Tag Archives: Matt Yglesias

David Brooks Says

18 Dec

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the most recent column of David Brooks.

David Brooks says:

We are in the middle of…a dangerous level of family breakdown.

David Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites. The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids. Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

David Brooks says:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families.

David Brooks says:

It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

David Brooks is getting divorced.

Would It Not Be Easier for Matt Yglesias to Dissolve the Bangladeshi People and Elect Another?

25 Apr

Yesterday, after a building housing garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing almost 200more than 250 workers nearly 350 workers at least 377 workers over 650 workers, Matt Yglesias wrote:

Bangladesh may o r may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum….

Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans….The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.

Today, after Matt Yglesias wrote these words, Agence France-Presse wrote these:

Hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked out of their factories in Bangladesh Thursday, police said, to protest the deaths of 200 people in a building collapse, in the latest tragedy to hit the sector.

Grief turned to anger as the workers, some carrying sticks, blockaded key highways in at least three industrial areas just outside the capital Dhaka, forcing factory owners to declare a day’s holiday.

“There were hundreds of thousands of them,” said Abdul Baten, police chief of Gazipur district, where hundreds of large garment factories are based. “They occupied roads for a while and then dispersed.”

Police inspector Kamrul Islam said the workers had attacked several factories whose bosses had refused to give employees the day off.

Managers had allegedly ignored workers’ warnings that the building had become unstable.

Survivors say the building developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation of the roughly 3,000 garment workers employed there, but that they had been ordered back to production lines.

Would it not be easier for Matt Yglesias to dissolve the Bangladeshi people and elect another?

Update (April 26, 9 am)

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse: “With death toll at 300, Bangladesh factory collapse becomes worst tragedy in garment industry history.” Matt Yglesias: “The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.”

For more information and responses:

  1. Greenhouse’s lengthy reporting in the Times on the fallout of the building collapse.
  2. Dylan Matthews’s informative interview in the Washington Post with an expert on international trade.
  3. Some righteous, hilarious, and info-rich indignation from Mobutu Sese Seko and his crowd.
  4. Scott Lemieux on Yglesias’s Lochner-era reasoning re “choice.”
  5. Justin Doolittle’s further considerations on the collision of theory and evidence.

Getting on Board

1 Oct

Alex Gourevitch is no stranger to this blog. He was one of my co-authors, along with Chris Bertram, on the Crooked Timber post about workplace coercion. He also has a terrific blog of his own, The Current Moment, which I recommend you check out. Here, in this guest post, he does a double-take on Matt Yglesias’ double-take.

• • • • •

Prompted by Gary Shteyngart’s op-ed today chronicling a disastrous American Airlines flight, Matthew Yglesias produced a little nugget explaining that AA’s delays are the product of pilot slowdowns. American—well, its executives—are trying to save their hides by using bankruptcy courts to screw the unions. Pilots are fighting back by zealously following all kinds of obscure rules—what Yglesias dubs “overscrupulous maintenance requests”—that slow down or force flight cancellations, or by refusing to do those extra things that patch otherwise troublesome and expensive problems.

Yglesias observes:

What management is discovering right now is that formal contracts can’t fully specify what it is that “doing your job properly” constitutes for an airline pilot. The smooth operation of an airline requires the active cooperation of skilled pilots who are capable of judging when it does and doesn’t make sense to request new parts and who conduct themselves in the spirit of wanting the airline to succeed. By having the judge throw out the pilots’ contract, the airline has totally lost faith with its pilots and has no ability to run the airline properly.

Yglesias is certainly right about what it means to do a job, and it isn’t just true of skilled airline pilots. All contracts are ambiguous; that’s why these bankruptcy schemes and labor counter-actions happen. Every day at the job involves an effort to create and define that job. As Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and I argued a while back:

The problem with most employment contracts, then, is…they are highly and necessarily indeterminate. As economic and legal theorists regularly tell us, all contracts are incomplete, but inside the workplace they are especially so…The promised performance of any job means that every movement and moment, gesture and statement, of the performer’s day (and increasingly night) is up for grabs. The terms of the contract are inevitably indeterminate—especially in a dynamic economy, where technological innovation means that work routines are revolutionized all the time. Itemizing all these ins and outs in advance would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, to borrow a phrase.

