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Support the Census

Support the Census

The alarm has been sounded that Trump’s census apparatchiks are planning to include a citizenship question in the short form that will be used to generate the full count in 2020.  This count, mandated by the constitution and conducted every ten years, is the basis for voting district apportionment and formulas for allocating government services.  Since the first census was taken in 1790 the government has enumerated all residents, citizens or not, and it hasn’t asked about legal status in decades.  It’s not difficult to foresee that such a question would lead to a substantial undercount of Hispanics, especially in the current climate of immigration hysteria.  That’s almost certainly the intent of the Trump plan, not an oversight.

Fortunately, there’s a way to fight this scheme through direct action: massive nonparticipation unless the question is withdrawn.  Refusing to take part in the census is theoretically illegal, but since millions of residents fail to return their form by mail, prosecution is a rare event.  The mail response rate for the 2010 census was about 76%, which means almost a quarter of the potential recipients didn’t make life easy for the Census Bureau.  For them to be counted, enumerators had to knock on their doors and complete the process in person.  These home visits are the biggest expense the Bureau faces to do its job.

Noncooperation could take one of two forms.  The least demanding would be a massive refusal to respond by mail.  If nonresponse could be increased by even just another 10-20% it could substantially increase the cost and decrease the reliability of the entire operation.  Or, if they could stick together, noncooperators could refuse altogether—although I suspect a few highly publicized prosecutions and giant fines would cause a break in the ranks.  (What would happen if crowds blocked enumerators’ access to houses the way eviction agents have been blocked during foreclosure protests?)

The rationale behind direct action would be simple: count us all or not at all.  There’s even an obvious name for a steering group to organize the action, Common Census.  Unless there was a plan to reimburse activists slapped with fines, it would take only a little funding to support the necessary publicity, and the demand that there be no question asking about citizenship is unambiguous.  I see no reason why “count us in or count me out” wouldn’t be a fight we could win.

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Evergreen: So Much Stranger than That

Evergreen: So Much Stranger than That

I’m a professor at Evergreen State College, currently on leave.  Last year I lived through the events that were captured on videotape and brought the college a lot of unwanted publicity.  As a social scientist, long interested in organization theory and social movements, I found the experience grimly fascinating, an extraordinary case study.  In my writing on it, I try to focus on understanding how such things could occur, rather than apportioning blame to specific individuals, which, from what I can see, has been the main sport.

Today I read another post mortem by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, published in the right wing Washington Examiner.  Disclosure: I know both of them, and I had a positive experience co-teaching for a quarter with Heather several years ago in Evergreen’s environmental masters program.  I’m not socially connected to either of them, and I haven’t had political discussions with them either.  I agree with some of what they say in their latest missive, and disagree with other parts.  Readers of this blog, who are far from the scene and wonder who and what to believe, might find my reactions interesting.

There is an obvious, fundamental point on which the three of us see eye to eye: Evergreen descended into an atmosphere of intimidation, in which the right to speak, no matter how civilly, was openly attacked.  There was a group solidarity logic at work: if you affiliated with one group on campus, you could speak your mind in public and be immune from any scrutiny regarding the tone or logic of your utterances; if you didn’t you were expected to remain silent.  This pressure was felt by faculty and students alike.  It was in this context that disruptive actions by students escalated over many months until they paralyzed the college.  It’s remarkable that it even needs to be said that this situation is intolerable for an institution of higher education.

Personally, I think it is bizarre that Weinstein and Heying would be sent packing by the college under the same terms—the same monetary settlement—as Naima Lowe, whose verbal attacks on her colleagues caused enormous damage to Evergreen.  This is not a verdict of the “which side are you on” sort.  It’s not about whose political views you agree with or who you like or don’t like on a personal level.  Weinstein and Heying had a case against the college, and the college had a case against Lowe.  There wasn’t a shred of symmetry in this situation.

