Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Clean Energy Revolution May Be Closer Than You Think

I hate to interrupt your regularly-scheduled despair about global warming but the clean energy revolution may be imminent. Two new reports, one on wind, one on solar, indicate that the radical cheapening of clean energy is likely to continue--and that is huge, if true. Here's David Roberts of Vox from his summary of the two reports:
Solar and wind energy have been underestimated by analysts and politicians again and again and again. They have gotten cheaper and scaled up faster than even the most optimistic forecasts of a decade ago, or even a few years ago.
And there’s good evidence we’re still underestimating them. In fact, two new reports — one on solar, one on wind — make the point vividly. They argue that the radical trends of the last decade are going to continue, which is all that needs to happen for the energy system to tip over from disruption into revolution……
It’s a little odd. Both of these reports offer forecasts that are wildly optimistic relative to the mainstream modeling community, but it’s not because they predict wind and solar are going to have some unprecedented explosion.
They simply predict that wind and solar are going to keep doing what they’re doing — keep scaling up, keep improving, keep getting cheaper — at roughly the same rate they have been. If that happens, solar PV could provide 30 to 50 percent of global power. If that happens, wind power could be 50 percent cheaper by 2030.
If those things happen, if the status quo continues, it will amount to a renewable energy revolution.
So there you have it. Now you may return to your usual state of barely-suppressed panic.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

That Gibberish They Call Postmodern

I greatly enjoyed this crisp takedown of postmodernism by Helen Pluckrose (hat tip, Michael Lind). She might go a bit far in how much of the current ills of the left she blames on postmodernism, but I certainly agree with her that the influence of these intellectual charlatans has been, on net, pretty terrible.

And I definitely agree with this:
[T]he Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism. To do this, we need to out-discourse the postmodern-Left. We need to meet their oppositions, divisions and hierarchies with universal principles of freedom, equality and justice. There must be a consistency of liberal principles in opposition to all attempts to evaluate or limit people by race, gender or sexuality. We must address concerns about immigration, globalism and authoritarian identity politics currently empowering the far- Right rather than calling people who express them “racist,” “sexist” or “homophobic” and accusing them of wanting to commit verbal violence. We can do this whilst continuing to oppose authoritarian factions of the Right who genuinely are racist, sexist and homophobic, but can now hide behind a façade of reasonable opposition to the postmodern-Left.
Just so. And above all, let us reason together, as the architect of the Great Society was fond of saying, rather than shutting down conversations with accusatory labels. 

Millennials Dislike Trump Bigly

His approval rating among 18-29 year olds is now down to 20 percent. That's pretty low.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Populist Tide Ebbs in Europe

It's not just Marine Le Pen who hasn't met expectations in Europe. Pretty much across the board, right populist parties have under-achieved this year in elections and seen considerable decline in their support in public polls. A good recent article in the Wall Street Journal summarized the situation:
[I]n most of Europe, elections and surveys suggest that populism might have peaked—at least for now. Support for European antiestablishment parties rose to just over 30% in opinion polls in 2016, but has declined to around 23%, according to a composite measure of opinion-poll support developed by economists at bank Nomura Holdings….
The Dutch Party for Freedom, led by anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders, won more seats in elections this March than in the previous elections in 2012, but fewer than in 2010. Mr. Wilders missed his goal of becoming the Netherlands’ biggest party. Like Mr. Wilders, France’s Ms. Le Pen performed worse in the presidential election than opinion polls last winter suggested she would. The AfD is polling about 8% in Germany, well below its 15% level of support last fall.
Now this doesn't mean these parties are going away anytime soon; they are still doing quite a bit better than they were doing five years ago. But it does suggest the threat is containable, particularly if the toxic austerity regime in the Eurozone is finally lifted so the current recovery can get a full head of steam. We shall have to wait until after the German elections to see if this is possible. Keep those cards and letters to Angela Merkel coming...and hope that Emmanuel Macron devotes at least as much time to pressuring Merkel for Eurozone reform as he apparently does to his makeup.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

What's the Best Way to Get People to Like Immigrants?

How about more immigrants and the passage of time? That's less crazy than it sounds. Consider this from Ron Brownstein
Even as Republicans from President Trump to leading legislators in the House and Senate are driving to reduce both undocumented and legal immigration, the core of the GOP's electoral strength in both presidential and Congressional contests are the places with the smallest share of immigrants, US Census data show.
Likewise, apart from Texas, the coalition of states threatening litigation next month to overturn President Obama's legal protections for children brought to the US illegally by their parents is composed entirely of states with only very small numbers of the so-called "dreamers."
Up and down the ballot, this disparity is partly explained by the Democratic advantages among minority voters, whether native-born or naturalized citizens born abroad. But the consistency of this contrast also suggests that suspicion about immigration among the native-born population is generally more intense in places with little exposure to immigrants than in communities where such exposure is more common.
In higher-immigration states, "Their economies and communities are fully integrated with immigrants -- across the skill spectrum. Therefore, they see and feel the benefits of immigration in ways that more culturally isolated states do not," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of the recent book "There Goes The Neighborhood," which explores how communities are adapting to changing demography. "But even the more culturally isolated states are conflicted when you look closely. ... Most Americans know and love the José or Mohammed they know; but are afraid of the José or Mohammed they don't know."
This may be the right formula but it doesn't make it any more pleasant to see and experience the effects of anti-immigrant backlash--backlash that may be with us for some time as more culturally isolated and less economically dynamic places evolve. But it does suggest there's hope.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Pulp SF Magazines!

