Thursday, February 27, 2020

On your Marx

"'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to 
narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make 
thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no 
words in which to express it.'"  -- Syme
One of the things that makes having intelligent political conversations in the U.S. difficult these days is the basic vocabulary.  People use words like "liberal," "conservative," "progressive," "authoritarian," "nationalist," "radical," "fascist," "communist," and others often without having any idea what those words actually mean, and sometimes without even knowing what they themselves mean by them, or just as often thinking the words mean something entirely different than whatever meaning their listeners might assign.  This is to say nothing of nouveau creations like "alt-right," which--thank goodness--nobody worth listening to actually seems to take seriously.

This is becoming an issue of late because Bernie Sanders--a self-identified "democratic socialist"--is far out in front of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and now has various opponents are throwing the terminology out there in hopes of scaring off voters who instantly associate "socialism" with the likes of Stalin and Chairman Mao.  This isn't quite as bad as the terrible right-wing rag National Review calling Sanders a "national socialist" (which, if you didn't realize, is what the term "Nazi" actually comes from)--and no, I'm not linking to that bullshit.  But it's in the same sport, if not the same league.  They ought to knock it off.  Half the people calling him that have no idea what the word means, or think it means something different than it does--and then people hearing the term interpret it all different kinds of ways.  It's no way to have a meaningful conversation.  So yeah, really, they ought to knock it off.

They won't.  So I'm just going to level some gripes about "socialism" and its misuses.  Have you got all day?  Probably not.  So I hope you won't mind the inevitable oversimplifications.

Basically you have to go back to the mid-1800s in western Europe.  It's well into the industrial revolution, and people are leaving farms to go work on mines or in factories or other industrial activities.  And these new jobs are dangerous and back-breaking and hardly pay shit--but their labor generates massive profits for the factory owners and shareholders.  And this isn't much different than before, when folks were basically peasants or tenant farmers eking out a living in the countryside, while their landlords lived in luxury.  Sound familiar?  Okay, but believe me--that shit was a lot worse.

While this is all happening a guy called Karl Marx takes notice and thinks, "well, that's bullshit.  The people doing all the work don't get squat, and meanwhile the owners and landlords rake in the Deustschmarks for just sitting on their asses playing bridge and sipping tea all day."  Marx looks more into this, and realizes the economy need not be structured in this manner; instead of a few wealthy owners--the capitalists--basically exploiting the workers, perhaps the workers could jointly own the factories or mines or farms (i.e., the "means of production") and divide their gains equitably.  Better yet, you could have the government basically take over all the means of production and run all the farms and factories and mines and shit for the benefit of all the people.

Now, Marx was quite brilliant--likely the most significant economist of the nineteenth century and undoubtedly one of the most significant ever.  But he was hardly the first person to come up with socialism.  Plato and Thomas More had both theorized proto-socialist utopian societies where all property is owned in common for the benefit of all its people, of course.  The first reported use of the term in English is attributed to Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen in 1822, though intellectuals throughout Europe and North America had already been publishing on the topic (but without using the term) for decades by then.  This is to say nothing of various forms of de facto socialism practiced in tribal societies the world over throughout antiquity, or scattered examples of socialist practices in even larger communities (such as Vedic India or, arguably, the Incan Empire).

One difference with Marx, however, was that he fully understood capitalism, thinking that practice through to its logical conclusions.  For one thing, capitalism obviously depends on markets, since the point of producing anything under capitalism is to sell it for more than it cost to produce it.  In order to sell something, you need a market.  If you go along making and selling something long enough, though, eventually you'll reach the point where the demand for your product declines because all the people who want it already bought it.  So then you need a bigger market.  If you've been selling your product in California, now you need to sell it all along the West Coast.  Then the entire western U.S.  Then the whole U.S.A.  Then all of North America.  Eventually the whole world.  Then, I guess, the Milky Way?  Just go sell that shit on Alpha Centauri.

At some point, of course, no capitalist enterprise is going to be fully sustainable.  That's what capitalist critics mean when they say stuff like "infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet."  Maybe you've heard that one?  Eh.  Well, the Wall Street cheerleader types don't like to hear things like that but it's true of course--and largely explains why market economies go through boom-and-bust business cycles rather than go steadily along.  Still, if it took saturating the entire planet with goods for a capitalist enterprise to fail, we could probably all live with that.  Some folks would be out of a job, but at least we'd have a widget in every pot, or however that goes.  Still, that's not really the problem.

