Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 29, 2016

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive:

March 24, 2016 Rachel Price, author of Planet/Cuba, on the art scene in that country as Obama visits • Sam Stein, author of this article, on neoliberal housing programs, de Blasio style

March 17, 2016 Ben Zachariah on the activities of India’s fascist BJP government at home and abroad •  David Rieff, author of The Reproach of Hunger, on the economic development racket


Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 17, 2016

Zoë Heller on My Turn

It’s always a delight to read Zoë Heller, especially so when she says this about My Turn: “a solid and persuasive guide to what has been characterized as shady or shabby or unprincipled in Clinton’s political career.”

Other, less personally relevant, highlights from the piece:

…[her memoir Hard Choices] fairly brims with “aren’t women amazing?” sentiments of the sort one finds cross-stitched on decorative cushions.

…her much-vaunted “women’s rights are human rights” declaration in Beijing in 1995 (a speech that her supporters characterize somewhat implausibly as a watershed moment in feminist history)…

Just as in 2008, Clinton has found herself rejected by her “natural constituency” as a less inspirational candidate, a less plausible agent of change than her male opponent—and this time, it’s rather more galling, because the opponent in question is not an elegant, younger black man who can sing Al Green songs, but a seventy-four-year-old white man with the oratory style of a staff sergeant.

Notwithstanding these rather cynical appeals to feminist sympathy, her trials as a female public figure have always inspired considerable fellow feeling in American women, particularly college-educated, white women.

It would be a fine thing to have a woman in the White House. But, really—let’s not put her there because someone once said she had “cankles.”

But she does get one thing wrong. She quotes me saying “If by some miracle Sanders were to be elected, the establishment would crush him,” and concludes from that that I’m “not a Sanders fan.” But I am! I love the way Bernie has made it clear that there is an excitable constituency for social democracy; I love the way Bernie has exposed the class fissures within the Democratic party, forcing Hillary and her surrogates to run against social democracy. Even though Hillary will almost certainly get her damned nomination, Bernie has opened up American politics and given us a lot to work with beyond July.


Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 14, 2016

Varieties of Krugmanesque experience

Paul Krugman’s talking shit about Bernie Sanders again:

Indeed, what the Sanders movement, with its demands for purity and contempt for compromise and half-measures, most nearly resembles is not the Trump insurgency but the ideologues who took over the G.O.P., becoming the establishment Mr. Trump is challenging. And yes, we’re starting to see hints from that movement of the ugliness that has long been standard operating procedure on the right: bitter personal attacks on anyone who questions the campaign’s premises, an increasing amount of demagogy from the campaign itself. Compare the Sanders and Clinton Twitter feeds to see what I mean.

This is funny, since it’s a bitter personal attack coming from a centrist ideologue on a political movement that challenges his view of the world and that of his candidate, Hillary Clinton. Anyone who believes in popular mobilization and not rule by technocrats is a demagogue to someone like Krugman.

But speaking of purity and demagogy and contempt for half-measures, let’s do a little time travel and recall what Paul Krugman wrote about the massive fraud that used to be Enron, which collapsed in 2001 causing scores of billions of dollars in losses and putting 20,000 employees out of work. Pointing out that the company paid him $50,000 to join this advisory board to introduce this quote would no doubt be regarded by Krugman as yet another bitter personal attack. Pure coincidence for sure! Anyway, here’s Krugman writing in Fortune in 1999:

The retreat of business bureaucracy in the face of the market was brought home to me recently when I joined the advisory board at Enron—a company formed in the ’80s by the merger of two pipeline operators. In the old days energy companies tried to be as vertically integrated as possible: to own the hydrocarbons in the ground, the gas pump, and everything in between. And Enron does own gas fields, pipelines, and utilities. But it is not, and does not try to be, vertically integrated: It buys and sells gas both at the wellhead and the destination, leases pipeline (and electrical-transmission) capacity both to and from other companies, buys and sells electricity, and in general acts more like a broker and market maker than a traditional corporation. It’s sort of like the difference between your father’s bank, which took money from its regular depositors and lent it out to its regular customers, and Goldman Sachs. Sure enough, the company’s pride and joy is a room filled with hundreds of casually dressed men and women staring at computer screens and barking into telephones, where cubic feet and megawatts are traded and packaged as if they were financial derivatives. (Instead of CNBC, though, the television screens on the floor show the Weather Channel.) The whole scene looks as if it had been constructed to illustrate the end of the corporation as we knew it.

It’s all there—the born-again 1990s neoliberal love of The Market, the embrace of business as revolutionary, the genuflection before Goldman Sachs, and the excruciating cliché “not your father’s X.”

The Krugman archives are full of interesting material. For example, he wNow he’s busily denouncing Sanders for his attempts to bring something like a Scandinavian welfare state to the U.S., citing the worries of his tepid liberal colleagues that it would just be too expensive. In 1998, just before he wrote that Enron informercial, he disclosed that his ideal regime would be “Sweden of 1980…very generous and high social expenses, a flat income distribution and no unemployment.” Seven years later, in 2005, he told Pepe Escobar that “We should be getting 28% of GDP in revenue. We are only collecting 17%.” (Update: now it’s 19%.)

