Author Archives: Ben Spielberg

Ellison for DNC Chair: It Matters

The race for the Democratic National Committee Chairperson is very important.

In case you haven’t been following it, there are many candidates running, but only two major contenders: Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district for 10 years straight, and Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor from the Obama Administration.  The winner of the race, who will be chosen during the weekend of February 24 by 447 party insiders, will run fundraising, outreach, and primary processes for the Democratic Party over the next several years.

Overall, Ellison has stronger social justice credentials than Perez – he’s been an active Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has put forward some of the most progressive economic justice legislation in Congress during his time there.  He’s been a staunch advocate for unions, was an early supporter of a $15 minimum wage, and was an early opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals that are more about enriching multinational corporations than promoting the free exchange of goods and services.  His voting record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-racist policy – you name it – is excellent.  And before coming to Congress, Ellison worked in civil rights and employment law.

But Perez deserves a fair bit of credit for his record, too.  As the Labor Secretary, Perez went after companies that stole from their workers, embraced policies that would raise the pay of and increase opportunities for members of underserved groups to become federal employees and contractors, and pushed forward a rule that would reestablish the right to overtime pay for millions of workers.  His active support for the TPP is a non-trivial stain on his résumé, but those who believe in social justice should generally like the policies he’s pursued, as others have also noted.

Yet if that’s the case, why is it so important that Ellison wins?

The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: why is Perez even running?

Ellison jumped into the DNC Chair race right after the election (on Monday, November 14).  His candidacy made a ton of sense for the party for three main reasons:

– Ellison was one of the few Democrats calling for the party and media to take Donald Trump seriously from the beginning. The clip below, from a panel Ellison did back in July of 2015, is the most striking illustration of the contrast between Ellison’s prescience and the irresponsibility of the vast majority of Establishment media figures and politicians during the course of the 2016 election.

– Ellison was the second congressperson to endorse Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and one of only a small handful to have done so at all.  Many other federal policymakers also had backgrounds more aligned with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton but backed Clinton anyway, possibly because of some combination of a misguided sense of political pragmatism and a legitimate fear of retribution.

Given that Sanders was much more popular than Clinton among Independents and the most popular primary candidate ever among young people, whose energy and enthusiasm Democrats desperately need in the future, it makes strategic sense for the party to put one of his early supporters in a leadership role.  Doing so would suggest that the Democrats, after throwing a ton of institutional weight behind the less electable, less social-justice-oriented candidate (and failing to hold party leaders accountable for their clear violations of the DNC’s charter) en route to squandering the 2016 election, have learned something.  It would give hope that the Democrats may run a fairer, more democratic primary process next time, and that those who opposed Clinton needn’t write the party off entirely.

– Once Sanders lost the primary, Ellison helped draft the DNC platform and became an outspoken proponent of voting for Clinton.  He campaigned very hard for Clinton between July and November.  He showed, in other words, that even though he thinks there is a better path than the one the Democratic Party is currently on, he believes in working within the Democratic Party structure for change.

I would have personally preferred Ellison to not campaign for Clinton, but I respected his choice to do so, and the fact that he did – vociferously – makes him an ideal candidate for party unification.  So does the fact that, unlike Sanders, Ellison is Black and Muslim, and his ascendance would diversify Democratic Party leadership, a worthy objective that Clinton fans have long claimed to support.  Ellison can potentially bridge the gap between good-faith Clinton and Sanders supporters and grow a bigger Democratic coalition.

Establishment Democrats and big-name donors began attacking Ellison as soon as he declared his interest in being DNC Chair, however.  They first complained that chairmanship was a full-time job and that, as a sitting congressman, Ellison wouldn’t have the bandwidth to focus on it.  They then inaccurately cast Ellison as an anti-Semite, misconstruing a 2010 speech he gave and condemnations of White supremacy and Israeli policy that he made twenty-five years ago.  Ellison soon thereafter declared that he would resign from Congress and become DNC Chair full-time if he wins the race, and he has repeatedly proven allegations of anti-Semitism false, but no matter; the Clinton/Obama apparatus wanted a challenger, and when Howard Dean didn’t pan out, they pressured Perez to step in.  He formally entered the race on December 15.

