Montana Senate Race: Far from Over

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who was expected to be the Democratic candidate to replace retiring Democrat Max Baucus, announced today that he will not run for the U.S. Senate. This is not good news for Democrats; if Schweitzer had run and there were no new and damaging negatives that hadn’t already been raised during his governor campaigns he may have won comfortably. But the response on Twitter to the announcement was, for the most part, credulous acceptance of the GOP spin that there’s no way Democrats can hold this seat in “deep red Montana.”

That’s BS.

We’ve heard this story before. When North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad announced he would not run for reelection in 2012, pundits generally declared the seat a Democratic lost cause. This blog was one of the only places that in November 2011, when she announced her candidacy, argued that now-Senator Heidi Heitkamp had a great shot of holding the seat. It’s worth remembering this, and also considering the ways in which Montana is even more promising than was North Dakota.

First of all, contrary to the spin of the Republicans and the assumptions of the let’s-never-actually-look-at-data-and-history pundits, Democrats have been doing quite well in Montana for several elections now. After two terms with Schweitzer as governor, in 2012 Montanans went Democratic for the third straight time, electing Attorney General Steve Bullock as governor. Republicans captured the open AG seat, but incumbent Democrats retained the Secretary of State, State Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Of course, Democrat John Tester was also reelected to the U.S. Senate. Add in the GOP-held at large Congressional seat and Baucus’ Senate seat, and of the eight statewide elective offices, Democrats hold six.

But could the recent Democratic success be a fluke? No. In fact, in historical context, it would be a fluke if a Republican won the seat held by Baucus; Democrats have held that Senate seat since 1913. That’s right, Democrats have held this seat for 101 straight years.  Tester defeated three-term incumbent Republican Conrad Burns for the other seat. Since 1911 only one other Republican ever held that seat, and he held it only one term.

One might argue that being a Democrat is a problem in a state that Obama lost twice. But at the presidential level, Montana has gone Republican in every election since 1948 except the 1964 LBJ landslide and in 1992, when Bill Clinton squeaked through with 37%. During all these losses, Democratic senate candidates have continued to win and win and win.

Even if you limit the analysis to recent years, the situation in Montana is not inherently dire for Democrats. In 2008 Obama lost Montana by only 2 points, his second narrowest loss, after Missouri. Against Romney he did significantly worse, losing by 14 points. (The big swing may be partially due to Montana having the sixth highest percentage of Mormons in the U.S..) But in recent years Democrats have won Senate seats in numerous states that went against Obama, including Alaska, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and North Carolina, and they came close in Kentucky (2004) and Tennessee (2006).

It’s also possible, if there’s anything to this CNN report, that research was unearthing real problems for Schweitzer. While on paper Schweitzer was obviously the strongest potential Democratic candidate, it’s possible that his withdrawal from consideration actually strengthens Democratic chances by removing a candidate with a ticking time bomb strapped to his candidacy.

Schweitzer is out of the race, but Montana is by no means so Republican that the Democrats are doomed. What will probably matter is what often decides elections: the national political environment, the strength of the candidates, and the effectiveness of their campaigns. Handicapping those factors today is impossible, so everyone should just wait a while before declaring the Montana seat a GOP pickup.

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Conservatives Prefer Massive Explosions Over Taxing the Wealthy

The problem isn’t just that Texas laws and regulations are state of the art for, say, 1897:

West Fertilizer fell under the purview of at least seven state or federal regulatory agencies, each with its own objectives. None had primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored there or that of the workers or residents nearby.

Zak Covar, the executive director of the state environmental regulatory agency, has said his office is not responsible for tracking ammonium nitrate. He pointed to the Office of the Texas State Chemist. Tim Herrman, the state chemist, said his agency monitors whether fertilizers are labeled correctly and not their safety. “It’s fair to say we are not fire-safety experts,” he said.

Allowing the plant, a school and a nursing home to be in close proximity was a local zoning failure. It’s also likely that how the laws were written and the rules were promulgated resulted in gaps in the regulatory responsibility and authority. But like the case of the Gosnell abortion clinic–which wasn’t visited by state inspectors for seventeen years–the biggest problem isn’t laws and regulations, but whether and how they’re implemented and enforced.

