Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The meanings of the Doug Jones election

Doug Jones won the Senate race in Alabama.

And now the long arguments over how to interpret it have already begun.

Here are some notable Twitter reactions:

Charlie Pierce reminds us of the likely symbolic importance of the fact that Jones had prosecuted two of the KKK Birmingham church bombers. (Doug Jones triumphs in an Alabama Senate race that conjured a deadly church bombing Washington Post 12/12/2017)

Responding to the pundit conventional wisdom that Doug Jones would have had a chance to win if only he'd been anti-abortion:

He also identifies with labor unions more than corporate Democrats do:

The guy who championed the 50 state strategy as chair of the Democratic National Committee had this observation. Which is dead right:

Elizabeth Warren's message was general and chipper:

Democratic base turnout is critical. That requires organization at the local level and it requires candidates to motivate their supporters to turn out. And seeing their elected Democratic representatives seriously fighting for Democratic priorities like Social Security and Medicare and a peace-oriented foreign policy is a big part of motivating the base.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Allāhu akbar, y'all !

Doug Jones WON!

AL Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones speaks on election night

Kirsten Gillibrand as Presidential candidate

Kirsten Gillibrand's national political visibility got an obvious boost from her taking the initiative to pressure Al Franken to resign over vague allegations of sexual misconduct on the level of rudeness, most of them from anonymous sources, as of this writing and at the time of Franken's resignation speech in the Senate.

In announcing her demand that Franken resign in a Facebook post of 12/06/2017, she included this remarkable statement:

While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.

As the mother of two young boys, we owe it to our sons and daughters to not equivocate, but to offer clarity. We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping. And what message do we send to our sons and daughters when we accept gradations of crossing the line? None of it is ok and none of it should be tolerated. [my emphasis]
It's quite a double message to acknowledge that the vague and publicly unproven claims against Franken are not "criminal conduct" but then immediately after to insist that in public life and in private standards ("our sons and daughters") we should not "accept gradations of crossing the line" among "sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping."

That a reckless and foolish standard. For law, for private life, for business, for public life. Telling a dirty joke in the office may deserve a reminder from the boss not to be vulgar. But to be a good reason to fire someone, much less imprison them, it would need to be an exceptionally dirty joke.

And, yes, to be clear, I'm being sarcastic on the last point, although there might be circumstances - doing so in front of a customer, or a junior executive inserting one into a presentation to the company board of directors, in which a single instance might be justifiable. But by the Gillibrand Standard, we should accept no "gradations" of seriousness of an offence among "sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping." We should assume that an attempted kiss, one of the sins of which Franken is accused, also fits in that category of the Gillibrand standard, since it was the Franken case that was the occasion of her statement.

As a practical matter, the Republicans will look at the Democratic Senate revolt against Franken as a sign of weakness, including Franken's decision to resign while denying the accuracy of the charges. Republicans are very adapt at using these kinds of claims against Democratic opponents, or "weaponizing" them as the pundits now say.

Also as a practical matter, Gillibrand's initiative removes Franken as a potential competitor for the Presidential nomination in 2020. Other potential/likely Democratic Presidential candidates that joined in the call for Franken's resignation before he publicly declared his intention to do so were Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But Gillibrand was the one whose leadership on the matter earned her a couple of valuable puff pieces in the days since. The New York Times reported the same day as her Facebook post: Shane Goldmacher, On Sexual Misconduct, Gillibrand Keeps Herself at the Fore New York Times 12/06/2017. The flattering graphic below accompanied Politico's story on her:

Her earlier use of the Roy Moore scandal to score points with Democrats suspicious of Clinton paved the way for her Franken publicity bonanza: Jennifer Steinhauer, Bill Clinton Should Have Resigned Over Lewinsky Affair, Kirsten Gillibrand Says New York Times 11/16/2017. Politics is politics, and her positions on that issue and Franken have been politically beneficial to her in the short term. When even a Gillibrand Presidential candidacy can survive the incredibly low barrier set by the Gillibrand Standard remains to be seen. If there's a photo of her from some time in her life playfully pinching somebody on the butt, that could be embarrassing.

Now Trump has decided to make her the same kind of target he made Hillary Clinton:

Gillibrand responded:

Now she is getting even more attention as a defender of women, with headlines like this from Yahoo News today:

The Morning Zoo crowd came down hard on Trump, Mika On President Donald Trump: That Tweet Said So Much About His Character Morning Joe/MSNBC 12/12/2017:

This MSNBC segment also gives some possible other angles on this and the kind of comma-dancing that may go on around it, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: President Donald Trump's Attack A 'Sexist Smear' 12/12/2017:

I won't try to predict how this will play out. I will say that Trump's base doesn't care about sexual harassment and assault charges against him. And the Franken case gives good reason to worry that Democrats will not be able to outplay the Republicans on the politics of this. To the extent that Democratic responses to this and future Trump outbursts on the subject comes off to Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters as, "You can't criticize me because I'm a girl," that will not be good for the Democrats.

Trump operates as a professional wrestler. He portrays a theatrical image of toughness with blowhard nonsense like this. But it has so far worked remarkably well for him politically. And Trump's professional wrestling instinct may be telling him Kirsten Gillibrand would be a useful foil for him.

The Democrats need to use their advantage on the sexual harassment issue without forgetting that Republicans can do the same. And the radical difference between how the parties' respective voting bases regarding the issue. And that makes it more complicated for the Democrats. Because the Democratic base has a lot of people, male and female, who are more inclined toward "believe the evidence" than simply "believe women." Especially ones who remember the Clinton pseudoscandals of the 1990s. And a lot of the Democratic base will not feel the least bit comfortable with the Gillibrand Standard of treating "sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping" as a set of equivalent sins.

And even in the midst of justifiable outrage about Trump's obviously sexist and sleazy tweet above, it can also be read and understood by the Republican base as a swipe at political corruption. It's a joke to think of Trump as an opponent of corruption. But the effect of political symbolism is not purely a matter of logical reflection. John Marshall has an insightful take on the corruption angle of the tweet and how Trump more generally works the issue, The Only Honor Is Corruption TPM 12/12/2017.

And that was the approach that White House publicity hack Sarah Huckabee Sanders took in her daily briefing today, beginning just after 21:30 (PBS Newshour 12/12/2017). She returns to it later in the press conference and works it hard:

Also, am I the only one to think that Trump's reference to Sen. Schumer in that tweet was a bit of anti-Semitism? Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to Gillibrand as a "puppet" of Schumers, "puppet-master" being a long-time feature of anti-Semitic propaganda.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reason and history

I didn't set out to write a series of posts on theories and approaches to history. But I have another one.

This one has to do with an essay by philosopher Terry Pinkard, who specializes in German philosophy from the late 18th century (Kant) on to the present. The essay is on the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, "Taylor, 'History,' and the History of Philosophy" (From Charles Taylor, Ruth Abbey, ed., 2004).

Describing Taylor's view of history, Pinkard writes, 'The line [of development] in history does not, and need not, run in a straightforwardly progressive direction." This, of course, speaks to the Enlightenment concept of progress in history. This view envisions progress in human societies over time, but recognizes that there can be setbacks, even huge setbacks. It's often said that in the West, the First World War was a major inflection point after which it was difficult or not impossible to view history as a story of continual human progress.

Taylor's view of history gives emphasis to understanding history from the "inside," by which Taylor means understanding how people at a given time viewed what was happening to them, as well as from the "outside," looking at larger sociological, economic or other collective processes and how they shape events without the full consciousness of the individuals involved.

