Category Archives: politics

Why calling Bernie Sanders a “sellout” is missing the point

Anyone who follows the progressive left in the US has probably encountered a lot of criticism of Bernie Sanders ever since he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and campaigned for her to beat Donald Trump in 2016. Some of Sanders’ biggest supporters during the 2016 primaries, such as Jimmy Dore and Debbie Lusignan, the host of Youtube’s the Sane Progressive, have now become his biggest critics.

I was disappointed by Bernie’s reaction to many of the obvious attempts to manipulate the vote in the 2016 Democratic primaries. In my opinion, he should have publicly criticized the Democratic Party for engaging in this skulduggery, but I also understand why he didn’t. He saw his candidacy as a way to raise important issues in the Democratic party and force them to be discussed on the national stage. He knew enough about the machinations inside the Democratic Party to know that he would not be allowed to win the nomination for president, which is why he was able to keep campaigning with such passion on the issues even when he knew that he would loose.

At the end of the day, he wanted the Democrats to win the presidency no matter what because he has spent the last 3 decades in congress watching the Republicans gut the policies he cares about. He knew exactly how evil Trump would be as president, because he had seen what past Republican presidents did to the environment, labor rights, market regulation, etc. He has no illusions about corporate Democrats like Obama and the Clintons, but he knew that he could still push on important issues under a Hillary presidency, whereas that would be impossible under Trump.

Bernie was afraid that if he raised the issue of election fraud and all the dirty tricks of the Hillary campaign, that it would discredit her in the general election and the Republicans would win. With hindsight, many of us on the left wished that he had, since Hillary ended up loosing anyway. Basically, Bernie decided that the short term political impact of denouncing the dirty practices in the Democratic Party would be worse than the long-term good that it might cause in pushing the party to reform.

Bernie has always been a politician who values small, but tangible gains, which is why he spent so many years fighting for amendments in Congress. Maybe Bernie’s decisions were too short-term in scope, but we should also realize the long-term strategy that Bernie is playing. First of all, he is now angling to really win the presidency in 2020 and he thinks that the party might allow it to happen, whereas it wouldn’t in 2016. This means that he has to play a delicate game where he doesn’t totally alienate the bigwigs in the party, but tries to show them that the best way to win is a populist left strategy not based on corporate and big-money donations.

He founded Our Revolution so that progressive activists could work to reform the Democratic Party from within, while he pretends that he is not involved. This means that Our Revolution can work to get elected progressive candidates, but they generally don’t primary sitting establishment Democrats in congress, and they leave that work to Brand New Congress, the Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America. This means that Out Revolution can work on changing the rules of the DNC, but Bernie has to pretend that he doesn’t have a dog in that fight. He can publicly criticize the party, but he has to keep that criticism within certain acceptable bounds, and one of those limits is not talking publicly about the dirty tricks that were played against him.

These strategies have disenchanted many former supporters like Jimmy Dore, who want Bernie to found a third party that will force the Democratic Party to either coopt their issues or risk loosing elections. I understand the third party strategy and historically it has worked. Almost every progressive idea that was adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties between 1870 and 1940 first came to the fore under a third party. Reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt basically adopted the ideas of the third parties and implemented them. Without the Populist, Progressive and Socialist Parties laying the groundwork, the ideas that became anti-trust law and the New Deal probably never would have been enacted in public policy.

The thing that the third-party advocates fail to acknowledge, however, is that the Democrats and Republicans have spent over a century laying down rules to prevent third parties from arising after witnessing the threat posed by the Populist, Progressive, and Bull Moose parties. Bernie is a practical politician and he has looked closely at the tangled thicket of rules that are designed to hinder a third party.  He sees little chance of a third party succeeding on a national level, whereas he sees a viable path for success in taking over the Democratic Party from within. So far the empirical evidence suggests that he is right. His agenda is taking over the party.

However, as Jimmy Dore loves to point out in his Youtube videos, the leadership of the party is still playing all sorts of tricks to resist reform as well, so there is no guarantee that Bernie’s strategy will work. The only sitting corporate Democrat in the US congress who has lost a primary so far has been Joseph Crowley, so reforming the Democratic Party is hardly a sure bet at this point. Dore argues that the leadership of the Democratic Party is going to make sure that Bernie won’t win the presidential nomination, and he is wasting his time trying to play ball with the Democratic Party leadership, when he should be attacking them publicly. Dore believes that Sanders is “sheepdogging” progressives into a corrupt party that doesn’t want to reform itself, when he should be using his political capital to build a third party that can challenge the Democrats from the outside.

On the other hand, the polling shows that Bernie is the front-runner to be the next Democratic nominee for president, although the mainstream press will never acknowledge it. The other potential presidential candidates know it, which is why Kristen Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker sound more and more like Bernie every day. Even if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, whoever does win will have to adopt much of Bernie’s agenda at least in their public discourse. The problem is that a candidate like Gillibrand, Harris or Booker will probably pull from the Obama playbook, and run as a progressive, but govern as a centrist and a corporatist.

More important, in my opinion, is the work to replace the corporate Democrats in congress and the state houses with enough populist left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so that a Bernie-style president can push through Medicare for All, free tuition at public universities, a public infrastructure bill, ending the wars, etc. FDR was a great president because he had a Democratic Party in control of congress. He not only had progressive leaders in congress who were pushing the New Deal, but he was able to work in coordination with them to pressure recalcitrant congressmen into voting the right way.

I wish that progressive activists would understand Bernie’s strategy, rather than posting asinine comments online like “Bernie’s a sellout” or “we can’t trust Bernie after he endorsed Hillary.” Leftist activists seem to take a special kind of delight in leaving these sorts of comments on Youtube.  It is fine to disagree with Bernie’s strategy and to work on a different one, but at least have the maturity to acknowledge what he is trying to do, rather than engage in pointless character assassination and failing to acknowledge the political realities of the US. Bernie may be pursuing the wrong strategy and reform of the Democratic Party might not work in the long-term, but we would all be better off if we stopped trying to see this as the moral failing of Bernie as an individual, but rather understanding it as long-term strategy to achieve a set of progressive policy goals.

Personally, I believe that we need both an inside and an outside strategy to eventually be successful. Working for reform within the Democratic Party and third-party activism are both useful, because both strategies help to push the Party to the right place and these two strategies are not mutually exclusive. In fact, doing one helps reenforce the other. Helping the Green Party get 5% of the vote and primarying corporate Democrats both help to push the Party to the left and adopt a progressive agenda. If a third party is ever going to successful in the US which is a winner-takes-all system, then we are going to need Democrats in office who are sympathetic to rule changes such as ranked-choice voting. At the same time, working in the DSA and the Green Parties is certainly not a waste of time, because they pose a credible threat to Democrats who are forced to coopt their agenda. Even if we chose to work through a third party, we shouldn’t disparage progressive politician like Bernie who have chosen a different path to achieve the same policy goals.

I follow the Molly Ivin’s strategy when voting. Vote for the third party as a protest when the vote is not close in your district, but vote for the Democrat when the vote is close. I voted for the Green Party candidate in 1992 and 1996 against Bill Clinton, but I held my nose and voted for Obama in 2008, because I thought that the race would be close in Indiana, where I was voting. I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016, but didn’t bother to vote in the general election, because Indiana was going to go overwhelming to Trump, so my vote was effectively meaningless. If I were able to vote in a place like Pennsylvania, Florida or Ohio, where the vote was expected to be close, I would have held my nose and voted for Hillary, despite her patently corrupt practices as a politician.

Given the kind of damage that Republicans are wont to inflict on the nation, progressives need to be strategically smart and not be ruled by simple passions in our voting. Part of that strategy can be third party voting, but it makes no sense to disparage the moral character of people like Bernie who are pursuing a different strategy. If you feel that Bernie’s strategy is wrong, than attack the strategy, not the man. At the very least, acknowledge that we share many of the same goals on the left, if not the same way of getting to those goals.

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A short summary of the facts why a boycott of Israel is necessary

I have come to the conclusion that the only moral response to Israel’s version of Apartheid for Palestinians is to boycott Israel and its products and to encourage others to do the same. It seems to be a waste of my time to keep demanding that the US government stop giving Israel $3 billion per year in military aid and stop vetoing resolutions in the UN Security Council that would hold Israel accountable for its actions.

Many others have examined the moral implications and the philosophical rationale of a boycott. However, I haven’t been able to find a short summary of the facts about Israel’s occupation of Palestine, so I have written one, to help people understand why a boycott is necessary: Continue reading

The response to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

The primary election of 28 year old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to represent the Bronx and Queens in congress has been a lightning rod for the passions and fears of so many Americans. Partly because AOC represents so many segments of the population which have so little voice and her win as an underdog was so dramatic, she was instantly catapulted to the national stage. There aren’t many leaders on the left who are young, female, Latina, boldly progressive and telegenic like her. She has gained over 800k Twitter followers in just a matter of months. For the 58 million Latinos in the US and the millions of urban youth, they don’t have many heroes on the national stage, so she has became the symbol to channel their energy.

Because she was so pretty and passionate and her story of overthrowing the man angling to be the next Speaker of the House was so compelling, AOC got a ton of media coverage both on television and in social media in the weeks following her primary win. Her use of the taboo phrase “democratic socialist” to describe herself and her call to abolish ICE made her the newest object of fascination in the public eye.

AOC carries the energy and passion of the grassroots left, but she also excites the lizard brain of conservatives, that seems to dwell in perpetual fear of the other. They love to attack her, characterizing her as both an airheaded dunce of the radical left and a dastardly mastermind who plots to turn the US into a Venezuelan failed state.

Anyone who listens to AOC talk knows she is hardly stupid, and most of the things that conservative pundits pounce on to demonstrate her lack of knowledge actually demonstrate their own stupidity. For example, when they criticized her for saying that Israel is “occupying” Palestine, they showed their own misunderstanding of the true situation on the ground in the Middle East by repeating the propaganda of the Israeli government. AOC paused when questioned and naively admitted, “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” but what she said demonstrated far more knowledge than the right-wing pundits who have criticized her for her response.