The West plant was regulated by at least seven separate federal and state agencies, but most had not been in the plant in years; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not been in the plant since 1985. It’s no surprise OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant; it has only 2,000 inspectors to ensure safety at seven million worksites. And as budgets are slashed at all kinds of state regulatory agencies, federal agencies are too cash-strapped to take over those responsibilities. Which is exactly what conservatives want: if they can’t block or overturn laws they don’t like, conservatives can undermine them by denying the funds necessary for their implementation and enforcement.

Conservatives usually oppose regulation and enforcement on the grounds of letting businesses do whatever they want. But there’s a broader principle driving their actions. Enforcing regulations costs money. And conservatives do not want to raise the revenue needed to protect the public safety if it would require higher taxes on their wealthiest supporters. After all, how many conservative millionaires live near a fertilizer plant?

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Workers Killed by Historical Determinism

Over the last few days there’s been an interesting back-and-forth between Erik Loomis and Matt Ygeslias about holding international corporations to some common set of labor standards in all countries they operate. Erik’s most recent post calls Ygeslias’ crude “creative destruction” model of development economics “the Gilded Age Theory of Risk,” which reminded me of this:

After their work, the workers often have to travel for hours in order to reach their homes. The tramway company has been bankrupt for years. As usual a receiver, who has no interest in speeding up the liquidation, manages its affairs; therefore, new tram cars are not purchased. The old cars constantly break down, and about four hundred people a year are thus killed or crippled. According to the law, each death costs the company about $5,000, which is paid to the widow or heirs, and each cripple costs $10,000, paid to the casualty himself. These compensations are due so long as the company does not introduce certain precautionary measures. But they have calculated that the four hundred casualties a year cost less than would the necessary precautions. The company therefore does not introduce them.

That was written about Bangladesh, or Vietnam, or China, or Mexico. That was written in 1904, about the United States, in a letter to his mother by Max Weber. Hans Gerth, & C. Wright Mills quoted that letter as evidence that on his trip to the US, “again and again, Weber was impressed by the extent of waste, especially the waste of human life, under American capitalism. He noted the conditions that the muckrakers were publicizing at the time.” *

I thought of that because, despite Erik’s claim that it’s not expensive to provide a safe work environment, I’m afraid that the rational choice that’s most relevant isn’t an informed choice by the workers in a developing country to do work that need not be dangerous, but corporate (and often government) elites to make the rationally choosing to commodify human beings.

Among the great reforms of the early twentieth century were labor laws that set a floor below which costs could not go at the expense of workers and of citizens. Worker safety laws couldn’t allow an employer to gain competitive advantage at the expense of his workers’ safety. He couldn’t gain competitive advantage by cutting pay below a minimum wage. And because of consumer protection laws, he couldn’t gain competitive advantage by selling shoddy or even dangerous products.

I’m no expert on Bangladesh. But in general, US, European and Japanese corporations don’t operate outside the developed industrialized countries only for cheap labor. Many operate in those places because they are not prohibited–in practice, at least–from spewing pollution, from discriminating against and abusing workers, from denying them pay, from failing to maintain a safe work environment, or from bribing officials for favorable treatment.

Matt Ygeslias may be correct that workers are making a conscious choice to work in a dangerous job. But they’re often doing that because the choices before them–subsistence farming or extreme poverty in urban hellholes–are certain dead ends. But he appears to think it’s necessary for developing countries to pass through all the squalor and degradation as people did in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America. But it’s not necessary. It’s no more necessary that people die at work because it’s cheaper and easier than creating and maintaining a safe work environment than it’s necessary that those countries go through stages of communism or fascism, as almost every recently industrialized country did in the early 20th century. If we refuse to accept that it’s necessary that developing countries go through a stage of savage totalitarian dictatorship, why should we accept it’s necessary that large numbers of workers will die deaths that can easily, even if not cheaply, be prevented?

