Thursday, November 30, 2017

Redistribution Lives!

Most people on the left believe the right has succeeded in their maniacal quest to reverse progressive redistribution by the modern state. This gives the right too much credit. They have, in fact, failed to do this (though a reasonable case can be made that they have slowed the growth in progressive distribution). 

Peter Lindert, one of the great academic experts on inequality (his book with Jeffrey Williamson, Unequal Gains, is the definitive history of American economic inequality) documents this in a recent study that he summarizes on the VoxEU site (emphasis added):
·         Government budgets have shifted resources progressively, from the rich to the poor, within the last 100 years. The middle ranks are neither favoured nor disfavoured.  Before WWI, very little was redistributed through government.
·         The shift toward progressivity has not been reversed, contrary to allegations of a rightward shift since the 1970s.  Among democratic welfare states, the closest thing to a demonstrable reversal was Sweden’s partial retreat since the 1980s. Globally, the most dramatic swing has been Chile’s record-setting return towards progressivity after the regressivity under Pinochet. 
·         As a corollary, the rise in inequality since the 1970s owes nothing to a net shift in government redistribution toward the rich, despite the lowering of top tax rates.
·         Since the late 1970s, several governments have shown a mission drift away from investing in lower-income children and working-age adults, while concentrating social insurance on the elderly. Japan, the US, and some Mediterranean countries have missed an opportunity for pro-growth income-levelling. 
The full study is available in a working paper, The Rise and Future of Progressive Redistribution" (warning: much wonkery! But lots of great data).

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What's Less Popular Than a Tax Hike? The GOP/Trump Tax Cut, That's What!

How do those geniuses in the GOP do it? They are hell-bent on passing a tax cut bill so bad that it polls behind tax hikes of the past. That's impressive; a triumph of ideology over common sense. Harry Enten of 538 has the goods: 
George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cut plan, for example, had approval and disapproval numbers that were basically the reverse of the 2017 Republican tax plan. A May 2001 Harris Interactive poll taken just before the bill passedshowed 49 percent of Americans in favor and 37 percent opposed. Two years later, a May 2003 Harris Interactive poll put Bush’s 2003 tax cut plan at 45 percent support to 39 percent opposition just before its passage. And when President Barack Obama signed a bill temporarily extending these Bush tax cuts in December 2010, 54 percent of Americans supported that decision compared to 42 percent who opposed it, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll.

Basically, none of these major tax cuts were net unpopular, as the current GOP bill is. Instead, the current Republican plan’s polling numbers look more similar to those of past tax hikes.
Ah, but perhaps just the very act of passing something, even if it is unpopular, will save the GOP? This seems highly doubtful. You don't solve the political problem of being unpopular (see Trump approval ratings, generic Congressional ballot) by doing more unpopular things. That makes no sense. As Amy Walter of Cook Political Report put it:
Getting a tax bill across the finish line isn’t going to be enough to change the mood of the country. It is going to take something much more significant to do that. A good economy is helpful to the GOP as it can cut down on some of the headwinds coming at them right now. But, it’s not clear to me that it’s enough to fundamentally alter the way voters see Congress, the GOP and the President.
In 2016 we made the mistake of rationalizing away the prospect of a Trump victory. He was too unorthodox. He couldn't possibly sustain momentum through the grueling primary campaign. We should not make same mistake in 2018. Sure, a lot can change between now and next November. And, Democrats have a narrow path to 24 seats - even with a big wave or tailwind.  But, do not ignore what’s right in front of us. A wave is building. If I were a Republican running for Congress, I’d be taking that more seriously than ever.
The Democratic wave-watch continues....

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Can the Democrats Take Back Ohio?

The results in Ohio in 2016 were particularly ugly for the Democrats. Obama carried the state by 3 points in 2012; Hillary Clinton lost the state by 8 points. That's quite a swing. How did the Democrats get hosed so badly?

In this state the story is quite simple. It's all about white noncollege voters. In the Rustbelt troika of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the story gets muddled because, even though there were big swings among white noncollege voters in these states, they were so close that better performance among black voters could conceivably have turned these states to Clinton.

Not so in Ohio. Not even close. Democrats could completely replicate Obama's high water performance among black voters in 2012 and still lose the state handily, probably by around 5 points. There is really no way around bettering Democratic performance among white noncollege voters, where the Democrats' losing margin roughly doubled from 16 to 31 points between 2012 and 2016. 

Of course, some may argue that you could achieve the needed improvements among white voters by appealing to the other part of the white population--white college-educated voters. This is theoretically possible but very, very difficult. Start with the fact there were about twice as many white noncollege voters as white college voters in Ohio in 2016, a ratio that is likely to change only slightly in 2020. So to achieve the same effect as a given shift in the white noncollege vote, you need twice the swing among white college voters. 

