“Independents” Don’t Need a Party

Timothy EganTimothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times and he is usually pretty good. But today, he wrote one of the stupidest or most disingenuous columns I’ve read in a long time, Declaration of Independents. It is about the growing number of so called independents. And it bemoans that fact that they have no one to vote for. The partisans have their parties, but who speaks for the independents? I have such a desire to slap Timothy Egan, you cannot even imagine.

As we all know, voters who refuse to claim a political party are almost all partisans. And they are not, as is usually claimed, people in between the parties. In my experience, when someone claims to be “independent,” chances are that it means that they think the Republican Party is too liberal. And it works the other way too: some liberals claim to be independent because they find the Democratic Party too conservative. But they are more likely to call themselves “socialist” or something similar. Conservatives really don’t have anything to call themselves other than “fascist,” and while that term may apply, few people want to associate with the word.

Egan’s biggest problem is that he treats “independents” as though they are some monolithic group. They aren’t. He even notes that the recent trend has been for self identified independents to come from the Republican Party. Based upon the recent news that is reported in his own paper, does he really think these are people leaving the party because it is too conservative and that it doesn’t get anything done? Sure: there are some. But my perception of this group is not that they are open to voting for more moderate politicians. Rather, it is that they are simply embarrassed to associate with the Republican Party. In the privacy of the ballot box, they vote as they wouldn’t in public.

To make matters worse, Egan then sums up what his mythical independent voters believe in:

The independents are more likely to want something done about climate change, and immigration reform. They’re not afraid of gay marriage or contraception or sensible gun laws. They think government can be a force for good.

Oh, I see: so the independents believe in exactly what the Democrats believe in. The real question is, if you asked these independents which party they would pick if they had to, you’d see that, yes, the independents skew slightly Democratic. The problem with them as a group, is that exactly the ones who are in the center of the political spectrum are the ones who are least likely to vote.

I don’t really know what Egan thinks he is doing in his article. It would be nice to have more choices in terms of people to vote for. But the truth is that the Democratic Party is a big tent. The only two “independents” in Congress both caucus with the Democrats. Perhaps Egan has forgotten his Shakespeare:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

If what the “independents” want is what the Democrats have to offer, why would calling them independents matter? Bernie Sanders is an independent, but calls himself a socialist. I just think of him a good solid liberal Democrat. I don’t care what he calls himself or how he shows up on the Senate roll call. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why an otherwise smart guy like Egan would care.

See Also:

South Will Fall Again (with Obamacare)
Potato Famine

Jobs Report Good News for Senate Elections

Obama HopeAs regular readers know, I am not an optimist. Most probably think me cynical and pessimistic. I don’t see myself that way. I just react to reality as I find it. And sometimes, I’m really optimistic. After the first presidential debate in 2012, all my liberal friends were bummed out. So was I. But then the October Jobs Report came out and it was great! So I became downright cheery because, “It’s the economy, stupid!” But most of my friends did not see it that way. But they were wrong and I was right. I don’t mean to gloat. I just mean to point out that when I’m optimistic, you should probably pay attention.

Like most liberals, I am concerned about the Democrats losing the Senate in November. For a long time, I’ve estimated that that this has about a 50% chance of happening. Indeed, that is more or less where The Upshot has been predicting for months. But the one thing that will really improve the Democrats’ chances is if the economy continues to improve. And I’ve been pretty bullish on this. It’s really very simple. The economy is under-performing. There is a lot of unused capacity and I just don’t see a reason why things would reverse now.

But in case you didn’t know it, it is not the first Friday of the month. But tomorrow is a federal holiday, so the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has come out with its June Jobs Report. And it is a humdinger! The economy added 288,000 new jobs. And the BLS revised the last two months’ employment figures up by a total of 29,000. That actually puts April creating 304,000 jobs. You can always find things in the jobs report to complain about, but overall, it is a really good report.

If you want to get into the details and even find some things to feel bad about, Matt Yglesias at Vox, put together an excellent run down of what various people are saying about various parts of the report, Economy Adds 288,000 New Jobs, Unemployment Rate Falls. You might have noticed that I didn’t mention the unemployment rate. That’s because it is meaningless. In particular, the economy still hasn’t turned the corner in the eyes of Americans. More people are leaving the job market than are finding jobs. But it looks like this will not be true for much longer.

The reason this makes me feel better about the Senate is that as the economy improves, so will people’s opinion of President Obama. And so when they go to the polls, they will be more likely to think, “You know, the Democrats are doing a good job; now is not the time to switch horses.” Even more important, feeling good about Obama will make more Democrats decide to actually go to the trouble of voting. And it won’t take much for the Democrats to hold onto the Senate.

It is still too soon to tell. But if July adds 300,000 jobs and August does the same, people are going to notice. That alone will probably reverse the dominance of people leaving the job market. And that means people will be feeling better about the state of things. Of course, even if the Republicans do retake the Senate, it won’t mean much. They are almost certain to lose it again in 2016. But having a Democratic Senate would generally be helpful to Obama in his last two years—especially regarding the appointment of judges. If the Republicans take the Senate, they will probably not allow anyone to be confirmed. That would be bad, but not catastrophic.

