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17 Feb 04:16

A Few US Election-Related Thoughts

by John Holbo

Not that I want CT to go all-US-elections, all the time. But one more post.

I think Dems are resting a bit too easy on ‘the Republicans really screwed it up for themselves this time.’ (A lot of Dems are not resting easy at all, but some are being a bit smug and complacent about Republican problems and disarray.) In the modern era, every Presidential contest should be a 51-49 nailbiter – even a hanging-chad-biter – by rights. I would say this one is shaping up more 65-35, to the Dem’s advantage. (I’m talking about odds of winning, overall, not predicting vote percentages.) But that still gives the Reps a 1/3 chance of shooting the moon: controlling Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. So ‘Republicans screwed the pooch’ and ‘Dems staring down barrel of defeat and devastation’ are both true, and should be held true together. Which is why the President should do what he can to confirm anyone – even a moderate conservative – to the Scalia seat in the next year, as insurance against dire, downside risk. In this thread someone suggested Obama should nominate Richard Posner and I realized, to my own mild surprise, that I would be quite happy with that result, all things weighed and balanced and considered. I’ll take a Posner in the hand over the threat of another Scalia on the bench. I’m a moderate squish.

The reason is basically this: there isn’t anything I think we might get otherwise, which a Reaganite like Posner would squash. But I do think there are ultra-right radical results we might get, which a Reaganite like Posner would squash. The Supreme Court isn’t going to be a site of left-wing judicial activism, but it might be a site of right-wing judicial activism. So shutting down the latter, at the cost of foreclosing the former, is optimal. Erecting a Reaganite firewall against Ted Cruz is a sound Dem strategy.

But, lest you accuse me of being a moderate squish, another thought. I don’t think Hillary is more electable than Bernie. I think Bernie is more electable than Hillary. Therefore, squishes like me, freaking out about that 35% chance that the Republicans will run the table, should support Bernie on sheer safety grounds if nothing else. Being a pragmatic trimmer does not mean being most electable. There’s a reason the Whigs haven’t been doing so well in elections for some time. ‘Millard Fillmore’ is not a name to conjure with. (I also like Bernie better on substance, by the by, but if I bought Hillary’s argument that she is more electable, I would support her for that.)

There is polling data that supports this, but, being a philosopher, I’ll do it fake a priori style.

The Republican nominee is most likely to be Trump, and overwhelmingly likely to be Trump or Cruz. The establishment lane is just a pile of burning wrecks.

It seems crazy that Trump could win in the general but, then again, no one has gotten rich betting against him so far.

Suppose the rules have changed. How might they have, such that Trump is a threat not just to the GOP establishment but to Dems in the general? Answer: conservatives and establishment GOP-types all hold their noses and pull the lever for him, because negative partisanship means they fear any Democrat worse. Trump does badly among minorities but maybe no worse than Romney. (Hey, when it comes to numbers that awful, the GOP might just start humming Kris Krisofferson: “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” And a lot of people apparently were huge “Apprentice” fans. Go figure.) And – this is the key – Trump blows a victory-sized hole in Democratic white working class support. Basically, Sean Trende turns out to have been right, after all, even though it sounded far-fetched back in 2013. That is, the strange phenomenon we’ve seen in the GOP primary – actual economic class divisions emerging – just continues right on into the general. It turns out: there’s nothing the matter with Kansas anymore. Ergo, Trump.

I still don’t think this is likely but I think it the likeliest unlikely scenario on which Trump beats whomever the Dems put up. IF there’s any way for Trump to win it – huuuuuuge IF – this is it. To put it another way, this is the only scenario likely and foreseeable enough that Dems can preemptively do anything practical to forestall it. And the way to do that would be to nominate Bernie, not Hillary. If anyone can counter Trump’s claim to be the authentic, unbought friend of the ordinary working stiff, it’s Bernie, not Hillary.

There are tons of other reasons why Republicans could win. Maybe it will be Rubio, crazily enough (post-Rubiobot meltdown. Two months ago, I was sure it would be Rubio.) Or some weird Katrina-grade event. A Scandal. A really, really bad economic collapse at the worst possible time for Dems. Collectively, all that is more likely than Sean Trende being ultimately vindicated, via Trump. But there is really nothing to be done about the black swans we can’t see. The one thing Dems can do anything about is preemptively shore up their working class flank – their white male working class flank, to be very specific – against the outside but distinct possibility that Trump is about to burn a hole in it. Who is more likely to hold onto the Dems’ existing stock of white male working class votes, Bernie or Hillary? Bernie.

Does Bernie have some debilitating downside, that offsets this anti-Trump vaccine quality? Not that I see. If it turns out that he does awfully with minorities – African-Americans – and Hillary does great, maybe what I just said is wrong. Because maybe then African-American turnout would be perilously depressed in the general. We’ll know better after South Carolina. What else? He ain’t gonna get donations from Wall Street. But he seems to be doing ok with the small donors.

Things I’m genuinely confused about.

What if Bloomberg got into a Trump/Sanders race? He’d be a spoiler, but which way? I confess I have no idea.

Why doesn’t Cruz do worse in polls concerning hypothetical match-ups? He seems like the worst candidate for the Reps. He seems like he was cooked up in a lab to demonstrate their Demographic disadvantages at the present time. His whole strategy seems to be to drive up enthusiasm, hence votes, among conservative groups already voting in such high numbers that it’s hard to see them going much highly, while accomplishing no outreach. But, honestly, he is basically tied with both Hillary and Bernie in hypothetical match-ups. And he’s not an idiot. He knows what he’s doing, so I can’t see him adopting an obviously hopeless strategy. I don’t understand it.

Anyway, Posner for Supreme Court, Bernie for Prez.

UPDATE: It came up immediately in comments, and I should have mentioned it. Yes, Posner is 77. But I think he’d take the job. And his age is actually a plus, insofar as it lowers the stakes. We aren’t talking about locking this seat up for decades.

13 Jan 23:32

Which Bowie Are You?

The inimitable David Bowie made an artform of inventing himself over and over again. Which of these iconic David Bowies are you?


Teddy Boy




Queen Bitch


Ziggy Stardust


Glam Pirate


Annie Hall


Thin White Duke


Berlin Bohemian


Lesbian Rat Pack


Occult Albino Lou Reed


Captain Bathhouse


Gilad, The Man Who Has Devoted His Life To Trying To Upset Edward Said


Garth Brooks


Wrong Aspect Ratio Robert Wagner


Microwave Cheeky Peter


Learny Ape


Second David Byrne


Ziggy Newsdust


Neue Cobain


Completely Normal Anne Heche


Christopher Hitchens With Food Poisoning Having A Vision Of How Music Will Be In The Future



06 Jan 00:00

Judgment Day

It took a lot of booster rockets, but luckily Amazon had recently built thousands of them to bring Amazon Prime same-day delivery to the Moon colony.
05 Jan 15:02

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Clock


Hovertext: I recommend that children learn how to buy SMBC comics and attend BAHFest shows.

New comic!
Today's News:

OH MAN, so many cool people will be in attendance :) 

05 Jan 06:08

“Terrorist” Is Too Kind

by Scott Lemieux


I think Burneko is on to something here:

The American political lexicon has an appropriate word for the armed men conspicuously loitering in part of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge instead of going home. It is not terrorist or militia or occupation or revolution or movement or front or army or resistance. The word is jamoke. “Get a load of these sad jamokes!” is the thing you say about them.

Maybe when they are done annexing this remote administrative office’s supply of free park maps and permit application forms, they will liberate rural Oregon’s port-a-johns next. Some of the port-a-johns are heavily fortified with locking doors and hand sanitizer pumps. Surely this will call for siege weaponry.

Imagine the grade of sad, stunted halfwit who decks himself out in paramilitary regalia and lethal weaponry to stage a sit-in at what is for all intents and purposes a remote wildlife park’s visitor’s center. Okay, men, when I kick in the door, you three move on the 74-year-old v0lunteer who shows the birdwatching slideshow to elementary-school field trip groups; if she makes a move, be ready to take her down with force. The rest of us will establish a defensive position behind the cardboard beaver. If bigger goobers than these exist on our planet, you identify them by the bruises from where they poked themselves in the eye while trying to pick their noses.


A tragicomic thing happens, though, when a handful of slow-witted white dorks in their best Sunday camo decide to take their guns and their entitled, useless, cosmically unserious day-to-day dull-eyed skulking to a minor government shack and pretend it’s some sort of insurrection against tyranny. Liberal internet users’ latent frustration at the disproportionality and unfairness of the way American law enforcement and media treat different kinds of people tips over into a mild derangement that has us likening these shit-for-brains dinguses to friggin’ ISIS. This is understandable! We’re just about a week from an Ohio grand jury deciding that summary execution is a fair consequence for 12-year-old kids who play with toys outdoors; by that standard, the entire state of Oregon should be a radioactive desert right now. This seems a fair thing to point out.


Here is the thing. These men are not frightening. They are jamokes. They are exactly jamokes. Their guns, on the other hand, are very frightening—for precisely and entirely the same reason and to absolutely the same degree that those same guns would be frightening in the hands of toddlers. Not because the people holding those guns are serious, but because the people holding those guns are not serious.

This, my good buddies, is the entire American pro-gun argument made (embarrassing, oh my God so fucking embarrassing) flesh. A big scary gun lends a degree of real power even to the variety of sad, corny-ass loser who invades and occupies what is essentially a fancy birdhouse in the name of ending tyranny. That is the whole reason to have a big scary gun. Not as a safeguard against home invaders or the totalitarian state, but as a safeguard against a clear-eyed reckoning with plain reality. A gun is—or at least these jamokes hope it is—a Get Out Of Getting Laughed At Free card. When you call these horse’s asses “terrorists,” you are not only dignifying their ridiculous, impotent actions, you are doing them the biggest favor for which they can hope.

And one perennial aspect of this kind of jamokery is, of course, “government benefits for me but not for thee.” The fact that Roscoe Filburn has become a posthumous libertarian hero is entirely appropriate, even if the people lionizing him aren’t in on the joke.


28 Dec 18:51

Career opportunities

by Paul Campos


Erik writes:

The growth fields all require higher education but the economy leaves absolutely no future for those who simply aren’t suited for higher education. This is something that virtually no one involved in education or employment policy wants to deal with or even admit. Yet anyone with working class relatives knows that some are simply not suited for higher education under any circumstances for a variety of reasons. This has to be taken seriously for social stability.

I would add that significant numbers of middle and upper class people are also not suited for higher education, but because college education in America is a crucial class marker and social sorting device, the higher a family is in the SES hierarchy, the more vigorously this will be denied (at least in regard to its own children), and the more aggressively checkbooks will be deployed to keep that denial intact.

Erik is pointing to a huge social problem, which is made all the more difficult by a consensus, broadly shared across the ideological spectrum, that more education is the solution to an almost unlimited number of economic and social problems. For obvious reasons, those peddling these cures — which as he says is almost everybody in and around the world of education and employment policy — are not eager to consider that a large percentage of the population is not going to be helped by ever-more elaborate treatments along these lines.

Some statistics:

(1) The number of students in American higher education has increased 244% in the last 50 years, which is about four times faster than the growth of the populace as a whole.

(2) Median weekly earnings of full-time workers with a BA or more have barely budged over the last 35 years, rising from $1150 per week in 1979 to about $1225 per week in 2014 (2014$).

(3) Over that same time frame, tuition has quadrupled at public four-year institutions and tripled at their private counterparts, in constant dollars.

(4) Higher education in America is more heavily subsidized today than it was 35 years ago, on a per student, constant dollar basis.

(5) The enormous increase in money flowing into higher ed, in the form of radically higher tuition combined with somewhat higher per student subsidization, has taken place at the same time that average faculty compensation has fallen by a lot. (At the top end of the education hierarchy endowments have also exploded, at rates that would have made Andrew Carnegie blush).

(6) Less than one third of American adults 25 years or older have a four-year college degree (or more).