Perez has presented little that looks different from what Ellison has proposed, and nobody has offered a coherent explanation for why they think he’d do a better job leading the party than Ellison would.  Endorsements of Perez, like the one Joe Biden just made, have just highlighted personal details about him and included vague statements that could at least as easily apply to Ellison.  It’s thus hard to understand why Perez would have thrown his hat into the DNC Chair race (as opposed to the Maryland gubernatorial race) if not to maintain the Democratic Party’s current power structure.  The message to those who supported Sanders and want the party to embrace full-scale social and economic justice – many of whom are already upset that Perez pushed some of the Clinton campaign’s disingenuous attacks on Sanders behind the scenes during the primary – seems to be that they’re still expected to fall in line and support whatever the party Establishment decides.

An Ellison victory wouldn’t by itself bring the change the party needs – not by a long shot – and even if he wins, social justice advocates will need to push him on several issues.  Maybe in part to try to forestall attacks from Democrats who will be making the DNC Chair decision, he’s embraced some worrisome positions.  Ellison has endorsed the corporate candidate over the Bernie supporter in a recent race for Florida Democratic Chair, criticized the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, softened on his previous commitment to banning lobbyist contributions to the DNC, and promoted some election postmortems that deserve considerably more skepticism.  But Ellison has a strong record overall and would bring a real possibility for regime change, a commitment to grassroots activism, and a new kind of Democratic Party politics.  As Sanders said following Biden’s endorsement of Perez (who Sanders likes and expressed respect for), the race for DNC Chair is about whether the Democratic Party “stay[s] with a failed status-quo approach or…go[es] forward with a fundamental restructuring.”

Some Democrats lashed out at Sanders after this statement.  They were, according to The Hill, “frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.”  But to think otherwise is naïve – that’s precisely what it is.  And as some politicians, union leaders, and media figures who backed Clinton have already recognized, the smart move for Democrats who want to see the party win in the future “would be…to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC Chair.”  That would be the right move for those who believe in social and economic justice as well.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Uncategorized

“March for Life” and “Pro-Life” Are Misnomers

Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade.  Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion.  Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”

Politicians who support these efforts use similar language.  Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.

Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.

I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me.  Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person.  You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances.  Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?

Well, it depends.  The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.

Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things.  Drone strikes kill innocent people.  More generally, war always does.  So does the death penalty.  And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people.  Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in.  Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care.  And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.

People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things.  Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.

Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio.  He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.

That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions.  He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help.  He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions.  Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.

In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body.  Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position.  But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.”  If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.

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Filed under Gender Issues, Philosophy

U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed”

dni-report

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence just released a report on Russia that lacks evidence and casts legitimate critiques of United States policy as part of a Kremlin plot.

On Friday, January 6, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report – Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber-Incident Attribution – that had been ordered by President Obama.  The report’s headline assertion, consistent with what anonymous officials had been saying to media outlets for months, was that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (thus electing Donald Trump, the candidate for whom “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference”).

While U.S. intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report did claim that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” actions that some Democratic Party leaders and media pundits believe contributed to Trump’s win.  Predictably, then, the report’s release has led to renewed outrage, with some prominent public figures declaring that Russia committed an “act of war” deserving of an aggressive US response.

One major problem with this response is that the report offered “no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly [in the election] through hacking and other actions,” as a piece in The New York Times noted.  Though it’s certainly possible that the Russian government was behind an email to John Podesta that a Clinton IT staffer mistakenly called “legitimate,” the American public has yet to see proof that Russia ordered such a phishing attack.  What the American public has seen, on the other hand, is a parade of misleading and sometimes outright false stories about Russian hacking that likely have something to do with 50 percent of Democrats’ belief that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump,” a claim for which even the report admits there is no justification.  Especially given our intelligence agencies’ history of deceiving the public into wars in Vietnam and Iraq – not to mention current DNI James Clapper’s false claim about NSA spying in 2013, the FBI’s attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in 1964, and various other violations of people’s rights and the law over the years – skepticism of their current claims about Russian hacking, at least until they present some convincing proof to back up those claims, is well warranted.

