Austerity, Ideology, and the UK Elections

David CameronIt’s hard to get too upset about this last week’s elections in the United Kingdom. The truth is that the UK still has a decent welfare state and the Tories aren’t nearly as crazy as our own Republicans. (There are indications that it is getting worse, though.) But I find the whole thing interesting. It’s especially notable that what happened in the UK is the same thing that happened in Israel: the people have become more polarized. The Conservative Party won the election outright, but not because people stopped being liberal. Its gains came from the destruction of the centrist Liberal Democrats.

It’s actually remarkable. In 2010, the Conservative Party got 306 seats and the Liberal Democrats got 57 seats. So the coalition got 363 seats or 56% (they got 59.4% of the popular vote). This time, the Conservative Party got 330 seats but the Liberal Democrats got only 8 seats. So the coalition got 338 seats or 52% (just 44.8% of the popular vote). So all that really happened was that a large part of the Liberal Democrats moved to the Conservative Party — but over half went somewhere else completely. This does not bode well for the Conservative Party. And again, it is just like what happened to Likud in Israel — it hangs onto power because all the conservative minded people jumped to its defense. But where does that lead? After all, the Conservative Party may have won 51% of the seats, but it only won 37% of the vote.[1]

The Labour Party did worse in terms of seats this time, going from 258 in 2010 to 232 this year. But they got decidedly more votes: from 29.0% in 2010 to 30.4 now. And they should have done even better. They seem to have seen the opposite of what happened to the Tories: liberal minded voters moved from Labour to smaller parties. The Green Party saw a huge surge in vote totals, from 0.9% to 3.8% — although they still only have one seat. But the biggest news is from the Scottish National Party (SNP). Now part of that is just because of the Scottish independence movement. But as Richard Seymour noted, the party also benefited by not being ideologically squishy, “SNP defended a simple, civilized position: no austerity, stop demonizing people on welfare, and welcome immigrants.”

Stop and GoIt is hard to say whether or not Labour lost because — like the Democratic Party here in the US — it doesn’t much stand for anything other than not being quite as bad as the conservatives. The main issue, I think, is just that the economy in the UK has been doing fairly well the last year or two. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, that tends to trump all else. Basically, the Conservative Party got into office, hurt the economy badly with austerity policies, eventually stopped the austerity policies, and when the economy improved, credited the austerity policies for it. We’ve seen this again and again in the US; see, for example, the 2004 presidential election.

But in another post, Krugman pointed out another potential problem, Stop-Go Austerity and Self-Defeating Recoveries. One can look at this election very cynically. The Tories enacted harsh austerity to destroy social programs. Then they stopped it to get re-elected. Now they could enact more austerity for a while, and then again reverse it to get re-elected. But I don’t even think they have to be cynical to do that. I think that the conservatives actually think that austerity is the right thing to do. I suspect that they see the easing up on austerity as being an unfortunate political necessity, but that in the long run, destroying all unions and environmental regulations and welfare is the best for everyone. And by “everyone,” they mean themselves.

We’ll see what the future holds for the United Kingdom. The Tories may be disinclined to do too much damage, because Scotland still poses a problem. It seems to be getting more liberal by the day. So it may be what saves the UK. On the other hand, if Scotland ever does leave the UK, it might bode very poorly for the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If that happens, Labour will really need to step things up. Or just wait until the Tories destroy the country.

[1] I will admit to being mystified by parliamentary elections. The vile UK Independence Party (UKIP) got 12.6% of the popular vote and yet only one seat out of 650. I guess they have a little support everywhere but a lot of support only one place. But I don’t know.

The Awful Secret Behind the Universe

John Dies at the EndSolving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you don’t go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead.

Let’s say you have an ax. Just a cheap one, from Home Depot. On one bitter winter day, you use said ax to behead a man. Don’t worry, the man was already dead. Or maybe you should worry, because you’re the one who shot him.

He had been a big, twitchy guy with veiny skin stretched over swollen biceps, a tattoo of a swastika on his tongue. Teeth filed into razor-sharp fangs — you know the type. And you’re chopping off his head because, even with eight bullet holes in him, you’re pretty sure he’s about to spring back to his feet and eat the look of terror right off your face.

On the follow-through of the last swing, though, the handle of the ax snaps in a spray of splinters. You now have a broken ax. So, after a long night of looking for a place to dump the man and his head, you take a trip into town with your ax. You go to the hardware store, explaining away the dark reddish stains on the broken handle as barbecue sauce. You walk out with a brand-new handle for your ax.

