Unburden the Police

The Democratic slogan on crime should be “Unburden the police,” specifically: fund community-based violence interruption programs; fund first-response mental health programs; eliminate traffic stops. With those things off their plates cops can focus on crime-solving/case clearance.

We shouldn’t minimize the reasons communities have for hating and fearing police practices, but we also can’t minimize the reasons those same communities have for wanting protection from crime. So reform the practices: spend less person-power on routine interference with citizens (whether pedestrian stop & frisk or traffic stop & harass) and more on solving crimes (which will be easier when people don’t suffer constant adversarial or humiliating or even fatal interactions with cops). And turn violence interruption over to community groups trained in its successful practice (like those that provided Chicago with a fairly peaceful Memorial Day weekend) and mental health crises over to professionals trained to handle those encounters.

And then use the right rhetoric! “Unburden the police” means exactly the same thing as “defund the police” but sounds pro- instead of anti-cop, anti- instead of pro-crime. “Fight crime smarter not harder.” “Build policing back better.”

Let’s stop leading with our chins on an issue where we have the right answers and our “Blue Lives Matter” opponents have nothing to offer.

Do Any Non-Medicare Recipients Want the Democratic Presidential Nomination?

Why is hardly anyone under the age of 64 getting any consideration for the Democratic ticket in 2016?

Jerry Brown, aged 75, is getting some attention as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, joining Elizabeth Warren (age 64), Hillary Clinton (age 66) and Joe Biden (age 71). Other than Martin O’Malley (A comparatively sprightly young talent at age 50), who got some love in Washington Monthly, there has been a strange lack of discussion of possible Democratic contenders who would not receive a social security check at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if they won the election.

The baby boom was a big generation, so it’s understandable that it would produce many candidates. But for a party which draws its strength disproportionately from younger voters, it’s odd that virtually no one born after the Korean War is getting any serious attention for the 2016 Democratic ticket.

Jim Messina should resign from OFA

In mentioning a possible policy-based defense for Jim Messina’s consulting for the Tories, I forgot that he headed Organizing for Action. He should no longer be allowed to do so.

I would like to revise and extend my post from yesterday on Jim Messina.

In that post I argued that Messina’s working for the Obama campaign and then Britain’s Tories was understandable if one were looking simply at the policy space, but unforgivable if one sees partisan struggle as a fight between the wealthy and powerful and everyone else, or the Democratic Party as a vehicle for espousing moderation now and greater egalitarianism in the future. I still believe that.

But, ridiculous as it may sound and as a self-styled political junkie I take full blame I forgot one thing: Messina is not only the past manager of Obama’s campaign but the current chair of Organizing for Action. (Many of the other posts on Messina also omitted this, possibly because an outfit as ineffectual and unrelated to real organizing as OFA is easy to forget, but Hunter Walker’s piece reminded me.) This, in my view, cannot continue.

It’s fine, in fact laudable, for a policy expert in government to be “nonpartisan” meaning not free of ideology, which nobody is, but determined to work for the public interest rather than the narrow interest of one party vis-a-vis another. It’s fine, though rarer and not mandatory, for a policy expert outside of government to be the same way. It’s thirdly fine for a political commentator or blogger who never claimed to be easily classified in Left-Right terms -Keith, or Andrew Sullivan- to support Obama in the U.S. but Cameron in Britain. Finally, while I haven’t thought this through, it seems to me defensible for the manager of a center-left campaign in one country to advise a center-right party in another country if that’s where his or her policy commitments lead. This seems to me very different from the Dick Morris case of someone who indifferently advises the two opposing parties in the same country.

But someone who purports to be the leader of a party’s grassroots had better understand, and be prepared to practice, the thing that Max Weber said the leaders and followers of mass political parties “always and necessarily” must do: a fight. And the mass membership of a modern party will never fight for the sake of a specified level of public debt, but only for the less compromising reasons: loyalty to a side, and/or devotion to a larger and longer cause whose importance Messina demonstrably does not begin to grasp.

Messina can, barely, remain a political consultant to both our Democrats and Britain’s Conservatives. But grassroots Democrats will not, and should not, follow a supporter of the Tories into political battle. If Messina thinks we should, that’s all the more evidence that he’s unfit for his current job.

