Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Is Bernie damaging Clinton's chances in November?

Well it's primary day, though the chances for Sanders winning the nomination look slim. This has led many to assert that, by staying in the race, Sanders is hurting Clinton's chances of beating Trump in the general election.

So I'll ask an honest question: Is there any evidence whatsoever that Sanders is damaging Clinton's chances at all by staying in the race? Or is it just pure speculation phrased in terms of what "everyone knows"? As far as I can tell, it's the former. This campaign has already lasted a year; let it last a few more months until the convention, and then let's talk about the general, OK?

Monday, May 9, 2016

On Empathy and Drow

I have spent a large amount of my free time recently ravenously reading through the archives of the webcomic Drowtales ("drow" being a type of elf from Dungeons and Dragons; more info here). If you yourself happen to have a large amount of free time, or will have free time in the future, I highly recommend checking it out (start here); while it's extremely long, it retains a very high quality throughout. The reason I'm writing about it here, though, is because I want to talk about the feature of the webcomic I find most compelling. First, though, let me talk about my favorite character: the main character Ariel's mother, Quain'tana.

The story takes place mainly in the underground city of Chel'el'sussoloth (yes, there are a lot of apostrophes in the names). While the city is officially ruled by the Sharen clan, there are eight other major clans, each of which have a fair amount of power and authority. Quain'tana is the leader of the Sarghress clan, a relatively new entrant onto the scene. The Sarghress clan is quite controversial due to the fact that it's made up of mercenaries and other commoners, so the nobles of the other clans see their rise to power as a threat to their rule. Their fears are justified because Quain'tana's stated goal is to overthrow the rule of the noble class and give freedom to the commoners.

Quain'tana has many admirable qualities. She built the most powerful clan in the city literally from scratch--she's an orphan who gained the allegiance of many mercenaries due to her strength, intelligence, and charisma. She is confident, courageous, and honorable, willing to fight with her soldiers on the front lines. Her goals are justified; not only are the Sharen an oppressive upper class who believe all commoners are inferior by birth, but their leaders committed a great crime in the past (I won't say more in case of spoilers) that they've hidden from the rest of the city. Ariel almost worships her mother and it's easy to see why.

On the other hand, she also has many despicable qualities. She is, to be frank, a terrible person who does not understand how to give or receive affection. Her confidence too often becomes arrogance and a refusal to admit any mistake. This comes out clearest in her relationships with her children, whom she does not hesitate to punish and abuse if they fail to live up to her extremely high standards. Even though Ariel worships her, by any objective standard she is treated horribly, and Quain'tana treats the daughters who don't worship her much worse. Quain'tana doesn't have friends so much as she has allies, and while she objects to the Sharen's rule she runs her own clan in a dictatorial manner. It gets to the point where several characters rightly question whether a Sarghress victory over the Sharen will really improve things for the majority of commoners, or whether it will merely replace one ruling class with another.

What fascinates me the most about Quain'tana, though, is that her positive and negative qualities are inextricably linked. Her life experiences which enable her to be a "living legend," a figure behind whom thousands can rally to defeat a thousand-year-old empire, are precisely what prevent her from having meaningful relationships with other people. She is my favorite character not because I like her as a person--there are many characters who are far more likable--but because she's fascinating as a character, as she is an essentially broke individual who because of that brokenness is able to do great deeds nobody else can.

In this way, Quain'tana almost represents the quality of the webcomic I find most compelling. After consuming a new piece of entertainment (or often while consuming it), I like looking it up on TvTropes to see what others have said about it. Here's one thing an anonymous editor of the wiki said about Drowtales:

While Drow society does operate on a different moral wavelength from humans, slavery is still tolerated by almost everyone, everyone is a huge racist (or speciesist more accurately), and -- if female -- a misandrist to boot with few exceptions, and their culture is plagued by violence and self-centered debauchery. Several readers have expressed the thought that most characters could die and they wouldn't be that bothered by it or that the setting's degenerate society could collapse and they wouldn't mind either in the sense that whatever replaces it can't be any worse.

All this is quite true. (Clarification: Drow society is matriarchal, seemingly at least partly because female drow are actually bigger and stronger than male drow on average. Almost all female drow see males as inherently inferior.) Not to mention that most of the main characters, including the protagonist Ariel, commit at least one morally repugnant deed during the course of the story. Normally in a situation like this, fiction makes people root for the protagonists by making the antagonists clearly and obviously evil. What I find most fascinating about Drowtales is that it doesn't take this roue. Rather it expects, or requests, that the readers sympathize with the characters regardless of these massive moral defects--even the villains.