The repaired ax sits undisturbed in your garage until the spring when, on one rainy morning, you find in your kitchen a creature that appears to be a foot-long slug with a bulging egg sac on its tail. Its jaws bite one of your forks in half with what seems like very little effort. You grab your trusty ax and chop the thing into several pieces. On the last blow, however, the ax strikes a metal leg of the overturned kitchen table and chips out a notch right in the middle of the blade.

Of course, a chipped head means yet another trip to the hardware store. They sell you a brand-new head for your ax. As soon as you get home, you meet the reanimated body of the guy you beheaded earlier. He’s got a new head, stitched on with what looks like plastic weed-trimmer line, and it’s wearing that unique expression of “you’re the man who killed me last winter” resentment that one so rarely encounters in everyday life.

You brandish your ax. The guy takes a long look at the weapon with his squishy, rotting eyes and in a gargly voice he screams, “That’s the same ax that beheaded me!”

Is he right?

—David Wong
John Dies at the End

Pathetic GOP Plan on Immigration

Scared RepublicansJonathan Chait wrote, Hillary Clinton Sets an Immigration Trap for Republicans. This is in reference to her full throated support for immigration reform and promise to do even more regarding the issue than President Obama has. Chait thinks it is quite a brilliant move, and I agree. It has the added benefit of being something that no one can doubt Clinton actually believes in. What I don’t quite follow is this continued narrative that somehow the Republicans had an opportunity to “take immigration off the issue table” after the 2012 election. That just isn’t true.

What the Republicans had was the opportunity to do something about immigration. But what they were willing to do only made them look worse. I’ve been writing about this for years, Republican Control of Congress Will Not Rebrand Them. When the Senate passed an immigration bill it had a staggering 13 year — best case scenario — pathway to citizenship. But even that was too much for the House, which increased it to 18 years — and then wouldn’t even vote for it. I just don’t see that it would do the Republicans much good to say to the Latino community, “We’re going to do this one thing for you, and we really resent doing it, so don’t ever ask for anything ever again!” I think that’s probably worse than doing nothing at all.

According to Chait, the Republican plan is to not talk about immigration during the primary and then in the general election to not sound too awful. That strikes me as a pretty lame strategy. To start with, the conservative base shares a myth. They all believe that fixing immigration is the same as fixing just about any problem: easy. According to their mythology, the only reason people get into the country illegally is because we allow them to. If only the president put his foot down and somehow willed it, there would be no more undocumented immigrants. The fact that most undocumented immigrants came here legally and overstayed their visas doesn’t matter in the least.

The main point is that conservative voters want to hear how “hard” their candidates are going to be. They don’t want nuance. They don’t even want solutions. They want aggressive rhetoric. So they are not going to allow the Republican Party to get all the way through the primaries without getting a bidding war between the candidates. “I see your self-deportation and raise you a special immigration force that will go through immigrant areas with flame throwers.” If the Republican Party were in control of this kind of thing, it would have done something about the problem long ago. But the primary appeal of the Republican Party is that it is against “those people.” Otherwise, their old white voter base might as well go with the Democrats who are at least competent.

There is a bigger problem. No Republican will ever support an immigration deal that is not predicated on “closing the border.” This, of course, will never happen. Given the conservative voters’ belief that it is a kind of conspiracy that anyone gets across the border, as long as anyone can get across the border, it is an excuse to do nothing. And now we have Scott Walker arguing that — far from providing a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally — we should greatly reduce legal immigration. All of this is likely to cause a feeding frenzy among the Republican candidates. Who can be the “hardest”?

This is a political mess for the Republicans, and it is of their own making. Being against any form of immigration reform is not a policy position. For the Republican primary voter, it is a necessary condition. The plan for the candidates was always to say nothing now, and then, during the general election, to make vague promises with caveats that made them meaningless. So the Republicans’ big plan was just to not be too offensive to non-white voters. And that was no plan at all.

Corporations Owe More Than Profits

Corporate GreedSomething that conservatives don’t seem to have much of a grasp on is the fact that the corporation is a government defined entity. There is nothing natural about it. In the natural world, if a company sold Thalidomide as a cure for morning sickness for pregnant women and their babies were born with absent or greatly deformed limbs, there would be no personal immunity. The top executives in the company would be executed by mobs of people. The decaying executive heads would be mounted on pikes with signs that read, “This is what we do to people who put profits above people.”

