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The Teleological Fallacy

[ 3 ] July 22, 2014 |

K-Drum makes a good point about the recent Thomas Frank Salon article that I neglected to:

But if it’s so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn’t it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don’t be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Fearless navigator of our new comment system JeremyW puts it well:

[W]hat strikes me about this article is that he seems to have replaced the institutional status quo bias of our current political system with something that works the opposite way. Rather than a system where actual progressive change is difficult to win support for and subject to several veto points, he seems to think we have one where radical changes are constantly on the cusp of occurring and the whole neoliberal enterprise must be held together by a dastardly sellout president who can subvert the will of the people.

The most crucial underlying premise of Frank’s argument is that the American political economy was on the verge of a radical transformation in 2008, and this was prevented from happening because Barack Obama saved neoliberalism’s bacon. This is a rather problematic for his argument given its transparent falsity. It’s simply not true that most Americans drew the same conclusions from the financial meltdown that Frank did, and even they did the elites who control or strongly influence many key veto points in the American system certainly didn’t. As someone capable of being elected president of the United States Barack Obama is not a radical critic of capitalism, but in terms of whether American capitalism was going to be “put out of business” this is neither here nor there anyway.

Similar premises are also generally seen on attacks on the ACA from the left. To argue that the ACA isn’t better than the status quo ante from a progressive standpoint would be ridiculous, so the strategy is to change the baseline and compare the ACA to another alternative. In policy terms, this isn’t challenging, since you could throw a dart and Western Europe and get a health care system preferable to the ACA. But it’s also completely irrelevant, because the choice wasn’t between the ACA and the French health care system but the ACA and nothing or almost nothing. To get around the obvious political reality, left ACA critics smart enough not to argue that Barack Obama could have forced the Senate to pass single payer through such brilliant strategery as promising senators that he would campaign for them in states where he’s enormously unpopular turn to assertions that the American insurance industry was on the verge of collapse before Barack Obama saved it. And, again, this is sheer lunacy. The American health care system circa 2008 was grossly inefficient and disastrous for many Americans, but for the most politically powerful vested interests — insurance companies and their executives, medical professionals, affluent customers, people over 65 — it works perfectly well or better. (To people who confuse American politics with the Oxford debating society, the success of Medicare should make Medicare for all highly popular. In reality, the overwhelmingly conservative white beneficiaries of Medicare are much more likely to take the lesson of “I’ve got mine and to hell with you.”) The American health insurance industry wasn’t going anywhere had the ACA not passed.

And what’s going on with Republican statehouses and the Medicaid expansion should draw a line under that. The typical Republican state politician is willing to turn down huge pots of free money from the federal government to validate the principle that if the working poor get sick it should be left to the Great Market in the Sky to sort things out. To believe in this context that the collapse of the private American health insurance industry was inevitable absent the ACA is to enter a land of fantasia.

Teething

[ 20 ] July 21, 2014 |

All,

Most registrations seem to be rolling fine. However, some people (especially, but not exclusively, non gmail users) are having trouble getting their passwords. If you’re having difficulty, just e-mail us (address halfway down the far right sidebar) , and we’ll manually reset your password.

Best,

Management

It’s Archie and Betty and Veronica, Not Archie and Betty and Steve

[ 50 ] July 21, 2014 |

Via…

I have no idea what the Soviet talk has to do with anything, but then I rarely have any idea what the wingnuts are nattering on about.

 

In other news, my latest piece is up. It’s a been a long time.

Nancy Reagan on Pants

[ 26 ] July 21, 2014 |

In 1968, Nancy Reagan spoke out on one of the important issues of the day: opposing women wearing pants.

Dan Markel

[ 16 ] July 21, 2014 |

Absolutely horrible news about one of the most valuable legal writers in the known blogosphere. R.I.P. and condolences to his friends and family.

“Back in the day, Fats Waller, and tons of other artists were robbed of their publishing. This is the new version of it, but on a much more wider scale.”

