Friday, January 6, 2017

White Party ID in 2016

Party identification (includes leaners) among non-Hispanic white registered voters in 2016 - from Pew.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sympathy for the Devil?

Vox’s Dylan Matthews wants the media to stop making excuses for Trump supporters. The Trump phenomenon isn’t about “post-industrial decay,” he writes. It’s not happening because “neoliberal capitalism is failing.” Such depictions, by Beltway media types on one side and “leftists and social democrats” on the other, willfully ignore the obvious.

“The press has gotten extremely comfortable with describing a Trump electorate that simply doesn’t exist,” Matthews says. If you want to know the Trump supporters’ concerns, you just have to look at what they’re saying in polls: It’s about racial resentment. It’s about white nationalism. Matthews has the data to prove it.

For one thing, they’re not working class, or even economically struggling; “Trump’s supporters are not the wretched of the earth.” Matthews points out that at the national level the median income of Trump’s primary voters was higher than Hillary Clinton’s. Support for Trump in polls was “correlated with” higher income, even among whites. Yet, perversely, the media has been pumping out feature stories about the fervor for Trump in hard-scrabble places like Leetonia, Ohio, or Creston, Iowa -- places that, statistically, don’t even exist by Matthews’s calculations.

It’s not that Matthews doesn’t care about real economic suffering; he’s no conservative. He recognizes that globalization has been hard on many Americans. He knows that there are poor whites in this country as well as poor blacks and Latinos. “The government should help people who are materially struggling,” he writes. “And Hillary Clinton, to her great credit, has offered programs…that will leave millions of white Trump supporters much better off.”

But for Matthews, the key point is this: “This isn’t worth doing to win back their votes; it’s worth doing because it’s the right thing to do.”

That’s a curious idea. If Matthews supports the Democratic party’s agenda, why wouldn’t he want it to win back as many Trump votes it can? How can the Democrats gain the kinds of majorities they need to push through all the beneficent policies he cites if they fail to win votes away from the other side? Isn’t that one of the ways parties win elections -- by taking votes from the other side? In fact, isn’t that why Hillary Clinton’s campaign is now wooing anti-Trump Republicans?

Obviously Matthews wouldn’t want Democrats to use racist appeals to win Trump votes, and neither would I. But neither does he claim that anyone’s calling for such a step. He certainly doesn’t cite anyone who is.

What he does complain about is the “unprecedented outpouring of sympathy” for Trump voters that he sees in the media: the earnest pleas, often written by conservatives or Beltway-pundit types, that we should listen to the concerns of “the millions of white voters living on the edges of the economy,” the “decent, sincere people who feel disregarded,” and so on.

Matthews finds these stories exasperating. And you do have to agree with him when he points out that there was never any comparable litany of hand-wringing about the “concerns of Mitt Romney voters” or the “interests of Hillary Clinton supporters.”

But then again, when I look at my Twitter feed, which is full of elite media types, the main outpouring I see is just the opposite: a flood of contempt and disgust for Trump supporters, not just for the irresponsible votes they cast, but for their defective character as a group. Come to think of it, that might help to explain the rash of sympathetic pieces.

Matthews’s admonition against trying to win back Trump voters reminds me of one my favorite quotes from the ever-colorful Grover Norquist. In a 2006 American Prospect roundtable, the conservative anti-tax impresario was asked about the gay rights issue -- at the time, he was taking heat from fellow Republicans for his work with gay organizations:

I speak to the Log Cabin Republicans and work with them on a whole host of issues … The Human Rights Campaign on certain things … So I get trashed from time to time by some of my friends. I think it’s a mistake to write off any group.

I was in Romania, they’re having elections in four weeks, and I was organizing the non-communists. And I had them write on a blackboard: Who’s Voting for Us, Who’s Voting for Them. And they had to list [the voter groups and] understand why everybody was [voting that way].

