Monday, December 30, 2019

How Do We Reconcile the Fact That the World Has Been Getting Significantly Better Over Time With Being on the Left?

I personally don't have any difficulty with this but I realize that many people do. For those in the latter camp I recommend this article by Nicholas Kristof. The data are solid and he has some good arguments. And while you're at it, point your browser at the site Our World in Data (from which Kristof gets most of his data) and take a look. What you see there may surprise you.
“If you were given the opportunity to choose the time you were born in, it’d be pretty risky to choose a time in any of the thousands of generations in the past,” noted Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs the Our World in Data website. “Almost everyone lived in poverty, hunger was widespread and famines common.”
But … but … but President Trump! But climate change! War in Yemen! Starvation in Venezuela! Risk of nuclear war with North Korea. …
All those are important concerns, and that’s why I write about them regularly. Yet I fear that the news media and the humanitarian world focus so relentlessly on the bad news that we leave the public believing that every trend is going in the wrong direction. A majority of Americans say in polls that the share of the world population living in poverty is increasing — yet one of the trends of the last 50 years has been a huge reduction in global poverty.
As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured “extreme poverty,” defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day. That portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now.....
You may feel uncomfortable reading this. It can seem tasteless, misleading or counterproductive to hail progress when there is still so much wrong with the world. I get that. In addition, the numbers are subject to debate and the 2019 figures are based on extrapolation. But I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering; excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless.....
“Three things are true at the same time,” [Roser] added. “The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better.”
That about sums it up.
For humanity over all, life just keeps getting better.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Five Theses for a New Left

For the new year, I thought I'd post this piece from 2018 again. I think it's still relevant!
Let’s face it: today’s left is in a terrible muddle, caught between a world that once was and a world that still isn’t. Most of the time, it just seems to be playing defence. And not doing that terribly well.
The basic reason for this is simple. Capitalism is in a long transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, 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 1930s. 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 a place good for most people or push it back to a better place. Thus mainstream parties and leaders are suffering and populist ones are rising.
So: what to do? In my view, we need a New Left. The old ways are broken, having outlived their usefulness. Here are five theses for a New Left, based on the new realities the left faces.
1. Up with the new coalition. The left’s potential coalition has shifted dramatically as the industrial working class has declined precipitously in numbers and moved to the right. It includes minorities and women who appreciate the fall of barriers to their full participation in society and the economy and see progressive government as a guarantor of further upward mobility. It includes professionals and the highly-educated who have fared relatively well from the transition, support the emerging cosmopolitan values of post-industrial society and see government as a provider of essential services and investments such a society needs. It also includes younger generations who support these new values, know that their future lies in post-industrial society and want government to help them find their place within it. And it includes—or should include—big chunks of the non-college white collar and service worker “precariat” whose situation is light years away from that of blue collar industrial workers of yesteryear. The left may no longer be the party of the latter but it should be the party of the former.
2. The left must unite. This is not an option, but a necessity. The rise of the disparate new constituencies in the left’s new coalition has accentuated the possibilities for division. This is particularly noticeable in Europe, where left strength is frequently diffused across several different parties (social democratic, left socialist, green, left social liberal, left populist, etc.) that regard each other with suspicion. The failure to present a common front is madness. The era when one tendency like the social democrats could completely dominate the left and didn’t need allies is over. The same applies to the Democrats in the United States; there is no way the Clinton supporters or Sanders supporters or minority-mobilization strategists or reach-out-to-the-white-working-class advocates can take over the party and succeed on their own. To beat the right, a fractured left must unite, bringing all progressives together in effective alliances.
3. Down with inequality. The idea that capitalism is going to solve its ongoing problems with modest tweaks has been completely discredited. Inequality has now risen to such high levels it is non-functional. It holds down growth, it holds down living standards, it holds down upward mobility among the young, it leaves entire economic regions behind and it absolutely destroys healthy politics. The left must commit unreservedly to a policy agenda that pushes back sharply against these trends and does not accept the current model of capitalism. Younger generations will not take the left seriously otherwise. And they are right not to do so.
4. Forward to an open world. The world has become much more open on many different levels in past decades. There is far more tolerance and equality by gender, race and ethnicity than there ever has been before. There are far more connections, economic and otherwise, among the peoples of the world and far more mixing of cultures. This is, on balance, a very good thing and the left must embrace it. Younger generations clearly do. There is no going back anyway to a closed, tradition-bound world. You can’t run history in reverse. And the left shouldn’t try.
5. Ride the long wave. Historically, capitalist growth has occurred in long waves, driven by confluences of major technological and institutional change. The early, transitional parts of such periods are typically rough, delivering only modest benefits to big swathes of the population. The Industrial Revolution was like that; the first several decades of that wave had the famous “Engels’ Pause”, where wages rose very little for most workers before finally taking off. Our last several decades have been similar. But the economic potential of the current era, with its monumental technological changes, is vast, albeit held back by a lack of societal investment in the future and the retrograde policies pushed by the right. The left should be all about untapping that potential and riding the long wave. That’s how living standards will finally go up. That’s how green energy, an integral part of current technological change, will finally come into its own and end the threat of global warming. The left should not be afraid of a vision of an abundant, sustainable future. It can be done but only if they ride the long wave.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

