The Difficult Early Republican Primaries

Martin LongmanMartin “Felonious Frog” Longman wrote a bit of a scattered but very insightful article yesterday, Republicans and Reality. He started by quoting a bit of troubling polling data for the Republicans. According to Republican pollster Whit Ayres, only 18% of Americans want to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the great Republican alternative: nothing. Similarly, 60% of Republicans under the age of 30 are in favor of same sex marriage. (Don’t applaud too much; the number is roughly 90% young Democrats.) The problem is that the early primaries don’t exactly provide a lot of room for the Republican candidates to be moderate.

The first race in the 2016 primary will be in the reasonable state of Iowa (28 delegates). But that’s just an average. It is reasonable overall, but the Republicans there are crazy. Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum won the state in 2012. New Hampshire (12 delegates) provides a reasonable opportunity for moderation, and Mitt “Self Deportation” Romney did win there. But then comes Colorado (36 delegates) and Minnesota (40 delegates) — both won by Santorum. That same day will be the primary in New York (95 delegates) — doubtless an effort on the part of Republicans to inject some sanity in the primary. That primary was at the very end of the race and Romney won big because he was the only one still running. Just the same, he would have won regardless. And finally, there’s Utah (40) — which Romney won but I don’t think that means anything for obvious reasons.

For those not keeping count, that’s 107 “moderate” delegates and 144 crazy conservative delegates during the first three days of voting. A week and a half later, South Carolina gets to vote. And who did they vote for last time? Newt “Yay, child labor!” Gingrich! It does create a bit of a problem for the Republican Party. It isn’t that the candidates hold truly vile opinions — which they all do. It is that as long as they don’t make a big deal out of those vile opinions, the mainstream media will give them a pass. But people like Steve King in Iowa is not going to want to let them get away with that.

I’m still of the opinion that the economy trumps all else. But that doesn’t mean that candidates don’t matter at all. Even during a total economic meltdown in 2008, John McCain still managed to get 173 electoral votes. And I’m fairly convinced about what Jonathan Chait wrote last week, How “Negative Partisanship” Has Transformed American Politics. More and more, people decide which party they will not vote for. And in the south, we’ve seen this for a while — because of bigotry. But now this same thing is affecting other states — now to the advantage of the Democrats — because of the bigotry of the Republican Party.

As I noted regarding the move of the New York primary, the Republicans (and the Democrats) are trying to front load the election to get the most “electable” candidates for the general election. But the schedule doesn’t create any problems for the Democrats. The Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, and Utah are not going to push the candidates heavily to the left. I wish they would. But the Republicans are going to have to pander in a big way — even with New York’s 95 delegates. And even there, I suspect they will appeal to the electorate there primarily by talking about how we really need to start bombing Iran.

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It’s Not Just Class: Race in America

Eric AltermanFor decades now, I’ve been arguing that when it comes to politics, liberals and leftists need to stop talking about race and focus instead on class. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist and cause genuine suffering, I would argue, but race divides the majority from the minority, while class could, and should, unite them. The way to help poor black and Latino people is to help poor people, period. (Wealthy black and Latino people can help themselves.) I still believe this, but I’ve also come to believe it’s hopeless.

Initially I understood the primary roadblock to be identity itself. People of color insisted on identifying themselves first and foremost as people of color, and they looked to leaders who served as reflections of their ideal selves. On those rare occasions when transracial and transethnic movements succeeded in America, they did so through the paradigms of race and ethnicity rather than by transcending them. Many responses are possible to Werner Sombart’s famous 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” The most obvious, however, is that the patch-quilt racial and ethnic composition of the US working class has made it easy for capitalists to divide and rule.

But another reason — one whose power and resilience I admit to have underestimated — is the problem of institutional white racism. Events of the past year or so — together with some of the research I did on inequality for my recent Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One — have convinced me that people of color, especially black males, live in a different country from the one in which whites live, whether rich or poor.

