A recent study that compiled thousands of scientific papers on climate change showed that 97% of them agreed that global warming is happening and humans are the cause.
Does it matter? Probably not even a little bit.
This exposes the inherent limitations of being a policy wonk. The major barriers to tackling climate change are not that the science doesn’t prove it’s real, or that we haven’t developed effective policy mechanisms for dealing with it. It’s that the fossil fuel lobby is richer than God and down to get dirty.
I think it’s important for all of us doing political work to have a strong grasp of policy. It not only helps us make persuasive arguments, it keeps us from wasting our time fighting for stupid shit. Understanding all the wonky things allows us to identify our goals for social change, for example equal opportunity in education, and pick good ideas to fight for, like universal preschool, rather than bad ideas, like forgiving all student debt.
Now I spend a lot of time nerding out and getting my Wonkblog on. But there’s a certain arrogance within the world of policy that drives me crazy.
Policy expertise without the political muscle to back it up is a body-less brain floating in a jar of self-satisfied goo. We could call it… I don’t know… a think tank?
Among the things I dislike about DC is that everybody wants to be a policy analyst. People naturally like the clean ivory tower where they can all pat each other on the back for being a smartypants and go to conferences and speak on panels and whatnot.
If wonks had their way we would eliminate agriculture subsidies, replace taxes on good things like income with taxes on bad things like carbon emissions, and shift almost all aid programs to the poor (food stamps, rental subsidies, etc.) to direct cash assistance that they could use to buy whatever they want.
Why don’t any of the above policies happen even though probably 90% of PhD economists would agree with them? Ask anyone who works on Capitol Hill and they’ll tell you they’re not “politically feasible”. What does that mean? What defines the realm of political feasibility?
Power. It doesn’t matter if all the smart people agree on something. Smart people are not the same as powerful people.
Knowledge is not power. Only power is power.
From knowledge, emerges ideas. Ideas inspire organizers who draw together people and resources. Those people and resources build organizations that drive forward movements. And that creates the power to make social change.
But often we forget all the steps in the middle.
Power comes from doing all the things we don’t like. We don’t like squeezing our refined ideas into everyday language to appeal to the hearts and minds of the uneducated masses. We don’t like ruthlessly cutting down our intellectual explorations into short soundbites for the media so they can reach a broader audience. We don’t like the exhausting and disheartening cycle of outreach and rejection necessary to recruit new members from outside our narrow intellectual circles. We don’t like the slow, frustrating task of developing the skills and confidence of doe-eyed young activists and who have some tiny possibility of becoming leaders one day. We don’t like asking for the money we need to run every single day-to-day operation of an organization. We don’t like the give and take of building alliances with groups whose interests don’t perfectly align with ours. We don’t like the secrecy and bitterness and messiness of backing imperfect candidates running for office or the tedious foot-work of getting out the vote.
We all want to work at a goddamn think tank.
My message to the wonks out there is not to give up your wonkery. It’s to get out from behind your desk every once in a while and dive into the more messy, uncertain work of politics, the stuff that your parents think is less respectable.
Engage directly with the everyday people impacted by the policies you think about. Bring together people who are suspicious of each other at first. Take risks. Get rejected. Get a door slammed in your face. Learn something every day from someone who hasn’t gone to college. Chant till you lose your voice. Look stupid sometimes. Smile when an elected official gives you and your crowd that frustrated look. Work on an issue you think isn’t that important but that a majority of your group voted on. Give up a TV interview to someone else whose leadership you’re developing, even if you know they’re going to fuck it up.
Maybe you’ll end up feeling like I do, that alternating back and forth between wonky research and mass communications and grassroots organizing is the most fulfilling work you can do.
Or maybe not, but at least you’ll prove me wrong when I call you a nerd.
My reaction to the final fiscal cliff compromise was something along the lines of an exhausted sigh and shrug. Seems fine I guess. The whole manufactured crisis thing is hard to get worked up about after a while.
But I began to think… maybe there’s something being overlooked here: In an odd way, this could be seen as the first national policy victory of the Occupy Movement.
Like the fiscal deal or not, in 2013, the 1 Percent will pay the highest tax rate they’ve paid since 1979.
At the movement’s peak, although I was excited about its potential, I was kind of a pessimist about Occupy. I wrote then that without institutionalizing itself, it would dissolve before achieving the kind of national policy victories that the Tea Party had won.
