Wednesday, July 29, 2015

8 Reasons to Like President Obama

My friends on the Right are fond of dissing President Obama. Sometimes it's taken to ridiculous extremes: he's a traitorous Muslim who wasn't even born in the USA and wants to turn our nation into a Godless, communist state.

I don't much care for Mr. Obama. I think Obamacare is a disaster, I believe he's mismanaged much of our foreign policy, and I think his instincts about the virtues of government are wrong. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule recently promulgated by HUD is a travesty.

But for all that he is not the devil incarnate. I do not believe he has single-handedly destroyed the Republic. Indeed, there are some things he's done that I support, and other things for which he has been falsely blamed.

So in the interests of both civility and fairness, here are some of the things I like about President Obama.

1) While there have been political scandals galore, I can't think of any examples where either Mr. Obama himself or any of his closest advisers are implicated in a personal scandal. No major figure in his administration has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar or with his pants down (though a partial exception may apply to Hillary and her e-mail). In this, Mr. Obama is more like the preceding Bush administration, and quite unlike the Clinton administration. Mr. Obama appears to be a man of considerably personal integrity.

2) Though his foreign policy has been incompetently conducted--often grotesquely so--many of his instincts look right.

Walter Russell Mead, for example, has long advised the President to actively support the moderate rebels against Assad, saying back in February, 2013,
President Obama had an opportunity to intervene in Syria before it spiralled so far out of control. Indeed, that was precisely what a number of his top military and political advisors urged the President to do: arm the moderate rebels and work with allies to boot out Assad.
Now it's too late, he'd argue--the moderate rebels have long since been sidelined and our influence has diminished to zero. It surely would've been better if we'd kept those moderates alive and well.

No doubt Mr. Obama's policy of benign neglect has been poorly executed--what drawing red lines and then erasing them. (He should never have drawn them in the first place.) But the strategy itself makes sense. The truth is that America has no dog in that fight. The moderate rebels never were a trustworthy bunch. The only reliable side in the war is the Kurds, and we've been doing what we can to help them out.

3) While I think our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq was a big mistake, given that, our policy is as good as can be expected. Some of my friends on the Right want us to take the fight to ISIS in some big way. That would involve another years-long war in Iraq, with thousands of American casualties, and with no imaginable exit strategy. And for what reason? ISIS is not really engaged against the United States--their enemy is Shi'a Islam. Conflict against us is for propaganda purposes only, involving pinprick, lone wolf attacks like that in Chattanooga. ISIS surely has no interest in provoking us to attack them head-on--they're smarter than that (at least I hope so).

4) And speaking of lone wolves, my Rightist friends want to glamorize them and turn them into Batman-style villains. While I have no doubt that the ISIS crowd warms to their antics, it is unlikely that these atrocities are organized from afar. They really are lone wolf attacks. We need to avoid making those losers look like heroes. The Obama administration is entirely correct in painting them as mentally-ill, cowardly, stupid idiots. The last thing we need is martyrs for a cause.

5) Mr. Obama's instincts on immigration are correct, as I've written before. We do need to find a way to legalize most of the undocumented people now living in the US--there is no other choice. We also need to greatly increase legal immigration while simultaneously restricting the illegal sort. However, I wish he hadn't implemented it as an executive order. Immigration is too important to manage administratively. It has to be worked out through the democratic process, however time-consuming and messy. His failure to do so leads to the rise of politicos like Donald Trump. Similarly, Obama is correct on free trade.

6) The President's policy on Cuba is absolutely the right thing to do. We should have started normalizing relations back in 1991. Though to be fair, our failure to do so is mostly the fault of the Cubans.

7) On the Iran deal I simply don't know enough to judge. If the sanctions regime is stable and can be maintained, then Bibi Netanyahu is correct and the Iran deal is a bummer. On the other hand, sanctions coalitions are intrinsically unstable and will eventually disintegrate (see, e.g., Cuba, where the coalition fell apart decades ago). It may be that sanctions against Iran are already in the process of disintegrating. In that case getting the best deal we can while it's still possible is a good strategy. But I don't know how solid the sanctions really are.

