Archive | August, 2011

Why I’m Not Laughing with Jon Stewart

19 Aug

Jon StewartJon Stewart’s takedown of conservatives who complain that 51 percent of American households don’t pay any income taxes is getting a lot of laughs from the left. Color me unamused. On this one, I’m with the right. Well, sort of. Let’s just say—as a teacher used to say of my papers—they’re right for the wrong reasons.

It actually is a scandal that 51 percent of American households are not paying income taxes. Not because it means the majority of Americans are free-loaders but because it means the majority of Americans don’t make enough to money to pay taxes. (Though as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, that statistic comes from 2009, which wasn’t a good year for most Americans. Usually, the figure is somewhere between 35 and 40 percent, which still sucks. Also, the poor pay all sorts of other taxes, but that is a different issue.) More broadly, it means 1/2 the population doesn’t have the wherewithal to fund and sustain the basic operating costs of a democracy.  That’s not a system liberals ought to be defending.

Ever since Bill Clinton, one of liberals’ main strategies to improve the condition of the working poor has been the Earned Income Tax Credit, which bumps up low wages by essentially giving workers money in the form of  a tax refund.  (The EITC is also one of the reasons so many households don’t pay any taxes). That’s not a bad thing, as anti-poverty programs go.  But it’s become something of a fetish for Democrats who can’t stomach a real confrontation with the employing classes in this country. And that is a bad thing. It’s no accident that the EITC was first instituted in 1975. Though it was meant to address other issues, it was well timed to become the emblematic policy of an economy built on stagnant wages and a New Deal state in retreat.

Four decades later, wages are still stagnant, and the New Deal state is all but dead. So while I appreciate the class warfare of Stewart’s satire, I’m not eager to join the encampment he’s defending.

My Own Munchings (that’s for you, Mom)

18 Aug

I’m supposedly on vacation this week and next, yet I somehow find myself caught in the interwebs. Anyway, a few things of mine came out recently that you might have missed.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaOnce upon a time I wrote a book on fear. I hadn’t been thinking much about that book  in recent years, but Sasha Lilley, host of the fantabulous radio show “Against the Grain” out in the Bay Area, tracked me down for a one-hour interview about it. Turned out to be one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done, all thanks to Sasha’s excellent questions. It’s every author’s dream to be interviewed by someone like Sasha. You might want to check out some of her other interviews as well.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaComing on the heels of our roundtable on Obama, the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on the debt ceiling crisis. I’m glad they did because it gave me a chance to step back from the immediacy of Obama’s presidency and take the long view.  The really long view. Like 400 years long. So, by way of Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marx, I reach the conclusion that:

Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

Which prompted a friend of mine to ask: “Did that really take 400 years to prove?”  Tough crowd.

Had I had more space and time, I would have liked to have explored the idea, inspired by a conversation with Alex Gourevitch, whose blog is must reading, that there is a fundamental tension in a democracy between funding government operations through debt or taxes. It’s an old debate, which goes back to Jefferson, Hamilton, and Paine (and before that to the debates between the court and country parties in Britain).  But the current crisis cries out for revisiting those old themes. Alas, no time, no space.

One Less Bell to Answer: Further Thoughts on Neoliberalism By Way of Mike Konczal (and Burt Bachrach)

16 Aug

Mike Konczal has an excellent post on Mitt Romney’s proposal to replace unemployment benefits with unemployment savings accounts. The idea is: While you’re working, money would be automatically taken out of your paycheck and put into an individual account. When you’re unemployed, you could make withdrawals from it. As one of Konczal’s readers points out in the comments section, Romney’s proposal would merely add to the satchel of work-related accounts people already have—401k’s, IRA’s, education accounts, health care accounts, childcare accounts, and so on—and that weigh them down so much as it is. And that may be the point. But more on that in a minute.

Konczal uses Romney’s proposal to compare left-liberal approaches to the economy with the dominant neoliberal/capitalist model. Konczal offers five points of comparison, but his third is the most important:

The third is that it weakens the power of the unemployed.  Unemployment insurance increases the time until the unemployed take their next job.  Cutting-edge econometric research tells us that the majority of this is a “liquidity” effect as opposed to a work disincentive effect – people are taking the time they need in order to find the best job for themselves instead of taking the quickest job in order to make basic payments.  This gives the unemployed more choices and, as Acemoglu and Shimer argued, can create a better economy with more output and productivity.

However what is good for the economy isn’t necessarily better for any individual employer, and by empowering the unemployed and giving them breathing space to search for the best job also enables them to search for the best wage to go with their job.  Switching this system of unemployment insurance throws off this balance between workers and bosses in favor of the latter.  It reduces aggregate labor bargaining at a time when it is precariously weak.

As I’ve argued in the Nation, conservatives often claim that they stand for freedom, especially freedom of choice, and too often the left has conceded that terrain to them. In actual fact, as Konczal shows, it is the left that offers men and women the far greater, and more robust, freedom of choice. Not just in the bedroom or in cultural life but also in the realm of the economy. The freedom to take or leave a job, to bargain for better pay and benefits, to say no to the boss.

That ideal of freedom is exactly what the right hates about the left. Not the left’s demand for equality, at least not as that demand is often understood, but its demand for freedom. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” declared Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.”

But Konczal’s post reminds me that there is a deeper, more substantive, case to be made for a left approach to the economy. In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do.  We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

I’ve called this the neoliberal rather than the conservative view because though it arose on the right, it has long since migrated to the left, or at least the liberal part of the left. We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids—maybe it was Ezra Klein—tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking  complicated.

I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their 20s—whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it—could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

That’s not what the left wants.  We want to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it, without having to take a 30-year detour on Wall Street to get there. The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it. That’s what a good welfare state, real social democracy, does: rather than being consumed by life, it allows you to make your life. Freely. One less bell to answer, not one more.

Update (9:15 pm)

In talking with my wife Laura after I posted this, she commented that the whole neoliberal project was about outsourcing state functions onto the individual. Which reminded me of a realization I’ve only lately come to. When the left (and the right) uses the word “outsourcing”  or “subcontracting” or “privatization”—I know they all mean different thing, but they belong to the same family—we often mean that the state is shunting off its powers and practices to private corporations. Where before the city picked up the garbage, now it has private companies do it. Things like that.

But there’s a whole dimension of outsourcing that gets lost in this discussion. And that is what Laura was referring to: all the time and energy we as individuals now have to devote to doing the things that the state used to do for us. The right thinks of that as freedom—they hear the words “state is doing for you” and they imagine patients etherized on a table—but I think of it as tyranny. In fact, one of my FB friends, Sumanth Gopinath, wrote tonight to say, in response to this post, “Freedom is, in part, freedom from the tyranny of choice (as imposed by the market).” Indeed.

A version of this notion came home to me not long ago when my wife’s employer announced that they were changing their healthcare coverage. It used to be that our entire family—my wife, daughter, and I—were covered under her plan, which provided great insurance for fairly low cost. Very old school. Then the employer announced that from now on any member of the family—i.e., me—who was eligible for coverage from their employer would have to use that insurance first.  But, and here’s the kicker, if that insurance didn’t cover some particular procedure or doctor’s visit, then my wife’s insurance would cover it. So now, on certain procedures or visits, I have to submit two claims: one to my insurance, and then, once they refuse to provide coverage, one to my wife’s insurance.  And then, because we have one of those health care accounts that makes the right so giddy, I can submit a third claim to that company (in the event that my wife’s insurance does not provide full coverage).

One procedure, three claims, all to get what, in more mature democracies, would be mine by right. That’s some freedom.

Sam’s Club Republicanism Died Because It Never Had a Life to Live

15 Aug

National Review on Tim PawlentyNow that Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy is dead, the media is performing an autopsy on “Sam’s Club Republicanism.”

That’s the notion—made famous by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in a 2005 Weekly Standard article, which they later turned into a book—that the GOP needs to reconnect with the working-class and independent voters who made it a majority party under Nixon and Reagan. These voters are conservative, but they’re worried about paying their bills and making ends meet. They’re not opposed to government: they just want it to do something for them, as opposed to for the rich. As Pawlenty put it in 2002, the GOP needs “to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.” Thus was an idea—that’s conservative for branding strategy—born.

Sam’s Club Republicanism often gets touted as the brainchild of “a group of young conservative intellectuals,” but it was never more than a marketing ploy. And hardly a new one. Before the Sam’s Club Republican, there was the Reagan Democrat, the Silent Majority, or, going way back, William Graham Sumner’s Forgotten Man.

