From the monthly archives:

June 2018

What Now?

by John Holbo on June 30, 2018

Like lots of folks, I’m pretty shell-shocked by the latest round of Supreme Court decisions, capped off by Kennedy’s retirement. (I haven’t felt up to writing about it. I haven’t felt able to write up anything else.) It’s not that any of the decisions were so shocking (although the gerrymandering punt was deeply disappointing.) It’s not surprising that Trump, plus a retirement-age court, equals fresh appointments. But all this seems fearfully irreversible in two senses.

First, ‘the courts will save us’ is dead for liberals and progressives for a generation.

Second, the hope that America might still awaken from the bad dream of Trump before something Really Bad happens seems dead.

It all seems a lot more zero-sum and long-term now. Either the left struggles and wins by huge margins, to take the (undemocratic) heights the Republicans currently command, or the future of US politics is Trumpist. There isn’t any hope that the future of the Republican Party isn’t Trumpist, or that there is some neither/nor option consisting of leaving a major decision to a somewhat inscrutable Magic Eight Ball in the form of Anthony Kennedy.

World Cup open thread

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2018

The knock-out phase is upon us, and this World Cup seems more open then any I can remember. Of the remaining teams only Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan seem utterly hopeless, which leaves us with 12 contenders, of whom Belgium, Brazil, France and Spain look the most likely. If James is fit, then maybe Colombia has a chance, and who would write off Uruguay? The [FT has some useful stats](https://www.ft.com/content/e0883dfa-7abd-11e8-8e67-1e1a0846c475) ….

Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 14

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2018

My long-running book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is nearly done. I have a nearly complete manuscript, and am hoping for news from the publisher soon. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 13 chapters.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 14: Policy for full employment. Two more chapters to come after this

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Abolish the death penalty

by John Quiggin on June 29, 2018

The discussion surrounding the US Supreme Court led me to think about the death penalty, one of the limited number of issues on which Justice Kennedy was a swing vote.* In this context, that means that he supported the death penalty in general but was concerned about due process and the execution of minors. It can safely be assumed that his replacement will have no such concerns.

That’s bad. But it’s only possible because the death penalty exists. The Supreme Court can’t sentence anyone to death; all it can do is fail to save them.

The only (possibly) feasible option therefore is to change the law to abolish the death penalty.There has been some progress at the state level, but that’s not going to stop executions any time soon. The only effective response is to pass Federal legislation abolishing or restricting the death penalty. Of course, that requires Democratic control of Congress and the Presidency, but so does any action with respect to the SC.

IANAL but this discussion seems to show that it would be possible in practice. At the very least, Congress could legislate the kinds of protections Kennedy supported, and repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

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Say not the struggle naught availeth

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2018

With all the grim news from the US Supreme Court today, it’s easy to feel despairing. And there are certainly strong arguments to support a pessimistic view.

On the other hand, we’ve been here before many times before. Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem “Say not the struggle naught availeth” was written in 1849 the aftermath of the collapse of Chartism, a movement that demanded universal male suffrage, secret ballots and other democratic reforms. Clough himself spent 1848 in Italy during the “Year of Revolutions”, most of which were defeated within a few years. Yet, in the end, the Chartist demands were met*, and then surpassed through the struggle for women’s suffrage. The struggle for democracy in Europe as a whole has ebbed and flowed (it’s ebbing at the moment), but has so far been successful.

Coming to the US situation, even though the right has all the levers of power, they are still losing ground on lots of issues, both in terms of public support and in terms of actual outcomes
* Obamacare has survived, and there’s now rising support for a single-payer system.
* The Republican tax cuts are less popular than ever.
* Equal marriage is firmly established, and talk of a constitutional change to stop it has disappeared.
* Gun control, one of the few issues on which the right had gained popular support in the culture wars, is now back on the agenda
There are lots more examples both economic and cultural, including minimum wages, Confederate monuments, and the decline of for-profit education.

