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The Third Estate
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Because I don't like to curse

Tuesday, February 22, 2011
What Rude Pundit said.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:33 PM

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Understanding the Real Problem

I get the sense that liberals are starting to realize that there are serious institutional obstacles to any sort of progressive revival. The amazingly rapid recovery of the conservative movement after its crushing defeats in 2006-2008 have been deeply discouraging - we all thought that the worm had finally turned (so to speak) but now things look if anything darker than they did in 2005. Even with a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate, Paul Krugman has stated that the the U.S. is for all intents a purposes an oligarchy. All public policies are for the benefit of the wealthiest among us, or at least that no policy can be enacted without their consent, what Glenn Greenwald has described as corporatism.

Kevin Drum argues persuasively that the decline of unions has not only had a direct negative effect on the American economy by removing a counterweight to business, but that this decline has made the Democratic Party a less effective instrument for middle and working class economic concerns. Elected officials have to get re-elected, and and without unions leading Democrats have had to turn more and more to big business.

Eric Alterman is making a related point in his book Kabuki Democracy. I haven't read it yet, but if the article it's based on and the reviews of the work are any indication, the basic point is a sound one: American politics is structurally biased against liberal reform.

In one sense the Obama administration has been deeply disappointing. I've argued for some time that what concerned me about his presidency wasn't details of the legislation he had or hadn't passed, but his sense of priorities. My belief is that there are structural problems afflicting American politics that require structural solutions. Obama's presidency, whether in respect to the stimulus bill or health care or what have you, has been essentially policy-oriented, accepting the structure as it is. This inattention to the more deep-seated set of problems means that all his victories are provisional, and that the underlying trajectory of the United States remains unchanged. And now the opportunity has been lost.

It's all very discouraging, to be sure, but I'm pleased that Obama's failure to revive liberalism has sparked some soul-searching among liberals. Thinkers like Drum, Hacker, Krugman, and Drum have come around to the idea that we're going to have to do more than simply elected a Democratic President and Congress to solve our problems. What we have to do is set out a new agenda for the Democratic Party as a whole - one that addresses the fundamental problem of economic and political inequality.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:21 AM

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Why Care About Unions?

Monday, February 21, 2011
One thing that I think gets missed in discussions about unions is the role they play in an economy full of large corporations. In a small business the owner of the business usually has a strong day-to-day involvement in the running of it. He or she (usually a he, alas) interacts with employees every day. They're people, not dehumanized labor-producing objects. As a consequence I'm guessing that mistreatment of a certain sort is a lot less common than it is in big businesses, where the people who set policy never interact with their employees. It's much easier to dehumanize someone that is just another number on a spreadsheet. In a big business, labor costs are just that - costs to your bottom line that need to minimized in any way possible. In a small business it's more likely that you see those workers as actual human beings, with their own needs and value. None of this is to say that there isn't mistreatment in small business, and I think that sexism in particular could be even worse. But the sort of systemic treatment of one's workers as an extension one's will, as just things to be moved around, to treat people you know on a personal level like that takes a very special kind of sociopath.

And hence unions. Maybe they're not as necessary in small firms, but in large businesses, they're the only way that the management gets reminded that their employees are people too. Get rid of them and all those stories out of Dickens seems a lot more probable.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:48 AM

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On Wisconsin

Friday, February 18, 2011
It's no secret that Republicans have long disliked labor unions. The recent attacks on public employees is only the latest episode in a decades-long campaign to delegitimize, marginalize, and ultimately destroy every union in the country, public or private. From a political point of view I can't fault their motivation or their sense of timing. With so few workers in the private sector covered by unions, and with state budgets in such dire straits, it's an opportune time for Republicans to finally rid themselves of a key Democratic voting bloc. Despite the protests, I suspect that they will ultimately succeed. Frankly I'll be surprised if the unionization rate in the U.S. doesn't drop into the low single digits over the next decade or so.

Why so glum? My nature perhaps, and the fact that these are discouraging times. But more importantly I don't have a great deal of confidence that the Democratic Party will do anything to stop it. As with abortion rights or gun control, Democrats have stopped fighting very hard for unions. They're pretty much absent from the public debate on these issues, which means that one one side you have a barrage of relentless propaganda and on the other....nothing. It's difficult to sustain popular support for a position under such circumstances. Just look at how many elected Democrats are playing footsie with neoliberal reforms in education like merit pay and charter schools - reforms that are largely lacking in evidentiary support and strike directly at the heart not just of teachers unions, but of the very idea of public education.

Now it's not that it wouldn't be easy to make a case that we should stand up for the rights of workers to organize. The national leadership of the party (I'm talking to you Obama) should land in Wisconsin, join the protest, and give a speech arguing that every worker in this country should have the right to look their employer in the eye, that it's an impossibility to win these battles individually but that they can only be won together. It's the same problem we're facing in so many spheres of American life - the idea that things will get better if we all just go it alone, or wait for the magic of the market to solve our problems for us. Life doesn't work that way. That's how you fight a political war against conservatism - make it about bigger stakes, challenge people to rise above their own narrow self-interest, identify the enemy.

But that's not going to happen. We'll have a press release or two, and some noises about how unfair it all is, and then the Democrats in Washington will go to another fundraiser and collect donations from Goldman Sachs and Northrup-Grumman and talk about how important it is to have a "good business environment." I mean really, look at what lack of regulations, no unions, and low wages has done for Mississippi!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:21 PM

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Dealing with Bullies

Tuesday, February 08, 2011
When I was a kid I got in fights a lot. Most were a response to someone trying to dominate me in some way, and when that happened I always resisted, resistance that often led to violence. Sometimes I was the one who "started" the fight. It depended on what type of bully I was dealing with. The ones that wanted to fight and were looking for an excuse to hurt someone - you couldn't avoid a fight with them. The fight was the whole point. They were stupid and I could usually get together some friends and ambush them on the playground. After that they'd leave you alone. The ones I really hated - the ones that I got accused of picking fights with - were the ones that wanted a symbol of subordination. They would have left me alone if I'd let them walk over me, but I never did. It was harder to get people to help you against the latter sort of bully. My classmates couldn't understand why I couldn't give way.

Either way I would end up in the principal's office. To tell the truth I lost almost every fight - I was short, fat, and not all that coordinated. But I never stopped, either during the fight or after. And by the time I was ten or eleven bigger and stronger kids had started getting the message that if they screwed with me they were going to end up underneath a bookcase (true story). After a while people decided that I just wasn't worth the trouble.

None of this is to endorse the use of violence. As an adult it would never occur to me to behave in such a way. If I were a child today it would be stupid to do so. Times were different in the eighties. Kids weren't bringing guns and knives to school. Acting like that now would get me expelled or seriously injured. I would have preferred it if teachers and principals would have stepped in and stopped the casual acts of cruelty that the strong used against the weak. But they didn't. And it was a useful lesson for me - that in life there are going to be times when there is no one in authority to guarantee justice, and when that happens you have to stick up for yourself, no matter what the cost .When you are in position of weakness, the only way to present a credible threat to deter another is to be willing to go to ludicrous lengths to retaliate.

And this is what brings me back to politics, and my frustration with a common type of liberal. Maybe it's because most left-of-center intellectuals grew up in comfortable, middle class circumstances, or maybe my childhood experiences just scarred me for life, but for whatever reason, most of my political fellow travelers, politicians or not, have absolutely no appetite for conflict. They shy away from it instinctively. These are well-meaning people that I agree with 90% of the time but who make me want to scream with frustration when they claim that surely there are conservatives with whom we can deal in good faith. Of course there are, I respond, but those aren't people with any power. The ones who do control the conservative movement, and most of the rank and file of that movement, would happily repeal the 20th, 19th, and 18th century if they thought they could get away with it. Their political agenda is quite simply one of domination: domination of women, or the poor, of anyone that isn't in their special little club. Appeasing them isn't going to be any more constructive than it would have been for me in 3rd grade. All it will do is let them win, and persuade them that they are right to hold us in contempt. The entire motivation behind right-wing psychology is that they want to dominate other people. Negotiating with people like that is a waste of time.

Maybe Barack Obama never had a problem with being bullied. It's the only thing that can explain his treatment of the Chamber of Commerce. After the chamber underwrites smears against him and his party and pushes policies that are both deeply self-interested and profoundly antithetical to the country's well-being, what does Obama do? He makes nice with them. If it had been me, I would have made a speech at the chamber all right. But they would have never invited me to another.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:07 AM

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Centripetal Forces of New Media

Monday, February 07, 2011
You may or may not have heard that Huffington Post is being purchased by AOL. This is certainly good news for Arianna Huffington, both with respect to her political influence and her bank account (isn't she loaded already?). There is also some possibility that it will create additional left-leaning ballast in the national media - although it seemed to me that HuffPost was doing pretty well all on its own. My biggest problem with the acquisition is that it represents yet another step in the concentration of media into fewer and fewer hands. The internet started out as a fairly open system, amenable to a range of new voices, yet over time virtually every significant voice has been absorbed into a larger institutional framework. A few of these are still independent - like Daily Kos and Firedoglake - but most seem to have been scooped up by more established media players. Perhaps this is inevitable, but I must admit a pang at seeing the gradual death of the freewheeling blogosphere of 2004. My goodness, has it already been seven years?

(edit: that's what I get for not looking up how to spell "centripetal" first)
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:52 PM

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Federal Judge Strikes Down Whole Health Care Law

Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Well, no one can say that we didn't see this one coming. Although most informed observers believe the Supreme Court is highly unlikely to declare the entire health care law unconstitutional, it's certainly possible that it will. The fate of any progressive law now depends on the whims of Anthony Kennedy. God help us. And what happens if the Republicans get one more wingnut in the Scalia mold onto the court, so that they have a 5-vote majority. I suspect that they expeditiously eliminate the entire 20th century liberal achievement. And then what will we do?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:58 AM

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