[ 27 ] July 21, 2014 |

I certainly don’t care about the fate of most record labels, but streaming services increasingly make it difficult for musicians in less popular genres like jazz or classical to survive. Really, if you listen to music, you do owe it to the artists to buy some of their music. If it’s U2, who cares. Stream away. If it is Wussy, the album sales make a difference. That’s especially true if the labels start taking cuts of artists’ other income to make up for record sale declines. Streaming is fine to check out new artists and hear new albums, but at some point, music fans need to support the artists through purchasing their products in some way or another.

The Return of Contra Violence

[ 98 ] July 21, 2014 |

The 35th anniversary of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution has just passed. The Sandinistas, although a very different organization than in 1979, are today in power, with Daniel Ortega winning free and fair elections. Of course, the Nicaraguan right always hated the Sandinistas and thanks to illegal funding from Ronald Regan, fought a brutal war to defeat the Sandinistas. After the Sandinistas agreed to elections in 1990 and lost, they peacefully stepped down. The violence that plagued Nicaragua faded and today the country, while still very poor, is one of the most peaceful in Central America. Alas, the 35th anniversary celebrations brought out some of the old hate from the Sandinistas’ enemies:

A deadly midnight ambush targeting pro-government supporters in northern Nicaragua has stirred the sleeping dogs of war and raised new fears of a pending military campaign against rearmed guerrillas hiding in the mountains.

Five people were killed and 19 injured early Sunday morning in what appears to be a coordinated series of attacks against Sandinista party members traveling by bus through the mountainous coffee-growing region of Matagalpa, one of the main battlegrounds of Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s.

The buses, filled with pro-government supporters returning from Managua after a day of celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, were fired on indiscriminately from the darkened shoulder of the road by unidentified men armed with AK-47s. The first bus was ambushed near KM75 of the Pan-American highway, while the second bus was attacked at the some time in the nearby town of San Ramon. Four unidentified suspects have been detained for questioning, according to police.

A group claiming to be the successor to the Contras has claimed responsibility but it is difficult to ascertain the truth of that claim at this point. But it’s pretty clearly a right-wing political attack. Bad stuff.

Southern Democrats: Are They Making Poor Political Decisions?

[ 54 ] July 21, 2014 |

Bob Moser has a very interesting essay on what he sees as the poor political decisions made by southern Democratic senatorial candidates in 2014. Essentially, he sees Kay Hagan, Michelle Nunn, Mary Landrieu, and the like making a huge mistake by embracing old DLC-style distancing from President Obama. Rather, he argues that the better decision is to run as a liberal and motivate African-American, Latino, and youth voters to go to the polls this fall. He notes this is a plausible political strategy by citing how these states have rapidly growing minority populations that hate the Republicans.

I’m of two minds here. On one hand, given that this is a midterm election with a highly motivated and hateful set of older white Republican voters and given the historically low turnout rates for Democratic core demographics in the midterms, running away from Obama might make sense. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t since, with perhaps the exception of Landrieu because of her personal power in the Senate, that strategy doesn’t really give anyone a good reason to vote for you. Plus maybe it is possible, at least in Georgia which is now only 60% white and will probably become a majority-minority state by 2030, to run as a liberal, inspire voters, and win an election. I’m not inclined to say that political advisers are idiots, although they are scared of failure, so I would think that they feel this is not a successful strategy in 2014. But maybe they are wrong. And giving voters an actual reason to vote for you does seem wise.

Introducing…Myself!

[ 38 ] July 21, 2014 |

So by popular acclaim, I’m now a bonafide member of Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Many thanks to SEK, Robert Farley and the gang for having me on board, as well as those members of the Lawyers, Guns, and Money community who lobbied for my hiring.

