Blogging in the Age of Trump

I haven’t written anything for this blog in the past month. Or rather, I’ve written quite a bit, but nothing I’ve felt comfortable posting. No surprise why.

On the one hand, I have — like everyone — opinions about the election, and the coming Trump presidency and broader Republican ascendancy. But none of those opinions seem especially insightful or original or coherent, and most of them I don’t hold with great confidence. I’m also not sure that this space is the right one for discussions of political strategy: Readers of this blog don’t constitute the kind of community for which the question “what should we do?” makes sense.

But on the other hand, it doesn’t feel right — it doesn’t feel possible — to just go on posting about the same economic questions as before, as if nothing has changed. Even if, in important ways, nothing has. And it still seems too soon to know where the terrains of struggle will be under the new administration, or to guess how the economic debates will reorient themselves along the new political field lines.

I’ve felt stuck. I know I’m not the only one who feels like they have nothing useful to say.

But you still have to get up in the morning, you still have to go to your job, you have to teach your classes, you have to write blog posts. So, back to work.

Links for April 21


The coup in Brazil. My friend Laura Carvalho has a piece in the Times, briefly but decisively making the case that, yes, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is a coup. Also worth reading on Brazil: Matias VernengoMarc Weisbrot and Glenn Greenwald.


The bondholder’s view of the world Normally we are told that when interest rates on public debt rise, that’s a sign of the awesome power of bond markets, passing judgement on governments that they find unsound. Now we learn from this Bloomberg piece that when interest rates on public debt fall, that  too is a sign of the awesome power of bond markets. Sub-1 percent rates on Irish 10-year bonds are glossed as: “Bond Market to Periphery Politicians: You Don’t Matter.” The point is that even without a government, Ireland can borrow for next to nothing. Now, you might think that if the “service” bond markets offer is available basically for free, to basically anyone — the takeaway of the piece — then it’s the bond markets that don’t matter. Well then you, my friend, will never make it as a writer of think pieces in the business press.


The bondholder’s view, part two. Brian Romanchuk says what needs to be said about some surprisingly credulous comments by Olivier Blanchard on Japan’s public debt.

Anyone who thinks that hedge funds have the balance sheet capacity to “fund” a G7 nation does not understand how financial markets are organised. There has been a parade of hedge funds shorting the JGB market (directly or indirectly) for decades, and the negative yields on JGB’s tells you how well those trades worked out.


The prehistory of Trumpism. Here is a nice piece by my University of Chicago classmate Rick Perlstein on the roots of Trump’s politics in the civil-rights-backlash politics of fear and resentment of Koch-era New York. (Also.) I’ve been wishing for a while that Trump’s role in the Central Park Five case would get a more central place in discussions of his politics, so I’m glad to see Rick take that up. It’s also smart to link it to the Death Wish/Taxi Driver/Bernie Goetz white-vigilante politics of the era.  (Random anecdote: I first saw Taxi Driver at the apartment of Ken Kurson, who was at the U of C around the same time as Rick and I. He now edits the Trump-in-law owned New York Observer.)  On the other hand, Trump’s views on monetary policy are disturbingly sane:

“The best thing we have going for us is that interest rates are so low,” says Trump, comparing the U.S. to a homeowner refinancing their mortgage. “There are lots of good things that could be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.”


The new normal at the Fed. Here’s a useful piece from Tracy Alloway criticizing the idea that central banks will or should return to the pre-2008 status quo.  It’s an easy case to make but she makes it well. This is a funny moment to be teaching monetary policy. Textbooks give a mix of the way things were 40 years ago (reserve requirements, the money multiplier) and the way things were 10 years ago (open market operations, the federal funds rate). And the way things are now? Well…


Me at the Jacobin. The Jacobin put up the transcript of an interview I did with Michel Rozworski a couple months ago, around the debates over potential output and the possibilities for fiscal stimulus. It’s a good interview, I feel good about it. Now, Noah Smith (on twitter) raises the question, when you say “the people running the show”, who exactly are you referring to? It’s a fair question. But I think we can be confident there is a ruling class, and try to understand its intentions and the means through which they are carried out, even if we’re still struggling to describe the exact process through which those intentions are formed.