Even more alarming than the report’s lack of evidence about Russian hacking was its ironically propagandistic accusation that the television network RT is a “propaganda machine” engaged in a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.”  Among what the United States government appears to consider part of this “Kremlin-directed campaign” of “propaganda:”

  • “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’”
  • “RT framed the [Occupy Wall Street] movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations[,] created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media[, and] featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
  • “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”
  • RT programming has criticized “the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.”
  • “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”

Those reading this list would be forgiven for being more convinced that RT is worth watching than that it peddles in Russian propaganda.  Violations of civil liberties in the United States are ubiquitous.  So is police brutality.  It’s an undeniable fact that our government’s use of drone strikes routinely kills innocent civilians.  Millions of social justice advocates across the United States oppose fracking, Wall Street greed, and America’s undemocratic electoral system for good reason.  And while fearmongering about the national debt is a definite problem, those doing it are more often moderating U.S. presidential debates than abetting the Kremlin.

To be fair to our intelligence agencies, RT is state-owned and does, as the network’s Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has admitted, have an explicitly Russian agenda.  But as Simonyan correctly points out, “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” and that includes the US-backed Voice of America network.

In fact, mainstream media outlets in the United States, despite their technical independence from the federal government, often uncritically advance the ideas of those in power as well.  The Times’ publication of inaccurate information about former RT anchor Abby Martin after the intelligence report came out is a good example: they said Martin had quit RT because of her view that it was a propaganda outlet when Martin did no such thing – she was actually supported by RT even while she produced content critical of the Russian government.  The Times modified its article post-publication, but the piece still blatantly misrepresents what happened with Martin.  Recent and egregiously incorrect reports on “fake news” and the U.S. electrical grid in The Washington Post are other prime illustrations of this problem.

None of that makes any actual propaganda from RT less pernicious, demonstrates that the Russian government wasn’t behind a phishing attack on John Podesta, or means that U.S. intelligence agencies must be lying.  It just means that we should be skeptical of claims presented without evidence to support them, particularly if the sources for those claims have a less than stellar relationship with the truth – even if those sources happen to be the United States media and/or the United States government.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, US Political System

My Dadabhai, Ranan Banerji (May 5, 1928 to December 9, 2016)

My dadabhai (grandfather), Ranan Banerji, was an amazing person with whom I was very close.  He died on Friday, December 9 and I will miss him greatly.

I spent a lot of time with Dadabhai while growing up.  When I was really young, he’d often take me on the train to a nearby town called Lindenwold.  I looked forward to these train rides for days, thinking that Lindenwold was a special place called “Linden World” that specialized in ice cream, which I perceived to be the purpose of our trips.  I learned later that riding the train was actually the main reason for our excursions, and that the ice cream we got at a diner when we got to Lindenwold was decidedly mediocre.  But hanging out with Dadabhai was well worth it.

dadabhai-and-me

Dadabhai loved to tell stories and jokes and to play games.  A former professor of physics, mathematics, and computer science and an early leader in the field of artificial intelligence, he instilled in me a deep appreciation of the beauty of logic, strategic reasoning, and math. He taught me how to play chess in elementary school and precalculus in high school, tutoring me over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.  We had many long talks about science and religion, which he felt were more compatible than is commonly thought.  After I went to college, he’d send me emails and handwritten letters about mathematical concepts that he had promised to prove, or about political conversations he’d been replaying in his head.

I looked up to Dadabhai in many ways.  For one, he was a great life partner to my didibhai.  My sisters, wife, and I never tire of hearing the story of how they originally met.  They were on a boat to Edinburgh, Scotland in 1952 and, after their first encounter, Didibhai’s brother raved about Dadabhai’s intellect.  Didibhai told her brother that she thought Dadabhai was a slob.  “And I thought she was a snob,” Dadabhai would say.  “And then, two weeks later, we got engaged.”

I still don’t quite understand how they got from there to here – life apparently moves quite fast on a boat – but I do understand how they had an incredibly happy marriage that lasted 62 years.  Their respect for each other’s thoughts, admiration of each other’s strengths, and enjoyment of each other’s company were always apparent.  I have learned much of what I think a healthy relationship is from them (as well as from my parents).

I also admired Dadabhai’s power-balancing instincts.  He sought to buy from high-road companies and introduced me to Working Assets, which donates to progressive causes whenever I use my credit card.  He’d recommend I read The Hightower Lowdown and Yes! Magazine, pulling out and sending me articles he thought I’d find particularly interesting.  I recently learned that, in the late 1960s, he openly advised his students to get higher degrees to avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War.  Having such outspoken, authority-challenging views couldn’t have been easy for an Indian immigrant of his generation.

