Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Optimistic Leftist Book Club Alert: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

Steven Pinker has a new book coming out, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. The book will be released February 27 and may achieve the coveted status of an official Optimistic Leftist Book Club selection. In the meantime, here's an excerpt from an interesting exchange the New York Times published last Sunday between Bill Gates and Pinker. Gates incidentally has already said that Pinker's new book is his "new favorite book of all time". 

I liked this bit from the conversation:
Interviewer: Steven’s new book tells us we’re living longer, with greater wealth, peace and equality, and less racism and sexism. It’s so counterintuitive to the feeling in the air. What’s the value in correcting that? Will it change behavior?...
Pinker: There’s a tendency in journalism and political debates to assume that it’s easy to achieve a perfect society: “Good people would do that.” The fact that we don’t means that evil people must be running the system: “Let’s throw them out and find nobler ones.” This leads to empowering charismatic despots and destroying institutions that have done a lot of good. But we have no right to expect perfection. We should appreciate how much better off we are and try to improve our institutions guided by what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure Bill gets this all the time: “Why throw money at the developing world? They’re just going to have more babies and be just as poor.”
Gates: “It’s always been bad, always will be bad.”
Pinker: It’s just not true.
Interviewer: But can’t overstating problems energize us in terms of solving them?
Gates: There’s a paradox in letting yourself be very, very upset about what remains to be done. What indicator improves even faster than reduction in violence? Our distaste for violence. We’re more upset about it today. If I see someone spanking a kid — I’m stealing from Steven’s book — I might get up and say: “Hey, wait a minute!” Forty years ago, it might have been more like: “Do you want to borrow my belt?” There are parts of the world that are still like 40 years ago. But to read Steven’s book and think it says, “Don’t worry, be happy,” is to misread it. Because seeing the world through the eyes of that poor kid ideally wants to make you give some money, even though there are many fewer such kids than 50 years ago.
Pinker: You can say the same fact two ways. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today. That’s great! Or you can say: More than 700 million people in the world live in extreme poverty today. They’re the same fact, and you have to be able to describe them to yourself both ways.
Aye, that's the trick. A lot of folks have great difficulty with that. Hopefully, his book will help.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Can the JuSos Stop Another Grand Coalition in Germany?

Guest post by Judith Meyer

The SPD youth (JuSos) is trying to imitate Momentum and overtake the SPD ahead of its members' vote by gathering lots of new short-term sign-ups for the sole purpose of voting against the Grand Coalition (GroKo). There are few numbers available, but within less than 48 hours they had had 1500 membership applications made centrally, and nobody knows how many applications were made via the local groups. Still, the task isn't easy, in 2013, 370,000 members had cast their vote about the coalition.

In any case they did enough to worry Merkel (whom Schulz may have told up-to-date figures?). Merkel is now insisting that the negotiations must conclude by February 4 already, which is unheard of in the history of coalition talks, and quite unlikely for a 200-page document. The SPD's General Secretary has noticed this possibility of putting the pressure on CDU to reach a deal quickly and he publicly affirmed today that new members shall have the right to vote. There will have to be a cut-off date of course (it has been set for February 6, 6 pm) for logistical reasons, but it won't be retroactive.

The coalition treaty is unlikely to contain anything new about Europe because the CDU/CSU leaders withdrew from the workgroup on Europe and Martin Schulz had to follow suit in order not to lose standing. It is said that Merkel doesn't want too much detail in the treaty on Europe so that she has more room to maneuver. While SPD affirmed that there would be no revelation of who will become minister of what until after the members' vote, it is an open secret that Schulz is coveting the position of foreign minister for himself, which would probably mean that CDU/CSU will claim the finance ministry for themselves - they would put Peter Altmaier.

I still give it better than even odds that the SPD base will reject the coalition.