While there are many comparisons one can make between Drowtales and the A Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps better known these days through its "Game of Thrones" TV adaptation), as they're both sprawling fantasy epics with gigantic casts and dark tone, this is a major difference. There are many characters in Ice and Fire who are just straight-up sociopaths the reader is expected to hate while alive and rejoice when killed. Drowtales, though, doesn't really have anyone like that. Even the ones who are most villainous and despicable have redeeming, or at least sympathetic, qualities that make their actions understandable from their own point of view. Even the comic itself makes this point, when it has an omniscient narrator say:
[T]here is no hero nor villain in these drow tales, only actors in history, wearing their masks and playing their roles.
This made me think about empathy--understanding someone else's perspective, seeing the world through their eyes. I think most people would agree that empathy is an important virtue. But most people seem to refuse empathy to certain people, people who commit crimes so repugnant that they're considered unworthy of empathy. What these crimes may be varies from person to person--holding a different political opinion, being a bigot, molesting a child, committing mass murder--but this line always seems to exist somewhere, beyond which someone becomes a nonperson, unworthy of empathy, fit only for opposition and destruction.

I strongly believe that everyone, regardless of their crimes, deserves empathy. This does not mean they should go unopposed. Some people must be fought. But as we fight them, we must do our best to understand why they fight, what drove them to commit the acts they did. To do otherwise is to ignore the darkness in our own souls, not to mention the darkness in the souls of our idols. At its best, fiction like Drowtales can give us experience at viewing fatally flawed persons who commit morally horrendous acts, forgiving them, and rooting for their success as they claw their way toward doing good.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Qualifications and Meritocracy, Part 1: The Case of Paul Krugman

Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman recently wrote a column titled "Sanders Over the Edge." Now, Krugman has been a strong backer of Clinton this primary, like he was in the 2008 primary, so it's not particularly notable that he's written another anti-Sanders column. What is notable is how astonishingly badly-researched and badly-reasoned this column is, to the extent that I was honestly astonished when I read it. As such, it has been roundly mocked on the internet. But I'm writing my own response for two reasons. One, the column was so bad it pissed me off and this is the only thing that can quell my internal demons, and two, his column actually provides a very good example of the problems inherent in our contemporary "meritocracy." In this post, I will focus mostly on showing why, in detail, Krugman is wrong. At some point in the future, I plan to write a post about the broader implications of his column.

The problems begin with Krugman's first sentence:
From the beginning, many and probably most liberal policy wonks were skeptical about Bernie Sanders.
Notice, first, that Krugman doesn't bother to give any evidence for this assertion. (As we'll see, this isn't the first time he'll do this.) There are, depending on your definition of the term, likely thousands of "liberal policy wonks" in America alone. Has Krugman read or spoken to 500 of them, or 100, or even 50? Has he conducted or read a study concerning the candidate preferences of liberal policy wonks? Of course not. Rather, he's generalizing from himself and a few others to make claims about an entire group.

What's particularly annoying about this is it's so unnecessary. He could simple have said, "I was skeptical about Bernie Sanders." Instead, he feels the need to appeal to an expert consensus, and without actually doing any research assumes that expert consensus agrees with him. Not merely in his candidate preference, either, but even in the reasons for that candidate preference:
On many major issues--including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform--he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic.
Once again, you'll notice he provides no evidence for either of these assertions. Unless Krugman is a psychic, he doesn't know how much thinking Sanders has done about financial reform (and no, you don't get to make wild speculations as long as you hedge with a "seems"). I talked about Sanders's theory of change extensively in my earlier post; claiming that it involves waving away limits is grossly misleading at best. This lack of research and understanding makes it especially ironic that Krugman accuses Sanders of not engaging in "hard thinking." But he's just getting warmed up.

After claiming that "some Sanders supporters" accuse "anyone expressing doubts about their hero [read: accuse me, Paul Krugman] of being corrupt if not actually criminal," once more not providing any evidence for this claim (even one link would suffice), Krugman makes the following rather hilarious statement:
Mr. Sanders is starting to sound like his worst followers. Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.
For those of you who are blissfully unaware of what a "Bernie Bro" is, I will attempt to explain. In February, Gawker had a good article discussing the various ways pundits and political commentators have used the term. In it, they link to the tweets of the term's inventor, Robinson Meyer, who said it has at least three different contemporary definitions: "a harmless guy who argued on Facebook in an ineffective if fairly specific way"; "a leftistish male who virulently disliked Clinton on arguably anti-woman grounds"; "a misogynist troll who attacks visible woman online for various perceived but baseless crimes."

Now Krugman is inventing a brand-new use for the term: someone who has different standards for who's qualified to be President than Paul Krugman. Perhaps one power the Nobel Prize grants is being able to redefine words at one's whims; that would certainly explain a lot about this column.

