Lies About Corbyn from the Capitalist Hyena Press

The media is in a tizzy over new UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Given the ideological composition of the press, this is understandable. Corbyn is himself a fairly far left man while the reporting and commenting class scarcely stray beyond center-left respectability. In the process of projecting their anger and alarm at his success, the press has also managed to proliferate a number of deceptions about Corbyn’s victory and his economic program.

How Corbyn Won

Anthony Lane’s pathetic piece in the New Yorker was typical. Explaining how Corbyn managed to win, Lane writes:

This conundrum may be all the more acute for Corbyn, because few of his M.P.s want him as their commander-in-chief. They did not choose him. He was chosen under a new set of Labour Party rules that, like many things devised in the interests of fairness, have concluded in a splendid fiasco. You might think that, because M.P.s are elected by the populace, they could—or logically should—be trusted to appoint their own overlord. Not so. There was a time when the trades unions, fettered by history and loyalty to Labour, wielded great influence in the matter of its leader, but that age has faded. Instead, with a bracing simplicity, every paid-up member of the party now has a vote. The payment is three pounds (about four dollars and sixty cents). For that trifling sum, you get to sway the direction of Labour’s future, and, if enough of you sign up—many minds with but a single thought—the outcome will be anything but a trifle. That is what transpired in 2015: the Corbynistas ran amok. They swarmed to their man. Corbynmania was born.

Like many other lazy pundits, Lane suggests that it was a flood of new voters enabled by the new three pound sign up rule that gave Corbyn his victory. But this is not true. The Labour Party’s own result tally shows Corbyn winning every voter category, including traditional Labour Party members. Among those members, Corbyn won 49.6% of the votes, while the second place candidate won just 22.7%. Given the party’s instant run-off scheme, even if the nomination voting was constrained solely to the traditional membership, Corbyn would have still won, absent some implausible scenario where literally nobody listed Corbyn as their second or third preference.

People’s Quantitative Easing

Discussing Corbyn’s proposal to use overt monetary financing of government during recessions to stimulate demand without running up government debt, Lane had this weasely thing to say:

The national deficit would be erased not through austerity, as practiced by the heinous Conservatives, but through taxes on the rich and by what Corbyn calls “quantitative easing for people.” This means, we are told, that the Bank of England will print more money: an endearing and almost childlike solution, though not one that has met with unqualified success elsewhere.

Because the pundit class is so profoundly economically illiterate, this has been a point many people have seized upon, with exactly this sentiment. Corbyn must be some simplistic idiot if he thinks you can just print money and spend it directly. I mean, it can’t be that easy, can it?

But this is not some fanciful Corbyn dream. It was Milton Friedman who first noted that, in times of low inflation such as when the economy is languishing below capacity, it is possible for the government to print money and drop it out of helicopters without adverse effects, a view endorsed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. While Corbyn proposes using the printed money to directly fund public projects rather than hand it out to people via a helicopter drop, it’s the same basic idea.

Furthermore, quantitative easing as practiced in the US at least has already been doing this. To finance its spending since the Great Recession, the Treasury has been issuing loads of new bonds, which the Federal Reserve has then been buying indirectly with printed money. This shows up as deficit spending because bonds are being issued, but since it is the government indirectly buying up its own bonds with printed money, it’s really not practically different from overt monetary financing of the fisc.

While there are certainly questions about whether the UK will be in such a sorry state five years from now so as to allow it to fund its operations via quantitative easing without risking inflation, there is nothing particularly childlike or preposterous about the general idea.

Nationalizing Rail and Energy

Finally Lane mentions, though doesn’t dwell upon, Corbyn’s suggestion of renationalizing the British rail network and energy companies. Along with people’s quantitative easing, this is the proposal that has managed to get a lot of media commentators very wild-eyed. Direct public ownership is that old school socialism that, we are assured, has been totally discredited.

But national ownership of rail and energy companies is not remotely uncommon throughout the world. In the United States, Amtrak is owned by the federal government. In the four Nordics, rail transport is either heavily or entirely nationalized. In the United States, there are tons of municipally-owned utility companies, including energy companies, and in Norway, there is Statoil, the country’s famously nationalized oil company.

