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Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political statement triggering evidence (mixed) about its own truth as dramatically as Ilhan Omar’s quip that pro-Israeli bias in congress is “about the Benjamins, baby”.  It’s as if you wrote a letter criticizing the Post Office and had it returned to you with a USPS message stamped on it.

But let’s dig down one level.  The criticism, partly fair, of Omar is that she bought into (so to speak) the anti-semitic slur that Jewish money constitutes a secret conspiracy against “the people”.  This is the old socialism-of-fools stuff, endlessly recycled by bigots right up until this morning; see the demonization of George Soros, for instance.  Because it exists, people who want to combat bigotry—and this includes progressive politicians—should build a giant moat around it and not go there.  By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line.  It’s the same line that George Bush senior crossed with the Willie Horton ad, and that Trump crosses a dozen times every Twitter-soaked evening.  Invoking a bigoted stereotype is a bad thing to do, especially for politicians with giant megaphones.

Yet the very response to Omar’s tweet demonstrated the truth she was stumbling for.  A chorus of political and media honchos of every denomination, religious and political, rose up to denounce her.  They didn’t make fine distinctions and they didn’t welcome a correction; their goal was to punish and silence.  Sweeping accusations were made against Omar’s character, leaving the impression that any criticism of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, was proof of antisemitism.  And this attempt to isolate and politically crush Omar was itself the embodiment of her protest.  This is the power of AIPAC in action, the lobby that can’t be named, the doctrine—the transcendental importance of Israel and the rightness of its religious self-definition—that can’t be questioned.

So the truth content of the original Omar tweet depends on how we explain this onslaught.  If it’s really just about the Benjamins (the hundred dollar bills with Ben Franklin looking back at us), that means she was being trashed, directly or indirectly, for pay.  Politicians joined the mob either to protect their campaign revenue or shield themselves from other politicians defending their own campaign revenue.  How likely is that?  The answer depends on two prior questions: how important is campaign finance in setting the basic contours of US policy, and what proportion of this finance is controlled or strongly influenced by AIPAC?

These are questions for specialists in these areas, not me.  I will go out on a limb, however, and say that the truth lies between the endpoints: some but not all of the bias in the US political system is attributable to the influence of big donors, and AIPAC has a substantial but far less than a complete lock on the flow of political money.  You could compare it to other lobbies, like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), both of which are feared for their ability to alter the balance of funding in competitive political contests.  But neither of these two outfits is immune from attack, while AIPAC is.  Gun control advocates go after the NRA all the time, and, while AARP is not exactly a political lightening rod, the complaint that greedy seniors are stealing money from our children is a popular meme on the Right.  So AIPAC is different.  This difference does not seem to be about money, at least not solely, as important as money is to the system and the groups that try to dominate it.  AIPAC appears to possess a complementary form of power, perhaps rooted in the infrastructure of synagogues and other religious organizations as well as the allegiance of many socially prominent Jews active in secular organizations.  When it marshals this network, you get the sort of response we saw to Omar.

This was a ferocious rebuke of a politician, clearly intended to be career-ending.  It will be interesting to see if she can recover without abandoning her advocacy of Palestinians; I certainly hope so.  The attack on Omar, however, is itself the embodiment of the fear all of her colleagues have to feel, that if they step out of line on Israel they will be crushed.  Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to antisemitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it.

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The Two Percent Solution: Warren and the Stochastic Jubilee

The Two Percent Solution: Warren and the Stochastic Jubilee

Wait long enough, and great ideas come back around, although not necessarily wearing the same garb.  Elizabeth Warren has just come out for a 2% wealth tax (above $50 million).*  But this is simply an annualized version of my lump sum stochastic jubilee.  What’s the advantage of redistributing the whole thing every 50 years (on average) vs a steady trickle?  A periodic reset would interrupt long run processes of wealth inequality more fully than a tax, so long as the rate of return on financial assets is high enough to compensate for the extra annual pinch, which it most likely would be, since wealth holders would demand a higher rate of return.  It would also be a lot more fun.  On the other hand, it would be more complicated to administer and might be resisted by force.

On balance, I’d go for the jubilee, but I’ll take Warren’s version as a close second.

*There’s also an extra 1% on wealth in excess of $1 billion, but this is largely symbolic.

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The Key to Gentrification

The Key to Gentrification

In the world of urban politics, there is probably no more potent populist rallying cry than the demand to halt gentrification.  Activists have fought it on multiple fronts: zoning, development subsidies, permitting, rent control—every lever housing policies afford.  But what if they’re mistaking cause for effect, hacking away at the visible manifestations of the problem while leaving the problem itself intact?

Pivot to an important article in today’s New York Times, reporting on recent research David Autor  of MIT presented at the economics meetings in Atlanta earlier this month.  It’s all summed up in this set of charts:

As you can see from the tiny print at the top, the data are being read horizontally within each chart, from less dense regions (rural areas) on the left to high density cities on the right.  The question being asked in the article is, if you live in a rural area or a small town, how much benefit can you get from moving to a big city?

