On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson


Back in the day, there was a term for Westerners who, while not communists themselves, had convinced themselves to support communist regimes—and back in the day, that meant the Soviet Union—because they believed those nations were creating workers’ states that would eventually become democracies. The term was “useful idiots,” and it was generally applied to social democrats who’d failed to notice what Stalinist Russia was actually doing.

In time—partly due to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech enumerating Stalin’s sins (some, not all)—the undismissible facts of what that regime had actually done hit those useful idiots like a two-by-four to the head. Some became more realistic and genuinely useful social democrats, some drifted elsewhere—to the right, to the Church, to anywhere and everywhere.

In recent decades, the useful idiots on communism have almost always been on the center-right or center-left—not, as before, on the left. Most particularly, they’ve been the pillars of American big business and its handmaiden, the U.S. foreign policy establishment. I refer, of course, to the decades of delusion that drove U.S. policy on China. Indeed, it was precisely the establishment’s belief that the spread of capitalism was indissolubly linked to the spread of democracy—a belief many of us on the left never shared—that deluded them. Since they willfully failed to notice that capitalism had existed, and their businesses had thrived, quite comfortably with authoritarian right-wing regimes, they told themselves, and us, that authoritarian Leninist capitalism was an impossibility.

For Wall Street and the U.S. corporations that saw in China endless pools of cheap labor, this delusion was particularly useful, for it enabled them to gut the industrial Midwest with a high-sounding rationale: By investing in China, we’re spreading democracy.

The Prospect didn’t fall for this. In a number of articles—most notably “America’s China Fantasy,” a cover story we ran more than a decade ago by East Asian scholar and journalist James Mann—we pointed out how dangerous this delusion would prove to be to the balance of power between democratic regimes and authoritarian ones. We ran articles by several writers, most prominently Clyde Prestowitz, who documented how China was demanding, and receiving, proprietary advanced technology from U.S. corporations as a condition of their being allowed to sell their goods there, and how China actually enlisted those corporations to lobby on its behalf in Washington.

Now that President Xi has installed himself for as long as he pleases atop the Middle Kingdom, has suppressed his domestic critics, and has anointed himself as the reasonable-sounding leader of the growing Authoritarian International, our foreign policy establishment and corporate leaders are confessing the error of their ways, as Chuck Lane notes in his column in today’s Washington Post.

Historians who document the rise of anti-Western authoritarian regimes in the early 21st century can resurrect a term to describe America’s business and foreign policy establishment: useful idiots.


Year of the Dictator. American political and financial elites make catastrophic, self-serving mistakes. Exhibit A is Xi Jinping, China’s newly announced lifetime president.

As recently as decade ago, leaders of both U.S. parties and informed commentators were convinced that China would soon converge with the West, as a capitalist democracy, and that easy terms of entry to the World Trade Organization would pave the way.

Everyone from Clinton’s economic eminence Robert Rubin to Joe Biden to George W. Bush insisted that China would soon become more like America. We just had to go easy on their economic mercantilism, turn a blind eye to their assaults on dissent, and forge economic partnerships.

Bush put it this way: “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy. … Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.” Oops.

And the inimitable Tom Friedman wrote, “China is going to have a free press. Globalization is going to drive it.” Go, Tom.

Do these seers ever recant when they get it so wrong?

One who got it right was James Mann, writing in The American Prospect. Mann warned that the prediction that as China became more global, it would be come “more like us,” was a dangerous illusion. The greater likelihood was that we would become more like them. Mann wrote, in 2007, with eerie prescience,

The fundamental problem with this strategy of integration is that it raises the obvious question: Who's integrating whom? Is the United States now integrating China into a new international economic order based upon free-market principles? Or is China now integrating the United States into a new international political order where democracy is no longer favored, and where a government's continuing eradication of all organized political opposition is accepted or ignored?

Much of the view that China would soon become a liberal capitalist democracy wasn’t just stupid; it was self-interested, promoted by armies of lobbyists for corporations and investment bankers who were making fortunes from deals with a totalitarian, state-capitalist China; and who were part of Washington’s revolving door.

