dismiss them as so much selfishness and parochialism on the part of workers (or union bureaucrats, as if workers didn’t care about these things) that just seems blind, absolutely blind, to the realities of the workplace.

For anyone who’s ever despaired of arguing with her critics…

8 Mar

In the midst of the controversy over the Phillips Curve, Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson wrote to economist Alvin Hansen:

Milton F[riedman] is a bloody nuisance. In the end he is not right in his provocative stands, but it takes valuable time rebutting his arguments….Having just returned from UCLA where (as in Virginia and Washington) the place is jumping with energetic libertarian nuts, I realize that so much of one’s scientific life has to be occupied in sterile debate.

h/t Yann Giraud (and Doug Henwood for forwarding this post to me)

 

Fear, American Style: What the Anarchist and Libertarian Don’t Understand about the US

25 Oct

Two Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean—representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left—and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.

Lennard is a freelance writer who’s been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times‘s attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard’s reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat.  Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that “we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting.”

Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: “This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage.”

This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has fired reporters for their political activities, even when there’s no hint of evidence that those activities have led to biased or skewed coverage. Even so, it’s worrisome, and ought to be protested and resisted.

Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in American history that— in my first book Fear: The History of a Political IdeaI call “Fear, American Style.” While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression—coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like)—the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state.  More specifically, in the workplace.

Think about McCarthyism. We all remember the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Less than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs?  One to two out of every five. And while we don’t have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand.

There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not.  The Bill of Rights, as any union organizer will tell you, does not apply to the workplace.  The federal government can’t convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper—like any private employer in a non-union workplace—can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.

On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.

It was also true in the 19th century. Tocqueville noticed it while he was traveling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

After the Civil War, black Americans in the South became active political agents, mobilizing and agitating for education, political power, economic opportunity, and more. From the very beginning, they were attacked by white supremacists and unreconstructed former slaveholders. Often with the most terrible means of violence. But as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, one of the most effective means of suppressing black citizens was through the workplace.

The decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being ‘safe and sane,’ and their careers were closely scrutinized and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields–and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

Update (1:45 pm)

Just got off the phone with my wife, who reminded me of this amazing quote from Leslie Gelb. Gelb, who was once the epitome of what used to be called the Establishment (Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times; former State and Defense Department official; former president of the Council on Foreign Relations), supported the Iraq War. Later, after the disaster of that war became plain, he explained why he  had initially lent his name to the cause:

My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common—often wrong—wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.

“To retain political and professional credibility.” We have another word for that: careerism.

I’ve long wanted—and still plan—to write my magnum opus Careerism: Prolegomena to a Political Theory. But since retirement is still a ways away, let me just say this for now. The official reason Lennard is getting canned—or whatever it is; it’s still unclear—from the Times is that the  her political activities could lend her reporting an air of impropriety or bias. In the words of a Times spokeswoman:

All our journalists, staff or freelance, are expected to adhere to our ethical rules and journalistic standards and to avoid doing anything that could call into question the impartiality of their work for the Times.

Yet what Gelb’s quote suggests—a while back I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books that went into this in some greater depth, with more evidence from the Iraq War—is that the real bias one sees in mainstream reporting doesn’t come from one’s involvement in outside political activities. It comes from the desire to do one’s job in accordance with the strictures of one’s supervisors and peers, for fear that should you break ranks, you’ll be fired or somehow blackballed from the profession. Most of the time, that internal policeman will keep you in line. But should he fall asleep on the job, the company’s real police will there to toss you out on your ass. Again, Fear, American Style: the state, bound by the First Amendment, does nothing; editors do the job instead.
Update (October 28, 6:30 pm)
Nearly 10 years ago to the day, there was a Dilbert cartoon that pretty much said it all (h/t John Quiggin).

Baubles, Bangles, and Tweets: Reactions to The Reactionary Mind

1 Oct

 

On Thursday, September 29, The Reactionary Mind was officially launched.  Because of Rosh Hashanah—Shanah Tovah to all of you!—I haven’t been able to keep up with the whirlwind of commentary and activity around the book.  With time, I hope to have lengthier, more substantive responses to the thought-provoking reactions I’ve read.  But in the meantime, I just wanted to give you all a quick roundup and a reminder.

First, the reminder: I’m doing a public conversation with Chris Hayes over at the CUNY Graduate Center on Thursday, October 6, at 7 pm.  Details here. Come early; seating may be tight.

Onto the reactions.

Interviews

Salon interviewed me about the book and contemporary conservatism more generally. Salt Lake City’s NPR station did an interview with me. Doug Henwood interviewed me for his show, which airs on KPFA in Berkeley.  This week,  I’m going to be interviewed for the C-SPAN Book TV show After Words; once I get a link, I’ll post it.

Blogs

Thanks to that guest post I did over at Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb, which you might have read here on the blog, the book has gotten the attention of some heavy-hitters in the blogosphere, with combined readerships of, well, a lot of people.

Andrew Sullivan, whose writings have served as an immensely useful provocation to me throughout the decade, offered a thoughtful response.

Digby’s forensic analyses of the Democrats and the Republicans have been keeping me sane for the last half-decade or so.  She also responded, twice, with some very nice shout-outs for the book.

Everyone’s saying that Robin’s new book on this very subject, The Reactionary Mind is awesome.

We’ve been mulling this over for some time and I still don’t have adequate answer to the problem. But I think I might be edging toward some insight in reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. I’ll keep you posted.