Me on Bloomberg TV. Joe Weisenthal invited me to come on “What’d You Miss” last week, to talk about that BIS paper on bank capital and shareholder payouts. Here’s a helpful post by Matthew Klein on the same topic. And here is the Fed paper I mention in the interview, on the high levels of bank payouts to shareholders during 2007-2009, when banks faced large and hard to predict  losses from the crisis and, in many cases, were simultaneously being supported in various ways by the Fed and the Treasury.


Links for April 12

Maybe I should aspire to do a links post like this once a week. Today is Tuesday; is Tuesday a good day? Or would it be better to break a post like this into half a dozen short ones, and put them up one at a time?

Anyway, some links and thoughts:


Public debt in the 21st century. Here is a very nice piece by DeLong, arguing that over the next 50 years, rich countries should see a higher level of public expenditure, and a higher level of public debt, and that even much higher debt ratios don’t have any important economic costs. There’s no shortage of people making this general case, but this is one of the better versions I’ve seen.

The point that the “sustainability” of a given deficit depends on the relation between interest rates and growth rates has of course been made plenty of times, by people like Jamie Galbraith and Scott Fullwiler. But there’s another important point in the DeLong piece, which is that technological developments — the prevalence of increasing returns, the importance of information and other non-rival goods, and in general the development of what Marx called the “cooperative form of the labour process” — makes the commodity form  less and less suitable for organizing productive activity. DeLong sees this as an argument for a secular shift toward government as opposed to markets as our central “societal coordinating mechanism” (and he says “Smithian market” rather than commodity form). But fundamentally this is the same argument that Marx makes for the ultimate supercession of capitalism in the penultimate chapter of Capital.


Short-termism at the BIS. Via Enno Schroeder, here’s a speech by Hyun Song Shin of the BIS, on the importance of bank capital. The most interesting thing for my purposes is how he describes the short-termism problem for banks:

Let me now come back to the question as to why banks have been so reluctant to plough back their profits into their own funds. … we may ask whether there are possible tensions between the private interests of some bank stakeholders versus the wider public interest of maintaining a soundly functioning banking system… shareholders may feel they can unlock some value from their shareholding by paying themselves a cash dividend, even at the expense of eroding the bank’s lending base.

As many of the shareholders are asset managers who place great weight on short-term relative performance in competition against their peers, the temptation to raid the bank’s seed corn may become too strong to resist. … These private motives are reasonable and readily understandable, but if the outcome is to erode capital that serves as the bank’s foundation for lending for the real economy, then a gap may open up between the private interests of some bank stakeholders and the broader public interest.

Obviously, this is very similar to the argument I’ve been making for the corporate sector in general. I especially like the focus on asset managers — this is an aspect of the short-termism story that hasn’t gotten enough attention so far. People talk about principal-agent problems here in terms of management as agents and shareholders as principals; but only a trivial fraction of shares are directly controlled by the ultimate owners, so there are plenty of principal-agent problems in the financial sector itself. When asset managers’ performance is evaluated every year or two — not to mention the performance of the individual employees — the effective investment horizon is going to be short, and the discount rate correspondingly high, regardless of the preferences of the ultimate owners.

I also like his diplomatic rejection of a loanable-funds framework as a useful way of thinking about bank lending, and his suggestion that the monetary-policy and supervisory functions of a central bank are not really distinct in practice. (I touched on this idea here.) The obligatory editorializing against negative rates not so much, but I guess it comes with the territory.


Market failure and government failure in the euro crisis. This piece by Peter Bofinger gets at some of the contradictions in mainstream debates around the euro crisis, and in particular in the idea that financial markets can or should “discipline” national governments. My favorite bit is this quote from the German Council of Economic Experts:

Since flows of capital as well as goods and services are market outcomes, we would not implicate the ‘intra-Eurozone capital flows that emerged in the decade before the crisis’ as the ‘real culprits’ …Hence, it is the government failures and the failures in regulation … that should take centre-stage in the Crisis narrative.

Well ok then!


Visualizing the yield curve. This is a very nice visualization of the yield curve for Treasury bonds since 1999. Two key Keynesian points come through clearly: First, that the short-term rate set by policy has quite limited purchase on the longer term market rates. This is especially striking in the 2000s as the 20- and 30-year rates barely budget from 5% even as the short end swings wildly. But second, that if policy rates are held low enough long enough, they can eventually pull down market rates. The key Keynes texts are here and here; I have some thoughts here, developed further here.


Trade myths. Jim Tankersley has a useful rundown in the Washington Post on myths about trade and tariffs. I’m basically on board with it: You don’t have to buy into the idolatry of “free trade” to think that the economic benefits of tariffs for the US today would be minimal, especially compared with the costs they would impose elsewhere. But I wish he had not bought into another myth, that China is “manipulating” its exchange rate. Pegged exchange rates are in general accepted by orthodoxy; for much of modern history they were the norm. And even where exchange rates are not officially pegged or targeted, they are still influenced by all kinds of macroeconomic policy choices. It’s not controversial, for instance, to say that low interest rates in the US tend to reduce the value of the dollar, and thereby boost US net exports. Why isn’t that a form of currency manipulation? (To be fair, people occasionally suggest that it is.) I heard Joe Stiglitz put it well, at an event a year or two ago: There is no such thing as a free-market exchange rate, it’s just a question of whether our central bank sets it, or theirs does. And in any case, the Bank of China’s purchase of dollars has to be considered alongside China’s capital controls, which — given the demand of wealthy Chinese for dollar assets — tend to raise the value of the renminbi. On net, the effect of Chinese government interventions has probably been to keep the renminbi “artificially” high, not low. (As I’ve been saying for years.)


The politics of the minimum wage. Here is a nice piece by Stephanie Luce on the significance of New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15. Also in Jacobin, here’s Ted Fertik on why our horrible governor signed onto this and the arguably even more radical paid family leave bill.

It would be a great project for some journalist — I don’t think it’s been done — to explore how, concretely, this was won — the way the target was decided, what the strategy was, who was mobilized, and how. In mainstream press accounts these kinds of reforms seem to spring fully formed from the desks of executives and legislators, midwifed by some suitably credentialed experts. But when you dig beneath the surface there’s almost always been years of grassroots organizing before something like this bears fruit. The groups that do that work tend to avoid the press, I think for good reasons; but at some point it’s important to share with a wider public how the sausage got made. My impression in this case is that the key organizing work was done by Make the Road, but I’d love to see the story told properly. I haven’t yet read my friend Mark Engler’s new book, This Is an Uprising, but I think it has some good analysis of other similar campaigns.

“Sustained Pressure Gets a Response”

Here’s my brother on MSNBC talking about Ferguson. He makes an important point: In the vast majority of police shootings a grand jury is never even convened. We can recognize the gross injustice of the non-indictments there and in Staten Island, and still remember that even the minimal steps toward accountability in these cases would never have happened without people in the streets.

“As If a Man Were Author of Himself”

A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.

You don’t appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny — qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn’t up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.

So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us,  Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.

* * *

The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)

FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.

Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that “engrossers” be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown — but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not  aimless destruction.

To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it’s hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.

MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly; thus accus’d it:–
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing’
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
… I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body…
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …

Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can’t govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.

CORIOLANUS: … your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics — that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we’re told about urban riots, it’s the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense,  to challenge. We heard  Coriolanus’s voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.

To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:

FIRST CITIZEN. …  once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude. 

THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ the compass.

But then that is how ideology works — to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.

Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius  what it is, exactly, that the common people want.

MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor’d. 

They say! They’ll sit by th’ fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ the Capitol; who’s like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs,–
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:–with these shreds
They vented their complainings…

Even in Coriolanus’ hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened — consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.

The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it’s right there in the text.

Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.

You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you

Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It’s just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can’t be safely dispensed with.  Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward.  This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:

CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember’d.

The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.

Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they’d give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.

CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on? 

MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm. 

CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos’d thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer’t, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul’d. …
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d, and scatter’d,
By mingling them with us, the honour’d number

Of course, he isn’t wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.

Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: “We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men… wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette.” If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.

Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his  inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.

Menenius begs him to reconsider:

MENENIUS. You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you.
Pray you speak to ’em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. 

CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here. 

FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to’t. 

CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert. 

SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert? 

CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire. 

FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!

CORIOLANUS. No, sir, ’twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging. 


CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?

When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It’s interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:

You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates


How shall this multitude digest
The senate’s courtesy? Let deeds express
What’s like to be their words:–‘We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:’– Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles. 