Preliminarily, expanding markets in this manner is really possible only to the extent new markets are open to what you're selling.  Maybe the people in X country don't want your greasy hamburgers because they're not interested in an obesity epidemic.  Maybe the people in Y country don't want your  toxic paint and electronic cigarettes because they like potable water and healthy lungs.  Or maybe the people in Z country would definitely buy your cheap cell phones if they could--but Z country has its own fledgling cell phone industry and doesn't want your company to put the domestic firms out of business before they have a chance to develop.  So governments do things like impose tariffs on imports or exclude foreign commerce altogether for these types of reasons--and this inevitably leads to hostilities.  I mean, that's what Marx thought would happen, anyway; it's not like anybody ever actually fought a war just to get access to a foreign market, right?  Or maybe some crazy dictator country did or something, who the hell knows. 

And then we have to look at competition, which you might say is simultaneously the greatest virtue and the greatest curse of capitalism.  The objective is to be the "low-cost producer."  That is, customers in a marketplace are generally going to buy the best product they can get for the lowest possible price--so if that's what you can offer, they'll buy from you.  But if they are not buying from you, that means they are buying from a competitor, and if that goes on for too long you'll go out of business.  So then you've got to compete: find a way to either offer a better product, or to offer the same product at a lower price.  Sometimes people don't manage to accomplish this and, well, they're not heard from again.  But often enough people do--and that's what makes capitalism an engine of innovation and efficiency.  Over time, this competition produces better products and makes them more affordable.

Market competition can seem glamorous when we're talking about how capitalism motivates, say, tech engineers to design the latest tablet PC or find practical new uses for recycled metal or whatever.  But competition is just as much (or more) about reducing overhead--and that means things like paying the lowest wages, avoiding investments in worker safety, clean technology, or other such costs, buying the cheapest raw materials (likely from suppliers who likewise follow cut-rate practices), and when you can get away with it you stiff people or violate regulatory laws and so forth.  Capitalism is at least as much a race to the bottom as a race to the top--and while the shiny new tablet might seem worth it to the customer who buys it for a song, that evaluation might be different on a collective level when the workers who produced that tablet show up at food banks because they weren't paid sufficiently, or the whole town has asthma because the manufacturing plant spewed toxic smoke into the air.  But it keeps the prices down.  And that new tablet is pretty awesome.

This race to the bottom aspect is just as unbound by political and cultural borders. You already know this with with wages; why put your factory in country A and pay $15/hr. when you can produce your product in country B and pay $2/hr?  Do I really have to ask?  Okay, how about your raw materials?  If you need rubber or petroleum or diamonds, then you'll go and buy it from whoever has it and has it the cheapest.  And if some country's government comes in and tries to nationalize your factory?  Or says they won't sell you their oil (or worse, that they already promised it to a competitor)?  Well, now we have a problem.  I guess now your head of state is a crazy dictator who needs to be removed for your own good.  Because again, we certainly wouldn't have a war over gaining access to somebody's raw materials.  Oh, that Marx.

Then there's the fact that capitalism tends over time to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, a process that tends to diminish the ability of new producers even to enter markets in the first place--hence eroding the very competitive forces from which capitalism derives its value.  Without taxation, anti-trust measures, and other means of wealth redistribution, this manifests first in the formation of monopolies within particular industries and, well, you'd ultimately get to a sort of feudalism with the tectonic plates of society just grinding to a halt.

So yeah, Marx saw how all this was going to go.  But the other thing about Marx was that he wasn't just some academic putting out "wouldn't it be great if..." type pieces in esoteric journals only fellow thinkers might ever read.  Dude was a revolutionary.  He wanted to see workers actually rise up and improve their circumstances.  So in 1848 he drafted a short, 23-page pamphlet in German for distribution not to philosophy chairs at elite universities but to actual workers slaving away for bread.  Sort of like the Facebook post of the time, I guess.  The best part was the end.  "Arbeiter aller Länder, vereinigt euch!" it said.  "Working men of the world, Unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains."

Fuck yeah.  You're seriously going to read that and not put on the RATM?

So is this what Bernie Sanders means when he calls himself a "democratic socialist?"  Hardly.  But to understand what he does mean, we need to look at a bit more history.

Marx's ideas caught on with workers movements all around the world.  But, apart from a couple short-lived experiments in imposing socialist in Australia and Paris, he never actually got to see a socialist state actually play out in real life.  He died in 1883.