Other traits of Dadabhai’s that will always stick with me were his thoughtfulness and open-mindedness.  During debates, he’d lay out his assumptions and listen carefully to what others said.  He had a clear perspective, but it was grounded in logic and evidence and open to compelling counterarguments; in fact, he’d express excitement when confronted with evidence that was in conflict with a preconceived notion he had.  I think of him whenever I need a reminder to carefully and fairly consider opposing views.

For the last six years, up until Dadabhai’s health no longer permitted it, I would talk to him on the phone on my way to work almost every morning.  It was one of the highlights of my day, as continuing to talk to Didibhai in the mornings will still be.  I hope to one day be as good a grandfather as Dadabhai was to me.

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Filed under Philosophy

Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.

twu-local-234-1

Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by Philly.com.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor

The Lazy Liberal Scapegoating of Millennials and Bernie Sanders

The Hillary Clinton campaign is “alarmed by the drift of young voters toward the third-party candidates,” according to the New York Times.  So are many Clinton supporters, including Clara Jeffery and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.  Jeffery says she has “never hated millennials more,” while Drum directs his hatred not at millennials but at Bernie Sanders, whom Drum argues “convinced young voters that Hillary Clinton was a shifty, corrupt, lying shill who cared nothing for real progressive values – despite a literal lifetime of fighting for them.”  Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA is “launching a multimillion-dollar digital campaign that talks about what’s at stake and how a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump.”

These reactions misunderstand and condescend to millennials and ignore vital context about two main points.

First, millennials have very good reasons to oppose a Clinton presidency.  As I’ve tried to explain to Drum before (he has ignored me), many millennials, myself included, grew up with his perception of Hillary Clinton – that she is a good Democrat fighting the mean Republicans and subject to a relentless stream of unfair criticism from the corporate press.  It has only been during my adult life, after a lot of research, that I’ve developed my current view: Clinton may sometimes be the subject of unfair press coverage, but she also has a large, influential group of media cheerleaders and has been on the wrong side of numerous issues important to populations I care about: war, criminal justice, immigrant rights, LGBT rights, the death penalty, international trade, and anti-poverty policy, to name a few.  Drum’s idea that Bernie Sanders’ accurate critiques of Hillary Clinton’s record hoodwinked millennials into our current views is both patronizing and inaccurate.

Millennials recognize that third-party voting comes with tradeoffs.  While it does increase the likelihood that the worse of two major-party candidates will emerge victorious in an election (though much less so than third-party critics claim), it also has the potential to help break the two-party system open in the long run and holds Democrats accountable for ignoring the policies their base desires, policies that would help millions of disadvantaged people.  “Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors,” as I’ve argued before, “including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.”

Which brings me to my second point: while it’s perfectly fine for someone to believe that defeating Trump should be our top priority, anyone espousing that viewpoint should have supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.  The evidence overwhelmingly indicated – for months, getting stronger all the time – that Sanders would have been more likely than Clinton to beat Trump in a general election matchup.  The only rebuttal to that evidence – that Sanders hadn’t faced real criticism and that his numbers would tank when he did, if he eventually became the nominee – fell apart very quickly upon inspection.

In fact, what drew Jeffery’s ire was a now-deleted paragraph from a New York Times story that confirmed why Sanders would have been more electable than Clinton:

The third-party candidates draw their strongest support from younger voters.  Twenty-six percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they plan to vote for Mr. Johnson, and another 10 percent back Ms. Stein.  A little more than one in five political independents say they will vote for one of the third-party candidates.

Drum points out that millennial support for third-party candidates in the referenced poll is a bit higher than it typically appears to be (he also links to a FiveThirtyEight analysis suggesting that it is strongest among people under 25), but he admits that “Clinton is clearly doing worse among millennials than Obama did four years ago.”  These results were completely predictable; millennials and independents were the groups among which Sanders most dominated Clinton in the primary and are two constituencies for whom support for Democrats (and/or showing up in November) is most likely to be conditional.  “Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee,” I wrote in March.  That’s exactly what appears to be happening.

Despite the foreseeability of this result during the primary, Drum asserted that Clinton was “almost certain to be more electable in November than a self-declared democratic socialist,” citing exactly no evidence to back up this claim.  It seems odd that he, Jeffery, and other Democrats spent so little of their time analyzing the electability evidence during the primary, given their intense focus on beating Trump today.  If they had, they would have known what people like me had been trying to tell them for a very long time – large numbers of millennials and Independents who would vote for Sanders might very well not vote for Clinton – and, if beating Trump was their prime objective, spent their time pleading with older Democratic voters to support Sanders.