The 1948 war ended with Israel occupying 78% of historic Palestine and expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. The 1967 war resulted in Israel taking over the remaining 22% and expelling 300,000 Palestinians. Today, 600,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Israel has a policy of stealing more Palestinian land which it calls “facts on the ground” in its campaign to reclaim the historic Israel. Today, Israel controls 63% of the land in the West Bank and has joint control over another 22%, so Palestinians only control 18% and their movement within that 18% is restricted by walls, roads and checkpoints.

As a political novice suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, I suspect that AOC was trying to find a way to frame her response in a way that would not offend Jewish voters and she didn’t have enough experience to know that she should never admit not being an expert or being unsure how to respond. An experienced politician like Bernie Sanders who has been handling these sorts of gotcha questions for decades would have anticipated the question and prepared response or would have known how to insist on the basic point that an injustice is occurring in Palestine, without getting tripped up by the details.

AOC hasn’t always figured out the best way to frame her issues and how to avoid saying things that allow the right-wing attack machine to sharpen its knives, but it is precisely the fact that she doesn’t artfully avoid the issue of Palestine and she speaks so passionately about the injustice of the current Capitalist system that makes her so refreshing. AOC reacted with the natural outrage an ordinary person watching the home demolitions in Palestine and the evictions of working-class people by banks and land developers in the Bronx. What makes her so attractive is that she didn’t poll test her message before she called for the abolishment of ICE when she sees immigrants being deported and children being separated from their parents.   

Fortunately, AOC now has a safe congressional seat, where she doesn’t have to worry about being driven from office for giving voice to an ordinary person’s natural empathy and moral outrage in the face of injustice. In time, I expect that she will get better at anticipating the gotchas and have formulated her responses beforehand, but it will deeply sadden me if she becomes another poll-tested, anodyne slogan machine who becomes so gun shy from the political fray that she is beaten into conformity with the status quo. 

The right-wing talking heads have made AOC their newest public boogey to excite the fear of the right and rally the base. Just watch what Liz Wheeler says about her:

Liz Wheeler seems to be incapable of reading Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s platform. Nowhere does AOC talk about the government taking over the means of production. Medicare for All means that the hospitals are still privately run, but the government provides insurance. When Bernie Sanders and AOC say “democratic socialism,” they are talking about policies from European social democracies, not from Stalin, Mao, Kim, Castro, Chavez or Maduro.

Why does Wheeler think that Medicare for All and free tuition at public universities will turn the US into a Stalinist state? Every developed country in the world except the US has universal health care and it hasn’t led to authoritarian dictatorship. The US used to have free tuition at many of its public universities in the 1950s, and it didn’t lead to Communism. My parents attended the University of Texas in the 1960s, where tuition was basically free, and they didn’t think that it led to the destruction of American values. By every measure (GDP per capita, life expectancy, surveys of happiness, education levels, etc.), Scandinavian countries have a higher standard of living that the US, plus they have lower levels of corruption (as measured by Transparency International) and are more democratic.

As for Wheeler’s argument about the cost of AOC’s proposed policies, Medicare for All will save the US between $300 billion and $1.7 billion per year (depending on the study). Free tuition at public universities will cost about $70 billion per year. Even when you add in free tuition at trade schools, it will be less than $100 billion per year. The US congress just approved a $100 billion increase to the military budget, taking it to $716 billion in 2019 and the new tax cuts will cause a $1.9 trillion deficit over the next 10 years, so the US could easily afford it. I haven’t seen a cost estimate of AOC’s federal jobs guarantee, but I doubt that it will be over $150 billion per year currently or $400 billion per year during times of economic depression. The US government employed 13 million people during the Great Depression and the massive investment in infrastructure in the 1930s helped the US grow economically over the long run.

The Trump tax cuts gave 83% of the cuts to the top 1%, while raising taxes on 72% of taxpayers over a 10 year period. Most rational people would say that America should have been spent that money on health care, education and infrastructure, rather than helping the wealthiest and most powerful Americans grow even more wealthy and powerful.

Three Americans (Gates, Bezos and Buffet) now own as much wealth as the bottom 56% of Americans. The best way to change the current situation where the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer is to implement the kind of policies being proposed by AOC. Many countries have tried it, including the US in the past, and it hasn’t created the kind of dystopia that Wheeler imagines. People like Wheeler seem to be incapable of rationally analyzing AOC’s proposals and can only engage in fear-mongering and smearing because they don’t have a rational response.

The ludicrous response from the right is almost expected at this point, given how many on the right called Obama a secret Muslim Socialist born in Kenya. AOC ticks all the boxes to ignite their fears. She is a socialist, a Puerto Rican, a feminist, a millennial and a product of the immoral inner-city–all categories that the right loves to denigrate and castigate as destroying America.

What is more interesting has been the conflict within the Democratic Party around AOC. The Democratic leadership has offered her a mixed response in public ranging from Nancy Pelosi dismissing her as a irrelevant sideshow in an unusual district and a cautious attempt to jump on her popular bandwagon by Tom Perez. However, behind the scenes, there are rumors that they are taking steps to marginalize her. It is unclear at this point how many Democrats will support Joe Crowley’s attempt to dislodge her by running on the Working Families ticket against her in the general election, but is is clear that a number of the traditional party operatives would prefer to keep interlopers like AOC out of power.

AOC has become a lightning rod for much of the grassroots energy in the party that is pushing for real, progressive change, rather than the timid half-steps that have characterized the Party since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Although Bernie Sanders and AOC and most of the others who call themselves “democratic socialists” aren’t real socialists according to the definition taught in economics class. When AOC calls for a federal jobs guarantee, you might call that socialism, since the state will be hiring millions of people, but when you balance that with AOC’s calls to reduce military spending, the net effect might be that the state controls less of the national economy.

In an interview with Vogue, AOC said that socialism to her means “democratic participation in our economic dignity, and our economic, social and racial dignity.” She continued: “To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity. It’s asserting the value of saying that the America we want and America we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education. It’s one in which no person is too poor to have the medicines they need to live.”

I suspect that AOC calls herself a “democratic socialist” because she was inspired working on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and met people who shared her passion for social justice in the Democratic Socialists of America. Democratic Socialism for people like AOC means less about how to organize economic production and more about how people participate in the political system and how ordinary people live their lives. In this understanding of her political label, AOC is not a disciple of 20th century socialists like Britain’s Clement Attlee who wanted the state to run the health care system and nationalize the railroads, mines and utilities. Instead, she is a follower of Bernie Sanders, in the way she talks about grassroots organizing to build a popular mass movement for change, and the state guaranteeing basic necessities for all people. The word “democratic” is fundamental to that understanding since it is based on popular movements rising up from below to achieve a non-violent revolution of the political process. The “socialism” part means working for a more just society where working class people aren’t marginalized and the government takes care of people in need.

Political scientists will throw up their hands in disgust at the way that AOC and Bernie Sanders use the word “socialism,” but most people who call themselves socialists today in Europe aren’t that different from social democrats in their policy agenda. Even in a country like Bolivia, where the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) has controlled the country for over a decade, socialism ended up meaning more taxation, rather than the government taking over the natural gas fields that provide half of the country’s exports.

Maybe you can call Bernie Sanders a socialist in his advocacy of worker-owned co-ops, but that was a minor plank in his platform that was hardly mentioned in his standard stump speeches on the campaign trail. Italy has had a policy of helping to support worker-owned co-ops for decades and nobody calls the country socialist. If Sanders is a socialist, he is one who hearkens back to the 19th century when Robert Owens was setting up factories run by workers and Karl Marx was theorizing about how workers would run the workplace in order to no longer be alienated from the product of their labor. In some ways, however, Sanders is more up-to-date than his critics in his understanding of the word “socialism.” The economist, Richard Wolff, who is arguably the most famous Marxist in America today, is a passionate advocate of worker-owned co-ops. Wolff repeatedly points out in his lectures that socialism today doesn’t mean what it meant in the 1950s.

At the end of the day, the label “democratic socialist” is less about a formal socio-economic definition, and more about signaling a radical change in values and the style of political organizing. People are sick of listening to smooth-talking, poll-tested politicians who do the bidding of wealthy donors and don’t seem to care about the welfare of ordinary people. Perhaps it is the rise of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and social media in general which allows ordinary people to talk more directly to each other in the political sphere, but people expect more unvarnished bluntness. Working longer hours at lower wages and struggling to pay the rent, the student loans and the health care bills have made ordinary people angry and frustrated with the status quo.

When a politician like Bernie Sanders publicly states, “I’m a democratic socialist,” it tells ordinary people that he is just at mad at the status quo as they are and he can’t be bought off or dissuaded from trying to change the system. For the youth in the audience who didn’t grow up with the propaganda of the Cold War, socialism is what they heard the right say about Obama for years, so it has lost its capacity to scare them. The label has more negative connotations for older generations who were inculcated with decades of anti-Communism, but it does not necessarily mean that they negatively view a politician who willingly adopts the label. Some portion of the audience will shut down and dismiss everything a democratic socialist says as the words of a deluded lunatic. Another portion of the audience, however, will conclude that the politician is honest, since nobody calls herself a socialist if she is trying to manipulate or appease people just to get elected. Millions of Democrats walked from hearing a Sanders’ speech in the 2016 presidential primary, thinking to themselves that he was sincere and unbought, which is far more important than ideology in today’s context. People know that they can trust Sanders to fight like hell for their health care and a higher minimum wage, and all the money and backroom deals in the world won’t be able to deter him from fighting on their behalf.

After years of hearing politicians say pretty things in public, the blunt honesty of politicians who call themselves “democratic socialists” is a breath of fresh air for many voters who are fed up with the current system. The majority of voters don’t need convincing since what Sanders and AOC are saying on economic issues is what they already believe, according to the public opinion polls. It is mostly a matter of closing the trust gap, which they do very effectively by using a politically-incorrect label like socialism and by refusing to take donations from corporations and employ SuperPACs.