You should also check out the comments on both of Digby’s posts and on the guest post I did for Mike as well.

James Kwak also offered some reflections on the book. His post then got picked up by Truthout, guaranteeing an even wider audience of readers.

Elias Isquith did yet another post on the book, the fourth of a series of fascinating posts in which Isquith takes up a particular theme of the book and applies it to some contemporary issue, whether it be the death penalty or the GOP’s obsession with cunnilingus (I’m not kidding). I’ve really enjoyed watching him work his way through the book, and seeing what he does with it.  I think you will too.

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott Lemieux used The Reactionary Mind to launch a lengthy discussion of David Brooks and college sports.  Some of you know how I feel about sports, of any kind, but I’ll take the props however I can get ‘em.

Tweets

But by far, my favorite piece of news:  Don’t know if you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they’ve slowly begun to capture the imagination of America and the world. Apparently, they have a library down there.  Charles Petersen, who copy edited the book, tweeted over the holiday that “@CoreyRobin ‘The Reactionary Mind’ at the #occupywallstreet library.” Caleb Crain, who writes lovely essays for the New Yorker, tweeted “Also spotted in the @occupywallst library: John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, @CoreyRobin.”  Couldn’t ask to be in better company. And here’s the photodocumentary evidence:

The Reactionary Mind at Occupy Wall Street

Speaking of tweets, I did catch this one, from the formidable Brad DeLong, just before the holiday: “Finished reading The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin.” Would love to hear what he thinks…

Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left

1 Aug

This morning, my Facebook page exploded. It all started when I posted this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald about Obama and the debt-ceiling deal. Greenwald says that those who think Obama is weak and lacks backbone, or that he got suckered by the Republicans or is somehow being held hostage, are full of shit.  With a few exceptions, Obama got what he wanted.

Greenwald has a lot of evidence to back up his claims, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. So I put the question to my FB friends.  Is Obama politically inept or does he want these massive cuts? And if he wants them, is it because of political calculation? Is he a true believer in neoliberal economics? A hostage of Wall Street?

 To my surprise, lots of people weighed in, many of them leading voices and scholars on the left: Katha Pollitt, Adolph Reed, Josh Cohen, Tom Sugrue, Rick Perlstein, and more. With their permission, I’ve reprinted the discussion, almost verbatim (I had to leave out a few comments from people who didn’t get back to me, and I edited some comments for context and flow).

Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.

What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.

So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?

The “he’s weak” line mystifies me

Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.

Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?

Rick Perlstein‎: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.

Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining.  Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.

Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital…that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.

Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.

Corey: Katha, what do you make of all the evidence Greenwald amasses, arguing to the contrary? Genuine question, as ordinarily I tend to be more in your camp; I just can’t square that with the evidence Greenwald has and some of the stuff Doug and others have been saying.

Doug: The “he’s weak” line mystifies me. Why should we see a guy who had a near-overnight rise, blessed by the Dem establishment, be assumed to be lacking in political skills and understanding? He said all along he wanted entitlement reform and budget balance. The mix may not be what he wanted, but he had plenty of rhetorical, legal, and political possibilities to change the discourse and he didn’t. Occam says he didn’t want to.

Jodi Dean: I’m not sure moderate right fits someone to the right of Nixon and Reagan. I don’t think he is a playing an electoral pollitics game. He seems to think of government in the service of markets, where markets mean primarily financial markets (but also insurance markets and others). So, my basic read is: never the progressive or moderate Democrat that progressives and moderate Democrats wanted or fantasized him to be; always the state as an instrument of the ruling class. But what gets me: his last debt ceiling speech went on about shared responsibility when that was not at all what he was going to do or what he actually wanted. Differently put, I sign on to the “not weak just a bad guy capitalist” interpretation. Yet this is rooted in taking him at his word (and not thinking that he deceives or is manipulated). So the glitch is why he would present his preferred solution/plan as other than what it was. Maybe the only difference now between Tea Party crazy and mainstream conservative (Obama) is the willingness to embrace the becoming-Mad-Max-future-of​-the US v. lip service to the fragile veneer of governance/sociality still holding something like everyday life together.

Doug: Jodi, I suspect that in an ideal world he’d like to see modest upper-bracket tax increases and somewhat less dramatic spending cuts, but didn’t want to go to the mat for them. Plus, he needs Wall Street money for a billion-dollar re-election campaign.

Doug: Jay, “If he were in the thrall of capital”? In who else’s thrall is he?

Jodi: Doug–so your version of “not weak” still includes the fact that even if strong he has to make some compromises; that makes sense to me (so, it answers my question about the speech).

Katha: You know, none of us know what is in his head. However, he did say, as recently as last monday, that he wanted tax hikes on the wealthy. He wanted the Bush tax cuts to expire, which is not in the current deal. I don’t exactly disagree with Doug — clearly, he is Wall St’s man –but I think a more skillful politician, one less in love with being above the fray, could have handled this a lot better and gotten more on the other side. I mean, asking people to call their congressperson? Pathetic.

He’s a One-Trick Pony

Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us.

Corey: Jodi, moderate right is a term relative to the political spectrum. It doesn’t make sense to say Nixon was to the left of Obama without some reference to the political circumstances. Nixon was constrained by a still vibrant New Deal regime; Reagan came into destroy it, and did so somewhat successfully, but he was still encumbered by it. Obama operates in a different political world. As for taking him at his word, he’s said a lot of words. Sometimes he’s quite explicitly signaled a desire to break with the Reaganite consensus; not just in the campaign but early on in his presidency. So the words are murky.