Since Clinton split the white college vote evenly with Trump in the state, that means to neutralize the big white noncollege shift away from the Democrats, you would need to carry white college-educated voters in Ohio by 30 points in 2020. Not gonna happen.

Sorry folks, no way around it: if the Democrats hope to be competitive in Ohio in 2020 they must try to do the hard thing: find a way to reach hearts and minds among white noncollege voters. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

If Serwer and Coates Are Right about American Voters, We're Doomed. Good Thing They're Not!

The latest jeremiad on how racist American voters are--and how economics has absolutely nothing to do with the Trump phenomenon--comes in Adam Serwer's widely-read Atlantic article, "The Nationalist's Delusion". That's coming on top of Ta-Nehisi Coates' even more polemical--and very influential--book, We Were Eight Years in Power, which anoints Donald Trump as "America's first white president". In my view, these authors profoundly misunderstand American politics and American voters and have almost nothing useful to say about how the left can move forward in the current period. 

David Atkins of the Washington Monthly shares my impatience with the racial reductionism practiced by these and other authors and has just posted a very good critique of their arguments in a new article, "Democrats Should Reject the Defeatism of Serwer and Coates". It's worth quoting at length.
Donald Trump is a stone cold racist. So are most of his supporters. These facts are incontrovertible, and no realistic analysis of the current state of political affairs can be written without acknowledging them up front.
Unfortunately, those realities have led many intelligent analysts to overinterpret the results of the 2016 election in ways that give too little credit to the majority of Americans, too much credit to center-left electoral strategies, and foster an unwarranted attitude of resignation and defeatism. The fact that Donald Trump and most of his supporters are prejudiced bigots does not absolve the Clinton campaign of its mistakes, nor does it mean that a greater focus on class politics and core economics would have been useless against Trumpism. Far from it. Pretending that Trump tapped into an irrepressible and invincible current of hatred is not only inaccurate, it also leaves progressives no actionable options for winning the country back and repairing the damage.
"No actionable options". That is a very, very important point about this school of thought and I'm always amazed that many people on the left don't seem to understand this. I'm also amazed at how many people seem to have trouble understanding that voters have many different reasons for supporting a given candidate, including a candidate like Trump. Atkins notes:
[D]irect research with Obama-Trump voters has shown that Democrats have lost much credibility on economics with longtime Democratic voters, particularly in rural communities that in some cases flipped over 20 points from Obama to Trump and made the difference in toppling the Rust Belt firewall. Meanwhile, direct qualitative conversations with marginal Trump voters–not the hardcore racists that attend his rallies and make Pepe memes on twitter and alt-right subreddits, but the ones on the fence susceptible to persuasion until the end by Comey and Wikileaks–show again and again that they believed that Trump would at least make an attempt to bring the factory jobs back, reinvigorate their dying towns, and be immune to personal corruption due to his vast personal wealth. Voter suppression made a huge difference in reducing liberal and minority turnout in many of these states, but it doesn’t explain the collapse in Democratic persuasion efforts between 2012 and 2016 in formerly liberal nearly all-white communities.
And I think Atkins' conclusion on how the absurd, defeatist politics of Serwer and Coates must be rejected to move forward is exactly right:
Regardless of strategy, Democrats will no doubt do well in most places in 2018 and 2020 due to a motivated base angry and fearful of the Trump Administration, much as Republicans performed well in 2010 and 2014 after the elections of Obama. Such is our hyperpartisan era.
But in the tougher districts and states, and over a longer time horizon, there is a viable pathway for Democrats to win back many of the Obama voters who flipped to Trump and mobilize the less reliable elements of their coalition without sacrificing any ground on social justice.
If Coates and Serwer are right, then Democrats cannot succeed until rural white voters are somehow shamed out of their prejudices or until enough people of color and college-educated whites are mobilized to take their place. Neither event will happen anytime soon. But there is no need to wait. A more productive path forward is available. But it will require abandoning the defeatism of Serwer and Coates, and respecting the litmus tests of both social and economic progressives within the Democratic tent.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is an American science fiction writer and currently one of the brightest stars in the science fiction firmament. Bacigalupi is particularly concerned with how the future might be shaped by climate change. His masterpiece is his first novel, The Windup Girl set in 23rd century Thailand. Here's a taste of the plot:
Global warming has raised the levels of world's oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and megacorporations like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar (called calorie companies) control food production through 'genehacked' seeds, and use bioterrorismprivate armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world's plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile.
Thailand is an exception. It maintains its own reserve of genetically viable seeds, fights off engineered plagues and other bioterrorism, and keeps its borders firmly closed against the calorie companies and other foreign biological imports. The capital city of Bangkok is below sea level and is protected from flooding by levees and pumps. The current monarch of Thailand is a child queen who is essentially a figurehead; the three most powerful people in Thailand are the Somdet Chaopraya (regent for the child queen), General Pracha (the chief of the Environment Ministry), and Minister Akkarat (the chief of the Trade Ministry). Pracha and Akkarat are longtime enemies, and represent the protectionist/independent/isolationist and internationalist/accommodationalist factions in the government, respectively.
Anderson Lake is an economic hitman and the AgriGen representative in Thailand. He owns a factory trying to mass-produce a revolutionary new model of kink-spring (the successor, in the absence of oil or petroleum, to the internal-combustion engine) that will store gigajoules of energy. But the factory is a cover for his real mission: discovering the location of the Thai seedbank, with which Thailand has so far managed to resist the calorie companies' attempts at agro-economic subjugation. He leaves the running of the factory to his Chinese manager, Hock Seng, a refugee from the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese. A businessman in his former life, Hock Seng plots to regain his former glory by stealing the kink-spring designs kept in Anderson's safe. When Emiko, an illegal Japanese "windup" (robot, or perhaps cyborg) girl stuck in a sex club, gives Anderson information she learned about the secret seedbank, he tells her about a refuge in the north of Thailand where people of Emiko's kind (the "New People") live together. This becomes fixated in her mind, and from then on she strives to pay off Raleigh, the club's owner, and escape to this refuge.
There's a lot more to the book than this but suffice it to say that this is a world that is fully imagined and completely envelops the reader. Definitely one of the best science fiction novels of the last ten years. Also good by the same author are his later novel, The Water Knife, and his collection of short stories, Pump Six

Friday, November 24, 2017

Will Doug Jones Win in Alabama?

Beats me, though it is certainly the case that Roy Moore has been hurt by all the revelations about his past history. Harry Enten on 538 notes that:
[W]e can see how the accusations were a game changer by looking at surveys from five pollsters who took polls both before Nov. 9 and since. Moore’s position fell, on average, by 9 percentage points from before the allegations to after. 
That's good but it's also the case that the RealClearPolitics average shows Jones up by a mere .8 percentage points. That's a pretty meager lead.

The dominant force in the outcome will probably be white noncollege voters. They were roughly half of 2016 voters in Alabama and supported Trump by an astonishing 77 points (87-10). If their turnout is low relative to black voters on December 12 and if Jones can also take a big bite out of that lopsided GOP lead from 2016, he could definitely pull this out. If not, we'll be looking at (shudder) Senator Roy Moore.

Obscure Music Friday: Jackson C. Frank

Jackson C. Frank was a 1960's folksinger who released only one album in 1965...but what an album. The cut here, "Blues Run the Game", is particularly beautiful but the rest of his lone album is great as well. Alas his mental health deteriorated shortly thereafter and he spent the rest of his relatively short life in and out of institutions and frequently without money or a home. 

He was a significant influence on later singer-songwriters and his songs have been covered by many artists. But his own renditions have a very affecting, soulful quality.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Has Progress Left Africa Behind?

The words "progress" and "Africa" do not often appear together--yet the data indicate that there have been vast improvements in Africa in recent decades. Check out this presentation on African progress from Max Roser's fabulous Our World in Data site. 

Less hunger. More democracy. More literacy and education. Less Malaria. Way less child mortality. Way less poverty. Strong economic growth. It's all here.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sure, the World Has Big Problems, But Let Us Never Forget How Much Better Things Are Today Than They Were 50 Years Ago

I don't agree with everything Larry Summers says, but he has the right of it in a recent speech on "Global Development Policy for the 21st Century". 
I think the place to start and the place to linger a bit—because in all the doom and all the gloom and all the concern we tend to forget it—is that emerging markets have, in a profound sense, emerged over the last generation. There has been more convergence between poor people in poor countries and rich people in rich countries over the last generation than in any generation in human history.
The dramatic way to say it is that between the time of Pericles and London in 1800, standards of living rose about 75 percent in 2,300 years. They called it the Industrial Revolution because for the first time in human history, standards of living were visibly and meaningfully different at the end of a human lifespan than they had been at the beginning of a human lifespan, perhaps 50 percent higher during the Industrial Revolution.
Fifty percent is the growth that has been achieved in a variety of six-year periods in China over the last generation and in many other countries, as well. And so if you look at material standards of living, we have seen more progress for more people and more catching up than ever before. That is not simply about things that are material and things that are reflected in GDP. The primary message of the Global Health 2035 Report that I coauthored several years ago and that Amanda Glassman and others from CGD were involved in was that if current trends continue, with significant effort from the global community, it is reasonable to hope that in 2035 the global child mortality rate will be lower than the US child mortality rate was when my children were born in 1990. That is a staggering human achievement.
It is already the case that in large parts of China, life expectancy is greater than it is in large parts of the United States. One can tell a similar story in terms of literacy and probably an even stronger story of the rights of women. Extreme poverty is now a phenomenon not of countries that just happen to be poor. It is a phenomenon that reflects pockets of poverty in countries that overall have reasonable incomes, like India or China, and it is a phenomenon of fragile and dysfunctional states that do not have effective governments. It is not a phenomenon of generalized poverty of countries that do not lack resources.
And so we have made incredible progress in the last generation. And if we do as well over the next generation, that generation will be one of the two best generations in human history in terms of poverty reduction. And so as we move to a discussion of how dark it is and populism in industrial countries and all the things I am about to talk about, we should not lose sight of that hugely positive reality, which will be the primary thing that historians who look at this time in terms of these questions in 2300 see.
So the next time you're depressed about the state of the world, think of these incredibly great developments. It will cheer you up (unless you are ideologically committed to being pessimistic). 

