The road from serfdom

Ilya Repin´s painting of Volga boatmen is not one of serfs.

Brad deLong illustrates his contribution to a discussion on Hayek´s The Road to Serfdom with this picture by the 19th-century Russian/Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. [Russian added from comments]

High-resolution image from Wikimedia here.
I can´t get very interested in Hayek´s obsolete polemic, but Repin´s painting is a masterpiece and worth thinking about.

First of all, Brad is wrong to think it´s a picture of serfs. The painting dates from 1873; serfdom was abolished in 1861, and there´s no indication that this is a laudatory piece about the the bad old days. The subjects are burlaks; free but very poor migrant workers. In 1870, many were no doubt former serfs.

The formal merits of the piece are obviously very great, but I´m unqualified to comment. The wedge-shaped composition in the letter-box canvas points off to the right, creating an impression of the vastness of the Volga and the Russian plain it flows through, and the interminable nature of the labourers´ task. The beauty of the summer light and pale blue sky contrast with the misery of the humans.

What I can respond to is the psychological and social commentary. Repin was an acute observer, for my money the finest psychological painter since Rembrandt. You may find his messaging overbearing, but it´s far from trite – see this other famous picture about the disruptive return of a Siberian exile to a household that has reorganized itself without him.

The Volga painting says several different things to me.

1. The burlaks are brutalized and degraded by their narrow and poverty-stricken lives. (In England, barges were hauled along canals by horses, not men.) It´s not that the road to serfdom is easy, it´s that the road from serfdom to citizenship is long and hard. Compare the parallel legacy of American slavery. Russian intellectuals tended to romanticise the peasantry; Repin is asking them to face the sordid reality. Distributing the land to Russian peasants will not instantly turn them into Athenian or Yankee citizen-farmers. Though once they had the land, they had the commonsense not to vote for Lenin, the one time they had a chance in 1917.

2. The burlaks are strongly characterised, distinct individuals, struggling to retain their dignity as human beings. They are very far from a formless, plastic mass – in fact they are so individualistic that they seem to have a hard time of pulling together in an effective way. Not surprising that revolutionaries like the Peoples´ Will signally failed to organise them politically.
Repin may well be distorting reality a bit to make this point. See this actual photograph from the 1900s, showing well-coordinated and purposeful labour. But then again, people pose for photographs.

3. The painting is sometimes given the English title of ¨convict boatmen on the Volga¨, but this seems a mistake. Chains and guards are not in evidence – though the burlaks are as badly off materially as convicts. The coercion here is that of poverty, not state repression. Repin is making a straightforward plea for economic progress and justice.

PS: Vaguely relevant older musings from me on the Tsarist katorga here.

Events, New Realities, and the Right Attitude

Now is the time for all good people to stiffen the spines of the Democratic Party — both before and after the election.

Apparently there’s been some hand-wringing about Josh Marshall’s piece published last night entitled “Events Create New Realities.”  Is he giving up on the midterms?  Well, no, but Josh has a crucial point to make:

How well will Democrats stand up to the headline that says Republicans win 50 House seats?

And remember, it won’t be “Republicans win 50 House Seats.”

The headline will read “Angry Country Repudiates Obama Agenda, Embraces Small Government Conservative Values.” And that will be the Times. Believe me, it won’t be pretty.

In any case, a lot of folks are thinking, well, sure the Republicans take the House and maybe they even take the Senate. But Obama’s got the veto pen and the big legislation has already been pushed through. And if they come after Social Security, c’mon, let them try: Obama can veto whatever they pass. And they’ll kill themselves for 2012.

But all of this is based on the premise that the Democrats — congressional leaders and the White House — are going to be something like the same people on November 3rd as they were on November 1st. And a lot of painful history, the post-Scott Brown victory period being only the most recent example, says that’s a very bad assumption.

Josh is right.  It is a very bad assumption.  Blue Blogistan and loyal Democrats, however, can make a difference here.

This is going to be a very ugly midterm.   But it will be even uglier if Democrats buy into what will surely be the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom: America’s voters have rejected progressivism, it’s a conservative country, and — most maddeningly — the Dems took it on the chin because they went “too far to the left.”

Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, in one of those necessary takedowns of Matt Bai, said it the best:

It’s not complicated at all: Obama’s approval ratings have fallen because the economy stinks.  End of story.  Anything else is on the margins…and it’s certainly possible that everything else is pushing his ratings up, not down.  

The same is true for Democrats generally.  That means the last thing we want to do is start getting into a defensive crouch, setting up yet another round of interminable “Rethinking Liberalism” conferences, wondering where we “went wrong,” or why we’re “not connecting.”  The economy stinks.  End of story.

Or maybe not even that.  The economy stinks because (to extend Bernstein’s scatology) the Republicans put it in the toilet.  Their policies failed.  As Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhardt have demonstrated in their recent superb book, financial crises take a very long time to shake out, particularly because of the key role the financial system plays in directing investment through the economy.  Combine that with historic gains in the last two cycles, many of them in Reddish areas, and you have the recipe for a bad cycle.  But a bad cycle does not equal rejection.  It’s just a bad cycle.

This Congress has accomplished a tremendous amount of good: the stimulus, student loan reforms, financial reform, and of course the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act.  If it hadn’t been for the Senate, there would have also been historic climate legislation, a bigger stimulus, stronger support for higher education (particularly community colleges), and probably a much stronger economy.  There is nothing for Democrats to be ashamed of.

If the predictions from the polls come true, our tasks will be 1) keeping Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader (if she wants the job); 2) stiffening the President’s spine (which from his excellent statement today on the Bush tax cuts, seems to be in decent shape); and 3) continuing to fight in the trenches for important things, like making sure ACA implementation proceeds, blocking GOP gerrymandering, and attacking conservative talking points.  I’ll have more to say more on these in due course, but we cannot do any of these things if we wake up on November 3rd in some sort of ideological stupor, cowed by right-wing browbeating, and lacking the courage of our convictions.

Fight like hell the next two months.  Give money when you can.  Here’s an excellent place to start.  But most of all, let leading Democrats know that they must not back down, no matter what happens.  The country, and the world, depend on them getting this message.

AJ Duffy: Los Angeles’ Most Dangerous Man

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times’ article on teacher effectiveness in Los Angeles classrooms was a real contribution to the city, not least of which it reveals the corruption of the district’s union leadership.

The Los Angeles Times might indeed be the nation’s worst newspaper, but yesterday, they did a real service for Los Angeles residents: somehow they got data out of LAUSD, comparing the relevant test scores by individual teacher before the students entered these teachers’ classes, and after.  The idea is to make comparisons of teachers based on how the students’ scores change, and to do so within a school.  Such a method, while hardly foolproof, helps isolate important aspects of teacher quality, because it helps to control for the fact that so many teachers teach in low-income neighborhoods with social pathologies.  The story found several teachers in low-income neighborhoods doing amazing work in bringing up their students’ test scores.  In fact, it found that many of the most effective classroom teachers work in the poorest neighborhoods.  As they say, read the whole thing.

The story was particularly heartening for me, not simply because of the results, but because a couple of the teachers who did not do so well in the results didn’t complain.  They didn’t dismiss the findings.  They didn’t act defensively.  Here’s one:

Told of The Times’ findings, Smith expressed mild surprise.

“Obviously what I need to do is to look at what I’m doing and take some steps to make sure something changes,” he said.

Here’s another, known as an involved, energetic and caring teacher:

Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn’t been shown such data before by anyone in the district.

“For better or worse,” she said, “testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I’m an ineffective teacher, I’d like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?”

This is exactly what you want to see.  These teachers aren’t complaining.  They aren’t making excuses.  They are dedicated, and they seem to care about their students.  Something seems not to be working, and they want to know more.

And then there is A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who reacted to yesterday’s story this way:

The Los Angeles teachers union president said Sunday he was organizing a “massive boycott” of The Times after the newspaper began publishing a series of articles that uses student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers.

“You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.

Duffy said he would urge other labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions.

This is a classic in what some have called “reactionary liberalism” — a defense of an interest group with bromides and talking points.

If progressives want to reinstitute faith in government, then we must demand the best possible results from public institutions.  And we also need to confront directly dinosaurs like Duffy who simply refuse to accept any accountability for his profession.  President Obama deserves a lot of credit for taking on the education establishment nationally, and the Times deserves a lot of credit for publishing this report.