But there is something to be said for the more intangible impact of social movements. They shape the thinking of everyone from your everyday dude on the street to professors, journalists, leaders of organizations and even presidents.
During Occupy Wall Street’s initial explosion onto the scene in 2011, I was in DC interning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. It was fascinating to see how think tanks, economists, columnists, even the great global institutions of capitalism like the OECD and the IMF all felt it necessary to respond to Occupy and start talking about income inequality and how to address it.
Then one day the chief economist at the CEA brought all of us into her office to watch on TV as the president gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. It didn’t create much media buzz, but she insisted this was an extremely important speech. And it was. It was the moment where Barack Obama publicly shifted to the strategy and message that won him re-election a year later.
Since the Tea Party’s rise and the miserable beatdown congressional Democrats had taken in 2010, the president had spent the past year moving his rhetoric to the center and trying to appease the right wing. Although in 2008 he originally campaigned on letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire for those making over $250k a year, he had outraged progressives like me in 2010 when he compromised with House Republicans to fully extend them for two more years (which would eventually lead to the fiscal cliff).
But as we saw in his shift on gay marriage, presidents, like any human being, change their minds sometimes. I believe it’s safe to say Occupy changed Obama. After that speech in Osawatomie, when for the first time he talked about the 99% and the 1%, he took a combative approach, with a clear emphasis on one issue: economic fairness. That was the message he used to successfully define the choice between him and Mitt Romney, and what ultimately won him the election a year later.
And in the first major political battle after the election, negotiating with congressional Republicans, he drew a line in the sand back to his original campaign promise that the Bush Tax Cuts must expire on incomes over $250k. Of course, being Barack Obama, he then crossed his line in the sand and offered a new threshold of $450k. But this one he held firm to. And interestingly enough, this is roughly the income level that puts you in the richest 1% of Americans.
So the One Percenters will pay the lion’s share of the tax increases in the fiscal deal. Meanwhile, thanks to the almost-impressive vicious stubbornness of the GOP, the incredibly-rich-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich Two Percenters (roughly incomes between $250k-450k) got the best deal. In fact, the downright impoverished will see a larger tax hike than they will next year. But at least in the Occupy frame of the world, the Two Percenters are still part of the 99%.
If anything this deal shows the sticking power of Occupy’s successful framing of our political economy as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. This frame has, maybe for the first time, made its way into something written into law.
I’m sure if you asked most of the folks who participated in General Assemblies at the height of the Occupy Movement they would not be jumping with joy about this slight increase in the top marginal tax rate. But even if it wasn’t exactly their dream, in a way this is their victory.
There is no better story to explain the true insanity of American politics than the fiscal cliff.
The Media is Ignorant and it’s Making Everyone Else Ignorant Too
An explanation of the strangeness of this whole debate has to start with pointing out that the name itself is wrong. It’s the product of the 24 hour news cycle which has produced a shockingly ignorant TV press corps that cannot possibly go several months without running around screaming about the latest invented apocalyptic crisis. There is no “cliff” of economic doom we’re about to plunge over on January 1st like Wiley Coyote. It’s really a gradual slope.
But slowly going down that slope would still be bad. Why? Basic economics says governments are supposed to run deficits during economic downturns. They borrow rather than raising taxes to spend money on things like bridges, schools, the military, creating jobs for construction workers, teachers, and death-machine manufacturers. The “fiscal cliff” is the large increase in taxes and cuts in spending scheduled to happen in 2013, which could put us back into recession.
Yet the media has created the perception among people that this is some kind of “debt crisis”, and we therefore need take this moment to deal with our national debt. In fact, it’s the opposite. Going over the fiscal cliff will almost completely eliminate the deficit (graph on right). Yes, that’s right. We could literally lock Congress in a big cage for the next year and the deficit would pretty much go away. But that’s a bad thing, because it would tank the economy.
The Tea Party is Seriously Insane
So why aren’t the Tea Party crazies who are so obsessed with reducing the deficit cheering about the fiscal cliff?
If, as they’ve bizarrely insisted, the deficit under Obama is what’s been holding back job growth, shouldn’t the fiscal cliff be the Biggest Stimulus Ever?
In fact, a large part of the fiscal cliff is because of the automatic trigger budget cuts that they demanded when they held the debt ceiling hostage and almost caused the US to default.