Socialism in America has given expression to the leftist desire for meaningful change, but it is hardly the kind of revolution that its critics imagine. The right wing is using it as a means to fear-monger about the left and rally its base. Establishment Democrats rightly see is as a challenge to their way of doing politics, which is based on middle of the road centrism and milking money from wealthy donors. The leadership of the Democratic Party is waking up to the unpleasant reality that Bernie Sander’s surprising popularity in his 2016 presidential campaign was hardly a fluke. He has inspired a whole new generation of similar politicians who are challenging them to either take bold stances on the issues or face grueling primary challenges.

According to Gallup, 57% of Democrats now have a positive view of socialism, which is down one point from 2016, but up 4 points since 2012, so the Democratic base hasn’t substantially changed its views, but they now have a whole new class of political leaders to give voice to their sense of frustration with the existing Capitalist system. Democratic leaders who criticize “democratic socialism” need to understand what it represents and why it appeals to American voters who are hardly socialist in the traditional sense, but are embracing its promise to confront the status quo and improve their lives.

Most establishment Democrats aren’t as out of touch with their base as Joseph Crowley, so they will probably be savvy enough to not offend their base and survive primary challenges from democratic socialists. The progressive candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress and the Democratic Socialists of America have won roughly half of their races so far in the primary season, but they generally don’t win against entrenched Democratic incumbents, especially on a state-wide level. Alison Hartson lost to Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon in California, Paula Jean Swearengin lost to Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Kaniela Ing lost to Ed Case in Hawaii, and Cori Bush lost to Lacy Clay in Missouri. Where the races were close, as in Abdul El-Sayed’s loss in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary and Brent Welder’s loss to Sharice Davids in Kansas, they weren’t running against Democratic incumbents, so wins like AOC’s are likely to be rare. AOC won in part because it depended on which candidate had the most loyal base which would show up to vote, since it was a primary designed to limit the turnout to the party faithful. Ordinarily this kind of limited primary helps the incumbent, but the number of institutional loyalists tied to Crowley weren’t that many, whereas AOC managed to build a base of supporters outside the traditional party structure that overwhelmed the institutional voters.

Nonetheless, the very fact that entrenched politicians like Feinstein and Manchin are facing credible challenges from the left will inevitably change the dynamic in the party. Just like the way that Republicans were forced to cater to the demands of the Tea Party activists, establishment Democrats will stop being so dismissive of the demands of their grassroots activists, knowing that they could be knocked out by that same base in the next election.

Democratic socialism will be less of a threat to America than its critics imagine, since in many ways it represents a return to the politics of FDR and the party of the 1930s-60s which responds to the demands of its chief voting blocks. Today, voters are no longer as organized into institutions like unions and voting leagues, but social media, alternative media, progressive organizations and intersectional movement building are gaining the ability to bring voters to the polls in similar ways. Most of the political pundits and the leadership of the party continues to delude themselves about the power and potency of the movement.

It is unlikely that democratic socialism will present much a challenge to the Democratic establishment in the 2018 primaries, despite all the attention that AOC’s win has garnered. The real challenge to the establishment will come when Bernie Sanders runs for president again in 2020. Almost all the presidential contenders except Joe Biden on the Democratic side have already embracing Sander’s policy agenda to some degree by publicly supporting Medicare for All and vowing to take no corporate donations. In an effort to co-opt Sanders and win over his voters, Gillibrand, Warren, Harris and Booker are likely to start sounding very similar to Sanders on the campaign trail.

It is hard to predict the future, but it is likely that Bernie Sanders will be the front-runner in a crowded field if he runs in 2020 and his brand of democratic socialism has a good chance of winning, since it best answers the aspirations of the Democratic rank-and-file. No other candidate will have the kind of passionate and committed supporters like Bernie Sanders. Nobody in the party dislikes Biden, but the base of the party isn’t willing to go to bat for him like it will for Sanders.

Even if Sanders doesn’t run, it is clear that anyone who hopes to represent the base has to run on his agenda in 2020. Whether his brand of “democratic socialism” becomes the message of the party or not, his agenda if not his style of politics will inevitably come to the fore. The leadership of the Democratic Party had better make its peace with what democratic socialism represents, whether they call choose to adopt its label or not, because it is the future of American politics.

 

Jordan Peterson ignores the importance of social policy in addressing societal problems

Jordan Peterson was recently interviewed in San Francisco by Simulation, which is a series of talks and interviews with interesting people. As one of the “radical leftists” and “cultural Marxists” that Jordan Peterson loves to mock, I actually enjoyed listening to this talk and I learned some interesting things from Peterson. I can’t say the same about Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro or most other conservative commentators, so I definitely recommend watching the whole interview on YouTube:

The interview was a wide ranging conversation on a whole slew of topics and the interviewer wasn’t very well prepared in my opinion on the academic topics that were discussed, so Peterson was able to opine freely with little push back. I suspect that Peterson would have been taken to task on a number of his arguments in an academic convention, but he is playing in the court of public opinion, which is much less knowledgeable on these topics.

On the question of wealth redistribution, Peterson argues that wealth and achievement naturally accumulates toward the top in all societies, even in prehistoric societies. In making the argument that overaccumulation of wealth at the top is feature of all societies, he throws up his hands and says “nobody knows what to do about it”. He ignores all the ways that societies thorough out history have alleviated overaccumulation of wealth at the top.