—Eric Alterman
Race Matters (but Not To Conservatives)

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Obamacare Hatred Is Destroying Red States

Medicaid Expansion Cartoon

On Friday, Ezra Klein reminded us, The Anti-Obamacare Movement Is Making Red States Sicker and Poorer. I understand what the Republican elites tell themselves. By doing the maximum amount of damage to the law, it will become untenable. People will not sit by and watch the health insurance industry in Arizona be destroyed. They will demand action. But given that over half of the people in the United States will be doing just fine, I don’t see people rising up and saying, “Let’s get rid of Obamacare!” I see them saying, “Let’s get rid of these jerks running the red states who don’t care at all about their people!”

Of course, this is in reference specifically to King v Burwell. But the truth of the matter is that it applies to everything. The refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion in 22 states only hurts those states. It not only deprives many of their working poor of health insurance, it deprives the states themselves of billions of dollars in economic stimulus. This is all, once again, in the name of symbolism: they won’t accept any help from that communist in the White House. But it does those states no good. All that such symbolic measures do is allow the politicians to fight with each other for the mantle of Most Conservative. And when they all qualify for the award, none of them get any benefit from it.

The other side of this is that these red states are still bound by the healthcare law. They still pay taxes for it. They just aren’t getting all of the benefits — and if King v Burwell is upheld, they won’t be getting any benefits. Ezra Klein is exactly right when he summarized the situation, “In effect, the Republican plan to destroy Obamacare has become a plan in which red states subsidize Obamacare in blue states.” Very effective, guys!

According to estimates of the Kaiser Family Foundation that were quoted by Klein, the Republican petulance regarding Obamacare has resulted in five million extra people going without health insurance and foregoing a staggering $37 billion every year. That’s roughly the total GDP of Wyoming. So Republicans are causing enormous amounts of pain to themselves for a very low probability of getting rid of the hated healthcare law.

And let’s remember, Obamacare is about as conservative an approach as there is to healthcare reform. The one part of it that Republicans most complain about — the individual mandate — was the basis of the very conservative Heritage Foundation plan. Now it is true that the Democrats added — Oh, the horror! — subsidies to help middle and lower class workers. But the truth is that the plan never would have worked without these subsidies. This, above all, is why the Republicans have been unable to come up with something to replace the law with: Obamacare is the conservative replacement. This has gone along with conservative healthcare “wonks” looking all over the world to find a conservative plan that works. And they always end up embarrassing themselves, because the other plans always turn out to be more liberal than Obamacare.

It’s all just a mess. And I am absolutely certain that in ten years, all the states will have fully embraced Obamacare. Republicans will even run against Democrats claiming that they want to make workers pay more for healthcare. But in the meantime, huge amounts of suffering will have gone on — both directly in terms of fewer people being covered and indirectly by harming the economy. But by then, it will all be forgotten. American politics really isn’t ideological anymore. The question that workers have to answer is simply, “Which party will govern with even the most basic competence?” And the answer is the Democrats. The Republicans don’t even try.

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Typical Lying Law Enforcement

Sonoma County Sheriff's DepartmentHere in my hometown of Santa Rosa, we have a case of a police officer brutalizing a suspect and then lying on the witness stand in a very important case: jaywalking. Celeste Moon is a 51 year old single mother and culinary student at Santa Rosa Junior College. She was walking home one afternoon when she heard someone shout at her about waiting for the light. When she heard a car door slam and someone coming toward her, she ran. She was afraid it was one of our many local thugs. It turned out to be Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount. But what happened next makes one wonder if there is much difference between our local thugs and our sheriff’s deputies.

When Blount caught up to her, he arrested her and hurt her while trying to put handcuffs on her. That’s pretty standard. The police are not known for being very gentle or, frankly, caring in the least about it. As you can see in the video below, Blount puts Moon in a headlock and slams he to the ground where she begins screaming. Five police vehicles were then called in for “back up” because of this dangerous 51 year old single mother. Even though you can only see the two from about shoulder height, the video is quite upsetting.

