politics


I just read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism, mostly because The Whelk has been talking about it for ages. It’s a fascinating document, because it’s so far out of its time. For 1891 it was more or less an absurdity. For 2018 it’s a practical program.

Wilde shows no interest in the actual socialism of his day; he has no enthusiasm for collective farms or factories, or indeed for any work at all. His view is that property has caused the majority of humans to lead miserable lives, and without it they will not be forced to do so.

[T]here are a great many people who, having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.

As George Orwell points out in an insightful review, Wilde was making the assumption that “the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution.” This view was often unreflectively held by socialists, but when they took over they found it wasn’t so: instead, they had a huge mass of peasants and urban poor to feed, and the gewgaws found in the tsar’s palace were of no help. Wilde foresaw and deplored their solution:

It is clear, then, that no Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him.

With the soul of a contrarian, Wilde looked at the cooperative ethos of socialism and found it the seedbed of Individualism. Freed of economic want, people will do as they want— creating things, mostly. He grows lyrical:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. …Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is.

But what about all those factories and fields, who will maintain them? No problem, says Wilde: machines will do it. In the conditions of his time, a machine might do the work of 500 men, and 499 would be thrown out of work, while one man, the owner of the machine, profited. If machines were public property, the work is still saved, but the prosperity goes to everyone.

All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. 

Orwell notes drily that this was not possible in Wilde’s time nor in his own time, sixty years later. “Wilde’s version of Socialism could only be realised in a world not only far richer but also technically more advanced than the present one.”

Wilde knew that he was being Utopian; but “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” Well, you don’t get anywhere if you have no goals.

Wilde couldn’t offer much besides hope in 1891. But let’s play with some numbers, 127 years later. The GNP of the US is $20.7 trillion; the number of households is 126 million. That’s an average per household income of $164,000. The actual median household income is $59,000.  So complete redistribution would be a vast improvement for literally 90% of the population. (To be in the top 10%, you have to have a household income of about $133,000.)

(Household income seems like a more realistic gauge of prosperity than individual income. If (say) you were designing a UBI, I hope you’d think twice about an individual allocation— that would just make large families the new wealthy, and single people the new poor.)

At a world level, things are not so bouncy. Distribute the world’s wealth and we don’t all get to live like rich Americans. But again, things are far better than they were in Wilde’s or Orwell’s time. The average level is no longer “starving peasant”, but something like “reasonably comfortable urban dweller”.

This doesn’t mean that we’re getting there tomorrow. (This will be a relief to some of you and a disappointment to others.) But it does mean that the socialist alternative can no longer be dismissed, as Churchill once said, as “the equal sharing of miseries.” Today, the socialist alternative is not bad, and it gets better as the machines do.

To put it bluntly, that $100,000 difference between median and average household income is the tax we pay to have plutocracy.  Whatever you think are the benefits to having plutocracy rather than socialism— are they worth that much?

There are positions in the middle, of course! We actually had a system, in the real world, that raised the income of all classes and that limited inequality— liberalism. It’s not quite fair to directly compare Wilde’s ideal with any existing system; ideals are unbounded and putting idealists in charge doesn’t mean you get the ideal state. And a fair question to ask any socialist who’s read Wilde is, did you read the parts about how authoritarian socialism doesn’t get you to that ideal at all?

Anyway, it’s a bit moot right now because it turns out the reactionaries aren’t as dead as people hoped. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll just note that though reactionaries can notch up victories, as they win they also lose. Their whole program has been to reverse the gains of liberalism; what they’ve forgotten is that perhaps the fastest path to revolution or national ruin is when reactionaries are put in charge.

If you read Wilde’s essay, you’ll probably be struck by how much isn’t about socialism, or about politics, at all. He spends long paragraphs talking about Jesus, about Louis XIV, about the novel, about the newspapers’ war on modern art. His view of art is probably the most old-fashioned part of the article: the artist is a sort of high-minded explorer who cannot be answerable to press or public. And that’s about the only role he can find for any human in his utopia. I think his imagination flags here; absent economic necessity, any number of other pursuits might thrive, to say nothing of popular art that a Wilde wouldn’t bother with.

(A final word for the people who have already tuned out and are writing their own rants about how you can’t just divide up GNP like that… as I said, it’s not happening tomorrow, and deep analyses on why are not needed. But as an ideal and a critique of plutocracy, it’s more relevant now than it was in 1891. If the alternative is “continue as things are going in 2018”, we can’t do that either; if it doesn’t end in war or revolution, then it ends in catastrophic climate change. Better start thinking about what the world should look like in 2100.)

