politics


I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

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You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?

 

 

 

 

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Tonight we saw The Death of Stalin, the film. It’s based on the graphic novel I reviewed a few months back. It’s a great film.

stalin-dies

Standing: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale

The overall plot is the same, but it feels like there’s a lot more material– scenes of Khrushchev and his wife, scenes of Beria in his hellish HQ, scenes about planning the funeral, a recap of Stalin’s dinner and movie night with his colleagues just before his death. Some subtle differences:

  • Marshal Zhukov comes in later, and is treated far more reverentially. In the book he was an ugly, stiff bastard; here, he’s loud and no-nonsense and the only person not afraid of Beria.
  • There’s no open sex (which is just as well), but an unsettling number of on-screen murders.
  • The comeuppance of Beria is telescoped: rather than three months after Stalin’s funeral, followed by an actual trial (though of the kangaroo type), it’s presented as happening on the day of the funeral, followed by immediate execution.
  • Though everyone gets screen time, the story becomes far more focused on the power struggle between Khrushchev and Beria.
  • You’d think the comic version would be more cartoony, but in many ways the movie is. There’s a good deal more slapstick involving the puddle of urine around Stalin’s body, and the Central Committee awkwardly carrying him to his bed.
  • At the same time, though the graphic novel is dark, the film is darker.  This mostly, I think, comes from the handling of Beria. The graphic novel allows him a little comedy; in the film he’s just pure evil– 0% approval rating, as TV Tropes puts it.

A lot of reviews treat the film as a comedy or satire, but don’t expect it to be Blazing Saddles. A lot of it is not funny at all: the dreaded midnight knocks on the door, Beria’s torture chambers, his savage end. But there is a rich dark humor to be found when morality is of little use and competence is far less valued than loyalty.

The other thing the film has, of course, is actors. It’s very well served here. Simon Beale is a great villain. I wouldn’t have thought Steve Buscemi would fit the role (isn’t he always a lizardy low-life?), but he does great, and he manages a convincing arc from buffoon to top dog. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the hapless Malenkov; he gets across the plaintive air of a stupid man who is aware that he looks stupid and resents it enormously.

Though it was written and filmed before Trump’s election, the film surely sheds a good deal of light on how a corrupt, narcissistic, traitorous buffoon can hold such a grip on the Republican Party. You don’t actually need a canny old dictator or a secret police to hold the party in line: the threat of a primary, or the wrath of Fox News, is sufficient.

If you see it, you’ll probably want to know more about the real history; this page is a good place to start on untangling what’s true or not. (The absurdity of the event is not a clue.) The movie hints that the intrigue didn’t stop, and this is quite true– Khrushchev’s allies mostly turned on him four years later, and failed; a relative newcomer, Brezhnev, forced him out in 1965.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a politics post. It’s not because of lack of interest, but because of overexposure. We all stew in this ongoing disaster every day. It’s hard to add light rather than heat, and it’s hard to write or read about these things without a dangerous rise in blood pressure. But I know some of you are interested, so let’s review.

trumpo

Image from the incomparable Lil Friendys

Executive summary

What we’ve learned about the GOP is that it has only four values:

  • making the rich richer
  • making life harder for non-white people
  • government control over women’s reproduction
  • making sure crazy people can shoot up schools

That’s it. That’s modern conservatism. To facilitate these goals, conservatives will cozy up to Russia, elect harassers and child molesters, ignore corruption, steal elections, flirt with nuclear war, obstruct the FBI, run trillion-dollar deficits, and hurt their own voters. And lie about everything.

If you’re a consie yourself, you think ”I don’t support those things!“ But you do; you vote for them, you do nothing to stop them or express your supposed displeasure. That you thought you’d get something else, which hasn’t arrived for forty years, is no excuse.

Hating their own

The sad irony is conservatives’ disdain for their own voters. All this agitation and hatred, and for what? What did they actually do for the white people who voted for them who weren’t rich?

  • Tried to take away their health care.
  • Hoped to reduce their Social Security and Medicare. (Paul Ryan’s plan for 2019, thankfully scuttled now.)
  • Making imports more expensive, something that hits farmers especially hard.
  • Deporting their workers and loved ones. (“Oh, I thought they’d come down on those other immigrants!”)
  • At this moment: if they work for the government, taking away their salaries.

Nothing to bring back manufacturing. Nothing to address opioids. Nothing to fix their roads and bridges. Nothing to raise their wages or improve their communities. Not even a tax cut that actually helps them.

What happened to populism? Trump’s appeal as a candidate was in part due to his seeming to be different, and more moderate, than the other candidates. (Does anyone think Ted Cruz would be a better president?) It turns out that to rule, Trump threw out his populism to accommodate conservatives, and the GOP threw out its standards to accommodate him.