*Gerth & Mills–From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology pp. 15-16

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How Michelle Rhee is Like the Anti-Vax Murderers

Scott LeMieux does most of the hard work here, so I won’t go through a point-by-point rebuttal of this post by Matt Yglesias. But there’s a big point Scott didn’t address. Yglesias’ post is argued entirely from the perspective of how to deal with teachers:

Suppose we found out that LeBron James were taking steroids. I can imagine a whole range of responses to that revelation that reasonable people might take. What I can’t imagine is someone saying that LeBron James taking steroids proved that basketball players should be compensated on the basis of pure seniority rather than perceived basketball skill. Right?

That’s a great way of looking at the alleged cheating under Michelle Rhee if public education were about creating a structured environment for a competition where success or failure is measured by who has the superior score. That is, of course, pretty much how most “school reformers” see public education. Using this frame, it would mean just that someone cheated so they don’t win, but it doesn’t mean  the entire game is flawed.

But public education isn’t a game where someone wins and someone loses. Public education is about educating and nurturing children. Children in public schools shouldn’t be thought of like players on a court, but more like patients in need of the best available care, so they can grow, be healthy, develop their full capacity and thrive.

Matt reveals a lot about the mindset of most school reformers when he compares Michelle Rhee’s cheating to an athlete getting an unfair advantage. The problem isn’t just that it presents Michelle Rhee as better at her job than she actually is, or that she gains advantages such as higher pay, more prominence, and better jobs. It’s not just Michelle Rhee gets to declare “I’m better than everyone else at running schools.” It’s also a problem because it leads to the conclusion that everyone else should adopt Michelle Rhee’s methods, because her policies and practices have been proven to be superior to those previously dominant in public education.

Yglesias’ sports analogy doesn’t work, but there is a good analogy to the alleged cheating by Rhee: the case of Andrew Wakefield. The name may not ring a bell, but you know the story: he’s the former British physician who published fraudulent research purporting to establish a link between vaccines and autism. As covered in Yglesias’ own Slate, there’s a measles outbreak in the UK, created no doubt in part by the anti-vaccination conspiracies validated by Wakefield’s now repudiated “research.” But there was immediate harm as well. Here’s that same Slate writer, Phil Plait, from 2010:

The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK, rather like the AMA in the US) didn’t investigate whether his claims were correct or not — and let’s be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong– only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children’s clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.

Even the most serious allegations against Rhee don’t involve the kinds of immediate and life-threatening danger to which Wakefield exposed his subjects. But if a curricula and radically different system of running schools was a failure, and if Rhee and her associations concealed or altered empirical results that not only would have revealed that failure, but presented it as a great improvement over previous methods, their actions were a threat to the cognitive, emotional, social and physical flourishing of the students funder Rhee’s authority. But the harm won’t end there. If she concealed and distorted data to fraudulently claim success, and that led to a widespread embrace of her policies, Rhee’s actions also threaten the well-being of all children in American public schools, for it validates practices–treatments, were it medicine–that are not improvements over current practices, and quite possibly could inflict avoidable harm on children.

Matt Yglesias is wrong here, but he’s not, to use one of his favorite lines, “history’s greatest monster.” And being wrong about school reform doesn’t have the immediate life-and-death effects of monstrously convincing parents to not vaccinate their children. But think about the willingness of a lot of people like Yglesias–smart, otherwise liberal people who end up thinking so much about the “scores” of teachers than they sometimes lose focus on doing what’s best for children–to remain immune to the evidence that the school reformers are charlatans, and see how Plait’s description of anti-vaxxers [emphasis in the original] could be used to describe those who embrace the hucksterism of “school reformers” like Michelle Rhee:

[T]he evidence was already overwhelming that Wakefield was wrong, just as it’s overwhelming that vaccines are totally and completely unrelated to autism. But the antivaxxers’ world is not based on evidence. It’s more like a dogmatic religion, since many of its believers will twist and distort the truth to fit their views, even, tragically, if it means babies will die.

