Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rsync and iTunes

There are a good number of sites out there that will tell you how to keep your iTunes library synced between two machines. For my own reference and in case it's helpful to you, here's how I do this using a firewire drive. I try to only update one machine at a time. Usually that's my desktop, unless I have a gig coming up, in which case I move everything over to my laptop where the dj software lives. I use rsync; the only really tricky thing is getting the trailing slashes right. This seems to work.

On the most recently updated box, do
rsync -aveP --dry-run ~/Music/
Then delete the "--dry-run" and actually make it go. Eject and uplug the drive, and plug it into the on the less recently updated box. Then do this
rsync -aveP /Volumes/2010Backups/Music/ ~/Music/

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Something About the Giffords Shooting: Engage on Ideas

This is not a post politicizing the Giffords tragedy. The problem isn't the political parties, the problems lies in the realm of the ideas this country runs on. The parties simply refract those ideas in different ways. One of the great victories of the conservative movement is how well they've reached and recruited Democrats. Presidents Obama and Clinton (and countless other Democratic leaders) have reinforced conservative ideas and narratives as well as either Bush has. Sometimes better.

This post also is not about assigning blame. While we need to resist the urge to point fingers, the need to avoid blame can't stand in the way of looking at why this happening, who has power in our society to fix it, and what it's going to take.

I firmly believe this can change. I do not believe that a culture of violence and domination is somehow inescapable in this country. America was founded as a response to the illegitimate domination of the British Crown. This love of true freedom runs very, very deep in our veins. Violent means were necessary to overcome British domination, as they sometimes are. But even though violence runs through American history, it is not the only current. There have always been countercurrents and there are always nonviolent paths forward.

[Updated: Got to own some privilege here. It's awfully easy enough for me to downplay the horrific violence, conquest and genocide that both preceded and followed the revolution, as well as the slavery the new republic was built on -- and that's exactly what I did in this paragraph. Thanks to Nezua for calling me out. The historical record couldn't be more clear: the white people who came to America were and are a bloodthirsty, violent lot. But the point remains that there were countercurrents to the main line of violent domination and oppression, and I believe the revolution was one of them.]

The most important countercurrent right now, embryonic as it is, is the progressive movement. It is the braiding together of many different movements: antiracism and civil rights, environmentalism, feminism, the peace movement, the unionism and labor solidarity movements and many others. Conservative anti-government ideas led to the shooting of Representative Giffords. These ideas need to be fully discredited and replaced. The progressive movement is going to do that, or we are going to either fail as a nation, or just skip along from one horrifying tragedy to another.

Progressives will discredit conservative ideas, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that governing by conservative ideas leads to bad outcomes. Even Alan Greenspan admitted that deregulated capitalism led directly to the financial crisis. Deregulation and decades of underinvestment in energy alternatives (in favor of "drill baby drill") led directly to the BP oil spill. Now the shredding of the safety net, income inequality so high that it's a barrier to the kinds of safe communities we want to live in and a permeated culture of violence have combined to lead to a shocking amount of suffering and death.

In times of public grief like this it is very tempting to look for an out. A comforting response comes in the form of a post on boingboing (a widely read news & curiosities site) titled "Why the [shootings] Mean That We Must Support My Politics." It was initially linked to after 9/11, and reads to me as the voice of someone who'd been deeply hurt and was grappling (somewhat clumsily) with the numbness stage of grief over a very public and truly horrible event.

I don't blame anyone for wanting comfort at times like this. But at some point the numbness wears off and reality remains. This is not a moment in American civic life for comfortable withdrawal. This is a moment for facing reality in all its ugliness, a time for connecting and for taking action. Either the progressive movement or some other group has a the best argument for how to decrease violence. Whichever community has the best argument needs your help.

The focus has been on political rhetoric. Political rhetoric matters. Ideas and tone have consequences. But the problem goes far deeper, and the vicious counterattack to claims that the rhetoric does indeed matter is part of a larger strategy of separating and compartmentalizing the problem so we can seal it off, forget about it, and get back to focusing on whatever it was we were focused on - our jobs, our families, that next level of Angry Birds. (Don't get me wrong - there's an appropriate time and place for escapism. We just can't live there.) "He was just a lone nut" makes this into a one-off, an isolated case completely disconnected from any social or civic process.

