From the monthly archives:

September 2012

Who Remembers Clinton Rossiter?

by John Holbo on September 29, 2012

When I was in Texas I met Carl T. Bogus, law prof. and author of Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism [amazon]. He and I turned out to have something in common: affection for Clinton Rossiter’s forgotten Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion [amazon]. I was trying to baffle someone else at the conference, saying ‘Look, the thing you think conservatism should be is the thing the conservatives made a point of writing off in the 1950’s. You’re a neo-Rossiterian.’ Carl’s ears pricked up. We hit it right off.

When I got home I bought and read Bogus’s Buckley book. I liked it, and it filled in some blanks for me, history-wise. Going back and reading the reviews, I see TNR’s reviewer thought Bogus didn’t much improve on John Judis’ earlier Buckley book. I can’t say. Haven’t read it. (But Judis is a good writer so probably his book is good.) But the reviewer does grant that one area in which Bogus really distinguishes himself is in handling the dead and forgotten ‘new conservatives’ – Rossiter, Viereck and Nisbet, in particular. (Kirk was another, but not one who has been forgotten.) [click to continue…]

What the hey, let’s keep this theme rolling …

One of the responses to Henry’s post, from Scott Lemieux‘s has a passage which (though probably meant rhetorically rather than literally) really perfectly exemplifies what I see as one of the biggest problems with lesser-evilism.

But, the argument seems to run, at least Romney would generate more opposition from Democrats when he committed similar and worse abuses. I believe this is true. But to carry any weight that would justify the repeal of the ACA, the overruling of Roe v. Wade, the gutting of environmental and civil rights enforcement, massive upper-class tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. it’s not enough that there be more opposition; it must be the case that this opposition be effectual. And it’s overwhelmingly clear that, in fact, this increased opposition would be extremely ineffectual.

The “Ect, ect, ect” bit there could have been a much longer list, but even at that length it seems implausible on the face of it. Recall, Obama’s whole strategy was based around abandoning all other priorities such as carbon tax, an effective stimulus bill, half his nominations, most of the financial sector reforms and so forth, all to concentrate on passing health care. And he only got about half of that – the version passed was something he’d specifically camapigned against as not being anything like radical enough. So given that, how are we to suppose that President Romney would be able to push through an agenda five times as radical, including the ultimate third-rail issue of abortion? You would have to believe that under a Democratic administration Congress is a sclerotic, obstructionist institution which prevents all possibility of effective government, but as soon as the Republicans get in it becomes a streamlined ideological machine.

Which is in fact not far from what’s being argued here and it’s really quite frightening. Part of the case for persuading people to vote to keep the Democrats in government is that they’re so terrible at being in opposition. Specifically, their very weakness and incompetence in carrying out the business of politics is being used as an electoral asset. That’s not a cool rhetorical ju-jitsu move; it’s nightmarish. Similarly, the case has been advanced that the time for the liberal wing of the Democrats to express their opinions is at the primary stage, but there wasn’t a primary this time – the economy was so weak and the administration so unpopular that nobody wanted to risk weakening the candidate further.

This is the problem with lesser-evilism – it’s very vulnerable to strategic behaviour. If all you care about is the gap between parties, you can increase it either by making your own party more attractive to vote for, or by making the other side look even worse (either by strategically weakening your ability to resist them, or by being somewhat adventurous in your claims). This is really just a specific case of Henry’s general point that in the long term, one is unlikely to change the behaviour of any self-aware entity by constantly rewarding it for going on in the same way.

On Not Being Obliged to Vote Democrat

by Henry Farrell on September 27, 2012

Since someone mentioned that they couldn’t find it in comments, and since it’s obviously relevant, mutatis mutandis to arguments below, it is probably no harm to link again prominently to dsquared’s classic post about how you actually aren’t obliged to vote Democrat, strong lesser-of-two-evils arguments are intellectually incoherent etc. Nut graf:

> The argument I want to establish here is that the decision about whether or not to vote Demcrat (versus the alternative of abstaining or voting for a minor party) is a serious one, which is up to the conscience of the individual voter to make, and which deserves respect from other people whether they agree with it or not. Obviously in making that argument, I’m going to have to venture into a number of unpalatable home truths about the Democrats as they are currently organised (abstract: ineffectual, cowardly, surprisingly warlike, soft-right, generally an obstacle to the development of social democratic politics), but let’s get this clear right up front – voting Democrat might often be the right thing to do in any given case, depending on local conditions; it might even usually be the right thing to do. What I’m not going to accept, however, is that it is always or definitionally the right thing to do.

