Al From: the Conservative’s Best Friend

Al FromI came upon a great article that Rick Perlstein wrote earlier this year at The Nation, From & Friends. It is a review of Al From’s memoir, The New Democrats and the Return to Power. In case you don’t know, Al From is one of the most vile political operatives of the last 30 years. As the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he stands as one of the most important figures in creating our modern dysfunctional political system. And the particularly great thing about From is that he sees himself as a great hero — the man who saved the Democratic Party.

What I’ve argued for a long time is that the DLC “solution” to saving the Democratic Party both destroyed the party and caused the Republican Party to make a hard right turn. According to From, without the Democratic Party becoming conservative on economic issues, we would have had a string of Republican presidents from 1992 onward. And implicit in From’s argument is that the Democratic Party lost the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections because it was liberal. This is patently false.

The economic fundamentals were such that nothing the Democrats could have done in 80, 84, and 88 would have won then the presidency. The economy was tanking in 1980 and that is why Reagan beat Carter. The economy was roaring back in 1984 and that is why Reagan beat Mondale. And in 1988, the economy was still doing very well and that is why Bush beat Dukakis. And as Perlstein discusses in some depth, none of Carter, Mondale, nor Dukakis were liberal. They were all proto-New Democrats. The only reason that From doesn’t consider them as such is because they lost. That is apparently what it is to be a New Democrat: you have to be economically conservative and you have to win.

As for the elections after this period, the 1992 election was Clinton’s to lose. The fundamentals were even better for him in 1996. In 2000, Gore had a minor advantage in terms of the economy. But as we know, Gore actually won that election. The fact that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush doesn’t mean anything. In 2004, Bush had as big an economic advantage as his father had against Dukakis in 1988. But the most telling election was 2008, when the economic fundamentals were even stronger in the Democrats’ favor than they had been in the Republicans’ favor in 1980. Yet while the Republicans took the opportunity to elect an extremely conservative president, the Democrats took the opportunity to elect a moderate (conservative Democrat) who was more interested in “bipartisanship” than liberalism.

That is the legacy of Al From. Now, even when the Democrats win presidential elections, liberals still lose. Our choice for president is now a modern Democrat, who is more conservative than an old Republican, or a modern Republican who is more extreme than Barry Goldwater and far less intelligent. Yet From’s 288 page awesomeness essay came with an introduction by Bill Clinton. And if we are very lucky, in 2016, we will elect Clinton’s wife who will continue the DLC tradition of offering us ever more neoliberal economic policy. Al From is a great political hero — for the conservative movement. Why any liberal would celebrate him, I can’t say.

Society Too Far Gone to Hear Richard Wilkinson

Richard WilkinsonThe following wonderful TED Talk is, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. In it, Richard Wilkinson begins, “You all know the truth of what I’m going to say. I think the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. What’s changed is we now can look at the evidence — we can compare societies — more and less equal societies — and see what inequality does.” I couldn’t disagree more that we all know the truth; as a society, we are incapable of seeing the truth.

Wilkinson is mistaking himself and other like minded people who look at evidence and assuming that they represent the society over all. And it is funny that he would be giving this talk to the power elite at TED, because they above all don’t believe such things. Remember when Nick Hanauer gave his TED Talk about how the rich were not “job creators”? What happened was that the head of the lecture series decided not to release the video of the talk because it was thought to be divisive. “Divisive,” of course, is what the oligarchs that support TED Talks call anything that questions their position as the noble “free market” aristocracy.

The biggest intellectual problems stem from hidden assumptions. And over the course of my life, I have see the most pernicious assumption ossify into unquestioned truth. That assumption is that the economy is a kind of social Darwinian system that must be left as it is or else we will decay into a terrible world where everyone lives in poverty except the very top. We will become a third world economy — a “banana” republic. The idea that economies are artificial constructs that are never “natural” is anathema. And along with that goes the idea that the economy ought to be designed to work for everyone and not just the very top.

Richard Wilkinson shows that the more equal a country is, the better off its people are in pretty much any way that you can think of. What’s more, the more equal a society is, the better off the rich are. Rich people in equal societies live longer. So we have a situation where the rich should rationally want a more equal society. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what they will work for. They more than anyone believe the big lie that the economy works the way it does because it must — because it is “natural.” And believing this lie flatters them: it says that in some objective way they are better than most people. They never grapple with the idea that they just happen to be doing well in our society because they happened to have been born into a society that rewards what they are good at. Warren Buffett is one of the few who gets it, “I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.”

I think of Wilkinson as those people at the end of Fahrenheit 451, holding onto knowledge for a later time when society is open to them. It reminds me of David Frum who has argued that he would be in favor of cannabis legalization if he could be convinced that it would not have any bad effects or lead people into “harder” drugs. It always struck me because it is a position that pretends to be reasonable but is completely closed minded. Just the same, the power elite may look at Wilkinson’s overwhelming evidence for having a more equal society and they will find a way to justify keeping things they way they are. Like Frum, they would require that there be some kind of assurance that there would be absolutely no down side to the change. But what they are really arguing is that nothing be done — because the current system works well for them.

So I see Richard Wilkinson as a noble but tragic character in our society. And we all suffer because our society is too far gone to see the obviousness of what he has to teach us.