They had the gypsies voting for the Communists. And I said, “OK, I get why the Communists are voting for the Communists, and the Army and the police and the guys with government jobs. But why the gypsies?” If I were a gypsy I’d want to live outside [even] touchy-feely U.S. law, much less harsher communist law.

And they said, “Well, the communists buy them liquor and then they vote for them.”

And I said, “We can do this. George Washington did this, it’s OK.” And they said, “No, the gypsies are scum and we won’t talk to them.” And I said, “OK, I guess you’re not getting the gypsy vote then.”

In politics, you want to have as few gypsies as possible, as few groups of people who are not voting for you because you’re not talking to them.

Maybe it’s not surprising that a conservative like Norquist and a liberal outlet like Vox would have differing views of politics. What’s surprising is Vox’s preference for the outlook of the Romanian right.


But aren’t the Trump voters inseparable from the racist appeals of Trump himself? That’s what Matthews seems to argue, with the aid of a raft of studies and data.

In doing so, he sheds useful light on the standard liberal way of thinking about politics. Matthews seems to take individuals as the elementary particles of political life. The individual is apparently endowed with a more or less well-defined set of attitudes on all the major issues of the day. If you sum up the aggregate of those opinions, what you get is “politics”: election returns, opinion polls, legislative roll calls, all the quantitative mass phenomena of national politics. These are just the sum of individual brains.

As for how those opinions got manufactured and sorted into all those brains, that’s a question for psychology, or history, or economics, not politics.

You can see this methodology at work in the studies Matthews cites to make his case. Almost all of them follow the same approach. First, they measure the attitudes expressed by Trump supporters in multiple-choice polling questions. Then they compare them to the answers of non-Trump supporters. (Usually they control for other factors as well.) Whichever issues most sharply distinguish the Trumpist group from non-Trumpists are assumed to reveal the Trump supporters’ innermost feelings, hopes, and fears – in short, their motivations. Individual motivations, it’s assumed, can be inferred from group differences.

In summing up all the correlations and cross-tabs, Matthews is very clear on this point: “Trump’s voters [are] motivated by genuine political disagreement about race”; “these people [are] motivated by racial resentment”; “Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization.”

I’ve seen most of the studies Matthews links to. As far as I can tell, none analyzed polling questions that actually asked people what was “motivating” them. Instead, they used standard polling questions like: What is your household income? Do you approve of Obama? Should taxes be cut? Should immigration be reduced? Is black poverty caused by a lack of effort? Actual motivations were never recorded: they were inferred by researchers, using math, and then imputed to Trump supporters en bloc.

For example, one of the studies Matthews cites analyzed questions from the 2016 ANES pilot survey. According to Matthews, the study concluded that while “support for Trump is correlated most strongly with party ID, the second biggest factor…was racial resentment.” The study’s author concluded that “Trump support isn’t about the economy.”

Meanwhile, the same ANES survey had actually included a battery of questions that did try to ask respondents about their motivations. It listed 21 different political issues and asked: “Which of the following issues are the most important to you in terms of choosing which political candidate you will support?”

Trump’s three signature racially-coded themes -- immigration, terrorism, and crime – were among the possible choices; a third of Trump supporters picked one of those as their top issue. Two-thirds did not. 51% chose traditional kitchen-table issues like the economy, health care, Social Security, taxes, or the national debt. Another 8% chose culture-war issues like abortion, gay rights, or “morality.” And the remaining 8% chose “military strength,” “foreign policy,” or gun control.


Let me be clear. All of the following are true: From the start, Trump has put naked appeals to racism at the center of his campaign. In the process, he has magnetized a congeries of alt-right eugenicists, Confederate flag-wavers, and paranoid Mexican-haters to his cause. And then he went on to win 52% of the Republican vote in the primaries; he’ll probably win at least 40% of the popular vote in November.

