#DoYourJob Revisited

Remember Kim Davis? The woman who refused the Supreme Court’s order to legally wed same-sex couples in Kentucky? She received a lot of flack at the time, not all undeserved. But much of it was under the hashtag/meme #DoYourJob.

This week the House Democrats broke the law. They sat down on the floor of the House and refused calls to order until Speaker Paul Ryan allowed a vote on key gun control. The protocol in such a situation, in case you were wondering, is for the Speaker to warn them and then have them arrested by the Sargent at Arms. The issue for Speaker Ryan is that arresting key Democrats, rule of law or no, would cause a firestorm. Instead he just called a vote to go on vacation a week early. (Congress: where arresting lawbreakers looks worse than taking an extra week of vacation.)

Liberals (this one included) have greeted this very favorably. People have pointed out that as far as hills to die on go, the terror watch list really is not the best one, but on the other hand standing up to the gun lobby is a nice change of pace. The point is that liberals are not exactly lining up over the idea that House Democrats should just fall in line with the status quo.

Look, I think like with a lot of memes, there is a charitable reading to all of this. For many, #DoYourJob was shorthand for “we won this fight, we agree with the status quo now, we have the mandate, now fall in line”. For some, though, it was about rule of law—which I found galling even at the time. LGBT people have been on the receiving end of unjust laws for a long time, and we rightly celebrated officials who risked property and liberty to push for those changes.

It is hard not to a see a certain hypocrisy in those who felt Kim Davis should specifically bow to the rule of law but the Senate Dems are heroes.

Trump, Malice, and Stupidity

Rachel Maddow has put forward the argument that Donald Trump is basically running for president as a scam. The video is well-evidenced and well-reasoned and well worth the ten minutes she spends going through both the evidence and the context. Basically, he is spending a lot of money on his own stuff and a lot of time promoting his own goods. Finally, a lot of shady Republicans run on this model.

I do not completely buy it, though.

I think that Trump just does not know how to run for president. He’s running on a book tour model not to make a ton of money, but because that is what he knows. I think the fact that he is making a ton of money off it is the cost of doing business for him—precisely because it is typical on a book tour. And between the fact that he is notoriously hard-headed and no one questions large sums of money being thrown at them the way they should…he keeps on doing it.

It is possible this is an explicit racket. But it just looks an awfully lot like not knowing how politics works to me. People have been saying from day one that Trump cannot be serious, but the simpler explanation has always been that he is an incompetent hothead who happens to say what people want to hear.

Which, to be fair, is not actually comforting.

Venezuela and Bernie Sanders

Wander down into the comments on any American news source about the crisis unfolding in Venezuela, and you will find a flame war about socialism in America. This is either A Completely Unfair Comparison or The Shape of Things to Come. In a move that will surely shock you, I would like to say both sides are wrong. I skew towards those who say it is unfair, but there are some real considerations to be had.

Socialism is a highly developed, varied, and defensible economic tradition. The elevator pitch goes like this: All value begins with labor. When we purchase something, we should be paying for the sum of all labor that contributed to it. However, the non-labor “owners” of companies raise prices and take a cut, creating a capital class that is essentially stealing from the labor class. This means that in order to achieve a fair and prosperous society, we must abolish capital and the capital class*.

Depending on how exactly you flesh out the nuances around “value”, some practical techniques for estimating a proper socialist price emerge. (Ironically, it is Marx’s formulation that is the hardest, if not downright impossible, to work with.) For example, most capitalists who recommend certain industries socialize recommend setting the price at the average cost.

The point for this piece is not to bore with the finer points of actually calculating value. The point is that the Maduro government seems not to have bothered with them either. They have taken a rather fast and loose interpretation of Marx’s idea that there is a social value and sort of…guessed at it? The application of prices in Venezuela has been fairly haphazard and more about what Maduro feels these things should cost.