(7) While the wages of the college-educated have on average remained flat over the past generation, those of the large majority of Americans who don’t have a college degree have fallen considerably.

Some observations:

*Even as recently as the 1980s, the vast majority of the cost of going to college, for the vast majority of students who attended public institutions, was opportunity cost. This is increasingly no longer the case. Average public tuition is now nearly what average private tuition was 35 years ago, while private college costs have reached levels that would have been considered completely incredible a generation ago.

*Remarkably, enrollment in private higher ed has grown much faster than public school enrollment. The former has doubled over the past 30 years, which is twice the rate of growth in public higher ed enrollment (much of this growth has been driven by the for-profit sector, which barely existed 30 years ago).

*The growth in the “college premium” (the correlation between more education and higher earnings) has been almost exclusively a product of the decline in earnings for people with less than a four-year degree, rather than in any growth in earnings among the college-educated.

*To the extent that higher earnings for people with more education represents credentialism, which is to say the distribution of positional goods, then addressing economic inequality by sending more people to college is considerably worse than useless, especially given the spiraling costs of acquiring those credentials.

*Anyone who argues that the key to “economic opportunity,” aka a decent job, is to have a college degree is in effect arguing that it’s OK for a large majority of Americans not to have a decent job.


15 Dec 12:30

It’s bargaining power all the way down

by J.W. Mason

Imagine that you’re a person who is obsessed with airplanes. Naturally you’re excited when everyone starts talking about this big new book, Aviation in the 21st Century. You get your copy and start reading. Just as you’d hoped, there’s a detailed discussion of the flight characteristics of a vast variety of plane types and a comprehensive record of different countries’ commercial fleets, from the beginning of aviation until today, plus a few artfully chosen illustrations of classic early planes. But long stretches of the book are quite different. They are devoted to the general principle that, in an atmosphere, heavier objects fall faster than light ones, building up to the universal law that lighter-than-air objects will float. Finally, in the conclusion, you find some bleak reflections on the environmental consequences of air travel – hardly mentioned til now – and a plea for the invention of some new technology that will allow fast air travel without the use of fossil fuels. How do you feel, when you set the book down? You would be grateful for the factual material – even if the good stuff is mostly relegated to the online appendices. You would be impressed by the rigorous logic with which the principle of buoyancy was developed, and admire the author’s iconoclastic willingness to break with the orthodox view that all motion takes place in a vacuum. You probably share the author’s hopes for some way of eliminating the carbon emissions from air travel. But you might also find yourself with the uneasy feeling that the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

You’re probably not into airplanes. But reading Capital In the 21st Century, you may have experienced a similar unease. You know the great social change the book is motivated by is the long run trajectory of income distribution – high in the 19th century, declining through much of the 20th century, and rising in recent decades. You understand that the central theoretical claim of the book is that “r>g” creates a secular tendency for income to concentrate. But it’s hard to find an account of how the universal logic accounts for the concrete history. (It’s striking, for instance, that the book does not contain a table or figure comparing r and g historically.) In contrast to the comprehensive account of the evolution of wealth shares in a dozen countries, the evidence linking this evolution to the supposed underlying dynamics is sparse and speculative.

The fundamental source of this disconnect is the two different senses in which Piketty uses the term “capital.” In the historical material, it is the observable aggregate of property claims, measured in money. But in the theoretical passages, it is a hypothetical aggregate of physical means of production. As a result, the theory and the history don’t really connect.

In treating capital as a money value when he measures it, and a physical quantity when he theorizes about it, Piketty follows the practice of most economists. I am far from the first one to point to problems with this approach. Heterodox critics who focus on this choice often invoke the Cambridge capital controversies, and suggest there is something logically inconsistent about the idea of a quantity of capital. In my opinion, these criticisms do not quite hit the mark. “K” and the formal models it is part of are tools for abstracting away from some aspects of observable reality in order to focus on others. Joan Robinson was certainly right that growth models of the kind used by Piketty cannot be derived from generic assumptions about production and exchange. But so what? The question to ask about a model is not whether it is logically derivable from first principles, but whether it gives a good description of the phenomena we are interested in. There is no reason in principle that a model of capital as a physical stock cannot capture important regularities in the behavior of capital as observable money wealth. It just happens that for for the central questions of Capital in the 21st Century, it does not.

Probably this is familiar to most people reading this, but let’s recap Piketty’s formal argument. He begins with two laws. The first decomposes the profit share into the rate of return on capital and the ratio of the capital stock to national income: alpha = r beta. Alpha is the share of capital income in total income, r is the average return on capital, and beta is K / Y, the capital stock (K) as a share of total income (Y). This “law” has been criticized as vacuous on the grounds that it is an accounting identity – an equation that is true by definition. Again, I think this is unfair. Yes, it is an accounting identity, but an accounting identity read in a particular way. It says that there is a given stock of capital, which produces a certain stream of income; this can then be compared to total national income to give the capital share. We could write the identity in other ways. The same identity could be read in other ways, for instance, K = alpha Y/r. Formally this is the same but it means something different. It means that a certain share of output is first claimed by a class of capital owners, and then their tradable claims on this income are assigned a value based on a discount factor r.

The loose articulation between Piketty’s historical material and his formal analysis comes from his decision to interpret the identity in the first way and not in the second. Starting from a quantity of capital leaves no room for valuation effects or distributional conflict in explaining the wealth ratio W/Y. instead, Piketty is forced to explain the ratio by focusing on the increase in the capital stock attributable to saving (s) relative to the growth of income (g). The problem is, these variables don’t do much empirical work in explaining the data. Almost all the historical action in the wealth share is in the changing value of existing wealth, not the pace at which new wealth is being accumulated.

Piketty’s second law states that in the long run, the ratio of the capital stock to national income converges toward the ratio of the savings rate to the growth rate. This second law is the equilibrium condition of a “zeroth law” (Yanis Varoufakis’ coinage), which says that the change in the capital stock from one period to the next is equal to the output from the previous period that is saved rather than consumed. (Minus depreciation of the existing capital, but Piketty somewhat idiosyncratically defines saving as net of depreciation, a choice that has been criticized.) This zeroth law is usually implicit, but it is critical to the question of whether we should treat capital as a physical stock. If a value is stable over time except for identifiable additions and subtractions, we can usefully treat it as a physical quantity, whether or not it “really” is one. If we assume that the evolution of the capital stock follows this zeroth law (i.e. that capital is cumulated savings) and also assume that savings and growth rates change slowly enough for the capital stock to fully adjust to their current values, then the capital output ratio will converge to the value given by Piketty’s second law. 1 This apparatus – which is basically the growth theory of Harrod and Domar via Solow – is Piketty’s preferred tool for analyzing changes in the capital share over time.

So the question is, do these laws describe the historical trajectory of the wealth ratio? The answer is pretty clearly no.

Piketty, I should be clear, poses this question clearly – not so much in the book itself, where the Harrod-Domar-Solow framework is mostly taken for granted, but in articles like this one (with Gabriel Zucman). There they ask: How much of the variation in alpha and beta – over time and between countries – can be explained in terms of cumulated savings and income growth rates – that is, by treating capital as a physical stock? Unfortunately, the answers are not very favorable. Piketty’s critics on the left have not done ourselves any favors with our fondness for deductive proofs that any use of “K” is illegitimate. But it is true that, applied historically, this method can only explain that part of the variation in income and wealth distribution that corresponds to different rates of accumulation relative to output growth. And the problem is, most historical variation is not explained this way, but precisely by the features Piketty abstracts from – changes in the flow of output going to owners of existing capital claims, and changes in the valuation of future capital income.

There are many ways to see this. Here are a couple of examples, using data from his online data appendixes. 2 First, let’s look at the change in the wealth ratio beta in various countries since 1970. This rise in the value of capital relative to current output is one of the central phenomena Piketty wants to understand, and underlies his claims about the increasingly skewed distribution of personal income. The horizontal axis shows the change in the wealth ratio implied by observed savings and growth rates. This is the change in wealth ratios that can be explained by differential accumulation and growth. On the vertical axis is the actual change.


As you can see, there is not much of a relationship. It’s true that slow-growing, high-saving Italy has the biggest increase in the wealth-income ratio, just as the capital-as-quantity approach would predict, and that fast-growing, low-saving United States has the smallest. But that’s it. German savings have been nearly as high as Italian,and German income growth nearly as slow, yet the growth of the wealth ratio there is close to the bottom. In the UK, the behavior of savings and income growth implied that the wealth ratio should decline; instead it rose by over 200 percentage points. Cumulated savings and growth rates explain only about 20 percent of the variation in wealth ratio increases across countries; 80 percent is explained by changes in the value of existing assets. If we want to know why the capital share has increased in some countries so much more than others over the past 40 years, the Harrod-Domar-Solow approach is not much more helpful than the principle of buoyancy would be to analyze the flight performance of different aircraft.

Next let’s look at the evolution of the US wealth ratio over time. The second figure shows the historical path of the US capital output ratio and two counterfactual paths. The counterfactuals are what we would see if wealth followed the “zeroth law.” The first counterfactual simply shows the wealth ratio under the assumption of standard growth theory that the value of capital stock in one year is equal to the value in the previous year, less depreciation, plus saving. All of Piketty’s formal analysis is based on the assumption that, on average, this is indeed how the capital stock behaves. The second counterfactual is based on capital gains fixed at their average for the full period, and again historical savings rates. (It also follows Piketty by treating quantity changes as saving, but this is not qualitatively important.)


What do we see? First, the cumulated-savings trajectories are quite different from the historical trajectory, even over the long run. As Piketty notes, the Harrod-Domar-Solow approach assumes that over the long run, the value of assets rises at the same rate as the price level in general. But in the US (as in other countries), this is not the case – over the full 140-year period, real average capital gains are 0.6% annually. This might seem small, but over a long period it has a decisive impact on the trajectory of the wealth ratio. As the figure shows, in the absence of these capital gains the US wealth ratio would follow a clear downward trend, from a bit over 4 times GDP in 1870 to a bit less than 3 times GDP today. In the US, in other words, the growth of the capital stock through net saving has consistently been slower than the growth of output. Under these conditions, the Harrod-Domar-Solow framework predicts a declining wealth ratio.

The capital-as-quantity framework also does not fit most of the medium-term variation in the wealth ratio. True, it does match the historically observed rise in the wealth ratio during the 1930s and the fall during World War II, which are driven by changes in the denominator (GDP) not the numerator. But it suggests that the only significant postwar recovery in the wealth ratio should have come in the 1970s, when in fact the wealth ratio reached its nadir in this period. And the more recent rise in the wealth ratio has come in a period when Piketty’s framework would predict a sharp decline. During the decade before the Great Recession, savings were low but capital gains were high; in a Harrod-Domar-Solow, framework, that implies a decline in the value of wealth relative to output. The message of Piketty’s data is clear: If “capital is back,” it is entirely because of an increase in the value of existing assets, not, as the book suggests, because accumulation has been outpacing growth. 3

So treating capital as a physical stock fails to capture either the long-run trajectory of capital-output ratios or the variation in wealth ratios across countries and between different periods. All of the developments Piketty describes in his historical material, is driven by the valuation changes that he abstracts away from in his formal analysis.

With a moment’s reflection, this should not be surprising. After all, a significant fraction of the wealth stock is land, which is not produced. If land prices did not consistently rise faster than the general price level, then land would have long since declined to a trivial fraction of total wealth. The problem land poses for Piketty’s story is emphasized by Matt Rognlie among others, whose critique of the book is in some ways parallel to the argument I’m making here.

If we can’t make sense of the changes in the wealth ratio by thinking of the incremental accumulation physical stock of capital, how else can we think about it?