This seems a pretty typical case. Law enforcement officers have a perpetual chip on their shoulders. The worst thing you can do to one is not treat them with all the respect that they think they deserve — and never think they have to earn. So this whole case has nothing to do with jaywalking and everything to do with the bruised ego of Deputy Blount. But the story here is not about what seems obviously excessive force. There apparently is no such thing in modern America. Moon ought to be thankful that Blount didn’t just shoot her in the back and then drop a taser at her feet.

The story here is that the video surfaced after Blount did what law enforcement officers do every day when they go to court: lie. According to The Press Democrat, “The video, taken by a neighbor, contradicts Blount’s court testimony earlier this week that he placed both of his hands on Moon’s shoulders and pushed her down, said Moon’s lawyer, Izaak Schwaiger.” Well of course it did. If sheriff’s deputies like Blount said what they really did on a daily basis, the world would be a much different — and more just — place.

But the truth is that as a society, we don’t want to know. Most people will never find themselves in Moon’s situation. So they figure that all the police brutality and lying is just fine. It is all in the service of keeping us all safe. But of course, it isn’t. The fact that Blount felt the need to treat this middle aged woman this way is a good indication that he’s not in the habit of having to deal with truly dangerous situations. In his mind, “keeping order” has probably fully merged with “people respecting me.”

Blount is a “17-year law enforcement veteran.” According to a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, Blont was was probably just testifying to the best of his memory. I kind of doubt that. The description — placed both hands on Moon’s shoulders and pushed her down — sounds too “edited for sensitive viewers.” But there is little doubt that the deputy didn’t think much of it at the time.

The real problem is not Blount, of course. What really amazes me is that given this clear evidence that Blount either knowingly lied on the stand or doesn’t remember the case clearly enough to testify, Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite didn’t throw out the case. Now I don’t know, but I assume that the only evidence against Moon is Blount’s testimony. Instead of throwing it out, the judge “directed prosecutors to consider whether the gap between his testimony and the video affects the deputy’s credibility.” So justice is left up to the DA — as usual. And no groups are closer than the DA and police. I would assume that the DA will try to strike some deal where they drop charges in exchange for Moon not suing the county.

The injustices in this country are so many. This isn’t a case of law enforcement murder. But it is part of the same system and the same problem. And all of us are culpable for allow it to continue on.

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Morning Music: Shakira

Shakira - Animal CitySome time back, I was working for a very ambitious Latina who was doing very well selling make-up and clothes to other Latinas in the area. And she was a really big fan of Shakira. I’d never heard of her before, but of course, she was huge. I didn’t especially care for her music, but there was one song that immediately captured me, “Animal City.”

I like the cynical lyrics. “It’s an animal city, it’s a cannibal world.” And: “Your family got bigger when they thought you were rich.” But mostly, it is the music. I love the use of semitone major chord changes. It’s very punk, but done with far more sophistication. For example, there is a riff after the chorus that goes back and forth between a D major and a C# major 7th. Very effective!

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Anniversary Post: Intentional Use of LSD

Albert HofmannBack in 1938, Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. I remember a story (possibly apocryphal) dating back to the 1970s. On the first day of Introduction to Chemistry, a certain professor would walk in and write on the calk board:

C20H25N3O

He would say, “This is the chemical formula for LSD. I don’t want to be asked for the rest of the year!” Of course, it would take at least another year of chemistry to gain the skills in organic chemistry to actually make it.

On this day in 1943 — almost five years later — Hofmann intentionally took the drug for the first time. It wasn’t the first time that he had taken the drug. The thing about LSD is that it is super potent. Most drug doses are measured in milligrams, but LSD is measured in micrograms. So all you have to do is get some on your skin and you will probably absorb enough of it to get high.

In his way, Hofmann was as much an advocate for the drug as was Timothy Leary. And he was an advocate right up to his death a few years ago at the age of 102. I’m ambivalent about the drug. I remember a music teacher of mine saying, “When we first started taking LSD, we thought we were learning a lot of spiritual lessons. But gradually, we learned we were just getting high.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But LSD does rather have a reputation for being more serious than it is.

