I’ve been thinking more about Scott Walker and his potential staying power. And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s got a real shot at the whole thing. I would certainly not call him the front-runner. He’s got a lot to learn, and a lot to prove before it’s worth talking about him in those terms. But he’s got a really valuable card to play that I can’t quite figure out how his major opponents are going to answer effectively. And that card could make him quite dangerous.
Unlike Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rand Paul or the various also-rans, Scott Walker picked a high-profile battle over a core issue that both the establishment and more insurgent types care about – the status and position of public sector unions. His opponents rose to the challenge, and threw everything they had into the battle to defeat him – to the point of trying to get him recalled before the next scheduled election. The showdown went down in a purple-to-blue state. And Walker won, unequivocally.
Jindal and Perry can point to very conservative things they did as governors – but Louisiana and Texas are very conservative states. Could they do the same in Washington? Ted Cruz can tout his purism – but he’s accomplished literally less than nothing, with his antics having demonstrably backfired in multiple instances. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush can tout their own records – but their opponents can turn around and point to things in those same records that offend the faithful, including not merely compromises but issues that they ran on and advocated forcefully. Rand Paul . . . well, Rand Paul is Rand Paul.
Scott Walker can say to anyone touting their conservative bonafides: “you talk the talk, but I walked the walk.” But he can also credibly say, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,” without sounding like a moderate squish – because in one very high profile situation, he held ‘em, and he won.
And sometimes, you win the game when you fold a hand. In his most recent confrontation – an attempt to change the mission of the Wisconsin public university system – Walker folded – partially. The changes to the mission statement (which would have reduced the mission of the university system to “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs”) have been scrapped. So Latin isn’t dead yet. But the $300 million in funding cuts remain, so Latin’s probably going to have a tough time surviving, ultimately. Backing down on a symbolic issue may in fact take the pressure off the more substantive changes. If so, Walker may have another victory to tout.
I don’t know whether he’s skillful enough to do so, but if he is, he can play this card over and over again against every one of his primary opponents. And I can’t think of a really solid answer any of them can make. (Well, other than his policies are bad ones, but I somehow think that answer won’t go over well in a GOP primary.)
That doesn’t mean Walker wins – you need more than one good card to win. But this card really is a killer.
Apropos of some of the discussion happening on this site about the nature of poverty, and at the risk of sounding horrifically upper-middle-SWPL-whatever, I wanted to relate some thoughts about a recent visit I made to the island of Dominica.
Dominica is a very small country. They have only 70,000 people, and though the country is physically tiny it is not especially dense. (96 people per square kilometer, versus 349 for neighboring Martinique, 300 for Grenada, 258 for Trinidad and Tobago.) It’s not a deeply impoverished country – on a purchasing power parity basis, per capita GDP is up there with Romania and Venezuela, and three times the level of the Philippines. But it is far from wealthy. And in the rural southeast, where we were, people live very simply; in rural areas, every other household is impoverished, according to the UNDP.
It’s hard to get ahead in Dominica. The country is very mountainous – it’s quite young, geologically, and still volcanically active – and its poor system of roads mostly go straight up and down with the gradient of the mountains. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and there are few expanses of flat land suitable for large-scale agriculture. And because it’s a small island, imported goods are relatively expensive – and a lot of different kinds of goods need to be imported. Combined with the limited amount of local capital, what you have is a formula for under-development. It’s just very hard to see what Dominica could produce that would integrate readily into the global supply chain.
Wisely, I suspect, the government is not trying to encourage industrialization, and is trying to move away from agricultural products (mostly bananas) that have a hard time competing with industrial-scale operations elsewhere anyway. It’s focused on eco-tourism and on specialized services a small island could plausibly provide: a cheap medical education (import medical students, export doctors), and the kinds of financial services that cluster around tax havens. All of which seems to be working reasonably well, but none of which is going to provide a rapid rise in living standards in the countryside.
But the thing is: this impoverished countryside looks quite healthy. People walk everywhere; they have no choice but to stay fit. Life expectancy at birth is 76.5 years, comparable to Poland and Uruguay. Food grows everywhere, free for the taking, and fresh water is abundant; the island is quite edenic in that regard. It’s never cold. As one of our guides told us repeatedly, even if you don’t have two nickels to rub together, you’ll never die of hunger or thirst on the island.
Moreover, precisely because the island isn’t suited for massive luxury development, there was less of a sense than in some parts of the Caribbean of a steep power gradient between tourists and locals. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we felt like guests rather than tourists, but the master-servant dynamic that kicks in easily in such situations was far more attenuated than usual.
We tend to think of wealth as luxury – having lots of stuff – and poverty as the lack. But that may not be the best way of thinking about it, at least once we’re talking about people above the subsistence level. Absolute poverty and its ills – starvation, malnutrition, etc. – are still rampant in parts of the world, and even in pockets of the developed world, and deserve serious attention. But once we get above that level, measuring poverty just in terms of income or in terms of goods becomes more problematic. Agatha Christie once wrote that she never thought she would be so rich as to be able to afford a car, nor so poor that she could not afford servants. What constitutes a lot of valuable “stuff” is always relative, both to the standards of the time and to what the Joneses have.
Perhaps a better way of thinking about poverty above subsistence is in terms of the experience of freedom. Someone who is literally imprisoned is living a deeply impoverished life even if they have three squares a day. Someone who cannot afford not to work 16 hours a day is also impoverished – even if they treat as necessities some consumer goods (a cell phone, say) that previous generations would have considered unimaginable luxuries. Ditto for someone whose prospects and opportunities are so narrowly circumscribed that they feel no choice in their future. In the ancient world, someone who could not afford to feed himself might sell himself into slavery; in the 17th and 18th centuries, he might bind himself to indentured servitude. How different are the “choices” many of the world’s poor make today, particularly the ones lucky enough to be integrated into the global supply chain?
