Thursday, November 29, 2012

Matthew Yglesias & Megan McCardle explain why Walmart workers should have a union

Matthew Yglesias is a very sharp guy, and when he's on-target, he can be exceptionally illuminating.  In a recent post (see below), Yglesias took a close look at some pro-Walmart anti-union analysis offered by the Atlantic's Megan McCardle ... and pointed out that the correct conclusion to draw from her analysis was pretty much the opposite of the conclusion she wanted to imply. Here's the relevant passage from Megan McCardle's piece:
Recessions are also a time when employers don't necessarily have a lot of profits to give up.  Walmart's $446 billion of revenue last year was eye-popping, but its profit margins are far from fat--between 3% to 3.5%.  If they cut that down by a percentage point--about what retailers like Costco and Macy's have been bringing in--that would give each Walmart employee about $2850 a year, which is substantial but far from life-changing.  Further wage improvements would have to come out of the pockets of Walmart's extremely price conscious shoppers.
As Yglesias usefully explains, once we cut through the misleading way that McCardle has rhetorically framed the issues,
the analysis is admirably clear. Wal-Mart's profit margins, though by no means enormous, are larger than those of its main competitors. Given the weak national labor market, Wal-Mart has no reason to cough up extra money to its workforce. But a strong labor union could coerce them into coughing up higher pay and bringing their margins in line with Costco and Macy's. As a result, each Wal-Mart employee might get a bit less than $3,000 more a year. Whether that's "life-changing" or not is an interesting question, but since we're talking about low-wage workers here, I think the intuitions of highly paid professionals may be a bit off. It seems very plausible that the marginal hedonic value of a thousand bucks or three to Wal-Mart's workforce would be very large.
Yes, it does seem plausible.  According to various estimates I've seen (here, for example), the average Walmart sales employee makes somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, roughly speaking.  An extra $2,850 per year would mean a raise of around 15%, which might strike some people as significant—even, to use McCardle's term, "substantial".

But read Yglesias's whole post (which includes a nicely chosen song-and-dance clip).

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Earlier this month Ron Unz, the publisher of The American Conservative, wrote an interesting article for that magazine in which he recommended, perhaps surprisingly, a substantial increase in the national minimum wage.  (Unz himself is an interesting and unusual character.  He made his bundle decades ago as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and since then has applied his money and energy to various types of public-policy entrepreneurship, usually with a "libertarian" slant.)  At one point in the article—which, by the way, is worth reading—Unz made a claim about Walmart that surprised me, but which may have some factual basis:
Ironically, it is likely that major elements of the private sector would be perfectly happy with this arrangement. For example, despite their low-wage and anti-worker reputation, Wal-Mart’s top executives lobbied Congress in 2005 for an increase in the minimum wage, concerned that their working-class customer base was growing too impoverished to shop at their stores.[xi] Wal-Mart might never be willing to raise its wages in isolation, but if a higher minimum wage forces all competitors to do the same, then prices can also be raised to help make up the difference, while the large rise in disposable consumer income would greatly increase sales.
Assuming that Walmart might actually be willing to pay their workers a little more, why don't they simply do it, and why have they always fought any efforts to unionize their work force tooth and nail?

Part of the answer, which Unz mentions, is that they would be willing to pay higher wages only if their competitors were forced to do the same (which, by the way, is a good argument for unionizing the whole retail sector, as well as raising the minimum wage).  But the more crucial point, I suspect, is a different one.  Raising the minimum wage would only increase wages for Walmart employees.  If they were able to unionize, however, that would also empower them, or at least change the balance of power between workers and management, and make it more difficult for Walmart to treat its employees as passive and powerless cogs in the company machinery.  For the people who run Walmart, maintaining their despotic power within the organization (which they would presumably describe in terms of maximizing the company's ability use its "human resources" in the most "flexible" and "efficient" ways) is undoubtedly a more fundamental and non-negotiable concern than wage levels per se.

Monday, November 26, 2012
Wal-Mart Could Easily Pay (Somewhat) More To Its Associates

I find a lot of anti-Wal-Mart writing unpersuasive, but far and away the strongest case that Wal-Mart's workers could improve their lives at no cost to the public weal if they had a strong labor union comes from pro-Wal-Mart voices.

Here's Megan McArdle for example:
Recessions are also a time when employers don't necessarily have a lot of profits to give up.  Walmart's $446 billion of revenue last year was eye-popping, but its profit margins are far from fat--between 3% to 3.5%.  If they cut that down by a percentage point--about what retailers like Costco and Macy's have been bringing in--that would give each Walmart employee about $2850 a year, which is substantial but far from life-changing.  Further wage improvements would have to come out of the pockets of Walmart's extremely price conscious shoppers.  Which might be difficult, given how many product categories Amazon is pushing into.
This is a great case study in rhetorical strategies. But the analysis is admirably clear. Wal-Mart's profit margins, though by no means enormous, are larger than those of its main competitors. Given the weak national labor market, Wal-Mart has no reason to cough up extra money to its workforce. But a strong labor union could coerce them into coughing up higher pay and bringing their margins in line with Costco and Macy's. As a result, each Wal-Mart employee might get a bit less than $3,000 more a year. Whether that's "life-changing" or not is an interesting question, but since we're talking about low-wage workers here, I think the intuitions of highly paid professionals may be a bit off. It seems very plausible that the marginal hedonic value of a thousand bucks or three to Wal-Mart's workforce would be very large.

I'm reminded of "Seven and a Half Cents" from what's far and away the best musical comedy about union organizing:

Jason Furman has argued persuasively in my view that Wal-Mart's low prices are an underappreciated boon to the American working class, but McArdle's point about profit margins underscores the fact that a stronger worker presence would likely create wage gains without undermining Wal-Mart's low prices.

Now the Amazon point is a crucial one for the medium term. Competitors should be pissing their pants about Amazon and its sell-at-a-loss-and-make-it-up-in-volume business strategy. No amount of squeezing your workers is going to let you maintain your margins in the face of competition from an entrant who has no margins. This behemoth will devour Wal-Mart—associates and executives alike—unless Wall Street stops offering it such a generous price/earnings ratio.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Still counting votes from the 2012 presidential election

It was already clear several weeks ago that Barack Obama won the election with a majority of 332-206 votes in the Electoral College (you can see an electoral-vote map here). But as Nate Silver mentioned in a recent post on his FiveThirtyEight blog, they're still counting votes in states across the country.  (Did anyone need to be reminded that we have a remarkably fragmented, inefficient, banana-republic voting system?)  In the process, Obama's popular-vote margin over Romney is gradually inching up.
The last ballots in the presidential election were cast more than two weeks ago. But votes in 37 states, and the District of Columbia, are still being counted, with the results yet to be officially certified.

President Obama’s national margin over Mitt Romney has increased as additional ballots have been added to the tally. According to the terrific spreadsheet maintained by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Mr. Obama now leads Mr. Romney by 3.3 percentage points nationally, up from 2.5 percentage points in the count just after the election.

Turnout has grown to about 127 million voters, down from roughly 131 million in 2008. [....]
At this moment, according to that table at the Cook Political Report, Obama's share of the overall popular vote stands at 50.8%, versus 47.49% for Romney (1.7% of the votes went to other candidates).  If we round off those numbers, that's 51% for Obama vs. 47% for Romney.

Yes, it may turn out that Romney got 47% of the popular vote, which would certainly be poetic justice.  But a very slight shift could change that rounded-off number to 48% ... which would be a pity, since it would spoil the effect.  Stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Americans reading about the Petraeus sex scandal are startled to learn that there's a war going on in Afghanistan (The Onion)

Sometimes satire has a hard time keeping up with reality.  As often happens, this piece from the Onion is uncomfortably on-target.

(And, by the way, this war matters to Afghans, too. Most Americans can ignore it—or, if they can't ignore it, can decide we should just walk away from it.  Afghans don't have that luxury.)

—Jeff Weintraub

The Onion
November 13, 2012  |  (Issue 48•46)
Nation Horrified To Learn About War In Afghanistan While Reading Up On Petraeus Sex Scandal

WASHINGTON—As they scoured the Internet for more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus’ affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving U.S. forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan. “Oh my God, this is terrible,” Allie Lipscomb, 29, said after accidentally stumbling on an article about the war while she tried to ascertain details about what specific sexual acts Petraeus and Broadwell might have engaged in. “According to this, 2,000 American troops have died, 18,000 have been wounded, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Jesus Christ. And it’s been happening for, like, 11 years.” Sources confirmed that after reading a few paragraphs about the brutal war, the nation quickly became distracted by a headline about Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash’s alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Two maps of the 2012 US presidential election

Last week Barack Obama was re-elected with a majority of 332-206 votes in the Electoral College (and a popular-vote majority of about 51%-48% ). Here's one representation of this outcome using a standard geographical format:

Electoral college map for the 2012 United States presidential election.

Using this familiar format has both advantages and disadvantages.  You might note, for example, that a clump of 6 red states toward the upper left with a total of 21 electoral votes—Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska—occupies more than twice as much space as California, with 55 electoral votes.  That can convey a misleading impression.

And here's a cartogram (by Mark Newman at the University of Michigan) with the relative sizes of states altered to reflect their relative weights in the Electoral College. As a geographical representation it will probably look startling or even weird to some of you, but in electoral terms it's actually a more realistic representation than the first map.

(For some further discussion about different ways of mapping the political geography of US presidential elections, and the ways that different modes of representing political reality can influence perceptions of that reality, see here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE (11/20/2012)  Stephen Colbert's post-election response:  "Just because Obama won these blue states up here, he’s the president of all of them now? Look, Romney won all that red stuff. Why don’t we elect our president on square footage?"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Surprise of the day – Bill Kristol talks sense on taxes

So far, in their first round of statements following the election, Congressional Republicans have reiterated their immovable opposition to raising taxes at all for the wealthiest 1-2% ... or, more specifically, accepting Obama's proposal to let the top rates go back to the levels of the Clinton administration while extending the Bush tax cuts for the other 98-99%.
One of the biggest fights as Congress returns will be over taxes, as cuts put in place by former President George W. Bush are set to expire at the end of the year. Republicans want to extend those tax cuts for all income brackets, while Democrats want to raise revenue by allowing them to expire for wealthy Americans.

Exit polls last week found that six in ten voters supported ending the tax cuts on the wealthy, but House Republicans have remained adamantly opposed to allowing any of the rates to expire, instead supporting other changes to the tax code. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated on Friday that was unlikely to change.
The continued intransigence of the Congressional Republicans on this point is, unfortunately, not very surprising. What is more surprising is that Bill Kristol, of all people, just publicly admonished them that this position is politically stupid and self-defeating, and advised them (in effect) to tell Grover Norquist to go to hell.  And he did it on Fox News, no less:
Conservative commentator and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said Sunday the Republican Party should accept new ideas, including the much-criticized suggestion by Democrats that taxes be allowed to go up on the wealthy.

"It won't kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "It really won't, I don't think. I don't really understand why Republicans don't take Obama's offer."

"Really? The Republican Party is going to fall on its sword to defend a bunch of millionaires, half of whom voted Democratic and half of whom live in Hollywood and are hostile?" he asked.
Of course, Kristol also tried to sugar-coat this pill for a right-wing audience by painting the millionaires whose taxes would go up, or at least half of them, as Hollywood liberals and Democrats.  But that sort of demagoguery is par for the course.  The really key point is his claim to be baffled about why the Republicans should defend these millionaires' marginal tax rates to the death.