But reality does not work this way. Reality is interconnected. There is no such thing as a lone nut in this country right now. Conservatives have counterattacked so aggressively on the charges of violent rhetoric (while cleansing their websites in the background) because if you start thinking of the role violent rhetoric might be playing, you might start thinking about the systemic nature of this problem. And if you start thinking systemically, that path leads away from their movement, with it's emphasis on hierarchy and control and separability and disconnectedness.

Consider five systemic problems that are the context for tragedies like this:

We have grotesque income and wealth inequality. There is a very well documented, unmistakable relationship between income inequality and both mental health problems and incidence rates of violence. Income and wealth inequality is a wall between people, a barrier between us and the peaceful, equitable national and local communities we all want to live in. Author Mark Ames wrote the book on workplace shootings, and starts to explain the social underpinnings of these disasters:

"The first private-workplace massacre took place in 1989, at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky—at the end of a decade of Reaganomics that radically and violently changed the workplace culture, creating yawning new inequalities. These workplace shootings have been with us ever since."

Read the whole article, it's a crucial starting point for understanding this tragedy.

We've made horrific cuts to mental health services. Particularly in Arizona: "To fill a $1 billion hole in its 2011 budget, Arizona slashed this year’s budget for mental health services by $36 million — a 37 percent cut." This is what happens when you try to drown government in the bathtub.

We have a state culture of violence. Examples abound: a complete absence of even the most minimal common sense controls on gun purchases. A reliance on continual war for foreign policy. Military spending greater than the rest of the world -- and on a system that was defeated by two dozen angry dudes with box cutters, a reality we still haven't come close to facing as a country. The violent political rhetoric is just a reflection of all this. We don't have a rhetorical problem with violence in the US. We have a substantive one. [Update: also include our criminal justice system -- the US is, shamefully, #1 in incarceration rate worldwide -- and the racist, counterproductive death penalty in particular.]

We have a media culture of violence. The most dominant mythos in our media is one with ancient Babylonian origins, that theologian Walter Wink calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Warning: if you read that article you will start to see that narrative everywhere. It is completely omnipresent in American culture, and it is completely absurd to pretend that this story could not possibly have any impact on people's thinking. Some specific evidence: "Violent Video Games Increase Aggression Long After the Game Is Turned Off, Study Finds" and a more generalized meta-study. For more on Wink, read this summary of Engaging the Powers, his wonderful but somewhat difficult book on the history of domination and Christianity.

Last, we have to face the breakdown of the nuclear family. Our culture is at the very beginning of grappling with some tough questions about family structures, gender roles and how the built environment shapes these. With marriage rates down and on the order of half of those marriages ending in divorce anyway, this has to happen. To some extent this is the (very positive) byproduct of feminism: fewer women are willing to stay in a bad marriage now. This is good for them and it's good for kids. And many people do manage to build community in the suburbs. But as Loughner's case shows, it's easy to fall through the cracks.

Of these, the first three are unquestionably exacerbated by the ideas of the conservative movement, and the last two are (in my opinion) not addressable by politics at this stage.

Beyond some legal limits on violent political rhetoric and perhaps clear labeling of violent media, I don't see political answers to media violence. I certainly try to limit my personal consumption of it. This is made easier by the realization that hit me once, after watching Iron Man and one of the recent Batman movies back to back one evening: once you realize it's the same story, these things get really boring. This irritates my fifteen year old cousin to no end but the same is true for violent video games. They just don't hold my interest. I do see spiritual answers to media violence, but that is a topic for another post.

The progressive community's answers to violence include fixing the grotesque inequality that's throwing up these barriers between people in our communities and driving us all crazy, funding the mental health safety net, curbing the culture of state violence, and starting to ask the hard questions about media violence and how we organize our families and communities.

But the progressive economic story is not yet strong or clear enough. The argument that we need investment in our society runs directly into the argument coming from everywhere that what we really need is austerity, more belt tightening and tough medicine. The argument that we need democratization of economic power that would undo inequality runs smack into the belief that the rich and the poor deserve what they get and a million other arguments. The argument that we need to spend less on militarizing the planet runs straight into the fear of terrorism and the uncertainty of our position in a complicated world.

To overcome this, the progressive community needs your identification, your help, your ideas and your participation. Read, think, write and talk about ideas. Figure out how to tell your story. Over time, this will help all of us figure out how to tell our story together. If you work at a place that has power or financial resources, make supporting and funding this work a priority for 2011. If you're reading this and you're already doing this, you rock. Thank you.