One critical aspect of the Evergreen imbroglio goes unmentioned in the Weinstein-Heying account, the barrage of terrifying, intimately threatening emails that bombarded students and faculty after Bret appeared on Fox News.  The wording in these emails reeked of racism and was often graphic, about specific acts of violence, and some students went into hiding because they couldn’t be sure the hatred was only verbal.  To be clear, I don’t blame Bret for that, at least in this sense: I’m pretty sure it never occurred to him that this would result from coverage by conservative media, and no doubt most of it would have taken place even if he had said “no” to Tucker Carlson.  Still, it’s an important part of the larger story, and if you offer an account of what happened you shouldn’t cherry-pick the parts that support your side.  Speaking for myself, I was appalled by this tsunami of hate, and I didn’t feel it was enough to say, this is just the alt-right being the alt-right.  We are all of us responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions, even if we aren’t the ones carrying them out.

But there is also an aspect of the Evergreen story, in many ways the most important one of all, that I think Weinstein-Heying got wrong.  The way they tell it, a left wing minority made a power play on campus in order to enact a radical, identity-fixated political program, the notorious Equity Plan.  This plan, they say, would have destroyed much of what made Evergreen a vital force in education, and the purpose of the intimidation was to push it through.  They cite one sentence from the plan document that calls for bringing diversity and equity criteria into decisions of what faculty specializations to hire in.  It is the Equity Plan that, in their account, makes the conflict political, a battle over which policies would be adopted by the college.

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The Missing Piece in Plans for an All-Electric Vehicle Fleet: Electricity

The Missing Piece in Plans for an All-Electric Vehicle Fleet: Electricity

The New York Times has a piece today on barriers to the replacement of internal combustion-powered vehicles to an all-electric fleet in the United States.  It talks about production costs, the availability of key minerals and the need for a charging station infrastructure, but it oddly passes over the most obvious impediment, at least from the perspective of climate change, the large increase it would require in electrical generating capacity.

If the goal is, at it should be, rapid decarbonization of the economy, conversion to electric powertrains is worth doing only if it results in the replacement of petroleum by renewable energy sources, so lets look at the arithmetic.

According to the latest version of Lawrence Livermore’s invaluable energy spaghetti diagram, 25.7 quads of energy, in the form of petroleum, were used as inputs to the transportation sector.  (A quad is a quadrillion BTUs, approximately the amount of energy in eight billions gallons of gasoline.)  Electric vehicles vary in their efficiency, and there might be improvements on this front in the future, but lets use the common assumption that EV’s are four times as energy efficient as ICV’s; that means we are looking at about 6.4 quads of added electrical demand.

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From Employer Coverage to Single Payer Health Insurance

From Employer Coverage to Single Payer Health Insurance

This holiday season I’ve heard several tales of woe from working class acquaintances, mostly self-employed, about Obamacare: how they are just above the subsidy cutoff and would rather pay the fine than buy expensive individual policies, or how they are just below and can’t afford to put in more hours per week. I can understand why there is a lot of disappointment with the Democrats.

So what about single payer? Along with free public higher ed, it’s supposed to be the leitmotif of the resurgence of the left, with even moderate politicians signing on, or claiming to, to save their skins. And I’m all for it too.

But a big political obstacle is widespread employer-based health coverage, a benefit that would disappear under a universal system. As a public employee, I have coverage of this sort myself, and it’s a big part of my overall compensation. How do we fold the millions with adequate-to-good health plans into a new system financed through taxes?

I have an idea. As single payer goes into effect, require every employer to publicly report how much it pays in the form of contributions to employee health insurance, documented by its payment record over the past twelve months. The health care law would then mandate that this sum be returned as added wage payments to employees for some transitional period (such as six months) or the term of the employment contract, whichever is greater. Ideally the law would specify a reasonably progressive apportionment of this payment across the workforce, such as equal lump sums. At the end of the transition, wages increases and decreases would fall under the same employment law rules, such as they are, as before.

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A First Step for Organizing Counterpower from Below

A First Step for Organizing Counterpower from Below

I’ve been posting a lot of critical stuff on gaps and faulty assumptions in the rhetoric and strategy (such as it is) of the US Left.  A reasonable person might say, OK, enough already.  We know what we’re doing isn’t working, but what would?  What’s the alternative?