Those facts aren’t in dispute. The question is what to make of them. There’s no doubt that the nation’s “white nationalists” provide disproportionate support to Trump’s racist campaign – and given the campaign’s tone, it would be very strange if they didn’t. Presumably, the nation’s socialists also provided “disproportionate” support to the Bernie Sanders campaign. And that sort of effect seems to account for how all the studies Matthews cites arrived at their findings, mathematically speaking.

For example, Matthews points to a study by UCLA’s Michael Tesler who found that “support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents' racial resentment,” and did so more strongly than McCain’s support in 2008 or Romney’s in 2012. What that means concretely, if you look at Tesler’s charts, is that on the one hand Trump did a lot better than Romney and McCain among the more racially-resentful half of Republicans; but on the other hand, he did equally well as them among the less racially-resentful half. From eyeballing Tesler’s charts, it appears that the more racially-resentful half of Republicans contributed a bit under 50% of Romney and McCain’s primary support. For Trump, the number was about 60%.

If that difference doesn’t seem all that big, it’s because while Trump has been very effective at mobilizing the most obsessively racist fraction of Americans to his cause -- and great at winning Republican votes overall -- he hasn’t been manufacturing more racists.

Indeed, amid the flood of “explainer” articles reporting the findings of complicated regression studies on racist attitudes, it’s striking how rarely you see simple aggregate numbers. The heated polarization of the Obama and Tea Party era in particular gave rise to an outpouring of intricate studies on the political correlates of “racial resentment” – dozens of which have been reported in Vox. Meanwhile, in a co-authored academic article published this year, Donald Kinder, the University of Michigan social scientist who first developed the concept of racial resentment, reported: “Racial resentment is essentially stationary over the last quarter century, as measured by the ANES or by the GSS. We detect no sign here that White Americans’ racial resentments hardened during the Obama Presidency.”

Likewise, Gallup regularly asks the question, “Should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?” Anti-immigration sentiment has been in long-term decline among non-Hispanic whites. In 2002, those wanting less immigration exceeded those wanting more by 43 percentage points. This year that number was 22 percentage points.

And that seems to be the case all around the world. Take the example of France, where the level of racism in political discourse seems to reach new heights every week and the far-right has been on the ascendant for decades. Yet, the percentage of the French who say there are “too many immigrants in France” fell from 75% in 1988 to 50% in 2012. The percentage who think immigration is a “source of cultural enrichment” rose from 44% in 1992 to 75% in 2009. The percentage who agree that immigrant workers “should be seen as being at home here, since they contribute to the French economy” rose from 66% in 1992 to 84.5% in 2009.

In one sense, these figures -- taken from a comprehensive 2013 study of long-run French public opinion by a team of political sociologists led by Vincent Tiberj of the Center for European Studies at Sciences-Po -- shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the authors note, it’s long been understood that tolerance rises with education levels, and education levels have been rising for decades. Older and less-educated groups, in turn, are affected by the liberalizing cultural climate driven by younger and more-educated cohorts, albeit with a lag.

Thus, over the long run, each generation tends to express more tolerant attitudes than the last, and each generation tends to get more tolerant as it ages. “In all Western countries,” Tiberj says, “electorates are, generally speaking, more open and more tolerant than they’ve ever been.”

Yet you’d never guess any of that from watching the reactionary spiral of French political discourse. Tiberj explains the “paradox” this way:

Historically, France has never been more tolerant. Yet polarization on cultural values has never been as strong, either. The explanation is simple: If there’s a rightward shift, it’s above all a shift in the political debate.

When Mitterrand was reelected in 1988, the electorate still voted according to its socio-economic values. To put it simply, white-collar professionals voted for the right and workers voted for the left.

Starting with Nicolas Sarkozy’s [hard-right] 2007 campaign, things changed: voters started to vote according to both their socio-economic and their cultural values….

[And] while Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t hesitate to assert a right-wing ideological narrative to push a wedge into the debate, François Hollande has a lot more trouble with that….