Thank you for reading all this. May God bless the people of our country and all we've been through, as well as all countries and all people of the world.

[Update: If you're not sure what I mean by ideas work, have a look at this scary, tacitly anti-Semitic graphic novel that the NRA published in 2006. There's a direct line from this to Sarah Palin's use of "blood libel" today. It's bonechilling to look at in light of the events of this week, but look for the clarity and effectiveness of the narrative and the production values. It's four years later and progressives have yet to produce anything remotely this powerful or effective. If you agree with the ideas above, what can you do to help change this?]

[Update: this post was lightly edited after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings in December, 2012.]

Friday, February 19, 2010

Joel Kotkin's Wrong Direction

Joel Kotkin, anti-urbanist and defender of the suburban faith, has a recipe. Start with a chunk of geography and a litany of its problems. Pull a couple numbers out of a poll, drop a couple erudite references to political commentary of the 40s or 50s.

The next all-critical step is the blame salad. Go after labor with a vengeance, especially public-sector unions. Blame Democrats. Blame "minorities" repeatedly. Blame Schwarzenegger, but don't dwell on it, and go back to blaming minorities some more. Blame bubbles, but never talk about where they came from, why they're happening or how we could stop them. Sprinkled on top, blame some abstractions. Blame a lack of pragmatism, an increase in partisanship, a wave of narcissism, a reliance on income redistribution. More recently he's added another topping to the salad: blaming nonprofits.

Let's start with some basic facts before we really get into it.

First, both San Francisco and California are doing a lot right. Despite their undeniable problems, this is a great state and a great city, and, yes, a great place to start a business. San Francisco has some of the lowest unemployment in the state. Our economy and our public infrastructure have both taken some dents, no question, but this idea that SF is somehow the worst run city anywhere simply doesn't match what people who live here see out the window.

Second, a lot of San Francisco's problems stem from it being one of last places to make an honest, systemic effort to try and do the right thing. There are no homeless shelters in El Dorado Hills. We pay for that, yet for most people who live here it's a significant source of civic pride.

Third, another good chunk of the city's problems come from situations that are far, far beyond the control of city government: housing prices have grown out of control largely due to a) income and wealth inequality, which is a global problem and becoming a national crisis and b) decades of incredibly poor statewide land-use decisions. Or take the city budget, which has been decimated by problems at the state and national level. Due to a combination of Schwarzenegger's incompetence and the 2/3rds budget rule, raids by the state in desperate attempts to the state budget have generated a series of cascading failures for city budgets.

Fourth, most of Kotkin's solutions - aren't. The public employee unions he tears at are the last bulwark protecting good paying jobs with retirement security. You can't complain about working people being driven out of the city while attacking about the only structural force providing anything like security for them, it makes no sense. Pension spiking is at least a problem in certain specific circumstances (Mr Kotkin's articles are very light on data for this), but the overall problem vastly overblown and is always about leveling down rather than leveling up. Furthermore, exploding health care costs are a far bigger budget-buster at both the state and local level.

Fifth, many of Kotkin's other solutions lack any kind of internal consistency. You can't be anti-tax and pro-infrastructure. It doesn't make any sense.

Sixth, his racial politics are seriously screwed up. His attacks on this or that appointed government worker may not be driven by racism but it's hard to tell, and the occasional less than fully competent city employee hardly demonstrates a seriously problem. And his understanding of California's historic racial dynamics goes from insensitive at best to paranoid at worst.

Seventh, he feeds antigovernment narratives in a way that isn't helpful and is even dangerous.

Despite all this, his ideas tie into broader conservative narratives that are unfortunately well established, so they fester and breed, carried in vectors like SF Weekly's link-unworthy "Worst Run City" article. I'm sympathetic to the need for developing a recipe as a thinker; sometimes the project of developing an ideology comes down to figuring out how many different ways you can say the same thing. What's problematic about his recipe is that it invariably results in the same shit sandwich.

The downright weird thing is that Kotkin's writing is occasionally threaded through with actual solutions, hidden in plain sight. From a piece he wrote in 2008 just after Obama was elected:

"California’s state government laid the foundation for its remarkable ascendancy. Progressivism’s pragmatic orientation, the melding of science and technology into government, the large-scale investment in infrastructure, and a strong nonpartisan tradition produced spectacular results."