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lib7

As I’ve said before, we in the US live under plutocracy, where we once had liberalism.
Even given that, it’s getting harder and harder to defend capitalism. A few years ago it would have been biting satire to point out that we were moving back to robber baron capitalism. Now it’s just robber capitalism. The plutocrats are not even building things any more; they’re just looting.

The news these days is almost all bad news, and that’s before we get to the politics.

  • The leading tech firm is Facebook, whose business model is monetizing your life; which is easily used by bad actors to spread right-wing fake news; which is touting an app called “Protect” which installs spyware on your device.
  • Amazon is trying to patent wristbands that track employees’ locations to the inch.
  • Salon has decided that it’s not enough to pile up their pages with bloatware ads; if you turn on an ad blocker they want to mine cryptocurrency using your computer.
  • Speaking of cryptocurrency: it’s nice that the nuts have a hobby, but did they have to create one that wastes massive amounts of electricity and drives up hardware prices?
  • Barnes & Nobles is apparently on its way out: they just fired their most skilled employees and keep reducing the space for books. Shouldn’t capitalism be able to manage one of its core competencies— running a fucking store?
  • Toys R Us is apparently going out of business, not because they can’t make money selling toys, but because vultures loaded them up with debt.
  • Silicon Valley’s idea of brilliance is to take an old industry and “reinvent it”: that is, throw out all regulations and turn the salaried workers into precarious part-timers.
  • Do you think that only happens in fringe industries? 94% of the jobs created since 2005 are temporary or freelance.
  • The latest stock market crash was said to be spurred by investors’ fears that with unemployment at a low, wages would rise. That is, the investor class is terrified of a prosperous nation. Adam Smith warned us about this, but isn’t the whole reason we tolerate capitalism so that the rest of us live better?
  • IT, long an area where actual workers were paid well, is no longer immune. Remaining devs: enjoy the permanent death marches, and the mergers and layoffs.
  • Peter Thiel deserves his own bullet point here. His favorite book is apparently a Randian political screed that hopes to destroy democracy so rich people can rule even more openly.
  • The move from manufacturing to services is perhaps inevitable, but it seems much harder to make these operate humanely. The natural structure of a manufacturing-based economy is a set of competing firms— which at least means they compete with each other for consumer loyalty, and anti-trust law can keep them from getting too big. Tech firms naturally seek monopolies— which are anti-consumer.

And again, that’s just recent news, without getting into our overall predicament: productivity gains are now going only to the 10%; income and wealth are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the super-rich; the US and even Europe are returning to a rentier economy, where wealth isn’t even held by entrepreneurs and innovators, but by their do-nothing offspring.

And all that’s without considering the political climate. The GOP just gets worse and worse… in the Bush years, they at least threw the middle class a bone once in awhile, like Medicare prescription drugs. Now all they want to do is deregulate busines, cut taxes for the super-rich, and cripple government services. Oh, and throttle immigration, because somehow a growing economy is bad.

(BTW, I’m aware that reading the news can overemphasize the disasters. But that’s why we look at long-term and large-scale indicators too. So long as the productivity/compensation chart looks like that, we’ve got a big problem.)

What happens next? Well, there’s three overall possibilities.

One: Keep going! Transfer even more power to a rentier aristocracy; have a cyberpunk dystopia forever.

I hear a lot about “late stage capitalism” these days, but I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. A rentier aristocracy can stay in power indefinitely— it’s basically what Europe had from 1815 to 1914. Even more broadly, a conservative aristocracy maintained power in Latin America for five hundred years. It’s not that hard. They have all the main sources of power; they co-opt the small middle class; they use religion and racial solidarity and the police to keep the bulk of the masses in control; the bottom of the heap suffers forever.

That said, we should remember George Orwell’s point: aristocracies are pretty stupid. And this stupidity is not accidental: to be smart enough to see how the system operates makes you incapable of defending it.

The European upper classes were destroyed by two world wars. That’s the problem with stupidity: it’s fine for dull times, but it becomes a liability during a crisis. So I don’t really think we’ll have a rentier aristocracy for five hundred years; if we keep going, we’ll have world wars and/or ecological collapse by 2100.

