Friday, January 29, 2016

Desperate Wagering

“The ancient Greeks first invented the word ‘demagogue’ to describe a new class of mob leaders who quickly evolved to fill a power vacuum left by the demise of a reigning class of elite statesmen.”
-- Michael Signer, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies
So we now think we know where Trump voters are coming from. They seem to be essentially a new conglomeration of citizens who are alienated by both major political parties, who can be best described as white working people. Their main issues seem to be that the economy is rigged against them and that America’s national security needs strengthening. But we should not really be calling them voters—at least not yet, not until they have actually done some voting. At this point we cannot be sure if they just people who show up at rallies and tell pollsters that they like Trump. We do not yet know in what numbers they will show up at caucuses and voting booths.

That is all very interesting but, frankly, what all of those people do is really out of our hands. Let’s not worry about them for the moment. Instead, let us worry about the best way that we ourselves can settle on the candidate who will most reliably carry out policies that we ourselves support. That is a lot harder than it seems it should be.

The question becomes a lot simpler if you have settled into a definite pattern of always voting for the same party time after time. Then it comes down to things like whether you care more about a close philosophical match between you and the person you vote for or more about not throwing away your vote. In other words, are you going to limit your voting possibilities to candidates who seem “viable.” If you are a Republican, that narrows you down to maybe three or four candidates. If you are Democrat, your main decision is technically whether Bernie Sanders is actually viable. But since the Democratic primary is virtually a two-person race (sorry, O’Malley or whatever your name is, but that’s the reality), you can’t really throw your vote away because you aren’t going to get an unforeseen result through misguided strategy. And, let’s face it, if you’re a Democrat, your nominee has already been decided for you, and only God or a unexpectedly proactive Justice Department can do anything about it now.

If you’re a Republican, things are a whole lot more complicated. With such a large field, it is hard to know who is actually viable and who is not. To the surprise of all professional politics watchers, Donald Trump is viable. So are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and maybe possibly Chris Christie and frankly just about everyone else in the sense that there are lot of squishy and non-Trump voters to be mopped up down the line as traction-less candidates drop out. And you can come up with a scenario for anyone who has been participating in the primetime debates (except probably Rand Paul) to catch fire and begin attracting them. Realistically, though, it’s probably going to be one of the big four.

With things pared down to that number, you probably already have a pretty good idea which one you would probably vote for. But let’s take the exercise a step further. The next question is: which candidate do I most agree with who I can be reasonably certain will do what he or she says. That’s really the hard part. Both parties’ current frontrunners have moved miles away from positions they have held in the past, and there is no way to judge to what extent that is for sincere reasons or cynical ones. But for Democrats, as I say, it doesn’t really matter. Your nominee has pretty much been decided for you. People who are voting or caucusing as Republicans really have to decide, assuming they like what Trump says, whether he can be trusted to carry through. The same is true to a lesser extent for Christie. There is less basis for worry that Cruz and Rubio are not firmly behind the positions they espouse.

There is another consideration. All of the viable candidates have track records as office holders—except Trump. No matter what way you look at it, a vote for Trump is definitely the wildest roll of the dice. But then Trump supporters are clearly not people who are in a mood to play it safe. By voting for Trump they will essentially be saying, anything would have to be better than what we have now.

If you are a person who is happy with the way economic policy and foreign policy have been managed for the past seven years, you may want to do some soul-searching as to how such a large number of people arrived at such a point. And if your answer is that they are all just ignorant or crazy, then you may want to do even more soul-searching.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Climate of Change

“I was there. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised such reform but once elected didn’t want to spend political capital on it. In 2008, Barack Obama made the same promise (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) but never acted on it. Partly as a result, union membership sunk from 22 percent of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to fewer than 12 percent today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains. In addition, the Obama administration protected Wall Street from the consequences of the Street’s gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but let millions of underwater homeowners drown.”
—Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing on on Thursday
Back in primary school, when I first began learning about political systems, we were taught that the United States was superior to countries like the Soviet Union because they had one-party rule and in America it was possible for “anyone” to become president.

The reality is, of course, that while some countries may have one-party rule—thereby severely restricting the possible paths to leadership—the U.S. has two-party rule. So rather than one party having a monopoly on power, two parties have a duopoly. That means the path to leadership is still pretty restricted—just not as much as in a one-party system.

Some Americans actually believe that the two-party system is enshrined in the Constitution. It is not. But it is easy to see how people could get that idea. Journalists and commentators invariably speak of the two-party system in the same way as they would of any of the institutions that are actually defined in the Constitution. But that document does not address political parties at all. The fact that the only viable avenue to the presidency is through either the Democratic or the Republican party is entirely the work of the country’s political class.

In other western democracies, political parties come and go. For example, for many years Ireland had a rather vibrant Green Party which very quickly hurled itself into oblivion when it made the disastrous decision to go into coalition government with Fianna Fáil, one of the two center-right parties that have dominated Irish government since the founding of the modern nation. Fianna Fáil itself has very nearly gone into oblivion because of its handling of the previous decade’s financial crisis.

There has never been much chance that the U.S.’s Democratic or Republican party would go out of existence or be supplanted by a new party. The last time that happened was in the early 19th century when the anti-slavery Republicans consigned the Whigs to oblivion. Since then years of an ever-growing edifice of election laws have pretty much guaranteed that no new movement could realistically challenge the two quasi-official parties. There have been attempts at independent and third-party candidacies, but at the presidential level they have never stood a chance.

So when a new political movement is born and grows, its only realistic path is to begin by taking over one of the established political parties. At the moment that is what seems to be going on to some extent in both parties. The country seems to be aligning itself into new categories of political, social and cultural thinking and, in the process, individual citizens are trying to figure out where they fit in the current political system as it exists. To the national media, which always takes a top-down view of politics, this looks like each of the parties going through its own sort of identity crisis. What is really happening, however, is that various currents of political thought are playing a game of musical chairs where the rules have been rigged to provide only two chairs.

Way back in August (yes, this campaign has really been dragging on exactly as long as it seems to have done) I confessed to having no idea where all those Trump supporters were coming from. I am still not certain whether I have a clear idea, but I do have a definite impression based on reading what people who are supposed to know about these things have discerned. Despite the media’s tendency to treat both political parties as stable, finite groups of people, the reality is that many individuals do not participate in the political process at all and quite a few of those that do can shift between one party and the other. What seems to have been happening (if what I am reading is accurate) is that much of the support Donald Trump has been amassing has come from people who had not been that active politically. Or, in the terms used by the media, he is attracting “new” voters to the Republican party. And who are these new voters? By and large they seem to be the same people that many of us assumed were Republican voters already, that is, white blue-collar types. This is roughly the group that once were referred to by Democrats as labor voters and, more recently, were dubbed “Reagan Democrats” because they switched to supporting the GOP in the 1980s.

We should stop pretending (as journalists and political operatives like to do) that the two parties are cohesive organizations with narrow ideological boundaries. They are both fairly broad and diverse coalitions. Increasingly, the Democratic coalition has comprised minority groups, affluent well-educated types and intellectual/academic types, including students. It used to also include union workers, but increasingly that segment has dwindled to mainly government employees since private sector unions have shrunk drastically. And because, frankly, labor has not really done that well under the Obama administration. African-Americans have not done that well economically under Obama either, but at least they are not at risk of defecting. They are at risk, however, of turning out in fewer numbers on election and caucus days.

So who does that leave for the Republicans? Well, basically the aforementioned white blue-collar types as well as small and medium-sized business people, rural residents and generally people who are ideologically conservative. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough for the GOP to have been dominating Congress and state and local offices for the past several years. Democrats have had the White House for the past two terms only because Barack Obama was able to motivate members of the Democratic coalition who are not always reliable voters.

The oft-repeated conventional wisdom has been that only someone really conservative could get the Republican nomination anymore. But Trump’s positions do not always map consistently with conservatism as we usually understand it. (See how Ted Cruz’s debate jab about “New York values” fell flat.) Moreover, it was always assumed that someone who outraged whole groups of people, as Trump has done, would be understood instinctively by Republican voters to be un-electable and therefore disqualified. But those assumptions made sense only in the media-fed view of static political parties. They have turned out to be false because the Republican party is not static. Because of the Trump phenomenon, the GOP is changing and potentially growing. And the so-called “establishment” (really, the donor class and professional conservative thinkers and writers) is doing its best to stop this change.

Meanwhile, changes within the Democratic party are less severe but no less striking. There actually seems to be a growing rift between the sub-coalition of minorities and the political establishment (read the Clintons and other professional politicians who mainly just want to win elections) and the white affluent/intellectual/academic wing of the party. The latter group have surprised themselves by actually falling more and more in love with Bernie Sanders or, rather, in love with the feeling of liberation that comes with actually standing up unequivocally for their desire to see the U.S. become more like social-democratic Europe. For them, that feeling of liberation is akin to what Trump supporters feel when they hear their candidate say things that send network anchors and pundits into a tizzy.