Millennial voting patterns are thus not only a product of voters’ legitimate analyses and electoral strategy; they’re also entirely expected.  Those upset about them who backed Clinton in the primary and/or advanced the incorrect notion that she was more electable than Sanders have nobody to “hate” but themselves.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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Privilege: Many Jill Stein Voters Have It, and Many Hillary Clinton Voters Do, Too

As an outspoken supporter of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, I often get questions akin to the one Stein was asked at the Green Town Hall on August 17: “Given the way our political system works, effectively you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helped George Bush in 2000.  How could you sleep at night?”  More often than not, such questions are followed by the claim that voting for Stein in November is an act of self-indulgent privilege.  Only those with little to lose from a Donald Trump presidency can afford to risk it by adhering to a rigid set of principles that will never come to fruition, third-party critics argue; people who might suffer under Trump’s policies, on the other hand, understand the stakes involved in this election and that Hillary Clinton is the only practical alternative to Trump.

This formulation misconstrues privilege dynamics and misrepresents the identities and considerations of third-party voters and others who refuse to support Clinton, who are far less often White, affluent, heterosexual men than their detractors seem to believe.

The status quo is serving many people poorly.  Proclaiming that, because the alternative is “worse,” everyone must vote for Clinton – a politician who has championed policies that have actively harmed millions of people both here and around the world – is, at its very best, patronizing to those who are currently suffering.  It’s a promise of crumbs instead of a meal with the admonition that starving people better be thankful for crumbs, as the other candidate might take even those away.

This rationale plays on the fears of disadvantaged people and those who care about them in order to perpetuate current power dynamics.  Its use is in many ways an expression of the very privilege it critiques.

Third-Party Critics Misconstrue Privilege Dynamics

Privilege is a multi-dimensional concept, and very few people can claim to speak for the most downtrodden in society.  Individuals writing widely read articles about the privilege of third-party voters aren’t refugees from Central America who President Obama is currently deportingwith Clinton’s support, until recently.  They aren’t incarcerated for marijuana possession or sitting on death row, likely to stay locked up or sentenced to die if Clinton becomes president.  They aren’t living under Israeli occupation, or in deep poverty, or afraid of being obliterated by a drone strike, with little hope for change under the specter of a Clinton presidency.  As Morgana Visser recently noted, “many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton,” and those accusing nonvoters and third-party voters of privileged indifference to the plight of others have the privilege themselves not to be so marginalized that four, or eight, or indefinitely many more years of incremental change to the status quo is intolerable to them.

The thing is, the argument that the Democrats are the only actual alternative voters have to Trump – that the status quo cannot be radically improved and that incremental change is all that is possible – is one that many people cannot afford.  Those of us voting for Stein seek to challenge this thinking, to fight for a world in which the most marginalized people are not consigned to deportation, lifetime imprisonment, poverty, or death at the hands of Democrats who are better than Republicans but not nearly good enough.  Third-party voting and abstaining from the presidential election altogether are strategies designed to either change the Democratic Party or create an alternative in a political system that has failed disadvantaged populations for decades, as Sebastian Castro points out.

It’s perfectly fine to challenge the efficacy of that strategy, and I encourage everyone to read compelling cases for lesser-evilsism in 2016 from Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky and John Halle, Shaun King, and Adolph Reed.  I evaluate the risks of Trump relative to Clinton and a lesser-of-evils vote relative to third-party voting differently than they do, but I also have a ton of respect for where they and other social justice advocates like them are coming from.

It is wrong, however, for anyone to wield accusations of privilege as a cudgel against those with different electoral strategies, especially because this tactic ignores the voices of Michelle Alexander, Cate Carrejo, Rosa Clemente, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, Jenn Jackson, Rania Khalek, Arielle Newton, Kwame Rose, Kshama Sawant, Cornel West, and numerous other members of marginalized groups who support alternatives to the Democratic Party and/or believe it’s fine not to vote at all.

Those who prioritize identity politics should also remember that prominent spokespeople for the Green Party (including Clemente and Cuéllar) tend to be less privileged than their Democratic Party counterparts, that a woman has been on the Greens’ presidential ticket every single year in which the party has launched a bid for the White House (beginning in 1996), and that the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates this year – Stein and Ajamu Baraka – are by far the least privileged candidates running.