How does Dominica fare from that perspective? The barriers to self-improvement are, as noted, quite steep; that’s one reason the island has had a perpetually high emigration rate. If one of our guides touted the fact that it was impossible to starve, another guide – who had lived in America – complained of the island’s provincialism, and missed both the consumer paradise of America and the opportunity America afforded him to make a living doing something he wanted to do (tinkering with cars, as it happened), instead of having to fit into one of the few roles available on the island. Unemployment is very high among Dominica’s poor; there are clearly many who don’t have the choice to do much of anything.
But it is possible merely to live quite freely in Dominica, free of many of the fears that stalk the poor of wealthier countries. That’s not a quality to ignore when we think about poverty.
I’m not discounting the seriousness and importance of absolute levels of poverty. Nor am I dignifying the notion of someone earning $150,000 per year being “house-poor” because they bought a brownstone in Clinton Hill for $2,000,000. The latter is a real thing, but it is not poverty; it’s a conscious (possibly wise, possibly foolish) choice to spend a lot of money on one consumer good-slash-investment, leaving much less for other goods and investments.
All I’m saying is that the frame that defines poverty as having relatively less stuff than most people is, itself, impoverished. And that a richer definition would focus on how we live, and how much choice in how we live, and not just on what we have.
Reihan Salam has written an interestingly revealing essay for Slate about how he came to be conscious of his class identity – and, implicitly, how that shaped his emerging political consciousness. He begins:
I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids whose parents preferred not to pay private-school tuition. Growing up in an immigrant household, I’d felt largely immune to class distinctions. Before high school, some of the kids I knew were somewhat worse off, and others were somewhat better off than most, but we generally all fell into the same lower-middle- or middle-middle-class milieu. So high school was a revelation. Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing.
By the time I made it to a selective college, I found myself entirely surrounded by this upper-middle-class tribe. My fellow students and my professors were overwhelmingly drawn from comfortably affluent families hailing from an almost laughably small number of comfortably affluent neighborhoods, mostly in and around big coastal cities. Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group. Yet without really reflecting on it, I felt that it was inevitable that I would live among them, and that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.
So allow me to unburden myself. I’ve had a lot of time to observe and think about the upper middle class, and though many of the upper-middle-class individuals I’ve come to know are good, decent people, I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.
Allow me to say, as a member of this same class, that I completely know where Salam is coming from, as well as where he’s arrived at. There’s a reason why SWPL is a thing, and there’s a reason why getting that it’s a thing is yet another SWPL class marker. There is something especially annoying about the smugness of those who mistake status markers for virtue, and who act as if these badges of virtue put them above any interrogation of their class interests. And it’s especially awful when you feel in danger of becoming one of these people.
And I understand where he’s coming from in terms of personal history as well. My high school experience was more like his experience prior to high school: we Bronx Scientists all felt like broadly middle-middle urban kids. (The difference has something to do with the Bronx versus Manhattan, and more to do with the near-decade difference in our ages; New York changed a lot in ten years.) But I had something more akin to Reihan’s shock when I got to college, where I regularly felt like the guy who didn’t own a proper jacket among the swells in their tuxedos.
When I interrogate myself honestly, though, that had very little to do with the actual class backgrounds of my college classmates, and mostly to do with my own psychosocial development. Yes, there were plenty of prep school grads and the like. But my roommates freshman year were from: Columbia, Missouri; Youngstown, Ohio; and Temple, Texas. Not a son of Groton among them; I, the son of a public high school teacher in the Bronx, was the sophisticated urbanite of the bunch. And frankly, they fit in, socially, better than I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t come from the right class; it was that I didn’t have any class – that, frankly, I was an argumentative slob.
It didn’t feel that way at the time, though. And that feeling – the feeling that I had been sized up by my betters and found wanting – was an important undercurrent leading me in a more right-wing direction politically a few years after graduation. Pecuniary interest was obviously important as well – I was working on Wall Street, and though my career had not yet taken off that was all the more reason to want to keep the path of that potential career as smooth as possible. But that kind of self-interest only makes it more important to find “objective” justifications for one’s opinions.
I’m not suggesting that Salam is animated by those kinds of resentments. Frankly, he has always presented to me as remarkably free of resentments. And he is nothing if not socially adept, in his unique, Salam-y way. I can’t even picture him being a slob. I’m just saying that a certain cliche – the bright, socially-inept striver identifying with a right-wing political program so as to stick it to his social “betters” – is a cliche for a reason: because it’s a pretty common. But it’s highly destructive of sensible analysis.
And that’s because any sensible analysis has to start with objective class interests, not the status markers of class.
Indeed, the heart of Salam’s complaint is precisely that the upper middle class have too much influence:
We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Salam proceeds to lay out a detailed brief against the mass upper class in policy terms: from their support for unproductive tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, to restrictive zoning rules that keep housing prices high in urban areas, to cartel-preserving licensure requirements that keep dental assistants from hanging out their own shingles, to a backwards immigration system that lets in nannies but keeps out doctors.
It’s all very Institute for Justice - but it’s also the kind of stuff that Matt Yglesias, liberal scion of the mass upper class, has been writing about for years. In other words, you can contextualize the kind of policy criticism Salam is making within a general libertarian critique (government will always be co-opted by those who already have power; here are examples how upper-middle-class professionals use government to shut the gate on the middle class; we need less government so nobody can rig the game that way). Or you can contextualize it within a general left-wing critique (here are examples of how upper-middle-class liberals act to protect their class interests to the detriment of the poor and middle class; we can’t let a left-wing politics be compromised by the need to keep a large and wealthy class on-side just because it makes the right sounds; we need a class-based politics that doesn’t get hijacked by cultural politics). These are both frameworks for talking about how to reduce the political influence of a favored class, and create an opening for new entrants.
But Salam doesn’t make either argument. Instead, he’s says we need to guilt the upper middle class into being a more civically-responsible gentry:
What can we do to break the stranglehold of the upper middle class? I have no idea. Having spent so much time around upper-middle-class Americans, and having entered their ranks in my own ambivalent way, I’ve come to understand their power. The upper middle class controls the media we consume. They run our big bureaucracies, our universities, and our hospitals. Their voices drown out those of other people at almost every turn. I fear that the only way we can check the tendency of upper-middle-class people to look out for their own interests at the expense of others is to make them feel at least a little guilty about it. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
It reminds me of the way that Charles Murray ended Coming Apart with a similarly exhortatory plea – successful people just shouldn’t shut the gate; instead, they should spend more time in Fishtown because . . . well, because they should.
Salam’s complaint up front is that upper middle class liberals act like they are distinctly virtuous – they obey the law, pay taxes, raise their kids right, and have all the right political opinions – and that this virtue exempts them, in their own minds, from criticism, allowing them to be as ruthless as they like in protecting their individual interests. But by calling for a more virtuous gentry, Salam isn’t puncturing their pretensions – he’s implicitly endorsing them. Because if they aren’t actually any better than anybody else, then why expect them to be?
The thing is, it’s completely normal for people to pursue their own economic interests. That’s precisely what you’d expect people to do under most circumstances. It’s when people act against interest that requires explanation. So why the fury that the upper middle class, as Salam sees it, acts out of selfish motives? Why say that this behavior threatens to destroy everything great about America? Why make this about the kind of people the upper middle class are? If the problem is that they have too much power, then that’s the problem. And let’s talk about how to tackle that.
Because here’s the thing: there is no virtuous class out there. Contra William F. Buckley, a collection of random names from the Boston phone book would do a terrible job running the country. Take a look at the fate of lottery winners and reality television stars if you want to see what happens when fortune and fame descends on individuals nearly at random. The urban mass upper class has a host of ridiculous pretensions about itself – and more’s the pity for them. (Er, us.) But if you think the pretensions to virtue of other distinct classes that are more generally endorsed by the culture don’t have pernicious political and social effects, well, I’ve got a military-industrial complex to sell you.
My advice to would-be class traitors like Salam is: don’t let your predispositions get in the way of your analysis. Here’s a good example of what I mean from right here in New York. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, hails from Park Slope, the capital of mass upper class Brooklyn. (That’s my neighborhood as well.) It would be very easy to assume that, as such, he must be following precisely the playbook that Salam describes: posturing as a liberal but in fact acting to preserve the prerogatives of the mass upper class.
But, at least in terms of housing development, the mayor has done something rather different, and has pursued a very pro-development line. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with brownstone owners raging about how this mayor is worse than Bloomberg, how he doesn’t care about preserving the historical character of neighborhoods or about the opinions of the local community – he just wants to build. This is not what Park Slope thought it was buying.
Now, de Blasio is trying to yoke that pro-development stance to an affordable housing plan that perhaps Salam would be skeptical of as being too regulatory in nature – but that’s not my point. My point is that de Blasio is acting against precisely the entrenched class interests that Salam thinks are so problematic – against the people who want to pull up the drawbridge. But his cultural politics line up perfectly with the kinds of liberals Salam knows dominate the mass upper class.
Which matters more? That, it seems to me, is the question.
I’ve got a new column up at The Week:
Economically, allowing Greece to leave the euro and default on its debt might be the best thing for all parties. After a period of disruption, Greece would be able to grow again. The eurozone, meanwhile, would have demonstrated that it can distinguish between risks worth taking (Ireland) and risks not worth taking (Greece), and that it is not as brittle as might have been thought. But even if it is economically sensible — indeed, arguably because it may be economically sensible — a Grexit would have deeper implications for the trajectory and meaning of the European project.
That project was originally intended to be something new, neither a traditional state nor a mere customs union, but a kind of supra-national governance that would supplant nationalism, and end the possibility of intra-European conflict. Entry into the EU would tutor Italians and Portuguese in German thrift, and would cement Western democratic norms in countries like Ukraine and Turkey. It was a mechanism for defining — and expanding — the meaning and boundaries of European civilization.
A Grexit would redefine both the meaning and those boundaries. Countries like Poland are going to be properly leery of adopting the euro once it is clear that handing over control of monetary policy does not come with any implicit fiscal guarantees. Greece’s new government is already providing Moscow with diplomatic support as Europe debates the possibility of further sanctions in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine. They will presumably only adopt a more pro-Russian line in the wake of a Grexit.
If it happens, a Grexit will make it clear that there are not only rules for becoming “European” but also rules you have to abide by to remain a European in good standing — rules over which supplicant states have little influence. Rationally, every state — even those in the heart of Europe — will necessarily recall their primary, national allegiances, knowing that these are all they can count on when the chips are down.
The point is not that a Greek departure from the euro would be catastrophic, or that Brussels (or Berlin) ought to see itself as in some kind of competition with Moscow for the allegiance of peripheral European states. Russia’s willingness to waste blood and money on such a competition probably does it more harm than benefit; that was certainly the lesson Gorbachev took from the Brezhnev years. The point is that a willingness to let Greece leave signals precisely that Brussels — and Berlin — do not see themselves as being in that kind of competition. That the European project is no longer about defining a civilization.
Is that a good thing? I’m not sure – my feelings about the European Union are complex.
On the one hand, I understand and even admire the aims of the European project. European civilization was almost destroyed by national rivalries, so I can understand why Europe’s leaders wanted to find a political arrangement that made war in the heart of Europe seem impossible. I understand why France wanted an arrangement that magnified her potential influence, and I understand why Germany wanted an arrangement that made it possible for her to have influence again. And I also see some ancillary effects of the European project that may be positive. Union has made it more possible for smaller European nationalisms – Catalonia, Scotland – to asset themselves in a less traumatizing manner than would probably be the case without that superstructure.
On the other hand, Europe is kind of obviously ridiculous, with poor democratic accountability, no clear definition of what is properly Brussels’s business and what belongs at the national level, and what in practice amounts to a consensus-based method of governance that makes it impossible to take difficult decisions. In the past, Germany was the strongest advocate of reforming these deficits and moving towards a proper European federalism, but in the wake of the financial crisis that is much less true.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Germany’s attitude toward Europe generally – that if they are going to be on the hook fiscally that there had better be fiscal accountability – but in practice this attitude has been enforced in a punitive manner rather than being the spur to institutional reform. As a consequence, the Euro has become something of a Hobson’s choice for small countries – join and you become a German colony; don’t join and you potentially forfeit a substantial competitive advantage vis a vis your neighbors. That’s not a structure that is going to achieve the goals that the founders of the Union intended.
Where I wind up is that America needs a strong Europe, whether it’s a federal Europe or a Europe of states. We need a strong Europe because a weak Europe will be an American dependency and will encourage us in our worst imperial pretensions, while a strong Europe will be both a more useful ally and a check on those ambitions. But the current arrangements leave Europe institutionally weak, and historically the United States has abetted that weakness by focusing almost exclusively on pushing for a larger Europe rather than a more functional one.
So I’m kind of hoping that Greece forces a reckoning, and that the reckoning doesn’t burn the house down completely.
Anyway, check out the column there.
Forgive me if I see Andrew Sullivan’s departure from blogging as more than just a routine retirement by a pioneer in a new media field. Rather, I see it as an extremely negative omen for that very field.
Andrew Sullivan was not just one of the pioneers in creating the blogging form, and in demonstrating how you create a personal brand on the web. Beyond that, he was one of the first to understand that what he was doing, most fundamentally, was not writing, or even editing, but curating – organizing the vast trackless swamp of the internet into material that his audience would be interested in.
And beyond that, he was pioneering a business model that I believed held the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing “content” in the age of on-line distribution. He asked his audience to pay, to subscribe to what amounts to “the web as I see it.”
I say that that is the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing content based on the following syllogism.
First, there are only three ways to monetize traffic. Either you give everything away for free and sell advertising. Or you get people to pay for specific content. Or you get people to pay for a subscription to a whole suite of content.
The problem with the first is that on-line advertising is massively deleterious to the on-line reading (and watching and listening) experience. And it doesn’t work very well in terms of motivating purchases. And most efforts to mitigate the one or the other are massively corrupting of the creative or journalistic enterprise (as Sullivan was well-aware).
The problem with paying for specific content is that you don’t know whether the content is worth purchasing until after you’ve purchased it, which creates a substantial barrier to purchase. If you’re talking about a feature film for which you can consult Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes or whatever to learn whether it’s likely to suit, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about a news article, or a web short, or a poem, that’s not an option.
The problem with subscriptions is that, generally, the way they are enforced is by creating a paywall around the content. Nothing gets inside the wall unless it was worth paying for up-front. And once it’s inside the wall, the only way to access it is to be a subscriber. This creates a two-tier world where most people are producing and distributing stuff without compensation, hoping to get them “hosted” by sites that don’t pay them, and eventually to “graduate” to paid work. But the prevalence of so much free work means that there is constant, brutal pressure on compensation for content-creators.
The solution to this dilemma is one that I’ve described – with apologies to “Big Bill” Haywood – as One Big Paywall. In very broad strokes, this would be a scheme whereby content-creators band together to require micro-payments from content aggregators for traffic driven their way, in exchange for not cluttering up access to that content with extraneous advertising and the like. Such a scheme would make it possible for content-creators to put their material out there for general consumption without worrying about either hiding it behind a paywall or getting paid nothing.
Without going into a great deal of detail of my thoughts about how to bootstrap into such a scheme, I’ve long felt that it depended, ultimately, on the success of curators in turning themselves into subscription services. A free curator is always going to pursue a mass audience, and this will skew the kind of content (and advertising) that it features toward the lowest-common denominator. A subscription service has the possibility of pursuing a niche audience – and niches can be quite lucrative. And much of the most interesting content is going to be aimed at some kind of niche.
Andrew Sullivan was my test case, in a way. If he was able to “make it” on a standalone basis, with a subscription model, then it was possible. If it’s possible, other people will do it – not exactly the same way, but with variations. And once it’s clear that it’s a “thing,” one could pursue my idea of One Big Paywall – because there would be moneymaking curators to negotiate with, and with whom the content-creators signing up for such a scheme would have a natural symbiosis.
But we don’t know whether he made it. It’s too soon to know. All we know is that it didn’t go bust immediately, and that there was no way to keep the venture going without Andrew Sullivan consistently and obsessively at the helm.
That’s a very negative fact for the future of that model. There just aren’t very many people like Sullivan in the world, who combine his speed as a writer, his breadth of taste, his skills as an editor, his manic energy, his head for the business side – it’s just a huge conglomeration of valuable traits. And he didn’t institutionalize them the way Steve Jobs or Walt Disney or Harold Ross did in their own various ways. Even though Andrew Sullivan did only a small fraction of the writing or the curating of the Daily Dish, without him blogging full time, apparently, there is no Dish.
I’ve been told that, in order to build a real, monetizable audience on the web, I need to post at least three times a day. Obviously, some of my colleagues here do exactly that. But it’s a completely insane demand. Virtually none of the critics or opinion-writers of yore could have met it – and those that could have would probably have destroyed themselves doing so, to say nothing of destroying their lives. The only reason anyone adheres to such a standard is precisely that there is no reliable way to monetize good work as such.
I probably sound like Leon Wieseltier here, but I could not disagree with him more. I have no interest – none – in preening lamentations for the great age of culture now past and gone. I loathe nostalgia – but I also recognize that culture is shaped by market structure, and that the market structure we have – and which is a consequence of decisions made a long time ago, some consciously but many unconsciously – is exceptionally brutal to anyone trying to make a living writing, making music, shooting movies, while also providing more ready opportunities to “break in” than ever before. I want to retain the latter while mitigating the former. That means changing the market structure, not posing as a solon while manifesting mostly ignorance.
Andrew Sullivan’s retirement is a blow personally, because, while I never met him, he has always been generous in linking to me, both here and at my prior perches. That he has been so generous in spite of the fact that my first on-line interaction with him was acrimonious in the extreme (and unnecessarily personal – on my part) is a testament to his admirable ability to look past the sort of thing that would lead many successful people (particularly in media) to hold a lifelong grudge, simply because what Sullivan cared about most was whether the work was interesting – to him and to the readership he cultivated. But that’s not the main reason his departure is a blow. The main reason is that the torch has not been passed. There is nobody else out there doing what Andrew Sullivan did, nor is there any prospect for someone to do it. There’s nobody else I can think of who I would say: if he or she links to me regularly, then people will read what I write.
Which make me very sad, for any younger versions of myself out there looking to give what they have to give, creatively, and to get something for it, without being fatally consumed by the endeavor.
I read with interest Rod Dreher’s piece about the “Gay Bob, Christian Bob” parable. And I’m reluctant to pour any amount of cold water on something so obviously well-intentioned. But I’m afraid I have to – a bit.
(Before I start, let me say that I’m not interested in litigating the question of who is more persecuted, gays or traditional Christians, in today’s society. Not because I don’t have opinions on the subject – I do – but because that’s not where I want to go with this piece.)
First, let’s change things up a little bit. Let’s say one of the Bobs is not a friendly, neighborly gay man, but a friendly, normal seeming fellow who is also an active pedophile who preys on pre-pubescent girls. How does the dialogue go now?
Let’s be clear: I’m not equating homosexuality with pedophilia. I am doing exactly the opposite. I’m pointing out how the effectiveness of the dialogue depends on our already having classified both sides as being within the realm of the tolerable as opposed to the intolerable. Christian Bob, if he met pedophile Bob, would be horrified – and the horror would not be lessened, but heightened, if pedophile Bob had been a good neighbor, helping with the trash and so forth. It would be heightened, not lessened, if pedophile Bob complained about being thought a monster, but seemed to take those kinds of nasty comments in stride. All of this would scare the bejeezus out of Christian Bob. The fact that, in the dialogue as written, nothing like that happens, says that Christian Bob already sees gay Bob as fundamentally different from pedophile Bob. In whatever way he continues to believe gay Bob is deeply wrong in the way he lives his life, he doesn’t see him as truly monstrous.
The dialogue builds to a moment of empathy – both Bobs see that the other Bob’s situation is analogous to his. Much of that empathy is built on the recognition that both have experiences of not being understood, of being treated as weird or even monstrous. But of course, the other part is that they each recognize that this treatment is unjustified. Absent that element, the dialogue never gets going.
But let’s take this a little bit further. Let’s say you are a member of the American armed forces living in Afghanistan. Your “neighbor” has just married a nine-year-old girl, and plans to initiate her sexually so as to seal her to him. How does the dialogue go now?
I think one can make a very plausible case for tolerance in that case. The serviceman may need this man’s good will – and he’s not going to get it if he makes it clear that he finds his Afghan neighbor morally abhorrent. And let’s be honest – he’s not going to be able to behave that way unless he convinces himself that his Afghan neighbor has his good points, and is not actually a monster. And he might indeed have his good points – be a gracious host, a fiercely loyal fighter, a loving father and husband, notwithstanding the whole child rape thing. Serviceman Bob might not go so far as to say: hey, this guy is really just like me, if I think about it. Then again, he might – he might conclude: if I were raised here, I’d do much the same (and – remembering who he is – thank God I was not raised here). Either way, we can no longer say that the act of pedophilia as such is intolerable – merely that, if we’re talking about our neighbor in Akron, we’re not willing to tolerate it, but if we’re talking about our neighbor in Kandahar, we are.
Now – let’s look at the other side. What if the other Bob isn’t an evangelical Christian, but a member of the Christian Identity movement, an arguably neo-Nazi type cult? Could agnostic gay Bob tolerate such a neighbor, even if he helped out with the trash? I don’t think so.
Ok, well what if they are in neighboring prison cells? What can each Bob tolerate now? Can they find their way to a dialogue that allows for some measure of mutual respect? Or do they have to try to kill each other on sight? I think the case for tolerance is pretty manifest.
Why am I going through these iterations? To make the point that what we are willing to tolerate and what we are not willing to tolerate is highly context-dependent – and that that context affects our actual beliefs, not just how we behave. The mere fact that Mike Cosper can construct the dialogue that he did implies a great deal about Cosper’s feelings about both characters. He already believes that there’s no reason a gay man or a traditional Christian can’t be a good neighbor. Possibly he believes that because he has had good neighbors who are both. But he also already believes that their private views and practices do not negate the meaning of that good neighborliness – as he surely would if, in the context as given, traditional Christian Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a pedophile, or if gay agnostic Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a member of a neo-Nazi pseudo-Christian cult.
Of course, in either of the latter cases, the “discovery” would be a matter of some moment. neo-Nazi Bob is probably not open about his views in the way that evangelical Christian Bob is. Pedophile Bob is probably not open about his sexual orientation in the way that gay Bob is. But neo-Nazi prisoner Bob is open about his views – he’s got them tattooed on his chest. And our Pashtun preparing to deflower his child bride – he’s not hiding his plans either.
That’s precisely why the gay rights movement has been so insistent that coming out of the closet is a fundamentally radical and necessary act. It is hard, socially, to anathematize something open and admitted. Openness puts a choice on you: be a lousy neighbor, or openly affirm your tolerance. Cosper has decided to be a good neighbor and openly affirm his tolerance.
(And, by the way, I am not blind to the fact that the neo-Nazi prisoner’s openness, and the Pashtun child-deflowerer’s openness, are each built on a structure of violence. The child bride does not have the opportunity to be open in the way that her husband is. Neither does the gay man who submits to the neo-Nazi’s “protection” in prison. That’s tangential to my point, but I wanted to make it clear in passing.)
The surface lesson Cosper is trying to draw is that those inclined to persecute gay people in the name of Christianity, or Christians in the name of gay rights, should see the analogy of their respective social positions and, without changing their views of what is True with a capital “T,” let that empathetic analogy lead them to tolerance and mutual respect. But below the surface, something deeper is going on. Openness has forced a conversation. Quiet hostility is no longer a choice. One must be openly, frankly hostile – or affirm that the other is deserving of respect, and honor.
Two final points.
First, the dialogue couldn’t happen with pedophile or neo-Nazi Bob because neither would be sufficiently open – sufficiently ready to “come out” to the other Bob. And if one of them was so open, it would cause immediate disorientation. Gay Bob, faced with open, friendly Nazi Bob, would not suddenly say, “wow – he’s like me, even though he’s a Nazi. I guess Nazism is just one of those things I just have to tolerate while agreeing to disagree.” He would say, “holy cow – I’ve got a neighbor who’s an open, avowed Nazi! What the heck am I going to do now?” Ditto for Christian Bob faced with alarmingly open pedophile Bob. And if either Bob, alarmed, went around to his other neighbors to get a sense of what everyone else was thinking of doing, and they all didn’t see what the big deal was, he would start to seriously worry if he was being gaslighted.
I have a funny feeling that there are a lot of people out there in America who feel precisely that way.
Second, Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, about insulating, protecting oneself from the baleful influences of the culture. How does he square that impulse with the dialogue that he seems to admire? If I am right that it is openness, and not just good-neighborliness, that forces that conversation, and makes the empathy possible, how does he square achieving that openness with that impulse to insulate?
Based on the comments I received, I think I may have been misunderstood a bit in my piece on the film, “Two Days, One Night.” Allow me to clarify a few things:
Some readers apparently thought I was endorsing the view that businesses should always pursue the bottom line, with no other considerations. I do not believe that. I don’t think that a “purely capitalist framework” inevitably “improves things for everyone.” Rather, I was saying that within such a framework – i.e., within a certain set of given assumptions and assuming institutional arrangements that reflect those assumptions – it’s clear what the business is supposed to do, and why. Reject those assumptions – or assert that existing arrangements don’t actually reflect those assumptions – and you may also reject the conclusion. As I do. As I thought was clear.
Some readers argued that the film had nothing to do with workplace democracy. The workers are not owners. Management decided the terms of the vote – there was no choice to have no layoffs, still get a bonus, and have less profit, nor were other choices like reducing some employees’ hours, reducing management compensation, or any other alternative put on the table. Only two choices were given: lay off Sandra and get a bonus, or keep Sandra and lose the bonus.
This is, indeed, far from a perfect description of workplace democracy. But consider the way our actual electoral democracy works. Who selects the choices we, the electorate, have to choose from? One of the features of democracy – and a basis of criticism thereof since the time of Pericles – is that it empowers those who are good at swaying opinion, and one way you sway opinion is by structuring choices. Unless we are imagining a world in which management simply ceases to exist (which would be a world more radically decentralized than most of us would ever seriously contemplate), the potential exists for management to play these kinds of games.
I admit, I assumed that the formal reason why a vote was happening at all had something to do with workplace democracy. Perhaps management is obliged to get worker approval for layoffs? In the absence of such a rule, I can’t imagine why management went through the trouble and turmoil – why not simply lay her off and be done with it? Therefore, I read the film as showing how such rules – which might have been intended to give workers more of a say in their workplaces – can play out in practice under conditions of scarcity and competition. I think I was correct in doing so.
Finally, some readers argued that this just proves solidarity is impossible so long as we have the profit motive. But the profit motive is just that – a motive. If you’ve got a plan for abolishing avarice, along with lust and pride and anger and the rest of them, clue me in. Scarcity and competition are objective conditions in the world. If solidarity is impossible under those conditions, then solidarity is impossible. I’m not that much of a pessimist.
It’s been instructive to watch the maneuvering of the Republican field of candidates, and of the Republican party in general, in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election.
Jeb Bush enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his last name. But rather than move to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy disasters, he’s shown every indication of believing that, whatever the failures of execution, the strategic and moral framework within which they unfolded was correct, and that the big problem with President Obama foreign policy has been that it is insufficiently muscular in its activism.
Mitt Romney enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his 2012 run. A significant part of his motivation appears to be the belief that, on foreign policy specifically, he predicted all the problems that have bedeviled America and the world in Obama’s second term, and that his own omnidirectional belligerence would have worked out much better than the President’s approach.
All of the other Republican candidates need to establish that they can play at the level of these two in terms of national credibility. Some – like Marco Rubio or Rick Santorum – are true-believing hawks. Others – like Scott Walker, who I felt before Iowa had the best chance to “break out” of the pack as an establishment-acceptable alternative to the better-known leaders – who are in a position either to stake out distinctive territory in foreign policy or to largely avoid the subject, have chosen instead to stake out stridently hawkish positions across the board, without much thought or concern.
Only Rand Paul still seems to be looking for distinctive foreign policy ground, but increasingly he seems to be trying to have things both ways – to push the envelope in a less-hawkish direction by reassuring his audience that he has the same Jacksonian instincts they do.
What I take from all of the above is the conclusion that, whatever the polls may say, the people with power in the Republican party believe that there is far more electoral risk in deviating from the hawkish line than from embracing it. So I feel confident in saying that the next Presidential election looks overwhelmingly likely to feature a hawkish Democrat (Hillary Clinton) facing off against a hawkish Republican.
When faced with this kind of situation, it is tempting to fantasize about alternatives. In the context of the Democratic party contest, I’ve done some of that fantasizing myself. So: what if a serious candidate ran on a third party peace platform? What would be the consequence?
Taking the fantasy seriously for a moment, I immediately have to ask myself: who is the candidate? How is he or she perceived in more general ideological terms? Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan could both plausibly describe themselves as peace candidates. But I very much doubt there are many voters who would seriously vote for one who would also seriously vote for the other.
Successful third party candidacies – meaning, ones that succeeded in shaping subsequent politics – have to scramble the allegiances of established blocs of voters, so that both parties sit up and take notice, and ask themselves: how can we win those who may be suddenly up for grabs? Ross Perot did that in 1992; he not only facilitated Bill Clinton’s victory, but moved the national conversation about the budget decisively in his direction. George Wallace did it in 1968; he not only facilitated Richard Nixon’s victory, but moved the national conversation about crime decisively in his direction. Is there any plausible candidate who would have a similar impact in 2016? Who could force the two major parties to reckon with an up-for-grabs bloc of voters not being represented by the major party candidates in contention?
Well, another way to put that is: can you imagine a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, liberals or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt culturally Republican and/or who failed to pass a set of liberal litmus tests (say he’s against the ACA, or against abortion or gay marriage, or goes around waving the tenth amendment at rallies)? Can you imagine a significant number of Republican-leaning voters, conservatives or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt like a cultural Democrat and/or who failed to pass a set of conservative litmus tests (say she’s robustly in favor of higher income taxes, or open borders, or says one of our most important challenges today is ending rape culture)? Or, alternatively, is there some cultural and political type that crosses those boundaries in interesting ways?
The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to this question is “no.” That is to say: when you poll Americans about whether they want to see a more or less active foreign policy, you can get numbers that suggest there’s an opening for someone to run on such a platform – and that such a constituency exists in both parties. But this is an electoral illusion.
The peace constituency in the Democratic party is a left-edge constituency that is not going to consider voting against Hillary Clinton or any other popular Democrat in favor of someone more centrist-seeming – or even culturally Republican – who happens to be in favor of a significantly more restrained foreign policy. Foreign policy is just one of a host of issues where they are to the left of their party’s center; it’s not a trump card.
Meanwhile, I increasingly suspect that there is no actual peace constituency in the Republican party, but rather a below-the-surface unease about the kinds of people who are making decisions about war and peace for our country. And part of the price of admission to proving you are the right kind of person to trust with our national security is believing in American exceptionalism and standing with our allies and all of that – that is to say: speaking the language of the hawks. Yes, there are fringe groups of libertarians and paleoconservatives and the like who are genuinely opposed to the Washington consensus and its even more hawkish movement conservative variants, but (a) they are tiny; and (b) many of them, like left-wing Democrats, would not vote for someone whose views on other issues they strongly opposed even if they agreed on foreign policy.
So if we do see a third party alternative running on a peace platform, I would expect that candidate to receive very few votes. And I would expect that result to be touted as proof that the American people favor the hawkish consensus.
All of which also makes it harder for a peace candidate to get any traction within one of the two major parties – since the candidates know that such positioning doesn’t help them win votes from the center, and there’s no real ability to reach around and grab from the opposing party’s fringe.
Sorry for the depressing analysis. On the bright side, we only got a few inches of snow here in Brooklyn, so the apocalypse is not upon us quite yet.
It’s interesting (if unsurprising, to me) that Tushnet focused as strongly as she did on the spiritual dimension of the film, reading it primarily as a story of overcoming depression. It certainly is that. But it’s also a fascinating study of the central principle of socialism, and how that principle operates – and fails to operate – in practice, in a country (Belgium) and an economic system where socialism is neither a dirty word nor a foundational ideology. That central principle is solidarity.
The film opens on Sandra (Cotillard) being notified on Friday afternoon by a colleague that she has lost her job as the result of a vote by her fellow workers. Management gave them a choice: the company could afford either to pay bonuses or to lay off one worker, and she was chosen for the axe (likely because she had already been absent from work for some time as she battled a severe depression). The vote was 14-to-16 in favor of getting bonuses.
A friendly co-worker convinces the manager that the original vote was tainted, and he agrees to a re-vote on Monday by secret ballot. The rest of the movie chronicles Sandra’s struggle – with her co-workers and with the lurking black cloud of her depression – to win enough votes to keep her job.
The whole thing is pretty inconceivable in an American context where hiring and firing decisions are either entirely at management discretion or are determined by the outcome of an adversarial contest between organized workers and management. In a purely capitalist framework, the obviously proper thing for the company to do is lay off one worker, whether Sandra or someone else. That makes the business more efficient, and decisions across the economy that improve enterprise efficiency make possible an increase in the overall output of the economy, which implies greater aggregate wealth. Sandra herself may struggle financially in the short term, but that struggle is part of a process that improves things for everyone. Not that such a conclusion will make Sandra feel any better about being laid off.
But in the film, that decision goes not to management, but to the workers themselves. Management simply presents the workers with the facts: the company faces increased competition from Asia; the company can hit its production targets with 16 rather than 17 workers; and by laying off one worker there is room to pay all the remainder more. The workers then have to decide, collectively, what to do. And the “right” decision – even if we take the principle of solidarity seriously – becomes much blurrier.
I say it becomes blurrier, rather than inverted, because I presume the facts are honestly presented. That is to say: I presume that the company really is facing competition and really can’t afford to raise wages without increasing productivity, which, in this case, means laying off one worker. More than one of Sandra’s colleagues expresses to her their fear that, if they vote to keep her, it’ll just mean that one of them will get laid off instead. This is not an idle fear.
The most compelling objection to socialism as an economic model, from Hayek on down, has been an information theory objection. It’s just not possible for a command and control model to process information remotely as efficiently as the price mechanism does. But this objection doesn’t pose the same problem for decentralized models of worker control, including the various varieties of distributism and syndicalism. Advocates of these models often assert that they will result in a more just social order not only because they will mean a fairer distribution of the returns to capital, but because worker-ownership as such will have positive social effects in terms of social cohesion – in terms of solidarity. I’ve made those kinds of arguments myself, in fact.
“Two Days, One Night” complicates that pleasant story – indeed, arguably refutes it. Workplace democracy, under conditions of scarcity and competition, doesn’t lead to solidarity and collective decision-making. Some workers put their personal relationships with Sandra above their economic self interest. Others do the opposite. The workers are divided, not united, and they are divided by the effects of need and sentiment, not by different views of the interests of the collective. (It doesn’t help that management, as we come to understand fairly quickly, is using collective decision-making as a passive-aggressive tool for manipulating the workers. But this is also a strike against the structure of the workplace more than it is against management – after all, what would you expect management to do?)
The film ends by when Sandra is given a choice, and she makes it, and feels good about it. On a spiritual level, and on the level of her human relationships, it’s clear she’s made a good choice, and, moreover, that she’s come to be able to make it because of the personal and social journey she went on over the weekend, with herself, her husband, and her co-workers. But on the level of political economy, the choice rejects the structure within which her workplace, and the film, has been operating. It is a rejection of the responsibility of collective decision-making, in favor of solidarity on a humane, personal level. And the alternative to collective decision-making is giving that job to the discretion of management.
So what might be the political implications of Sandra’s journey?
Over the past generation, labor and social democratic parties across Europe have earned credibility as stewards of the economic system partly by abandoning the idea that they specifically represent the interests of workers, and instead implementing neoliberal policies aimed at making their economies more efficient. In the wake of the financial crisis, there’s been something of a crisis on the left, over whether they sold their birthrights for a mess of pottage that wasn’t nearly as filling as promised. But this feeling actually pre-dates the crisis, and may have validity even if it could be determined that, in terms of policy and politics, the leaders of the left actually made the best decisions possible for their countries.
Those most-likely to receive a pink slip do, in fact, need solidarity, need someone who cares first and foremost about their interests. By definition, it is going to be harder to get that solidarity from someone who is also responsible for the interests of the collective. If solidarity really is the bedrock principle of socialism, then there may be something yet to be said for the adversarial model, over those that promise a more harmonious system of economic relations.
I don’t have much to say about the passing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as such. One presumes that, contrary to some headlines, the transition of power from one brother to another will be relatively uneventful. Saudi Arabia is not a locked box; the United States has extensive contacts throughout the royal family, and undoubtedly has a very clear idea already of how Salman intends to rule the kingdom and what he intends to do – which, I presume, is not very much; the House of Saud is an extraordinarily conservative bunch and the default conservative thing to do in all circumstances is nothing.
The passing of the baton from 90-year-old Abdullah to 78-year-old (and ailing) Salman inevitably recalls the gerontocratic post-Brezhnev years in the Soviet Union. But as a family business that happens to own a country rather than an ideologically-inflected bureaucratic state, the kingdom can’t really bring forth a Gorbachev. Which is probably a good thing; Gorbachev attempted to reform a failing Soviet state by opening it up, and what followed was a catastrophic collapse, ultimately leading to a return to authoritarianism masked by the forms of democracy. What Saudi royal would even consider opening up the kingdom after observing recent history in Egypt, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Syria, and the eruption of Yemen? And lest we forget, there are restive Shiites in the kingdom as well – right where the oil is.
None of which is to suggest that America needs to hold fast to its Saudi card for fear of the deluge that would follow any change in the kingdom. On the contrary – America’s goal should be to moderate the closeness of our ties to Saudi Arabia without causing any kind of a rupture in relations. The strength of those ties will wane naturally over time for economic reasons – as, on the one hand, American dependence on imported oil has ended, and we slowly transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy; and, on the other hand, as the world progressively transitions away from the dollar as the exclusive reserve currency. Geopolitical crises may accelerate or retard that movement, but the secular trend remains toward a less-close relationship.
Meanwhile, we should not let those crises disturb that trend unnecessarily – but the passing of the crown provides the Saudis with an opportunity to try to turn some of those crises to their advantage. Iran is supporting a burgeoning Shiite rebellion in Yemen, and opposing a burgeoning Sunni rebellion in Syria, both actions that the Saudi monarchy views as profound threats. They will ask the administration to affirm commitments made by previous administrations to previous Saudi leaders – and to extend these commitments – as a way of demonstrating American confidence in our relationship with Saudi Arabia during a time of transition. Such commitments will be a relatively cheap-seeming consolation prize to offer in the context of any kind of administration rebuff to Saudi pressure to scuttle our nuclear negotiations with Iran. Whatever we do offer, we should be wary of anything that might be plausibly interpreted as a renewal of our commitment to oust Assad from Syria, or a new commitment to intervene in Yemen on the side of the government.
We’re walking a fine line, trying to improve relations with Iran without giving the impression that we are giving a green light to Iranian troublemaking. But that’s the line we have to walk if we want to avoid either a costly and ultimately pointless confrontation with Iran or a further acceleration of the descent of the region into chaos and sectarian warfare. And we have to keep that line in mind as we reaffirm our multi-decade friendship with Saudi Arabia at this time of transition.