The Math Is Clear: Democrats Need to Win More Working-Class White Votes

My new article on Vox is out, debunking the ridiculous idea that the Democrats can achieve the electoral success they're looking for without more white working class votes. Here's the beginning of the article, but I hope you'll read the whole thing!
Following the noteworthy Democratic successes in the 2017 elections, we’re once again hearing that Democrats can achieve their electoral goals without any greater success among the white working class. Indeed, some on the left seem to feel that Democratic gestures toward the white working class would not only be ineffective but are politically suspect.
“There’s always been something problematic about the Democratic Party’s fixation on white working-class voters,” writes Sally Kohn at the Daily Beast. “After Alabama, it’s clear that obsession isn’t just fraught with bias. It’s also dumb.”
Steve Phillips of Democracy in Color remarked in a New York Times op-ed: “The country is under conservative assault because Democrats mistakenly sought support from conservative white working-class voters susceptible to racially charged appeals. Replicating that strategy would be another catastrophic blunder.”
“The ceiling with the white working class is what it is,” Phillips adds with a shrug in The Nation.
However popular, the view that Democrats can get along without working-class white voters is simply wrong. It reflects wishful thinking and a rigid set of political priors — namely, that Democrats’ political problems always stem from insufficient motivation of base voters — more than a cold, hard look at what the electoral and demographic data say.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Youth Revolt!

Let's see now....1968 was what,  50 years ago? Seems like it's about time for another: youth revolt! And we may be getting one. The signs have been building for awhile. Corbyn's surge to the leadership of the UK Labor Party and then to a way-better-than-expected electoral performance was driven by young voters. Same thing with Bernie Sanders' primary performances in the US. Podemos in Spain. The Left Bloc in Portugal. Syriza in Greece. 5 Star Movement in Italy. Wherever radicalism of a left coloration has reared its head and insisted that the old ways of doing things were simply not adequate to the current situation, it is the young who have been in the lead.

And now we have the JuSos in Germany, the Young Socialist formation within the German SPD, the mainstream social democratic party, leading the charge against yet another "Grand Coalition" or GroKo between the SPD and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Such a coalition would carry business as usual in Germany to the point of self-parody. The SPD youth are having none of it and are desperately trying to "pull a Corbyn" by encouraging as many people as possible to take out 10 euro party memberships and vote against the GroKo in the upcoming membership referendum ("a tenner against the GroKo").

They may or may not succeed, since their task is probably even more difficult than that faced by the Corbynites. But they are shaking things up and may be a harbinger of trouble to come if German politics settles back in its well-worn grooves. 

The distaste for political business as usual is not confined to young voters of course, as we can see from the wave of right wing populism infecting the western world. But it is most definitely young voters who are driving a rejection of business as usual from the progressive direction. This should be seen as a sign of hope since the contemporary model of capitalism clearly needs major changes to deliver the quality of life and opportunities people are looking for. Tinkering around the edges just isn't going to cut it and it is the young who see this most clearly and are most willing to speak out about it. 

So perhaps we're starting to reach another boiling point. Mainstream left parties in Europe have suffered from aging of their memberships for many years as young voters found other parties to vote for or just weren't interested; that process is only accelerating. Left parties will either change, as the UK Labor Party and, to a lesser extent, our own Democratic Party has, or they will pay a price. 

Am I overestimating the potential importance of these youth-fueled outbreaks on the left, some of which, to be sure, can be a bit strident and unrealistic? Let me quote Arthur Goldhammer, whose excellent article on this topic I commend to you:
Many commentators, myself included, have been quick to fasten on the inadequacies of these youth movements, with their often half-baked ideas, hubristic fantasies of quick revolutionary change, and insufficient appreciation of the complexity and resilience of actually existing economic and social relations. We have tended to interpret the protests as left-wing variants of the right-wing populism we deplore, because like the populists, the young demonstrators, caught up in the contagious enthusiasm of movement politics, mistake their faction for the whole of the body politic. But in making these criticisms we have neglected the flair of the young in sussing out precisely where that body politic has become most sclerotic.
 In other words, "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall."

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

With the recent passing of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the science fiction greats, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her here. Besides being a fine writer, her science fiction was marked by a distinct humanist bent, with an abiding interest in sociological and political speculation about our species' possible futures. I have read and liked many of her books, even though I tend toward the hard SF side of the genre. 

It's worth mentioning that she was on the political left, leaning anarchist, and a great  admirer of Murray Bookchin. You can definitely see that perspective coming out in her novels. I wonder if they read Le Guin in Rojava, ostensibly based around Bookchinite priciples.

As for what to read almost all of her work is at least readable and much is outstanding. The works in her Hainish  future history cycle are all very good, but the standout books are The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Outside of the Hainish cycle, I liked The Lathe of Heaven quite a bit.

