Monthly Archives: December 2015

Middle Class Politics

In a lot of ways the big difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is their willingness to spend government money to help the middle class. Hillary Clinton is a representative of the current Democratic status quo: tax the rich a little, and use the money you raise to fund some programs benefiting the poor. Sanders on the other hand wants to tax the rich a lot, and the upper middle class a little, and use the money to fund programs benefiting the whole country.

The Bernie model is more expensive in terms of how much tax revenue it requires, but does more good both per dollar spent and in total, because it’s just a more streamlined, efficient way to do things.

Examples:

Healthcare:

Hillary wants the status quo of Obamacare: the poorest get Medicaid, the lower middle class gets subsidies, and everybody else buys insurance on the private market.

Bernie wants universal healthcare: one big government system that needs more tax revenue, but also gives free health insurance to everyone in America.

Higher Education:

Hillary wants programs to help the poor afford college, and to help out students who are having a particularly hard time paying their debts. Everybody else continues to pay the spiraling out of control tuition.

Bernie wants free public higher education for everybody who qualifies and is interested.

 


Syrian Factions

The Syrian Civil War is complicated. There are a bunch of different sides, and a bunch of different outside actors with varied opinions about those different sides.

Assad regime: the current legitimate government of Syria. Run by a dictator who may not exactly be bloodthirsty, but is certainly willing to get as much blood on his hands as needed to stay in power. Big power base is the minority Shia Alawite group that Assad is a member of, and which is (probably rightly) terrified of finding itself in a country it’s not in charge of.

Syrian Democratic Army (SDA): a multinational democratic socialists fighting for all that is good and right with the world. Mostly composed of Kurds, and in control of Kurdish majority areas.

ISIS (+ other Islamic fundamentalist rebels): there are a few different groups of radical Islamist rebels, with ISIS being by far the most successful. They’re all pretty nasty. They are Sunnis and have a tough time expanding beyond Sunni majority areas.

‘Moderate’ rebels: Sort of a catch all for anti-Assad forces that are not Islamic extremists and not part of the Kurd-dominated SDA. Some of them are great guys fighting for freedom and justice, some are as bad as anybody else in the conflict.

Everyone has their preference of which of these groups they would like to do better, and which they’d like to do worse. Here’s mine followed by my impression of where some major stakeholders are at. Feel free to dispute the orderings or offer your own.

Me:

  1. SDA
  2. moderate rebels
  3. Assad
  4. ISIS

 

United States:

  1. moderate rebels
  2. SDA
  3. Assad
  4. ISIS

 

Russia:

  1. Assad
  2. SDA
  3. moderate rebels
  4. ISIS

 

Gulf States:

  1. moderate rebels
  2. ISIS
  3. SDA
  4. Assad

 

Turkey:

  1. moderate rebels
  2. ISIS
  3. Assad
  4. SDA

 

Iran:

  1. Assad
  2. moderate rebels
  3. ISIS
  4. SDA

Fascists, fascists everywhere

I have a feeling that fascism is going to be with us for a long time.

First, let’s define fascism: When a country is going through difficulties and feels threatened by outside forces, there’s a consistent reaction. People’s horizons narrow, and they focus on brutal self-interest. This means an increase in xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and general demonization of the the Other. People gravitate towards ‘strong leaders’ who talk big about how they’ll keep the people safe and keep the nation strong. These leaders tend to be fairly non-ideological. Their policies are a grab-bag of red meat for the base, and whatever practical measures the leader thinks will actually work, and thus legitimize their hold on power. In practice, this tends to mean support for a strong, interventionist state, but with sufficient attachment to traditional norms and hierarchies that no one can describe it as a move towards socialism.

While this paranoid, xenophobic style of politics is usually not great for international relations, it probably shouldn’t be quite so associated with Nazi style grasping for World Domination (TM) as it is. In large part, this is because most countries aren’t in a position to make any sort of play for global, or even regional, dominance through military force, and their fascist leaders are smart enough to know it.