Generally speaking, political discourse re-shapes the logic of voting: the rightward shift isn’t a demand coming from the electorate, it’s a result of the political supply… Our study tends to demonstrate the primordial importance of ideological combat.

Sensational events like riots, scandals, or terrorist attacks do cause short-run declines in tolerant attitudes, Tiberj finds. Eventually they're forgotten and tolerant attitudes resume their long-run rise. But in the meantime, they can have long-run effects on politics by altering the terms of political debate -- the ideological formulations offered by visible representatives of the left and the right. These are crucial in determining the tenor of the political discourse. And that tenor, in turn, alters how individuals understand their own relationship to politics, their own interests -- even their own “motivations.”

“The same individual can simultaneously present dispositions to tolerance and to prejudice,” write Tiberj and his co-authors, “with the prevalence of the one over the other being strongly dependent on the environment, the information received, and recent events that have made an impression on them.”


In one of those journalistic forays to the struggling pro-Trump hinterland that Matthews finds so annoying, the Guardian’s Paul Lewis and Tom Silverstone recently traveled to West Virginia for a video reportage on the most pro-Trump county in the state's Republican primaries: McDowell County. A former coal mining area that lost its mines, McDowell is about as destitute and decrepit as you might expect. 

One man they spoke to, a poor and elderly former coal miner of 26 years, was a life-long member of the United Mine Workers. “I voted for that black guy two times,” he says with a laugh. Asked how he’ll vote in November, he says he’ll vote for Trump. His reason is, “Donald’s going to put all the coal mines back.” 

Historically, being a member of a union – especially a combative union with an active internal life – is the most important instance of the kind of external force that Tiberj points to as having the potential to transform how individuals translate their “dispositions to tolerance and to prejudice” into their political outlook and behavior.

West Virginia’s history is a fine example of this. In the 1920s, when the UMW was weak and declining, the state’s politics were reactionary, dominated by ruthless coal operators and the Ku Klux Klan. But the resurgence of the UMW in the 1930s on the back of militant mass strikes transformed West Virginia politics, integrating its otherwise insular working class tightly into a national labor-liberal New Deal coalition that depended for its survival on black workers and black voters.

That’s why in 1964, four months after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, West Virginia voted for him against the anti-labor Goldwater by the sixth-largest margin of any state. It’s why in 1968, when the Democrat on the ticket was the labor-liberal Hubert Humphrey – a figure who for twenty years had been more visibly committed to the civil rights issue than any other national politician – West Virginia's vote for him was the seventh-largest in the country. (And its vote for George Wallace was far lower than the other border states.)

And remarkably, that union effect continues today, on a smaller scale: in 2012 Barack Obama’s deficit among non-college whites in the top half of the racial-resentment scale was 26 percentage points smaller among those who belonged to unions than those in non-union households, according to data from the large-sample Cooperative Congress Election Study.

What’s remarkable about this is that union membership today is so often a lamentably low-intensity, low-commitment affair. It’s almost surprising to find it having any aggregate effect at all. And yet by re-shaping the individual’s understanding of the stakes of politics, being in a union still has a powerful effect on how “dispositions to tolerance and to prejudice” translate into political behavior.


Trump’s voters in November will come in different varieties. There will be McMansion-dwelling evangelicals in the Atlanta suburbs. There will be owners of prosperous construction businesses in rural California. And there will also be voters like that West Virginia ex-coal miner in the Guardian report.

A charitable reading of Matthews’s piece is that he merely wants us to keep those first two types in mind, lest we succumb to the illusion that the Trump phenomenon was all about downtrodden coal miners. A less charitable reading is that he wants us to forget that it was about that, too.

Given the long, slow slide in the Democrats’ performance in the House of Representatives, the governors’ mansions and the state legislatures, many will ask what the party could do to strengthen its position. As analysts sift through the returns, Trump’s eye-popping margins among non-college whites will generate a great deal of commentary. (In 2012, Obama lost even whites with a college degree but without postgraduate training.) 