But the workers' struggle carried on world-wide, and labor did win lots of concessions and improvements even within capitalist societies: child labor laws, minimum wages, social safety net programs, the damn weekend....  But as you've probably heard, in 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsarist government in Russia and established the first communist state.  So, how did that go?

This was really not even a true natural experiment since, as a number of scholars have made clear, Eastern Bloc communism wasn't really worker-directed socialism so much as "state capitalism."  But I am going to steer clear of that whole debate and just focus on a couple things the Soviet experiment did prove.  One is that central planning is impossible, the other is the free rider problem.

See, if you are going to have the state own all the means of production and then make stuff for the benefit of all the people, then you have to be able to predict what stuff people are going to want or need and in in what quantities.  That's called "central planning."  This is pretty much impossible because consumers are unpredictable and because there is an unlimited number of unforeseeable things that can to alter peoples' needs and priorities.  So inevitably you'll make too much of one thing, not enough of another--and this will manifest in the best of times as empty shelves and long lines for TP and in the worst of times as famines.  Not a good time.

Markets, on the other hand, are inherently driven by the forces of supply & demand.  Nobody needs to figure any of this shit out--the market just does it, and does it a hell of a lot better than humans (and probably supercomputers, but who knows) ever could.  With capitalism, producers know to make more of a certain thing when people buy it, and they know to stop making something when people don't buy it.  So you might think the American Girl doll is too big and hideous and overpriced and why in the everloving hell would any kid want that--and then they fly off the shelves.  Meanwhile, nobody wants Love/Hate CDs even though they're an awesome band that rocks.  Well, nobody has to predict this absurd consumer behavior for producers to know they need to make more AG dolls and stop pressing Love/Hate.  (Ultimately that's yet another reason capitalism is fucked up, but I guess this is a debatable contention).

Then there's the free-rider problem.  This is basically the idea that if people don't have to pay to ride the bus, then you probably aren't going to get enough in voluntary contributions to pay for the gas.  A few people might step up and pay their fair share, some others might chip in a little less then they should, and still others will just ride for free.  If this goes on too long, eventually nobody goes anywhere.

In other words, if you  take all the resources of a society and divvy them up equally to all its members, then inevitably there will be people who won't do any work because "hey, I get paid anyway!"  Or other people will work, but not very hard.  And good luck filling the really crappy jobs.  And overall, you just won't have a very efficient or well-functioning system. 

Capitalism, by comparison, does not have these problems.  You don't ride the damn bus unless you pay the damn fare.  And you're not going to have money to pay the fare unless you do something to get money--whether that's working at a job, operating your own business, whatever.  And you're not going to have those opportunities unless you are willing to actually put in work--and probably work harder than the other people competing with you for those same opportunities.  Getting people to do the crappy jobs isn't difficult either--maybe you pay them a little more, or maybe they just go to the people who lost out in the competition for better ones.  Either way, the market takes care of everything and keeps everyone under constant pressure to get shit done, and do it better and faster than the next person.

Since central planning is impossible and the free rider problem exists, a purely socialist economy is basically impossible to successfully maintain at a large scale. You will find no shortage of people in the U.S. and other western free enterprise economies who will wildly nod their heads in agreement at this statement. But here's the rub: the same is true of pure capitalism.  It may be for different reasons, but in their pure, extreme forms both are destructive and ultimately unsustainable.  Yet for some reason (or, more likely, some vast multiplicity of reasons), the prevailing view in the U.S. is to the contrary: socialism is the devil's work, capitalism god's.  And this is more than just a bizarre cultural double-standard: we have an economy that is already very close to pure, unadulterated capitalism and creeps ever closer day-by-day. 

Source: unknown.  But thanks!
Anyone who bothers to heed the lessons of the last two centuries can understand, however, that a nation should not adopt either approach to the exclusion of the other.  A healthy economy and healthy society requires both capitalism and socialism.  The competitive forces of capitalism are necessary to stimulate innovation and maximize efficiency, as well as to calibrate the production of goods and services to the actual need and keep all citizens productively engaged.  But socialist policies are equally necessary to curb the rapacious ends of capitalism--to ensure that workers are paid sufficient wages, that their health and basic comforts of life are assured, to avoid and manage conflicts between producers and between producers and states, and to redistribute wealth and capital as is necessary to perpetuate competitive forces and diffuse opportunity.