This indeterminacy—plus the fact that employers want to squeeze as much work as they can from workers while paying them the least, and the fact that workers want the opposite—means that there is a constant struggle over terms of employment well after any contract is signed. That, in turn, is why things like unions, strikes, and full employment policies, which strengthen the hand of workers, matter. The workplace is a site of struggle and power, not just expertise and contractual performance.

Yglesias didn’t understand or get our argument the first time around. Nice to see he’s on board now. Better late than never. Delays, after all, are better than cancellations.

Matt Yglesias’s China Syndrome

24 Sep

Commenting on the recent labor unrest in China, Matt Yglesias makes a comparison with the past and present of the United States.

Conditions in contemporary China have much more in common, structurally speaking, with conditions during the heyday of western labor activism than does anything about the Chicago teachers strike or the apparent American Airlines sickout. The rapid pace of Chinese industrialization means the average wage in a Chinese factories has managed to lag behind the average productivity of a Chinese factory worker (roughly speaking because it’s dragged down by the absymal wages and productivity of Chinese agriculture) which creates a dynamic ripe for windfall profits but also for labor activism. The repressive nature of the Chinese state is an unpromising ground for union organizing, but by the same token Chinese labor organizations have much less to lose (in terms of union-managed pension funds, union-owned buildings, etc.) if they break the law with “wildcat” strikes and the like.

Why are workers rioting in China? Because, says Matt, of the large gap between labor productivity and labor compensation there, which is similar to how things once were in the US and Western Europe but is unlike anything in the contemporary US.

Oh really? Since 1973, labor productivity in the US has risen 80.4 percent. Yet median wages have increased only 4 percent, and median compensation as a whole—which includes benefits—has only increased 10.7 percent.

This is hardly a state secret; mainstream economists talk about it all the time. Which is why I was so puzzled by Matt’s claim.

So I asked him about the discrepancy. He  responded: “I should explain the difference more clearly. US is a median issue, China is a mean issue.” I’m not clear what point he’s trying to make here, but it seems to work against him: if the mean worker wage in China is being depressed by very low wages in agriculture, that means factory work pays better than agriculture, so workers should be flocking to the factories. An increase in the labor supply is not usually conducive to labor activism.

Back to the US.  So where did all that productivity growth between 1973 and 2011 go? Writes Paul Krugman:

One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

2/3 of the productivity, in other words, went to the “windfall profits” that Matt speaks of above. Not so unlike China after all.

And what about labor activism? Matt is right, of course, about the repressive Chinese state. But as I’ve long argued, a good deal of worker activism in the United States also gets repressed. One in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union. While it’s true that the American state is not the equivalent of the Chinese state, it’s also true that a great deal of repression in the US has always been outsourced to the private sector—even in “the heyday of western labor activism.”

Over the summer, when Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I were advancing our thesis about workplace tyranny, Matt repeatedly professed bafflement as to why we were even talking about this issue. Well, this is one reason: repression and coercion in the workplace actually prevent the union organizing that helps ensure that that growth in worker productivity translates into higher pay and benefits for workers.

Matt gets it. In China.

This post is cross-posted at Crooked Timber.

If Only We Knew How to Decrease Unemployment…

6 Aug

Every month the jobs numbers come out, and every month we have the same conversation: Why is unemployment so high? How can we get it down?

While the entire political establishment continues to suck its thumb, this post from the Atlantic (h/t Bryce Covert) tells you all you need to know.

  • We have the lowest number of public-sector employees per population since 1968.
  • If we merely restored government employment to its 2007 levels, there’d be 1.7 million more jobs.

Remember last summer when the Atlantic asked a group of worthies, including Matt Yglesias, “What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?”

I think we know the answer: First, stop firing people. Second, start hiring people.


6 Jul

So many responses to our Crooked Timber piece I can barely keep up (see my last post for an initial round-up).  And now the responses are generating their only little mini-wars.

These Bleeding Hearts

Let’s start with the Bleeding Hearts themselves.  Kevin Vallier has a lengthy reply, in which he concludes that the Bleeding Hearts “can have it all.” (I initially wanted to title our post “The Bleeding Hearts Can’t Have It All.” So at least we’re all the same kitschy page.)