The golden age

by John Q on September 27, 2012

Since long before I started blogging, I’ve been planning a big article on the prospects for Utopia, starting off from Keynes’ essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. While I procrastinated, lots of others had the same idea, most recently Robert and Edward Skidelsky. But, with encouragement from Ed Lake at Aeon Magazine, I went ahead anyway and the article has just appeared.

This is also a good time to announce that our long-promised book event on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is going ahead, with a target publication date of March 2013.

Predistribution – a bad idea whose time has come?

by Daniel on September 26, 2012

I foolishly promised a few people that I was going to write something about “Predistribution”, which would not normally have resulted in actually writing anything about it, except that Chris then wrote his piece and I felt I ought to enter into the lists on the somewhat more sceptical side. In as much as it isn’t just a bit of industrial policy combined with “all things bright and beautiful” (More education! More skills! But who will empty the bins in this hi-tech utopia[1] and how much will they be paid and why?), predistribution appears to be, as Chris says, an attempt to make all sorts of regulations and interventions in the economy do the work of a redistributive tax and benefit system. I don’t like this idea, basically for reasons to do with the fact that even after it all, I’m still an economist at heart. But the fact that I don’t like it doesn’t mean, in and of itself, that it might not be the best idea going in Britain today – after all, all the other politically live proposals might be worse. Read on, for a discussion of all these issues …
[click to continue…]

Is It Moral for Lefties to Vote for Obama?

by Henry Farrell on September 26, 2012

[Conor Friedersdorf]( (if Lot were to look for One Honest Conservative Commentator to save the tribe from divine wrath, he’d likely have to lump for Friedersdorf), [says no](

> Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. … Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. … Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done. … Contrary to _his own previously stated understanding_ of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security.

The last of these seems weaker to me than the first two (I was, and still am, against the Libya intervention, but don’t think that the War Powers Resolution question is a moral one). But the first two are pretty damn awful. On key foreign policy and human rights issues, Obama hasn’t been a disappointment. He’s been a disaster. You can make a good case, obviously, that his main opponent, Mitt Romney, would be even worse. But it isn’t at all clear that the consequences of _voting_ [^voting] for Romney over the longer term, would be any worse than the consequences of voting for the guy who was supposed to be better on these issues, and was not. Indeed, the unwillingness of American left-liberals to criticize the opprobrious foreign policy of a Democratic president (and the consequent lack of real public debate over this policy, since most of the right tacitly agrees with the bad stuff) weighs the balance in favor of voting against Democrats who you know are going to sell out. Personally, I’m on the fence, if only because the current Republican party is so extraordinarily horrible. But I think that there is a very strong case to be made for not voting for Obama, and I wish that there were more publicly prominent lefties making it.

[^voting]: Abstracting away the question of whether individual votes have any consequences.

Debt: The Next 500 Posts …

by Henry Farrell on September 26, 2012

A coda to the coda – Mike Beggs’ [piece]( on Graeber’s Debt in _Jacobin_, and the ensuing discussion in comments [here]( at CT, has given rise to a further exchange in which J.W. [Mason]( defends Graeber on money, and Mike [Beggs]( restates and extends his position.


> Mike sees _Debt_ as “a move in an interdisciplinary struggle: anthropology against economics.” But most of the key arguments of Debt are better seen as part of an intradisciplinary struggle within economics. Admittedly it takes some unpacking, but Debt‘s key themes are in close harmony with the main themes of heterodox economics work going back to Keynes; while the “economics” that Beggs opposes to him represents only the discipline’s more conservative wings. … Debt‘s demonstration that money obligations are historically prior exchange of goods maps onto the insistence of Marx, Keynes and their successors that under capitalism, money values are logically prior to the production and consumption of real goods and services. … Debt‘s distinction between money and credit systems is not just an exercise in classification, but corresponds to a distinction that has has preoccupied many classical and modern economists, and has important implications for monetary policy in addition to the vaster cultural and political-economic ramifications Debt focuses on. … when Mike says that Debt exaggerates the importance of the system of payments, it is because he is coming from a narrowly orthodox view of what monetary economics is about, and why money matters. If your economic vision is shaped by more heterodox traditions — or by the responses to the financial crises of the past few years — the economics of Debt will seem more congenial.