Happy birthday intentional use of LSD!

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Rat Flood

Rat FloodIn Chapter Eight of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Don Federico is an exterminator obsessed with destroying all rats, because he blames himself for allowing rats to eat his baby sister alive. So I decided to look on my phone to see if rats have ever been known to eat humans. They aren’t. Occasionally, they will bite sleeping people. This is probably because they are trying to eat food particles off people. Rats don’t see humans — or any creature — as prey. Rats will eat just about anything, but brown rats are known to prefer a diet much like mine. Favorite foods: “scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and cooked corn kernels.” Least favorite foods: “raw beets, peaches, and raw celery.” But I doubt they were ever offered my excellent peach pie. They are also known to like chocolate.

But all this research brought me to the story of the rat flood — once thought to be a mythical periodical deluge of rats in eastern India. From time to time, the rats would just be everywhere and eat everything. Well, not everything. They didn’t eat the humans. But they might as well have, because it decimated the food crops and stores and caused a famine during those years. And then, just like Keyser Söze: poof, they’re gone. Scientists and political authorities didn’t think it was real, because hey, peasants. But it not only was real, it is.

This happens every 48 years. The Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur are roughly 30% covered in bamboo forest. It has a 48 year ecological cycle called the Mautam. So after the bamboo flowers, it dies and releases all its seeds. Rats like the bamboo seeds and suddenly, they are swimming in them. So they don’t have to spend a bunch of time finding food, so they eat and do that other evolutionarily important behavior: have sex. What’s more, studies indicate that female fertility goes up as does the litter size. Suddenly, eastern India is overflowing with rats.

Of course, it doesn’t matter at this time. The rats have their food supply and they are doing just dandy. It is the following year when there are huge numbers of rats and no more bamboo seeds. So they “head into town” and eat the food of the humans. And there isn’t a lot that the humans can do. This is why it is referred to as the “rat flood.” We have records of this happening in 1862, 1911, 1959, and 2006.

The people of these regions are getting better at dealing with the problem. In 2006, the Indian government sent in the army to help out. They used little bitty guns. No, just kidding. They were there mostly to provide education on how to deal with the coming hordes. Interestingly, as I mentioned above, rats have different food tastes. And there are things they really don’t like. Apparently, they don’t like the smells of turmeric and ginger.

In addition to being a human tragedy — although one we could eliminate if we wanted to with a simple application of resources — it is also a rat tragedy. Because of the excessive food supply, the following year is necessarily a famine of unheard of proportions. And there is really nothing that can be done to stop it. God really is evil.

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The Folly of Cherry Picking New Economic Ideas

Paul KrugmanBut while European policy makers may have imagined that they were showing a praiseworthy openness to new economic ideas, the economists they chose to listen to were those telling them what they wanted to hear. They sought justifications for the harsh policies they were determined, for political and ideological reasons, to impose on debtor nations; they lionized economists, like Harvard’s Alberto Alesina, Carmen Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff, who seemed to offer that justification. As it turned out, however, all that exciting new research was deeply flawed, one way or another.

And while new ideas were crashing and burning, that old-time economics was going from strength to strength. Some readers may recall that there was much scoffing at predictions from Keynesian economists, myself included, that interest rates would stay low despite huge budget deficits; that inflation would remain subdued despite huge bond purchases by the Fed; that sharp cuts in government spending, far from unleashing a confidence-driven boom in private spending, would cause private spending to fall further. But all these predictions came true.

The point is that it’s wrong to claim, as many do, that policy failed because economic theory didn’t provide the guidance policy makers needed. In reality, theory provided excellent guidance, if only policy makers had been willing to listen. Unfortunately, they weren’t…

But back to the question of new ideas and their role in policy. It’s hard to argue against new ideas in general. In recent years, however, innovative economic ideas, far from helping to provide a solution, have been part of the problem. We would have been far better off if we had stuck to that old-time macroeconomics, which is looking better than ever.

