Friday, January 29, 2016

Supporters' Attacks on Clinton's Critics Miss the Mark

It is true that Hillary Clinton has been the victim of relentless and ill-founded attacks by the professional political right.  It is true that conspiracy theories abound and are put to constant use by FOX pundits and the right-wing blogosphere to undermine Clinton's credibility.  And it is true that over the years Donald Trump and countless other Republican presidential aspirants have lined up to attack Clinton using coded sexist language.
But in the 2016 Democratic Party primary, too many Clinton supporters are using this history to head off criticisms directed at their candidate by Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters, and also those who care about human rights and democracy beyond our country’s borders.
Now I'll be the first to admit that a segment of Sanders supporters suffer from the view that their candidate is a messianic savior.  Sanders himself has been consistently insistent that the campaign should not be about him, but rather the ideas he is promoting.  Some of his supporters have nonetheless begun picking up on right-wing gossip news to discredit Clinton.  And some of them have proved brittle and intransigent in responding to legitimate criticisms of the Senator’s program and outlook.  They are wrong to do so.
But Clinton supporters are equally wrong to claim--as do many, including plenty of them who should know better--that any attack on Clinton by the left of the Democratic Party is simply an indication of the stupidity and gullibility of that left, and that Clinton's critics are feeble-minded buffoons who are simply falling for the propaganda of the right-wing attack machine.
That is insulting, disingenuous, and wrong.  There are good reasons to be critical of Clinton.
In the first Democratic debate of this season, Clinton met criticisms of serial flip-flopping by saying, "I have a range of views" on a given topic.  This moment of clumsiness gets at a real question for many voters: given that Clinton has only recently come along to some crucial positions when it comes to international trade, labor, the environment, and civil rights, can we trust that her conversion is genuine?  Do we know what we're getting as an advocate?
Clinton has enriched herself personally by spending a lot of time on Wall Street.  There's a certain amount of acculturation that comes along with these kinds of interactions.  I don't believe that Clinton doesn't care about the average American, but I do think that she holds some very traditional liberal (in the 19th century or European sense) views about wealth and power that blind her to the potential of using social democratic instruments to create a fairer and more equal society.  Her remarks about higher education, for example, ignore a great deal of history, some elementary features of how social contracts work, and the extent to which members of her generation benefited from the framework for public higher education that she derides when she attacks Sanders.
Most critically for me, Clinton has been an enthusiastic participant--as Senator, as Secretary of State, and as presidential candidate--in enshrining a neoconservative foreign policy.  Her vote for the Iraq war, her advocacy of escalation in Afghanistan, and her push for regime change across the Middle East suggests a conviction that force and violence are the best policy tools.  These actions suggest a belief that the U.S. has the right to re-make the world in its own image.  And they suggest a disregard for the consequences of violent intervention, both for the hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and South Asia killed during these interventions, and for the blowback they create for our own country.
Clinton's neoconservatism also involves unrelenting and uncritical support for brutal colonial and dictatorial regimes in different parts of the world, and saw her take the side of the autocrats rather than the democrats during the Arab Spring.  Her remarks suggest that she supports a powerful security state that is able to abuse the civil rights of U.S. citizens and evade with extraordinary contempt the supervision of Congress.  She has demonized the whistleblowers who have shed light on the activities of that state.  Although Clinton has expressed opposition to the use of profiling and indiscriminate violence by police in the U.S., she supports a far more lethal and egregious form of the same practice abroad by backing a drone program that murders large numbers of people without a visible legal process using disposition matrices and profiling.  
Clinton has demonstrated great fluency in talking about international policy, a testament to her tenure as Secretary of State.  But that record is deeply compromised by her neoconservatism, and she has been chronically unable to translate that fluency into any real depth of thought about how to escape the violent and self-destructive cycles of thought and action in which the U.S. finds itself locked today.  Sanders has also failed to develop any coherent foreign policy outlook, but Clinton promises to actively pursue a whole package of self-evidently immoral, flawed, and failed policy agendas in the wider world.
So while I think that Clinton supporters--and Sanders supporters--should push back at every opportunity when the Republican Party launches malicious, sexist, and ill-founded attacks on Clinton's person and record, I think those same supporters need to stop their contemptible mischaracterization of substantive critics of their candidate.  If those individuals actually believe that concerns about credibility and worries about a candidate who has openly embraced the neoconservatism and terror of the Bush administration are stupid, ill-founded, and the stuff of right-wing propaganda, they are kidding themselves and doing a disservice to the public and all of the victims, past, present and future, of the imperial foreign policy of Clinton and her fellow neocons.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Clinton vs Sanders on Foreign Policy