It’s not that there is no such thing as conservative ideas; I’ve written a whole book about them. It’s just that conservative ideas are born out of social cataclysms—the French Revolution, abolition, the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the 1960s—in which people with power lose power. Real concrete power: over peasants, slaves, workers, blacks, wives. Conservatism, strange as it may sound, is the voice of the dispossessed: the aristocrats, masters, employers, whites, and husbands who’ve had their power taken away from them and want it back.

Sam’s Club Republicanism is not a response to that kind of loss.  Nor is it a response, ultimately, to the travails of the working class. What it is a response to is the waning position of the GOP. As Douthat and Salam made clear in their original article, their concern is “the long-term political viability of the Republican party.”

But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program–Bush’s vision of an “ownership society,” the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan–have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It’s not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands–it’s that there’s shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.

Or as Matt Continetti put it in a 2007 Weekly Standard follow-up piece:

Behind all this new thinking [Sam’s Club Republicanism] lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.

That may be fine as electoral diagnosis, but it’s not the stuff from which conservative ideas are made. And without ideas, as every young conservative will tell you, the movement is nothing.

With Pawlenty out of the race, the various proponents of Sam’s Club Republicanism are now wondering what went wrong. The early consensus seems to be that Pawlenty was never true to Sam’s Club ideals. Referring to a National Review writer who once touted Pawlenty’s potential Sam’s Club street cred, Salam tweeted today, “I have to say, @timpawlenty could have gone much further if he had run according to the @RameshPonnuru playbook.”

But if Sam’s was a club even its founder never wanted to be a member of, perhaps it’s time the Mad Men of the GOP got themselves a brand new brand.

3 Reasons Why It Doesn’t Matter if Rick Perry is the New George W. Bush and 1 Reason Why It Does.

13 Aug

Everybody’s atwitter tonight about Rick Perry as the new George W. Bush. Here are four things to remember about Mr. Bush:

  1. He was not running against an incumbent.
  2. His opponent was loathed by the media and treated accordingly.
  3. He lost the election.
  4. He became president.


Ten Years On, We’re Still Getting Nickel and Dimed (and Still Can’t Pee on the Job)

9 Aug

Nickel and DimedOn the tenth anniversary of its publication, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is being re-released with a new afterword. Before reading Nickel and Dimed, I considered myself fairly well-versed in the coerciveness of the American workplace. But Ehrenreich schooled me in a whole other dimension of barbarism on the job: that, for example, in the United States workers do not enjoy a basic right, the right to go to bathroom when they need to go. Turns out, that’s a privilege, not a right. And it still is.

I reviewed Ehrenreich’s book, along with Jill Andresky Fraser’s White-Collar Sweatshop, in Dissent.  Based on the two books, I concluded thus:

Against critics—inspired by Michel Foucault—who focus on disciplinary institutions like prisons, hospitals, and schools, these books remind us that the workplace remains the central institution in most people’s lives. Foucault and his followers would have us believe that liberalism and the Enlightenment have vanquished the medieval world, and that discourses of freedom, reason, and individuality are the instruments of contemporary domination. But in the workplace, men and women are disciplined not by an impersonal panopticon but by the all-too personal figure of their boss. Liberalism is nowhere to be found, and Enlightenment might as well be the name of the utility company.

And thus:

Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.

The Economic Cure That Dare Not Speak Its Name

7 Aug

If you don’t know Gordon Lafer, you should. He’s an associate professor at the University of Oregon,  a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and in 2009-10 was a Senior Labor Policy Adviser to the House of Representatives. He’s also one of the leading experts in the country on the labor movement and labor politics. I asked him over the weekend to comment on a new report, just out in the American Sociological Review, that’s getting a lot of play in the mediaThis is what he had to say.

Last week a new report came out showing that economic inequality is largely caused by not enough people having unions.  For a dry statistical study, this one got a remarkable amount of press—with everyone from the New York Times to Salon to Daily Kos weighing in.  Even Science Daily ran a story.

The findings aren’t new—the question is what to do about them.

But these stories all have a weird quality.

Obviously, people are paying attention to this because the country’s going down, and we all know that one way or another we’re going to have to take something back from the rich if things are going to get better.

