Archive | July, 2011

The Great Neoliberalism Debate of 2011 Has Now Been Resolved ( I Think This is What They Call Beating a Dead Horse)

30 Jul

Though the Great Neoliberalism Debate of 2011 now seems like yesterday’s news—probably because it is—the second-quarter GDP estimates that were just released should bring us back to where that debate began: with a question about what is the “single best thing” the government could do to create jobs and stimulate the economy.

In case you haven’t heard, things suck: almost no growth at all.  As all the commentary makes clear, the major problem is low consumer demand and falling government spending.  People aren’t spending the money they don’t have; businesses aren’t spending the money they do have; government is not spending the money it could have. As all the commentary makes equally clear, there is a solution: government action on the fiscal front.  Government needs to spend, government needs to hire. That will put money into people’s pockets, pump up consumer demand, and push firms to hire.

Hmm, I seem to recall someone saying something similar not so long ago.

Interestingly, in the face of this latest economic news, I haven’t heard many people running to the Fed and demanding that it increase its inflation targets—a proposal that sounds increasingly like a solution in search of a problem.

America, Where Selling Out is the Right Thing to Do

28 Jul

In an excellent piece about Obama’ s troubled relationship with his liberal base, Ta-Nehisi Coates hints at something I’ve long felt but have yet to see discussed in print:

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously.

Among the pundits and the polite, there’s no greater virtue for a political leader than to break with his base and embrace some point or principle of the opposition. In practice, at least since the 1970s, this has meant Democratic politicians getting praise for breaking with their liberal base (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and Republican politicians getting praise for working with their conservative base (Reagan, Bush).

But even if the principle were universally applied, it would still make little sense. Though this is certainly not the only way to think of morality, we  usually assume that a good deed or virtuous act requires some kind of sacrifice or imposes some sort of difficulty on the doer or the actor.You know, I give up a portion of my time or income to help out the homeless shelter down the street. I don’t, but you get the idea.

What’s odd about the pundit principle is that betraying one’s friends, allies, and beliefs for the sake of personal advance is the easiest thing to do. That’s why politicians, at least on the left, do it every day. Pundits do it too; that’s how they get to be pundits. In fact, you might say it’s the American Creed, what William James famously described as “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success.”

But in the eyes of the pundits, selling out is the hardest—and therefore the right—thing to do. And you know what? I don’t think they’re being insincere; I think they really believe it.

That’s the craziness—or genius—of America. We take a vice, and make it a virtue.

Making Love to Lana Turner on an Empty Stomach (and Other Things That Caught My Eye)

25 Jul

Kirk Douglas

In my first year of grad school, I read Naming Names, Victor Navasky’s study of the blacklist in Hollywood. That, and Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy, made me a permanent junkie for all things McCarthy. The blacklist was a shameful episode in American history, but it had its bright spots.  One of them was Kirk Douglas, who helped break it by insisting that the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive the screenwriting credit for Spartacus.  The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is now honoring the 94-year-old Douglas with its Freedom of Expression Award. Douglas discusses his experiences with Spartacus—as well as being Jewish in Hollywood—here.  Best quote from Douglas: “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

A Sculpture of Two Women Kissing

Bill DeresiewiczOne of my favorite critics is Bill Deresiewicz. He’s got a newish book on Jane Austen, writes reviews for the Nation, and blogs at The American Scholar. “Severity of judgment is a great virtue,” wrote Blake, and Deresiewicz’s judgments are severe. But he’s also an irrepressible enthusiast, capable of a tremendous warmth and generosity of spirit that are infectious. As you can see in his take on who the real Greatest Generation is, and the monument to them he’d like to see in DC: “a sculpture of two young women kissing—right there, right on the National Mall.”

Terrorist or Talmudic Scholar

Islamophobia is hardly new, but the terrorist attacks in Norway have  shone new light on it and the hard-right ideologues in the US  (and elsewhere) who promote it. The attention is welcome, but this lead in today’s New York Times—in a piece strangely titled “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.” (“thought” seems an awfully fancy word for what goes on in those corners of the blogosphere; would the Times call something comparable “Anti-Semitic Thought”?)—caught my eye:

The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.

