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Archive for November, 2012


[ 18 ] November 28, 2012 |

Do you like to dive?

Do you like cool colorful tropical fish?

Do you like coral reefs?

If you do, take advantage now because they are going away very, very fast.

In another 50 years, coral reefs will be a myth our grandchildren won’t believe, like unicorns and moderate Republicans.

Money is racist [NOTE: This counts as my version of the apparently mandated Wednesday Lincoln post.]

[ 21 ] November 28, 2012 |

Mine is, at least. The woman at the toll booth said she couldn’t accept it because it’s been “defaced.” Now, it’s racist, obviously, but it clearly hasn’t been defaced so much as refaced:

Of course, I received this unacceptable bill at the previous toll booth. Money that Jeff Goldstein didn’t de- or reface can be found here. I’m particularly fond of this envisioning of Andrew Jackson:

Seems like a natural fit.

The Civil War: Not A Useful Model For Progressive Politics

[ 108 ] November 28, 2012 |

Conor Kilpatrick has some angry words for people who think that Barack Obama is precisely comparable to Abraham Lincoln and the PPACA precisely comparable to the 13th Amendment. Granted, I don’t believe these people exist (and this includes, I’m guessing, Speilberg and Kushner.) But it’s important to know that this strawman can’t stand, because Obama is the kind of “empty suit” who believes that non-revolutionary reforms might be worth achieving:

Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans (to say nothing of the Liberty Party or Free Soilers before them) shared a vision of a radically different society. Wiping out slavery — either through immediate abolition or through the “cordon of fire” policy of the Republican party — was hardly a technocratic reform.

Let’s stop here for a second. Lincoln wasn’t a radical or abolitionist. He just wasn’t.  (Note also the fancy shuffling by which Lincoln is given retroactive credit for the positions held by the more radical minority within his party.  By the same logic, contemporary Democrats favor single payer since the leftmost members of the House caucus do.)  Had the South not seceded slavery would not have been abolished in any existing state during a Lincoln administration. A Lincoln administration and a Republican Congress would have presumably stopped the expansion of slavery in a way that would have made the gradual ending of slavery more likely — you know, the kind of thing that would get you denounced as an empty-suit technocrat by Kilpatrick if you were a 20th century Demcorat.

But, of course, secession did happen, and this created a context in which Lincoln was able to effect radical changes. Which is to his immense credit (although it is also true that emancipation was not the simple creation of political actors in Washington), but the relevance of this to contemporary politics is essentially non-existent. Which brings us to this:

Which part of this sounds anything at all like Barack Obama — the man who dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes? When did Obama ever promise to place the private health insurance industry “where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction”?

Ha ha ha! If Barack Obama were a real man, he would have just firebombed Ben Nelson’s house and held any survivors hostage until he agreed to vote for single payer.  And then sent Charles Bronson or Denzel Washington to take care of Evan Bayh, and so on.   No president worthy of the name would deal with with mere legislators.   And let’s also not forget to denounce that pathetic sellout LBJ — when Harry Bird said “jump” he said “how high?” Real revolutionary presidents don’t make deals with venal senators, period.

I’m not sure when the litmus test for being a Real Leftist became having a view of American political institutions that makes the complacent pluralists of the 50s look like Gramsci. At any rate, it is indeed true that Obama did not make a revolutionary pledge to eliminate the American health insurance industry, for the obvious reason that the result of this would be holding the uninsured as hostages in exchange for nothing. Progressive reform in the veto-point-heavy framework of American political institutions involves buying off vested interests (and when it came to the New Deal, this involved compromises substantially more immoral than preserving insurance rentiers.) If your counterexample involves a war that resulted in the death of upwards of a million people, I think it’s pretty safe to call this the exception that proves the rule.

The Rising Tide of Liberalism

[ 119 ] November 28, 2012 |

Chait is really optimistic about the future of liberalism given the political leanings of young people:

What all this suggests is that we may soon see a political landscape that will appear from the perspective of today and virtually all of American history as unrecognizably liberal. Democrats today must amass huge majorities of moderate voters in order to overcome conservatives’ numerical advantage over liberals. They must carefully wrap any proposal for activist government within the strictures of limited government, which is why Bill Clinton declared the era of big government to be over, and Obama has promised not to raise taxes for 99 percent of Americans. It’s entirely possible that, by the time today’s twentysomethings have reached middle age, these sorts of limits will cease to apply.

I am too naturally pessimistic to buy into this without reservation. But there’s no question that in some fundamental ways he is right. On social issues, conservatives are losing badly and they increasingly know it. Gay marriage is going to be legal across the nation within 20 years. We are moving toward drug legalization with shocking rapidity. Anti-immigrant politics don’t appeal to these voters. The key question revolves around economic issues. If young people are committed to building an American version of a European-style social welfare state, then I feel really optimistic about the nation’s future myself.

The Latin American Left and Indigenous Peoples

[ 22 ] November 28, 2012 |

Nyki Salinas-Duda has an interesting though flawed article about the increasingly tense relationship between the left-leaning Latin American governments elected in recent years and indigenous peoples who helped elect them. Essentially, indigenous peoples have supported politicians like Evo Morales because they provided an alternative to the openly racist governments that have oppressed indigenous people for centuries. Yet these governments, desperate for money and seeing the need to develop, have pushed projects that would strip indigenous peoples of land.

The general principle of the article is good. But there are a couple of shortcomings that need to be pointed out. First, there’s a long history between the Latin American left and indigenous people that’s ignored here. Most famously, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had a terrible relationship with indigenous groups on the Caribbean side. Turns out the Miskito Indians didn’t want to be part of the Sandinista national project. The Sandinistas had no understanding of these people and Marxist theory didn’t provide much guidance. For the Sandinistas, modernism needed to sweep out these backwards people and bring them into the present. Not surprisingly, this attitude didn’t exactly sit well with the Miskitos, many of whom rebelled and allied themselves with the Contras. I think we have to understand this history in order to have much to say about current problems.

Second, the article could use some understanding about the relationship between the left and national development, The 20th century left was as smitten with high modernism as the right. Capitalism and communism were two sides of the same developmentalist coin. Urban renewal, icky concrete housing blocks, giant dams, monoculture agriculture, superhighways–these were hallmarks of the 20th century. And while these sorts of things might be out of fashion with the modern US and European left (except perhaps monocultures but that’s changing I think), they still appeal to developing nations. This is often for good reason–these nations really do need the economic boom that can come from big central projects. It’s often for bad reasons too–the Three Gorges Dam was more about China’s desire to control nature and show off state power to the rest of the world than any real need for a dam that large. But it’s complicated, a phrase we all need to use more often.

Finally, the article plays a bit fast and loose with the idea of the left in Latin America. What is the left in Latin America today? There’s a world of difference between Hugo Chavez and Michelle Bachelet. While Bachelet may have been tortured by Pinochet, her policies as Chilean president weren’t exactly some reconstitution of Salvador Allende. Second, Evo Morales actually is indigenous. Yes, the Bolivian indigenous movements are highly irritated with him. But this is a different beast than the other nations and needs further exploration. I understand the need to generalize about a number of nations in a short article. But the Bolivian situation is so different than the others, precisely because of who Morales is.

Having spent a lot of time in Bolivia, I have some sense of what Morales is facing here. Bolivia is massively underdeveloped, far more than any other nation I’ve been too–and that includes Indonesia and Honduras. Paved roads almost don’t exist. Many people can’t access clean water or indoor plumbing. I’m not excusing Morales for pushing projects that would build roads through indigenous lands. What I am saying is that he faces an enormous task to build his nation’s economy. Landlocked, lacking infrastructure, with a huge divide between the white (and openly racist) eastern lowlands and the indigenous Altiplano, and with no obvious economic resources except for raw materials, Morales desperately needs money to improve the education, sanitation, and health of the Bolivian people. What is he supposed to do? There’s no easy answers to that question.

Despite these problems, indigenous people, especially in Bolivia, are engaged in the political process like never before. In electing Morales, they rejected centuries of racist government. They are empowered and willing to stand up to Morales himself when they are unhappy with him. That in itself is a pretty remarkable feat.

Of Course D.C. Should Be A State

[ 183 ] November 28, 2012 |

Some people may have missed it in comments, but there was a debate about D.C. statehood and the malapportionment of the Senate in the Calhoun thread that is worth its own post. Let’s combine a couple of Murc comments:

DC absolutely should not be a state. It should be merged into Maryland. Having two Senators for a tiny postage stamp of land is just as ridiculous as having two Senators for the tiny handful of people who live in the vast empty swathes of Wyoming.

Ideally, we’d simply adopt a more sensible method of apportionment, but absent that, the way to give DC residents representation is to send the land back to whence it came.


[Responding to an argument that "DC has been a separate political entity for as long as Kentucky has, and forcing them to unify with a state they were part of 200 years ago is silly."] Then we’ll never reform the Senate. Ever. Because most states have been separate political entities for extremely long periods of time as well. By your logic it would be ‘silly’ to force them into different configurations.