It’s funny—now that there’s a candidate advocating something like that agenda, he’s against it, standing instead with the finger-wagging, “No, you can’t have that!” contingent. But a guy who’s getting paid $225,000 a year to teach one graduate course and study income inequality is familiar with embracing contradictions.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 10, 2016

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive:

March 10, 2016 Anne Balay, co-author of this article, on the tough but romantic life of the truck driver • Lester Spence, author of Knocking the Hustleon neoliberalism and black politics

[Back after KPFA fundraising break. If you like these shows and want to keep them coming, please support KPFA. If you do, be sure to mention Behind the News.]

Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 1, 2016

The New Republicans

In a remarkable New York Times story, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has revealed the strategy of the Hillary Democrats as they face the challenge of Donald Trump:

“For every one of those blue-collar Democrats he picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that,” he said.

In other words, they’re hoping to terrify the moderately conservative into voting for their candidate. Forget having any positive message that might attract disaffected “blue-collar Democrats,” meaning the white working class. The appeal is going to be to the center–right. Forget too the enthusiasm for Sanders among the young, an appeal based on hope for a better future. As former Obama advisor turned Uber advisor David Plouffe put it in the same article:

“Hope and change, not so much. More like hate and castrate.”

Marco Rubio coyly suggested the other day that Donald Trump has a tiny todger (as Keith Richards said of Mick Jagger). Plouffe is jonseing to cut it off.

So it’s come to this: as I wrote last week, the Dem leadership hasn’t merely abandoned hope, it’s running against it. Policies that could materially benefit those disaffected blue-collar sorts would displease the party’s funders and must be ruled out. The Dems’ desperate hope is that fear of Trump will close the deal.

Maybe it’ll work—though everyone has underestimated Trump’s appeal all along (me included, I should say). But this strategy of writing off the white working class is precisely what has fueled his rise. As Ed Luce, the Financial Times’ very sharp columnist, wrote in yesterday’s paper:

It is the white vote—and particularly white males—that ought to worry Mrs Clinton. Blue collar whites are America’s angriest people. They feel belittled, trod upon and discarded. The future belongs neither to them nor their children. Mrs Clinton personifies an establishment that has taken everything for itself while talking down to those it has left behind. Mr Trump is their revenge.

Rendell & Co.’s strategy feeds into this unfortunate dynamic.

Dems will, of course, dismiss those angry white voters as hopelessly racist and sexist. Some no doubt are, and that’s the source of Trump’s appeal to them. But that’s not all that could appeal to them. The Sanders campaign has shown that policies that could benefit them materially have great electoral potential. But the Dem leadership would rather court suburban independents and Republicans than cross their funders.

So far that potential hasn’t shown up much in the Democratic primaries, because the disaffected don’t normally vote in them. But the longer-term potential shows up repeatedly in the popularity contests and hypothetical general election matchups. There’s one out just this morning from CNN and ORC International that should cause worry at Hillary Central. Some highlights:

  • 42% of those polled offered a “favorable” rating for Hillary, and 55% unfavorable, for a net of –13. In November 2014 she had a net favorable rating of +21. That’s a shift of 34 percentage points in 15 months. As recently as October 2015, her net negative rating was just 4 points; she’s lost 17 in four months. This confirms a law of Hillary’s popularity: the more people see her the less they like her.
  • That -13 net puts Hillary’s net positives towards the bottom of the broad presidential field. Ben Carson earns a net of +9; Rubio, + 6; Kasich, +19. Hillary does do better than Trump, at -23. But the highest net positive in the field is Bernie Sanders, +23.
  • In hypothetical general election races, Hillary beats Trump by 8 points. That margin looks comfy now, but given the trajectory of Trump’s support, far from armor-plated. But she would lose to Rubio by 3 and Cruz by 1.
  • Sanders would beat Trump by 12, Rubio also by 12, and Cruz by 17.
  • Hillary’s negatives are surprisingly broad, as are Sanders’ positives, as the graph below shows.


Polls at this stage of the election are more suggestive than definitive, but the “electability” argument for the HRC candidacy is based mostly on the wishes of her fans.

Not mentioned here: race. Hillary clearly has a huge base of support among black voters, and it would be ugly and unproductive of me to type out a lecture on how they’re mistaken in that preference. I don’t understand it, but it’s not my business to second-guess it. What I will say, though, is that the Democratic establishment is playing a cynical game, relying on that “firewall” of support while they court moderate Republicans in the Columbus suburbs by running against social democracy and amping up the fear factor. Because as the man from Uber says, “Hope and change, not so much. More like hate and castrate.”

Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 24, 2016

Liberal redbaiting

The Sanders campaign has certainly sharpened the contradictions, hasn’t it? It’s been very clarifying to see Hillary Clinton and her surrogates running against single-payer and free college, with intellectual cover coming from Paul Krugman and Vox. Expectations, having been systematically beaten down for 35 years, must be beaten down further, whether it’s Hillary saying that to go to college one needs some “skin in the game,” or Rep. John Lewis reminding us that nothing is free in America. A challenge from the left has forced centrist Democrats to reveal themselves as proud capitalist tools.