Well, they don't make 'em like they used to! And that applies double to the amazing era of pulp SF magazines of the '20s, '30s and '40s, when frantically scribbling SF writers turned out a gazillion wildly imaginative stories for magazines like Amazing Stores, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Science Wonder Stories, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Tales of Wonder, Fantastic Adventure and many more. The writing was at best serviceable, the science dubious, the plots completely absurd but, man, there was a lot of action and lot of cool ideas to ponder as you stared off into the night sky. You definitely got your money's worth and then some with these magazines.

And oh the covers! Worth the price of admission right there. And thanks to the magic of the internet we can look at hundreds and hundreds of these very cool images for exactly nothing. We do indeed live in the best of times.

For the curious who wish to actually read some of these stories--and they can be great fun when approached in the proper spirit--the internet has you covered there too. This site has entire issues of these great magazines scanned into pdfs or flipbooks. More of the same can be found here.

And if you're interested in the history of pulp SF, check out this two part series by pulp expert, Jess Nevins. Part I is the origin story and Part II is a deep dive into the various magazines, the differences between them and how pulp SF gave way to later SF. Highly recommended.

All for now. I must return to my spaceship to continue my research on you Earthlings. I just hope the Slave Raiders from Mercury don't get me first!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Once Again on the Robots Question

Recently, there's been an interesting three-way debate between James Surowiecki, Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein on robots and the future of jobs. Surowiecki was first out of the gate with a lengthy article in Wired, "Robopocalypse Not", making a strong case, in my view, that robots are highly unlikely to take all or even most of our jobs. He covers--as I did in my Vox article on the future of jobs--the mismatch between slow productivity growth and the supposed rise of the robots, and the lack of evidence in the historical record for high unemployment that is technologically-generated. Among other good points he makes in the article is the following:
THE PECULIAR THING about this historical moment is that we’re afraid of two contradictory futures at once. On the one hand, we’re told that robots are coming for our jobs and that their superior productivity will transform industry after industry. If that happens, economic growth will soar and society as a whole will be vastly richer than it is today. But at the same time, we’re told that we’re in an era of secular stagnation, stuck with an economy that’s doomed to slow growth and stagnant wages. In this world, we need to worry about how we’re going to support an aging population and pay for rising health costs, because we’re not going to be much richer in the future than we are today. Both of these futures are possible. But they can’t both come true. Fretting about both the rise of the robots and about secular stagnation doesn’t make any sense. Yet that’s precisely what many intelligent people are doing.

The irony of our anxiety about automation is that if the predictions about a robot-dominated future were to come true, a lot of our other economic concerns would vanish. A recent study by Accenture, for instance, suggests that the implementation of AI, broadly defined, could lift annual GDP growth in the US by two points (to 4.6 percent). A growth rate like that would make it easy to deal with the cost of things like Social Security and Medicare and the rising price of health care. It would lead to broader wage growth. And while it would complicate the issue of how to divide the economic pie, it’s always easier to divide a growing pie than a shrinking one.
Alas, the future this study envisions seems to be very far off. To be sure, the fact that fears about automation have been proved false in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to be so in the future, and all of those long-foretold positive feedback loops exponential growth may abruptly kick in someday. But it isn’t easy to see how we’ll get there from here anytime soon, given how little companies are investing in new technology and how slowly the economy is growing. In that sense, the problem we’re facing isn’t that the robots are coming. It’s that they aren’t. 
Get it? If this were really happening, we'd be rich (rich I tell you!)--and that would be great. Unfortunately, that does not, as yet, appear to be the case.

Kevin Drum, an adamant proponent of the robots-will-take-all-our-jobs thesis, replied to Surowiecki in a post on his blog, which argued, in essence, that This Time Is Different because AI is a true game-changer but it isn't really here yet so that's why slow productivity growth, etc.

Ezra Klein did not find Drum's argument convincing. Klein replies as follows:
I take slow productivity growth more seriously than Drum does. It’s true we don’t yet have AI. But we have seen an explosion of information technology that should’ve put many jobs at risk, and in some cases clearly did. The stories we can tell about why ATMs would replace all bank tellers, or online learning would displace most teachers, or digital diagnostic tools would make many doctors superfluous, are at least as convincing as the stories we can tell about AI-driven job displacement, and the technology is already here.
And yet there are more bank tellers today than there were in the 1970s. And online learning hasn’t dented the demand for teachers. And WebMD has mostly sent people scurrying to see their doctors. What happened?
Toward the end of his post, Drum suggests that a better argument for why AI might fail to deliver mass unemployment is that “robots will be smart but never very sociable, so humans will all move into jobs that require social skills.” This, however, is part of the explanation for why IT hasn’t done more to move the productivity needle either. People want to interact with other people, even when they’d be almost as well off interacting with a computer interface. And so even when IT makes it cost-effective to replace people with computers, that often leads companies to plow the savings into more people to work alongside the computers (which is largely what happened in banking).
The productivity story isn’t surefire proof that AI won’t upend employment. But it should make us skeptical of confident predictions that it will.
Which brings us to the industrial revolution. Drum is right that we shouldn’t assume a past period of technological change is directly analogous to a future period of technological change. But one lesson of the past few hundred years of technological change is that human beings are pretty good at inventing things to do after automation pushes out the things we used to do.
As I understand the argument for AI-driven mass unemployment, the basic theory is that human beings won’t be needed to do most jobs, and so they will be replaced, and left in a state of useless pleasure seeking and mischief making…..
[But] humans today are [already] a massive useless class. What sort of job is “editor of an explanatory journalism web site” next to “farmer”? Would our ancestors value the work of psychologists or customer service representatives or wedding planners or computer coders?
But this, to me, is the story of labor markets in the past few hundred years: As technology drives people out of the most necessary jobs, we invent less necessary jobs that we nevertheless imbue with profound meaning and even economic value.
The AI revolution, if it comes, does not seem likely to follow a wildly different path. The technology’s diffusion is likely to be slower than people think — I suspect we will have trucks capable of making driverless deliveries long before regulators permit them to operate without a human in the cab, and computers capable of making diagnoses for decades before human doctors aren’t required to look over and explain the readout — but as it comes, humans will find things other humans want them to do, and they’ll decide those things have value. We’re good at that.
Yes, we are good at that. And that's why this time is not likely to be different. Now if those robots could just hurry up and get here so we could all be rich.....

Obscure Music Friday: The United States of America

In my senior year of high school, a friend of mine invited me to go to a concert by The United States of America (who?) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (huh?). Naturally I said why not? and went. 

And it completely blew my mind! They were absolutely fantastic and like nothing I'd heard before. It's still one of the best concerts I've heard in my life. I can only describe their music as ferocious.

To whet your appetite, here's a description of them from their Wikipedia article. But to do justice to them, you must listen! You won't be sorry.
The United States of America was an American experimental rock band whose works, recorded in late 1967, are an early example of the use of electronic devices in rock music. The short-lived band was founded in Los Angeles by experimental composer Joseph Byrdand singer and lyricist Dorothy Moskowitz, with musicians Gordon Marron, Rand Forbes and Craig Woodson, but split up shortly after the release of their only album in 1968. Their sound blended a range of musical genres, including avant-gardepsychedelic, and art rock, wuth many of the songs' lyrics reflecting Byrd's leftist political views. Unusually, the band had no guitar player; instead, they used strings, keyboards and electronics, including primitive synthesizers, and various audio processors, including the ring modulator. According to critic Kevin Holm-Hudson, "what distinguishes the United States of America from some of its contemporaries... is the seriousness and skill with which they incorporated avant-garde and other influences into their music."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Well, the Republicans Did Accomplish One Thing by Trying to Repeal the ACA

Many more Americans are now convinced that it's the responsibility of the government to provide universal  health care. It's now up to 60 percent for to 39 percent against, practically the reverse of public sentiment four years ago. And this sea change in attitudes appears to have a lot to do with reactions to GOP attempts to take away the ACA's extensions of coverage. People may not be totally delighted with the ACA but they have definitely warmed up to the idea that government should somehow make sure people have health care. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noted when ACA repeal efforts first ran into trouble: “A broad national consensus is developing that health care is indeed a right. This is historically new. And it carries immense implications for the future. It suggests that we may be heading inexorably to a government-run, single-payer system.”