8) Mr. Obama is frequently blamed for making life worse for African-Americans. No doubt their financial and housing circumstances have deteriorated since Obama took office. But I don't think the President is the primary culprit. The problems are much bigger than him, and include structural changes in the economy, including, e.g., the decline in employment at both the post office and the military. While HUD's recent regulations will certainly make things worse for Black people, that hasn't happened yet; that's a landmine for the next president.

This is not an insignificant list, but it pales in comparison to what I dislike about Obama. Needless to say, I didn't vote for him in either 2008 or 2012, nor will I be voting for the Democrats in 2016.

Further Reading:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Precarious Taxis

This post has two parents: an interview with Charlie Post, reprinted in International Viewpoint, the official publication of the Fourth International. (I have added them, belatedly, the This Blog's Beat.) And also Mayor DeBlasio's fight with Uber, which he has now lost decisively.

Mr. Post takes issue with the word precariat as a useful descriptor of social reality. That's a portmanteau of the words precarious and proletariat, and denotes those who work part-time, and/or without benefits, and without any job security. Mr. Post doesn't dispute the growth of the precariat workforce, but he sees it as in no way distinct from earlier historical patterns.
If you look at the condition of workers before the First World War, say in the 1890s, the vast majority of working people lived an incredibly precarious existence. I was doing some research on skilled workers in Victorian England, the so-called labor aristocracy. Most of these people were working half the year, subject to long bouts of unemployment, and if they were out of work they could lose housing. ... The sense of what most people alive today thought was “the norm,” was actually the historical exception.
Mr. Post attributes the recent rise to "neoliberalism," an ill-defined term that suggests a capitalist offensive to lower workers' standard of living.
When I was much younger, in my late teens and twenties, I was first radicalizing in the 1970s, and I had a lot of friends who’d get jobs at the post office or the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They knew that if they got laid off or fired for political activity, they could collect unemployment, get food stamps, probably get on Medicaid, or they could pick up another job quickly. Since the successful neoliberal offensive, we have seen that it is much harder to get full-time employment that have social benefits, and in general the welfare benefits have degraded or disappeared. 
The consequences of getting laid off or fired today are much more severe today than they were just a few decades ago.
While Mr. Post's friends were working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I was a cab driver in Chicago. I began working for Checker Cab Company and had to join the International Seafarers Union. This was a corrupt, mob-run outfit whose only function was to collect dues from the drivers. For the first couple of months they took about a third of my paycheck as an "initiation fee"--the best way to rip off a precariat worker. After that it was a mere 10% fee. With Checker I was paid a commission off the meter, along with tips.

After a year or so at Checker Cab, I moved over to Flash Cab, a non-union, "Jewish" company operating mostly on the city's far north side. They ran a good radio dispatch service. There I rented the cab for a twelve hour shift and paid for my own gas, keeping whatever was left over. That was sometimes over a hundred dollars (a lot of money in the '70s), and occasionally I lost money. Typically I earned about $30 for a ten-hour day.

I drove a cab partly for the money, partly because it gave me proletarian street cred (I was a union member after all, though they were too cheap to send me a card), and mostly because I enjoyed it. Neither company offered me any benefits.

So I'm familiar with the precariat.

An Uber-funded study (which I'm inclined to believe) shows that Uber cars are slightly cheaper than Yellow taxis, and in any event are much faster and more reliable. (See here.) I've been thinking about driving for Uber as a part-time retirement job.

There is much debate over whether Uber drivers earn more or less than cabbies. I don't know. But the Uber folks have many advantages: 1) They're safer. All customers come with a pre-approved credit card. No money changes hands in the car. 2) They can set their own work hours. I had a lot of flexibility working for Flash, but my shift started at 5pm, whether I liked it or not. Uber drivers have no such restrictions. 3) Uber drivers are earning equity in their car. Indeed, that's an important consideration for me. I can work for Uber for a year or two, and at the end I'll have a car for the rest of my life, clear and free.

So Mr. Post will have us believe that this is all an evil plot by neoliberals to screw the working class. I don't think so, though everything comes with trade-offs. But there is one, undisputed beneficiary from all of this change: the consumer. Consumers get better taxi transport at similar or lower prices from drivers with an equity stake in providing good service. They come out a winner no matter what.