Anyway, hard to go wrong with this author. If you haven't yet made an acquaintance with her books, now's an appropriate time.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Obscure Music Friday: The Dawn of Correction

In honor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moving us to just 2 minutes to midnight, the point of total global annihilation, I considered featuring Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction". But it's not really obscure enough to merit inclusion in this highly prestigious series. So instead how about "The Dawn of Correction" by the sadly-forgotten Philadelphia group, The Spokesmen

Some sample lyrics:
You missed all the good in your evaluation
What about the things that deserve commendation?
Where there once was no cure, there's vaccination
Where there once was a desert, there's vegetation
Self-government's replacing colonization
What about the Peace Corp. organization?
Don't forget the work of the United Nations

So over and over again, you keep sayin' it's the end
But I say you're wrong, we're just on the dawn of correction
But I say you're wrong, we're just on the dawn of correction
So keep your sunny-side up. And don't forget the work of the United Nations! 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: Clifford D. Simak

Clifford D. Simak was one of the greats of 1950's and 1960's science fiction. He wrote many fine novels, marked by a pastoral tone and a contemplative attitude toward humanity's future. Some of the best are City, Way Station, Time Is the Simplest Thing and Why Call  Them Back from Heaven. Most are available in inexpensive kindle editions.

Perhaps the most famous of his books was City, which was always one of my personal favorites:
The novel describes a legend consisting of eight tales the pastoral and pacifist Dogs recite as they pass down an oral legend of a creature known as Man. Each tale is preceded by doggish notes and learned discussion.
An editor's preface notes that after each telling of the legend the pups ask many questions:
"What is Man?" they'll ask.
Or perhaps: "What is a city?"
Or: "What is a war?
There is no positive answer to any of these questions."
From the mouths of pups..... 

The Great Lesson of California in America’s New Civil War

The fourth article in my series with Peter Leyden on "California Is the Future" is now out on Medium. Here's the intro to the article, but please read the whole thing. It is ungated.
The next time you call for bipartisan cooperation in America and long for Republicans and Democrats to work side by side, stop it. Remember the great lesson of California, the harbinger of America’s political future, and realize that today such bipartisan cooperation simply can’t get done.
In this current period of American politics, at this juncture in our history, there’s no way that a bipartisan path provides the way forward. The way forward is on the path California blazed about 15 years ago.
In the early 2000s, California faced a similar situation to the one America faces today. Its state politics were severely polarized, and state government was largely paralyzed. The Republican Party was trapped in the brain-dead orthodoxies of an ideology stuck in the past. The party was controlled by zealous activists and corrupt special interests who refused to face up to the reality of the new century. It was a party that refused to work with the Democrats in good faith or compromise in any way.
The solution for the people of California was to reconfigure the political landscape and shift a supermajority of citizens — and by extension their elected officials — under the Democratic Party’s big tent. The natural continuum of more progressive to more moderate solutions then got worked out within the context of the only remaining functioning party. The California Democrats actually cared about average citizens, embraced the inevitable diversity of 21st-century society, weren’t afraid of real innovation, and were ready to start solving the many challenges of our time, including climate change.
California today provides a model for America as a whole. This model of politics and government is by no means perfect, but it is far ahead of the nation in coming to terms with the inexorable digital, global, sustainable transformation of our era. It is a thriving work in progress that gives hope that America can pull out of the political mess we’re in. California today provides a playbook for America’s new way forward. It’s worth contemplating as we enter 2018, which will be a critical election year.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Was 2017 the Best Year in Human History? If Not, Please Defend Your Viewpoint

Nicholas Kristof says it was. Here are the facts:
A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell….
Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water….
As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.
Just since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps...
I know it feels uncomfortable to highlight progress at a time of global threats. But this pessimism is counterproductive and simply empowers the forces of backwardness.
President Trump rode this gloom to the White House. The idea “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a lost Eden. But really? If that was, say, the 1950s, the U.S. also had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control. Most of the world lived under dictatorships, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5, and it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women and of the worst famine in history.
What moment in history would you prefer to live in?
I think that's a very tough and revealing question. So tell me, if 2017 wasn't the best year in human history (yes and I know, Trump, etc) why is that? Do all those people whose lives are getting better not count or something? Tell me, I'd really like to know.

Obscure Music Friday: "He's Our Comrade, Kim Jong Un"

It's grrrl power, North Korean-style! Tap your toes to this rockin' version of "He's our comrade, Kim Jong Un" by the DPRK's supergroup, the Moranbong Band. Very catchy, check the awesome guitar solo. And pretty soon you'll find yourself singing along to lines like "People will live under his care forever" and "He is the sun blazing the whole world".

