Hillary Clinton and the angry left

So I have a lot of friends on the left who just hate Hillary Clinton. And I love that they hate her so. Why?

First, because to me their hatred says that they want progressive policies, but without the politics necessary to get them. Everybody should just realize that single payer health care and environmental regulation and a living wage and so on are the simply the right thing to do.  No one should have to argue about it or compromise for it.

But that’s not how democracy works. It’s not enough to simply know what the right policies are, you have to get people to vote for representative legislators who then have to make those policies law, and then you have to get the administrative branch to execute those laws, and have judges uphold them when they are challenged. And that process works at multiple levels. Moreover, there are nearly 200 independent territories in the world, and there are people in each one who, at least in principle, are allowed to make their own decisions about how they want to use their resources, and so on.

I’ve read so many Jeremiads, litanies of the sins of statesmen, capitalists, fascists, totalitarians, revolutionaries, and on and on and on. And I still believe a better world is possible! But the American left is so often terribly narrow in it’s aspirations. What do I mean? Take the antipathy for NAFTA, common on both the left and right (both blame the other for it, as a general rule). It often boils down to a sentimental longing for manufacturing jobs. Jobs that required only a high school education, at most, which used skills already widely understood to American men, which would produce familiar products. The hours would be long enough to satisfy the craving for the badge of “hard work” but not so demanding as to preclude time with family, regular vacations, and so on. Compsenation would be commensurate with skill level, of course, but at minimum would include full health and dental benefits, and enough take-home pay for a stand-alone house in a nearby suburb, which of course would be suitably outfitted with a range of the latest in conusmer goods. A food system that could deliver the option of beef, chicken, or pork, lobster or fresh, wild caught ocean fish, every night to the average person. The option of voting – the choice to care or not – and if you just didn’t have time to really engage in the process, nothing to worry about, but, of course, also a civic engagement that would allow the individual to really matter.

In short, what people seem to want is the right to live unconsciously. And what makes people crazy about Hillary Clinton is that she’s always consciously engaged in the political process. She is by no means alone in her engagement – but she represents the kind of person who made a long term commitment to politics when she was young, and has accrued the expansive personal network and attendent influence that comes with decades of involvement in political campaigns and policy making and so on. People wanted Bernie Sanders to just go storming into the Democratic party and rewrite the platform. And when it didn’t happen all those starry eyed partisans hollared about injustice!

And the thing is that, even though she lost the Presidential election, Hillary Clinton is still a major figure within the Democratic party. And it makes the left crazy because they want her loss to mean that they get to be in change now. “Okay, you lost, you failed! Now get on your private jet and fly away and let us work on our socialist revolution.” It’s important that Clinton be craven and greedy – she’s not allowed to want to do the right thing. Because capitalism is wrong – at least, according to the left. Sort of. When it suits their purposes anyways. Hillary Clinton got paid for making speeches to Goldman Sachs! She must be corrupt!

Never assume that someone else must not be authentic. It’s tremendously dangerous. Because if your theory of how things work depends on some particular individual being a liar, and it turns out they are telling the truth, your entire view falls apart, which is some ways the worst sort of disaster. To me, the insistance of the left that Hillary Clinton represents the failures of the Democratic party is a demonstration of the left’s reliance on that failure. The left doesn’t want to win elections. They just want to be right.

Reading fiction is great!

What was on my mind when I thought about writing a blog post earlier this evening was something about an oncoming political crisis – but then I got distracted by the rest of the blogosphere. So much to read, so little time.

Within the last year I’ve made it a point to read fiction again. I’m pretty busy, because teaching and taking care of a baby will keep you busy, but I decided that I would feel better about the world if I could start and finish novels from time to time, and I was at least right about that. In particular, detective novels. To be specific, books by Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett is most famous nowadays for having written The Maltese Falcon, which was turned into a legendary film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre (who would both later star in Casablanca). Hammett lived for a number of years in San Francisco, and the novel is set there, and has lots of references to places in the city. Having lived in San Francisco, it was fun being able to picture the action of the story – the fog, the streets, the cramped apartments. Hammett’s style is super classic hardboiled style. His protagonists are badass – hard drinking loners with a habit of bending the law in pursuit of a case. The dialogue is witty and sometimes hilarious, the plots are well constructed and clever. In addition to Falcon I’ve read The Thin Man and Red Harvest – both great. I’ve got a book of his short fiction sitting on my desk.

I’d never read Agatha Christie before but I got her book And then there were none for Christmas and it blew my mind. The story is diabolical, and yet basically about justice. Actually, most detective fiction is about justice. It’s maybe the most facinating thing about detective fiction. At some point I’d like to read more of Christie’s work, as well as Ngaio Marsh. In the meantime I read a book published in the 1990s called Out by Natsuo Kirino, which was completely amazing. It felt like a meditation on life under capitalism. Many of the characters spend much of their time worrying about money, and the plot is driven forward by various anxieties induced by the lack of money. But also there’s a lot about how factory work is degrading and kind of boring. It’s also a very dark novel. I could barely put it down.

A novel I read that was not a mystery – although I suppose there was sort of a mystery that drove the story forward – about a month ago now was The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm. What a delightful read! It’s essentially a story of the end of World War II in Hamburg, as told to a young writer in the 1980s by an elderly lady who lived through it. As the title suggests, there’s sausage involved, and finding out how is very much part of the fun of reading the book.

I sometimes feel as if everything is so heavy these days – so serious! And that I need also to be very serious! I need to be reading economics journals and trying to write about policy or something – but honestly, there are really much better sources for reading about economics and politics than my blog. I know, I read them.

Speaking of politics though – I will say one thing about what I’ve been reading in the news lately. I often get the sense that the folks who do take politics seriously (and these are the people who tend to write stuff I want to read) simply don’t understand how deeply unserious other folks are about politics. There’s lots of discussion about Trump and Congress and all that at the moment – and I honestly do not think Trump has seriously thought through what’s going on. Nor Paul Ryan, for that matter. Ryan put together a bill that said what he wanted it to say. And my current favorite response to the bill is “it is unclear what problem it is trying to solve.” Because Ryan isn’t really trying to solve a problem. He’s trying to cut taxes and make government smaller.

It seems to me that the conservative vision for the US is that government doesn’t really make all that many decisions. There would be a kind of business aristocracy that would do most of the decision making instead. Or maybe that’s my own pessimisstic vision. It’s certainly where I think we’re headed.

I’ve been slowly making my way through a short novel called The Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecuter by Tawfiq al-Hakim. It was published in Egypt in the 1930s. The author had gone to university in France and come home to Egypt all hyped up on modernism, and did indeed spend some time as prosecuter in a far flung village somewhere outside of Cairo. It’s very much a black comedy. This lawyer, he’s got a mystery on his hands, he’s trying to figure it out, but nothing makes any sense. Everything is broken and topsy-turvy and so on. It’s hilarious! But also depressing, of course. In Egypt, at least in those days, the legal system made not all that much sense to the country folk who were subject to it. And the system was terribly overworked and underfunded, so it was basically beyond comprehension. Nothing but a series of perverse situations, no justice at all. And yet! The protagonist is drawn into caring about a case. A political crisis erupts in the middle of case, but he perseveres. I don’t know how it ends, because I haven’t finished it. I enjoy how it plays on the “nothing is as it seems” although in some sense, things are exactly as they seem. Everything is all messed up and everyone is just trying to make the best of it.

One of the things that really attracts my attention to Maze is how distant justice seems in the book. Political power isn’t even in Egypt, it’s somewhere else, far away. Europe, I suppose? It doesn’t even really matter in the book. It’s just far away, and it doesn’t give a shit about people suffering. How do you keep your head in such a crazy mixed up world?

Betsy DeVos

[This is a slightly modified Facebook post from yesterday]

Alright, so Betsy DeVos is going to be Secretary of Education. And I basically think that’s a disaster. But some part of me genuinely wants to know: what is it her supporters think is going to happen? Or, more importantly, what is it they want to happen? Because here’s what it seems like:

There’s this idea of “school choice.” Parents have children, and they want them to be educated. To that end, they will investigate the available school options, and then choose the one that best fits their goals for their children. Schools, both public and private, will compete for students, who will come with government vouchers attached to them that will help fund the schools.

In theory that all sounds fine. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen, an economist and blogger at George Mason University who always seems to write from a world where everyone can get a job making as much money as they want, whenever they want. Whatever happens is your choice. Your responsibility.

I think the reality of what will happen looks entirely different, even from the view of DeVos supporters. Because “school choice” is only part of what they want. What they also want is vindication of decades of fear and loathing with respect to government policy on public education. For example, if Chicago Public Schools fail (and thousands of students don’t get an education), it will mean that big government policies have failed! Those government bureaucrats should have known better than to try and fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all system! If public schools collapse, it will be because the communities who supported them chose wrong! And now they’ll have to pay the price!

Also crucial to this view is the idea of the “happy poor.” If you’re unhappy it’s your own fault. It’s not because you have to choose between paying your bills and eating. Or because you can’t afford to send your kids to a decent school. No no no. Happiness is a personal responsibility. But it’s equal opportunity!

It’s essentially a revenge theory. Social conservatives have resented public education for a long, long time. The Supreme Court ruled, in a series of cases going back to 1947 (Everson v Board of Education, where Justice Hugo Black famously quoted Jefferson’s writing “wall of separation between church and state”) and stretching through the early 1960s (in particular Abington School District v Schempp) that religion had no place in education, to the lasting ire of the religious right. And of course, the Brown v Board of Education decision that ended public school segregation.

Conservatives won’t be happy until liberals – and everyone they’ve tried to help – suffer. Suffer long and hard, so they know not to meddle in liberty of their fellow citizens.

Granted, I know that’s a pretty harsh assessment of the situation. I often sense that my tone, both here and in other places, is excessively abrasive. On the other hand, I often think to myself that so many people want there to be a moderation of the debate, and the conservative side of political debate is able to leverage that hope over and over again. Throughout the first Obama administration there were calls for civility and compromise, and Democrats had to constantly make overtures to Republicans, trying to find common ground and “bi-partisan solutions” and the Republicans, almost without exception, acted in bad faith throughout that period. I use harsh language because the bad faith of so many Americans enrages me. When we puff out our chest at the pomp and circumstance of the flag and the anthem and then turn away from injustice that besets us daily, it makes me mad.

Freedom from…wait, what?

So, I’m thinking about a conversation I had with a student in Justice class yesterday. I was saying that one of the objections to big government is that it stops small towns from enforcing prayer in schools. And he got turned around on it – he doesn’t think a school should have to force anyone to pray. But that’s the policy of big government. That’s the paradox.

I’m fascinated by the school prayer issue for this reason. It was a case that occurred in the 1950s, and has been a source of controversy ever since. Yet it is not especially well understood by liberals. Most folks on the left seem to want to imagine that conservative governments want to force their conservative brand of Christianity on the rest of the country, and yet that is not, from my understanding, really the case. What most conservative Christians want is the right to make local and/or State laws that harmonize with their views, which the power of the Federal government in general and the Supreme Court in particular has frustrated throughout the modern era.

But let’s step back a moment. Imagine it’s 1900, and you and everyone you know emigrates from central Europe to the United States, looking for place to settle where you can live peacefully by your own traditions. You’re not interested in forcing anyone else to live by your traditions. On the contrary, you’re tolerant of others. You won’t mess with them as long as they don’t mess with you. Live and let live. You get some land, you cultivate the land, work hard, and establish a little town with a church and school. Everyone in town goes to the same church, and therefore everyone at school abides by the rules laid down by the church. Sweet liberty! All are happy. You are able to live free of outside intervention.

Fifty odd years later, some guys in black robes in a far off place called Washington tell you that you can’t require your local school to abide by your local church rules. You can pray in school, but you can’t require it, and you can’t exclude outsiders. What the fuck? You aren’t messing with outsiders. You’re not forcing your way of life on anyone. You came and established your town for your people and who the fuck are these “Justices” to tell you what you can or can’t do in your little school on the prairie?

You can extend this sort of thinking to a great many issues – slavery, for example, was not an issue of the South forcing Northern states to abide slavery, only to abide the right of the South to practice it. Hence the continual reference to “States rights.” Folks on the left have a tendency to conflate “states rights” with racism – but there’s an important difference here. That difference is that in order to end slavery, the Federal government had to fight a massively destructive war. Moreover, it had to enforce laws that were thought terribly unjust by vast swaths of the population.

The key to understanding the present political moment, for me, is the opposition to the Federal government. The whole point of the Trump administration is not to reform the Federal government, it is to diminish it as much as possible. To make it stop telling people what to do. To restore liberty to States and localities. So that if a town wants to vote to require all students be practicing Christians, they can do that. Or if a State wants to outlaw abortion and birth control practices, they can do that. Or if a corporation feels that regulations are unfairly interfering in their conducting a profitable enterprise, they can get them changed or abolished without too much trouble.

People love to hate on the Federal government. Everybody does. But y’all are gonna miss that shit when it’s gone.


So, I’m teaching a class on Justice over at Roosevelt University in Chicago. It’s a bit surreal for me. When I was a student there I took it twice, once as an undergrad and once as a grad, in the first and last semesters I was there. It was a signiture course of Professor Ziliak, who is something of an iconoclast. I worry that my own version of the class will pail in comparison to his, but in the meantime I’m having fun with it. Anyways, the first assignment I gave the students was write a short paper, between 300 and 500 words, on the question “What is fair?” The twist is that the student is supposed to write as if addressing a child. A friend of mine (who adjuncted at Roosevelt for a couple years) remarked, when I told him about the assignment I was planning, that I would have to write a version of my own. So I did. Here it is:

Sometimes we say something is not fair. We might say this about something we are doing ourselves, or thing we saw someone else do. We might feel very strong about it, even if we do not know why. Everybody will say something is unfair at one time or another. It is normal and natural. But because everyone will think something unfair at one time or another it is important for us to understand what we mean by the word “fair.”

First, if we say something is fair or unfair, we are saying that we care about it. Not everyone cares about the same things, or in the same way. What might seem fair to one person will seem unfair to another. We have to think carefully about what we mean by fair so that we can talk to other people about it.

Second, when we think about fairness, we have to use our imagination. When we do something – play a game, take a trip, talk to a friend, read a story – we often imagine what will happen before it happens. Many times, if things don’t go the way we thought they would, we think it’s unfair. Sometimes, we will decide something is unfair before we know why, and then find a reason afterwards. This can be dangerous, because our imagination is powerful. We might make up a reason why something is unfair and then refuse to believe anything else. A person who says that anything that doesn’t go their way is unfair is a person who is hard to talk to, to play or work with, or to care about. If we want people to care about us, we need to be able to talk about what fair means.

So how can we know if something is fair? Imagine you are doing something you care about and it doesn’t go the way you want. What would make it okay? When is it okay to lose a game? Did everyone play their best and by the rules? Then it’s okay.

Things are not always fair. Sometimes things don’t go our way, it’s unfair, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When this happens it is important to know how to forgive. Sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes they do the wrong thing on purpose. Sometimes they’ll say they’re sorry, and sometimes they won’t. Either way it’s important to forgive them. If we’re angry or hurt about something that isn’t fair and we don’t forgive the person who made us feel that way we can end up carrying the anger and hurt around with us and it can make it hard to be happy or to care about the people who care about us. It is not fair to ourselves to carry around our anger and hurt, and that’s why its important to know how to forgive.

What is fair and unfair can be confusing, but its important to know how to talk about what fair means. When we care about something we’re doing, we will want it to be fair. People care about different things, so we must be able to talk about fairness so we don’t get confused. If things don’t go our way but we feel okay anyways, it might be fair. It’s always okay to ask a friend what they think. And whatever happens, remember that sometimes people do things that aren’t fair, and when they do, we must forgive them, out of fairness to ourselves.

(When I wrote that it was in a notebook, without a word counter. Once I typed it out I discovered it was 580 words, a bit over the limit I assigned. I’m pretty sure it could be improved, but I’ll leave it as is.)

Don’t freak out about Trump’s cabinet of horrors

My feed over on the ‘book is presently a litany of fear and loathing over the incoming administration – but I think folks ought to chill the fuck out. Trump was never going to be thoughtful about running the country, and I do not think the people who voted for him were hoping that he would be thoughtful about running the country.

Betsy DeVos, who will almost certainly be Secretary of Education, knows almost nothing about education policy. Ben Carson is clueless as to what urban development is about, despite having grown up poor and black in a major American city. The nominee for head of the EPA is not sure if there is a safe level of lead in drinking water regarding children (there is not). Many of my friends are presently exasperated by the sheer ignorance of the incoming administration. Moreover, the current attempt at formulating a replacement for the Affordable Care Act belies a serious misunderstanding of how health care policy works on the part of Republican policy makers.

Let me be clear: I am well aware that the country has been hijacked by nitwits. But it does not especially disturb me.

To understand what’s going on, it helps to know how conservative talk show hosts think about politics. The key to their appeal is that they are anti-liberal. Indeed, there isn’t anything especially conservative about Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, or anybody else in the vast panoply of right wing media. What matters is not what they are for – it never was – what matters is that they are against liberalism. What’s liberalism? The ruling ideology of the US Federal government since FDR.

The many achievements of the Federal government since 1933 – Social Security, the National Labor Relations Board, agricultural and environmental regulation, Medicare, Medicaid, the end of racial segregation of the military, along with many Supreme Court decisions (Roe v Wade in particular) – are, together, what conservatives are against in the US. This is what has given the Republican party its emphasis on cutting taxes. Its not that they especially care about cutting taxes – for rich people or anyone else – its that they want to defund the Federal government.

Let’s consider the Roe v Wade case. In my view, what is at the heart of the issue for conservatives is not abortion. No, no, no. It’s not about telling women what they can or cannot do. Not really. What it’s about is the Federal government telling States what laws they can and cannot make. Prior to Roe v Wade, abortion was banned by all 50 States, in individual pieces of legislation. And then the Supreme Court, in one fell swoop, declared those laws unconstitutional. The issue is that the freedom of State legislatures to tell women what they can or cannot do with their bodies was taken away by the Federal judiciary.

This is a tension that has always existed in the United States. It is why we have two houses of Congress, and why we have the electoral college. It is why the Civil War was fought. And it is this tension, between the States and the Federal government, which drives the present political situation.

What’s the other side of this? Well, let’s imagine a government of technocrats for a moment. Smart, sensible, well educated folks who would make policy decisions on the basis of evidence and reason. If such a government were enabled to make laws applicable throughout the country, shit would be radically different. I can’t imagine we’d have anything other than a single-payer, universal health care system. I think it’s quite likely the EPA would be much stronger. And taxes would probably still be close to what they were in the 1950s – that is to say, very high incomes would be pointless, because they’d get taxed away. Hence, income inequality would be considerably lower than it is. And so on. So why are these problematic? What’s the problem with making good decisions?

Well, first of all, many people don’t like other people making decisions for them, superior reasoning faculties be damned. And it’s easy to imagine that everything would be coming up fucking roses if it wasn’t for the decision making bureaucrat you resent. And it’s not as if very smart, evidence driven policy makers don’t fuck up from time to time. And every time they do it works as an argument against the entire system. Remember Solyndra? A company making solar panels that got a grant out of the 2009 economic stimulus that failed – there were lots of successful parts of the stimulus, but conservatives only ever talked about Solyndra, because it was proof that the stimulus was a huge waste of taxpayer money, and that Obama and the Democrats were out of control, and had to be reined in.

But there’s also the disruptive element of Federal policy making. Again, Roe v Wade makes a great example. If a woman can end an unwanted pregnancy, what is to stop her from obeying patriarchy? Again, its not about the government telling women what to do with their bodies. It’s about patriarchy telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. There was a time in the US not so long ago where prostitution was essentially tolerated. It was the privilege of being a man. The introduction of birth control meant that women could also freely participate in sex for pleasure – which paradoxically meant that they could reasonably demand monogamy from men. This was a disruption of the established balance of power between the sexes. Personally, I think birth control was one of the best things in human history. But if you were a man accustomed to being able to dominate women within your family, birth control was and is a serious threat. And if States were allowed to ban abortion and Planned Parenthood, all that would go away.

For many Americans, freedom means being free of outside influence. The Federal government’s only legitimate purpose is to defend them from outsiders, even if they happen to be their fellow Americans. In the old South, the maintenance of racial segregation symbolized freedom. On the great plains, the freedom to have public schools which taught the local variety of Christianity as part of curriculum was freedom. And so on. The Federal government is always the outsider, the meddler.

And Trump is the revenge of those Americans who resent the Federal government. What they want from the administration is to stop doing the things the Federal government has been doing for the past 84 years. And that’s what the cabinet is all about.

Should we all be afraid? I mean, yes. But for me, the larger issue is that people who want sensible, intelligent, reasonable policy made and enforced by the government have to come to grips with the fact that such policy will be interpreted by some folks as oppression. This particular moment is the return of those oppressed by liberalism. They don’t want sensible policy. They want revenge. If a bunch of people get hurt in the process, well, they should have known better than to fuck with the established order of things.

New Year’s eve

Well here it is, the end of December and I’m just now writing a post. And I’ll start with a resolution to write more in the New Year than I have in the last three months. I was looking over the numbers for this year – because one of the best parts about blogging is that you get statistics on viewership – and it felt like I had written kind of a lot. Nothing especially profound, but I did do some writing. And somebody somewhere read some of it.

It’s not for want of worthy blogging topics over the past few months that I haven’t posted. The 2016 elections happened. Trump’s cabinet of horrors. Reflections on opera – Das Rheingold was much funnier than expected – and music and so on. I taught four classes this past semester and beginning in the next few weeks I’ll be teaching four more. One intro, one macro, one micro, and one titled “Theories of Justice” and having to do very much with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. There will be lots of travel, and hopefully lots of reading, and certainly a great deal of work. But I won’t be writing a book chapter, so that’s helpful. I often found I’d feel guilty writing a blog post while I had pending stuff for the book chapter. It was a challenging project for me, and I’m glad it’s done. Next weekend I’m going to Chicago for the American Economic Association’s 2017 annual conference, so that’s exciting. I was surprised to see the the Union for Radical Political Economy has sessions at the AEA (and kind of excited to check them out).

2017 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Das Capital, and I think I’d like to try reading the whole thing this year. I have a weird relationship with Marx – he’s a tradition unto himself, and that can make him fascinating. But there’s also a real politics around Marxism that makes taking it seriously feel very ridiculous. It can be liberating to be ridiculous, if you can keep it straight. It’s harder than it looks.

I also intend to return to my blogging Piketty project. I recently picked up Milanovic’s Global Ineuality: A new approach for the Age of Globalization, and I expect that will get added to the mix. In truth, I picked up an absurd quantity of new books to add to my pile of necessary reading in the past month or so. In particular on a trip to my hometown of Shaker Heights.

My desk is a small mountain of papers and books right now, and I desperately need to clean up ahead of the oncoming workload. But before I get to that, I wanted to first write a little about the recent speech by John Kerry.

I watched a clip of the speech at first, and then clips of various folks responding, negatively for the most part. Then I sort of accidentally watched the whole speech. John Kerry, Secretary of State of the US, delivered a major speech following a UN vote condemning the building of settlements by Israelis in the West Bank – in the UN vote the US simply abstained, in effect letting the vote go through where it had not in years before when such resolutions had taken place in earlier years. Kerry’s speech was long and showed a man at the end of his fucking rope. There was something wonderfully symbolic about the whole thing. Kerry spent most of his career in politics as a Senator from Massachussetts. He comes from a prominent Masschussetts family (although his father came of eastern European Jewish stock), and was educated in elite New England institutions. He married into a gigantic fortune. He is the very definition of East coast liberal elite. And in his speech he made on last appeal for a sensible two state solution, noting that Israel, if it wanted to pursue a one state policy, as the steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank implies, then it can be Jewish or Democratic or both. Its a vision that contains the very essence of the internationalist liberal vision. So here is Kerry making this speech, 3 weeks ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and it really felt like a eulogy for the liberal vision. This is the end, folks.

So, in Greek, the word demos means “people” but can be contrasted with ethnos which means an association of people. Within Athens, the people were the demos. Foreigners were ethnos. My understanding of modern democracy is that as one becomes part of the people involved in governing the state one loses ones alliegence as part of an ethnos. This is, in some sense, what I think Kerry is talking about when he says Israel can be Jewish or Democratic but not both. If Palestinians living within the territory ruled by Israel (including the West Bank and Gaza) cannot be given full voting rights because it might threaten the present Jewish majority, then Israel won’t really be a democracy. If you take a long view of US history, you can scarcely say that the US has always been a democracy, since many of its citizens have been excluded from full democratic rights. I’d argue that the whole concept of the nation-state would come under criticism as well here, but that’s a whole long running debate that stretches over centuries.

It is my sense that the election of Trump signalled the end of an era, and we’re about to see a new era emerge. It’s a dangerous time, I suppose, but then the world is always a dangerous place. In any event, it seems like this was the inevitable end of the victory of the US in the Cold War. Now that there’s no threat of an international communist government, everybody wants to be free to follow their selfish interests with no disruption from anybody else. And everybody wants to argue that they’re for peace, they’re for justice, and so on. Shit, who isn’t for fucking peace and justice? But how do we make decisions? Who makes them? Who decides the parameters? Those questions are no longer clear – indeed, they’re in a constant state of question now. And I think Kerry knew it when he made jthat speech about Israel. He saw that the jig is up. But there was a weird irony that it was Kerry making that eulogy. From the perspective of many, even most, Americans, Kerry is the representative of the New England Yankee ethnos, which has been dominanating the country for decades. If Trump has a mandate, it is to bring the liberals – who come out of New England – to heel. To get revenge for decades of liberal reforms.

Happy new years, everyone. It’s going to be a long one.

A thought about Pence and Trump

There’s been a lot of discussion about Monday night’s Vice-Presidential candidate debate, and I had a thought I wanted to throw out there. Pence came across in the debate as a disciplined conservative messanger – because he is. He was in talk radio for a long time, he’s a dedicated conservative ideologue. He has a strong network that includes the Koch brothers, among many others. He spent most of the debate deflecting and denying – Tim Kaine basically tried to get him to take responsibility for Trump’s positions, and Pence dealt with that in the usual way. It’s weird, too, because I think if Hillary had to face Pence in a debate, she would have been in serious trouble. He’s really hard to pin down, and he’s able to sound reasonable, and even thoughtful. Because he was able to keep his cool, and not cop to anything Kaine tried to hit him with, a lot of commentators said that Pence won the debate. Whether or not this helps Trump is another story.

What Pence did that I thought was interesting was that he acted like the reasonable Dad figure apologizing for the belligerent racist uncle at the family barbeque. Out of loyalty, out of a sense of duty, or whatever, he defends what is obviously unacceptable. And the thing is that Trump wants to have the job of being in charge, but he doesn’t want to do the work of being in charge – it’s more or less where most of the Republican electorate is at. But you have a few folks, like Pence, who want to be in charge so they can privatize the system. I don’t think most Republicans really understand that, or even care. That’s how you can have Trump promise massive tax cuts and infrastructure projects (like a gigantic border wall) and a balanced budget and the maintenance of Social Security and Medicare…and a pony! Pence knows very well that what he really wants is socially conservative legislation with deep cuts to government (i.e. abortion will be technically illegal, but anybody with an upper class income can always take a “vacation” to Switzerland). But he can always make it sound like what he wants is perfectly sensible. Guys like him are why the politics of Trump aren’t going anywhere, even if Hillary does win. They’re also the reason why I like her so much – she knows what she’s doing, she knows how the system works, and she won’t just let the GOP just collapse the Federal government.

My lack of mathmatics

If you want to do a PhD in economics these days, you need to know about probability, linear algebra, matrices, real analysis (whatever that is), and so on and so forth. As far as I can tell, that’s just how it is. And I never made it past Calculus II. To be fair, I didn’t try all that hard. Sitting around doing math problems just never appealed to me, but because I didn’t have the patience for it, I can pretty much expect never to make it in serious economics circles. Which is frustrating.

In some sense, it’s not that big a deal. Given that I live in semi-rural Illinois, and teach community college, it’s doubtful that I’d ever do a PhD anyways, because I’d have to go somewhere else to do that, and moving isn’t an option when you have a little kid. And besides, I’m in my mid-30s. If I was ten years younger, a PhD would make a lot more sense, but I’m not, so it doesn’t. And honestly, if nothing else, I’m just thankful that I’m not working in a kitchen anymore. There’s some part of me that wishes I could swim with the big fishes in the world of academia, but it seems pretty unlikely.

And on some level, it’s not that I really want to learn a bunch of math (if I did, I probably would have already) or go through a PhD program. Mostly I just want to be able to write stuff and have people take it seriously, which is something you can do with a PhD. Nobody gives a shit what an MA has to say.

Now maybe I’m just writing all this so that I don’t have to feel like I need to take anything I write seriously. But there really are lots of people who are way smarter than me who have been taking their writing seriously for years now, and they deserve to be read before I do, I’m pretty sure. And the other thing about doing serious writing is that you have to do a lot of it, and I don’t have all that much time to do it these days. I have an infant to take care of, and household stuff, I have to drive to and from work, and also work, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I like to play music. It’s not as if I’ve got a bad life. If anything, fantasizing about a PhD is waste of time.

The thing about learning a bunch of math, at this point, is that it’s not really a priority for me. There are books I want to read, and letters to write, and songs to learn. I’m happier reading history and philosophy than I am doing math. I was always just good enough at economics to get by – it’s fun thinking through the problems and everything, but all the mathy stuff is just beyond me. A friend of mine, who’s a big math nerd, likes to post super-mathy economics papers he finds on my Facebook wall. I’ll take a look at them, but they pretty much always go over my head. I get it that thinking of the economy as a series of interlinked constrained maximization problems is kind of beautiful, and even occassionally useful. And I kind of like it that math nerds use their nerdiness to bludgeon the bleeding hearts of the world. In the end, I do rather think it’s a bit of a stumbling block to the discipline (easy for me to say), but I understand that there has to be some way to keep everyone out of the conversation, and this is a way to get that done. I’ve seen many, many people walk into the economic conversation like “Everything is wrong!” And if you’ve spent a lifetime thinking really hard about economics, you don’t want someone who’s spent all of five minutes thinking about it to just say you’re full of shit, now do you?

Sometimes I do wish I was part of the economics world, just for the comradery of it. Although maybe not. I never really fit in anywhere.

October Surprise

So, it’s a month before the election, and I’m transfixed by baseball playoffs.

This comes as a big surprise to me.

I was not a sports fan growing up. I didn’t really play sports – and when I did I was terrible. I had no talent for them whatsoever, and besides which, I hated losing, and I invariably lost every game I took part in. My father was a semi-professional bicyclist in his youth, and spent several months in France in the 1970s as part of racing team, so the Tour de France, when it was on, got play in my household. But that was about it. All the regular American team sports were of no interest to my family – both my parents and my extended family. And that was basically fine. Most of my friends didn’t especially care for sports, either. I never had much cause to think about sports or pay attention to them, with the exception of when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 – I was working in a kitchen where the chef was from Boston, so we had all the games on, and he was really excited about it. It didn’t hurt that a good friend of mine was also from Boston – I recall meeting his Mom around this time, and she told me that unless you were from New York, you basically had to cheer for the Red Sox. Good enough for me! (I was living in San Francisco at the time).

But besides having no great affinity for professional competitive sports growing up, I also lived in a suburb of Cleveland, a city renowned for having losing teams. In particular I recall the Browns getting beat in the playoffs by the Denver Broncos three years in a row. Every year the newspaper would have a big spread about how the Browns were going to clobber the Broncos – send them to the glue factory! they’d tell us – and every year the Browns would lose. By the end of the 1980s I was aware that Cleveland teams had great fans and terrible players. Cheering for the home team, I concluded, was an exercise in futility, whatever the sport. And then, in the late ’90s, the Indians made it to the World Series, and it was exciting! And we watched them lose to the Braves! Hey, okay, they were a good team, and it was fun anyways. And then a couple years later they went back to the series! And lost to the Marlins, then a team in their second year of existance. Fuck this, I thought. In the meantime, the owner of the Browns had packed up the team and moved them to Baltimore, and renamed them the Ravens. I will never forget the front page of the Plain Dealer – there was a huge spread about how the greater Cleveland area was losing its collective shit over the controversial deal…and at the bottom of the page, a brief notice that the Cleveland school levy had failed for something like the 23rd year in a row. Well, I thought, at least the city has it’s priorities straight.

Fast forwarding to my late 20s, I had moved to Chicago, which is a serious sports town, and has championship teams on a fairly regular basis. Moreover, sports is the default topic of conversation in Chicago, especially if you’re a guy. After a few years, I had worked out the rules of football enough to figure out what was going on most of the time. Which is important, because football is a fucking religion – more so than other pro sports, I think. And in Chicago, where talking about sports is an important part of being a guy, knowing what’s going on in the game, and also the various rivalries, is important for establishing yourself as one of “the guys.” Or at least that was my experience. Anyways, I moved to Chicago, and after a few years of misadventures, I met a girl, and we dated for a few years, and eventually got married. And this girl, who is now my life partner, is from a family of baseball fanatics.

Around the time we got married I watched the Ken Burns documentary about baseball in it’s entirety, and learned a lot about baseball. Enough that I began theorizing that you could understand American culture through it. In particular I found it interesting that people care very much about the team and the players, but not the owners. It bothers people that players make so much money, because baseball is an everyman sport, and we want to imagine that those players could be one of us. In contrast, the public attitude towards the owners is almost non-existant. They are mysterious entities who do not belong in the workingman’s world. And so what if they’re bazillionaires? As a general rule, baseball fans don’t care if the owners are exploitative, since most business owners are, and players should have to deal with it like the rest of us. This is my impression – I suppose anyone might dispute it. The famous Black Sox scandal of 1919, where a group of embittered, underpaid players threw the World Series in an agreement with gamblers, would ruin the lives of those players – but not the owners, nor the gamblers for that matter. People didn’t care about them – because they were simply other. What people did care about was that players had taken a bribe, thus making the game unfair. This is maybe the single most important part of baseball: fairness. If the game is unfair, it simply isn’t worth watching. The well-worn metaphor of the level playing field is popular for a reason. I think fairness is the principle fantasy of professional sports – in a world where we know very well the odds are likely stacked against us, where we expect to take advantage and to be taken advantage of, we can take an afternoon and imagine ourselves on a field with our fellow competitors, abiding by the rules and playing fair.

Now then, this is where the story gets complicated. You see, in Chicago there are two baseball teams: the Cubs and the White Sox. The Cubs were formed, as the Chicago White Stockings, in 1871, and are one of the oldest professional sports clubs in existence. They’re a National League team, and they play on the North Side of the city, at Wrigley Field. The White Sox were formed some decades later, as part of the American League, and play on the South Side. There are various minor differences between the leagues (mainly that pitchers are also batters in the NL, while the AL they aren’t) but for many fans these differences are a serious matter. National League fans seem to look down their nose somewhat on their cousins in the American League (maybe it’s because their League is older?) but in general you don’t notice unless you’re a really serious fan. A big difference between the Chicago teams is that WGN (a radio and television broadcaster in Chicago) has been showing Cubs games on TV since the 1980s and as a consequence Cubs fanbase extends throughout Northern Illinois (Southern Illinois hass mostly fans of the Cubs’ archrival St. Louis Cardinals) – the White Sox fanbase is essentially the South side of the cities and the adjacent suburbs (which are largely populated by (white) people from the South side of the city  – Irish and Italians in particular). White Sox fans come from a working class background, and are incredibly loyal to their team. They don’t feel any particular animosity towards the Cubs – they just don’t give a fuck about them (sort of like they don’t really give a fuck about the North side, or the west side, or Hyde Park for that matter). The Cubs fans, on the other hand, are basically insane. They love the Cubs, no matter how bad they are. They love going to Wrigley and they love getting fucked up. The South side, from the vantage point of the North side, might as well be another country. They’re aware of a baseball team somewhere else in town, but between Da Bears, Da Bulls, and Da Blackhawks, (and da blackouts…) who can keep track?

Right, so, I married into this family of baseball fanatics. Now here’s the crazy bit. My father-in-law’s father was a Southside Irisher who married a nice German girl from the Northside in the early 1940s, and promptly set off to fight the war in Europe. So when my father-in-law was born, he was born on the Northside, and therefore became a Cubs fan. However, once his father came back from the war, he saw to it that his three subsequent children were all brought up loyal White Sox fans (despite all of them growing up in a northside suburb). Hence, at family get togethers the subject of baseball is always a contentious one. Compounding the complications is the fact that my mother-in-law, also a Cubs fan, has an older brother who lives in town (and who we therefore see with some frequency) who is (for reasons not entirely clear) a White Sox fan. Some families argue about religion and politics. My partner’s family argues about baseball.

When I lived in Chicago, it was mostly on the North, near West and Northwest sides – for those who know the neighborhoods, I lived in East Rogers Park, Edgewater, West Town, and Logan Square (in that order – West Town for the longest stretch). So I feel more or less okay about calling myself a Cubs fan. And, besides, I’m married to a Cubs fan, so its much easier to take her side when watching baseball. But there’s also a slightly more complicated reason for my taking the Cubs side as well.

I grew up in what was once the “Western Reserve” – that is, part of Connecticut. Cleveland, as well as the Northside of Chicago, were originally settled by Connecticut Yankees, with all the attendant conformist puritanical culture and so on. Shaker Heights was cast utterly in the mold of the New England town. And despite having been made miserable by that culture throughout my youth, I have come to begrudgingly accept it as my own. And the Cubs fans are totally those people. And they drive me crazy. It’s okay going to Wrigley to see a game, but Wrigleyville is unbearable. It’s a very strange thing, and I’m not always comfortable with it. But there it is.

So, here I am, it’s a month to the 2016 election, maybe the most consequential election of my lifetime, and I’m hung up on baseball. I’m pretty sure Hillary will win, that the Republicans will keep Congress, and that political deadlock will go on for another couple of years at least. Here in Illinois the budget crisis will drag on to at least 2018 (when there’s a gubernatorial election) although I suppose Rahm might get the boot in Chicago, and they could finally get somebody who really doesn’t know what they’re doing to drag the city into the abyss of conflict and resentment it seems to long for – well, it seems that the status quo will hang on a little longer. I mean, a few people more get pushed over the edge every day, and sooner or later some horrible crisis will force itself upon us and on that day we can all cry and gnash our teeth, but until then…Go Cubs!