Monday, 29 February 2016

No, Trump Wouldn't Beat Clinton...

...but it might be close, and that could be a very good thing.

I don't think anyone should be worried about President Trump, no matter what happens on the Democratic side.

This isn't because of his incredibly high unfavorability numbers - when he rushes to the center in the general election (and he will), those will go up considerably.

But no Republican can win the White House without endorsing comprehensive and humane immigration reform - that's the one law of political gravity that can't be violated right now, even by Trump.

He'll move well to the center on that issue as well, and it may even be that he's developed enough of a pure, Mao-style cult of personality among his supporters that they'd stick with him even through that.

But he won't fool Hispanic voters, not with any level of pandering, not after the primary campaign he's run.

With that said, the arguments going around that Trump could beat Clinton, while failing to establish that claim, do provide plenty of reasons for believing Clinton would only beat him narrowly. And if Clinton is the nominee, I hope that's exactly what happens.

If Trump gets crushed, the GOP will be back where it was right after election day 2012 - thinking the only thing they've done wrong is oppose immigration reform. If it's close, there's a chance they'll realize that was the only thing Trump did wrong - at least from a general election standpoint (obviously he'd never win the nomination without it). What follows that will be a full-scale crisis for the GOP. Then there's a chance - though probably a small one - that this realization could be the first step toward a new right-of-center party that resembles the current conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

If that were to happen, then all roads lead to the Democratic Party becoming a genuine left-wing workers party.

Either (a) Bernie wins and does it himself; or (b) a Clinton presidency - which would be disastrous in terms of foreign policy (Catherine Liu has just done a great job of pointing out that nothing would look so much like a Trump presidency as a Clinton presidency), and oversee nothing but a continuation of the ongoing slow-motion disaster on the domestic side - will finish Bernie's job for him, and the the Democratic Party will move well to the left in 2024.

Update: 1 March 9am 

Going into what is likely to be a dominant performance on Super Tuesday, Trump is already signalling his shift on immigration.

2nd Update: 1 March 2pm

I may have spoken too soon.

From Politico:

"But while the GOP moderates may feel a break from their party, they're also hostile to Democrats, meaning that bringing them over would require a total rebranding of the Democratic Party in their eyes. In an online poll of 800 likely Republican primary voters, conducted from Feb. 11 to Feb. 16, Democracy Corp found that anti-Democrat attitudes are the most potent driver of Republican primary voters — and their antipathy for Hillary Clinton outweighs even their dislike for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole, a feeling that cuts across ideology.

Still, the poll shows that GOP moderates may be pliable."

This is terrifying, and potentially very dangerous both in November and in the long-term.

If we end up with Clinton v. Trump, the worst thing that could happen is a Democratic rush to the right.

(1) It completely takes the Left for granted, at a time when it is reawakening - Sanders has gone from 4% national support among likely primary voters to 40% in 13 months.
(2) What lies to the right of where Clinton is now is not even the pretense of an attempt to address the entrenched structural socio-economic challenges facing the country.

If this election looks like a revolt, just wait.

And of course, this is a plan that could definitely backfire in a big way - given all the reasons why Sanders is already more electable than Clinton, and the distinct possibility of you-know-who siphoning off some of those unexpected Sanders supporters from Clinton, in the general.

And if it does backfire...well, the end result (almost) rhymes with "Drumpf".

3rd Update: 2 March 9am 

1. Trump is playing in New England. He's big in New Hampshire, huge in Massachusetts, even winning in Vermont - all states where Kasich came in second. He's not just winning over many voters who have Cruz as their second choice; he's also winning over many voters who have Kasich as their second choice. He's not just winning over very conservative evangelicals; he's also winning over business-oriented moderates.

2. Trump and Clinton won almost identical states last night. (And where they differed - Clinton winning Texas, losing Vermont; Trump winning Vermont, losing Texas - they were still alike in that each lost to a home-state candidate.)

3. Trump's big victories are being delivered by record-shattering voter turnouts. Democratic turnouts are down compared to 2008.

I don't like the way this is shaping up.

Super Tuesday Prediction - Democrats

4 wins for Bernie - then onward!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Bernie Sanders, Social Democracy, and Economic Growth - Part I

By now you've probably heard about the controversy caused by economist Gerald Friedman's paper estimating the economic impacts of Bernie Sanders' policy proposals.

Regardless of this month's outcomes in the primaries, the question of the implications for the US economy of Sanders' comprehensive social democratic program remains an essential one. As I'll argue, a set of policy actions and reforms of the sort Sanders is advocating is the best hope for rejuvenating the US economy - as well as for making American society more just. That remains true whether he becomes President or not. (I won't be discussing Sanders' hugely beneficial healthcare proposal below, as I've already written a post on the weak criticisms and objections being made to that.)

The major point of contention - and as we'll see in a moment that's putting things mildly - in the Friedman controversy is the claim that if the full Sanders agenda were to be enacted, the US economy would grow by an average of 5.3% over the next decade (2017-2026). That average, we should note from the outset, incorporates a very high spike in growth in 2017, owing largely to Sanders' heavily front-loaded proposal for $1 trillion in government spending on infrastructure. The average over 2018-2026 is 4.4%.

The storm around Friedman's work began when four former chairs of the President's Council of Economic Advisors denounced the report as unsupported by any credible economic research, lacking in evidence, and filled with irresponsible arithmetic. The report has since elicited cries of "voodoo" from Paul Krugman, been condemned as an abandonment of "analytical standards" by Brad Delong, and described as a "fantasy" by Jordan Weissmann in Slate and a trip to "Neverland" by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones - though Mr. Drum has recently thought better of his initial assessment, and made some good observations which we'll return to below.

