Identification Politics

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in Statistics

When I first started to learn about the world of quantitative social science, it was approaching the high tide of what I call “identificationism”. The basic argument of this movement was as follows. Lots of social scientists are crafting elaborate models that basically only show the correlations between variables. They then must rely on a lot of assumptions and theoretical arguments in order to claim that an association between X and Y is indicative of X causing Y, rather than Y causing X or both being caused by something else. This can lead to a lot of flimsy and misleading published findings.

Starting in the 1980’s, critics of these practices started to emphasize what is called, in the statistical jargon, “clean identification”. Clean identification means that your analysis is set up in a way that makes it possible to convincingly determine causal effects, not just correlations.

The most time-tested and well respected identification strategy is the randomized experiment, of the kind used in medical trials. If you randomly divide people into two groups that differ only by a single treatment, you can be pretty sure that subsequent differences between the two groups are actually caused by the treatment.

But most social science questions, especially the big and important ones, aren’t ones you can do experiments on. You can’t randomly assign one group of countries to have austerity economics, and another group to have Keynesian policies. So as a second best solution, scholars began looking for so-called “natural experiments”. These are situations where, more or less by accident, people find themselves divided into two groups arbitrarily, almost as if they had been randomized in an experiment. This allows the identification of causality in non-experimental situations.

A famous early paper using this approach was David Card and Alan Krueger’s 1992 study of the minimum wage. In 1990, New Jersey had increased its minimum wage to be the highest in the country. Card and Krueger compared employment in the fast food industry both New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Their logic was that these stores didn’t differ systematically aside from the fact that some of them were subject to the higher New Jersey minimum wage, and some of them weren’t. Thus any change in employment after the New Jersey hike could be interpreted as a consequence of the higher minimum wage. In a finding that is still cited by liberal advocates, they concluded that higher minimum wages did nothing to cause lower employment, despite the predictions of textbook neoclassical economics.

This was a useful and important paper, and the early wave of natural experiment analyses produced other useful results as well. But as time went on, the obsession with identification led to a wave of studies that were obsessed with proper methodology and unconcerned with whether they were studying interesting or important topics. Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame is a product of this environment, someone who would never tackle a big hard question where an easy trivial one was available.

With the pool of natural experiments reaching exhaustion, some researchers began to turn toward running their own actual experiments. Hence the rise of the so-called “randomistas”. These were people who performed randomized controlled trials, generally in poor countries, to answer small and precisely targeted questions about things like aid policy. This work includes things like Chris Blattman’s study in which money was randomly distributed to Ugandan women.

But now, if former World Bank lead economist Branko Milanovic is to be believed, the experimental identificationists are having their own day of crisis. As with the natural experiment, the randomized trial sacrifices big questions and generalizable answers in favor of conclusions that are often trivial. With their lavishly funded operations in poor countries, there’s an added aspect of liberal colonialism as well. It’s the Nick Kristof or Bono approach to helping the global poor; as Milanovic puts it, “you can play God in poor countries, publish papers, make money and feel good about yourself.”

If there’s a backlash against the obsession with causal inference, it will be a victory for people who want to use data to answer real questions. Writing about these issues years ago, I argued that:

It is often impossible to find an analytical strategy which is both free of strong assumptions about causality and applicable beyond a narrow and artificial situation. The goal of causal inference, that is, is a noble but often futile pursuit. In place of causal inference, what we must often do instead is causal interpretation, in which essentially descriptive tools (such as regression) are interpreted causally based on prior knowledge, logical argument and empirical tests that persuasively refute alternative explanations.

I still basically stand by that, or by the pithier formulation I added later, “Causal inference where possible, causal interpretation where necessary.”

Gentrification and Racial Arbitrage

June 2nd, 2014  |  Published in Everyday life, Political Economy, Politics  |  4 Comments

This post spins out something that occurred to me in the course of writing about consumerist politics and its limitations. One of the sections concerns gentrification, and the political dead end of blaming it on what Anthony Galuzzo called “the fucking hipster show”.