> The debate between Josh and I centers on the question of whether or not the distinction between a ‘commodity/fiat money economy’ and a ‘credit money economy’ is a useful one in understanding our present economic system and its history. He thinks it is so useful as to be the central dividing line in economics; I think it is liable to mislead. The rest of the disagreement comes, I think, because Josh conflates the commodity/fiat-credit money economy divide with other divides in economic thinking. So he seems to that if I challenge that distinction, I must be a quantity theorist, must believe that money is simply a veil, neutral in its economic effects, and must misunderstand how banking works. In fact we are on the same side in all those other dichotomies, but Josh for some reason continues to maintain that if I disagree over the core distinction, I must be standing on the other side of all the others. … I think the ‘commodity/fiat money economy’ – ‘credit money economy’ divide is a problem; and … that the rest of his criticisms rest on the conflations with other theoretical dichotomies.

A quick update on the white working class

by John Q on September 25, 2012

As I mentioned a little while ago, if “working class” is defined in terms of income (the same is true, I think, for self-description) rather than the lack of a college education, the “white working class” in the US is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Lots of commenters made the point that this split varies sharply by region, and this has been confirmed by Kevin Drum and John Sides who cite recent research from the Public Religion and Research Institute. Using the “non-college” definition, they point out that the Repubs have overwhelming majority support from white working class voters in the South (as they do from white Southerners more generally), but that for the rest of the country, “working class” whites divide evenly between the parties.

Unfortunately, neither the PRRI report nor the data I received from Andrew Gelman seems to give a breakdown by region and income, but the data I presented showed overwhelming Repub support among high-income non-college whites, who are not concentrated in the South. It follows, I think, the the Dems are winning a clear, though not overwhelming, majority of low-income non-Southern white voters. That’s the same pattern observed with labour/social democratic parties elsewhere.

In other words, if it weren’t for the South, the US would be a lot more similar, in this as in other ways to other developed countries. Conversely, from the Southern perspective, large parts of the US are, indeed, more like Europe than like the America they know and love.

Matt Yglesias’s China Syndrome

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2012

Commenting on the recent labor unrest in China, Matt Yglesias makes a comparison with the past and present of the United States.

Conditions in contemporary China have much more in common, structurally speaking, with conditions during the heyday of western labor activism than does anything about the Chicago teachers strike or the apparent American Airlines sickout. The rapid pace of Chinese industrialization means the average wage in a Chinese factories has managed to lag behind the average productivity of a Chinese factory worker (roughly speaking because it’s dragged down by the absymal wages and productivity of Chinese agriculture) which creates a dynamic ripe for windfall profits but also for labor activism. The repressive nature of the Chinese state is an unpromising ground for union organizing, but by the same token Chinese labor organizations have much less to lose (in terms of union-managed pension funds, union-owned buildings, etc.) if they break the law with “wildcat” strikes and the like.

Why are workers rioting in China? Because, says Matt, of the large gap between labor productivity and labor compensation there, which is similar to how things once were in the US and Western Europe but is unlike anything in the contemporary US.

Oh really? Since 1973, labor productivity in the US has risen 80.4 percent. Yet median wages have increased only 4 percent, and median compensation as a whole—which includes benefits—has only increased 10.7 percent.

This is hardly a state secret; mainstream economists talk about it all the time. Which is why I was so puzzled by Matt’s claim.

So I asked him about the discrepancy. He  responded: “I should explain the difference more clearly. US is a median issue, China is a mean issue.” I’m not clear what point he’s trying to make here, but it seems to work against him: if the mean worker wage in China is being depressed by very low wages in agriculture, that means factory work pays better than agriculture, so workers should be flocking to the factories. An increase in the labor supply is not usually conducive to labor activism.