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Ocasio-Cortez beats Joe Crowley

by Henry on June 27, 2018

Talk away

Breakdown values

by Henry on June 26, 2018

Today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the travel ban has renewed discussion of Mitch McConnell’s decision to prevent any Obama nominee to the Court from receiving consideration, and whether Democrats should run on packing the Court to redress this. If they did, they’d surely be greeted with deploring howls from centrist opinion makers in a way that Mitch McConnell was not. Michelle Goldberg points to a similar imbalance in the “civility” debate in a really great NYT piece today.

Naturally, all this has led to lots of pained disapproval from self-appointed guardians of civility. A Washington Post editorial urged the protesters to think about the precedent they are setting. “How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” it asked.

Of course, this is not hard to imagine at all, since abortion opponents have assassinated abortion providers in their homes and churches, firebombed their clinics and protested at their children’s schools. The Roman Catholic Church has shamed politicians who support abortion rights by denying them communion. The failure to acknowledge this history is a sign of the reflexive false balance that makes it hard for the mainstream media to grapple with the asymmetric extremism of the Republican Party.

One of the big disputes among liberals and the left today is over norms. Some people who hate Trump, hate him because he is trampling over the norms that have previously restrained presidents and politics, and want a return to the status quo ante. Others hate Trump because they see him as the manifestation of a problem that has been there for a very long time – that the norms governing US politics have been systematically imbalanced in ways that favor the right, and that we’d be better off without them. This dispute has plenty of political dimensions – one of them is strategic. You can think of norms, like any informal rule or institution, from a game theoretic perspective, and see them as an equilibrium that represents the relative bargaining power of the two main parties in American politics. In this kind of analysis, as per Jack Knight and others, relative bargaining power depends on the breakdown values – the payoffs that people receive in the event that no agreement is reached. The less that I care over whether an agreement is reached or a norm is maintained, the more bargaining power I will have to shape that agreement or norm, so that it favors my interests rather than the other party’s.

Much of the implicit argument of ‘normcore’ people on the liberal side of politics has been that liberals and the left need these norms more than the right, because without them, we’d be even worse off than we are. In other words, liberals and the left are in a strategically weak position. They want to reach an agreement far more than conservatives do. Accordingly, conservatives are going to be able to bargain harder, because they are more indifferent to breakdown than liberals or left-leaning people are. From the normcore perspective, even if it is going to be a pretty cruddy deal, it is better than no deal at all.

But there’s another way to think about it. The more unbearable that status quo politics are, the less value there is to liberals and the left in reaching an accommodation. Under this logic, things are pretty shit already. They might be even more shit if we refuse to play ball, but who knows? Things couldn’t be much worse than they are – so why not try something different? The more that norms become a threadbare justification for a situation that is effectively that preferred by the side that is prepared to play hardball politics, the more likely that the other side is going to want to start playing hardball politics too. Their breakdown values are going to be higher when everyday politics is visibly breaking down.

I’ve seen (although I can’t find it right now) polling data suggesting that liberals, who have historically been much more interested in reaching agreement with the other side than conservatives, have now converged upon conservative preferences. The various self-organizing groupings around the country don’t seem to me, from what time I’ve spent with them, to be particularly ideological (for better or for worse). What they do seem to be is completely uninterested in compromise with the Republican party in its current configuration. Leaders like Pelosi and Schumer seem to be more attuned to the people writing hand-wringing editorials about civility than to the people whom they’re supposed to be representing. That’s probably not going to work out too great for them.

Florence at the People's March

The Example of Charles Krauthammer

by Henry on June 22, 2018

There’s a case to be made, though a limited one, for de mortuis nil nisi bonum. There isn’t any such case for actively misrepresenting the public record of a writer, as Peter Wehner does for Charles Krauthammer in today’s New York Times. Wehner says:

In an age when political commentary is getting shallower and more vituperative, we will especially miss Charles’s style of writing — calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence, tinged with a cutting wit and wry humor but never malice.