The irony is that empowering Donald Trump was possibly a fatal miscalculation. Yes, it turned out his populism was a sham; the 1% got their tax cuts and can run rampant for a few years. But it turns out Trump is really unpopular, and the GOP victory risks being swept away. Honestly, to pull off this scam you want either a complete nonentity like Dubya Bush, or a friendly uncle like Ronald Reagan. (And again, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the problem is not Trump himself. He was an unusually poor choice, but so was runner-up Ted Cruz; so was Ben Carson; so is Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.)

Option two: Socialism!

You almost have to hand it to the capitalists: they’ve made young Americans turn against capitalism, 51% to 42%. That’s pretty amazing, in the one country where “socialist” was historically a slur and political death.

And who can say the young people are wrong? They’re the most precarious victims of  plutocracy. They lost their jobs in 2008; the good careers are mostly gone; housing prices are insane; they’re crippled by college debt; they’re watching their elders try to take away their health care, deport their friends, stomp on their sexuality.

What I said above about the 19th century has to be nuanced: in the modern world, the oppressed can communicate, organize, and rebel. Socialism didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s the inevitable response when the oppressors get too blatant. And when the upper classes keep trying to make life shittier, the rest of the population starts to feel it has nothing to lose with radical change.

Now, I have some reservations about socialism, based on how it’s been practiced. Reigns of terror bad, OK guys? But so long as it stays democratic, it should stay sane. “Socialism is running amok!” is not a worry on our actual planet in 2017.  “Reactionaries running amok” is.

If you’re a socialist, here’s some free advice: start building cooperative institutions now. We’ve seen that capitalism apparently can’t even run a bookstore chain anymore. Why not create a bookstore that’s worth visiting and breaks even financially? (Actually, the only bookstore left in my town is already run by socialists.)

Option three: Back to liberalism!

I know, you’re thinking “What, Hillary Clinton?” I think you underestimate Hillary, but if you can’t get past that, at least think about Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Obama.

If you want to totally turn me off, start spouting both-sides-ism and dissing the Democrats. They’re not as progressive as I’d like either. But there’s something to be said for not destroying the country and the planet. There’s also something to be said for understanding the political predicament we have in this country: up to half the electorate is extremely regressive— and our political system is set up to give recalcitrant minorities exceptional power. Obama got quite a lot done, but he would have done a whole lot more if he weren’t opposed at every step of the way by Congress.

Plus, for too long leftists have considered politics a spectator sport. They sat by and complained about Democrats, while conservatives packed the school boards, primaried their moderate opponents, took over state legislature after state legislature. Now, I think, that’s changing. Progressives are starting to organize, to demonstrate, to run for goddamn office, to get out the vote. If we don’t mess it up, we might actually win a midterm election this year. But if not, remember that conservatives were willing to play the long game. They started that low-level organizing in the 1980s; it paid off twenty years later.

But anyway, what I mean by liberalism is not ’90s compromises; it’s right back to Roosevelt. Why were the plutocrats under control for fifty years? Because we had 90% tax rates, we had strong unions, we had cheap housing and education, we regulated business, we had social norms that made corporations raise workers’ salaries, hire managers rather than load CEOS with stock options, and compete with each other.

 

This turned into a mini-research project… The chart below shows who had the majority in the Senate and House, and who held the White House, for each of the 115 Congresses of the United States. The main point is to examine when a party has been able to do what it wants in government.

Congress

The colors: beige is “Pro-Administration” (not an actual party); green is Federalist; orange is Democratic-Republican; purple is Whig; blue is Democratic; red is Republican. (White can be taken as “the opposition”— except in 1881, when it means that both parties had the same number of Senate seats.)

The number gives the percentage of seats in the Senate and House held by the majority party.

For Democrats and Republicans, I’ve used two colors: dark when the party can do what it wants; light when it can’t.  The general rule is that it’s light when not all three columns match— that is, government is divided.

However, I’ve modified this for the period 1953-1988.  With Eisenhower and Nixon, this is largely because neither tried to govern in conflict with Congress, at least by today’s standards. With Reagan, I’ve shown Congress as stymied, but not Reagan himself: he was able to implement the major policy shift from liberalism to plutocracy without serious setbacks.

I haven’t tried to graphically depict cases where a party was too divided to get much done— e.g under Carter and Trump.

What emerges, I think, are a number of periods with very different overall structures.