Good question—I’m glad you asked.  Actually, for about 40+ years I’ve had the same idea, which I’ll now try out on you.

First, consider the basic conundrum of organizing the Left.  On the one hand, what’s needed is structure on every scale from your neighborhood or workplace to the whole country.  We need to bring the millions of people who share our outlook, in some general sense, into a common organization.  Conservatives will always have more money to draw on; those on the other side have to rely on numbers—and not hypothetical or once-in-a-blue-moon election numbers, but everyday, signed up and available for mobilization numbers.  In other words, the organizational basis for ongoing collective action.

But here’s the thing: the Left has had only flashes of success at this game because it has a powerful tendency to factionalize.  Every time it looks like an organization is getting over the hump it breaks apart.  Why this is so is an interesting question, but I won’t go into it here.  In some ways the dissentious character of the Left is a good thing, since social change is complicated and we need many points of view.  Still, it gets in the way of solving the organizational dilemma, and I will assume this will remain the case.

So how to build a measure of organizational unity on a fractious base?  Scale down the scope of this hypothetical organization in order to scale up across differences in beliefs and strategy.  Imagine an organization with many of the characteristics organizations are supposed to have, like membership rosters, officers, budgets, facilities, and activities, but prohibit it from taking sides in any electoral, legislative or judicial dispute, or promulgate manifestos as an organization.  Make it so there is no political program to fight over, nothing to make members want to quit or drive out those who disagree.  Then allow it to succeed at a more limited role.

And what would this role be?  Above all, it would make visible, countable even, the existence of a massive Left constituency in America.  People would feel differently—they would have more self-confidence and be willing to take bolder action—if they knew they were not alone but part of a movement with millions of supporters.  They could begin to think in “we” terms, where “we” is a fairly well-defined group with game-changing potential.  In addition, such an organization could create opportunities for networking, incubating smaller groups centered on particular issues or ideologies or self-identities, free to be as political as they want, and facilitate media with a wider reach than what we currently have.  It could schedule debates and film series, organize festivals and commemorations, and foster other activities to keep people informed and connected to one another.  It would not do everything—we would still need explicit political organizations to take stands, lobby, organize protests and win elections—but it would be a giant step forward.

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The Great Awokening

The Great Awokening


There’s a theory about the sins and shortcomings of society: they are all due to our failures of consciousness. If people were purer, given to understanding and following the true path, the problems of this world would cease to exist. According to this view, poverty and inequality are the result of greed, wars occur because people fail to see the humanity in the “enemy”, and bigotry feeds on fear and ignorance. The solution is to cleanse our consciousness and achieve enlightenment. This is the way of religion, which has endeavored to perfect the world for thousands of years, with mixed results.

I’d like to think a more promising approach is to identify the structures in society—the laws, customs, institutions, and rules—that are responsible for these problems and change them. This is the way of politics, preferably informed by deliberation and experience. From a political perspective, trying to change people’s consciousness has some value as an end, but it is mainly important as a means, part of building a movement for collective action.

What I sense is that, for many on what considers itself the left, politics in the sense of the previous paragraph is a delusion, a repeating nightmare that one can only awake from, not transform. Instead, passionate energy is funneled into demanding changes in language, personal behavior and conceptions of one’s identity. Done right, that’s worth doing—better consciousness and behavior is better for all of us—but not as a substitute for politics. And if you take politics seriously, battles over culture and consciousness should be strategic, taking into consideration how they can best contribute to collective action.

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Flynn Bails, but Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

Flynn Bails, but Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

I haven’t seen anything yet to convince me that the Putin-Trump collaboration was a big deal.  Ugly and unprincipled, sure, but politically consequential, probably not.

contrary view, expressed by Harry Litman in today’s New York Times, is that this is the beginning of the end for the Trumpster.  The evidence is accumulating that, between his election in November of last year and his inauguration on January 20 of this one, Trump and his inner coterie worked back channels to undermine Obama’s foreign policy.  Litman characterizes these efforts as “abuses of power arguably well beyond those in the Watergate and Iran-contra affairs.”  He further sees the possibility that Trump will be cited for obstruction of justice in his attempts to keep these activities secret.