Doug: Adolph, I mostly agree with you, but he is standing up for the freedom and power of capital. That’s not unprincipled, though it’s not our principle, nor that of many of the febrile sorts who promoted him back in 2008.

Corey: Adolph, I find that persuasive. That supports the notion that he is both a political performance artist, in which the main ideology is one of reasonableness without any content whatsoever, and he’s kind of like the 19th century progressives Jay talked about above.

Doug: Jodi, sure. He had to get something through a divided Congress. But there were arrows in his quiver he chose to leave there.

Corey: Doug, Adolph: Your last two comments to each other really do mark a genuine question I have. I tend to think people like Obama really don’t believe the bullshit they preach; what they do believe is that moderation is the mark of maturity and that Wall Street types are smarter than the rest of us. But that is a fairly apolitical reading of them, which doesn’t look at the real and substantive impact neoliberal ideology has had on such folks. I toggle back and forth between those two views. Obama reminds me so much of people I went to college with, who just hitched themselves to a cart that told them this is where success was, and that intelligence is demonstrated by breaking with the crazy left. After a while maybe they start believing their own bullshit, but I can’t help thinking that if careerism is your motivation, you’ll basically go with wherever you think the career incentives will take you. Of course, all this gets into the kind of armchair psychologizing that is totally besides the point. But I do wonder how these ideological formations happen.

Adolph: Note that his posture toward health care, economic policy, the budget crisis, etc has been to sit back and position himself to work the Grand Compromise. (Note as well his bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation; James Oakes has pointed out that Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.) Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment. I imagine he feels, if he even looks that far, that that aptitude will re-elect him in 2012. At that level, who knows what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything beyond the moment and having another piece of paper showing that he’s gotten something done. I take Doug’s “I told you so” point to heart (not like he and I haven’t talked about it for a while anyway). All I’d add is that it’s intriguing from the standpoint of ideology-critique and more than exasperating from the standpoint of concern with building a serious left to see how many people who should have known better got swept up in the utterly, transparently bullshit hype about Obama either sanitizing their pasts or tying themselves into more and more convoluted knots trying to rationalize what should have been obvious about him from the very beginning.

Doug: Corey, the personal angle with O, I think, is the fact that he was nurtured from an early age by elites – fancy universities and foundations and then the Dem leadership. He’s in awe of them, and grateful for all they did. Cf. FDR, who emerged from the elite and had the confidence to challenge them. That, plus the times are different. But that’s how I see the personalities meshing with history. I also wouldn’t go too far with the contentlessness of his reasonableness: it’s always about loyal service to power. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s extremely useful to the bourgeoisie to have a mixed race, cerebral Democrat imposing the austerity program. I’m reminded of Dinkins telling Wall Street skeptics, who thought he didn’t have the balls to impose austerity after the 80s went poof, back during his first campaign: “They’ll take it from me.”

Corey: Doug, did you ever see David Bromwich’s piece (maybe in the LRB or on Huffington Post) about Obama’s infatuation with elites and his comparison with FDR? Very interesting. Though again too much focus on character, for my tastes, not on politics.

Doug: No, Corey, didn’t see that Bromwich piece. The “politics” of it all seem crystal clear to me. What’s going to be interesting, in a sick voyeuristic car wreck kind of way, is watching the pwogwessives rationalize this and get ready for 2012.

Adolph: Doug, of course you’re right about his standing up for the freedom and power of capital. I intended to mention that not only does he believe that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us; they’ve also bankrolled him up to his eye teeth in 2008 and now. They started getting behind him about 20 minutes after he was elected to the US Senate. And, if lefties of a sort didn’t have such a ridiculous soft spot for the black guy of the moment, more people might have noticed that that element and maudlin Fulfillment of the Dream fantasies — Pritzker, the Daley crowd — was always where his effective political base was, from the beginning of his political career or that he had never weighed in on any live conflict bearing on inequality, ever, except, of course, in that abstract, Kang and Kodos cum overblown eloquence style of his. He’s a vacant tool, but he’s capital’s vacant tool, not ours, and he never has been. All the crap about his “better angels” that the Nation crowd and others persist with is either the equivalent of not wanting to admit having been wrong in their idiotic slurping in the first place or pathetic clinging to the baseless hope that he’ll listen or toss a face-saving bone. Hell, he told you during his campaign that he wasn’t a progressive and that his skill is in making people believe that he’s with them.

Corey: By the way, it looks as if Social Security is off the table in terms of the trigger mechansm. As is Medicaid. Medicare, though, is not.

Doug: He’s not unlike Jerry Brown – a fundamentally conservative guy who can convince pwoggies that he’s one of them. As J.D. Lorenz, the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance who spent a few months working for Jerry and wrote a fine book about him, his strategy was to create “an ambiance of possibility that gave the viewer space: space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry….” They both come off as thoughtful and cerebral, more reflective than your standard issue pol. This is what gives the pwog audience space to project fantasies: he must be one of us!

Doug: They’ll play COLA games with SS, won’t they?

Adolph: Corey, apropos of your comment that BHO reminds you of people you went to school with. I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to the POCs; Arne Duncan and others proceed on the same basis. But take a look at Yalie Jonah Edelman, spawn of Peter and Marian Wright, boasting alongside Crown family scion and financier James Schine Crown at the Aspen Institute about how his ed reform non-profit (also funded by investment bankers, hedge fund operators, Walton Family Foundation, etc) went after Illinois teachers’ unions: http://j.mp/oytHI7 See 6ff, and esp. 8ff.)

Doug: Marx: “The better able a ruling class is to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, the more solid and dangerous its rule.” By that measure the American ruling class is doing just fine.

Corey: Funny, Doug, that’s 1/4 of my theory of counterrevolution right there; had totally forgotten about that quote from Marx, which must be where I got it from. Love that pairing of solid and dangerous, which are ordinarily not words we associate together.

Corey: Yeah, Adolph, I know exactly what you mean. But as you know and say, it’s a phenomenon that totally transcends race. Except for that part about telling themselves that they embody the victory of the civil rights movement. Though I’ve seen a version of this among Jews and other sorts whose grandparents were one step removed from the farm or shtetl or whatever: that their arrival constitutes another step in the long march of justice.

Doug: My god, I missed this a couple of weeks ago: http://www.time.com/time/n​ation/article/0,8599,20829​71-2,00.html. So this has all been scripted for weeks? And Obama rejected Boehner’s $2.4 trillion – to get $4 trillion?These dollar amounts are big, but the discretionary caps amount to 0.4% of GDP over the next 10 years, and what the magic commish is supposed to come up with is another 0.6% of GDP. Maybe this isn’t quite as awful as it looks, though it’s awful. Of course it could always get worse, and they haven’t started the COLA game yet.

Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial.I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)

Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.

Joshua Cohen: ‎1. I think BHO’s political views are in the neighborhood of Cass Sunstein’s: pretty centrist, with different leans on different issues. But much less conventionally left than some supporters painted him as being. Part of the reason for the painting was the poetic rhetoric, but that rhetoric (hope….change….etc etc) was always VERY VERY abstract, not tied to policy.

2. BHO has shown a willingness to be reasonable with the unreasonable: which is an invitation to being exploited by the unreasonable. People smell weakness: and they treat a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, esp. when you compromise right out of the box. That is who BHO is: he does not have a back-up political style.

3. I also think that critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)

4. Huge factor in contemporary politics is extraordinary disarray of mass politics on the left. Unions at 6%, no peace movement, and no jobs movement of any consistent and public visibility. It is much easier to talk about Obama than to talk about this HUGELY important fact.

5. Given point (2) above, and despite (4): I think BHO has not done as well as he might have at, in particular, keeping a focus on jobs.

So I kind of agree with Tom Sugrue….esp. on the Roosevelt point.

Joe Lowndes: I’m with Adolph here. I would add though that nevertheless, Obama continually craves – or rather demands – progressive credentials. Beyond mere triangulation, it’s as if he understands his signal accomplishment to be the translation of progressive desires into neoliberal politics, and he thus can’t understand why we don’t see the flawless logic of his having done so. It’s the Obama of the Iowa victory saying, “They said this day would never come” that is necessary to make his conservative commitments meaningful. In foreign policy it is his supposed unique ability to empathize with Muslims oppressed that rationalizes militarism. In education he just wants better for failing students in the poor communities he knew as an organizer. He is visibly petulant towards LGBT activists who can’t seem to see that he has been their best ally since he was in the State Senate. On and on.

Neolib, Neocon, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Thad: Why is he a neoliberal and not a neoconservative? I really so no daylight between his and both Kristols’ politics.

Joe: You’re right, Thad. I was thinking of economic policy when using that exhausted term. He is a total neocon in both foreign and domestic politics.

Corey: Actually, Obama is far more enthralled with capitalism than Kristol Senior was. Remember Kristol could only offer two cheers for capitalism; Obama would more than happily offer three.

Thad: Corey, are you referring to Kristol Sr.’s dislike of the hedonism and cultural chaos produced by capitalism?

Corey: Its deleterious effects on the martial spirit; the fact that it is a completely ignoble way to organize public life (his words, not mine); that anyone who would privilege money over other values like glory is an ant. Kristol was never that concerned with cultural chaos, if by that you mean immoral or libidinous values.

Thad:  We basically agree on Irving K. But hasn’t BHO always been a powerful proponent of the martial spirit and critic of the “ignoble” products of capitalism? Remember his argument for a national service? He and McCain agreed that America should always look like it did on 9/12. And during the campaign he went out of his way to attack black men who watch ESPN, kids who wear baggy jeans, and all of us who “engage in childish things, who are more concerned about what they want than what’s good for other people.” And how many times has he referred to the military as representing the “best” and “highest” of who we are.

Corey: That’s what makes the neocon position that much more interesting and ultimately frightening. I could be wrong — haven’t studied BHO to the extent I have Kristol — but my sense is that Obama doesn’t attribute these cultural things he complains about to any notion of capitalism. Kristol did. And while that didn’t lead Kristol to call for capitalism’s overhaul or anything like that, he did see an antidote to it in militarism. Obama doesn’t endorse militarism in the same way.

Thad: I think it’s only a difference in emphasis. But Obama — like his heroes TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK — has essentially the same love of a regimented social order as Kristol. Check this out: http://articles.cnn.com/20 ​08-09-12/politics/candidat​es.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar​ ack-obama-common-ground-sa​rah-palin?_s=PM%3APOLITICS

Thad: Put it this way: I am sure that if Kristol’s argument were presented to Obama, he would agree with it. No?