So did they stop believing in austerity and suddenly become true believers in Keynesian economics? No, apparently they don’t really believe anything and are just fucking crazy and angry about anything Obama does.
Congress Either Doesn’t Know or Doesn’t Care What Regular People Want
The truth is, right or left, no one wants to go over the cliff. In fact, normal people (read: not members of Congress) are mostly in agreement. A wide majority supports allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule. And although Republicans like spending cuts in theory, when you ask them about the specific cuts their congressional representatives are talking about, they no longer support them.
The fiscal debate has featured all kinds of ridiculous antics from Congress. We may have officially entered the Twilight Zone, when Senate Minority Leader McConnell (who has led more filibusters than anyone in history) I shit you not, filibustered his own bill.
But at a deeper level, this shows who Congress is really accountable to. Even though Congress agrees on tax rates for 98% of Americans, the debate is stuck because House Republicans are holding the whole thing hostage over tax cuts for the richest 2%. And although the fiscal cliff cuts to the military are much more widely supported than cuts to Medicare, Congress is stumbling over themselves to protect the defense budget and fairly willing to throw grandma under the bus. Why? Because death-machine manufacturers have really good lobbyists and old poor people don’t.
Not Just the Tea Party, but the Republican Party in General is Seriously Insane
Clearly a significant portion of our country has become utterly unhinged from reality. Not only were they convinced there was no way Obama could win, they still have trouble believing it even after the election is over.
You don’t get to lose elections and then make demands. Especially because Obama can get what he wants by doing nothing, letting all the tax cuts expire on January 1st, then asking Congress to vote for a tax cut just for the lower 98%, which they’ll all vote for.
Truth is, people are tired of the GOP’s shit. That’s why Obama won. That’s why in polls Americans overwhelmingly say they will blame Republicans in Congress if the fiscal cliff happens.
But here’s the best part. If they don’t get their way, Republicans are threatening to start a whole new hostage situation over the debt ceiling. The only thing that could make this more crazy is if as a compromise for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans demand another Supercommittee, which fails again, leading to automatic budget cuts that become another fiscal cliff that needs to be averted.
Maybe we’ll just be trapped in an infinite loop until we die.
Like many people working for progressive organizations in California, I’m spending most of my life right now trying to pass Prop 30 and defeat Prop 32. Prop 30 is simple– tax the rich, prevent cuts to schools. But to understand what’s at stake with Prop 32, you have to step back and look big picture. Politics is about winning, but the real winners are those who control the rules of the game. And the right-wing is particularly good at thinking two steps ahead, winning the battles that change the rules.
I imagine people like Karl Rove and David Koch to be kind of like two kids I met during my very brief flirtation with Speech and Debate in high school. In fact, these guys actually looked a lot like young versions of them.
It was the first debate tournament I ever attended. I realized something was wrong with these pudgy 17-year olds when they began pacing around before the debate, performing what appeared to be a pre-rehearsed intimidation routine, casually talking to each other about the high scores they had gotten on their AP tests.
The topic we had been given was “Is Russia a threat to American national security?” At the beginning of a debate, you can set definitions for each of the words in the prompt. This is the point where I, being a typical teenager, tune out and think about sex or drugs or something. I zoned out as Koch and Rove Jr. defined the word “Russia” as “Present-day Russia or the Soviet Union” and defined the word “Is” as “Is, was or will be”. You can imagine how the rest of this story goes.
Guys like this grow up to write things like Prop 32.
Prop 32 claims to be campaign finance reform– it bans corporations AND unions from using payroll-deducted dues for political campaigns. The thing is, ONLY UNIONS are actually affected by this– they have membership dues which workers vote to have deducted from their paychecks. When Exxon Mobil wants to spend money on a Super PAC to promote environmental destruction, they don’t need membership dues– they just use the money you pay them at the pump.
Why are conservatives pushing this? Unions are the main contributors to the Democratic Party in California. They’re also the only formidable opponent to big corporations on issues like health care or the minimum wage.
Prop 32 is a perfect example of how conservatives make it a priority to define the rules of the political game.
All over the country, conservatives are trying to silence unions, who have always been the strongest institutions of the American left. They’re passing voter ID laws to suppress young, poor, and immigrant voters to turn back the clock on the demographic shifts that favor Democrats. They’re working to take down powerful liberal-leaning organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood. And conservative interests funded the Citizens United Supreme Court case, creating a money-megaphone for the voice of corporate America.
