Archive for October, 2013

Libertarianism From Above and Below

October 30th, 2013  |  Published in Politics

The Public Religion Research Institute recently released a report on the 2013 edition of its American Values Survey, in which they attempt to define and analyze libertarians as a distinct constituency in American politics. But what the report reveals is that when we talk about libertarianism, we’re talking about two distinct phenomena. There’s an ideology with a handful of wealthy backers and a canon rooted in Hayek and Mises; call this one “libertarianism from above”. There’s also an identity claimed by an increasing number of people, call that one “libertarianism from below”. And it turns out that they are very different things.

The survey is about libertarianism as seen from above. That is, it is not primarily a survey of people who identify themselves as libertarians. The researchers begin by defining a “libertarian orientation scale” composed of nine questions about various aspects of government policy: domestic spying, international aid, military force, economic growth and taxes, jobs and econmic welfare, paternalism, gun control, marijuana and pornography. They then identify libertarians on the basis of this scale.

According to the PRRI, a libertarian is someone who tends to agree with the following propositions:

  • Government has gone too far monitoring private telephone and email conversations of American citizens, and the program should be eliminated.

  • The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.

  • The United States should only use military force if its immediate security is threatened.

  • The best way to promote economic growth in the U.S. is to lower taxes on individuals and businesses and pay for those tax cuts by cutting spending on some government services and programs

  • The government should just let each person get ahead on their own

  • It’s not the government’s business to try to protect people from themselves.

  • The federal government has already placed too many restrictions on the sale of guns in the U.S.

  • We should make the use of marijuana legal.

  • We should NOT make it more difficult to access pornography on the Internet.

The intent here, it would seem, is to construct a set of issues that are relevant to current political debates and which cut across traditional political cleavages. For my part, I’m strongly on the “libertarian” side on some questions (military intervention, spying, pot, porn), though perhaps not for the same reasons as many libertarians. Meanwhile, I lean away from the the libertarians on other issues, but with a bit of ambivalence, sometimes just due to the question wording. I question the logic of guaranteeing everyone a job, as well as the notion that education is important because it promotes economic growth. I’m skeptical about state paternalism, although I’m not an absolutist about it. The result is that if I take this survey myself, I end up with a score that, by the scoring criteria given in the report, would make me someone with “libertarian leanings”.

In one sense, I’m typical of PRRI-defined libertarians, who are disproportionately white men under 50. In other ways, however, I’m clearly an outlier, given these libertarians’ penchant for describing themselves as conservatives, opposing gay marriage, and being uncomfortable with muslims. Those findings make it tempting for some of my comrades on the left to use this survey as an opportunity to score points against libertarians. You see, we get to say, libertarianism was just a re-branded right-wing Republican politics all along!

But the more interesting thing is the disjunction between libertarianism as an ideology and as an identity. The PRRI survey begins by setting out a definition of libertarian ideology, and then looking for people who meet it. Their definition is drawn from a study published by the Cato Institute. In that sense we can take it to reflect the priorities of elite instutional libertarianism, which does indeed seem pretty close to the familiar leftist stereotype of a libertarian: a Republican who likes weed and porn. But the fact that constructing the definition of libertarianism in a reactionary way produces a group of reactionary people is not so surprising. Of more interest is just how out of touch this definition is with the people who consider themselves libertarian.

In an appendix, self-identified libertarians are compared with those tagged as libertarians by the survey’s scale. The self-identified libertarians make up about 13% of the population, compared to the 22% libertarian or libertarian-leaning according to the scale. Yet the two groups are very different. Those who think of themselves as libertarians turn out to be more Democrat than Republican, in favor of gay marriage, and even overwhelmingly in favor of raising the minimum wage.

Moreover, anyone hoping to clown the “libertarians” in the PRRI report should think about how well they’d enjoy placing themselves in the “communalist” group that the survey authors construct as the opposite of libertarianism. This means not just embracing government intervention in the economy, but also the war on drugs and porn. Not to mention the kind of humanitarian interventionism promoted by people like Samantha Power, the conviction that “the United States should be ready and willing to use military force around the world to promote American interests and enforce international law”.