To campaign is to choose. Having taken the Tories’ shilling, Messina should resign from OFA. He will not lack for other work.

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

Jobs Numbers and the Election

Political prognosticators and pundits (including Nate Silver at 538) have long suggested that President Obama will be in more trouble the more the economy seems to be faltering.  This makes obvious sense.   But there is a way in which both a rational voter model and an attentional shift model could militate in the other direction.   Voters might reasonably be concerned both about the immediate jobs outlook and the long term health of the economy as they perceive it to be affected by the debt and deficit.  If people became complacent about the job situation, they might  vote more on the deficit, assuming (albeit contrary to experience) that the Republicans would be more likely to reduce the deficit.

Thus Obama could suffer in the event of a recovery both from voters making rational tradeoffs and voters shifting emphasis between two values they care about.   Here’s an extreme analogy — in 1945 immediately after World War II Winston Churchill and his Conservative party were turned out of power despite having just led the country to victory, because voters thought the Labor party better equipped to deal with post-war reconstruction.  It would be interesting to look at how Obama is doing in State polls compared to 2008 depending on how the state unemployment rate or change in the state unemployment rate over the last six months.

I’ve long believed that Democrats would do better to emphasize the historical regularity that economic and job growth has been higher in Democratic than Republican administrations.    Bill Clinton’s comparison of job growth under Democratic  and Republican presidents led many commentators to express surprise, but this relationship should come as no surprise to RBC readers going back to 2008.  (See Mark’s RBC post from 2008, or the current Oppenheimer Funds blog addressing the relation between control of the White House and Congress and the stock market). *

Romney’s push to use lackluster economic performance against Obama is handicapped by the fact that voters do not believe Romney has a superior understanding of the needs of the middle class or a better recipe for economic growth than Obama.  Even in the ABC News / Washington Post poll released today, whose topline showed Romney closer to Obama than other recent polls, shows Obama favored (in a half-sample result) by 53-38 as better to advance the interests of the middle class, and in the full sample Obama leads by 47-45 on managing the economy.  The CNN/ORC poll released Monday has Obama ahead 51-47 on dealing with unemployment, with Romney favored 50-47 in dealing with the deficit.  While these numbers are not conclusive-one would rather focus on potential swing voters rather than the whole electorate, what they show after the Democratic convention is an electorate that doubts Romney’s competence on and concern for the issues they care about.  At this point for Romney to push on Obama’s economic record seems unlikely to pay much in the way of electoral dividends, even if the economic news does not improve.

According to Crane Brinton’s  classic historical analysis of revolutions,  regimes fall from within more than from direct attack from outside.  The same may be true of Presidencies.  Administrations that lose confidence in their ability to deal with the economic challenge are going to lose coherence and appear rudderless and without forward momentum (viz. Jimmy Carter after his cabinet shakeup following the “malaise” speech).  This is the picture of Obama that the Republicans tried to paint at their convention, but which seems unlikely to stick, especially after the successful Democratic Convention.   Combining a projection of confidence with a clear argument that Democratic Presidents  are better for job growth than Republicans (and that all the Republicans have in their tool kit is a return to the failed policies of George W. Bush) seems likely to be a key element of a winning message going forward.

* For those who missed it, what Bill Clinton said was

“Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24.  … In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 (million).”

This statement was widely fact-checked and is true, as are similar claims about superior economic growth under Democratic presidents.  See for example the Miami Herald story.

Obama’s Dunkirk moment

What is Obama’s agenda for his second term?

Barack Obama will certainly be nominated by his party and probably reelected President. The polls, Intrade and Nate Silver agree; so it seems do such conservatives as David Cameron and Boris Johnson; even Rupert Murdoch is unenthusiastic about the GOP slate. So does common sense, weighing Obama’s reasonable-to-good record against an outstandingly poor Republican ticket. So why is such little attention being paid to Obama’s plans for his second term?

At first sight, it’s sensible for liberals to concentrate on defeating Romney and Ryan. But even in terms of narrow electoral politics, running a purely negative, defensive campaign rarely works. Obama and the congressional Democrats need to offer their alternative. I tried to get a discussion going in February on this with a catchy eight-point plan, but had no success. Obama’s acceptance speech provides a better hook.