And that's what Mr. Post (or any Marxist) does not understand. The beneficiary of a precarious workforce is neither the neoliberal capitalist nor the employee, but rather the consumer. The purpose of a capitalist economy is to sell as much high-quality stuff as possible at the lowest possible price to the most consumers. In that, Uber is indisputably better than the over-regulated Yellow Cab industry.

So here's a more concise definition of the precariat. A precarious worker is somebody whose income is sensitively determined by market signals. Or, put another way, there's no buffer between the worker and the market. The cab driver, the shop keeper and the restaurateur are all members of the precariat, as are their employees, e.g., at McDonald's or Walmart.

Seen this way, it's obvious that precarious workers benefit consumers. And that's why Mr. Post is wrong when he regards the trend as an "offensive" against the working class that will lower their standard of living. To the contrary, it will raise the standard of living of consumers, which also includes all workers. Cheaper cab fares for everyone!

The opposite of a precarious worker is somebody whose income does not depend on market signals at all. This certainly includes most government employees, who get paid whether or not they actually do anything useful. Mr. Post and I, for example, are both employees of public colleges. We're not precarious, but instead we're parasites. Our income derives from scamming eighteen-year-olds and mooching off the taxpayer.

Mr. Post favorably cites a fellow academic, a certain Kevin Doogan. Mr. Doogan is the author of New Capitalism, a book that sounds interesting. It's so good, in fact, that it's a top 1,740,000 best seller on Amazon. You'd think it'd be in the bargain basement by now, but no, even on Kindle it costs nearly $20!

Mr. Post is himself an author of The American Road to Capitalism, followed by a very long subtitle. That's done better, in the top 1,300,000 books sold. It's not available on Kindle, but you can buy a paperback copy of your very own for under $29.

That's how out of touch these guys are. They're not writing for actual readers. Instead they're just sucking up to referees and tenure committees.

Your tax dollars at play.

Further Reading:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: Grover Cleveland

An Honest President, a biography by H. Paul Jeffers, is sadly out of print. It deserves to be re-issued.

Grover Cleveland is probably the best president you never heard of. His obscurity is due in part to his name. These days, Grover is a Sesame Street character--nobody with that name could possibly do anything important or significant. Today he's known for factoids: as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, and also to get married in the White House. The newly minted First Lady, 21-year old Frances, proved to be a popular political asset.

It didn't have to be that way. Born Stephen Grover Cleveland, he was the fifth of nine children of a Presbyterian minister. Distant ancestors lent their name to the city in Ohio. The family moved around as the father changed pulpits, but Stephen (as he was known then) mostly grew up outside of Syracuse, NY. Untalented academically (and also lacking money) he didn't go to college, but instead at age 18 moved to Buffalo and apprenticed himself to a law firm.

A tall, gregarious, friendly man, he enjoyed free time playing cards, drinking beer, and eating sausages at the city's many German pubs. And so he came by his trademark girth, earning the nickname "Big Steve." Only when he decided to enter politics--around age 30--did he start using his middle name. Big mistake.

Beyond his native friendliness, two other traits characterized Cleveland: uncompromising integrity, and a formidable work ethic. These together, along with the good fortune that accompanies any political rise, greased his way to the top. He started as an assistant district attorney for Erie County. His first elective office was Erie County Sheriff, where he served for several years. And then in rapid succession he became Mayor of Buffalo, Governor of New York, and finally President of the United States, elected in 1884. While he won the popular vote in 1888, he lost the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison, before famously reclaiming the White House again in 1892.

Cleveland was the first Democrat president since James Buchanan, who lost to Lincoln in 1860. The Republicans, despite having won the Civil War and abolishing slavery, had squandered their reputation through grotesque corruption. Not that the Democrats were any better--they ran urban machines such as Tammany Hall.

Both parties contained reformist elements that opposed the spoils system. Republican reformists were known as the Mugwumps, led by the youthful Teddy Roosevelt. The Democratic reformers included Grover Cleveland, twenty years Roosevelt's senior. And so Roosevelt and Cleveland became unlikely political allies, beginning in New York while Cleveland was governor and Roosevelt a leader in the state Assembly. It's probably an overstatement to say that Cleveland was Roosevelt's mentor, but they maintained a lifelong alliance and mutual respect, if not always friendship.