—Paul Krugman
That Old-Time Economics

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Our Political System, Not Hillary, Is the Problem

Hillary ClintonMatt Taibbi wrote a very good rant on Thursday, Campaign 2016: Hillary Clinton’s Fake Populism Is a Hit. But I’m not sure he’s quite right to write off Clinton as a fake populist. I think the arguments against her could have been levied against FDR. Now I’m not saying that Clinton will actually turn against her class once she is president. In fact, I don’t think she will. She seems to be a total neoliberal, and if she wins the presidency, she will be the third New Democratic president we’ve had in a row. And sadly, in as much as the American voter notices, it doesn’t seem to care.

The real problem is buried in one thing that Taibbi focused on: the carried interest loophole — that bit of the tax code that allows people literally making billions of dollars to pay only a 15% tax rate. He commented facetiously, “Raise your hand if you really think that Hillary Clinton is going to repeal the carried interest tax break.” Anyone raising their hand it a complete idiot. As he noted, Obama promised to get rid of this loophole in 2008. And 2012. Yet the loophole has been around for thirty years. It ain’t going nowhere.

Matt TaibbiAnd the reason is clear as day. There are rich people who benefit greatly from this loophole. Some of them give massive amounts of money to the Republicans and some give massive amounts of money to the Democrats. And no national politician is going to forego that money that benefits them directly to do something that would be good and fair for the country as a whole. Now if the electorate stands up and demands something be done, it will be. Or if the electorate stands up and demands that we get money out of politics, it will be done. But otherwise: forget about it.

I’m tired of hearing about the “invisible primary.” Why don’t we just call it what it is: the money primary. The mainstream media is so corrupt that they define a “viable” candidate to be one that is able to raise a lot of money. But here is something that is almost never mention: money doesn’t matter that much in the general election. Jonathan Bernstein recently wrote, “Believe it or not, general-election presidential campaigns are where political spending matters the least.” So we’ve been sold this bill of goods about the importance of money. But all that does is give people with a lot of money that much more influence over our politics. Thank you, neutral press corps!

Just the same, I don’t agree with Taibbi’s larger point. I don’t mind Clinton’s pandering. The fact that she is reciting a “medley of Elizabeth Warren’s greatest stump hits” is a good thing. As Ezra Klein has written a lot about in the past, what politicians say really does matter. The fact that she is talking in a more populist way doesn’t mean she will get rid of carried interest loophole. (And even if she wanted to, I’m not sure Congress would go along.) But it does mean she is more likely to be somewhat more populist and somewhat less neoliberal than she would have been had she won in 2008. The problem is the system, not Hillary Clinton.

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TPP Could Create 4,000+ Minimum Wage Jobs

Timothy B. LeeTimothy B Lee over at Vox yesterday, wrote a very neutral discussion of TPP, The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Great for Elites. Is It Good for Anyone Else? And it is still a blood bath. The answer is: no. It is not good for anyone else. Let’s just discuss the one positive section in Lee’s article, “Trade Liberalization Has Modest but Real Benefits.” According to an estimate by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in a decade, the TPP will add a half a percent to our GDP. Now that is down there in the noise — literally so if you look at the variation of GDP after subtracting the trend line.

But we don’t even need to think about the size of this. After all, a half percent of GDP would come out to roughly $77 billion in 2025. That’s still a lot of money. That would represent decent paying jobs for a million American workers. The problem is that the $77 billion is not going to go to workers. We’ll be lucky to get a hundred thousand minimum wage jobs out of this. In fact, let’s take a nice little statistic from our friend Bernie Sanders:

Bernie Sanders' Questions

That first statistic is stunning. It comes from a Brookings Institution speech back in February, “In fact, the latest information that we have shows that in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.” The fact-checker at The Washington Post had a bit of a problem with it, but it was mostly along the usual lines where liberals have to be found wanting, so the complaint is that not everyone agrees with the study cited. Check out the whole article — most especially including Sanders’ response.