This incident may or may not turn out to be a straw in the wind. but it's worth noting just because it's startling enough to count as a man-bites-dog story.  Whether or not it's a sign that the Congressional Republicans might eventually be willing to back down on this issue remains to be seen.  During the presidential campaign, Kristol was one of many Republican pundits who advised Romney that his refusal to release his tax returns was politically "crazy" ... and Romney ignored them. McConnell, Boehner, and rest of the Congressional Republicans may do the same. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

How did the Republicans keep their majority in the House of Representatives?

In this year's national elections, Barack Obama was re-elected with a commanding electoral-vote majority of 332-206 and a smaller, but still significant, majority of about 51%-48% of the popular vote.  (Votes are still being counted in some states, so we don't yet have a precise final tally, but it looks as though Obama's margin of victory in the popular vote will be slightly greater, in both absolute and percentage terms, than the one George W. Bush got in 2004—which remains, by the way, the only election since 1988 in which the Republican candidate for president has won the popular vote.)

In the Senate races, where 33 seats out of 100 were at stake, the Democrats not only held their Senate majority but actually picked up a net gain of two seats.  If we include two formally Independent Senators who will caucus with the Democrats (democratic socialist Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King from Maine, who took the seat formerly held by the "moderate" Republican Senator Olympia Snow after she threw in the towel and announced her retirement), the overall line-up in the next Senate will be 55-45.  Even without the self-destruction of two Tea Party Republican candidates who proved to be too extremist even for heavily Republican states, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, the Democrats would still have wound up with a 53-47 majority in the Senate.

But there is one conspicuous anomaly in this overall picture.  The Republicans went into the election with a 240-190 majority in the House of Representatives (the 2010 elections gave them a 242-193 majority, but since then 5 seats had become vacant), and they will wind up with a slightly reduced but still solid majority in the next Congress, probably 236-199. [Update 11/12/2012: Depending on the outcome of 5 races where votes are still being counted, the Republican majority could be whittled down to 234-201.] Understandably enough, House Republicans claim (in effect) that the voters have given them a mandate to persevere with their previous strategy of all-out obstructionism, hyper-partisan intransigence, unwillingness to compromise, and immovable refusal to consider returning tax rates for the top 1-2% to Clinton-era levels.

So how and why did the Republicans wind up with a probable 37-seat majority in the House?  Well, part of the explanation must lie split-ticket voting—that is, some people voted Democratic in the presidential race but Republican in their House district race.  But that factor alone can't really explain the results, because if one looks at the national vote totals, the House Republicans actually lost the overall popular vote by about 500,000 votes. As Ezra Klein observes, "That’s a close election — 48.8%-48.5% — but it’s still a popular vote win for the Democrats."

The really critical factor was a different one:  gerrymandering.  The Republicans did an outstandingly effective job of gerrymandering House districts in states they controlled.  And the electoral timing was lucky for them.  The 2010 mid-term elections went very well for the Republicans across the country, giving them control of a lot of state governments. And the 2010 census provided the occasion for redistricting Congressional seats, so the Republicans took the opportunity to do that in ways that maximized their partisan advantage.

No doubt the Democrats would have done something similar, if they had gotten the opportunity to do more of the redistricting after the 2010 census.  That's the way the game is played, like it or not (which we shouldn't).  So the Republicans do have a House majority that they won playing by the rules (even if they stretched them to the limit in some states).  That's very unfortunate from the perspective of the public interest, but so it goes.

However, when the House Republicans and their propagandists claim that they have received a popular mandate to continue sabotaging the economic recovery, protecting the wealthy from Clinton-era tax rates, manufacturing artificial debt-ceiling crises that recklessly take the country to the brink of fiscal disaster, and so on ... then none of us should take that claim very seriously. The Republicans took that program to the voters in three different arenas—the elections for President, for the Senate, and for the House—and in all three most voters wound up voting against them.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. (11/14/2012):  It does seem clear that post-2010 gerrymandering was a key factor in explaining how Republicans kept their House majority despite losing the overall popular vote; but it was probably not the only factor.  And it's worth mentioning that some skeptical analyses have tried to downplay the significance of Republican gerrymandering in this connection.  For example, Eric McGhee ran the numbers and concluded that, at most, post-2010 redistricting can account for only half of the difference between the Democrats' proportion of the popular vote in House races (about 50.5%) and their proportion of the incoming House seats (about 46%).  Maybe, maybe not.  But even if we grant that, we would still be talking about half of the Republicans' House majority.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Florida finally finishes counting its votes

As the New York Times reported today:
President Obama was re-elected Tuesday. Mitt Romney’s campaign conceded defeat in Florida on Thursday. And a few indefatigable politicians are already planning on making pit stops in Iowa.

But in Florida, time stood still — until Saturday. After days of counting absentee ballots, the official results are in, at last: To the surprise of no one, Mr. Obama narrowly beat out his Republican rival 50 percent to 49.1 percent, a difference of about 74,000 votes.
This result gives Obama an Electoral College majority of 332-206. That's a somewhat smaller margin than the 365-173 majority by which Obama won in 2008, but not drastically smaller. (George W. Bush, by comparison, got 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 electoral votes in 2004.) Barack Obama is also the first presidential candidate since Reagan (and the second since Eisenhower)  to get a majority, not just a plurality, of the popular vote in two successive elections.
The state is consumed by finger-pointing and finger-wagging as election officials, lawmakers and voters try to make sense of what went wrong on Election Day and during early voting. A record number of Florida voters — 8.4 million, or 70 percent of those registered — cast ballots. Of those, 2.1 million people voted early, and 2.4 million sent absentee ballots.

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said he planned to meet with the state’s top election official, Ken Detzner, the secretary of state, to see how Florida could improve the process. And the mayor of Miami-Dade County, where voters endured the state’s longest lines, has formed a task force to find out what went wrong.
What went wrong? It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Details aside, there's a pretty easy two-part answer to that question. There does seem to be a good deal of dysfunction and incompetence built into Florida's voting system—a problem that has been notorious since 2000, and that no one seems to have made very effective efforts to fix since then. But the other key factor is that for this election the Republicans, led by Governor Scott, did everything they could to gum up the works in order to reduce, discourage, or prevent turnout by potential Democratic voters. Fortunately, these efforts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement seem to have failed—and may even have backfired, provoking greater turnout by African-American voters and increasing their determination to stay in line for hours until they got to the polls.

The report on Florida from Reuters adds another interesting wrinkle to the story:
Exit polls indicate that Obama picked up 61 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote to 39 percent for Romney, underscoring the Republican Party's lack of appeal to the country's fastest-growing electoral group.

South Florida's large Cuban-American community, usually a solid Republican voting bloc, also voted for the Democrats in record numbers, according to exit poll data released by the Obama campaign.

Obama won 48 percent of the Cuban-American vote, and upset Romney in Miami's Little Havana district, considered the heart of the Cuban exile community, where a survey of precincts showed Obama won 56 percent of ballots cast.
And according to a Wall Street Journal poll (reported here):
Cuban-born voters broke for Mitt Romney by a 55-45 percent margin. However, among Cuban-Americans born in the United States, President Barack Obama carried the group by a 60-40 percent margin.
If those polling figures are even remotely accurate, the patterns they indicate have very significant long-run implications.

—Jeff Weintraub

Finance & fantasy in the 18th century and today

On several occasions recently I've been reminded of an intriguing and, I think, under-appreciated argument by the intellectual historian and political theorist J.G.A. Pocock about a major shift in the focus of economic (& socio-economic) thought between the 18th and 19th centuries.  Like all of Pocock's arguments, it's insightful and illuminating from a historical perspective, but it's also usefully thought-provoking with respect to our current situation.

We're still living through a world-wide economic recession precipitated by a massive financial crash.  So it's now harder for anyone to ignore the extent to which we all depend on the operation of an extremely complex and globalized financial system, whether or not we're fully aware of it (and that's especially true in a period when the financial sector has swallowed up so much of the overall economy in the US and other countries).  But the workings of the financial system are notoriously mysterious and unpredictable, not only for lay people but also, as we have discovered, for practitioners and supposed experts.  And the financial system periodically generates storms and crises that can have catastrophic effects on the "real" economy.

What makes the dynamics of finance capitalism so weird, unpredictable, socially and politically corrupting, often irrational, and potentially destructive?  Well, it so happens that these these questions were raised by 18th-century Anglophone thinkers in ways that were intensely anxious and theoretically creative.  Our world is different from theirs in many ways.  But some of their concerns remain our concerns—not least because they were beginning to grasp the emergence of some crucial features of the world we live in now.

So let me toss this out for reflection.

=>  One of Pocock's key treatments of these issues is his essay on "The mobility of property and the rise of eighteenth-century sociology" (1978), included in his collection Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (pp. 103-123). But first, some background:

Starting in the 1970s, Pocock and the rest of the so-called Cambridge School played a major role in the resurgence of scholarly interest in the Scottish Enlightenment, including the emergence of what became known as "classical" political economy. But the emergence of classical political economy, exemplified above all by Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (along with work by Hume and others), came toward the end of a whole century of intense and sophisticated Anglophone discussions about economics, political economy, and economic sociology that focused on topics which became relatively secondary for Smith and his immediate 19th-century successors, namely the mysteries of finance and credit.

One  impetus for this discussion was, to quote Pocock, "what we now call the Financial Revolution of the middle 1690s, which saw the foundation of the Bank of England and the successful and lasting creation of a system of public credit whereby individuals and companies could invest money in the stability of government and expect a return varying in proportion to the success of the government's operations." (p. 108)  It's probably also relevant that the 18th century witnessed a number of financial panics, speculative manias and "bubbles,"  and other conspicuous financial follies and disasters.  At all events ...

As Anglophone thinkers in the 18th century (operating within a broadly trans-Atlantic British political culture) tried to grasp and understand the emerging outlines of the modern capitalist order, for a long time the main focus of their interest was, of course, not industrial capitalism (for obvious historical reasons). But for most of the 18th century they were also not primarily concerned with the dynamics of productive commerce emphasized by Smith and his successors, whose theorizing focused on the notion of the market as a self-regulating and self-developing impersonal system, the benefits of the division of labor, and so on. Instead, their key obsession was with the operation of  finance capitalism and its social and political implications—including phenomena like the national debt, financial speculation, the stock market, the increasingly pervasive role of credit, etc. To quote another of Pocock's formulations: "It was not the market, but the stock market, which precipitated an English awareness, about 1700, that political relations were becoming capitalist relations ...." (p. 110)

One of the problems they kept coming back to was the mystery of how the British state was able to fight a whole century of wars against France (which often required subsidizing many of Britain's allies as well as paying its own military costs), building up a more and more massive debt in the process that it never actually paid back ... but somehow didn't go broke. (In the end, as we know, it was the French state that went bankrupt.) And as they tried to understand and analyze the workings of finance capitalism, they increasingly concluded that this was a world built, not on anything solid, but purely on fantasy and imagination. They found this scary, for reasons that were both obvious & direct and more subtle & indirect.

=> We can continue this story in a way that Pocock doesn't explicitly spell out, but that accords with the main thrust of his analysis.

With the emergence of "classical" political economy in the work of Smith and his successors, finance capitalism becomes less central as a concern ... AND, perhaps not coincidentally, there is an increasing insistence that economic life is rooted, not in fantasy and imagination and mass psychology, but in real, solid, foundations—labor, technology, productivity, or whatever. (One aspect of this long-term tendency, I would suggest, is the persistent effort to debunk the "money illusion".)

In the 20th century there is an increasing awareness in economic thought of the peculiar features and dynamics of the financial system, which require treating it as analytically distinct from the "real economy," and of its potentially irrational and destructive consequences. (One might add that in the mainstream of economics as an international discipline, the long-term tendencies embodied in the "marginalist revolution" and the "neoclassical synthesis" increasingly eroded what "classical" political economy would have regarded as the solid, substantial, and 'material' foundations of economic analysis.)  Starting in the 1890s, in fact, finance capitalism emerges recurrently as a major focus of political controversies and theoretical debates. But on the whole, with a few notable exceptions, the issues surrounding finance capital and its social consequences tended to get framed quite differently from the ways they were framed in the 18th-century discussions.