Fascism seems to be a natural defensive mechanism for people who feel their countries are going to crap. They get scared, they get mad, they get suspicious, and they vote in someone they think will defend them from the big scary world.

This leads to a very interesting situation in modern Europe. There are rising fascist movements in nearly every country on the continent. The difficulties these countries are going through that gave rise to those movements are economic, as usual. The less usual aspect is that bad economic policies are being pushed on these countries from the outside, via a whole host of EU mandated or encouraged neoliberal doctrines, particularly the disastrous monetary policy resulting from staying in the Eurozone, and the disastrous fiscal policy of keeping budget deficits low when the economy is way below capacity. This means the the fascists are actually sort of right for once: sinister international financial interests are conniving to ruin things for the hardworking average people of Europe.

If Europe starts electing a lot of fascists, it could be a major blow to the ‘European Project’. Countries could start withdrawing from the Eurozone, or even from the European Union altogether. And while this would be disruptive, it would overall be excellent for those countries’ economies. Two groups will bear the costs of this transition, one who deserves it, and one who doesn’t. The first are those sinister international financial interests. They have good (selfish) reasons to support the policies they do, and the reversal of those policies will be a bummer for them. Luckily, I hate those guys, so this is a bonus, not a downside. The second group getting screwed is one I have enormously more sympathy for: immigrants and minority groups in the fascist countries. These are people who are already in a bad situation, who will be made even worse off by a bunch of racists taking over their government and deciding that while they like the welfare state, they only like it for whites, or the native born, or however they draw the line.

So as long as we have capitalist democracies going through periods of economic distress, we will see fascist parties rise up to say “screw everyone else, we’ve got to defend ourselves”. And they’ll have whatever nasty prejudices the uneducated masses of that country hold, which sucks, but they’ll also at least make some effort to improve conditions for those masses. Turns out that even fascists don’t look so bad when you compare them to neoliberals.


Universal vs Means tested benefits

Universal programs are SOOO much better than targeted, means-tested ones.

In a lot of ways the distinction is more practical than ideological. Universal programs are just a lot more effective than means tested ones, both at accomplishing their goal, and at maintaining political support. Look at the difference between support for social security and food stamps. Both are great programs that I really support. Social security is a hugely more expensive program, and is much less ‘well targeted’, in terms of directing its benefits towards those who need it most. On the other hand, social security has been spectacularly effective at reducing poverty among seniors, and is so overwhelmingly popular that even Republicans still pretend to be in favor of preserving it. Food stamps are a tiny fraction of the federal budget, but because they’re targeted to help the poor, they’re seen as outrageous by the large chunk of the population that doesn’t approve of such things, and are constantly on the chopping block.

And of course means-tested programs also require the creation of a lot more red tape and bureaucracy to figure out who qualifies and who doesn’t, ferret out cheaters, etc, rather than just mailing everyone a check / letting all qualified people attend a university for free. Despite all this effort, or perhaps because of it, means-tested programs also have the problem of people falling through the cracks. If a program isn’t automatic, then at least some people who should be benefiting from it won’t. Some won’t know about it, some will forget to sign up, some will be intimidated by the paperwork, some will fall victim to bureaucratic errors, some will screw up the sign up process, and on and on.

Fundamentally it comes down to this: universal programs benefit everyone who gets more value out of the program than they pay in additional taxes to support it, which due to income inequality and progressive taxation tends to be a super-majority of the population. This creates a coalition that will keep that benefit in existence. Means-tested programs on the other hand benefit only people below whatever income level, which tends to be a minority of the population — and unlike the rich and powerful minority that loses out from universal programs, this is almost by definition a poor and powerless minority. This doesn’t create a strong coalition to preserve those benefits, and instead gives those who are barely too rich to receive the benefits an incentive to want them gone. This is an attitude you see a lot: I work hard, why are they taking my money and giving it to those lazy bastards?!? The answers of “those people are more needy than you” and “almost none of it is your money, it’s money from much richer people” tend to not help that much.