“Warned” is a peculiar choice. Warnings tend to come from one of two quarters: those with authority (cops) or those with vision (Cassandras).  These racist anti-Muslim bloggers have neither. “Warned” grants them both, suggesting they are in a position to see something coming down the road that the rest of us can’t, won’t, or don’t see. That combination of “small group” and “for years” only enhances the suggestion, conveying a sense of a lonely band of brothers, prophets without honor in their own country, steadfastly preaching the word to those who can’t, won’t, or don’t listen.  Then there’s that “deeply influenced,” as if the terrorist were a Talmudic scholar, immersing himself in the texts of Ibn Ezra late into the night.

If you think I’m making too much of this, just imagine reading the following sentence about Mohamed Atta a few days after 9/11:

The man accused of leading the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was deeply influenced by a small group of Arab bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from American power…


One of the most painful scenes to behold is an encounter—a conversation, debate, colloquy—between  individuals of mismatched intellect. In the past week, I’ve had occasion to witness two.

Wendy KoppDiane Ravitch is an educational historian and former under secretary of education; Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America. No one knows more about education in America than Ravitch; no one knows more about hucksterism than Kopp. Ravitch is sharp, Kopp a charlatan. The two were brought together at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Take a look, have a listen, and pour yourself a drink.

Janet MalcolmJanet Malcolm is one of the smartest, shrewdest, and most disturbing voices in American journalism today. Katie Roiphe made herself famous in the 90s with an anti-feminist attack on the idea of date rape, which Katha Pollitt summarily dispatched in the New Yorker. She has since tried to reinvent herself as a woman of letters.  She could give Norman Podhoretz—of Making It fame—a run for his money (except that Podhoretz really did hoist himself up the greasy pole of success; Roiphe has always depended on the kindness of connections). Malcolm and Roiphe were brought together by the Paris Review. Have a look, and pour yourself another drink.

Norwegian Terrorist Knows His Conservative Canon

24 Jul

Anders Behring BreivikAnders Behring Breivik, the guy who’s confessed to the Norwegian terrorist bombings, doesn’t just have ideas about multiculturalism and Muslim immigration (in case you haven’t heard, he’s not crazy about either)—though you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage, which focuses almost exclusively on Breivik’s identitarian interests.  Breivik also has a fair amount to say about capitalism and its critics.  In his lengthy manifesto, he proffers opinions about Naomi Klein (dislikes) and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (likes). He also seems more than passingly familiar with some of the leading figures of conservative thought like Roger Scruton. I haven’t had time to immerse myself in Breivik’s statement—it’s 1500 pages!—but from the bits I’ve read, it’s clear that there’s more here than Islamophobia.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Come Sit Next to Me

22 Jul

Jean Claude BrizardThe head of Chicago’s public schools, Jean Claude Brizard, says that he “applauds” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to send his kids to private school.

Okay, I get that this is politics and he can’t openly criticize the mayor. But applause?  How about “It’s none of my business”? Or “no comment”?

And how does Brizard square that applause with this?

It’s really his decision and I don’t think anyone should question what he’s doing for his family and every parent should have that choice.

Okay, so if the mayor’s choices for his kids are off limits, why should we applaud them? Why not, you know, maintain a respectful—and judgmental—silence?

Why Aren’t There More Union Members in America? A Reply to Will Wilkinson

21 Jul

Will Wilkinson is awfully confident that the labor movement doesn’t have a future in America because…Americans don’t want it to have a future in America.

Now, if you ask me, the combination of continually increasing global competitiveness and the peculiarly individualistic tenor of American public opinion makes the prospect of revitalising organised labour exceedingly unlikely. Organised labour still has plenty of fight in it, and no doubt it will win some important battles in the coming months and years. But the war is long lost, I’m afraid. No matter how hard the left claps for Tinkerbell Local #272, she’s not getting up.

Well, I didn’t ask him, but he did ask me.  In a Twitter exchange, where I said to him that union-busting has a lot to do with the past, present, and future of the labor movement in America. Wilkinson asked for cites; I gave him one and then told him to email me if he wanted more.  He didn’t.  So I’ll provide them here.