Peterson even argues that wealth will accumulate naturally in the hands of the people with the most intellectual ability, which is better for society, since they will use that wealth in the most productive fashion. In making this argument, he ignores all the empirical evidence showing that wealth redistribution has a lot of benefits for society as a whole. Redistributing wealth toward the bottom causes more economic growth than distributing wealth toward the top, because it causes money recirculation in the national economy. Also, the studies of a universal basic income, providing apartments to homeless people, investing in low-income schools, guaranteed retirement funds, and raising the minimum wage all show economic and social benefits to the society as a whole. Peterson uses the example of the cocaine addict who misuses extra wealth and ends up overdosing, but Peterson uses the example of a few outliers and generalizes for all of society. There is a great deal of academic literature to showing the benefits and efficacy of redistributing wealth toward the bottom of society.

Peterson pretends that the most productive thing to do with wealth is to let the richest people keep it and uses the example of Bill Gates using his wealth to cure malaria, polio, sleeping sickness and other diseases. Yes, there are people like Gates and Musk who use their wealth productively, but there are many more like the Koch Bros, Sheldon Adelson, etc. who use their wealth to corrupt the economic system and destroy democracy. The economic literature supports some wealth inequality to promote growth, but it is clear that the level of wealth inequality that we currently have actually depresses economic growth because it destroys demand in the economy and reduces the recirculation of money.

On an individual basis, I think Peterson has a lot of insightful advise for how people can improve their lives, but he is a psychologist treating individuals who are generally outliers. A sociologist who does statistical analysis on society as a whole comes to opposite conclusions about what is good public policy. For example, individuals should think that working hard leads to success and there is some evidence for that. But, it is also true that society investing in schools and training, especially for the underprivileged has huge benefits, which Peterson seems to ignore. He looks at the lowest 10% and says that it is pointless to provide training to them. However, he ignores the 90% who would benefit from extra schooling and training. I work as a computer programmer and I can tell you that there are some people who simply don’t have the mind to be good programmers, but there are roughly 25% who do, but only 1% every get the training to do it. For those 24% of society who have the mental ability but not the training to be programmers, they would really benefit from free or subsidized education programs, as any sociologist would tell you. Peterson has nothing so say about the “radical left” proposals about how to better fund education for the disadvantaged.

Another major hole in Peterson’s argument is the fact that he ignores how IQ is influenced by environment and he ignores all the proposals of the “radical left” to improve the environment for the disadvantaged. For example, Peterson has nothing to say about proposals to improve the nutrition of people living in food ghettos and how to give people economic security to create the kind of stable and secure environments which produce children of high IQ. I appreciate all of Peterson’s insight into the importance of play, but otherwise he is remarkably silent on the kind of social policies that are needed to help the development of children and raise their IQs.

Peterson is right to point out how wealth and success accumulates to the few at the top, but he has zero to say about how to alleviate that overdistribution towards the top. He basically pretends that that it is a natural function and we don’t have any idea how to alleviate it. Many societies have features which mitigate the overaccumulation of wealth at the top, whereas unregulated Capitalism promotes it. There is a major difference between today’s neoliberal Capitalism that concentrates wealth and the giving away of wealth in order to gain social status among the Native Americans of the Pacific NorthWest. Peterson pretends that there is no social policy to address the overaccumulation at the top (other than making war and promoting plague), whereas any sociologist or historian could point to dozens of ways to address this problem (including changing Capitalism, which Peterson refuses to consider).

Peterson talks about the studies among animals showing that reciprocity arises naturally from play and is essential for development. Based on those studies, he concludes that morality is universal and a natural development from play. Strangely, he doesn’t use those same studies to advocate for good social policy. For example, he discusses the studies that show that stable hierarchies occur among chimpanzees when the dominant males establish friendships with the lesser males and look out for the welfare of the baby chimpanzees. In contrast, instability and violence occurs in chimpanzee society, when the males at the top of the hierarchy use physical domination and treat the lower chimpanzees badly, which leads to short reigns of power which are quickly overthrown.

Peterson is strangely silent on the social policy implications of the very studies he cites. The “radical leftists” who Peterson derides would look at those studies and conclude that it is a bad public policy to spend huge amounts on the police and military budgets. They would advocate against domestic policy based on police violence and a foreign policy that tries to physically dominate other nations.

Peterson also talks about the studies where $100 is shared between two people and Peterson noted that the people who are generous and share over 50% will do better in the long run. He doesn’t use those studies, however, to conclude that the wealthy should be forced to share their wealth with the lower classes and treat then better if we want a stable and prosperous society.