Among the prominent causes they both supported was a true civil service. When Cleveland took office the federal government employed about 125,000 employees. Almost all of those served at the discretion of the president. The Democrats--out of office since 1860--wanted to fire all the Republicans and replace them with Democrats. Cleveland was besieged with office seekers--it took up most of his time. He vowed to hire the most competent people for the jobs, regardless of party. Since he was not beholden to the Tammany Hall machine, he could get away with that.

Roosevelt was appointed as a commissioner of civil service under the Harrison administration. When Cleveland returned to the White House, he kept Roosevelt on in that position. At the end of his second term he vetoed the Tenure in Office bill--legislation intended to save the jobs of patronage employees when a new president came in office. As he left office, civil service was well established.

Cleveland strongly opposed the free silver movement, supporting instead a strict gold standard. Free silver granted citizens the right to mint silver coins, and required the government to redeem them for gold coins at below market rates. The effect would have been to empty the US Treasury of gold reserves, and create massive inflation. Farmers liked it because it would have given them more money, which they confused with more wealth. Cleveland understood the true economics, leading a newspaper critic to dub him the "elephantine economist."

Cleveland lobbied for lower tariffs and (relatively) free trade. Tariffs in those days were a major revenue source for the federal government, and couldn't be completely eliminated (as they mostly are today). But Cleveland understood that restricting trade hurt American consumers and American exporters. The gains from additional trade more than outweighed the harm to some companies. This is a battle we are still fighting today.

At the end of his second term, he was confronted by Eugene V. Debs and the Pullman strike. Cleveland was supportive of unions, and felt that workers should be paid more. But he was aghast that the Pullman workers were members of the railway workers union, when in fact they weren't really railway workers. When a relatively small and solvable dispute turned into a massive strike that crippled the entire economy, Cleveland had no choice but to call in the army--the first time since the Civil War. It raised economic and constitutional issues, but at the end his move was very popular with the public.

My Trotskyist friends are correct that (in those days) the proletariat had its hand on the throat of the economy. The advantage of industrial unions was precisely that they maximized that leverage. But the counter-argument is that they made it impossible for the government to compromise. The only option left was to break the union. That's what Cleveland did, not necessarily because he wanted to, but because he had to.

On these four issues--civil service, free silver, tariffs, and strikes--Grover Cleveland was on the side of angels. Or at least that's how it looks to my modern eyes. But hidden in that reservoir of pragmatic, common sense loomed a big problem which Cleveland never imagined. Because the advent of good government, midwifed by Cleveland, led gradually but ineluctably toward a demand for big government.

Cleveland's acolyte, TR, began the charge, starting innocuously enough by rigorously enforcing blue laws as a New York City police commissioner. And then the camel's nose gets under the tent with the otherwise laudable National Park Service. But the real villain--the man who turned Grover's good deeds into a monster--was Teddy's cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Today's Progressive movement is as much a child of Teddy and Franklin as it is of Karl Marx. Good government has begat big government--something that Mr. Cleveland would never have countenanced. I like Mr. Cleveland, but even for him the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.

I really enjoyed Mr. Jeffers' book. The salacious details of Cleveland's personal life are alone worth the read. But it has one postmodern quirk that strikes me as strange. For some reason Mr. Jeffers never reports his subject's birthdate. Never mind--Wikipedia to the rescue: March 18th, 1837.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Barry Sheppard & Free Trade

Barry Sheppard--former honcho in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and long-time supporter of the Khmer Rouge--peeks out from under his rock with an article opposing free trade, specifically NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In this he has good company, including pretty much the entire Democratic Party, which he purports to despise. Other allies include such worthies as Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, and (sadly) many of my Tea Party friends.

I, on the other hand, support free trade because trade creates wealth, and restrictions on trade create poverty. It doesn't surprise me at all that Mr. Sheppard supports increased poverty, what with him being a socialist and all. There are, by my count, only two reason to oppose trade: rent-seeking and xenophobia. The Teamsters union is a good example of the former, while Misters Trump and Sheppard represent the xenophobic opposition, as I'll describe below.

Unlike Mr. Trump, who is at least an honest xenophobe, Mr. Sheppard hides behind myriad other rationalizations. He'll claim he is in favor of trade, but only under narrow circumstances--conditions so onerous and utopian as to be completely impossible. In this he is worse than Pat Buchanan, who at least supports trade between similar countries (i.e., the US can buy Canadian wheat as long as the Canadians buy American wheat).