So, wait. Things worked well when we had strong public investment, were pro-science, results oriented, and progressive? What exactly is preventing us from doing that some more, if not the results of writers like him saying the problem lies everywhere else? He even notes that income inequality is a problem in the same article, ""San Francisco," says historian Kevin Starr, a native of the city, "is a cross between Carmel and Calcutta.""

And yet he'll backtrack a paragraph later and lay the blame for such inequality at the feet of the victims of it:

"Perhaps even more damaging was the cultural rift that developed. Many white middle- and working-class voters felt threatened by the rise of new militant minority and student groups. Riots at Berkeley and Watts deepened resentments against the university and African Americans, two linchpins of Brown’s support."

Rick Perlstein makes a somewhat similar argument in his account of Goldwater's founding of the conservative movement: that the Berkeley riots were where the progressive movement started to go off the rails. Yet it's not as if this came from nowhere: Watts was touched off by the incredible racism of the LAPD, a fact that Mr Kotkin elides, and Berkeley was a response to increasingly tactical escalations and violence against students. Yet Richard Rorty, in Achieving this Country, makes the case that without that moment of the New Left going (in some ways) off the rails, it's possible that we would no longer living be living in a constitutional democracy.

This excision of race is at the heart of Kotkin's cultural rift argument. There is a word for blaming "minorities," who by any conceivable metric have had and continue to have very limited power in this state: this is racism. Not the personal sort - I'm sure Mr Kotkin would be the first to protest that He Has Black Friends. Or perhaps not, given that his consulting firm appears to be comprised exclusively of white men.

Racism comes in many forms, from the kind of raw-power LAPD racism that triggered the Watts Riots, to the quieter but far more pervasive structural racism that leads to whites-only consulting firms or the telling of stories that sound plausible enough, yet consistently place blame on the politically less powerful.

Contrast this with a history of this state where, instead, the responsibility for the course we've been on lies with those who have held actual power who have made the actual decisions. Mr Kotkin is partially right: the public sector unions have had some modicum of power. But they've primarily used this power to prevent the complete defunding and disintegration of the public schools - a small price to pay for some degree of featherbedding on retirement security for their workers. And he minimizes the myriad ways that the privileged classes have asserted dominance over the landscape, a dominance well documented by Gibbs and Bankhead's Preserving Privilege: California Politics, Propositions and People of Color or Peter Schrag's California: America's High-Stakes Experiment.

The real problem is this: since the 1978 passage of Prop 13, this state has been governed with an inflexible, conservative ideology. Not raising taxes has become an obsession. California conservatives have demonstrated that with enough people like Mr Kotkin standing athwart history yelling stop, sure enough, you can slow the pace of progress and even reverse it. You don't even need that many people -- certainly, nothing like a majority -- if you craft your big initiatives ruthlessly enough.

And yet the people have repeatedly voted for better schools. Democratically organized unions have fought for and won benefits and retirement security, but Mr Kotkin crassly suggests we should yank the rug out from under them. It's bad enough to be yelling stop, but making history go backwards? The fact is that fancy SUVs and huge houses far from everything aren't the only things Californians want. We want education, and a great many of us (roughly half, according to polling) like living in cities. The question is, what's the balance between public and private investment, the balance between urban development and suburban. And the question of balance is exactly what the conservative death-cult and its enablers like Mr Kotkin have managed to rule out.

So the unstoppable force of people's legitimate desire for a functioning society has met the heretofore immovable object of the conservative anti-tax coalition. It hasn't been "narcissim." It's a deep and stubborn conservatism that has bent the very structure of our democracy to its ideological ends. Until there's an accurate understanding of the locus of the real problems - a project Mr Kotkin is actively impeding - real progress for our state and city will stay on the distant horizon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The freeze crosses a line

The Freeze. This is grim stuff.

First of all, we have to assume the White House is saying something remotely like what it means about The Big Freeze. I'm not going to get into parsing the horse manure that Jared Bernstein was shoveling on Maddow on Monday night. If the White House -- seriously -- is proposing this as nothing more than pure optics with literally zero substance behind it (i.e. they're really not cutting anything, they're just saying they are)... that's such a transparently idiotic move politically that it's beneath critique.

So. Taking them at face value (if for no other reason than because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate), the freeze matters because this crosses a line between weak support or neutrality on a progressive economic agenda and active, even vigorous opposition to one.