Now wouldn't that be terrible! 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The State That Time Forgot

Another excellent article in Reid Wilson's "Changing America" series in The Hill. This one is about Missouri, a state where change is coming only very, very slowly. Not so long ago, Missouri seemed to be a microcosm of America and appropriately competitive between the parties. That's much less true today. Wilson's article lays out why with some very interesting data that shed light on the Democrats' Midwestern challenges more generally.
“Missouri was the canary in the coal mine for Democrats,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic data analytics expert. “Missouri 20 years ago was a swing state. All the sudden it just fell off the table, and it was white working class voters just flocking away from the party.”….
[A]s the nation has changed, Missouri has stayed much the same. The state has become older and whiter, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and the influx of Hispanic Americans that changes the political calculus in other states has not materialized here; just 4 percent of Missourians are Hispanic, far below the national average.
“We don’t have an immigrant population here, a Hispanic population that looks anything like what it does across the country,” Hancock said.
White voters, especially those without a college degree, now play a more influential role in Missouri than they do in most other states. As partisan polarization has driven those voters to the Republican Party, Missouri Democrats have suffered.
“The story of Missouri as a swing state is a state being left behind by the politics of earlier times,” said Dave Robertson, who chairs the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The white population of Missouri has remained closer to the kind of 1950s demographic strength than has been true in other states.”
Nowhere is that shift more evident than in Missouri’s rural counties. In 1996, Bill Clinton won 62 of Missouri’s 114 counties, along with the independent city of St. Louis. Four years later, Al Gore won 13 counties and St. Louis. Obama won eight counties in 2008, and three in 2012, the same number Clinton won four years later.....
In other states, Republican gains in rural areas have been offset by Democratic gains in cities, where minority voters and Millennials have boomed as shares of the population. But in Missouri, Republican gains in rural areas far outstrip Democratic advantages in big cities.
George W. Bush won only three Missouri counties with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2000; in 2016, 97 counties gave President Trump 70 percent or more. Between 2000 and 2016, all but two of Missouri’s counties trended towards Republicans.
A sad tale from the Democratic perspective, and a cautionary one. If you don't deal with the white working class problem in this part of the country, it will deal with you. A party that wants to win should keep that in mind.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hey, Maybe Racism and Xenophobia Aren't So Popular After All!

Debate continues on how to best understand the Trump phenomenon, turbocharged by the recent ugly events in Charlottesville. Was Trump's victory really mostly about racism or were other factors important as well? To the extent one believes the former, it's a little hard to understand the sharp fall in Trump's political popularity as he has become more openly racist. This puzzle was nicely encapsulated by David Atkins in a recent piece on the Washington Monthly website. Atkins says, consider these three statements about contemporary American politics:
1. Trump won the election with nearly 50% of the vote solely due to racism and bigotry, not other factors.
2. Trump has abandoned all other forms of populism except for racism and bigotry.
3. Trump has slid from nearly 50% approval down to under 35% since the election.
All of those statements cannot simultaneously be true, and align with current realities. At least one of them has to be wrong.
Since 2. and 3. appear to be true, then it is likely 1. that is not. Trump's ignoring the other populist priorities he ran on, while pumping up the volume on racist appeals, but he's not consolidating his support. Instead, he's losing altitude fast. Consider the results of a recent Marist poll of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump's approval rating in these states was 36, 33 and 33 percent, respectively. But he received 47, 48 and 47 percent of the vote in those states in 2016.

Even more disturbing from the Trumpian perspective should be what's happening to his white noncollege support. In 2016, he was supported by 62 percent of white noncollege voters in Michigan, 64 percent of this group in Pennsylvania and 62 percent in Wisconsin. But his approval rating today among this base demographic group is just 41, 44 and 38 percent, respectively, in these states.

These kind of ratings are potentially disastrous for Trump and his party. As public opinion trends suggest, unvarnished racism and xenophobia just aren't that popular in today's America. So the more Trump doubles down on this approach, the less popular he's likely to become. As the President himself might put it: Sad!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The GOP Civil War

I thought this was interesting. Susan Glasser of Politico did two group interviews of Republicans as a feature for their magazine. The first group was of (relatively) mainstream conservative journalists and operatives. The second group was of true blue (red?) rabidly pro-Trump operatives. The subject was Trump and the internal battles in the GOP. Fascinating inside baseball on how these two groups within the party are processing things. Worth reading for Roger Stone's gonzo comments alone in the second group interview.

Science Fiction Saturday: Alastair Reynolds

Here is another great British science fiction writer, underappreciated here though more well-known than Paul McAuley. Alastair Reynolds, like McAuley, was originally a working scientist (an astrophysicist) before becoming a science fiction writer in the hard SF/space opera mode. 