A New York Times piece Wednesday morning observed, “Gone is a widespread agreement among diplomats, scholars and businesspeople that China is gradually converging with the United States.”

Well, yes. And it would be nice—for once—to see those cocksure leaders and pundits admit what fools they were. Over to you, Tom Friedman.


With the oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME come and gone, the five Republican justices are now circling what’s left of the union movement as vultures do carrion.

Ironically, the right’s war-to-the-death on worker organizations looks to be peaking just when labor’s favorability is the highest it’s been in decades. Over the past year, Pew and Gallup have measured organized labor’s favorability at 60 percent and 61 percent, respectively. Even a sizable minority of Republicans (42 percent in Gallup, 44 percent in Pew) think well of unions. Gallup notes that the share of Americans who would like unions to have more influence is the highest since it first asked that question 18 years ago. Pew notes that fully 76 percent of Americans under 30 approve of unions—statistical confirmation that the grad students and young journalists at digital media companies who are electing to join unions reflect a generation-wide sentiment.

In joining unions, however, the grad students and journalists are nonetheless exceptions to their generation’s experience. On the whole, unlike their fellow millennials, they can join a union without fear of being fired. (Of course, such was not the case for the journalists at Gothamist, LAist, and DCist, who saw their papers shuttered by their Republican billionaire owner the moment they voted to go union—though, happily, those papers have now been bought by new owners who apparently believe that journalists are people with certain inalienable rights.) For their part, university administrators, while so far refraining from gunning down their grad students in the grand tradition of Henry Clay Frick at Homestead, refuse to grant their teaching and research assistant the right to a union. But unlike millennials elsewhere in the economy, the grad students are too important to the universities (they are, after all, a grand source of underpaid labor) to be fired.

The disjuncture between the level of support for unions and the actual rate of unionization—which, in the private sector, is just one-tenth of the union favorability number in Gallup and Pew—is one of those flashing lights indicating a system shutdown—in this case, an abridgement of fundamental rights. By virtue of decades of court decisions and the Taft-Hartley Act, which encourage management to intimidate workers during unionization campaigns, union elections seldom allow workers to freely choose to unionize. Majority rule in the workplace is blocked in much the same way that gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Electoral College, and the non-representative nature of the Senate have suppressed majority rule in our government. Sixty percent of Americans favor unions; just 6.5 percent of private sector workers now belong to them. Democrats (Al Gore, Hillary Clinton) win pluralities in the presidential popular vote but lose the election nonetheless. In both the workplace and the republic, our laws don’t look all that kindly on majority rule.

And now, with support for unions nearly double the level of opposition, the Republicans on the Court are on the verge of crippling the one part of the labor movement—the public employee unions—that is still large and thriving. The same goons who removed the safeguards that enabled minorities to go unimpeded to the polls now take aim at what’s left of workplace rights as well. We’re fighting again for the very rudiments of democracy—unencumbered access to the franchise and majority rule, at the polls, in the workplace, in our country.


In Proximity of Sin versus #metoo. There is a sexual misconduct/rape case going forward at Yale, which sheds some light on several thorny issues. In this case, a woman wound up very drunk in a fellow student’s dorm room, reported waking up briefly to find him on top of her, tried to push him off to no avail, and in the morning woke up to find herself naked. She decided to go to the authorities with a formal rape complaint rather than just relying on Yale’s Title IX process.

Here’s the complication. The standard to convict is higher in a criminal case than in a university’s sexual misconduct process. Suppose a jury wonders what she was doing drunk in a man’s room, and refuses to convict?

Clearly, if the facts are as they appear, the male student is in line for very serious punishment by the university. A woman being imprudent enough to get very drunk and pass out in a male student’s room is not an invitation to be raped. Somehow, men need to get that message.

Yet, do potential victims bear any responsibility at all? My Catholic friends recall the nuns warning them not to put themselves “in proximity to sin.” In more modern feminist language, this is an era when women are supposed to be respected for their “agency”—they are responsible for their own conduct.