But first let’s remember a few things.

1.  Polls shows that a majority of non-managerial workers want to be represented by a union.  Richard Freeman, the Harvard economist who’s studied this issue more than anyone else, shows that in 2005, 53 percent of those workers, if given the opportunity, would have voted for union representation in a union election.  That, he argues, would have produced a unionization rate of 58 percent.

So why is the unionization rate more like 12 percent and decreasing everyday?

2.  Employers rely on a highly sophisticated “union-avoidance” industry to make sure those workers don’t get their unions.  Union-busters try to stop elections from being held.  If elections are held, they try to make sure—through threats, intimidation, and other illegal means—workers don’t vote for the union. If workers make it clear that they will vote for the union, they get fired, harassed, demoted, and so on.  Gordon Lafer, the University of Oregon political scientist who is one of the leading experts on union elections, estimates that 1 in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union.  And, of course, the ramifications of those individual incidents extend far beyond the worker or even the workplace: when they see what happens to one pro-union worker, other workers (or workers in other workplaces) aren’t likely to step up or speak out in support of a union.

3.  Even when employers don’t break the law, election campaigns are overwhelmingly stacked against unions. Union election campaigns that are run according to the letter of the law, Lafer demonstrates, are more like the kinds of elections we used to see in the Soviet Union, and certainly don’t conform to the election standards the United States claims to uphold around the world.

4.  More generally, labor law excludes about a quarter of the American workforce, rendering many workers ineligible for union representation.  As the authors of this report argue:

There are 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce. Our research found that of these employees, 33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.

Now, it could be that Americans in their heart of hearts don’t really want unions, that they’re the individualists  everyone from Will Wilkinson to Will Wilkinson thinks they are.  (Okay, that was unfair: lots of smart people, like Louis Hartz, make the same mistake as Wilkinson.)  But until American workers are given an opportunity to register what they think on these matters, in the workplace but absent coercion and intimidation, I’ll take a pass on what Will Wilkinson thinks on these matters.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of Wilkinson; he’s a smart and charming fellow. (Our little Twitter exchange prompted my clearly delighted 3-year-old daughter to run around the apartment shouting, “Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?  Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?”) It’s just that there’s a vast body of research out there—and really smart people like Lafer, Freeman, Kate Bronfenbrenner, Dorian Warren, and others—that Wilkinson might want to consult before he speculates any further on the inner recesses of the American mind.

If you’re interested in reading more about all this, check out these sources:

Paul Weiler, Governing the Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)

Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, What Workers Want (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1999) [there may be a later edition of this]

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 8


Update (2:30 pm)

While I was working on this post, I got an email from Wilkinson asking me for the cites I had tweeted him about. I didn’t see the email before this post went live, so wanted to correct the record here.  Note to self: check your email before you get splenetic. At least on the interwebs.

Why the Left Gets Neoliberalism Wrong: It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

19 Jul

Margaret ThatcherLeft critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.

But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s OwnHere’s the buildup to that infamous quote:

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…

It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial.  Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.

Thatcher isn’t alone in this.  For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim.  When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.  And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.

Milton FriedmanHere’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:

The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)

And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:

It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences.  The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about.  What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.

Ronald Reagan: Magic Man

19 Jul

Ronald Reagan“You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, ‘This could be the start of something big.'” (Radio Address, April 24, 1982)

Or, as the other song says:

Cold late night so long ago
When I was not so strong you know
A pretty man came to me
Never seen eyes so blue…

Doug Henwood: His Taste in Music is a Little Doctrinaire, but His Economics is Outta Sight

16 Jul

Doug HenwoodThose of you following this discussion between me, Matt Yglesias, and Mike Konczal, need to check out this post from Doug Henwood. It not only cuts through a lot of the fat, but it also takes us in a completely different, unexpected, and difficult direction, raising fascinating questions about the petit bourgeois origins and dimensions of the politics of inflation.  Doug is my rabbi in all things economic (though, sadly, we part ways on matters musical).  Check it out, comment there, here, everywhere.