Look, let’s start with this — the Senate will in fact be “reformed” by eliminating its malapportionment never. First of all, Article V says that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” And even if we assume that this provision can be amended, it is essentially superfluous because the amendment process established previously in Article V makes the Senate’s malapportionment permanent. The idea a significant numbers of small states (both through their state legislatures and their representatives in the Senate) are not only going to vote to greatly dilute their political influence but would be so motivated to do so that they would be able to satisfy the onerous supermajority requirements imposed by Article V is ludicrous in the extreme. It’s like saying that it’s no big deal for the Greens to throw presidential elections to Republicans because they favor a constitutional amendment that would create a national right to obtain an abortion, only less plausible. Comparing D.C. statehood to an ideal institutional arrangement that the Constitution forecloses is an entirely useless exercise.

Once we accept the obvious fact that Senate malapportionment is a permanent feature of the American political landscape, we can get to the more relevant question of whether D.C. statehood makes this problem better or worse. And the answer is quite clearly “better.” One reason Senate malapportionment is so problematic is that the overrepresentation of small states isn’t random but ends up in white, rural states in particular being massively overrepresented. Granting statehood to a diverse, urban small state would make this problem better. And in addition, there’s a rather obvious injustice to granting statehood to a substantial number of tiny white, rural states and then pulling the ladder up just in time to deny representation to D.C. and Puerto Rico. Having 51 or 52 states rather than 50 doesn’t make Senate malapportionment meaningfully worse, and granting statehood to some different kinds of states would on balance make the Senate more representative. And granting D.C. statehood wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment, just unified Democratic control of a Congress from which the filibuster has been eliminated from the Senate (which I think is nearly inevitable in the medium term), or a realignment that causes more small, rural states to vote like Vermont and Maine.

So if D.C. (or Puerto Rico) want statehood, they should get it; it’s a no-brainer.

The Six Year Itch? Whatever.

[ 23 ] November 28, 2012 |

Not too soon, the campaign season will commence again, with a focus on the Congressional elections of 2014.  In the smattering of stories that I’ve read in the past two weeks about this upcoming festival of joy, a term that I was only vaguely aware of keeps popping up, the six year itch.  However loosely defined, six years removed from his (or, presumably someday her) first election, the incumbent President’s party is apparently doomed to suffer atypically huge defeats in these mid term House elections.  On paper, this does not inspire confidence for the Democrats come 2014.  To quote from the Politico article linked above:

The party controlling the White House during a president’s sixth year in office has lost seats in every midterm election but one since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson occupied the Oval Office. And the setbacks typically aren’t small: The average loss in these elections was 30 seats.

Incumbent Presidents tend to suffer losses in damn near every mid term election for whatever reason (see the figure below), so this sentence could be restated as “the party controlling the White House has lost seats in every midterm election but three since 1918 . . .”.  Given the relatively small sample size, this really doesn’t tell us anything.  A better way of looking at the question involves comparing the mean seat loss for the incumbent party in bog standard boring midterm years, and the hypothesized qualitatively different six-year itch years.  During such years, apparently “Anger, exhaustion and frustration tend to set in among voters as presidents approach the last leg of their final term. It happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 when voters recoiled at his New Deal reforms. “  Of course, FDR would be re-elected in 1940, so that anger must have dissipated quickly.



In comparing the means between these two types of midterm elections, we have to settle on a measure of what is, and is not, a six-year itch election.  In terms of consistency, wikipedia lets us down; the brief entry on this topic includes 1974, by which time Ford had replaced Nixon, yet inexplicably overlooks 1998, possibly because it doesn’t fit the model.  In my analysis, I’ve settled on not settling on defining a clear measure.  Instead, I’ve chosen to start with a strict definition, and then progressively loosen the parameters of this six-year itch.  The above figure distinguishes such elections with a solid black border, and additional candidates have a thin border.


The table below compares the average seat loss for an incumbent party in standard (non-SYI) and SYI elections using five different measures.  A strict measure of SYI does what it says on the tin: a President must be in office at the time of the election six years from his first election.  From 1932 (20 total midterm elections), this limits us to five elections: 1938, 1958, 1986, 1998, and 2006.



Using a strict definition, there is no appreciable difference in average seat loss by the incumbent Presidential party in such elections.  The second column adds 1950 to the mix; one might argue that while Truman was not elected President in 1944, he did assume the office less than three months following the January 1945 inauguration thus giving Truman close to a full term in office prior to the 1948 election, but adding 1950 makes little difference.  The third column adds 1974.  Here, one has to argue that the voters either explicitly associated Ford with Nixon’s sins, considered Ford a mere extension of the Nixon years, or simply hadn’t noticed that Nixon was no longer president.  Given the pounding that Republicans experienced in 1974, this moves the means slightly, but still not convincingly.


Not satisfied?  The fourth column measures the SYI by including both 1942 and 1966.  In the case of the former, theoretically, why should FDR suffer from this phenomenon in 1938, but not even worse four years later?  If there is anything to this, then the itch really must have been festering in the minds of the voters in 1942 (as evidenced by the Democrats having lost 45 seats in that election).  1966 can be included for reasons similar to 1974 — LBJ, at least during 1964, was committed to continuing Kennedy policies in most domestic areas, hence his first “term” can be construed as a simple continuation of the Kennedy administration (which, in terms of names and  faces, it largely was).  Democrats suffered 1942 and 1966, so this does push the means even further apart.  Finally, the fifth column merges all this suspect logic by adding 1946.  Only now, do we see real daylight between the average seat loss of ordinary midterm elections and the special SYI elections.  Incidentally, this is also the only version of the five measures of SYI where the difference of the two means approach statistical significance (p=.086), but a) this assumes a one-tailed t-test, the use of which requires solid a-priori theory to suggest both the presence of a relationship and the direction of the estimate, b) these data are not random probability samples, and c) who cares?


Long story short: it doesn’t appear to exist.  There’s nothing really special about a President’s second midterm election that can not be explained by all the reasons why Presidents generally lose seats in any midterm election.  Visually, the only real pattern in the data illustrated by the figure above that is suggestive of the phenomenon is the period between 1952 and 1978, but for this to work one would have to loosen the definition of the measure such that both 1966 and 1974 merit inclusion.  1958, 66, and 74 do look different, but only one (1958) fits a rigorous definition.


What does this mean for 2014?  Nothing.  The Democrats will probably lose seats in 2014, but we don’t need a manufactured non-phenomenon to tell us that.  Alternatively, we can participate in some hard core wishful thinking and ignore oppressive historical precedent and choose to believe that the Democrats can retake the House in 2014 . . .

I See Your Cohen And Raise You All-In

[ 55 ] November 28, 2012 |

How much more Friedman could this be? Well, it could perhaps use more apocryphal cab driver. But otherwise, none more Friedman:

President Obama is assembling his new national security team, with Senator John Kerry possibly heading for the Pentagon and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice the perceived front-runner to become secretary of state. Kerry is an excellent choice for defense. I don’t know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her. That said, my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.

I…gawd. If you’re going to write a column about how magic education “reformers” can solve anything when they have exceptionally little record of success even in their own portfolios, at least go all the way and nominate Michelle Rhee for Attorney General too.

“This Bond Ripples with Muscles”

[ 73 ] November 27, 2012 |

Richard Cohen:

This Bond ripples with muscles. Craig is 44, but neither gravity nor age has done its evil work on him. Nothing about him looks natural, relaxed — a man in the prime of his life and enjoying it. Instead, I see a man chasing youth on a treadmill, performing sets and reps, a clean and press, a weighted knee raise, an incline pushup and, finally, something called an incline pec fly (don’t ask). I take these terms from the Daniel Craig Workout, which you can do, too, if your agent and publicist so insist. Otherwise, I recommend a book.

“Skyfall” is a lot of fun — don’t get me wrong — but it still says something about our culture that, in the autumn of my years, I do not like. To appreciate what I mean, contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated.

Indeed; casual fitness…

and effortless athleticism…

were totally a thing for major male stars in the 1950s. Maybe SEK should write something on it.

See also Alyssa; one of the most interesting developments in the Craig Bond films is that the camera treats Bond in a fashion normally reserved for a Bond girl. I should note that while I didn’t love Skyfall (James Bond does not need to become Bruce Wayne), I did find the first Bond-Silva meeting to be a very interesting. While villains over the years have certainly threatened Bond with emasculation, Silva implies a very different kind of sexual assault. I also found it interesting that Bond makes his “how do you know it’s my first time?” comment after Silva mentions Bond’s childhood trauma, leading me to wonder whether Bond is trying to imply that a) he’s had a sexual encounter with a man before, or b) he’s been sexually assaulted before.

Organizing for Change

[ 23 ] November 27, 2012 |

I really want to recommend Sarah Jaffe’s long-form interview with Jane McAlevey about her new book that I referred to here. McAlevey makes some really important points about a number of issues concerning labor–the restrictiveness of Taft-Hartley, how the Democratic Party dictates the agenda to labor, problems within the labor movement when it comes to organizing strategies, etc. You should read the whole thing. I do want to point out one piece, which gets back to some of the discussions we were having here before the election about the relationship between elections and change.