Democrats have two alternatives: steady-as-she-goes, or the vision thing. The former aims to keep the recovery going, manage crises for the best, and shepherd ACA through to full implementation. Without a Congressional majority, that may be all that’s attainable. But it’s rather sad and wimpy.

From my safe and distant armchair, I’m a vicarious fire-eater and would like to see more ambition. More’s the point, I think Obama’s sense of his place in history will require it. The chance of a House majority is admittedly slim, but it’s not enhanced by steady-as-she-goes and praying for an unlikely GOP implosion: Ryan isn’t Palin. The Democratic strategy is to beat GOP ad-buying by a superior ground game - and that depends on an army of volunteers, whose enthusiasm, after years of disappointment, needs to be rekindled. This needs an agenda, not just pretty feelgood speeches.

So I hope and and expect Obama will make a bold acceptance speech. He won’t just defend the progressive heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society, and his own contribution, ACA. What are the other big issues left on the shelf in his first term? I see two.

  • Campaign finance. Restoring democracy from the grip of money requires radical reform of the way politics in the USA is paid for: not just a rollback of Citizens United, but real transparency and strict limits on contributions, possibly public funding and free access to the airwaves. The problem here is that reform requires a majority not only in Congress but the Supreme Court, and the latter depends on the fickle demography of death. The issue is also very wonkish and many voters don’t appreciate its importance.  Obama is not likely to launch a battle he has so little chance of winning.
  • The second big item is climate change. Obama should, and I think will, finally come off the fence here. If he does so, he must propose a sweeping plan to lead the world away, just in time, from the climate breakdown we are already beginning to witness. (This useful phrase is George Monbiot’s.) He may fail in Congress; but the attempt would hearten the many states (including Midwest swing ones) and the corporations and nonprofits and citizens that are taking the challenge seriously, and just maybe enable a small-boats Dunkirk rescue.

Dunkirk beach, May 1940


Update: Kevin Drum has a good summary and a gloomier take on this problem. Unfortunately the long comment thread is off-topic rubbish.

How Do Democrats Differ From Republicans?


I came across this report from Politico a few weeks ago, and it seemed to sum things up well.  The House Agriculture Committee was debating the farm bill, and particularly Republicans’ efforts to decimate the Food Stamp program.  Rep. Joe Baca (D-California) protested:

As a young father, Rep. Joe Baca had himself relied on food stamps, and during the House Agriculture Committee debate, the California Democrat emotionally invoked the Gospel of Jesus feeding hundreds from a few fish and loaves of bread. Rather than sympathy, this brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). “Nowhere in Scripture did God give instruction to government over us as the individual,” said the Christian conservative. “Read it, sir. He was speaking to individuals not governments.”

I really think that in an important way this sums things up.  Baca says that we have to feed the poor; Southerland attacks him, saying that this has nothing to do with what Jesus said, because Food Stamps are the government, not us.

For Democrats, government is the way that we as a people get together and figure out what “our ” priorities are.  For Republicans, government isn’t an us: it is an it.  It is some sort of amorphous, alien blob, out there.  It has nothing to do with us: it simply controls us.  We might make fun of Republicans saying that “the government should keep its hands off of my Medicare,” but it reflects something important about perceptions.  If it is something we experience, then it isn’t the government, because the government is “out there.”

And as the Medicare example reveals, this is very much a sort of fundamental paradigm: inconvenient facts can be dismissed as outliers, or untrue, or even just ignored.  This will take a lot of very patient, frustrating work to cure: after all, people believed in the Ptolemaic universe for centuries.  And I’m not even sure that it is “curable” because it reflects a moral view, not a scientific one.

A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague

My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is out with a new article on “Corporate Lawyers as Gatekeepers,” which, if you are interested in corporate law, you should read (Steve is one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field).  But what piqued my interest when he sent it to me was his offhand remark that he is sending it out electronically to “reduce my carbon footprint.”

I couldn’t resist.  I responded, “Your CARBON footprint?  You pinko liberal fellow-travelling wimp!!  Resign your Republican Party membership now!”