Let’s go back to Piketty’s First Law. As I suggested, there are different ways to interpret this accounting identity. We can think of it as Piketty and most other economists do, as saying that there is a stock of capital goods; these goods generate a certain amount of output, which is received as income by the owners of the capital goods; that stream of income can then be compared to the national income to find the share of capital owners. From this point of view, the stock of capital is the real sociological fact and the shares are secondary. Alternatively, instead of starting from an endowment of capital goods, we could start from the process of social production. The output of this process is then divided up according to various socially recognized claims, which we call wages, profits, taxes, and so on. Some claims are marketable; these claims will have a price. The price of profit-type claims on output is related to the flow of income assigned to them by r, now understood as the discount factor applied to an income stream rather than the income generated by an asset.

It’s the same identity, the two stories are formally equivalent. The effort to turn this formal equivalence into a substantive identity – to reduce money values and distributional conflicts to the technical problem of allocation of scarce resources – have yielded two centuries’ worth of tautological circumlocutions. But at the end of the day we are left with a choice of ways of looking at the same observable phenomena. In the orthodox perspective favored by Piketty, we ask “why is there more capital than there used to be?” and “what is the product of each unit of capital?” In the second perspective – which following Perry Mehrling we might call the money view – it’s the distribution among rival claims that is the real sociological fact, and the value of these of claims as “capital” that is an after-the-fact calculation. From this point of view, the relevant questions are “how much of the output of the firm is appropriated through property claims?” and “what value is put on each dollar of property income?” In which case, we should expect to see higher wealth ratios not in times and places where cumulated savings have outpaced growth, but in times and places where the bargaining process has shifted in favor of holders of capital claims, and where financial markets place a higher value on ownership claims relative to current output.

What does this mean concretely? Piketty himself gives some good examples. There is a short but interesting section in the book on the abolition of slavery in the US. Here we have a drastic (though short-lived) reduction in the wealth ratio and capital share in the US. Clearly, this has nothing to do with any change in the pace of accumulation of physical capital. Rather, what happened was that a share in output that had taken the form of a tradable capital-type claim ceased to be recognized. Piketty presents this as a special case, an interesting excursion; he might have done better to treat it as a signpost to the main road. Slavery is only one possible system in which which authority over the production process, and a share of the surplus it generates, goes to the holders of particular kinds of property claims.

Another, perhaps more directly relevant case, is the case of Germany. Germany, by income one of the richest and most equal countries in Europe, has among the lowest and most unequal household wealth. In addition – and not unrelatedly – German corporations have unusually low stock market valuations. Among the major rich countries, Germany consistently has the lowest Tobin’s q – shares of a company with given assets and liabilities are valued less in Germany than elsewhere. The first puzzle, that of low and highly skewed market wealth, is largely explained by low levels of homeownership in Germany. Compared with most other rich countries, middle-class Germans are much more likely to be renters. This does not mean that their housing is any lower quality or less secure than in other countries, but it does mean that the same physical house in Germany shows up as less market wealth.

The lower valuation of German corporations also reduces the apparent wealth of German households. And why are German firms valued less by the stock market? Piketty and Zucman offer a suggestive explanation:

the higher Tobin’s Q in Anglo-Saxon countries might be related to the fact that shareholders have more control over corporations than in Germany, France, and Japan. … Relatedly, the control rights valuation story may explain part of the rising trend in Tobin’s Q in rich countries. … the “control right” or  “stakeholder” view of the firm can in principle explain why the market value of corporations is particularly low in Germany (where worker representatives have voting rights in corporate boards). According to this “stakeholder” view of the firm, the market value of corporations can be interpreted as the value for the owner…

In other words, one reason household wealth is low in Germany is because German households exercise more of their claims on the business sector as workers rather than as wealth owners. Again, this is treated by Piketty as a sideline to the main narrative. But given that almost all the rise in wealth ratios is explained by valuation changes, this sort of story about the strength of shareholder claims under different institutional arrangements probably has more to say about the actual evolution of the capital share than the whole apparatus of growth theory.

When I’ve made this argument to people, they’ve sometimes defended Capital in the 21st Century by saying that we should take its title seriously. Despite appearances, this is not fundamentally a book about the historical evolution of wealth and income in various countries, but about what we might expect to happen in the future. But it seems to me that our interpretation of the historical record is going to shape our judgements about future prospects. In Piketty’s story, there seem to be two different kinds of forces at work. There are valuation changes and revisions of property rights, which operate episodically; these explain the mid-20th century declines in the wealth ratio and capital share. And there is the ongoing dynamics of accumulation, which operates all the time; this explains the convergence of the wealth ratio and capital share to high levels both in the 19th century and more recently. (Or explains the increase of the wealth ratio without limit, if you prefer that reading.)

When we split things up this way, it’s natural to base our predictions for the future on the continuous process, rather than on the historically specific episodes – especially if those episodes all coincide with major wars. The continuous process, furthermore, implies a tight link between growth and the wealth share. The same acts of saving and investment that allow society to increase its material production, also ensure that an increasing share of that production will be claimed in the form of capital income, even while the great majority of us continue to depend for our income on labor. So it’s futile to try to change the distribution of income directly; all that can be hoped for is redistributive taxes carried out by the deus ex machina of a global state.

But when we realize that changes in the value of existing assets are central not just to the decline in wealth ratios in the mid-20th century, but to their whole evolution – including their rise in recent decades – then the mid-20th century decline no longer looks like a special case. It’s bargaining power, it’s politics, all the way down. The same kind of redistributive projects – the decommodification of basic services like healthcare, pensions, and education; the increased bargaining power of workers within the firm – that were responsible for the fall in the capital share in the mid 20th century were responsible, in reverse, for its rise since 1980. In which case we can learn as much about our possible futures from the 20th century decline in the claims of property over humanity, as from their recent reassertion.

  1. I’m emphasizing the “zeroth law” here, but it’s worth noting that the conventional practice of treating s and g as “slow” variables and beta as “fast” is also open to question. If you look at the historical data, national savings and growth rates are much more variable than the capital-output ratio, and they don’t appear to be stationary around any long-term average. So it seems a bit nonsensical to talk about the capital-output ratio as converging to a long-run equilibrium defined by a fixed s and g. 

  2. Piketty’s presentation of his data online is superb, both in content and organization. Even if the book were otherwise worthless – which is very far from the case – these appendixes would be a huge contribution. 

  3. Another problem is that Piketty’s narrative suggests that r, the rate of return on capital, is constant or increasing, while his data unambiguously show a long-term decline. As a result, the rise in the wealth ratio has not been accompanied by a rise in the capital share, at least not everywhere. In the UK and France, there is a clear downward trajectory from a capital share of 40 percent in the mid-19th century to around 25 percent today. 

19 Nov 21:55

Property Taxes and Unequal Schools

by Erik Loomis
Coverage from the May 9, 2011 protest of Rhee/Walker/Corbett at the American Federation for Children policy summit from website

Coverage from the May 9, 2011 protest of Rhee/Walker/Corbett at the American Federation for Children policy summit
from website

I should surprise no readers by noting that racial injustice is so deep in our institutions that it infects nearly every part of American life. The definition of structural racism is that inequality gets replicated without those replicating it even knowing it. Or if they do know it, they can justify it while saying “racism is bad.” This brings me to school funding. Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman run a public magnet school targeting Latinos who may be underachieving in Central Falls, Rhode Island. For those of you unfamiliar with the urban geography of Rhode Island, Central Falls is a postage stamp of a town that should not be its own municipality. It’s barely bigger than a neighborhood. It’s also very poor and very heavily Latino, with a quite high percentage of Colombians.

Of course the schools in Central Falls are awful. And then aren’t much better in Pawtucket or Providence. It shouldn’t have to be that way. But it is because so much of the money for the schools come from local property taxes, as O’Leary an Friedman write. That means that rich districts have good schools and poor districts don’t. Basing much of school funding on local property taxes is racist. It also helps lead to citizens who have the financial wherewithal to make choices on where they live to either move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools. These are racist acts. They don’t mean the people who commit them are racist per se. But they are acts that explicitly commit people to fostering long-term inequality. I get why they do it–it’s my child after all!–but then that again is how structural racism works. It operates to incentivize otherwise perhaps well-meaning people to make choices that perpetuate racism. I’m not trying to troll readers here by accusing them of racism. But I am putting the decisions people make for their children’s sake within the spectrum of American structural racism.

The primary way around this problem is to take local property taxes out of it. More useful would be a state-wide property tax that would go exclusively to school funding. All children should receive equal funding. Unequal funding within states should be considered a civil rights violation. A white student in the wealthy coastal town of East Greenwich is not worth more than a Colombian kid in Central Falls. Except that actually in our society they are worth more. Instead the answer is let’s privatize the education for the poor, which serves to also perpetuate structural racism by firing middle-class black teachers and replacing with untrained non-union labor that is usually white and which allows wealthy, usually white, people to profit off of educating the poor, cutting the corners that capitalists will do to make a buck.


17 Nov 20:22

Gun Rights are White Rights

by Erik Loomis


Another reminder that gun rights are a euphemism for white rights:

A Texas state legislator wants the U.S. to stop allowing Syrian refugees into the country. His reasoning: They might be able to buy guns in his state.

Rep. Tony Dale (R) made this argument in a television interview on Monday and in letters to Texas’ U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (R) and U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul and John Carter (R).

“While the Paris attackers used suicide vests and grenades,” Dale wrote, “it is clear that firearms also killed a large number of innocent victims. Can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States, is provided with federal cash payments and other assistance, obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?” He urged the lawmakers to “do whatever you can to stop the [Syrian refugee] program.”

But Dale is one of the Texas legislature’s most fervent gun-rights advocates. Two weeks ago, he tweeted his National Rifle Association membership renewal. In accepting an “A” rating from the group and the Texas State Rifle Association’s PAC in 2012, he observed: “Perhaps no right is more fundamental than the right to keep and bear arms.” And his campaign website vows his fealty to the Second Amendment, saying it “isn’t just an archaic document,” a “guarantor of all of our other freedoms.” And he and his colleagues in the state legislature have blocked mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.

Of course conservatives like Ronald Reagan were all about Second Amendment restrictions when it was Black Panthers carrying guns into the California statehouse and following cops to stop police brutality. And the National Rife Association was a benign hunters group until it got caught up in the white backlash to civil rights in the 1970s and transformed itself into the fanatical devotee of gun rights it is today. The modern gun rights movement and white rights movement have always been intertwined. These connections need a lot more exploration than the occasional note that some Texas state legislator is freaking out about Muslims buying guns but wants all the whites in his state to be armed to the teeth.


19 Oct 15:00

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Religion: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC


Hovertext: Time for the HATEMAIL BONANZA

New comic!
Today's News:

At long last, we release our second theme collection. 


19 Oct 17:07

Cultural anxieties about migration

by Chris Bertram

This is more of a bleg than a post, I’m looking for contradiction. One of the often-claimed worries about immigration is of cultural loss, that the incomers will overwhelm the natives who will then lose the distinctive identity that they value. Supposedly, open borders would lead to the erosion of difference, people would lose their countries, and be bereft. But thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of any cases of cultural extinction due to the kind of immigration that results from individuals and families simply choosing to move to another country for a better or different life. Open borders within Europe haven’t caused the Germans and French to disappear. Open borders within the UK (and with Ireland) haven’t led to the demise of the Scots, the English, the Welsh or the Irish. And such immigrants as have come, have just turned into regular folks with slightly unusual names or atypical appearance within a generation. Not that there haven’t been historical cases of some peoples chasing out or killing other peoples, of course there have. But all the instances — at least all the modern ones — I can think of are state-sponsored projects of colonialism, genocide, forced relocation and the like. In the absence of deliberate state action and political mobilization, peoples of ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic distinctiveness seem to be pretty robust entities. Though Henry Sidgwick and Michael Walzer seemed to think they needed borders and border control to preserve themselves, mostly they don’t.