And nowadays, in this respect as in many others, we seem to be returning to some key 18th-century concerns that were suppressed or marginalized, at least in relative terms, by what now looks in retrospect like a 19th-century hiatus.

=> Here are some relevant passages from Pocock's essay:

"It was not the market, but the stock market, which precipitated an English awareness, about 1700, that political relations were becoming capitalist relations; and this awareness could never have developed as it did without the unspecialized agrarian ideal of the patriot to serve as its antithesis. [....] The merchant became involved in the indictment of capitalism, and the credit society became known as the 'commercial' society, because it was observed that there was a fairly obvious relation between trade and credit. [.... Furthermore:] There was always urban as well as agrarian opposition to the alliance between government and bank." (p. 110)

"Government stock is a promise to repay at a future date; from the inception and development of the National Debt, it is known that in reality this date will never be reached, but the tokens of repayment are exchangeable at a market price in the present. The price they command is determined by the present state of public confidence in the stability of government, and its capacity to make repayment in the theoretical future. Government is therefore maintained by the investor's imagination concerning a moment that will never exist in reality. The ability of merchant and landowner to raise the loans and mortgages they need is similarly dependent upon the investor's imagination. Property—the material foundation of both personality and government—has ceased to be real and has become not only mobile but imaginary. " (p. 112)

"Government and politics seem to have been placed at the mercy of passion, fantasy and appetite, and these forces were known to feed on themselves and to be without moral limit. [....] Booms and busts, bulls and bears, became the determinants of politics." (p. 112)

"The intellect of the early eighteenth century can be seen applying itself to the stabilization of this pathological condition. [JW: References to Defoe, Montesquieu, and Albert Hirschman follow.] [....] [T]here is a clear relation between the problem of speculative politics and economics, and the existence in the eighteenth century of so many moral and philosophical writings on the conversion of passion into reason and of rational egoism into socially desirable behaviour. But [in contrast to the predominant thrust of 19th-century discussions—JW] there was far more at work here than a mere recognition that English society had been taken over by hard-faced homines economici obedient only to the laws of market behaviour. There was an anxious desire to discover what these laws were; but it is equally true, and perhaps more prominent, that it was the hysteria, not the cold rationality, of economic man that dismayed the moralists. Systems of rational egoism were devised less to explain and legitimise what he was doing than to offer him means of controlling his own impulses." (pp. 113)

"Economic man as masculine conquering hero is a fantasy of nineteenth-century industrialization (the Communist Manifesto is of course one classical example). His eighteenth-century predecessor was seen as on the whole a feminized, even an effeminate being, still wrestling with his own passions and hysterias and with interior and exterior forces let loose by his fantasies and appetites, and symbolized by such archetypically female goddesses of disorder as Fortune, Luxury, and most recently Credit herself." (p. 113)

I think the sexual imagery has changed a somewhat between the 18th century and the present, and nowadays we certainly have the myth of the financial speculator as masculine conquering hero (or "master of the universe"). But in many respects these questions and concerns sound very timely. And the sense that our economic, social, and political world rests too much on financialized structures of fantasy untethered to reality, and is excessively exposed to unpredictable storms of generated by passion and mass hysteria—these are perceptions and anxieties that a lot of 18th-century thinkers and polemicists would have found all too familiar.

Food for thought?

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, November 09, 2012

Will the right's fever break?

Rachel Maddow hopes so, and it may well happen eventually, though I wouldn't hold my breath.  (A few reasons for my skepticism on this score—though far from the only ones—are explained here & here.)

Nevertheless, this post-election wrap-up by Rachel Maddow (which I encountered via Andrew Sullivan, my nephew Aron Chilewich, and several other sources) offers a good argument for how and why re-election of Barack Obama should serve as a reality check, or even a reality shock, to the hermetically self-reinforcing "common sense" of the Republican hard right ... which currently controls the national Republican Party.  How they will react to this reality shock remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, Maddow's discussion (below) is worth listening to, even if you voted for the Romney/Ryan ticket.

(And, by the way, we need to remind ourselves that almost half of the US electorate did vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket, and many of them were presumably convinced, to some degree, by its shamelessly "post-truth" campaign. That's a sobering thought.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Opinion polls, economic "facts," and the sociology of knowledge

The polling results below, from The Pew Research Center back in September, tell the kind of story that should be disheartening for anyone committed to a naive-rationalist approach to understanding politics and human action.

In the real world, there is a strong tendency for all of us to hear or notice the "facts" we want to hear or notice and to blank out the rest. Furthermore, contrary to the illusions of naive empiricism, "facts" never speak for themselves, but have to be made sense of within frameworks of interpretation. And people pay more attention to the interpretations of (actual or alleged) "facts" that emanate from sources they trust and would like to believe.

It's important to note that the mechanisms involved here are not entirely reducible to features of individual psychology, or even to the dynamics of social psychology. Actually, the factors involved are sociologically complex. What we would like to hear is strongly influenced by (more or less intense) feelings of social identity (including, among other things, partisan identification), group membership, and group solidarity. One implication is that people's opinions (or rather "attitudes') on particular issues are often pretty easy to change or manipulate, since considerations of identity and group membership are often more important to individuals than their concern with, or grasp of, those substantive issues. Also, members of different subcultures are immersed, to a variable but often surprisingly great extent, in different ideological universes, within which they get different streams of messages that constantly reinforce certain world-views and images of reality while shutting out or discrediting alternative world-views. With respect to assessing polling results, there is an additional complication. The responses that people give to pollsters' questions (which are often quite ambiguous in substantive terms) may express what they actually think about a particular issue, or they may simply reflect what respondents think is the politically "correct" answer for someone with their political commitments (or some combination of the two).