The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here’s one of the tribunes:

BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenc’d their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

In general, the tribunes’ line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.

It’s striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:

BRUTUS. You speak o’ the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.

Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.

Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the  quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.

CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?

LARTIUS. He did, my lord.


LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call’d your vanquisher.

CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?

LARTIUS. At Antium.

CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o’ the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.

The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction (“I wish I had cause to seek him there”); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.

The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes’ urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city.  As he puts it, “the beast with many heads butts me away.” It’s interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of “Levellers” in England. What’s interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)

After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand’s D’Anconia, he imagines he’ll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes’ accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:

AUFIDIUS. … the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.

With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city.  But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:

CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack’d heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov’d me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him…

As these lines suggest, the specific challenge Coriolanus faces here is denying the social ties that connect him to Rome — denying that he owes anything to anyone, that he is in any way dependent, enmeshed in a web of social obligations. Or as he puts it:

… I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.

Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It’s only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.

You think I’m reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:

Not of a woman’s tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman’s face to see.

And that’s his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It’s a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus’ mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:

the honour’d mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.

But he can’t do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, “we are all members of one another.” (I only discovered writing this post that it’s a bible quote, from Romans.)

And that’s it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then — guiltily and a bit incongruously — offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is

…the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.

(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the “dead” actors off the stage.)

So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various “most noble Roman” orations, right up to Aufidius’ closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so … except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.

Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:

COMINIUS: … Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta’en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta’en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice. 

CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.

That’s our boy, no loot for him. He’s too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:

CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS: Take’t; ’tis yours. What is’t?

CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man’s house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o’erwhelm’d my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS: O, well begg’d!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?

CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; ’tis time
It should be look’d to: come.


And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.

It’s an amazing scene. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here’s the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn’t want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except … he can’t remember the fellow’s name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let’s go have some wine.

It’s tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it’s hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He’s not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.

UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.

Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:

Let’s suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI?

Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.

This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it’s a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don’t have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it’s an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn’t to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people’s capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market — incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say — is the important thing, so we’d always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it’s on more or less “even” terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn’t we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there’s some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn’t want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn’t want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There’s a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what’s most likely to make this surgery successful and not what’s most likely to make him money. (And we don’t think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide — so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they’re focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you’re left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you’ve given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn’t work. If the nightwatchman won’t do what’s right because it is right, you can’t have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn’t give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn’t give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn’t form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together — they have the PTA, to begin with — than the same number of voucher recipients are.

Bring Back Butlerism

From Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction:

Even more outrageous than Tweed … was Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who flamboyantly supported causes that appalled reformers such as the eight-hour day, inflation, and payment of the national debt in greenbacks. He further horrified respectable opinion by embracing women’s suffrage, Irish nationalism, and the Paris Commune.

Or, as a horrified Nation put it, Butlerism was

the embodiment in political organization of a desire for the transfer of power to the ignorant and poor, and the use of government to carry out the poor and ignorant man’s view of the nature of society.

Labor law, inflation, women’s rights, anti-imperialism, and small-c communism, not to mention government by the poor? We could use a little more of that 1870s spirit today. People on the left who want to central banks to do more, in particular, could talk more about loose money’s radical pedigree.

So who was this guy? The internet is mainly interested in his Civil War career. Made a general on the basis of his pro-union, anti-slavery politics, he was, not surprisingly, pretty crap at it; but it does appear that he was the first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and the first to successfully enlist black troops in the South. That was enough for Jefferson Davis to order that if he were captured, he should be executed on the spot. So he didn’t know how to lead a cavalry charge; sounds like a war hero to me.

In the current Jacobin (which everyone should be reading), Seth Ackerman offers emancipation and Reconstruction as a usable past for the Occupy left, unfavorably contrasting “the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison” with the pragmatic abolitionists who

saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals. At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites.

Today’s left, he suggests, could learn from this marriage of radical commitments and practical politics. Absolutely right.

There is, though, a problem: Reconstruction wasn’t just defeated in the South, it was abandoned by the North, largely by these same practical politicians, whose liberalism was transposed in just a few years from the key of anti-slavery to the key of “free trade, the law of supply and demand, the gold standard and limited government” (that’s Foner again), and who turned out to be less frightened by the restoration of white supremacy in the South than by “schemes for interference with property.”

