June 4, 2017

Rock, Paper, Scissors

On Twitter, the distillation of bad political commentary is the notorious Hot Take*. The general inclination is to blame an excess of Takes for the perpetually dumb, rotten state of political commentary.

*Hot Take (pr. n.) -- a short, timely opinion that's controversial and inflammatory, but never in any way that matters

The remedy for this Hot Takes disease is clear: Takes are short, unreflective, and insincere, so we obviously need more longform, self-reflection, and authenticity. "If only we stopped, stated our basic assumptions, and had an honest discussion about what we believe, we might actually have some Good Takes once in awhile!"

Maybe the best way to see this is in sports:
"You can't give up 115 points and expect to have a chance against this team."
-Mark Jackson, commentating on the NBA Finals, as the Warriors reached 115 against the Cavs
This is a Pretty Good Take, as far as Mark Jackson is concerned. It's built on his experience as a coach, it's an empirical claim that probably holds up, and, while not longform, I have no doubt that he could be called upon to expand his opinion.

But it tells us nothing: If we take Jackson's point seriously, should the Cavaliers have played only their 5 best defensive players for 48 minutes, focusing monomaniacally on defense? Possibly. Jeff Van Gundy notes the Cavs making a careless turnover. So, on this logic, should the Cavaliers focus their entire offense on making sure they get a shot up on every possession, so they don't ever have a recorded turnover? Possibly. But probably not.

Now, obviously, I'm picking on Jackson and Van Gundy: Two TV commentators (both former coaches) extemporized and asked for slightly better execution. But their comments remind me of a ubiquitous fan refrain that pines always for an Ideal Basketball Team filled with Ideal Basketball Players. Even among smarter fans, there's this imaginary place where everyone plays within their limits, no one makes dumb mistakes, everyone fouls when they should, and the better players step up whenever called upon, and deliver. Everyone is simultaneously perfectly aware of the stats and perfectly aware of the skills called upon in an individual possession. And afterwards everyone takes a cold bath, drinks their recommended protein shakes, and goes back to the hotel room to meditate and watch film footage (never forgetting to call their moms, as necessary). No one sulks or celebrates. Everyone gets up early.

But it's precisely that teams and players don't do the perfect thing every time that we have a sport worth watching at all (San Antonio excluded): If every decision-maker and coach in basketball demanded that their players avoid mistakes as the Prime Directive, then most of our most stellar players would be weeded out as unreliable from the age of 13. On the other hand, mediocre players, stellar only in consistency and deference, would be elevated to the pros. Basketball would become a moral, stubborn, didactic sport, with physical differences still dominating, but only after all the interesting mental wrinkles were ironed out. From the modern NBA, Players like Tim Duncan and Chris Paul would survive, but even they'd have to play in a tighter style. LeBron James would, eventually, be tolerated. Stephen Curry would be treated just as he would've been 30 years ago--talented, and a good kid, but a little unpredictable and turnover-prone. And he loves the 3 too much.

In fact, this is how the prevailing opinion-makers in sports commentary have actually thought about these players before being forcibly converted by the jaw-dropping team successes of LeBron and Curry in recent years. Which is to say, the only thing they prefer to a narrative of moral adherence is a narrative of meritocratic success.

Mark Jackson above is making a sincere point about defensive efficiency. His colleague Jeff Van Gundy sincerely condemns careless turnovers. There's a point here. Ideally, we should all strive to be our best at all times. But, factually, we're not at our best at all times, and most human beings are not cut out for the pure moral, physical, or intellectual integrity needed to always be our best, nor would this monomaniacal focus on consistency even be ideal.

A world where consistency alone is valued and mistakes alone condemned, is a world stripped of art, meaning, and even value. If you only see mistakes, you are forever going to strain to see progress, not to mention creative approaches that overturn established notions of what plays are mistakes and which plays are good. In practice, Good Opinions are typically launched by perfectionists, commentators who see the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

See, Hot Takes are the fish in the proverbial barrel. They're the careless turnover everyone can spot, the nonsensical foul everyone can see makes no sense. Everyone who's smart enough to critique them is smart enough to understand why they exist: They're fun, they generate attention, and on social media, they're a good way to create content without, you know, actually going to the trouble of having an original thought.

But our Good Opinions are more pernicious. Good Opinions usually reflect background assumptions, conscientious editorial choices, and the undeniable appeal of a rational, authentic, intentional universe. Good Opinions come from received common sense, and, as a result, they tend to make quite a bit of sense and they tend to function as actual, enjoyable content. Most Hot Takes are superficially appealing precisely because they're reverse-engineered from Good Opinions, using the same rational schema and the same metrics (but deliberating eschewing Truth and Authenticity, to the irritation of Good Opinionators).

The kind of writing that challenges fundamental assumptions is much harder than the kind that puts those assumptions together into the most sensible, coherent framework. It's painting a landscape vs. color-by-numbers. The most that Good Opinions can ever do is make us say, "Wow. This belief, whether I agree with it or not, has been perfectly well-expressed, and I now understand better the implications of my beliefs!". There's a function to the very best Good Opinions, but it's a function most akin to digestion. At best, we're better for having read it because we can get to work superseding it.

Good Opinions can form the foundation of Great Writing, but Great Writing is never reducible to Good Opinions. As soon as it is so reducible, the Great Writing immediately becomes an Adequate Catalog of Some Possibly-Related Good Opinions.

In American political culture, the militant intellectual ideal of our often-well-educated, often-rational, often-self-reflective elites is to surround yourself with others who have Good Opinions and don't have Bad Opinions (and keep the worst Hot Takes to a minimum). Even ignoring the elitism, self-interest, and class prejudice we might ascribe to this goal, these elites will always select for Good Opinions over Great Writing, and thus will always be stuck in the mud of received common opinion. So long as our decision-makers live up to their stated ideals (and when they don't, the result is usually even worse), they will select for the status quo. Which, if you see things as I do, is untenable.

American political elites love the Singularity, and love to hate Climate Change. But in their minds, the solution that gets us to one before the other can never be an actual revolution--only a faster model of the current blender, a more convenient driving experience, a smarter open-plan office design. The future, to them, looks like an asymptotically-infinite superposition of paint-by-numbers drawings of the current world -- the hyperrational limit of a template in which so many still needlessly suffer. They would disagree with "needlessly" in that previous sentence, because perhaps the predominant Good Opinion of our time is that everything good has to have a trade-off. And so their success and freedom must come at the expense of someone else's failure and suffering.

The revolution that will impose itself on these elites (before the Singularity, but after Climate Change) will come either from painters on the left or from book-burners on the right. As yet, it's not clear what they prefer--after all, they don't need paper as much as artists do.

March 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton is not nearly practical enough. Sad!

Hillary Clinton is not nearly practical enough. I say this not because I'm trying to be a contrarian but for the simple and demonstrable reason that Clinton has repeatedly made catastrophic decisions for the United States. After all, this is the only sensible way the word "practicality" could be seen as a positive in a national politician seeking our votes. But, even apart from these calamities, she's not nearly practical enough, not even in her own political self-interest. Sad!

Supporting the Iraq War was not the practical decision, as far as the United States was concerned. Clinton's decision to authorize war ultimately cost the U.S. trillions, further destabilized the strategically-crucial Middle East, and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers. Sad!

Supporting the financial industry before 2006 was not the practical decision as far as the United States was concerned. Clinton's decision to stand with Wall Street in view of past recessions and scandals led directly to one of the great economic disasters since the Great Depression. In the process, this already-on-its-own-merits-impractical decision had staggering implications that we're living with today: The crash economically disenfranchised a whole generation, devastated the wealth held by blacks and Hispanics, and let the beast of fascism burst through the creaking door. Sad!

Supporting welfare reform and mass incarceration during the Clinton administration was not the practical decision as far as the United States was concerned. As Doug Henwood shows repeatedly in My Turn, Hillary and Bill form an tag-team, politically[1], and both of these measures were classics of the DLC triangulation genre the Clintons pioneered together. So it's totally on the table even if you don't buy that she bears direct responsibility for Bill's presidency. In any case, millions of single mothers had their livelihoods taken away and went into severe poverty and low-wage employment as a result of welfare reform. From a fiscal perspective, this was probably helpful, as there were now tons of fathers newly in prison who suddenly needed food, shelter, and health care. Sad!

