The confusion over the phrase “identity politics”

For some time now, people have been criticizing the Democratic Party for focussing on what is termed “identity politics”. The implication is that the party would have stood a much better chance of winning local and national elections if it did not.
However, when I look at how people making this argument seem to be defining “identity politics”, I am forced to conclude that the argument is over-simplistic and is rooted in a misuse of language.
The working definition of “identity politics” that people making the argument seem to be using is what they consider to be an unwise focus by the Democratic Party on disadvantaged groups such as gay, bisexual and trans-sexual people, minorities etc. They seem to think that trying to ensure that these groups are not disadvantaged is bad for the party because it avoids the party having to address issues affecting much larger numbers of people such as rural unemployed. They also think that the focus on (for example) gay rights pisses off religious people and makes them less likely to support the Democratic Party.
At least two of those arguments have some merit. Yes, the focus on disadvantaged minorities is going to mean nothing to economically disadvantaged folks in the Heartland. If you are struggling to make enough money to survive in a rural part of the USA, gay rights is this weird thing that has no meaning to you and that you are unlikely to give a rat’s ass about.
It is probably true that gay rights will piss off many Christians. However, as a person who believes that human rights are not negotiable and should not even be put to a vote, I do not care much whether ensuring that gay and trans-sexual people enjoy equal treatment under the law pisses off anybody or any group. They can be pissed off as much as they like, but I don’t care unless they try to organize to prevent equal rights from being granted. At that point I will be working to prevent them from succeeding, since they have no damn business doing that.
My view on this space is that there are two types of political and policy messaging that mainstream parties engage in:

1. Identity messaging
This speaks to the worldview and values that the parties embody

2. Policy messaging
This speaks to the detailed ways in which the parties try to govern

Identity messaging is an area that the Republican Party excels in, and where the Democratic Party is inconsistent, and mostly poor. If you want an example from the last election cycle, compare “Make America Great Again” to “I’m with Her”. One sounds uplifting and aspirational, the other sounds almost apologetic.
Policy messaging is where the Democratic Party is stronger. The Democratic Party is stuffed full of people who, in a sort of dismissive way, get called “policy wonks”.
Identity messaging is more important for major elections, since elections require parties to bring as many non-core supporters to the polls as possible. All of the evidence shows that people vote values, not policies most of the time – emotions are based on values, and people’s emotions are activated and engaged by values-based messaging.

When GOP partisans refer to “Real Americans”, that is identity-based messaging writ large. They are implying (because they are careful to not explicitly say it, then they don’t have to deny or explain it) that they represent a group of people who are the Real Americans, and other parties, by implication, must therefore be representing people who are not Real Americans. That is a form of messaging that, for me, fits the definition in the phrase “Identity Politics” far better than the messaging that the Democratic Party does. Ditto other variants like “true Conservative” and “Patriot”. This, by the way, is deeply divisive and exclusionary messaging. It is one of the main reasons why I want absolutely nothing to do with the GOP in its current form.
When the Democratic Party talks about passing legislation to ensure that gay and transgender people are not discriminated against, this is not primarily Identity Politics. It is policy messaging, but it flows from the idea that all people really should have equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. Is it “Identity Politics” like the use of the phrase “real Americans”? Only incidentally.
If the criticism of the Democratic Party is that it should be doing more to address marginalized and disadvantaged heartland voters, then that is a valid criticism. However, this is not a binary scenario. The Democratic Party can work to advance and protect civil rights in all parts of the country, and also fight for the interests of economically disadvantaged rural people. I would argue that it’s failure to do the latter allowed the GOP, using the Identity Politics and messaging approach, to convince many of those voters that GOP cares for them (the GOP doesn’t give a damn about them. Donald Trump may well want to help them, but no policy that reduces business profits is going to get past the GOP in the House and the Senate, so those people waiting for lots of jobs to appear in rural America are likely to be disappointed).
So, my conclusion on this use of “Identity Politics” as criticism of the Democratic Party is that it is a mis-use of language. If any political party is using Identity Politics, it is the Republican Party. Quite simply, they are better at it, and have been better for decades. This is the basis of George Lakoff’s perennial complaints about Democratic Party messaging.