I’m not convinced.  On the face of it, Trump intervening in foreign policy after his election is less condemnable than Nixon’s secret disruption of a Vietnam peace deal during the 1968 campaign.  The Nixon escapade was an open secret almost from the beginning, and he got away with it.  Iran-Contra was nasty stuff, but Reagan made it through intact, as did his Nicaragua policy, and even the underlings caught red-handed survived and prospered.

But let’s not compare Trump to Nixon and Reagan; that just shows how old some of us are.  Let’s speculate on the political fallout from a potential prosecutor’s report that Trump cut deals with Putin before taking office.  Litman says this is something “that nobody on either side of the aisle could possibly defend.”  Why not?  What happens if the Republicans in the House and Senate say, hey, it’s just a bureaucratic detail, since he was already elected?  And why wouldn’t they say this?  How would that be any more outrageous than anything else they’ve said or done in recent memory?  Who would stop them?

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Freedom of Speech for Fascists? (An op-ed)

Freedom of Speech for Fascists?

I just finished reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s profile of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  I don’t know how accurate it is as a portrayal of Bray and his ideas, but it seems like a sober, fair-minded overview of the debate over anti-fascist tactics and freedom of speech.

What the article doesn’t say, however, is that there are two very different bases for opposing public appearances by white supremacist and similar groups.  One is dangerously wrong, the other, which Bray presents, makes much more sense.

First the wrong approach, that groups should not be permitted to express themselves in public if they cause emotional distress to me or other people I care about.  You hear this one a lot: speech that I find demeaning is a form of violence, and there can’t be freedom for it.  There’s no difference between saying something horrible to me and punching me in the face.  No freedom for one, no freedom for the other.

This argument has its roots in a mindset that has become popular in much of the left, that the ultimate political goal is equal well-being for all, that well-being is essentially having a positive emotional state (or not being in a state of stress/despair/fear/etc.), and that actions should therefore be judged by the emotional response they engender, especially among marginalized groups.  It’s a deeply subjectivist conception of life and politics, one that puts feelings above “objective” conditions like economic status, access to social or institutional networks, risk of physical harm, or other measurable outcomes.  In fact, the primacy of subjective feelings is often asserted by denying the very possibility of “objective” anything.  (Objectivity is said to be a tool of knowledge/power to silence the oppressed.)

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A Serious Misreading of Coase

A Serious Misreading of Coase

Corey Robin is very insightful about a lot of things.  I think his take on conservatism, that the thread running through it is opposition to attempts to demolish pre-existing hierarchies, explains ideological twists and turns that would otherwise remain mysterious.  Don’t take this post as an expression of anti-Robinism.

But CR seriously misreads economic texts that abut political theory.  I felt this way about his analysis of Hayek, which simply ignores the centrality of his lifelong revulsion at Vienna-school-style positivism, with its echoes in a certain style of economic formalism.  (Yeah, Hayek bought into a lot of the elitism of the right, but so did nearly every other conservative; that’s not what made him consequential.)  And now he gives us a terrible interpretation of Coase.

According to CR, “Coase divides the economic world into two modes of action: deal-making, which happens between firms, and giving orders, which happens within firms.”  He then goes on to paint Trump as an über-Coasian, at least in his own self-presentation, since these are the only types of action he recognizes.  I won’t dispute the portrait of Trump, but Coase?  Not a chance.

Coase is proposing a theory of the make-or-buy decision which faces every firm.  (This is the case even for firms in a socialist economy, assuming they can transact in some way with other enterprises.)  What goods does a firm produce internally, and what do they acquire from the outside?  Do you hire your own accountant, or do you buy the services of some accounting firm?  Does Toyota make its own seat cushions for its cars, or does it get them from a supplier (or group of suppliers)?

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