But despite what just about any libertarian you talk to will say, we don’t live in a natural world. We protect capitalist villains and one of the big ways we do that is through the legal construct called the corporation. This is something I understood very well when I was a libertarian. I was the only libertarian I knew who was for the elimination of the corporation. As the saying goes: with rights come responsibility. But for the modern conservative, just the opposite is true: the greater the rights, the less you should be held accountable. But don’t let the ideologues fool you: corporations are a something we give to business owners. And they need to pay us back for it.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a new proposal to clean up the corporate world. And while it won’t make things worse, it fully embraces an idea that is destroying our country and the world. It takes as given a point that is very much contested: that shareholders are the the only stakeholders of a corporation. Think about that for a moment: the society gives corporations all kinds of legal immunity and tax advantages. But the society isn’t a stakeholder. The corporation can rape the society and it is all fine because the society had no part in the success of the corporation. Note also: these are the same corporations that run to the government the moment they get into trouble.

Michael Hiltzik wrote a really informative article earlier week, The Right Way to Measure CEO Pay Has Nothing to Do With “Shareholder Value.” I hadn’t known that it was Milton Friedman who really got going the idea that corporations owe nothing to anyone but their shareholders. And the argument he used was the most facile of libertarian nonsense: basically because that was the only obvious way to figure out what a corporation ought to be doing. Workers aren’t stakeholders, so when Carly Fiorina fires tens of thousands of workers even while driving her company into the ground, she should be paid tens of millions of dollars. It’s just obvious to Milton Friedman and other psychopaths.

It’s fairly easy to see why corporations looking only at shareholder profits is a doomed strategy. It is akin to the paradox of thrift. With every company trying to cut its workforce and move its operations out of the country, you gradually destroy the customer base for your products. As Hiltzik pointed out:

The stock market crashes of 2000 and 2008, and the long, grinding recession since 2008 were artifacts of its effects; the working class was so hollowed out by layoffs and pay cuts designed to shift income to the shareholders that they resorted to debt to maintain their standard of living. Eventually their ability to consume collapsed, taking down corporate profits along the way.

But I don’t blame the corporations. They are like the caribou who were so successful they staved to death. We shouldn’t expect corporate CEOs or stockholders to be any smarter than those stupid animals. This is why we need to regulate companies. We need to stop them from doing what might help themselves this quarter, but will hurt them and the rest of the economy in the long run. “Enlightened self-interest” was always a myth.

Morning Music: Elliott Smith

Needle in the Hay - Elliott SmithIn my second novel, the narrator, Brian, shows his ambivalent feelings about Elliott Smith. As he makes his way out of Oregon, Rachel complains about the unrelenting stream of sadcore that Brian is playing. He tells her to put something else on:

She hit eject and grabbed a random tape from a stack at her feet. The radio growled with static. She shoved a new tape in. Elliott Smith’s voice came over the speakers, “Your hand on his arm, haystack charm, around your neck. Strung out and thin, call some friend trying to cash some check. He’s acting dumb, that’s what you’ve come to expect. Needle in the hay…”

After some unrelated dialog, it continues:

“Falling out, sixth and Powell, a dead sweat in my teeth,” Elliott Smith continued through the speakers like he knew what he was talking about.

Smith’s work is highly poetic and not the sort of thing that Brian — who has lived a very hard life — appreciates. He feels it co-opts his life. And especially in “Needle in the Hay,” Smith is describing the kind of life that Brian knows to be not at all poetic — and something he is fleeing.

Still, pretty song.

Anniversary Post: Hard Hat Riot

Hard Hat RiotOn this day in 1970, the Hard Hat Riot took place. It was a clash between students who were protesting the Kent State shooting and construction workers who were supporting the Vietnam War. Once the student protest was announced, Peter Brennan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, decided to call a counter protest. Just to be clear: it was not the students who rioted; it was the All American construction workers. The power elite must have loved seeing it.

The two sides of this protest were in agreement on the one thing that mattered: economics. By 1970, the Vietnam War was lost and Nixon was just looking for a way to break the news to the American people. But if you want to set the date for the end of the New Deal, it was this day 45 years ago. This was when liberalism became the domain of the pointy headed intellectuals and the scum of society. It was when those unionized workers started voting in a way that assured that their children and grandchildren would not have union protections.

On good days, I imagine that all the workers of the nation will put aside their other disagreements and work together for some small amount of economic justice. But it was only a couple of years ago that I almost came to blows with a family friend over Occupy Wall Street. This particular guy has a great union job. But I know that in 20 years, that job will be non-union. He didn’t like the Occupy protesters because they inconvenienced him. It didn’t matter that they were protesting for him. If he lost his job, he wouldn’t be able to find one that paid half what he makes now. But he’s got his, so screw everyone else. That’s the Hard Hat Riot.

Forty-five years ago, economic liberalism came apart.