Pinkard likens this to the distinction that Hegel made between "empirical" and "philosophical" history, which Pinkard describes this way:
Philosophical history cannot challenge the facts of empirical history, and it must be consistent with them; its task, though, is different in that it looks at the meaning of history and whether there is any rationality, or reconciliation, to be found in its events. It does not ask if history, or any particular agent or collective was actually aiming at the result in which we find ourselves; it asks instead if there is any way to say that any of the transitions in the understanding of what it means to be human can be counted as more rational than what came before in some nonquestion-begging way that does not presuppose at the outset some conception of rationality that is itself at issue.

Such philosophical history need not recount all the contingencies of history that go to make up the story we now tell about it. [my emphasis]
This is Taylor's way of accounting for reason in history.

Hegel based his theory of history on the view he elaborated in his Phenomenology of Spirit. He viewed all developments in the material world as an unfolding of reason in a dialectical process within what he called the World Spirit. By the mid-19th century, even thinkers working in the Hegelian tradition found the concept of the World Spirit no longer usable. But the notion of reason unfolding in history is very much with us today.

Pinkard illustrates that view of rationality in history with this quote from Taylor in his Sources of the Self, “What probably made Locke the great teacher of the Enlightenment was that he offered a plausible account of the new [Galilean] science as valid knowledge, intertwined with a theory of rational control of the self; and that he brought the two together under the idea of rational self-responsibility.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hans Küng on the construction of historical narratives

Swiss theologian Hans Küng got Faulknerian in his book Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (1991), writing, "It is impossible to cope with the past in the sense of bidding it farewell or neutralizing it. Whether one likes it or not, the past always remains part of the present."

This comes in his discussion of the Holocaust, which he prefaces with some theoretical declarations about his approach to history, also noting, "A repressed past easily becomes a curse."

He offers these three bullet-points:
  • Neither a national history nor a church history may be sweepingly 'instrumentalized' in the interest of a particular party, state or church policy as a means of creating identity. As Habermas has remmarked, history is not a 'substitute religion', capable of offering compensatory meaning to those deprived o f their roots in the process of modernization, and creating a consensus in state and church.
  • Rather, both national and church history need to be examined critically and appropriated self-critically: with a view not only to the historical dialectic of continuity and interruption, but also to the ethical difference between humanity and inhumanity, good and evil.
  • So those who because of negative historical experiences have a critical relationship to their own history and thus have a heightened moral awareness and greater human sensitivity can help to avoid the repetition of earlier mistakes. They can find a new, freer identification with their state or their religion, which excludes the former uncritical total identification with all its totalitarian consequences.
Küng isn't making only methodological points for academic research there. In the second bullet point, he emphasizes a focus on "the ethical difference between humanity and inhumanity, good and evil."

I could undoubtedly fine ways to quibble with or qualify some of what he says in the bullet-points. But I'm not really inclined to try. Because it largely reflects my own approach to history. And the kind of emphasis I've given here to the events that developed democracy and human freedom.

That's also how I've used the historical figure of Andrew Jackson, for which this blog was named for most of its existence ("Old Hickory's Weblog"). The fact that a white supremacist view of Andrew Jackson via Steve Bannon and Donald Trump has become for the moment the "hegemonic narrative" in popular usage in the US is an obscenity. One I hope will be short-lived. Because that also reflects a serious deficiency in how the left in the US tends to both understanding and use early American and antebellum history.

History, the study and evaluation of the past, has an indispensable empirical basis. But it also involves quality in the construction of narratives and both technical and normative judgments about the significance of events. Those different aspects can be distinguished. But never entirely separated.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Get ready for officially-sponsored pseudoscandals

Charlie Pierce warns that the Justice Department of Jefferson Bearegard Sessions III, aka, the Evil Kebler Elf, is getting ready to create pseudoscandals to entertain the Republicans. But the consequences for real people could be serious (Jeff Sessions Will Waste Your Tax Dollars for the Foreseeable Future Esquire Politics Blog 12/09/2017):
In case you haven’t noticed, the entire investigatory apparatus of the federal government has turned into a Breitbart comment thread and, fairly soon, the glory days of Benghazi, Benghazi!, Benghazi! are going to seem like a golden era of good government. The Republican majorities in Congress—and, most recently, the Department of Justice, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, proprietor—have decided to give the reality-starved shut-ins of the Republican base performance pieces depicting all their favorite fantasies.

There are at least three congressional investigations touching on the completely fraudulent Uranium One “scandal.” JeffBo reportedly is “considering” appointing a second special counsel to look into everything congressional Republicans have gleaned from binge-watching Hannity. But it doesn’t stop there. Inevitably, we have come around to the completely truthless—and comically inept—fable of how Planned Parenthood sold off aborted fetuses for parts.
I'm afraid the Al Franken resignation business is leaving the Democratic Party even more vulnerable to pseudoscandals than before.

Every Democrat and every TV pundit should be required to ready and pass a comprehension exam on The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (2000) by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. And to watch the companion documentary. Most of them won't.

Friday, December 08, 2017

A shaky Brexit hope from a major Labour donor and euroskeptic

Frances Coppola has a number of interesting observations in a column criticizing the ideas advocated by "businessman and self-styled economist John Mills," who she identifies as being on the left politically. Mills is a major donor to the Labour Party. (Louise Armitstead, Rich, private school, Oxford. Meet John Mills, Labour's biggest donor Telegraph 09/15/2013.

Coppola writes:

John Mills is also a long-standing supporter of Brexit. Like many left-wing Brexiters, Mills thinks that leaving the EU will create an opportunity to rebalance Britain’s economy away from finance and other service industries and towards manufacturing. Britain’s manufacturing decline long pre-dates the Brexit vote: business investment has been low by comparison with other countries for decades, manufacturing productivity started to fall long before the 2008 financial crisis, and Britain has run a persistent trade deficit since the early 2000s.

For Mills, that trade deficit is the UK’s biggest problem. “We have a major problem in our financial relationship with the other EU countries,” he says, laying out a table showing the UK’s trade position. Indeed, it does look bad: his figures (from the Office of National Statistics, 2016) show the UK running a total trade deficit (goods and services) of £37bn, of which £71bn is with the EU. No, that is not a typo: the UK runs a trade surplus of £34bn with the rest of the world, mainly because of its dominance in services. [emphasis in original]
Mills argues that Britain could benefit greatly from devaluing the pound sterling. Coppoola describes his argument; " artificially depressing sterling's exchange rate would create a big export boom and encourage manufacturing." But, she notes, devaluing the currency for boosting exports is prohibited by the rules of the IMF, of which Britain is very much a member:

Nor can the UK afford to ignore the IMF's rules. John Mills's assertion that sterling is not a reserve currency is very wrong. It is not only a major international reserve currency, it is one of only five currencies currently in the IMF's SDR basket. Countries with international reserve currencies all benefit to some extent from "exorbitant privilege" - namely, the ability to borrow externally long-term in their own currency at low interest rates. Giving up this privilege would be costly.

Of course, Mills might argue that losing "exorbitant privilege" would be worth it for a better export performance. [my emphasis]
She explains why the idea that exchange rates determine the trade deficit/surplus is a historical, with arguments like this:

The long fall of sterling from its 1981 height was due to the U.S. dollar, which soared due to the combination of very high interest rates with enormous fiscal stimulus. In 1985, there was an international agreement (known as the Plaza Accord, because it was made at the Plaza Hotel in New York) that central banks would act in concert to dampen the US dollar. Because of the dollar’s dominance in the sterling trade weighted index at this time, the Bank of England’s participation in the Plaza scheme forced sterling’s exchange rate to rise significantly. ...

These charts demonstrate a serious problem with the "strong sterling causes trade deficits" idea. 1981 was the peak of the trade surplus. But it was also peak sterling. So the UK not only recovered from a sudden stop in 1975, but delivered its best ever trade performance while sterling was rising to a post-war high. And when sterling fell back in the early 1980s, the UK’s trade surplus shrank. If the exchange rate was determining the balance of trade, as Mills asserts, we would expect the reverse. [my emphasis]
And she calls attention to the effect of the current economic-globalization regime:

There is also another possible explanation for the UK’s rising trade deficit in goods since 1999, and that is the entry of China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the general opening up of Asian countries to trade. In the US, China’s accession to the WTO is blamed by many for the loss of manufacturing jobs. There is little evidence that UK manufacturing jobs significantly went to Europe – but they have without doubt gone to the Far East. When manufacturers offshore production, the contribution of their goods to the trade balance switches sign. So, for example, ever since James Dyson moved manufacturing to Malaysia, his goods have shown in the UK's trade balance as imports, not exports. His decision, like that of other manufacturers, to move production to cheaper locations, thus contributes to the UK's trade deficit in goods.

In theory, a large depreciation of sterling could improve export competitiveness enough to encourage the likes of Sir James Dyson to bring manufacturing back to the UK. In practice, though, it is not that simple. Dyson now has extensive supply chains in the Far East. Relocating to the UK would be disruptive and costly, not least because unless those supply chains were also relocated to the UK, Dyson's input costs would rise as a direct result of the devaluation of sterling. There are two sides to exchange rate changes, after all: what benefits exporters is harmful to importers, and vice versa. In the UK, most manufacturers import raw materials and components, and all manufacturers are dependent on imported energy (since the UK is not self-sufficient in energy). Sterling devaluation may not benefit manufacturing nearly as much as Mills thinks.  [my emphasis]
Coppola also points out that his won export business creates an incentive for Mills to view currency manipulation as a desirable national policy: "Mills is a major UK exporter. No wonder he wants a better exchange rate. But I fear that in his desire to benefit his own business he has failed to take into account the terrible political risks associated with using the exchange rate as a source of competitive advantage. The IMF's articles of agreement prohibit exchange rate manipulation precisely because of the risk of tit-for-tat retaliation."

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Democrats and sexual harassment scandals

How Republicans react to credible reports of serious sexual assault on the part of their candidates:

How Democrats react to vague claims about their candidates having committed inappropriate and obnoxious acts that qualify as sexual harassment but on the level of offensive and annoying rather than violent or criminal:

That's a screen capture from "Duck And Cover" - original TV advert 10/27/2010.

I don't know what the details of the Al Franken sexual harassment controversy will turn out to be. And we probably won't know, now that he's already announced he's resigning from the Senate.

But I do know that on Wednesday, a majority of the Democrats in the Senate called on Al Franken to resign his Senate seat. Next Tuesday is the Alabama Senate election in which the hard-right Republican candidate and troglodyte Roy Moore has been credibly accused of sexual assault on a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old when he was in his 30s. President Trump has been clearly supporting him. So is the Republican national Committee. Republicans in Congress are dutifully reciting the talking point that the people of Alabama have to make the decision.

Allan Smith (The polling trends for Trump and Roy Moore are starting to look remarkably similar Business Insider 12/04/2017) reports:
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore's polling rebound has begun to follow a similar pattern to then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the month that followed bombshell sexual misconduct-related revelations against them.

Moore, the Alabama candidate who last month was hit with allegations that he preyed on teenagers when he was in his 30s, saw his RealClearPolitics polling average dip immediately. His his substantial lead over Democratic opponent Doug Jones evaporated in the week that followed the initial revelations.

But now, less than a month after the first allegations were made public, Moore has regained a lead over Jones and has watched his polling average return to a familiar level.

The trend mirrors one that Trump experienced following the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape last fall.
But the Democratic Senators couldn't wait until Wednesday of next week to call on Franken to resign. And this just after John Conyers announced he's stepping down from his Congressional seat after much more serious allegations than those against Franken.

Regardless of the merits of the charges against Franken or the appropriateness of wanting him to steop down, these last few weeks have show Republicans, including the James O'Keefes of the world now see that the Democrats are still inclined to their long-standing approach we've seen with ACORN, Shirley Sherrod, "General Betray-us" and other instances: "Surrender first. Then fret later about whether we should have fought or not."

I'm optimistic about the Democrats' chances in 2018 because the Trump Administration is so bad and because there is a continuing surge of real grassroots activism. After Wednesday, I'm emotionally deflated about it, though. Because the Democrats are clearly very sorely tempted to try to coast. And the Republicans are going to be able to maintain effective control if the Democrats' instinct remains to respond to any kind salacious accusations against Democrats by:

The only message that Republican partisans will take from this is that "Duck and Cover" remains the Democrats' unofficial theme song.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A thought on how the Republican Party got to Trumpism

The Morning Joe crew today were shocked, shocked to discover the Republican Party is more concerned about tax cuts for the wealthy than the safety of 14-year-old girls. (I'm officially adopting Charlie Pierce's version of the program's name, the Morning Zoo.) GOP Strategist Susan Del Percio On Roy Moore Support: You Are About To Lose Me MSNBC 12/05/2017

I mean, conversions are fine. But what did they think the Republican Party has been the last 25-30 years?

I remember when the new "Gingrich Revolution" members elected to Congress in 1994 declared junkie bigot Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress for his service in getting a Republican House elected.

Maybe Joe Scarborough, also elected to Congress for the first time that year, missed that shindig. Because you'd think he might have remembered things like this (Katharine Seelye, Republicans Get a Pep Talk From Rush Limbaugh New York Times 12/12/1994):
"You will never ever be their friends," the talk-show host warned most of the 73 Republican freshmen at a dinner here tonight. "They don't want to be your friends. Some female reporter will come up to one of you and start batting her eyes and ask you to go to lunch. And you'll think, 'Wow! I'm only a freshman. Cokie Roberts wants to take me to lunch. I've really made it!' " The audience laughed.

"Seriously," he added. "Don't fall for this. This is not the time to get moderate. This is not the time to start trying to be liked."

The freshman class, which included not a single "femi-Nazi," one of Mr. Limbaugh's favorite epithets for supporters of women's rights, whooped and applauded, proving itself one big fan club of the man it believes was primarily responsible for the Republican avalanche in November. [my emphasis]
Limbaugh reminded the Republicans about how a fine fellow he is:
Mr. Limbaugh said President Clinton's new nominee for surgeon general would be Pee-wee Herman. He also said he had a copy of the White House drug test -- a multiple-choice examination. "Complete the following verse," he read. "I am the walrus. A: You are the taxman. B: La la la la la la. C: Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? D. Koo-koo-ka-choo."

In closing, he asked his audience to "leave some liberals alive" as artifacts so that "we can show our children what they were." [my emphasis]
Pee-Wee Herman was the comic persona of Paul Rubens, who was arrested in 1991 for public exposure when he was caught masturbating in a porno theater. (Mark Harris and Ty Burr, The Pee-Wee Herman scandal EW 08/16/1991)

Rush Limbaugh's commitment to "traditional values" also came into question later when he got into trouble because of his oxycontin habit. (Jarrett Murphy, Rush Limbaugh Arrested On Drug Charges CBS/AP 04/02/2006) That same year, he also got some bad publicity over some mis-labeled Viagra pills found in his possession on a trip to the Dominican Republic. (Rush Limbaugh's Dominican Stag Party The Smoking Gun 07/06/2006) Some Mean Libruls called attention to the Dominican Republic's reputation at the time as a sex tourism destination. (Evan Derkacz, Rush Limbaugh, sex tourist? AlterNet 06/27/2006) Bad libruls, bad!

As for that bit about leaving "some liberals alive," why, that was just a joke, doncha know? Lighten up, libruls!!

As the Times reported, the newly-elected Republican Congress members "whooped and applauded" for the tasteful comedian. And his bloviating raving against Mean Libruls is still popular among Republicans today.

Golly gee, how could a nice moderate party of honorable gentlemen (and the occasional lady like Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin) have morphed suddenly (?!) into the part of Donald Trump and Roy Moore? The Morning Zoo crowd are very distressed trying to understand the deep mystery.

Monday, December 04, 2017

A look back at how German unification appeared in 1993

I just came across something I wrote dated 11/08/1993 about the state of German unification at that time.


A report in the 11/15/93 Business Week provides a good illustration of the wishful thinking about European competition so common in the American business press. The article, "Germany: Is Reunification Failing?" by several staff writers, talks about how eastern German economic performance has disappointed the Kohl government's early predictions of a fast transition for the eastern states.

Contrary to the optimists' hopes, the article accurately notes, industrial production in the old East Germany was far worse than the west had estimated, and environmental problems far more severe. Then, it offers its diagnosis of the policy failures in terms common to American economic policy disputes:
But west German leaders were also to blame. They exported their high wages, generous benefits, and stifling regulations to the east - just when this brand of capitalism was beginning to flag under global competition. They also wrongly assumed billions in public investment would spark a big private investment boom. Moreover, the privatization of old state-run companies didn't create a new entrepreneurial class as quickly as hoped. It often shut down factories and wiped out jobs. And western Germans argue that their new compatriots cling to an entitlements mentally developed under 40 years of communism.
This capsule version of the business press' conventional wisdom about German unification suffers from some serious defects, from the standpoint of American leaders evaluating Europe's competitive strengths:
1. "They exported their high wages, generous benefits, and stifling regulations to the east - just when this brand of capitalism was beginning to flag under global competition."
It seems to be a eternal conviction among business writers that well-paid workers are a bad thing for a country to have. But businesses in practice base their hiring on the reality that, if Worker X produces 10 widgets at $10/hour, and Worker Y produces 30 widgets as $20/hour, Worker Y will produce more bottom-line profit ford the company. Worker Y's labor-costs per widget is $.67. Workers X's cost per widget is $1, even though Worker X is paid 1/2 the salary of Worker Y.

In economists' terms, labor productivity (output of product per unit of labor input) is more important for profitability than absolute wages. Yet here we have America's leading business periodical pushing the simplistic notion that high wages are bad for the economy.

In fact, productivity has been more of a problem in eastern Germany than absolute wages. In new eastern factories, like Opel's state-of-the-art Eisenach plant mentioned later in the article, productivity is extremely high, in which case western-scale wages are economically justified. If Opel's expectations that the Eisenach plant can be 50% more productive than the best western German plant, even higher wages could be justified.

There is also the very practical reality that, if German workers in the east must expect drastically lower wages for the indefinite future, many of them will migrate to the west, exacerbating social and economic problems in old and new states alike. In fact, emigration from the old eastern states to the west has slowed dramatically, which has be counted as a policy success.

How relative wage rates affect a country's international standing is indeed a real issue for Germany, as it is for the United States. North Carolina is happy to have Mercedes Benz putting facilities there to take advantage of their relatively cheaper labor. Yet, do Americans really want to become like a Third World country, marketing ourselves as cheap labor? Germany, like America, is grappling with a dilemma of development: as the economy develops, unskilled labor tends to migrate to lower-wage regions and lower-wage countries.

This produces some very real economic and social problems. But do either Americans or Germans want to solve them by trying to turn their country into a low-wage haven for foreign investment? In any case, Germany's economy is heavily export-oriented and has been remarkably successful at it in the recent past. German capitalism has indeed "flagged" since 1992 - due to a serious cyclical recession. But for Americans to assume that Germany's brand of export capitalism is failing in international competition would be wishful thinking of a high order.
2. "They also wrongly assumed billions in public investment would spark a big private investment boom."
This notion is true in one sense, but over-simplified to the point of having little meaning. The huge transfers of public money to the new (eastern) German states have not produced as large an investment boom as expected.

The problem had to do with several major factors, including the law on property claims and the method of currency conversion (see below). There was a real problem with the public investment program, namely, most of it was not investment. Most of the transfers have been to subsidize consumption, like compensation to the large numbers of unemployed. A more .accurate conclusion would be that massive public subsidy of consumption has not produced an private investment boom. Had these same amounts been spent on public infrastructure or used to directly leverage private investment, there is every reason to think different results would have occurred.
3. "Moreover, the privatization of old state-run companies didn't create a new entrepreneurial class as quickly as hoped. It often shut down factories and wiped out jobs."
This statement is more puzzling than anything, suggesting that the writers confused Germany with other former Communist countries like Russia or the Czech Republic, where a new capitalist class had to be encouraged. German has plenty of successful companies and capitalists , and privatization could and did proceed at a very rapid pace in Germany.

But investment in eastern Germany has failed to meet early hopes. One of the most serious problems in this regard was the way the law on compensation for previous property owners was written. A company can scarcely risk large amounts of capital buying a factory to use or retool if they don't have clear title to the property. But the law governing post-unification property claims allowed former owners, not only from the pre-Communist period, but from the pre-Nazi period as well, to actually take possession of the property. The resulting long-range uncertainties over land titles has proved a major hindrance to outside investment in the east.

And privatization itself did not cause the massive layoffs. One of the Kohl administration's key mistakes in unification was to allow the old east German mark to be translated into the western mark in 1990 on a one-to-one basis. Economic studies at the time indicated that the Ostmark was worth only about one-third of the Deutschmark in the world market . Converting on a one-to-one basis meant that huge sections of east German industry became uncompetitive in world markets overnight. Converting the mark on a basis closer to market reality would have meant that many eastern companies could have sold their goods at much lower prices, and therefore continued to operate.
4. "And western Germans argue that their new compatriots cling to an entitlements mentally developed under 40 years of communism."
Much has been written on the mutual suspicions between "Ossis" and "Wessis" in the new Germany. The "Ossis" are accused of being lazy, undisciplined, unambitious, looking for handouts, etc. The "Wessis" are accused of being arrogant, greedy, and materialistic. It's a little reminiscent of Californians' contempt for the "Oakies" in the 1930s. No doubt, in a few years some German popular singer will be proclaiming, "I'm proud to be an Ossi from Jena" or something similar. And the Ossi/Wessi conflicts will be largely forgotten.

Americans in the wake of German reunification sometimes seemed to think that West Germany had annexed Bangladesh. In fact, eastern Germany was an industrialized country with a well-trained, highly literate workforce. When east German industry is modernized, unified Germany and the European Economic Community stand to reap the full competitive advantages of their strong human capital base.

The "bottom line" is that American business writers waiting for the United States' European competitors to self-destruct are indulging more in wishful thinking than in realistic economic analysis. And some stale cliches - low wages are good for the economy, government spending never helps private investment - add to the confusion.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

A "geo-cultural" approach to understanding Europe's position in the world

"The superiority she [Europe] has long maintained, has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. ... Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European: it belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race, and to teach that assuming brother moderation. Union will enable us to do it. Disunion will add another victim to his triumphs. Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness! Let the Thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connexion between the old and the new world!
Diet Senghaas uses that quotation from Federalist #11 (Publius/Alexander Hamilton) to argue that Europe needs to adopt a kind of city-on-a-hill strategy in world politics of leading by example. (Von Donald Trump bis Xi Jinping: Der neue Kampf innerhalb der Kulturen Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 12/2017)

He does this in the context of considering the current international scene from the viewpoint of "geo-cultural" tendencies. This view understands the Cold War was as defined by the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States encompassing military, economic and cultural aspects, the latter taken as values, broadly speaking. "Europa war in jeder Hinsicht – also geopolitisch, geoökonomisch und geokulturell – im Zentrum eines Weltkonflikts positioniert und extrem exponiert: zweigeteilt auf beide Lager und ohne nennenswerte Grauzone." ("Europe in this respect - that is, geopolitically, geo-economically and geo-culturally - positioned at the center of a world conflict and extremely exposed: split between both camps and without any gray zone to speak of.")

Senghaas argues that conflict within cultures are now far more a defining factor in the international behavior of states and blocs than during the Cold War. His use of "culture" seems to play off the meaning "civilization" in Samuel Huntington's controversial but influential concept of the Clash of Civilizations. The article runs 10 pages, so obviously it can provide only a general sketch for an overview of international politics for the world.

So, to sketch his sketch, he argues like pretty much all foreign policy analysts and scholars that China is seeking a more important world leadership role. And while the current Communist Party leadership seems very focused on maintaining its monopoly of power, it nevertheless faces internal political conflicts, even though they aren't expressed in the way they appear in parliamentary democracies. And while military clashes with the US in places like the South China Sea are a real possibility, Senghaas puts considerable weight on the observation that China's dealings with other countries have a heavily pragmatic orientation without a notable emphasis on spreading their political ideology. (Yanis Varoufakis has made a similar observation about Chinese proposals for business deal with Greece.) He concludes that China is more focused on its internal challenges and conflicts, which he describes as a "clash within civilization" than on foreign expansionism and intervention. Its assertive foreign policy, he argues, is "allerdings nicht der Ausgangspunkt für eine geokulturell verursachte Weltstrukturbildung à la Ost-West-Konflikt, also beispielsweise für einen China-West/USA-Konflikt – zumindest auf absehbare Zeit noch nicht" ("in any case not the springboard for a geo-cultural-based creation of a world structure à la an East-West conflict - like a China-West/US conflict, for instance - at least not for the foreseeable future.")

Senghaas takes the 2013 Chinese Communist Party Document Number Nine is a particularly useful source on the current Chinese policy orientation.

He sees Russia's policy under Putin as being based on Russian ethno-nationalism, though he doesn't use that term. Specifically, he argues that Russia takes a particular interest in relations with states that were part of the former Soviet Union. An obvious but important point. Yet it's nevertheless one that neocons and "humanitarian hawks" tend to regard with sputtering outrage, real or feigned. In Senghaas' terms, Russia's politically and military aggressiveness in neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine can be understood as part of a "geo-cultural" posture. (See Nuland, Victoria.) But, he argues, "Die eigene, russische Politik im eurasischen Raum wird als von
„identitärer Toleranz“ motiviert begriffen." ("The actual Russian policy in the Eurasian area should be understood as motivated by 'identitarian tolerance'.")The term "identitarian tolerance" is presumably an allusion to the far-right, xenophobic "identitarian" movement. (See: Identitarian movement - Germany's 'new right' hipsters Deutsche Welle 23.06.2017)

Senghaas doesn't address the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. As more of the scope of that project is reliably documented in the public record, it could show a more interventionist orientation in Russian policy toward the US. But based on what we know at this writing, it seems to be more likely that the Russians assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidency and they wanted to weaken her hand in pursuing policies opposed to Russian actions in those borderlands like Georgia and Ukraine, in particular. That picture is largely what emerges from the Frontline documentary Putin's Revenge (2017), for example.

He sees the conflict with Islamists as a mixture of internal cultural conflicts and "geo-cultural" ones. This makes sense. While Islamist militancy and terrorism can have dramatic impact in Western countries (the 9/11 attacks most notably), the focus of the Islamists is on predominately Islamic countries, where the geo-cultural aspects are more predominate. But in this article, the section on Islamic movements highlights more than any other the weaknesses of viewing Islam as a distinct "culture." The internal vs. geo-cultural distinction seems particularly questionable here.

His short article lumps together the US and Europe as the Western culture. He passes over Latin America altogether, and mentions Africa only in passing. (It is only a 10-page piece!) He views authoritarian tendencies as constituting the major conflict relevant to foreign policy considerations. He singles out the current forms of "illiberal democracy" that are in place and/or under development in Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Senghaas also sees conflict within Western culture as particularly evident in the obvious contemporary examples of Trumpism in the US, Brexit, the AfD getting elected to Parliament in Germany, and the Kurz/Strache alliance in Austria. The latter of which is still trying to form a government.

Like Samuel Huntington's conception, any worldview built around a clash of civilizations (or cultures) viewpoint has serious limitations for understanding international relations. To take an example from his article, it's not at all clear that Putin's actual political strategy is so committed to the ideology of "Eurasionism" identified with Alexander Dugin as Senghaas implies.

His idea of Europe leading by example and influencing the world primarily through its soft power is an appealing one. And I do think that making the European Union a further success is the most powerful thing European countries can do to protect their interest and exert their influence effectively on the international scene. Hopefully more constructively than otherwise!

But to do that, the Union will have to democratize itself. And the individual countries will have to Europeanize themselves enough so that voters and leaders can and do effectively contend over EU policies that effect them in major ways. The EU will have to abandon austerity economics. And even then, the Union will have to play an assertive and active role well beyond their borders. Relations with Russia will be a permanent issue for all of Europe, not just Russia's bordering countries. Obviously, the NATO alliance locks Europe into active engagement with the United States.

And as long as wars keep springing up in the Greater Middle East, there will be a refugee crisis in Europe, which climate change is also making an effectively permanent condition. It's hard to see how that can be effectively managed without some combination of active European peacemaking and development-assistance activities in the Middle East and northern Africa. As well as systematic absorption and integration of refugees as actual permanent immigrants in Europe.

I'm just not sure how much a "geo-cultural" framework helps European voters and policymakers get there.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Tweeting yourself into more trouble

The President has been venting on Twitter again. Like most every day. But this round could be seriously self-incriminating.

Kristine Phillips and Aaron Blake report (Trump on Michael Flynn’s guilty plea: It’s a ‘shame’ because he had ‘nothing to hide’ Washington Post 12/02/2017):
Trump's tweet indicates he knew that Flynn lied to the FBI when he fired him, but that wasn't reported by The Washington Post until three days after his dismissal. At the time, Trump cited only that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence.

Trump’s lawyer John Dowd drafted the president’s tweet, according to two people familiar with the twitter message. Its authorship could reduce how significantly it communicates anything about when the president knew that Flynn had lied to the FBI, but also raises questions about the public relations strategy of the president's chief lawyer.
Ian Millhiser notes:

Brent Griffiths reports on the latest round in Trump doubles down on Flynn defense, draws scrutiny with FBI tweet Politico 12/02/2017:
Legal experts quickly pointed out Trump could have just publicly admitted he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when the president approached then-FBI Director James Comey and asked him to drop the investigation into his national security adviser several days after Flynn's Jan. 24 interview, which could then indicate an attempt to obstruct justice had taken place.

Flynn's Friday plea includes an admission that he lied to FBI agents about conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions against Russia and about a pending United Nation Security Council vote targeting Israeli settlements.

Later Saturday evening, Trump doubled down on his defense of Flynn, saying that his former national security adviser's life was "ruined," but that former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton escaped any punishment for "lies."

Friday, December 01, 2017

Background interviews in "The Putin Files" at Frontline

Frontline PBS recently ran a two-part documentary called Putin's Revenge, focused on the story of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. Part 1 focuses on Putin's experiences with and understanding of US foreign policy.

Part 2 deals more specifically with the events of 2016 in connection with Russian hacking and the US election.

Frontline has also made available hours of background interviews of the authorities quoted in the documentary. Since they largely deal with the same set of events and questions, they do begin to sound a bit repetitive after a while. But they do provide a wide range of views, all largely within a safely Establishment perspective. Which, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages.