It would be nice to have an adult conversation about precisely what these scores mean and what they do not mean, how we can help teachers who are underperforming despite their real dedication, and how to weed out those who simply cannot perform well.  And we will not have that conversation until we can get rid of people like AJ Duffy.

Wanted: A New Blogosphere Epithet

What do you call a progressive who undermines his/her own party from the left, under circumstances where there is no chance his or her policy can be enacted?

Believe it or not, we need yet another new derogatory term in the blogosphere.

I think it was Dr. Black who first coined the term “wanker” to mean “ostensibly liberal Democrat who mouths right-wing talking points to undermine his party.”

But what do you call Russ Feingold, who has decided to support a Republican filibuster against the financial reform bill on the grounds that it isn’t strong enough?  The chances of a subsequent Congress enacting stronger legislation is exactly zero.  So is this bad faith?  Stupidity?

Two caveats are in order:

1)  Sometimes progressives have to withhold their votes in order to drive a bill leftward, i.e. toward the reality-based world.  So the mere fact of opposing a bill on the grounds of it being too conservative does not put a person in this category.  Theoretically, Feingold might just be doing some last-minute negotiating.  Since the bill has not yet been reported out of Conference (making it unamendable on the Senate floor), perhaps that’s the issue.  But I doubt it; Feingold really has been nowhere on this issue.  He has not made any serious proposals.  He has not been a leader on it.  It looks like prima-donnism.

2)  But of course this could apply to “wankerdom” also.  Simply because a progressive agrees with conservatives on some issues does not make him or her a wanker — or at least I hope not!  I agree with conservatives on many issues concerning teachers’ unions, for example, or some church-state issues such as charitable choice laws.  I reject wankerdom in these instances!

So I would say that this new term who have to be for a progressive who holds out against a good bill, under circumstances where it is virtually impossible to get something better, and thus undermines his/her own party’s ability to govern, while pretending to uphold the “true” values of the party, movement, coalition etc.

What would you call that?  A Hamsher?  A Nader?

ACA: a mandate because it’s a law. Now let’s say something interesting.

ACA’s “mandates” revisited: fallacies of choice and honesty about benefits.

My post last week on the Affordable Care Act got a lot of attention.  Left Blogistan mostly liked it, though Kevin Drum asked the right question about framing.  The other side not only didn’t like it, but thought I was lying.  I’ll try to answer Kevin, and in the process explain what I think about the others.

Quick recap: I said it was rhetorically awful to describe ACA as an “individual mandate” because that stresses the least attractive and least significant  thing about it.  I proposed, instead, this description:

If you or your family aren’t getting health insurance through your job, the government will pay to get you private insurance coverage, just as an employer would.  You’ll have to contribute something—but the law guarantees, with specific numbers, that it will be no more than you can afford.

..with a bit more.

First, Kevin’s question (he actually has three, but the last one sums up the other two pretty well):

In real life, how would this work? Once we reel off Andy’s paragraph, the next question from the Fox News anchor interviewing you is still going to be, “But it’s not voluntary, is it? You have to get insurance whether you like it or not, right?” What’s the answer?

Here’s my answer:

That’s just the way things work now for people who get insurance through work.  Most people get health insurance along with their paycheck whether they ask for it or not.  Most of them don’t get a choice of insurance, the way they will under the government-brokered exchanges in ACA.  Very few have the option of turning down the insurance and getting cash instead—and if they could, very few would.  ACA just gives people who don’t have insurance through work the same chance to have health insurance that people get if they do—and no less choice.

This is a folk version of the central left-liberal claim: we love choice and liberty just as much as the libertarians, often more, but the government is not the only enemy of choice and liberty.  Before ACA, people didn’t get to choose their health plans: the employer chose.  If you valued your job, you were stuck with the health plan your boss liked, not the one you would have liked.  (This is still true under ACA, and I wish it weren’t.  It will become less true if private employers start to drop their health insurance, as Kevin and I both think would be peachy; insurance shouldn’t track employment anyway.)   Before ACA, if you hated your job but had even a slight health condition, your choice of quitting was effectively foreclosed: you couldn’t go into business for yourself if you wanted insurance.  Before ACA, people with pre-existing conditions who didn’t have jobs with health insurance—maybe because they were, for example, very sick—had no “choice” of health insurance at all: none was available at a remotely affordable price.