And so on. A piece by Ben Smith & Zeke Miller at Buzzfeed offered a fairly perceptive analysis of that graph and its implications::
In August of 2011, Americans of all parties said the news was mostly bad, with only minor differences showing between members of different political parties.

A year later, a survey taken in early September found a "record partisan gap." A full 60% of Republicans said they were hearing “mostly bad” news. Only 15% of Democrats reported the same. And independent voters split on the question, with 36% saying they were hearing mostly bad news.

It’s not just a matter of what voters are hearing. Gallup’s tracking of Americans’ reported confidence in the economy has also seen a dramatic divergence: Democrats’ confidence reached a new high in a survey released September 25; Republicans’ reached a record low.

An online survey by the firm CivicScience, among those that has sought to develop reliable online metrics, found that among the Romney supporters it surveyed over the last three months, 96% labeled the economy “weak.” The corresponding figure for Obama supporters is 55%, according to the company's data director, Ross McGowan.

The pattern is a familiar one to pollsters and political scientists alike, though some say it has intensified with the changing and increasingly partisan media.

“Cues and signaling from the political leaders definitely influence how people experience their own lives,” said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, who said he’d seen the trend “aggravated in recent years.”

He attributed the vast gaps in public polls to a mixture of that psychological factor and of poll respondents’ awareness of a “politically correct” answer. [....]

The landmark 1960 The American Voter, a study of the elections of 1948 through 1956, found something similar of voter attitudes toward the Korean War, speculating that when a voters’ views conflict with his party allegiance, “allegiance presumably will work to undo the contrary opinions.”

“The influence of identification on attitudes toward the perceived elements of politics has been far more important than the influence of these attitudes on party identification itself,” the authors wrote. That is: Party identification appeared, at times, to trump voters' experience of reality.

A debate over “partisan perceptual bias” has raged in the political science literature ever since, Princeton’s Larry Bartels noted that it was particularly pronounced during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with surveys showing that “Democrats were strikingly impervious to the good economic news.” Lee Drutman noted in Slate in 2010 that something similar seemed to apply to Republicans' reporting of their own economic conditions between 2008 and 2010.

In this light, the raft of polling showing that the economy is at the top of voters minds are a distraction. “The economy” simply means different things to different people.
None of this means, by the way, that we should give up on the effort to come to grips with reality, in politics or in other areas of life, and just surrender to cynicism, irrationalism, or uncritical relativism. These are powerful tendencies, which need to be recognized rather than ignored, but there are also ways to counteract them. And, of course, not all political and ideological subcultures, in the US and elsewhere, are equally impervious to factual evidence or equally trapped in hermetically sealed, self-reproducing, and outright delusional world-views.

Yours for reality-based discourse (with a sober recognition that this is not a simple or easy enterprise),
Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Big Bird lives!

I couldn't resist passing this on. More serious post-election reflections ... soon.
—Jeff Weintraub

(And the number 47.)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Have white voters abandoned the Democratic Party?

Not exactly.  As Brad DeLong points out, that's true only for one region of the country.  (Can you guess which one?)  Elsewhere, the balance swings a bit more evenly in one direction or the other.

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I am reminded of a favorite line from the late Seymour Martin Lipset, who I believe was the only person to be President (at different times) of the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. According to Lipset, if you found yourself in the middle of a discussion about politics in almost any country, you could almost always sound wise by saying: "Oh, but it's different in the South!"

Brad DeLong is increasingly struck by how much this holds true for the United States. (Something that's not new, of course.)

The more I travel around, the more I am convinced that there really is only one America--except for the white south, which seems ... different from the rest of us in striking and peculiar ways.

I mean, if you look at the demographic composition of a locality--white and nonwhite, rich and poor, educated and less-educated--those three factors alone will get you very far in determining what Obama's vote share is going to be in that region.

It just works.

Except for the white south, where things are very different...
—Jeff Weintraub

Mitt Romney's storm survival tips

Taking a break from my day of poll-watching, I just found this parody in my e-mail.  I don't know who wrote it, but it's clear that he or she is a brilliant political satirist.

With luck, after today we won't have to worry about Mitt Romney any more. (But the next Republican presidential candidate could well be even worse.)    —Jeff Weintraub

Monday, November 05, 2012

Obama vs. Romney on torture

What's at stake in the 2012 presidential election? As a New York Times article pointed out in September, one result of the outcome will be "to decide future interrogation methods in terrorism cases". Here's what that means:
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has said much about torture as part of terrorism investigations during the 2012 general campaign. But the future of American government practices when interrogating high-level terrorism suspects appears likely to turn on the outcome of the election.

In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of nonabusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues — like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act — Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy.

By contrast, Mr. Romney’s advisers have privately urged him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” and permit secret “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,” according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum.

While the memo is a policy proposal drafted by Mr. Romney’s advisers in September 2011, and not a final decision by him, its detailed analysis dovetails with his rare and limited public comments about interrogation.

“We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., in December. [....]
So what did Romney actually say? On Saturday Mark Kleiman provided a timely update and reminder (Romney on waterboarding):
Just in case there was any doubt, here’s the audio.

I can’t make out every word, but I could make out the gist:
Q: Waterboarding: do you think it’s torture?

Romney: I don’t. … We will have a policy of doing what we think is in our best interest. We’ll use enhanced interrogation techniques that go beyond what’s in the military handbook right now.
Of course waterboarding – repeated partial drowning – is torture. It’s war crime under international law; as John McCain once said, we hanged a couple of Japanese admirals for it. It’s also a felony under the laws of the United States.

Barack Obama banned it. And W. Mitt Romney wants to use it.

Any questions?
—Jeff Weintraub

Déjà vu in Florida – The voting mess has already begun

This was not only predictable, but predicted. Some highlights from a Huffington Post report:
Once again, Florida and its problems at the polls are at the center of an election.