 

 

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“Kentucky Democrat” Press Is Quoting in McConnell Case Is Not A Democrat

Well, maybe he’s a Democrat, but I probably would be a more legitimate spokesman for Kentucky Democrats. So would you.

Jacob Conway is his name, and he’s no “Democratic official.” He’s just some dude. Some dude who was first called “a longtime local Democratic operative” by the Louisville NPR affiliate. Then he was identified as a “Democratic official” by The Louisville Courier-Journal, a “Kentucky Democrat” by TPM, and an “official with the Jefferson County Democratic Party in Kentucky” by HuffPo. Based on his supposed official position with Kentucky Democrats, he was interviewed on Fox News. In classic Daily Caller fashion, they promoted him from the county party to “a member of the executive committee of the state Democratic Party in Jefferson County, Kentucky.”

Jacob Conway is not some important Democratic official in Kentucky. He’s a goof, and the media should be embarrassed for falling for his self-aggrandizing schtick.

Seeing a member of a county party executive committee identified as a “Democratic official” seemed stupid to me. Democratic party organizations in a large county–Jefferson county has a population over 700,000–can have fifty or sixty members, so it seemed implausible that he would be an official spokesman for the county party, much less the Kentucky Democratic party. I was curious, so I did what apparently no political reporter in America is capable of doing: I did a Google search on Jacob Conway.

In 2007 Conway wrote on his blog that he supported Trey Grayson, the Republican Secretary of State who lost the 2010 Republican primary for Senate to Rand Paul.

In 2000 he was a Young Republican and in 2010 he still referred to John McCain as his “personal hero,” but though by 2012 he claimed “some would consider me a leader in our state’s party,” until the GOP convention, he wrote, “I wasn’t 100-percent sure I would vote to re-elect President Obama.”

It’s no surprise he’s not listed as an official on the website of the Jefferson County Democratic Party. Or, actually, the Louisville Metro Democratic Party, since there’s no such thing as a “Jefferson County Democratic Party” in Kentucky.

All of this was easily discovered in a short Google search, along with blog posts like this, by Progress Kentucky nitwit Curtis Morrison, in which he interviews Jacob Conway, or this one, where Conway was the only commenter on one of Morrison’s posts.

Jacob Conway is not an elected official. There’s little evidence that he’s on the executive committee of his county Democratic party, and even if he is, that would in no way establish him as a credible source or someone with authority to speak for any official Democratic organization. It’s almost a certainty that no reporters or headline writers who described Conway as a Democratic official checked whether that was true or meaningful. The national political press just accepted that some dude who claimed to be a “Kentucky Democrat” or a “party official” actually spoke for the Democratic party.

Clearly political reporters haven’t learned a damned thing from the Manti T’eo story.

 

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But It Too Often IS About Self-Actualization

 

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Oh, if that were only true. I believe Weigel was referring to politicians and running for office, and of course too many politicians are motivated more by personal gain than public good. But the problem isn’t only with those whose name is on the ballot, it’s also a problem for those who turn in their ballots.

For politicians, according to a famous essay, “conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or an ‘ethic of responsibility.'” In America, there are few situations where the “ethic of ultimate ends” is the defensible recourse of people entrusted with the exercise of power; we may have too much gridlock, and many governing bodies have minorities unable to exert any direct influence on the exercise of power, but public officials can usually accomplish something positive, and are obligated to make every effort to do so. Citizens not actively engaged in governing don’t have that same obligation in their daily life. But there is one situation where every citizen* has not only an opportunity to express power, but–usually–an obligation to exercise it responsibly: voting.

For most people, voting produces an emotional reaction; their vote makes them feel good, feel bad, feel frustrated, feel connected with others, feel independent of the crowd. But for too many people, feelings come first, and determine what they do with their ballot. Occasionally every option before a voter is odious, or maybe the implications of their vote is inconsequential. In these cases, whether to vote and, if voting, whether to limit one’s vote to only those with any plausible chance of winning, won’t have much effect on the world. But in most cases, what one does with their vote has the potential to effect not only the voter, but also their community and society.