Intra-coalition stresses are generally normal during a primary campaign, and in the end everyone usually comes together with the motivation of keeping the other guys out. That is probably what will happen with the Democrats again this time, although this time around the stresses do seem fairly pronounced. As for the Republican party, it is hard to see how it comes out of this primary season without becoming seriously transformed. But will the Trump faction actually gain control of the party or will the party fracture?

Looking further ahead to the general election in November, given the increasing polarizaton between those who are Sanders-minded on one end of the spectrum and those who are Trump-minded on the other, it is hard to see how a large portion of the electorate does not come out of it feeling extremely alienated and completely uninvested in the success of the next administration.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Finding Fault

“First of all, we waited too long. We let the Islamic state build up its money, capability and strength and weapons while it was still in Syria. Then when [ISIS] moved into Iraq, the Sunni Muslims didn’t object to their being there and about a third of the territory in Iraq was abandoned.”
—Former President Jimmy Carter, October 7 in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
There is a refrain that I am hearing repeated more and more. It is the notion that the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, was virtually created whole-cloth by blundering American foreign and military policy.

To be sure, this is now a standard Democratic talking point. It is trotted out as a defense whenever Republicans criticize the Obama administration as being weak and feckless in the Middle East. And, of course, Republicans have their own contrasting talking point—that ISIS flourished in (if was not actually spawned by) a vacuum created by President Obama’s rush to get out of Iraq.

But it is not just political hacks who keep repeating the line about ISIS being a virtual creation of the Bush administration. It is a common theme among journalists and analysts in the UK and Ireland and undoubtedly many other countries. And also among many U.S. writers. Journalist/author Robin Wright could be heard on NPR’s Fresh Air a couple of weeks ago saying that the invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. In his book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick (as one book review sums up) “blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.” Warrick’s narrative focuses largely on Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi who, he says, founded (before the Iraq invasion, by the way) the group that would evolve into ISIS.

The idea that really bad actors and bad events in the Middle East are the direct result of American (or, more generally, Western) actions has a long history. For generations academics and many journalists have laid the blame for this conflict or that war at the feet of imperial legacy. And of course historical events like the crusades and colonization cannot help but have had a major impact on the history of region. (Interestingly, however, westerners who lecture guiltily about the crusades never seem to bring up the fact that in the eighth century Muslims conquered all of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula and advanced into France as far as Poitiers and Tours.)

The mindset that every major thing that happens in the Middle East is caused by Western interloping seems somehow, well, western-centric and dismissive of other peoples as having a hand in their own destinies. Saying ISIS was “created” by America frankly makes it sound like some sort of comic book super-villain who starts out as a perfectly normal guy but suddenly turns evil because he fell into a vat of chemicals.

The most interesting take I have seen so far on the genesis of ISIS was in a Washington Post piece last April by Liz Sly, the paper’s Beirut bureau chief. Her sources were telling her that, while ISIS’s fighting and dying is done by recruits from many countries, the organization is run by Iraqis who are former Baathist military officers. In the end, her thrust was the same as Wright’s and Warrick’s—that the U.S. is at fault. But, according to Sly, the fault was specifically in disbanding Saddam Hussein’s army and turning all those armed men loose with no prospects in the new Shi’ite-run Iraq. This analysis is actually pretty hard to refute. Even people who defend the invasion of Iraq concede that the occupation was not well handled. But while many critics insisted that the very act of occupation was the cardinal sin, does it not seem that the problem of ISIS was caused by not having a more effective occupation? The Shi’ite majority had no interest in integrating the Sunni minority that had ruled over them under the brutal Saddam. If the U.S. had exerted more of its authority as the occupying power (instead of leaving Nouri al-Maliki and Jalal Talabani to their own devices) to ensure a more inclusive system of government, might it not have helped? In other words, perhaps the problem was not U.S. meddling but, rather, not enough U.S. meddling. After all, Iraq was largely peaceful (at least relative to its recent history) when Barack Obama took office in 2009. In fact, it is was so much so that (and it’s hard to remember this now) the president and Vice-President Joe Biden, in talking about the U.S. withdrawal, both touted Iraq as an American achievement.