First though, Krugman decides to illustrate Bernie's Bro-ness by talking about bank reform (because, as we all know, there's nothing fraternity bros love more than bank reform). One of Sanders's main selling points is that he wants to break up the big banks. "But," Krugman asks ominously, "were big banks really at the heart of the financial crisis, and would breaking them up protect us from future crises?" I'm pretty sure Sanders has never actually claimed breaking up the banks would stop all future financial crises, but never mind! Krugman has socialists to slay:
Predatory lending was largely carried out by smaller, non-Wall Street institutions like Countrywide Financial; the crisis itself was centered not on big banks but on "shadow banks" like Lehman Brothers that weren't necessarily that big.
Let's start with the role of banking in the crisis. Yes, much blame deserves to go toward places like Countrywide who gave loans to people who couldn't hope to repay them. But the reason they lent so much money is that the banks were willing to buy up any loan they could. As the Economist, hardly a bastion of socialism, explains:
Loans were doled out to "subprime" borrowers with poor credit histories who struggled to repay them. These risky mortgages were passed on to financial engineers at the big banks, who turned them into supposedly low-risk securities by putting large numbers of them in pools. Pooling works when the risks of each loan are uncorrelated. The big banks argued that the property markets in different American cities would rise and fall independently of one another. But this proved wrong. Starting in 2006, America suffered a nationwide house-price slump.
In other words, on the basis of an incredibly bad argument and fancy mathematical tricks, the big banks bought up the bad loans, re-packaged them, and sold them to ignorant investors. If they hadn't had such willing buyers, the predatory lenders would have had no incentive to loan so much money to "subprime" borrowers. To be sure, the banks are not solely responsible for the crash, but they were one of the major players.

As for Lehman Brothers not being "necessarily that big," I'll quote from Alexis Goldstein, who responds (I've separated each tweet with a double backslash // and taken away her numbering):
As someone who worked across from the Lehman building for many years, I cannot begin to explain who central of a Wall St player they were // Nor how stunning & shocking was their fall. No one could believe Hank Paulson let them fail. Everyone lost their goddamn mind. // I was at Merrill Lynch at the time (no longer across the street from Lehman). We were quickly bought by BAC. Ppl feared nationalization // anyone who tries to understate that failure of Lehman by saying it was small is punking you. // 
&this idea that "they weren't a bank so breaking up banks isn't important"...ALL old white-shoe investment banks are now bank holding cos // there are no more pure investment banks like there were pre-crisis, unless you count the likes of Jefferies & let's be real: nobody does. // the banks are bigger than ever, they have no shame in asking for whatever they want, & DC still lets them literally write the law. // that is a problem & anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded. *rant over* // 
also Lehman was the biggest bankruptcy in history and was a complete, total mess. Creditor shitshow. Resolution STILL ongoing. // if anything, Lehman shows we need to break-up investment banks, too (tho few are left). Bankruptcy cannot handle them as they are now.
Moving on, Krugman defends the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill passed in 2010:
And the financial reform that President Obama signed in 2010 made a real effort to address these problems. It could and should be made stronger . . .
How real is this effort? Let's let former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explain:
In its first major rule under Dodd-Frank, the CFTC [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] considered 1,500 comments, largely generated by and from the Street. After several years the commission issued a proposed rule, including some of the loopholes and exceptions the Street sought. 
Wall Street still wasn't satisfied. So the CFTC agreed to delay enforcement of the rule, allowing the Street more time to voice its objections. Even this wasn't enough for the big banks, whose lawyers then filed a lawsuit in the federal courts, arguing that the commission's cost-benefit analysis wasn't adequate. 
As of now, only 249 of the 390 regulations required by Dodd-Frank have been finalized. And those final versions are shot through with loopholes big enough for Wall Street's top brass to drive their Ferrari's through.
In other words, the big banks are really powerful, so the regulators tend to work for them instead of for the public (especially since many regulators hope to work for the banks themselves eventually). This is not at all new. Regulations aren't particularly helpful if they aren't enforced. So it shouldn't be particularly surprising that "[b]anks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to behave in many of the same ways they did before the crash."

In Krugman's defense, though, he merely said that Dodd-Frank "made a real effort," not that it actually succeeded.

To continue, Krugman next actually makes some very interesting points regarding the relationship between a politican's policy positions and their value/character--not just because of what he says, but because of what he doesn't say. I will extensively analyze this paragraph (the 8th in his column) in my follow-up post, so I'll skip over it for now. Afterward, Krugman says darkly that Sanders's current campaigning "raises serious character and value issues." Krugman supports this strong contention with two pieces of evidence. I'll quote his first proffered evidence in full:
It's one thing for the Sanders campaign to point to Hillary Clinton's Wall Street connections, which are real, although the question should be whether they have distorted her positions, a case the campaign has never even tried to make. But recent attacks on Mrs. Clinton as a tool of the fossil fuel industry are just plain dishonest, and speak of a campaign that has lost its ethical moorings.
First, let's note in passing Krugman's unquestioning acceptance of the absurd claim that, unless one has direct proof of Clinton changing her position due to Wall Street money, we don't have to worry about it. This is, of course, the very argument the conservative Supreme Court used as justification for Citizens United. It also misses the point, as Alex Pareene argues (in a different context):
Bernie Sanders' critique of Clinton is not that she's cartoonishly corrupt in the Tammany Hall style, capable of being fully bought with a couple well-compensated speeches, but that she's a creature of a fundamentally corrupt system, who comfortably operates within that system and accepts it as legitimate. Clinton has had trouble countering that critique because, well, it's true. It's not that she's been bought, it's that she bought in.
As for his "dishonest" attack on Clinton, read through the linked article yourself. Every single "fact checker" admits that it's totally accurate Clinton is receiving money from the oil and gas industries, it's just a small percentage of her overall fundraising. That may make the criticism irrelevant, but it's hardly dishonest. On the other hand, claiming that Sanders is accusing Clinton of being "a tool of the fossil fuel industry," which he never did, is perhaps dishonest.