Back to the US.  So where did all that productivity growth between 1973 and 2011 go? Writes Paul Krugman:

One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

2/3 of the productivity, in other words, went to the “windfall profits” that Matt speaks of above. Not so unlike China after all.

And what about labor activism? Matt is right, of course, about the repressive Chinese state. But as I’ve long argued, a good deal of worker activism in the United States also gets repressed. One in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union. While it’s true that the American state is not the equivalent of the Chinese state, it’s also true that a great deal of repression in the US has always been outsourced to the private sector—even in “the heyday of western labor activism.”

Over the summer, when Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I were advancing our thesis about workplace tyranny, Matt repeatedly professed bafflement as to why we were even talking about this issue. Well, this is one reason: repression and coercion in the workplace actually prevent the union organizing that helps ensure that that growth in worker productivity translates into higher pay and benefits for workers.

Matt gets it. In China.

This is cross-posted at

This is a cross post of [a piece I’ve done for New Left Project](

Back in 1875, Karl Marx had the sorry task of perusing the programme of the young German SDP. There was quite a lot he didn’t like, much of it due to the – as he saw it – bad influence of his rival Lassalle. One thing annoyed him immensely: the focus of the new German party on what he saw as the symptoms of capitalist class society rather than on the most basic structural features of that society. First among his targets was inequality, which the SDP was making a big thing about. Marx was scathing:

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power.”

One doesn’t have to buy into all the details of classical Marxism to see that he had a very good point. Since the early years of the 20th century, left-liberals and social democrats have been scrabbling around using the tax and benefits system to try to temper the gross inequalities that capitalism generates. Like Robin Hood, or maybe Robin Hood on prozac, they’ve cast themselves as taking from the rich and giving to the poor, without doing too much to address the question of how some people got to be rich and others “poor” in the first place.

[click to continue…]

And They Played Angola Prison Spirituals as the Recessional

by Belle Waring on September 24, 2012

So, some celebrities got married: Blake Lively, who was in the TV show Gossip Girl, and Ryan Reynolds, who was in the Green Lantern and is one of those dudes who is stipulated to be handsome but his eyes are too close together so he just looks moronic. Like a younger…thingface. Whoever. Lively herself is an off-brand Gwyneth Paltrow so it’s suitable.

They had the wedding, which was all perfect and arranged by actual Martha Stewart with color-coördinated jordan almonds (OK I made that detail up, but almost certainly yes), at Boone Hall Plantation, outside of Charleston in South Carolina. Boone Hall almost alone of the pre-Civil War plantations has its slave quarters intact. I think this is actually awesome about Boone Hall. At all the other plantations, you go, and some nice white volunteer shows you around, and you have to just use your imagination. The main house is now surrounded by vast lawns, and live oaks and azaleas, wisteria and breath of spring, tea olive, daphne odora, gardenias, and mounds of Lady Banksia roses. Mmmm, up in Charleston that Lady Banksia will get up to one-and-a-half stories high. I’m not sure why it doesn’t grow so well in Savannah. Pretty little yellow roses on a climbing vine, heaping up on itself, all up around old fenceposts. But no hovels! No wood fires, no chickens, no foundries! No crying babies, no foremen, no one making grits, no one getting beat the hell up, no black people!
[click to continue…]

As mentioned in a recent post, I got to go to Texas for a conference on Conservatism sponsored by Sanford Levinson. Unfortunately, that was the day some joker decided to call in a fake bomb threat. So we ended up evacuated and reconvened in Sandy’s living room. Which was congenial, actually. But no PowerPoint, so I didn’t get to use the cartoons I whipped up that were supposed to allow me to make some basic points in admirably compressed fashion. So let me lay that bit out. [click to continue…]

Comics As Audiobooks

by John Holbo on September 24, 2012

Couple weeks back BoingBoing had a guestpost by Maja D’aoust, praising the undersung artistry of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest. I think this is right. Elfquest doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Proto-American manga, early independent comics self-publishing. Why doesn’t everyone who prides themselves about knowing comics feel obliged to have read a bit of Elfquest? I’m sure this is due in large part to geek culture bias in favor of fanboyish – as opposed to fangirlish – productions. (Dumb guy stuff can be the greatest stories ever told. Everyone knows that. But dumb girly stuff generally can’t catch a break. Chick lit just isn’t cool.) So I’m glad to see new Pini stuff presented on BoingBoing. More power to them!