Corey: Kristol didn’t like a regimented social order. He liked a warrior social order. There’s a big difference. It’s not the authoritarianism of the military; it’s the extravagant glory, the blood-curdling, artistically executed violence, the way it delivers us from the tedium and ennui of a market society — so, no, I don’t think Obama would agree with that. Certainly not in public, and I suspect not even in private. As Josh said above, Obama has a Cass Sunstein view of the world; that’s different from a Carl Schmitt view of the world. At least in some respects.

Thad: I think you’re splitting hairs here, Corey. One of Kristol’s big causes — now enacted in Obama’s ramped-up version of No Child Left Behind — was the establishment of a hegemonic, unified, national culture. No better model for that than the 82nd Airborne, which is one reason the great liberals have always loved the military and the draft. Speaking of which: http://www.nytimes.com/201​1/06/16/opinion/16kristof.​html

Alex Gourevitch: Josh, I think point 4, ‘the disarray of mass politics’ begins pointing this thread in a wider, and possibly more important direction. We can debate Obama’s ‘real’ politics all we want – FWIW I basically agree with Adolph/Doug/and Co. But Obama did not end up here alone. The Democratic Party has been decidedly weak during this whole affair. Moreover, especially under New Democrat leadership, it has spent the last decades setting the table for a budget debate in which deficit spending is seen as irresponsible, in which the argument for progressive taxation has severely waned, and in which the state is seen as having a much more limited role – basically correcting market failures. I think we fool ourselves if we think the major problems here are just a) right-wing Tea Party populists with an ideological backbone and b) an opportunistic President who is happy to be the respectable patsy of certain class fractions. It is also a so-called left wing party that has been itself the party of austerity for at least twenty years. They created the environment in which massive spending cuts when on the verge of a double-dip recession can seem like a reasonable thing to do. And we’re talking here just about the Democratic Party, never mind the other elements that go into the ‘disarray of mass politics.’

Lisa Garcia Bedolla: I can’t really say it better than Robert Reich did in his Berkeley blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/​2011/08/01/ransom-paid/. It continues the fallacy that our individual desires (esp. if we’re wealthy) should trump the public good. The Dems have not been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate an alternative vision. They just jumped on the GOP bandwagon (I blame more than just Obama).

Shane Taylor: Others have ably commented on the Obama’s chronic underestimation of Republican intransigence, his pursuit of compromise for the sake of compromise, and his desire for “entitlement” reform (the White House affirmed their commitment to this cause to David Brooks back in March of 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/opinion/06brooks.html. I, too, see those as features of this administration. However, there was something different about this episode. I suspect that Obama has an inflated sense of his talent for eleven-dimensional chess, but in this round, the president lost control. Last week the president was pleading with the public to plead with Congress to make it stop. Twice. Something seemed to have gone horribly wrong, and I think John Kay made the appropriate analogy: it was like a dollar bill auction. As Yves Smith said, there was a toxic “bidding” dynamic. http://agonisticliberal.com/2011/07/30/lost-in-the-strategery/

Update (August 2, 12 pm)

This debate has been pinging around the various spheres of the internet.  It’s been sent into the strato/twittersphere by Glenn Greenwald, Joan Walsh, Jeff Sharlet, Mike Konczal, and others, who’ve tweeted it to their, between them, 100,000 some-odd followers.  It’s been picked up by Digby. It’s brought more traffic to this site than anything I’ve posted.

Two pieces came out this morning that I want to give special mention to.  First, this blog post by Alex Gourevitch, amplifying his comment above, is among the smartest I’ve seen and pushes us in a genuinely new direction—away from the individual focus on Obama to larger questions about party formation and comparative political economy. Don’t miss it.

Second, this piece by Matt Taibbi, well, need I say more? As always, Taibbi says and sees things more clearly than the rest of us. Again, not to be missed.

Update (12:45 pm)

More voices have joined in, which I wanted to include. First, this from Anne Norton, who participated in yesterday’s FB discussion but whose comment I wasn’t able to include in the original blog post.

Anne Norton: Adolph’s characterization of Obama’s commitment to performing the reasonable, judicious statesmen is directly connected to his progressivism: both in the endorsement of a particular ostensibly passionless elite expertise and in the priority of process over results. To my mind this shows the ease with which progressivism moves into the service of capital, especially finance capital, which also understands itself as the realm of passionless elite expertise. Our analyses are too cold as well. What is lost in this are the basics: equality, democracy, hunger and profit. I confess it: I expected better.

Then this FB message from Dorian Warren.

Dorian Warren: Hey Corey. I was in a meeting all day yesterday so couldn’t weigh in on the debate on your FB page. How excellent and exciting!! Although I’m a bit glad I didn’t; I can only take so much psychologizing about what BHO thinks and who the “true” BHO really is, especially devoid of context, history and constraints. Obama wasn’t the sole player in the debt debacle. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze his strategy, ideology, etc. But we pour so much energy into a) assessing his true inner state, again and again and again, and b) never get to the implications of those kinds of narrow analyses. Okay, so now what? Primary challenge him? Any “Democrat” president that wins would do the same, white or black, male or female. At least that’s my prediction. I think Josh Cohen and Alex G. were pointing the conversation towards a more constructive direction that’s more comprehensive in an analysis of the current moment, of political and party structures, of large ideological shifts, etc.