None of this is true. Krauthammer’s writing was a wasp’s nest of chewed over paper, spittle and venomous indignation. It employed spleen as a poor substitute for critical intelligence, characteristically and systematically misrepresented the evidence to the point where it was impossible not to think that he was deliberately lying, and was thoroughly riddled with malice. His vicious insinuation that Francis Fukuyama was an anti-Semite is one example of the last. His mendacious vendetta against Hans Blix, who had the impertinence to be right about WMD in Iraq (Krauthammer later preferred to brush his own WMD claims under the carpet), is another. There were many more. The best that can be said is that Krauthammer was a clear writer, not in the sense that he was usually a clear thinker, but that it was clear who his enemies were; that he was intelligent enough to have known better, and that very, very occasionally, he did. While his personal qualities may have made up for his faults as a writer to those who loved and admired him, as a public figure and as a public intellectual, he was and will remain an example to be avoided rather than emulated.

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 13

by John Quiggin on June 21, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first twelve chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 13 on Redistribution

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Not in our name

by Chris Bertram on June 20, 2018

For as long as I can remember, the philosopher’s stock example of a proposition that is morally uncontroversial has been “torturing babies is wrong”. Yet it turns out that torturing babies, or at least toddlers, is US government policy, where that policy involves separating them from their parents, leaving them in acute distress and certainly consigning many of them to a lifetime of mental health problems. And all so that Donald Trump can play at symbolic politics with his base. The justification given to the policy by people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be that the government is simply enforcing the law.

This discourse, that the law has to be enforced and that unauthorized immigrants are lawbreakers who must be punished, is pretty questionable in itself. But in this case it flies in the face of the US government’s commitments under the Refugee Convention, incorporated into US domestic law, according to which refugees are not liable to criminal sanction for unlawful entry. There’s also the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the US has signed up to but not ratified. So, even if you think that laws must be followed and enforced, the question of who the lawbreakers are here is one that does not admit of a clear answer. Not that one should have confidence that the Supreme Court of the United States would interpret the United States’ legal obligation under the Convention in a way that that does not reflect partisan political judgement. Government of laws not of men? Not really.

As a European it is tempting simply to point the finger at Trump, but our own well is just as poisoned. Hungary now intends to criminalize those who give assistance to migrants and refugees, including merely informing them of their legal rights. Salvini, the new Italian interior minister, having refused to allow migrants to dock at Italian ports, now contemplates a purge of people of Roma ethnicity from Italian territory and regrets that he cannot deport the ones who have Italian nationality. And then there are Europe’s 34,361 dead migrants. Terrible times, and all the more terrible because electorates, or at best substantial minorities of them, are willing this stuff. We who disagree have to say: not in our name. And we have to do what we can to push back.

Complexity

by John Holbo on June 20, 2018

Well, I suppose we can take ‘Tender Age’ Jail as a test of my Epistemic Sunk Costs hypothesis.

For example, here’s Ben Shapiro.

“We’ve heard that the Trump administration has heartlessly sought to rip toddlers from the arms of their weeping mothers in order to punish illegal-immigrant parents who are merely seeking asylum. But the truth is more complex …”

Not that it isn’t true, mind you. But there’s … more to it. (For example, toddler jail is a great way to trigger the libs. I’m triggered. They got me.) Something-something. Ah!

“In other words, this isn’t a Trumpian attempt to dump kids in hellholes. It’s a longtime problem that has yet to be solved.”

What happened to complexity? Why can’t it be both?

Discuss.

Sunday photoblogging: footbridge, Madison WI

by Chris Bertram on June 17, 2018

Madison, Wisconsin (footbridge)

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 12

by John Quiggin on June 16, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first eleven chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 12 on Predistribution

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Shibboleths (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on June 14, 2018

Reading the latest post from John H, I was reminded of this one from 2011, about when the baton was being passed from Palin to Trump. A few thoughts on this

* Agreeing with Corey’s take, there’s very little in Trump’s consistent denial of reality that wasn’t evident back in 2011. Trump’s change has been to make obvious what could previously be ignored
* The eagerness with which virtually all Republicans (including Republican-voting “independents”) have embraced Trump refutes my suggestion that they will ultimately be turned off by this stuff
* It’s striking that around the same time, Jonathan Haidt was getting lots of praise for The Righteous Mind. By taking conservatives’ self-descriptions as accurate, and ignoring evidence like the prevalence of birtherism, Haidt concluded that liberals had a caricatured view of conservatives, and their values of “Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity”. Now, it’s obvious that, for practical purposes, the caricature is the reality.

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