All of the above were catastrophes that set the United States back years or even decades without an obvious corresponding benefit, and in all cases, Clinton gave her enthusiastic support to the wrong side. Plenty of writers who specialized in the financial industry knew how unstable and prone to recession and collapse it was. Plenty of foreign journalists were critiquing the Iraq War with criticisms that, in retrospect, were often laughably tame and understated. And everyone knew what welfare reform and mass incarceration actually meant. Sad!

But even as far as her own interests are concerned, it's fair to question what all these accumulated disasters--which count as signature Clinton achievements--are actually doing to help her politically nowadays. Arguably, her support for the Iraq War cost her both the nomination and the presidency in 2008. Barack Obama ran a brilliant campaign, but even Obama might have come up short if he couldn't differentiate himself so easily on the biggest debacle of the previous decade. Sad!

Now that the other party might just nominate a bigoted, racist fascist, it's perhaps time to reflect on the practical consequences of racism that both parties engaged in in the 1990s. For example, it might have been nice for the nation's future if the Clintons hadn't disenfranchised and impoverished so many men and women of color with their welfare and crime policies. While no one could've predicted how these 2016 primaries have gone[2], or just where they'll end up going, it's looking kinda shortsighted, maybe, to have deliberately criminalized, impoverished, or otherwise disenfranchised a generation of poor black men while now, also, depending on a multiethnic coalition of working-class Americans to win the nomination and the presidency, again, against an open racist fascist bigot. Sad!

And, of course, inequality, poverty, and Wall Street are central issues that have endangered Clinton in both the primaries and in the general election as an increased surge in populist anger mars her establishment candidacy. Once again, the wisdom of selling out an entire generation of progressives and sticking to transactional allies despised by her political base has totally backfired on the more practical candidate. Sad!

And today, even in her supposedly practical platform for achieving progressive goals, Clinton is just as bafflingly shortsighted. Even as Democrats from all walks of life (but especially a huge segment of young people) cry out for change, inspiration, leadership, and integrity, Clinton supports a dull platform of deliberately-uninspiring, a la carte, focus-grouped compromises. Clinton opposes single-payer, free tuition, and financial reform, and has allowed herself to be painted as cravenly unconcerned with both the working class and the truth. Sad!

Clinton doesn't even act like a practical person who makes occasional mistakes and then learns from them: After all, she still listens to the same kinds of foreign policy advisors that neocons like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz also listen to. So she can't even back out of the terribly-mistaken decision which cost her the presidency in 2008, because she's still beholden to the foreign policy establishment which most Democratic voters have reviled for 12 years. Clinton is still close to genocidal idiot Henry Kissinger. Hillary gave private speeches to the reviled Goldman Sachs and conceals to this day the transcripts, even though it's likely releasing the transcripts would help her with most Americans, who barely understand how corruption actually works. Clinton shortsightedly used a private email server while working as Secretary of State, and likely plans to nominate yet another Wall Street heavy for Treasury Secretary (more on Blackstone here). Part of practicality means having and using good information, and Hillary has consistently demonstrated that she would prefer to be surrounded with bad advice. Part of practicality means adapting to the demands of political theater to avoid looking dishonest. Hillary has demonstrated neither. Sad!

Again and again, Hillary demonstrates far too little fluency in responding to current events in a campaign that her entire life has been building towards. The best moment of her campaign was the outrage she expressed at the water crisis in Flint. And she did great. But it was one moment, among a campaign that routinely fights below its weight class--a campaign that, more than anything the Sanders campaign has done, has mobilized young people against her. Part of practicality means taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves in real time and can lead to long-term gains. Hillary is batting below .500 against Little League pitchers. Even the intellectuals who have brazenly sold out to Clinton will reluctantly admit that she's been prone to countless indefensible gaffes and errors in judgment in this campaign alone. Sad!

Talking turkey for a moment: Even looking at her supposedly realistic plans which are meant specifically to differentiate herself from Sanders as a serious candidate who knows how to compromise, Clinton's compromises are transparently unworkable, pandering, and frequently less politically-viable than Sanders' more extreme analogues. Sad!

For example, Clinton categorically opposes raise taxes on the middle class, but also expects to raise taxes on "the most fortunate"[3] for family leave, practically guaranteeing that her proposal will never get through Congress as such by her own transactional theories of power. After all, how on Earth is Clinton supposed to build a coalition to raise taxes just on the wealthy? It's a zero-sum game, and she can't even get elected without their money. So where are the votes, Hillary? The only way Hillary can hope to thread this needle is to give up something even dearer to the working class to the same oligarchs who have waged class warfare on workers and intellectuals for the past 40 years. Which isn't exactly appealing, horse-trading-wise. Sad!

Hillary Clinton doesn't actually make practical decisions consistently in terms of the best economic and political interests of our country, Hillary Clinton isn't even practical on her own terms. Rather, like all the sophisticated media cheerleaders of the Iraq War who inexplicably still have big media jobs, Hillary Clinton is a "transactional" politician who plays nice with plutocrats in a plutocracy, who lets people buy influence from her, who compromises on seemingly any principle to win, and who doesn't understand why someone would still be upset about something that happened 10 years ago. Sad!

Hillary certainly does a lot of things right, but, at the end of the day, Clinton has a history of poor, stubborn judgments on the most important issues. And these judgments, crucially, end up serving her opponents' interests far more than her own. Hillary's tactics are often subtle, canny, and effective; no question. But her strategy, and judgment, however, are often phenomenally impractical, both personally and politically, quite apart from also being disasters for the American people. Sad!

The establishment media (who never tire of playing the proverbial hack sportswriter from your small-town newspaper in 1983) often state that Sanders got lucky to time his campaign just as America had its populist awakening, seemingly at random. Maybe that's true. But, to these eyes, it's Clinton who has had the amazing fortune to run as an establishment candidate right before the Democratic media and political elite realized how much Americans have come around to hating them. Sad!

When I started to write this post, I wanted to build to a couple of non-negotiable demands. I wanted the punchline of this post to be that I would demand two take-it-or-leave-it concessions from the Clinton campaign:
  1. That Clinton would purge from her advisors and future Cabinet nominees anyone who supported the Iraq War into 2004 as a fully-grown adult, and anyone who still held the neoconservative ideology.
  2. That Clinton would purge from her advisors and future Cabinet nominees any major executive at an investment bank in the last 20 years, or anyone else with close ties to the financial industry (this would exclude, for example, Lawrence Fink of Blackstone).
Those were supposed to be my two humble demands, without which Hillary could not expect my vote. And I stand by them. But, after writing this piece and reflecting, I've come to the far more terrifying conclusion that it doesn't much matter if I roll out of bed that morning. Because President Hillary Clinton may just accelerate the myopic self-destructive trends of the American political elite which have led directly to the rise of the fascist right and which seem ready to lead directly to its rise for the foreseeable future. A campaign taking 9 agonizing months to work through "Berniebros" will soon be an administration dealing with 4 years of avowed fascists. And those preppy media surrogates we've all grown so fond of won't command nearly the same default respect from the Koch machine and Nyarlathotrump, the Crawling Chaos. Sad!

Now, please understand I'm not throwing her under the bus. Hillary does learn from her mistakes to an extent. But when I see Hillary stumble over yet another obvious trap set for her by the right or the left, I start to think of the twilight years of another great establishment power-broker, and one of the few people who might claim fairly to have more experience than Hillary going into office,

For, just like Lyndon Johnson, Hillary is no idiot. They both know how to put a coalition together, how to make a deal and a friend in the cloakroom, how to build a personal fortune from which to mount a campaign, and how to wait 15 years to achieve a solution. They're both smart as a whip.

Just like Lyndon Johnson, Hillary has precious few blindspots: in foreign policy, in public perception, and in ethical compromises. These are flaws which may not harm someone in a Senate committee or in a cabinet post, but they're much more troublesome when you present them to the guileless American public. And, just like Lyndon Johnson, Hillary learns far too slowly when it comes to those blindspots, turning what would be mere liabilities into abject disasters.

48 years ago, on March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for another term, as growing outrage at his administration from both left and right flanks proved to be too dispiriting and harmful. After a tremendous run of civil rights and anti-poverty achievements that stand with Lincoln and Roosevelt in their ambition, the backlash against civil rights and his growing commitments in Vietnam sunk President Johnson's agenda. One of the great backroom politicians in history, finally undone by the weight of his earlier decisions.