Jason Brennan has some interesting statistics on Denmark and France that I know we’ll want to come back to.

Proving once again that he’s the menschiest of the menschen, Matt Zwolinski wonders “why are employers so mean?” Though I’ll admit I was given pause by this phrase: employers “prevent them [workers] from peeing too often.” What, pray tell, is “peeing too often?” Most libertarians are indebted to the subjective turn in Austrian economics, yet here we have one of them announcing that when it comes to nature’s call, there’s some kind of objective measure.

Though I already posted Jessica Flanigan‘s response in my last roundup, I have to cite this comment she added:

I’m friends with Alex and he calls himself a Marxist all the time. Chris Bertram has written a lot on Marx and seems to endorse some version of what the Analytical Marxists believe in his work. Corey Robin, who knows?

Tyler Cowens of the World, Unite!

Tyler Cowen continues doing whatever it is Tyler Cowen does, which apparently involves coming up with formulations like “mood affiliation,” whatever the fuck that is.

Henry Farrell nails him to the wall:

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.

Matt Yglesias takes umbrage, claiming that Farrell and the rest of us are pie-in-the-sky airy-fairy theorists.

The in-the-clouds conceptual argument about libertarianism, freedom, and coercion is semi-interesting in an academic sense, but as policy analysis it doesn’t show much. In an important sense freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but it doesn’t follow that we should want everyone to be a small-holding subsistence farmer merely because that would make him hard to coerce.

Farrell then nails Yglesias to the wall.

Matt’s alternative – which is to come up with a bunch of just-so stories about how we oughtn’t regulate work rules, because there’s a hypothetical high paying firm that searches its workers to stop theft and then there’s a hypothetical low paying firm that doesn’t, and we shouldn’t be punishing the hypothetical high paying firm because it might hurt workers is about as up-in-the-clouds as you can get. It abstracts away the shitty conditions that people have to endure, the politics of why they have to endure them, and any possible politics of collective action and reform. Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction is right on target here – it deals at length with the bogus standardized responses (it will only make things worse) that people come up with in response to reform. There’s a more general sound principle here. One should always be very suspicious when someone proposes that others endure nasty sounding conditions for their own good, which the someone proposing would never dream of countenancing for himself or herself. The proposal may not be made in bad faith, but it’s not likely to be made with any very great imaginative sympathy for its intended subjects.

Brad DeLong chimes in. Yglesias responds to Farrell.

And speaking of Cowen, Aaron Swartz has a hilarious parody of Cowen’s associate Alex Tbarrok’s response to us, which I mentioned in my previous post.

Odds and Ends

Belle Waring has a bracing intervention—spawning a vigorous and eye-opening comments thread—which I hope everyone will read. Will Wilkinson has some things to say, as does someone going by the moniker “Supply Side Liberal.”

Some interesting interventions, pro and con (I think), from Noah Smith and an unidentified graduate student (“I’m glad Corey Robin has been keeping a list of absurd abuses about people pissing their pants, but empirics 101 demands more. There’s maybe 100 solid links in this piece. But there’s 300 million Americans.”)

And, lastly, poor old Arnold King, whose original post I did feature in my previous post, doesn’t feel like he’s any getting any love. So…show him some love!


And in the midst of all, this story of a lifeguard fired for saving someone’s life is getting a lot of play. Jonah Goldberg uses it as an opportunity to rail against liability law and union regulations. Even though no unions were involved and the major culprit here, it seems, is the privatization of public services.

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Endless Arguments about It on the Internet

4 Jul

The Crooked Timber post on libertarianism and freedom that Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I wrote has been heating up the interwebs. So much so that the three of us have now been dubbed “BRG.”  We’ll be responding in due time, but for now here’s a roundup of all the links.

Tyler Cowen: “I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?…If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.” [As one wag on Twitter said in response: “I tend to be more sympathetic to libertarians than @coreyrobin, but it’s like Tyler Cowen is *trying* to prove his thesis.”

Alex Tabarrok: “Workers have more rights than employers since workers are not subject to anti-discrimination law; that is, employers are prohibited from discriminating against African American workers but workers are not prohibited from discriminating against African American employers.” [In 2007, 7.1 percent of all non-farm businesses were owned by African Americans. They hired 921,032 workers, constituting 0.8% of all paid employment in the US. Admittedly, I'm not an economist, but something tells me that the real force protecting whites from having to work for blacks is not the absence of anti-discrimination laws compelling them to do so but the fact that black people, on the whole, don't have enough money to hire white people.]

