Wednesday, August 9, 2017

FUCK CHUCK (and the corporate Dem horse he rode in on)

 Image result for chuck schumer cartoon horse

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer’s “Better Deal” platform has gotten some favorable press, being framed as a “populist turn,” and Democrats plan to “spend the next fifteen months talking about it.” Our Revolution‘s “People’s Platform” (#PeoplesPlatform) has gotten far less coverage, the party establishment is silent about it, and it’s gotten virtually no coverage in the press. (To their credit, Robert Borasage and Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote pieces comparing and contrasting the two, soon after a “Better Deal” was issued.) In this post, I’ll compare and contrast the way the two platforms deliver concrete material benefits[1]. (I’ll leave tactical issues like process, framing and voter appeal for another day.) At the end of the post, I’ll say a brief word on anti-trust, a key differentiator between the two. Now let’s look at the two platforms:

Figure 1: A Better Deal

Today, Democrats are offering A Better Deal that will focus on three goals:

Raise the wages and incomes of American workers and create millions of good-paying jobs: Our plan for A Better Deal starts by creating millions of good-paying, full-time jobs by directly investing in our crumbling infrastructure and prioritizing small business and entrepreneurs, instead of giving tax breaks to special interests. We will aggressively crack down on unfair foreign trade and fight back against corporations that outsource American jobs. We will fight to ensure a living wage for all Americans and keep our promise to millions of workers who earned a pension, Social Security and Medicare, so seniors can retire with dignity.

Lower the costs of living for families: We will offer A Better Deal that will lower the crippling cost of prescription drugs and the cost of a college or technical education that leads to a good job. We will fight for families struggling with high monthly bills like childcare, credit card fees, and cable bills. We will crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power that has led to higher prices for consumers, workers, and small business – and make sure Wall Street never endangers Main Street again.

Build an economy that gives working Americans the tools to succeed in the 21st Century: Americans deserve the chance to get the skills, tools, and knowledge to find a good-paying job or to move up in their career to earn a better living. We will commit to A Better Deal that provides new tax incentives to employers that invest in workforce training and education and make sure the rules of the economy support companies that focus on long-term growth, rather than short-term profits. We will make it a national priority to bring high-speed Internet to every corner of America and offer an apprenticeship to millions of new workers. We will encourage innovation, invest in advanced research and ensure start-ups and small business can compete and prosper.

(OK, I said I wouldn’t look at framing, but for those new here I just couldn’t help underlining the familiar weasel words; I don’t know which Democratic strategist has sold these guys on the Washington Generals-style “fight for” verbiage, but I wish they’d just stop it. “Fighting for” and never winning isn’t a good look.)

Figure 2: The People’s Platform

Medicare for All: H.R. 676 Medicare For All Act

Free College Tuition: H.R. 1880 College for All Act of 2017

Worker Rights: H.R.15 – Raise the Wage Act

Women’s Rights: H.R.771 – Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act of 2017

Voting Rights: H.R. 2840 – Automatic Voter Registration Act

Environmental Justice: Climate Change Bill – Renewable Energy (More details soon!)

Criminal Justice and Immigrant Rights: H.R. 3227 – Justice is Not For Sale Act of 2017

Taxing Wall Street: H.R. 1144 – Inclusive Prosperity Act

And now let’s compare the two. Compared to the #PeoplesPlatform[2]:

“A Better Deal” is not a serious effort. The Better Deal is a list of bullet points supported by White Papers. The People’s Platform is a list of actual legislation, which elected representatives can be pressured to support, and around which hearings could be organized. Which is the more serious? (To be fair, you can argue that since bullet points and white papers appeal more directly to the political class, especially the more wonkish elements of the press, “A Better Deal” is indeed more serious. I’ll leave that one up to the judges.)

“A Better Deal” offers trivial benefits. To caricature — see below on antitrust for a more serious topic — the Better Deal offers cheaper cable, cheaper beer, and cheaper prescription drugs. Well and good, but isn’t saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars with #MedicareForAll the truly better deal? Politically and morally? And doesn’t the Democrat Party’s willful refusal to focus on, or even name this issue, reinforce the “never, ever” message sent by the Clinton campaign debacle?