The trouble is that price controls are tricky. First of all, in most cases lowering prices will cause a shortage—if firms are making less money, they will sell less. This is how a country runs out of toilet paper after a toilet paper price ceiling. Where this gets complicated is what it does to other industries. If you put a price control on peanut butter, people will buy less jelly and drive the price down. If you put a price floor on steak, the shortage will lead to people eating more hamburger and drive the cost of that up. If you do multiple price floors, they start interacting with each other in very hard to predict ways. The more price floors, the more precision that is required to make a judgement. This is a piece of the puzzle of what undid the Soviet Union; they could not keep up with the information requirements of central planning as corruption spread.

The practical impact of this is that Venezuela is doing very little to mitigate the very real problems of central planning and price controls, mostly by denying that they exist. Most serious socialists recognize that you cannot just magic your way into a functioning economy. You must properly plan your central planning. I’m the capitalist in the room, but I’ll defend socialists from Maduro. Venezuela has a political problem, and any Marxist worth their weight in labor can tell you that capitalism develops political problems too. Nationalizing their oil reserves gave them a good deal of cash to work with and some flexibility in offsetting the costs of other nationalizations and price controls. It is a pity they squandered that with bad policy.

I’m not going to entirely let the Americans saying there are no lessons for Sanders and his supporters off the hook. I took a lot of flack for saying that Sanders needed to be more specific about how he was going to control prices at colleges and universities as well as in health care. Sanders is doing something different from the Maduro government, promising to pay for the market prices on some key goods. The issue is that the plain wording of Sanders’ plans suggests he will make no attempt to control costs. This suggests one of two things:

  1. He has no plan to control costs. Sanders is writing a blank check, one that the private market will take the taxpayer for a good ride on. This is a bad plan.
  2. He is being intransparent about his theory of value. As Venezuela has proven, knowing how your leaders plan to set policy is important to deciding if they have a good plan. His habit of playing nice with American revolutionaries means some extra scrutiny is in order.

I often rail against equivalence—the existence of two sides is not proof that the middle is right. But this is a case where averaging the two poles will get you closer to the truth. The Maduro government is doing socialism really badly and is something of an exceptional case. On the other hand, Sanders has not really told us how he will avoid those pitfalls and may therefore be headed straight for them. I skew towards defending Sanders because Maduro’s government is definitely off base, but Sanders only might be.

So while I’m definitely a capitalist and definitely skeptical of Sanders’ loftier claims, Venezuela is not some prophetic vision of what would happen if we elected a socialist.




*This is closer to Marx’s predecessors. Depending on how you read Marx, he either adds a number of qualifications about what we mean by the value from labor or qualifies himself into a tautology. The elevator pitch, no matter how you interpret several hundred years of economic thought, simplifies a lot.

50, Not 49

We are not going to ever completely understand the Orlando massacre. That is okay. We are going to tell a lot of stories about it to try and grasp at what happened, but the truth is that the death of 50 people—you will see there are good reasons I am not taking Omar Mateen out of the count—should not make sense to people who are not inclined to mass murder. To start us towards understanding, though, I would like to talk about three of the stories we are telling.

The first is that Omar Mateen is not a Muslim. This story is being told by both Muslims and progressives. We will see that it hurts queer people in profound ways. The second story is that Omar Mateen is not himself queer. (Where between gay, bi, and straight he would fall if he could have chosen those words for himself is anyone’s guess.) The evidence is mounting that he was looking for relationships with men and some LGBT people are quick to other him. Finally, the third story is that Omar Mateen was mentally ill. What ties these stories together is the insistence that Omar Mateen was not one of us.