There is the further complication that we are not sure about how much paternalism we want on the part of universities. My generation spent great effort fighting what was then called the doctrine of in loco parentis—the university was supposedly in the role of parent—and it spent great effort at preventing even fully consensual sex. We don’t want to go back to that.

Yet it would not be bad if universities did crack down on underage drinking and binge drinking, especially of the fraternity sort, which often seems a ploy to get women very drunk. In an ideal world, consequences would be perfectly fine-tuned. A man who took sexual advantage of a very drunk, unconscious undergraduate in his room would be severely punished. But should there be some lesser consequence for high-risk female enabling behavior, too?

Alas, we are far from a world of finely calibrated consequences fitting gradations of misconduct. It’s all the more complicated, given that the essence of flirtation is mixed signals (often further mixed with genuine ambivalence), and further complicated by regret after the fact.

Somehow, we need to stumble through this legal and ethical thicket to a clearing, where people behave with more sexual respect.

Back to economics.


And a Little Child Shall Lead Them. Have you noticed that all the great social movements of the past half-century have been led by the young? The sit-ins and freedom rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the antiwar movement, the Dump Johnson children’s crusade.

Now comes the long-deferred backlash against the lunacy of the NRA, which has held too many Democrats as well as Republicans hostage. And it’s being led by outraged high school students.

Once the NRA got captured by absolutists, the gun lobby became adamantly opposed to any compromise, as a slippery slope towards “taking away our guns.” Too many liberals and moderates, characteristically, tried seeking common ground.

Suppose we redefine the issue as gun safety rather than gun control? Nope. Suppose we just ban assault weapons? Sorry, the Second Amendment gives everyone a right to an AK-47. The NRA even opposes the pathetic “reform” of age limits for purchases of military-style weapons.

Let’s face it—there is no common ground. And now, thanks to high school students calling BS where their adult leaders were too quick to flinch, we have a chance at putting serious gun control back on the agenda.

We could be at a tipping point. If you need a license to drive, to fish, to marry, to hunt, with databases to match, we need strict licensing for guns. And strict limits on what kinds of firearms are permitted at all. If you want to fire machine guns, the army will welcome you.

Could a groundswell of political revulsion of one mass killing of children too many turn the tide? Our leaders just need to catch up with the kids.

My friend Drew Westen, author of the brilliant book on political language, The Political Brain, proposed a TV spot, back in 2007. It has a political candidate with a hunting rifle in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. The candidate says:

This [pointing to the gun on his left] is a rifle. This [the gun on his right] is an assault weapon. People like you and me use this one to hunt. Criminals, terrorists, and deranged teenagers use this one to hunt police officers and our children. Law-abiding citizens have the right to own one of these. Nobody has the right to threaten our kids' safety with one of these. Any questions?


It took forever (nearly eight years), but a key provision of Dodd-Frank is finally being implemented. Public corporations have finally begun to report the ratio between their CEO’s pay and the pay of their median worker.

Dodd-Frank mandated that these companies calculate and release these numbers in their annual filings to the SEC. Honeywell (a company whose CEO, before he became W’s vice president, was Dick Cheney) has gone first, reporting that its current CEO makes a modest 333 times what it’s median employee pulls down.

Fifty years ago, when unions were strong and America was notably less plutocratic, the average CEO made roughly 20 times what his (then as now, CEOs tended to be male) average worker made. Indeed, the great management consultant Peter Drucker prescribed that multiple of 20 as the proper ceiling, not to be exceeded, of the CEO-median ratio.

But that was then. Ronald Reagan’s epochal reduction of the taxes on the highest incomes, his SEC’s rule-change allowing CEOs to manipulate share buybacks, Milton Friedman’s very popular (among CEOs) doctrine that the sole purpose of corporations was to reward shareholders, and his emphasis of the power of CEO unions (that is, corporate boards of directors, on which CEOs of other corporations sit and happily approve astronomical pay deals for that company’s CEO, creating a standard that the CEOs who sit on their own corporations’ boards will obligingly meet)—all these have combined to raise CEO pay to dizzying, not to say nauseating, heights. Simultaneously, the weakening of unions was one among many factors that kept median worker pay from rising very much.