Germany Doesn’t Need Violence to Enforce Its Will

Germany FlagWar is really not about killing. Rather, it is about wielding power. Countries often use physical violence to get other countries to do what they want. But there are lots of other ways that a country can do the same thing. And although war is a particularly awful way to yield power, we shouldn’t just cast aside other abuses of power as though they didn’t matter.

The United States is especially bad in this regard. We have no problem bringing in our military, but we meddle in just about every country on earth. Much of the time, violence is implicit. But we also use our economic power against countries all the time — directly as well as through international organizations like the International Monetary Fund. And as we move into the future, I’m sure that powerful countries will use this tactic more and more. As a result, I think we have to get past this idea that just because people are shooting at each other, the powerful are not abusing their power. More and more it seems that economic extortion is the rule rather than the exception.

Many people have noticed that I have a fairly bad opinion of Germany. I think their behavior in the EU has been absolutely terrible. One of the reasons for forming the EU was to integrate the region so that they didn’t have any more world wars. That’s a laudable goal. Just the same, we seem to have ended up with the same thing. It is just that no one is shooting. And I’ll admit: that’s a positive change. But the fact remains that Germany has the largest economy in the EU and the country uses it to push the rest of the countries around.

The best example of this has been how Germany has acted since the financial crisis of 2008. Instead of looking for the best way to heal the entire economy of the European Union, Germany has spent the time complaining that other countries — especially in the south — are just not as virtuous as they are and if only these countries would act more like them, all would be fine. If this sounds vaguely racist and not too different from German thinking during the lead-up to World War II, I don’t think it is surprising.

What Europe needs is for the countries who are doing well to spend more and increase their inflation rate to allow the countries that are doing poorly to produce more and climb out of debt. This is the most basic of economic concepts: everyone can’t simultaneously save or it will just cause further depression of the economy. It even has a name: paradox of thrift. But Germany has done exactly the opposite of what it should: it has kept wages down, making it even harder for other countries to compete and break into the German markets. And to top matters off, Germany is smug about what it’s doing. So they claim they are virtuous, even as they are causing enormous amounts of pain throughout Europe and to a lesser extend worldwide.

European Labor Cost Inflation

Paul Krugman put together this helpful graph to show what’s going on. It shows how much wages have increased since the monetary union was established in 1999. And what you see is that during a time when German wages should have been rising faster than in Italy and France, they have been rising at less than one-third the rate of these countries. And this is not just some accident; this is German government policy. Krugman put it well:

At this point the European imbalance problem is a German problem, caused by Germany’s persistent failure to have wage and price increases in line with what the euro requires. This German undervaluation is in turn exporting deflation to the rest of Europe. By contrast, France, Spain, and even Italy have been playing by the rules.

But the German people would be shocked to hear that they aren’t playing by the rules. Their government and their media are not only telling them they are behaving exactly as they should but also that all the problems in southern Europe is caused by those countries not being enough like Germany. So let me be clear: Germany is a bully. And praising them for not invading southern Europe is a pretty low bar of accountability. Carl von Clausewitz said that war “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” That is what German is doing now. They just don’t need the violence anymore.

How Media Enables Republican Extremism

Reed RichardsonSince 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election — no matter the outcome — the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time — no matter the circumstances — the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.

You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition — launched mere hours into the Obama presidency — would never be so easily relinquished.

After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you’ll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was [immigration reform]…

It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges — implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama — was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform — like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.

Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies…

This is “objective” political journalism at its most insidious — projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media’s “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press’s political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.

In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.

—Reed Richardson
Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan SwiftOn this day in 1667, the great writer Jonathan Swift was born. He is best known for his satire in the novel Gulliver’s Travels and the essay A Modest Proposal. At less than 3,500 words, the latter makes the outrageous suggestion that the poor be able to sell their children as a food source to the wealthy — simultaneously reducing the parents’ burden and providing them with extra income. What particularly strikes me is that the proposal really isn’t that much different from what I hear from conservatives today. While it is certainly true that conservatives are hysterical in their commitment to protecting fetuses, most show little or no interest in offspring outside the womb. The bad condition of children is met with claims that the poor should not have had children they could not afford to keep. Today, a satirist would have to go to greater extremes, because conservatives today offer proposals that are too close to Swift’s.

Swift was English, but born in Ireland. And he spent most of the first half of his life trying make a living in England, only to be forced back to Ireland again and again. He was very good at making enemies. It was Queen Anne’s great hatred for Swift that finally got him to embrace Ireland. A Modest Proposal is, of course, explicitly about Ireland. Another of his essays, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, got his publisher charged with sedition. The criminal idea was that the Irish should use their own natural resources to produce products rather than simply sending them to England. This is still an issue today where the United States hates countries that want to actually use their natural resources rather than just sending them to us to exploit.

In 1726 — at the age of 59 (roughly the same age as Cervantes when he wrote the first book of Don Quixote) — Swift published his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels. At the time, it was a biting satire of government and religion. Now, I think it comes off more as a satire of human foibles. And it is also a good adventure story — proto-science fiction, very much as Jules Verne would write a century and a half later. Like much of his work, Gulliver’s Travels was published anonymously, although it was eventually published under his name in his lifetime. And regardless, it was generally known what works were his. He had a distinct style.

Happy birthday Jonathan Swift!