Whatever function the libertarian identity has for many of the people who hold it, it’s clearly not quite what the Cato Institute would like it to be. So rather than scoring cheap points, leftists should be asking ourselves what it is that leads people to identify with an ideology that, according to the priorities of its most powerful promoters, has such a tenuous connection with what they actually believe. Some of it, no doubt, is just a marker of disaffection and disgust with the mainstream political spectrum, and the disappearance of socialism as an oppositional identity. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the libertarian critique of liberalism’s paternalist and bureaucratic tendencies. That critique may be disingenuous in the hands of a Cato flack, but it only has any appeal because it speaks to some real mass sentiment.

After all, I consider myself a “libertarian” in the same sense as self-proclaimed libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky. That is, I think that facilitating individual freedom is a central part of the left’s project, and one which has sometimes gotten short shrift from liberals and socialists alike. Libertarian ideology, as Cato and PRRI would like to define it, isn’t really consistent with that project, since it obsesses over government while ignoring the private life of power. But the popularity of libertarianism as an identity is something else, and we would do well to be a bit more careful in our assessment of it.

Class, Technology, and Transit Strikes

October 21st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Work

With employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system on strike, the Sillicon Valley tech elite has reminded us all that despite their enlightened Bay Area lifestyles, they are still, at root, a bunch of rich dudes. Corey Robin ably documents the reactionary politics and moral degeneracy of people who see themselves as heroic entrepreneurs and the people who get them to work as greedy parasites.

The combination of the strike and the government shutdown has shined a welcome light on the more delusional parts of the tech bro intellegentisa, who revel in government dysfunction and dream of stateless techno-utopias. It’s all the more amusing to see these would-be John Galts dismissing the need for government one moment, and bemoaning the shutdown of a public transit agency the next.

But the most revealing of the tech industry commentaries on the strike is this one, in which Gregory Ferenstein attempts to sort out what he sees as a difference of opinion about the virtues of technology and innovation. He asserts that “the very existence of unions threatens the kind of unpredictable disruption that fuels the knowledge economy”, and that what is at stake in the BART strike is not class struggle but rather the tech elite’s “legitimate philosophical differences that assume the benefits to innovation outweigh the short-term gains of protecting workers”.

In a way, this attempt to change the subject from class to technology is the mirror image of Gavin Mueller’s essay in a recent Jacobin, in which he takes me to task as a techno-utopian and suggests that “instead of depending on capitalism to give us all the machines we need for a socialism without scarcity or drudgery, we put the installation of technology on hold until ‘after the revolution'”. Rather than fight over how different kinds of technologies are implemented and how the losers from change are compensated, he suggests that we concentrate on “the disempowering effects of automation”. Thus manual control over the production process takes precedence over control over the workplace or the economy. But by portraying technical change under capitalism as always and only a nefarious plot to intensify exploitation and disorganize workers, Mueller affirms the gambit of those like Ferenstein who would prefer to debate the merits of innovation rather than the social relations of class and power. He thus makes an ideal foil from the perspective of the libertarian tech bro.

I have no intention of playing that part, however. I’m more interested in examining what the “innovation vs. worker rights” framing presupposes, and what it cedes.

Ferenstein insists that that there’s no need for unions for either the “lucky elite class of tech workers” who have “all the benefits and influence they could ever hope for,” or for the “army of freelance engineers that thrive on unpredictability.” As Scott Kilpatrick observed on Twitter, the “lucky elite” rests on top of a mass of precarious contractors and service employees who have little voice in companies like Google. But Ferenstein’s view is a telling indicator of the wordview of the tech elite, who breathlessly tout “disruption” and glamorize unpredictability and uncertainty. For this elite, losing your job only means moving on to the next startup, or retiring on a pile of stock options. It doesn’t mean prolonged unemployment, homelessness, or being cut off from health care.

