Posted by: Doug Henwood | September 23, 2015

POR in the news

I feel guilty about using the tragedy of the Party of the Right threesome gone very wrong to promote my own work, but here are two memoirs of my time in and around the POR.

“I was a teen-age reactionary” (Bad Subjects)

“Partying on the right” (The Nation)

Me in the late 1990s, photographed by Joel Schalit in San Francisco

Posted by: Doug Henwood | September 15, 2015

Sanders, budget-buster?

The Wall Street Journal, one of the more respectable organs of the Murdoch press, put out a sensationalized tally of Bernie Sanders’ spending proposals yesterday: an $18 trillion agenda that would “greatly expand government.” Sensation is Murdoch house style, but the Journal is also supposed to be a serious paper.

Here’s how they get to $18 trillion:

Sanders’ spending proposals, next 10 years
billions of dollars

Medicare for all $15,000
Social Security 1,200
infrastructure 1,000
college affordability 750
fund to allow workers paid family/medical leave 319
protecting private pensions 29
one million youth jobs 6
total 18,304
  ex-Medicare 3,304

Sounds like a lot, for sure. And that’s the point of these articles: scare people with big numbers, studiously avoiding context.

A couple of quick contextual points. First, the projections cover ten years, a period when U.S. GDP is expected to total $228 trillion. When you want to make a budget number sound gigantic, always be sure to use the ten-year projections. And always use dollar amounts, because they sound heftier than the more honest measure, percentages of GDP.

Second, over 80% of the total, $15 trillion, comes from a single-payer health care financing system (officially known as H.R. 676, for its bill number in the House of Representatives). It would undeniably increase federal spending, but that increase would be heavily offset by a decline in spending on private insurance. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government is slated to spend almost $15 trillion on health care between 2016 and 2025—but nonfederal spending will amount to nearly twice as much, $28 trillion. (This estimate is based on CBO numbers as well as the semi-official projections published in Health Affairs.) Single-payer would mostly be a substitute for, not an addition to, all that nonfederal spending (and almost certainly one that would be better at cost control). State and local governments, households, and private businesses would see their direct health care spending plummet.

And, while $15 trillion is a gigantic number, it’s 6.6% of projected GDP over the next ten years. Private spending on health care, assuming no major structural changes, is projected to be nearly twice that. With H.R. 676, it would be lots lower.

After universal health care, the next-biggest item is increasing Social Security benefits and bolstering the system’s finances. That’s the prudent and civilized thing to do, and people should stop whining about it. Besides, Sanders’ proposal amounts to 0.5% of GDP over the ten-year period. That is not a large number—it’s a sixth the size of projected spending on the military. The rest of the agenda amounts to just over $2 trillion, or 1% of GDP. Again, that is not a large number. The college affordability component would, like health care, be a substitute for private spending.

So the price tag for Sanders vision of a more civilized society is actually quite small. Dream bigger, Bernie!

Posted by: Doug Henwood | September 8, 2015


I’ve got a piece on The Nation’s website about the tech bubble.

Funnily, Vanity Fair features many of the disruptive stars of that bubble, and of the sharing economy I wrote about for The Nation earlier this year, in their latest New Establishment list. How 2015 it all seems.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 15, 2015

Does Chicago need a Katrina? Adolph Reed responds.

[Guest post by Adolph Reed, in response to Kristen McQueary’s column in the Chicago Tribune on how Chicago could use a Hurricane Katrina.]

Kristen McQueary’s attempt to walk back from her scurrilous column of last Thursday extolling the wonderful changes that the devastation of Katrina brought to New Orleans is basically an unpology—and an even more empty, uninformed word salad than the original. The issue isn’t what she was feeling when she wrote what she wrote; it’s what she wrote.

The initial column was wrong on basic, yet important particulars. New Orleanians did not “overthrow a corrupt government.” They actually re-elected Mayor Nagin, who then served his complete second term. He did not and could not by charter seek a third term. Mitch Landrieu did not replace him. Public housing did not get rebuilt; projects were demolished at the moment of the city’s greatest shortage of affordable housing to make way for upscale redevelopment and thereby further intensify that shortage.