I just came back from a union conference in England over the weekend where most of the Europeans I spoke with spoke not of Obama in personality terms but rather of the fact that the “US”, structurally, is about redistribution to the top from the bottom, and that the country has been this way for 30 years. Quite a different starting place relative to us, which is surprising…

And then this email from Rogers Smith.

Rogers Smith: I confess to being too dispirited about current affairs to join in the lively exchange yesterday; but do want to acknowledge that Adolph’s take is looking pretty good at the moment.  On the two questions of political style and substance, I think it has been and is debatable whether Obama’s compromise/community organizer style is better suited to getting something done in the current context than all-out left advocacy: that advocacy is needed to push compromisers, but you also need to win some elections.  On substance, I’ve seen Obama as seeking somehow to satisfy both his belief in Wall Street economics and his identification with black church social justice goals–and hoped the results would be compromises that moved at least some meaningful degree in more egalitarian directions.  Adolph has consistently attacked that kind of view as naive, and at this point it’s hard to argue.  I’m sure Obama is telling himself he’s positioned now to accomplish more in the future, and I’d like to see it, but I’m not predicting it will happen.

Which prompted this further email exchange between Rogers and Anne.

Anne: What troubles me most about Obama is that the unfolding of Obama’s presidency seems to knit together aspects of his policies and persona that point in a less democratic and egalitarian direction.  He seems consistently committed to elite governance -worse, to an elite governance of people drawn from the unelected and irresponsible ranks of finance.  He seems consistently committed to a big state.  I’ve always had suspicions of a big state, but I make allowances for those followers of the big state who see it as providing for the poor, the ill and the common good. I can make common cause with that, in the present circumstances.  This is a big state making war and preserving its credit rating -or not. Obama’s apparent acceptance of the idea that “the economy” is measured by the welfare of the stock market; his failure to insist on measures drawn from the well-being of the people gives the lie to the idea of fundamental change.  His consistent preoccupation with producing elite consensus while remaining indifferent to the popular judgment of that consensus suggests to me that he is not at bottom a democrat, but a Progressive of the old managerial school.

Rogers: Mixes of democratic egalitarianism with managerial elitism are of course characteristic of much Progressive pragmatist thought, which is very much Obama’s thought.  And though today’s American left builds on much in the more left Progressives, most Progressives did prove themselves more managerial elitist than democratic.  So Obama can rightly be seen as a new chapter in an old story–but I’m not sure the contemporary progressive left knows how to build a politics that avoids that (nor do I).  Which is particularly dispiriting.

Update (7:30 pm)

This forum is getting more and more traction. In addition to the folks mentioned above, it’s now been tweeted by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou. Between all the various folks who’ve tweeted it, I think this forum has been brought to anywhere from 150,000 175,000 of the Twitterati.

Our old friend Matt Yglesias has now weighed in.  He takes issue with a comment by Thad Russell above—actually, he says he “kind of choked” over it—but then takes his disagreement in an interesting direction. The argument he makes is actually not that different from Chomsky’s.

We made the “Roundup” post at Firedoglake.

And from what I hear, this post is all over Facebook, generating discussion, getting thumbs-upped (and I’m sure thumbs-downed), and more.

Lastly, Dorian Warren, who was featured in one of our previous updates, writes in again with some further thoughts.

Dorian Warren: Another thought after reading the updates: I think the problem with this conversation is that it’s too high up in the air. All of us are discussing Obama and the “big” policy deals/outcomes from 30,000 feet up. Okay, true, in every case there was capitulation and non-progressive results which now show somehow who the “true” Obama is. Fine, I agree with that as far as it goes, which frankly isn’t far. I think if we were to look a bit more closely and in detail, we’d find empirically that the Administration as a whole is best described as a set of contradictions. Let’s not forget the power of Administrative politics, even though it’s not as sexy as the hot policy issues of health care, financial reform, or stimulus or debt ceiling. But from where I sit, the Dept. of Labor, the NLRB, the NMB have all been doing rulemaking and enforcement as progressively as they possibly can under the circumstances. We can’t simply lump their work into one box of “Obama sellout/neoliberal/neocon”. Why is the FAA reauthorization being held up now? Because the GOP is furious the NMB changed the rule to make it easier for transportation workers to organize last year. Why is there such outrage over the NLRB’s Boeing complaint? Because the Chamber of Commerce is furious the NLRB is enforcing the all-too-weak labor law, and are fearful the pro-labor board will change the rules to favor unions. The DOL is doing incredible wage enforcement work not seen even under Clinton. On the other hand, other agencies have clearly been captured by Wall Street: SEC, Commerce, Treasury, etc. And obviously I’d be the first to criticize BHO for never going to bat for labor law reform, even though he gladly took labor’s money and ground game. But then how do we square the difference between the SEC and the NLRB? Rogers argued that Obama’s political ideology & governing style (characteristic of Progressive thought) is both democratic egalitarianism mixed with managerial elitism. I think that comes close to capturing the Administration’s policy failures *as well* as some of the progressive political outcomes on the non-sexy but arguably very important Administrative politics side.

Update (August 3, 9:30 am)

Our friend Gordon Lafer was late to this discussion, but as always with Gordon, it was worth the wait.