  • 1789-1800: the early years. I don’t know much about the politics of the time, but it’s probably not worth drawing lessons from it as everyone was trying to figure out how things worked and what their disagreements were.
  • 1801-1830: the Era of  Good Feelings.  Well, no wonder things went pretty smoothly: the Democratic-Republicans had a lock on government.
  • 1830-1860: the pre-Civil-war period. A lot more contentious, as a Democratic/Whig system developed. The second half of the period, dominated by the slavery question, shows a high degree of contention.
  • 1860-1932: overall, the Republican Period. This was the old style GOP, of course— the party of Northern business above all. There are a few contentious periods, but overall the number of strong GOP years is striking. Only Cleveland and Wilson had strong Democratic years.
  • 1933-1979: the liberal period. This period was dominated almost as strongly by the Democrats.Congress was so reliably Democratic that GOP presidents had to work with it.
  • 1980 on: the plutocratic period. Very largely a return to Republican rule, but much less solidly. Compare the majorities: where the 19C GOP often had numbers in the 60s or higher, the present-day GOP hasn’t risen above 57%. Divided government is the norm rather than the exception.

The reason I looked at all this was because I was curious how often we’ve had divided government, and the bipartisan courtesies that used to accompany it: infrequent filibusters, accommodating confirmation hearings, a collegial Senate, etc. We often hear people bemoaning increased polarization and wishing that people would just work together somehow across party lines. It’s said that the parties used to be miscellaneous coalitions so that they could pretty easily work together.

I think the general answer can be read from the chat: bipartisanship usually isn’t necessary. In 76 out of 115 Congresses— two-thirds of the time— we’ve had undivided government. That means that one party held the presidency and Congress, and could pretty much do as it wanted. (Again, we’re ignoring intra-party fights for now.) In such times you could be bipartisan if events warranted, but you could also pretty much ignore the other party.

Of course, that leaves another third of the time when we have divided government. Then, of course, it’s useful if both parties can work together. On the other hand, at least two of these periods were highly polarized times when being “moderate” arguably meant being a piece of jelly-like protoplasm:

  • The pre-Civil War period. People looked for decades, but there was really no moral or pragmatic compromise to be found between slavery and abolition.  The compromisers of the time aren’t exactly highly regarded today.
  • The present day, which is a lower-key but just as polarized debate on whether the country should be run for the benefit of its richest 10%, or for everyone. And some other issues, like whether or not we’d like to preserve the planet’s ecosphere and avoid nuclear annihilation. I sympathize with those who “hate politics” and wish that everyone would just get along. But you can’t wish the issues away, and “moderates” are usually deeply delusional about what’s actually happening in the country.

(What happened in the 1875-96 period?  I really don’t know, though now I’m curious. This was the Gilded Age, when the preoccupation was making money. The party lines seem baffling today: the Republicans were protectionist and pro-industry; the Democrats were laissez-faire, anti-tariffs, and associated with small farmers, immigrants, and Southerners. Neither seems to map to todays’ liberal/conservative divide.)

So, when you hear that (say) filibusters used to be uncommon— sure, they were, but look at those majority numbers. Majorities over 60 used to be common. This isn’t to say that the abuse of the filibuster isn’t a problem; the point is that periods of amiable divided government really haven’t ever been the norm.

There’s failure in politics all the time. Parties, governing or opposing, don’t get all they want, sometimes spectacularly. But what we don’t see everyday is a political failure on the scale of today’s Trumpcare defeat.

What went wrong?  Here’s a pretty good analysis.  Here’s a good account of what Ryan did wrong. Here’s a good explanation of the GOP’s rather complex game plan.

Now, progressive opposition helped: GOP town halls and phone lines were filled with angry constituents, and that made a lot of reps worried about taking people’s health insurance away.  But fundamentally, this was an own goal.  They had the Presidency and both houses of  Congress.  The first stage of the process involved nothing but Republicans, and they had a 20-vote margin.  And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t write a bill and pass it.

Why?  Many reasons, but one way of looking at it is this: the GOP, for a generation, has more and more defined itself as the party that is against politics. Starting with Newt Gingrich and his pals, they have systematically dismantled bipartisanship, Senatorial norms, earmarks, negotiation, half-a-loaf deals. They have consistently demonized the Democrats, and their own members who compromised with them. When Obama was elected, they quickly settled into being the Party of No. The centrist health care compromise worked out by GOP think tanks and implemented by a GOP governor had to be repudiated and treated as unbearable tyranny just out of spite that they hadn’t won.

It’s normal for presidential candidates to run against Washington– though Democrats have to at least promise to do things for people. Trump took this trope to new heights of exaggeration and mendacity: much of his appeal was as the magic outsider who would “drain the swamp” and get things done— unlike, you know, politics, which was Always Bad.