Monday, November 20, 2017

As the Virginia House of Delegates Goes, So Goes the Nation?

As presumably everybody knows at this point, the Republicans got crushed in races for the Virginia House of Delegates on November 7, losing at least 15 seats (in a 100 seat body). But that's just Virginia right? It can't possibly mean much for the nationwide elections in 2018.

Or can it? Political scientist Steven Rogers asserts that, in fact, outcomes in Virginia House of Delegates election are actually quite predictive of results in the next midterm elections. Here's the bottom line:
[T]he fortunes of the president’s party in Virginia House elections are related to how the president’s party fared in midterm elections the next year….a clear correlation emerges in U.S. House and state House elections.
A 10-point change in seats in the House of Delegates is associated with a 4-5% seat change in midterm state House and U.S. House elections…. the predicted loss in Republican seats [in 2018]….would be almost as large as Democratic losses in 2010 and exceed Republicans losses after Watergate in 1974.
 Thank you, Virginia.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Impending Demise of Democracy Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

It wasn’t so long ago that democracy was an unusual way to run a political system; today it is quite common. The number of countries with some form of democracy has more than doubled since 1980 and almost quintupled since 1950. And preference for basic democratic rights, including for women, is now almost universal among the world’s population.

And yet....many fear that democracy is now endangered. The rise of populism. Duterte in the Phillipines. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Was democracy just a moment and we're now on the downhill slope?

As always, the way to assess such a question is to look past today's headlines and consult the available data. These data do not support a pessimistic attitude toward the fate of democracy.

For example, some might grant that democracy became more common in the years after World War II and made more gains when the Iron Curtain fell, but argue that the last decade has seen a sharp turn away from democracy. That's a common view but a wrong one. Democracy researcher Melida Jimenez points out that:
Data from the Lexical Index of Electoral Democracy show that in 2016, no less than 68 percent of the world’s countries — home to 62.2 percent of the world population — government power is determined by genuinely contested elections. That’s actually an increase from 62 percent in 2006. What’s more, 56 percent of the democracies established after 1975 have not seen democratic reversals. No country with over 40 years of electoral democracy — with the prominent exception of Venezuela — has slid back into nondemocratic governance. Democracy remains the most widespread and legitimate form of government.
The data reveal that not only has there been an increase in the number of elections being held around the worlds since 1975, but there’s also been higher quality of elections, with lower levels of fraud, manipulation and irregularities…. More and more people around the world live in places where their access to justice, civil liberties, social rights and equality are treated with respect. 
But what of Europe? Surely here it is permissible to hit the panic button. Not so fast. Political scientists Fernando Casal Bértoa and José Rama Caamaño note a number of factors that militate against such a judgement. 
[I]n a significant number of countries, the election with the highest percentage of votes for populist parties took place well before 1995, including Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
In fact, if we were to rank the elections with the highest support for anti-establishment parties in all 20 democracies displayed in the table below, we would observe that most of the elections with a record number of populist votes were in the 1930s, 1990s and 1950s, as well as in the 2010s….
Further, there’s been another change at the same time — and it may be complicating the picture. Not only have anti-establishment parties been getting a larger share of the vote; European countries have seen a parallel rise in the number of parties in the electorate.
That matters. When just one radical party (like the Communists or fascists) obtains a high percentage of votes — as happened during the 1930s — the nation is facing something quite different from when various political parties get those votes. In the first case, the radical party has a great deal of power to pressure or blackmail the government. That’s just not true when those votes are spread among many parties. Consider France, which has at least four anti-establishment political parties: National Front, France Unbowed, French Communist Party and French Arise. While the National Front has gotten the most attention, its power is less than if those anti-establishment votes gone its way.
Looking at all this information, we might ask ourselves if the current rise in support for populist parties is such a big deal. With the exception of Greece — the nation most affected by the 2008 recession — no E.U. country has had a “populist” prime minister. Most European governing coalitions — the exceptions are Norway, Finland and Belgium — do not even include a populist party.
As a result, we question the announcement of a new era of democratic doom. Are we currently facing a period of realignment? Certainly. Has the economic crisis revealed democracy’s shortcomings? No doubt. But we do not believe we are currently witnessing the collapse of European party democracy.
So there you have it. Democracy is most assuredly not on the way out, even if there are real challenges--including populism--for today's democracies to overcome. Those challenges will lead to some setbacks but the historical record and trend data indicate that democracy as a system will not only survive but become more common over time.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Democratic Wave Watch: GOP Doubles Down on Unpopularity

My, my what will those crazy rascals in the GOP think of next? Not content with being beaten soundly about the ears in the 2017 elections and currently running a serial child molester for Senator, the overachievers in the Republican Party and seeking to ram yet another incredibly unpopular piece of legislation through Congress in the spirit of their attempted repeal of Obamacare. John Sides of The Monkey Cage blog notes the following about the GOP's tax reform plan:
….George Washington University political scientist Chris Warshaw compiled public polls capturing support for major legislation dating back almost 30 years....
On average, only about 30 percent of Americans support the tax plan. This is lower than support for almost any of these legislative initiatives. The only thing that was less popular was … the Republican health-care bill that was intended to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Gee, who would have thought that a bill that mostly cuts taxes for corporations and the rich while eventually raising taxes on middle income families would be unpopular? 

Meanwhile, evidence continues to build that unpopularity (of their President, of the bills they have tried to pass, of the Republican Congress) will hurt the GOP big-time in 2018. Yes, I know some are reluctant to utter these words out loud, fearing that some mysterious Trump ju-ju will save the Republicans in the end. But, as Cook Political Report's Amy Walter pointed out on her Twitter feed, the real lesson of 2016 is "Don't ignore or rationalize away what's right in front of you. A Dem wave is building. And it's big". 

Yup, that's right. What looks like it's happening, in all probability, is really happening. So believe it and act accordingly. 

Science Fiction Saturday: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar

Edgar Rice Burroughs is most famous, of course, for his Tarzan novels. But he also wrote science fiction, albeit of a very pulp and fanciful variety. One of his lesser-known creations is the world of Pellucidar, the world inside our world where Burroughs set a series of six books. Here's the description of this world by Burroughs expert Ryan Harvey:
Beneath our feet lies a realm beyond the most vivid daydreams of the fantastic… Pellucidar. A subterranean world formed along the concave curve inside the earth’s crust, surrounding an eternally stationary sun that eliminates the concept of time. A land of savage humanoids, fierce beasts, and reptilian overlords, Pellucidar is the weird stage for adventurers from the topside layer — including a certain Lord Greystoke. The series consists of six novels, one which crosses over with the Tarzan series, plus a volume of linked novellas, published between 1914 and 1963.
Sounds like fun, right? The novels vary in quality; the best are probably the opener At the Earth's Core and the crossover novel, Tarzan at the Earth's Core, which is jolly fun. So if you're in the mood for some entirely unserious pulp adventure this could be just the ticket. For plots and detailed asssessments of all the novels, follow the links in Harvey's series wrap-up post on the Black Gate website. And then be prepared to meet the Mahars:
...among the best alien creatures to appear in the Burroughs canon and one of his greatest creations, period. Abner Perry [a character in the series] describes the Mahars as resembling an evolution of Rhamphorhynchus into an eight-foot long aerial and aquatic reptile of immense mental capacity. The Mahars communicate through something odder than telepathy; according to Perry, they “project their thoughts into the fourth dimension where they become appreciable to the sixth sense of the listener.” 
Now that's some kind of reptile! Perhaps it's just as well they're down there in Pellucidar.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Kim Fowley

You gotta listen to this one: "The Trip" by rock n' roll impresario and all-around character Kim Fowley. In his lengthy and rather strange career, perhaps the strangest thing he ever did was this bizarre song put out in 1965 (!) Check out these lyrics:
Summer time’s here kitties
And it's time to take a trip, to take a trip
This world's so bad, you feel so sad
You gotta take a trip, into a world so glad
A world of frogs, and green fountains
And flying dogs, and silver cats, and emerald rats
And purple clouds, and faceless crowds
And walls of glass, that never pass
And pictures hanging upside down
You won't ask, where you are, It's another world
You and your girl, and all your friends,
Whoa! Will all be there
Oh yeah!
Let's take a trip, let's take a trip
T.N.T., S.O.S., H.O.B., T.O.P.
It's top, it's top
Hey here we go now, let's climb some mountains everybody
Get on your walking shoes, let's climb some mountains
Here we go
Let's take a trip, let's take a trip
And start to dream, let's close your eyes
It's groovy now, yeah!
Groovy indeed. Especially those silver cats and emerald rats! 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Megatrends to the Rescue!