It Was Austerity Wot Done It

As the center-left (and center-right) sink slowly into the sunset, furious debate continues about who or what is responsible. The excellent Wolfgang Munchau in the FT argues that the ultimate cause is rather simple: austerity.
"There were tell-tale signs early on. In 2009, Peer Steinbr├╝ck, a former German finance minister and later the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, introduced the constitutional balanced budget rule. This later gave rise to Germany’s permanent fiscal surpluses and under-investment in critical infrastructure. In a joint study, Germany’s employers and trade unions recently put the investment shortfall at a staggering €450bn. So it is unsurprising that the SPD has lost political support during the years of its grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
In 2012, Italy’s government of technocrats, led by Mario Monti, imposed procyclical austerity in the middle of a recession. The goal was to prove that Italy was a good follower of the eurozone’s fiscal rules. The country has still not fully recovered from that shock.
In 2014, Fran├žois Hollande, the former French president, outed himself as a rightwing supply-sider when he cited Say’s law — that supply creates its own demand. Since then his Socialist party has in effect disappeared as a political force, along with its old rivals on the centre right.
In late 2015 in the UK, I overheard a group of pro-Remain politicians, academics and commentators persuading themselves that the easiest way to win the forthcoming Brexit referendum would be to scare the hell out of the electorate. We all know how that went.
What these disparate stories have in common is that they paint a picture of the decline of the political centre in Europe. I consider this, not the rise in populism, to be the main development in the EU’s largest member states.
If there was one common policy that accelerated that trend, it was austerity. We have come to judge austerity mainly in terms of its economic impact. But it is the political fallout from public spending cuts that is most likely to persist.
Austerity as a policy is the consequence of a poor understanding of economics coupled with a self-righteous mind and a tendency to spend too much time with your chums at places like Davos."
And let us not delude ourselves that such thinking has not been a problem in the US or that it has been but we are now past such misguided views. Paul Krugman mused on this a recent, lengthy interview with Ezra Klein on Vox.
"Paul Krugman : For a long period of time elites thought that debt was the greatest threat to the US economy. Now I think we’ve largely come around to the correct view, which is that debt is just not a serious problem for the United States currently.
Ezra Klein: I find it interesting that, even on the left of the Democratic Party, this really doesn’t seem to be the view. Both Warren and Sanders have detailed exactly how they will pay for all of their proposals. Nancy Pelosi has said she will impose [the budget-deficit rule] PAYGO on the House under a Democratic president. Oddly enough, it seems there has been a lot more movement on this question among center-left economists like Larry Summers and Jason Furman than even among the left-wing of Democratic politicians.
Paul Krugman: Yeah, it’s not even the radical progressive economists. Most people would not consider Larry Summers or Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, men of the left. Yet they are saying a little bit more deficit spending might be a good thing given the persistent weakness of private spending. So, I don’t know why that isn’t making its way into Congress or Elizabeth Warren’s campaign."
Sad but true.Deficit-mania still stalks the corridors of power in these United States--even among Democrats who should know better. I do worry that if a Democrat wins in 2020--and I don't just mean Biden, thought he would probably be particularly susceptible in this regard--he or she would be hobbled by obeisance to outmoded thinking about deficits and debt.
As Keynes noted so long ago:
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. ... Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist."
From Brexit to fiscal policy, the EU’s largest member states have seen the mainstream wrongfooted

Friday, December 27, 2019

Is Iowa a Swing State Again?