And the act worked!  That is, it worked to get Republicans elected. After the disaster of Bush, Republicans clawed their way back to control Congress and the Presidency. Now they could do anything they wanted!

And why couldn’t they?  Because after years of demonizing Politics, they’d forgotten how to do it.  Politics is never pretty, but politics is making government work for you. Naturally, the GOP should have GOP politics: making government do GOP things.  They’ve just shown that they don’t know how to do that.

Everybody deserves some blame, but we can point out the chief culprits:

  • Paul Ryan, who tried to manage the whole fiasco at a breathtaking clip. He failed because he refused to do politics: letting Congresspeople work on the bill, building consensus, bringing interest groups on board, working out a deal with everyone in his party.
  • Trump, who abandoned his own promises, didn’t know enough about the bill to argue for it, lost interest in the process after three weeks, and couldn’t think of any negotiating tactics besides vague threats and a big ultimatum.  For two years he’s gotten away with being a know-nothing who knows how to get into the papers; the fact that he hates politics and doesn’t know how to do it has finally become a huge liability.
  • The Freedom Caucus, which got almost all of what it wanted and, out of their own form of spite, still refused to go along and thus got none of what it wanted.  Ironically, their intransigence kept the GOP from jumping off a cliff, but let’s not make them into heroes here.  They wanted the bill to be far nastier, which means they too are not interested in actual politics, only in grandstanding and personal purity.
  • Some 180 to 190 Republican representatives who were still willing to go along with a crappy bill with 17% public support. That’s 180 people who could have said “This is a terrible idea, let’s slow down.” and didn’t.
  • Any number of pundits, radio blowhards, and minor pols who went along with the Repeal Obamacare line for years and never foresaw any of this. And made any reconsideration or repair unthinkable within the conservative bubble.

If they had passed the bill today, we’d probably be having the same discussion a week from now: the House bill would have flopped unceremoniously in the Senate.  But McConnell has the reputation for being canny, at least.  He was planning on a quick and decisive vote.  Since he knows perfectly well that Senators don’t work like that, he likely expected that it was better to fail big and fast, so as to move on to other things.

Have they learned anything?  Almost certainly not. The next big topic will undoubtedly be a huge tax cut for the rich. And that would be easy-peasy if the GOP adopted a very simple idea: let the tax cuts expire in ten years, so they can use reconciliation rules in the Senate. (This is what Bush did, and it’s why his tax cuts did expire.)  That would be a great victory for the GOP! But they will be obsessed with making the tax cuts permanent, which means making them revenue-neutral, so they’ll be adding in program cuts and maybe new taxes (they’re excited about a new “border adjustment tax” that could raise a trillion dollars).  And that means a bunch of additional and unnecessary fights. Oh, and we have a brain-dead custom of requiring separate bills to spend money and to raise the debt ceiling, and the debt ceiling deadline is coming up, another opportunity for a big intra-party fight.

In short: a policy of opposing all governing really does come and bite you in the ass when you’re the ones governing.  Trump already trotted out a line about blaming Democrats for the failure of the health care bill, which surely fools no one at this point.  When the Republicans can’t pass their own bill, why would any Democrat help them? But this dodge, which worked so well when the Democrats had the White House, sounds silly today and will sound even sillier as the midterms approach.

Some of my Twitter friends have joined the Democratic Socialists.  I’m kind of pleased to note that on at least one issue, I’m more radical than they are: I think the CEO system for running corporations is a dangerous anachronism. And this whole debacle shows why. Trump is the personification of the bad CEO, one who can’t build or run an honest business. His one skill is marketing one word, his own name. He’s canny or unscrupulous enough to let other people slap that name on things, often crappy or scammy things, and still make money for himself. But he’s fundamentally lazy and has no idea how to get things done except by yelling at people.  We saw today that this doesn’t work in government.  Someday we’ll see that it’s poor practice in business too.

Paul Ryan worked out his health care bill in a GOP-only clubhouse and rushed it through committees before the CBO had estimated the impact, but unfortunately for him legislation has to be published eventually, so now we can take a look at Trumpcare. It isn’t pretty.

obamacare-trumpcare

Here’s a good overview from Vox. Bottom line: Trumpcare will throw 14 million people off insurance immediately, and 24 million more in the next ten years, in order to give a $600 billion tax cut to billionaires who don’t need it.