The numbers will be clear: downscale whites are a big pool of untapped votes. Yet if a cordon sanitaire is placed around that demographic territory and hung with the notorious label, “Trump Vote,” the Democrats will be even more likely to let the party system drift down its current path: into the culture-war politics of the reactionary Tammany-vs.-Klan 1920s, rather than the class-based politics that followed.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

An Open Letter to Riss, Care of The Internet (by Daniel Schneidermann)

On Thursday, the well known French media critic Daniel Schneidermann, founder of the left-leaning media critique website "Arrêt Sur Images," published this column at the site.

It takes the form of an open letter to Riss, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who drew the already notorious cartoon (published Wednesday) depicting Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian refugee child, as an adult groping women in the street. Below is a translation.


An Open Letter to Riss, Care of The Internet
by Daniel Schneidermann

Hey Riss! Can I talk to you for a minute? We don’t know each other, I don’t have your cell number, or even your publicity department’s. But since je suis Charlie, I’ll allow myself to address you as tu, and to send you a letter, care of The Internet.

Yesterday afternoon, the social networks, buzzing with outrage as usual, were spreading around this drawing, apparently taken from the latest Charlie Hebdo, which had come out that same morning.

The drawing did not especially disturb me. Nor did it make me laugh. It only brought to mind the spirit of Hara-Kiri [CH’s anarchic 1960s forerunner], the spirit of its Choron-Cavanna-Reiser era, indiscriminately going after everything that moves -- the cops AND the protestors, the generals AND the pacifists, the idiots, the government bureaucrats, the fascists, the academics. And so, why not, the migrants too, without giving all that much thought to whether we’re talking about the migrants themselves, or the migrants as les fachos depict them. Throw it all in, it’s all good for ink.

Yeah but, you see, here on staff, people didn’t take it that way. The young members (practically zygotes), those for whom the great Choron-Cavanna-Reiser go-after-everything-that-moves era is just something they’ve read about in books — you know what? They totally saw a racist drawing.

It should be said that yes, this is a generational issue. What image do they have of Charlie Hebdo? A journalistic oddball, the main debate about which is whether or not it’s made up of Islamophobes. A paper whose content we’ve meticulously combed for traces (or not) of Islamophpbia. And, recently, a paper known for stints by [Philippe] Val and [Caroline] Fourest, footsolidiers of French Islamophobia, even though — I know, I know — they haven’t been there for a while.

Seen from that point of view, nothing differentiates your drawing, Riss, from a drawing that could be published in Minute or Valeurs Actuelles [publications aligned with the FN]. Nothing. To see the difference between it and a drawing in Minute or Valeurs Actuelles, one would have to have a picture of the whole page or the whole issue it was published in. I’m not going to show all the drawings from the issue. Above the fateful doodle, another sketches Valls and Taubira [the prime minister and justice minister]. Below, another mocks the cartoonists themselves. Just as savagely, throughout the issue, sketches of Bowie, the imam-priest-rabbi trio, God, Hollande, the cops, Johnny Halliday, Depardieu, the Dakar motor race, Sarkozy, Juppé, Trump, a pedophile priest, etc., etc. I draw no conclusions. But this is one of the elements that characterize the “lieu d’énonciation” [a semiotic term meaning, roughly, the context of the speech-act], which is important for anyone who wants to make their own judgment on the drawing.

The problem is that this drawing, assiduously propagated by the very people who want to denounce it, will reach audiences who will never have access to the whole issue of Charlie Hebdo. And the same goes for this letter that I’m sending you with my meager weapons, my words, seeing as how I draw about as well as a saucepan. It’s a huge problem. We talked about this with Luz [former Charlie cartoonist and survivor of last year’s attack – video of that interview is here], this terrible risk of misunderstanding, multipled a hundredfold by the social networks, when he came here to talk about his lovely book, Catharsis (and was left perplexed by one of your drawings, mashing up Boko Haram sex slaves with child benefits). 