Beyond these examples, there is also a “good” (i.e. theoretically attractive to the sensible center-left) rationale for nationalizing these industries, depending on the nature of them. Rail and energy are often in the class of industries susceptible to natural monopolies, i.e. an industry where it is most efficient for production to be done by one firm rather than competitively. In these types of situations, you generally face a choice between having a public monopoly or having a private monopoly that is massively regulated, even to the point of fixing prices. I am no expert on what the general consensus is on which is generally “better” and I am sure it probably just depends, but it’s certainly not an absurdity to think that public ownership is the best way to handle natural monopoly situations.

What is the left supposed to do electorally?

Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the UK Labour Party. As usually happens when the left scores an electoral victory, the center-left and others has made sure to inform Corbyn and his supporters that it is bad that he won and that he never should have tried to win. I am more familiar with this in the American context where every left-wing electoral effort is similarly cast as irresponsible. Given these attitudes, I am left to wonder what exactly people think the left is supposed to do electorally?

By now, the centrist Democratic party has developed a pretty standard line on left-wing third party runs. This line says that someone who wants to run to the left of the Democrats should run as a Democrat in the primaries. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be happy with the Democratic party, but to avoid vote-splitting and other things, you should just try to become the Democratic nominee. So, in the case of Nader, the refrain has always been that he should stop running as a Green or independent, and instead compete for the Democratic nomination for president.

Given the recent popularity of third party runs, this has become a very convenient thing for centrist Democrats to say. It doesn’t instruct the left to not participate in electoral politics and, on the assumption that leftists will always lose Democratic primary contests, it doesn’t really threaten any Democratic victories. So Democrats get to avoid the vote-splitting threat while adopting a procedural posture that they think will also mean the left candidate always loses to their candidate.

But this is basically what Corbyn did by running for the leadership of the Labour Party. He didn’t challenge Labour through the Greens or some other party. Instead, he ran within it like the good and reasonable leftist is supposed to do. And, as it turns out, the center-left is not actually happy with that either. Similarly, if Sanders manages to win the Democratic primary in the US, you can be sure the same centrist Democrats screaming at Nader to run in the primary will immediately sour on the idea of left-wing primary challenges.

So, you can’t run as a third-party because you might split votes. You also can’t run in the primary if you have any chance of winning the nomination because then you increase the risk that the “party” (so defined) will lose the general election. What, then, can you do? What is the center-left’s view on how the left is supposed to interact with electoral politics? It seems that the actual view is that they shouldn’t involve themselves at all, except as voters to a centrist party that does not accomplish (or even aim to accomplish) the left’s political goals.

I realize, as I am sure many centrist Democrats do, that these “problems” are mainly just a function of having a really bad system of democratic representation. The best electoral systems, most notably proportional representation parliamentary governments, don’t have these particular issues. In those systems, it is perfectly fine to have multiple left-of-center (and right-of-center) parties, with each competing against one another to gain the biggest vote share. This then gives the left the ability to create a party and try to grow it in order to become the biggest in the left-of-center bloc and, provided that the bloc wins the majority overall, eventually run the government.

But there is no similar outlet or point of entry in the existing system for left-wing politicians or parties. Indeed, this is basically what the centrist Democrats are saying if you add it all up: the system is not designed in a way that allows you to meaningfully participate (either in your own party or in the Democratic party) and so you simply shouldn’t. This is a clearly ridiculous suggestion, especially if you imagine for a moment that those on the left genuinely do care about the issues they talk about.

The instruction to the left that they either engage impotently in electoral politics or not at all is cast as practical, but it’s hard to imagine anything more impractical than thinking such an instruction will work, that in a democratic system you can get 10-15% of the population (or whatever it might be) to simply be content with having no input whatsoever (or even a chance at input) in how the government runs. Unless you commit yourself to creating a system that can actually accommodate political participation from the full spectrum of views, which the Democrats have not done and don’t seem interested in doing, you are going to always have the problem of the people who you are trying to lock out of the system refusing to be locked out.

How “Consistent Liberal” Deceives

At Upshot, Nate Cohn has settled on a very specific line about Bernie Sander (I, II) that I don’t think he argues very well for. The argument in a nutshell is this: Bernie Sanders is very liberal and so he appeals to others who are very liberal, but not to those who are less liberal, such as working class people, Blacks, Hispanics, and so on.