The CBO estimates that a 64-year-old earning $26,500 a year, who currently pays $1700 a year for health care (i.e., after the Obamacare subsidy), would pay a whopping $14,600 under Trumpcare. Republican assholes think this person can just give up their iPhone, but of course the reality is that this person can’t afford that kind of “access to healthcare”.  They will go without insurance.  If they need the coverage, they will die.

And they probably voted for Trump.  Trumpcare is hardest on older people and rural areas, precisely the people who supported Trump and believed his lies about “terrific” health insurance that would cover “everybody”.

We’re used to Trump lying by now, but today’s point is that the GOP plan is the end result of years and years of Republican lies. The chief architect of this fiasco is Paul Ryan, a man who has a wholly undeserved reputation as an honest policy wonk, among pundits who desperately want to find such an animal in his party. In fact he’s a Randite whose only actual policy concern is to give the 1% more money and tear up the social safety net. It’s right there in his bill, but his public statements are full of polished lies about “choice” and “access” and the supposed evils of Obamacare.

Now, Republicans could, if they chose, be absolutely honest about their preferences. They could say they don’t believe in the government providing health care; that they are only governing to benefit billionaires; that they want to phase out Medicaid; that insurers should be able to deny coverage to whoever they want and make insurance unaffordable for the old and sick.  Probably two thirds of their voters would completely accept this— so long as they didn’t touch Medicare and Social Security. And as I’ve said before, repealing Obamacare is basically a return to the status quo of 2013.

But obviously this would be a political disaster with the muddy center of American politics, the 20% of the electorate which bounces left and right like a bobblehead and determines who actually wins elections.  Obamacare has insured millions of people who didn’t have coverage before; those folks like their new coverage, and are pissed that Republicans want to take it away. This is particularly important in the 20 Republican-led states which accepted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansions.

Klein and Schiff in the linked article make an excellent point about affordability. When health care wonks talk about health care affordability, they mean the nation spending less on health care. The liberal ones mean restraining the absurdly high prices of American health care (no other nation pays so much for so little). The conservatives mean reducing demand for health care. (Conservatives are convinced that everyone but themselves are hypochondriacs who only go to the doctor because their job or the government pays for it.)

When ordinary people talk about health care affordability, they mean what they themselves pay. People on expanded Medicaid are pretty happy: there are no deductibles and they can go to the doctor.  People on the marketplaces (like myself) are more likely to be unhappy, because deductibles have gone way up, and restrictions on who you can see have become way more cumbersome. But it’s still better than the pre-Obamacare options.

The thing is, Republicans have unwisely echoed those complaints— which means they are expected to do something about them.  You can’t say “the problem with Obamacare is high deductibles” and then create a Trumpcare that costs people 7 times as much.  That’s the problem with lying; it eventually catches up with you.

As Matt Yglesias has said, why don’t they just leave health care alone and just pass a tax cut? Mostly because Ryan and his co-conspirators thought that healthcare was low-hanging fruit. After all, they’d “repealed” Obamacare more than 30 times! The base would love them! They didn’t expect their town halls to be filled with angry constituents and the popularity of Obamacare to go up. And it’s apparently very hard for legislators to give up on a tactic and go try something else.

Ryan also seemed to expect that Republicans would just fall in line. The biggest wildcard, Trump himself, was no problem; his promises on health care turned out to be garbage. But a bunch of more-moderate Republicans in the Senate are terrified of being blamed for the catastrophe of Trumpcare, and a bunch of ultra-conservatives in the House are furious because some poor people will still get government assistance. There’s no way to make both groups happy at the same time, and it’s hard to picture how to threaten both wings to make them back down.

(The bill has to pass the House first, so the obvious “solution” is to make Trumpcare worse now, to appease the loonies, and then let the Senate deal with it somehow.)

(Maybe another lie will save the bill: promise that the real Trumpcare will be done later, and fix all the problems. Thing is, Ryan’s bill is somewhat limited by his insistence on passing it as a reconciliation bill, with zero Democratic support, but also no Democratic filibuster, because that’s the magic of reconciliation bills. The later bill would have to have Democratic votes. But if they had, or wanted, Democratic votes, they’d be pursuing them right now. The later better bill is a myth.)

Health care is hard, but all these problems are essentially of the GOP’s own making. The real problems people have with Obamacare could be easily solved with a magic ingredient: money.  But this solution isn’t available to Ryan, because he’s lost the old Reagan-Bush magic of approving of government spending when Republicans do it.  He’s created a mess for himself and the country, just to get that tax cut.