If we must, as we must, “conjure up the spirits of the past …, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language,” then certainly, we could do worse than the Civil-War era Republicans who successfully yoked liberalism to the cause of emancipation (though I’m not sure why Seth name-checks Salmon P. Chase, an early opponent of Reconstruction). But personally, I’d prefer to dress up as a populist who continued to support the rights of working people even after liberalism had decisively gone its own way, and who ended up representing “all that the liberals considered unwholesome in American politics.” Anybody for a revival of Butlerism?

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

I haven’t Occupied Wall Street, have you?

The protests are great — more anger, please! — but I don’t have any particular insight into them. And those of us without first-hand knowledge should probably defer to those who do. Except, I want to think critically about one common criticism of the protests: that they lack a clear statement of what they’re about.

It’s not clear how much this is really true. But still, one can say, isn’t there something circular about the idea of “Occupy Wall Street”? It’s not identified as a movement against bank bailouts or foreclosures, or for jobs or free elections or socialism. It’s a movement to, well, occupy Wall Street — a protest to hold a protest.

I think there’s an important sense in which this is true. And in which it’s always true — in which, indeed, it’s the whole point.

If you’ve ever been to one of these things, you know that the most successful chants are the self-referential ones, like “Whose streets/Our streets!” and “This is what democracy look like.” (Or “We’re here, we’re queer” and “We shall not be moved.”) Whatever the ostensible reason for the protest, the real content is always simply We Are Here.

This is most obvious, and most powerful, when the participants are people who are not supposed to be political agents or be seen in public at all: The early civil rights and gay rights protests, undocumented immigrants today. The message is, We exist. Think of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, with its signs reading, “I AM A MAN.” But it also works if the “here” is a setting that is not supposed to be political. The flipside, as everyone knows, is that a protest of recognized citizens at a place and time designated by the authorities is politically meaningless.

Most of us very seldom experience ourselves as political agents, in the sense of being active participants in the collective decision-making of our community. For better or worse, most of the time we delegate collective decision-making to specialists who represent us more or less faithfully, as the case may be. The only reason for protest — for any kind of mass politics — is that this system has broken down. The message of any protest is: There is a political subject, a We, that is not being represented. This, in the broadest possible way, is what the “99%” rhetoric is saying, and why it resonates. At some point, if a when movements like this are successful, some new more legitimate form of representation will be established, as people form new collective identities and new norms of collective action. But it’s foolish to criticize an assertion of the failure of representation for not itself being an effective representative, with a specific set of demands and a strategy to carry them out.

It’s a long time since I read any Habermas, but he has a passage somewhere about how politics is necessarily an open-ended discussion, a process for deciding a question that could in principle be resolved in many ways. So anything that becomes routine, that becomes part of the regular process of social reproduction, is no longer political. You can find a similar argument in Hannah Arendt, and Luciano Canfora makes it very powerfully. Democracy, he says, isn’t a form of government, like in civics class and Civilization. It’s something that happens, occasionally and intermittently. Any mechanism can be captured; you can’t institutionalize rule by the non-rich, as long as there are rich. To assert ourselves we have to heckle from the sidelines, or once in a while storm the field.

With a legitimate system of political representation, the question is what we should do and how to do it. Without one, we first have to establish that “we” exist.

UPDATE: Once you start looking for this stuff, it’s amazing how consistent it is. Pull up a photo of the protests at random, and there’s at least even odds you’ll see a sign with some self-referential message: “I am a human being, not a commodity,” “We are the 99%“, etc. Here’s a particularly nice example:

“We” are made up of the people here with signs. Exactly.

UPDATE 2: Matt Stoller, who’s actually spent time there, says the same thing: 

What do the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want? What are their demands? For many people, this is THE question. So let me answer it. What they want, is to do exactly what they are doing. They want to occupy Wall Street. They have built a campsite full of life, where power is exercised according to their voices. It’s a small space, it’s a relatively modest group of people at any one time, and the resources they command are few. But they are practicing the politics of place, the politics of building a truly public space. They are explicitly rejecting the politics of narrow media, the politics of the shopping mall. To understand #OccupyWallStreet, you have to get that it is not a media object or a march. It is first and foremost, a church of dissent, a space made sacred by a community. … There’s no way to agree or disagree with a church or a carnival.