From a poli sci perspective, it would have been interesting if Trump had brought in some real populism. This might have actually broadened the appeal of the party, and offered a way out of its demographic dilemma. Why didn’t it happen? The best answer, I think, is that Trump reflects whoever he talked to last, and after the election he surrounded himself with conservatives.

The grift

Why are conservatives like this? There are some intriguing explanations: the tendency of authoritarians to demonize minorities and excuse any sin in their leaders; the fear that women and brown people will treat white men as they’ve been treated; the comfort of denying any attack on privilege by going on the attack; the Evangelical persecution complex combined with a deep desire to tell others what to do.

But perhaps the most compelling is that conservatism is a machine to hawk fear, and it’s hooked on its own supply. Look at who advertises on right-wing talk shows and radio shows: people selling gold, guns, shaky investment deals, unlikely medical notions. In a word, grifters. The purpose of the fear is just to sell crappy stuff that people wouldn’t buy without it.

More on this here and here.

How do you sell obviously shady things? You work up fear among already-anxious old people. You convince them that the “mainstream media” is hiding the truth which only you know. You work up conspiracy theories and create bogeymen. Media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones were all too happy to provide the alarmist background noise to enable the grift.

The grift goes back to the ’80s, but GOP leaders didn’t have to buy their own bullshit. That’s why Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could abuse each other all day and go drinking together at night. But somewhere between Gingrich and Trump, GOP leaders became believers. There’s no adults in the room any more— those people were forced out as RINOs. Trump is unusual for his rapid-fire lies, but he has an excuse for many of them: he believes whatever they spew out on Fox.

Lowlights

The last two years have been a slow-motion disaster. Something bad happens every week, though it may be buried by the toddler-in-chief’s latest tweet. Here’s a recap, which is by no means complete. It’s useful to compare it to what I predicted two years ago: almost none of this was unexpected.

  • The Muslim ban— an absurd and cruel response to an imaginary threat.
  • A war on immigrants, including legal ones. ICE has been given license to hassle anyone Hispanic, they built concentration camps and separated children from their parents, they’ve gone after law-abiding grandmothers and citizens, they can’t seem to keep the kids in their concentration camps alive. I read recently that they’re going after Vietnamese in California— the one group of immigrants that votes Republican.
  • White nationalists in the White House; praise for Nazis rallying and killing people. What’s most dispiriting is how hard it is to distinguish them from the rest of the staff. Who needs Steve Bannon when you have Mike Pence?
  • A huge tax cut for the rich, leading inevitably to trillion-dollar deficits. Note: corporations continued laying off workers and mostly used the tax cut to buy back stock.
  • Note Paul Ryan’s cynical hypocrisy: pretend that the tax cuts were revenue neutral, then when they weren’t, pretend that that justified cutting services.
  • Ongoing demonization of the press, predictably resulting in crazy people trying to kill journalists.
  • Gagging scientists and making public information harder to get.
  • A stupid and nasty ban on trans people in the military, currently held up in the courts.
  • Consorting with Russia during the election. A huge disinformation campaign against the FBI, of all people, simply to obstruct the investigation into this and into Trump’s finances.
  • Firing the FBI director; admitting on TV that this was done to obstruct justice.
  • Withdrawing from the Paris agreement, and of course doing nothing to avert climate change.
  • Undermining our alliances with NATO and South Korea.
  • Repudiating the treaty with Iran, so that Iran will feel free to develop nukes, and our credibility in any future negotiations (e.g. with North Korea) will be zero.
  • Pure chaos in Syria “policy”: escalating the war with direct attacks on Assad; alternately cooperating and obstructing Russia; announcing a complete pullout and then immediately walking it back.
  • Relaxing regulations on pollution, water purity, and coal production.
  • Months of federal inaction and denial following the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
  • Two bad Supreme Court picks.  As a bonus, one is a sexual harrasser.
  • Voter suppression on a wider scale— not just changing laws to make voting harder, but literally not counting Democratic votes.
  • Rewriting the rules for state government after losing governorships.
  • Slapping tariffs on our allies and on China, apparently under the impression that foreign countries, rather than US citizens, pay tariffs.
  • Total shutdown of any Middle East peace negotiations, and needless provocation of the Arab side by moving the embassy.
  • Threats of nuclear war against Korea— which turned into the spectacle of a third-rate dictator playing Trump like a violin.
  • Open corruption— e.g. foreign nations offering deals to Trump properties, or buying up space in Trump hotels.
  • Don’t forget that quietly, outside the news, the GOP is loading the courts with conservative judges.