Sometimes it feels like we’re playing one of those rigged carnival games where you’ll never get the giant stuffed bear. Why are our efforts for Prop 30 constrained by dividing our resources to fight bullshit like Prop 32 at the same time? Why aren’t we two steps ahead? Progressives could be focused on defining the rules of the game right now, rather than playing a game whose rules were written by the other side.
Here’s a Two-Steps-Ahead Agenda for the Democratic Party
1) Reform immigration. First off, it’s the right thing to do. But it also means millions of progressive-leaning people who live in the US but can’t vote would gain that right. The Obama administration dropped the ball by giving up their bargaining power from the start– cracking down on enforcement first, rather than trading that for a path to citizenship.
2) Get money out of politics. We’re seeing a flood of corporate money in politics, and although it’s going to both sides, (Hedge fund managers like to hedge their bets) it’s decisively favoring conservatives. Democrats should be constantly bringing up new campaign finance proposals and endlessly hammering Republicans in the media every time they filibuster them. At least Republicans will be exposed for being corporate lackeys.
3) Make voting easier. The national Democratic Party should look to California. Our new online voter registration system has resulted in record voter registration. By the next presidential election in 2016, you won’t even need to register before Election Day– you can just do it at the polling booth. The GOP knows that higher voter turnout is bad for them. As Republicans push to make voting harder, Democrats must be stupid for not pushing just as hard to make voting easier.
Mitt Romney’s awkwardly-phrased “binders full of women” statement unfortunately captured more attention than his non-answer to the question about the wage gap between men and women. (Also the story is a lie– Romney didn’t ask the women’s organizations for the binders, the organizations presented them to both Romney and his opponent during the campaign as a challenge)
But I think the real story here is that progressives don’t really have a unified agenda for how to address wage inequality either.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed into law by Obama is a good policy, but just nibbles at the issue. So what now?
Solutions are tricky because the problem is tricky.
Although women make 77 cents for every dollar that men make, economists chalk up about 9 cents of that gap to unexplained factors such as pure discrimination of the “I don’t think you’re smart/strong/skilled enough because you have a vagina” variety. The other 14 cents are due to things like women having less work-experience or education or being in lower paid industries.
Some people think it’s only the 9 cent “unexplained factors” that we need to go after. I think that’s stupid. The true burden of gender inequality isn’t from a few mean boss men being meanies to women workers. It results from a compounding of one layer of deeply entrenched inequality on top of another on top of another.
It’s the cleaning lady who makes less money than her construction worker husband, who loses seniority by leaving the workforce for a few years to take care of the kids, which is influenced by the fact that society pays construction workers more than cleaning ladies (due to historical expectations of “women’s work” not needing as much pay), which is also influenced by the husband never being taught how to cook and clean and take care of other people when he was a boy, and is also influenced by her parents who didn’t encourage their daughter to become a construction worker instead, and it’s all influenced by our whole damn society’s obsession with macho cutthroat competition.
For example, it’s not like the lack of women engineers just fell from the sky from the fucking Math Gods. It’s in large part due to documented discrimination within the sciences in academia. So when policy wonks say “Well, if you read the STUDIES, the REAL wage gap is only 91/100,” I say they just don’t get how inequality really works.
But what they’re really saying is that there are some parts of the gender wage gap due to sexism, and some parts due to choice. (Choice of lower-paying careers or college majors, choice of being a stay-at-home-mom for a few years, etc.) However, if most of the wage gap is due to choice, that gap should theoretically be eliminated and even reversed within a generation.
On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s a good thing that women increasingly value making money over other priorities like their families. It’s not that men care less about money than they did a generation ago, but only that women care more. I think Americans of all genders could use a little more focus on their families over their careers. But I digress.
The point is despite that women of my generation are apparently more career/money driven than men, I doubt my generation will see the wage gap magically vanish.
I don’t think changes in personal preferences will erase the wage gap because I don’t think personal preferences are the reason the wage gap exists now. Personal choices don’t exist in a vacuum– they’re affected by laws, institutions, culture, resource constraints and power dynamics. More women choose to be teachers. But women don’t get to choose the fact that teachers make less money than other jobs with similar education levels. If you happen to like teaching, you just gotta suck it up.