I would say most discussions of progress on global warming still tend toward the gloomy. But as it's becoming more and more obvious that big, positive trends on energy consumption and production are here to stay, we're starting to get more discussions that dare to be hopeful.

One such discussion was recently in the UK Guardian, enumerating "seven fast-growing global megatrends" that are shifting the energy picture. Here's the introduction to the article, but I recommend reading the whole thing:
Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
Exponential progress. That sounds pretty good. And in the era of Trump no less.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Martov-Mania Spreads!

Celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution the right way by catching the wave of Martov-Mania that is sweeping the world. Harold Meyerson makes a worthy contribution to Martov-Mania in The American Prospect, where he does an excellent job of recounting how the October Revolution actually went down. Here's where the noble Julius Martov got squeezed out:
Inevitably, all these differences came to a head at the Soviet Congress meeting 100 years ago. Martov made a motion that the new Soviet government be multi-tendency and contain members from all the socialist parties (a “united democratic government,” as he termed it). He encouraged the new government to reach out to other groups and social forces. Otherwise, he warned that a civil war of great violence, and a reign of repression to keep the Bolsheviks in power, would inevitably follow. Delegates from all tendencies applauded his motion, but then the Right-Mensheviks and Right-SRs walked out, to Martov’s dismay. Trotsky, speaking for himself and Lenin, countered that it was the Bolsheviks who’d taken power and Bolsheviks who’d govern. Turning on Martov, who’d been his mentor and friend, Trotsky delivered this famous malediction:
Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!
Upon which, Martov stormed out of the room. But into history’s dustbin? Or, I’d contend, into its pantheon of democrats and social prophets?
The pantheon, Harold, definitely the pantheon. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Top Five Takeaways from the 2017 Elections

The 2017 elections were quite a revelation. Pretty much everywhere where the Republicans could have lost, they lost. The marquee race, the contest for governor of Virginia—which was supposed to be close—was won easily (54-45) by Democrat Ralph Northan over Republican Ed Gillespie, who had attempted to emulate Trump by running an anti-immigrant scare campaign. And downballot in the Virginia House of Delegates—the lower house of the Virginia legislature—the Democrats flipped at least 15 seats—going from a lopsided 66-34 disadvantage to, at worst, almost tied (51-49). The newly-elected included a transgender woman (who defeated an ultra-conservative Republican, self-described as “Virginia’s chief homophobe”) and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (who defeated the GOP House majority whip). These shifts were not expected by the even the most optimistic Democratic observer.

All over the country, unusual and significant results obtained. Maine over-rode their conservative governor and voted by initiative to implement the Obamacare-funded expansion of Medicaid. A special election victory in Washington state gave Democrats control of the Senate and, thereby, unified control of government in that state (Governor, Senate, House). Democrats flipped three open seats in the Georgia state legislature. A black Liberian immigrant was elected mayor of Helena, the capital of Montana. A Sikh was elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey (a state where Democrats easily won the governor’s race as well). A black woman was elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. And so it went, as a blue wave swept the country.

One must be cautious in reading too much into any one election, especially a non-federal one where electoral contests were irregularly scattered around the country. But there are some important takeaways that can be discerned from the pattern of results. Here are my top five.

5. Trump and the GOP have not repealed the laws of politics. Normally, one would expect that a very unpopular incumbent president, pursuing very unpopular policies and showing essentially no legislative accomplishments, would hurt the incumbent party at the ballot box. But people were very cautious in assuming this would be so for Trump and the GOP, given his unexpected victory in the 2016 election, which seemed to defy normal political expectations.

As it turns out, Trump has not rewritten the rule books. He is historically unpopular for a US President at this stage of his term (37-38 percent approval/56-57 percent disapproval), has made innumerable inflammatory statements that most voters dislike and has pushed, with his party, a health care plan that was detested by the public and died in Congress. This should have hurt the Republicans and it did, consistent with historical patterns and standard political science research.

4. The Democrats are looking very good for 2018. The stakes in 2018 will be far higher than in 2017, with all US House members up for election, plus 33 US Senators, 36 state governors and 6,066 state legislators (82 percent of the country’s total). Prospects for the Democrats now look very positive indeed for this election.

The Democrats currently have a wide lead on the generic Congressional ballot (which party’s Congressional candidate would you vote for if the election were held today?), about 9 points which predicts a Democratic gain sufficiently large (they need to pick up 23 seats) to take back the US House of Representatives. Moreover, the general pattern is for the incumbent party’s generic ballot disadvantage to widen, not contract, as we get closer to the election, so the Democrats appear well-positioned to make the necessary gains; at this point, they should be considered favorites to accomplish this goal.

Other factors on their side besides Trump’s dreadful approval ratings include a wave of Republican retirements from disillusioned legislators, creating more open seats; tremendous Democratic success in recruiting candidates for Congress and lower offices; strong Democratic performance in various “special” elections (elections held off-cycle to fill a suddenly vacant seat) held since Trump assumed office; and the general historical pattern that the opposition party gains ground in midterm elections. In short, the pieces are in place for another wave election in 2018, where the results will have far more weight than the elections just held.