Forget K-pop. Here comes NK-pop!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trump's Fragile Coalition

With the stunning Democratic upset in Wisconsin Senate District 10, this is a good time to take a look at just how fragile Trump's political coalition is. Start with the uncontroversial assertion that, while his victory in 2016 was astonishing and unexpected, it was not a robust victory. He lost the popular vote and without a massive swing in his favor among white noncollege voters, especially in key Rustbelt states (like Wisconsin!) he would not have won the electoral vote either. 

In short, he barely squeaked through, a fact not lost on GOP strategists, even if Trump himself seemed delusional about this. Looking forward, GOP strategists knew something had to change to consolidate Trump's and the party's position. The 2016 election was so close that, without improvement, simply replicating 2016 performance in 2020 was likely to be a losing proposition due to ongoing demographic change that will affect even slow growth Rustbelt states. (The States of Change project will examine this and many other scenarios in a report and conference forthcoming in April.) Clearly a situation so precarious was not acceptable to non-delusional strategists.

There seemed little likelihood that the needed improvements would come from minority voters, where the GOP was lucky to do as well as it did in 2016. The Trump administration's first year provides no reason to change that judgement.

The default strategy seemed to be, under the assumption that holding Trump's white noncollege support would not be difficult, to make progress among white college graduates, viewed as the soft underbelly of the Democratic coalition. After all, the reasoning went, it was not so long ago that white college graduates were a solidly Republican group and their relative affluence should make them susceptible to GOP appeals.

So how's that working out? An absolute disaster. In our CAP report on Voter Trends in 2016, we estimated that Clinton carried white college graduate voters in 2016 by 7 points. Every piece of evidence we have indicates that Trump and his party have gone seriously south with white college voters since the election. Most recently Ronald Brownstein reported on data from Survey Monkey's surveys of over 600,000 respondents in 2017. According to these data, Trump's net job approval (approval minus disapproval) among this group was -20. That's pretty bad and indicates considerable slippage since the election. Even discounting the swing this suggests quite considerably, a substantial margin shift of this nature, even if the GOP holds all its previous white noncollege support, would result in a wipeout in the electoral college, compounding Rustbelt losses with defeats in states like Arizona. (Again, more this and other scenarios in the April States of Change report.)

That Trump coalition is looking pretty shaky. But surely Trump can keep white noncollege support and even increase it. They love him, right? Well, maybe not as much as they once did. According to the same Survey Monkey data cited above, Trump's net approval among this group is running at +12. But this is a group he won by 31 points in 2016! Again, considerable slippage and, again, even discounting this slippage significantly and ignoring his likely losses among white college voters, this suggests a swing against the GOP more than sufficient to sink the GOP in 2020, losing key states in the Rustbelt, Florida and even Georgia (!)

All this makes it easier to understand how the GOP managed to just lose a heavily Trump-supporting, heavily white noncollege senate district in Wisconsin. It's not an outlier; it's the new normal.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Followup on "Where Did Trumpism Come From"

I just wrote about this issue but here's another useful piece on where Trumpism came from. This is a well-researched article by Zach Goldberg taking apart Adam Serwer's influential recent Atlantic article. As you may recall, Serwer at great length and with modest empirical backing essentially equates the entire Trump phenomenon to white racism. Goldberg shows just how modest Serwer's empirical case was using hard data and analysis. Goldberg concludes:
All told, the evidence suggests that Trump’s election had more to do with economic disquiet, the fear that America is trending towards a culturally balkanized identitarian society (i.e. political multiculturalism), and a climate of PC that discourages voicing of concerns about either. We can debate whether these concerns are reasonable. But the hypothesis that they’re simply a guise for white bigotry and the continuance of white supremacy finds no support in the present data. In the end, it’s almost as if Serwer’s explanatory model conveniently includes only those variables that absolve the Left of any culpability in the Trump phenomenon.
But why does any of this matter? Well, it matters insofar as Serwer is promulgating a polarizing description of reality that rests on erroneous data and gross oversimplification. Worse, his version of events is now being promoted to millions of Americans as “mandatory reading.” Genuine racial hostility undoubtedly motivated a minority subset of Trump voters. But as a liberal alienated by the toxic identitarian political direction of our country, I worry that these broad-brush ‘whitelash’ interpretations allow the Left to demonize millions of Americans and dismiss their concerns.
Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: Annalee Newitz' Autonomous

This is a good one! Terrific new biopunk. Neal Stephenson says: "Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the Internet." If you're an SF fan that should tell you about all you need to know. Here's what it's about:
Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.
Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.
And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
Great stuff! Best biopunk I've read since Paul McAuley's Fairyland.  