This isn't a perfect parallel. The lessons aren't clear, nor do they point only to Hillary's downfall. But we're seeing a festering movement on the right and the death spiral of the conservative movement, We're seeing a time of tremendous achievement and ambition on the one hand, and tremendous decadence and decay on the other. And, in the tumultuous era that the United States is entering, Hillary's failure to adapt--in its tragic, hubristic impracticality--may be our undoing as a nation.


[1] - "Hillary was at Bill’s side throughout all of this and was a close collaborator in the education reform operation. She co-wrote Bill’s 1991 keynote speech at the DLC’s national convention, which turned out to be a major hit.", from My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency, by Doug Henwood
[2] - (other than Carl Diggler and the #MBET, obviously)
[3] - Speaking of which, minor point, but calling the rich "the most fortunate" is a surefire way to make them ideologically angry. Remember "you didn't build that"? They're still harping on 57 states. Does Hillary even have a chance of currying the elites that she's constantly courting? Which is kinda the point of running to the left for real.

Note to Readers: Politics is a relatively new sphere for me, and it's especially new as a subject in my writing. Now, I do have some experience with inexperienced writing; just check the archives from 2009. Such history has shown that I'll likely look back on this period of writing as sprawling, smug, and self-contradictory. That said, the posts seem to be getting better--though at a slow pace. Time will tell. In the meantime, I appreciate your patience, Pearls Divers(e). 
-Dave -Alex

February 22, 2016

GDP and Well-Being

Update: This isn't a real journalism outlet so, based on feedback from an anonymous reviewer, I'm editing this for clarity for tone, voice, subject matter, central argument, supporting evidence, and breadth and, also, now it's like 3 times as long. Just a quick rewrite.

I'd like to talk briefly and inadequately about a recent economic controversy. Bernie Sanders' single-payer health care plan--and economist Gerald Friedman's model which favors this plan--has been attacked by several eminent economists, perhaps most notably NYT columnist Paul Krugman. Matthew Yglesias has a nice summary of the feud here.

I won't rehash the central arguments, but the dispute basically revolves around Friedman's optimistic projections for GDP growth. Economists who have weighed in have run the gamut between "sensible", "optimistic", "highly-implausible", and "I wouldn't believe this unicorn crap if it were the plot of a fictional My Little Pony episode!" (and I'm paraphrasing here).

These economists are, of course, actually economists, versus me, who has no experience with the dismal science whatsoever. So I'm inclined to believe that they're all making a decent case. But there's some extra baggage caused by the current political situation, and it gives everyone some pause: Friedman's backers on one hand claim the pessimistic economists are really just propagandists for elite Democratic establishment. On the other hand, Friedman's critics claim that these economists are simply reporting the facts of the matter, regardless of what any idealistic lefties might want to think. There's some truth to both sides, if marred by oversimplification.

In short, the Friedman controversy has become just one more microcosm of the general fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Yglesias captures this tension well:
And to an extent, mission accomplished. The coverage has been generated. But for better or for worse, the entire premise of the Sanders campaign is that the existing Democratic Party establishment needs to be overthrown, so imperious dismissals by establishment figures don't really hurt Sanders. His policy director, Warren Gunnels, told Danielle Kurtzleben that the economists in question are "the establishment of the establishment" and claimed to be unbothered by the criticisms. 
"That does not bother us at all," he told her. "What bothers us is the fact that the U.S. has more kids living in poverty than nearly any major country on earth."
But if this is simply one more Sanders vs. Clinton dispute, it's one that touches on something I've been thinking about a lot: The way neoliberals count things, account for things, and achieve their practical goals.

The original version of this piece (as a helpful reviewer noted) sought to answer the question of whether GDP growth was inherently valuable, but ended up unintentionally pivoting to the question of whether per-capita GDP itself was really a great measure of well-being, even on its own terms. It's a subtle difference, but it does matter.

I don't know anyone who would dispute that GDP captures consumer spending and productive activities extremely well. If I had five seconds to look up a nation's income, I'd look up GDP and GDP per capita, and if you gave me five more I'd look up a graph of their GDP growth. GDP captures the average and the total production of a nation well, and allows us to talk about everything else.

So let's start by talking about what GDP actually is, because I've got a more refined argument I'd like to make. In a nutshell, GDP measures consumption plus investment plus government spending, and, in this way, accounts for a nation's trade balance.

In math-y terms:
GDP = Consumption + Investment + Gov't spending + (eXports - iMports)
In other words, GDP captures the total value of what we spend on goods, as consumers, as investors, as governmental bodies, and as global traders. It avoids double-counting, and GDP overall does a good, reliable job measuring national production, national consumption, and national income.

GDP (and specifically GDP per capita) is the best single-number tool for differentiating poor countries from medium countries, and medium countries from from rich countries.

One reason I'm writing this is that there's something to be said for the sort of 0% GDP growth that would radically equalize the structure of society. Of course this isn't captured in raw or adjusted GDP, but income inequality numbers have been around for a long time, and

There are nuanced arguments to make that the United States actually transfers a whole lot of its revenue to a public safety net--but aside from Social Security, much of that goes not to cash/near-cash transfers but to the high cost of publicly-subsidized health care, public education, and family welfare, much of it in the form of tax benefits.

The means-tested transfers and tax credits that the United States tends to favor are, I believe, a form of social control which in fact make all Americans' lives more inefficient (and therefore poorer), and do so in ways that won't necessarily show up on an economic balance sheet--or, they will, but will in fact be positive. I believe you can make the same argument for the structure of our work lives and some dominant tendencies of our culture--many such factors that add up to my central claim: Despite our high median and high average GDP per capita, I believe that we, as Americans, have a worse median existence relative to other, less-wealthy countries with more efficient systems of distribution, entirely for that reason.

This bizarre, potentially-true fact of American life (a potentially-true fact I'm coming to believe in) is what I'd like to explore.

My contention in the original version of this piece was that Americans spend too much on consumer goods which exist to compensate for our overstressed, inefficient lives and our crumbling social fabric. This isn't a radical lefty argument--we spend more than anyone in the OECD on health care by a wide margin, higher education is expensive, and we work longer hours than most other countries.

Our public transportation system is lousy, we have more cars than we know what to do with, most poor people, young people and minorities see little opportunity to get into the homeowning middle-class (an artifact of racial discrimination for minorities, and an artifact of inequality for everyone else), and lots of people suffer directly or indirectly from the carceral state.

We have bad poverty rates relative to other OECD countries even in terms of absolute income (see Digression 3 below), our inequality is worse than almost anyone, rich or poor, our citizenry feels relatively powerless over its own existence, and the social fabric is slowly unravelling and Americans are worrying that the rise of Trump may mean we're finally "getting what we deserve".

It's not all bad, and it's often not all that bad. But it is bad.

And, if our society were more humane and efficient in its structure, I don't think we'd spend nearly as much on transportation, rent/housing, food, electronics, pharmaceuticals, health care, guns, or even leisure.

Much of the spending Americans make is not for consumer goods which improve their lives, but on necessities such as housing or rent, utilities, food, transportation, health care, child care, student loans, and credit cards. Every bit of legislation that goes towards making these more expensive also increases "Consumption" in those sectors.

But even the good stuff, the fun kind of spending, has its problems. I believe that much of what is counted in our national Consumption is loaded with goods and services which improve our lives only by ameliorating or perpetuating the parts of our country that are unfulfilling, banal, hateful, brutal, inefficient, and sad. Unhealthy food we can only eat because we have no time to cook. Medicines for mental and physical maladies we might be able to get around if we had more autonomy in our lives. Guns because we don't feel safe. Insurance because we don't feel secure. Electronics that we only buy because we know we'll spend an hour a day or more in our cars. Expensive housing we only spend on to avoid the ghetto. Cars we only need because we need to be able to go into work at a moment's notice. Child care we only need because our welfare has a work requirement. Expensive leisure spending because it's not every day one can make time for entertainment.

And all this palliative spending, like the spending that goes to necessities, goes into our GDP calculation and appears superficially as a national windfall. It's national income and it's consumer spending. There may be crowding-out effects from this less-bad spending, of course, but economics in general --and GDP in particular-- seems to have trouble distinguishing between spending which makes a bad life livable and spending which makes a good life even better.