It's also rather rich considering Krugman's own candidate implied Sanders didn't support the auto bailout before the Michigan primary (a misrepresentation so egregious that backlash to it may have contributed to her losing the state), is blaming Vermont for New York's gun problems (read this for the sordid details--she doesn't technically lie, but the argument is highly misleading), etc.

But all this is set-up for the real meat of his column, the discussion of what some person somewhere surely called "qualified-gate." For those blissfully unaware of this incident, a brief history.

On April 4, Sanders was interviewed by the New York Daily News. The media quickly decided he bombed the interview and showed a lack of policy knowledge, even though he actually didn't. Later, Clinton was interviewed by Joe Scarborough, who asked her several times if Sanders is qualified to be President. Clinton never gave a clear yes or no answer, but claimed he didn't really understand what he was talking about--which is, perhaps, an implication that he's not really qualified, but I suppose reasonable people can differ on this. (Krugman claims she was "careful in her choice of words," which is true as far as it goes.) Sanders himself then said Clinton claimed he was unqualified to be President, which is false (he was possibly misled by this Washington Post article--remember to always read past the headline!). Anyway, in response, Sanders argued that it's really Clinton who's not qualified, due to her voting for the Iraq War, trade agreements like NAFTA, and taking massive campaign contributions from Wall Street and other special interests.

If this sounds to you like a tempest in a teapot that almost everyone will forget about a week from now, you're right. But to Krugman, Sanders's recent statement is of earth-shattering importance. First, he claims that Sanders is "imposing a standard of purity, in which any compromise or misstep makes you the moral equivalent of the bad guys." For those keeping track, this is the third time Krugman has attributed to Sanders a position he's never actually stated, which is actually kind of impressive considering the space constraints of a New York Times column.

But it's the possible electoral consequences of Sanders's "qualifications" argument that really sets Krugman off. After all, Clinton is in the lead for the nomination, "based largely on the support of African-American voters, who respond to her pragmatism because history tells them to distrust extravagant promises." This is luckily the last time Krugman makes a grandiose claim with no evidence, but it's a doozy. It's really something special for a very white pundit like Krugman to make sweeping claims about why black Americans vote the way they do. Especially since, given the timing of the column, he almost certainly got this idea from Jonathan Chait, another very white pundit who made this claim on the basis of scanty evidence. (Seriously, read Chait's article--he offers literally no statistical evidence whatsoever.)

As a very white person myself, it really pisses me off when white people use people of color as props to support whatever political view they hold. Stand on your own fucking two feet instead of fetishizing marginalized communities.

Moving on, Krugman is thankfully almost done. He ends by wondering if Sanders will refuse to endorse Clinton in the general. (I guess he's forgotten the kinds of attacks Clinton made on Obama in 2008 before endorsing him.) Here's the last paragraph of his column:
The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs. It has also, however, brought out a streak of petulant self-righteousness among some supporters. Has it brought out that streak in the candidate, too?
I suppose the message to Sanders supporters is: please bring lots of energy in support of the candidate I, Paul Krugman, support--but never, ever "self-righteously" think your political beliefs are more valid than mine. Speaking as a Sanders supporter, I'm honestly more annoyed by the condescension of the first sentence than by the hypocritical petulance of the second. And the less said about his final cowardly rhetorical question the better.

Note, finally, that nowhere does Krugman ever actually substantively respond to Sanders's argument that showing poor judgment by voting for the Iraq War and bad trade deals is disqualifying for the Presidency. So in his stead, I will discuss this topic in detail in my next post.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Hillary Clinton will kill lots of people, but why do liberals hate her?"

Journalist for the New Republic Jeet Heer recommended an article, claiming it's "The best case for Hillary Clinton I've read." In this article, Elie Mystal states:
Hillary's foreign policy is terrifying. If elected, she will kill people. Many of them will be terrorists and some of them will be criminals, but all of them will be people and she will not let other, non-terrorist people, stand in the way of killing the people she thinks we need to kill. And when she's not killing people, she will be spying on people in case she needs to kill those people later. 
So... that's bad. 
But I don't understand liberals who hate Hillary Clinton.
I know and read a lot of socialists, and many of them have rather harsh things to say about "liberals." Most of the time, I think that's unfair. But Mystal's statement here represents the worst tendencies of liberalism as an ideology.