Some solutions I can think of:
- Mandating companies give paid maternity leave (we’re one of the only countries without it)
- Unions focusing on women-dominated industries like domestic work, food service, garment work, childcare
- Raising the minimum wage (minimum wage-earners are mostly women)
- A cultural shift towards greater acceptance of men also taking off work to raise children (paid paternity leave might help)
- A turn away from the budget cuts that have disproportionately hurt women working in public-service jobs like teaching and social work
But the larger issue here is that I’m just throwing out random thoughts. We’re not on the same page with a real agenda for how to address the gender wage gap. And I’m not holding my breath that the gap will be closed unless we come together with something real and move it forward.
I recently had a discussion about the weirdness of Romney blasting Obama in the debates for cutting $716 billion from Medicare. Aren’t Republicans all about cutting spending? Medicare is about as close as the US government gets to socialism and its creation was vehemently opposed by Republicans in the 1960’s. And the Medicare Advantage program, where Obamacare makes that $716 billion cut from, is widely acknowledged as a wasteful failed program, the kind of thing conservatives are always talking about cutting.
So is it simply that Mitt Romney will literally say anything to make Barack Obama look bad?
I think there’s a deeper explanation: Political ideology is mostly bullshit.
Very few political actions are actually motivated by a sweeping ideology about something abstract like the appropriate size of government. Politics is really about winning power battles to serve the interests of different groups of people.
In this case, the key fact is that suburban white retirees are an important constituency of the Republican Party. They have no particular interest in limited government, but they’re a foundation of the conservative coalition because they tend to be relatively wealthy and less government usually means they get to pay less taxes. It would be political suicide for the GOP to propose cutting their Medicare benefits, even though it fits with their ideological principle of smaller government. That’s because suburban white retirees don’t want limited government when it applies to them. That’s why Paul Ryan only proposes cutting Medicare benefits for everyone under the age of 55. And it’s also why conservatives can feign outrage when Obama “cuts” Medicare—not because it violates their heartfelt values—but because it’s something they can organize a political coalition around.
In fact, conservatives are for big government in a lot of situations, as long as it doesn’t affect the constituencies that make up their coalition:
- They’re down with big government all up in a woman’s uterus
- They like big government profiling Muslims at the airport
- They’re cool with big government stopping and frisking black teenagers on the street
- They love big government telling gay people who they can’t marry
- They’re all about big government asking random Latinos for their immigration papers
The disguise of political ideology is exposed at the local level, where politics gets batshit crazy. Take this recent incident in my city: Residents of the affluent conservative east side opposed the construction of a new apartment complex. Over 50 people, self-organized as far as I can tell, stayed at a hearing for four hours waiting to speak. Listen to their frothing-at-the-mouth-anger:
“I’m in shock,” resident Christopher Fries said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to file a lawsuit.”
“You’re not getting our vote,” yelled Nadia Emen, who earlier had said she got married Saturday and cut the festivities short to speak out against the project at the hearing.
Now you might be thinking: “Wait a minute… Wouldn’t a city planning commission blocking a developer from freely buying private property and building whatever type of business enterprise they chose be an intrusion of big government on the liberty of job creators and whatnot?”
But these folks don’t really care about small government. They care about their own group interests. And in this case, they are a bunch of suburbanites who really really really don’t like the idea of poor people living near them.
Although ideology is mostly bullshit, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
I’m progressive, but I don’t like big government for its own sake. I had a high school American history teacher who talked a lot about the legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton. I consider myself a Jeffersonian even though Jefferson hated the growth of the federal government. But back then, government was funded by a regressive tax system whose burden fell on the 99%—the rural farmers—and was mostly used to benefit wealthy urban manufacturing elites. If I lived in Jefferson’s time I would have been against big government too, because what I really care about is using politics to serve the interests of struggling working-class people.
I just wish we could be a little more honest and stop pretending we give a shit about philosophy.
Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action. The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.
I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.
First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action. I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave. I know there are some deniers out there. But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly? Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over. You can only really come to two conclusions: Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better. I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter. So that leaves unfair advantage. Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.
As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:
Yeah it’s kinda like that.
California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.
But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.
This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action. Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.
A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel. But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.
Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites. This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.
I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.
While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color. Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.
More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.
The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage. An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian. Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians. And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.
The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color. It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.
But movements have to be built on victories. At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.