Much of the critical response to Friedman's analysis can be dealt with swiftly. As Friedman himself, James K. Galbraith, and William K. Black have all pointed out: Friedman uses entirely mainstream macroeconomic models and assumptions to arrive at his conclusions, while the CEA chairs' letter contains no evidence or argument whatsoever - it resembles nothing so much as an authoritative proclamation issued by the members of a priestly caste.

Krugman, DeLong, and a host of economic journalists do no better, apparently believing that an incredulous stare (or the written equivalent of one) suffices as a response to Friedman's projections.

Krugman's counter-attack does come in for special mention, in virtue of how intentionally misleading it is. He uses the term "voodoo" to draw a comparison between Friedman's work and the standard practice in GOP Congressional budgets of using "magic asterisks" to mark savings from unspecified spending cuts, and increases in tax revenue resulting from cutting taxes on the wealthy (as predicted by supply-side - aka "voodoo", and here the moniker is entirely appropriate - economics). Nothing - absolutely nothing - comparable is to be found in Friedman's work, as the above linked responses make clear.

All of this puts anyone who is really interested in this issue - and the issue, in the most general sense, is the possibility for a bold and wide-ranging set of social democratic policies and reforms to have a major positive impact on the performance of the American economy - in a challenging position. We need to figure out what actual reasons there are for thinking that this could not or would not be the case - the reasons the public critics of this idea are failing to give - and then determine whether or not there are better reasons for thinking that it would.

J.W. Mason, writing in Jacobin, helpfully divides the general issue into three parts: 1) Could any set of policy actions and reforms have such an effect? 2) Could Sanders-style social democratic policies have such an effect? and 3) Would Sanders' specific policies have the specific effect projected by Friedman?

Mason also puts his finger on the overarching reason for answering question 1) in the negative: "The argument against Friedman's piece comes down to the claim that the economy is already close to potential."

I'll refer to Mason's writings on this controversy - as well as to the writings of a number of other economists and economic journalists - in what follows. But no one has yet provided a single, integrated, big-picture view of what is going on in this debate over the US economy's potential. That will be my goal in this post. We'll find that there are many strong reasons for giving an affirmative answer to both of the first two questions.

In a separate post, I'll discuss some general reasons, beyond the ones that can be gleaned from Friedman's work, for thinking that social democratic policy proposals of the type Sanders is advocating are exactly the right sort for fostering stable and robust economic growth. I'll also offer some reflections on the cultural implications of the dynamics of the controversy itself.

I'll leave it to others to get into the nitty-gritty of question 3). As Galbraith acknowledges, the finer aspects of a number of Friedman's assumptions are open to question. Let's hope they get the detailed and intellectually responsible attention they deserve soon.

1. Prospects for US Growth I - Production and Productive Investment in Capital

The question of whether the US economy is currently operating at or close to its potential is an ambiguous one. For many of the participants in this debate, it is a question about whether one way of measuring unemployment - the U3 or "official" unemployment rate, which reflects the number of jobless individuals who have actively sought work in the past 4 weeks - is at or close to the U3 NAIRU, or "Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment" - a theoretical level of the U3 rate below which gains in employment would cause inflation. This is a topic we'll return to.

First, however, we should observe that there are senses of our question about whether the economy is at potential to which the answer is clearly or plausibly "No." 

Let's look, for instance, at the rate of productive capacity utilization across all industries:

At 77% and situated on a downward trend since late 2014, this is low historically (where the average is approximately 81.5%), and low for any context other than the midst of a recession or an upward trend shortly after the end of a recession. (It is also well below the rate at which concerns about inflation begin to emerge, which is > 82%, at least). 9 years out from the technical end of the last recession, and it is still almost 4% below where it stood at the end of 2007 - a neighborhood where it has spent almost all of its time since 2012.

Further plausible reasons for thinking the economy is not operating at potential are that the growth of the value of the Capital Stock has not yet managed to return to its pre-recession trend;

and that US Gross Fixed Capital Formation as a % of GDP, which was slightly above the OECD average in 2006, has not yet closed the gap which opened up after its steeper decline during the recession.

The US currently stands in need of $3.6 trillion of infrastructure investment, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives the current state of US infrastructure a grade of D+. The low quality of the US public capital stock points toward the possibility of significant gains in total factor productivity, and thus, GDP growth, given a large investment in infrastructure. Recall that just such an investment is a major plank of Sanders' policy plan, and is responsible for the huge front-loaded GDP gains in Friedman's analysis which drive up the 10-year average.

Of course, the most significant trend the US economy has failed to return to is the real GDP trend itself; and as FT's Matthew Klein has pointed out, Friedman's projections would merely have put the economy back on trend as of the middle of 2023:

As we would expect given the terrain we've covered so far, decreases in government spending have a lot to do with this shortfall.

Now, none of this will persuade you that the US economy has room for the kind of growth Friedman countenances if you don't think it currently has the potential - or would have the potential, given any remotely feasible set of policy actions - to revert to historic norms with respect to the levels and trends we've looked at. If that's the case, you almost certainly think that such a return is prevented for reasons having to do with the US labor force - there is no other remotely plausible explanation.

Prospects for US Growth II - Employment and the Labor Force

Perhaps the current US economy's long-term GDP growth trend is simply lower than it had been in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, there is very good evidence that since the end of the last recession, the US GDP long-run growth trend has dropped to 2.25%.

If that is the current situation, there are obviously two questions we need to ask: (1) Why? and (2) Is this permanent?

Friedman's critics, at the very least, do not believe the kind of GDP growth trend he projects is possible any more in developed capitalist economies like the US - so they're answer to (2) is at least a qualified yes. They're answer to (1) is complicated, but at its core are demographic shifts. 

The populations of these economies are growing more slowly (graph via Gavyn Davies);

and they are also aging - or more to the point, less and less of that population growth is accounted for by the working-age population (graph via Wikinomics):

Gavyn Davies also points out that the growth of labor productivity has been slowing:

So: The US and other wealthy countries seem like they're looking at a future of (1) fewer productive people and (2) slower productivity gains.

If you're very impressed by these trends, then you might think that the US economy is operating at potential, or close to it, after all - despite low capacity utilization, the non-recovery of gross fixed capital formation, and growth in the value of the capital stock and GDP below their pre-recession trends - now that the U3 unemployment rate has fallen all the way back to its pre-recession level.

The general idea behind this conclusion would be that the US labor market can no longer sustain capacity utilization levels or GDP growth much above what we're currently seeing, and decreased capital investment is to be expected in this environment.

And if you do think the economy is at potential on account of these limitations of the labor force, then, as Mason stresses, you also think that the U3 unemployment rate is now equal to the NAIRU - the rate of unemployment below which inflation rears its ugly head.

We've spent a good deal of time talking about Friedman's GDP projections; but there's another projected impact of Sanders' agenda which is just as important for this debate: Friedman's estimate that unemployment would drop all the way to 3.8%. For many convinced that less unemployment than we have now would spark inflation, that's a bad thing. Of course, Friedman's critics doubt that it is possible, just as they doubt his GDP projections. But they haven't given any detailed reasons - just more incredulous stares.

So now we've accumulated three questions: 1) Is a big drop in unemployment currently possible? 2) Would that be a good thing? and 3) Even if the answers to the first two questions are both positive, is the declining growth of labor productivity enough of a reason to be less sanguine about growth potential?

3. Unemployment: How Low Can (and Should) We Go?

The first and most important thing to know about the NAIRU is: no one knows what it is.

As we've seen, the case that's been made for the US economy being at or close to its potential, despite some of the data we've looked at above, has mainly to do with structural demographic shifts.

But there are several reasons for thinking, as Friedman himself has pointed out, that these demographic shifts are not all that important, and should not be taken as reasons for believing the economy is anywhere near its potential. 

First and foremost is the point, which Ron Baiman has made, that even taking demographic shifts into account, the US Employment-Population Ratio is still much lower than it was pre-recession, and is taking an incredibly long time to come back up:

That's a shortfall of millions of jobs. The fact is that far fewer Americans are working than would be expected this long after the end of the recession.

Looking just at prime working-age Americans, labor force participation continued falling after the technical end of the recession, and has now been stuck at a relatively low level for two-and-a-half years:

Especially alarming is the fact, pointed out by Michael Gavin at Barclays Capital, that the labor participation of prime working-age women is now starting to decline, after growing through the 70s, 80s, and 90s (participation of prime-age men has been dropping for decades):

The San Francisco Fed has described the decline in prime-age participation as being caused in part by "an increase in people deciding they'd rather have single-income families...For whatever reason, they've traded a second paycheck for spending more time at home, whether it's for child-care, leisure, or simply that it's a better lifestyle fit."

Apparently, there are a few important facts that have escaped their notice.

Like the fact that in many states, childcare is more expensive than rent.

Or more expensive than college tuition.

Of course, that Sanders' policy proposals include plans for more affordable childcareguaranteed paid maternity leave, and addressing the gender pay gap has a lot to do with that low projected unemployment number.

Matthew Klein points out two more reasons to doubt the prevailing pessimism about future growth potential. One is that there is no relationship between the size of the prime working-age population and the number of employed Americans:

The second (which actually originates with none other than Brad DeLong) is that demographic shifts are predictable, and so can fairly reliably be taken into account in forecasting; and yet, the gap between the GDP predictions most economists were making in 2007 and the ones they are making now is "massive and growing".

Yet another reason is the fact that far more senior citizens than ever before are remaining in the labor force - probably, as Yves Smith has suggested, because they've seen their retirement savings evaporate in the financial crisis.

So there are plenty of good reasons for thinking both that the US economy has sufficient potential capacity remaining to employ many more workers, and that there are a great many people available to be put to work. There is a strong case to be made for an affirmative answer to our first question about unemployment. And given that potential capacity, if those many more potential workers were actually put to work, we would expect to see big gains in output.

Everyone should be able to agree that continuing to lower unemployment would be a good thing if it could be done in the absence of inflation. We should also be able to agree that at some level greater than 0% the unemployment rate would be low enough that adding more workers will start to drive prices up.

So let's break our second employment-related question into two parts: a) How near are inflationary pressures? and b) How bad would it really be if unemployment did dip low enough to start spurring inflation?

The first part of our question is just another way of asking whether the Fed's current estimate of the NAIRU, which puts it at the current unemployment rate, is a reasonable one.

Now, it might seem like enough has already been said to cast a great deal of doubt on the reasonableness of that estimate. After all, we've reviewed a lot of evidence for the conclusion that the US economy is not operating close to potential, that there is plenty of room for growth over the next several years. And we started by observing that many of the critics of Sanders' proposals and Friedman's analysis had an understanding of what it means for the economy to operate close to potential which is based in large part on whether the unemployment rate is at the NAIRU.

But we are dealing with two different understandings of "economic potential" here. As J.W. Mason explains in an excellent essay, for unemployment to drop to the level at which it begins to cause inflation is not for it to have dropped to the level at which productivity gains and increases in the wage share cease, and inflation is the only effect of further decreases in unemployment.