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Spotting timewasters on the internets

As I move through life, I have had to learn to apply rapid evaluation techniques to conversations, comments, postings and arguments on the internet to determine if the conversation is worth getting involved in.
There are a few basic rules that I apply when parsing writings in order to make that determination. The presence of one or more of the following is likely to send me in the direction of Away.
1. Use of juvenile ad hominems in the first sentence.
If you have a decent argument, you don’t need to try and diminish the person you are in dialogue with. This is a dead giveaway that you are not remotely interested in a good-faith discussion, and instead you are just trying to piss on people
2. Capitalization of WORDS OR SENTENCES
For some reason, people with defective weak or non-existent arguments always seem to think that if they capitalize certain words in a sentence, it magically endows those words with significance or gravitas. It doesn’t. When I see that, i automatically activate my bullshit detector, since it invariably means I am now reading something that is mostly or entirely nonsense
3. Use of “air quotes” or other sneering devices such as “so-called”
Another tell that you are engaging in juvenile sneering. Discussions are for adults, not children.
4. The use of slogans and other forms of word salad
I am usually able to discern rather quickly whether commenters spend too much time watching TV or listening to talk radio. Talk radio fans always argue in slogans, because that is how many talk radio hosts talk. It’s the verbal equivalent of argument by meme (see below). Slogans are not arguments, and linking multiple slogans together merely shows an ability at rote cut-and-paste, not the ability to construct useful commentary.
5. Argument using memes
If a posting relies on a meme and not much else, my conclusion is that the person does not have the time or enthusiasm to bring their own voice into the conversation, but instead is borrowing slogans from somebody else. In that case, why would I bother to waste my time?

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Today’s round-up – 1st February 2017

1. Thinking of trying populist economics? Not so fast
Economic populism as practiced by governments has a long history. Many governments have tried to insulate their countries from economic realities by all manner of avoidance tactics and strategies, including price control, tariffs, financial import and export controls, and, if all else fails, printing of money to perpetuate the illusion of liquidity.
As this paper analyzing the results of populism in Latin America shows, most of these measures do not work in the medium-term.

2. The illusion that trade deals are bad for the USA and that the USA can do something about it
Another rhetorical flush that Donald Trump played consistently in his campaign was to claim that most of the bilateral and multilateral trade deals that the USA has with other countries and trading blocs are really bad deals. In the typical blustery braggadocio of the deal-maker, Trump promised to renegotiate those deals and get a better outcome for the USA.
Umm…no. This article explains why some of those deals were actually quite good deals for the USA at a time when the USA had a lot more economic leverage than it currently has. The USA will find that re-opening these deals will result in worse outcomes for the USA, unless Donald Trump is thinking of upping the ante by sending over the carrier groups, or some other form of threats. That would not be a good thing. The world economy does not like uncertainty.

3. So President Trump just claimed to have negotiated down the cost of the F-35 program? Yes, sure he did
The POTUS is apparently claiming credit for a $600m cut in the cost of the next batch of F-35 planes. Remember that this was a project he was distinctly uncomplimentary about a few months ago. Now, in addition to claiming the credit for the cost reduction, he now says it is a great program.
Which is a summary of multiple layers of uttered POTUS bullshit. As the article explained. The planes were always going to cost less.

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the siren song “Buy American” and the reality

One of the refrains by Donald Trump and many of his supporters (as part of the proposed actions to Make America Great Again) was “buy American”.
When i read this being used as a phrase, i smiled inwardly and outwardly.
I understand the sentiment, particularly if you are of the worldview that your country is The Best. If it is The Best, why would you buy anything not made here?
However, the reality is going to win out every time over this fine-sounding phrase.
When i was growing up in the UK, it was a period where the British Empire had essentially disappeared, first gradually, then more rapidly. The United Kingdom had walked away from it, or given away most of it since it had become clear that it could not afford to police it or defend it any more following World War II. The UK was essentially bankrupted by that war.
The loss of Empire was jarring for many people, especially ex-military people. After all, we had seen off that nasty Mr. Hitler, so why could we not keep these damn countries in line?
Out of the overall national angst, in the middle of a period of poor UK economic performance in 1968 (the UK essentially had no foreign currency reserves, because the Pound was overvalued, being pegged to the Dollar), five secretaries in a London suburb volunteered to work an extra half hour a day to help the country.
Thus was born the “I’m backing Britain” campaign.
The campaign soon expanded beyond working unpaid time (an idea that was swiftly torpedoed by the trades unions, whose interests were diametrically opposed to this idea, they wanted people to work less hours for MORE money), to the idea that people should “buy British”.
However, like all grass-roots campaigns, it was soon surrounded by would-be hijackers, including newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, who was soon embarrassed (this is going to sound familiar) when his “I’m Backing Britain” t-shirts were found to have been made…not in the UK.
The campaign even had a theme song. (WARNING – You may be about to enter the cringe zone).
I sat and watched as the campaign started, soared, stuttered spluttered, and fizzled out within a space of about 3 months. Within a year almost everybody had forgotten about it, or did not even want to be reminded of it. Mentions of it would result in comments along the lines of “nice weather we have today”.
The reality was that at the time Britain was being flooded by cheap imported goods from a host of other countries, led by Hong Kong, as other countries began to industrialize and found that they could make finished consumer goods cheaper than UK companies. Steel cutlery, for example, used to be supplied almost exclusively from Sheffield in northern England, but by the end of the 1960s the Sheffield steel industry was becoming a historical footnote, as most of the steel cutlery was being supplied from overseas. It was part of the beginning of de-industrialization in the UK.
One of the contributory factors to the total failure of I’m Backing Britain was that for it to be successful (at least the “Buy British” part) it required consumers in the UK to be willing to pay more for domestically-produced goods. That is the sort of requirement that most people do not want to meet, particularly if they have a limited budget. The only way to ensure that people buy domestic goods is by government rigging the market, using some combination of price controls and tariffs on imported goods. The government in the UK was not prepared to do that.
I therefore remain enduringly cynical that any campaign based on the slogan “buy American” will not succeed at the street level in the USA. Consumers are not going to reduce their standard of living in order to buy US-made goods.