Third-Party Critics Misrepresent Voter Demographics

Statistics on Green Party voters in the United States are hard to find, but it’s possible to back out some rough estimates from recent polling.  The graph below uses data from four different polls to compare demographic shares among registered Clinton supporters, registered Stein supporters, and all registered voters.

estimated-green-shares

The estimates debunk the notion that Stein’s base is especially privileged.  Her supporters are about as likely as Clinton’s to be women and seem to be a little less likely than Clinton voters to make over $50,000 a year or to have the privilege of a college degree.  The confidence intervals on these estimates are likely fairly large and the average differences between the candidates’ supporters in these domains, if there are any, are thus probably small, but other evidence also suggests that Green Party voters tend to have low incomes; as Carl Beijer has observed, Ralph “Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic.”

Beijer also makes an important point about the domain in which Stein and Clinton supporters differ most: age.  While age-based privilege is a complicated concept – both young and old people can be targets of discrimination – younger voters have to worry much more than older voters about “what happens over the span of decades if [they] keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats.”

Now, to be fair, Clinton voters are more likely than Stein voters to be people of color.  But Stein’s share of voters of color is similar to the share in the general population of registered voters; Stein voters are not disproportionately White.  Looking at the total population that won’t vote for Clinton, which is a larger universe than the set of registered voters who support Stein, provides an even more striking rebuttal to the those-who-oppose-Clinton-are-White-male-Bernie-Bros narrative.  As Visser shows, Reuters data actually suggests that over 40 percent of people of color do not plan to vote for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, neither do over 45 percent of the LGBTIQ community, nor the majority of women, “marginalized religious folk,” and people making less than $50,000 a year.

None of those statistics change the fact that I, along with many Clinton supporters, am privileged enough to have little to lose from a Trump presidency.  But like nearly all Clinton supporters – and unlike the millions of people who, as Visser reminds us, “do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats [as] opposed to Republicans” – I have even less to fear from a Clinton win.  Pundits and partisans would do well to spend less time alleging that third-party voters don’t care about the disadvantaged and more time reflecting on why large numbers of people are much more worried than they are about the status quo.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, Sports, US Political System

Jonathan Chait’s False Equivalence

Pundits get justifiably upset when voters or political candidates suggest that Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump.  The differences between Clinton and Trump and the dangers Trump poses are frequently overstated, but for those of us who believe in social justice, there’s no denying that four years of Trump would be expected to be worse than four years of Clinton.

Yet the pundits themselves commit a much greater sin of false equivalence when expressing their unhappiness with those critiquing the Democratic Party.  Jonathan Chait, for example, recently equated protesters at the Democratic convention with Republican politicians, asserting that the only difference between these two groups of “unhinged extremists” was that the former had been “screaming at the stage” in Philadelphia while the latter had been “screaming from the stage” in Cleveland.

On Saturday night, I met one of the people Chait maligned, a Bernie Sanders delegate from California named Yolanda Gonzalez.  A veteran elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, Yolanda has been touring the country as a volunteer for Brand New Congress during her summer break.  The organization plans to run a full slate of congressional candidates in 2018 who commit to a grassroots-developed platform in the mold of the Sanders agenda: getting money out of politics, taking bold action on climate change, revamping our criminal justice system, ensuring a basic standard of living for everyone, and ending discrimination against historically disadvantaged communities.

Yolanda is proud of her protests at the DNC; in contrast to Chait’s insistence that critiques of Clinton are “more characterological than ideological,” Yolanda’s beef with the Democratic nominee is substantive.  She takes issue with Clinton’s history of pushing fracking around the world and her hawkish foreign policy and believes that Clinton faced far fewer consequences for what FBI director James Comey called “extremely careless…handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” than would have been faced by a less powerful person (Yolanda is almost certainly right).  Yolanda says her students deserve politicians who will fight for the real changes they need, not those who insist that incremental change is all that’s accomplishable.