Early voting is supposed to make it easier for people to carry out their constitutional right. Tuesdays are notoriously inconvenient to take off work, so many states have given voters the option of turning out on weekends or other weekdays in the run-up to Election Day.

But in Florida this year, it has been a nightmare for voters, who have faced record wait times, long lines in the sun and a Republican governor, Rick Scott, who has refused to budge and extend early voting hours. [....]

In Miami-Dade on Saturday, people who had gotten in line by 7:00 p.m. were allowed to vote; the last person wasn't checked in until 1 a.m., meaning it took some individuals six hours to cast a ballot.

"We're looking at an election meltdown that is eerily similar to 2000, minus the hanging chads," said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

Miami-Dade attempted to deal with the problem on Sunday by allowing voters to cast absentee ballots in person between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. However, after just two hours, the Miami-Dade elections department shut down the location after too many people showed up. People outside the locked doors were reportedly screaming, "We want to vote!"

"They didn't have the infrastructure,"filmmaker Lucas Leyva, who was among those turned away, told The Huffington Post's Janie Campbell. "We read the press release and everything that went out this morning, promising we'd be able to get absentee ballots and vote. We got here and there was a line of hundreds of people all being told the same thing, that that wasn't true anymore. You could drop off [a ballot], but they could not issue one."

And if getting turned away from the polls weren't enough of an indignity, some of those 180 people ended up getting their cars towed from the parking lot across the street, according to a Miami Herald reporter.
It's important to recognize that this situation is neither accidental nor the result of simple incompetence, though incompetence and ordinary dysfunction no doubt play some role. It's the consequence of measures taken deliberately by Florida Republicans to suppress voter turnout in this election—in ways designed to disproportionately impede Democratic voters, even if they may also affect some Republican voters in the process.
A major reason there are so many problems at the polls is that last year, Florida's GOP-controlled legislature shortened the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, meaning all early voters are trying to cast their ballots in a shorter window. Previously, Floridians were allowed to vote on the Sunday before Election Day -- a day that typically had high traffic.
For anyone who might feel uncertain about the shamelessly partisan motivation for that last measure, Mark Kleiman asks the obvious question: "Can anyone offer a single serious argument why early voting shouldn’t be available the Sunday before election day? No, I didn’t think so. " Now let's get back to the HuffPo report:
But losing that final Sunday isn't the only problem. Smith said that he and Dartmouth professor Michael Herron found that in 2008, voters 65 or older were much more likely to cast ballots in the first five days of early voting than members of other age groups, alleviating some of the pressure at the polls in the remaining days. Those extra days, however, are gone this year, leading to a compression that the system has been unable to handle.

Scott has refused to extend early voting hours, essentially arguing that there is no problem, despite calls from Democrats, independent groups and even a Republican elections supervisor. He is arguing that he can extend early voting hours only when there is a true emergency -- like a natural disaster -- that warrants it. [....]

As Florida Democrats have pointed out, the state's previous two Republican governors -- Jeb Bush and Crist -- both extended the hours. A spokesman for Bush didn't return a request for comment.
It remains to be seen how things work out on Tuesday.

As we all know, the multi-pronged Republican efforts to discourage, intimidate, and disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters (a campaign that Timothy Noah correctly described as a political obscenity) have been very wide-ranging, not something restricted to Florida. And we still haven't gotten around to actually counting the votes (or trying to).  If the voting results on November 6 turn out to be close or ambiguous in a few crucial states like Florida, Ohio, and/or a few others, we can expect to see armies of lawyers unleashed in prolonged litigation ... along with the danger that the presidential election will, once again, be decided by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Bill Clinton makes the case for re-electing Barack Obama

Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer included a few slips of the tongue, one might find some points in it to quibble with, and there are some important issues it didn't address. But those are minor blemishes, especially given the usual quality of political speeches nowadays. Overall, Clinton delivered an impressively clear, cogently argued, and substantively informative explanation of what the last four years have been about and what is at stake in this year's presidential election ... and, in the process, he made the case for Obama's re-election more effectively and convincingly than Obama himself has managed to do it.

Now we're just a few days away from the election. So if you haven't heard Clinton's convention speech yet, this might be a good time to listen to it carefully ... and if you've already heard it, this might be a good time for a reminder of what this election is about. See below.

—Jeff Weintraub

Abigael Evans captures the national mood about the presidential election campaign

From the LA Times
Abigael Evans, the 4-year-old Colorado girl who was driven to tears by the seemingly never-ending presidential campaign coverage, has received a very rare thing in our modern media age: a formal apology from NPR for making her cry.

Abigael became a minor Internet star earlier this week when her mother, Elizabeth, posted a video online of the girl when she became upset after hearing a little too much of "Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney" on the radio. [....]
This account can't compete with the video itself, which you can watch above.

=> It's hard not to sympathize with Abigael. Those of us who are adults know, or should know, that presidential elections are very important and worth paying attention to. But there's no good reason why they have to go on forever. It might be worth it if the increasing length of these endless campaigns gave us more serious, substantive, detailed, and informative discussions and debates about important national issues. But they don't.

Meanwhile, between now and Tuesday all of us should resist any temptation to tune out and remember that the stakes in this election are very high. If Romney and the Republicans prevail on Tuesday (which now looks like the less likely outcome, but might still happen), then we will all have plenty to cry about for the next four years (even those of you who decide, for some reason, to vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket).

Yours for democratic citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Jonathan Zasloff usefully reminds us of what happened in 2000 ... and what it means for 2012

Some highlights from Jonathan Zasloff's post on Monday about Obama’s “Legitimacy” and a Popular-Electoral Vote Split:
Lots of chatter throughout Blogistan if President Obama is re-elected with more than 270 Electoral votes but with fewer popular votes than Mittdrake the Magician.  Much of it is silly.

First silly meme: Democrats were outraged when Bush lots the popular vote in 2000.  How can they defend swearing in a non-popular vote winner now?

Let’s get this one straight.  Democrats were not outraged that Bush lost the popular vote and won the electoral college.  Democrats were outraged that Bush lost the popular vote and stole the electoral college.