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Economic Growth and Climate Change: Mistaking an Output Variable for an Instrument

Economic Growth and Climate Change: Mistaking an Output Variable for an Instrument

When I first started arguing against the degrowthers, I thought they were a small, uninfluential fringe, important only because they had a sway over a portion of the left—what we might call the Naomi Klein left.  That was then.  Today degrowth is entering the mainstream, as can be seen by the latest David Roberts piece in Vox.  Roberts reviews a discussion between several economists on the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) website.  (INET is a Soros-affiliated outfit whose mission is to push economics in a more progressive direction.)  The key article is by Enno Schröder and Servaas Storm; using historical data, they test for the potential of decoupling economic growth and carbon emissions, finding the scale of decarbonization we need is incompatible with economic growth—hence the need to reject economic growth as a social objective.  A similar perspective is provided by Gregor Semieniuk, Lance Taylor, and Armon Rezai, while a rebuttal comes from Michael Grubb.  All three papers are authored or coauthored by important figures in the academic left or center-left, and their point of dispute reflects the expanding influence of the degrowth perspective.

If I had more time I’d write up a response in the form of a paper.  (Actually I am writing a response, but it will be a book.)  For now a blog post will have to do.  Here’s what I think these estimable economists are missing:

1. Economic growth is not, not, not a policy variable.  There is no magic button available to society that delivers a given rate of economic growth, or degrowth for that matter.  It’s an outcome of a host of factors, some of which are controllable, others not.  Indeed, as we wait for quarterly GDP numbers to be revised several quarters later, we still don’t know what economic growth or contraction we’ve experienced.  It is true that politicians often speak of the need to adopt some policy or other for sake of economic growth, but at best they are proposing to push on one of the many factors that influences it.  There is no growth dial, and even if there were, twisting it a few notches would have almost no impact on carbon emissions, which need to fall by nearly 100% within two generations.

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The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

The US Postal Service in a Parallel Universe

Imagine that, instead of the dinosaur of a postal service we have today—the product, among other things, of congressional insistence that no government outfit can compete with private business in lucrative new markets—we had an entrepreneurial, innovative public dynamo.  In this other universe, the USPS was always on the lookout for new opportunities to build on its postal infrastructure, providing better services to the public while broadening its revenue stream.

USPSʹ, this better but hypothetical twin, greeted the arrival of the internet a generation ago with anticipation.  Yes, it was obvious that email would be a threat to its core business of moving mail, but there would also be new possibilities for people to shop and do other business remotely.  If a postal customer goes online to find a new product to clean his bamboo floor and decides to buy it, somehow that product has to find its way to its new owner.  This is a job for the post office!

Driven by the urge to leverage its vast delivery infrastructure, USPSʹ years ago set up a website for remote shopping.  They encouraged producers to list their goods by making it free; the postal service stood to profit from providing the logistics for any transaction, so there was no need to cream any revenue from the site itself, meaning no need to sell advertising.  Of course, they hired top programming talent to make the site as searchable as possible and improve the online shopping experience for simplicity and transparency.  The idea of allowing users to review and rate products was imported from other sites and found to be reasonably effective.

Over time, our hypothetical USPSʹ became something like Amazon, but Amazon wedded to the delivery infrastructure of the traditional postal service.  No Jeff Bezos got to be a gazillionaire out of it, there was no crass commercialism and as a public institution it was amenable to democratic input.  The health information and products site, co-managed with the National Institutes of Health, was a big hit.

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On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

On the Front Lines of Climate Change: Old White Homeowners, Many of them Upper Class

The other night I was sitting at home, locked in a conversation about climate change and race.  How is this a racial issue, I asked?  I realize that the society I live in has pervasive racism, and one should always keep this in mind, but how specifically is climate change worse for nonwhites?

Well, it’s all about first and worst impacts, I was told.  People of color are on the front lines.  They are the one experiencing the most severe consequences, and therefore failure to act against climate change is environmental racism.  The key example is Hurricane Katrina.  That was an early impact of global warming, and what was it if it wasn’t a racist horror show?  Whose houses were flooded?  Who was forced to flee the city?  Who were gunned down by police and blocked by white vigilantes along the way?  Whaddyamean climate change isn’t about racism?

OK, I replied.  I understand the racial geography of New Orleans, and the aftermath of Katrina was every bit the nightmare you say it was.  But what about the recent Camp Fire in California?  That was an early impact of climate change too, and lots of people were killed.  Even more lost everything they had.  But from what I could see in the coverage of it, most of the folks out there were white working people or retirees who were priced out of the Bay Area.  I guess that makes the vanguard of the movement against climate change a bunch of older white dudes.

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Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology

As someone who has looked at the world through a political economic lense for decades, I am restless with the “cultural turn”.  Once upon a time, it is said, the bad old vulgarians of the left believed that economic structure—the ownership of capital, the rules under which economies operate and the incentives these things generate—were everything and agency, meaning culture and consciousness, were nothing.  The latter was sometimes claimed to be derivative of the form.