And I don't think our lives are so good. Even ignoring the systemic stuff, our leisure time is, if anything, overstated by statistics--we're always on-call, always managing something, always being asked to suffer one more indignity of impatience. Many workers, especially in the service industry, don't have a consistent week-to-week schedule. Their quality time with kids is frankly dictated by their company. The higher strata of workers, empowered but bereft of unions, live in constant fear of the at-will employment knife, the retirement funds unvested, the bundled health care that could go away, and the stigma of being jobless for even six months. Students fear they won't get jobs for their loans and desperately fight for any scrap of time or extra income that their personal bearings can afford.

And just look at the current lead/chlorine water crisis in Flint, Michigan--from a GDP standpoint, it's probably not a huge deal in the short- and medium-term. People with aching bones will buy expensive medicines--people will buy new appliances, build new homes. Water coolers so that infant children can bathe in the large source of freshwater of the Great Lakers without losing IQ points. They'll buy cars so that all but the most desperately poor can get water from neighboring regions on a tragically-necessary biweekly commute. All that disruption and privatization probably ends up as a GDP gain until the demographic consequences of massive lead poisoning catch up to them. Depreciation is in fact counted in Net Domestic Product, but I do question the extent to which economists really capture this kind of complexity in their models, as they as a rule tend to talk about other, more gainful things. Economist Joseph Stiglitz notes in The Price of Inequality that environmental damage (often tragically permanent) doesn't count against our GDP, and he points to Green GDP as an alternative, aspirational measure.

Whatever number you choose, you can add it all up and you're still left with a single number or four. Simple indicators to be manipulated by wily policymakers, and an ethic of selfishness that will corrupt our most heartfelt attempts to attack poverty, inequality, and the fundamental unhappiness which our society begets. 

There is inherent value in having a society whose spending, private and public, takes place by and large to improve the lives of its citizens, solve their problems, and gives them the freedom of mobility and creativity that our economy now denies them. When it comes to public goods, the government should be the one to provide them. When it comes to public problems, the government should be able to address them. When it comes to the public advocacy of its citizens both rich and poor, the government should be able and willing to fight. Individually, I've found that Americans try to solve all our problems with consumer goods, and almost never with government spending--to solve all our issues at our front porch (and stopping there), rather than with policy, with the net result that we recapitulate one another's sufferings in silence and leave those who follow us to do the same, ad aeternum.

Consumer goods are often great things and improve everyone's lives--but to some extent, in America, they mostly seem to be necessary palliatives in an inefficient nation of ideologues with a fetish for work and everyone who gets caught in their role playing. 

And even the really good stuff? The consumer goods? Well, that stuff is the really good shit--when we can get around to it. But although Americans are notoriously optimistic, I do wonder if most of us really do get around to it--or if we instead take expensive classes, buy expensive equipment, promise to invest more time in the good stuff every year and consistently fall short of our expectations--not just because this is human nature, but in part because we force it to be so.

Gerald Friedman's argument was about a certain macroeconomic model producing a certain level of GDP growth. Intelligent minds can agree or disagree with his projections, but this discussion--in granting the economists the whole frame--rings a bit hollow to me, and those words "GDP growth" sound now a note of falsehood. What kind of nation has a gigantic bureaucracy to provide what other nations can provide without such bureaucracy, and then deems this same bureaucracy impossibly unrealistic to remove? Who cares what it does to that GDP number on the page which tells us how poor we got this year, if the net result was that people rich and poor can now see a doctor when they need to, when last year they couldn't? Who cares what happens to GDP if we fix all our problems? These questions might sound glib, but their converse is equally so. Who cares how many people on the bottom must suffer if the GDP rises next year? The tone of these dry economic discussions (if amusingly catty at times) seems to treat the economy and its indicators as ends in themselves, rather than as means for creating happiness and prosperity--the shape and silhouette of our institutions mistaken for their whole content.

In the Friedman controversy, I found in most of the economists, Krugman especially, a tone of detached amusement towards their object of study, even as they grew animated at one another and about one another's credentials. While I like some funny crosstalk here and there, the sneering dismissiveness of the establishment's experts towards the common rabble is troubling, and not just because they rarely sneer at their far more ridiculous pundit friends and colleagues.

See, unlike most scientists, economists are studying that part of the world which is populated by these cries of agony--the mass psychology of panic, reaction, and revolt, as well as the calculations that lead people to take a certain action at a given fork in the road. Young people have overwhelmingly affirmed their fealty to the madness of Sanders' plans, and all Krugman can do is patronizingly lecture them about how great they have it, or about how there's nothing they could do to fix things anyway.

These economists are true experts, unlike me. But also unlike me, they seem to find it easy to ignore all the demographic and sociological data that's coming their way and ignoring it as the white noise of an Internet meme that will resolve itself when the dolts in the general public wise up and their comedic futility finally becomes evident even to themselves.

Economists' appeals to indicators may be important, but in the context of an active political debate involving tens of millions of suffering young people crying out in terror, Krugman's amused, detached appeals to indicators constitute an inadequate and fallacious response to human suffering, regardless of whether these indicators correlate with human happiness (which no one doubts). I don't mind whether the economists in question happen to be right or wrong--we're all trying our best. And I'm not, like, offended by their tone, and even if I had been, not every person is the right discussant for every discussion. I would be happy to let Krugman's comments pass into a distant history.

But I just don't think that, for all their dismissiveness, these economists are even correct. These experts--who taxed their precious time to crash the party and bring dismal reality back to the harried masses--appealed not to reality, but instead only to their own manic conceits:

Instead of the poor, uninsured, and disaffected of Sanders' campaign, they hand-wavingly appealed to historical GDP trends and closed the discussion triumphantly as arbiters of the real. Discussion over. Thanks for playing. Get back to me when you have a Nobel Prize. To those of us in this country who are poor and uninsured and disaffected, and those others of us who give a damn what happens to this country--to those of us who happened to read through much of it--we found no answer in the chuckling economists' field to questions in our immiserated field, a field we're becoming experts in.

What was missing--and what has been missing for some time from all of the neoliberal ideologues--is the understanding that all our indicators are answerable to reality, and not the other way around.

We are not answerable to GDP--our GDP is answerable to us, our choices and our policies. If our high GDP is predicated on spending too much for health care, then maybe it ought to decline. If our GDP is predicated on food costs incurred at the workplace solely because there's nothing better available? Maybe it ought to decline. If our GDP is predicated on sending more and more people from our welfare rolls into our horrifically-overtaxed workforce instead of allowing them to raise children full-time? Maybe it ought to decline. If our GDP is predicated on inefficient military spending that is only justified to that extent because of an insane eschatological ideology of warmongers in Washington? Then, just maybe, our GDP should decline on that account. Whether it's GDP, unemployment, poverty, inequality, mobility, or any such measure of our lives, reality is the master of men, rather than the men who claim mastery over reality.

And, if our GDP can't suffer a little infrastructure spending, or welfare spending, or the necessary restructuring of our terrible rent-seeking bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate? Maybe our GDP is not the answer but the excuse, or even the problem. Again and again, the field of economics, while seeming to have a lot of legitimacy in measuring our world, seems equally to be marshaled again and again as pretext for those who would do nothing in the face of suffering whose toll has not been measured yet. I don't think the economists who act in this capacity are privy to special knowledge, or wisdom--they are privy to the interests they serve, and they are privy to whatever reality they must promote to serve those interests. And again and again, the interests that they serve and oppose necessarily hide behind the names of their conceits--growth, deflation, austerity, sustainability, shocks, privatization, realism, rationality, choice. An economist acting in the name of the Kochs or the Gateses or the Clintons or the Bloombergs will never speak their name, but will find in their own work a perfect mapping from their fundamental economic concepts to their deeper personal compromises.

We cannot speak of unemployment without speaking of incarceration. We cannot speak of poverty and inequality and mobility without speaking the names of those programs by which income flows and wealth stocks have been forcibly redirected. We cannot speak about political reality and political feasibility without calling out the names of the enablers and arbiters of what is politically feasible and what is politically feasible.

There is no economy, of any sort, without the political economy to prop its assumptions and institutions up. Our economic statistics reflect reality only to the extent we allow them to, because no one has a right to more than he needs when that right impugns upon others' enjoyment. So it isn't just unkind or thoughtless of these economists to dismiss a wounded young cohort as delusional because the economy cannot support their concerns--but, in fact, the most unrealistic fantasy of all. A world of human institutions conducting itself a certain way in spite of and in opposition to the will of nearly all its constituents? That's the fantasy. That's the apocalyptic madness. Not the scarred and wounded hope of the young.