Anyway, I bring a unique perspective to this issue because my daughters forced me to read them most of the online archive of Elfquest in nightly audiobook installments. (I think I managed to convince them to let me give up after “Two-Spear”.) I have seriously read a lot of Elfquest out loud, dude. And the main thing I learned is: it’s written quite well, as comics go. My daughters have also made me read them other comics. X-Men, Fantastic Four, Teen Titans. Most of that stuff doesn’t read out at all well, and very little reads out as well as Elfquest. Also, Elfquest is the sort of thing that you might think would be – erm – a bit inappropriate for really young children, what with high elves mating with wolves and all that. But if you’ve already read the kids Greek mythology – and a bunch of other mythologies I could mention – you know there’s no problem here, so long as you are judiciously indefinite about the mechanics of it, as the Pinis are. (There’s nothing explicit in these comics.) Little girls are uninterested in sex but are interested in babies, and animals, so stories in which strange creatures have hybrid family trees are interesting to them. It doesn’t end up being any more squicky than reading them D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. (Not that I’m recommending you read your kid Elfquest, High Ones preserve us! That was a chore.)

It’s not the case that comics work as audiobooks to the extent that they are good comics, of course. Zoe is down with flu at the moment and I tried reading her some Tintin but it doesn’t work. Hergé is so good at storytelling in pictures that it’s hard to get the pacing right. Also, it sounds strange to read Snowy’s lines out loud. (Snowy ‘talks’ more than almost any other character, what with all those little asides.)

Atomic Robo reads out really well, on the other hand. As audiobook comics go, Robo is tops. Zoe gives it two thumbs up.

All Stan Lee stuff is just terrible. As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas: you can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.

$2 a day

by John Q on September 21, 2012

I’m trying to find information on the effects of the 1990s welfare reform (surprisingly difficult, suggestions welcome) I came across this NYT article by Jason de Parle which included the following striking result (link added.[^1]

Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard examined the share of households with children in a given month living on less than $2 per person per day. It has nearly doubled since 1996, to almost 4 percent. Even when counting food stamps as cash, they found one of every 50 children live in such a household

The result is striking because of the $2 figure, which is derived, not from a US poverty line, but from the World Bank Poverty line for developing countries. These children aren’t just poor by American standards – they would be considered poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

[^1]: Why does the NYT link internally for things like “Social Security” but not to the studies it is quoting?

Inside the mind of Monti

by niamh on September 20, 2012

Would you be surprised to hear that Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti recently said this:

political scientists need to re-think the type of democratic structures that are required to govern in a post-Eurozone crisis world. The EU needs institutional renewal.

Monti also provides tips on how best to influence Angela Merkel’s thinking (go silent on a topic. It spooks her). This and more, from a fascinating blog by Aidan Regan, a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI in Florence. But don’t get too excited about democratizing Europe just yet. What Monti actually meant was this:

The European parliament, he argued, needs to be empowered to take collectively sanctioned decisions for Europe as a whole. Furthermore, the technical decisions required to solve the crisis (in his opinion) have to be somewhat removed from the immediate interest of national electorates. In fact he went as far as saying that citizens (and their respective governments) need to be faced with the threat of an exit from the European Union so as to empower European policymakers to take new and bold decisions.

In other words, democratic accountability as normally understood is expendable in the interests of administrative efficiency. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he; and understandably, perhaps, in the Italian context, since Monti is certainly a contrast gainer relative to Berlusconi. But it’s an unusually candid and ‘realist’ statement of the default trend in European integration. It is precisely this that makes many people wary of deeper integration, that drives up Euroscepticism in defence of national prerogatives, and indeed that tends to fuel right-wing populism. It is equally a world removed from, for example, Habermas‘s vision of the EU as a radically democratized, market-restraining constitutional order, trans-national and cosmopolitan in character, and governed by humane values.