As this is America, I don’t expect to win these arguments in the abstract.  I expect to win them by analogy.  Most people don’t currently experience the health insurance market as a realm of liberty and choice.  People who have to buy insurance on the individual market have the kind of “liberty” they wouldn’t wish on anyone (unless they’re quite young and very healthy—the people who least need insurance, and whose outrage, frankly, concerns me relatively little).  Those who get insurance through their employer take the plan they’re given, and if they get good health care out of it, they’re pretty satisfied.  ACA simply makes the government into the same good-enough insurance provider that many employers are now, with no less choice than most people have now.  The insured have to pay part of the cost—but again, that’s something most people experience with their private employers right now.

The libertarians act as if most people wish they were in the pre-ACA individual health insurance market.  If that’s right, my frame will fail.  But I think it’s wildly wrong.  Most people wish they had the kind of jobs that provided good health insurance.  They don’t want maximum choice, which the status quo ante can’t offer them anyway.  They want good health care.

This relates to my answer to those—like Left Coast Rebel/Conservative Generation, Professor Bainbridge, and TrogloPundit—who think that I’m denying the law involves a mandate.  I admit that my original post used an abstruse form of punctuation called quotation marks; some therefore didn’t get that by saying ACA wasn’t a “mandate” I meant that it wasn’t best described as a mandate, not that it wasn’t one.  Of course the law mandates that everyone have insurance, under penalty of law (though the extra 16,000 IRS agents are, once again, a complete fabrication; in fact, under ACA, the usual penalties for violating tax laws, like liens, will not apply).  That’s what laws do.  They mandate things.  Sending my kid to school, obeying the speed limit, paying my research assistants the minimum wage, participating in Social Security: all are “individual mandates,” if you want to portray them that way.  But portraying them that way is a bizarre libertarian frame.  It emphasizes the fact that laws exist on these matters but not the reasons they exist, the substance of the benefits that they aim at.  A focus on the consequences for those who defy the mandate is also technically accurate but conceptually perverse.  If I disobey any law, the government will come after me.  In fact, if I flout the mandate that I use the government-run currency, as opposed to one blessed by the free market, the Secret Service will come after me. But most people pretty much avoid such consequences—by obeying the law.  The free-marketeers are, ironically, evading personal responsibility on a massive scale.  Anybody who chooses to break the law that covers health insurance, will be treated as a lawbreaker.  But whose fault is that?

Short version: I know full well that ACA contains a mandate.  But I don’t care; I don’t think anyone else should care; and I think that once they get used to the new law and hear it explained properly, nobody much will care.  That’s why turning the debate away from mandates towards the fact that everyone will now have government-paid health insurance isn’t denial.  It’s honesty.

Update: Organizing for America shows how the “more choice” frame is done.

“Just in case there’s any confusion”

“I’m not going to walk away from healthcare reform”—Barack Obama, today, to ecstatic applause from DNC members. Some self-styled progressives may approach the health care bill with ambivalence. Partisans can’t, and won’t.

“So just in case there’s any confusion out there, let me be clear: I am not going to walk away from health insurance reform.” —Barack Obama, to the DNC, earlier today.

Per Tom Schaller, this was his “biggest applause line” in front of a DNC audience. Forget “I do not quit.”  From now on, it’s “I do not triangulate.”

Bipartisan rhetoric aside–though activists scorn such rhetoric at our peril, way underestimating how well it plays with most voters–this is now a matter of party, not ideology. As Obama says, “Here’s the thing, Democrats“–one of three times, in a pretty short speech, that he used that word describing his audience.  Nate Silver has pointed out for some time that while those fighting for an ideology can argue over small differences and bridge some of their disagreements through constructive compromises, partisan politics is largely zero-sum: what makes one party looks good, makes the other look bad.  (I can’t find my favorite post from him on this, but this gives an idea.)  So far, this has been an uncannily good way of parsing the health reform debate–except that even Nate overestimated how likely Olympia Snowe was to cooperate.

Some “progressives,” if one can apply the term to people who care more about hurt feelings and sticking it to Washington insiders than about sick and poor people, may be unwilling to whip the health care vote.  (SEIU, and other groups whose members actually lack health coverage, are another matter.)  But anyone concerned with whether the country is run by Democrats or Republicans has only one choice.  Pass the damn bill.

Update: Transcript here.

Second Update: Video here.

Liberal road rage…

George Will sees Prius-bound liberals in road rage outside Whole Foods. We sure are goofy Others.

This morning’s Washington Post includes an amusing piece of apocrypha, in which George Will recounts Prius-bound liberals locked in combat within the constrained parking area of a Bethesda Whole Foods.

 As someone whose secret shames include a succession of Subway cards, I have been inside Whole Foods precisely once in my life. I own an old subcompact rather than a Prius. I take no personal umbrage at any specifics of Will’s piece.

Will is a prolific contributor to a familiar genre: Liberals as Goofy Other. This should not be confused with several related Liberal Other genres: Liberals are Ungrateful Children, Liberals are Greedy Seniors, Liberals are Naïve Do-Gooders, Liberals are Hypocritical Rich People Sticking it to Working-Class People, Liberals are Envious Nonsuccesses Seeking to Exploit America’s Entrepreneurs, Liberals are Atheists or Jews,* Liberals are Anti-Semites, Liberals Hate White People,** Liberals are Implicit Racists Calling Other People Racists, Liberals are Libertines, Liberals are Anti-Straight-Sex Prudes, Liberals are Gay, Unless They are Named Clinton,*** Liberals are Cultural Elitists, Liberals are Enemies of Meritocracy, etc.

These genres are a tad inconsistent. That’s ok. Anti-liberalism is a big tent. Anyway, these stories are meant to be enjoyed rather than scrutinized or seriously believed.

*These categories are interchangeable.

**Republicans try to keep Liberals Hate English-Speaking People confined to the talk radio circuit, given political imperatives.

***Make that Bill Clinton.

Obama’s tax cuts: Progressive. Redistributive. Spending.

Kevin Drum asks when Obama, who ran on tax cuts, will make a real effort to sell the public on a progressive agenda. But the tax cuts are a progressive agenda–one commonly known as “redistribution.”

Kevin Drum asks when Obama will start engaging in the public persuasion he’ll need to sell the progressive planks in his campaign platform, since he mostly didn’t campaign hard on them. Mostly, Kevin’s analysis (which focuses on cap-and-trade and greenhouse policy generally) is on the money. But this sentence deserves a second look: “The public face of his [Obama’s] economic policy, after all, was almost entirely based on tax cuts, a distinctly conservative notion.”

Obama, as most readers of this blog probably know, ran on repealing the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year, and using the revenue raised by doing that to give a tax cut to everyone earning less than $200,000. (Between those two income levels, it gets complicated.) Even those who don’t pay federal income taxes would receive a refundable tax credit, otherwise known as a government check–a fact that drove the Right mad.

This is, quite simply, the core of left-liberalism: straight-up redistribution. Whatever else Obama proposes doing–and of course Kevin is right that we need investments, public goods provision, and other things that the tax plan doesn’t captuure–the core of Obama’s platform is to raise taxes on the rich to send checks to the poor and middle-class. This is the opposite of “distinctly conservative.”

Obama did a great job during the campaign of re-framing the Reaganite meme that spending is simply bad and tax cuts simply good–that spending “costs the taxpayers money” while tax cuts “let you keep more of your money.” Repeatedly, especially in the debates, Obama used, and made stick, the language that tax cuts for the wealthy “cost” money that we as a country need for urgent purposes.

But I think Kevin’s been schnookered on the other side, failing to follow through on the logic. If tax cuts for the wealthy count as spending, and wasting, money on the wealthy, then tax cuts for the poor and middle class (and, alas, a big chunk of the wealthy, since $250k a year is hardly “middle class” except in our odd political rhetoric) count as a spending program, and a big one, benefiting the poor and middle class. And it’s to be paid for by raising taxes on the rich.

This is the most progressive program of redistribution that any U.S. politician has run on in years. Obama re-cast the debate so thoroughly that he ended up fooling even his own side. But now that he’s won, let’s unfool ourselves. Obama’s on the side of the angels. Let’s take yes for an answer.

Update: Kevin replies.