In my more cynical moments, I sometimes ponder that we in the US of A are so devoid of political agency to accomplish things that it hardly makes sense to treat us as a country in the first place, and measuring our national income simply serves to reify this delusion for another day. But I'll back away from that ledge for now.

We're a rich country by GDP, but we don't function in a rich way, if we ever did. I've often thought about how nice it would be to live instead in a medium-rich country that functions as a rich country, or which functions as a country at all. But for Americans, that kind of country is a distant dream (if it's a dream at all), and perhaps will always remain that way. It's perhaps well to note that I don't say this with the mournful, yearning eyes of a dreamer, but with fiery eyes and apocalyptic grin passing in that order beneath the brow as you crumble over now decades--not centuries--to my feet.

Three Digressions That Didn't Fit Anywhere Else:

(1. On the macro-level, I question whether corporations and finance really embrace innovation with the kind of vigor they always like to claim--sure, the tech industry is surging forward, but what about the industries that didn't get a major head start from Bell Labs, DARPA, MIT, and Berkeley? Have they really plunged into the future without kicking and screaming? I'm skeptical anytime I read about an "advanced scheduling algorithm" that a comp. sci. undergrad could have written in 1983 with little prompting, especially when that algorithm mainly serves to reduce labor costs and decrease labor power. But that's neither here nor there.)

(2. I first heard of Gerald Friedman on a podcast interview he did a few weeks ago, before this controversy really broke--and found him a funny, sprawling, sharp mind who spoke fluently and thoughtfully about political realities and about the direction he wanted the country to go in. I later learned he was supporting Hillary Clinton, which surprised me given how humorless and mean her shills have been. The decent Friedman's endorsement of Hillary is a good argument in itself that perhaps all the fuming, mad, realist hacks in her camp just might have a point worth hearing, even if the true costs of her ideology are sort of the entire reason I'm writing this. But I digress. Again.)

(3. Conservative and libertarian commentators are right to note that relative poverty measurements are problematic. But we're talking about a society where most people who might be classified as poor do not own their own house and must pay for rent as well as utilities, food, transportation, health care, child care, student loans, and credit. And those who do own homes often have onerous mortgages whose value is often determined by residents with more ability to pay who drive the prices up. In fact, the nature of relative poverty/inequality is probably exacerbated in a market economy, because little in the way of goods or services are guaranteed.)

February 8, 2016

A Realistic 3-Step Program For Hillary Clinton To Earn Millennials' Votes

It's easy (and understandable) for some centrists to misread the left's disdain for Hillary Clinton as a matter of "purity"--a youthful dalliance into idealism before running into the reality of a Trump or Cruz ballot in November.

"Hillary has undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes," a typical argument goes, "and neither the Clinton administration nor Hillary's senatorial career were the ideal bastions of leftward thought. But it's time to put down the red flag and work together for a common cause, kids. Hillary's come around on several mistakes, and besides all that, the Clintons have had a hard road, with Republican intransigence at every turn and the need to balance diverse coalitions. If she can compromise, why can't you?"

And there's some truth to this narrative. She's not a monster, she's not heartless, and, in the final tally, Hillary Clinton seems like a decent human being with a decent grasp of the issues who would work for the causes she advocates in her campaign. And, yes, Clinton has "come around," to the point where her platform honestly and accurately represents a left-of-center agenda in the American political establishment.

But the part about millennial idealism just isn't true: I'm nothing if not a realist. Her campaign, by sheer dint of its own cynical power, is living proof that the United States as currently constructed will never, ever, ever achieve universal health care, much less the broader goal of social democracy. Hillary won't fight for it, and with Democrats like Hillary in power, Bernie can't hope to achieve it. Her brand of Democrats simply doesn't care about poor Americans enough to fight for them, I've decided.


So let's get real. After all, most of us millennials are practical in the final tally--we simply don't have enough in our pockets to be idealistic! So here's a gritty, realistic, simple 3-step mini-agenda that should helpfully illustrate what Hillary Clinton might do right now to earn my vote now and in November:
  1. The Clinton Foundation, their friendly super-PACs, etc. must be irrevocably transferred to a progressive organization separate from either Sanders or Clinton's campaign whose resources must be primarily dedicated to humanitarian and progressive goals. Right now, Bill and Hillary Clinton are worth 9 figures--and a realistic millennial knows never to trust a plutocrat with their political institutions. At least bring that net worth down to a high 7 figures, where a mere 99.99% of us live. Otherwise I have no reason to think you'll represent my interests.
  2. The Clinton campaign must distance itself forever from Henry Kissinger and every other war-criminal still hanging around her door. It should be enough for now to explicitly denounce Kissinger for his war crimes, call for an investigation into Kissinger, and pledge to do better on that front. I believe that Hillary has come along in her thinking on foreign policy--but as a canny millennial I've come to believe you're only as good as the people around you who can support you and give advice. The Benghazi stuff doesn't seem fair at all, but how is someone who listens to Kissinger going to make good, humane decisions on foreign policy that redound to the credit of the United States?
  3. The Clinton campaign must acknowledge that social democracy--or at least a few toddling steps towards it--is a real, important goal of the younger generation, that it's both an ethically and practically good goal, and that we will find anything less unacceptable as our cohort ages into power. Therefore, to this end, Hillary will fight for universal health care, education, food, and housing when in office, and prove her commitment to this cause by announcing several social democrats she would elect to her cabinet. As a millennial who has continually discovered the generosity of the American people only by sharing my troubles, I know that you can't hope to get something until you ask for it. 
  4. BONUS: This almost goes without saying, but this agenda would be incomplete without a massive commitment to gender and racial equality, income and wealth inequality, investment into infrastructure, massive campaign finance reform, environmental regulation. And, because it would be awesome and historic to elect the first woman president but incomplete without this, I want to see something by the DNC to guarantee women are represented in both houses of Congress and all future judiciary nominations.
That's a good start. If Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) wants my vote, she should prove she represents my interests, and not the wealthy class, hawkish advisors, and milquetoast intellectuals to whom she currently seems to subscribe.

It's only practical, you see.


Establishment writers always puzzle and puzzle about why young people--"even young women!!"--don't seem to want Hillary Clinton to become president. These writers--beloved and sophisticated, if generally obtuse--invent so many tortuous explanations for Bernie Sanders' support. They lecture at length about entitlement and idealism, they pathologize our passion, they talk in serious tones about "messaging". And on and on and on.

On and on to defeat in July. Look, Hillary could do what she always does: Listen to a grave team of august Ivy-educated advisors (class of '06!) about why Hillary Clinton is not a "brand" the "younger demographics" seem to "engage". Her "net favorables" are "underwhelming". Clinton could wait for a generation that Beltway insiders have condemned as "entitled" to pick as the lesser of two evils someone who has shown them mostly contempt for the last 8 months or so.

Or, Clinton could fix the gap between the political reality she is offering and the political reality young people want.

I hope this is helpful.

February 5, 2016

yes, you're a fraud for your music tastes. no, i don't hate you for it

if you've ever harbored a secret anxiety that your opinions on music will mark you as a "fraud", there's a good chance that you're absolutely right. i like music a lot and i can tell when you describe music in ways that are arbitrary and pretentious and meaningless. you're just gonna have to trust me on this--if you're a fraud about music, i pretty much know with certainty that you're a fraud. even if i've never met you or interacted with you. i am standing right beyond you

ah, but here's a little reassurance: if you're afraid further that you're just one more conversation away from being exposed and called out humiliatingly, you're wrong: i'm never going to call you out on it.

first of all, i have no reason or desire to make you feel like a bad person for your musical tastes, even though they're actually borrowed from a critic. i love music, and all i want to do is share it with others. if that means cutting through a little bit of affectation to bond with someone i care about over some music i care about, i can put aside my ego and talk to you like a human being--i can communicate on your level, in other words, and i'm happy to do so as long as it makes our lives a little better. besides, there's a good chance you actually really like music, and there's a very good chance you'll be more honest if i make you feel comfortable.

second and more cynically, you're not alone in this form of anxiety, and, if i called you out, everyone who has the same anxiety would see me as a monster--literally, the bogeyman of their personal nightmares. further, everyone who knows someone who thinks they're a fraud deep down would rightfully see my action as shaming mental-illness over a petty quibble. suffice it to say that mocking you would be more embarrassing to me, i'd look like a bad person. you'd look like the aggrieved victim. and frankly, that's exactly how it would be.