There are different ways to balance these forces.  But capitalism and socialism are best seen as poles on a continuum, with the objective being to steer the best path between them--not as a pair of self-contained alternatives presenting an either/or choice.  Yet this is precisely how most people in the U.S. seem to conceive of socialism and capitalism: a choice between one or the other.  And of course, we have chosen the former--suffering an infatuation with capitalism and intolerance for anything associated with socialism that is absurd, unhealthy, and destructive.

A similar devotion to socialism would be equally as wrongheaded, but that is not what someone like Bernie Sanders has in mind when he says he advocates for socialism.  He means that we need some socialism--that we need more socialism than we have now, that we should have enough socialism to balance out the harms of our well-entrenched turbocapitalist society.  He doesn't mean we should have only socialism or that we should have socialism instead of capitalism.  And he's exactly right.

Calling himself a "socialist" may not be good politics, but it does demonstrate that Sanders has at least bothered to actually learn the lessons history has taught us about full-on ideological devotion to one economic theory or another.  The same cannot be said for the so-called "moderates" who cannot even entertain the idea of anything less than unfettered capitalism.  Perhaps they might be bothered to read a 23-page pamphlet and grasp the irony of their extremism.  Or nah.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Math for Non-Mathematicians

Okay, this blog is not supposed to be just about politics and one of these days--hopefully soon--I am going to post something having nothing to do with politics.

But yeah, that won't be today.

Today the topic is the idea that many people seem to have about Donald Trump being a formidable candidate who will be difficult to defeat in the general election.  For some, this is a reason to support candidates in the Democratic primary whose views do not align with their own, or even diverge quite dramatically, just because they perceive that candidate as more capable of beating Trump.  For others, the expectation of Trump's reelection is a foregone conclusion that has them making plans for everything from coping with prolonged DT-induced depression to remote years or even full-blown emigration.

But how formidable is Trump, really?

One fact that is commonly used to support the belief in Trump's strength as an incumbent POTUS is that the 2016 presidential election featured "record turnout." That is, over 138 million people voted that year, topping the previous record of 132 million voters from the 2008 presidential election.  Of course, only 46.1% of those voters actually voted for Trump--which was not even a plurality of the votes cast.  And really it was closer to 136 million, since an amazing 2.4 million voters went to the polls and voted in other races but left the line for president blank.

Nonetheless, the reasoning behind the argument from record turnout is that if Trump still wins even when the greatest conceivable number of voters show up, then you can't realistically beat Trump just by turning out more of your own voters.  Rather, you'd need to convince some of Trump's supporters to switch sides--which, yeah.

Okay, but here's the thing about the supposed "record turnout" in 2016.  While the total number of voters was a record, it was an average presidential election year by percentage of the electorate.

Image from:
The 60.1% of voters who cast ballots in 2016 was about average compared with the preceding three presidential elections and a full 1.5 percentage points below the 2008 turnout.  Since the end of WWII there have been six elections with higher turnout percentages than 2016--with the highest being 63.8% turnout for the 1960 race between JFK and Richard Nixon.

This means it's fair to assume that the celebrated "record turnout" in 2016 was simply a function of a greater U.S. population and not Donald Trump's historic appeal to voters.  I could probably support this point with a link to inauguration crowd size photos, but maybe I shouldn't.  Yeah, of course I should.

Accordingly, it is totally possible to defeat Trump by turning out more voters.  The difference between turning out 2016-level turnout and 2008-level turnout is now well over 2 million votes.  So if Trump maxed his turnout in 2016, then a Dem who can match Obama's turnout percentage-wise should bury him.

And I mean bury his ass.  We already mentioned how Trump managed to win the Presidency despite getting smoked in the popular vote.  HRC topped the Donald by almost 3 million votes, so now we are talking about almost a 5 million-vote margin in the popular count.   When was the last time that happened?  Probably never, right?

Oh, it happened in 2012 when Obama trounced Romney by 4,982,291 votes.

But yeah, that pesky electoral college.  Bagging another 2 million blue votes doesn't do any good if they are all concentrated in dependable blue states.  And frustratingly enough, most of them probably would be.  The electoral college is an anti-democratic piece of trash that absolutely must be abolished as soon as possible--but until then we are stuck with it, and that gives rise to the second argument in favor of Trump's supposed formidability: the argument from the electoral college.