To my astonishment, this debate, or a spin-off of this debate, seems to have been kicked upstairs.  Way upstairs.  As in Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong upstairs.

Update (July 18, 12:30 pm)

And now the boys—and, seriously, there are an awful lot of boys in this debate; never realized just how male-dominated these types of discussion are—over at Crooked Timber are getting in on this.  Fascinating discussion over there; check it out.

Update (3:30 pm)

And more debate over here at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Update (4:15 pm)

And here from Will Wilkinson, who seems to think he’s schooling us all with his considered notion that nothing lasts forever and things change, and here from Kevin Drum.  And Yglesias has yet another post.

The Way We Weren’t: My Response to Yglesias’ Response to My Response to His Response to My Response

16 Jul

Misty Water Colored Memories of New Deal Social Solidarity and Public InvestmentPrompted by this post from Mike Konczal, Matt Yglesias has weighed in again on our debate about what the government should do to create jobs. But it turns out that’s not what we’re debating.  What we’re really debating, says Yglesias, is monetary policy: specifically, whether the left should care about it.

Yglesias thinks we should, and I gather I’m supposed to think we shouldn’t. Instead of confronting the real impact monetary policy has on jobs, inequality, and so on, I, like my brothers and sisters on the left, have allowed my “romance with the idea of the Works Progress Administration,” the misty water-colored memory of New Deal “social solidarity” and “public investment,” to blur my thinking about what would actually improve the material prospects of middle- and working-class people. That’s a shame, says Yglesias (and Konczal says the same thing), because historically monetary policy was the subject of heated debate, a debate the left has now ceded to the right because of its romance with the way we were.

To be fair: Yglesias isn’t explicitly talking about me here, at least I don’t think he is, but he’s talking about people I gather he thinks are like me—and perhaps a sensibility he detects in my posts.

I have some thoughts about these larger ideological questions.  But before I share them, it’s important to remember how we got here. This exchange was prompted by a debate about what government should do to create jobs, specifically, Yglesias’ response to the question “What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?”

Yglesias proposed that the Fed increase its inflation targets. I offered several concrete, practical reasons why I didn’t think that was the single best thing government could do, and proposed instead that the government should just create jobs. Given the obvious benefits of a jobs program, and the fact that Yglesias’ proposal seemed to have so little to recommend it as a jobs program (it might have other benefits, as Yglesias and Konczal have argued, but I still don’t see the jobs), I was moved to speculate on the ideological dimensions—”the Reaganite temper”—of Yglesias’ thinking on these matters.

This back story is important for two reasons. First, in his three responses to my original post, Yglesias hasn’t addressed the concrete objections I’ve raised to his proposal. The closest he has come (and Konczal makes a similar argument) is to say that any jobs programs could be easily counteracted by tight-fisted policies of the Fed. That’s true and would be worrisome if it occurred (though Bernanke seems to want some kind of stimulus from the government, so I’m not sure it would actually happen in this case). But it doesn’t really support the claim that increasing inflation now is the best—or even a—thing government could do to create jobs. Nor does it counter the objections I raised to that proposal.

Second, Yglesias seems to believe my objections to his proposal are primarily ideological. As he puts it:

I’d been asked to write something for The Atlantic, so I wrote something couched in technocratic language, and Robin was really objecting to me on thematic/ideological grounds.

But as I said, I was more struck by the disparity between the concrete flaws in his proposal and the obvious benefits of a jobs program—benefits, I should add, neither Yglesias nor Konczal have disputed; in fact, they both support jobs programs—and that’s what led me to raise the larger ideological/thematic questions about his proposal. My objections, in other words, were not primarily ideological or thematic, though they did lead me to raise ideological/thematic questions.

In a different situation, I could see the benefits of increasing inflation targets. Based on my discussions with Doug Henwood, who’s really done the heavy lifting here and should be brought more forcefully into this discussion, we don’t seem to be in that situation. Yglesias’ insistence on approaching the problem of jobs through the Fed’s inflation’s targets seems more of a symptom of his ideology, whatever it is, than my focus on a jobs program is of mine.