so you're safe. but just know that i know you're a fraud about music, and, while in my heart of hearts i leer for a half-instant at your philistinism, i don't honestly hold it against you. really, you're not a bad person, you just like socializing and projecting a certain image to the world more than listening publicly to what you actually love and talking about it as a person and not as a critic writing the pull quote. face it, there's nothing wrong with you, or even anything particularly uncommon: you have a guilty pleasure in a guilt-ridden society which encourages you to feel guilt for "ill-gotten" pleasure, which is bullshit: society--and the irrepressibly mean human psyche acting upon its ego--is the problem, not you. lots of people have depression and anxiety or just haven't figured out what they're doing in life, or what this whole crazy thing is about.

you're a fraud, sure as the sun rises. but listening to music is such a tiny, adorable thing to be a fraud about. of all the things to be worried about!--i know you can't turn that thought off, but you should know that it's irrational, it's not your fault, and you shouldn't feel bad about yourself for thinking of yourself as a fraud, if at all possible. i basically see you as a kitten, preening and mewling over your keyboard, a little bit sad deep down but putting forth your best face, i'm not the kind of person who eats kittens, except when it's life or death, them or me, and that has only happened once, and it turned out i actually didn't need to, so i would feel extra bad about taking yet another unnecessary life. and it's not out of contempt or condescension that i say this--i like kittens, and i know they are normally pretty rad beneath the surface. you are too. trust me.

you're just fine, you lovable damn fraudster. if you ever get up the confidence to talk about your music tastes even though you don't think you're so smart, hit me up. i'll be happy to hear what you're listening to myself and even help you find other music.

for example, i bet you'd like "Muswell Hillbillies" by the Kinks. that's a good one, based on the feedback you're giving me. every song is crisp as hell. here, fuck; get in the hangout lets listen to it now.

February 4, 2016

Let's Completely Rethink Politics

Let's completely rethink politics. Why not? It's the purview of the most disingenuous and evil in our society, and even apart from all of that, I'm hardly a practical person.

(In fact, I'm somewhat ridiculous. If I ran for office they would dig up so much dirt on me just on how bad I am with writing deadlines that I'd be laughed back to Duluth in a snail's heartbeat, [as the saying goes])

But after reading Jane Mayer's awesome book about the Koch Brothers and their political genius, I'm drawn to the illuminating darkness of the various plutocrats in profile--philosophical mediocrities whose whole lives are one big Davos conference of poisonous sycophants, exotic appetizers downed in a single bite, groups to influence, and thoughtless thought leaders. Everything money can buy--everything except a single person who could testify to the common life of the common person in our era and the single universal truth such a life obtains about the scarcity of anything dependable or sacred. Those are for the people with health care, and personalized education, and opportunities to make more than one particular kind of mark on the world. The rest of us live in continuous view of death, placated only by the sight of things warmer and more interesting than death.

Lest we dwell too far on the Kochs, I nonetheless have this sinking feeling that it might be necessary for me to debase myself and descend into the dark art of politics for a little while. To defeat corruption, I daresay, we must first corrupt ourselves. Corrupt ourselves just well enough to understand and redirect that corruption towards something better, but corrupt ourselves nonetheless.

We must debase ourselves, my reader, even if we say it's all in good fun! And when we're finished with our works, we can promptly go back to inhabiting the pure souls we really are and have really always been, deep down, before we'd made that fateful choice. "It's never too late for anyone," the dying man intones, to no one, even as the obituary writer clacks out the reality of the matter within earshot and then puts it in front of him. Even as he's still cognizant of words, the man smiles and pretends not to see the rest. "He died peacefully, in his sleep" sounds pretty good just then. And as he reads it, he does. We can never taste corruption as might a chef; we must consume all that we prepare.

But we shouldn't fear our inevitable fallen grace which never brings our redemption--after all, is it not far more terrifying to die without ever having fallen? Yes, far more terrifying to die afraid of bruising even a knee. So let us debase ourselves in the spirit of purity, for fear of the awful corruption of debasement's only alternative!

And when I say we must debase ourselves and allow ourselves to think like a propagandist or as a reformer of political ideologies, I don't necessarily mean we must deceive ourselves with some new System of Ideology with its own specially-fitted Party Blinders. Rather, we precisely should not deceive ourselves as such. After all, the road of well-meant self-deception leads precisely to that place where we can no longer tell the difference between our own bullshit and our deep truths--I can't think of a more fitting Hell, made worse by the awful possibility that one might already have arrived at any time in the near or distant past.

So, the necessity of our corruption and debasement admitted, and the necessity of avoiding self-deception posited hopefully, we begin our work.

We of the younger cohorts still believe ourselves to be in possession of our wits. If that's true, then surely we think of a way to practice politics that we wouldn't be ashamed to find ourselves practicing in 50 years. Let's think of a way that we can be political, in a modern context, without being disingenuous. To engage the entanglements of the world at large without becoming too entangled ourselves as we begin a long history of engagements.

Unlike the modern peddlers of lies which we see pervading our institutions, we should gain our strength from the truth, and deception and misinterpretation should become as toxic to our ears as they are so toxic to our political reality. This strength may not be for today or tomorrow, but for the people one hundred years from today. I certainly won't survive that long. None of us reading likely will, barring a tremendous advance in multiple fields of science. If you can envision yourself surviving that long, then push the horizon up to two hundred years. We need to channel our genius and optimism into others and that means precisely to think about politics not from our own position, where we can believe with all our hearts in the virtue and tenacity of our future selves, but from the position of those who come so far after us--those we cannot be nor bear nor touch. Their lives can be made better then, perhaps beginning today. For what I speak of is pragmatism, albeit a pragmatism writ not over an instant but over an eternity, or perhaps just a generation or two.

I call for advance, yes, but not for an advance so radical that it ruptures its connection with us so wholly as to forget about us or our culture's history. Purification is a ridiculous dream meant for those without much imagination for nightmare. Advance cannot be about purifying (another more rhetorical word is "purging") our thoughts, deeds, ideas, or people--history shows that purification can never sustain for mortals, and the pursuit of such self-purification is always as delusional as the corruption it's meant to excise. Even if such a program should succeed, it can last only as long as the thought, the deed, the idea, or the person in question.

No, instead imagine remaking the structure of all our institutions such that--much like today--each fits in its way into all the others, with no institution, idea, deed, or person supreme, where every system gives way to a larger system, which feeds back into the systems of which it's constituted. Picture institutions that will be flawed but whose flaws serve to lend it credibility by affirming a standard.

(For example, suppose a bank lends too much--crisis or even failure of the bank.may ensue for its miscalculation, but in its moment of crisis it speaks to the principle that a bank ought not to lend more than it really can and that a bank is built on the credibility it maintains in fulfilling its function, even if we might not know just why or how that particular miscalculation really took place. A bank's failure is an affirmation of an underlying principle about its purpose.

Let's imagine for a moment building the seeds of a wholly new society within our own that may come to supplant it, just --in their own way-- as the Kochs and their forerunners have done. Let's imagine for a moment that our institutions might have principles that, when fully asserted, might always push those institutions closer over time to the realization of those principles. And let's imagine that we subject those principles themselves to the same scrutiny. Let's imagine that when in a society misfortune afflicts its noblest or its basest citizen, strikes a blow against its richest or its poorest, or otherwise does not live up to our most potently-stated principles--let's imagine that we treat that as a failure of society, full stop, and the structures and principle that society has embodied thus far. And yes, we can make affordances for the occasional failures of individuals that can not be wrangled successfully into the social world--but we ought to make this the explanation of last resort--because you can't build a society which is collective on individual principles or individual ambitions alone. When this basic truth is forgotten, institutions fail, the history on which that truth is based is distorted, and the whole of all our lives is plunged into society-wide delusions.