The reason the electoral college favors Trump of course, is that every state is guaranteed at least one representative and two senators no matter how small the population may be--and sparsely-populated western states tend to vote overwhelmingly red.  So a state like New Jersey, with 8.9 million residents, gets 14 electoral votes--and that comes out to roughly one EV for every 635,000 people.  But a state like Wyoming, with fewer than 578,000 residents in the whole state, still has 3 electoral votes-- approximately one EV per 193,000 residents actually.  One person, one vote?  Not so much.  And those little tiny states add up.

So the electoral college isn't fair.  It isn't just.  It's something we would call "unamerican" if any other country had it.  And it handicaps the race in favor of the Republicans.

Still, the EC factor is far from insurmountable, and tends to be decisive only in close elections.  A Dem who can pull another 2 million voters to the polls should have no trouble overcoming it.

If we assume the 2020 Dem nominee can at least hold the Hillary Clinton states, then getting the magic 270 electoral votes needed to reach the White House requires flipping 38 more electoral votes. The most likely places to find those 38 electoral votes are in the so-called battleground states, i.e., those that went for Trump by narrow margins.  Just looking at states Trump carried by less than 1% of the vote gives us:
  • Michigan (16 electoral votes): Trump won by 10,704 votes in 2016 (0.2%)
  • Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes): Trump won by 44,292 votes in 2016 (0.7%)
  • Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) Trump won by 22,748 votes in 2016 (0.8%)
Just those three states account for 46 electoral votes between them--enough to swing the result to the Democrat.  Now, there are several other states that Trump also won by slightly larger margins in 2016 and that realistically will likely be battlegrounds in 2020, such as Florida (Trump won by 1.3% in 2016), Arizona (Trump won by 3.5%), North Carolina (Trump won by 3.8%), and maybe even Ohio (Trump won by 8.6%).  But for our purposes, let's just focus on the top three.

Hillary received 65,853,514 total votes in the 2016 election.  Of those, 2,279,805 were cast in Michigan (3.46%), another 2,912,941 were cast in Pennsylvania (4.42%), and 1,382,210 were cast in Wisconsin (2.1%).  Totaling those up, we see that in 2016, our three key states accounted for approximately 9.98% of the total Democratic presidential ballots in 2016.  Man, that's real close so to simplify the math I am just going to say 10%.

What happens if the Democratic nominee draws 2 million new voters to the polls, and 10% of them are in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin?  That's 200,000 more votes in a set of states the Dems lost in 2016 by a total of less than 80,000 votes.  I think you see where this is headed.

I'll do the math anyway.  Michigan's share of the additional 2 million blue votes would be about 69,200.  Add that many to Hillary's total from 2016, and she beats Trump by almost 60,000 votes in Michigan.  Pennsylvania's and Wisconsin's additional shares would be 88,400 and 42,000 more Dem votes respectively -- or enough to win those states by about the same margins as Trump did.  

I know you are curious about Florida too--so am I, so what the heck.  In 2016, Trump won the state by just under 113,000 votes.  Hillary received 4,504,975 votes there, representing 6.84% of her total.  So Florida's additional share of 2 million more blue votes comes in around 136,800 votes: that's more than 113,000, so enough to take Florida and its 29 fat electoral votes--which we don't even actually need because we already have cars, cheese, and whatever Pennsylvania does.

That is, just by matching Obama's 2008 turnout level (61.6%), a Democratic challenger should be able to flip Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida--collectively representing 75 electoral college votes.  That drops Trump to 229 EVs against the challenger's 302, and puts a Dem in the White House.  And all of this is without persuading a single red-faced Trump voter to confront his or her cognitive dissonance.   

Now, there are plenty of other dynamics in play this time around, as in any election.  But the fact is that most of them do not redound to Trump's advantage.  As a Pew study observed last year:
  • "nonwhites will account for a third of eligible voters – their largest share ever"
  • "one-in-ten eligible voters will be members of Generation Z"
  • "one-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 election will have been born outside the U.S., the highest share since at least 1970"
  • "hispanics will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate, accounting for just over 13% of eligible voters"
Probably the one factor that favors Trump is that voters aged 45 and over still outnumber younger voters (54.1% of the electorate).  But even this figure is slightly smaller than the 56% of voters aged 45 and over from 2016. 

And then there was the massive, 53% voter turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections--the big orange spike at the end of the chart above.  It was the highest participation for a mid-term election in four decades and tipped control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats.  Maybe they didn't show up with torches and pitchforks.  But does anyone think they were happy?

Trump is not a lock.  Far from it.  In fact he damn well should lose, as long as the Democrats can just nominate somebody worth voting for.