Seriously, read that again. "Hillary Clinton has a terrifying foreign policy"--foreign policy, of course, being the area where the President has by far the most power. "She will kill lots of people, many of whom are civilians. And she will be spying on many more. Anyway, on a completely unrelated note note, it appears many liberals don't like her for inexplicable reasons!"

Reading the article, you'll note that as justification for his Clinton vote despite his belief she'll kill lots of people, Mystal argues she's more likely to "make a deal (with the devil, no doubt)." In other words, Mystal is willing to elect someone who he admits will kill lots of foreigners if that means "a crappy law that has some positive outcomes" will get passed.

I don't mean to pick too hard on Mystal personally, and I actually don't hate Hillary Clinton myself--in general, I'm not sure if hating politicians is very helpful. But when even self-proclaimed liberals blithely slide past the prospect of tons of deaths just as long as it's foreigners who are dying, something is seriously wrong with our political culture.

Later tonight I'm going to make a post tearing apart Paul Krugman's latest column.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Postscript to Populism vs Technocracy

I spent my last post beating up on a Vox article, so as a postscript let me praise this one, where Ezra Klein interviews Obama's 2008 staffers about the similarities and differences between their campaigns. What particularly stood out to me was his email interview with Obama's speechwriter at the time, Jon Favreau. In 2008, one thing Obama said was, "It's time to let the drug and insurance industries know that while they'll get a seat at the table, they don't get to buy every chair." Favreau explains:
To me, this exemplifies the difference between Bernie and Obama. Bernie would never say something like that. He doesn't think insurance companies, or drug companies, or banks, or millionaires get any seats at the table. He doesn't talk about making progress by working with Republicans, or the political establishment, or the business establishment. I guess his plan is to build a mobilized grassroots that simply wrestles power away from those who have it. 
It's not just that Obama doesn't think that's feasible, it's that he doesn't think that's the right way to govern in a pluralistic democracy where everyone gets a voice. Obama believes that there's too many Americans who don't have a voice, and too many Americans who don't have opportunity, and that a big reason for that is the power of special interests and big corporations. But he also believes that there's a place for those interests and corporations in our system.
Note, again, that combination of criticisms: populism is both infeasible and undesirable. However, Favreau clearly isn't very interested in the feasibility critique. Instead, he explicitly says that Obama (and by extension Favreau) thinks special interests and big corporations should have some power, just not as much as they have right now. And Obama indeed enacted that policy as President; there are numerous examples I could site, but this secret deal he made with the pharmaceutical companies before the healthcare fight is the most blatant one.

This is technocracy in action. Favreau says that Bernie doesn't want special interests or big corporations to "get any seats of the table." That, though, is an exaggeration; it's not like Sanders is proposing to disenfranchise the rich. He doesn't want to deny seats to the big corporations, he just wants them to have the same seats as everyone else. Favreau (and according to him, Obama), on the other hand, want the rich and powerful to remain more powerful than the marginalized--just somewhat less powerful than they currently are. (Again, keep in mind he's arguing this state of affairs is desirable, not inevitable.) It's...interesting...that he claims to be defending "pluralistic democracy" while advocating an explicitly anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian worldview.

While Favreau doesn't justify his position, I think it's fair to say it comes from the technocratic attitude I discussed in my previous post. Consider his characterization of Sanders's proposal: "to build a mobilized grassroots that simply wrestles power away from those who have it." Favreau seems to conceive of populism as a kind of violence: wrestling power away from the powerful. And honestly, he's kind of right. As Klein says later in his article:
In this telling, the core difference between Obama and Sanders is that Obama's theory of political change was that American politics needed to become less ideological and less conflictual, while Sanders's theory of change is that American politics needs to be made more ideological and more conflictual.
This is precisely right. Mass movements are extremely ideological and conflictual. Sometimes they become literally violent, but even when they don't things like protests and boycotts are basically attempts to coerce others into doing what you want them to do. Technocracy by contrast, if only because there are far fewer people involved, is transactional, consensus-based, sometimes even polite. It is also, of course, undemocratic. But for some, that's a cost worth paying, or even perhaps not a cost at all.

I'll try to write something for this Sunday. Not sure what yet. Suggestions are welcome.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton is not (just) a pragmatist: she's a technocrat


David Roberts of Vox recently wrote a post about the Democratic primary, inspired by the recent kerfuffle about whether Clinton is a "progressive." Roberts calls the idea that one cannot be both a moderate and a progressive an "illuminating error" which "helps expose a key source of misunderstanding between the Clinton and Sanders camps." Ironically, in explicating this "error," I think Roberts makes an illuminating error of his own in asserting that the main difference between Clinton and Sanders is the former is a pragmatist ("a progressive who gets things done," perhaps), and the latter isn't. In reality, though, they're both pragmatists, it's just their theories of change are different: Sanders is a populist, while Clinton is a technocrat. Before explaining what I mean by that, though, I want to summarize Roberts's argument.