Where Did Trumpism Come From?

That is the $64,000 question in American politics. Thomas Edsall has an excellent and important take on the question in his latest New York Times column titled "Robots Can't Vote But They Helped Elect Donald Trump". Here are some choice excerpts but please read the whole article:
When you look across America to see where jobs and wages have been lost to robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation, it is the middle of the country that stands apart from the rest….
“My take is that grievances, both racial and against cosmopolitan, liberal elites, have played an important role,” [economist Daron] Acemoglu wrote me in an email:
“But economic hardships, as they often do, made these fault lines more salient. Dormant grievances have become more alive.”
Acemoglu argues that recent technological developments have helped drive voters to the right:
“The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don’t see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections. So it’s really a post 2008 phenomenon.”….
In a September 2017 paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure,” David Autor, who is also an economist at M.I.T., and three of his colleagues, dug further into the demographics of those suffering the economic costs of trade with China.
Autor and his co-authors found that:
“Trade exposure catalyzed strong movements towards conservative Republicans between 2002 and 2010 in counties with majority non-Hispanic white populations.”….
Their analysis resonates, they suggest:
“with the themes of recent literature on the political economy of right-wing populism, in which economic shocks to dominant population groups engender a political response that sharpens group identities and enhances support for conservative politicians. This pattern is evident in our finding that the impact of trade shocks on political polarization appears largely attributable to increases in foreign competition facing manufacturing industries that are intensive in the employment of non-Hispanic white males.”
Acemoglu, Autor and their colleagues provide a synthesis between the economic and the sociocultural explanations of the rise of the populist right. In doing so, they provide a corrective to the recent tendency in segments of the liberal media to downplay economic factors and to focus instead on racial resentment and cultural dislocation as the primary forces motivating Trump voters.
The point here is that the two generalized explanatory realms — the one focused on race and the other on economic shock — overlap. It is not either/or but both that gave us President Trump.
Still, explanations tend to become monocausal.
Take, for example, the Dec. 15, 2017 headline at the Vox website: “The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment.” According to German Lopez, the article’s author, “employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.” What was? “Racial resentment.”
A May 9, 2017 story in The Atlantic asserted that
“fear of societal change, not economic pressure, motivated votes for the president among non-salaried workers without college degrees.”
Those stories were by no means alone. Salon: “Liberals were right: Racism played a larger role in Trump’s win than income and authoritarianism”; The Nation: “Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism Did.”…
Trump’s strongest support in the primaries and in the general election came disproportionately from the least well educated whites — those who, as Acemoglu and Autor argue, are most vulnerable to the economic dislocation resulting from automation, the rise of a robot work force, global trade and outsourcing.
In an email, Autor describes how the two explanatory models dovetail. He starts with a question:
“Do you think non-college, non-urban whites would feel so dislocated if their job prospects were strong and their wages rising?”
He then goes on to point out that
“all of these observations — authoritarianism, racism, cultural dislocation — have relevance. The only claim that’s irrelevant because it’s already been disproved is that economic factors were unimportant to Trump’s victory.”
I agree strongly with Edsall, Acemoglu and Autor. It has always been my view that  it should not be surprising that voting for an anti-immigrant, racially resentful candidate is predicted by, well, being anti-immigrant and racially resentful. But why now and why so much support for a candidate with those views? That is a much more difficult and arguably more important question.

Consider the following. Over time, the most striking thing about anti-immigrant sentiment and racial resentment is that they have been trending steadily downward. Take the basic question of whether immigration should be increased, decreased or stay the same. We are now at levels of “decrease” that have not been this low since the 1960’s. In particular, there has been a huge drop in “decreased” since around the time of Pat Buchanan’s nativist candidacy for the Republican nomination in 1992, reflecting dramatic changes in the views of white Americans. Yet Buchanan was not successful but Trump was.

Similarly, there has been considerable change in basic views about immigration and whether it’s a good or bad thing for America—and it’s positive not negative change, even if one confines the data to white Americans. According to Gallup data, that very much includes in the recent period, when Trump has risen to prominence. Indeed, after the “good thing” response was as low as 51 percent in the early 2000’s, it has been around 70 percent in the last two years.

Nor on racial resentment do we see any kind of spike in negative racial attitudes in the recent period. Negative racial attitudes, according to General Social Survey (GSS) data analyzed by 538, were far higher in the early 1990’s than they have been in recent years among both white Democrats and Republicans. 

Of course, it is possible that there has been a spike in negative attitudes on race and immigration but it has been confined to, say, the group most likely to support Trump—white working class or noncollege men. But that does not appear to be the case either. According to GSS data, there has been essentially no change in the incidence of these attitudes among white working class men in recent years.

So the question then becomes, in a sense; what set them off? Why did a substantial group of white working class voters, whose views on race and immigration were likely of long standing, rather than recently acquired, make a strong move toward right populism today rather than years ago? It’s a puzzle.

One prime suspect for solving this puzzle is the material circumstances and economic trajectory of white working class Americans-- especially white working class men--and their communities in the last 25 years or so since Pat Buchanan first raised his pitchfork high at the Republican national convention. It’s not controversial to say that that trajectory has been quite poor. Earnings declines have been the rule for white noncollege male workers, with those in the bottom quarter of the earnings distribution down by almost half, but even those in the middle of the distribution have seen their earnings decline by over a fifth. And most of this decline has taken place since the turn of the century, with a particularly sharp decline in the Great Recession years.

This is the story told by cross-sectional data. But surely white noncollege men made at least some gains as they aged and their careers progressed? A Sentier Research study indicates that these gains have been very modest indeed, as measured over ages 25-26 to ages 43-44, especially as compared to white college men ($6,000 vs. $54,000). For white noncollege men, that’s an 18 year period with glacial progress.

Of course, there’s more to the material situation of white noncollege workers than annual earnings, though this is surely important. Other important dimensions might include job availability, opportunities for upward occupational mobility, the state of their local communities and health and mortality concerns. But, by all accounts, serious problems have emerged in these areas as well.
So perhaps these changes, especially as exacerbated by the sharp economic decline of the Great Recession, were enough to set off that still-considerable sector of the white working class that harbors negative attitudes around race and immigration. That would be consistent with the “deep story” uncovered by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her study of white working class communities in Louisiana. This is the story these individuals tell themselves to make sense of their world:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.

A toxic interaction between economic change and cultural reaction would also be consistent with the historical record on the rise of right populisms. As political scientists Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christopher Trebesch have shown in an influential paper, “Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crisis, 1870-2014”, covering 140 years, 800 general elections and 20 countries, far right populist parties driven heavily by xenophobia towards immigrants and minorities typically experience a surge in support in the aftermaths of large and lingering crises. And, as economist Claudia Goldin noted in her study of immigration policy debates in the US in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, “Almost all serious calls for the literacy test [to stem the flow immigrants] were preceded by economic downturns. … and few economic downturns of the era were not accompanied by a call for [immigration] restriction in the halls of Congress.”

To conclude, it seems foolish to try to understand Trumpism without taking into account the material conditions, trajectories and aspirations of Trump supporters and their considerable shortcomings in recent decades—their economic pessimism and fear of the future have real roots, as economists have copiously documented.

Of course, it would also not be credible to analyze Trumpism without a very prominent role for the racial and cultural lens through which Trump’s supporters interpret the world and the problems they face. There are likely some very complicated interactions between the material frustrations of white noncollege voters, particularly men, and a sense of racial “status anxiety” that may have always been there to some degree, but has come out in full force in the aftermath of a great economic crisis. This is what we should seek to understand instead of condemning vast swathes of our fellow Americans as simple racists. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Obscure Music Friday: Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were.....well, they were pretty weird! Kind of a British 1960's surrealist psychedlic pop music hall group if you know what I mean. And what lyrics! Here's the opening of Ali Baba's Camel (killer version linked to here):
You've heard of Ali-Baba
Forty thieves had he
Out for what we all want
Lots of LSD
And then it gets kind of crazy. 

Next stop: The Intro and the Outro. "And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes. Nice!" Digging General de Gaulle on accordion. Rather wild, General! Thank you, sir."

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation(s)

The generally progressive political leanings of the Millennial generation are well-documented. But we're just starting to get to the point where the Post-Millennials (for want of a better term), those born in the 21st century, are reaching voting age. Will this next generation also be as progressive? If so, we should  be able to detect early signs of this in the views of those at the tail end of the Millennial generation and the very beginning of the Post-Millennial generation--say those currently aged 15-24. 

And well, how about that--the good folks the Public Religion Research Institute have an informative new survey out covering just that age group. There's a lot to digest there and I urge you to check out the entire report. But here are some findings from the survey that I thought were particularly interesting:

  • 15-24 year olds give Donald Trump an incredibly bad 25 percent favorable/72 percent unfavorable rating.
  • Democratic party: 57 percent favorable; Republican party: 31 percent favorable. Obama: 70 percent favorable!
  • Oppose building the wall on the Mexican border: 72 percent, oppose temporary ban on some Muslims entering country: 63 percent, favor legal gay marriage: 75 percent, oppose birth gender bathroom requirements for transgender individuals: 62 percent, oppose making abortion more difficult: 72 percent.
  • Is there a lot of discrimination against: Muslims (84 percent yes); Transgender people (79 percent); blacks (72 percent); gays (72 percent); Hispanics (63 percent) to: whites (23 percent yes); white men (16 percent).
  • Almost two-thirds of 15-24 year olds say that colleges should allow controversial speakers on campuses even if they espouse views deemed offensive to some students.
  • Discrimination against men is now as big a problem as discrimination against women: 76 percent disagree.
  • Women's gains in recent years have come at the expense of men: 72 percent disagree.
  • Discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities: 69 percent disagree.
  • Efforts to increase diversity almost always come at the expense of whites: 66 percent disagree.
  • Contact with immigrants who speak little English bothers me: 70 percent disagree.
These are pretty liberal responses and do not suggest that the youngest Millennials and the entering cohort of Post-Millennials are likely to change the solidly progressive politics we've seen from Millennials so far. Generational replacement should continue to undermine the Trumpified GOP for many years to come.

Note: Some may read this and be disappointed there wasn't 100 percent disagreement (or agreement) with some of these questions. Be reasonable! The central tendency here is very, very liberal and they are replacing, in effect, people in the electorate who are much, much more conservative. And yes, whites in this 15-24 year old age group are indeed more conservative than their black, Latino and Asian counterparts. But they are far more liberal than older whites across the board, which is the really important thing.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Democratic Wave Watch: Three Reasons It's Very Likely to Happen

Many Democrats want to believe....but they just can't bring themselves to do so. I mean (gulp) what about 2016? Don't wanna get fooled again, etc, etc.

In that regard, there are a number of fears that are typically expressed about why things are not really as good as they look. Here are some of the most common, with recent evidence to the contrary.

1. So the Democrats have over-performed in special elections. Bah, humbug, that doesn't predict anything. Ah but it does, it does. The latest evidence is a nice analysis by the good folks over at Daily Kos Elections (not following them?--you should!). In brief, they created an index of special election results in each interim period between federal elections and compared them to the House popular vote in the next federal election. They find a very strong predictive relationship.

And that's not all. They also looked at their index for just the year immediately following a federal election to get a sense of how predictive recent special election results, which just cover one year (2017), might be. They also find a strong relationship (though not quite as strong as with the two-year index). How strong? The one-year index does about as well in predicting the House popular vote as the generic Congressional ballot just one month before the actual election. That's pretty good and tells us that the 2017 special election results really are sending us a strong (and very positive) signal about Democratic prospects in the 2018 House election.

2. But won't the Republicans' traditional midterm turnout advantage neutralize all the Democrats' advantages? Nope, not likely. In fact, it's not clear that Republicans are likely to have much of a turnout advantage in this election anyway. As Harry Enten notes on 538, in elections where they occupy the Presidency, so their candidates are not running as the opposition, the Republican turnout advantage has been minuscule; they turn out a a level barely higher than Democrats and do not succeed in significantly improving their margin over that among registered voters as a whole. That means there's not really much of GOP thumb on the scales in terms of turnout in 2018 since the President is a Republican (and a very unpopular one at that).

3. Ah, but what about the economy? It's doing well and that will make Trump and therefore the GOP more popular, undercutting the Democrats. Well sure, if Trump does become a lot more popular because of the economy, that would really help the GOP, given the well-established relationship between a President's approval rating and the midterm electoral performance of the President's party. But that just doesn't seem to be happening. As Nate Cohn shows in a recent analysis, the extraordinary thing about Trump is how massively he's under-performing the state of the economy in terms of job approval. Going by economic performance alone, his job approval by this point in his term should be somewhere in the 50's not in the  high 30's where it continues to languish. Cohn notes:
Since 1950, no party has held the House through a midterm election when the president’s approval rating is less than 40 percent. The Republican Party’s considerable structural advantages in the House would at least give them a shot to survive this time, but the growing Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot and the G.O.P.’s weak showings in this year’s special congressional elections suggest that the president’s approval rating is weighing on the party in exactly the way one would expect.
It remains possible that Democrats could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Or that perhaps a really huge economic boom could finally manage to elevate Trump's approval ratings and therefore his party's prospects in 2018. But right now a Democratic wave still looks like a pretty good bet.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

It's the Governors' and Legislative Elections, Stupid!