The latter level, where there are no further productivity gains to be had from hiring, and real wages cannot further increase with the bidding up of nominal wages, is one way - to my mind, a more defensible way - to denote full employment and to characterize an economy which is operating at its potential, as compared with understanding these concepts in terms of the NAIRU.

That is not to say that full employment/operating at potential in this sense should be the goal - inflation may (almost certainly would) still be much too high for the economy to be stable in this scenario.

But this distinction explains why we still have to ask, at this point in the analysis, both whether it is reasonable to believe that we are at the NAIRU, and whether it would be so bad to go a bit below it.

One source of inflationary pressure is the fact that for businesses, wages are a cost. This is why, when unemployment is low enough, the bargaining position of workers is strong enough to push wages to the point where further increases are passed along in the form of higher prices.

But there are many reasons for thinking there's plenty of room for business to absorb higher wages, most significantly the immense gap between productivity growth and wage growth, and the fact that corporate profits have rebounded since the end of the recession while wages have not.

Another source of inflationary pressure would be a shortage of goods, in the event that unemployment fell far enough for wages to rise high enough to bring demand above the potential capacity to satisfy it.

But based on our examination of the productive potential of the economy, there's plenty of room on this front for wages (and thus demand) to rise.

So based on the evidence we've already reviewed, there are good reasons for thinking the Fed's current NAIRU estimate is too high - a statement many economists would agree with.

And in answer to the second part of our question, we can observe, as Dean Baker recently has, that according to the estimates of the President's Council of Economic Advisers (yes, that Council of Economic Advisers), if the official unemployment rate were to drop from its current 4.9% to 3.9% - assuming that 4.9% equals the NAIRU - and stay there for an entire year, the effect on inflation would be an increase of 0.1 percentage point - from its current 1.6% to 1.7% - by the end of that year.

In other words, even if the Fed's NAIRU estimate is right, Friedman's projections imply a slow and modest increase in inflation - and not an indefinite one either, since the positive effects of Sanders' proposed policies on both investment and demand would likely lower the NAIRU over time.

Two other points are worth mentioning.

The first is that if Sanders' entire policy program were to be enacted, and we found that unemployment began dropping too far too fast and inflation did begin to become a problem, never in modern history has the Fed been in such a strong position to beat it back through monetary policy.

The second is that the Fed's obsession with inflation to the exclusion of full employment, and its low (by historical standards) inflation target of 2%, are the result of the lessons purportedly learned during the 1970s, and these were all the wrong lessons.

4. Labor Productivity Growth, Very Briefly

When we looked at reasons for doubting the US economy's potential for large gains in GDP, we left one issue unresolved: the decline in labor productivity growth. 

There are two main reasons to think Sanders' policy program would boost labor productivity.

In the long term, his plan to make public colleges and universities tuition free and, especially, to institute single-payer healthcare are enormous investments in the development of human capital. Healthier, smarter workers are more productive.

But Friedman also projects a huge boost in labor productivity in the short-term. The force behind this, which Kevin Drum explores in his re-evaluation of Friedman's work, is GDP growth itself. 

Friedman justifies his productivity projections by way of a relationship between output growth and labor productivity growth known as "Verdoorn's Law".

Remember that in Friedman's analysis, big gains in GDP growth are jump-started by a very large front-loaded government investment in infrastructure, as well as a host of other stimulative spending measures. As we've seen, there is plenty of room for the labor market to absorb many more workers in response to this government-created demand. And there is plenty of room for real wages to rise along with employment. That rise becomes a new source of increased demand, which is sustainable given how far below productive capacity the economy is currently operating. That increased demand prompts businesses to invest in replacing aging capital stock, and take advantage of more recent technological developments (whose potential impact on productivity can only be realized if they are installed in the first place), as well as in R&D for new technologies. That new private investment in capital boosts labor productivity - it gives workers the tools to work more productively - and that productivity increase leads to a further increase in output. This is Verdoorn's Law in action: growth leads to greater productivity, which leads to more growth. 

Friedman derives all of the labor productivity growth he projects from projected GDP growth in this way. And as Drum points out, these big productivity gains are not as anomalous, from a historical perspective, as they might at first seem.

Where Drum has failed to do his homework is in his assessment of Verdoorn's law itself, which is well supported empirically in the recent history of the US economy.

Drum also makes an important observation - though unintentionally so - when he criticizes the relationship posited by Verdoorn's law as seeming "a bit circular". Indeed it is, but not viciously so. Verdorrn's law is in fact an example of circular cumulative causation in macroeconomics - an entirely consistent concept developed by the Swedish evolutionary-institutional economist (and Nobel Prize recipient) Gunnar Myrdal.

Drum's comment reveals the dominance in America of one side of an important divide in economics itself, between the general equilibrium approach to understanding the macroeconomy - which major liberal economists like Krugman, DeLong, and Stiglitz share with more conservative economists - and non-equilibrium approaches. This divide will turn out to be significant for the further discussion of Sanders' proposals, and of what the debate over them reveals about American intellectual culture, in Part II of this post.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Super Tuesday Prediction - GOP

ICYMI because you were reading all the awesome articles about Christie's endorsement: "Really good friend" Mike Huckabee shall endorse Trump on Monday, and Trump shall beat Cruz in Arkansas.

Super Tuesday:

Trump - 11
Cruz - 1
Rubio - (still) 0
Kasich - Who cares, he's not quitting before the 16th (or maybe the 23rd)
Carson - ...Zzzz...Dr. Carson?...Can somebody wake Ben up?...

Update noon Feb. 29th: The endorsement is coming.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

What Was Noteworthy about the Nevada Caucus

The most interesting stat for me is that not only did Trump win evangelicals (as he did in SC); this time he won the self-described "very conservative". The Cruz campaign is about to go into free fall. And the theory that in a two-way race Rubio picks up everyone else's voters and ends up beating Trump 60-40 is going from amusing to sad. Rubio would get slightly better than 50% of previously uncommitted late-deciders, and however many Kasich supporters as could hold their noses and vote for him (i.e. against Trump). And that's it. It's not enough.

Friday, 19 February 2016

How Did Scalia Read the Law? - Some Terminological Housekeeping

The death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has occasioned widely differing appraisals of his judicial legacy. But one difficulty which they all run up against, regardless of their scholarly, ideological, or political perspective, is the vast and pervasive set of ambiguities found in descriptions of Scalia's methodological approach to the interpretation of legal texts - including his own.

Here is an attempt at a bit of housekeeping.

The first point to be made is that we should dispense immediately with the term "Textualism", as it is utterly uninformative.

Progress then depends on clearly drawing a series of distinctions:

Originalism vs. (for lack of a better word) Contemporaneanism

Intent vs. Plain- (or Ordinary-) meaning vs. Audience-understanding

Literalism vs. (again for lack of a better word) Reasonablism

The first two sets of distinctions cut across one another.

We could be Intentionalists, and take the meaning of a legal text to be determined by the linguistic intentions of the text's author(s) - and here is an important and thorny complication, as modern legal texts must be seen as having either group authorship, or institutional authorship, where an institutional author is a kind of fiction - at the time the text was authored (in which case we would be Originalists, and more specifically Intent-Originalists); or, we could take the meaning to be what the author(s) would most probably, on the balance of whatever evidence is available, intend for the words they wrote to mean if they had written them today. 

Likewise, we can take the meaning of the text as being whatever its plain meaning was at the time it was written, or as being what its plain meaning is today.

Finally, we can take the meaning of legal texts as being what, on the balance of evidence, their original audience understood or interpreted them as being - in the case of the Articles and Amendments of the US Constitution, that would be the (multiple) understanding(s) of the State legislatures - as groups or as institutions - which ratified them; or, we can take the meaning of legal texts as being whatever a contemporary reasonable and informed person would interpret it as being.

Literalism and Reasonablism are subtypes of a Plain-meaning approach to interpretation, which become relevant when the text to be interpreted is ambiguous or vague - i.e. when it has no plain meaning.

The Literalist will insist (as the moniker suggests) on a (maximally) literal interpretation of the text (however bizarre such an interpretation might be in context), on the assumption that there is always a single (most) literal interpretation, however ambiguous or vague a text may be. This literal interpretation could be an interpretation given the literal meanings of the words used at the time of authorship, or in the present day.

The Reasonablist, on the other hand, will revert to a version of the Audience-understanding interpretive approach at this point, and take the text to mean what a reasonable and relevantly informed person - that is, one who is linguistically informed about the text, who is familiar with any technical or specialized vocabulary, archaic uses and meanings of words, unusual phrases, rare grammatical constructions, etc. - either at the time the text was authored, or in the present day, would interpret it as meaning. Being informed, for the purposes of this interpretive theory, does not extend to having knowledge of the deliberative history of the text's production, the express or implied intentions of its authors, its most likely purpose given the socio-cultural-politico-economic context in which it was written, etc. And, since Reasonablism is a subtype of the Plain-meaning interpretive approach, it conceives of a purely hypothetical reasonable and informed person, and is not concerned with the actual understanding of any person, group, or institution, historical or contemporary - unlike a pure Audience-understanding theory.

A term which is frequently bandied about without being precisely defined is "Strict Constructionism". The closest we can come to a precise definition of it is: (a) the approach to the interpretation of legal texts which embraces Plain-meaning interpretation in the absence of vagueness or ambiguity; and (b) Literalism in the presence of vagueness or ambiguity. Strict Constructionists could, in theory, have either original or contemporary meaning in mind, since that distinction is, again, orthogonal to the others.

With all these distinctions in place, we can finally identify Scalia's (purported) approach to the interpretation of law: Plain-meaning-Originalism, Reasonablism sub-type. Whether he consistently adhered to that approach is another question entirely.

For the critic of Scalia's legacy - and I count myself as one - there are four main problems with the corpus of judicial decisions he leaves behind.

The first problem is the incredibly problematic assumption that, when a legal text does not have an (obviously, self-evidently) "plain" meaning, there is such a thing as the interpretation which a reasonable and informed person would give of it. See, for example, Richard Posner's blistering critique of Scalia's interpretation of the word "sandwich".

Understanding the second problem requires one more distinction: that between the interpretation of a legal text (which is all we've talked about thus far), and the application of the text's meaning to a question before the court.

For many legal controversies which were not foreseen by anyone at the time that the laws which would eventually become relevant to them were written - such as the controversy over affirmative action laws and public policies - neither the original plain-meaning of the legal text (if there is one), nor the reasonable and informed person's interpretation of it at the time it was authored (if there isn't), provides anything approaching determinate guidance of how the contemporary question is to be resolved. Accusations of Scalia's pomposity are justified by his capacity to support his (politically or religiously) preferred applications of the law by mere bluster, when the actual results of his (professed) interpretive method are entirely indeterminate.

This is in sharp contrast to other, non-Originalist interpretive approaches, such as Joseph Raz's Moderate Actual Institutional Authorial Intent approach, and Aharon Barak's Purposive approach, for which problems of contemporary application are much less severe.

The third is a problem not with Scalia's method itself, but with his execution of it: the fact that he - like many others - often did such a shoddy job of the historical linguistic work on which that approach depends, in order to create an illusion of legal justification for a preferred conclusion. Nowhere was that unfortunate tendency more egregiously displayed than in his majority opinion on gun control.

The fourth, and largest, problem is a philosophical/normative difficulty with Scalia's theory - a problem from an external perspective, rather than a problem of the theory's internal cogency, its applicability, or his execution of it.

There are good reasons - set out in the works linked to above, among other places, for rejecting the idea that the task of interpreting legal texts is a search for their plain meaning; rather, it is a search for something like their purpose, an understanding of what problem they set out to solve, and why they set out to solve it in that way.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Say it with me now...

Underutilized productive capacity!

(OK, so it's not a great slogan.)

Nonetheless - here's a sharp, intellectually responsible piece on the potential for Bernie Sanders' suite of economic policy proposals to stimulate growth, which makes clear why Gerald Friedman's estimates aren't nearly as insane or magical as so many wonks and pundits seem to believe.

If only we could expect the same from those who disagree - you know, data, analysis, arguments, stuff like that, instead of emotional outbursts and authority-based proclamations.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

David Brooks on Dealing with "Disaster"

This is utterly fascinating - psychologically, sociologically, anthropologically, economically, and politically. Not for anything Brooks means to say, mind you, but for the fact that he is capable - without effort, hesitation, or detectable shame - of classifying the purposeful structural and institutional consequences of neoliberal capitalism as "natural disasters"; and then suggesting, wholly unselfconsciously, that the sensible way to deal with these "disasters" is to elect a US president who has no interest whatsoever in challenging that ideology.

Monday, 15 February 2016

This time he's gone too far! - No, wait, really, we mean it, this is really it...

It is time once again to wonder:

Does anyone know less about American politics than Yglesias?

Read here to find out who was booing Trump at the debate.

Read here to find out who Trump was addressing and who he cares about reaching (spoiler: not the people who were booing).

Read here for a reminder of the fact that this issue has already come up - 4 months ago - and it made no difference to the GOP primary.

Update 02/18: And indeed, it doesn't seem to be making a difference this time either.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Re-thinking Donald Trump

This is definitely worth taking seriously.

But, if you

(1) don't think he would have any shot in the general against anyone;

(2) do think that he isn't really an embryonic fascist after all, but just playing one on TV until he wraps up the nomination; and

(3) take a moment to reflect on the fact that he isn't just better than Cruz, he's likely better than 10 out of the 16 other past-or-present GOP candidates (including Rubio), who only look like they're not nightmarishly insane/incompetent compared to Cruz, and are probably even more so than Trump once point (2) is factored in;

- then you might want to take this (fairly long but really excellent) piece just as seriously.

For this reason above all else:

"When Trump’s presidential rivals attended a David and Charles Koch retreat, he tweeted: 'I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch brothers. Puppets?'"

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Lessons of This Election

"Perhaps the most puzzled by what they’re seeing is the conservative movement old guard who spent decades creating the organizations that in recent years have risen up to challenge the Republican elites for supremacy of the party. They have made great strides, primarying apostates, defeating RINOs and even taking out good conservatives just to show they could. They showed the entire country that they are willing to destroy the government itself if that’s what it takes to demonstrate their commitment to their principles. They take no prisoners, give no quarter. And finally, after decades of hard work and strategizing, they are on the verge of total dominance.

Or they were until Trump came along and proved that many of the people they had been counting on to be the foot soldiers in this conservative revolution weren’t paying attention."

- Digby

Amazingly, there seem to be intelligent, educated, well-read people who don't see this - who don't get that Trump is currently teaching the single biggest and most interesting lesson about American politics today. For crying out loud, pull up a chair.

A significant percentage of the people we thought were principled believers in limited government or constitutional originalism - or steadfast adherents to a strict religious litmus test for politicians and policy - just aren't.

We believed they were because there are small groups of incredibly wealthy people who are these things, and who have been able to prevent an alternative from emerging - until now. Now that smokescreen has cleared. We can see that many people are not who we thought they were. They are something else entirely.

What? I'm not totally sure. Lots of different things. Let's just hope there's something in all that anger that can eventually be redirected towards good. One thing they are is cool with Trump's very unconservative economic views. Another thing they are is in open rebellion against neoliberal orthodoxy, the dominant socio-politico-economic ideology of our time, having finally figured out that its promised benefits will never reach them.

Those are reasons to hold out hope - assuming they can be weaned off the noxious xenophobia of Trump's right-wing populism/nationalism without losing those more open and flexible attitudes towards the structure of the economy and the role of the State, attitudes which the conservative establishment has successfully smothered for a generation.

If Trump loses the nomination and Sanders wins it, this group may prove a surprising source of defectors to the progressive - anti-establishment, anti-Washington-consensus - cause. If Trump wins the nomination, he may even start that weaning process himself among his own original base of supporters, in order to maximize his appeal in the general election. And when he (all but certainly) loses the election, there'll be a large block of GOP voters which, starting in 2017, could find a surprising home in a Democratic Party that manages to move away from present-day establishment orthodoxy. Even if that move is well to the political and economic left.

But that Democratic Party doesn't exist yet. It needs to be built from the ground up starting now. And that's precisely the movement that Bernie Sanders is leading.

If Trump is teaching us a fascinating lesson about right-of-center voters, Sanders is teaching an (almost) equally fascinating and complementary one about centrist and left-of-center ones. Namely, that no one has a goddamn clue what people mean when they describe themselves as "moderate".

Moderate Democrats are voting for Sanders. Conservative Democrats are voting for Sanders. Blue-collar Democrats are voting for Sanders. Independents are voting for Sanders.

Whatever "moderate" means in 2016, it does not preclude favoring a revolution to smash the stranglehold that neoliberal and neoconservative policy thought currently have on the ideas and agendas of both major political parties.

Nate Silver (unintentionally) said it best: What he - and everyone else, myself certainly included - don't get, could fill a book.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Electability of Bernie Sanders

For the "Bernie can't win the independents" crowd:

This piece on his popularity with independents -

"Among independents [in Iowa], you, Bernie, were the runaway favorite--with 69 percent of the nonaligned voting for you, compared to 26 percent for Hillary, almost a 3 to 1 margin."

For the "Moderate/conservative democrats won't support Bernie" crowd:

This piece on his popularity with those groups.

For the "Conservatives will oppose Sanders even more fiercely than Clinton" crowd:

This piece on Sanders' intention to court Trump supporters; and

This piece on Trump's very unconservative economic populism; and

This piece on Clinton's unfavorability numbers relative to Sanders across all voters.

So: (1) data from independents; (2) data from moderate/conservative democrats; (3) strong arguments on where the substantial anti-establishment sector of the right will turn if (the, relatively speaking, economically liberal) Trump is eliminated; and (4) deeply entrenched negative views of Clinton relative to Sanders across the political spectrum point to the conclusion that Sanders is more electable than Clinton.

Now, to address the opposing argument from Vox and their 6 political scientists -

I was genuinely shocked by how poorly reasoned this is. The idea that the Republican nominee could successfully portray Sanders' health plan as a threat to what people already know is downright hilarious. What people already know at this point is Obamacare - and I would love, love, in a way I cannot express, to see the Republican campaign on "Vote Sanders and you might lose your Obamacare!" - and Medicare - which is why the Sanders plan is branded and marketed as Medicare for all. In fact, the loss aversion argument clearly goes the other way: it has now been long enough for a very large segment of the American people to grow accustomed to the actual benefits of Obamacare, and Republicans have dug themselves a hole much too deep to get out of by their implacable opposition to it in the absence of any proposal for a replacement or alternative. Whatever the public perception of the ACA, and whatever the significance of that perception - however distorted or misinformed it might be - in general, the Republicans have no "loss aversion" argument available to them, since their entire healthcare platform is based precisely on a promise to take something away which people currently have, and it is much too late, and they have much too much invested, for them to turn it into anything else at this point. That is true regardless of how many people recognize that what they now have is good for them compared to what they had in the past, or not. That point should be perfectly obvious.

The unstated assumptions in the rest of the piece are that 1) Rubio will be the nominee rather than Trump or Cruz (both of whom Sanders would crush); and 2) Rubio is a moderate like Romney. Maybe Rubio will be the nominee; but 2) is, again, laughable. He's slightly to the left of Cruz and Trump, yes, but he's a Tea Party candidate and incredibly extreme in absolute terms. In the general, he would in fact face the mirror image of Romney's devastating problem: Romney was a moderate who had to try to pass as an unhinged right-wing lunatic, but failed. The failure meant he didn't get the lunatic vote, but the attempt meant he lost moderate votes. Rubio is an unhinged right-wing lunatic who has to try to pass as a moderate. Since Democrats will be turning out in huge numbers in the general no matter who the nominee is, a Rubio victory would have to rely on a move to the center which wins over enough moderates/independents to offset the hardliners (the ones who would be more comfortable with Cruz) who will end up feeling betrayed by that move, and staying home.

Essential to that would be moving back to the center on immigration, which he can't easily do, because he has so publicly and enthusiastically abandoned his centrist position on that issue to be competitive in the primary. And the current and ephemeral illusion - because that's what it is - that he's already pretty close to being as moderate as he needs to be (while also being sufficiently conservative) is based solely on (1) not being Trump/Cruz; and (2) being the pick of big business and the Party establishment. (1) disappears in the general, and (2) doesn't help him that much with moderates/independents this year. That aside, the idea has to be that over the entire course of the general, the Democrats wouldn't be able to scare independents off him based on the rest of his actual, quite extreme, record. Not even I think they're that incompetent. Rubio can't win the general without moving to the center, and he can't win the general without not moving to the center. In other words, the Republicans have built themselves a primary system which currently makes it impossible for them to win the general.

The snag in that story is that if the Democrats nominate Clinton, Republican voters will go to the polls no matter who their own nominee is. Clinton would have to make that up with a big share of moderates/independents, and I'm not at all convinced that she would end up doing better with them than Sanders, because 1) she has major issues of trustworthiness with them; and 2) Sanders' leftism isn't hurting him with moderates/independents on anything like the scale many seemed to be anticipating in this election cycle. Sanders, moreover, can call himself a socialist, or whatever else he wants, and still won't need as many moderates/independents as Clinton because the vast majority of this country's die-hard conservatives won't be moved against him to the same extent that they will be against her. There is no one they could hate as much as they hate Hillary Clinton, and one of the most significant things we have learned about a sizeable portion of this group in this election year is precisely that they are anti-establishmentarians first, and evangelical Christians/rugged individualists/free-market disciples second. Sanders would actually pick up some of the anti-establishment vote in the absence of Trump - his radically different policy positions won't matter nearly so much as the fact that he's the only other candidate not taking big money and challenging the economic and political establishment head on - and in the presence of Trump, he wins easily.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

(Coates on) Johnson on Coates

I'm still a Coates fan, and I do disagree with Sanders' response to the reparations question - while also disagreeing with some of the specific criticisms of that response. But this is a thought-provoking, if slightly uneven, piece by Cedric Johnson; and Coates' reply is equally so (on both counts). To some extent, Coates is misinterpreting, and so talking past, Johnson; but Johnson bears some responsibility for that.

Johnson is trying to accomplish two conflicting tasks simultaneously: providing a Marxist critique of Coates' position, and defending Sanders' social democratic policy program against Coates' criticisms of Sanders.

The crucial line in Coates' piece is this: "But eventually, I came to believe that white supremacy was a force in and of itself, a vector often intersecting with class, but also operating independent of it."

There are two claims that need to be considered:

(1) White supremacy/institutional racism is an effective social force, the result of which is that black American poverty is significantly different than white American poverty; and

(2) White supremacy/institutional racism is independent of the class struggle.

Because Johnson is trying to defend Sanders, Coates takes him as denying both of these claims (although that's a little unfair at this point, given Sanders' response to his encounter with Black Lives Matter, namely, his development of far-and-away the most comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform); and Coates spends the first half of this piece defending his central thesis - thesis (1), the difference between white and black poverty - from Johnson, who does not, I think, mean to dispute it.

What Johnson, qua Marxist, does dispute is thesis (2). Coates may be right (almost certainly is right) that white supremacy/institutional racism would survive a series of social democratic reforms of the sort Sanders is advocating (and that remains true even if we include his criminal justice reforms). Johnson's position, again qua Marxist, on this point would have to be that it would not survive the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, because the class struggle is causally and explanatorily prior to white supremacy/institutional racism. Unlike non-hegemonic racism, which derives from the early hominid evolution of in-group/out-group dynamics, white supremacy/institutional racism is held up, as it were, by the fact that it serves the interests of economic power - which means, in the modern age, capital. The two best books on this are this one (from an econometric perspective) and this one (from a historical one). But it is impossible to stress this point in the context of a defense of Bernie Sanders' campaign, since Sanders is not running (this time) as an actual Marxist.

What Coates does not deal with is Johnson's critique of his alternative identity politics. Coates is unable to see that white supremacy/institutional racism would be unscathed by reparations in any form, or by any other action which he or anyone else might propose in the context of capitalist society, especially neoliberal capitalism. This is why the Marxist point about the causal and explanatory priority of the class struggle is important. It is Coates' greatest blind spot, as far as I'm concerned - his worst pieces, at least among all the ones I've read, are posts on his old Atlantic blog which defend the present day de facto requirement that writers be willing to work for free indefinitely if they really want a shot at "making it", and then having the opportunity to write for compensation.

One final complaint - Coates is self-consciously playing to an uninformed white audience with the digs he takes at Johnson's worries about the "Black managerial class". This is a persistent theme in the writing of black Marxists who are even deeper thinkers than either of them, like Adolph Reed, Jr (who subjects Coates' arguments to far more scathing critique than Johnson does).

The Realness of Donald Trump (If Not of the Political Pundit Class)

Brooks distills, as only he can, the most predictable and least informed media narrative, down to its essence.

The Trump scourge is by no means behind us, no matter how badly we may want it to be. In a year whose voter turnout shattered the previous record by 65,000 voters (a 50% increase), and saw nearly 85,000 first-time voters, Trump collected more first-time votes than any other GOP candidate. His people did turn out. His second-place finish was an under-performance only relative to the last two weeks of polling - a period during which Cruz, who already had the best turn-out operation by far and who had been the favorite in the polls - ran one of the dirtiest final-stage primary campaigns in recent history. The Evangelical winning Iowa isn't news. And Trump failing to get a larger portion of first-time voters than he did isn't news either. What is news is that he got more of them than anyone else, in a state that makes its voters caucus, despite running a fake campaign there - he didn't even have staffers telling people where to go vote! (The rest of that article is rubbish).

The unstated assumption is that after losing, a man who loves nothing so much as winning, who is all ego, and who has virtually unlimited funds, is not going to throw money at staffing and ad buys in the next several states where he has, and has long had, a commanding lead. The important - and frightening - but also interesting - question was never whether Trump could win the nomination without really campaigning; it is whether he'll win if he decides to start. Whether Trump starts winning or not is something he still has an enormous amount of control over, especially after giving the Republican side's best speech last night; it comes down to whether or not he's interested enough to stop running a fake campaign. That is the terrifying part.

Rubio's over-performance was big enough to be genuinely surprising, and his share of first-time voters does show real anti-Trump sentiment. But the fact that he collected that sentiment in Iowa, beyond the characteristics he shares with Cruz (who got a matching share), is down to his performance in the debate Trump skipped - and we can be sure that's a lesson The Donald has learned. Rubio's path to the nomination still absolutely relies on Bush, Christie, and Kasich dropping out (and Carson's voters splitting between Trump and Cruz after he leaves further complicates things). A lot of people seem sure that Bush will accept his walking papers from the Party because he's a company man; but he's also a Bush, which means he's a feuder and a grudge-holder, and right now his beef is with Rubio. I could see him bucking the Party merely to siphon off Rubio votes for as long as possible, purely out of spite. And he still has a lot of donor money. He also, along with Christie and Kasich, pretty much skipped Iowa, and Rubio has been polling miserably in New Hampshire. Christie isn't a company man and is already going after Rubio; and Kasich, besides being positioned for a strong showing next week (at least a strong third, just like Rubio got), may very well feel his highest obligation this year is to be the voice of moderation, and devil take the consequences.

There is no unity or sanity or normalcy here. Rubio is still in third, however you look at it. And even that is nothing to cheer about, because a Rubio presidency would only be marginally less disastrous than a Cruz or Trump one - and quite a bit more likely if he reaches the general. But that 'if' hasn't gotten much smaller.

Reports of the Republican Party's vitality are greatly exaggerated.