Peterson is correct to point out that women on average are more interested in people and men are more interested in things, but that doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t exist in the STEM fields or that we shouldn’t have social policies to encourage women and minorities to pursue those fields, just like we should have social policies to encourage men to become nurses and teachers. Sexist attitudes do exist in these fields of work and it helps society as a whole to overcome them. Men who find childhood development fascinating shouldn’t feel belittled and their masculinity challenged when they become kindergarten teachers, just like women shouldn’t be steered away from using math. We need social policies to fight against sexist attitudes in society rather than pretending that is entirely the natural interests of the sexes that lead to gender disparities in jobs. Peterson is right that there are different interests on average in the sexes, so some of the gender disparities are not socially constructed, but some of the disparity is also socially constructed. We have both biological and social and cultural factors that lead to gender disparities and he refuses to talk about the policies that are needed to address the social and cultural factors.

Peterson became famous last year when he argued against rules banning gender discrimination in speech in Canadian universities. Peterson derides the social construction of gender as having no basis in the scientific literature and dismisses it as a form of “cultural Marxism” promoted by leftist academics. It seems rather bizarre to me to call the social construction of gender a Marxist idea, since Marx believed that culture was arose from material production and was rooted in materialist interests of the classes. Marxian analysis of culture is diametrically opposed to the postmodern analysis used by many feminists, especially when it is rooted in language. What people like Peterson call “cultural Marxism” did arise from leftist academics, who were often sympathetic to Marxist movements, but it is downright disingenuous for Peterson to tar them as Marxists if you know anything about the philosophical basis of Marx’s arguments.

Peterson criticizes Silicon Valley companies for trying to hire more women and people from diverse backgrounds. He seems oblivious to the studies showing that businesses which have more women, more racial minorities and more diverse backgrounds of their employees tend to function better and are more successful.

In conclusion, there is some truth to Peterson’s arguments about a competence hierarchy rather than a domination hierarchy and the natural distribution of rewards toward the top, but he is strangely silent on all the academic studies about how racial and class bias make a difference in success and promotion (as well as religious bias in some countries). He is right to criticize many academics for failing to acknowledge that biology and natural tendencies play a role in many of society’s problems, but he fails to acknowledge that there are also social and cultural factors at play and that social policy can play a important role in addressing these factors.

Review of David Talbot’s Devils Chessboard

I just finished reading David Talbot’s Devil’s Chessboard, which is a history of Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA under Eisenhower. I already knew some of the sordid details such as the CIA plots to overthrow the governments of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and murder Patrice Lumumba in the DRC in 1960, but Talbot put these despicable acts in a fuller context. Talbot shows how an elite clique of men in government and the business world operated to carry out these operations.

He also added many details which aren’t well known. According to Talbot, Dulles actively tried to undermine FDR’s war policy in Europe and he protected many of the Nazi intelligence officials from being prosecuted after WWII, so they could be reused in European intelligence. Talbot shows how the OSS/CIA carried out actions against the wishes of FDR, Truman and JFK and essentially made its own foreign policy. According to Talbot the CIA illegally directed funds toward the 1960 Nixon campaign for president. He also posits that the groups that tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle probably had received CIA funding.

The book concludes by alleging that Allen Dulles masterminded the murder of JFK. When I first picked up the book, I thought the book must be the work of a crackpot, but Talbot lays out a plausible theory and adduces quite a bit of indirect evidence to support his theory. It is hard for me to judge whether Talbot is right in his theory, but he shows a clear pattern of behavior in the CIA that is deeply disturbing for anyone who believes in democracy.

Even if Talbot is wrong in his theory about who colluded to assassinate JFK, he digs up so much information about Dulles and the deep state that his book is still worth reading. As a student of Latin American history, I knew how deeply the US had meddled in the politics of its southern neighbors, but I never realized that the US was just as deeply enmeshed in European politics. The manipulation of the 1948 Italian elections to keep the Communists out of power is well known, but I didn’t realize that the US was still financing the Italian Christian Democrats in the 1960s and the US kept the Italian Socialists out of the ruling coalition of the Italian government for decades. The US looks utterly hypocritical to criticize Russia for meddling in its elections, when examining its own history of meddling in foreign elections.

The inescapable conclusion after reading the book is that the CIA was fundamentally a threat to democracy, which worked to undermined the policies of several US presidents. The other conclusion that I draw is that Truman and JFK were weakened by their anti-Communism, which opened the doors for the CIA to carry out their own secret agenda. They could have reined in the CIA, but they were too worried about being red-baited by the right-wing and short-term political considerations were more important for them than controlling the CIA.

In Talbot’s account, JFK comes off as a heroic figure who wanted to reorient the intransigent cold war stance of Eisenhower’s administration, but he couldn’t control the deep state. This is a portrayal of JFK that I have never read before, and I find it intriguing, but it isn’t the full story in my opinion. JFK engaged in his own cold warrior rhetoric at times and his sending troops to Vietnam doesn’t fit the image that Talbot paints of him as the peacemaker. The conclusion I draw is that JFK was trying to walk a middle course, that fundamentally weakened his position and led him to half measures like sending troops to Vietnam to appease the deep state and appointing Republicans to key positions to head off criticism from the right. I don’t think JFK is as much of a Liberal hero as Talbot portrays him, but it is startling how much more backbone he had compared to the today’s weak Democratic leaders.