An interesting new AP article by Thomas Beaumont makes the case, drawing on recent demographic and political trends.
"In [2018], Iowans sent the state’s first Democratic women to Congress: Cindy Axne, who dominated Des Moines and its suburbs, and Abby Finkenauer, who won in several working-class counties Trump carried.
Democrats won 14 of the 31 Iowa counties that Trump won in 2016 but Obama won in 2008, though Trump’s return to the ballot in 2020 could change all that.
“We won a number of legislative challenge races against incumbent Republicans,” veteran Iowa Democratic campaign consultant Jeff Link said. “I think that leaves little question Iowa is up for grabs next year.”
There’s more going on in Iowa that simply a merely cyclical swing.
Iowa’s metropolitan areas, some of the fastest growing in the country over the past two decades, have given birth to a new political front where Democrats saw gains in 2018.
The once-GOP-leaning suburbs and exurbs, especially to the north and west of Des Moines and the corridor linking Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, swelled with college-educated adults in the past decade, giving rise to a new class of rising Democratic leaders.
“I don’t believe it was temporary,” Iowa State University economist David Swenson said of Democrats’ 2018 gains in suburban Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. “I think it is the inexorable outcome of demographic and educational shifts that have been going on.”
There' much to agree with here but I do think the writer overestimates the centrality of the college vote and underestimates the challenge of the noncollege vote.
My take:
2018 was a surprising comeback election for the Democrats. They won the House popular vote by a stunning 10 points and flipped two GOP-held House seats in the state. The Democrats also gained a net of five state legislative seats. However, Republican Kim Reynolds beat Democrat Fred Hubbell for the governorship by 3 points.
The Democratic candidate in 2020 has a lot of ground to make up relative to 2016, but the 2018 results provide some reason to think that it may be possible. For Trump, he needs to simply approximate the voting patterns that brought him his solid 2016 victory. But one challenge for him is his current negative net approval in the state of -3 points.
Iowa is an exceptionally white state; nonwhites made up just 7 percent of voters in the state in 2016. These voters were divided up roughly 3-2-2 between Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians/other races. Blacks and Hispanics supported Clinton by 76 points and 20 points, respectively. Asians/other races, however, were essentially tied between Trump and Clinton. Iowa’s white college graduates (31 percent of voters) gave Clinton a solid lead of 7 points, 50 percent to 43 percent. But among the enormous white noncollege group, 62 percent of voters, Trump ran up a 23-point lead, 58 percent to 35 percent. That was clearly the big story in the state.
White noncollege eligible voters in 2020 should decline by 2 points relative to 2016, while white college graduates should increase by a little more than half a point. All nonwhite groups in the state should increase by small amounts relative to 2016: Blacks by 0.3 points; Hispanics by 0.6 points; and Asians/other races by 0.5 points. While these changes are all favorable for the Democrats, they will do relatively little to whittle their considerable 2016 deficit—a mere 0.6 points—if voting patterns by group in 2020 remain the same as in 2016.
Thus, if Trump can maintain or come close to his support among white noncollege voters in Iowa, he should carry the state easily again. A shift of 10 margin points against Trump among white college graduates, swelling the Democrats’ already solid advantage among that group, would still leave Trump about 6 points ahead in 2020.
For the Democratic candidate, his or her fortunes are clearly dependent on moving the very large white noncollege group in their direction. Indeed, if the Democrats could replicate Obama’s 2012 white noncollege margin in the state, they would actually carry the state by slightly less than 5 points, all else remaining equal. Even getting part of the way there could make the state competitive in 2020. That’s a tough challenge, but certainly the 2018 results in the state suggest this is possible.
So keep your eye on Iowa. It could be more in play than people have been thinking.
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Few states have changed politically with the head-snapping speed of Iowa. Heading into 2020, the question is whether it's going to change again. In 2008, its voters...