Roberts argues that there are (at least) two ways one can assess a political candidate: their ideology and their "practicality." Roberts writes:
"Progressive" is an ideological term. It refers to a position on an ideological spectrum, namely to the left. A progressive's opposite is a conservative. 
"Moderate" is a practical term. . . . Broadly speaking, it refers to a candidate who focuses on consensus-building and incremental progress, someone who doesn't believe the US political system is capable of sudden, lurching change, or just doesn't want that kind of change. 
A moderate's opposite is a radical, someone who believes rapid, revolutionary change is both possible and necessary.
(Note how Roberts conflates two senses of "moderate": someone who believes rapid change is impossible, and someone who believes it's undesirable. I'll come back to this later.)

Roberts claims Sanders prefers talking about ideology (what he wants to do), while Clinton prefers talking about practicality (what it's possible to do). As a result of this, arguments between each faction tend to be unproductive. Sanders supporters "reject out of hand" the notion that "Clinton and her supporters might believe equally in the values of the left but differ on strategy." Similarly, Clinton supporters interpret any "expression of ambition" as "a lack of knowledge about How Politics Really Works."

Despite this try at even-handedness, Roberts's sympathy with the Clinton side of this debate is clear. He writes:
But over time, I have grown extremely skeptical, not to say cynical, about the capacity of US political institutions to deliver dramatic change. And I've witnessed the cycle of hyperbolic liberal hopes followed by melodramatic liberal despair too many times.
Roberts admits that the "reality" he's expecting liberals to accept is "creeping oligarchy and militarism," and that "on climate change alone, something like a revolution seems necessary." However, his final point is that even if we need a revolution, the President isn't the person we should look to for one:
The president is constrained by layer after layer of checks and balances, veto points, entrenched interests, and institutional inertia. For a president in polarized times, progress comes not with a bludgeon but with a chisel. 
The reason the left's revolution hasn't arrived isn't just that money has corrupted Washington, though it undoubtedly has. It's that half the country views massive new taxes and government spending programs with horror. . . . Resistance is not futile, but it is painstaking.
While I have some nitpicks with Roberts's argument--Sanders certainly has explained what he means by "political revolution" whether you agree or not, and a majority of the country supports (for example) single-payer health care--my biggest issue is with his starting distinction between ideology and practicality. This is the "illuminating error" I referred to, which I will now discuss in detail.


To begin with, recall that Roberts gave two different descriptions of a "moderate": one who believes radical change is impossible, and one who believes it's undesirable. Considering Roberts's overall article, he seems to put himself in the former camp. However, this camp is objectively incorrect. Here are just a few examples of radical change that have occurred throughout American history:

1) In the late 1700s, the entire system of American government (rule from Britain) was overthrown and a new one was drawn up from scratch.
2) In the mid to late 1800s, slavery, the foundation of the American economy, was abolished.
3) In the early 1900s, half of the population was given the right to vote for the first time, permanently affecting American politics to this day. (In 2012, Obama won the female vote 55% to 44%.)
4) In the mid 1900s, the economy was fundamentally transformed again, setting the stage for a massive rise in median family income.
5) In the mid to late 1900s, the system that had been set up to oppress black Americans after slavery, which had lasted for a century, was overthrown along with much of patriarchy.
6) In the late 1900s, a backlash occurred and we swung back to the right, a process that is currently ongoing.

To be fair, these changes were not always pretty; for example, the first two were ultimately accomplished by wars, and the New Deal would not have happened without the Great Depression. Furthermore, the successes were often mixed: after the American Revolution only white male property-owners could vote; racism and sexism continue to be pervasive; the New Deal often explicitly excluded people of color from its benefits. Nevertheless, they are surely far more radical than Sanders's major proposals, all of which already exist in other countries (and some of which, like free college, used to exist in this country). One is forced to wonder where Roberts's cynicism about fundamental change comes from, especially since the last one--the conservative revolution--is so recent.

Perhaps Roberts thinks the country has just fundamentally changed since the 1960s: it's too divided now, the special interests are too strong. However, this notion is ridiculous. Segregation was supported by half the country and centuries of history. Slavery was the backbone of the American economy, backed by some of the richest and most powerful individuals ever to exist. If anything, the enemies of progressivism's past were more powerful than the enemies of progressivism's present.