A point of influence that I’m getting rather obsessed with right now is this whole concept of microtargeting, and a lot of that’s coming from the Obama people and it’s really having an impact in the labor movement. I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?” There’s this huge discussion going on in the labor movement among otherwise smart people, that we should just take another step past actually real organizing and just try to do the microtargeting that the Obama campaign is using to extract one vote every four years.

The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different. The election of the right people is a prerequisite to fundamental change, but all we do is help them get elected, and then we don’t do anything in the governing period except put everyone to sleep like a switch. If you think about the talent on the Obama team, what are they going to do for the next three and a half years? They basically go home. If you have the best campaign team during the election, those people actually need to stay and keep organizing the base every damn day, to actually create a left base to allow these people to run to the left when they’re governing.

I think a huge problem with the modern left, broadly defined, is the belief that if we elect the right people to office that things will change. That’s absolutely not the case. Change happens on the ground–in the workplace, at the school board meetings, in the courts. This all requires motivated and organized movements that see the election merely as a tool, not an end in itself.

More gloriously awful student ideas*

[ 15 ] November 27, 2012 |

SEK’S STUDENTS: So we had this idea for our project, like a live-action, flash mob reenactment of “LEEROY JENKINS!” where we find like some random students studying or in the park and—

SEK: Let me stop you there. You’re going to surprise random students—

SEK’S STUDENTS: We have the costumes and everything. We’ll just walk up to them, stand around, then I’ll yell—

SEK: I don’t think this is a good idea.

SEK’S STUDENTS: Really? ‘Cause we’ve already made like four or five.

*I really didn’t intend for this to become a series. I think they may just be messing with me at this point.

John C. Calhoun and How American Boundaries Were Restricted by the National Commitment to White Supremacy

[ 234 ] November 27, 2012 |

One of my favorite things about American racism is that the nation’s commitment to white supremacy has both encouraged imperialist wars of conquest and then horrifying the racial sensitivities of Americans to their results. In 1846, the U.S. went to war with Mexico for no justifiable reason (unless you think expanding the nation’s slave empire is a good reason) and stole the northern half of that country. Much to James Polk’s surprise, the Mexicans did not want to give up their northern frontier. Polk finally ordered the military to take Mexico City since the Mexicans wouldn’t surrender. Under General Winfield Scott, the army engaged in a brutal, blood-soaked five month campaign that finally managed to capture Mexico City in September 1847, a very important moment in Mexican public memory.

After Scott took Mexico City, some of the biggest supporters of American expansion noted that since they already controlled the capital, why not just annex the entire nation? One big problem though. What to do with all the brown people? They aren’t black so we can’t enslave them all. Plus there’s so many of them. But they certainly aren’t white so they obviously can’t be allowed into the nation as equals.

John C. Calhoun stepped into the fray to give his opinion about why we couldn’t annex all of Mexico because it would upset the nation’s racial balance. This is part of his speech to the Senate given on January 4, 1848.

The next reason which my resolutions assign, is, that it is without example or precedent, wither to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection—never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.

I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped—the Portuguese at least to some extent—and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.

Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. And even in the savage state we scarcely find them anywhere with such government, except it be our noble savages—for noble I will call them. They, for the most part, had free institutions, but they are easily sustained among a savage people. Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.

The next two reasons which I assigned, were, that it would be in conflict with the genius and character of our institutions, and subversive of our free government. I take these two together, as intimately connected; and now of the first—to hold Mexico in subjection.

This isn’t the only case of American commitment to white supremacy getting in the way of colonial expansion. The anti-imperialist movement was full of white supremacists in the late 1890s, arguing that bringing the world’s darker peoples into the United States threatened American institutions. They didn’t win that fight. But after the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, employers in California saw a new source of cheap labor. With everyday people of California committed to keeping their state white, they protested against both Chinese and Japanese immigration, getting the former excluded in 1882 and the latter heavily restricted in 1907. Such a thing wasn’t possible for the Filipinos since they were now Americans. Filipinos came over by the thousands to work on the farms and in the fish canneries. Even worse, Filipino men began marrying white women, using the courts to get around California’s miscegenation laws. This caused huge outrage in California. The upshot of it all was the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which gave the Philippines independence in 1946 in exchange for the immediate end to almost all Filipino immigration.

In the end, many Americans decided that colonial expansion was not worth the price of brown men having sex with white women.

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