23 Sep 14:13

The (Near) Perfect Capitalist

by Erik Loomis


Sure Martin Shkreli is human scum. But as a capitalist, isn’t he doing what he is supposed to be doing? The goal is to make money. Anything getting in the way of that is irresponsible to that singular goal. So why shouldn’t he force people to die in order to make profit? After all, as I have blogged about here almost daily for over 4 years, capitalists force people to their deaths in order to profit every day. They do so in the chemical industry, in apparel, in steel, in oil, in coal, in timber, in agriculture, in industry after industry, sometimes in this country, more often outsourced or contracted factories overseas. We ignore this, largely because, unlikely pricey pills, it doesn’t affect us. Such unregulated capitalism is at the core of American mythology, if not Shkreli’s arrogance.

Really, Shkreli is an honest breath of fresh air. Now everyone has an opportunity to know how evil capitalism is at its core.

Of course, we don’t have to allow capitalism to control the medical system. But we do.

The story of Daraprim’s giant price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drug makers set their own prices — maximizing profits the same way that sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other seller of manufactured goods would.

In Europe, Canada, and Australia, governments view the market for cures as essentially uncompetitive and set the price as part of a bureaucratic process — similar to how electricity or water are priced in regulated US utility markets.

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care — but not other products, like phones or cars — because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

When drug companies set their American prices, they don’t focus on the price of making the pills. Instead, they look at what their competitors already charge for similar products — and try to land their price somewhere in that same range, regardless of production costs or how good the drug actually is. Since most drugs are already expensive, new drugs keep matching those prices.

And, if you’re a drug company that produces the best cure for a disease (as Turing does for toxoplasmosis), this makes a ton of sense: you have consumers whose life, quite literally, depends on buying your product. This is what Shkreli talked about, quite bluntly, in his Bloomberg interview.

“We know these days that modern pharmaceuticals and cancer drugs can cost $100,000 or more,” he said. “Daraprim is still underpriced compared to its peers.”

The real question at the heart of the Daraprim outrage isn’t why one pharmaceutical company decided to hike a drug price. The real question is why other companies aren’t taking advantage of the pick-your-price nature of American pharmaceutical policy — and whether they will ultimately follow in Turing’s steps.

The cure for this particular problem is of course socialized medicine and government price controls. But I’ll note again that people die all the time making phones and cars and clothing around the world for these same nations that have made the decision to regulate medicine. If Bangladeshi workers die making clothing, they don’t care much. But if their own consumers die because of high priced medicine, that’s worth state intervention. I agree on the latter obviously, but there’s a lot of hypocrisy from these nations, as well as the same divide we see in this country, where consumer-based activism can sometimes have fast results, but worker-based activism is ignored. If our vegetables have chemical residue on them, that can (and has) to a major consumer movement. But if to avoid this, as was the solution, new generation of pesticides were developed that worked hard and fast but also massively exposed workers, consumers couldn’t care less.

There is one thing that makes Shkreli a less than perfect capitalist. His own hubris brought attention to himself and created the rare public pressure that forces a price down. Had he raised the price slowly but consistently, he could have sacrificed some short-term profits in favor of longer-term success. So he is flawed. But it’s also almost refreshing to have someone so evil that they are willing to strip away all the concealment that allows us to escape the daily knowledge of the human costs of unregulated or poorly regulated capitalism, because he just doesn’t care what we think about it (until it starts costing him money). It’d be nice if we recognized that capitalists kill people every day and do something about it.


18 Sep 14:45

Americans and Guns

by Erik Loomis

A chart says a thousand words.


Of course, the terrorist front organization called the National Rifle Association loves this.

More here.

26 Aug 11:13

The Reactionary Soul

by By Paul Krugman

Frank Bruni marvels at polls indicating that Donald Trump, with his multiple marriages and casinos, is the preferred candidate among Republican evangelicals. Others are shocked to see a crude mercantilist make so much headway in the alleged party of free markets. What happened to conservative principles?

Actually, nothing — because those alleged principles were never real. Conservative religiosity, conservative faith in markets, were never about living a godly life or letting the invisible hand promote entrepreneurship. Instead, it was all as Corey Robin describes it: Conservatism is

a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.

It’s really about who’s boss, and making sure that the man in charge stays boss. Trump is admired for putting women and workers in their place, and it doesn’t matter if he covets his neighbor’s wife or demands trade wars.

The point is that Trump isn’t a diversion, he’s a revelation, bringing the real motivations of the movement out into the open.

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16 Aug 19:54

Family Values Fascism: From Vichy to Donald Trump

by Corey Robin

On Meet the Press this morning:

Donald Trump would reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration and deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S. as president, he said in an exclusive interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.

“We’re going to keep the families together, but they have to go,” he said in the interview, which aired in full on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

Pressed on what he’d do if the immigrants in question had nowhere to return to, Trump reiterated: “They have to go.”

What is it about these voices calling for national purification via the elimination of alien elements that makes them think they can soften the blow by promising to kick out parents along with their children? Trump is hardly the first.

In 1942, as the Vichy regime began handing over the foreign-born Jews of France to the Nazis, it made the decision to deport their children (about six thousand) with them. Mostly, it seems, to fulfill the Nazis’ quotas—but also, Vichy proclaimed, to keep the families together.

At the time, Robert Brasillach wrote, “We must separate from the Jews en bloc and not keep any little ones.” Defending that position from his prison cell, after the liberation of France had begun, he explained: “I even wrote that women must not be separated from children and that we must arrive at a human solution to the problem.” A month later, he doubled-down on the notion that family values might somehow soften his fascism:

I am an anti-Semite, history has taught me the horrors of the Jewish dictatorship, but that families have so often been separated, children cast aside, deportations organized that could only have been legitimate if they hadn’t had as their goal—hidden from us—death, pure and simple, strikes me, and has always struck me, as unacceptable. This is not how we’ll solve the Jewish problem.

Deportations are acceptable, then, if they do not have as their goal the extermination of the Jews, and if they do not break up families. That is how we humanitarians solve the Jewish problem.

(And long before Vichy, there was slaveholder Thomas Dew contemplating the pragmatics of emancipation in the South: “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.”)

Most ideological justifications of brutality do their work by hiding the brutality under a halo of pretty words. What’s odd about family values fascism is that the halo reveals the brutality. By deporting children along with their parents, you not only keep families together, but you also get rid of more undesirables. It’s a twofer!

Speaking of the European precedents of Donald Trump, Dave Weigel has a good piece in the Washington Post on Trump’s appeal among working-class voters in Flint, Michigan (home of the sit-down strikes in the auto industry). Workers, reports Weigel, don’t just like Trump’s stance on international trade and immigrants; they like his style. He knows his way around the negotiating table.

Parsons’s wife, Brenda, who’d been nodding her head, interjected to explain why she trusted Trump.

“He’s a businessman,” she said. “Being a businessman, he knows the ways around. I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask. I think he’d just do it.”

Bob Parsons explained that Trump could ignore lobbyists. It was lobbyists, hungry to sell out America for a buck, who weakened the trade deals, he said.

“You wouldn’t believe how many young kids I met in Afghanistan who have their degrees but can’t find jobs at home,” he said. “I compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. He lets people know what he’s going to do, not what to ask for.”

Reminded me of a story, probably apocryphal, that Guizot liked to tell about Adolphe Thiers, nineteenth-century France’s on-again, off-again, penultimate reactionary. Three workers approach Thiers. The first says, “We belong to the vile multitude you have abused; yet we are going to vote for you.” The second says, “We detest the Pope; we are going to vote for you.” The third says, “We are Socialists; we are going to vote for you.” Thiers is shocked and asks them why. Their reply: “Oh! It’s because there’s no one like you, M. Thiers, for smashing Governments!”

But the best thing written yet on Trump is this starburst of epigrams from Jodi Dean:

Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth, the truth of enjoyment. Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality. Money buys access—why deny it? Money creates opportunity—for those who have it. Money lets those with a lot of it express their basest impulses and desires—there is no need to hide the dark drives when there is none before whom one might feel shame (we might call this the Berlusconi principle). It’s the rest of us who bow down.

As Trump makes explicit the power of money in the contemporary US, he facilitates, stimulates, and circulates enjoyment (jouissance). Trump openly expresses the racism, sexism, contempt, and superiority that codes of civility and political correctness insist be repressed. This expression demonstrates the truth of economic inequality: civility is for the middle class, a normative container for the rage of the dispossessed and the contempt of the dispossessors. The .1 % need not pretend to care.

In a plutocracy, the plutocrats rule. The Republicans don’t like Trump because he doesn’t hide this point under flag and fetus. For him, flag and fetus are present, but incidental to his politics of truth.  Those with money win. Those without it lose. Winners get to do whatever they want. Losers get done to. Trump unleashes the drives US electoral politics more typically attempts to channel along set scripts. This is his politics of enjoyment.



19 Aug 18:32

Wordplay Wednesday

by Ken Jennings
Brian Stouffer

You could add Romeo, Juliet, Mama, and Omega

Making its long-awaited return!

Tough one. What do these words have in common?

Updated to add: Neel Mehta solved this first, as you will see if you look up the answer here.

22 Jul 14:32

Workplace Safety Recidivists & Republican Economic Ideology

by Erik Loomis


Above: The Republican ideal of workplace safety

Some companies just don’t care about workplace safety, even when they receive OSHA fines. One of those companies is Wisconsin’s Ashley Furniture.

Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., already facing a possible $1.7 million fine for alleged safety violations at its massive factory in Arcadia, was accused Tuesday of new infractions and of failing to report worker injuries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said a 56-year-old employee of the giant furniture maker lost his right ring finger after a March 11 accident on a machine that the agency had cited as unsafe just one month earlier.

Ashley also failed to report the injury as required, OSHA said. The agency learned of it from a family member of the victim, an OSHA spokeswoman said.

Another Ashley employee was similarly injured in January on the same type of machine, OSHA said. The company also failed to report that injury as required, the agency spokeswoman said.

The latest citations carry proposed fines totaling $83,200. The bulk of that stems from two alleged violations that OSHA deems “willful,” meaning that they were committed “with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

“Workers at Ashley Furniture cannot count on their company to do what’s right when it comes to safety,” Mark Hysell, OSHA’s area director in Eau Claire, said in a statement. “These workers are at risk because this company is intentionally and willfully disregarding OSHA standards and requirements.”

In February, OSHA accused Ashley of 38 safety violations and said the firm was emphasizing profit over worker safety.

Of course this company has very close ties to Scott Walker. So close that one wonders about the legality of those ties. Last year, Walker appointees gave Ashley Furniture a $6 million tax credit that included a provision allowing it to lay off half its in-state workforce. Ashley executives then paid Walker back with $20,000 in campaign donations.

This is what a Walker presidency would look like on a national scale. Gutted workplace safety laws and a whole mess of corporate giveaways in exchange for campaign money. That’s Republican economic ideology in a nutshell.

09 Jul 20:09

It can’t happen here, until it does

by Paul Campos



One of the most compelling points Rick Perlstein makes in his excellent The Invisible Bridge is that Ronald Reagan was consistently and radically underestimated as a potential political force by the national media, public intellectuals, DC insiders, etc., until practically up to the moment he was on the edge of winning the GOP nomination in 1976.

This makes me at least begin to wonder if something similar might not be happening with Donald Trump. Now obviously there are enormous differences between the backgrounds, the careers, and the personalities of the two men, but there are also some striking similarities:

(1) Both mastered the art of manipulating their contemporary media environments.

(2) Both manifested a fine understanding of how to make outrageous statements in a way that ingratiated them with their political bases, precisely because the national media reaction to those statements allowed them to pose as victims of supposed media and/or elite bias.

(3) Both spent a good part of their lives as at least putatively wishy-washy Democrats, before discovering that selling racial demagoguery to the contemporary Republican party base was about as hard as selling beer at a baseball game on a 90-degree day.

(4) Both spent most of their careers being dismissed as clownish lightweights.

In a GOP presidential field that isn’t exactly stacked with political talent, the notion that Trump can’t win the nomination is at least premature. As is the idea that he can’t be elected president.

07 Jul 15:37

Debt Deflation in Greece

by By Paul Krugman

However things play out from here — I find it hard to see a path other than Grexit — the troika’s program for Greece represents one of history’s epic policy failures. Even if you ignore the economic and human toll, it was an utter failure in terms of restoring solvency. In 2009, before the program, Greek debt was 126 percent of GDP. After five years, debt was … 177 percent of GDP.

How did that happen? Did the Greeks continue massive borrowing? As the chart shows, the answer is a definite no. Greek debt at the end of 2014 was only 6 percent higher than it was at the end of 2009. Admittedly, that number reflects a significant haircut on private debt along the way, but it was still nothing like the continued borrowing binge some imagine.

What happened instead was, of course, the collapse of GDP — itself largely the result of the austerity program.

What this suggests is that the troika program was simply infeasible, and would have been infeasible no matter how willing the Greeks had been to make sacrifices. The more they cut, the worse things got, because of Fisherian debt deflation.

I suppose you can argue that structural reforms might have delivered a boost in competitiveness, but the truth is that there’s very little evidence supporting the conventional faith in such reforms.

Some of my more conventional contacts like to insist that Greek austerity was unavoidable, and it’s true that one way or another Greece was going to have to achieve a primary surplus. If currency devaluation had been an option, this would have required much less austerity, because of the boost from easier monetary policy; but within the euro a lot of austerity was indeed something that had to happen. But the key point is that the austerity ended up being not just incredibly painful but completely futile, because it wasn’t accompanied by massive debt relief.

Is this kind of futility always the case? Not necessarily; if you try to do the arithmetic here, it becomes clear that a lot depends on the initial level of debt. If Greece had received major debt forgiveness, it would still have gone through hell, but with at least some hint of an eventual exit. Instead it was pushed into a cycle of ever-worse pain without hope.

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05 Jul 16:02

The Real History of the Confederate Flag

by Scott Lemieux
28 Jun 21:37


by By Paul Krugman
Brian Stouffer

Krugthulu throws down.

OK, this is real: Greek banks closed, capital controls imposed. Grexit isn’t a hard stretch from here — the much feared mother of all bank runs has already happened, which means that the cost-benefit analysis starting from here is much more favorable to euro exit than it ever was before.

Clearly, though, some decisions now have to wait on the referendum.

I would vote no, for two reasons. First, much as the prospect of euro exit frightens everyone — me included — the troika is now effectively demanding that the policy regime of the past five years be continued indefinitely. Where is the hope in that? Maybe, just maybe, the willingness to leave will inspire a rethink, although probably not. But even so, devaluation couldn’t create that much more chaos than already exists, and would pave the way for eventual recovery, just as it has in many other times and places. Greece is not that different.

Second, the political implications of a yes vote would be deeply troubling. The troika clearly did a reverse Corleone — they made Tsipras an offer he can’t accept, and presumably did this knowingly. So the ultimatum was, in effect, a move to replace the Greek government. And even if you don’t like Syriza, that has to be disturbing for anyone who believes in European ideals.

A strange logistical note: I’m on semi-vacation this week, doing a bicycle trip in an undisclosed location. It’s only a semi-vacation because I didn’t negotiate any days off the column; I’ll be in tomorrow’s paper (hmm, I wonder what the subject is) and have worked the logistics so as to make Friday’s column doable too. I was planning to do little if any blogging, and will in any case do less than I might have otherwise given the events.

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26 Jun 17:21

It Is Accomplished

by Andrew Sullivan


As Gandhi never quite said,

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.

I remember one of the first TV debates I had on the then-strange question of civil marriage for gay couples. It was Crossfire, as I recall, and Gary Bauer’s response to my rather earnest argument after my TNR cover-story on the matter was laughter. “This is the loopiest idea ever to come down the pike,” he joked. “Why are we even discussing it?”

Those were isolating  days. A young fellow named Evan Wolfson who had written a dissertation on the subject in 1983 got in touch, and the world immediately felt less lonely. Then a breakthrough in Hawaii, where the state supreme court ruled for marriage equality on gender equality grounds. No gay group had agreed to support the case, which was regarded at best as hopeless and at worst, a recipe for a massive backlash. A local straight attorney from the ACLU, Dan Foley, took it up instead, one of many straight men and women who helped make this happen. And when we won, and got our first fact on the ground, we indeed faced exactly that backlash and all the major gay rights groups refused to spend a dime on protecting the breakthrough … and we lost.

In fact, we lost and lost and lost again. Much of the gay left was deeply suspicious of this conservative-sounding reform; two thirds of the country were opposed; the religious right saw in the issue a unique opportunity for political leverage – and over time, they put state constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in countless states, and won every time. Our allies deserted us. The Clintons embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, and their Justice Department declared that DOMA was in no way unconstitutional the morning some of us were testifying against it on Capitol Hill. For his part, president George W. Bush subsequently went even further and embraced the Federal Marriage Amendment to permanently ensure second-class citizenship for gay people in America. Those were dark, dark days.

I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being “on the right side of history.” History does not have such straight lines. Movements do not move relentlessly forward; progress comes and, just as swiftly, goes. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.

But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens. In the words of Hannah Arendt:

“The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.”

This core truth is what Justice Kennedy affirmed today, for the majority: that gay people are human. I wrote the following in 1996:

Homosexuality, at its core, is about the emotional connection between two adult human beings. And what public institution is more central—more definitive—of that connection than marriage? The denial of marriage to gay people is therefore not a minor issue. It is the entire issue. It is the most profound statement our society can make that homosexual love is simply not as good as heterosexual love; that gay lives and commitments and hopes are simply worth less. It cuts gay people off not merely from civic respect, but from the rituals and history of their own families and friends. It erases them not merely as citizens, but as human beings.

We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings. It took courage to embrace this fact the way the Supreme Court did today. In that 1996 essay, I analogized to the slow end to the state bans on inter-racial marriage:

The process of integration—like today’s process of “coming out”—introduced the minority to the majority, and humanized them. Slowly, white people came to look at interracial couples and see love rather than sex, stability rather than breakdown. And black people came to see interracial couples not as a threat to their identity, but as a symbol of their humanity behind the falsifying carapace of race.

It could happen again. But it is not inevitable; and it won’t happen by itself. And, maybe sooner rather than later, the people who insist upon the centrality of gay marriage to every American’s equality will come to seem less marginal, or troublemaking, or “cultural,” or bent on ghettoizing themselves. They will seem merely like people who have been allowed to see the possibility of a larger human dignity and who cannot wait to achieve it.

I think of the gay kids in the future who, when they figure out they are different, will never know the deep psychic wound my generation – and every one before mine – lived through: the pain of knowing they could never be fully part of their own family, never be fully a citizen of their own country. I think, more acutely, of the decades and centuries of human shame and darkness and waste and terror that defined gay people’s lives for so long. And I think of all those who supported this movement who never lived to see this day, who died in the ashes from which this phoenix of a movement emerged. This momentous achievement is their victory too – for marriage, as Kennedy argued, endures past death.

I never believed this would happen in my lifetime when I wrote my first several TNR essays and then my book, Virtually Normal, and then the anthology and the hundreds and hundreds of talks and lectures and talk-shows and call-ins and blog-posts and articles in the 1990s and 2000s. I thought the book, at least, would be something I would have to leave behind me – secure in the knowledge that its arguments were, in fact, logically irrefutable, and would endure past my own death, at least somewhere. I never for a millisecond thought I would live to be married myself. Or that it would be possible for everyone, everyone in America.

But it has come to pass. All of it. In one fell, final swoop.

Know hope.

27 Jun 02:43

An End to the Blackmail

by Alexis Tsipras

For six months now the Greek government has been waging a battle in conditions of unprecedented economic suffocation to implement the mandate you gave us on January 25.

The mandate we were negotiating with our partners was to end the austerity and to allow prosperity and social justice to return to our country.

It was a mandate for a sustainable agreement that would respect both democracy and common European rules and lead to the final exit from the crisis.

Throughout this period of negotiations, we were asked to implement the agreements concluded by the previous governments with the Memoranda, although they were categorically condemned by the Greek people in the recent elections.

However, not for a moment did we think of surrendering, that is to betray your trust.

After five months of hard bargaining, our partners, unfortunately, issued at the Eurogroup the day before yesterday an ultimatum to Greek democracy and to the Greek people. An ultimatum that is contrary to the founding principles and values of Europe, the values of our common European project.

They asked the Greek government to accept a proposal that accumulates a new unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.

The proposal of institutions includes: measures leading to further deregulation of the labor market, pension cuts, further reductions in public sector wages and an increase in VAT on food, dining and tourism, while eliminating tax breaks for the Greek islands.

These proposals directly violate the European social and fundamental rights: they show that concerning work, equality and dignity, the aim of some of the partners and institutions is not a viable and beneficial agreement for all parties but the humiliation the entire Greek people.

These proposals mainly highlight the insistence of the IMF in the harsh and punitive austerity and make more timely than ever the need for the leading European powers to seize the opportunity and take initiatives which will finally bring to a definitive end the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a crisis affecting other European countries and threatening the very future of European integration.

Fellow Greeks, right now weighs on our shoulders the historic responsibility towards the struggles and sacrifices of the Greek people for the consolidation of democracy and national sovereignty. Our responsibility for the future of our country.

And this responsibility requires us to answer the ultimatum on the basis of the sovereign will of the Greek people.

A short while ago at the cabinet meeting I suggested the organization of a referendum, so that the Greek people are able to decide in a sovereign way. The suggestion was unanimously accepted.

Tomorrow the House of Representatives will be urgently convened to ratify the proposal of the cabinet for a referendum next Sunday, July 5 on the question of the acceptance or the rejection of the proposal of institutions.

I have already informed about my decision the president of France and the chancellor of Germany, the president of the ECB, and tomorrow my letter will formally ask the EU leaders and institutions to extend for a few days the current program in order for the Greek people to decide, free from any pressure and blackmail, as required by the constitution of our country and the democratic tradition of Europe.

Fellow Greeks, to the blackmailing of the ultimatum that asks us to accept a severe and degrading austerity without end and without any prospect for a social and economic recovery, I ask you to respond in a sovereign and proud way, as the history of the Greek people commands.

To authoritarianism and harsh austerity, we will respond with democracy, calmly and decisively.

Greece, the birthplace of democracy will send a resounding democratic response to Europe and the world.

I am personally committed to respect the outcome of your democratic choice, whatever that is. And I’m absolutely confident that your choice will honor the history of our country and send a message of dignity to the world.

In these critical moments, we all have to remember that Europe is the common home of peoples. That in Europe there are no owners and guests. Greece is and will remain an integral part of Europe and Europe is an integral part of Greece. But without democracy, Europe will be a Europe without identity and without a compass.

I invite you all to display national unity and calm in order to take the right decisions. For us, for future generations, for the history of the Greeks. For the sovereignty and dignity of our people.

— Athens, June 27, 2015, 1 AM local time.

Translated by Stathis Kouvelakis

13 Jun 13:23

Decline and Fall of the Davos Democrats

by By Paul Krugman

OK, I didn’t see that coming: even though I have come out as a lukewarm opponent of TPP, I assumed that it would happen anyway — the way trade deals (or in this case, dispute settlement and intellectual property deals that pretend to be about trade) always do. But no, or not so far.

A brief aside: I don’t think it’s right to call this a case of Washington “dysfunction”. Dysfunction is when we get outcomes nobody wants, or fail to do things everyone wants done, because there doesn’t seem to be any way to package the politics. In this case, however, people who oppose TPP voted down key enabling measures — that is, they got what they wanted. Calling this “dysfunction” presumes that this deal is a good idea — and that kind of presumption is precisely what got successfully challenged yesterday.

Or to put it another way, one way to see this is as the last stand of the Davos Democrats.