Imagine a society, then, which works organically towards the absence of oppression not through a perfect platonic structure that can be planned for in the year 2016, but through a succession of human foibles which are somehow captured as information, which fortifies rather than unsettles the foundation of the institution, or moves it closer to the principle, or moves our principles closer to a still-better world. Just as science builds a base of knowledge fortified by the errors of generations, let's have our institutions build a base of power fortified by the madness of tyrants, by the slaver's whip, by the indifference of nobles who do not fear their subjects. Just as manic tech moguls dream of Singularities, let's strive for a Singular Institution in our politics that can itself become the accelerating virus. A dangerous series of ideas, tactics, and malleable frameworks that when applied to conflict would chip away at the base of all oppressors and fortify their oppressed just enough to end the conflict and move them each a notch closer to one another, one day and one moment at a time, the powerful in every relationship of power clinging to that top rung of the ladder with all their might as all society conspires to drag them down gently until they relinquish it and climb down and find to their astonishment not the brutality of their worst extent but the relief of their most fearless days.

Power can never be innocent, so let it commit only the crimes which it can abide. Criminality is an inextricable part of the legal system, with each criminal (including the State itself) constituting a directly-observable case study into the power of the State. Let power in our future society--one part criminal, one part lawful--be structured not so that a rule will never be broken, but so that when a rule is inevitably broken, the breach will serve to reinforce --even improve-- the rule as such. Let precedent be not only a structural constraint but a structural reminder of mistakes.

Let us conspire to structure all our incentives, all our institutions, and the most basic facets of our reality to continually confront us with the truth whensoever we might stray. And let the relation between individual and incentive, between incentive and institution, between institution and principle, between principle and society, and between society and individual be as clear as day even to the stubbornest fool.

As I hope is clear, I can't begin to picture this society because we're speaking of a new series of forms, and some of them may utterly transcend the forms by which I yet understand the world. I can but imagine it. But some measure of essential simplicity seems necessary--not the gray box of modernism but the simple interface of a bazaar or a road sign. What that bazaar may sell, and what that road sign might say--those are not for me to know, and do not tell me what you think they must be, because they must be the institutions that survive a durable assault of an informed citizenry practicing democracy, or whatever the eventual equivalent of this may emerge.

We can't begin to imagine these societies but let's say as a first attempt that for every political form of oppression (or some other egregious-but-perhaps-necessary form) must be paired with an equal and opposite force of anti-oppression which operates quickly enough to provide feedback (or no feedback, or feedback structured differently than we can imagine).

I've mentioned simplicity because I think it's the only way you can reliably organize people and have them remain not merely passive and content but happy and feeling that something is worth defending. From this simplicity, I assert the need for radical, self-reinforcing transparency in all our public power relations, and with every bit of power, I assert the need for radical checks on that power aided powerfully by the transparency. Eventually, those who may surpass us will fall to the temptations of power as they ascend in power--the key is not to pretend this won't happen but to be certain it will happen and build in epistemic, political, and social checks which will attempt to wrest that power away from them the moment they begin to stray from truth, and force them to return to truth in order to hope to regain it, without impairing the ability of a society to respond to its challenges and alter itself as its people understand society more and more. It's not foolproof--it can never be--but this must be the goal of any modern system in the age of Koch. They debase themselves but they do not deceive themselves. They learn, and learn, and learn from their mistakes and the insights of their opponents--and yet, for all their political genius, their mindset was built on corruption to begin with and their political ideals were broken from the outset. Is this not a perfect lesson, if necessarily tragic? Couldn't we reverse-engineer their techniques, mad visions, and institutions to speak instead to the needs and wants of even the poorest as opposed to the whims and self-destructive self-actualization of the feudal capitalist accumulators?

So in other words, we--and the institutions we infiltrate in the course of our political lives--need to become corrupted by non-corruption itself without losing sight of the corruption we intend to replace. As Ellul reminds us, effective propaganda must be rooted in the truth and only then must branch out to dark interpretation. We must branch off from the facts into dark interpretations, as the cynic must, but branch still further to the brighter leaves of optimism, even as we ascend, first in fear, the awful facts of the matter.

January 28, 2016

Millennial Softboy Gets Real with Pragmatists (Starving Without Spite)

In the Democratic Primary here in the States, too much of our politics--whether centrist, conservative, socialist, identitarian, or nativist--has been driven by raw emotion. Some of us feel the sting of a nation governed by billionaires. Others feel the righteous anger of a nation that has never come to terms with its racist history. Still others fume over climate change, xenophobia, labor rights, health care, and on and on and on. I've been guilty of plenty of unreasonable fury myself the last six months.

And I feel I get it. I get how we've gotten to this fierce and passionate place in our country that we wouldn't have recognized 10 or 20 years ago. The emotions we're feeling are real, irreducible, and powerful, and they stem from undeniably important causes, even if the American public often disagree on the most basic facts. The fear, anguish, anxiety, and loss we're feeling as a nation is near-universal, and it's not for no reason that we're feeling it. And so these emotions have a validity and an urgency all their own, even apart from their causes.

But, as a fairly young person, squarely in the Millennial bracket, I am all too in touch with my emotional life. And I've found there's quite a harsh limit to what disclosure, vulnerability, empathy, and sentiment can produce. At some point, we have to move from passion to politics. It's time, for once, to be pragmatic rather than emotional, and not simply in the dullard centrist's notion of putting aside fundamental disagreements to "get things done", whatever they may be and whoever must be harmed. No, we have to get things done that are substantive, positive, and efficacious. Emotions have no place in this calculation. Passionate anger fades or turns to bitterness with time while political power and its institutions alone endure.

We can't be held in thrall purely to emotion--however valid its causes might be--as so crucial an election is upon us today. Rather, we have to go beyond our grievances and start thinking about the United States as a whole, to think about what kind of nation we're going to be living in 10, 20, and 30 years down the line, and what kind of nation we're leaving to the generations who will follow us on their own cohort-specific journey.

So as January draws to a close, with the Iowa caucuses mere days away, it's time to think about the pragmatism of the electoral situation now--bereft of emotion.

Here's where I'm coming from:


1. Life is unfathomably difficult and hopeless for the worst off among us, except by the standards of the Third World--which is to say, the standards of abjection and subsistence. In the US, where the mean income is high but so many are left out in the cold, a small plutocracy stalls every attempt to reform this state of affairs. This isn't sentiment; it's the truth of the matter, if you'd only care to look.

And if you're left out in the cold, you might as well just die, because second chances are hard in coming. It's so hard to make it in this world without a car, or with a disability, or if you're a person of color, or if you're a poor woman who can't afford to have a child, or if you're a kid on the wrong side of the education-reformer track, or if your town has no jobs. And there's, naturally, quite a lot of overlap between all of these groups.

For those of us not in near-misery, we're still teetering on a dark precipice: If you can't afford health insurance, or, if you aren't quite poor, but you're always one catastrophe away from food insecurity, starvation, homelessness, or utter dependence, then you're hardly free from the vicissitudes of the powerful and the whims of the wealthy, which seem increasingly likely to be the same thing these days.

If you're an immigrant or an ethnic minority on the wrong side of a xenophobic working class, you're hearing what they're saying and you're afraid a little more every day of expulsion or persecution.

In short, if you're left out in the cold in America, what you really lack is freedom from fear, whether you're from the poor and afraid of falling out, or you're from the middle class and afraid of falling back. Much of the anger we've seen in this election is a simple mutation of this fear.

It's hard to make it in this world with a job, and without a job. It's hard to make it in this world with a college education, and without one. It's hard to make it in this world unless you were born along a path of success, all because we live in an unforgiving corporate feudalism in which all who wander too long are lost.

This has been a cold world for humans since time immemorial, and yet the social democracies in Europe have seemed a bit warmer and more forgiving than their wealthy-but-overworked technocratic cousin across the Atlantic.

2. So far, the Democratic establishment, led by its candidate Hillary Clinton, is the seat of power for a staunch left-neoliberal party which says all the right things on cultural theory and does everything in its power to take them away in fiscal practice. Bernie Sanders is much further to the left of Hillary, but it's clear that Hillary represents the Democratic establishment and that, even if Sanders won, he would himself have to helm this same broken establishment.

The current Democratic establishment--birthed as it was as the Soviet Union was falling and as the United States was in the midst of issuing decades of anti-socialist propaganda towards its own citizens--has given no indication that they will ever decide to represent a humane, popular, moral agenda of social democracy. Furthermore, most of the Democratic operatives, with their smug elitism, now take my generation's votes for granted, despite that we would clearly prefer such a social democracy. Our votes are treated as unserious, impractical, and naive. We who feel most acutely the difficulties of this world also feel most acutely that those difficulties have stopped mattering to most of the people who matter in the Democratic party.