Reynolds is an excellent writer (if not quite as good as McAuley) and staggeringly imaginative. He burst onto the scene with his mind-blowing Revelation Space series Here's the description of the series from Wikipedia:
The Revelation Space series includes five novels, two novellas, and eight short stories set over a span of several centuries, spanning approximately 2200 to 40 000, although the novels are all set in a 300-year period spanning from 2427 to 2727. In this universe, extraterrestrial sentience exists but is elusive, and interstellar travel is primarily undertaken by a class of vessel called a lighthugger which only approaches the speed of light (faster than light travel is possible, but it is so dangerous that no race uses it). Fermi's paradox is explained as resulting from the activities of an inorganic alien race referred to by its victims as the Inhibitors, which exterminates sentient races if they proceed above a certain level of technology. The trilogy consisting of Revelation SpaceRedemption Ark and Absolution Gap (the Inhibitor trilogy) deals with humanity coming to the attention of the Inhibitors and the resultant war between them.
The Inhibitor trilogy starts off a bit slowly in the first volume but hits its stride in the second and third volumes. Highly recommended, though probably the best book in the series is not part of the trilogy: Chasm City. Here's a description:
British author Reynolds transmutes space opera into a noirish, baroque, picaresque mystery tale. Honor requires that Tanner Mirabel, a weapons specialist/bodyguard, track down and destroy the man who killed his boss. Tanner's pursuit takes him to the planet Yellowstone, where a nano-plague has mutated the glittering human cultural showcase of Chasm City into something bizarre, dark and extremely dangerous. He's aided or threatened or both, at different times by a host of human and not-quite-human characters. Relying on his own combat skills and hard-boiled attitude, Tanner keeps seeking revenge even though he begins to wonder why he's doing it, especially after intrusions of other people's memories lead him to suspect he's not who he thinks he is. Inventiveness and tone are Reynolds's strong points. Presented in a sustained burst of weirdness, the novel's details are consistently startling but convincing in context, and the loose ends eventually tie neatly together. The narrator's tough-guy stance works too, both as an expression of Tanner's personality and as a defensive reaction to the setting's intimidating strangeness. Think of a combination of the movie Blade Runner and one of Jack Vance's ironic SF adventure novels.
Other excellent novels by Reynolds include Pushing Ice, Century Rain, House of Suns and The Medusa Chronicles (with Stephen Baxter). He is also superb at shorter lengths; he has produced an amazing number of high quality short stories, novelettes and novellas. A good place to sample these wares is the recent collection Beyond the Aquila Rift: The Best of Alastair Reynolds

Really, it's hard to go wrong with this guy. If you like SF but don't know Reynolds' work, time to jump in! You won't be sorry.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Millennials, the GOP and Charlottesville

Donald Trump's appalling reaction to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville seems sure to have political reverberations for a long time. Ron Brownstein flags what could be the most important--and most negative--effect on the GOP: the consolidation of Millennial voter sentiment against the Republican party. Here's the basic argument:
Trump’s election “may be one of the most costly presidential victories in history for a political party, because [it is leaving] a crimson stain on the party,” said Peter Wehner, the former director of strategic planning in the George W. Bush White House. “I don’t think it … will be easy to get away from.”
Through Trump’s first months, the danger of him branding the GOP as intolerant has steadily smoldered, as he’s rolled out polarizing policies on undocumented and legal immigration, crime and policing, affirmative action, and voting rights. He’s also moved to reverse protections for transgender Americans in schools and the military.
But Trump’s belligerent response to the unrest in Virginia has detonated this slowly burning fuse. His pointed refusal to unambiguously condemn the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups who gathered there may crystallize, in a way no policy debate could, the picture of him as racially and culturally biased, particularly among younger voters. “The truth is, I bet that Millennials have not paid that much attention to the policy stuff he’s done,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster who has extensively surveyed the generation. “But I think Charlottesville is a whole different thing. This is a watershed moment.”
Brownstein goes on to say:
Even before Charlottesville, Trump faced gale-force skepticism from the Millennial generation. In an early August Quinnipiac poll, only one-fourth of them nationwide approved of his job performance, while two-thirds disapproved (fully 59 percent strongly). Just one-fourth said he shared their values; almost two-thirds said he wasn’t honest and didn’t care about average Americans.
Because Trump retains some irreducible support among younger whites, particularly those without college degrees, Baumann said the Charlottesville firestorm would likely do more to harden, rather than expand, that Millennial resistance. “I think he’s really cemented these views of Millennials, and I have a hard time believing there is much he can do to reverse that,” Baumann said…..
[B]y 2020, the highly diverse Millennials will clearly pass the predominantly white baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters. That Millennial advantage will widen over the next decade, and it will be reinforced when the first post-Millennials—the generation born after 2000 that’s even more racially diverse—file into the voting booth.
In a measure of the growing headwinds the party could face, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a prominent Republican pollster who has written a book on Millennials, told me this week that the absence of effective resistance from party leaders or voters to Trump’s posture has left her increasingly pessimistic the GOP can set a direction that will appeal to young people like her.
“Given a lot of the data I’ve seen since the start of the Trump presidency, I wouldn’t blame a young person who is just becoming interested in politics who thinks the GOP … is comfortable with white supremacists,” she told me in an email. “Not just because of perceptions of what Trump believes, but because of the accurate perception that a majority of Republican voters stand with him, even on his most controversial views.” 
This is a Republican pollster talking, generally viewed as one of their leading experts on the Millennial generation! There is no more potent demographic force than generational replacement and Trump's actions may be ensuring that the negative impact of this force on the GOP--already likely to be considerable--is maximized. This, in the end, could be the most important political fallout from the Charlottesville events.