And neither could he, responding:

It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government. To the contrary, it’s an argument for eliminating both the market AND the many regulatory distortions that mean people don’t pay a carbon price that includes all relevant externalities. Government’s role should be to eliminate any true externalities that rise to the evel of causing a market failure and then get out of the way and let the market solve the problem.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve is completely right: it is indeed possible to have a coherent and realistic conservative policy on climate change.  (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s a different issue).  The problem is that the current Republican Party refuses to have one.  I wrote back:

That’s a totally fair position.  Now all you have to do is persuade a single member of the House Republican Conference or the Senate Republican Caucus, or any Republican power broker, of that…
And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Steve’s response:
When you convince any leading national Democratic politician that life begins at conception and that the law ought to at least take that into account in balancing the interests, I’ll take a crack at it.

Foul!  Belief in the existence of anthropogenic climate change and belief that human life begins at conception are two different categories.  I responded:

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between a scientific fact (anthropogenic climate change), and a philosophical position (human life invested with human rights begins at conception).  Now, you could say two things about this:

1) Scientific “fact” is itself a philosophical position, and that is true.  And if someone wants to take the view that scientific determinations concerning the natural world have no more reason to be called “facts” than any other philosophical position, then they can do that.  Postmodernists do that.  I don’t, and I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, that you do.

2) The better analogy, I would think, is for you to say, “I will take a crack at persuading a single member of the Republican Caucus that anthropogenic climate is true if you will take a crack at persuading any leading national Democratic politician to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Your position is that there is such a thing as a genuinely conservative climate policy, and I agree.  But I think that I would win that one going away, because I could find lots more Democrats to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax than you could find Republicans to support the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

But Steve wasn’t buying it.  He counter-offered with another challenge:
How about this: You agree to try persuading Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to unconditionally support renewing the Bush tax cuts for people earning > $250K per year. No deals, no quid pro quo. And you only have to persuade 3.
This last one was something of a joke, obviously.  But it does point to a real problem for modern conservatism, and thoughtful conservatives like Steve.  Their party simply rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on the greatest environmental problem that the planet has ever faced.  Nothing comes close to that.  And while there may be profound differences between the parties on philosophical issues, off the top of my head I can’t think of any issue, at least since the Second World War, where one major party has made it an article of faith that it simply rejects on principle such an overwhelming scientific consensus.  The only thing close is evolution, and once again, it represents the Republican position that as a matter of principle, it simply will not listen to scientists.  Note that I stacked it against myself: I offered that he could persuade any member of the House Republican Conference, and he could only counter with “any national prominent Democratic politician.”  And he still couldn’t do it.
The only things that Steve could respond with were, well, issues of moral belief: 1) human life invested human rights begins at conception; or 2) cutting taxes for people making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is the right thing to do or will cause economic growth (the latter really being an article of faith: in my view, it’s really more a philosophical position concerning just distribution of social wealth).
Now, to be clear, like any intelligent person, Steve does believe in the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  But he could not respond with an example of equally anti-empirical belief from Democrats.  That tells you a whole lot about the differences between the parties.  No wonder Steve is such a curmudgeon.

“If our enemies will stop lying about us we will stop telling the truth about them”*

Though he attracted ridicule from the Right for saying it (and what could he say that wouldn’t attract ridicule from the Right?), the President is correct: the private sector is okay, creating jobs at a respectable clip.  The weakness in job creation comes primarily from the public sector, where states and municipalities are firing teachers and firefighters and police officers for lack of Federal funding to retain them-and where lack of Federal funding is the direct result of Republican policies.

So apparently McConnell was telling the truth in 2009, if at no other time, when he said that his party’s highest priority was to defeat the President.  If the Republicans have to swell the ranks of the unemployed to accomplish this goal, why should they care?  Republicans mostly aren’t unemployed, and vice-versa.

In other words: the fact that Republican deficit-cutting policies increase unemployment is a feature, not a bug.  Their success in concealing this unattractive fact is truly remarkable.


*A 19th Century political saw, revived by and therefore often attributed to Adlai Stevenson.  Adlai’s version: “I would make a proposition to my Republican friends… that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”  This edition of Today’s Pedantic Footnote provided gratis to our readers.

Nancy Pelosi’s “attack” on Stephen Colbert and his Super PAC is the cleverest marketing the Democrats have done since the 1964 daisy ad linking the Republican Presidential nominee with nuclear war.  Yes, it’s been a long dry spell; but let’s be grateful for this particular bit of rain.  If nothing else it disproves the canard that feminists don’t have a sense of humor.