Before I get fully into the swing of things, I thought I’d start with a brief introduction about who I am and what kind of things I plan to write about. So the short version:  born in California, grew up in and went to college in New York City, went back to California (so yes, bicoastal member of a transatlantic family, so the rootless cosmopolitan stereotype is in full effect). Got into politics after the 2000 election and promptly backed nothing but losing campaigns: worked for Bill Bradley for President (bit of a mistake there), Bob Reich for Governor (came achingly close to ending Mitt Romney’s career there), and Howard Dean for President (was in Keene, New Hampshire working the phones at the exact moment when the Dean Scream sent our voter commit numbers into free-fall). Then came out to California, where I learned how to actually win and win for the right reasons (turns out that party central committees are important for progressive change, and the meat and potatoes work of collective bargaining and grievance-handling can change institutions – more on this later). And after eight years, I’m finally a PhD in the History of Public Policy, and looking for work.

So what am I going to be doing here at LG&M? Most of you probably know me from the Game of Thrones podcasting, which SEK and I will continue just as soon as we work out our schedules – I’ll leave most of the Game of Thrones writing for my other blog, Race for the Iron Throne, but I will link stuff now and again for the people who enjoy that sort of thing. What I will be writing about is the intersection of history, politics, and pop culture, which you’ve already gotten a bit of a taste of with my essays about the politics of Captain America and the podcast I did about the links between the X-Men and the civil rights movement.

I’m also going to be writing about my area of expertise – the history of public policy, specifically the history of American social and economic policy from the 1930s through the 1970s. I’m especially interested finding lost or forgotten approaches to social and economic problems (unemployment, poverty, inequality, and the like) and the knowledges and ideologies that inspired them.

In turn, my historical research has fed an interest in modern public policy. I’ve written a little bit about this here, but once upon a time I wrote about public policy in some detail over at a little-read blog called The Realignment Project, before the pressures of finishing my dissertation forced me to put that on the back-burner. Now that the dissertation’s done, I’m going to get back into the habit of doing public policy again.

Once again, thanks for hiring me and I look forward to arguing with all of you.

Why Didn’t Obama Use the Power of the BULLY PULPIT to Cause the Republican Party to Spontaneously Combust? A Great Historical Puzzle

[ 125 ] July 21, 2014 |

Embedded in a gag about the Obama presidential library that is, how shall I put this, not funny, Thomas Frank has some penetrating questions:

Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches?

Well, he accomplished at least one very important thing on this score, but we’ll return to it.

Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success?

What, precisely? And how?

Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got?

Um, because he wanted to pass comprehensive health care reform rather than attempt to impress a minority of pundits, and he understands the elementary point that opening proposals far outside the expected negotiating space are guaranteed to fail? And isn’t this a particularly sound choice, since when the “proper” proposal failed said critics would not give him credit for fighting but accuse him of “making soaring speeches” while doing nothing, which you just did?

Why not a proper stimulus package?

Well, he did — the stimulus package that passed was far larger than those passed by European countries that didn’t have Madisonian institutional constraints or a major party controlled by nihilist fanatics to deal with. I would also observe that while it’s fair to say that Obama had an excessive faith in bipartisanship and the possibility of consensus, his faith pales next to Frank’s, since Frank apparently thinks there were multiple Republican votes in the Senate for a trillion-dollar stimulus.

Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

This is a real puzzle to anyone whose first day paying attention to American politics was today.

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged!

The layers of sarcasm in the second sentence act to cancel out any discernible meaning, although I can understand Frank not wanting to come out and say that Republican control of the House is imaginary and/or irrelevant in so many words. On the third sentence, 1)dismissing gerrymandering as a thing would be more persuasive had the Republicans not just retained control of the House while receiving fewer votes, and 2)right, the first Democratic candidate to carry Indiana since Lyndon Johnson has no capacity to defeat right-wingers at the polls.

The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party—Social Security and Medicare—on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit.