But since the question of ideology has been raised, let’s go there.  I really appreciate what Konczal and Yglesias have to say about monetary policy and why the the left should care about it. And I can see why my initial characterization of Yglesias’ position as Reaganite may have been too hasty.

For Yglesias and even more so for Konczal, monetary policy—and raising inflation targets—can be a form of dispossession, a way of countering the power of wealth and restoring power to the debtor, the single mom maxed out on her credit card, the mortgage-strapped homeowner; a way of forcing the rich to do something productive (like hire people) with their wealth; and a way of supporting strong fiscal policies that put people to work.

Some of that is fine, as far as it goes—Doug has some genuine concerns about this reliance on inflation as a mode of equalizing our fates and fortunes that seem quite real to me—and I don’t really know of anyone on the left (I’ve been asking around over the last few days) who would disagree that good monetary policy can be a critical supplement to good fiscal policy.  Nor do I know of anyone on the left who thinks that monetary policy is “technical,” to respond to Yglesias’ charge, which I found a little bizarre; I mean, say what you will about the left, it’s not exactly known for thinking anything in the economy is merely technical or apolitical.

But here’s where we do have an ideological disagreement. The reason why leftists like myself emphasize fiscal policy over monetary policy is that we ultimately approach the problem of inequality as not merely a question of money (who has it and who doesn’t) but as a problem of power, of relationships between individuals and classes.

We’d like to see people who work for other people make more money on the job, have more options for employment (including government work), more unions and collective bargaining, and more taxation and regulation of the wealthy — not just so that the poor or the working and middle classes can enjoy the good things in life (though that’s critical) but also so that they can have more power on the job, against the men and women who have the greatest day-to-day say in their lives.

I totally see what Konczal is saying about enhancing the power of debtors, and that’s critical for individual and family finances, but here’s what a credit card company or a bank holding your mortgage can’t do to you: it can’t tell you to be at work at 8 am; it can’t tell you have to stay after work when you have to get home to your kids; it can’t tell you when to pee in a cup (for a drug test) or when you can’t pee (because there’s no bathroom break allowed); it can’t tell you can’t sport a political bumper sticker on your car; it can’t tell you to stand up or sit down, to speak out or shut up; it can’t run your day-to-day, minute-to-minute life the way an employer can.

I realize this may seem far afield from the concerns of Yglesias, though I suspect much less so to Konczal.  But if you want a single reason why leftists prefer to enhance the material prospects of the vast majority through fiscal as opposed to monetary policy it is that we see money as a form—and subset—of power: not just the power to actualize your dreams or to achieve some kind of abstract parity with some faraway class of wealthy people, but the power to oppose and resist and challenge those who have the greatest power over your day-to-day lives.

So, here’s what a government jobs program would mean to us: less unemployment, absolutely; greater stimulus and multiplier effects, absolutely; but, beyond those specific economic indices, it would also mean greater chances of unionization; better options (often) for pay and benefits; greater options for exit from bad private-sector work and thus, in the long run, better options for voice and power at that work.

Government jobs are obviously not a panacea, especially not on their own, but when they’re part of a larger package of increased labor rights, tighter regulation, higher minimum wage, greater taxation, more generous unemployment and social welfare policies, they add up to a vision in which the masters of the universe have to contend with more—and different—men and women than they heretofore have had to contend with.

You can certainly disagree with or dislike that vision, but that is the vision.  Not a romantic dream of public investment or a false memory of social solidarity, but a hard-headed, gritty—dare I say realistic?—understanding of how power works on and off the job, and a desire, which may or may not be realistic, to change that.

When Yglesias says that the left lacks a political analysis of money and the money supply, he’s thinking of an analysis that would distinguish Republican from Democrat.  At the dawn of the republic, he points out, Hamiltonians and Jefersonians divided over monetary policy, and so on down to Populists and FDR.  Today, he says, it is only the Republicans who have a distinctively political analysis of money, i.e., an analysis of money that marks them as Republican or conservative.

Yglesias might be right about the Republicans, but I would urge him to develop a genuinely political analysis of money: not one that marks him as a Democrat or liberal or whatever he wants to call himself, but one that addresses politics in the deepest sense of power as it lived and experienced in the day to day lives of men and women.


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