3. White college graduates are looking more and more like a Democratic constituency. It is remarkable how wide the education divide now is among white voters, with white college graduates and non-graduates steadily diverging in their political behavior. New estimates we have developed at the Center for American Progress indicate that both Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016 carried white college graduates nationwide, with Clinton achieving a solid 7 point lead among this demographic. Our estimates also show that Clinton carried white college graduates in most swing states, sometimes by wide margins.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence indicate that this trend only intensified in the 2017 elections. My estimate, based on trends revealed by the exit polls and our own work on voting patterns among this demographic, is that Democrats carried white college graduates by double digits in the Virginia gubernatorial race.

2. Keep your eye on the Millennial generation. In the 2016 election, Democrats carried the 18-29 year old vote by 27 points, according to our estimates. Moreover, Clinton carried young voters by wide margins in all swing states, including in ones she lost. And very significantly, in most of these swing states she also carried white Millennials, indicating just how profound this generational shift is.

This pattern carried over to 2017 where Democrats carried the youth vote by 39 and 48 points, respectively, in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.

1. The white working class vote is still the Democrats’ critical weakness. Not all was roses however. In Virginia, Northam still lost the white noncollege vote by around 40 points, very little improved over Clinton’s performance in the state in 2016. This is especially worrisome because white noncollege voters, despite a secular decline in voter share, remain a larger group than white college voters in almost all states, and far larger in the Rustbelt states that gave the Democrats so much trouble in the 2016 election.

There are positive signs however in trends among white noncollege voters, particularly from the Millennial generation according to our analysis of 2016 election data. To build on these trends and make some inroads generally among these voters, Democrats will probably have to offer something besides vigorous denunciations of Trump, who is more popular—though slipping--with these voters than with the rest of country. If Wall Street financier Robert Rubin, the Democrats’ quintessential 1990’s neoliberal economic figure, is now advocating for a massive public jobs program, perhaps it’s time to make that offer to these voters and to the rest of the electorate. The political winds are shifting and fortune belongs to the bold.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: New Paul McAuley Novel!

I continue to beat the drums for Paul McAuley, the best science fiction writer you've never heard of. I am happy to report that McAuley has a new novel out--Austral--and it looks like a good one. Here's the description:
The great geoengineering projects have failed.The world is still warming, sea levels are still rising, and the Antarctic Peninsula is home to Earth's newest nation, with life quickened by ecopoets spreading across valleys and fjords exposed by the retreat of the ice.Austral Morales Ferrado, a child of the last generation of ecopoets, is a husky: an edited person adapted to the unforgiving climate of the far south, feared and despised by most of its population. She's been a convict, a corrections officer in a labour camp, and consort to a criminal, and now, out of desperation, she has committed the kidnapping of the century. But before she can collect the ransom and make a new life elsewhere, she must find a place of safety amongst the peninsula's forests and icy plateaus, and evade a criminal gang that has its own plans for the teenage girl she's taken hostage.Blending the story of Austral's flight with the fractured history of her family and its role in the colonisation of Antarctica, Austral is a vivid portrayal of a treacherous new world created by climate change, and shaped by the betrayals and mistakes of the past.
The novel is set in the same future as McAuley's excellent story, "Elves of Antarctica" which was in Jonathan Strahan's cli-fi anthology from last year, Drowned Worlds (also recommended). Austral is not yet out in the States but can easily be ordered from Amazon anyway. Go for it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: The Tune Wranglers

In my ongoing campaign to hip people to western swing bands besides Bob Wills, I highlight here an obscure (that's the way we like 'em!) band called The Tune Wranglers that worked all over the southwest in the 1930's. They've definitely got the "swing" part of western swing down and in my view they were one of the best in the genre. The video here is "Red's Tight Like That", full of so many double, triple and quadruple entendres you might want to keep the youngsters away from this one!

For those who want more, there is a terrific collection put out by reissue house Doxy Records, available on all the streaming services.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Is European Social Democracy Dead or Merely Resting?

Times are tough for European social democracy. This once-proud movement--the progenitor of the modern welfare state, the default representative of the European working classes--crashed to historic lows in many countries in the first decade of this century. Followed by, well, more historic lows since then.

In recent elections, the Netherlands Labor Party polled under 6 percent, its worst showing since World War II and just barely ahead of the mighty Party for the Animals. In France, the once-massive Socialist Party polled a pathetic 7 percent, also a postwar low. In Germany, the historically powerful Social Democrats have slumped to a little over 20 percent support, a postwar low as well. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party, also polled a little over 20 percent in its last election, its worst showing since democracy returned to Spain. The Greek social democrats, PASOK, have pretty much disappeared. The Italian Democrats, what passes for a social democratic party in Italy, are polling behind the populist 5 Star Movement (and in the very recent elections in Sicily, far behind).