For transit workers, of course, disruption and unpredictability have much more dire implications, but Ferenstein would prefer to distract us from that reality by portraying their concerns as the consequence of a philosophical objection to innovation. But instead of playing the straight man to this routine by extolling the virtues of stable employment, let’s ask instead what it would mean to make unstable labor relations the bearable and even pleasant experience that they can be for the elite. It would mean something like what the Danish Social Democrats call “flexicurity”: a system that protects workers rather than jobs, by providing a robust system of unemployment benefits and training programs to ease the burden of joblessness and the transition between jobs.

For the true believers in libertarian secession, such policy would no doubt amount to an intolerable state incursion on the freedom of the entrepreneur. But I’m more interested in the comment of UserVoice CEO Richard White, quoted by Andrew Leonard (and then re-quoted by Ferenstein): “Get ’em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.”

This doesn’t quite get at the real substance of the dispute, which is more about work rules than about pay. In particular, the union wants to preserve a provision that requires mutual agreement between management and the union before an existing labor practice can be altered.

As is typical in disputes like this, the employer tries to portray the work rule under discussion as an absurd impediment to rational management, while the union raises its valid uses. So BART claims that this rule “makes it difficult to make technological changes like having station agents file reports by e-mail instead of writing them out longhand, using e-mail instead of fax machines to send documents and sending paycheck stubs to each work location electronically instead of hand-delivering them.” But it’s hard to see just why the union would object to this. More plausible is the union’s contention that the past practices rule is useful for things like “preventing BART management from making punitive work assignments to employees who have filed workplace complaints.”

This strike thus turns out to be an excellent example of the dynamic I wrote about some while back, the dialectical interplay between class struggle and technological development. I noted there that technology is two sided under capitalism: it can increase material abundance, and it can also oppress and fragment workers, and often it does both at the same time. In that earlier post I posited that “the form that technological change takes is shaped by the strength and organization of workers.” This is what we see played out in the BART strike.

The transit workers’ union, SEIU local 1021, has an interesting post describing their most recent settlement offer. Their proposal, they say, “allows for the continued use of new technology in the workplace but protects workers from changes in work rules that would lead to unsafe conditions.” The post goes on to note the recent fatal accident that occurred recently when two workers were killed by trains under the operation of BART managers. The union strategically positions itself not as an opponent of technology, but as an advocate for innovations that truly improve the transit system, rather than just providing ways for management to degrade the power of labor—whether by imposing unsafe working conditions or by using computer scheduling to disrupt the predictability of the workday, which is the example of anti-worker technology I cited in my earlier post.

In another post, the union notes that “the system is carrying more passengers than ever with fewer frontline workers than ever.” So it seems that the union is not even attempting to preserve all jobs for their own sake, which would be an understandable position but also one that could genuinely impede the introduction of productivity-enhancing changes. Instead, they are trying to shape the development of the labor process in a way that is less dehumanizing to the worker.

But if CEO White got his wish, and we truly did “figure out how to automate their jobs” entirely, the union leadership and the members would probably have some understandable objections eventually. Which is why, as I note in a different post, a viable compromise between labor-saving technology and the working class has to be worked out an economy-wide scale rather than in a single workplace or industry. The Danish model, in other words, or something even more audacious.

Still, the BART strike is a useful starting point for moving away from the technobabble and talking about class and politics. And the approach of “give the workers what they want, then figure out how to automate” is far preferable to the more common “hyper-exploit the workers, while hand-waving about some great innovation that’s going to come along in the future.” What the BART workers are doing can be considered part of the utopian strategy of making labor expensive. And if the tech industry could take on the challenge of transforming economic processes while accepting the rights and dignity of existing workers, that would be some truly disruptive innovation.

The Ethic of Marginal Value

October 1st, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

Recently David Graeber has gotten some attention for an essay on “the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, which is notable mostly for getting some important arguments about the nature of work into wider circulation than usual. Mainstream economists have taken notice of Graeber’s contention that much of the activity that people are compelled to perform in return for their wages is “effectively, pointless”.