There problems are myriad. First, as Obama argued repeatedly during the campaign and as history has proven (whether you look at Clinton or at Hoover), it's lousy policy. It will prolong the Great Recession and keep people out of work for longer. Second, it's going to tilt the electoral landscape for every single Congressional and Senate race towards favorable territory for Republicans. (more on this in a second) Third, and most destructively, over the long term this is going to severely limit the capacity of the nascent progressive movement to make our argument.

Here's how this tilts the entire landscape towards Republicans: think of politics as like a big game that works somewhat akin to Risk. There are territories occupied by each side, and skirmishes affect who is occupying the territories. The basic gameplay mechanism is that you gain or lose territory by effective communication of a coherent argument for how you plan to govern, and then by following through on it. If a candidate in a campaign clearly says "if you elect me I'm going to do X because of situations Y and Z", and you do X, and situations Y and Z get better, you gain ground. Even if situations Y and Z take a while to improve, that matters less, because the main thing voters respond to is the clarity and precision of the argument. For a variety of reasons, you get a lot more points for clearly communicating the worldview than you do for actually delivering the goods.

But there's also a feedback loop built into the game, one in which where the less territory you control, the harder it is to win individual skirmishes. So if you control lots of territory you're always at an advantage. This feedback loop adds something of a winner-take-all component to the game, which tends to make it more frustrating for the losers when they get behind. If you lose territory, the micro-effect on your skirmishes is that all of the sudden the dice are always loaded, you start every game behind a touchdown, or you are fighting every battle up a hill.

In this analogy, the territories correspond to the collective mental landscape of the electorate: what people generally are thinking about the country and whether Democrats or Republicans are offering a better and more clear argument for governing it. The skirmishes are every individual election, especially federal (congressional and senate) races. (Local races tend to be decided generally a little more on local or personality issues, although the overall shape of the mental landscape certainly affects them too.)

Now, progressives don't really know the full shape of their argument yet. One of progressives' favorite pastimes is to call loudly and sharply that we need to develop our agenda now!... while not actually, you know, doing anything to develop such an agenda. In fact just yesterday, the faux-progressives over at Third Way put up this classic of the "call for an agenda" genre. (They also called me "bro" in a reply on twitter, sending me the table scraps their agenda is composed out of. Still not sure what to do with that one.)

While we don't know what our economic argument is very clearly and it's been painfully difficult to get progressives at any level to engage on this question, we do have a hazy outline of it. Just for the sake of this argument, let's say it's something vaguely like these five principles:

  • Securing basic freedoms like health care and child care.
  • Strong public investment in education, research and infrastructure.
  • Democratizing economic power through whatever works: employee ownership, unions, asset building programs, progressive taxation, etc.
  • Building the green economy.
  • Common sense regulation for the environment and financial sectors in particular.
One commonality across all of these principles is that they all require government to work. Capitalism by itself tends to concentrate power and tear through natural resources, there's just no getting around it. Our government simply has to work for any of this stuff to get done, for the cause of freedom to be advanced.

Now as it turns out, a democratically elected government is actually a pretty great tool for determining long-term investments in society. It does much, much better than the private markets. In fact that's really one of the core purposes government is for. America's greatness isn't just the strength of capital, it's the strength of our democracy and the wise, long-term investments we've made. If private markets are privileged, we get piles of plastic crap from China and asset bubbles. If public investment is privileged (or forget privileged, if it's remotely balanced or even just not starved), we get better schools, more research and bridges that don't have giant chunks of metal falling off them during rush hour.

So what the freeze does is that it powerfully undercuts the core of that argument. There's a reason Sen McCain spent so much time arguing for exactly this during the campaign: it's a bonanza of conservative message reinforcement. It reinforces the idea that government spending has grown out of control (it hasn't) and that government in general is a bad thing and needs to be reigned in. The President isn't just pandering and flailing throwing out lousy policy; he's actually actively negating our long-term capacity to shift dimension 3 (worldview-shaping) economic power.

The culprit here is isn't message research or lack thereof. I'm sure this was polled and focused group to death and I'm sure it tests just fine. It's that message research when it's unmoored from any sensible principle or agenda just gives you noise. Garbage in, garbage out. We're never going to make progress until we come to some rough agreement on what direction we're headed; one of the benefits of a principle-based approach is that we don't have to nail down the policy details, we just need some rough agreement that yeah, this is what progressives are about. The five principles there (plus globalizing this approach) might be a starting point, they might be the wrong direction. I don't know. But if you don't stand for something, you'll stand for anything.