My most interesting and informative of the ones I've listened to so far is this one, The Putin Files: Julia Ioffe, which is 1 3/4 hours long. Her columns the past year for The Atlantic on Russia have also been helpful. Unlike our typical Pod Pundits on TV, she tells stories like you would hope a journalist would. She's very good in relating a chronological narrative. And she's careful to include a lot of factual detail and meaningful context. And she gives the appearance of trying to stick with confirmed facts, or at a minimum to explain what sources on which she's relying. That emerges at the start of the interview, where she responds to the question on whether the highest levels of Russian government knew about the hacking of the Democratic Party and election system in 2016.

Her account is also notably useful in that she conveys an image of how Putin was likely to have understood events that affected him and his political career. Understanding how the "other side" sees itself is something our TV pundits aren't generally very good about doing. Understanding isn't defending, and explaining isn't defending. But it's easy for people in politics and especially international politics to forget about those two things.

Celeste Wallander's interview in interesting in that she recounts the Ukraine crisis of 2013 as though the US is a de facto military ally of the US, The Putin Files: Celeste Wallander 10/25/2017.

Although she also recognizes that the Russians had the ability and the intent to escalate with additional Russian troops if they judged it necessary.

Victoria Nuland strikes me as a particularly unsympathetic public figure, and this interview didn't do anything to disabuse me of that impression, The Putin Files: Victoria Nuland 10/25/2017:

She insists on starting off by making the dubious point that the Clinton Administration was serious in trying to make Russia a part of NATO in the early 1990s. Of the interviews in this series that I've heard, Nuland's seemed the most carefully worded to further a hawkish foreign policy narrative. She talks as though the US approach in everything she's talking about are obviously pure and noble. And manages to sound condescending and remarkably smug through most of it. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that someone who can keep an expression like this for most of a 1 1/4 hour interview is probably trying to con her listeners:

It's striking in her interview that she speaks as if Russia had no legitimate security concerns about NATO expansion. Which reinforces the perception that she's making a hawkish political pitch rather than speaking as a foreign policy expert in a more technical sense here.

Nuland is so immersed in Cold War hawkish thinking that she even rolls out the hoary old Domino Theory for Europe today. Just after 47:00, we hear this interchange:
Frontline: Of course, there's another argument that some people have come in here and said, which is, [if] you don't stop Putin there, y'know, where do you stop Putin, when do you stop Putin, that's the moment.

Nuland: Well, that was the argument that those of us favoring at least defense lethal systems made, was that, you know, if he really wanted it, he would be in Kiev, and the next thing you knew he would be in Warsaw if we weren't careful.
One difference: Poland is a member of the NATO mutual-defense alliance. Ukraine is not. Nuland's words would indicate that she doesn't understand even a basic distinction like that. (I'm guessing she's faking it on that point!)

From this interview, I would have to conclude that her only regret about the 2013 Ukraine crisis is that we didn't Americanize the conflict and expand the war even more.

This interview with a former Obama adviser gives us an idea of how it sounds for someone to take Putin's outlook seriously - whether it's right or wrong - as contrasted with the strict advocacy perspective of Victoria Nuland, The Putin Files: Antony Blinken 10/25/2017:

Just after 16:30, Blinken straightforwardly explains the basic fact that makes Nuland's point about Putin marching from Kiev to Warsaw is so silly, that Poland is a NATO member.

New York Times Reporter David Sanger's interview is also notable it his seemingly pragmatic and realistic take on the topics covered, The Putin Files: David Sanger 10/25/2017:

Much of screen time on the two-part documentary itself is composed of excerpts from the set of interviews that Frontline placed on YouTube and from which these five were taken.

Institutional issues in countering sexual harrassment problems

Josh Marshall in Trump Skates. But It’s Not the Press’s Fault. TPM 11/29/2017 makes a good point in this post about accountability. High-profile cases can prompt action by management or employers. But in places like, say, the Republican Party, where neither shame nor fear of losing voters currently seem to be factors when Rep politicians are credibly accused of genuine bad acts, there is no accountability:
Big public companies are vulnerable to and dependent on consumer sentiment. That is their constituency and they tend to follow public opinion, once it is engaged. The same is true of news organizations which are both (in most cases) public companies and also trade directly on public sentiment, usually sentiment of different political persuasions.

Separate from the sexual harassment and misconduct issue, we see this in corporate America on issues of race, diversity, evolving sentiment on cultural issues like LGBTQ rights. Corporations are certainly not progressive by nature. You can see that in their aggressive support for President Trump’s tax and regulatory policies. But they are quite sensitive to public opinion on high profile issues. So corporate America in general has refused to follow the Trump line on hate groups, NFL player bashing and the like. Why? A corporation’s brand reputation, particularly with younger people, is one of its most critical assets. For consumer-facing brands, younger people are literally the future. Younger Americans have more progressive views on race and many ‘cultural’ issues. They are also less white. Corporations don’t have partisan polarization or electoral colleges.

Trump doesn’t care. His constituency is overwhelmingly white and disproportionately older. Indeed, many define their political outlook against the attitudes which are so prevalent among young Americans. Their constituencies are different. They act differently. [my emphasis]

But in the larger scheme of things, high-profile scandals of the Moore, Weinstein and Lauer types may not do a lot in themselves to address the real problem. Large organizations of all kinds as well as small businesses have a strong incentive for self-protection on these things, and sweeping them under the rug is usually the prescription. That's why non-disclosure agreements on settlements are so popular. I don't know what psychological studies may say about it. But I'm reasonably sure that the Moores and Weinsteins and Lauers aren't going to be deterred from genuinely predatory behavior by obligatory annual HR presentations or by seeing other employees warned or disciplined for telling lewd jokes at work.

That's not to disparage such actions. On the contrary. The Anita Hill revelation raised the problem of sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings a generation ago in a very public way. And it prompted a round of reform that had real effect. There is a widespread awareness now that sexual harassment can involve a whole range of behaviors from creating a "hostile work environment" by telling offensive jokes or denigrating remarks to actual coercion for sexual activity.

But the decline of unions, employment-at-will laws, business deregulation generally, the increase of "precarious" jobs with more and more "independent contracting" all make systemic solutions more challenging. The restaurant business may be one with possibly the largest number of sexual harassment reports. (Meredith Clark, Report: Sexual harassment rampant in the restaurant industry MSNBC 10/07/2014) And despite the large number of chains, that's a notoriously decentralized and high-turnover business. Also in agriculture, construction, and service industries like restaurants, there are large percentages of undocumented workers who don't find it easy to use what recourse is available to citizens and legal residents. E.g., "You tell anybody about me showing you my dick in the back office and I'll call ICE to arrest your children at their school."

One thing that could be mandated legislatively with some reasonable chance of enforcement would be to somehow legally obligate personnel/human resource departments to have a responsibility to defend employees in some meaningful way. Because right now, HR departments in practice think their only job is to defend employers to the extent they can get away with it. That would probably involve some kind of more extensive auditing requirements along the lines of compliance audits in medical facilities. But that's heresy to the gospel of deregulation and "free-market" competition.

But there has to be enforceable legal frameworks if there is going to be a widespread improvement from the currrent situation. The Lauer and Weinstein cases emphasize to me the importance of distinguishing between "routine" but unacceptable problems like inappropriate language or flirty behaviors, on the one hand, and the more serious and even criminal behavior like inviting employees to a hotel room and exposing your privates to them or locking people in your office to try to coerce them into sex. Because awareness campaigns can actually be effective on things like that. And they often can be handled effectively without a lot of disruption to operations through management counseling or warnings or mild disciplinary measures. Even then, it requires management to take the rules seriously.

More serious predatory behavior involving direct physical, financial or psychological coercion are not so likely to be deterred by such measures. People have to know that they will get in real trouble with that kind of behavior.

There will always be some people who think they can get away with things other people can't. We might call that the you-can-grab-'em-by-the-pussy problem. For those people, the laws have to provide an effective backstop against the individual behaviors. And the laws need to require businesses and public organizations to prioritize combating such acts.

Banning nondisclosure agreements might contribute to the solution. Although I must admit I haven't looked into what the downsides of such a ban might be for victims. I can imagine Republicans trying to sneak through some "tort reform" under the guise of banning nondisclosure agreement, by which they mean making it harder for customers or employees to bring civil charges against companies.

An effective and enforceable legal framework is essential. The Sarbannes-Oxley law that came in the wake of a raft of corporate scandals like Enron's in the early 2000's required senior managers to personally certify that they have found the financial statements of their organizations to be free of known material accounting problems. (Lobbyists always push to whittle down such laws over time, but that's not a excuse to not enact necessary measures in the first place.) Something like that could be a significant improvement on the sexual harassment issue.

Because legislation also needs to take into acdount that HR departments are good at demonstrating progress, even when there is not any. Awards from some seemingly respectable non-profit entities saying that your company is "one of the best places for women to work" or the like can be bought through "charity" contributions to them.

The broad nature of the category of "sexual harassment" can also be exploited for distorted reporting. A company could, for instance, make a push to have managers and supervisors counsel people any time they hear about some mildly offensive remark or double-entendre humor in the workplace, while briskly covering up much more serious acts of coercion and exhibitionism on the part of senior officials in the company. But they could then count up the number of counseling sessions over using profanity or racy humor to say, "individual management interventions against instances of sexual harassment increased by 50% in 2018," though the company attorneys would no doubt insist on more ambiguous language than "instances of sexual harassment."

One final comment. Josh Marshall is right that companies as well as public agencies are sensitive to "public opinion, once it is engaged." That once it is engaged is a crucial point. A CEO or major media star getting nailed with credible evidence of gross sexually abusive conduct can engage public opinion. The first-level supervisor in the marketing-communication department engaging in such behavior is not going to engage a mass audience and is much easier to cover up.

This is a complicated set of problems. Well-publicized scandals like the ones we're seeing not, whether they should be called a "sex panic" or not, can highlight the more general problem. Effective, enforceable solutions are much more difficult to achieve.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Poland and the popular in populism

Aleks Szczerbiak explains that there's a part of the populism of Poland rightwing populist ruling party that could usefully be applied by parties of the left and the center-left (Explaining the popularity of Poland’s Law and Justice government EUROPP Blog 10/26/2017):
Why is the ruling party so popular? Perhaps most importantly, the government has delivered on several of the high-profile social spending pledges that were the key to its 2015 election success. The most significant of these were its extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child subsidy programme for the first children of poorer households and every second and subsequent child in all families, and a law reversing the previous government’s deeply unpopular pension reforms, which had increased the retirement age to 67 (from 60 for women and 65 for men).

The ‘500 plus’ programme in particular has had an important symbolic effect by providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s recent economic growth. Many Poles feel that, while politicians have often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice is the first party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale. [my emphasis]

The political opposition, he reports, "argue that [those popular social programs] place a massive strain on public finances." That argument, of course, is the sort of neoliberal, there-is-no-alternative dogma that has been widely shared for way too many years by both liberal and conservative parties in the West. Digby Parton reminds us of this recent American example (Tax-pocalypse now: GOP’s denial of reality hits critical mass Salon 11/30/2017):
When Barack Obama became president in 2009, he called together all the opinion leaders in Washington and announced that he was planning to propose a Grand Bargain that would include a cut in "entitlement" spending in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to allow the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to expire. It had progressive Democrats in a state of agitation, feeling that the president was selling out the signature achievement of the New Deal for a temporary tax hike.

Szczerbiak continues to explain what he seems to be presenting as the most important opposition arguments:
Economic growth is strong, investment increasing, unemployment is at its lowest level for 25 years, wages have started to rise, and increased tax revenues have actually led to a reduction in the state budget deficit.

For sure, the government’s critics argue that it is benefiting from a more general upswing in the European economy and a short-term consumption boom rather than increased productivity and private sector investment. The level of public debt remains high and increased social spending could, they say, cause serious problems in the future if there is an economic downturn and the fiscal situation deteriorates. Nonetheless, Poles are more optimistic about the state of both the economy and their personal finances than they have been for many years. [my emphasis]
But I wouldn't want to make this into a simple argument that "economics overrides prejudice," or the like.

Because as Szczerbiak makes clear, those increases in social spending come in a political package that includes militant xenophobia and Islamophobia and some authoritarian elements in governance, as well as a strong EU-skeptical component. for instance, "a June 2017 poll conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Polityka’ journal found that 51% of respondents actually supported leaving the EU if this was the only way to prevent Poland from being forced to admit Muslim migrants."

Some critics of rightwing populism use the term "Herrenvolk democracy" to describe a situation in which the in-group (Real Americans, Real Poles, Real Russians, etc.) enjoy benefits, including social programs traditionally more associated with the left than the right, while excluding the hated out-groups (Arabs, foreigners, Muslims, whoever). It's not easy to say how much of the appeal of rightwing populism in Poland, the US and other Western countries has to do with the increase benefits for the in-group or to the psychological satisfactions of having a weaker group to hate and to whom one can feel superior.

But I do say with confidence that any party that calls itself left or center-left should be actively advocating and defending such benefits, not apologizing for them or doing what Obama did in proposing his Grand Bargain, i.e., adopt conservative/neoliberal framing of essential programs like Social Security and Medicare and actually advocate to cut benefits on them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Trump and Andrew Jackson again, aka, the right is still better at historical symbolism than the left

Andrew Jackson got dragged into Trump's obnoxious "Pocahontas" outburst yesterday.

At a ceremony honoring very elderly survivors of the legendary Navaho Code Talkers of the Second World War, Trump worked a gratuitous slur at Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas": Lauren Gambino, Trump makes 'Pocahontas' joke at ceremony honoring Navajo veterans Guardian 11/28/2017.

The Young Turks' had this report, Cenk Uygur and John Iadarola Trump Uses Racial Slur 11/27/2017:

As Cenk and John's report notes, the ceremony took place in front of the large portrait of Andrew Jackson that hangs by Trump's Presidential desk.

This brought the following tweet from the Navaho Law Center:

To which I replied:

From the Encyclopedia Britannica Online article on Northeast Indian People (2008) by Elizabeth Prine Pauls and Elisabeth Tooker, about the native people of what's now the Northeast United States (internal hot links omitted):
Of the three language families represented in the Northeast, Algonquian groups were the most widely distributed. Their territories comprised the entire region except the areas immediately surrounding Lakes Erie and Ontario, some parts of the present-day states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and a portion of the interior of present-day Virginia and North Carolina. The major speakers of Algonquian languages include the Passamaquoddy, Malecite, Mi’kmaq (Micmac) Abenaki, Penobscot, Pennacook, Massachuset, Nauset, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Niantic, Pequot, Mohegan, Nipmuc, Pocomtuc, Mohican (Mahican), Wappinger, Montauk, Delaware, Powhatan, Ojibwa, Menominee, Sauk, Kickapoo, Miami, Shawnee, and Illinois.

The territory around Lakes Ontario and Erie was controlled by peoples speaking Iroquoian languages, including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Huron, Tionontati, Neutral, Wenrohronon, Erie, Susquehannock, and Laurentian Iroquois. The Tuscarora, who also spoke an Iroquoian language, lived in the coastal hills of present-day North Carolina and Virginia.