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The H1-B and offshoring trend – here’s where YOU come in

Folks, the dirty little secret underlying the H1-B issue is that corporations have been working to cut IT costs for decades. IT is always being hammered by business users in most corporations with variants of the “day late and a dollar short” or “you guys are so expensive, I could run my own IT shop with 2 guys and a visit to Best Buy” complaints.
The onset of “offshoring”, “best shoring” or whatever other Doublespeak phrase you want to use, was specifically underwritten by corporations starting around 20 years ago.
Along the way, IT service levels steadily declined. I watched as EDS clients moved work offshore, or demanded that we provide services at equivalent offshore rates, or they would go to an offshore vendor. It soon became clear that they were quite cheerfully prepared to accept lower levels of service and quality across the board as part of the price for reduced IT costs. They would of course, demand “high quality”, but when asked about how much they were prepared to pay, it would soon become clear that their price did not low for high service levels.
This, everybody, is part of the reason why cellphone phone vendor customer service went from being staffed by knowledgeable US workers to being staffed by offshore neophytes reading from scripts.
It is also why when I hear IT leaderships in clients waxing eloquently about Quality, I always have one hand firmly attached to my bullshit detector. Most IT leadership teams don’t give a rats ass about quality. If they did, they wouldn’t be buying solely on price. Sure, they talk a lot in negotiations about “quality” (often without being at all specific about measurable quality objectives – that is a tell that they are not serious) and then load up the contracts with SLAs, but most of those SLAs have nothing to do with levels of service as experienced by the end customer. They are simply fairly standard CYA boilerplate for IT fundamentals like uptime, defect resolution timeframes etc. etc.
But…
…when people huff and puff about crappy service from IT and tech vendors and systems, yet at the same time complain about other countries “stealing” jobs, I have to remind them of one basic fact.
They supported the process by buying and patronizing these businesses.
If (for example) customers had terminated their agreements with cell service providers when they found that they were not getting onshore customer service, we wouldn’t be facing the standard scenario where the guy named Rudy (real name is Rajamaranan) on Customer Service line #3 is sitting in Hyderabad while cheerfully pretending that he is stateside by asking you questions about the weather. (this is no knock on “Rudy”, he is simply doing the best job he can, probably with an out of date set of scripts written by a person who, if they were being WFR’d to make way for the Rudys, was in no mood to tell the new people everything they knew).
All of us consumers in the USA benefit from cheap IT services, no matter where they come from. If the goal is to move all IT work back to the United States, sure, it can probably be done, but it will only happen over a long period of time (this offshoring trend has been going the other way for close to 20 years), IT costs will leap, and this will feed through into consumer prices. You can expect to end up paying more for a wider range of IT-intensive services such as banking, telecomms, airlines and transportation.
Oh, and, by the way, don’t expect an increase in quality. At least not until you, collectively, the consumers, are prepared to punish businesses for piss-poor service and customer support quality by walking away from them

    and telling them why

.