One other thing that this means is that national Democrats have managed to learn absolutely nothing at all about how to win elections since 2002. Even September 11th barely woke me from my blissful ignorance of even a modest commitment to citizenship; but it was the craven, limp Democratic response to Republican attempts to gin up the war in Iraq that finally did it for me, when I could feel us slipping towards one-party rule.

This is that same moment of one-party slippage, applied to the economy. That the President's political team is unaware of the resonance and optics and peril of this move is horrifying. I would never say that this November is going to be a bloodbath - who knows what will happen, and a lot of it will depend on each individual candidate and campaign team and their abilities to execute. But if Obama goes forward with this, the messaging terrain certainly just got much, much trickier. Maybe this is some kind of cognitive-dissonance style play, a Chewbacca defense for the economy. But that play works for them by repulsing voters so completely they tune out. I don't see how it's advantageous for us.

When I stood and listened to Senator Obama deliver his speech in Denver 2008, I knew the message wasn't quite there. He didn't run as a progressive and I didn't expect him to govern as one. But I did have a large degree of hope that he wouldn't actively oppose and undercut the long-term direction the country has to go towards. I did have hope that he wouldn't cede large swaths of territory to our opponents. I hoped we weren't going to be looking at eight (or at this rate, four?) years of still sliding backwards.

If you don't believe me, believe Bill Kristol:

"Republicans, in a spirit of bipartisanship, should praise the president for beginning to come to his senses about too much government spending (and for acknowledging at the same time that national security spending can’t be frozen)....Obama’s pseudo-spending freeze is a chance for Republicans to be (refreshingly!) bipartisan, and to take advantage of Obama’s willingness to move the debate over the rest of this year to a terrain—who will constrain big government?--that is good for them, and the country."

And yet as bad as this, today there is news of two amazing victories for progressive taxation in Oregon. What will happen next?

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010: focus and discipline

Last year I'm pretty sure I asked for "more weekends away and dinners with pals." It wasn't a resolution. More of a request. Looking back at my flickr sets, I got an avalanche of just that: Mexico, DC, Tahoe, Steve and O's deck, Foreign Cinema, New York for PDF, Pittsburgh for Netroots (ok those were worky, but they count), the Hamptons, Ojai, San Diego, Camp n' Sons (twice!), Balsa Man + dinner, Bolinas, Leonard Lake, liminal and then Tahoe again. That doesn't even include all the great meals at our or our friends and family's places. Holy guacamole.

Maybe this request thing is working for me. For 2010 I'm asking for focus, discipline and... something kid-related. I feel like I did alright in the focus & discipline department in 2009 (well enough at least that Jen suggested what I need is more slack!), but I have a completely crazy amount of stuff that needs to get done this year so I have to take it up a notch.

But I'm stumped on what quality I'm going to want after la frijolita is born. If you're a parent or have thoughts on this: what's an intangible you'd like to have (other than time)?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Virginia, Learn from California. Vote Deeds.

Angelidify: v., a Republican campaign tactic involving early, clear definition of a Democratic candidate using failed conservative economic ideas that sound nice but don't work.

Memo to the Creigh Deeds campaign: there ain't nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Compare these three ads. First, Schwarzenegger (R) vs. Angelides (D), 2006 for CA Gov - one of the best ads that Steve "we have functional unemployment at 17%... I think Schwarzenegger has been a great Governor" Schmidt ever produced:

Now, McDonnell (R) for VA Gov...

And Deeds (D) for VA Gov...

All three ads hinge on forward/backward and the economy. The Deeds ad is close to getting away with the jujitsu that Obama pulled. Obama's argument on taxes and the economy was basically "we'll do what works, not what Bush was doing." Deeds is trying to take the same line, but there are two problems.

First, the difference isn't sharp enough. Deeds is trying to inoculate with the tax cuts, pro-business blah blah, but my God, how many bailouts are we going to have to suffer through before some kind of Democrat, somewhere cowboys up and says "basta!" You can't say "I'm real different from Bush!" and then follow it by a bunch of proposals that say "I'm exactly the same as Bush!"