Artists, students, and others classified as “hipsters” are often blamed for gentrification, rather than being understood as people who are often driven into poorer and browner neighborhoods by large-scale processes rooted in capital accumulation and government policy. This creates a divisive cultural distraction from the need to organize neighborhoods across race and class lines. I go into that in more detail in the forthcoming essay. But I had an odd thought about the racist dimension of gentrification that didn’t fit in there.

Racism is a central, unavoidable component of the whole process of gentrification in places like the United States. Landlords in non-white areas perceive that if they can bring white people into a neighborhood, they will attract more people like them. At first, the newcomers may be the low-income hipster types, but they are the pioneers who make the area safe for colonization by the rich. The ultimate outcome is that the non-white residents get priced out and displaced, along with the original gentrifiers. It’s a process that’s been repeated so many times in recent decades that that it barely needs explaining anymore.

But it occurred to me is that the first wave of white gentrifiers are engaging in what we might call, by analogy with finance, a kind of racial arbitrage. Arbitrage is the practice of exploiting differences in prices for the same good in different markets. When such discrepancies appear, it can be possible to make risk-free money by buying out of one market and immediately selling into another.

Early gentrifiers aren’t engaging in arbitrage in this strict sense; the gains that go to early home-buyers, for instance, are consequences of the unfolding of the gentrification dynamic itself and not of some market imperfection in static comparison. But in the early stages, racism gives rise to a situation where the perception of certain neighborhoods diverges from their lived reality. A white person who notices this can exploit it to procure housing at a discount.

This is primarily because, all things being equal, white people perceive a neighborhood as having more crime the more black people it has in it. Blacks are, in fact, more likely to live in high crime areas, but white perceptions go beyond this reality (see the linked paper for a detailed study). A white person who knows this will realize that an apartment in a black neighborhood will be systematically cheaper than the same apartment in a white neighborhood. By renting in the black neighborhood, whitey gets a discount without actually facing any additional danger.

The size of this discount is magnified by a second aspect of white racism about black crime. This one relates not to how much crime there is, but to what drives crime, and in particular violent crime. Many white people believe that rather than having a rational basis, violence in black neighborhoods is driven by some kind of cultural pathology or inherent animalistic nature. We therefore come to believe that mere proximity to black people puts us in danger.

This is illustrated in the recent, excellent debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. (Excellent on Coates’ side, that is. Chait’s contribution consisted of digging himself into a hole, then calling in a backhoe.) Chait, like many white liberals, tends fall back on nebulous ideas of black cultural pathology to explain why black people face higher levels of violence and poverty. The primary difference between people like Chait and his conservative counterparts is Chait’s magnanimous acknowledgment that black pathology stems from the legacy of slavery rather than inherent inferiority.

Coates demolishes this whole patronizing and misbegotten enterprise. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in Baltimore, he shows how violence and machismo can be understandable and even necessary ways of surviving in a tough environment. “If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield.”

But white gentrifiers moving into black neighborhoods don’t face anything like this same environment of violence. For one thing, a major source of random violence in black communities is the police, who certainly don’t treat white newcomers the same way. For another, these newcomers are disconnected from the social networks, and the legal and illegal economies, on which many urban residents depend for survival, but which can also be suffused with violence. Certainly, white gentrifiers may be subject to property crime if they are perceived as rich or as easy marks. But the notion that they face the same murder rate as their black neighbors is simply preposterous. (For women, of course, there is an additional set of concerns about safety. But here, too, there can be an overestimation of the likelihood of being raped by a strange black man rather than the pleasant-seeming friend who might even claim socialist politics.)

Nevertheless, when I’ve mentioned the possibility of moving to a high-crime, predominantly black neighborhood, I’ve heard jokes—even from leftist comrades—along the lines of “heh, only if you want to get shot”. These are, presumably, people I won’t have to compete with for an apartment. Hence the racist perceptions of crime’s sources and targets drives down rents further and compounds the racial arbitrage.

The anti-racism of the early arrivals, then, is what helps start the whole process of revaluation and displacement. There’s an almost absurd quality to it: white supremacy is so pervasive, and its structural mechanisms so powerful, that even white anti-racist consciousness can be a mechanism for reinforcing white supremacy. It’s an important lesson that shows why anti-racism isn’t just about purifying what’s in our hearts or our heads. It’s about transforming the economic systems and property relations that continue to reproduce racist practices and ideas.