Whether and how to exercise one’s vote has material effects on local property values and the quality and curriculum of schools, one people’s physical and economic security, on societal prosperity, on social equity and justice, and in US federal elections, how we exert and whether we impose our unmatched cultural, diplomatic, economic and military strength around the world. It’s a damn serious thing, what one does with their vote. But the US is probably the most radically individualistic society on earthy, and too often people treat voting as an individual act of self-actualization, rather than a small part of a larger collective act in which one expresses their choice–and this is key–among the options available in that moment of what they want for themselves, but also for their community, society and world.

There’s room in politics for some self-actualization. But we’d all be better off if US politics in America were less about self-actualization–about how you feel– and more about acting responsibly toward and in solidarity with one’s fellow citizens.

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Taxonomy of Favorable and Unfavorable Liberal/Progressive Assessments of the Obama Presidency

Beware anything simple, because it will probably be too simplistic. Having said that, let me propose a simple explanation of a broad subject.

It’s occurred to me that there’s a concise yet fairly comprehensive description of the differing priorities of ardent liberals and progressives who view Obama’s presidency  favorably and those who view Obama’s presidency unfavorably:

  • Liberals and progressives who view Obama favorably place more emphasis on the economic triage and long-term investment in the 2009 stimulus, on getting US troops out of Iraq, and on passing health care reform. The place less emphasis on due process/government transparency, on the decision to not pursue legal actions against those responsible for the 2008 fiscal crisis, and on not completely rescinding the Bush tax cuts. [Disclosure: I consider myself in this camp]
  • Liberals and progressives who view Obama unfavorably place greater emphasis on due process/government transparency, on the decision to not pursue legal actions against those responsible for the 2008 fiscal crisis, and on not completely rescinding the Bush tax cuts. They place less emphasis on the economic triage and long-term investment in the 2009 stimulus, on getting US troops out of Iraq, and on passing health care reform.

Of course some liberal critics of Obama are insincere, are still nursing grievances from the Democratic nominating campaign, or aren’t really Democrats as much as they are ideological lefties who do not really identify with the Democratic party. It’s also worth noting people like this are a much smaller portion of the Democratic voting coalition than one might think if you spend a lot of time reading liberal blogs, watching cable pundits and following people on Twitter.

And on the other side, there are those who will laud everything Obama does and see every compromise, every decision, and every choice on whether to take an action as unassailable, as immune to valid criticism. People who will not accept that there’s anything Obama might have done wrong, or could have done better, are also not a big part of the electorate.

But among liberals and progressives, is there a simple ideological schematic that better describes the opposing policy priorities of Obama’s liberal fans and his liberal critics?

***Addendum***

As alluded to in the post, I align with those who have the first set of priorities. But I don’t think this schematic depends on either substantive disagreement on the six policy areas in isolation; I agree with much of what the critics say about Obama’s performance in those three areas, they’re just not what I think is most important in judging the Obama presidency. And lest anyone miss what I think is clearly implied, because due process/transparency, financial industry malfeasance and taxes are not my priorities, it does not follow that I don’t care about those issues, nor does it mean people with other priorities don’t care about mine.

Finally, there are responsible and good faith arguments in favor of prioritizing the latter three issues in assessing the Obama presidency. For instance, one could argue that the two sets of priorities are separated not by the relative importance of the policy and it’s impact on the country, but on the necessity and the integrity of Obama’s policy choices. Iraq, the stimulus and health care reform could be considered “necessary,” in that one was required to prevent a depression and the other two were the two policy centerpieces of Obama’s campaign, and not pursuing them would have been a political disaster.

Due process/transparency, taxes and banking reform and justice are different. Whereas the first set of policy actions were consistent with what candidate Obama promised voters, the latter three have not lived up to the campaign promises (and in the case of due process/transparency are in many ways voluntary decisions to act opposite of what Obama promised). I think the material effects of the first three override the disappointments of the latter three, so I’m not persuaded by this argument. There are other arguments to make that I think would have merit, but still not persuade me. But I offer this up just to show that it’s possible for a liberal to fairly and reasonably have legitimate and defensible priorities that lead her to view Obama’s presidency unfavorably.

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