Muslims and progressives who say Omar Mateen was not a Muslim are playing a dangerous game. It is a no-true-Scotsman fallacy wrapped up in theology. The essential point that murdering 49 people extra-legally in the month of Ramadan is widely considered a heinous crime is worth your consideration. And then you must consider that LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims widely report domestic violence from their parents, siblings, and extended families. This sort of violence from Muslims against queer people may be theologically unsound, but that Muslims and progressives are rushing now to remind people of that is telling. I invite everyone who discovered the importance of this theology this week to dedicate some time to understanding and maybe dismantling these structures. I expect to be disappointed by their inaction.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy more on display than from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have condemned the shooting in Orlando, to which I will say: no thanks. What they meant by their condemnation was that it is a shame that this man acted outside of the law. Saudi Arabia prescribes floggings and hangings to LGBT people and they are hardly the only Muslim majority state to do so. I doubt it was in error that they forgot to announce that they are reversing those laws.

With this in mind, we arrive at the next story: the fact that Omar Mateen was probably a victim too. Please, hear me out. I know many of you reading this are angry and hurt and you are angry and hurt because of the terrible, monstrous thing Omar Mateen did. I am asking you to do the thing that Omar Mateen failed to do for his 49 victims and imagine that he too was a person with all of the complexity and faults that come with that. If you are not ready, I understand. Go, grieve. But I hope you make your way back.

If we accept that part of Omar Mateen’s story is homophobia in Islam and that part of his story is that he was gay, then you begin to see how he got caught in the middle. Witnesses said he was angry at the way his father treated him and the strictures he placed on him. They say that he frequented and drank at the club and had a Grindr account. They say he abused both of his wives. I would think LGBT people more than anyone would recognize that the kind of hate he had is the kind of hate that can only come from hating yourself.

We only diminish the lives of his victims if we pretend that this is an excuse. It is not. But we have to acknowledge the ways he was likely caught between his father’s very Muslim homophobia and his own sexuality. After all, it takes more than a casual discomfort to find ISIS more appealing than your own family. We must take the radical position that violence rarely happens in a vacuum, that Omar Mateen was passing along the violence visited upon him. When Muslims say that he no place in Islam because he was gay, they cut the next Omar Mateen off from their community. It is scared, isolated young men who commit these attacks—a shout-out to everyone ringing the alarm about how toxic masculinity is part of this story.

I risk equivalence by pointing out that LGBT communities have trouble with access. Clubs like Pulse are an important part, but they are not a place that one can find oneself without help. People of color and people from a conservative religious background have trouble finding their way to queer spaces in a healthy way. The places we do the best at offering resources are colleges and universities, unsurprisingly the places for the privileged. Opening more doors for people like Omar Mateen sooner will save lives. It is, I am at pains to repeat, neither equivalent to the homophobia he faced nor an excuse. But we should nonetheless renew our commitment to access.

The final story I would like to talk about is the story of mental illness. This country must do better for its mentally ill, but Omar Mateen was not counted among their ranks. Remember, he underwent an extensive psychological examination to become a security guard and was declared sane. To be sure, it may well have been in error; people of color have trouble getting diagnosed and mistakes happen. But all evidence points to the fact that Mateen was sane by any normal standard of the word.

That we want him to not be is just one more way that we are telling stories that close doors on him. It is natural, after all, to separate ourselves from his violence. But we must reckon with the fact that Omar Mateen was one of us. If he was not, it is choices we made. Homophobia separated him from his family and his faith. The patchwork of support for LGBT people was not enough. Our culture gave him violence as his expression and made guns easy to get.

To forget any part of these stories, stories about how we closed doors on Omar Mateen, is to forget why the last door he opened was at gay nightclub. The call to focus on the victims and forget his name, while well-intentioned, is a call to forget why they died. It is a call to forget the deep homophobia that is killing many LGBT people worldwide every year. It is a call to forget that LGBT people have the unfair responsibility to build a more inclusive community. We honor his victims much more by throwing wide the doors of our communities and building better ones.

I am heartbroken.

I am heartbroken 49 times because someone walked into a gay nightclub and killed 49 people. But I am also heartbroken because it is clear that the communities Omar Mateen should have been welcomed in failed him.

And for that reason I am heartbroken not 49 times over, but 50.