I don’t know what governments she believes were consolidated, but the “slashed budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts” all actually began under Nagin. More to the point, however, what world does McQueary live in such that she imagines that those moves, which necessarily meant slashed public services and redoubled economic hardship for those workers and their families already reeling from the dislocation and loss associated with the flood of the city, sound like such cool ideas, even accomplishments? Sprinkling in empty references to “leaner and more efficient” tells us nothing; they’re only croutons in the standard free-market word salad.

And what notion of democratic government does she operate with such that Paul Vallas’s having been freed from “restrictive mandates from the city or the state” seems like something to be applauded? He may have “created the nation’s first free-market education system” (can someone pass the salad dressing?), but, if McQueary could imagine doing the most superficial research instead of merely exuberantly rehearsing press releases, she’d have learned that that system has not, even by the the education “reformers’” very dubious metric of standardized testing, improved educational performance overall and certainly has undermined educational quality for many students in the city. And what notion of education does she operate with such that teachers are not only least competent to organize conducting it but are somehow its enemies, though a random “entrepreneur” with no expertise is the one — actually The One — to whom that vital public service should be entrusted? God help us if McQueary starts thinking about how to organize the fire department.

There is much more that is wrong-headed and shallow about McQueary’s perspective. Considering Chicago, for instance, for all her recitation of the babble associated with the pose of tough-minded fiscal probity, it’s interesting that she never bothers to consider where the budget crisis came from, whose actions—and which actions—produced it, including the role of the City’s years of dereliction in not making its mandated pension payments or, on the other side of the ledger, the billions of dollars of revenue foregone for corporate tax giveaways and other forms of corporate welfare. It’s clear that McQueary can’t imagine herself as falling among the ranks of those who could wind up on the wrong side of the retrenchment that she airily touts with such blithe detachment, as though it were all a version of “Game of Thrones.”

I could go on, but I’ll conclude by saying that I certainly understand how anyone with connections to New Orleans and the devastating impact of that travesty wrought by decades of bad government would be appalled and outraged by her flippant statements like “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.” I understand so well because I’m one of those people. But one doesn’t have to have that personal connection to recognize the truly breathtaking, perhaps clinical, lack of capacity for empathy with strangers that such statements undeniably reveal. The problem is not that one might think that she “would be gunning for actual death and destruction” but that what she is “gunning for” in wanting in effect to destroy the public interest by marketizing it is a society in which such “death and destruction” would become normal life.

The greatest irony of her original stupid article and the backtracking unapology is that she can’t recognize that it’s precisely the sort of arrangements she enthusiastically touts as the utopian possibilities opened by the horrors of Katrina that created that disaster in the first place. She’s right; it was man-made, but, if she were a little less smugly shallow and ideological, she might have asked how it was man-made. It was the product of decades of the sorts of policies, pursued at every level from Orleans Parish to the White House and by corporate Democrats as well as Republicans, she rhapsodizes about—privatization, retrenchment, corporate welfare paid for by cutting vital public services and pasting the moves over with fairy tales about “efficiency” and “lean management” and “doing more with less” and hoping to avoid the day of reckoning.

So, I’ll give this much to McQueary; she’s right that Katrina has a lesson for us. It’s a lesson about what happens when you follow the sorts of destructive approaches to public policy that McQueary shills for.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 13, 2015

Fresh audio product

Finally, after an unpardonable delay, four shows freshly uploaded to my radio archive:

August 13, 2015 William Darity on discrimination, a job guarantee, and baby bonds • R.L. Stephens II, founding editor of Orchestrated Pulse and author of this essay, talks about Black Lives Matter and the creation of a leadership class

August 6, 2015 [vacation encore] Ian Bone, author of Bash the Rich, on anarchism (first broadcast March 2007) • Bethany Moreton, author of To Serve God and Wal-Mart, on Christian free enterprise and the Behemoth of Bentonville

July 23, 2015 James Galbraith and Leo Panitch (the article that launched a thousand righteous polemics) on Greece

July 16, 2015 Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), on Alinsky, power, and organizing (her article on the topic in Politics and Society is behind a paywall, breachable by many with university connections)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 17, 2015

Workers: no longer needed?

Paul Mason has a breathless piece in The Guardian making grand New Economy claims that sound like recycled propaganda from the late-1990s—though he gives them a left spin: postmateriality is already liberating us. I wrote a book that was in large part about all that ideological froth, published in 2003, and so far I’ve been struck by the nonrevival of that discourse despite a new tech bubble. Uber and Snapchat don’t excite the same Utopian passions that the initial massification of the web did.

I’ll pass on refuting Mason’s article, because I already did that twelve years ago. But I do want to comment on one point that Mason makes—one that’s ubiquitous in a lot of economic commentary today: capitalists don’t need workers anymore. As he puts it:

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

I can’t make sense of the “currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences”—has capitalism ever skipped an innovation because of its social consequences?—but there’s no evidence that info tech is “hugely diminish[ing] the amount of work needed.” Sure, wages and benefits stink, but that’s about politics and class power, not because of the latest generation of Intel chips or something fresh out of the latest TechCrunch Disrupt.

Expressing this argument in some economically quantifiable way probably means something like “the relation between GDP growth and employment growth has broken down.” If that’s what proponents mean—the presentations are usually light on precision—then it’s just not true.

Graphed below is the yearly growth in employment, and what the growth in employment “should” be based on GDP growth (lagged a quarter). Below it is the difference between the two—a measure of whether actual employment growth is stronger or weaker than the very simple model suggests. Several things stand out:

  • The relationship between GDP growth and employment growth is very tight.
  • It hasn’t gotten any less tight. Employment losses during the Great Recession were greater than the contraction in GDP says they should have been, but not by much, and the model tracks actual results, both down and up, remarkably well.
  • Recent employment growth is stronger than the model suggests it should be. For the first quarter, average U.S. monthly employment gains during the first quarter of 2015 “should” have been 163,000, and not the 253,000 they were.

The yearly growth in U.S. employment, actual and predicted by GDP growth.

Put another way, were IT really making workers less necessary, we should be seeing more productivity growth, and not less. But less is precisely what we’re seeing—as of the first quarter of 2015, trend productivity growth was 0.4%, an all-time low since the series began in 1948, less than a fifth the 1948–2007 average of 2.3%. It’s below the levels of the lamented 1970s productivity slowdown. The only time in recent history where IT appears to have led to an acceleration in productivity growth was the late 1990s, which was the result of increased investment in high-tech equipment. I went into writing After the New Economy thinking that the productivity acceleration was a mirage, but it wasn’t. But then it fell apart, because corporations prefer shoveling out cash to their shareholders to investing it.


Posted by: Doug Henwood | July 9, 2015

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive:

July 9, 2015 Nantina Vgontzas on the domestic politics of the Greek crisis (see her Jacobin pieces here) • Mark Blyth on why it’s wrong to blame Greece for its crisis (Foreign Affairs article here)

July 2, 2015 Alyssa Katz, author of The Influence Machine, on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce • Rafael Bernabe and César Ayala on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis

June 25, 2015 Bruce Bartlett on the relationship between the GOP and the Confederacy • Alex Gourevitch cautions against pushing for tighter gun laws (article here) • Saqib Bhatti on the modern engineered urban fiscal crisis, with emphasis on Chicago

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 19, 2015

Fresh audio product

Just posted to my radio archive, with minimal delay!