Monday, February 17, 2020


Image from:

Having devoured a quantity of the better pop social science texts on offer throughout the past two decades, I've lost count how many times I've come across discussions of the ultimatum game.  Now, if you have better taste in books than the EGD, then you might have read about it college (or not) or otherwise not be familiar with it.  So here' s quick primer.

Basically, the ultimatum game is a way of testing the limits at which a person will forgo a material reward for the satisfaction of depriving another of an undeserved benefit obtained at the test subject's expense.  Or, in less fancy terms, it looks at what it takes for a person to cut off her nose to spite her face.

Although there are different iterations of the ultimatum game, probably the most common example works with two test subjects.  The tester gives the first person ten $1 bills, with the instructions that the first person must offer some of the money to the other person, and if the offer is accepted then they both keep the money.  But if the second person refuses the offer, then neither person keeps any of the money.

For someone like me, the ultimatum game isn't much of a game at all.  Offer $5.  That's a perfectly fair split, so there is no reason for the other person to turn it down.  But if you're one of 57% of Americans who define themselves as greedy (or whatever additional percentage is greedy without acknowledging it) this country is cursed with, then the trick is figuring out how much less than $5 to offer to the second person so you can keep more of it for yourself.

So the answer is $1, right?  You have to offer at least one of your dollar bills, so if you just offer $1 then you get to keep $9 and certainly the other person will accept because otherwise they get nothing--and hey, $1 is better than $0?

Well, as you might imagine, offering $1 is usually the surest way to end up with zilch.  Turns out lots of people value their dignity and self-respect at more than $1.  This part always drives economists nuts because they are all about rational actors maximizing their utility and shit.  If you're the second person, then--according to an economist--you should always accept whatever is offered.  This wouldn't be the only reason not to listen to (most) economists.

Hence the studies usually show that fair offers (however defined, in our example $5 would be the fair offer) are practically a lock and the most lopsided offers ($2 or less, in our case) are routinely declined.  What this means for the greedy MFs is that there's usually a sweet spot to be found somewhere in the less-than-fair-but-not-egregiously-unfair zone.  Somewhere above $2 people will start taking the money, even if they may not be pleased with what's on the table.

The most celebrated point from Donald Trump's shitty book, Art of the Deal, is essentially based on these dynamics.  The idea is that you start off the negotiations with some outrageous position (say, $1 of the $10) so that the other party will supposedly be more willing to accept a future offer that is still unfair but not (or less) outrageous (say $2 of the $10).  The Donald evidently had some success with this strategy (in between his multiple bankruptcies), so the Wall Street types declared it brilliant.  But the problem with this "strategy" is that it only works in situations like the ultimatum game: i.e., where you have all the leverage and the other party has no choice but to deal with you.

An outrageous opening offer is not going to cut it where the other party has other options--they'll just go find a better deal somewhere else.  And even without other possible partners, in a balanced negotiation the other side isn't likely to accept an unfair offer just because you started in the ridiculous zone.  So Trump's most bigly brainwave isn't really about true negotiation at all, but about how to about how to screw people most effectively when you've got them totally over the barrel: such as all the everyday workers and contractors Trump stiffed over the years.

Of course, we all know Trump is a dirtbag who will steal whatever isn't nailed down (and plenty of what is).  But there is another ultimatum game brewing on the other side of the political aisle now that fellow greedmonger Michael Bloomberg has entered the race for the Democratic nomination.

Bloomberg was himself a Republican throughout the large majority of his years, leaving the party only in mid-2007.  He's basically what used to be considered a "conservative" before the radical right-wing coopted the term: a guy who believes in capitalism, markets, privatization, and free trade, who disdains most social programs, and is generally indifferent to civil rights.  To his credit, Bloomberg has been an outspoken advocate for gun control and some environmental protection issues.  But he's far from progressive and downright opposed to the interests of workers, people of color, and lower-income households.  Picture, say, a George Bush Sr. who cares about the environment.  Or a Bill Clinton who hates unions and is into racial profiling.

So what is this guy doing, running for the Dem nomination? And running he is--it's tough to click on anything on-line lately without getting a damn Mike 2020 ad popping up.  And the ads seem to be working; has him running third or even second behind Sanders in a number of Super Tuesday states--and since those same projections also tend to show Joe Biden in the running, it's a good bet Bloomberg is actually doing better than the projections suggest.

Better yet, what are supposed Dem voters doing supporting the guy?