Honeywell’s 333-to-1 ratio is within the range of the ratios for all corporations that organizations that have sought to measure this have come up with in recent years: Most of the averages have ranged from 200-to-1 to 350-to-1. As the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) has noted, Honeywell actually didn’t include the pay of its employees in nations with developing economies in calculating its ratio, presumably because it didn’t want a ratio that could have topped, say, 500-to-1. IPS has cautioned that other corporations are likely to do the same.

One question that CEOs seldom address, partly because it’s too seldom asked, is why they deserve so much more than the CEOs who ran their companies 50 years ago, when the U.S. economy enjoyed a much more broadly shared prosperity than it does today. As the ratio of their pay to their employees’ has grown from 20-to-1 to 300-to-1, why are they worth, on a ratio basis, 15 times more than their mid-century predecessors? Is the American economy doing 15 times better than it was in 1968? Hardly. 


Armageddon by degree. I’m no expert in cyber-security, but I’ve given a lot of thought to the health of American democracy. It was in none too robust a condition even before Vladimir Putin let loose his army of covert trolls and bots to wreak havoc. Thus, anybody who cares about our democracy needs to care about cyber-security.

Lurking beneath the Mueller revelations about Russian disruption of the core of American democracy is a problem from hell. How do we prevent the Kremlin from either hijacking our process of deliberation with malicious, fake social media activism, or meddling with our patchwork system of elections generally?

Since all of this leads back to Putin, the most efficient way to shut it down would be to significantly raise the cost to Putin of continuing these badly disguised Kremlin operations. But how? Interviews with senior cyber-security experts and a reading of various reports and congressional testimonies suggest that the smartest people in the national security establishment feel stymied.

Both the Americans and the Russians have the capacity to take out each other’s vital systems that depend on internet-based controls—everything from national defense to civil aviation to the water supply to the banking system. We’ve seen this technique used very sparingly, as in the case of the Stuxnet worm that disabled Iranian centrifuges.

But for the most part, where the U.S. and Russia are concerned, there has been a tacit understanding of mutual restraint, not unlike the nuclear restraint given the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nobody would win a demolition derby to use cyber-warfare to destroy each other’s vital infrastructure.

But there the similarity ends. Putin breached that understanding when he decided to disrupt American democracy. And the smartest people in the room don’t know what to do about it.

The efforts late in the Obama administration to punish Russia by freezing some bank assets and banning some travel are pitiful. But should America take out, say, the Moscow subway? Or publish fake Russian news to embarrass Putin? Or just what?

Experts have been thrown back on the idea that it’s up to the social media platforms to police themselves, perhaps with some collaboration with government cyber agencies. This seems improbable. Can we really expect Facebook and Twitter to identify multi-camouflaged trolls? Having social media platforms try to play whack-a-mole is no substitute for a national strategy.

Our friend Art Goldhammer points to the case of a report in the German tabloid Bild, that the efforts of the left wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to get members to vote against the proposed Merkel-SPD coalition was abetted by Russian trolls. But then another, satirical publication claimed that it had hoaxed Bild. (And maybe that was itself a hoax by The Onion.)

We are in Hall of Mirrors land. The shortest distance between the mess we are in and a remedy to rescue democracy is posing unacceptable costs to Putin. A Nobel Prize awaits the people who figure out what that strategy is.


Maybe the kids can do what the grown-ups can’t: beat the GOP and the NRA.

The anti-gun-insanity Children’s Crusade (well, really, a teenagers’ crusade) that is emerging in reaction to the Parkland massacre has clear potential to a sweep away the roadblocks that congressional Republicans have long placed before any efforts to institute universal background checks on gun buyers and to ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons. Whatever the kids may be, they’re not the “other.” They’re not liberal elites or PC academics; most aren’t immigrants; more than half are white. They’re very hard to demonize, and their demand—stop killing us—doesn’t ring all that radical to the ear.