Then we had a cultural turn.  Now it seems it’s all about consciousness and ideology, of which economic structures are a pale reflection.  Neoliberal ideology is said to have seeped its way into the heads of intellectuals, journalists and politicians—perhaps even the public at large—and this explains things like deregulation, privatization and the ubiquity of outsourcing and global value chains.  It’s even possible to have 500-page treatises about the failures of capitalism that make no reference at all to the empirical structure of the economy, only modes of thought, as I point out here.

According to this view, the various failings of our society, from the inability to act on climate change to mass incarceration to the imposition of market logic on higher education, all converge as consequences of neoliberal hegemony.  But what is neoliberalism?  It is usually described as a philosophy, born sometime between the fall of the Hapsburgs (Slobodian) and the postwar convening of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Mirowski et al.), and surely there is truth to these well-documented accounts.  But should we understand the past four decades or so as primarily the product of a sea-change in thought, the end result of these precursor currents?

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Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Lots of bad op-ed stuff gets published in the New York Times and other mass circulation outlets, so I usually give it a pass, but today’s attack on free higher education by David Leonhardt is about my day job, so I have to make an exception.  He repeats the utterly bs line that, since most college students are from the upper half of the income spectrum, using public funds to pay their way is regressive.

No, no no!

First, why is the college student population so skewed to the higher brackets?  There are many reasons, but the financial burden of attending—not only tuition, but also the opportunity cost of not working—is a big factor.  The problem with free higher ed is that, the way it’s usually framed, it doesn’t go far enough.  As in European countries and elsewhere that take this issue seriously, students should not only get free tuition but a stipend.  We can afford and should demand the same.

Second, what Leonhardt doesn’t mention is the student-worker phenomenon, the crushing workload on college students holding down part time and even full time jobs.  Evergreen State College, where I work, just released the results from its survey of incoming students, and more than half expected to work to support themselves while attending classes, most of them more than 20 hours per week.  I see this reality every day in the classroom, where students struggle with not enough time to keep up with assignments, sometimes even nodding out to recover from a late night shift, or the emails apologizing for being absent because of a work schedule change.

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The Death of Shame

The Death of Shame

In any society not in a state of civil war, shame is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful.  Individuals or organizations caught cheating, lying or otherwise doing evil, when exposed and called out, are expected to be embarrassed.  They should repent their sins and promise to make amends.  Other than pure coercion, what else can disarm those who violate the norms of society?

Evolutionary biologists tell us shame is hardwired not only in humans but many other social animals.  (They may not experience shame the same way humans do, but the outward markers and consequences are the same.)  We seek group membership in good standing, and while there is an incentive to exploit others for personal gain, or just relax our commitment for a while, the punishment of group rejection is a more powerful force.  That’s what holds us together.

It is natural that shame is invoked as a political weapon.  Corrupt businessmen, politicians and public officials may be flying high, but if we can document the facts they are trying to hide, we can clean them out.  A video documenting otherwise hidden police abuse, an audio recording of the murder of civilians released by Wikileaks, the disclosure of evidence of law-breaking by justices or political leaders should accomplish this.  Also testimony from women abused by powerful men: if they come forward and tell the world what really happened, that should stop abuse in its tracks.

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A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

A Washington State Carbon Tax Goes Down in Flames

Initiative 1631, which would have created a carbon tax in Washington State, lost by almost 12% of the vote this week.  Commentators on all sides have interpreted this as a decisive defeat for carbon pricing, making more indirect policies like subsidies to renewables the only politically feasible option.*

I don’t have time for a lengthy analysis, but in a few words I want to suggest that this conclusion is premature.  I live in Washington State and saw the battle unfold first hand in real time.  Voters were not asked by opponents of 1631 to reject carbon pricing; on the contrary.  And it was the failure to draft and promote a straight-ahead carbon pricing law that doomed it.

While supporters of 1631 point to money from fossil fuel interests as the “cause” of their defeat, the actual propaganda of the No side did not belittle the threat of climate change, nor did it even argue against the need for action to reduce emissions.  It hammered on these points:

1. 1631 was weak.  It excluded too much of the state’s emissions and wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on them.

2. Nevertheless it would raise energy bills for virtually all the state’s residents.

3. It proposed an undemocratic procedure for allocating carbon revenues.

The money behind this message may be “bad”, but the message itself was correct.  1631 was so poorly conceived that the arguments of the troglodytes were closer to the truth than those of the progressives.  Take them one by one:

1. 1631 was the second carbon tax initiative in two years.  Last year’s effort, I-732, had broader coverage and allowed for higher carbon prices over time.  It was opposed by progressives, who organized to defeat it and then drew up their own, weaker proposal.  There is a lot of detail to go into, but the short version is that 1631’s carbon price was essentially symbolic, a few cents on the carbon dollar.  It was not a meaningful action to deal with the threat of a climate catastrophe.

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