In support of this thesis, Cohn provides this graph based upon Pew political typology data that purports to show what percentage of Democratic-leaning people in each group is a “Consistent Liberal,” “Mostly Liberal,” “Mixed,” or “Conservative.”

The trouble with Cohn’s typology homebrew is that it combines economic and non-economic issues together in judging who is a “consistent liberal” and who isn’t. Certainly rich and college-educated Democrat sorts are much more “liberal” on non-economic issues like gay marriage than working-class, Black, and Hispanic people. But this does not appear to be true for economic issues, which is the primary thing Sanders is running on, much to the chagrin of the highly-educated affluent “Consistent Liberals” that populate the media.

I don’t have access to the Pew microdata to create my own typologies on this (nor the time or interest in doing so). But one easy way to see the issue with Cohn’s approach here is to use two of Pew’s own political typologies: Solid Liberals and Faith & Family Left.

Pew describes Solid Liberals this way:

Highly educated and affluent, Solid Liberals strongly support the social safety net and take very liberal positions on virtually all issues. Most say they always vote Democratic and they are unflagging supporters of Barack Obama. Solid Liberals are very optimistic about the nation’s future and are the most likely to say that America’s success is linked to its ability to change, rather than its reliance on long-standing principles. On foreign policy, Solid Liberals overwhelmingly believe that good diplomacy – rather than military strength – is the best way to ensure peace.

It describes the Faith & Family Left this way:

The Faith and Family Left combine strong support for activist government with conservative attitudes on many social issues. They are highly diverse – this is the only typology group that is “majority-minority.” The Faith and Family Left favor increased government aid for the poor even if it adds to the deficit and believe that government should do more to solve national problems. They oppose same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana. Religion and family are at the center of their lives.

As with any typology like this, there are always serious grouping problems and some self-sealing problems with the way that one decides to construct the categories. If you make being big into economic populism a threshold requirement of being a “Solid Liberal,” then “Solid Liberals” will always by definition be big into it. Same would be true for the Faith & Family Left. Likewise, if you let people be in the Faith & Family Left even if they weren’t economic populists just because they were anti-war, then you are necessarily going to have a Faith & Family Left that is not as economically populist as the Solid Liberals that entirely screen out non-populists.

Nonetheless, the basic story of these categories is pretty clear: both groups are primarily economically populist, but the Faith & Family Left is conservative on cultural issues while the Solid Liberals is very liberal. These are the screens that are applied in deciding who to allocate to each category.

The demographic result of these screens is very telling. Faith & Family Left is much less white:

The Faith & Family Left has much lower levels of educational attainment:

The Faith & Family Left is much poorer:

So, my point here is that the “Consistent Liberal” versus “Mostly Liberal/Mixed” construction of Cohn likely captures the fact Black, Hispanic, and working class people are not as big into gay marriage, abortion, and that sort of thing. The net effect of this is that Cohn’s analysis basically says that consistent liberal demographic groups will love Bernie more because, unlike the Faith & Family Left, they are huge into the liberal culture war stuff that Bernie almost never talks about. To me, that seems rather strange.

If you believe the various statements Bernie Sanders has made over the years about his electoral strategies, his campaign messaging is in fact calibrated exactly towards these “less liberal” Democrats who are turned on by the left economically, but turned off by it culturally. It’s precariously set up to appeal to the working-class and culturally conservative voter by only speaking to their economic concerns, while actually having waning appeal to the college-educated white liberal who is huge into culture war battles (see the media). This may or may not work (moreover, voters are moved by all sorts of things other than substance). But at minimum, we should at least admit the poverty of an analysis that essentially says Bernie is naturally disadvantaged among groups whose sole interest in liberal politics are the sole topics Bernie talks about.

Cohn’s latest column is titled “What the Hispanic Vote Says About Bernie Sanders’s Chances.” In it, he notes that Obama fared poorly among Hispanics precisely because they aren’t very liberal voters (and would have similarly fared poorly with Blacks if he weren’t himself Black for the same reason). Conspicuously absent from Cohn’s article is any poll numbers about Hispanic support for Bernie. These numbers seem difficult to come by, but I did find one YouGov poll with the appropriate cross-tabulations. In it, 38% of whites support Sanders and 41% of Hispanics support Sanders.