The problem is still there. With no other solution than, laughably, to patiently explain the lieux d’énonciation, which I proposed recently in a little book. Patient-explanation-of-the-lieux-d’énonciation. Just writing those pompous words, I feel how laughable that solution is when faced with the power of a drawing.

There are things that can be done, however. If you really tried, you could find ways to signal that the message of your drawing (“don’t hassle me about Aylan, if he’d lived he would have become a rapist like the others”) does not express your thought — the author’s — but that of a narrator who might be, for example, a fat, ugly, racist Archie Bunker[1] type. A talented and experienced cartoonist like you, if he really wants to, can always signal, if he really does want to do it, this distance between author and narrator. But he still has think through this distance. And this distance still has to exist. 

Salutations Charlie.

[1] A side note: The French word used here – beauf (short for beau-frère, or brother-in-law) – refers to a Drunk Uncle/Al Bundy/Archie Bunker type. It was the name of a character made famous in the 1970s by the cartoonist Cabu, and is now an everyday word in informal French (to the point that many French people use it without knowing where it came from). Cabu was also killed last year in the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I will take the bait

Hillary Clinton is an astute campaigner. In a Facebook Q&A the other day, she was asked about the Black Lives Matter protestors who interrupted Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The moderator asked her the same question those protestors had posed to her rivals: How would she “begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States"?

Her answer was deft:

Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day.

Like any good politician, Clinton knows what her audience wants to hear. She also knows how to put her opponent on the back foot. Because how could Bernie Sanders respond to that? What's he going to say -- racial inequality is merely a symptom of economic inequality? He's not going to say that. Nobody would.

Well, get ready for a hot take, ladies and gentlemen, because that’s exactly what I’ll say here. Angry responses can be addressed to the comments box at the bottom.

Here’s my question to the angry commenters. If racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality, what is it a symptom of?

I already feel like I can hear the answer: it's a symptom of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid.

Yes. But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality?

What was the point of England’s colonization of Ireland if not to impose a lucrative “economic inequality” on its victims? Was the urban apartheid of Haussmann’s Paris not the “symptom” of nineteenth century economic inequality? 

And what exactly do you think all those African slaves were doing in the American South?

To quote Barbara Fields:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.

No one dreams of analyzing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analyzing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

It’s true, of course, that racial inequality is due to hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid – to white supremacy. But to say so is merely to recount how one particular form of economic inequality came about. Just as the story of English imperialism is merely a history of how Ireland, even fifty years after winning independence, still found itself the poorest country in all of capitalist Europe.


What Hillary Clinton is really hinting at when she says that racism can’t be reduced to “economic inequality” is racial animosity. I can’t think of what else she could mean. The new generation of radicals on Twitter like to talk about “structural” racism or “institutional” racism – but behind the verbal bravado, what they, too, are really referring to is racial animosity.

So let’s talk about interpersonal animosity, because it’s certainly not irrelevant here. That Texas trooper in the Sandra Bland video I still can’t bring myself to watch – I would be shocked to learn that he’s not a violent racist. Forget “structural” racism for a minute. Let’s talk about plain old-fashioned racism. Let’s stipulate the obvious: the archetypal “hick Texas bigot cop” really doesn’t like black people.

But can that explain why Sandra Bland ended up dead? I doubt it, because there’s a lot of people the archetypal hick Texas bigot cop doesn’t like. He hates the nose-pierced vegans in Austin. He hates the liberal Jewish foundation executives in New York. He  hates the Harvard WASPs who write about structural racism. He hates Nancy Pelosi.

But none of those groups is likely to turn up dead in his jail cell – not as likely as a black man or a black woman.