“A Better Deal” delivers many benefits indirectly, through the market. The #PeoplesPlatform delivers the universal concrete material benefits — Medicare for All, free college tuition, raising wages — using government as a vehicle (which is appropriate when benefits are universal; markets don’t do universal). The Better Deal, by contrast, focuses on tweaking the market to deliver benefits, in such a way that the role of government is not visible. For example, the Better Deal’s solution for lower cable and beer prices — the bread and circuses parallel is almost too exact — is better policy on antitrust. Suppose their approach works (see below) and cable bills are lowered by some unknown amount. Will the consumer perceive the benefit as a result of government action? Or as how the benefit will be marketed: A voluntary action freely undertaken by beneficent corporations? If you want to create a virtuous cycle where government action brings perceived benefit, strengthening popular support for further government action, bringing more benefits, how does that happen if the benefit is delivered indirectly, though the market, and imperceptible as a public good achieved by government?

“A Better Deal” does not address electoral infrastructure issues. The People’s Platform includes “Automatic Voter Registration.” The Better Deal does not address expanding the Democrat’s electoral base at all. That seems odd; one would think the Democrats would wish to bring maximum electoral power to bear on those opposed to their platform.

A Note About Antitrust

“A Better Deal” has this to say on antitrust:

We will crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power that has led to higher prices for consumers, workers, and small business – and make sure Wall Street never endangers Main Street again.

(Once again, I’ve helpfully underlined the functional equivalents of “fight for.”) That’s not very meaningful, so we turn to Schumer’s Op-Ed:

Right now our antitrust laws are designed to allow huge corporations to merge, padding the pockets of investors but sending costs skyrocketing for everything from cable bills and airline tickets to food and health care. We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition.

(Once again….) Leaving aside Schumer’s odd failure to mention ginormous Silicon Valley monopolies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, this is still pretty vague, so we turn to the Democrat’s White Paper (PDF) on this topic. Laudably, the paper proposes standards that seem to be tougher — we await forthcoming legislation — but “standards are wind,” as they say, so we look for an enforcement mechanism. Here it is:

A new consumer competition advocate: In recent years, antitrust regulators have been unable or unwilling to pursue complaints about anticompetitive conduct. Our new competition advocate would research current market activity, receive consumer complaints, and proactively recommend [3] competition investigations to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The advocate will consider the full range of potentially anticompetitive behavior, from traditional areas like price fixing to newer challenges like the role that online platforms[4] play in keeping our markets fair and open. The advocate’s recommendations would be made public, and the regulators would be required, if they choose not to pursue a recommended investigation, to publicly justify why. This office would devote resources to ensuring complaints about market exploitation and anticompetitive behavior are treated seriously and regulators are held accountable. In order to inform the public on the general status of the markets, the office would also compile and publish data regularly on market concentration and abuses of economic power. It would also provide demographic breakdowns, including the impact of market concentration on communities of color.

I hope I don’t seem like I’m a pro-monopoly curmudgeon if I say that the “competition advocate” seems like pretty weak tea, to me. I’ve helpfully underlined the powers of this new office, and I don’t see “enforcement” there. I grant that a “bully pulpit” for anti-trust is a good thing, but don’t we have a President for that?[5] And Senators, who can hold hearings to perform every single function listed? Critically — once again, a serious effort with legislation would clarify this — the nature of the competition advocate’s funding is left unstated. Will the competition advocate be independently funded, as through successfully collected fines? Or will the advocate be funded by the very department it is supposed to force to “publicly justify” its failure to pursue recommendations?

One cannot help comparing the “Better Deal” proposal with the approach taken by the European Commission to one “online platform”:

The European Commission has fined Google €2.42 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules. Google has abused its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to another Google product, its comparison shopping service.