Gordon Lafer: I am, of course, in the Adolph Reed camp. I think he’s neoliberal in his heart, but most of all that he doesn’t have a heart besides the desire to be elected. He clearly wants to move 70% of the way to the right on the political spectrum (and that point keeps getting further right as the Koch bros, Ari Fleischer et al (I think it’s impt not to call them “the Tea Party” since there is no such thing, while there are real actors at work here) keep pushing the envelope rightward), in order to leave the R’s no room but the fringe right, and get reelected handily. He doesn’t care how far right that strategy takes him, and it’s the only strategy he has, and that’s the only thing he really gives a shit about. Which gives the total lie to the idea of his being the adult in the room. There’s nothing at all adult about his behavior – weak or strong, this is not about getting the best deal possible for the country under difficult circumstances. It’s just about getting himself reelected, even if it means obviously fucking the country in ways that could have been avoided.

This is one of the moments where it pays to ask “what would W (or a left version of W) have done?” and I think the answer is: he would have announced months ago that he would absolutely veto anything that doesn’t include termination of the tax cuts for over $250k, show absolutely no sign of entertaining any compromise on that. Then as the deadline got closer he would have announced that, if the Congress doesn’t give him a bill that includes making the rich pay his fair share, he will have to invoke the 14th amendment and unilaterally raise (or really, just ignore) the debt ceiling in order to pay the country’s bills. He’d then do it, daring the Rs to take him to court in what would easily be portrayed as a legal effort to destroy the country’s credit rating. The fact that it was Obama himself who took the 14th amendment option off the table, saying his lawyers told him it wasn’t a strong option, as he also was first to put Social Security on the table – shows his priority, which is not actually wanting to solve the country’s debt problem in the best way while protecting citizens and economic growth, but rather to get himself reelected, which he and his advisors believe requires moving right and having a vote that Rs and Ds supported rather than being saddled with raising the debt ceiling on his own. Nothing adult about that.

I also think there’s no chance he really believes this is the road to economic health. I was in briefings by all kinds of mainstream economists who said what Summers too (no friend of the left) said — the deficit is a long term problem that should be addressed in 2013 or 2014; right now what you need to do is MORE deficit spending in order to create consumer demand to spur economic growth. He must have had all those same briefings. This isn’t a principled economic position.

One final thing I’d add is that the other option, other than going as he’s been going on this and everything else, is a big bold option. He already thinks his reelect will cost $1 billion. And that’s with doing the free trade treaties, extending the Bush tax cuts, etc. If he moves more to the left, that cost goes up and the question of where it comes from gets more difficult. You saw this with Dodd-Frank when there started being stories about Wall St bundlers being hesitant about obama – then they made up with Wall St. So the only real option, is to go so dramatically to the left that you generate some kind of mass response that counterbalances the fact that you’re going to drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the opposition. I think that’s do-able, and certainly that it’s the only strategy worth doing, but it’s an all-in strategy, a high risk strategy. And the people in this WH are not risk takers. They’re sneak-through-ers.

Update (11:30 am)

We made it into the Wall Street Journal.

Update (12:30 pm)

The estimable Christian Parenti, whose new book on the politics of climate change is must reading, emailed me this late last night:

Christian Parenti:  Better late than never…. I agree with Doug and Adolph, if I read them correctly….

Pretty is as pretty does.

 Obama is a neo-liberal but his method of arrival at that position is not ideological true belief. Rather it is by way of his endless performance of political sobriety, maturity and “reasonableness.” It is all tactics and no strategy; form and not content.  Were this a socialist dictatorship or a theocracy, he would still be a brilliantly capable, charismatic, highly effective, totally reasonable, cipher  of a completely different ideological stripe. Or to put it another way: Obama is like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Or he is like CLR James’ reading of Ishmael as delivered in “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.” He is a dangerously alienated intellectual, smart and eloquent enough to see how it all works, all the while narrating as if on the outside, seemingly protected from it all by his “critique.” Yet he is so disconnected from the masses that he goes along with Ahab’s totalitarian madness, doing his job without ever endorsing the insanity, yet helping the apocalyptic hunt and the mutual destruction of whale and ship come to fruition.

In other words, he is about having it both ways, always. And it will end in a shipwreck.

 Update (2:15 pm)

Playing off Obama’s reference to himself and his cohort as “the Joshua generation,” Christian (see last update) adds:

 Obama has inspired the invention of a game I like to call “The Old Testament Meets Obama via the New York Times.”

 Exhibit A

And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and fought against it:  and he took it, and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein ; he left none remaining… “while seeking to position himself as a proven voice of reason in an era of ideological overreach.”

Update (August 5, 12:30 am)

The History News Network (HNN) is now plugging this discussion as “a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics.”  HNN further comments that “it does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.”

Doug Henwood: His Taste in Music is a Little Doctrinaire, but His Economics is Outta Sight

16 Jul

Doug HenwoodThose of you following this discussion between me, Matt Yglesias, and Mike Konczal, need to check out this post from Doug Henwood. It not only cuts through a lot of the fat, but it also takes us in a completely different, unexpected, and difficult direction, raising fascinating questions about the petit bourgeois origins and dimensions of the politics of inflation.  Doug is my rabbi in all things economic (though, sadly, we part ways on matters musical).  Check it out, comment there, here, everywhere.

To my astonishment, this debate, or a spin-off of this debate, seems to have been kicked upstairs.  Way upstairs.  As in Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong upstairs.

Update (July 18, 12:30 pm)

And now the boys—and, seriously, there are an awful lot of boys in this debate; never realized just how male-dominated these types of discussion are—over at Crooked Timber are getting in on this.  Fascinating discussion over there; check it out.