Obscure Music Friday: The 13th Floor Elevators

What? You've never heard of the premier Texas psychedelic garage rock band, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators? This must be remedied right away. Have a listen to their 1967 masterpiece, Easter Everywhere. Pay close attention to the lyrics (if you dare!) My suspicion is these lads were high on something more than life.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Where Does Populism Come From?

The origins of contemporary populism, both in the US and elsewhere, have been the subject of endless debate. That debate is not likely to end any time soon, given the continued salience of populist impulses to our politics. Certainly the recent events in Charlottesville have many worried that populism comes from the darkest of places in the human soul.

But that would confuse the distorted psyches of small numbers of neo-Nazis and white supremacists with the truly mass phenomenon of contemporary populism. Understanding the latter requires a more nuanced and less panicky analysis. 

As one source for such an analysis, I recommend the recent work of economist Dani Rodrik. Rodrik takes a big picture, historical approach to the subject that tries to give both powerful economic and potent cultural forces their due.

A good place to start is "The rise of populism shouldn't have surprised anyone", an interview by Ana Swanson with Rodrik in The Washington Post. Here's Rodrik on the deep causes of populism vs. associated political narratives:
I make a distinction between the deep causes of populism, and the political narratives around which they get wrapped. The deep causes of populism are economic and structural, generally speaking. There might be residues of racism and ethno-nationalism in the United States and other European countries, but I don’t think that’s what’s really driving populism. What’s driving it is the economic insecurities, the rising inequality, and the economic and social divisions that have been created, not just by globalization, but by the kind of policies we have pursued in the last few decades.
But the manner in which populism gets packaged is different. You can package it around a right-wing, ethno-nationalistic, racialist narrative, or you can package it around a left-wing social and economic exclusion narrative. What’s happening on a day-to-day basis might make it easier for right-wing than left-wing organizations. Refugees are in the news, and if there is the constant threat of Islamic terrorism, that is going to provide fuel for right-wing populists. It’s much more salient and gives them a way of organizing this broad-based discontent.
There is also a really excellent interview by John Judis with Rodrik on Talking Points Memo. Here is Rodrik on what it might take to defuse populism:
There is a kind of rebalancing we need to do in the world economy....One [area] is moving from benefiting capital to benefiting labor. I think our current system disproportionately benefits capital and our mobile professional class, and labor disproportionately has to bear the cost. And there are all sets of implications as to who sits at the bargaining table when treaties are negotiated and signed, who bears the risk of financial crises, who has to bear tax increases, and who gets subsidies. There are all kinds of distributional costs that are created because of this bias toward capital. We can talk about what that means in specific terms.
The second area of rebalancing is from an excessive focus on global governance to a focus on national governance. Our intellectual and policy elites believe that our global problems originate for a lack of global agreements and that we need more global agreements. But most of our economic problems originate from the problems in local and national governance. If national economies were run properly, they could generate full employment, they could generate satisfactory social bargains and good distributive outcomes; and they could generate an open and healthy world economy as well. (emphasis added)
This is an important issue with the cosmopolitan and progressive left because we tend to be embarrassed when we talk about the national interest. I think we should understand that the national interest is actually complementary to the global interest, and that the problem now is not that we are insufficiently globally minded, but that we are insufficiently inclined to pursue the national interest in any broad, inclusive sense. It might seem a little bit paradoxical but it’s a fact.
Rodrik develops his thoughts on populism at length in an important academic paper, "Populism and the Economics of Globalization", available on his website. One of his central arguments is that, while the rise of populism may have been predictable, the forms which populism takes are less so and depend on a complex interplay between the demand and supply sides of this phenomenon:
The populist backlash may have been predictable, but the specific form it took was less so. Populism comes in different versions. Here I will distinguish between left-wing and right-wing variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that populist politicians highlight and render salient. The U.S. progressive movement and most Latin American populism took a left-wing form. Donald Trump and European populism today represent, with some instructive exceptions, the right-wing variant. A second question I address below is what accounts for the emergence of right-wing versus left-wing variants of opposition to globalization.
I…suggest that these different reactions are related to the forms in which globalization shocks make themselves felt in society. It is easier for populist politicians to mobilize along ethno-national/cultural cleavages when the globalization shock becomes salient in the form of immigration and refugees. That is largely the story of advanced countries in Europe. On the other hand, it is easier to mobilize along income/social class lines when the globalization shock takes the form mainly of trade, finance, and foreign investment. That in turn is the case with southern Europe and Latin America. The United States, where arguably both types of shocks have become highly salient recently, has produced populists of both stripes (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).
I argue that it is important to distinguish between the demand and supply sides of the rise in populism. The economic anxiety and distributional struggles exacerbated by globalization generate a base for populism, but do not necessarily determine its political orientation. The relative salience of available cleavages and the narratives provided by populist leaders are what provides direction and content to the grievances. Overlooking this distinction can obscure the respective roles of economic and cultural factors in driving populist politics.
This all seems quite sensible to me, though I am under no illusions that Rodrik's intervention is likely to end this contentious debate. But if you do find Rodrik's analysis intriguing I urge you to follow the links in the article and read his arguments in full. Also, you might want to check out this very good discussion between Rodrik and two smart European social democrats on the the podcast, Anger Management. Particularly good on the challenges all of this presents for left parties, both here and in Europe.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It Was the Obama-Trump Voters in the Library with the Candlestick!