Well, it’s day 8, and we’re already in constitutional crisis. The Republicans are already trying to ban Muslim immigration, and deporting legal American residents from their home, which is illegal and unconstitutional. There are already reports that they are defying court orders.

But right now I’d like to talk about what model we use for confronting the GOP. Is it Hitler? Is it Nixon?  Is it Thatcher?  Is it Putin?  Is it George W. Bush?

what-model-4-trump

This question probably doesn’t affect what you do, which I hope is: resist. The heartening thing about the last month has been that the left has been putting aside its habitual post-election sulk to do things: call Congresscreatures, join organizations, march, donate to the ACLU, punch Nazis, start organizing for the next elections. And people are doing these things who ordinarily do almost nothing about politics. This hasn’t happened on this scale since the sixties, probably.

The model does affect what we expect to happen next, and how successful we can expect to be.

The Nazi model is compelling in many ways. The Republicans have the nihilism, the boiling rage, the contempt for democracy, the urge to stamp out dissent, the bigotry. Actual Nazis are thrilled to pieces, and a white supremacist is senior counselor to the president. And there is a chilling regalvanization of anti-Semitism.

One problem is… what stopped Hitler? Marches, elections, counter-revolution?  Nothing domestic did; once he was in power, Germans had no power to stop him.  He was only stopped by a world war led by foreign powers. If you really think that’s what’s going on, who’s your Roosevelt?

I get the impression that some people would kind of like a return to Thatcherite Britain. You had left and right skinheads fighting in the streets, which is fun for some; you had some really good music and comics. But what ended Thatcher?  Rather disappointingly, it was being thrown out by her own party. Which maintained power for another 7 years.

Let’s look at it the other way.  Take current Republican initiatives, and see what they look back to.

  • Anti-refugee sentiment: as many have pointed out, this is like a country in the 1930s: the United States, which refused Jewish refugees and sent them back to Germany to be killed.
  • Anti-Muslim sentiment: this has been stoked on the right since 9/11… that is, the administration of Dubya Bush. Remember Ann Coulter saying we should invade all the Arab countries, murder their leaders, and convert them to Jesus? Remember Huntington and his “clash of civilizations”? Opposition to mosques being built?
  • Anti-immigration sentiment: country-based quotas are what we had in the US until 1965. Republicans have been anti-immigration since at least Reagan; Ted Cruz during the primaries criticized Trump for being too soft on immigration.
  • White nationalists in power: you mean, like the entire US until the sixties?  If you think this is new, or wasn’t a problem in 2016, you haven’t been paying attention.
  • Really bad white nationalists supporting the GOP?  Like, say, David Duke or Strom Thurmond or the militia movement in the 1990s?
  • Removing millions of people’s health care? This issue concerns me personally and intensely, and yet what the GOP wants is a return to the status quo of… 2013.
  • Lowering taxes for the rich?  GOP policy under Reagan and Bush II.
  • Reducing services for the poor? Also eternal GOP policy.  And to be honest, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s.
  • Possible war with Iraq?  Torturing combatants?  Filling up Guantanamo?  A return to Dubya’s wars of the 2000s.
  • Gag orders for scientists? The closest parallel is Canada in the 2010s.
  • Demonization of the press? Also standard GOP procedure, and the stock in trade of Nixon and Agnew. Recall that Nixon was actually thrown out of office for crimes committed against journalists and the Democratic Party.
  • Lessening freedoms for LGBTQ folks?  I’m anticipating a bit here, because we don’t know what the GOP will actually do. Trump himself doesn’t seem to care. A fair guess is: remove protections added under Obama.  That is, the aim is to go back to 2008. (And again, top Democrats waffled on this issue well past that date.)  (Edit: it only took a day. Apparently a new executive order is being prepared to roll back LGBTQ rights. Nothing to stop gay marriage though.)
  • No action on climate change?  I’m not sure if the GOP can actually reverse the new practicality of renewable energy. Other than that, we already weren’t doing enough; so we merely continue on our merry way toward destroying the temperate zone.
  • Consorting with Russia?  The particular dictator is new, of course.  But Republicans were courting “authoritarians” well into the 1980s, and before that they were installing them, using them to fight proxy wars, and teaching them torture techniques.
  • An evil new Supreme Court justice?  Really, it’ll be tough to find someone worse than Scalia. So, back to 2015.
  • Leaving the TPP: It was dead already.
  • Possible voter suppression schemes: Already GOP practice. Elections are run locally, anyway; the likely effect is to make red states more red.
  • Voucher shenanigans at Education: again, this is just perpetual GOP policy.
  • Hating on NAFTA: if they simply get rid of it, we’re back to 1993.
  • Total support for Israel: pretty much Dubya’s policy.
  • Worries about nuclear war?  Dude, welcome to life since 1945. Believe me, this isn’t the first period when the prospect was terrifying.
  • Building a wall: We are now in the comedy portion of this post.  There is already a partial wall, of course. This amounts to throwing money at contractors and pissing off a bunch of people whose land will be appropriated.