Don’t Let Nobody Walk All Over You

Here’s a heartening story from the old neighborhood:

An 82-year-old great-grandmother cried tears of joy Friday as nearly 200 neighbors rallied in her support on the day she was to be evicted. Mary Lee Ward was granted a reprieve when the owner of the Brooklyn house where she lives agreed to continue meeting with her lawyers next week. “You have to stick with it when you know your right,” Ward told the cheering crowd. “Don’t let nobody walk all over you.” 

Ward, who fell victim in 1995 to a predatory subprime mortgage lender that went under in 2007, has been battling to stay in the Tompkins Avenue home for more than a decade. A city marshal was supposed to boot Ward from the one-family frame house Friday, but didn’t show as her lawyers sat down with an assemblywoman and the home’s owner. … “I hope they realize that they can never really win,” Ward said. “I will not compromise.”

Why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? There are millions of families with homes in foreclosure, and millions more heading that way. Being forcibly evicted from your home has got to be one of the most wrenching experiences there is. And yet as long as you’re in the house, you have some real power. And the moral and emotional claims of someone like Ward to her home are clear, regardless of who holds the title. Someone just has to organize it. Here, I think, is where we are really suffering from the loss of ACORN — these situations are tailor-made for them.

Still, there is some good work going on. I was at a meeting recently of No One Leaves, a bank tenant organization in Springfield, MA. Modeled on Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana, this is a project to mobilize people whose homes have been foreclosed but are still living in them. Homeowners who still have title have a lot to lose and are understandably anxious to meet whatever conditions the lender or servicer sets. But once the foreclosure has happened, the homeowner, paradoxically, is in a stronger negotiating position; if they’re going to have to leave anyway, they have nothing to lose by dragging the process out, while for the bank, delay and bad publicity can be costly. So the idea is to help people in this situation organize to put pressure — both in court and through protest or civil disobedience — on the banks to agree to let them stay on as tenants more or less permanently, at a market rent. In the longer run, this will discourage foreclosures too.

It’s a great campaign, exactly what we need more of.

But there’s another important thing about No One Leaves: They’re angry. The focus isn’t just on the legal rights of people facing foreclosure, or their real chance to stay in their homes if they organize and stick together, it’s on fighting the banks. There’s a very clear sense that this is not just a problem to be solved, but that the banks are the enemy. I was especially struck by one middle-aged guy who’d lost the home he’d lived in for some 20 years to foreclosure. “At this point, I don’t even care if I get to stay,” he said. “Look, I know I’m probably going to have to leave eventually. I just want to make this as slow, and expensive, and painful, for Bank of America as I can.” Everyone in the room cheered.

Liberals hate this sort of thing. But it seems to be central to successful organizing. Back when I was at the Working Families Party, one of the things the professional organizers always talked about was the importance of polarizing — getting people to articulate who was responsible for their problems, who’s the other side. It was a central step in any house visit, any meeting. And from what I could tell, it worked. I mean, it’s foolish of someone like Mary Lee Ward to say, “I will not compromise,” isn’t it? Objectively, compromise is how most problems get solved. But if she didn’t have a clear sense of being on the side of right against wrong, how would she have the energy to keep up what, objectively, was very likely to be a losing fight, or convince her neighbors to join her? Somebody or other said there are always three questions in politics. You have to know what is to be done — the favorite topic of intellectuals. But that’s not enough. You also have to know which side you are on, but that’s not enough either. Before you devote your time and energy to a political cause, you have to know who is to blame.

A while back I had a conversation with a friend who’s worked for the labor movement for many years, one campaign after another. If you know anyone like that, or have been part of an organizing drive yourself, you know that in the period before a union representation vote, an American workplace is a little totalitarian state. (Well, even more than usual.) Spies reporting on private conversations, mandatory mass meetings, veiled and open threats, punishment on the mere suspicion of holding the wrong views, no due process. And yet people do still vote for unions and support unionization campaigns, even when being fired would be a a personal catastrophe. Why, I asked my friend. I mean, union jobs do have better pay, benefits, job security —  but are they that much better, that people think they’re worth the risk? “Oh, it’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about the one chance to say Fuck You to your boss.”