There has been an odd sort of meme developing lately where the argument is being made that Obama-Trump voters actually weren't important in 2016 and, relatedly, that those who voted for Trump, regardless of who they voted for before, are not accessible to Democrats, no matter what appeal the party uses.

I think both of these propositions are dead wrong and I have argued against them before. So I was very pleased to see a detailed article by Nate Cohn in the New York Times today that refutes these propositions and gets the Obama-Trump voters about right. 

Cohn begins with this crisp summary which is entirely correct:
The story of the 2016 presidential election is simple. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white voters without a college degree. His gains were large enough to cancel out considerable losses among well-educated white voters and a decade of demographic shifts.
There are questions and details still up for debate: whether Democrats can win back these voters, and how to think about and frame the decline in black turnout. But postelection surveys, pre-election surveys, voter file data and the actual results all support the main story: The voters who switched from President Obama to Mr. Trump were decisive.
He notes the following about white noncollege Obama voters in 2016:
Just 74 percent of white Obama voters with a high school diploma or less backed Mrs. Clinton in the [Democracy Fund Voter Study Group survey].
Similarly, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study [C.C.E.S.] found that Mrs. Clinton won just 78 percent of white Obama voters without a bachelor’s degree. The figure was even lower in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds.
And on persuadability, Cohn provides the following illuminating data:
 The C.C.E.S. found that 26 percent of Obama-Trump voters identified as Democrats in their postelection study, while 35 percent were Republicans and 37 percent were independents. Including those independents who lean toward a party, Republicans led by a wider margin of 45 percent to 30 percent. Even so, that’s a significant share who continue to identify with the Democratic Party despite voting for Mr. Trump.
Democrats were probably still winning a lot of these voters in 2016. The results speak for themselves to some extent. Jason Kander lost his Senate race in Missouri by just three percentage points, even as Mrs. Clinton lost by 20 points. Even Democrats who didn’t run ahead of Mrs. Clinton over all — like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania — nonetheless ran far ahead of Mrs. Clinton in traditionally Democratic, white working-class areas. 
Mrs. Duckworth’s performance is probably the most telling. She won Illinois’s 12th Congressional District — a downstate, working-class district now held by Republican Mike Bost — by nine points. Mr. Trump won it by 12 points. 
Mr. Bost might seem like a fairly safe Republican for re-election, if you judge the partisanship of his district strictly by his party’s performance in the last presidential election. He certainly would be safe if Democrats wrote off Obama-Trump voters. But the willingness of these voters to support a Democrat for federal office against an incumbent Republican in a fairly decent year for Republicans suggests that at least these Obama-Trump voters remain in play, and Mr. Bost is more vulnerable than it might initially seem. 
More generally, there is reason to think these voters are likelier to vote for a Democrat against a more traditional Republican who hasn’t developed a message to match Mr. Trump’s appeal to white working-class Democrats. These voters, for instance, tend to support abortion rights and same-sex marriage. They support a higher minimum wage. 
All considered, it does seem likely that at least a portion of the Obama-Trump vote can be lured back to the Democrats — especially against traditional Republican candidates who emphasize small government, free markets and social conservatism. 
Whether that means it should be the crux of the Democrats’ path to power is another question. But it will most likely be a part of it, and will probably need to be for Democrats to secure parts of the Rust Belt that continue to play an outsize role in American elections.
So don't let anyone tell you that Obama-Trump voters were not important or that Democrats should give up on them. They were and Democrats shouldn't. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

No, Trump and the GOP Are Not Immune from the Rules of Politics

I was having drinks with a friend last night and we got to talking about the political situation, as we are wont to do. Like most liberals I know, he'd been tracking the precipitous fall in Trump's approval ratings and speculating that this could really help the Democrats in 2018 and beyond. But also like most liberals I know, he caught himself after a bit and allowed as how, after 2016, he really has no confidence that what seems like it should hurt the GOP actually will. We just live in a different universe now and the old rules don't apply. 

I get why people think that. But do we really live in such a different universe today? Harry Enten has a very useful article up on 538 today, buttressed by considerable data, that argues the general rules still apply and we'd be silly to think anything different. Enten argues:
The available evidence…suggests many of the old rules do still apply. Caution…is more than warranted, especially given Trump’s history of surprising analysts and pundits. Partisan polarization has increased, and there is plenty of time for Trump’s approval rating to improve. But caution is one thing; ignoring history and evidence…is another. And the idea that “the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Trump” strikes me as the latter — at least according to the data before us. Early signs suggest that Trump’s low approval rating is having exactly the negative effect on down-ballot Republicans that history would predict.