Thursday, December 26, 2019

So, Tell Me Again How Running on Medicare for All Is an Electorally Viable Strategy in 2020

The New York Times ran a poll this month where they asked a question about whether people favored a "national health care plan in which all Americans get their insurance from a single government plan" or "government-run insurance to anyone who wants it, but people should be able to keep their private insurance if they prefer it" or reform health insurance without a government plan or no reform. The Times story on the poll chose to emphasize the fact that, even among Democrats, the single-payer/no private insurance was not the most popular choice, losing 58-25 to the public option choice.
But the rest of the results are interesting too. Just a fifth of independents favored single-payer, with twice as many favoring the public option. Between these two choices, you're approaching two-thirds of independents who would support a public option (assuming, which seems reasonable, that anyone who supported single-payer would also support a public option as an advance over the current system). And among Republicans, combining the two choices gets you to around one-third of Republicans.
So single-payer is a niche issue, polling poorly across the political spectrum, while a public option would get overwhelming support among Democrats, very strong support among independents and even pick up some respectable minority support among Republicans.
This does not seem like a difficult choice for the Democrats....if they want to win.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

All I Want for Christmas Is To Tax the Rich!

The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman is a truly radical book. It will change the way you think about our tax system, what does and doesn't work and what is and isn't possible in terms of fixing it. While this is a technical subject, their presentation of data, history and analysis is crystal clear and the occasional chart well-chosen. i don't often describe a book as a must-read but this is one.
In addition, you can visit their tax simulator site,, and see how your own package of tax reforms would affect the dynamics of inequality, past and present. Fun! As Saez and Zucman say, there's "a world of possibility" in terms of tax regimes and what such regimes might be able to fund.