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The H1-B visa hand-waving flap and what happens next

A lot of vague talk today about “H1-B visa program abuses”, but no specifics are being cited. Whenever I read vague waffle like this, I start to wonder about the rationale for any proposed changes. The cynic in me says that “abuse” is simply code for “too many damn furriners”.
There seems to be a naive assumption underpinning many of the job protectionists’ thought processes that if the H1-B visa program is scaled back, all of the IT jobs currently filled by foreign nationals will suddenly be available for Americans.
That is not likely to be the outcome. If we consider the Indian “pure plays”, who have large numbers of Indian nationals in the USA on H1-B visas, the rules may oblige them to move those nationals back to India. However, most IT work can be performed from just about anywhere in the world, unless there are certain restrictions such as national security (and H1-B holders and Permanent Residents can’t get security clearances anyway).
If the pure plays have to repatriate their workers from the USA, they will go to their clients and offer them pretty much the same range of support services as before, probably at lower rates, since they will now be back to paying Indian salaries, not lower-tier US salaries. Corporations increasingly see IT as a commodity service, so they will most likely continue to use the Indian pure plays, only this time instead of 800 people in a warehouse in Upper Podunk, they will have 800 people in a warehouse on the outskirts of Bangalore, or Hyderabad, or Chennai.
The only way that the corporations will be deterred from taking that course of action will be if they are prevented by law, or other financial disincentives like tariffs or fines, from using overseas corporations to deliver services to the USA.
There is also another reality check angle that needs to be factored into this equation. If 60,000 Indian IT workers disappear from the USA, there are unlikely to be 60,000 US replacements of equivalent experience and skills available on a short timeframe. This will result in a mad scramble for replacements, which might benefit me in the short term since it is likely to increase salaries. However, it will be damaging to US businesses in the medium term. The more likely outcome is that the US corporations will manouver to keep the workers, this time overseas.
This structural change in the job market is also unlikely to benefit many of the electors who voted for Donald Trump. (As a long-term tech worker, I can tell you that in my corporate and personal circles, open Trump supporters are in a small minority). The people in beat-down rural areas who supported Donald Trump will not see any short term benefit if the USA starts expelling tech and IT workers. Rural areas are simply not significant sources for IT and tech people. Anybody with ambitions to work in those sectors is already elsewhere, like in a major tech city.

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Today’s round Up – 31st January 2017

1. No, Donald Trump is not a businessman
I am going to expand on this at length in another posting, but one of the great sleights of hand that Donald Trump managed to play during his successful campaign to be POTUS was that he was a successful businessman.
Donald Trump is not a businessman in any conventional sustainable sense of the word. He is an entrepreneurial deal-maker and reality TV show host who mostly sells his name as a brand to other businesses, many of which are not even owned by him or his corporations. He has no real strategy, operating in perpetual scattershot mode, trying anything that he thinks will generate a profit. His whole business career screams “man with lots of ideas but no patience”.
Successful businessmen, as a rule, do not undergo multiple bankruptcies; neither do they routinely and persistently stiff their creditors. If you look at other people in the USA that might be regarded as successful businessmen (the two examples that I like to use are Warren Buffett and Roger Penske), they also keep a low public profile, do their business mostly in private, and consistently deliver performance and value for their stockholders. Donald Trump does not even begin to accumulate a positive score on any of those criteria. the performance of his businesses is all over the map, and most of them have no sustainable business performance, which led some analysts to conclude that Donald Trump would be wealthier today if he had retired from business decades ago and invested his money in the stock market instead.

2. Theresa May, Prime Minister, this is your mess

The UK Prime Minister is now caught in a classic “rock, meet hard place” dilemna. Impaled by the decision of the UK electorate last June to leave the EU (although the UK Supreme Court has ruled that the referendum was advisory, not binding), she did bag the first audience by a foreign leader with President Trump. She probably feels that she needed that, since if the UK leaves the EU, and the USA crashes NATO, the UK will be very short of friends in the West. However, it seems that her decision to offer Trump a State Visit (an honour that is not handed out very often to visiting leaders) has pissed off the Queen. Trump is clearly terrified of having to talk about climate change with Prince Charles, but the protocol of a State Visit is that the monarch is in charge of the arrangements, and the visiting leader is supposed to regard it as an honour that Her Majesty has invited him, so Trump may have to sip his tea and listen politely to Prince Charles’ prattlings. That is, if the visit even goes ahead. There could be all sorts of future events that would require a “postponement”.
In the meantime, the rock-hard place fun continues, with a vote imminent on whether the UK should trigger Article 50 and formally ask to withdraw from the UK. If this was a free vote (a vote where party leaders do not instruct their MPs on how to vote) i suspect the vote would be No. However, it is likely that the Conservative Party will order its MPs to vote Yes, which would result in a result of Yes. At that point, I expect that Scotland will demand another referendum on independence, and the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland will formally collapse.
In other words, the UK will start to break up. Ms. May really does not have many good choices.