It's not quite tone-deaf; clearly there's still a lot of ambient conservative conventional wisdom on economics that Deeds is trying to glom onto (and in the process, reinforce). But there's lots of room between flat-out explaining to people that tax increases are good for the economy and this limp middle of the road stuff, which is costing him authenticity, and in turn both killing him with moderates and draining base passion.

The second difference is that the Obama campaign was running a clinic in sharp political positioning and definition from the moment they got started. That kind of definition gives you a lot of maneuvering room by giving you the capacity to talk about what you want to talk about, not what they want to talk about. Doesn't seem like Deeds has established that, so the last two weeks of this election will most likely be about whatever McDonnell wants it to be about.

Matt Miller wrote a nice book about the tyranny of dead ideas. What he left out was why zombie dead ideas like politicians running on tax cuts refuse to die. The VA Gov race should be a case study. It's another example of an ugly cycle of failure for the left: ideas about a progressive alternative for the economy don't exist, so we run millions upon millions of dollars of ads trying to glom onto the conservative ideas (and that's on top of the millions and millions of dollars of ads that they're running), thereby strengthening them, which in turn reinforces the impossibility of creating an alternative, and on and on.

If Virginia elects McDonnell, they can look to California as an example of what happens when conservative "starve the beast" economics meets a transitioning 21st century economy: start with gross, across the board underinvestment in public education, from pre-K to city colleges & public universities. Pile on deficits because the government needs to spend on is going to be debt-financed. Watch wages stagnate and unemployment climb even in up business cycles, and then shoot up when the business cycle goes flat, because all the tax cuts and resulting mountains of debt prevent counter-cyclical public sector spending. Don't forge the massive, always-growing inequality (and the resulting increases in political polarization) because the tax cuts are always somehow tilted towards either rich individuals or corporations, or both. (Here in CA we've managed to pass $2.5 billion in tax cuts for corporations, while we were billions of dollars in debt and giving teachers pink slips. Awesome stuff.)

Then, get ready to sit in some traffic jams that stretch over the horizon, because those tax cuts that went to the wealthy? They jammed up any investment in public transit or new roads. Even with the Federal government doing the right thing on public investment, you'll be surprised at how much a conservative governor can screw things up. And try not to get stuck on a bridge, too, because all the maintenance budgets are also getting cut.

If McDonnell is really following the Governor Schwarzenegger playbook, you can expect some paper-thin green initiatives that he will make an enormous amount of very public fuss over, and then work to undercut in back room deals, so you're looking at zero progress on investing in green tech or dealing with global warming, but probably some nice tax giveaways for oil & coal. You might even have to close down your parks.

And if any of the workers or anyone in the state house gets organized and call BS on this, expect a bunch of name calling and hissyfits rather than a substantive response.

This is how the conservative economic agenda plays out in reality, underneath their smokescreen of "economic freedom." But the freedom conservatives like McDonnell and Schwarzenegger are talking about always seems to come down to either more stuff or more guns. They're right about one thing: it is our damn money, and it's time we used it to rebuild a functioning civilization and expand real freedom. It's time for American (and Californian, and Virginian) Dream version 2.0, or a second tax revolution. Whatever you want to call it, it's time.

Jerry "Born Again Tax Cutter" Brown is already making noises like he's going to run the same plays next year. California could lose a governor's race to a woman who has only occasionally even bothered to register to vote. Hopefully Virginia can still avoid going through what California's been dealing with for the past five years.

But how many lost elections is it going to take before we start to break this cycle?

Update: From the you have got to be kidding department, Governor Schwarzenegger hath twittered thusly: "Check out this Time article - The California Dream is alive and well." In a state with a bunch of cities with unemployment climbing into the 20% range, and worse in the central valley, this is beyond just Happy Talk. It's an insult.

Yes, Governor and Time magazine, things are great for the rich. The Time piece is right to challenge the idiocy of the corporate press "business-friendliness" rankings, and it rightly identifies some of the silver linings and tectonic changes occurring. But it manages yet again, as the corporate media invariably always does, to miss the growing grassroots progressive movement and Democratic party revitalization, which are the state's brightest and perhaps only hope for true renewal.

When even very well-educated, should-easily-be-middle-class families like ours, who have received every lucky break imaginable, can feel the Balrog of potential economic calamity coming up from the depths reaching up for us, something is deeply wrong. No amount of corporate media cheerleading should paper over the fact that the decisions Governor Schwarzenegger has made have brought about calamity for large parts of the state.