Monday, December 23, 2019

How to Solve the Climate Change Problem

Ethical consumerism isn't going to do it. Wind and solar alone aren't going to do it. More Greta Thunberg guilt-inducing tirades against the irresponsibility of older generations aren't going to do it.
So what will? Kevin Drum makes the case that it's all about really cheap clean energy which, in turn, requires a massive--really massive--clean energy R&D effort.
His case is based on a blend of technical and political realism. He posits that:
"Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2050, wind and solar can satisfy 80 percent of electricity demand in most advanced countries. But due to inadequate infrastructure in some cases and lack of wind and sun in others, not all countries can meet this goal, which means that even with favorable government policies and big commitments to clean energy, the growth of wind and solar will probably provide only about half of the world’s demand for electricity by midcentury. “Importantly,” the Bloomberg analysts caution, “major progress in de-carbonization will also be required in other segments of the world’s economy to address climate change.”
Therefore, absent technical breakthroughs, huge cutbacks in energy consumption and, inevitably, living standards will be necessary to meet emissions reduction goals. This is highly unlikely. Drum points out that, even in advanced countries:
"We’re not talking about voluntary personal cutbacks. If you decide to bicycle more or eat less meat, great—every little bit helps. But no one who’s serious about climate change believes that personal decisions like this have more than a slight effect on the gigatons of carbon we’ve emitted and the shortsighted policies we’ve enacted. Framing the problem this way—a solution of individual lifestyle choices—is mostly just a red herring that allows corporations and conservatives to avoid the real issue.
The real issue is this: Only large-scale government action can significantly reduce carbon emissions. But this doesn’t let any of us off the hook. Our personal cutbacks might not matter much, but what does matter is whether we’re willing to support large-scale actions—­things like carbon taxes or fracking bans—that will force all of us to reduce our energy consumption.
Solutions depend on how acceptable these policies are to the public...[But] [t]here’s abundant confirmation of the public’s unwillingness to accept sacrifices in living standards to combat climate change."
So far, so realistic. But here's the kicker:
"Even if we could get wealthy Western countries to accept serious belt-­tightening, they’re not where the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is taking place right now. It’s happening in developing countries like China and India. Most people in these countries have living standards that are a fraction of ours, and they justifiably ask why they should cut back on energy consumption and consign themselves to poverty while those of us in affluent countries—which caused most of the problem in the first place—are still driving SUVs and running air conditioners all summer.
This is the hinge point on which the future of climate change rests. Clearly the West is not going to collectively agree to live like Chinese farmers. Just as clearly, Chinese farmers aren’t willing to keep living in shacks while we sit around watching football on 60-inch TV screens in our climate-controlled houses as we lecture them about climate change.
This is why big government spending on wind and solar—everyone’s favorite solution to global warming—isn’t enough to do the job. Subsidies for green energy might reduce US emissions, but even if the United States eliminated its carbon output completely, it would only amount to a small reduction in global emissions.
Yes, we should be fully committed to the kind of framework that congressional Democrats propose in the Green New Deal, which provides goals for building infrastructure and ways of retraining workers affected by the transition to clean energy. But there’s no chance this will solve the problem on a global scale, and 2050 isn’t that far away. We don’t have much time left.
So what do we do? We need to figure out ways to produce far more clean energy, in far more ways, at a cost lower than we pay for fossil fuel energy. As the socialist writer Leigh Phillips warns his allies, “Households need clean energy options to be cheaper than fossil fuels currently are, not for fossil fuels to be more expensive than clean energy options currently are.”
This requires a reckoning. Time is running out, and we can no longer pretend that we can beat climate change by asking people to do things they don’t want to do. We need to focus our attention almost exclu­sively not on things people don’t like, but on something people do like: spending money. Lots of money.
As the Green New Deal suggests, part of the solution is building infrastructure for what we already know how to do. But our primary emphasis needs to be on R&D aimed like a laser at producing cheap, efficient, renewable energy sources—a program that attacks climate change while still allowing people to use lots of energy. This is the kind of spending that wins wars, after all. And make no mistake, this is a war against time and physics. So let’s propose a truly gargantuan commitment to spending money on clean energy research."
There's much more in the article. Drum fleshes out his research investment proposal and also provides nuanced discussions of options like energy storage, nukes, carbon capture and land use. All worth reading
I think Drum makes a strong case. I've always been surprised that the same people who are most worried--indeed, sometimes hysterical--about the problem of climate change are frequently the least realistic about the political and technical obstacles involved in solving it.
Only major spending on clean energy R&D can save us.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The 2020 Challenge in Wisconsin

Arguably there is no single state more important to beating Trump in 2020 than Wisconsin. J. Miles Coleman on Sabato's Crystal Ball has a useful new article on election trends in Wisconsin 2016-2019. Note particularly the two very interesting maps. My take on what the Democrats will have to deal with and what they must do to win.
To carry the state again, Trump likely needs to increase his support among white noncollege voters from his 19-point advantage in 2016 and/or increase this group’s relative turnout. Alternatively, he could try to increase his support among the considerably less-friendly white college demographic. But the voting patterns from 2016 will likely not suffice for a Trump victory in 2020.
Demographic changes in the underlying eligible electorate would be enough for the Democratic candidate to barely carry the state in 2020, if voting patterns from 2016 remain the same. A safer strategy would be to change some key voting patterns from 2016 in Democrats’ favor. One obvious goal would be to increase Black turnout—which declined a massive 19 points in 2016—back to its 2012 levels. Doing so would add about a point and half to the Democratic margin in 2020.
Widening the Democrats’ already-healthy margin among white college graduates by 10 points would be more effective, adding 3 points to potential Democratic 2020 performance. But moving the Democrats’ white noncollege deficit back to 2012 levels would add 7 points to Democrats’ projected 2020 margin. White noncollege women are the clear target group here, since Clinton’s deficit among these voters (-16 points) was much less than her deficit among their male counterparts (-43 points).
It's doable for Democrats to put together a package of electoral changes that will squeak out a victory. But it's not going to be easy.
— A perpetual swing state, Wisconsin seems poised to play a pivotal role in next year’s presidential election. Milwaukee will be especially prominent as the host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.