Latest to step up is Paul Starr, co-founder of The American Prospect. Normally the dull embodiment of tepid liberalism, Starr has unleashed a redbaiting philippic— a frothing one, even, by his usual standards—aimed at Bernie Sanders. Sanders is no liberal, Starr reveals—he’s a socialist. He may call himself a democratic socialist to assure us that he’s no Bolshevik—Starr actually says this—but that doesn’t stop Starr from stoking fears of state ownership and central planning. Thankfully the word “gulag” doesn’t appear, but that was probably an oversight.

Starr does have one substantial point—Sanders’ tax proposals wouldn’t be up to financing a Scandinavian-style welfare state. Taxing the rich more could raise substantial revenue, but nowhere near enough. And part of the point of steepening the progressivity of the tax system is hindering great fortunes from developing and being passed on. A good part of the reason that CEO incomes have gone up so much since the early 1980s is that taxes on them have gone down; stiffen the tax on them, and there’s far less incentive to pay überbosses so much in the first place. It’s like taxing tobacco or carbon—you can raise revenue by doing it, but you’re also trying to make the toxic things go away.

But, really, you don’t need a Swedish or Danish tax structure to pay for free college tuition and single-payer health care, which are highly achievable first steps of a Sanderista political revolution. As I wrote back in 2010:

It would not be hard at all to make higher education completely free in the USA. It accounts for not quite 2% of GDP. The personal share, about 1% of GDP, is a third of the income of the richest 10,000 households in the U.S., or three months of Pentagon spending. It’s less than four months of what we waste on administrative costs by not having a single-payer health care finance system. But introduce such a proposal into an election campaign and you would be regarded as suicidally insane.

That last sentence turned out to be not a bad prophecy.

Starr really loses contact with earth when he writes about single-payer.* In one sense, this is surprising, since he wrote a fat book on the history of medicine in America, and, although it was 34 years ago, is presumably still familiar with the territory. But the pressures of a political campaign often dislodge an apologist’s higher cerebral functions. That’s the only plausible explanation for why he wrote this:

Sanders’ single-payer health plan shows the same indifference to real-world consequences. The plan calls for eliminating all patient cost sharing and promises to cover the full range of services, including long-term care. With health care running at 17.5 percent of gross domestic product, Sanders’ plan would sweep a huge share of economic activity into the federal government and invite that share to grow. Another way of looking at single payer is that it would make Washington the sole checkpoint, removing the incentive for anyone else—patients, providers, employers or state governments—even to monitor, much less hold back, excessive costs. It would leave no alternative except federal management of the health sector.

Where to start with this? Why, as a matter of principle, should patients “share costs”? They’re already paying for the services with their tax dollars. According to Hillary’s “skin-in-the-game” theory, forcing patients to pay up will reduce demand, thereby keeping spending down, but this is a brutal form of cost-control. Co-pays often force people to forego needed care, resulting in higher costs down the road, and more importantly, needless suffering. (See this Gallup poll, and references 6, 7, and 8 here.)

A far more effective form of cost control is having the government use its buying power to demand lower prices from hospitals and drug companies. That’s the way it works in civilized countries, though that fact looks to have passed Starr by, probably because he was too busy trying to make precisely the opposite, and wrong, argument: single-payer would “invite that share to grow” by “removing the incentive for anyone else…even to monitor, much less hold back, excessive costs.” Just what is wrong with “federal management of the health sector”? Medicare does it for the 0ver-65 portion of the population; it works very well and is enormously popular.

Starr cites the 17.5% of GDP we devote to health care without putting that figure into any reasonable context—the sort of move that is supposed to provoke a “gee-whiz” moment of surrender. Here’s an interesting graph based on data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based quasi-official think tank for the world’s rich countries. It shows the share of GDP devoted to health care for a subset of the OECD’s 34 members, divided into public and private. (Put them together and you get the total.)


There are several striking features in this graph:

  • Most striking of all is how far ahead of the pack the U.S. is: we spend 16.4% of GDP on health care, compared to a 10.1% average for all the other countries shown. (That’s the dotted vertical line on the right.) And recall that all those other countries cover almost their entire populations, unlike the U.S., where a tenth of the population is uninsured (and many of the insured have terrible coverage), with little change since the drop when Obamacare first took effect. (Gallup has 12% of the population uninsured, slightly higher than the Census Bureau, though with a similar trajectory of initial decline followed by flatlining.)
  • Another striking, though less obvious, thing is that U.S. public spending alone, 7.9% of GDP, is just 0.1 point below the average of 8.0%. In other words, the government already spends as much as many other countries do while accomplishing far less. That 7.9% is also not much less than the entire health bill for Italy, Australia, and Britain, public and private combined.
  • Yet another striking thing is the outlandishly large share of private spending on health care: 8.5% of GDP, more than four times the average of the other countries and almost three times Canada’s private share.
  • Does all that spending produce better outcomes? Seems not: our life expectancy, 78.8 years, is three years shorter than the average of all the other countries.

So just about everything in Starr’s quoted mini-lecture about the real world is at odds with the real world.

There’s a perverse form of American exceptionalism circulating around the Clinton camp: just because things work in other countries doesn’t mean they can work here. As Hillary herself put it, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark, but we are the United States of America.” True enough, but that has no bearing on why single-payer couldn’t work here. The only obstacles are political—elites, which include Hillary and Starr, don’t want it.

The rest of Starr’s piece is a highly unsubtle rant about socialism and how bad it is, even though Sanders isn’t really a socialist. That sort of thing may resonate with people who grew up during the Cold War—though not with all of us!—but it seems not to move the younger portion of the population, many of whom seem charmed by socialism. It’s not like capitalism has been treating them all that well. But Starr doesn’t want to hear about that.

Starr also finds the style of Sanders’ politics in bad taste:

Sanders is also doing what populists on both sides of the political spectrum do so well: the mobilization of resentment. The attacks on billionaires and Wall Street are a way of eliciting a roar of approval from angry audiences without necessarily having good solutions for the problems that caused that anger in the first place.

But people have a lot to resent—why shouldn’t it be mobilized politically? And free tuition and single-payer are pretty good solutions for some of those problems. Starr just doesn’t like them. Best leave the tuition issue to some vague, incomprehensible scheme (that apparently involves lots of work–study and online learning) and health care to a lightly regulated and generously subsidized insurance industry. Establishment Democrats haven’t merely gone post-hope—they’ve declared war on it.


*Single-payer is just one way of organizing a public health insurance system. Under such a model, providers remain private and the government pays the bills. That is, only the insurance function is socialized. This is how it works in Canada. Under Britain’s National Health Service, everything is socialized: doctors are public employees and hospitals are government-owned. Sanders is proposing the former, even though the British system is cheaper to run than the Canadian, as the graph shows.



Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 21, 2016

Complacency of the Dems

According to the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM), Hillary has an almost-90% chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Anything can happen of course, but I wouldn’t put much money on the other side of that bet.

So what about November? As I write this, the IEM has Trump ahead of Rubio by 45–37. That may underestimate Trump’s chances, as people have been doing all along. Leaving that aside for now, I think that Dems are way too overconfident that Hillary can beat Trump in November. People are pissed and don’t want another president from Goldman Sachs.

Trump is a master taunter. It was amazing to watch him destroy Jeb (who was none too mighty to start with). Trump knows how to get under people’s skin, and could break Hillary psychologically. She’s brittle and has many potential lines of cleavage, personal and political. She’s a nervous, error-prone campaigner who prefers sticking to a script (which is why she hasn’t had a press conference or an informal chat with reporters in over two months). Trump could go after her emails and the shady business of the Clinton Foundation in ways that Sanders never has, for fear of starring in a GOP ad in the fall.

Trump is relentlessly vicious. As he said in his South Carolina victory speech, “There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you. It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious, it’s beautiful.” A debate between the two of them could be a remarkable spectacle, though it would hold glum prospects for humanity.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | February 12, 2016

Fresh audio product

Just uploaded to my radio archive:

February 11, 2016 Tim Shorrock on panic over North Korea (Nation author page) • Robert Fatton on the mess in Haiti on the departure of Sweet Micky from the presidency

February 4, 2016 Matt Karp on the demographics of Sanders’ support (Jacobin author page) • Jasson Perez on the Black Youth Project 100 (full agenda here)

Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 31, 2016

Blaming Hillary for Bill

Hillary apologists insist that one shouldn’t hold her responsible for abominations perpetrated by her husband, like the crime bill and the end of welfare. There’s some truth to that; she wasn’t the one with executive power. But she did praise both, extensively. Not only was there her calling ”welfare recipients “deadbeats”—there’s this chilling demand to bring “superpredator” youth “to heel.”


Holding her not responsible for Bill also undermines a good bit of the argument for her “experience”—that quality we’re supposed to admire but not examine. As I write in My Turn (pp. 22–25), she was very much Bill’s partner in the invention of the New Democrat ideology—tough on crime, hard on the poor, and happy to go to war. She co-wrote his keynote speech to the 1991 conference of the Democratic Leadership Conferece, the New Dems’ trade association. She ran his campaign to impugn the reputation of Arkansas teachers and their union, a strategy that would become neoliberal standard fare.

And then there’s this memory, reported by Gail Sheehy in Hillary’s Choice:

“[Hillary] decided [Bill] lacked the discipline and toughness,” observes Dick Morris. “He was too idealistic. His head was in the clouds. He wasn’t a pragmatist. He needed a tough-as-nails manager.” Morris saw Hillary make a bold choice: “In 1978, they were a two-career couple; in 1981, Hillary became the manager of their joint political career.”

Of course, Hillaryites will dismiss Morris as an unreliable source, even though he was in the Clintons’ employ for 20 years.

Sheehy supported Morris’ analysis with this quote from Hillary: “If I didn’t kick his ass every morning, he’d never amount to anything.” Their old friend Susan McDougal—who served 18 months in prison, 8 of them in solitary, for refusing to answer questions in the Whitewater investigation—glossed Hillary’s quote by saying, “You always knew that Hillary was about the business end of it, and Bill was about being loved.”

From the time more than 25 years ago when they first became famous, they advertised themselves as a two-fer. If you’re going to tout experience, you can’t be so selective about evaluating it.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 29, 2016

Fresh audio product

Just uploaded to my radio archive:

January 28, 2016 Shane Bauer on his imprisonment in Iran and how Hillary Clinton made it worse (with some remarks about solitary in the U.S.) • Jennifer Mittelstadt, author of The Rise of the Military Welfare Stateon that, and its privatization from Clinton onwards

Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 29, 2016

Katha Pollitt, 1996 vs. 2016

[What a difference 20 years can make. Here’s the full text of column that Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation as welfare was being repealed. It’s full of sharp criticism of the Clinton administration, the awfulness of the Dems, the treachery of lesser-evil politics, the limits of elite advocacy—and even a little mockery of Supreme Court fetishism. Today, Katha is a big fan of Hillary Clinton and has forgotten all this. Too bad, because this is very good.]

The Nation — August 26-September 2,1996

The Strange Death of Liberal America
Katha Pollitt

I woke up this morning to the voice of Linda Chavez-Thompson-first and only female, first and only minority executive vice president of the supposedly revitalized, supposedly reprogressified A.F.L.-C.I.O.-telling National Public Radio how thrilled she was with the Democratic Party platform. That’s the one that claims as a party triumph the Republican-authored welfare bill that will push countless children into poverty, deprive legal immigrants of a wide array of benefits and force millions of poor mothers into minimum- or even subminimum-wage jobs that do not, so far as we know, exist. “I love this platform!” announced Dennis Archer, Mayor of Detroit, where 67 percent of children are on public assistance. Did I mention that the platform this year omits the usual lip service to the ongoing urban crisis?

The passage of the welfare reform bill signifies more than the end of welfare as we know it; it signifies the end of a certain kind of liberalism too. Plenty of solid liberal Democrats voted for the act in the Senate: Russell Feingold, Bob Graham and Barbara Mikulski, who wasn’t even up for re-election. The House vote included yeas from Nita Lowey, who is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues; Elizabeth Furse; Jane Harmon; and Lynn Rivers. I’m ashamed to say I actually contributed to the campaigns of some of these people, through EMILY’S List and other supposedly feminist PACs. Maybe you did too.

“Sometimes you’re in a position in which you have to make a decision,” Representative Lowey told me. “The system is so broken,” Is it? Lowey asserted that 25 percent of those on welfare are third-generation recipients, a figure she revised later in our talk as 25 percent on welfare for ten years or more — “that’s two generations.” Maybe she was thinking of horses on welfare? (Actually, only about 6 percent of recipients have been on welfare continuously for that long, and only 9 percent grew up in house- holds that frequently received welfare.) It was unnerving but strangely enlightening to hear the head of the Congressional women’s caucus defending her vote with numbers plucked out of the air and Orwellian tributes to “the dignity of work,” while simultaneously professing herself “concerned” about the actual content of the bill — the free hand given to states with atrocious records, the cutoffs of legal immigrants, food stamp limits, etc. When the Democrats retake Congress we’ll be monitoring those things, she assured me. So now we’re supposed to vote for the Democrats so they can undo their own votes! Talk about triangulation.

Well, why single out Nita Lowey? Elizabeth Furse’s press aide wanted me to believe that Furse voted for the bill in order to protect Oregon’s “wonderful” programs. (Hello? There are forty-nine other states out here? Full of women you asked for campaign contributions?) The picture from the world of Beltway advocacy is not much brighter. Marian Wright Edelman threw away the last, best chance to organize popular resistance to punitive welfare reform and convened a giant Stand for Children that attracted 200,000 people to.. stand for children. A.F.S.C.M.E. finally decided to use its phone banks to organize callers to urge a White House veto — on the very day Clinton announced he would sign the bill.

NOW (which, to its credit, is refusing to endorse or support legislators who voted for the bill) is mounting a daily vigil at the White House with a coalition of progressive groups. Patricia Ireland and other NOW staffers are on a hunger strike.

All this is good, but why so little? Why so late? This bill has been moving toward passage for months, and welfare reform has been a major political issue for four years. It’s because these liberal groups are caught up in mainstream electoral politics, which in practice means clinging to Clinton and the Democratic Party, waiting and hoping and beseeching, working on the inside, faxing and phoning and producing yet another study or poll. Meanwhile they preach the gospel of the lesser of two evils, that ever-downward spiral that has brought us to this pass and that will doubtless end with liberals in hell organizing votes for Satan because Beelzebub would be even worse — think of the Supreme Court!

They really didn’t think he’d sign it, one welfare expert told me when I asked why protests were so lackluster as the bill moved toward passage. That was a miscalculation that goes way beyond the President’s character — it applies to a whole mode of political action. Liberalism is the idea that the good people close to power can solve the problems of those beneath them in the social order. Its tools are studies and sermons and campaign contributions and press conferences. The trouble is, the political forces they call on are not interested anymore — and this is true not just in the United States. In country after country, social benefits are being slashed and the working class’s standard of living lowered, and the major parties, including the ones that call themselves Labor or Socialist or Democratic, accept this process as a given. Of course, there will always be a few noble oddballs like Paul Wellstone, the only Democratic senator up for re-election who voted against the welfare bill. But the general direction of government in the age of globalized corporate power is clear.

Advocacy politics can’t turn this around, because advocacy is based on speaking for people rather than those people acting on their own behalf. Enormous demonstrations around the country, with strikes by S.E.I.U. and A.F.S.C.M.E., sit-downs in welfare offices and 100,000 homeless people camping out on the capital Mall might have affected the debate. Marian Wright Edelman issuing a press release no longer can. Indeed, the media didn’t even pick up the most recent one, eloquent as it was. The Women’s Committee of 100is suggesting that people return fundraising letters from party organizations, PACs and anti-welfare politicians with a note saying that you’re now sending your disposable dollars to social welfare organizations. Why not take it a step further and fund direct action? The National Union of the Homeless (246 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106) has great politics and no money. The Democratic Party cannot make the same claim.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 21, 2016

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive:

January 21, 2016 Adolph Reed on reparations to black Americans (a reaction to this Ta-Nehisi Coates piece; Reed’s 2000 piece on reparations is here) •  Steffie Woolhandler of Physicians for a National Health Program on single-payer, Sanders, and Clinton Inc.’s lies

January 14, 2016 Isabel Hilton on the Chinese financial melodrama • Chris Maisano (author of this article) on legal challenges to public sector unions

January 7, 2016 Jason Williams reports from Oregon on the rancher occupation • Toby Jones on Saudi Arabia


Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 15, 2016

Pollitt responds to my response

Katha Pollitt is out with a response to my response to her review of My Turn. Once again, it’s largely free of any engagement with Hillary Clinton’s political history. It’s a short book, but there is a healthy amount of detail about some rather terrible things she’s done over her four decades in public life. Katha touches briefly on a few, but the blows are merely glancing.

I understand why she might not want to engage, since those terrible things undermine some of Hillary’s supporters’ most cherished claims about her, notably all the work she’s done on behalf of women. She did give that famous and frequently quoted speech in Beijing in 1995 (not 1985, as Katha wrote) in which she said that “women’s rights are human rights.” I thoroughly agree that they are. But it’s not clear how Hillary put that assertion into actual practice.

Hillary’s material actions have often been decidedly less woman-friendly, starting with the war on teachers—disproportionately black women—she conducted in Arkansas; running through her service on the board of Walmart, a notoriously sexist operation, about which she said nothing; and continuing through her support of welfare reform, an abomination that deserves more than a grudging sentence of concession for having driven millions of women and children into poverty. (She called welfare recipients “deadbeats,” for God’s sake. See here for that and several other luscious quotes on the topic.) And Haitian garment workers, mostly women, might not feel so warm towards her State Department’s opposition to an increase in that country’s minimum wage, which a U.S. Embassy official denounced as “a populist measure aimed at appealing to ‘the unemployed and underpaid masses.’” That quote, by the way, comes from Katha’s magazine, The Nation.

Much has been made of Hillary’s work for women while Secretary of State. I don’t doubt that Hillary meant to do something, but just what did she do?

Before considering that, it’s essential to point out that she was probably the most bellicose member of Obama’s cabinet, and war is notoriously bad for women. And she’s continued in that mode since leaving Foggy Bottom, waving her saber at Syria and Iran. Hasn’t feminism historically been characterized by a significant pacifist strain?

That rather large matter aside, just what did Hillary do to “elevat[e] women and girls as Secretary of State,” as Katha puts it? There’s a rather sympathetic book—so sympathetic that the foreword is written by someone who declares a twenty-plus-year friendship with Hillary—on the topic by Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex & American Foreign Policy, which is rather long on citing directives and rather short on citing accomplishments.

On the accomplishments front, Hudson and Leidl quote Peter Van Buren, a career foreign service officer who ran a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Iraq. They were told to “do women’s programming.” What did that mean? Van Buren recalls:

We were told, “Do women’s stuff!” But we were not really given any guidance…. My PRT stumbled upon “widows”—we were going to “help widows….” Okay, what were we going to do for widows…? We already had a beekeeping operation in place, and so we said we’d limit it to widows, which is how our “Bees for Widows” program was born. It was hard to find widows, because we had no access to society because we weren’t trusted. So individuals emerged who could “provide widows.” Widow brokers! We filled up our project, and sent photos back to the embassy of hijab’d women doing things…. We got very creative in telling these stories, so for example about the beekeeping, we’d say something like, “This empowered the women and helped change attitudes so that they will participate in the democratic process.” The embassy really liked these…. I find it difficult to cite any way that we helped women….

In Iraq, two large things bumped—Clinton’s sincere desires to help women and Iraqi conservative culture. Neither gave ground. And what was between them—the embassy—wanted Clinton to be happy and feel her goals were being accomplished. But there was incredible turnover and so no coherent plan was possible. My boss changed three times in twelve months. Washington, D.C., has a short attention span. Clinton’s in Burma, then she’s in China. There’s no time to stop and say, is it really happening here? … She didn’t know, but maybe she didn’t care to know. Secretaries of state can’t proclaim failure.

But their publicists are free to proclaim success.

To be fair to Hillary—see, I can do it! I can! I can!—she was up against a lot: a stubborn, mostly male bureaucracy working in often deeply sexist societies. But please don’t claim triumphs where there were very few. There may be “no time to stop and say, is it really happening here?”—curiously, people who praise Hillary’s tenure at State cite the million miles she traveled as an achievement—but there’s also no incentive to do so if you’re more concerned with PR than reality.

A couple of other points:

What Doug gives us is so partial—he mentions every negative (even her supposed breaking of a lamp in a fight with Bill)—he turns her into a cartoon.” Why does Katha think that I find her throwing a lamp at Bill is all that negative? She’d recently learned of his Oval Office blowjob and was rightly pissed off at him for putting his presidency at risk and humiliating his family. And why a cartoon? It’s all true, and fully documented.