3. if you voted for Donald Trump, you cannot be surprised if he does what he said he would do

This family of immigrants, several of whom voted for Donald Trump, is now surprised, shocked and puzzled that their relatives were caught up in the immigration EO fiasco.
while I emphathize with what has happened to their family members, I have limited sympathy. They knew when they voted for Donald Trump that he was promising to introduce immigration restrictions. The idea that because they were Christians that they would somehow be exempt is a plausible one, but horribly naive. This is a measure aimed at curbing immigration, period. This family is now learning the hard way that when you vote for a capricious authoritarian, his authoritarian actions will eventually hurt them. Or, to put it another way; actions have consequences.

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Corporations and the political minefield

The $1m donation by Lyft to the ACLU might just be the beginning of new era businesses and start-ups taking positions that definably underwrite and support a progressive worldview.
Most corporate leaderships live in a bubble totally divorced from the value systems of their customers, but there are corporations whose client base is disproportionately progressive, and vice versa. We can probably rapidly write examples down on a piece of paper.
As America becomes increasingly polarized, corporations may find themselves having to answer the question “whose side are you on”? It is not a decision that any business wants to have to make, since taking a definitive position carries the risk of pissing off between 30 and 40% of your existing customers. However, I see this becoming more of a factor in future corporate decision-making.
A number of corporations are unwilling to take any position on the recent Executive Order on immigration. However, many corporations, to a greater or lesser extend, have expressed concerns about it, and in some cases condemned it.

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The re-discovery of the idea of “respect the President”

One of the more amusing events since the inauguration of President Trump has been the speed with which the GOP supporters have begun demanding that people “respect the office”, “give the President a chance”, “stop dividing us” etc. etc.
That does make me laugh inwardly and outwardly. It seems only a few months ago that a lot of GOP partisans were still vituperating about President Obama, still trying to de-legitimize every aspect of his Presidency, right down to the umpteen hundredth recycling of the “muslim” and “not born in the USA” memes.
Today I Unfriended one person on Facebook who thought it was amusing to print a tabloid’s latest expose of the Obamas. That person can continue to post muck-raking juvenilia in their own world, but I’m not interested in it. Another person, as of today, is in the Last Chance Saloon because he decided to sign on to a meme about President Obama being a supporter of ISIS. That person will be gone if they ever post any more crap like that.
Now the same group of supporters want me to “respect the President”?
Sure. I will provide the same respect to President Trump as you juvenile conspiracy-addled baying children provided to President Obama. Actually, I will show President Trump slightly more respect, in that I promise to focus purely on his performance as POTUS and the respect that he shows to alternative ideas, opposition, the Constitution and the governance processes within the USA.
Deal?

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The exercise of economic power by the citizenry

In a capitalist society, the only power that really matters in peacetime is economic power.
If large groups of disaffected people want to create attention for their objectives, economic power, aggregated across a large group, is considerable.
Therefore, boycotts of businesses and industries that act in ways contrary to the objectives of disaffected groups is not only an option, it is one of the few ways in which businesses can be forced to respond to disaffected people. (the reverse, of patronizing businesses that do support the objectives of a group, is part of the tactics and strategies also).
A 10% drop in revenues for a major retailer will immediately force that retailer to take actions. Sure, they can respond in ways that, in the short term, look to be counter-productive for many people , such as closing outlets and other facilities. However, any business that loses 10% of its revenues simply because the officers of the company and the leadership supported actions by political parties that people found objectionable is going to come under immediate stockholder pressure (up to and including lawsuits) to address the issue. Stockholders want the fortunes of the corporation to continually increase, not decline. They are not going to willingly sign on for a corporate contraction if the solution to address (for example) a consumer boycott is to publicly move off of some ideological position that they originally adopted in the interests of short-term expediency.
At this point in the history of the USA, we are starting to see the onset of authoritarian actions by a central government that is totally controlled by one political party, with many state governments also controlled by that party. The only acceptable and usable short-term counter to authoritarian actions in a capitalist society is economic power. Marches and demonstrations can certainly keep the opposition in the media, but by themselves they are unlikely to effect short-term change. Until the next Federal election cycle in 2018, principled opposition to the sorts of authoritarian horseshit currently being implemented has to include the exercise of economic power.

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