Remove demonization from the conservatives’ quiver, and you’ve all but disarmed the right. No longer able to shift the discussion to the secret agenda of the left, the NRAniks might actually have to debate the merits of, say, universal background checks—which 90 percent of the public supports. ‘Tis a conversation devoutly to be wished.

The kids have the potential to push the debate a little beyond that, too. Opposing all members of Congress who’ve taken the NRA’s pieces of silver (more than 30) extends the discussion, willy-nilly, to the absurdity of our campaign-finance system. And banning the sale of killing machines like the AR-15 could be accompanied by corresponding legislation that limits the sale of ammunition.

Take to the streets, kids, to the digital and actual soapboxes, and to precinct walking for candidates who’re opposing those incumbents who place a higher value on NRA endorsements than they do on your lives. You have real enemies in high places. You can really help oust them.


Our thoughts and prayers. One possibly redeeming consequence of the latest massacre of school children is that the scapegoating of mental illness and the parade of politicians who take NRA money expressing “thoughts and prayers” for dead children and grieving parents are wearing thin.

It’s time to take over the national narrative. These are not “shooters.” They are domestic terrorists. And this is not about balancing gun rights with other rights. It’s about keeping our children safe.

As I suggested the other day in this space discussing cuts in urgently needed social outlay, keeping guns from killing our children is ultimately about the right to life.

Progressives should keep applying that phrase to where it really fits, to the point where it loses all utility to anti-abortion zealots.

What’s the point of protecting the “unborn” when we fail to protect the living?


Pelosi, sí. Feinstein, no.

The above sloganeering is my response to an interview with me that was aired as part of a story on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday. Last week, the redoubtable Ina Jaffe, intrepid NPR veteran, called me to talk about Dianne Feinstein. The reason she called was that I had written an L.A. Times op-ed some months back noting that Feinstein, at 84, is the oldest member of the Senate, and at the time was considering running for another six-year term, which, if she won, would mean she’d be 91.7 years old when that term expired. I noted that would get her in just under the actuarial wire, since the average life expectancy for 84-year-old women is 92. I ended the column by suggesting Feinstein not run—counsel she didn’t take all that seriously, since she declared her candidacy a few days later.

Ina’s piece was focused on the age issue. What I also said in the column and the interview, however, was age wasn’t the main reason why DiFi shouldn’t go one more round. The chief reason was that the California she’s accustomed to representing no longer exists. It’s a far more liberal state than the one Feinstein has long been navigating by positioning herself on the center-right of the Democratic Party.

Unlike most of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, for instance, Feinstein voted to authorize the Iraq War. She was among the small minority of Democratic senators to vote for George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich—and those Democrats who also voted for them came from red or purple states, which California, then as now, was not.

Fortunately, Feinstein isn’t going unchallenged. While she has no Republican opponents, the president of the California Senate, Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de Leon, is running against her from the left. One of the three organizers of the massive anti-Proposition 187 demonstration in 1994, which marked the birth of the modern immigrant movement, de Leon is arguably the most accomplished and most progressive state legislative leader in the country. He’s the author of California’s sanctuary state law, of most of its far-reaching climate-change legislation, and last year steered a single-payer bill to passage in the Senate.

The conventional wisdom is that Feinstein is a shoo-in, but just this week, some of the state’s most powerful liberal institutions come election time—SEIU, which has 700,000 members in California, and the California Nurses Association—endorsed de Leon. SEIU and CNA are longtime rivals that seldom agree on anything. That the two most potent political players in California Democratic elections have both come out for de Leon—risking the ire of ostensible shoo-in Feinstein—speaks volumes about where they think the state is headed, and should be headed. Maybe DiFi isn’t a shoo-in after all.

And just to clear up this age business: I think Feinstein’s fellow San Franciscan, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who also has drawn criticism for getting long in the tooth, should stay right where she is. Like de Leon, Pelosi is a supremely able legislative leader, without whom Obamacare would never have been enacted, and whose politics are far more in sync with left-moving California than Feinstein’s.

Besides, Pelosi would have to win seven more terms to be as old as Feinstein would be at the end of her next Senate term. Hence:

Nancy, sí. DiFi, no.