Mr. Sheppard is most exercised because of what we American "imperialists" have allegedly done to Mexico. He accuses us of selling cheap corn to Mexico, putting semi-subsistence farmers out of business. Of course every other Mexican can buy corn for cheap--how is this a bad thing? (Mr. Sheppard claims that despite cheap corn, tortilla prices have risen. Somehow I doubt that's true, but even if it is I don't see how it's because of NAFTA.)

So we Americans have been selling corn for cheap--what have we gotten in return? Mr. Sheppard oddly doesn't mention it, but surely cheap auto parts is part of the answer. Tens of thousands of Mexicans got jobs in factories making it possible for Americans to buy better cars at cheaper prices. So that's a real trade: cars for corn. Much better than wheat for wheat, which doesn't accomplish much.

Still, Mr. Sheppard claims that Mexico has somehow gotten the short end of the stick. But the facts don't bear that out. The Council on Foreign Relations (a good, short summary of NAFTA's effects) points out that in 1993 the US ran a trade surplus with Mexico totaling $1.7 billion, morphing into a trade deficit of $61.4 billion in 2012. Further, in direct contradiction of what Mr. Sheppard claims, Mexican farm exports to the US have tripled since NAFTA's implementation.

But, wails Mr. Sheppard, "[b]etween 1995 and 2005, 1.1 million peasants lost their land, and another 1.4 million others dependent of the farm sector were driven out of work." Peasant is just a euphemism for a semi-subsistence farmer, scratching out a $1/day living on a piece of land too small to support mechanization. This is the lifestyle that Mr. Sheppard recommends to Mexicans? Rather odd coming from a man who shops in air-conditioned comfort at someplace like Whole Foods.

Of course we shouldn't be all that surprised. Mr. Sheppard did, after all, support the Khmer Rouge, who took the peasant fetish to completely irrational extremes, forcing all city dwellers into the countryside where they could enjoy the benefits of subsistence farming.

Mr. Sheppard blames us Americans for many imaginary evils, but he fails to ding us for our deserved faults. Among NAFTA's terms is the agreement that truck drivers can deliver goods in all three countries without hindrance. For example, Canadian truckers can carry goods from Canada to their destination in the US, and also from the US back to Canada. (They are not allowed, so I understand, to carry goods strictly within the US.) Judging from the number of Canadian trucks on the interstate near my house, this clause is widely exercised.

However because of the staunch opposition of the Teamster's Union and American trucking companies, such privileges have not yet been extended to Mexican truckers. They are only permitted to carry product a few miles into the US, after which it has to be reloaded onto an American truck. These continued regulations are a direct violation of NAFTA, and have resulted in compensatory tariffs being leveled against us by Mexico. They increase prices for American consumers and needlessly impoverish Mexican truckers.

The Teamsters and their corporate allies, refusing to admit to narrow selfishness, instead claim that Mexican truckers are unsafe. And presumably Mr. Sheppard agrees with them, given that he both opposes NAFTA and is pro-union. Apparently Mexicans are congenitally unsafe, because there is no other reason to make this claim.

So, like Donald Trump, the Teamsters' union, and some trucking companies, Mr. Sheppard thinks it is impossible for Mexicans to drive safe trucks safely in the USA. This is nothing but xenophobia, which brings me back to where we started.

About the TPP, Mr. Sheppard writes
The TPP will further the interests of the rich at the expense of workers and peasants. It will codify new regulations to facilitate more neoliberal changes to the economies of these countries. At the same time, it will further the interests of the imperialist countries involved--which include the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand--at the expense of the oppressed nations of Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Capitalists in these latter countries will benefit as junior partners with the imperialists at the expense of their workers and peasants.
Leave aside the odd categorization--where New Zealand is "imperialist" while Singapore is not. The upshot of this is we don't want no Gooks selling crap in the USA. It's a sentiment that Donald Trump certainly agrees with--Mr. Sheppard should give him a call. Beyond this, the principal beneficiaries of free trade are not capitalists, but first consumers (who get cheaper prices), and then workers (who get jobs).

As for me, I'm not a xenophobe. I support free trade.

Down with Poverty!

Further Reading: