Sunday, December 25, 2016

Trotskyist Psephology

Psephology -- the study of election returns -- is not in the Trotskyist wheelhouse. For them, apart from the one-and-done variety that elect people like Castro to 50-year terms, elections are "bourgeois," and unimportant. Not worth discussing.

Except this year. Trump's election has upset the apple cart. The standard Leftist line is that a plurality of American voters, especially including the working class slice, are racist/sexist/homophobic/fascist. Of course that's a depressing conclusion, which the grouplets I follow are now trying to walk away from.

Socialist Action (SA) has made the most dramatic retreat. A current article by Mark Ugolini, argues that instead of being racist, etc., workers are just plain stupid. They've been completely bamboozled by Trump's claims to help the working class. Instead he's just a craven capitalist out to stuff the pockets of his own class, determined to betray his supporters by demolishing Obamacare, gutting Medicaid, eliminating pensions, and in general being an all around bastard.

And what of Trump's supposed racism, etc.? Today that gets downplayed. Mr. Ugolini writes:
Despite the virulent expressions of racism and sexism displayed by Trump during the campaign—which gave a swift boost to the ultra-right fringe—and the steady stream of insults, rants, and repulsive behavior, millions responded to his populist-sounding message. These voters viewed Trump as an agent of change—someone capable of shaking things up, who in a distorted way embodied their distrust and hatred of a political system and a news media that ridicules, belittles, and ignores them.
Racism and sexism are today just a sideshow. Trump won "despite" that.

How different that is from what Jeff Mackler wrote back in October, 2015.
No doubt Trump’s rants find fertile soil in a small layer of the overall electorate, but even less in the general population, some half of which increasingly does not bother to vote. 
But Trump’s backwater histrionics are not new to the increasingly polarized and crisis-ridden world capitalist scene. Overtly far-right, if not neo-fascist, views are similarly expressed in France, England, and across Europe. In the former two nations such right-wing parties have, for the first time in nearly a century, outpolled the traditional capitalist stalwart parties of the status quo. 
Trump is the American reflection of overtly racist and neo-fascist ideology— if not a conscious experiment with it. His racist rants in some instances have encouraged the use of violent physical attacks by his disaffected followers, who find his scapegoating of the oppressed to their liking.
Mr. Trump hasn't changed--he wasn't a fascist then and he isn't a fascist now. As Scott Alexander eloquently points out, he's no more racist than the average 70-year-old white guy. He's certainly no more racist than any former president (barring perhaps Mr. Obama).

The American people haven't changed, either. They're no more stupid today than they were ten years ago. By SA's lights they must be true idiots, falling for the same scam every four years as predictably as the sunrise.

Solidarity, having made a French Turn into the Green Party, were fully invested in the Jill Stein campaign. In a statement from the Steering Committee of Solidarity they acknowledge that she was not successful.
Meanwhile, the Green Party--the most visible alternative to the left of the Democrats--seems to have won less than 1% of the vote in the Presidential race; a result both disappointing to those seeking to build the Greens as a party of the left, many of whom named 5% of the vote as a goal, and totally insignificant compared to the numbers of Democrats and independents who either stayed home or, worse, jumped ship to vote for Trump.
While they're still quick to accuse Mr. Trump himself of racism, they try hard to get his supporters off the hook.
The outcome of the election is, no doubt, in part an expression of white supremacy. But it’s more than that: many commenters have already pointed out that the rustbelt battleground states that arguably cost Clinton the election were areas where Obama performed significantly better among white voters in 2008 and 2012 than Clinton did in 2016, complicating any suggestion that the results are simply about the racism of white voters.
This is essentially the same argument as SA makes--the American People were bamboozled into voting against their own self-interest. They're only slightly more specific about why, blaming "neoliberalism"--a catch-all term that is approximately a synonym for all evil.

Scott Alexander provides convincing evidence that white supremacy is not a significant current in American politics. After presenting much data, he concludes
So the mainstream narrative [including Solidarity--ed] is that Trump is okay with alienating minorities (= 118 million people), whites who abhor racism and would never vote for a racist (if even 20% of whites, = 40 million people), most of the media, most business, and most foreign countries – in order to win the support of about 50,000 poorly organized and generally dysfunctional people [white supremacists--ed], many of whom are too young to vote anyway.
As it turns out, Mr. Trump received a larger fraction of the minority vote (both Hispanic & African-American) than either Romney or McCain. Whatever else Trump is, he is not a white supremacist.