Arnold King: “Just be careful about assuming that there must be a perfect option. For example, if the exit option is imperfect, that does not mean that the voice option works perfectly. My own view is that neither option is perfect.” [Our own view is that neither option is perfect either. We aren't saying exit isn't a potential antidote against workplace tyranny, just that it isn't sufficient.]

John Holbo: Excellent restatement and elaboration of our thesis via a nimble use of Hayek: “Freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom….So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom….What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.”

Adam Ozimek: “I think a major point of this entire debate is that liberals wish libertarians to admit that overall freedom can be increased by restricting some freedoms. I don’t have any problem admitting this is possible, but I also don’t think it matters much in the real world.”

Jessica Flanigan: “BRG propose law, regulation, and economic democracy. They call it more voice. I call it more bosses. I see that BRG have a different conception of rights and freedom. What I still don’t see is why workplace democracy and regulation would be liberating on any conception of freedom. Why are these self-proclaimed liberals are so hostile to the UBI?…How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?” [Again, we're not hostile to the UBI; we just don't think it does all the work that the Bleeding Hearts think it does. We also don't think they've fully faced up to the taxation and redistribution issues it raises.]

Matt Yglesias: “My standard approach to this is that in almost all political contexts, including this one, both the concept of freedom and the concept of property rights are red herrings.”

And while this article by Josh Eidelson on Facebook firings is not a response to our piece, it’s certainly worth mentioning in this context.

So that’s it, for now.

Another prize! And other news of the blog and the book

5 Jan

Clio Awards 2011 - writerThe blog has won another award!  Cliopatra, the history blog at the History News Network, has awarded me its “Best Writer” award.  Here’s what the judges said:

Corey Robin’s new blog, CoreyRobin.com, has rapidly become a *tour de force*. Robin joins battle with contemporary issues by way of a deep engagement with the history of political thought. Although he is a passionate partisan of the left, he takes conservative thinkers seriously. Several of them have returned the favor, including Andrew Sullivan, who regularly uses Robin’s provocative posts as a launching pad for his own blogging, and Bruce Bartlett, who recently debated Robin at CoreyRobin.com. All that, and Robin’s words sparkle with a crafty combination of intelligence and wit. He is the quintessential public intellectual for the digital age.

Having majored in history as an undergraduate—my teachers included John Murrin, Lawrence Stone, Arno Mayer, Robert Darnton, James McPherson, and Reid Mitchell—and having always envied the ironic humanism of the historian’s craft (and wished we had more of it in political science, along with a greater sensitivity to time and historical context), I’m especially grateful to have won this recognition from the top blog in the historical profession.

This is the second prize this blog has won; the first was the 3 Quarks Daily 3rd prize (“Charm Quark”) for “best writing in politics and social science.”

More blog stuff

That Ron Paul post I wrote is getting a lot of attention and generating lots of discussion. Not only on the comments thread, which you should definitely check out, but on a Daily Kos post by David Mizner, the progressive writer and activist; in this Glenn Greenwald post; this Digby post; this rethink from Elias Isquith; and this acidulous—I’ve always wanted to use that word!—squib from Freddie DeBoer, whose blog you should also check out.  It’s also just been reposted at Al Jazeera English, where I suspect it will generate even more discussion.  And on Twitter, well, all hell has broken loose.  This is just one of the many tweets I received in response to the post: “your article is wrong on all accounts your a shill just regurgitating what the lame stream media keep feeding the Americ. public”.  There you go.


In addition to that appearance on “Up With Chris Hayes“—someone just alerted me to the eye roll, caught on tape at 16:20, that I did in response to the foolish claim of one of the conservative guests that Prussian aristocrats opposed Hitler—there’s a really good, if I do say so myself, two-part interview that Philip Pilkington did with me over at nakedcapitalism.com.  Part I is here, Part II is here. Thanks to Phil’s excellent questions, I manage to talk about some thing that aren’t in the book or that I haven’t discussed much in public: how I came to write the book, Burke’s thoughts on theater and costumes, the future of the GOP, and more.


Back in November, there was a mixed but generally positive review of the book in Times Higher Education. The reviewer—Joanna Bourke, a cultural historian (whose book on fear, in fact, I negatively reviewed in the New Statesman a long time ago)—said, “This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.”

John Quiggin, an Australian economist who actually knows something about political theory, did a nice post on the book, on his blog and at Crooked Timber. Lots of comments on both.

There’s also Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books. As I said in a previous post, I’ll be responding in due course, so I won’t say anything here. But in the meantime, as one young intellectual historian put it on a blog, “Bashing Lilla’s review of Robin’s book seems to be the newest internet meme.” He’s not kidding. Political theorist Alex Gourevitch weighed in at Jacobin; Henry Farrell, a political scientist with a strong interest in theory, at Crooked Timber; and intellectual historian Andrew Hartman at U.S. Intellectual History. There’s also been some further commentary on—or inspired—by the review, positive and negative, from Ben Alpers, Andrew Sullivan, Daniel Larison, Matt Yglesias, 3 Quarks Daily, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose interesting post prompted this response from me.  According to intellectual historian Tim Lacy, “I’m wondering if Robin’s book won’t also become something of an instant classic. I say this because you don’t attract high-profile ire from the likes of Mark Lilla unless you hit a nerve.” Here’s hoping.

And last, some further mentions of the book, in passing, from Andrew Sullivan, and, more substantively, from Paul Rosenberg.

If Everybody’s Working for the Weekend, How Come It Took This Country So Goddamn Long to Get One?

18 Sep

Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates went after liberals the other day for being too whiny. Those who complain about the compromises and capitulations of Obama—”Team Commie,” as he calls them—have only themselves to blame. They haven’t done the hard work of organizing citizens to put pressure on the pols in Washington, particularly conservative Democrats resisting Obama’s jobs program.

I was a little puzzled by this post. Its hectoring tone (“being taken seriously involves actual work”) sounds a lot like the one Obama uses when he attacks “griping and groaning” liberals—a tone ably skewered by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates in a New York Times op-ed, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

It’s also not clear who exactly Coates is talking about here. Most of the liberals and leftists I know who criticize Obama spend their lives working to elect more progressive politicians, not only in Congress but throughout the country. They know full well that if things are going to change, it’s not going to come from Obama or the Democratic Party but from social movements and grassroots activism.

If he’s at all uncertain about this, Coates might want to speak to some of my union friends in New Haven, who’ve spent the better part of a year organizing a slate of progressives to take over the Board of Aldermen from crappy incumbents. I realize this is a far cry from the aerial heights of DC, but if you want to put pressure on the top, you have to have people turning the screws at the bottom.

Here’s how you build that infrastructure of change (I’m just talking about the electoral path; as any activist knows, there are lots of other equally important paths). First you get a progressive Board of Aldermen in New Haven. Then you get a lock on the state legislature in Connecticut. From there you take it to the state congressional delegation, until finally you’ve kicked the shit out of Joe Lieberman and got two fairly liberal senators in Congress—or at least two senators who feel themselves beholden to your power. And you do that in every state. It doesn’t always work, of course—Lieberman’s still in the Senate—but that’s how it’s done.

Coates gets the principle: “People who talk of primarying Obama need to pick smaller targets–and thus elicit bigger results.” He just happens to believe he’s the only one who does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t get 100 emails or FB posts, linking me to yet another story of on-the-ground activism: sometimes the activism is electoral, sometimes it’s legislative (phone banks to call your congressman, buses to Washington to meet with a senator, that kind of thing), sometimes it’s more raucous: workers occupying state legislatures in protest of some bill, citizens marching on banks, longshoremen shutting down ports, and so on.  This is just the stuff of daily conversation among progressives, the Talk of the Town of the left.

Could there be more of this? Absolutely. But that Coates doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t speak, about even these stories is telling.  Of not just failure on his part, though it is that. I mean, seriously, the dude is a journalist. How hard is it, before he picks up a pen, to pick up a phone and ask someone in the labor movement or a grassroots organization what they’re doing?