The one big surprise was the incompetent failure to take away health care from tens of millions of people. Conservatism’s utter dishonesty was on full display here. If you really believe people don’t deserve government health care, then fucking say so. Run on a platform of “You should get sick and die because fuck you.” It’s honest and expresses your actual values! Do you think people just won’t notice if your RepublicanBrand™ law takes away their health care?

The apparent conservative talking point is that young healthy people shouldn’t have to pay for insurance. Of course, they’re still supposed to pay for RepublicanBrand™ wars and for Republican old people’s Social Security. But really, is the concept of insurance that hard to grasp? Those young people will be old one day! Or they’ll get cancer, or get hit by a car. But it’s hardly worth ranting about; the concern for young people is bogus. Consie pundits have health insurance and don’t give a fuck for people who don’t.

The ongoing comedy of the wall is another mild surprise. Mr. Art of the Deal could have had has stupid wall if he’d just protected children of illegal immigrants from being deported, but they’re brown people and had to be screwed over.

As I write, we’re in the middle of a government shutdown— putting thousands of government employees out of work, reducing airport security, trashing the national parks, evicting people from their homes— because Mr. Big Wall, having approved a deal, got criticized on Fox News. And the GOP plays along, conveniently forgetting that Congress can pass a law without the President’s signature.

Against all that

Against all this, there’s Trump’s unpopularity, culminating in a drubbing of the GOP in November. The Democrats flipped the House, gaining 40 seats. On the local level, they won 7 governorships, gained full control of 7 state legislatures, and broke Republican monopolies in 4 more. Turnout was 10% higher than in any recent midterm election, and higher than any of them in a century. There are more women in Congress than ever before— still barely a quarter of the seats, but that’s twice the level it was 20 years ago.

A lot of this was driven by activism that went back to the election, and involved the Democratic rediscovery of how to win elections: organize, communicate, fund-raise, find candidates, work locally, and wear out the shoe leather. For years, even as the Tea Party was taking over the GOP using these tactics, the left treated politics as a spectator sport, and didn’t bother to vote in the midterms, and wondered vaguely why the wrong people always won. (This was true even in the ’60s. In my review of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I noted that the Brothers are far more left-wing than today’s activists… but do jack shit about it.)

Already there’s a great new voice for liberalism– the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s managed to get people talking about two very Rooseveltian ideas: 1) a Green New Deal: actually doing something about global warming; 2) raising the tax rate for the ultra-rich to 70%, the rate we had under Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, she drives consies crazy, and they’re obsessed with her. Their biggest riposte so far: she danced as a college student!

Winning back the House was a key first step, but only a first step. The most important effect will be that the GOP can’t pursue the Ryan agenda; and next, that it can start holding the Administration responsible for its corruption.

What it can’t do, I hope everyone understands, is govern. It can pass bills, but on its own it can’t force the Senate to pass them, or Trump to sign them. What this means in practice is that very little will get done— mostly spending bills. And the easiest way to approach those, perhaps the only way, will be to more or less continue with existing spending levels.

Of course, the House can practice for 2021. By all means pass climate change or health care legislation and let the Senate go on record opposing it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that this will impress the moderates who swing elections blue or red. The Republicans “repealed Obamacare” dozens of times as pure theater, and it didn’t matter to anyone except their base.

The House can impeach Trump. But remember your 1990s history: what this means, in effect, is that it can indict Trump, and he’d be tried by the Senate. You can do it as theater, as the ’90s GOP did to Clinton; or you can do it for real, as was going to happen to Nixon. The difference is getting the President’s party on board in the Senate.

The Senate has shown zero interest in turning on Trump. (Yes, a few senators defected on health care. But John McCain is dead, and we don’t need two or three senators defecting, we need 20.)

Don’t blame me for telling you this, but it’s been two years, and those 20 Senators know about everything Trump and the GOP have done, everything listed above and more. If a Democrat did the same things, they’d be all over him. But a Republican did, so: crickets. Remember what they care about: tax cuts, hurting brown people, abortion, guns. Opposing Trump isn’t on the list and it’s hard to see what would put it there.

I’m tempted to say more about what happens next, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’ll just say:

  • It’s not going to be easy, because the GOP has thrown out so many norms in its embrace of Trump.
  • Don’t give up. The midterms show that Trump is not magic, and hurts his own party. Things have been this bad before. (Imagine a reactionary plutocrat being popular!  Well, look at the ’80s.)
  • The only thing that looks worse than Trumpism right now is both-sides-ism. It’s not 1992 any more and we do not need Republicanism Lite.

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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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.

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