I suspect the source of Roberts's discomfort resides elsewhere. There is an important commonality between all six instances of radical change I cited: they were all accomplished by massive popular movements. This includes the American Revolution, which was preceded by decades of protest, boycotts, and rioting. (They looted the mansion of the pro-British lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.) Not coincidentally, this is precisely Sanders's strategy for enacting change:
"But if, on that very day, as an example," [Sanders] continued, "a million young people march in on Washington to say exactly what Colleen said a few moments ago, that all of our young people who have the ability deserve to get a college education regardless of the income of their families, suddenly, that gentleman will look out the window and say, 'Well, Mr. President, let's sit down and talk about how we can address this serious problem.'"
This strategy has its flaws. As the above Slate article points out, cheap fossil fuels benefit millions of Americans (not just oil companies), so it may be difficult to build a mass movement against global warming. More fundamentally, one could argue that the very notion of an anti-establishment movement led by the President of the United States is a contradiction in terms, and that to be truly independent and long-lasting we need to organize around issues, not personalities. While I am myself a Sanders supporter, I think both these objections are plausible and on-point. Nevertheless, it seems clear that a mass movement does have the capability of forcing radical change, and so the only way one can argue that only incremental change is possible is if one takes mass politics off the table.

And indeed Roberts, despite his disclaimers in support of activism, doesn't seem at all interested in the question of how to build a durable left-wing mass movement. I wonder, then, if Roberts might fall into the second camp of "moderate": someone who believes radical change is undesirable. Not necessarily because they disagree with radical change as an end goal, but because they disagree with the means necessary to achieve this.

Roberts argues that Sanders and Clinton both share the same goal, they just disagree on how to achieve it. Well, perhaps a Dictator Sanders and a Dictator Clinton wouldn't look very different. But who cares? Neither are running for dictator. In the actual world, it is impossible to draw such a clean line between someone's "ideology" and their "practicality." Sanders and Clinton disagree on tactics, yes, but this disagreement is based on a deeper ideological difference: Sanders believes that change should be achieved by a mass movement, while Clinton believes that change should be achieved by a small group of experts. In short, Sanders is a populist and Clinton is a technocrat. Their ideologies determine which tactics they consider acceptable.


My use of the terms "populist" and "technocrat" may be unclear and is probably idiosyncratic. So first I'll explain a bit what I take those terms to mean, and then I'll back up my claim that Clinton is a technocrat.

A technocrat believes that politics is, at bottom, a science. As such, in an ideal state, politics would be handled by trained experts. These experts would, non-ideologically, determine which policies would lead to the most benefit/greatest welfare for the country, and would then enact those policies. This is not to say that technocrats have no use for the public--however, by necessity the public must play a subordinate role. Namely, the purpose of sympathetic popular movements is to advocate for the policies that the experts come up with and to pressure those who oppose those policies (either through ignorance or maliciousness). What they must not do is pressure the experts themselves, because while the experts might not always be right, due to their expertise they are more likely to be right than the uneducated public.

I should note that, while I disagree with it, technocracy is not implausible on its face. After all, in most areas of our life (medicine, law, etc) we consult experts to decide what to do. Why should politics be any different?

I think the best way to describe the opposite view, populism, is that a populist thinks politics is at bottom a struggle. More specifically, it's a struggle between the powerful and the non-powerful, or marginalized. Since the marginalized are typically more numerous than the powerful, a populist's main task is to encourage the marginalized to unite and organize, in order to gain power and defeat the powerful. To a populist, the "non-ideological experts" the technocrat values so much are in fact part of the powerful--they are ultimately enemies, not saviors (though some may occasionally be tactical allies). In the populist's ideal state, the public, and not a small group of experts, would rule.

In my opinion, the best argument in favor of populism and against technocracy is that there's no such thing as a non-ideological expert. Depending on what you value, your theory on what counts as the "general welfare" will differ. So while technocrats claim to merely be non-ideologically--or "pragmatically," if you will--doing "what works," in reality they are imposing their own set of values on the rest of society. This, in my view, is really a form of tyranny. But then, as a Sanders supporter, I suppose I would think that. And technocracy has a long tradition, arguably starting with Plato, so it's not like all technocrats are evil or even ignorant. And to be fair, history shows that mass movements often end up supporting vile policies and politicians, so I can certainly understand the motivation behind technocracy even though I disagree.

Anyway, it's pretty clear that Sanders is a "populist" in my sense: he's explicitly calling for a mass movement to pressure both parties to enact his favored policies. What about Clinton, though?

Well, we can't peer into her soul, and as far as I know she hasn't explicitly endorsed either position. Nevertheless, I think she's almost certainly a technocrat, due in part to: her reliance on big donors, her rejection of radicalism and advocacy of incrementalism, and her alignment with the Democratic establishment. I will argue this next.