But Coates’s silence is also indicative of a bigger problem confronting the left: the shroud of media indifference under which it labors. Most of the stories that come across my transom are never reported in the New York Times or magazines like the Atlantic where Coates works. Not because activists haven’t tried to get the media’s attention but because Coates’s colleagues simply don’t care about them, and if they do care, probably don’t like them very much. Far more interesting to talk about the Tea Party and right-wing activism than to talk about activism on the left.

If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn’t Coates start with himself?  Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because “Martin Luther King was a really nice guy.” (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.)  But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?

Media silence and indifference is just one of many constraints the left faces when it tries to change things. I hope to say more about those constraints in a later post.  Some of them are obvious: the money power on the right; the barriers against union organizing, about which I’ve written; the corporate funding base for non-profits that is hostile to campaigns for economic democracy; the obstacles to voter registration and turnout (Coates blithely recommends more voter-registration, seemingly unaware of the right’s massive campaign to make voting nearly impossible for a great many citizens). Some of them are less obvious.

But anyone who knows anything about organizing knows, first, that it’s far more difficult than anyone who’s never organized realizes, and, second, that anyone who’s never organized—i.e., most people—hasn’t a clue as to just how hard it is.

And here we come to the final irony of this discussion. As Coates admits, his post was inspired by a series of posts from Matt Yglesias, who has spent the last however many months explaining to the rest of us that presidents are not all-powerful; they confront a ginormous apparatus of resistance in Congress, the courts, the states, and elsewhere.

Yet somehow, in the view of Yglesias and Coates, the left has a virtually Jacobin capacity to change the world: if we will it, it will be.  This is how Yglesias puts it, in a statement Coates quotes approvingly:

If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing.

Think about that last sentence: if justice and equality are not happening, it’s not because liberals and progressives face all sorts of roadblocks to making it happen; it’s that they’re simply not doing their job. They’re talking to each other on the interwebs instead of getting out there and doing the hard work.

Reading these two, you get a rather remarkable picture of the political universe. If Obama makes a call to a conservative Democratic senator from Delaware, it’ll go nowhere. But if little old Mrs. Murdle from Wilmington, quietly getting by on her Social Security, makes a call to her senator, mountains will move.

(I’m not being facetious here; Yglesias really does recommend calling your elected official as one of the two key things you can do to make change; the other is to argue with moderates and conservatives and apolitical folks who don’t support progressive policies. For the record, I’ve been doing both for years, probably for almost as long as Yglesias has been alive. But the fact that I and my comrades are supposedly not doing these things  is “the most underrated prop of conservative dominance in the United States.” )

Of course, it’s not enough for Mrs Murdle—or me—to call my congresswoman or senator; at a minimum, I have to do it with thousands of other men and women. Not just in the 11th congressional district in New York where I live but in at least 217 other congressional districts throughout the country and in at least 26 states (or 31 if you now accept the filibuster-proof requirement that seems to be de rigueur in the Senate).

Effective citizen action, in other words, has to be, at a minimum, concerted.  And guess what:  all those veto points against presidential action that Yglesias and his ilk love to cite apply ten thousand times more to social movements and concerted citizen action. Not by accident—and not because we’re apathetic or clueless—but by design.

Remember the Federalist Papers you read in college? It wasn’t the presidency that Madison and Hamilton wanted to constrain (quite the opposite, in fact.) It was the Congress, especially the House, and behind the Congress the people acting in their collective capacity. That’s what the American system was set up primarily to check. As Madison put in Federalist 10, a large republic is better than a small one because

you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other….communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

So that’s the basic institutional design. And again, it affects ordinary citizens far more than it does presidents.

I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s just difficult. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that writers who show such tender regard for the constraints facing a president should be a little more sensitive to the constraints facing progressives. And perhaps be more attentive to those constraints in their writing and avoid issuing injunctions that we just need to work harder.

The most remarkable feature about American politics is not, as many critics throughout the years have had it, that more change doesn’t happen here; it’s that any change happens at all. I mean, think about it: The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.

Failure is the American activist’s daily bread; always has been. And if you think, Messrs. Coates and Yglesias, that’s due to a lack of will or hard work on the left, I suggest you think again.

Update (9/18, 9:30 am)

Re failure and American activism, I forgot (failed?) to mention the single best book on that theme: Eve Weinbaum’s To Move A Mountain.  Check it out.

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.


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