Monthly Archives: February 2016

Minimum wage

Don’t think of the minimum wage as a price floor, think of it as a way to create a labor cartel.

If all oil companies get together and agree not to charge more than a certain price for a barrel of oil, they can increase the overall profits of the oil industry at the expense of the rest of society. The danger is that one of them will defect and sell the oil for less, thus forcing a race to the bottom that leaves all the companies worse off. So really what they would like is a way to enforce cooperation, like for example a government enforced minimum price on a barrel of oil.

The situation is precisely the same for workers. We all have labor to sell and would like to get as much for it as possible. If we all compete freely there will be a race to the bottom and wages will be low. If we could all get together and agree that nobody is going to sell their labor for less than a certain amount, we’d all be better off.

The bad thing about this sort of tactic in most situations is that it’s a way of capturing more value for one group at the expense of all other groups – oil companies getting rich at everyone else’s expense. When the category we are talking about is workers though, the situation is different because we are almost all workers or supported by workers. Allowing workers as a whole to seize more value just means that the overall share of income going to workers goes up at the expense of the share going to employers / the people who own those employers.

A theory of political dimensionality

I believe in moral progress. I think smarter and more sophisticated people are able to make better moral judgements than their dumber and less sophisticated brethren. I believe that as understand more about the world, we understand better what kind of policies effectively promote human flourishing. An important caveat to this is that it’s totally possible to be dumb and still have progressive beliefs by accident / not as a result of having really weighed the issues for yourself.

On the other hand, I also believe in selfishness. I believe that people’s beliefs are strongly, if unconsciously, influenced by what is good for them personally.

I believe that progressive policies are objectively correct in terms of being better solutions for promoting human flourishing.

Thus, I believe that the smarter and more sophisticated someone is, the more likely they are to support progressive policies. However, there is one big confounder here: the more money someone has the more incentive they have to support right-wing economic policies that will harm the country overall but benefit them personally. And there is also at least some correlation between being smart and sophisticated and having more money.

So that’s how we get to our two-dimensional breakdown of the political spectrum: “social issues” are those that you support more the smarter and more sophisticated you are and which having more money doesn’t cause you to turn against. “Economic issues” are those for which having more money turns you around on and makes you support inferior policies out of self-interest.

Everyone is of course on a spectrum between rich and poor and smart and dumb. But let’s simplify a bit and divide people into four categories:

1) Rich and smart

First let me say this is a dope category to be in. This is a libertarian sort of group, in favor of progressive social policies, but not the sort of progressive economic policies that would be good for the country but would entail raising taxes on the rich.

2) Rich and dumb

These are the rich people you don’t hear about as much because they tend to have less interesting stories, and make less of an effort to be involved in politics. This is a hyper-conservative group, with backwards social views and ultra-right economics untampered by any qualms the smart rich people might have about the effects of those policies on the country.

3) Poor and smart

Socialists! These are the people who are smart enough to be progressive across the board, and poor enough that their self-interest lines up with that of the majority, rather than leading them towards the selfish policies of the rich.

4) Poor and dumb

Trump supporters! Or more broadly, the Republican base. These folks have regressive social views, and tend towards conservatism economically, though are nowhere near as conservative as their rich and dumb counterparts. They are the people who are always manipulated into voting against their economic interests for the Republican Party out of concern for the social issues that they’re on the wrong side of.

I don’t know what this post is

An interesting aspect of the online conversation about the Bernie Sanders campaign is that everyone who is involved in that conversation is in this weird outlier subgroup of people who go online and talk about politics.

The biggest way I’ve seen this manifest itself is in the conversation about what black Americans think about Bernie Sanders. Based on the survey data available, it seems that black American support Sanders at significantly lower rates compared to other races, and that they are also significantly less well informed about Sanders. There also seems to be a correlation between increased information about Sanders and increased favorability and poll numbers among black American voters, just as there is with all other categories of voters. So this can end up being phrased as “black voters just need to learn about Sanders and they’ll support him”. And you know who that really, really makes mad? Well informed black Clinton-supporting internet goers. Consider what it is like to be such a person. Every day you go online and hear people saying that the only reason people like you support Clinton is that they don’t know about Bernie Sanders. You know all about Bernie Sanders, and against statistical likelihood, you support Hillary Clinton anyway. So this feels a lot like an insult to you. And it feels a lot like you are being told that your real reasons for believing what you believe, and those of everyone of your race, are nonexistent, and in fact your beliefs are based on ignorance and stupidity. So that’s not great for the conversation.


You know, now that I think about it, the establishment types are right. My being idealistic is an important part of why I support Bernie Sanders. I really like this country. I really believe in America, and the American system. Democracy is awesome. But then I have to confront the reality that bad things are happening in this country. The richer are getting richer, and everybody else is falling behind. So given that I think the system works, what does a response to that problem look like? Well, it looks something like Bernie Sanders. It looks like a lot of people who have  been locked out of power realizing that if they go vote they still do have some power derived from simple numbers. That would be such a great thing to learn about our country. That despite the endless propaganda and denial that there is any alternative to declining expectations, people were smart enough to look around and say “No, this isn’t what I ordered actually. And we’re in charge around here if you recall.” Americans are great. I think we’re the kind of people who could do that sort of thing.

Bernie Sanders Foreign Policy

There’s a tendency for people to point to foreign policy issues as one of Hillary’s strengths. People get the impression that she has a lot of experience with foreign policy, while Bernie always tries to change the discussion to the domestic sphere. This is taken as a sign that Bernie doesn’t know what he’s doing on foreign policy, or is somehow not even conversant in the subject. But that’s clearly not the case. He took action on a number of foreign policy issues as the mayor of Burlington for goodness sake! It’s clearly something he cares a lot and knows a lot about.

So then why aren’t we hearing much about how Bernie’s foreign policy would diverge from current Democratic orthodoxy? I think it’s a political calculation. I think that Sanders and his team have realized that the economic and political corruption issues are what really plays with people, and decided to focus on that message. Meanwhile, if Bernie discussed the real ways his foreign policy would be enormously different from the status quo, it would spark a major discussion about America’s role in the world, and it would be a discussion in which Bernie’s position is less overwhelmingly popular, and which would give him powerful additional enemies while not really firing up his base all that much more. So he’s just keeping his mouth shut.

What would these crazy foreign policy differences be? Well consider: there are a whole raft of international organizations whose mission is essentially to push neoliberalism in the developing world. The US has big voting shares in the World Bank and the IMF. Combine that with the direct influence played by the United States, and you have a major shift in the global economic order. Consider the intelligence community. Sanders is not going to keep appointing the same old people to head these agencies like Obama did. Obviously he can’t break their power immediately, but the fact of having a Sanders appointed head at the top will be a huge deal.

This is an area where a President has a huge amount of power, and can do a huge amount of good. Some of the most revolutionary aspects of a Sanders Presidency are barely being talked about.