Hardt and Negri have a line somewhere in Empire about how, until we can overcome our fear of death, it will be “carried like a weapon against the hope of liberation.” When I first read the book, I thought that was pretty strange. But now I think there’s something important there. Self interest, even enlightened, only takes you so far, because when you’re weak, your self-interest is very often going to be in accomodation to power. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hardt and Negri, that we have to lose our fear of death to be free moral agents. But it is true that we can’t organize collectively to assert our rights in our homes and our jobs as long as we’re dominated individually by our fear of losing them. Some other motivation — dignity,  pride, anger or even hatred — is needed to say, instead, that nobody is going to walk all over you.

Some Thoughts on Negotiation

I don’t claim to be any expert on the negotiating table. But I was, about ten years ago, the lead negotiator for my graduate employee union (~3,000 members.) I’ve spent plenty of time around unions, before and since. And in my years at the Working Families Party, where I was the designated wonk, I inevitably had some involvement with negotiations over the terms of bills. From which I derive an observation that’s perhaps relevant to the debt-ceiling talks.

The principals are never at the table.

Maybe because they’re busy; very likely because they’re diffuse; or maybe they’re only constituted through the negotiating process. In any case, there are not one but three negotiations going on: between the two agents at the table, and between each of those agents and their respective principals.

So for instance, the question for me as Local 2322 representative was not just what I think of this deal, but whether I can sell it to the membership. Even worse when you’re trying to nail down health care legislation; the union at least has a defined membership roll but the coalition exists only insofar as there’s a chance of passing something. In either case, your problem as a negotiator is the same: When you go back to your constituents, you have to convince them that the deal (1) is good enough and (2) is the best you could have got. What I’m talking about here is the tension between 1 and 2.

Let’s say you’ve got some big demand — a 20 percent pay raise, let’s say. And let’s say, miraculously, the employer agrees to this the first day of negotiations. This tells you two things: First, the deal you have now is better than you expected; but also, that the payoff to continued negotiations might be better than expected too. If they gave you this for just sitting down, they must be desperate; who knows what they would give if you could really hold their feet to the fire. So it’s not actually easier for you to convince your principals to ink a deal at this point. You’ve got an easier time selling them on (1), but a harder time selling them on (2).

Now you might say this is irrational, unfortunate, people should know how to say, Yes. But I don’t agree. The principal is not negotiating not just this once. So knowing which agents, or which kinds of agents, are reliable may be every bit as important as getting the best possible deal in this round. So they’re observing, Did the negotiators keep pushing until the other side was ready to walk away, as much or more as, Is the outcome acceptable. From the principals’ point of view, an early concession from the other side is a signal that this side’s agents need to ask for more to prove they are doing their jobs.

In this sense, even if you (the agent now, like Obama) are happy to agree with everything the other agents have proposed to you, it’s in your shared interest (yours and theirs) to only concede it at the last moment, and in return for the most costly concessions, to help them sell it to their principals.

Bottom line: Even if you intend to concede X, it’s in everyone’s best interest – including the negotiators on the other side — that you don’t give up X until the last possible minute. Conceding it early actually makes it harder for the other side to accept. This sounds like a paradox but I think it’s really a perfectly logical and inevitable implication of the negotiating situation.

It’s a broadly-applicable problem in economics, that a change in price has opposite effects if it’s considered once and for all vs if it’s considered as a proxy for future changes. Whatever the model says, one has to think a change in prices might continue. This is how bubbles get started. Just so, politically, current concessions makes the current deal look better — statically. But the relevant question is, do they make the current deal look better, with respect to some future deal? To the extent that conceding now makes both look better, that effect is indeterminate.

So, Obama’s a bad negotiator, then? Maybe. I have to admit, there;s something appealing, in a poetic-justice sense, to the idea that the decline of the labor base of the Democratic Party has led to a fatal loss of practical negotiating skills. The other, more obvious possibility, is that he is not trying to get the best outcome for the Democrats in the sense that most people understand it — that he shares the Republicans’ essential goals. But I might put it a little differently — Obama’s bargaining position is weak precisely because of his independence, the fact that he doesn’t answer to anyone. Digby asks, quite reasonably, if we have any idea at this point what the President’s principles are. I might put it a little differently: it’s who are his principals.