So it would be best if the Democrats held onto the Senate. And today’s Jobs Report bodes well for that.

Taxes and Collapsing Bridges

I-35 Bridge Collapse

In a short blog post, The Great Disinvestment, Paul Krugman noted, “[I]t’s absurd that the federal gasoline tax has been flat in nominal terms since 1993, which means that in real terms it has fallen 40 percent.” That really struck me because it so highlights the results of the Republican Party’s absolute insistence on never raising taxes. There is nothing principled about this stance; it is just irresponsible.

In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank argued that conservatives are not just naturally bad at governing. He claimed that they intentionally ruin the effectiveness of government and rack up large debts so that when the Democratic Party is in power, it will have to spend most of its time and resources fixing the damage. I do not accept this thesis. It is too Machiavellian, and frankly, I don’t think that they are cunning enough for such a project.

But I wrote about the book before, Why Are Republicans the Wrecking Crew? In it, I discussed how it doesn’t actually matter. The result is the same. The Republicans rule both incompetently and recklessly. When the Democrats come into office, they do feel that they must clean up the mess. That’s a fundamental problem because Democrats do want the government to work. But it isn’t as though the Republicans don’t want the government to work. It is just that they get carried away by their rhetoric.

Let’s look at the federal budget from 2011, but it always looks about like this:

US Federal Spending 2011

Most of that is stuff that Republicans want to keep, or at very least, know that they would cease to be a viable political party is they touched. So all their posturing is nothing more than their attempts to harm Democratic constituencies while rewarding their own. This was clearly on display with the most recent farm bill. The Republicans actually wanted to give farmers—who are mostly large corporations—more money while they gutted the food stamp program. One of the reasons that we even have a food stamp program is because price supports (welfare for farmers) makes food more expensive (a tax on people who eat). So it was seen as only fair that the government help out the poor since they were paying more for food than they should.

As for the gas tax, well, Republicans don’t care about paying for things. Actually, the obsession with “pay fors” is one of the maladies of the Democratic Party. Republicans only think we should pay for things when the Democrats are in power. Meanwhile, over the last two decades, the gas tax is roughly half what it was two decades ago. This is while we should (1) be encouraging people to drive less with higher taxes, and (2) have more money to repair our crumbling infrastructure.

This is why we can’t have nice things bridges that don’t fall down.

Afterword

The gas tax is not the only way we pay for bridges and roads. But the fact that we can’t raise taxes—even to keep up with inflation—is indicative of why the United States is literally falling apart.

Franz Kafka and the War on Drugs

Franz KafkaOn this day in 1883, the great writer Franz Kafka was born. He was the kind of guy you would expect: shy, alienated, intellectual. He was educated and spent most of his adult life working as an insurance claims adjuster. But he always saw himself as a writer and even quit a job in order to give himself more time for his writing. This is remarkable to me because it shows a character of will that few people then or now have. I often ask the question, why do the children of writers often become writer, the children of actors often become actors, and so on. It isn’t genetics. It is that if you are like Kafka, whose father was a small businessman, it just isn’t seen as reasonable to be a writer. It seems fanciful. That’s because everything is a commodity: it is not enough to work; one must work on something that will make money. So it is fine for Joe King and Owen King to be writers, in a way that it wasn’t for father Stephen before he published Carrie.

For the last seven years of his life, Kafka suffered from tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him shortly before turning 41. In 1918, his employer, Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, gave him a pension and retired him due to his illness. He had worked there for ten years. Can you imagine an employer doing that today? Anyway, that did allow him to concentrate on his writing, although his illness was by that point a problem. He wrote many important works during this period. But his best known works were written in the years right before World War I: “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” and The Trial. (You can get the stories various places such as, Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories.)

What I find most striking about Kafka’s work is how he maintains standard narrative technique, but describes a world in which the characters are alien. It has been suggested that he suffered from schizoid personality disorder, so it is possible that he did see the world in this way. Of course, it seems to me that he was more classically neurotic. He seems to have been very uncomfortable with himself. And as we see in “The Metamorphosis,” it isn’t the world that changes but rather the hero. More commonly, nothing changes; the hero just starts alienated. And Kafka’s main way of freeing his characters from this existential isolation is death.

I am most interested in The Trial. It could have been written about the modern American “justice” system in the War on Drugs. K is never told what the charges against him are. The modern drug user knows the name of the charge, but it might as well be a number. Why exactly is it that a man sitting at home doing a drug is committing a crime? How does it negatively affect society? In what sense is it a crime? And then, although nominally innocent until proven guilty, in practice all drug users are simply guilty. The arresting officer says that drugs were found and the officer is never questioned. Just as in The Trial, the only way to avoid punishment is to have a well connected lawyer. There is no case that can be made against the law. It is as if the case against K is simply that he exists. That’s a ridiculous law, but so are the drug laws. The only real difference is that drug users are told their punishment is for their own good. No such hypocrisy exists in The Trial.

Happy birthday Franz Kafka!

Afterword

Here is Orson Welles’ filmed version of The Trial in its entirety. It is reasonably close to the book, captures the feeling in the book perfectly, and yet is totally Welles: