Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why we're stuck with a 2 party system...

or, what the Hard Left doesn't get about basic Comparative Politics.

I should start this by clarifying my own position; I consider myself a Center-Leftist, and a loyal, even passionate Democrat. However, I do not regard the party as being beyond criticism; in fact I view it as a remarkably rickety and haphazard vehicle for the public policies I advocate.

(this and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

I have no patience for my fellow Democrats who insist we have to coddle the Blue Dogs within our own party. The purpose of politics is policy, not the converse. Blue Dogs who consistently undermine the policy goals of the party and the Administration, who consistently vote to sustain Republican filibusters instead of merely voting against bills they personally oppose...

(from top: Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln)

well, they can go straight to Hell. It's not as though these losers are able to win elections anyway.

By the same principle, I have no patience for people who think criticism of the President is somehow off limits. Barack Obama is the greatest president of my lifetime. He's brilliant, charismatic, has sharper political instincts than Bill Clinton (and that's going the distance, and taking a victory lap) and is relentless in his determination to do what's right for the country.

But, he's not perfect, he does make mistakes and if we disagree with something he's done, we have an OBLIGATION, as citizens, to bitch about it. These people work for us; they begged us to give them the damned job, and we're entitled to let them know what we think of their performance.

I also want to stress my enormous respect for, and gratitude to the "Hard Left". The Hard Left and the Center Left disagree on some important public policy issues. In the context of leftist political debate, those differences are magnified and personalized, which frequently ends with name-calling, mutual recrimination and an inability to recognize that we agree on far more than we disagree on.

The Center Left has been relatively ineffective in reversing the steady drift to the Right in this country's policies. And while the Hard Left has to bear some of the onus of George W. Bush's claiming the Presidency in 2000, the Center Left failed to prevent his reelection in 2004. It was the Hard Left that gave us the Occupy Wall Street movement, and while some have dismissed the achievements of this remarkable political movement, those achievements are undeniable. 

Occupy Wall Street has made it possible to discuss income inequality in this country. People forget that prior to Occupy Wall Street, the dialogue in this country was entirely misfocused on deficit reduction (Paul Krugman has been a notable exception). The energy and commitment and rediscovery of symbolic political action by the Hard Left has been citizenship of the very highest order. Sniping at them by my fellow Center Leftists is unjustified, unwarranted and so counter-productive to our stated aims and values as to astonish.

But it must be said; the Hard Left is even more intransigent, and a lot less practical. Their unwillingness to work within the Democratic Party will accomplish nothing except the frustration of their ends. Everything to which the Hard Left aspires requires obtaining control of the apparatus of public policy. That control cannot be obtained except by winning elections. And those elections cannot be won, except by one of the two major parties in this country, the Democrats or the Republicans.

I get a lot of populist pushback when I make this claim. Many smart people who I've come to deeply respect insist that I "don't get it", that this is a people's movement, that the old parties are hopelessly corrupt and merely tools of the existing elites. They speak glowingly of a true "progressive party", and insist that I think outside the two party box.

Actually, they don't get it.

There's a very simple reason why we have a two party system in this country, and it has nothing to do with our elites, or my lack of vision, or the corruption of the political process. It's because the way we elect our legislature makes a two party system inevitable. 

Any system of single-member constituencies elected by plurality will result in a two party system.

Let me explain the jargon... the House of Representatives consists of 435 Congressional districts, each of which elects a single legislator. Any number of candidates can run for the seat, but only one will win. This is what a single member constituency is.

You must also understand that politicians are "single-minded seekers of re-election". This is an oversimplification, of course. Politicians are just people. Like all of us, they have multiple roles, and those roles each come with a different value set which determines their behavior. But, when they're wearing their "politician hat", that behavior is monomaniacally focused on winning office. Those whose behavior and values are more complex lose elections, and leave public life. The system selects for electoral monomaniacs.

In a system of single member constituencies, there's only one winner per district. That winner is the candidate with the most votes. It doesn't have to be a MAJORITY of the votes, it just has to be the MOST votes. This is what is meant by elected by a plurality.

In such a system, each candidate must take positions on many issues, in the attempt to get as many votes as possible. Most voters don't care about lots of things, they care about a few things. But those things differ from voter to voter, and so the successful candidate must have appealing positions on a wide variety of issues. Candidates are generalists, and since in the simplified world of political campaigns there are only two sides to every issue...

you get a two party system.

There are alternative electoral systems, but we don't use them in the United States. 

A party list system awards candidates not on the basis of multiple elections in a number of constituencies, but on the basis of the proportion of votes the party obtained nationally. 

In such a system, the party's leaders are at the top of the list; they'll get to hold office if their party wins a certain minimal percentage of the national vote. Their personal incentive, as single-minded seekers of re-election, is to make sure they appeal to enough voters to meet the threshold for representation in the legislature, usually around 5% of the total vote. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Their interests are best served by appealing to voters who are passionately committed to them, on the basis of a few issues. In the United States, such a system might result in a "pro-life" party, a Libertarian Party that would actually hold seats in Congress, a Religious Fundamentalist Party (not unlike the Constitution Party today, but capable of holding seats), a Tea Party, an Occupy Party...

5% nationally is a MUCH easier lift than a plurality inside a single district. You could get 5% of this country to elect Kim Kardashian to Congress...

and, the Republic would fall.

My point is this; the Hard Left's disdain for the Democratic Party is badly misguided. The single member constituency system in this country means they've only got two parties to choose from. Efforts to form a new one are doomed by the nature of the way we elect our leaders.

The interests of the Hard Left, and Progressives generally, are best served by attempting to take over the Democrats, rather than work outside them.

Any other course only serves the interests of Republicans, and the reactionary 1%.

UPDATE: I am indebted to Steve Dorst (@sjdorst) for reminding me that Robert Reich was another voice warning against austerity during the pre-Occupy deficit hysteria. If you're on Twitter, you should Follow him. He's insightful, funny and a generally good guy.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Conservative Slander Machine

The current news cycle is all about the "Ricketts Plan", a $10 million advertising proposal intended to slime President Obama by linking him to controversial retired minister Jeremiah Wright.

(all images from Wikimedia Commons)

The Plan has been described as "racially charged", with complete justice. It refers to the President as "The metrosexual black Abe Lincoln" (p.8). It invokes Oprah, (p.11), guarantees that both the president and the "liberal press" will "play the race card" (p.11) and shamelessly fishes for numerous bigoted racial archetypes. Examples are the "angry black man"  (pp.11,27,30,35), the "slick hustler" (pp. 8,21,22,37) and the "likable fool" (pp. 6,8,9,19), but the truth is you can find the crudest imagery on every page, including references to hitting the President "right between the eyes", "inflaming public opinion" and the need to find "an extremely literate, conservative African American" spokesman.

Not surprisingly, the GOP establishment dropped it like a live grenade. The ink hadn't dried on West Coast editions of the NYT before Mitt Romney had a statement out condemning the campaign. Ricketts made haste to do the same. Ending Spending, Ricketts pet super-PAC, disavowed the campaign as an organization...

and the Beltway punditry all shook their heads wisely and agreed that Fred Davis (who looks pretty metrosexual himself) had badly miscalculated the amount of overt sleaze permissible in a modern American Presidential Campaign.

(Image from Strategic Perception, this White, Metrosexual, Andrew Jackson's corporate website) 

Which is a lot of smug, lazy, self-congratulatory and ahistorical bullshit. While the document itself is positively amateurish in its presentation (a high school English teacher would run out of red ink trying to correct the basic composition errors in the text), it absolutely epitomizes the Lee Atwater brand of Republican politics. Nothing has been out of bounds to Republicans since 1980. They'll say anything if they think it will work, and worry about the consequences later. If they win the election, they've got institutional tools to shield themselves from any fallout. If they lose, no one will remember what they did anyway.

Consider some of the lowlights of the last few decades. remember "White Hands"?

Or the Swiftboating of John Kerry

David Corn absolutely nailed the impetus behind the ad pitch tonight on Hardball, at 1:43 of this clip. A Republican hired gun pitched a venemous smear campaign to a reactionary billionaire in anticipation of a big payday.

Because it's the kind of hatchet job that perfectly reflects the anger and suspicion and prejudices and fears of reactionary billionaires who regard themselves as the author of all society's wealth.

For 8 years we saw the most ludicrous charges made against Bill Clinton: MenaVince FosterTroopergate, the Arkansas Project, and all of it funded by notoriously right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife

(Image from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an actual newspaper and not from Scaife's hobby paper and slander rag)

Fred Davis may not know how to write a presentation using complete sentences, but he absolutely knows his target audience. There's absolutely nothing in the Rickett's Plan that hasn't been used, over and over again, by the GOP.

Not only is this stuff typical, all the repudiations following the Times piece notwithstanding...

it's the Platonic Ideal of a Republican campaign. I promise you, we're going to hear every element of the Ricketts Plan this Summer and Fall.

Even if Joe Ricketts isn't paying Fred Davis to do it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mitt Romney: Enabling the Wall St. Gambling Addicts

So apparently JP Morgan has managed to piss away $2 billion in what they've been claiming was a hedge scheme, designed to minimize their risk on loans, but which in fact became an important generator of profits in its own right.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's PRECISELY the kind of greed that helped cause the Bush financial crisis. The irony is particularly sharp when one considers the fact that Jamie Dimon, the CEO of Morgan Chase, has been insisting that the financial crisis is NOT grounds for additional regulation of the financial markets. He has pointed to his own firm's avoidance of the worst consequences of the meltdown as evidence that competently managed financial institutions are perfectly capable of moderating their own behaviors, and not dragging the entire financial system into another debacle, like the one we're still trying to climb out of.

It's all arrogant bullshit, of course. I'm sure Mr. Dimon thinks he's much smarter than the rest of us, and of course he's got his net worth of $200 million to PROVE how much smarter he is than all the rest of us. I mean, anyone that rich MUST be smart, right?

In fact, gross differences in human "intelligence" don't exist, outside organic brain damage. Human intelligence is constrained by our neurology, and the very brightest among us make the same kinds of mistakes in the same set of circumstances, over and over, as though we were no brighter than a chimp.

Dimon's compensation is a function of how much his company makes, and his company makes more money on risky investments than it does safe investments. The other side of the equation is not true. If JP Morgan Chase loses its shirt, Dimon still makes his base salary of $2 million. The incentives here are to maximize profit, not minimize risk. This is also true of the people  who work for Dimon; Ina DrewAchilles Macris and Bruno Iskil. If you pay people to gamble, they're going to gamble. They may deny gambling, they may insist they're not gambling, they'll probably convince themselves that what they're doing isn't a gamble for anyone as smart as they are...

but, they'll gamble. Preferably with the shareholders money, rather than their own.

None of this is a surprise to anyone, except for the megalomaniacs on Wall St. and the sheep who keep buying their self-promotional bullshit. But this latest teachable moment gives us another metric by which to measure Willard Romney.

Romney has claimed, loudly and frequently throughout the primary that financial regulation, and particularly Dodd-Frank, are not only unnecessary, but actively harmful. He has pledged an outright repeal of the legislation, while remaining characteristically vague about the regulations he'd replace it with.

On the surface, it's an odd position for a candidate for national political office to take. A recent Harris poll demonstrated overwhelming popular support for stricter regulation of the nation's financial institutions.

But of course, Governor Romney has his reasons for advocating less stringent controls on the titans of industry who nearly destroyed our economy.

This latest debacle provides an excellent reality test of his public assertions regarding the need for and effects of such regulation.