If you talk to administration officials — or at least if I talk to them (they may be telling me what they think I want to hear) — they offer a fairly sophisticated defense of this deal. It’s about geopolitics, they say — America has to be in the game here lest others (obviously including China) supplant our influence; meanwhile, they argue that the troubling aspects of the deal aren’t as troubling as they sound (they make a decent case on dispute settlement, less so on intellectual property). And they argue that the deal would actually improve labor protections in poor countries.

I’m not fully convinced, but this is a reasonable discussion.

But the overall selling of TPP, to some extent by the administration and much more so by its business allies, has been nothing like this. Instead, it has been all lectures from Those Who Know How the Global Economy Works — the kind of people who go to Davos and participate in earnest panels on the skills gap and the case for putting Alan Simpson in charge of everything — to the ignorant hippies who don’t. You know, ignorant hippies like Joseph Stiglitz and Elizabeth Warren.

This kind of thing worked in the 1990s, when Davos Man actually did seem to know how the world works. But now Davos Democrats are known as the people who told us to trust unregulated finance and fear invisible bond vigilantes. They just don’t have the credibility to pull off arguments from authority any more. And it doesn’t say much for their perspicacity that they apparently had no idea that the world has changed.

TPP’s Democratic supporters thought they could dictate to their party like it’s 1999. They can’t.

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08 Jun 13:31

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Know Your Linguistic Philosophies


Hovertext: Language is a social construct that you REALLY suck at.

New comic!
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BAHFest Submissions are still open! 

28 May 03:12

David Runciman writes something goofy about US vs. British Politics

by Rich Yeselson

David Runciman wrote a brief essay in the LRB about the results of the British election. I want to focus on one peculiar passage. Runciman observes:

The two countries that have seen the greatest rise in inequality over the past couple of decades are Britain and the United States. Both have a first-past-the-post system designed to offer a clear choice between two main parties. Yet whichever of the two parties wins, the drift towards inequality has been inexorable.

This is, well, nuts or maybe just inexplicable coming from a political thinker of Runciman’s reputation. It tells us nothing about why inequality has accelerated or what might be done to mitigate it. Runciman conflates the British and US political systems because they both have “first past the post” voting—but he somehow neglects to then distinguish them because the US has a presidential model with separation of powers across three branches of government and a widely dispersed federalism, and the UK has a parliamentary model. Which means, of course, as nearly every knowledgable political writer has been screaming during the this time of divided US government, that the US system does not at all offer a “clear choice between two main parties.” In fact, as Juan Linz famously pointed out, in a presidential system two major parties or coalitions can both claim legitimacy by controlling a respective branch of government. (And thus the US can have, simultaneously, two warring “Prime Ministers”, eg, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.)

The American system offers a decidedly murky choice; Because the congressional party (whose election is spread over three cycles) does not merely oppose, but also obstructs the presidential party, the US way of democracy provides the electorate with no logical party accountability—presidential “failures” can be caused by minority legislative parties because the presidential party only appears to voters—and to Runciman, apparently—to be the governing party, but is not. The US system is really enormously different from the UK system. If Runciman had wished to argue that the Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has, in recent decades, abdicated the making and execution of foreign policy to the president, he’d have a point. But he writes as if clear party control of the levers of American politics was built into the system.

And there’s no need for the whole history lesson here, but that’s exactly how it wasn’t designed in the first place. It was, in fact, designed by people who did not anticipate the development of coherent political parties at all and, in fact, loathed the very idea (even if many of them then proceeded to become rather shrewd party politicians in the next phase of their careers). The whole point, as imagined by men who, with certain important exceptions, were very much determined not to replicate the powers of a monarchy in their fledgling nation, was to create conditions that would force elites to compromise and to limit the power of the propertyless (let alone the slaves) to even enter into the discussion. Compromise between powerful interests, not the clarity of unitary authority, was supposed to occur not only between the branches of government, but also between the national government and those of the states (and between the North and the slaveholding sub-nation of the South). There is absolutely nothing structurally about the American system of government, either in its inception or in its current dissipated condition, that offers voters a “clear choice” regarding domestic politics. (Even the rare historical circumstances that have seemingly given one party or the other effective control, eg, FDR’s already balkanized Democrats for, at most four years in the mid 1930s, in fact allowed a cross-party coalition of reactionaries to make the New Deal for “whites only.”

Later in the essay, Runciman expresses shock that the purportedly smooth running American political structure has crashed into a ditch like the regional trains that its warring parties of equal legitimacy refuse to fund. He writes contemptuously, comparing the squalid Brits with the squalid Yanks, “It is blackmail and veto power, with small groups clamouring to get what they want from the people in charge. This is the current model of American politics, which for all its premium on clarity and executive power is also extremely messy, with all sorts of minor players holding the big boys to ransom.”

But writers and scholars like Norm Ornstein, Thomas Mann, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (and many many others) have written copiously about how and why divided government does not engender clarity in the current iteration of the American presidential system. Runciman seems wholly unaware of this literature.

Sorry to be so sour, but has Runciman ever read The Federalist? Or Madison, in particular? Or just a good history about the ratification of the American constitution To frame his essay with this spurious comparison made it impossible for me to take the rest of his argument seriously.

22 May 13:56

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

by Rachel Laudan

The new edition of Jacobin, focusing on technology and politics, is out now. Four-issue subscriptions start at only $19.

Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television cooking programs, and in prizewinning cookbooks.

It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone­ ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples and pumpkins while despising modern tomatoes and hybrid corn; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding modern crops and to home economists who invent new recipes for General Mills.

We hover between ridicule and shame when we remember how our mothers and grand­mothers enthusiastically embraced canned and frozen foods. We nod in agreement when the waiter proclaims that the restaurant showcases the freshest local produce. We shun Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Above all, we loathe the great culminating symbol of Culinary Modernism, McDonald’s — modern, fast, homogenous, and international.

Like so many of my generation, my culinary style was created by those who scorned industrialized food; Culinary Luddites, we may call them, after the English hand workers of the nineteenth century who abhorred the machines that were destroying their traditional way of life. I learned to cook from the books of Elizabeth David, who urged us to sweep our store cupboards “clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic flavorings.”

I progressed to the Time-Life Good Cook series and to Simple French Cooking, in which Richard Olney hoped against hope that “the reins of stubborn habit are strong enough to frustrate the famous industrial revolution for some time to come.” I turned to Paula Wolfert to learn more about Mediterranean cooking and was assured that I wouldn’t “find a dishonest dish in this book . . . The food here is real food . . . the real food of real people.” Today I rush to the newsstand to pick up Saveur with its promise to teach me to “Savor a world of authentic cuisine.”

Culinary Luddism involves more than just taste. Since the days of the counterculture, it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade. Now in Boston, the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust works to provide “a scientific basis for the preservation and revitalization of traditional diets.

Meanwhile Slow Food, founded in 1989 to protest the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome, is a self­-described Greenpeace for Food; its manifesto begins, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods . . . Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.” As one of its spokesmen was reported as saying in the New York Times, “Our real enemy is the obtuse consumer.”

At this point I begin to back off. I want to cry, “Enough!” But why? Why would I, who learned to cook from Culinary Luddites, who grew up in a family that, in Elizabeth David’s words, produced their “own home-cured bacon, ham and sausages . . . churned their own butter, fed their chickens and geese, cherished their fruit trees, skinned and cleaned their own hares” (well, to be honest, not the geese and sausages), not rejoice at the growth of Culinary Luddism? Why would I (or anyone else) want to be thought “an obtuse consumer”? Or admit to preferring unreal food for unreal people? Or to savoring inauthentic cuisine?

The answer is not far to seek: because I am an historian.

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.

Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it. When Jacques Pepin offered free-­range chickens to friends, they found “the flesh tough and the flavor too strong,” prompting him to wonder whether they would really like things the way they naturally used to be. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.

Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger when the days were short. The weather turned cold, or the rain did not fall. Hens stopped laying eggs, cows went dry, fruits and vegetables were not to be found, fish could not be caught in the stormy seas.

Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic.

Nor did our ancestors’ physiological theories dispose them to the natural. Until about two hundred years ago, from China to Europe, and in Mesoamerica, too, everyone believed that the fires in the belly cooked foodstuffs and turned them into nutrients. That was what digestion was. Cooking foods in effect pre-digested them and made them easier to assimilate. Given a choice, no one would burden the stomach with raw, unprocessed foods.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.

To lower toxin levels, they cooked plants, treated them with clay (the Kaopectate effect), leached them with water, acid fruits and vinegars, and alkaline lye. They intensively bred maize to the point that it could not reproduce without human help. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors.

They built granaries for their grain, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used whatever additives and preservatives they could — sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye — to make edible foodstuffs.

In the twelfth century, the Chinese sage Wu Tzu-mu listed the six foodstuffs essential to life: rice, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, oil, and tea. Four had been unrecognizably transformed from their naturally occurring state.

Who could have imagined vinegar as rice that had been fermented to ale and then soured? Or soy sauce as cooked and fermented beans? Or oil as the extract of crushed cabbage seeds? Or bricks of tea as leaves that had been killed by heat, powdered, and compressed? Only salt and rice had any claim to fresh or natural, and even then the latter had been stored for months or years, threshed, and husked.

Processed and preserved foods kept well, were easier to digest, and were delicious: raised white bread instead of chewy wheat porridge; thick, nutritious, heady beer instead of prickly grains of barley; unctuous olive oil instead of a tiny, bitter fruit: soy milk, sauce, and tofu instead of dreary, flatulent soy beans; flexible, fragrant tortillas instead of dry, tough maize; not to mention red wine, blue cheese, sauerkraut, hundred-year-old eggs, Smithfield hams, smoked salmon, yogurt, sugar, chocolate, and fish sauce.

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror, something to which only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted. When the compiler of the Confucian classic, the Book of Rites (ca. 2oo BC), distinguished the first humans — people who had no alternative to wild, uncooked foods – from civilized peoples who took “advantage of the benefits of fire . . . [who] toasted, grilled, boiled, and roasted,” he was only repeating a commonplace.

When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they too were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

Local food was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as fresh and natural. Local foods were the lot of the poor who could neither escape the tyranny of local climate and biology nor the monotonous, often precarious, diet it afforded. Meanwhile, the rich, in search of a more varied diet, bought, stole, wheedled, robbed, taxed, and ran off with appealing plants and animals, foodstuffs, and culinary techniques from wherever they could find them.

By the fifth century BC, Celtic princes in the region of France now known as Burgundy were enjoying a glass or two of Greek wine, drunk from silver copies of Greek drink­ing vessels. The Greeks themselves looked to the Persians, acclimatizing their peaches and apricots and citrons and emulating their rich sauces, while the Romans in turn hired Greek cooks. From around the time of the birth of Christ, the wealthy in China, India, and the Roman Empire paid vast sums for spices brought from the distant and mysterious Spice Islands.

From the seventh century AD, Islamic caliphs and sultans transplanted sugar, rice, citrus, and a host of other Indian and Southeast Asian plants to Persia and the Mediterranean, transforming the diets of West Asia and the shores of the Mediterranean. In the thirteenth century, the Japanese had naturalized the tea plant of China and were importing sugar from Southeast Asia.

In the seventeenth century, the European rich drank sweetened coffee, tea, and cocoa in Chinese porcelain, imported or imitation, proffered by servants in Turkish or other foreign dress. To ensure their own supply, the French, Dutch, and English embarked on imperial ventures and moved millions of Africans and Asians around the globe. The Swedes, who had no empire, had a hard time getting these exotic food­stuffs, so the eighteenth-century botanist Linnaeus set afoot plans to naturalize the tea plant in Sweden.

We may laugh at the climatic hopelessness of his proposal. Yet it was no more ridiculous than other, more successful, proposals to naturalize Southeast Asian sugarcane throughout the tropics, apples in Australia, grapes in Chile, hereford cattle in Colorado and Argentina, and Caucasian wheat on the Canadian prairie. Without our aggressively global ancestors, we would all still be subject to the tyranny of the local.