That’s why Yolanda became a Sanders delegate.  It’s why, despite the rudeness she endured from Clinton delegates (one of whom called a member of her delegation a “fag”) and the Democratic Party’s attempts to silence her protests (which included the installation of noise-cancelling machines) throughout the convention, she continued to show up every day and join her fellow delegates in chants like “No More War,” “Stop the TPP,” “Ban Fracking Now,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Chait may not share Yolanda’s social justice inclinations and might disagree with her tactics.  But “unhinged extremism” comparable to what you saw from the likes of Rudy Giuliani at the Republican convention those tactics most certainly were not.  In fact, it’s a lot less accurate to say that than to say that Clinton is the same as Trump.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election

What Unity Should Mean

If headlines about the Democratic convention (shown below) are any indication, the main purpose of the event is “party unity.”  Calls to “Unite Blue” have been intensifying as the Democratic primary process has inched towards a close and represent a pitch for Bernie Sanders supporters to rally around Hillary Clinton, helping her to emerge victorious in November’s general election matchup with Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein.

Unity Images

The brand of “unity” being pushed, however, is a corruption of the word.  It zeroes in on a narrow set of attitudes and behaviors – those towards Clinton and other Democratic party leaders – and makes a binary categorization: people who praise Clinton and other Democrats while pledging to vote for them in the fall are good, while those who protest Democratic party leaders at the convention and/or refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton are at best “ridiculous” (Sarah Silverman), “crazy” (Jonathan Chait), “pathetic” (Jon Favreau) “babies” (Amanda Marcotte) and at worst “whiny diaper babies” (Bob Cesca), “dickheads” (Imani Gandy), “garbage people” (Ian Millhiser), “shitheads” (Joan Walsh), or my personal favorite, from a Daily Kos blogger going by the name of LiberalCanuck, “Regressives [who] are commonly found in terrorist and quasi-terrorist circles [and] want misery [and] suffering [so a] revolution can occur.”

This brand of unity is so blinding that those espousing it often pile on and attack individuals who turn out to be with them on the very issue they deem most important (making sure Hillary Clinton wins in the fall).  It risks alienating Sanders supporters – who are more likely than any other candidates’ supporters to hold anti-racist views and support social justice policies – and undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to lean Democratic, thus sowing the very division to which those pushing party unity are ostensibly opposed.

There is a better kind of unity, one that actually brings people together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.  It is based on a shared passion for helping those in need, an openness to intellectually honest disagreement, and a commitment to respect and accountability.  This brand of unity has three major components:

1) Sticking to intellectually honest arguments: During the primary, pro-Clinton partisans propagated illiberal, misleading, and/or false claims about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Now, despite what the New York Times (hardly a Sanders-sympathetic media outlet) has called “undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” many pundits have responded, not by apologizing for mocking Sanders supporters’ suspicions, but by downplaying and diverting attention away from the evidence confirming that the primary was unfair and undemocratic.  It’s hard to develop a successful coalition when some members of that coalition can’t trust that others are engaging in good faith, and prominent Clinton supporters have a lot of work to do to show that they are.

To be clear, the behavior of these prominent individuals is not representative; most Clinton supporters already engage in good faith most of the time, and there are also Sanders supporters out there who distorted facts during the primary.  It is incumbent upon everyone who truly supports power-balancing policy to make sure we’re adhering to the truth.

2) Respecting intellectually honest disagreement about the strategy most likely to achieve a common goal: Third-party voting, for example, comes with pros and cons for those who believe in social justice policy. The main con, as its detractors are quick to point out, is that it increases the chances that the worse of two major-party candidates will win an election (though it is not the same mathematically as a vote for the worse major-party candidate and, contrary to popular belief, is not the predominant reason George W. Bush became president in 2001).  The main pro of third-party voting, on the other hand – one its detractors rarely if ever acknowledge – is that it increases voters’ leverage over the Democratic party and the likelihood of a meaningful challenge to America’s two-party system in the long run, a system millions of people continue to suffer under.

Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors, including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.  Reasonable people with very similar policy goals and visions for the world are going to disagree about whether third-party voting is worth it – some have even suggested alternative voting options – and rather than excoriating each other, we should have a robust and respectful debate.

3) Addressing legitimate concerns from coalition members and working together on areas of agreement: Third-party voting holds appeal because of the Democratic party’s very real failings, and those who wish to sway third-party voters should make their case not by belittling those voters’ concerns, but by working to make the Democratic party better. If Clinton gets elected and actively pursues the policies she borrowed from Sanders on the campaign trail, we will consider voting for her in 2020.  In the meantime, those voting for third-party candidates in the general election this year must both help push those policies through social movements and make sure to be actively involved in electoral processes at the city, state, and congressional levels.

In short, there’s no reason unity has to be so divisive.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System