Update (3:30 pm)

And more debate over here at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Update (4:15 pm)

And here from Will Wilkinson, who seems to think he’s schooling us all with his considered notion that nothing lasts forever and things change, and here from Kevin Drum.  And Yglesias has yet another post.

Other People’s Money

13 Jul

Matt YglesiasIn response to the question “What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?” Matt Yglesias writes, “The best step to create jobs and boost the economy would be for the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee to announce a plan to target inflation at 3 or 4 percent.” In a follow-up post, he’s even more emphatic: “The actual single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation” is “adopt a higher inflation target.”

I’m no economist—the worst grade I got in college was in Econ 101; the professor was a newly hired economist by the name of Ben Bernanke—but I would have thought the single best thing the government could do to create jobs (and boost the economy) is, well, create jobs.  You know, hire people, pay them, that sort of thing.

As my friend Doug Henwood, the economics whiz kid journalist of the left, pointed out to me in a Facebook exchange (reproduced here and here), the multiplier effects of a jobs program are far higher than, say, tax cuts (not something, it should be said, that Yglesias advocates):  1.60 to 1.70 in GDP growth for every dollar spent on a jobs program versus under .40 in GDP growth for every dollar lost in extending the Bush tax cuts. That’s because poor and middle-income people spend the money they have (not a lot of room for savings when your wages are so low to begin with), as opposed to the corporations and wealthy who’ve been squirreling it away of late.

And as my friend Gordon Lafer, one of the leading experts on labor politics in the country, pointed out to me in that same exchange, the House Labor Committee estimated it would cost the government less than $150 billion to create 1 million jobs for 2 years. “By comparison,” he adds, “last December’s extension of the Bush tax cuts just for those making over $250,000 is projected to cost $700 billion over 10 years.”

The government hiring people, in other words, is a lot cheaper—and more economically beneficial—than tax cuts or employer tax credits or the stimulus bill.

But if the idea of the government creating jobs seems too retro or radical, how about if the government just stopped firing people? Based on his work with the Labor Committee, Gordon estimates that the government—federal, state, and local—has shed anywhere from 1.5 million to 2 million employees in the last five years (that includes government-funded non-profits doing vital service-sector work like drug rehabilitation, soup kitchens, and so on).  And as the recent jobs report demonstrates, letting government workers go is a major reason for the latest jump in unemployment, a point Yglesias himself has made here and here.

Instead of the government creating or not cutting jobs, Yglesias proposes it increase inflation.  He offers three reasons for his position:

Higher inflation expectations would have a number of benefits. For starters, they would reduce real interest rates, mitigating the problem of the zero lower bound on nominal rates. They would also increase the cost of hoarding cash. This would encourage wealthy individuals and cash-rich firms to purchase real goods and services, or else invest in productive assets. Last, since mortgage debt is denominated in nominal terms, a faster rate of inflation would speed the deleveraging process and let households repair their balance sheet.

The first reason seems to assume the problem is that there is insufficient money out there for employers to hire people or purchase goods and services. Make it cheaper to borrow money, and employers will do so. But isn’t that what the Fed has been doing for a while now? The result, as Doug points out, is corporations (and financial markets) awash in cash, without much movement on employment.

Also, the fact that Yglesias (like so many others) is trying to figure out how to overcome a nominal interest rate that is nearing zero should tell us something about the utility of lowering interest rates in today’s economy.  Seems like a classic, almost literal, case of “keep digging” when you’re in a hole.

As for the second reason, as I asked Doug and he confirmed, if hoarding cash becomes too expensive because of inflation, capital has plenty of other options, including taking its toys elsewhere, to keep its money safe.

What both of these reasons have in common is that instead of putting money into the hands of people who not only need it but would spend it, thereby stimulating demand and more jobs, they keep (or put more) money into the hands of people who already have it and don’t need to spend it in economically beneficial ways. Presumably because they are, in Yglesias’ eyes, the real movers and shakers of the economy, as opposed to the vast majority of middle- and working-class people or the government that represents them.

In a follow-up post, Yglesias says, “America would produce more real goods and services if people were spending more money, and people would spend more money if there was more money around to spend.” To my mind, that sounds like government should hire workers, wages should be increased, etc.  But as Yglesias proceeds to gloss his own comment, it becomes clear that the money being spread around is not going to go into the hands of working people (at least not directly).  Instead, channeling Ryan Avent, Yglesias suggests that the Fed should buy more Treasury bonds—something, Doug points out, the Fed has done twice since in recent years (since 2007, money in circulation has gone up by $1,350 billion), without much effect—and lower interest rates on the cash reserves of banks, thereby prodding them to lend more money.  Share and spread the wealth, in other words, among the wealthy.

If you wanted a purer distillation of the Reaganite temper of our times, you’d be hard pressed to find it in any other notion than this: get more money into the hands of people with money, for they are the truly productive agents in our society, rather than into the hands of the people who might actually spend more money if they had more money to spend.

Again, I’m no economist, so I don’t want to claim a knowledge or expertise I don’t have. I come to this discussion as a political theorist and historian of political ideas.  And what strikes me, in that capacity, is less the wrongness of these arguments than the historically bounded assumptions they reveal.

Yglesias might think, shrewd and sharp man of policy that he is (and, believe me, he’s sharp; one thing Matt Yglesias does not lack is intelligence), that he’s just following the facts.  But the overwhelming fact I see in his  argument is a refusal to consider or inability to imagine any policy lying beyond the perimeters of contemporary opinion.

It’s not our wages that are sticky; it’s our ideas.

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