Midterm elections are often thought of as referendums on the sitting president. When there’s been an unpopular Democrat in the White House, voters have swung toward Republicans in congressional races. With a struggling Republican president, voters swing Democratic. You can see this by looking at the effect a president’s approval rating has on the national House vote. Specifically, we can look at how much the national House margin would be expected to shift from the previous presidential election based upon the president’s approval rating right before the midterm election.

In 2004, for example, Republicans won the national House vote by 3 percentage points. But two years later, in 2006, with President George W. Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent, Republicans lost the House vote by 8 points — a 11-point swing from 2004.
It’s far from perfect, but in midterm elections since 1946, there’s a clear relationship between the president’s approval rating and the swing in the House vote.
Trump’s current approval rating is 38 percent. Historically, we would expect a president that unpopular to cause his party to lose around 11 points off its previous House margin. Republicans won the national House vote by 1 percentage point in 2016, so this suggests they would lose it by 10 points if the midterm elections were held today.
Other data support his argument:
[T]he generic congressional ballot, a common poll question that asks respondents whether they will vote for the Democrat or Republican in their congressional district. Democrats right now hold a 46 percent to 37 percent lead, according to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate. That’s a bigger lead than Democrats had at any point in 2016 cycle, and it’s in line with the margin necessary for Democrats to take back the House.
There have been 30 special state legislature and U.S. congressional elections since Trump was sworn-in as president. Democrats, as a group, have been outperforming the partisan lean in these districts — tending to come close in ruby red districts, winning swing districts and romping in light blue districts. More specifically, Democratic candidates have done about 16 percentage points better, on average, than you’d expect in a national environment in which no party held the advantage. (Imagine a world in which the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates tie 50-50 in the popular vote). This overperformance holds as well for the smaller subset of congressional elections.
 So quit being so paranoid. No guarantees on outcomes of course, but you can have confidence that what looks bad for Trump and the GOP is bad for Trump and the GOP. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Paul McAuley

People occasionally ask me for contemporary science fiction recommendations and the first name I always mention is Paul McAuley. Usually people have not heard of him. McAuley is British and is far more popular and better-known there than here. I have no idea why. But I do know that anyone who is interested in science fiction and does not read McAuley is totally missing out. He is one of the field's best, particularly in the hard SF subgenre. McAuley is a biologist by training and he particularly shines in extrapolating developments in that field to the future. 

With some minor exceptions, everything McAuley has written is worth reading, including his short stories. Along with his fascinating scientific speculations, he is an excellent writer, with vivid descriptive powers.. This cannot be said of all science fiction writers, to understate the case.

Like I say, it's hard to go wrong, But I particularly recommend his far future Confluence trilogy, a masterpiece of imaginative world-building:
Confluence - a long, narrow, artificial world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world beyond the end of human history, served by countless machines, inhabited by 10,000 bloodlines who worship their absent creators, riven by a vast war against heretics.
This is the home of Yama, found as an infant in a white boat on the world's Great River, raised by an obscure bureaucrat in an obscure town in the middle of a ruined necropolis, destined to become a clerk - until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining scion of the Builders, closest of all races to the revered architects of Confluence, able to awaken and control the secret machineries of the world.
Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and to discover if he is to be the saviour of his world, or its nemesis.
The entire trilogy can be had as a $15.99 Kindle e-book.  

Another masterpiece is Fairyland, perhaps the definitive biopunk novel. 
The 21st century.
Europe is divided between the First World bourgeoisie, made rich by nanotechnology and the cheap versatile slave labour of genetically engineered Dolls and the Fourth World of refugees and homeless displaced by war and economic upheaval. In London, Alex Sharkey is trying to make his mark as a designer of psychoactive viruses, whilst staying one step ahead of the police and the Triad gangs. At the cost of three hours of his life, he finds an unlikely ally in a scary, super-smart little girl called Milena, but his troubles really start when he helps Milena quicken intelligence in a Doll, turning it into the first of the fairies.
Milena isn't sure if she's mad or if she's the only sane person left in the world; she only knows that she wants to escape to her own private Fairyland and live forever. Although Milena has created the fairies for her own ends, some of the Folk, as fey and dangerous as any in legend, have other ideas about her destiny ...
Another Kindle bargain at $5.99.

Other books I loved include his early novel, Eternal Light, his Quiet War sequence (The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun, In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires and his recent Jackaroo books (Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere). 

Most of these are also available in inexpensive Kindle editions--perhaps to encourage us Yanks to pick up on this great, but mysteriously neglected author. Time to stock up!