Although many Siouan-speaking tribes once lived in the Northeast culture area, only the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people continue to reside there in large numbers. Most tribes within the Sioux nation moved west in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the effects of colonialism rippled across the continent. Although the Santee Sioux bands had the highest level of conflict with their Ojibwa neighbours, the Teton and Yankton Sioux bands moved the farthest west from their original territory. These bands, as well as most other Siouan-speaking groups, are usually considered to be part of the Plains Indian culture area despite their extended period of residence in the forests. [my emphasis]
That's quite the euphemism, "as the effects of colonialism rippled across the continent." But they go on to explains that what that meant was the effects of Europeans' diseases, violence, depletion of resources and Christian missionary activity. For instance (internal hot links omitted):
Europeans who traveled to the Americas brought with them diseases to which indigenous peoples had no immunity. These new diseases proved much more deadly to Amerindians than they had been to Europeans and ultimately precipitated a pancontinental demographic collapse. The introduced diseases proved especially virulent in the concentrated settlements of the Iroquoians, who began to suffer heavier population losses than their neighbours. In attempting to replace those who had died during epidemics, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy seem to have taken kidnapping to unprecedented levels.

Economic disruptions related to the commercialization of animal resources also instigated intertribal conflict. By the early 17th century, trapping had severely depleted the beaver population around the Great Lakes. At that time beaver pelts were the most important commodity in the fur trade economy and could easily be bartered for guns, ammunition, and other goods necessary to ensure a tribe’s safety, or even preeminence, in a region. The Iroquois Confederacy occupied some of the more depleted beaver habitat and began a military campaign intended to effect expansion into territory that had not been overhunted. ...

When Europeans arrived on the North American continent, they brought manufactured goods that the Indians welcomed and new diseases that they did not. Certain of these diseases proved particularly devastating to Native Americans because they did not have the immunity that the colonial populations had developed through centuries of exposure. For example, the first epidemic recorded in New England took place in 1616–17; while the very early date of this pestilence makes it difficult to determine exactly what disease was involved, most historical epidemiologists and demographers believe it was probably smallpox. As no census figures for Native Americans are available for this period, the number of individuals who perished is similarly difficult to discern. Historically, however, the mortality rates for populations experiencing smallpox for the first time have ranged from 20 to 90 percent. The mortality rates appear to have been quite high in this case, as the Puritans who landed at Plymouth in 1620 remarked upon the large number of abandoned villages near their settlement. They interpreted this obvious and recent depopulation of the region as a sign of divine favour—believing that God had used the epidemic to rid the area of indigenous nonbelievers who would have hindered Puritan expansion. ...

The initial European settlement clung to the Atlantic coast—the sea provided the lifeline to the European homeland that the colonists needed—and thus coastal groups were first affected by the newcomers’ desire for land. They were ill equipped to counter the invasion. Not only were their numbers relatively small (and made even smaller by the epidemics), but their political organization was not of the kind that easily led to unified action of numbers of men. Friction with the colonists did occasionally erupt, however, as in the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1675–76). Such resistance could not be maintained for long, however, and indigenous peoples began to adopt European ways as a means of survival. This often involved the acceptance and practice of Christianity; some missionaries were especially influential. John Eliot, for example, accomplished the monumental task of translating the Bible into Algonquian, publishing the translation in two volumes that appeared in 1661 and 1663. [my emphasis]
The occupation of the North American continent - including Canada, Mexico and Central America - and South America, as well, was accomplished largely by the physical expulsion of the native populations. I don't say this as any kind of moral or political justification of the actions. But it's what happened. It started happening way before the Jacksonian Indian Removal Act of 1930, and continued long after. Even today, Indian tribes have to actively resist attempted incursions by mining companies and others, though fortunately more effective legal means to do so are available to them today.

The history of mass deaths is always grim business. The chief instrument of the European conquest of natives and their land were microscopic. And, as Pauls and Tooker say above, those germs and viruses "ultimately precipitated a pancontinental demographic collapse." That was also true all across what is now Latin America, beginning with Columbus' landing in what is now Haiti in 1492.

Andrew Jackson did not invent Indian relocation. But at this moment in American history, Jackson is now largely viewed in the media and the public discussion as an almost uniquely culpable figure in the long history of Europeans and their descendants in North America. In earlier posts, I've discussed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and its brutal consequences. It deserves to be seen as a bad, terrible thing in US history.

But the Republicans have now successfully (for the moment) made Jackson a symbol of their version of white supremacy. In the outlook of the Steve Bannons and Richard Spencers of our world, Jackson's treatment of the Indians must look like an admirable thing. As well as the actions of viruses, germs, warriors, plunderers and thieves who preceded and succeeded Jackson.

So, the President who led and lent his name to some of the most important domestic reforms and expansions of democracy, and who led the successful fighters against the plutocratic Bank of the United States (which was a major factor in the early corruption of politics by money) and against John Calhoun and the leaders of South Carolina in the pre-secessionist Nullification Crisis. The Jacksonian reformers were the first large political movement in the US to actively support organized labor. Jackson himself assisted the early feminist activist Frances "Fanny" Wright in setting up the explicitly Abolitionist utopian colony, the Nashoba Commune, in his native Tennessee in 1825. She also actively campaigned for Jackson's Democratic Party and in support of his fight against the Bank.

Republicans are just better at using (misusing) symbols and traditions of the American past than Democrats are.

And reducing history to any one factor is ahistorical. Even those factors like class and gender are fundamental influences, they are not the only ones. It's important to remember that the original political community of the US recognized essentially only white men as full citizens, and even universal male suffrage didn't emerge with the Constitution in 1789. (The Jacksonians pushed for eliminating property requirements for voting.) But there were important developments that benefited some as disadvantaged others within that community. Ever our basic law was established with our 18th-century Constitution. So it doesn't really make much sense to dismiss the entirety of earlier American history to an unbroken horror show. Even though it had no shortage of horror shows, and not only for Indians.

The North American Indian Wars are considered to have definitely ended in the late 1870s, although some might prefer to use the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 to mark the ending point. If we date it to Wounded Knee, every US President and Congress from George Washington to Benjamin Harrison presided over a reprehensible Indian policy, even one that liberals and the left are quick to call genocide. But was there nothing in American politics worth admiring, praising, using as some kind of model in all that time?

I think it would be sophomoric to look at history that way. Plus, I still think Andrew Jackson is a great historical symbol that can be used against neo-Confederacy. The title of this blog for most of its existence since 2003 until this year was "Old Hickory's Weblog" for just that reason.

But the left in the US seems largely ready to cede most all of American history prior to 1861 to Republicans, conservatives and white supremacists. And I wonder how long it will be until purist-minded earnest folks on the left discover that Lincoln served in militias in Illinois that fought Indians. Or that both and the Confederate and the Union armies fought Indian tribes. Once people decide that Lincoln is therefore not the Great Liberator but the Great Genocider, then the left can happily join hands with neo-Confederates who also see Lincoln as a bloody, genocidal tyrant (against good Christian white people).

And be careful about telling a group of Democrats that some Indians were also slave-owners. Their heads might just explode.

On a little more serious note, "Whig history" has a depressingly strong influence on the left and center-left in the US today. In that narrative, the monarchist Alexander Hamilton and the plutocrat John Quincy Adams are the great heroes. Maybe we could add in the reactionary Chief Supreme Court John Marshall to make it a trinity. That narrative incorporates them into a trend that culminates with Lincoln the Great Liberator.

In the real world, hardcore Jacksonians saw Lincoln as standing in their own tradition. And the Great Liberators himself cited the slaveowners Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as his main Presidential models. Go figure. History is kind of complicated, I guess.

But Republicans are happy to provide their own simplifications, which by coincidence wind up providing ideological support for their current policies.

This video on the Trump/Pocahontas flap features Navajo Nation's President Russell Begaye, who takes a more cautious approach to criticizing Jackson, in that he doesn't make him the central symbol of bad policy toward Indians, Navajo President: Donald Trump's 'Pocahontas' Comment Was 'Inappropriate' Velshi & Ruhle/MSNBC 11/28/2017