Other examples abound of social democratic underperformance but you get the idea. Is this a movement that has outlasted its time--headed for the ash heap of history, so to speak? Without in any way minimizing the challenges European social democrats currently face, I don't think it's time to administer the last rites.

First, not all social democratic parties have been losing ground recently. The Swedish social democrats did well in their last election and are in government. The UK Labor Party confounded expectations in the recent snap election and made significant gains, pulling 40 percent of the vote. The Portuguese Socialist Party is in government, supported by two farther-left parties, the Left Bloc and the Communist-led Democratic Unity Coalition, and is currently polling very strongly.

Second, even where social democratic parties have lost ground--which, admittedly, is more the rule than the exception--they remain parties with significant historical and political weight in their countries. The disappearing act pulled by PASOK still seems pretty far away for most of these parties.

Finally, and most importantly, they will be forced to change and, in fact, are in the process of doing so. To put it as simply as possible, social democratic parties need allies on the left to succeed electorally and, at the same time, these parties need to directly confront, and seek to change, the current poorly-performing model of postindustrial capitalism. Nothing else will arrest their downward slide.

These truths are dawning across the European left. The German social democrats have rejected another "Grand Coalition" and have gone into opposition with a new left wing leader and a professed openness to working with other parties to their left. The Spanish social democrats rejected their own establishment and elected a new left-leaning leader whose professed model is the anti-austerity left alliance strategy of the Portuguese Socialist Party. As for the Portuguese Socialists and the UK Labor Party, they are forging ahead with their new strategies and finding considerable success. Paul Mason of the UK Guardian puts these developments, and what they mean for European social democracy, in their proper context.
Until the centre-left learns to break with the logic of neoliberalism, and to construct an economic model that subordinates market forces to human needs, it will continue failing. The task is not to remedy or tweak the neoliberal economic model but replace it – just as fundamentally as Thatcher, Reagan and Berlusconi did in the economic counter-revolutions of the 80s and 90s.
The starting point is to stop characterising the small but vibrant leftist parties as “populist”, or “just as bad as the right”. Instead, social democrats need to learn from the radical left, and engage with them both ideologically and tactically. The Portuguese governing coalition – of the socialists and the Left Bloc – has revived the welfare state with an injection of cash, unfreezing pensions, raising benefits for families and disabled people, and boosting youth employment. Syriza in Greece has eclipsed the traditional socialist party, Pasok, not just through its moment of heroic defiance of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in 2015 – but by displaying competence in government and relative immunity to the deep corruption that pervades the rest of politics. In Ireland, Sinn Féin, together with six TDs (MPs) from a far-left coalition, has become a way more powerful voice for social justice than the pallid Labour party.
Only one traditional party of European social democracy has begun the necessary transformation, and that is Labour in the UK. This year’s party conference has turned the narrow streets of Brighton into a continuous milling discussion club about the politics and economics of modern socialism. Pubs, street corners, cafes, the endless queues for fringe meetings and, of course, the beach have become overcrowded with enthusiastic, educated young Labour people preparing for the radical transformation of Britain. Some of them have the labour movement in their DNA – many others would, in Germany, be just as happy inside Die Linke or the Green party; or in Italy inside the Five Star Movement. Almost none of them would be seen dead inside Greece’s Pasok.
Mason's point about a new economic model is key. As I have noted before, capitalism is in a long transition from an industrial to a postindustrial, services-based model of society and so far the transition has not gone well. As this transition unfolded in the last two or three decades of the 20th century, Western capitalist societies saw a distinct slowdown in economic growth, twinned with a startling rise in inequality. The early 21st century continued these trends with the global financial crisis of 2007-08 dealing a grievous blow to advanced economies, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many countries have recovered from this damage only recently and some have not yet done so.

So we are now talking about many decades of poor economic performance, particularly as it has affected those with low or modest skills whose livelihoods were connected to the old industrial economy. Elites on both the right and the left have appeared powerless to either accelerate this transition so it arrives at someplace good for most people or push it back to a better place. 

This is the essence of the problem. European social democrats to many, many European voters appear precisely to be elites that are powerless to shape--or, worse, uninterested in shaping--this transition into a workable economic model that delivers a substantially better life for these voters. The vexed relationship of most European social democrats to the austerity dictates of the EU and Eurozone authorities has, of course, only intensified these perceptions.

But the clouds are lifting. European social democrats are coming out of their fog and realizing that voters are simply not interested in what they have been offering. There really is no choice other than re-embracing the historic role of social democracy in reforming capitalism and taking whatever allies they can get in doing so. The time for rest has come to an end.