Ultimatum game.  When the opening "offer" is four more years of Trump, even Bloomberg and his deeply anti-worker platform seems like a decent alternative.  And that does make a certain degree of sense; if DT is the $1 offer, then you double your money voting for Bloomberg's $2 deal.  It's also pathetic.  There is always one sure way not to succeed and that is to give up on it without even trying.  It's easy to be depressed and frustrated with how terrible things have become under Trump.  But that no reason to resign ourselves to a Bloomberg presidency, a prospect that necessarily allows for at most a partial reversal of the Trump-era damage.

Granted, the Democrats are a classic "big tent" party and not every Democrat actually wants things like single-payer health coverage, education without crippling debt, or a green new deal.  They should, but that's for another day.  Until then, maybe we can presume they value a Bloomberg presidency at $3, or maybe even $4.  Well, that's still not a fair deal. A fair deal is $5.

And that means anything less than $5 is not fair.  There are gradations if unfairness, yes--but "less unfair" is still unfair.  And it takes some degree of shitty person to even be out trying to discover how unfair they can go.  Indeed, the only real difference between somebody who offers $1 and, say, $4 isn't that the latter person is less greedy--only more intelligent.  That person would be offering you $1 too if he thought you'd actually accept it.  Donald Trump wrote a damn book about it.

Fortunately, the studies show plenty of people still have enough self-respect to walk away from a $2 offer just the same.  And that is precisely what Democratic voters need to be doing now, because we are not not in the ultimatum game yet.  Nominating Warren or Sanders would enable the Democrats to both defeat Donald Trump and pursue legitimately pro-worker, pro-family, and pro-environmental policies.  Let's get our full $5.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Glass Ceiling

So, there was a bit of a dust-up recently a few weeks ago Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which supposedly revolved around Sanders having told Warren in 2018 that U.S voters would never elect a woman President.  He denies it; personally I believe he did say it, but even if he didn't he must have said something close; it seems absurd that Warren would simply invent such a claim.

Regardless what Sanders said or how he said it (or didn't say), early returns from the 2020 electoral process are suggesting that the statement may, pathetically enough, be true.  Warren finished a distant third place in the Iowa caucus and fourth in the New Hampshire primary, and she isn't expected to do much better in the upcoming early primaries; 538 projects her to finish fourth again in both Nevada and South Carolina, and has her running fourth or fifth in almost all the Super Tuesday states that go to the polls on March 3 (the exceptions being her home state of Massachusetts, where she's polling second, and Maine, where she's still only third).

That much alone is not all too remarkable; Bernie Sanders remains a popular progressive candidate and was fully expected to mount the strongest immediate challenge to establishment pick Joe Biden for the nomination.  Warren, from all accounts, was expected to slot in third behind those two at the outset, with a chance to hang around and contend as the field narrowed.  If you believe the latest word coming out of Warren's camp, this was actually the strategy all along.

But Biden crashed & burned in Iowa, finishing in fourth place and barely surviving the viability threshold in many caucus sites.  Then he got smoked again in New Hampshire, dropping all the way down to fifth place.  Not a good night for a guy who's supposed appeal is basically just the old inevitability shtick.

With Biden foundering, Warren should be second, neck-and-neck with Bernie, right? RIGHT?

Well, she's not.  Little-known Pete Buttigieg came out of seemingly nowhere to grab over 22% of the votes in Iowa and knock Warren back to third place.  Buttigieg turned in another strong performance in New Hampshire, finishing a close second behind Sanders.  So what gives?

One possibility is that the white liberals and other centrist voters are simply souring on Biden and see Buttigieg as their next best hope for restoring the old order.  This seems plausible--after all, Biden is a guy who bizarrely told an Iowa man to "go vote for someone else," told an immigration rights activist who questioned Obama's epic level of deportations that he should vote for Trump, and--get this--called a New Hampshire woman a "lying, dog-faced pony soldier," and on the day before the primary no less.  With Biden quite clearly losing his edge, why wouldn't the corporate Dems be looking around for something else? 

Okay.  But that still doesn't explain Buttigieg.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, another established middle-of-the-road centrist, is still in the race--as was fellow corporate type Kamala Harris.  So that's at least two candidates Wall Street can trust and who have deeper political experience and greater national cache than the former mayor of freaking South Bend, Indiana .Besides, it's not as though Warren herself plans to call up the national guard to seize the means of production.  But Pete's the one getting the votes, and the ladies are not.