As for slow food, it is easy to wax nostalgic about a time when families and friends met to relax over delicious food, and to forget that, far from being an invention of the late twentieth century, fast food has been a mainstay of every society.

Hunters tracking their prey, fishermen at sea, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home. The Creeks roasted barley and ground it into a meal to eat straight or mixed with water, milk, or butter (as the Tibetans still do), while the Aztecs ground roasted maize and mixed it with water to make an instant beverage (as the Mexicans still do).

City dwellers, above all, relied on fast food. When fuel cost as much as the food itself, when huddled dwellings lacked cooking facilities, and when cooking fires might easily conflagrate entire neighborhoods, it made sense to purchase your bread or noodles, and a little meat or fish to liven them up.

Before the birth of Christ, Romans were picking up honey cakes and sausages in the Forum. In twelfth-century Hangchow, the Chinese downed noodles, stuffed buns, bowls of soup, and deep-fried confections. In Baghdad of the same period, the townspeople bought ready-cooked meats, salt fish, bread, and a broth of dried chick peas. In the sixteenth cen­tury, when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Mexicans had been enjoying tacos from the market for generations. In the eighteenth century, the French purchased cocoa, apple turnovers, and wine in the boulevards of Paris, while the Japanese savored tea, noodles, and stewed fish.

Deep-fried foods, expensive and dangerous to prepare at home, have always had their place on the street: doughnuts in Europe, churros in Mexico, andagi in Okinawa, and sev in India. Bread, also expensive to bake at home, is one of the oldest convenience foods. For many people in West Asia and Europe, a loaf fresh from the baker was the only warm food of the day.

To these venerable traditions of fast food, Americans have simply added the electric deep fryer, the heavy iron griddle of the Low Countries, and the franchise. The McDonald’s in Rome was, in fact, just one more in a long tradition of fast food joints reaching back to the days of the Caesars.

What about the idea that the best food was country food, handmade by artisans? That food came from the country goes without saying. The presumed corollary — that country people ate better than city dwellers — does not.

Few who worked the land were independent peasants baking their own bread, brewing their own wine or beer, and salt­ing down their own pig. Most were burdened with heavy taxes and rents paid in kind (that is, food); or worse, they were indentured, serfs, or slaves.

Barely part of the cash economy, they subsisted on what was left over. “The city dwellers,” remarked the great Roman doctor Galen in the second century AD, “collected and stored enough grain for all the coming year immediately after the harvest. They car­ried off all the wheat, the barley, the beans and the lentils and left what remained to the countryfolk.”

What remained was pitiful. All too often, those who worked the land got by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads north of the Alps. French peasants prayed that chestnuts would be sufficient to sustain them from the time when their grain ran out to the harvest still three months away. South of the Alps, Italian peasants suffered skin eruptions, went mad, and in the worst cases died of pellagra brought on by a diet of maize polenta and water.

The dishes we call ethnic and assume to be of peasant origin were invented for the urban, or at least urbane, aristocrats who collected the surplus. This is as true of the lasagne of northern Italy as it is of the chicken konna of Mughal Delhi, the mooshu pork of imperial China, the pilafs, stuffed vegetables, and baklava of the great Ottoman palace in Istanbul, or the mee krob of nineteenth-century Bangkok. Cities have always enjoyed the best food and have invariably been the focal points of culinary innovation.

Nor are most “traditional foods” very old. For every prized dish that goes back two thousand years, a dozen have been invented in the last two hundred. The French baguette? A twentieth-century phenomenon, adopted nationwide only after World War II. English fish and chips? Dates from the late nineteenth century, when the working class took up the fried fish of Sephardic Jewish immigrants in East London. Fish and chips, though, will soon be a thing of the past.

It’s a Balti and lager now, Balti being a kind of stir-fried curry dreamed up by Pakistanis living in Birmingham. Greek moussaka? Created in the early twentieth century in an attempt to Frenchify Greek food. The bubbling Russian samovar? Late eighteenth century. The Indonesian rijsttafel? Dutch colonial food. Indonesian padang food? Invented for the tourist market in the past fifty years.

Tequila? Promoted as the national drink of Mexico during the 1930s by the Mexican film industry. Indian tandoori chicken? The brain­child of Hindu Punjabis who survived by selling chicken cooked in a Muslim-style tandoor oven when they fled Pakistan for Delhi during the Partition of India. The soy sauce, steamed white rice, sushi, and tempura of Japan? Commonly eaten only after the middle of the nineteenth century.

The lomilomi salmon, salted salmon rubbed with chopped tomatoes and spring onions that is a fixture in every Hawaiian luau? Not a salmon is to be found within two thousand miles of the islands, and onions and tomatoes were unknown in Hawaii until the nineteenth century. These are indisputable facts of history, though if you point them out you will be met with stares of disbelief.

Not only were many “traditional” foods created after industrialization and urbanization, a lot of them were dependent on it. The Swedish smorgasbord came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century when canned out-of-season fish, roe, and liver paste made it possible to set out a lavish table. Hungarian goulash was unknown before the nineteenth century, and not widely accepted until after the invention of a paprika-grinding mill in 1859.

When lands were conquered, peoples migrated, populations converted to different religions or accepted new dietary theories, and dishes — even whole cuisines — were forgotten and new ones invented. Where now is the cuisine of Renaissance Spain and Italy, or of the Indian Raj, or of Tsarist Russia, or of medieval Japan? Instead we have Nonya food in Singapore, Cape Malay food in South Africa, Creole food in the Mississippi Delta, and Local Food in Hawaii. How long does it take to create a cuisine? Not long: less than fifty years, judging by past experience.

Were old foods more healthful than ours? Inherent in this vague notion are several different claims, among them that foods were less dangerous, that diets were better balanced.

Yet while we fret about pesticides on apples, mercury in tuna, and mad cow disease, we should remember that ingesting food is, and always has been, inherently dangerous. Many plants contain both toxins and carcinogens, often at levels much higher than any pesticide residues. Grilling and frying add more.

Some historians argue that bread made from moldy, verminous flour, or adulterated with mash, leaves, or bark to make it go further, or contaminated with hemp or poppy seeds to drown out sorrows, meant that for five hundred years Europe’s poor staggered around in a drugged haze subject to hallucinations.

Certainly, many of our forebears were drunk much of the time, given that beer or wine were preferred to water, and with good reason. In the cities, polluted water supplies brought intestinal diseases in their wake. In France, for example, no piped water was available until the 1860s.

Bread was likely to be stretched with chalk, pepper adulterated with the sweepings of warehouse floors, and sausage stuffed with all the horrors famously exposed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. Even the most reputable cookbooks recommended using concentrated sulphuric acid to inten­sify the color of jams.

Milk, suspected of spreading scarlet fever, typhoid, and diphtheria as well as tuberculosis, was sensibly avoided well into the twentieth century when the United States and many parts of Europe introduced stringent regulations. My mother sifted weevils from the flour bin; my aunt reckoned that if the maggots could eat her home-cured ham and survive, so could the family.

As to dietary balance, once again we have to distinguish between rich and poor. The rich, whose bountiful tables and ample girths were visible evidence of their station in life, suffered many of the diseases of excess.

In the seventeenth century, the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, died of overindulgence in food, opium, and alcohol. In Georgian England, George Cheyne, the leading doctor, had to be wedged in and out of his carriage by his servants when he soared to four hundred pounds, while a little later Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and another important physician, had a semicircle cut out of his dining table to accommodate his paunch.

In the nineteenth century, the fourteenth shogun of Japan died at age twenty-one, probably of beriberi induced by eating the white rice available only to the privileged. In the Islamic countries, India, and Europe, the well-to-do took sugar as a medicine; in India they used butter; and in much of the world people avoided fresh vegetables, all on medical advice.

Whether the peasants really starved, and if so how often, particularly outside of Europe, is the subject of ongoing research. What is clear is that the food supply was always precarious: if the weather was bad or war broke out, there might not be enough to go around. The end of winter or the dry season saw everyone suffering from the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, scurvy occurring on land as well as at sea.

By our standards, the diet was scanty for people who were engaged in heavy physical toil. Estimates suggest that in France on the eve of the Revolution one in three adult men got by on no more than 1,800 calories a day, while a century later in Japan daily intake was perhaps 1,850 calories. Historians believe that in times of scarcity peasants essentially hibernated during the winter. It is not surprising, therefore, that in France the proudest of boasts was “there is always bread in the house,” while the Japanese adage advised that “all that matters is a full stomach.”

By the standard measures of health and nutrition — life expectancy and height — our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to the diet, exacerbated by living conditions and infections which affect the body’s ability to use the food that is ingested. No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.

Historical myths, though, can mislead as much by what they don’t say as by what they do. Culinary Luddites typically gloss over the moral problems intrinsic to the labor of producing and preparing food. In 1800, 95 percent of the Russian population and 80 percent of the French lived in the country; in other words, they spent their days getting food on the table for themselves and other people.

A century later, 88 percent of Russians, 85 percent of Greeks, and over 50 percent of the French were still on the land. Traditional societies were aristocratic, made up of the many who toiled to produce, process, preserve, and prepare food, and the few who, supported by the limited surplus, could do other things.

In the great kitchens of the few — royalty, aristocracy, and rich merchants — cooks created elaborate cuisines. The cuisines drove home the power of the mighty few with a symbol that everyone understood: ostentatious shows of more food than the powerful could possibly consume. Feasts were public occasions for the display of power, not private occasions for celebration, for enjoying food for food’s sake. The poor were invited to watch, groveling as the rich gorged themselves.

Louis XIV was exploiting a tradition going back to the Roman Empire when he encouraged spectators at his feasts. Sometimes, to hammer home the point while amus­ing the court, the spectators were let loose on the leftovers. “The destruction of so handsome an arrangement served to give another agreeable entertainment to the court,” observed a commentator, “by the alacrity and disorder of those who demolished these castles of marzipan, and these mountains of preserved fruit.”

Meanwhile, most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home­cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year.

She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been.

She could at least buy our bread from the bakery. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day — one third of their waking hours — kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas. Not until the 1950s did the invention of the tortilla machine release them from the drudgery.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it looked as if the distinction between gorgers and grovelers would worsen. Between 1557 and 1825 world population had doubled from 5oo million to a billion, and it was to double again by 1925.

Malthus sounded his dire predictions. The poor, driven by necessity or government mandate, resorted to basic foods that produced bountifully even if they were disliked: maize and sweet potatoes in China and Japan, maize in Italy, Spain and Romania, potatoes in northern Europe.

They eked out an existence on porridges or polentas of oats or maize, on coarse breads of rye or barley bulked out with chaff or even clay and ground bark, and on boiled potatoes; they saw meat only on rare occasions. The privation continued. In Europe, 1840 was a year of hunger, best remembered now as the time of the devastating potato famine of Ireland.

Meanwhile, the rich continued to indulge, feasting on white bread, meats, rich fatty sauces, sweet desserts, exotic hothouse-grown pineapples, wine, and tea, coffee, and chocolate drunk from fine china. In 1845, shortly after revolutions had rocked Europe, the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws . . . THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

In the nick of time, in the 1880s, the industrialization of food got under way long after the production of other common items of consumption such as textiles and clothing had been mechanized. Farmers brought new land into production, utilized reapers and later tractors and combines, spread more fertilizer, and by the 1930s began growing hybrid maize. Steamships and trains brought fresh and canned meats, fruits, vegetables, and milk to the growing towns. Instead of starving, the poor of the industrialized world survived and thrived.

In Britain the retail price of food in a typical workman’s budget fell by a third between 1877 and 1887 (though he would still spend seventy-one percent of his income on food and drink). In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British working class were drinking sugary tea from china teacups and eating white bread spread with jam and margarine, canned meats, canned pineapple, and an orange from the Christmas stocking.