Let’s assume that the $77 billion will be similarly partitioned. That means, the top 1% will get $76.23 billion and the bottom 99% will get $77 million. Now we know that isn’t reasonable. Most likely, the top 10% will get it all and then some, while the bottom 90% actually fall further behind. But let’s just suppose that the $77 million will go to minimum wage workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Assuming a 2% inflation rate, the minimum wage would be $8.83 in 2025. This too is a joke, of course; the minimum wage is worth a dollar less than it was in 1956. But I’m being generous. Let’s assume $8.83. That’s a full time salary of $17,675 per year. That’s a big ol’ 4,356 new minimum wage jobs — or approximately 200 more McDonald’s franchises.

I’ve written about this subject before, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. The fact is that I don’t care if the TPP is going to add $77 trillion to our economy. Until our economy is set up to share the fruits of our labors and our resources, it doesn’t matter. I’m not buying.

But as Lee’s article points out again and again, the TPP is not even about trade. It is about allowing the power elite to take an even bigger slice out of the economic pie. It’s about increasing the prices that we all pay for drugs and entertainment. And that extra cost will not go to employing more researchers and comedy writers. It will go to corporations to better exploit their rents. And the sad thing is that I don’t see much in the way of Democratic resistance to this. A nuclear deal with Iran — well them’s fightin’ words for Congressional Democrats. But funneling even more money to the rich? That’s just the American way! Am I right, Chuck?!

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Morning Music: Fahd Ballan

Fahd BallanFahd Ballan was a Syrian folk singer. I don’t know much about him, except that he was extremely popular in his day — both as a singer and as an actor (although I can find no record of his acting). He worked with the great Arabic composer and musician Farid al-Atrash in Egypt.

The following song is more or less, “Girls of Mukalla.” According to As’ad AbuKhalil, “In Arab folklore, the women of Mukallah are reputed to be most beautiful.” And the song has the lyrics, “Oh, the girls of Mukalla. You are the cure of every ill” — a typical sentiment in popular music everywhere, it would seem. Regardless, what he’s singing about, it is a very pleasant song:

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Anniversary Post: David Ricardo

David RicardoOn this day in 1772, the economist David Ricardo was born. In Mark Blyth’s book, Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea, he does not come off at all well. But why would he? He was writing 200 years ago. The problem with Ricardo and Smith and Locke is not that they have relatively little to tell us about the modern economy; the problem is that there are so many people who want to follow them for ideological reasons.

Let us consider the idea of Ricardian equivalence. It’s an interesting idea. According to it, the government spending money on stimulus won’t work. This is because, according to the theory, the extra money that the government spends will have to be paid off at a later time in extra taxes. The people know this and so reduce their spending by however much the government increases its spending. It’s a very clever idea. It’s also wrong.

Did World War II happen, or not? The military buildup in anticipation of war got the United States out of the depression. So it is a cool idea that if people were perfectly rational computers, extra government spending mightn’t do any good. But we have World War II and countless other examples of how government deficit spending does indeed stimulate the economy.

But let’s just assume for a moment that Ricardian equivalence actually did work. It most certainly wouldn’t work the way that I’ve heard many conservatives claim that it does. Let’s suppose that the government spends $100 to stimulate the economy. According to the theory, the people would reduce their spending by a total of $100. But the $100 that the government spends will be spend right now (or close enough). The extra taxes to pay for that spending will be spread out over many years or even decades. So if we assume that the tax liability will be spread out over a decade, the government would spend $100 that first year and it would be partially offset by reduced private sector spending of $10 — not $100. Thus, there would indeed be a $90 stimulus that year.

So let’s all just admit that David Ricardo was a smart guy. And the people today who think that he was right are total idiots who are ideologically driven to find any justification for their preferred policies — which are to screw the worker and help the rich.

Happy birthday David Ricardo!

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