Indeed, it appears much more likely that the problem with Klobuchar, Harris, and Warren is simply that they are women and Pete's a man.  Now, I am sure if you asked 100 Buttigieg voters why they chose him and not one of the other candidates, you would get from many different answers--none of which would be "cuz I don't vote for the dames."  (No anti-pun intended).  And some of Buttigieng's voters undoubtedly would have gone his direction regardless--even some of the decidedly fringe candidates like Tom Steyer or Duval Patrick are going to bleed a couple percentage points from the front-runners as long as they linger.  But by and large, I'd be stunned if there was a meaningful explanation.  "I like his policy on X issue" will undoubtedly be refutable by demonstrating that Mayor Pete's position is exactly the same, or even less appealing to the voter in question, than some other candidate's view on that same issue.  Or it'll just be inexplicable instincts & feels--which is honest, but probably at some level a function of unconscious bias.  And by "probably," I mean "absolutely it is, I just don't have the evidence to prove it."  At least I don't think I do.

With my background in nonprofit legal services, I've been in group situations more often than I like to admit where despite everyone being consciously open-minded and even desirous of diversity along racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and other lines, you look around at the group and there really isn't any diversity to be found.  Or maybe there is some token level, but really not what you'd expect to see if that group had a genuine commitment to inclusivity and an actual plan for making it happen.  Probably because ultimately the membership of any group is going to be a function of micro-level decisions about what the group does, how it does it, how it recruits and chooses members, how the members relate to each other once engaged, and so on.  And those decisions will be tainted by all manner of unconscious biases--and probably some that undermine even sincerely-held desires for inclusiveness.  So-and-so "did well in the interview" or "really connects with our members" or is a "better fit for the organization."  That's how it usually goes.

And that dynamic is what feels like is happening in the Democratic primaries.  The Dem candidates might talk the talk about civil rights and inclusion and gender equity--well, the non-Bloomberg ones at least.  Undoubtedly the large majority of Dem voters believe they sincerely want those things.  But few have grappled with their unconscious biases--and when it comes time to choose presidential candidates, allow themselves to be driven by feels rather than objective analysis.  Maybe Buttgieg did well in a debate someone watched, maybe he connected with the crowd at a speech someone attended, maybe he just seems like a better fit for the Oval Office.  Those aren't good reasons to vote for the guy.  But the thing about voting is, you don't need a reason.

Women can be senators, of course; women can also be governors, Supreme Court justices, Speakers of the House--women can even be Democratic Party presidential nominees when they begin the race with a mountain of cash and the party establishment uses all manner of procedural shenanigans and dirty tricks to make sure her only serious primary challenger doesn't win.  But can a woman be President of the United States?  Bernie doesn't think so.  It looks like he could be right.

After all, so far we have just been talking about the Democrats.  Terrible though the Democratic Party may be it is simultaneously way-less-terrible than its counterpart, the Trump-era GOP.  Democrats at least consciously reject gender bias and other forms of blatant discrimination.  Suffice it to say that many in today's GOP do not.  So whatever problems gender bias might cause a female candidate in securing the Democratic nomination, one must expect exist in spades throughout the general electorate.

Many progressives have long been deeply wary of this country's low-brow culture and its large, irrational, white supremacist right.  We worried that Hillary Clinton was a deeply-flawed candidate that voters all across the political spectrum would loathe (albeit for very different reasons).  And even so, we were frankly stunned that Donald freaking Trump won the 2016 election despite the endless list of reasons he had no business even coming close.  As much as we distrusted the U.S. electorate, certainly there was some limit to how low they would go.

In 2016, they proved there was not.  To now I have searched for an explanation lying somewhere within working class rage against a political system that reliably prioritizes the wealth regardless which party is in power--a vote for Trump was at least a vote to reject that status quo, a cry for some kind of change whether good or bad.  And I still think that is a big part of it.  But maybe I've been looking too hard.  Perhaps the bottom would not have totally fallen out but for one last critical factor, hiding in plain sight all throughout.

Maybe what U.S. voters really proved in 2016 was that their gender bias runs so deep that they'd sooner elect a comic book villain president than a highly-qualified woman from from central POTUS casting.  And by "maybe," I mean "absolutely they did, I just don't have the evidence to prove it."   At least, I don't think I do.

Letter to University of Michigan President Santa Ono on Pro-Palestine Protests of March 24, 2024

 Dear President Santa Ono: Although I was generally in agreement with the content of your letter regarding the disruption at the honors conv...