But the result of mainstream engagement, as often as not, is little more than a demonstration of the narrow perspective of the conventional economist. In that vein, I’m particularly enamored of this contribution from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. Tabarrok seizes on an element of Graeber’s essay that echoes something I wrote about a couple of years ago: the weak relationship between the importance of the jobs people do and the reward they receive for doing them. As I put it back then, “it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work.” Or in Graeber’s formulation,”the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”

Tabarrok—along with, apparently, Brad DeLong—views this as an elementary error of reasoning, an example of “the diamond-water paradox”:

Water is cheap and its value low because the supply of water is so large that the marginal value of water is driven down close to zero. Diamonds are expensive because the limited market supply keeps the price and marginal value high. Not much of a paradox. Note that, contra Graeber, there is nothing special about labor in this regard or “our society.”

Moreover, it’s good that prices are determined on the margin. We would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.

The impressive thing is just how much misdirection and and willful obtuseness Tabarrok manages to pack into a few sentences. The argument crumbles at whatever level one chooses to engage it.

To begin with, the chosen example is an amusing one, since it in no way exemplifies what it purports to demonstrate. Diamonds may be scarcer than water, but that is not what dictates their price. The price of diamonds has been maintained over the decades by the powerful DeBeers cartel, which has kept up prices through a combination of marketing and buying up excess supply. I suppose Tabarrok could counter that the phrase “market supply” doesn’t imply that the availability of a commodity is a function of physical scarcity. But I hardly think he would subscribe to the notion that supply in capitalist markets is or should be primarily determined by the actions of powerful monopolists.

Leaving this aside, Tabarrok is avoiding Graeber’s point by bringing up the marginal cost and the supply of different kinds of labor-power, rather than the social value of different kinds of labor. But even on these terms, it’s a pretty dubious argument. Let’s contrast a couple of the job categories that Graeber brings up: advertising and nursing. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 620,900 people employed as “Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers”, and 2,590,600 employed as “Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides”. If the nurses make less money, even though there are more than four times as many jobs for them, then by Tabarrok’s account it must be because the skills involved in marketing are so rare, and those involved in nursing so plentiful. And yet by many accounts there is a serious nurse shortage, while I’ve yet to hear of a serious PR flack shortage afflicting the nation.

The more obvious explanation would be that wages are largely determined by how powerful workers are, and how powerful their industries are. In the extreme case of high finance, you have a sector that has succeeded in extracting large rents from the economy, as Felix Salmon explains, and has shared those spoils with a privileged layer of bank employees. But to understand this you would have to understand economic outcomes as the result of power relations, not immutable and impersonal market forces.

The most grievous illusion that Tabarrok propagates, however, is that “there is nothing special about labor” when it comes to the determination of prices by marginal value. This a good illustration of the argument that Seth Ackerman and Mike Beggs make in the most recent Jacobin: marginal productivity theory is an ethical theory masquerading as a description of social reality. What Tabarrok means is not that there is nothing special about labor, but that there should be nothing special about it. Just as DeBeers can increase the price of diamonds by buying up excess supply, the capitalist class ought to be able to keep the price of labor down by flooding the market with the desperate unemployed. The socialist tradition, however—whether in its Marxist or Polanyian form—holds that there is and should be something special about labor, because labor is people, and the freedom and welfare of the people is the proper subject of political economy.

Of course, the apologists for capitalism insist that they are the ones looking out for the welfare of the people, hence Tabarrok’s clucking reminder that “we would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.” But even on its own terms, such defenses only work on a very abstract collective level, where total wealth matters but its distribution does not. After all, who’s “we” here? As Steve Waldman observes, this means that “it is socialists who are the individualists, attending to the sum of individual welfares, while unsympathetic capitalists rely upon collectivism to justify their good fortune and the policy apparatus that magnifies and sustains it.” Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism”.

Tabarrok seems to think that Graeber is recommending that wages be brought into line with some standard of inherent social value, but this is to miss the point. The point, rather, is to do what we can to separate the right to a decent standard of living from the labor one happens to perform. And, just as important, to break free from the illusions of both libertarianism and meritocracy—that is, from the belief that the price of labor either is or should be the measure of its value.