I’m sure I’ve missed something, and if it’s your favorite issue, I’m sorry. But there’s a pretty clear pattern here: the GOP platform, including its nastiest bits, is most like earlier policies of… the United States.

This is not to say that any of this is OK!  It really is bad, it will do real damage to people.  People will die because of the Republican Party: people losing health insurance, minorities attacked by hate-mongers, refugees trying to flee terrorism, Iraqis who collaborated with the US, anyone unlucky enough to face the GOP’s next war.  Keep fighting!

But the fact that the bad things the GOP wants are things from our own past is, paradoxically, good news.  It means we’ve been there, and we can use and improve on the things that defeated those evils the first time.

Things were much worse in almost every way in Nixon’s time.  Everybody remembers the protests and the hippies and the civil rights movement, but forgets that most people disapproved of them. Nixon was able to win in a landslide (61%!) by opposing the whole youth movement. The Republicans lost the popular vote this time.

The best model, I still think, is George W. Bush.  2002 was a very depressing time to be a liberal. The GOP controlled all three branches of government, and at the time it seemed like they might keep winning indefinitely.  They were intent on increasing inequality, starting wars, increasing surveillance, oppressing gays, deregulating banks, and dismantling Social Security. And you know what happened?  They governed so badly, so catastrophically, that they lost the midterms in 2006 and everything else in 2008. Bush presided over two recessions, destroyed two major US industries, trashed our reputation abroad, completely bungled those two wars, and is one of the only presidents who left office with a net job loss record.

Now, it’s not heartening that it took six years. But Dubya started with far more approval: 57% in January 2001, compared with 45% today for Trump. And Dubya, bad as he was, governed with far more tact and respect for norms. He also didn’t subscribe to the current Republican nonsense about austerity: he inherited a budget surplus, and by God he spent it until it was a hole in the ground.  If only Paul Ryan could pivot like that.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t things that are unprecedented.  Here’s three.

  • Trump’s unbelievable corruption. We don’t even know the half of it, but it’s already clear that he will run the Presidency for personal gain, and compromise US security based on his business operations.
  • Trump’s open, amazing hostility to NATO.  If Putin chose, this could easily be the first huge global crisis: Putin takes the Baltics and Trump does nothing.
  • Trump’s astonishing ignorance.  There are partial precedents– Reagan was no genius, Dubya too. But those two at least hired competent people.

Again, these will lead to bad things… but they are also likely to lead to a failed presidency. The GOP is in a state of bliss right now because they get to do all the things they’ve wanted to do for eight years.  Their base will be thrilled.  The voters… not so much.  Because what the GOP wants to do is highly unpopular.  People don’t want shitty healthcare; they don’t want richer plutocrats; they don’t want to go back to the ’50s on race; they don’t want more wars.  If the GOP causes a recession, as is likely, they won’t like that. The lesson of Dubya is that incompetence is not rewarded, though it may take years to play out.

The Nazi model is motivating, but it’s also an invitation to give up the fight before we start. We still have a whole Party in Congress, we still have courts, we still have newspapers and universities and activist organizations, we still have the blue states, and we still have the majority of voters who rejected the GOP. It’s going to take energy and time and money, but we can win this fight.

Very purposely, I’ve talked almost entirely in this post about the Republican Party, not Trump.  It’s fine to attack Trump personally, but people shouldn’t be misled that he is the problem, or that getting rid of him solves anything.  The Republican Party voted for him, knowing exactly what he’d said and what kind of a person he was.  Some of it expressed reservations in 2016; this turned out to mean nothing on election day, and less than nothing today. The Republican Party supports him in Congress and most statehouses, and soon Republicans will support him in the Supreme Court.  Trump is not even the worst of 2016’s primary candidates: we would be facing almost the same problems, and probably some new ones, with a President Cruz. The GOP owns Trump and all his sins now. And I still haven’t heard a good story on anything that Trump is likely to do that will make the GOP actually act against him.

First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

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