We finally have something that Obama can be fairly criticized for, although suggesting that Obama put Social Security and Medicare “on the table” is highly misleading — Chained CPI is bad policy but it’s not a proposal to end Social Security, as the language seems to imply. Still, the proposed Grand Bargain was a terrible idea and Obama should indeed be criticized for it. I must observe, however, that according to Frank’s logic as there are no real constraints on Obama’s power and the failure of something to pass Congress is evidence that Obama didn’t want it, he couldn’t have really favored it. (Green Lantern critiques are inevitably selective, and proposals that go nowhere are part of Obama’s record only when the proposals are bad.)

There is, however, one core Great Society program that Frank doesn’t mention — Medicaid. If it weren’t retroactively written out of liberalism one might have to conclude that massively expanding the American single-payer program for the poor was a “proper” health care reform policy that addressed a major element of American economic inequality. One might also have to notice statehouses and courts controlled by Republicans and conclude that the constraints they put on federal policy are not figments of Barack Obama’s imagination.

And now, going back a little, the punchline:

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all

Yes, Obama could have caused American conservatism to vanish entirely using his fearsome ability to Bully Pulpit the Overton Window on Steroids, but he didn’t. even. try. That’s the kind of hard-hitting truth the Obama presidential library won’t tell you! In conclusion, Obama is just too naive about American politics and thinks that you can just wish political conflict away.

…more from Kilgore, Boo Man, and No More Mr. Nice Steve.

Lindsey Graham’s Green Lantern Foreign Policy

[ 47 ] July 21, 2014 |

Lindsey Graham is a very serious and intelligent man. After all, he believes this is what John Kerry and Barack Obama should be doing about Russia:

Host David Gregory then asked Graham how the Kerry has failed in addressing the Malaysian plane and evidence that pro-Russia separatists likely shot down the plane with Russian weapons.

“One, he didn’t call Putin the thug that he is. He didn’t call for arming the Ukraine so they can defend themselves against rebel separatists supported by Russia,” Graham responded.

“President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He’s trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness,” he continued.

Oh yes, I’m sure calling Putin a thug will not only stop the arming of Ukrainian separatists but also give Crimea back to Ukraine. I mean, we all see how Reagan defeated the Soviet Union by calling it “The Evil Empire” instead of negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev over the desire of the conservative foreign policy establishment. And using the term Axis of Evil has absolutely destroyed the governments of Iran and North Korea; the fact that such language helped cause the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses at the cost of 500,000 Iraqi lives and 4000 American lives is a benefit, not a bug. Why doesn’t Obama give a big speech telling Putin off. Now that’s effective American power!

Dept. Of Corrections, Franklin Pierce Was Horrible Edition

[ 38 ] July 21, 2014 |

Chait:

The last few weeks, I’ve read What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe, an engrossing history of the United States from 1815 through 1848. This is a period known — to the extent that Americans remember much about it at all — as “the Age of Jackson,” but Howe argues that this label is a mistake. America was not so much unified by Jackson as it was polarized in a way (this is my view superimposed on Howe’s history) we would find highly recognizable today. America was split, geographically and sociologically: Red America favored militaristic foreign policy, the maintenance of existing racial and social hierarchy, and fiercely opposed big government; Blue America favored a more restrained foreign policy, a more amicable treatment of racial minorities, and activist government support for economic growth.

The Jacksonians favored the gold standard and believed the Constitution prohibited the federal government from any program not specifically delineated. “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity,” declared Zachary Taylor, in terms reminiscent of modern conservative objections to the individual mandate. Blue America was more culturally effete and enamored of public education; Red America suspicious of centralization and steeped in a culture of violence.

As longtime readers know, I agree with Howe and Chait that the Jacksonian Democrats have far more in common with today’s Republicans than today’s Democrats. To this end, I should note that the “great almoner” line was not uttered by the inevitably doomed Spinal Tap drummer Whig president, but Franklin “Kansas-Nebraska” Pierce. I think my list of presidents who were worse than Pierce would include “Andrew Johnson” and “there is no number 2.”

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