The Militant's view is refreshingly different. The paper describes the Trump phenomena as more a split in the ruling class rather than stupidity by the workers. Quoting Steve Clark,
“For the first time in decades, the US rulers and their government have begun to fear the working class,” Clark notes. “More working people are beginning to see that the bosses and political parties have no ‘solutions’ that don’t further load the costs — monetary and human — of the crisis of their system on us.” The rulers “sense that mounting struggle — class struggle — lies ahead.”
So, according to Steve, desperate times call for desperate measures, and a radically different presidential candidate, one which a big part of the Republican establishment disowned, suddenly becomes the tribune of the bourgeoisie.

But The Militant has long insisted that Trump is not a fascist, as Naomi Craine wrote last April.
“Trump’s not a fascist, he’s a demagogic bourgeois politician,” said Naomi Craine, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party here, who spoke along with Kennedy. “He uses crude anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and there’s a real edge to his comments on women.” 
What he proposes to do is not much different from the other capitalist politicians, however.
The paper argues that Trump accurately reflects the attitudes of most American workers, but the solutions he proposes are straight from the capitalist playbook. Far from being radical, he's just another capitalist candidate dressed up in proletarian clothing.

I think The Militant is closer to the truth than any other grouplet. Donald is certainly no fascist, as can be seen by his "ground game," or lack thereof. It has been assumed that a presidential candidate needs activists on the ground in an organized Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. Hillary certainly had that. But Trump, with a staff only a fraction the size of Hillary's, never assembled a ground game.

Yet a ground game is just an incipient fascist gang if the candidate chooses to use it that way. Indeed, both Bernie and Hillary used their ground game in just that way on occasion. But Donald never did that, in part because he never organized a gang to begin with. So he's not a fascist.

The Militant is also correct that Trump has no "solutions." They're hardly unique in pointing that out. But the reason isn't some betrayal of the working class--rather it's that no solutions exist.

  • There is no solution to the health care problem in America that solves all the problems people want solved.
  • There is no solution to the regulatory state--there will always be both too much and too little regulation.
  • There is no solution to structural unemployment in this country.
  • Etc.
Even in a socialist society--especially in a socialist society--no solution to any of these problems will be found.

Let me end with a little psephology of my own. Why did Trump win the election? Simple. He both out-smarted and out-hustled Hillary.

Hillary is stupid, and I mean that in the literal, IQ sense of the word. Anybody who rises to high office has to be smart, and the 17 candidates who initially graced the Republican stage were mostly brilliant. I need only mention Rand Paul and Chris Christie to make my case. And Trump was smarter than most of them.

But Hillary just isn't in that league. She inherited her position solely by virtue of being Bill's wife. Of course being smart isn't everything--after all, Rand Paul isn't president. But it is a prerequisite, one that Hillary couldn't meet.

That's why she lost the election.

Further Reading:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

If You Really Care About The Poor

I'm not much of a stock picker. Indeed, my ability to predict the future is not very good -- though probably better than Jeff Mackler's or Christine Frank's ability to forecast the weather 100 years from now. Still, if you want a get rich quick scheme you're reading the wrong blog.

Nevertheless, I do have a stock pick for you. It comes more under the socially responsible investing label than a road to riches. If I ever do take my own advice it's because I'm a sucker for a sob story.

Much has been said about how the economic bottom half of Americans are doing poorly. Trump ran his election campaign precisely on that premise, promising that he'd improve their lives. I doubt he'll be able to deliver.

I, for one, don't believe that the pain is as bad as Mr. Trump makes it sound -- I think most Americans are getting richer. And for those who really are falling deeper into poverty, it is to some extent their own "fault"--that last word in scare quotes because I certainly don't mean it too literally. But the fact is that among poor people, household size has been getting smaller due to divorce and/or never getting married in the first place. And some personal habits (drug addiction, sugary diet) are leading to poor health. All of these work against the larger trend of increasing wealth for most Americans.

Still, whatever the cause, there is no question some considerable number of our fellow citizens are not doing very well. Somebody needs to help them out.

The hero of the day is an unlikely fellow by the name of Todd Vasos. He's hardly self-sacrificing--his paycheck is over $925,000 annually, on top of which he gets stock options bringing his "total calculated compensation" for 2015 to just shy of $9 million.

Or, put another way, if his salary was divided among the 120,000 people who work for him, they'd each get a $75 bonus for Christmas. So it's not as though everybody else is poor because he's so rich.

Mr. Vasos is the CEO of Dollar General (DG), a company that sells about $20 billion worth of product annually, or about 2,200 times Mr. Vasos' compensation. The company's operating profit was about $2 billion last year.

Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest you are probably familiar with Dollar General. It's one of those "deep discount" stores that competes with Walmart for the very low-end consumer. I currently live within a mile of a Dollar General store, and drive by two others on my way to work in the morning. This indicates that I don't live in a very wealthy neighborhood. The company's strategy is to sell relatively few, fast-selling, off-brand items at very low prices. I shop there for things like toiletries, cooking supplies, cleaning supplies, and gift cards. They also carry popular food items--mostly packaged goods, but also milk, juices, and ice cream.

Last August the stock price of DG dropped dramatically, along with their competitors, Dollar Tree and Belo Five. ZeroHedge explains why:
Discount retailer Dollar General said it was cutting prices on its most popular items such as bread, eggs and milk, intensifying a price war among already commoditized products with retail giant Wal-Mart Stores to win back falling market share. It shares fell the most on record, plunging by 18% after the company missed on revenue, blaming aggressive competition, lower food prices and reduction in SNAP, or food stamp, coverage in 20 key states.
Perhaps increased competition from a resurgent Walmart is a culprit, but that's not the whole story.
But the biggest factor by far impacting the performance of both dollar stores was the sharp, adverse turn in the purchasing power of the lower half of US consumers. 
Both Dollar General and Dollar Tree said pressures on their core lower-income shoppers contributed to the same-store sales misses that both retailers reported. On today's conference call, Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos said that he was surprised to admit that while on the surface things are supposed to be getting better, the reality is vastly different for low-income US consumers: 
"I know that when we look at globally the overall U.S. population, it seems like things are getting better. But when you really start breaking it down and you look at that core consumer that we serve on the lower economic scale that's out there, that demographic, things have not gotten any better for her, and arguably, they're worse. And they're worse, because rents are accelerating, healthcare is accelerating on her at a very, very rapid clip" (boldface in original).
Let's consider these in turn:
  • Walmart--has hardly been resurging. It's sales are mostly flat, and for the same reasons reported by DG.
  • Higher rents--are happening largely because of local government restrictions on building, especially in states like California and New York. It has become increasingly difficult to build entry-level housing anymore. The cheapest new houses in my region cost north of $400K. Reducing or eliminating zoning laws (as happens in places like Houston) keeps housing prices low.
  • Expensive health care--is mostly because it is way over-regulated. It costs a billion dollars to bring a drug to market these days. Similar restraints exist for medical devices. I understand there's a tradeoff between cost and safety, but we've gone way too far on the way to safety.
  • SNAP & food stamps--are being reduced for all sorts of reasons, including limited state tax revenues, and increased pension costs for state employees.
Note that these problems arise mostly because of government mismanagement. If we had competent civil servants many of these problems could be mitigated. So much for socialism.

So what did DG do about this? "Dollar General, whose product selection prices are already among the lowest in the country, cut prices by 10% on average on about 450 of its best-selling items across 2,200 stores during the quarter, CEO Todd Vasos said on a conference call."

In response to a question from a journalist, Mr. Vasos explained:

Q. I understood the issues with SNAP and deflation, but is there a piece of this that's just related to the consumer job – labor market getting better, so that consumers spending a little bit better and they're trading up? Is that not possible?
Vasos: I am not going to say, it's not possible, but we have not seen that in our data. Once again, remember that over 60% to 65% of our sales and consumer base is on that lower demographic area that – of the economic scale. And when you keep that in mind, her life hasn't gotten any better. And that's really that customer that we're serving the most, and that we're intent on making sure has enough money and enough products inside her house to be able to feed her families.
And the reaction?
And when we're out in stores and we drop prices like we do, I can tell you, I've been out in stores in the middle of the aisle and heard customers come up to our store manager in tears and thanking them for being there and thanking them for the prices that we offer in a real convenient nature for her, where she can walk to the store, because she can't afford anything else. When you hear that, that really brings home where this core customer is.
So there you have it. A multi-millionaire does more to prevent starvation than (probably) all the free food-banks in America. He accomplishes this by running an efficient, self-sustaining business that buys the products as cheap as possible and passes the savings on to their customers--along with paying 120,000 employees.

And my Trotskyist friends are going to complain that the guy earns an exorbitant salary? I think they have their priorities screwed up.

If you're against poverty, buy a 100 shares of Dollar General.

Down with poverty!

ZeroHedge includes this picture of one of Mr. Vasos' customers.
dollar general.jpg (569×398)

Further Reading: