Kevin Drum

Reparations and Bernie Sanders: Another View

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 9:42 PM EST

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently criticized Bernie Sanders for saying he opposed reparations. I responded briefly last week, but Max Sawicky has more to say about this, and a couple of days ago asked if he could say it here. Well, why not? I'm not the best guy in the world to defend a socialist, after all. So here's Max on reparations and Bernie Sanders.

By Max Sawicky

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sometimes I like what I see, but not so much this past week. I’m here to take exception to his recent columns on Bernie Sanders and reparations.

In the Hillary vs. Bernie civil war, we often attack each other on spurious grounds. You’re just looking for a job. You’re corrupt in ways multifarious. You’re ____splaining. Please. The objective of politics is to encourage people to voluntarily and happily come around to your own view on what is to be done. Browbeating is counterproductive. At the end of this little adventure, we all have to get behind blocking a Republican from the presidency, and the ensuing barbarism. I have nothing bad to say about Ta-Nehisi Coates the person, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes.

I’ll start with his basic case for reparations. Exhibit A is the big, justly praised essay in The Atlantic. I will stipulate that the fact of a debt of the United States to African-Americans is incontrovertible. Reading the essay made me more convinced of that than before. Whether that justifies trashing Sanders is a different matter.

TNC’s basic argument is that the Sanders campaign purports to be a radical break with the status quo but fails to live up to its name. Even worse, it is of a piece with white supremacy.

The polemic launches with a basic misinterpretation of Sanders’ remark that reparations is “divisive,” driven by Coates’ bitter rejoinder that socialism and single-payer are divisive too. But these are very different kinds of “divisive.” In the case of reparations, don’t kid yourself: it means instant electoral suicide. With single-payer, it means opposition from moneyed interests. Single-payer is popular. Socialism could be too, sooner I would say than reparations, since for Bernie socialism means a welfare state turbocharged by expanding universal, race-blind programs.

What's more, single-payer advocacy could pay dividends in the form of incremental improvements to Obamacare, such as a public option or a crackdown on prescription drug prices. The same is true of other proposals, such as free college or massive infrastructure investment. That aside, even with zero cooperation from Congress, a president has command of important executive levers. Reparations is more of an all-or-nothing thing.

I’d like to see a scenario in which reparations becomes popular. The appeals are usually moralistic. I am susceptible to such appeals, and probably you are too. Would that MoJo readers ruled the world, but we don’t.

Coates is offended by reparations’ unpopularity, and we should be as well, but it remains a fact. Bernie is running to win, not to mount a symbolic campaign. He could be criticized for inattention to other issues, such as defense spending, reproductive rights, and Israel/Palestine. Coates has no such handicaps. As he says, “Sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible.” Precisely! This is national, presidential politics, not an Atlantic symposium. If you’re searching for the moral course, you are not about winning an election.

In the final paragraph of his first blast, Coates goes over the top:

Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy. It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy. One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.

Evidently Sanders is not merely neglecting racism, he is proposing to maintain it. In his follow-up column, Coates describes Sanders’ lapse as “making peace with white supremacy.”

Besides the slurs are the politics:

Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.

I don’t think I need to explain that John F. Kennedy’s original “rising tide,” beloved by subsequent centrist Democrats, referred to economic growth providing universal benefit. It clearly does no longer. (I would say it never did.) That’s Bernie’s point. Nor should I need to explain that because minorities are concentrated in low-wage jobs, an increase in the minimum wage or a reduction in the unemployment rate disproportionately benefits them. I assume TNC is aware of it. He’s not dumb, so failure to acknowledge it is questionable politics.

He goes on:

Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s.

Really? There is no difference between Sanders and Obama? Or Clinton? If an expansion of universal programs ameliorates (but doesn’t end) racism, a bigger expansion does so to a greater extent. Size matters. There’s a huge difference between Obamacare and Medicare-for-all, and opponents of these programs know it. In fact, much of the opposition to Sanders’ sort of proposals—not to mention Obamacare itself—is founded, ironically, precisely on the accurate impression of a disparate racial impact.

I began declaring my support for the concept of reparations. Since we’re talking politics and policy, the question looms of what to propose. Coates repeatedly insists that universal social-democratic programs are all well and good, but they are woefully inadequate responses to racism. They are mere “bandages” on the wound. This is a gross exaggeration, see the above example of the minimum wage, but strictly speaking it is true. So the knock on Sanders rests on what he refuses to support. What is the Coates alternative?

As Kevin pointed out, TNC claims a solution may be found in a bill (H.R. 40) from Rep. John Conyers that he has introduced every year, since at least 2001. It would form a commission to study reparations and devise programs. This is pretty weak stuff. I’ve worked in Washington D.C. since 1984. Politicians propose commissions and studies when they can’t do anything, when they don’t want to do anything, or when they don’t know what else to do. I would credit Conyers with a gambit to start an official conversation. I’m for it, but it isn’t much. It would actually be easy for Bernie to endorse. But it’s still a pretty insubstantial thing, in and of itself.

You can check the legislative history. In years past H.R. 40 garnered as many as 35 or 40 co-sponsors, mostly members of the Black Caucus and a few avant-garde types like Dennis Kucinich and Jerry Nadler. In more recent years, there have been hardly any (two at most) co-sponsors of the bill, white or black. It makes no sense to excoriate Bernie Sanders for inadequate attention to racism in a national presidential campaign, for failure to support a proposal that most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, not to mention Barack Obama, have not bothered to endorse for years, or ever.

On the other hand, Coates has kind words for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” Of course, this kind of race-blind, racially progressive program is Bernie’s bread and butter. In a subsequent post, Coates cites the work of William Darity, a distinguished economist, as a source for specific proposals. I would like people to be more familiar with this work, but at present I’m afraid that promotion of race-targeted payments is not a political exercise.

Coates wants to see a national moral reckoning with the debt created by centuries of white supremacy. Moral reckonings are the stuff of conferences, anthologies, sermons, and long-form magazine articles. Politics is a different business. When it comes to politics, Coates is shooting blanks.

Except for this: you might think Coates is an equal-opportunity critic of Clinton and Sanders. He recently dinged Hillary for her shaky understanding of Reconstruction. But what he’s really implying is that there’s nothing special about the Sanders campaign, so you lose nothing by voting for the more electable Clinton.

White supremacy happened before capitalism, but along with other fans of the great bearded one, I would assert that the two came to be deeply interconnected. Capitalism creates legions of victims whose descendants are owed more than all the money in the world. It also creates a potential army of comrades. The Sanders campaign is the first opening towards such a movement in a long time.

For a more critical view of reparations from the left, see Doug Henwood’s interview with Professor Adolph Reed. For more on why social-democratic programs are not race-neutral in impact, see Matt Bruenig.

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Americans Not Really That Angry After All

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 3:13 PM EST

Aaron Blake makes an interesting point today about the notion that Donald Trump and other presidential candidates are uniquely appealing this year because voters are so angry:

They're simply not — or at least, not abnormally angry. Despite the rise of two candidates who have embraced the idea of anger, our country simply isn't unusually angry about how things are going in Washington.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows just 24 percent of Americans describe themselves as "angry" about the way the federal government works. I say "just," because that's actually on the low end of where that number has been in recent years. (An additional 47 percent describe themselves as "dissatisfied but not angry.")

It seems as though I've heard about the seething anger of the electorate before nearly every election in my life. Joe Klein takes a drive through the heartland every few years and reports back about this. But all sorts of polling evidence suggest that Americans aren't really all that unhappy in general and not really all that angry about the government. No more than usual, anyway. Now, maybe this year really is different. Maybe voters are more responsive to angry appeals even if they aren't especially angry in general. But for all the talk, Blake is right: the polling data doesn't really show anything unusual.

Parenting Tip of the Day: Buy a Backward-Facing Stroller For Your Baby

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 2:07 PM EST

I just got back from my morning walk, and as usual I saw a bunch of parents taking their babies out for a walk in their strollers. And that got me wondering: does this have any benefit for babies? What do they get out of daily rides around the neighborhood?

When I got home I tried to find some research on this point, but I failed. I guess I don't know where to look. But I did find some research suggesting that if you're going to take your baby for a stroll, you should do it in a stroller where the baby faces you rather than the outside world. Why? One researcher suggested (without data, apparently) that babies just felt more comfortable when they could see mommy or daddy. But two researchers have actual data. Although they come up with raw numbers that are different enough to make you wonder just how accurate any of this is, both Suzanne Zeedyk and Ken Blaiklock performed observational studies of parents pushing their kids around and found that parents talked to their babies a lot more when the babies faced them.

This makes perfect sense, of course, and both Zeedyk and Blaiklock recommend parent-facing strollers because it encourages more interaction, which is a good thing. This doesn't answer the question of whether taking your baby for a stroll has any effect one way or the other, but at least it suggests the best kind of stroller to get. Consider this your parenting tip of the day.

#OscarsSoWhite Is Targeting Precisely the Wrong Thing

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 12:43 PM EST

Caroline Framke argues that the #OscarsSoWhite movement is targeting the wrong part of Hollywood:

Ever since the Oscar nominations were announced and it became clear that talk of supporting diversity did not translate into tangible recognition, white actors have contributed astonishingly tone-deaf thoughts in droves....But even as these actors make gaffes about the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, there are countless producers, agents, directors, and executives who aren't getting the same kind of grilling — and they're the ones who most stand a chance of making real change.

....The lion's share of real power in Hollywood lies with its behind-the-scenes players. Producers, agents, and directors rarely have the glossy profiles, red carpet looks, or motivation to keep us interested in their day-to-day lives. Thus, they can operate in a publicity vacuum more than those making a living onscreen. When something like #OscarsSoWhite breaks, they're usually not the ones sitting on folding chairs at press junkets and putting their words on the record.

Framke is right, but you don't even need to stray this far to make her point. The chart on the right tells you everything you need to know. As I mentioned the other day, the acting categories at the Academy Awards are actually pretty diverse: the number of black nominees has gone up steadily and reached 9 percent during the last decade. That's not bad. The songwriting category is even better: 14 percent of all nominees have been black over the past decade.

But everywhere else it's a wasteland: less than 1 percent of all nominees in every other category combined have been black.1 If I bothered looking through the technical awards, the percentage would be even lower.

This is hardly a big Hollywood secret. And it makes Framke even more right: we should leave the actors alone. Hollywood actually does a decent job of making sure the face of the industry is fairly diverse. But dig an inch below the surface and black faces are all but nonexistent.

1I didn't include two categories: Best Picture, because the winner is usually a team of producers; and Best Foreign Language Film, since by definition none of the winners are African-American. For the record, five African-Americans have been nominated as part of a group for Best Picture over the past decade.

Robert Gates Not Impressed With Modern Republican Party

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 11:42 AM EST

Former defense secretary Robert Gates has had a few uncomplimentary things to say about Hillary Clinton over the past couple of years, but they've mostly been fairly restrained. Not so much for the current crop of Republican presidential candidates:

“The level of dialogue on national security issues would embarrass a middle schooler,” Gates said of the Republican contenders at a Politico Playbook event in Washington on Monday. “People are out there making threats and promises that are totally unrealistic, totally unattainable. Either they really believe what they’re saying or they’re cynical and opportunistic and, in a way, you hope it’s the latter, because God forbid they actually believe some of the things that they’re saying.”

....“In some cases, the things they’re saying they’re going to do are unconstitutional or merely against the law and others are, from a budgetary standpoint, inconceivable, and so it seems to be that the press has not hammered hard enough and been relentless in saying, ‘How the hell are you going to do that?’”

In fairness to the press, the candidates have flatly refused to provide any more detail about how they'd do any of the things they say they're going to do. And the public doesn't seem to care. So what are reporters supposed to do? In other remarks, Gates explained why he didn't want photos of the Bin Laden raid released to the public:

The intelligence veteran of nearly 27 years also spoke about the danger of leaks and recalled the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden. A friend later emailed him a Photoshopped version of the famous picture in the situation room with the occupants wearing superhero costumes: Obama as Superman, Joe Biden as Spider-Man, Clinton as Wonder Woman and Gates himself as the Green Lantern.

“And we all had a good laugh, and then I said, ‘Mr President, this is the reason the photographs of the dead Bin Laden must never be released, because somebody will Photoshop them and it will anger every Muslim in the world, even those that hated Bin Laden, because of being disrespectful of the dead, and it will create greater risk for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and for all Americans, especially in the Middle East.’ And to the best of my knowledge, those photographs are the only things about that raid that have never leaked.”

Fair enough.

Factoid of the Day: The IMF is 0 for 220 In Predicting Recessions

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 11:07 AM EST

Larry Summers points us to this remarkable statistic:

Forecasts of all sorts are especially bad at predicting downturns. Over the period [1999-2014], there were 220 instances in which an economy grew in one year before shrinking in the next. In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year. Even in October of the year in question, the IMF predicted that a recession had begun only half the time.

I guess no one likes to be the skunk at the party, even the IMF. But I wonder who did better at predicting recessions? Goldman Sachs? The CIA? A hedge fund rocket scientist in Connecticut? Whoever it is, it sounds like the IMF might want to look them up.

UPDATE: It gets better! Via Twitter, Mark Gimein points me to Prakash Loungani's article 15 years ago about recession predictions during the 1990s:

How well did private forecasters do in predicting recessions in these cases? Quite simply, the record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished. Only two of the 60 recessions that occurred around the world during the 1990s were predicted a year in advance.

....If private sector growth forecasts are of little use in spotting recessions, why not use the forecasts provided free by the official sector?...There is not much to choose between private sector and official sector forecasts. Statistical "races" between the two tend to end up in a photo-finish in most cases.

Loungani doesn't provide a precise number for IMF predictions, but he implies it's roughly the same as private-sector predictions: 2 out of 60. If that's the case, the IMF has gotten even worse since then. A hit rate of 3.3 percent might be pretty lousy, but at least it's better than 0 percent.

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Fox News Needs to Show Some Spine

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 1:30 AM EST

Gabriel Sherman reports on Donald Trump's declaration that he won't participate in the Fox debate on Thursday:

Yuck. Fox's written statement is suitably firm: "Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly." But if Ailes and Hannity are really calling Trump to beg him to reconsider—which, admittedly, we have only Trump's word for—it suggests that Trump is winning. They should knock it off. Let him go sulk in his tent.

Planned Parenthood Sting Felony: Using a Fake Drivers License

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 1:19 AM EST

Today we learned more about the felony charges leveled at David Daleiden, the guy who masterminded the sting videos against Planned Parenthood. The basic charge is a misdemeanor, according to Josh Schaffer, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood in Houston:

Daleiden emailed Planned Parenthood in June [2015], asking to buy fetal tissue for $1,600....Planned Parenthood, Schaffer said, never responded to Daleiden’s email. “He probably didn’t know he was breaking the law,” Schaffer added.

And from a follow-up story: “It doesn’t matter if he intended to buy it,” Schaffer said, “making the request is illegal, even if an offer isn’t accepted.”

But the charge got upgraded to a felony because Daleiden used a fake ID:

Daleiden and an associate breezed past the building’s metal detector, and allegedly presented as identification a phony California drivers license with the name of an alias, Robert Sarkis. In normal cases, the use of a fake ID would not warrant felony charges....But Texas state law includes a provision that elevates this transgression—knowingly using a fake government document—to a second-degree felony if “the intent is to defraud or harm another.” The grand jury decided that Daleiden’s goal was to do just that, by using his cover story to make a covert recording designed to damage Planned Parenthood’s reputation.

So there you have it. Offering to buy fetal tissue is a misdemeanor, whether or not you actually go through with it. And using a fake government ID is a felony in Texas if you use it with intent to harm another—which Daleiden very much intended and hoped to do.

I continue to have some doubts about these charges. As much as I dislike what Daleiden did—and the egregiously deceptive videos he put together after the sting—Texas law seems to make it almost inherently illegal for a reporter or anyone else to try to expose illicit activity. That's often going to require a solicitation to commit a crime; it's frequently going to require some kind of bogus ID; and it's pretty much always done with an intent to harm. But if you put those together, you've automatically got a felony, even if the target of your investigation turns out to be a mafia front.

I dunno. Any lawyers in the audience are invited to chime in here. Maybe I'm overstating how often these three elements come together. But somehow this doesn't quite sit right with me.

POSTSCRIPT: I wonder why Daleiden used a fake ID with a fake expiration date of 2014 for a sting he carried out in 2015? Sloppy.

Donald Trump Steals the Spotlight Yet Again

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 8:44 PM EST

Donald Trump has figured out yet again how to dominate the news cycle: he's announced that he won't participate in Thursday's debate on Fox because host Megyn Kelly isn't fair to him. It's childish, but it's probably a smart move. The debate likely wouldn't help him much, but with everyone gunning for him there's at least a chance it could hurt him. And since Trump's appeal is mostly rooted in grievance culture, picking a fight like this probably goes over well with his base. Besides, as you can see, his announcement got him a ton of press. Everyone even used the same picture for some reason.

Alternatively, Trump might decide at the last minute to show up after all. This would get him even more attention.

But there's at least one news organization that didn't get the news. Fox News still thinks Trump is going to be center stage. Are they behind the curve, or do they know something we don't?

UPDATE: They're just behind the curve. Fox now has a "Breaking News" banner at the top of their page announcing that Trump won't be participating.

Does Hillary Clinton Know Her Postbellum History?

| Tue Jan. 26, 2016 5:54 PM EST

I didn't watch the Democratic non-debate last night, but apparently Chris Cuomo asked Hillary Clinton who her favorite president was. She said Abraham Lincoln—a nice, safe choice—but then followed up with a bit of history that shocked everyone. Here's the transcript:

He kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature. You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don't know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

It's not totally clear to me what Hillary meant by that, but it does seem like a peculiar way of saying whatever she was trying to say. But other people figured it out right away. Here's Matt Yglesias Voxsplaining:

This is the version of history that I read as a kid in Daniel Boorstin's Landmark History of the American People; it reflects a conventional wisdom among historians that became popular in the early 20th century and was later etched into the quasi-official history of the Democratic Party. But by the time I was reading it in the late 1980s, it was already on its way out among academics.

....Clinton is loosely glossing what is known as Dunning School historiography, named after Columbia professor William Archibald Dunning and his students. The key emotional note of the Dunning School was the idea that the Civil War itself, rather than the widespread enslavement that led to the Civil War, was tragic, and that the postwar effort of Radical Republicans in Congress to enfranchise the Southern black population had been "a serious error" that impeded restoration of the Union.

Only once the mixed-race regimes of freedmen, "carpetbaggers" (Northerners who'd moved South), and "scalawags" (pro-Northern Southern whites) had been displaced in favor of white supremacist governments was it possible for the South to be peacefully reincorporated into the nation.

That's what Hillary was getting at? How about that. This is yet another example of a historical "debate" that goes right over my head. Dunning? Never heard of the guy. Reconstruction was a mistake? I went to high school in the 70s, and I've never heard this interpretation except when it's being debunked as gauzy Gone With the Wind nostalgia. The only history I've ever read has made it clear that Reconstruction was a flawed but noble effort, and it failed mainly because white Southerners engaged in a war of terror against black Southerners.

Now, I grew up in California, not the South, so that makes a difference. And by chance, I took almost no history classes that covered the postbellum era in America. I just read about it on my own here and there. But "here and there" means ordinary historical accounts, not modern liberal historiography. Nonetheless, none of them ever so much as put the Dunning notion in my head.

So I somehow missed out on all this. I've never had to relearn my postbellum history. But Hillary Clinton is, I'm sure, very well read on all this, and I doubt that she's unaware of why Reconstruction failed. My best charitable guess is that she didn't really mean to say anything except that Lincoln might have implemented a savvier, more politically durable version of Reconstruction if he had lived. That's perfectly plausible—though I personally doubt that anything could have quelled Southern intransigence much—and fits with her theme that Lincoln was a great man, but also a pragmatic president who knew how to pull the levers of power.

I guess we'll never know. Unless someone asks her, that is.

UPDATE: Someone asked her, and her campaign spokesperson responded:

Her point was that we might have gotten to a better place under Lincoln's leadership. What we needed after the Civil War was equality, justice, and reconciliation. Instead we saw the federal government abandon Reconstruction before real change took hold, which ultimately led to a disgraceful era of Jim Crow.

And as she talks about frequently, too many injustices remain today. Attempts to suppress voting rights go back to racist efforts against Reconstruction, and in fighting for voting rights and equality today we are continuing a long struggle that still has to be fought and won in our own generation.

Pretty much as I suspected.