What is interesting about Sly’s article is her description of how seamlessly Baathism mutated into a radical Islamic movement. “By the time U.S. troops invaded in 2003,” she wrote, “Hussein had begun to tilt toward a more religious approach to governance, making the transition from Baathist to Islamist ideology less improbable for some of the disenfranchised Iraqi officers.” She also noted that the regime brutality was ever increasing, thus presaging ISIS’s savagery. “In the last two years of Hussein’s rule,” she noted, “a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.”

While this isn’t the point Sly was making, her article gives the unmistakable impression that Baathism under Saddam was quite possibly on track to evolve into something like the Islamic State even without American interference. After all, well before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam had invaded and fought wars with neighboring countries and had committed atrocities (including the use of weapons of mass destruction) on his own people. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the situation in the region would be hunky-dory today if the U.S. had kept all its troops at home during the past decade and a half. And you cannot even be sure that the region’s bad actors would have left the West alone absent the Iraq invasion. After all, the 9/11 attacks happened before the Iraq invasion.

Of course, there is no way we can ever know what might have (or might not have) occurred if things had happened differently. And that, ultimately, is the problem with the easy dismissal of complicated developments abroad as being entirely the result of the actions of just one of many actors in a complex world.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Market Forces

Anderson Cooper: “What can you say to somebody tonight to convince them that you don’t want to take away everybody’s guns? That you’re not coming for their guns?”
President Obama: “Well, first of all, Anderson, I think it’s useful to keep in mind, I’ve been, now, president for over seven years, and gun sales don’t seem to have suffered during that time.”
Cooper: “If anything, actually, you’ve helped.”
Obama: “They’ve—they’ve—gone up. I’ve—been very good for gun manufacturers.”
 —Exchange at CNN’s Guns in America town hall on January 7
What to make of that back-and-forth between the CNN anchor and the president?

I don’t want to put words in the president’s mouth, but I think it is fairly safe to say that he would prefer for gun sales to be going down rather than up. And, if we accept that premise, then the president’s defense against charges that he wants to undermine the Second Amendment basically amounts to this: Gun rights advocates do not have anything to worry about because I am so ineffective at achieving my policy goals—at least when it comes to guns.

The irony that gun sales have surged under this president—the very one who has been most vocal in our memory about the problem of guns in society—highlights an interesting point. Barack Obama’s actions as president suggest a very interesting understanding (or lack thereof) of how economies work. The BBC World Service’s overnight business program last week underscored, however unintentionally, that fact. One of their segments reported on how gun sales how had surged in response to his raising the gun issue. This is a pattern we have seen again and again. By injecting even the merest theoretical uncertainty into the future market availabilty of firearms, the marketplace responded by driving up demand for those firearms.

A similar thing has happened when it comes to business investment and, consequently, employment. During Obama’s first term, prolonged talk of tax increases and uncertainty over the healthcare law, which was rolled out in slow motion, caused businesses to hold back investment because they could not forecast their expenses. That, in turn, caused the recovery to be anemic. Yes, the latest job figures (seven years after the financial crisis) look good on paper, but the workforce participation number is the lowest in generations and wage levels have fallen.

The other segment on the BBC program was about the rise of healthcare costs in America. As reported by the BBC’s partner, the Marketplace program on American Public Media, a consequence of the Affordable Care Act is that it has encouraged hospitals to consolidate, resulting in higher costs from a lack of competition. To add insult to injury, Gallup reported the other day that, despite the ACA, the percentage of uninsured Americans ticked up to 11.9 percent last year from a low of 11.4 percent. (That compares to 14.6 at the beginning of 2008).

The president’s response to this sort of bad news is usually to blame participants in the economy for not conforming to his reality. He does not acknowledge the market demand he himself created for more firearms purchases. Instead, he blames the National Rifle Association for its lobbying activities. It does not seem to occur to him that the NRA’s successes are actually due to a widespread demand for guns rather than the cause of it. If people are rushing to buy more guns, it is not because of laws that are or are not passed by Congress or because of the activities of some lobbying group. If they are buying more guns, it is because they do not feel safe. You can argue whether those fears are rational or not, but it is certainly clear that this is what is behind the demand for guns.

If the president wants to see fewer guns being purchased, he needs to do what he can to make people feel safer because, so far at least, his response to terror attacks in France and California do not seem to have done the trick. Not only have weapons sales surged but so has Donald Trump’s political support. Even if that support does not amount to a majority of Americans—or even of Republicans—it is still an indictment on his ability to reassure the country.

Maybe more people would be less jittery if they perceived the government as having at least realized that the attack in San Bernardino was not strictly result of inadequate gun legislation. Or that the American marketplace consists of more than just the Democratic base.