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.