To us, the cheap jam, the margarine, and the starchy diet look pathetic. Yet white bread did not cause the “weakness, indigestion, or nausea” that coarse whole wheat bread did when it supplied most of the calories (not a problem for us since we never consume it in such quantities). Besides, it was easier to detect stretchers such as sawdust in white bread. Margarine and jam made the bread more attractive and easier to swallow. Sugar tasted good, and hot tea in an unheated house in mid-winter provided good cheer.

For those for whom fruit had been available, if at all, only from June to October, canned pineapple and a Christmas orange were treats to be relished. For the diners, therefore, the meals were a dream come true, a first step away from a coarse, monotonous diet and the constant threat of hunger, even starvation.

Nor should we think it was only the British, not famed for their cuisine, who were delighted with industrialized foods. Everyone was, whether American, Asian, African, or European.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Italians embraced factory-made pasta and canned tomatoes. In the second half of the century, Japanese women welcomed factory-made bread because they could sleep in a little longer instead of having to get up to make rice. Similarly, Mexicans seized on bread as a good food to have on hand when there was no time to prepare tortillas.

Working women in India are happy to serve commercially made bread during the week, saving the time-consuming business of making chapatis for the weekend. As supermarkets appeared in Eastern Europe and Russia, housewives rejoiced at the choice and convenience of ready-made goods.

For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day.

So the sunlit past of the Culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Perhaps we now need this culinary philosophy. Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems, problems we hear about every day. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Why not create a historical myth to further that end? The past is over and gone. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?

It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that the foods of Culinary Modernism — egalitarian, available more or less equally to all, without demanding the disproportionate amount of the resources of time or money that traditional foodstuffs did — allow unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives.

If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.

If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, restaurants, or on our travels. We let our eyes glide over the occasional references to servants, to travel and education abroad in so-called ethnic cookbooks, references that otherwise would clue us in to the fact that the recipes are those of monied Italians, Indians, or Chinese with maids to do the donkey work of preparing elaborate dishes.

We may mistake the meals of today’s European, Asian, or Mexican middle class (many of them benefiting from industrialization and contemporary tourism) for peasant food or for the daily fare of our ancestors. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multinational corporations bent on selling trashy modem products — failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market, foreign restaurants to eat at, and new recipes to try.

A Mexican friend, suffering from one too many foreign visitors who chided her because she offered Italian, not Mexican food, complained, “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?” If we unthinkingly assume that good food maps neatly onto old or slow or homemade food (even though we’ve all had lousy traditional cooking), we miss the fact that lots of industrial foodstuffs are better. Certainly no one with a grindstone will ever produce chocolate as suave as that produced by conching in a machine for seventy two hours. Nor is the housewife likely to tum out fine soy sauce or miso.

And let us not forget that the current popularity of Italian food owes much to the availability and long shelf life of two convenience foods that even purists love, high-quality factory pasta and canned tomatoes. Far from fleeing them, we should be clamoring for more high-quality industrial foods.

If we romanticize the past, we may miss the fact that it is the modern, global, industrial economy (not the local resources of the wintry country around New York, Boston, or Chicago) that allows us to savor traditional, peasant, fresh, and natural foods.

Virgin olive oil, Thai fish sauce, and udon noodles come to us thanks to international marketing. Fresh and natural loom so large because we can take for granted the preserved and processed staples — salt, flour, sugar, chocolate, oils, coffee, tea — produced by agribusiness and food corporations. Asparagus and strawberries in winter come to us on trucks trundling up from Mexico and planes flying in from Chile.

Visits to charming little restaurants and colorful markets in Morocco or Vietnam would be impossible without international tourism. The ethnic foods we seek out when we travel are being preserved, indeed often created, by a hotel and restaurant industry determined to cater to our dream of India or Indonesia, Turkey, Hawaii, or Mexico. Culinary Luddism, far from escaping the modern global food economy, is parasitic upon it.

Culinary Luddites are right, though, about two important things. We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos. As far as good food goes, they’ve done us all a service by teaching us to how to use the bounty delivered to us (ironically) by the global economy.

Their culinary ethos, though, is another matter. Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need.

What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.

Such an ethos, and not a timorous Luddism, is what will impel us to create the matchless modern cuisines appropriate to our time.

Read the new technology issue of Jacobin today.

18 May 16:50

Target Institutions, Not Politicians

by Erik Loomis


One thing I have discussed over and over again here is how progressives focus so strongly on politicians as part of a moral universe that must be adhered to in order to be supported. In other words, if politician X sells us out on one issue then that person is dead to me and thus Nader ’16! Part of this is related to the politics of authenticity that people so crave. Among its many problems is that ignores the fundamental rule of politics which is that it is about power and power alone. So how to leverage that power? The answer is clear–focus on institutions. That’s the theme of this really smart Jacobin essay by Michael Schwartz and Kevin Young, who show that again and again, when progressives target institutions, whether corporations or parts of government, they can win. The politicians follow the display of power.

Contrary to many analysts’ assumption that putting Democrats into office is the best way to substantially increase the minimum wage, workplace actions and protests targeting low-wage employers could be the best strategy. These actions focus public attention on low wages and help pave the way for local and state ballot referenda to raise the minimum wage.

More importantly, direct pressure — through boycotts, protests, labor strikes, or supply chain interruptions — on McDonald’s, Walmart, and other powerful firms can “adversely affect” their bottom line, especially given “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality,” as McDonald’s company documents recently warned. This pressure can simultaneously yield direct concessions: some fast-food and retail chains have reacted to recent protests by granting raises to unruly workers, and a few have promised company-wide increases.

But beyond this immediate impact, the changes wrought by direct protest can also neutralize the affected firms’ opposition to raising the minimum wage to the level they are (now) paying their workers. Some may even lobby the government for such an increase to reduce their competitive disadvantage. This logic motivated certain US businesses to support the 1891 Meat Inspection Act, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and other landmark regulatory laws, because they saw the laws as forcing their competitors to honor standards they were already being forced to meet.

Targeting corporations can even make sense when corporations aren’t the most visible enemies of reform, as in the immigrant rights struggle. In March 2011, dozens of Arizona-based corporate executives wrote a letter to state legislators asking that they refrain from passing further anti-immigrant bills like the infamous SB 1070, which was in 2010.

The problem, they explained, was that “boycotts were called against [the] state’s business community” in response to the law. The boycotts were so “harmful to [their] image” that “Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding,” and “sales outside of the state declined” (the boycotts also led many Mexican companies to stop trading with Arizona businesses).

The threat to their profits led them to insist on a change in public policy. The result? Within a week, the Republican-controlled legislature rejected five bills designed to further criminalize immigrants.

This is all why it really doesn’t matter if Hillary Clinton supports the Trans Pacific Partnership or Keystone XL Pipeline. What matters is if she is scared to support it because it would cost her real political capital to do so. Ultimately putting Democrats into office makes the process of change much, much easier, but it isn’t enough and is certainly not a final point. Elections are merely the consolidation of power over the past election cycle, not the end of the game. Those were disappointed with Obama should largely be disappointed with themselves because they misunderstood how politics work in the United States. Hopefully, they learn the right lessons from that disappointment.

12 May 13:45

Let’s Get Back to the Good Olde Days, When White Men Were Chosen Entirely on Merit

by Scott Lemieux


You may remember Joseph Epstein as the purveyor of right-wing identity politics for people who consider Roger Kimball too nuanced and unrepetitive. You may also be aware of the conservative idea that there is only one objective standpoint, that of the white heterosexual straight male. So it may not surprise you to know that Epstein is the man to distill the latter idea into 180-proof self-parody:

Now have we come to the point where we elect presidents of the United States not on their intrinsic qualities but because of the accidents of their birth: because they are black, or women, or, one day doubtless, gay, or disabled—not, in other words, for themselves but for the causes they seem to embody or represent, for their status as members of a victim group?

This is the kind of thing that doesn’t really require refutation. Ditto his whining about the fact that people have the temerity to criticize an essay in which he wrote that “I have said that I think homosexuals curse, and I am afraid I mean this quite literally, in the medieval sense of having been struck by an unexplained injury, an extreme piece of evil luck, whose origin is so unclear as to be, finally, a mystery.” (It should go without saying that the essay is also larded with sub-Allan Bloom complaints about relativism on college campuses that Epstein, like so many others, has already written innumerable times.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Chait stepping up to the pinata:

Yes, that’s right. America used to elect presidents on “intrinsic qualities” rather than “accidents of their birth.” And this process resulted in the election of forty-three consecutive white men, an outcome Epstein must regard as an extreme coincidence. The last president to be elected on the basis of intrinsic qualities rather than accidents of birth was George W. Bush, whose birth circumstances, Epstein apparently believes, had no bearing upon his career trajectory.


In a larger sense, of course, the very existence of Epstein’s piece serves to disprove its thesis. If it is still possible for a white man to write an incoherent farrago of self-pity whose only shred of evidence directly undercuts its thesis, and have such drivel thrown onto the cover of a national magazine, then white men are probably still doing okay.

03 May 19:06

The Democrats We Need

by Erik Loomis

Bernie Sanders

When Bernie Sanders announced his presidential bid, I saw several comments from people who may have supported the third party campaigns of people like Ralph Nader in the past respond by asking when the people who supposedly prefer primary challenges to third parties would start criticizing Sanders for challenging Hillary Clinton. The upshot of these statements is that those who oppose third party bids are actually Democratic Party hacks who just want to protect their beloved Al Gore or John Kerry or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or whoever the party centrists select.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for myself, who is a very strong critic of anything to do with third parties on the left, this is absolutely not true. I think Sanders’ run is great. Here’s the thing about Bernie Sanders as opposed to say Ralph Nader–he is neither consumed with his own ego nor an idiot who doesn’t understand American politics. Rather, he is challenging Hillary Clinton in a way that is going to force her to move to the left on real issues, through the primary process. That matters a lot.

Relatedly, I strongly endorse almost everything in this Bhaskar Sunkara piece on Bernie Sanders.* Sanders is no revolutionary socialist. He’s really pretty comparable to a good Great Society liberal like Hubert Humphrey or Ed Muskie. But by running for president within the Democratic Party instead of a pointless, quixotic third party campaign, he gives voice to the Democratic Party base that may be OK with Hillary Clinton as the nominee but would sure like her to be significantly farther to the left. By making socialism not a dirty word but rather an appealing option to DLC corporatism, Sanders represents a threat. It’s not that I think Hillary Clinton believes in her soul that her husband’s policies of mass incarceration need to be reversed or that the Trans Pacific Partnership is really flawed. I don’t care what she feels. I don’t look to politicians for sincerity. I care what she feels she has to do in order to motivate the base to vote for her and support her in her presidency. Bernie Sanders is making her do more work there. And she won’t be able to completely repudiate those positions once in office.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has its limitations. It’s not bringing socialism to the United States. But if we recognize what it is doing, it has real significance and should be wholly supported by the entire Democratic base. In an increasingly polarized nation, the centrist voters the Clintons were made to appeal to are almost nonexistent, Beltway writers notwithstanding. She should have to work to win over a Democratic base that is moving to the left. The more work she has to do, the more likely she will govern to the left.

In the end, politics is not about which candidate you want to have a beer with or the left-wing version of this, which is about which candidate seems to hold your feelings deepest in their heart. It’s about the expression of power. A legitimate run by Sanders finally shows the Democratic Party that the party left not only wants change but actually understands how politics work and how to enforce discipline. It shows that the left has organized enough to pull the party left. And that would be a big win for progressive forces.

Of course, we know from real leftists like Jane Hamsher that Bernie Sanders is an unacceptable corporate sellout who needs to be primaried himself so…..

* I don’t agree with the whole “transcend the Democratic Party” point because replacing it with a Socialist Party isn’t ever going to happen and to try and do so would suck out the energy to create concrete gains for working people. But understanding that right now the way to do that it effectively to infiltrate the Democratic Party nomination process is good enough. Plus he’s a socialist editor of a major leftist journal so what is he supposed to say?