The company must now end the conduct within 90 days or face penalty payments of up to 5% of the average daily worldwide turnover of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That’s a good thing. But Google’s strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn’t just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation.”

Here are Commissioner Margrethe Vestager’s powers. They are, in fact, rather similar to those proposed by the “Better Deal” white paper, with an important exception I have underlined:

Mobilising competition policy tools and market expertise to contribute, where appropriate, to creating jobs and promoting growth.
Developing the economic and legal approach of assessing competition issues and monitoring the market.
Effectively enforcing competition rules in the areas of antitrust, cartels, mergers and state aid.
Strengthening the Commission’s reputation worldwide and promoting international cooperation in competition issues.

David Dayen, in “The Quiet Audacity of the Democratic ‘Better Deal,'” frames the “Competition Advocate” as part of a larger, and fresh, Democrat approach to governance. Excerpting the key portions of his thesis:

The Democrats continue to roll out their agenda, and I’m noticing a pattern. Want to lower the cost of prescription drugs? They’ve got a “price gouging” enforcer, the director of a new agency dedicated to investigating drug manufacturers that jack up the cost on their products. How about breaking concentrated corporate power across all fields? They’ve got a consumer-competition advocate who would recommend investigation of monopolistic industries to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission….

[These new proposed agencies] stand out, particularly because the new suggested positions duplicate existing structures within the federal government. The FTC (and, to a lesser extent, the Food and Drug Administration) is supposed to monitor drug prices, as well as other monopolies. ….

Of course, building new agencies with targeted missions was a hallmark of the New Deal. And like under FDR, these Better Deal agencies are an admission that the current framework is fatally corrupted, unresponsive to public needs. …

The Better Deal isn’t entirely about building a new government atop the old one. But that tendency stands out, and, while it’s something of a dodge, it’s also as quietly radical as anything we’ve seen recently from a major political party.

OK, grant the validity of this technocratic approach. If you want to “build a new government atop the old one” because “the current framework is fatally corrupted,” why leave the enforcement function in the corrupt framework, instead of moving it to the new one? And what about funding? Will that be a function of of the existing, corrupt framework, too?


A famous meme is “This is why we can’t have nice things.” A Better Deal says three things: (1) “You may have slightly better things,” and (2) “You must get those better things through the market,” and (3) “We will make the market work by adding new layers of complexity atop the system we all know is corrupt.” Whether this is a winning strategy is, again, one I’ll leave to the judges. For myself, I believe that a platform that delivers universal concrete material benefits, especially to the working class, is the way forward for a Democratic Party, or whatever party succeeds it, if Democrats go in another direction. Considerations of justice and electoral politics aside, a key form of collective brain damage inflicted over the last forty years by neoliberals of both parties is the belief that government can’t deliver benefits effectively. (Granted, neoliberals went out of their way to sabotage government’s ability to do just that, so the belief has a basis in reality.) I believe the remedy for that brain damage is, unsurprisingly, government that delivers benefits effectively (which is why #MedicareForAll is an important wedge issue, but adopting the simplest and most rugged form of single payer is also important, as opposed to some Swiss Watch-like program with lots of complications and dials and moon phases and such). A government that delivers benefits effectively is also a prerequisite for many other policies, chief among them dealing with climate change.


[1] So I’m not an anarchist. Sue me.

[2] I’d use a #BetterDeal hash tag, but all the usage examples seem to have been invented by random Twitter posters who oppose it. Since Twitter is heavily read by journalists, this also supports the idea that the Better Deal is not a serious effort.

[3] What on earth does “proactively recommend” mean? Is it opposed to “passive-aggressively recommend”?

[4] I suppose that “online platforms” means Amazon, Facebook, and Google, but it’s hard to say. Unlike AT&T, Time-Warner, Anheuser-Busch, and Luxottica, among others, no online platform is actually named.

[5] President Theodore Roosevelt: “We can not tolerate anything approaching a monopoly, especially in the necessaries of life, except on terms of such thoroughgoing governmental control as will absolutely safe guard every right of the public.”

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