June 18, 2015 Trudy Lieberman, author of this article (behind a paywall, but subscribe to Harper’s, it’s excellent & cheap), on the pitfalls of Obamacare • Leah Gordon, author of From Power to Prejudiceon the transformation of the study of race in the U.S. from the structural/systemic to the individual/psychological

Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 13, 2015

Fresh audio product

I’ve been very delinquent at updating my radio archive. It’s now all up to date. Freshly added:

June 11, 2015 Adolph Reed on the state of the left • Sungur Savran, editor of Red Med, on the Turkish election and challenges to the AKP’s rule

June 4, 2015 Lee Drutman, author of The Business of America Is Lobbyingon the growth and power of lobbying in DC • Josh Bivens on the Fed’s vast asset-purchasing program 

May 28, 2015 Katha Pollitt, author of Proon the importance of legal abortion that’s actually available • Raquel Varela about the dimensions of Portugal’s economic crisis [back after fundraising break—if you like these shows and want to keep them coming, please support KPFA (and mention BtN)]

April 30, 2015 Bruce Dixon on Loretta Lynch and the black misleadership class • Sean Jacobs on anti-immigrant violence in South Africa

April 23, 2015 Micah Uetricht on the consequences of the recent Chicago mayoral election for independent politics over the longer term (article here) • Bill Frelick on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean

April 16, 2015 Bruce Bartlett talks about supply-side economics yesterday and today (papers here) • Ken Jacobs, author of this article, on public subsidies to low-wage work •  Kevin Alexander Gray, co-editor of Killing Trayvons, on racist police violence [April 9 was a rerun of a show from October]

April 2, 2015 Stacy Philbrick Yadav (lots of articles at that link; also see article here) briefs us on why Yemen is dissolving into violent chaos • Elizabeth Economy on what’s up with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and U.S.–China relations

March 26, 2015 Sam Stein on the reality behind New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive image • Jodi Dean (review here) on climate politics and the problems with Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything

March 19, 2015 Ryan Grim on the Chicago Housing Authority’s strange cash hoard (article here) • Joel Schalit on the Israeli election

Posted by: Doug Henwood | May 12, 2015

The student debt boom (cont.)

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is out with it latest household debt report, covering the first quarter of 2015. Its parent in DC, the Federal Reserve Board, publishes lots of similar data, but the New York Fed is the first source to publish rigorous numbers on student debt. The latest report is here; you can get the numbers behind it here.

Since the official end of the Great Recession in June 2009, households have been borrowing very cautiously (how much it’s their decision, their lenders’ decision, or a combination of the two, isn’t fully clear). The glaring exception is student debt. Here are just a few numbers to make the point:

  • Overall household debt peaked in the third quarter of 2008. From that peak, it fell by 12% to a low in the second quarter of 2013 (not adjusted for inflation, like all these figures). But over the same almost-five-year period, student debt rose 63%. Take student debt out of the total, and household debt fell over the same period by 16%. Up 63% vs. down 16% is an enormous difference.
  • From that 2013Q2 low to the latest quarter available, 2015Q1, overall household debt is up by a little over 6%—or 5% if you take out student debt. But student debt is up almost 20%.
  • Since the New York Fed debt numbers began in the third quarter of 2006, nonstudent debt is unchanged: up (or down) exactly 0%. Student debt, however, is up 166%. It’s gone from 4% of total household debt outstanding to 10%.
  • Over the last year, nonstudent debt is up 1%; student debt, 7%. The rate of growth of student debt has slowed—from about 15% a year in 2008 to 7% now. But over the same period, the rate of growth of nonstudent debt has collapsed—from almost 9% to just over 1%. (For comparison, household income is now growing about 2–3% a year.)

There’s a lot of talk about how this rampant growth in student debt is a re-run of the subprime mortgage bubble. That’s not an exact comparison, since most of the debt is ultimately owed to or guaranteed by the federal government, so massive financial collapse is probably not an issue. It is, however, exacting a huge financial and psychological toll on the debtors, who would be having a hard enough time in a rotten economy without having to worry about spending hundreds of dollars a month paying off their education debt (at a time when the pundits counsel education as the only way to survive that rotten economy).

Free tuition K to PhD now!

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 28, 2015

Varoufakis marginalized?

A follow-up to my last post. I asked Yanis Varoufakis what we should make of talk about Tsipras having marginalized him. His answer: “A first class example of coordinated disinformation at a global scale!”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 28, 2015

A coup in Greece?

I emailed Yanis Varoufakis last night and asked how he was holding up. To my surprise, he answered:

“[W]e certainly are facing a coup. The wall of lies is becoming absurdly tall.”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 12, 2015

Hillary’s announcement

Good lord, Hillary’s announcement video is appallingly banal. As someone said on my Facebook page, it’s like an old United Colors of Benetton ad. For perspective, here’s Carl Bernstein’s description of Bill’s first inauguration:

Every opportunity was exploited to contrast the egalitarian values and youth of the Clintons with the privileged era of Reagan and Bush, a plutocratic epoch that Hillary, more than Bill, believed was now in final retreat; and to proclaim a transparency in government that would extinguish all vestiges of Nixonian secrecy and paranoia in the White House. The tab for the week of celebration was fit for a pasha, running to more than $25 million, a record unsurpassed until George W. Bush’s $40 million extravaganza in 2000. Most of it was financed by the same kind of special interest and corporate back-scratching that had long paid the bills for Republican presidential campaigns and inaugurations. The new Democratic president seemed to justify it because of the “new direction” of his leadership. The explanation, with its attendant sense of entitlement, sounded positively Hillaryesque. Hillary thought the price in dollars was justified by the all-embracing message of every theme tent on the Mall, including Native American heritage, gay rights, country music, clog dancers, wood choppers, and unionized stevedores.

There was a marching band whose members were all physically disabled; there were 120 men and women carrying an oversized section of the AIDS memorial quilt; there was a float celebrating American family life that included a lesbian couple and two gay men; another featured an Elvis impersonator (and members of the King’s original band). As the twenty-two-unit Lesbian and Gay Bands of America passed the reviewing stand, the new president and vice president each held up three fingers — a sign-language salute to the marchers meaning “I love you.”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 2, 2015

Strike Debt & the Corinthian resisters

Someone asked me on Facebook yesterday what I’d written on Strike Debt and I posted some links from this site. One of the Strike Debt organizers, Astra Taylor, wrote me to complain how hard that was to read after all the work she and others have done organizing debt resistance at Corinthian College. She’s right, and I’m sorry to have brought all that up again.

I wrote those critiques of the debt buyback program, which seemed politically murky to me. But the Corinthian actions are totally admirable. Corinthian is a chain of crappy for-profit colleges that fleeced students for debt-financed tuition. It’s winding down now, under federal order. A group of 100 students, organized with the help of Strike Debt, is refusing to pay their federal loans, and are petitioning to have them forgiven because their degrees are worthless. They had a meeting with federal officials on Tuesday, who appear to be taking their position seriously, though we know how the bourgeois state sometimes pretends to listen and then does what it wants.

This is both good for the students and a good way to draw attention to these horrendous commercial colleges, which peddle worthless degrees financed with money borrowed from the government. Thanks to Strike Debt and the Corinthian 100 for getting it going, and I’m sorry I took so long to celebrate it.

Astra sent these links for more info:

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 13, 2015

Fresh audio product

Now up in my radio archive:

March 12, 2015 Gene Nichol on North Carolina’s war on poor people and on academic freedom • Eilyanna Kaiser and Brendan Michael Conner, respectively co-editor and contributor to $pread: The Best of the Magazine that Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution, on the perils and delights of running a magazine by and for sex workers

March 5, 2015 Mark Ames, author of this article, tells us who Boris Nemtsov, the dissident shot on the streets of Moscow last week, was • David Kotz, author of The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism, talks about the history and structure of the beast

February 26, 2015 James Galbraith on Greece’s deal with its Euromasters • Kenzo Shibata of the Campaign for An Elected, Representative School Board on Rahm Emanuel and Chicago politics

February 19, 2015 Jane McAlevey, author of this article (and this book) on Bruce Rauner’s attack on public sector unions in Illinois and on how labor and the left need a theory of power

back after fundraising break—if you like these shows and want to keep them coming, please support KPFA

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