Questioning the benefits of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general

When I first learned how Bitcoin worked, I thought it was a marvelous technology. Today, I am growing increasingly pessimistic about Bitcoin. The environmental costs of Bitcoin mining are very high when we consider the resources to fabricate millions of specialized chips and circuit boards and energy to run them. Moreover, Bitcoin can’t adjust its money supply, so it is highly prone to inflation. Although the number of Bitcoin transactions has stayed the same over the last year, the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed, which makes it an unacceptable currency in my opinion.

Like many new technologies, it takes a while to find all the potential problems and design a blockchain technology that is capable of serving as a stable, widely-accepted cryptocurrency. Unfortunately, Bitcoin is stuck in the first iteration of the technology and it can’t evolve. I have no doubt that it will continue being used, but better cryptocurrencies are being designed and one of them will eventually take Bitcoin’s place as the premier cryptocurrency. Continue reading

Overreaction to sexist blog posts destroys the Justice Democrats

It looks like the Justice Democrats just imploded as a viable group capable of effecting political change, which leaves me very despondent. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, who was one of the founders of the Justice Democrats, wrote some sexist blog posts between 1999 and 2005, and the staff of the Justice Democrats demanded that he resign. Uygur has resigned from the group and has avoided saying anything negative about the Justice Democrat’s staff in public. Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, however, was so outraged by the behavior of the staff, that he then also resigned from the board of the Justice Democrats in protest.

Without the media support of either the Young Turks or Secular Talk, I can’t see how the Justice Democrats will have any public traction. Most of the people who joined the Justice Democrats first heard about the group by watching the Young Turks or Secular Talk on Youtube and the media coverage of the group would be essentially nil without those two Youtube channels. Judging from the comments posted on Kulinski’s video announcing his resignation, many of his viewers are outraged that Uygur was forced to resign.

Most of the criticism of Uygur focuses on a 1999 post. After reading the post, I can understand why the JD staff found it offensive, but they also seem to be incapable of interpreting the situation in its proper context. Uygur essentially complained that he was surrounded by many beautiful women in Miami, yet he wasn’t getting laid. He then said that women are genetically inferior because they don’t want to have sex enough. Yes, the general tone of the post was sexist, but the JD staff are being purposely blind to the lame humor of a guy who is making up sarcastic excuses why he can’t get laid. It was a poor attempt at humor and an effort to be an edgy, politically-incorrect right-wing blogger.

I don’t think that Uygur truly believed that women are genetically inferior at the time that he wrote it, and he certainly doesn’t believe it now.  He has run a progressive media company since 2002 where he promotes women’s rights and female hosts clearly play an important role in deciding on the content and presentation of the shows. It is hard to believe that strong women like Anna Kasparian, Hannah Cranston, Aida Rodriguez, Grace Baldridge and Kim Horcher would continue to work at the Young Turks if it was a pit of sexism and they weren’t treated as equals in the company. I find it hard to believe that these female hosts would keep working part time at low salaries at the Young Turks if it was a place that tolerated sexism. Many of the female hosts of the Young Turks shows also have their own separate shows which they built up independently from the Young Turks, so I doubt they would stay if Uygur displayed sexist attitudes toward them. Anna Kasparian frequently argues with Cenk Uygur about why he is wrong about a particular issue and challenges his authority on air.

If Uygur had written those comments last year and stood proudly by them, then the reaction of the JD staff might be justifiable, but Uygur deleted most of the offensive posts over a dozen years ago and has apologized, saying that people are right to criticize the sexism in the posts.

The JD staff seemed determined to smear Uygur in ways that he didn’t deserve, by saying that he was “contributing to rape culture.” I’m guessing that they wrote that because in a 2003 post Uygur wrote:

I had one of the best nights of my life at Mardi Gras. I kissed over 23 different women, saw and felt countless breasts, and was in a wonderful drunken stupor thanks to my friend John Daniels.

Yes, the whole Marti Gras tradition of men kissing women and women flashing their breasts and men touching them is sexist and does objectify women, but there is no indication that Uygur was talking about non-consensual activities.

The staff of the Justice Democrats seems to have lost sight of the larger objectives of their organization in making their decision to kick out Uygur. Without an effective media arm, the organization is essentially dead, because it won’t be able to recruit many new members and it just alienated many of its existing members who are fans of the Young Turks and Secular Talk. Maybe some of the members of the Justice Democrats will applaud the action as taking a principled stand against sexism, but it appears that the group will also loose many members, judging from the online comments on Kulinski’s video announcing his resignation. Many of the comments on the video also criticize social justice warriors in general as intolerant extremists. The left appears to be needlessly attacking itself and eating its own.

Some of Uygur’s harshest critics like Sargon of Akkad are now defending him and saying that he did “nothing wrong”. Unfortunately, tarring and feathering Uygur in this way allows right-wing critics to dismiss the #metoo movement as a witchhunt and an overreaction. Just like some people dismissed feminism in general when Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused Bernie Sanders of promoting sexism, some people will be inclined to disregard sexual harassment as not being a serious problem when they see progressives like Uygur being attacked for old blog posts. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if denouncing Uygur for sexism really helps the cause of women’s rights. What I am sure is that it helps to fracture the movement to elect politicians who aren’t corrupted by corporate money, and that is an outcome that we should all mourn.