Clinton giving speeches to banks for hundreds of thousands of dollars has become an issue recently, compounding the previous issue of her using a SuperPAC, fundraising from large corporations, etc. Her response has been, essentially, that she's never changed a vote due to a campaign contribution. This may be true, but it's essentially beside the point. As Alex Pareene points out in this excellent Gawker article:
Bernie Sanders' critique of Clinton is not that she's cartoonishly corrupt in the Tammany Hall style, capable of being fully bought with a couple well-compensated speeches, but that she's a creature of a fundamentally corrupt system, who comfortably operates within that system and accepts it as legitimate. Clinton has had trouble countering that critique because, well, it's true. It's not that she's been bought, it's that she bought in. [Emphasis added.]
Clinton took offense at the recent debate to being called part of the establishment. But the "establishment" isn't a single entity, it's a catch-all term to describe the powerful entities in a society, and as one of the most powerful people in the country Clinton is certainly a member of the establishment, at least the Democratic one. (Indeed, her pitch as being an "experienced progressive who gets things done" is based on this membership.) The Democratic establishment has decided that to succeed it must work with other powerful entities, like big corporations, rather than fight them. By relying on money from these powerful corporations, Clinton is clearly using the same strategy.

This strategy is a technocratic one, both for what it does and what it does not do. While CEOs and other rich individuals may not seem like "experts," according to modern capitalist mythology anyone who makes it big is intelligent, hard-working, knowledgeable, etc. This is the justification behind hiring rich employees of these firms to important government positions: they are the savvy ones who know what to do. The Platonic philosopher-king has become a CEO.

Even more importantly, though, is what the strategy doesn't do: namely, it's not even trying to rely on left movements. This is where incrementalism (and thus, the original Vox article by Roberts) come into play. Roberts asserts that only incremental change is possible in our modern political system. Clinton herself and many of her supporters agree. But as I've argued, this is only true if one preemptively declares mass politics--that is, populism--untenable. Since mass politics can clearly work, this makes sense only if Clinton believes populism is undesirable, that we shouldn't make a strong left mass movement even though it would be effective. Thus, while he might not be aware of it, Roberts is effectively advocating for technocracy in his article, and Clinton (who probably is aware of it) is advocating for technocracy in her campaign.

And this shouldn't be a surprise, because technocracy is the main strategy of the Democratic establishment. There are far too many examples of this to list, but the most revealing is the actions of Barack Obama, the President whom Clinton has more or less promised to be the 3rd term of. Obama got elected President partly on the back of a large and enthusiastic movement. But rather then try to build it into an independent force that could pressure Congress, even its Democratic members, even Obama himself, in a liberal direction, Obama basically put it on ice until he wanted to use it to advocate for the end result of his legislative sausage-making. Anyone remember this?


This image was all over the place in 2009, and while it's not used much anymore the sentiment that goes with it surely is. Let Obama handle things; our role as citizens, if anything, is merely to support whatever policies and laws he decides on. This is, of course, a fundamentally technocratic way of conceiving politics. And while it's possible that Clinton will repudiate it and enthusiastically support any left movement that might emerge, I'm not holding my breath.

(Disclaimer: It is true that Democrats have been largely respectful of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is because they have to be, as BLM has built for itself a lot of power, both political and cultural. But if BLM starts seriously going after Democrats who are recalcitrant on police reform [aside from disgraced mayor Rahm Emanuel], I expect this to change. But we'll see.)


So where does this leave us, then? Sanders is a populist while Clinton is a technocrat, and since populism is correct you should vote Sanders?

Not precisely. There is danger in a Sanders-led mass movement: even if Sanders were a perfect politician (which he's far from being), the movement would dissipate as soon as he leaves office. But it takes decades, at least, for a truly radical movement to succeed in even some of its goals. (The conservative movement began after WWII and only really "won" in 1980, if that. The Civil Rights movement arguably began shortly after the Civil War, which means it took almost a century of activism to tear down Jim Crow.) A left movement cannot be a "Sanders movement"; it needs to be independent of any politician.

Which leads to the question: assuming we can form a left mass movement, does it really matter that much who's President? Would a President Clinton under constant pressure from a left movement be that much different from a President Sanders under constant pressure from a left movement? Perhaps not--in which case, one could accept my entire analysis while still preferring Clinton for other reasons (electability, the symbolic value of a female President, etc).

Despite my clickbait title, though, this article is not ultimately about the Clinton/Sanders primary. What bothers me about Roberts's Vox article, and countless similar ones, is not that it's pro-Clinton but that it's pro-technocracy. A technocrat cannot change the status quo because they disdain the only thing they can. For anyone who believes the status quo is unacceptable, a mass movement is necessary and technocratic incrementalism must be rejected. No matter who wins this November.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Preview: The Left and Presidential Politics

This Sunday, I think I'm going to talk about Presidential politics; specifically, the attitudes the modern American Left take toward it, and how they are fundamentally mistaken. While there are many reasons behind the undeniable fact that the Right is much more effective at politics than the Left in America since at least the 1970s, the different ways they approach presidential elections (and elections more broadly) is at least the most easily fixable, so it seems a good place to begin.

In the meantime, let me share with you my predictions for the 2016 Presidential race:
-Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.
-Ted Cruz will be the Republican nominee.
-The general election will be close--much closer than the 2008 and 2012 ones were, at least.

I will argue for all three of these points on Sunday. For now, pause to consider that "President Ted Cruz" is a distinct possibility, and just what that says about the state of the modern American Left.