If freedom means anything, it means the freedom to go about your life without having to worry about all the people who hate you. Because let’s be honest: lots of people hate each other. Yankees fans hate Red Sox fans. Brocialists hate identitarians. Nancy Pelosi probably hates that Texas cop just as much he hates her. So do the nose-pierced vegan and the Harvard WASP.

But the Texas bigot doesn’t have to worry about ending up dead because some people hate him. Blacks in this country don't enjoy the same luxury. If that’s not due to “economic inequality,” what is it due to? What could possibly account for that difference?

Is it just a coincidence that the rate of incarceration for blacks is six times the rate for whites – and that the rate for whites who didn’t graduate high school is, likewise, six times the rate for whites who did? Is that not due to economic inequality? Is it a coincidence that the white incarceration rate is almost four times greater in poor Idaho than in rich Connecticut? Or that so far just this year, cops in Oklahoma (population: 3.9 million) have killed 29 people, 18 of whom were white – more than the entire English police force (population: 53 million) has killed in the last decade?


The connections between economic stratification and ascriptive hierarchy, between social structure and subjective affect – these issues are not new and, believe it or not, Twitter, they weren’t even born in the antebellum American South.

Here’s Karl Marx in 1870, advising an activist friend in America about the Irish question:

England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

As a social theorist, Marx unfortunately lacked the subtlety of, say, a Hillary Clinton. His simplistic solution was for the Irish to free themselves from their English landlords in Ireland -- and unite with the English workers in England. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sophistry on Greece: An Anthology

1.  "The Problem Was That Greece Failed To Implement The Program."

2.  "Greece Is Different. Public Debt Was Growing Even In The Good Years."

3.  "But Look At How Much Greece Spends On Pensions."

4.  "It's Not About Demand. Greece Doesn't Export."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Here’s my prediction of what happens if Greece votes No

Well, it's not really a prediction, just my best guess about both sides’ next moves and the considerations they’ll be taking into account. Like most guesses about the future, it’s probably wrong, but hopefully illuminating. (If there's a Yes vote, I have no idea what will happen, except that Varoufakis will resign and the Eurogroup offer will be signed.)


Immediately after the No vote, Greece demands that the ECB restore full liquidity to the banking system (as any normal lender of last resort is supposed to do). A threat is made -- either publicly stated or implicit but communicated to the Eurozone authorities -- that if this doesn't happen, Greece will immediately issue a parallel currency redeemable against future tax payments.

At that point the ECB has to decide what to do. It won't make the decision without clear guidance from the political authorities, because the issuance of a parallel currency is a major step -- albeit potentially reversible -- towards a Grexit.

So the EU will have to decide which outcome is least unpalatable to it. Of course, neither is desirable from its point of view. If it complies and restores ELA, the bank panic ends, cash controls can be lifted, and a calm atmosphere can proceed in which Syriza can negotiate for a better deal -- now armed with a democratic mandate and a public admission from the IMF that the existing deal on the table was not sustainable.

Obviously that would be a terrible outcome from the EU's perspective. It would be perceived (rightly) as a major political victory for Syriza.

So the EU might refuse to restore bank liquidity. In that case Greece will issue the parallel currency.

In my view, the best way to do this is in the form of tradable tax credits redeemable starting in, say, a year. (See here and here.) A fresh batch of these would be allocated immediately to citizens and firms. These credits are obviously worth something: every retailer can use them to pay his VAT, every individual can use them to pay his payroll tax, etc. (Greek businesses have to pay VAT tax every three months, so these credits will come in handy.) Since they're tradable and valuable, Greeks will be willing to buy these credits for euros, albeit at a discount, mainly reflecting the risk that the drachma will be introduced at some point and the tax credits redenominated. As a result, the credits would be a form of money whose supply would be under the Finance Ministry's control. The result, if it works the way it's supposed to, would be Greece's ability to stimulate aggregate demand and increase economic output, which it can't do as long as the ECB has a monopoly over issuance of means of payment. In Milton Friedman’s terminology, the tax credits would accelerate the velocity of euros inside the Greek banking system.