If he’s going to attack her for botching healthcare reform, Doug should at least have mentioned her role in establishing the SCHIP program, which gave healthcare to millions of low-income children.” Hillary’s role in establishing SCHIP is debated. The measure was sponsored by Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and they did most of the work getting it enacted, but Hillary reportedly lobbied her husband to support it. The best summary may be from former New York Times reporter and Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer, who said: “Kennedy and Hatch deserve most of the credit, but Hillary helped.” Ok, partial credit given. And while it’s nothing but good that poor kids got health coverage almost 20 years ago, I’d rather that Hillary (and Chelsea) stop lying now about Sanders’ single-payer plan, claiming, surreally, that he’d take health insurance away from people who now have it, and sounding like Paul Ryan with their accusation of him being a budget-buster.

Her excellent record on reproductive rights.” Yes, she can be very good on reproductive rights. But it’s not an unblemished record. Whether it’s her inner moralist emerging, or just her triangulating cynic, she’s conceded too much to the Christian right. Her repeated statement that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” participates in stigmatizing abortion. Abortion should be safe, legal, and offered whenever a pregnant woman wants it. In a 2005 speech to a reproductive rights rally, she said that abortion is “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” Many women may feel that way, but it doesn’t help for a reproductive rights advocate to frame it like that. And, according to a New York Times account of the event, after a defense of Roe v. Wade, “she quickly shifted gears, offering warm words to opponents of legalized abortion and praising the influence of ‘religious and moral values’ on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active.” That is pernicious nonsense.

Without her marriage—which Doug cites as a black mark against her—she surely would not be the first woman ever to make a serious run for the White House.” I’d like to know where I cite her marriage as a black mark against her. On the contrary, I repeatedly characterize their relationship as a partnership from the first, and write on p. 101, “[T]heir skills are powerfully complementary; neither would have gotten this far alone.”

Perhaps he can’t see these good things she’s done, because they’re good for women.” The antecedents of “these good things” are “SCHIP, her excellent record on reproductive rights, on women’s rights, her elevation of women and girls as secretary of state, her speech at the 1985 UN conference on Women in Beijing.” I’ve dealt with most of those above; there’s less there there than Katha & Co. like to say. (And the beneficiaries of SCHIP are mostly children, not women.) But the last part is a cheap shot. As I wrote in My Turn (p. xiv): “The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired for decades has been about moving towards that ideal [of a more peaceful, more egalitarian society], and not merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged. It’s distressing to see feminism pressed into service to promote the career of a thoroughly orthodox politician—and the charge of sexism used to deflect critiques of her.”

But it’s looking more and more like that dishonest charge of sexism is the main defensive weapon Hillaryites have left. Although Katha touts Hillary’s alleged electability as one of her major virtues, she’s looking less mighty on that score with each passing day. Lots of people just don’t like her, and not all of them for sexist reasons. The email and Clinton Foundation money problems could explode disastrously any day. In other words, she’s extremely vulnerable.

The graph below, which the Washington Post ran yesterday, has to strike fear into the hearts of Hillary supporters everywhere: her lead has been evaporating at a faster rate than it did in 2008. Of course that could change as the primary season begins, but the vulnerabilities will remain even if she wins the nomination. It’s not good for those (rightly) terrified of a President Trump or Cruz to deny those vulnerabilities.





Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 13, 2016

SOTU for 9th graders

Back in 2013, I old-fartishly complained about the declining complexity of State of the Union Addresses:

Obama is a highly literate and thoughtful guy, yet this speech adhered to the depressingly low standards of American public discourse. It was written at a 10th grade level, slightly below the 11th grade level of his 2009 speech, and even more below the 12th grade level of Clinton’s 1993 state of the union. At least it was above George W’s 9th grade level speech in 2001. (See here for the texts of all State of the Union addresses; see here for the grade level analyzer.) Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

How we’ve come down in our expectations. As recently as 1961, when only 41% of Americans had completed high school, John F. Kennedy’s address was at a reading level associated with a year of college. Back in 1934, a time when fewer than 20% had completed high school, FDR’s first state of the union was at a level associated with three years of college. In 1861, when 20% of the population was illiterate, Lincoln’s first State of the Union (which admittedly was written and not spoken) was composed at a level comparable to a college graduate’s.

And what about Obama’s last night? Down to a 9th-grade level (9.4 to be exact)—back to W territory. God bless America.

Posted by: Doug Henwood | January 7, 2016

Katha Pollitt on My Turn

Katha Pollitt reviews My Turn in the January 25 issue of The Nation. I suppose it’s undignified for an author to take issue with a reviewer, but I’m confident that I can transcend such petty concerns.

I should say right away that Katha is a friend; not only am I very fond of her personally, I’ve admired her writing (both prose and poetry) for more years than either of us would probably like to count. But she got some things wrong, which I will enumerate politely.