If Bush had won Florida by 5,000 votes, then Democrats would have grumbled and protested the unfairness of the system, but would not have questioned Bush’s legal right to assume the presidency.
I'll go one step further. If there had been a fair and comprehensive recount of the votes in Florida, and Bush had won the state by 500 votes, I would have grumbled but accepted his election as legitimate under the rules of the game. (Bush's officially certified, but almost certainly inaccurate, margin of victory in Florida was 537 votes.) And that's despite all the other irregularities and acts of electoral malfeasance that marked the 2000 election in Florida, including the pre-election purge of supposedly ineligible voters ordered by Secretary of State Katherine Harris that, no doubt coincidentally, wound up removing thousands of entirely eligible (and disproportionately black) voters from the rolls of registered voters.

Instead, as we know, the Republicans did everything they could to prevent a recount and to sabotage it while it was going on ... and then the Supreme Court stepped in with a historically unprecedented, shockingly unprincipled, and blatantly partisan intervention that shut down the whole process and delivered the election to Bush.  Whatever the outcome of a fair and complete recount might have been—even if we assume for the sake of argument that the result might have given Florida to Bush, which is probably not correct—this outcome means that, in actual fact, Bush did not fairly win the election.
Republicans might want the rest of us to forget the Brooks Brothers riot, the shutting down of vote-counting, the hackery of Katherine Harris, and the lawless grotesquery of Bush v. Gore, but those of us with an interest in facts will not.  Republicans stole this election by getting their hand-picked judges to violate the basic norm in a democracy, viz. count the votes.
To suggest that one party "stole" a presidential election is not the sort of language that should be used casually or carelessly. But I agree with Zasloff that, with respect to the 2000 election, a sober assessment of the facts supports that conclusion--and I've felt that way since 2001.  For some further details, see Jonathan Chait's characteristically incisive discussion here.

Zasloff adds another critically important point:
If Obama wins an electoral vote majority, he will do so not because of these tactics but in spite of them, as Republicans have worked hard to once again suppress voting and voter registration, especially in key states like Ohio and Florida.  (Credit where it is due: the Supremes, for once, decided to allow for some democratic decision-making here).  If Obama triumphs only in the electoral college, there will simply be no cause for comparison.

(For the long term, though, we should nevertheless be thinking about whether there's any way to reform the process of presidential elections to remove the possibility of a divergence between the electoral-vote and popular-vote winners.)

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Later in his post, Zasloff adds another historical tidbit that may interest some of you who were not already aware of it. It concerns one of the icons of the right on both sides of the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher, who was Britain's Prime Minister from 1979-1990 and in the process pushed through some fairly radical policies:
Mrs. Thatcher never won more than 44% of the popular vote, and the Conservative Party’s percentages declined in every subsequent election with her at the helm.
That’s right.  In 1979, the Tories got 43.9% of the vote. In 1983, supposedly the year of her greatest triumph, she led the Conservatives to a smashing 42.4% share. Four years later, she continued her downward spiral with a 42.2% share.
Obama’s answer to reporters at press conferences is simple: if it’s good enough for Margaret Thatcher, it’s good enough for me.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Despite unrelenting Republican efforts to sabotage the economic recovery, plus excessive timidity by Obama & the Democrats, the US economy really does seem to be improving

That's one implication of the latest jobs estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported in today's New York Times:
In the last assessment of the job market before the presidential election, the Labor Department announced Friday that the nation’s employers added 171,000 positions in October, and more jobs than initially estimated in both August and September. [....]

The report showed persistent but modest improvement in the American economy, and broad-based gains in just about every industry except the government. It was based on surveys conducted too early in the month to capture work disruptions across the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy.

“Generally, the report shows that things are better than we’d expected and certainly better than we’d thought a few months ago,” said Paul Dales, senior United States economist for Capital Economics. “But we’re still not making enough progress to bring that unemployment rate down significantly and rapidly.” [....]
Brad DeLong's reaction:
Adding in 171K of September-October employment growth to 84K of upward revisions, we now think that the U.S. economy in October had 255K more jobs on a seasonally-adjusted basis than we [thought] yesterday [on the basis of calculations] employed in September. That is a noticeably stronger economy, and that is very nice to see. The "2" in the hundred-thousands place makes me very happy...
Of course, Brad knows very well, and has frequently reminded us, that the pace of recovery from the economic crash of 2008 could and should have been better than it has been.  But it also could have been a lot worse—as it has been, for example, in most of Europe, where they've been following contractionary economic policies of the sort favored by US Republicans.

=> By the way, I don't mean to suggest that all the Congressional Republicans have deliberately been sabotaging the economic recovery, though that's the effective consequence of everything they've been doing since the beginning of 2009.  Some of them probably have been knowingly sabotaging the recovery, on the grounds that preventing Obama's re-election and regaining control of Congress are the most vital priorities, justifying any means to accomplish those ends.  Some others, though, are probably committed to contractionary economic policies on the basis of sincere ideological fanaticism (or simple economic illiteracy); others seem to be driven purely by considerations of partisan advantage, without much concern for the substantive consequences one way or another; and others have no doubt managed to rationalize their agenda of all-out sabotage, obstructionism, recklessly irresponsible economic brinksmanship, and partisan hyper-polarization by convincing themselves that the partisan agenda of the Republican Party actually serves the public interest—which it clearly doesn't.  (Self-deception is common in politics, as in everyday life, and the line between consciously deceptive propaganda and half-conscious self-deception is not always clear-cut.)

I don't pretend to be able to specify the proportions, and some of those categories no doubt overlap in practice.  But the substantive consequences are indisputable.  Whether deliberately or in effect, the Congressional Republicans have been doing just about everything they could get away with to sabotage economic recovery ... and the unwillingness of Obama and the Democrats call them out on this, with vague and intermittent exceptions, is a little baffling.

—Jeff Weintraub