2014 Midterms: Something about nothing

The 2014 midterm elections were boring. They fit into a long historical trend of midterms going against the president’s party, and one only needs to look at the distorted ratio of Democratic seats in the Senate that needed defending to Republican ones. Gerrymandering makes the House increasingly predictable and dull- any interesting results occur months earlier in primaries.

Something was learned. Something about nothing. Because nothing was the Democratic Party’s platform going into the elections.

Their economic policy plank was insubstantial. Little effort was dedicated to big-picture ideas, the sort that might override voter cynicism and record-low approval ratings for Congress. Broadly speaking, the Democrats had a reactionary campaign. Rather than defending the president’s agenda or the liberalism that will always be tied to the party, they ran away and tried to find shelter, either with local issues or populist conservatism.

In the end, moving yet further to the right is not going to win elections. If people wish to vote for a conservative candidate, that’s what the Republican Party is there for. Polls show that the public wants economic justice and ending elite privilege. But that’s ignored, so the plan instead is to ignore empirical evidence and go with pundit wisdom. 2014 shouldn’t be thought of as the voters choosing R’s over D’s, but rather a mass of people that saw nothing worth voting for.

As someone outside the two-party mindset, I have no anticipation that the Democratic Party will see the error of its ways and become some great progressive engine worth supporting. But even in the limited spectrum in the United States, it’s clear that there’s no winning scenario at the end of all this. The Republican Party has coalesced around a selection of bold, simple, and terrible ideas. They have an agenda worth hating. There is substance. Democratic Senate candidates fled substance, and often latched onto GOP ideas in the absence of anything else.

Personally I’m glad that Proposition 47 passed in my home state of California. It is a great step towards ending prison overcrowding and the mass incarceration culture. It’s also the sort of sensible policy that isn’t getting passed in Congress anytime soon. A bit of direct democracy is the only respite from gridlock.

California initiatives: special interest slugfests and yet more bonds!

I received my ballot in the mail today. Living in California, we have vestiges of the Progressive era. These are not at all universal across the states. One is the power of recall, which we used back in 2003 with that insane election free-for-all. The other is the ballot initiative. People can vote for new laws, or to undo existing ones. In isolation, it is exciting. A small taste of direct democracy.

Two propositions this year show different issues with the state. One is Proposition 1, the end result of years of wrangling over the form a water bond act should take. It’s desperately needed in light of a record drought- California cannot reverse global climate change, so it must invest in infrastructure to mitigate its effects. But as with all major projects that end up on the ballot, it is not funded by taxation. Instead billions of dollars of bonds fund it, which will be paid off with significant interest. It’s silly to pay more than is necessary for schools, high speed rail, police, and water infrastructure, yet it is due to the nationwide allergy to taxes of any kind. I agree with the taxpayers’ associations that always pen the “against” sections of the election information packet you are sent that this is unsustainable. However, I still think the investments are needed.

There is no path to long-term economic stability in California as long as a) major initiatives are paid with loans, and b) the property tax still doesn’t factor in the massive increase in real estate prices. Every time a bond measure shows up on the ballot, it is in some ways a failure.

The second proposition that is demonstrative is Proposition 46. Ostensibly it’s about testing doctors for drugs, because otherwise they’re high as a kite and killing patients. That’s bullshit, because this is just a rehash of an ongoing battle between special interest groups, using the initiative process to get the law on their side. Looking at the fundraising game, it’s clear that this is just an old-fashioned slugfest between trial attorneys and physicians. Attorneys want more malpractice cash available, physicians don’t want to pay more in insurance. Over $50 million has been spent, mostly by physicians’ associations. Public interest isn’t factored in, this is just groups using the system as a weapon because they can’t get laws passed in their favor otherwise.

While I appreciate the chance to chime in on proposed laws, it is disconcerting to see these two issues continuing. Initiatives can do great things- in 2012 one raised taxes to fund education, another partially reformed the idiotic three-strikes law, and another closed a tax loophole (fixing something the legislature didn’t). But it can be abused, whether to kick financial obligations down to the younger generation, or as a way for special interests to promote naked self-interest.

From Conservative to UKIP, from Lib Dem to Labour.


English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23
English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23

So there is a massive election going on throughout Europe for the European Parliament, with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom voting Thursday, and the bulk of the continent following on Saturday. The election dynamic is an interesting one – historically the Parliament has been without much authority and thus most elections have had very low turnout. Two dynamics are at play that makes this one a bit different. The first is that since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU bodies have been gaining more authority. Thus these elections are gaining some importance, at least in terms of party prestige.

The second is that in the past few years there has been a sharp increase in eurosceptic parties – a generic term for any party that opposes their country’s inclusion in the European Union. These parties are on balance, though not exclusively, conservative to far-right.

Projections indicate a rise for a coalition headed by the UK Independence Party (‘UKIP’, which is said as a word) and increasing seats for parties to the right of UKIP, like the National Front in France. The influence of these parties is also creeping into other groups. The UK Conservatives are being hounded towards a referendum on Britain in the EU, and the Greens support a referendum out of the necessity of getting it over with and focusing on other policy issues.

What I’ve posted up are the current local election results for councils in England, which were held the same day. EU results will not be posted until Sunday (after all the other countries have voted), so this is the data we have to look at now. It is interesting because British political news has been dominated by three questions:

1) Is UKIP racist? The answer to this, at least from my perspective, is “at the very least, unintentionally.”
2) How big will UKIP’s win be, and will they win the European Parliament elections in the UK?
3) Where is UKIP getting all this support from?

The second question is outstanding, though polling indicates it’s likely. The third we can start looking at thanks to this local election data.

I’m going to make a theory based on the simplest look at this current data, which has been developing since returns started coming in. An issue with this is that positive results are necessarily good results. One can still underperform. However, it seems UKIP is getting their increased support from Conservatives that are either upset with the current Cameron administration, angry at the European Union, or both. It seems to me that the switch between the Liberal Democrats and Labour may also be a simple swing – people that aren’t Conservatives (which to some is a lifestyle, or a cultural taboo) but are tired of the coalition government are switching to Labour. The big loser is the UK government, the big winner are parties in the opposition. It’s something that looks familiar to any American who’s seen enough midterm elections, though this has the dynamic of a new political force entering and taking support, rather than it falling back to the traditional opposition.

The EU vote will be interesting for me, since the Greens enjoyed a late poll surge and may hit 10%. Local elections are a bit more difficult (the EU is very environmentally-focused, so a Green vote makes sense), but I hope they pick up a bit of support. As an outsider it’s difficult to grasp all the subtleties – much of the UK election has been about immigration, and I’m not part of the American contingent that thinks immigration is bad or dangerous.

At some level elections are always interesting. No matter what political body they are for, they can tell people, locals or foreigners, something about the country in question. Here we see two shifts, one against the incumbent regime, and another against the larger union that the United Kingdom is a key part of. Combined they benefit two different forces, namely the establishment opposition and the anti-EU front.

Follow-up: Sawant campaign issues rebuke of Berezow’s article

So the day after my article criticizing Alex Berezow’s shallow, smug opinion piece against a woman with far more expertise on economics than he has, the Kshama Sawant campaign has issued their own rebuttal. It is similar but more a rallying point than my own beef with Berezow’s overly simplified view of economics, and his contempt for academia.

men do not make positions; positions make men

I’m currently reading Sam Dolgoff’s sizable Bakunin on Anarchism, a collection of Michael Bakunin’s writings from his entire career. It’s organized chronologically, and designed to show how Bakunin came upon the idea of anarchism and what he called “the Social Revolution.” If you just want his most famous essays, I’d advise a smaller collection. But in terms of a complete portrait, I’m finding it very satisfying.

The title is from an article he wrote in the spring of 1869. In it he ponders the political questions that still exists today- can you change the system from within? During the political movements of the 19th century, certain parts of the bourgeoisie tried to convince the working class that voting and parliaments were the best path to political and economic equality. Accepting or rejecting the political process is a choice all groups must make. In America there are elements that criticize a path of assimilation-  a documentary called Lifting the Veil, released a couple years ago, discusses the Democratic Party as “the graveyard of social movements.”

Bakunin was emphatically against using the existing political apparatus, created by the bourgeoise for their benefit. The whole culture and background of these institutions sustains the culture of inequality and exploitation. Even if a working class activists were elected to office, they would quickly cease to be part of the working class. One cannot go through the process of nomination, campaigning, election, and service unchanged. The specific nature of the office and its power moulds the individual more than the peculiarities of the individual mould the office. In short, positions make men.

There is a belief among liberal Democrats and some independents that getting good, progressive, people into office can change Congress and the Presidency. Elizabeth Warren was the head of this most recent vanguard of this hope, four years before that it was Barack Obama. Yet Obama seems to be more like his predecessor as time goes on- is he shaping the Presidency as much as it is shaping him?

If economic and political equality is desired, it should be said that the existing process are poisoned tools. Election law, legislative regulation, methods for amendment and change- they were created by groups that saw the existing power dynamics as good and wished to keep them that way. Bakunin said it was time to create change directly through the power of those that are oppressed- revolution.

Direct action, nonviolent struggle, economic boycotts work outside the system because no good general fights on ground specially chosen by the opponent. The ultimate goal of them is a system shaped by real people, not people shaped by an old system.

People do not need positions. They are their own power.

Iran’s third spring

The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is close at hand. Whether this event will bring large-scale change or not is not known. The country is dealing with the most serious international sanctions in its history. With the economic future of Iran up in the air, perhaps the reformist platform that Rouhani ran on will resonate with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his Assembly of Experts.

Depending on how you count it, this is the third major reformist event in the past 20 years in Iran. The first was the election of Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997; it is named the 2nd of Khordad Movement, after the date of Khatami’s first inauguration. 2009 had a bitterly disputed presidential election, in which many local and international groups thought the vote had been manipulated to give conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory over reformist (and close ally of Khatami) Mir-Hossein Mousavi. During the two years after the election, many prominent political parties were banned and leaders imprisoned or put under house arrest. After eight years of the very conservative Khamenei (in concert and sometimes against Ahmadinejad, known for his radical statements), many of the key reforms have been mostly or completely rolled back.

So what now? The Guardian looks at what small changes have been made in the interim between the election and the run up to the inauguration. Rouhani has not formed a government, and thus quite a bit of the article by nature is speculation. But some political prisoners have been freed or acquitted, and media and cultural restrictions seem to have relaxed a tad. But token changes will not change Iran’s international standing. As professor Ali Ansari remarks:

The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

So here we stand, on the cusp of this third spring. To some extent, the first two have canceled themselves out, and Rouhani is building his own foundation. What power and influence he wields will not immediately be clear- since the President is not the supreme authority in the country, observers may have to fall back on the discipline of Kremlinology to detect trends in the government. Not only is there a Supreme Leader above the president, and an Assembly of Experts above the parliament, much of the government is split into the apparatus created by the Revolution of 1979, and the traditional bureaucracy. Put simply, the org chart of Iran is unusual. Reform will be resisted to different degrees, and whether Rouhani can develop a base of power is to be seen.

A couple months back, I went to a speech and Q&A by Hooshang Amirahadi, an ex-pat academic who ran essentially a protest campaign for president. While parts of what he had to say were stock and rather dull, he did point out why he had hope for Iran in the future. The main issues that exist between Iran and the West are not unique- human rights, nuclear technology, and terrorism are global problems more than Iranian problems. The United States, for instance, has developed formal diplomatic ties and even strategic alliances with nations with awful human rights records (Saudi Arabia being a prominent) example, and gives billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to three nations that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US has also put aside serious terrorism concerns in Pakistan, and had not cut off ties despite links to attacks in India and a working relationship with groups in Afghanistan.

So Iran is not alone, and normalized relations are perhaps not as distant as it has seemed in the past several years. Rouhani can give both Iran and the world powers it negotiates with this kind of optimism, but the threat of the aging hard-line forces could dash such hopes. The Guardian piece does mention a symbolic overture to the United Kingdom by a reformist politician- congratulating Prince William and Kate Middleton on their new son. This was harshly condemned by forces that think of the UK as a tyrannical regime and a sworn enemy to the Islamic Republic. Iran will being going through a bipolar phase, where progress can only be made if the two camps learn to work with one another.

Amirahmadi by trade was a developmental economist and planner. Over the thousands of years that Persia has been home to advanced civilizations, it has had the benefit of plentiful resources and access to key trade routes. But looking at it in 2013, it is clear that Iran is not the economic world power it could be. The alienation from the West (and thus, most wealthy economies) is wasting resources and time that could be better spent. Whether Iran continues to struggle- culturally, economically, diplomatically- or moves beyond its problems is the question. This third spring will provide the answer soon enough.

My California ballot measure endorsements for November 6th

A common issue I notice is that each fall election in California has a slew of ballot measures, many of which are confusing and most importantly, deceptive. The amendment, veto and initiative process dates to 1910 and the heyday of the Progressive Era. In the century since, over 1,200 proposals have made it on the ballot. This year has several substantial propositions, which could change not only California’s tax policy, but also how we treat criminals.

I won’t preface these endorsements with much, but I’ll pick out the two most important to me.

Prop 34 will eliminate the death penalty and commute sentences to life without parole. It is not only a moral imperative to do this, but also will have about $100 million a year, which will in part go to investigating unsolved rapes and murders- an outrageous proportion of terrible crimes are done by people who elude justice.

Prop 36 is a serious reform of the “three strikes” policy approved by voters in 1994. I assume some of you may have voted yes in that election, but it is now clear the it is a perversion of justice. It would stop people from serving life for a third, petty offense and adjust sentences of those that are in prison for a minor third strike. Many of the people that have come to define three strikes (who stole a crowbar, a few cookies, or a couple videotapes) would be freed under time served.

Our prison system is inhumane, overcrowded, and filled with people sentenced under mandatory minimums and other measures that fill our prisons and remove power from judges.

The endorsements are below the fold.

Continue reading “My California ballot measure endorsements for November 6th”