There has been some talk about the technical and logistical difficulties of quickly changing over Greece’s electronic payments system or distributing currency to ATMs. But as I see it, no such complicated operations are needed. Greece can mail every household a paper check worth, say, 600 euros of future tax relief. Individuals can take the check to a currency exchange [SEE UPDATE BELOW], like the ones at the airport, and exchange it for, say, a 300 euro check, which they can then deposit at their bank. (Banks are closed for withdrawals but they’re happy to take deposits!) 

At that point, 300 real euros will be transferred in the usual way, electronically, from the currency exchange’s (Greek) bank to the customer’s (Greek) bank, and 300 euros will be credited to the customer’s account. The individual can spend the money using a debit card -- debit cards are working normally for domestic transactions -- or make (limited) currency withdrawals. Afterward, the currency exchange can sell the tax credits to business and individuals. Again, the point is that the velocity of money is increased, which increases GDP. And Greece can print as many of these credits as it thinks prudent.

So the EU's decision about whether to comply with Syriza's post-referendum threat will depend on how it views this parallel currency scenario: is it better or worse, from its point of view, than the Syriza-negotiating-triumph victory?

Of course, the upside of the parallel currency for the EU is that it doesn’t hand Syriza a major immediate victory. The obvious downside is that it would clearly be a big step towards Grexit. Moreover, it's a step that allows Syriza to keep its promise to voters not to take Greece out of the eurozone: there would still be euros in Greek bank accounts and the Bank of Greece would still be hooked up to the Eurosystem payments network.

The EU has put on a brave face about not really caring about Grexit, but behind the scenes it is deeply divided. Many on the Right, in Germany and Northern Europe generally, seem OK with the idea. (In fact, Schaeuble himself recently mentioned the possibility of a parallel currency in Greece.) But many others, on the center-left and in Southern Europe, privately view the prospect with horror. Francois Hollande, in particular, is now panicking. All along he assumed that Germany would never push things this far; he thought that if he privately and politely urged Berlin to go easy it would listen to him. Now the masks have come off and France is scrambling. God only knows what Renzi et al are feeling.  

So if  the EU takes this path -- if it denies Greece bank liquidity and forces it to introduce a parallel currency -- the immediate outcome would be a political crisis within the Franco-German core the likes of which haven't been seen in many decades.

Even worse is what might happen after the immediate crisis. If a major expansion of the effective Greek money supply does what one would expect it to -- stimulates the Greek economy -- this would be a real nightmare for the Eurozone, for reasons that are too obvious to explain. In many ways, it would really be the worst of all possible worst-case scenarios, politically speaking. And economically speaking, there is the question of what the markets' reaction would be in Spain, Italy, et al., which until now have weathered the Greek crisis OK.

Of course, the eurozone could retaliate against Greece and shut off its access to the payments network, or achieve the same thing by drastically reducing ELA, thus kicking it out of the euro. Politically speaking, this would presumably require a unanimous vote of the EU heads of state at the European Council. (If the ECB took this step over clear French opposition, I think the European project would be effectively over, at least for many years.)

Obviously it would be terrible for Syriza (and the whole country) if Greece were forced out of the euro. It would cause an appalling economic collapse, a visible humanitarian crisis in a NATO country. But in a sense it would also let Syriza off the hook: Hey, we tried our best to fight austerity within the euro, the voters agreed with us, and then the evil Europeans kicked us out.

So a lot depends on three things, in ascending order of importance:

(1) how smoothly Greece can roll out the currency issuance;

(2) how much it would stimulate the economy;

(3) above all, the Europeans' perceptions of (1) and (2).

The risks are high for both sides, but I think Greece is in a stronger position than most people think. Again, I’m probably wrong.

UPDATE:  Actually, this could be done without middlemen. Banks could accept and deal in the credits directly.