This is not personal, as his star-complex apparently is craving (and Time is so willing to feed). It isn't about schadenfreude or gloating when the jock wrecks his car. It's about leadership that's going to help us build a functioning society or not, and how the Governor's simpleminded clinging to the ideological wreckage of conservatism brought nothing but calamity and stagnation. That's your story, Time Magazine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Unions, what good are they?

Yesterday at the Corner, Jonah Goldberg asked:

This is a good faith question: I often hear advocates of unions claiming that unions are "good for the economy." What is the proof of this? ...

You can make the case that unions are good according to other priorities that fall under the jurisdiction of "social justice" and all that...But as a purely economic matter, where's the evidence that unions actually improve the efficiency, productivity, or competitiveness of specific firms or industries or the nation as a whole?

Today's response is a starting point: there are two questionable technical analyses, neither of which (at least from the provided abstracts) seem to take into account the depressive effects of inequality, as these models often don't. This is followed by one from The Makinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank funded by forces who have made the destruction of labor power one of their priorities. Goldberg fails to mention this, although maybe he's assumed his audience is familiar with their ideological presumptions. He does include a solid response from the political director of a union (he doesn't say which one) that's worth reading.

But there's a more succinct way to explain this, which is that post-depression American economic history can be roughly divided into two phases: before 1980, and after. Before 1980, we had strong economic growth that was broadly shared across all levels of income (these graphs are courtesy of Demos'

After 1980, things changed. We still had growth, but nearly all of the results of this growth went to the top:

One primary feature of the economic landscape that changed over this time: plummeting rates of unionization. Reversing that trend isn't the whole answer. We need all sorts of policies that democratize economic power, such as employee ownership incentives, asset-building programs, changes in corporate governance and executive pay and a return to progressive income and wealth taxes. But encouraging union formation is the most common-sense and democratic reform to start with.

Goldberg clumsily tries to separate out questions about inequality and ""social justice" and all that" from "purely economic matters," as if it's unthinkable for the purpose of economics to be about improving the lives of ordinary Americans. But there's more to economics than determining the rate at which oligarchs can stuff suitcases of cash into their helicopters. We tried it that way and it didn't work out so well. It didn't even work out so well for a lot of the oligarchs. The Employee Free Choice Act is a key step in making the next few decades look more like the first bar graph and less like the second.

Most conservatives have yet to acknowledge that income inequality is even a problem. For those that do, as David Frum puts it in the last paragraph a September 2008 NYT piece, "Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal." It's a strange statement for a piece that's trying to make exactly the opposite case, that Republicans should be worried about growing inequality. This bet hedging and cognitive dissonace is a direct result of the collision of their governing philosophy with the hard reality of the generally poor results it produced.

There was another example of this kind of thinking this week over at the new Enterprise Blog, a new house organ for the American Enterprise Institute (scroll down the page and note their commitment to racial diversity):

A major cultural schism is developing in America. Not over the issues that divided us in the past, like abortion, same-sex marriage, or home schooling, important as they are. The new divide centers on free enterprise—the principle at the core of American culture. As the recent “tea parties” showed, a growing ethical populism is now brewing in America. Protests are being raised against administration policies that punish “makers” and reward “takers.”

This is flat-out absurd. AEI is funded by the biggest takers in our economy, the kingpins of the financial services and extractive energy industries, and the network of foundations they've put into place to keep the system that allows them to do this taking in place. They wouldn't know an actual maker if one fell on them. If they did, they'd be pushing hard for universal health care and shorter workweeks, the lack of which are two of the biggest impediments to startup formation.

Despite their significant role in helping to elect Obama, most actual makers remain nearly completely politically disorganized. This has to change, because if one side clearly makes an argument and the other side is silent, even if that argument makes no sense it will prevail. There is some hope: places like New Deal 2.0 could become a must-read and lead the process of building a strong counterargument. Conservatives don't have solutions to these problems. Progressives do, but have a long way to go in figuring out how to tell the story.

Update: This is an excellent response to Goldberg about the biggest dislocator of jobs, which is technology. The only long-term answer to that, and the only thing that can protect our long-term global competitiveness, is that firms have to be come democratized learning organizations. It's hard to imagine that happening without unions.