It’s funny how often defenses of Hillary Clinton begin with confessing a soft spot for Bernie Sanders. But this rhetorical move is always a prelude to a dismissal: while he may have sentimental appeal, he just not a serious candidate. (“Businessmen are serious. Movie/producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.”) And this review is no exception. Why isn’t he serious? He’s upended the Democratic race and forced Clinton into a temporary, primary-season populism that no doubt will be junked come the general, should she win the nomination. (We already see signs of that in her accusing Sanders of being some sort of tax-and-spend fanatic.)

But as is also typical of the genre, Pollitt makes no serious political case for Clinton’s candidacy. Nor does she really try to rebut my critique of her 40-year record. As someone—I wish I could remember who, sorry—pointed out on Twitter, Hillary’s fans always tout her experience but don’t welcome any scrutiny of her record. Here it is in a sentence: she represented corporate Arkansas in Little Rock (often in cases involving the state of which her husband was governor), screwed up health care reform as First Lady, was a mediocre Senator, ran a terrible campaign in 2008, and was an unmemorable but bellicose Secretary of State. There’s plenty of detail on all this in the book, as well as on her penchant for secrecy and duplicity. It’d be a pleasant surprise if some of her defenders would engage with this history.

On to some specific points of dispute:

  • I’m not interested in “Hillary’s marriage and its compromises.” Unlike Ed Klein, I have no idea what her marriage is like. But I wrote extensively about how Hill and Bill’s 40-year partnership redounded to the benefit of both of them—how their personalities and styles of thought complemented each other powerfully.
  • “He ignores as well the curious fact that the person he regards as an enthusiastic tool of corporate capitalism and seller-out of other women (cf. welfare reform) is regarded as a radical socialist feminist by much of the country.” The first part of this sentence is irrefutably true—she’s pledged public allegiance to capitalism (“I represented Wall Street as a Senator”) and praised welfare reform years after her husband left the White House. (She also called welfare recipients “deadbeats”—how very feminist.) But how is it anything resembling a refutation of those truths to invoke crazy right-wing caricatures of her politics?
  • “ But when he does weigh in on Hillary the person, he’s snarky:  She swears (imagine even noticing that about a man)…” What I wrote: “Hillary apparently often swears like a longshoreman, one of the more endearing things about her.” You’ve got to admire someone who can say this to Joseph Califano: “You sold out, you motherfucker, you sold out.” Of course, she did the same herself just a few years later.
  • “His run-through of her imbroglios, from Whitewater to that private e-mail server, is terse and straightforward—the only time he seems really angry is when he charges the Clinton Foundation with bungling its rebuilding efforts in post-earthquake Haiti. (At the time, only Bill was at the helm of the foundation, but Henwood argues that Hillary, as secretary of state, urged investment in reconstruction projects that fell far short of what was needed.)” This bears little resemblance to what I wrote about the Clintons’ doings in Haiti, which were truly grotesque, and very much a joint project of the two of them. Their history with that country—a country whose annual per capita income is equal to about twelve seconds of her standard speaking fee—goes back to their 1975 honeymoon there. As Secretary of State, she and her underlings enabled a deeply corrupt election, worked to suppress an increase in the minimum wage (of concern to women garment workers, something you’d think feminists would care about), and seriously botched reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake. USAID, an agency under State Department supervision, build horrid housing and deployed toxic trailers to accommodate the displaced—at the same time the embassy in Port-au-Prince commissioned snazzy housing for its staff. What both Clintons did in Haiti deserves serious scrutiny, not this sort of dismissal. If I say so myself, the Haiti passages of the book are almost alone worth the price of admission.
  • Although I use a highly critical 2003 quote from Brad DeLong, which includes the declaration that “Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to be kept very far away from the White House for the rest of her life” as my epigraph, DeLong now endorses her. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but perhaps the reason that DeLong took down his blog from that era (thank God for the Wayback Machine!) and now disowns the statement is that he’d like a job in a Hillary Clinton administration, probably better than the one he had in Bill’s. But Hillary, who compiled an enemies list after the 2008 primary, can read the Wayback Machine too.
  • “After all, the sins he finds so damning in Hillary are those of a multitude of successful male Democratic politicians, who similarly cozy up to the rich, accept huge speaking fees, have books ghost-written for them, and worse.” I say as much several times in the book—she’s an utterly orthodox political figure, not the great progressive feminist her supporters make her out to be. On p. 7, I say: “Although this is a polemic directed at a prominent figure, I also want to make clear from the first that Hillary is not the Problem. (I should also say, because most truths are not self-evident, that all the misogynist attacks on her are grotesque.)” I’m not sure that many other politicians, however, command the kind of speaking fees that Hillary did—and I don’t know of any others who tried to stiff their ghostwriters out of their fee, as she did with the unacknowledged author of It Takes a Village.
  • “John Kerry, for example, voted for welfare “reform” and the Iraq War, but Henwood endorsed him in 2004.” Yes, I’ve sometimes voted for the lesser evil; I voted for Obama in 2008 too. And other times I haven’t; I’ve also voted Green and Socialist. Very close to the end of the book I say: “If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up, I’ll listen to them respectfully. If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.” Some of my more militant friends have expressed disapproval of this position. But it would have been nice had Pollitt acknowledged my concession to “realism,” one that earned me a volley brickbats from my Trotskyist and Green friends.

But I would like to thank Katha Pollitt for writing about the book, which is something that no other liberal feminists have done yet.

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