Sure,  control of the House is very important and the Democrats have an excellent chance to get that back in 2018. More difficult, but not out of the question, would be the Senate. 

But let's face it, 2018, even with very favorable results in the House and the Senate, is not going to be the start of a new progressive era. No, that is really a 2020's thing when President Trump is defeated and Democrats have enough strength in the states to dominate the next round of redistricting, thereby allowing them to translate their underlying political support into actual political victories. 

That's why the most significant results of the 2018 election may well be those for state, not federal, offices. Here's what's at stake:

  • 36 governors' races, 26 of which are currently in Republican hands. And of the 26 Republican-held seats, 13 are in states that Obama won in at least one of his Presidential victories (pictured above). 
  • At least half of state Senate seats in 42 states (in 15 of these states, the entire Senate is up).
  • Every state House seat in the overwhelming majority of states.
These results will set the playing field for state elections in 2020 and the redistricting thereafter. Procedures in states vary but the typical setup is for the state legislature to be in charge of the actual redistricting with the governor having veto power. In 34 states, the governor who will be in office for the upcoming redistricting will be elected this year (two were elected last year, which the Democrats bagged) and in 30 states half or more of state senators who will preside over the process will be elected this year

Of course, 2020 will be important too, but the revolution, so to speak, starts this year. So if you're wondering where to put your energy and/or money, you could do worse than throwing it at competitive legislative and govenors' elections in key states. And in case you want some hard data on state legislative districts, the Presidential results in a given Republican-held district always provide useful information about the potential competitiveness of the district.

Historical and model-based results suggest this could be a very good year indeed for the Democrats at the state level. Let's make it happen.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Science Fiction Saturday: Larry Niven's Ringworld

Larry Niven's Ringworld is one of the great hard SF novels. Here's the setup:
On planet Earth in 2850 ADLouis Gridley Wu is celebrating his 200th birthday. Despite his age, Louis is in perfect physical condition (due to the longevity drug boosterspice). He has once again become bored with human society and is thinking about taking one of his periodic sabbaticals, alone in a spaceship far away from other people. He meets Nessus, a Pierson's puppeteer, who offers him a mysterious job with almost no details. Intrigued, Louis eventually accepts. Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker), who is a Kzin, and Teela Brown, a young human woman who becomes Louis' lover, also join the crew.
They first go to the puppeteer home world, where they learn that the expedition's goal is to investigate the Ringworld to see if it poses any threat. The Ringworld is a gigantic artificial ring about one million miles (1,600,000 km) wide and approximately the diameter of Earth's orbit (which makes it about 600,000,000 miles or 950,000,000 km in circumference), encircling a sunlike star. It rotates to provide artificial gravity 99.2% as strong as Earth's from centrifugal force. The Ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface (equivalent in area to approximately three million Earths), a breathable atmosphere and a temperature optimum for humans. Night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin, ultra-strong wire. When the crew completes their mission, they will be given the starship in which they will travel to the Ringworld; it is far faster than any possessed by humans or Kzinti.
When they reach the vicinity of the Ringworld, they are unable to contact anyone, and their ship, the Lying Bastard, is disabled by the Ringworld's automated meteoroid-defense system. The severely damaged vessel collides with a strand of shadow-square wire and crash-lands near a huge mountain. Many of the ship's systems survive intact, including the faster-than-light hyperdrive, but the normal drive is destroyed, leaving them unable to launch back into space to use the hyperdrive. They set out to find a way to get home.
And have many adventures along the way! The Ringworld really is a mind-blowing concept and very well-developed in the book. As for what or who the Kzin and Puppeteers are....well, you'll just have to read the book. These are creatures first introduced in Niven's extensive Known Space future history, pretty much all of which is worth reading. As for Niven's later stuff I find it hit or miss, particularly that written with other authors. But Ringworld is the pure quill. Highly recommended.