We've seen two major popular uprisings in the Democratic base the past two years--the Ferguson/Baltimore demonstrators, and the Sanders supporters. Both of these were spearheaded by committed young people who wanted a brew a tad stronger than the tepid Occupy, um..., tea. The Democratic establishment warmed to BlackLivesMatter only when they could put some of their own people in charge (e.g. Deray McKesson from TFA, a political backbone of the charter-school movement), and only to the extent that those folks don't get out of line. And the Dems still really haven't warmed at all to the Sanders people--whom they treat with condescending scorn as angry harassers, naive outsiders, and conspiracy theorists, even when the only consistently-held conspiracy is that people who receive money from finance and pharmaceutical companies will act in the interests of those industries.

The Democrats are so out of touch. All they know how to do anymore when they meet an opposing force--even one of immense populist potency and social justice--is to triangulate and compromise to the right, and to co-opt, colonize, concede, or marginalize the left. Since the ascendancy of the DLC in 1988, they've never met a good idea on the left that they actually liked enough to advocate nor to implement--they can be forced, if absolutely necessary, but they don't actually believe in the ideal of a social democracy or of a society which lacks a permanent underclass. Whether they lack the imagination or the spirit to believe in such a society is beside the point. What we know is that they act in the interests of the richest individuals and corporations in the United States, and not in the interests of the poorest individuals or unions.

The Democratic establishment has revealed itself to be close in spirit to the New York Times editorial page--boomers dissembling about civility and looking for any excuse to avoid the central questions of our time. They read Piketty and Stiglitz on inequality and cluck and shake their heads. They read about the uncompromising GOP which wins every battle and how important it is, therefore, to compromise. They seem to be wounded by genuine engagement that isn't conducted with the respectful civility of an Aaron Sorkin play about Franklin Roosevelt--as if all of that silly uprising nonsense should have ended with the air controller strike. Occupy is nice, but can you clean up a little bit and go get a job at Goldman or Blackstone? They're not such bad people there. They're not. In short, Democrats like Black Lives Matter and think it's tragic what that cop did, and they can offer a few BLM/Sanders people a job, but they are as deathly afraid of any Republican of a good old-fashioned mass movement.

3. So here's the ultimatum: The Democrats either need to shift quite a bit further to the left than their party leaders have signaled they'd be comfortable with in this general election, or I simply cannot vote for them. I'm not too proud to beg, but that doesn't mean I'm gonna vote for you. I can't see myself voting against the Democrat; more likely this "protest" vote would take the form of a third-party candidate. I say "protest" in quotes because it's not simply symbolic--it's proof-positive that I did not treat your bad candidate's inadequacy with "Millennial disengagement", but with dispassionate rejection. It's information for the technocrats to process, to do with as they will, no more and no less.

4. If a Democrat can act like my generation of young and legitimate disaffected individuals exists, can make a sincere effort to court the poorest people in our society with an agenda, promises, or can give some genuine and public demonstration of good faith on that front, then I'll vote for them. And I might even work for them. I might even try hard to get them elected. It's that simple. Give me a good reason to vote for you, and I will vote for you. Please stop making this so difficult.

One of the most egregious things about the DLC/Obama era is that they publicly shame poor mothers and black fathers and take all the credit for their efficacious victim-blaming. The Romans make a desert and call it peace. The Democrats help to make an underclass and call it reform. That in and of itself isn't so bad, but then they turn to their victims with smug self-confidence and tell us to our faces that it was just politics, and "we're really on your side!"

So, they tell us, we shouldn't shame them for their debased pride. They bragged--and found it in their interests to brag--about mass incarceration and welfare reform, until very recently. The Democrats can be tough on crime too! If that's what you're telling us to get elected, why should I assume you won't go twice as far when you're elected? Seriously, tell me, beyond just trying to appeal to me, what exactly I'm supposed to do with the pride you took in demonizing the hard-working underclass that you continually have conspired with Hayekian Republicans to create?


In sum, I really, really want to support the Democrats, but they've given no indication they care about my engagement, my values, or, in the final tally, my country--at least beyond their donors in the upper class and their middle-brow upper-middle-class. They expect my generation's vote despite doing nothing to show they'll even bring our concerns to the table, much less to the president's desk. Again and again and again they disappoint us, and again they chide us for not voting. They get in the pages of the Washington Post and write an op-ed about the staggering entitlement of the Millennials. Won't they ever learn to deal with reality?

And I guess, increasingly, I've come to accept that my answer is no: I can't accept this reality--I can't accept this country--until it begins to act in basic consonance with any of its stated values. And it seems that Democrats, while responsible stewards of what is left of our republic, don't really want to act that way. They simply want to maintain a stable position on their own little island of influence while the sea level rises imperceptibly every year. The wonks propose increasingly toothless agendas and technocratic trickery in service of pathetic candidates and reforms.

Liberals are seeking to salvage the country by becoming a group with such an unremarkably small and copacetic vision that no one will mind their presence, and in a way they've succeeded wildly. I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis' vision of the hereafter in The Great Divorce, where sinners, in their self-imposed smallness, fall through the cracks of heaven.


Despite the anti-poverty rumblings and the outrage that might be detectable in the preceding discussion, I'm not exactly a Jacobin wanting dead counterrevolutionary bodies in the street, nor a revolutionary seeking any Romanovs to smother. It's not emotional, it's not hateful, and I'm amenable to compromise. These are loose demands. But that compromise should come from a place of genuine necessity and not deception or naked power-brokerage. Hillary is making noises about repealing the Hyde Amendment, and good for her, and good for Bernie for voting against it. But they're running to become the successor of the president who allowed the most striking and most unkindly iteration of the Hyde Amendment in one of his more egregious compromises. It's so wearying to read all day about the rights of women and find, just before you close your eyes that night, that all your work was for nought, women across the country condemned to a harder life.

I use this example to point out that in and of itself, my trouble is not about whether the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. I'm not so naive to think a nominated Sanders might not tack right himself in the general election, because at the end of the day, it's his job not just to run but to win. What's more, I understand that Washington is full of sophisticated political scientists who can lecture you for an hour about the Median Voter Theorem and how it's so important to be just to the left of your Republican opponent, who will, of course, be swinging left to capture the same swath of Median Undecideds. I get that politics is more of a team sport, like cycling, than a pure marathon of individual candidates' wills. And I get that the well-educated Harvard graduates carefully whispering in each candidate's ears just want the best for all of us, because they know that we on the left can all make things easier for one another if we just follow these simple rules of power and compromise once in awhile. As a political entity, Washington is myopic and technocratic, and even a major shift in their calculations will be just that--a shift, not a fundamental challenge.

So yes, these are loose demands I'm making, and perhaps some part of me also recognizes that it's absurd to hope the aristocratic echochamber might pause to "lean-in" from their virtual-reality Vader-eggs in Davos to listen to a guy who can barely write a half-decent sentence. But I don't think my absurd desire to be heard reveals absurd desires: My demands are rational and not driven by emotions. I will vote for the candidate I do believe in and a half-vote for the candidate I don't believe in. And while many of us will ultimately hold our noses and cast a ballot for the nominee no matter what, I'm willing to bet that what I'm saying is the spirit of my disaffected generation of young social democrats. I'm willing to bet that this is more or less the logical underpinning of all our apparent fickleness and sentiment.

It's very simple: We won't show up for another wolf in sheep's clothing. We will not skip work or school or organizing or our otherwise-difficult lives to cast a ballot for someone who isn't really going to ameliorate our nation's problems. Some of us would rationally prefer to starve. We're on a decades-long, involuntary hunger strike for basic dignity, and every year more and more of us realize it. This is the calculation we've made, and now that we've made that calculation, we cannot act otherwise. Anger doesn't enter into it. It's time for those of you in positions of power to realize this, not simply to rationalize it. We are dying, and we will not stop dying until you help us fix the mess you helped to create. As soon as you recognize it, you will have so much power, and in service of a just cause. But until you do, you will have neither power nor justice nor will you deserve it.

In Wisconsin, the leaves will be falling as November approaches. Unswept oak leaves, once young, die and decompose and deposit tannic acid into the ground, harming the topsoil and grass.

The grass and flowers that might have flourished and thrived--if someone had only swept the leaves away!--will be stunted, sparse, and discolored the following spring.

Chemistry takes its course regardless of our laments.