But none of these stories end by calling for support of current organizing drives, or for Obama to support organizing even in the ways that the administration can do unilaterally.  Instead, they all tiptoe around these obvious conclusions and then back away, content simply to give articulate descriptions of the country’s demise.  In part, this represents the triumph of right-wing propaganda.

For decades, the right has been hawking the line that unions are anachronistic and Americans just don’t like them anymore.  Despite the seriousness of this year’s Tea Party-fueled attacks, the right is wrong.

The same facts these professors proved with statistics are understood by non-academics just by looking around at the job market.  And people are not stupid.  Polls show that about 40 million non-union workers wish they had a union at work.  Whatever the right may say about the culture of individualism, the truth is that Americans still want collective power in the workplace.

The popular desire for unions is almost entirely invisible because it’s not translated into actual new unions being organized—though 40 million may want a union, less than 100,000 people a year are able to get one through the current Labor Board process.  But this doesn’t reflect a lack of interest on the part of workers.  Rather, it reflects the lengths to which employers go to stop them from getting a union—and thus the seriousness with which employers still take the threat of unions.

The decline of unions is primarily due to two things.  First, employers systematically and aggressively punish those who try to organize.  Every year, close to 20,000 American workers are fired, demoted or otherwise financially penalized for union activism.  Second, the process workers have to go through to form a union is heavily stacked against employees, and would be condemned as undemocratic if practiced in any foreign country.

These problems are not a fact of nature or an immutable characteristic of the globalized economy.  They are simply laws and regulations, and could be changed through normal politics.

Oddly enough, some on the left seem to be joining the corporate right in declaring that unionization is irrelevant.  Smart bosses have long practiced the line that unions might have been great for sweatshop workers and turn-of-the-century coal miners but have no place in the modern economy.  Their voices are now complemented by people like Mother JonesKevin Drum, who notes the impact of deunionization but declares it a lost cause: “Mass unionization is gone, and it’s not coming back,” Drum tells us. “This means we still need something to take its place, and we still don’t have it.  Until we do, the progressive movement will continue to tread water.”

It’s possible that Drum’s historical vision will turn out to be right—it’s certainly hard to be optimistic right now.  But why pick this time to preemptively declare defeat?  There is certainly no easier path waiting for us. Whatever alternative might take the place of unions will face no less ferocious opposition from the business class. And the corporate lobbies clearly think unionization is still sufficiently potent that it’s worth pouring tens of millions of dollars into preventing their employees from organizing.  In this context—and with no alternative plan—Drum’s declaration functions as an invitation for lefty intellectuals to feel justified in doing nothing while they float around in the pool.

The truth is that there is no physical, economic or historical reason to declare unions a thing of the past.  Millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost due to global trade, and most are not coming back.  But manufacturing only accounts for about 15% of the economy.  The rest of the economy includes big industries that are immobile and profitable enough to pay decent wages—health care, education, construction, tourism, transportation, mining, agriculture, real estate, even a lot of retail.  This is the economy that’s not susceptible to globalization and where most Americans make their living.  There is no natural or economic reason that these workers couldn’t form unions and these jobs couldn’t be better paying.

The corporate lobbies are aware of this—and that’s why they are pouring big resources into preventing even modest improvements in workers’ ability to organize at the workplace.

Most recently, the National Labor Relations Board has proposed making a few small changes to the rules governing how workers can form unions—changes that would make it easier to organize, and would make the process look more like elections to Congress and less like the phony elections of totalitarian regimes abroad.

The corporate counterattack has been predictably ferocious. Calling the proposed changes a “blatant attempt to give unions the upper hand,” the US Chamber of Commerce announced it will file suit to block the rules from going into effect. Congressional Republicans moan that the changes will drive jobs out of the country.

What these corporate whores are really opposed to, of course, is not some bureaucratic policy change but the awful prospect of regular old Americans actually having a bit of power. As Republican Congressman Jeff Landry explained to Fox News, the new rules are like putting “a big old sign out in America that says ‘Listen, employers beware – employees will run your company!’”

From his mouth to God’s ear.

But if the specter of organized workers is powerful enough to trouble corporate lawyers and Fox talking heads, it should be enough to stop those on the left from taking early retirement to their armchairs.


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