Threatened by polls showing that Bernie Sanders is a threat to her coronation, Clinton and her campaign are hitting back.  In some cases they are doing so in valid and productive fashion, asking legitimate questions about the viability of Sanders’ plans or the desirability of focusing on one policy area as opposed to another.  But characteristically, Clinton has not been content with this.  According to the Intercept, her “campaign released a letter this week in which 10 foreign policy experts criticized her opponent Bernie Sanders’ call for closer engagement with Iran and said Sanders had ‘not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security.’”
The Intercept found that half of the signatories to the letter “are now enmeshed in the military contracting establishment.”  This discovery suggests significant conflicts of interest.  Both the national security establishment and the military contracting sector are deeply compromised by their economic and ideological commitments to constant conflict as a way of national life and a method of making a living.  It is troublesome that Clinton is surrounding herself by such people, and troubling that she is using their words to shut down debate around the self-evidently inadequate imagination with which the U.S. formulates and conducts international policy.
But I want to focus in particular on the logic of that short phrase from the letter, the accusation that Sanders had “not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security.”
That said, I disagree profoundly with the spirit of these comments, which suggest that Clinton is the superior candidate because she has--and she undoubtedly has--given deeper thought to the challenges facing our country in the international sphere.  Clinton has thought long and hard about these issues, and we have seen her contend with them in campaign-mode and in government, both as a Senator and as a Secretary of State.
In both cases it is clear that Clinton’s deep meditations have not prevented her from arriving at some devastatingly wrong conclusions.  Her neo-conservative convictions, her authoritarian allies, and her embrace of state terror threaten the lives of people around the world, the security of U.S. citizens, and the ability of the U.S. government to pursue significant domestic policy innovations.
Clinton’s neo-conservatism is the one sphere in which she has remained constant.  Her support for the war in Iraq, her advocacy for escalation in Afghanistan, and her eagerness to use military force in Libya, Syria, and beyond is frightening.  These disasters have ruined the lives of countless people, spread international terrorism around the world, and created a ruinous culture of hubris in our security state and within the public at large.  Neoconservatism has created an over-mighty security state, the needs of which draw resources from our economy that could be put to far better use improving the material conditions of our own citizens and those of other nations around the world.  
Clinton possesses troublingly authoritarian instincts.  During the early, promising stages of the Arab Spring, hers was the voice in the Obama administration urging the maintenance of ties with autocrats and the stalwart defence of dictators who murdered and terrorized their citizenry.  The failure to sever ties with these dictators early on led to the prolongation of their reigns which in some cases compromised the character of the revolutions, creating the mess the U.S. and the citizens of those countries face today.  Clinton is also an unrelenting and uncritical supporter of the Israeli colonial regime, the actions of which degrade the lives of Palestinians, endanger the democracy of Israelis, and prolong conflict in the region, while associating the U.S. with a mode of colonial government almost universally condemned in the world by the 1960s, and against which our own country contended for its independence.  
Clinton has been a full-throated support of the excesses of the security state.  She has defended the NSA’s snooping and defiance of Congress.  She has attacked Edward Snowden for shedding light on the illegal activities of the security services.  And she has backed the murderous, unaccountable drone program, developed under Bush and massively expanded under Obama.  This system of extrajudicial killings, central to the foreign policy Clinton envisions and helped to develop under Obama, is proven to claim many innocent lives, is under no obligation to publicly prove the guilt of the accused, and serves as an excellent recruiting tool for the Taliban in South Asia, Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East, and Al Shabaab in Africa.  The advocacy of Clinton and others for these forms of state terror--murder and spying--diminishes trust in the federal government at a time when it is only the central government that can provide good, coherent policy to address health, education, and economic related problems facing our country.
Clinton’s foreign policy views, however long she has thought about them, are deeply flawed.  They create an international policy that is imperial, violent, and brittle.  They will ensure that the U.S. remains caught in a cycle of violence the world over.  And they refuse to recognize either our own role in creating global security problems, or the material foundations of many of those problems.  They are views that leave her clearly un-equipped to address the challenges of the day, and unwilling to listen to voices better able to address those challenges.
I certainly hope that Sanders will think harder about these issues, and I hope that he will surround himself with people prepared to challenge conventional wisdom, who are not tied to deeply compromised ideological and economic interests.  I hope that he will recognize that some of his comments about the alliances necessary to defeat ISIS and the utility of drone warfare are misguided.  I hope that he and his advisors will think long and hard about how to translate social democratic theory and practice at home into the international arena in a productive fashion.

But he has been on the opposite--and the right--side of most of these debates from Clinton.  That makes his instincts and the moral framework from which he views the world far better than Clinton’s.  It makes his record far less fraught with bloodshed and disaster.  Thinking hard about national security issues wouldn’t do Clinton any good if she almost invariably arrives at wrong and dangerous conclusions.  On this basis, I would argue that a Sanders presidency bodes better for our international relations and our security than a Clinton presidency.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Democratic Debate Wish List

Here are some pleas to the two leading Democratic candidates that I hope--not holding my breath, I'll admit--that they will heed in their debate tonight.
To Hillary Clinton:  Please do not attack free public higher education (of the sort your generation enjoyed) on the basis of not wanting to send Donald Trump's kids to college for free.  Even in our own somewhat dysfunctional tax system, Trump would pay for his own children and those of others to attend university for free.  Sanders' plan is predicated on people of Trump's means paying far more into the system.
Please don't blather about American exceptionalism.  We realize that this is a lot of baloney.  There are many things in the economic and social realm that other countries do more effectively than the U.S.  We are not the only country with a strong democracy--and in fact our democracy is weaker than that of many other countries--and we do not have the right to dictate to other people around the world on the basis of our nationality.
Don't attack Sanders' call for the kind of universal healthcare (for which you advocated twenty years ago) by arguing that it will destroy existing healthcare for people.  If you think it is unlikely to be passed or object to it along ideological grounds, say as much.  But don't pursue disingenuous lines of attack.
Withdraw your stupid and misguided pledge about middle class taxes.  As you know perfectly well, these pledges have turned the GOP into a dangerous force in our politics, and you should not replicate this.  As you also know very well, progressive taxes, even those that affect middle class voters, can actually change into tremendous gains for those citizens if the money is allocated towards things like Pre-K-12 or higher education, towards our bloated healthcare sector, etc.  The role of brainless populist doesn’t suit you...leave that to the Republicans.
Ask your Super-PAC to withdraw gossipy attacks on Sanders' health.  As someone who has been unfairly attacked by right-wing propagandists for your entire political career, you know how this degrades our political process and distracts from the substance you claim to favor in political debate.
Re-think your neo-conservatism.  You and other neo-cons are responsible for the needless deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.  U.S. imperial interventions around the world seldom make our citizens safe, and often create new threats, both to our own citizens and to the people in those countries where we mount our invasions.  Our imperialism destabilizes the world through the sale of weapons, the backing of dictators, and our refusal to adhere to international rules.  Your support for Israeli and Moroccan colonialism, your backing of murderous drone strikes, and your endorsement of excessive NSA spying encourages people around the world to see the U.S. as a force for ill.
Stop thinking and talking as though "Republicans" are the enemy.  We might find our fellow citizens to hold some abhorrent views, but we should also look for points of connection or think about how dialogue rather than demonization can change those views or create helpful alliances.
To Bernie Sanders: Please give us some sense of how you would create a single-payer healthcare system.  Many voters--most if they heard a good case for it, I wager--would support such a system, but would worry about how it would be created and what the transition from their existing healthcare would look like.  These are valid concerns, and if you can overcome then I think you will find a great deal of support for your idea.
Talk about the social contract.  Remind viewers that before Republicans dismantled or de-funded public institutions, universities were free at the point of entry.  Explain the benefits of each generation paying into the welfare of the generation above or below it on the demographic scale.  Earlier in the campaign it made sense to repeat your talking you need to develop other lines of argumentation.  
Give us some tangible sense of how you will use the movement you are creating to create progressive majorities in Congress or to pressure whatever Congress you would be confronted by in 2017 to pass your legislation.  Explain how you have the capacity to not only strengthen the progressive "base" but bring new voters into the party or movement.
Say something coherent about foreign policy.  Your social democracy should inform your international as well as your domestic policy.  Amateur hour is long over, and isolationism is not enough.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Short Narrative of Imperial Folly

A British-officered army marches into Sudan
This is a re-post of some writing from several years ago, and it struck me that as we begin to evaluate the Obama administration’s foreign policy record, we can see how the President found himself captured by the contradictions that bedevil all imperial powers. 
In the late nineteenth century, commercial and security interests drew the British into more direct military and political involvement in Egypt. Under a Conservative government, Britain acquired substantial shares in the Suez Canal, which led to a preoccupation with the security of the Nile, which ran from Lake Victoria in Uganda through the Sudan and Egypt (which had for some years occupied the Sudan).
In the 1880s the British became increasingly obsessed with a Sudanese spiritual leader, Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullahi (known as the Mahdi), who advocated a combination of religious and social reforms to Islam and society at large, and who had declared war on the Egyptian rulers of the Sudan, together with their British overlords.
Conventional wisdom told the British that crushing the Mahdi would be easy...a quick victory. “It only wants”, one commentator proclaimed, invoking his expertise, “a capable English general with a staff of Indian officers, who speak Arabic, to take command of the black regiments now in Egypt and the Mahdi’s power would be broken in a very short time”.
At this early stage, there were even those who envisaged the Mahdi as a potential puppet ruler. “I am not certain”, A B Wylde wrote, channeling the prejudices shared by many in his age, “whether it would not be an excellent plan to come to terms with Mahamed Hamed [the Mahdi], as he must be above the usual run of Soudanis to get together the following as he is reported to have, and he might make an excellent governor of the far western province of the Soudan. The mighty dollar”, Wylde went on, “will do everything with these blacks, and I do not believe in the fanatical programme [of the Mahdi], as it is the usual cloak that covers native aggrandisement”. (1)
A British-officered army was dispatched to attain this quick victory. Under-equipped and ill-informed, it was cut to pieces at Al Ubayyid.
Public opinion in Britain was divided, though the prospect of negotiating with the Mahdi went out the window at this stage. Many saw the Mahdi as nothing less than a threat to civilisation, and the press commonly referred to him as a ‘false-prophet’ or the ‘devil’, and attacked him for his ‘cupidity’ and ‘fanaticism’. The latter became perhaps the most oft-wielded word in the rhetorical arsenal of those pressing for a harder line in the Sudan. The same individuals, when attacking the Mahdi’s fanaticism, invoked the ‘True Moslem’, who was much more amenable to a British presence in the Sudan.
Others bemoaned the hyperbolic language, and suggested that no good would come of intervention. There were those who suggested that the Mahdi’s religious message was merely a cloak for his attempts to redress genuine social wrongs, and some envisioned (and sympathized with) latent “communism” in the Mahdi’s political-religious ideology. Others foresaw and worried about the rhetoric around clashes of civilizations that warmongering seemed to embrace. “It is difficult for Europeans to conceive the shock that will be sent through Islam”, one writer declared, “by the news that the sacred places of the Mussaulman faith, which have been inviolate for a thousand years, have been trodden by the feet of the infidel”. Others, more racist and less empathetic if no less emphatic about the dangers of intervention, suggested that “what we have to realise is the impassable gulf which severs these races from ourselves, and the absolute hopelessness of establishing anything like a community of ideas between the East and the West”. (2)
The counter-argument invoked Britain’s imperial duty. If the Sudan was to be “closed” to the West, it would be “retrograding half a century” of development. (3) Finally, there was the appeal to the sacrifices of those who had gone before. “Europe”, a Times editorial inveighed, “could not lose the fruits of the heroism and genius of that incomparable army of English, French, Italian and German travellers” who had, often at great sacrifice to themselves, “opened up” Africa. (4) More soldiers must die so that the earlier sacrifices would not be in vain. Bloody sacrifice, in other words, had become both the means and the ends. The balance shifted towards intervention, and the despatch of Anglo-Egyptian armies.
There were some who doubted the wisdom of this course. Others wondered why, if it “required the utmost efforts of our army, composed of entirely British troops, before victory [in early conflicts in the region] was assured”, there should now be the proposal to “repulse the threatened attack [by the Mahdi] with Egyptian soldiers, strengthened only by a backbone of British bayonets. Will the Egyptian soldiers fight when the pinch comes?” (5) What was really called for, in other words, was a proper Surge, a methodically-organised, British-manned assault on the Mahdi.
It was against this debate that British politicians weighed their options. The Liberal British government had come to office highly critical of Conservative Party foreign policy, which was increasingly militaristic and imperial, and had worked to create a public mood sensitive to the ‘greatness’ that imperial possessions bestowed on Britain. A jingoistic narrative in which Britain was portrayed as a force for good in the world and billed as being somehow exceptional had been at the center of the Conservatives’ reincarnation leading up to their 1874 victory.
In 1872, Conservative Party leader Benjamin Disraeli had declared that “the people of England [...] are proud of belonging to a great country, and wish to maintain its greatness—that they are proud of belonging to an Imperial country, and are resolved to maintain, if they can, the empire of England”.
William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister who dominated nineteenth century British politics like perhaps no other individual, had felt backed into bombing Alexandria and occupying Egypt in 1882 (though some would point to his investments in the Suez Canal and suggest more sordid motives).But Gladstone was intensely wary of being drawn deeper into the Sudan.  Members of his government engaged in conversations with a committee of the pacifist International Arbitration and Peace Association to discuss “the reported practicability of making terms with the Mahdi”. (6)
Under pressure from Conservatives and the jingo press, Gladstone dispatched a celebrity general, Charles Gordon, to the Sudan to effect the evacuation of a small army stationed at Khartoum. Gordon, an Evangelical Christian known for his temper, began preparing the public before he left for the Sudan. He presented himself as an expert on the region and did a series of interviews with leading papers.
Once in the Sudan, Gordon promptly disobeyed Gladstone’s orders and dug in at Khartoum, dispatching messages urging that a relief expedition come to his aid. Gordon used these messages to go over Gladstone’s head to appeal to the papers and through them to the public. The civilian-military conflict escalated and the tabloids of the day bayed for Gladstone’s blood, eventually forcing him to send a relief expedition, which arrived in Khartoum just days after it had been overrun (Gordon was killed). Later that year, the Mahdi died.
But the death of the Mahdi changed nothing for a British public and military hungry for revenge. General Horatio Kitchener (part of the failed relief expedition of 1884-5) built up a powerful Anglo-Egyptian army, marched to Omdurman in 1898, and annihilated a hopelessly outgunned Sudanese force, butchered the survivors, and left in place an administration which embarked on a repressive consolidation of Anglo-Egyptian rule which would keep Britain in the Sudan until 1956. British rule would also exacerbate differences between the north and south of the Sudan, differences which continue to fuel violence today.
The Nile that ran through Sudan, and bound it and Egypt to British imperial aspirations, was also the symbolic site of one of Britain’s final imperial setbacks of the twentieth century.  When a British government colluded with French and Israeli forces to launch a war of aggression against nationalists in Egypt, the world (including the U.S.) expressed its disgust at the casual recourse to violence, the high-handed nature of British policy, and the transparently flimsy pretexts behind the assault.  Some historians cite Britain’s humiliation over Suez as the death knell of the British Empire, a development welcomed by people around Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. ^
1 The Times, 9 November 1882.
2 The Times, 18 November 1881.
The Times, 6 March 1885.
The Times, 6 March 1885.
5The Times, 22 July 1884.
The Times, 20 December 1884.
^Many historians are quite rightly wary of drawing direct historical parallels between sets of events that occur in different places, times and contexts. I share this wariness. It is nonetheless striking how practices of empires in ostensibly liberal democracies utilize similar language, make similar arguments, and constantly fail to identify cause-and-effect relationships between their own security agendas and the ‘threats’ they seek to counter. Similarities between uses of the press, tensions between military and civilian leadership, the mobilizations of public opinion, and ideas about the motivations of those who bear the brunt of imperial aggression are also striking.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Las Vegas Review-Journal Goes to Bat for Colonialism

Late last year, someone bought the rabidly right-wing Las Vegas Review Journal.  The interesting thing was, nobody knew the identity of the buyer.  In a mad farce, the newspaper’s own reporters had to engage in an award-winning investigation to determine that the buyer was in fact the notorious plutocrat, Sheldon Adelson who has set himself the goal of purchasing candidates for the political right. Many Democrats in my adopted city doubted that even contamination by Adelson could significantly lower the editorial standard of the paper. 
But yesterday, as though signaling to naysayers that there were deeper depths to plumb, the R-J published an utterly uninformed editorial, blasting the University of California system for making “college more stilted, more politically correct and generally less fun.”
The editorial referred to UC’s new efforts to crack down on “intolerance” and to police speech and advocacy on campus.  I share the R-J’s disdain for the UC administration’s efforts to ensure that all speech is “civil”, thereby diluting debate.  “Civility” is increasingly a weapon wielded by campus administrators against their critics, whether the debate in question involves tuition, race, sexuality, or other matters.
But when the R-J attempts to pin this initiative on lefty academics and California’s liberalism, it is either letting on its total ignorance about the circumstances of this assault on campus speech, or else is reflecting the propaganda needs of its new owner.
There are two impetuses behind UC’s ill-advised move.
The first is the new managerial mentality that exists on campus.  The instrumentalization and commercialization of higher education is in part an affirmative project by neo-liberal elites who aspire to transform universities from institutions dedicated to thinking, teaching, and public service into businesses more concerned with their bottom line.  It is this new class of administrators, many of whom have never spent a day in a classroom, who are behind the initiative, not faculty.
But it is important to note that this commercialization of higher education is itself driven and enabled by decades of divestment by the states from public higher education.  States like California, even as its population has expanded in size and demographic complexity, have been spending less per student on higher education, leaving universities to raise tuition and fees to make up the shortfall.
Both the affirmative new market approach to higher education and the defensive contributions to it by under-funded public institutions are the product of conservative forces, not the liberals the R-J would like to deride.  Right-wingers are behind the push to commercialize education, and they are behind the push to cut funding for public institutions in California and elsewhere.
But the other impetus, equally un-acknowledged by the R-J editorial team, is the lobby for Israeli colonialism that is so strong in California.  Students on UC campuses had begun to push for campus- and system-wide divestment from any interests that contributed to Israeli colonialism (and in the same bill, divestment from any Palestinian organs associated with attacks on Israel).  UC campuses had this fight when students pushed a grudging administration to divest from apartheid South Africa.  They have carried on that fight today against Israel’s self-destructive and violent colonialism.
Threatened by campus activism and free speech, the lobby for Israeli colonialism marshalled its resources.  This lobby has historically worked hard on campuses.  One group gave Berkeley’s student body president a free trip to Israel.  The same group seeks to target “opinion makers” in the U.S., including various elected figures, individuals from the business world, campus media, California student leaders, and University presidents.  For more detail on campus lobbying at Berkeley, see here.
The lobby’s latest effort has been to target speech on campus that it regards as Anti-Semitic.  However, its definition of anti-Semitism is absurd, and includes any criticism of the Israeli government’s colonialism and terrorism. 
The “political correctness” that the R-J imagines to be a product of lefty campus conspiracies is actually a product of colonial, neo-conservative lobbying.  That lobbying will not only prevent students on campuses around the country from taking a moral stand against regressive forces in our world.  It also helps to silence critics of U.S. support for one of the world’s last colonial regimes.
Israeli colonialism not only punishes Palestinians, but is self-destructive, endangering the lives of Israeli citizens and the health of Israel’s democracy, always deeply compromised by its treatment of Palestinians. 
It is disappointing that the R-J would pen such a sloppy editorial, attacking UC’s policy on campus speech and so wildly misattributing the motives behind it.  It looks all the worse because their new owner is dedicated to defending Israeli colonialism and terror, and is therefore a commander within the lobby that has pressured UC to misconstrue free speech, urging the campus to condemn any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. 
Such attacks on critics of violence and colonialism are themselves assaults on free speech.  The R-J should avoid becoming complicit, in this case through the spread of misinformation, in such assaults.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Clinton to America: Lower Your ambitions

In common with most of her political brethren across both parties, Hillary Clinton’s speeches are filled with veritable hymns to American exceptionalism.  We’re Americans, they say, and therefore deserving of the best.  Coincidentally, because we’re Americans we can also do anything we want…we are literally the best at everything.  There should be no glass ceiling to our ambitions that we are not able and willing to shatter in our quest for a fairer and more just society and better lives for the people in it.
Clinton is now experiencing the odd sensation of facing a strong candidate who has actually encouraged Americans to dream bigger and ask why their lives aren’t defined by the same measures of equality, access, and stability that people in other parts of the world enjoy.
Her approach has been to ask voters to rein in their ambitions.  She is in the position of telling them all of the things they can’t do and can’t have.  She is in the position of representing the strand of liberalism which is willing to concede individuals civil rights, but refuses to acknowledge their claims for the economic rights which would protect them from the predatory forms of capitalism that turn the existence of too many of our citizens into decades- or even life-long scrambles for survival.  She will fiddle around the edges of our social and economic institutions, but won’t seek to re-make them.
Bernie Sanders, drawing on radical American traditions and tenets of social democracy from Europe and elsewhere, has signaled to the public that it is possible to abandon the timidity or ferocity (depending on your perspective) of traditional liberalism and fashion a society in which more services are public.  
That is, according to their wealth, citizens pool their resources and then all derive collective benefits from their investment.  These benefits can be direct: a young person, before they begin to pay taxes back into the system, could attend a public university for free; parents can secure leave to look after a young child and then put them in a public system of early childhood education.  They can also be indirect: the work that the young person in question might do in some profession will better the lives of some other taxpayer who doesn’t have children attending university, or who did not themselves attend university; all citizens will benefit from a generation of children whose security is enhanced by parents under less economic strain and institutions to provide a nurturing environment.
Robust public services and a strong welfare state might mean more contributions in terms of tax dollars from a broad segment of the population, although certainly the greater share of the burden should fall on the wealthy.  But for each of those greater contributions, citizens secure savings on services.  Sure, families would pay a few more dollars per year in taxes to fund public higher education.  But measure that against saving $60,000 in tuition to send a student to the UC for a Bachelor’s degree. 
One benefit of public services in the areas of education, health, welfare provision and the like is that they are more universally accessible than services in the private sector, where the desire for profit and calculations about cost-benefit will create significant or utterly insurmountable obstacles for those who struggle, often the people needing those services most.  Secondly, they are run in the public interest, rather than for private gain.  This can lead to greater efficiency, and certainly better services.  Public services need be no more inefficient than their private counterparts.
Hillary Clinton is taking a stand against this logic.
A national system of healthcare, ensuring universal access, of the kind she touted in the 1990s?  Far too ambitious…better the under-regulated, market-version of healthcare that leaves people unprotected and some of them still uninsured.
Free public education, of the kind enjoyed by many of Clinton’s generation who attended public universities, including campuses of the elite UC system?  No way!  Far better, Clinton has argued, that students should be working to pay part of their own way, albeit with a better-regulated system of loans.
Clinton has suggested that Sanders would need a “magic wand” to accomplish his goals, which also including reinstating Glass-Steagall and developing family leave. 
But unlike previous Democrats, Sanders is pledging to transform his supporters into a genuine movement rather than simply an ATM for future campaigns.  He is in a position to take advantage of a surge of populism across the political spectrum and to channel elements of it away from the fruitless and bitter hatemongering of the Republican Party towards productive social and economic change.
Clinton will never attempt to reach this audience.  She is content with the existing Democratic coalition, and declared herself in one debate proud to have made enemies of the Republicans.  She and her husband are creatures of the Democratic Party, with all the strengths, weaknesses, and in this case, blind-spots that go along with it.  She has either failed to recognize the breadth and depth of the desire for a re-drawing of economic lines of power in our country, or else recognizes that even her current contortions from a regressive decade and a half put considerable strain on credibility.

Is there a risk that some of Sanders’ promises will go unfulfilled?  Yes.  Is there a risk that many of his supporters will be disappointed by what he is able to accomplish?  Certainly.  Would I write blog posts bemoaning his caution or inadequacy?  Silly question.  Is the same true of Clinton?  Of course.  Would Sanders mount as firm a defense as Clinton against threats to the Supreme Court and to existing civil and economic rights?  Absolutely.  And are his ambitions for our citizenry and our society bigger and better than Clinton’s?  Without a doubt.  

Friday, January 8, 2016

Clinton Reprises her Stupidity on Higher Ed in Las Vegas

Short version: Hillary Clinton, please stop talking about Donald Trump’s kids when you discuss higher ed funding.  You sound like a moron and you undercut the central premise behind public goods.

Long version: Earlier this week Hillary Clinton was back in Las Vegas making a pitch to her supporters and to potential caucus-goers.  She reprised one of her favorite lines, arguing that taxpayers shouldn’t “pay for Donald Trump’s kidsto go to college for free.”   I’ve written about this before, but since Clinton keeps repeating it, I will keep emphasizing why it is such a problem.

Clinton likes this line because it simultaneously takes a dig at Bernie Sanders’ ambition to replicate the success of other countries in creating a free system of higher education, and also knocks Donald Trump.

I dislike this line because it makes Clinton sound like a pandering, populist halfwit, and also encourages people to mis-understand the basic premise at the heart of a social contract.

Even in our mangled, loophole-ridden tax system, the wealthy pay in more of their income or other earnings than the poor.  They certainly pay greater sums.  These funds are pooled and then re-apportioned to pay for public goods like education, parks, and various welfare programs.  So the tax contributions of Donald Trump—which should certainly be higher—would not only pay for his own children to go to college in Sanders’ plan, but for a bunch of other people’s children as well.

That’s the nature of public institutions and programs, and since we know that Clinton isn’t actually stupid, her repetition of this flawed applause-line marks her out as deeply cynical and dishonest.

Because wealthy people drive freely on public highways would Clinton propose to withdraw public funding for those highways?  Because wealthy people can send their children freely to public schools, would Clinton propose withdrawing the public funding that allows everyone to send their children to those schools for free?

Her logic doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny, and if she has substantive problems with Sanders’ higher education policies—and I have my own worries—she should articulate them intelligently instead of peddling her dishonest line that entirely misses the point about public services.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sanders' Campaign Deserves Our Attention

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are in town tonight.  The Sanders campaign called me today to remind me about our impending caucus.  The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are just around the corner.
Americans are on the cusp of an important primary election involving important choices.  These choices could be historic, too.  Because more than any other candidate in any recent election, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders represents an opportunity to chart a new course.  Like candidates in the Republican Party, Sanders has tapped into discontent: discontent with the conduct of our foreign policy; discontent with a flailing economic system; and discontent with a broken political process.
But unlike his rivals in the Democratic Party, and unlike the Republicans, Sanders offers a series of alternatives in each of these arenas that are consistent, tested, moral, and just.
While Sanders' foreign policy needs serious fleshing out, and while I think he has missed a real opportunity to overturn a toxic consensus in this area, he nonetheless represents the best option out there.  Unlike Clinton and the Republicans, Sanders recognizes that many of the dangers lurking in the world are of our own making and require the modification of our behavior as well as that of others.  Unlike Clinton and the Republicans, Sanders recognizes that savage military force is a blunt instrument that can prove not only immoral, but also rebounds and heightens our own insecurity.  
When it comes to domestic policy, Sanders shares the populist critique of some Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton.  But unlike the latter, he has not flip-flopped on these issues, and is more trustworthy.  Nor has he taken buckets of cash from Wall Street.  And unlike the Republicans, Sanders' populism is rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of where fault lies and what the responsibilities of the state are in rectifying that fault.  Donald Trump can inveigh all he likes against a rigged system.  But I'd urge any of his supporters to peruse his tax plan: it equates to savings for the wealthy and a greater burden for the rest of us.
Like the Republican reformers of the early twentieth century, Sanders recognizes the importance of preventing capital from growing to such a size and amassing such a power that it subverts democratic governance.  Through Republican legislators and Supreme Court justices, plutocrats have already seized an outsized role for themselves in funding and therefore compromising our elections.  Sanders' promise to dismantle flawed institutions on Wall Street and re-draw the lines of economic power to favor the working and middle class are a far cry from the Republicans' promise to put their trust in the fiction of the free market, and far more trustworthy than Clinton's promises given that voters will inevitably wonder what she has said behind closed doors to her funders on Wall Street.
The vision of the U.S. promoted by Sanders is also more compatible with reality and 
We live in a society full of people from around the world who have been in the U.S. for varying amounts of time, from months to many generations.  Those people possess various faiths, various points of view, speak various languages, and are of various ethnicities.  Their faiths and freedoms are protected by law.  So when Republican candidates attempt to demonize entire groups, and to hold them selectively responsible for the actions of people with whom they share a single characteristic on the other side of the world, they are violating the letter and the spirit of that law.  When they seek to turn old migrants against new, the country against the town, and the middle class against itself, they are assaulting the foundations of our society.  Sanders embraces our country's people as they are, not as they were in the 18th century.
But he is not content with the lot of those people.  And in articulating alternatives, he draws on a variety of inspirations.  In some cases, those are our country's own traditions: radicals of the mountain and pacific west; the populists of the depression-era south; socialists and social reformers from the eastern seaboard; and progressives from the midwest.  Those were people with visions of a better, more equal society.  They were all, in their own ways, prepared to contribute more knowing that those contributions would be multiplied because they would be required from each person in proportion to the wealth that had accrued to them in the course of their life in our society.  
Many of those visions went un-realized, but Sanders' other inspirations are those in other parts of the world who won better standards of living, more freedoms, and more secure lives than those many Americans enjoy: the social democrats of Scandinavia; the progressives of Canada; the labor movement in Britain.  These are existing and successful societies, where the social democracy that Sanders embraces have brought not the calamity Republicans predict, but stability and prosperity, imperfect but very, very real.
I hope that traditional Democrats will consider voting or caucusing for Sanders, and that Republicans dissatisfied with the status quo will listen to his words, un-filtered by the degraded mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine.  
My adopted state, Nevada, is plagued by serial poverty that leaves its elites unmoved.  Its legislature is run by representatives of a party who range from economic fundamentalists bound by pledges to outright sociopaths who have expressed a desire to murder refugees.  Its economy is warped by the power of protected industries that believe themselves exempt from the obligations of our civil society.  And our social infrastructure is pathetically threadbare, scarcely worthy of the ambitions of our communities, who struggle to make ends meet, to find good schools, and to make new lives.

The movement Sanders is building, the program he would bring to Washington, and his assessment of the problems our nation faces and the culprits behind those problems make his campaign worthy of support.  He represents our best chance of obliterating the combination of injustice, inequality, and disempowerment that plagues our society, and replacing it with something fairer and more equal and more democratic.  Other candidates propose to entrench the existing system, while others would fiddle around the edges.  But if Sanders can take his movement to Washington, we can use his coattails to make change in our states, our communities, and our day to day lives.