“Out of love — who could credit it? — out of love for the entrepreneur!”

Hillary Clinton’s ridiculous proposal to forgive student loans for certain entrepreneurs is ridiculous. It is also deeply revealing of the mainstream Democratic approach to policy — not just because it’s a classic Clinton-style micropolicy, but because it’s so individualistic. In the centrist worldview, the problem isn’t that entrepreneurs get outsize rewards. The problem is that potentially talented individuals don’t have the chance to compete for them on a level playing field. Student loans are both something that hold people back from entrepreneurship and something controlled by the federal government, so it’s “low-hanging fruit” for an innovation agenda.

If the Republicans are the party of inherited privilege — as shown by their most recent presidential candidates, all of whom have some combination of family money and political pedigree — the Democrats are the party of meritocratic privilege. They are the party of talented but disadvantaged people who gained access to opportunity and ran with it (cf. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Why do Democrats have such an affinity with Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Because they are, at least according to popular lore, the hotbed of meritocracy. Why do they place such emphasis on education as the sole possible lever of social justice? Because school is where merit rises to the top.

And why do they always suggest the most farcically small tweaks to the existing system? Because they believe in the system. The system is what allowed them to get ahead, and they know they deserve to get ahead. Maybe not everyone who deserves it gets ahead, and maybe — though this is a less urgent priority — not everyone who gets ahead deserves it, but broadly speaking, it’s a good system that promotes good people. When you’ve climbed the social ladder, the last thing you’re going to do is question the legitimacy of the ladder. The only thing you need to change is making sure more of those good individual people aren’t artificially held back from the first couple rungs.

One thing that definitely holds back individual striving is any form of collectivity. Union organization, systematic racial uplift, pulling entire communities out of poverty — that’s not on the agenda. If you are mired down in a poor urban neighborhood, the solution isn’t to make your neighborhood less poor, it’s to rig the education system so that the handful of talented people can figure out a way to get into the “best” school. This is why, for example, the current state of affairs could produce the first black president and still be such a rolling disaster for the black community. It’s not about building communities, it’s about giving people a chance to escape communities. It’s brain-drain as social justice.

Bregrets, I’ve had a few

Often, The Girlfriend and I are deadlocked on a decision where neither of us expresses a strong preference — for instance, which restaurant to go to. In those situations, we each pick a side and play rock-paper-scissors. Then, once the decision is “real,” we gauge how we actually feel about it and have the option to revise it.

The basic insight behind this method is that there is an unbridgable gap between the hypothetical and the real. We can’t really judge how we will feel about a choice, for instance, until we’ve actually made it and feel locked in. Merely entertaining the possibility does not predict our real reaction — in a weird way, in order to make an informed decision, we have to have already made it and know how it feels.

Hence I support the Brexit do-over referendum, on purely psychological grounds. The British public was clearly short-sighted in their decision because they were too focused on the — completely legitimate and justified — pleasure of defying the establishment and weren’t thinking about the longer-term consequences. In the cold light of day, they realize that the frisson of defiance is not worth it.

In short, now that UK voters know what the morning after actually feels like, they are finally in a position to make the decision for real. A second referendum would therefore be more legitimate than the original. Or to save time, Parliament could simply implement the policy that the public’s gut reaction to the Brexit vote clearly indicates.

Against racism as side-effect

For several popular styles of political analysis, racism is always, by definition, a red herring. For doctrinaire class-first, class-only Marxism, racism can only ever be an epiphenomenon or an ideological distraction, and in more mainstream liberal discourse, something similar happens, though for different reasons: since it’s rude to accuse anyone of direct racism, politeness dictates that we go with more rational and respectable “economic anxieties.”

One corrolary of the latter theory is that racism should correlate closely with economic turmoil. Hence, for instance, Trump’s siren song only works because white America is being left behind, etc. I don’t think that makes sense of the data. If you’ll recall, there was a financial crisis of world-historical proportions in 2008, and later that year, a black man (who, for good measure, had the middle name of Hussein) was elected president. How could that happen if racial scapegoating correlates with white pain?

Things have gotten progressively worse on the race front even as the economy got better. No, it hasn’t gotten better as fast as anyone would like, and there are huge structural inequities built into the system. But again, the pain was worse during the actual world-historical financial crisis, and that was a relative low ebb of overt racism. It’s only now that unemployment has reached what counts as “normal” levels and economic growth is moving at a decent clip that we are seeing overt public racial scapegoating emerge as a successful political strategy among the relatively affluent.

It might just be the case that in a deeply racist country, racism has its own autonomous causality that can be decoupled from economics. Indeed, if anything the correlation over the course of the Obama years has been the reverse of the “economic pain causes racism” theory. It’s as though the crisis caused the country to largely put racism aside for a while — and now that white America is finding its feet, it can afford to indulge in the luxury of racial backlash again.

What if the worst has already happened?

bushandputin1

A lot of people are rightly panicking about the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am one of them, more often than not. In this discourse, Trump is an absolute evil that must be stopped no matter what the cost, even if that means holding your nose and voting for Hillary Clinton — or, at the most extreme, even doing the unthinkable and supporting Rubio. Anything to stave off the very worst.

What if the very worst already happened, though? What if the very worst was George W. Bush? Read the rest of this entry »

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

Against strategic primary voting

I’ll vote for literally any Democrat in the general election, up to and including Satan himself or even Rahm Emanuel. But I just don’t see the benefit of “strategically” voting for a candidate I disagree with in the primary, due to some belief in “electability.” That is a purely speculative property. I don’t have the information necessary to decide that, and maybe no one does. Barack Obama sure seemed unelectable for a lot of common-sense reasons, but lo and behold, he actually got elected.

In any case I don’t trust the people who are trying to convince me of their personal theories of “electability.” Too much American political discourse takes place in those weird speculative meta-levels, where we’re supposed to choose the person we think other people will choose, or the person who will protect us from someone else. Every living American adult should be aware of the blackmail involved in the latter — and should be familiar with the disappointing results. Saving us from the worst looks an awful lot like the worst itself sometimes.

And again, we do not and cannot know for sure whether someone will actually win the election or protect us against the worst. What we do know for sure is each candidate’s policy proposals, and I think we should vote based on what we know instead of on our hunches about what other people (whose political preferences we don’t share or really understand) will think about the candidate at some future date.

The presidential candidate isn’t just a presidential candidate — they’re the leader of the party, who sets the agenda. Voting in the primary means voting on the direction of the party. If the Democratic Party is going to ask our opinion on that, we should give it to them sincerely, instead of psyching ourselves out through some ill-conceived 11-dimensional chess.

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