Infotainment Journalism

May 14th, 2014  |  Published in Data, Statistics

We seem, mercifully, to have reached a bit of a backlash to the data journalism/explainer hype typefied by sites like Vox and Fivethirtyeight. Nevertheless, editors in search of viral content find it irresistible to crank out clever articles that purport to illuminate or explain the world with “data”.

Now, I am a big partisan of using quantitative data to understand the world. And I think the hostility to quantification in some parts of the academic Left is often misplaced. But what’s so unfortunate about the wave of shoddy data journalism is that it mostly doesn’t use data as a real tool of empirical inquiry. Instead, data becomes something you sprinkle on top of your substanceless linkbait, giving it the added appearance of having some kind of scientific weight behind it.

Some of the crappiest pop-data science comes in the form of viral maps of various kinds. Ben Blatt at Slate goes over a few of these, pertaining to things like baby names and popular bands. He shows how easy it is to craft misleading maps, even leaving aside the inherent problems with using spatial areas to represent facts about populations that occur in wildly different densities.

Having identified the pitfalls, Blatt then decided to try his hand at making his own viral map. And judging by the number of times I’ve seen his maps of the most widely spoken language in each state on Facebook, he succeeded. But in what is either a sophisticated troll or an example of “knowing too little to know what you don’t know”, Blatt’s maps themselves are pretty uninformative and misleading.

The post consists of several maps. The first simply categorizes each state according to the most commonly spoken non-English language, which is almost always Spanish. Blatt calls this map “not too interesting”, but I’d say it’s the best of the bunch. It’s the least misleading while still containing some useful information about the French-speaking clusters in the Northeast and Louisiana, and the holdout German speakers in North Dakota.

The next map, which shows the most common non-English and non-Spanish language, is also decent. It’s when he starts getting down into more and more detailed subcategories that Blatt really gets into trouble. I’ll illustrate this with the most egregious example, the map of “Most Commonly Spoken Native American Language”.

Part of the problem is the familiar statistician’s issue of sample size. The American Community Survey data that Blatt used to make his maps is extremely large, but you can still run into trouble when you’re looking at a small population and dividing it up into 50 states. Native Americans are a tiny part of the population, and those who speak an indigenous language are an even smaller fraction. The more severe issue, though, is that this map would be misleading even if it were based on a complete census of the population.

That’s because the Native American population in the United States is extremely unevenly distributed, due to the way in which the American colonial project of genocide and resettlement played out historically. In some areas, like the southwest and Alaska, there are sizable populations. In much of the east of the country, there are vanishingly small populations of people who still speak Native American languages. And without even going to the original data (although I did do that), you can see that there are some things majorly wrong here. But you need a passing familiarity with the indigenous language families of North America, which is basically what I have from a cursory study of them as a linguistics major over a decade ago.

We see that Navajo is the most commonly spoken native language in New Mexico. That’s a fairly interesting fact, as it reflects a sizeable population of around 63,000 speakers. But then, we could have seen that already from the previous “non-English and Spanish speakers” map.

But now look at the northeast. We find that the most commonly spoken native language in New Hampshire is Hopi; in Connecticut it’s Navajo; in New Jersey it’s Sahaptian. What does this tell us? The answer is, approximately nothing. The Navajo and Hopi languages originate in the southwest, and the Sahaptian languages in the Pacific northwest, so these values just reflect a handful of people who moved to the east coast for whatever reason. And a handful of people it is: do we really learn anything from the fact there are 36 Hopi speakers in New Hampshire, compared to only 24 speaking Muskogee (which originates in the south)? That is, if we could even know these were the right numbers. The standard errors on these estimates are larger than the estimates themselves, meaning that there is a very good chance that Muskogee, or some other language, is actually the most common native language in New Hampshire.

I suppose this could be regarded as nitpicking, as could the similar things I could say about some of the other maps. Boy, finding out about those 170 Gujurati speakers in Wyoming sure shows me what sets that state apart from its neighbors! OMG, the few hundred Norwegian speakers in Hawaii might slightly outnumber the Swedish speakers! (Or not.) Even the “non-English and Spanish” map, which I generally kind of like, doesn’t quite say as much as it appears—or at least not what it appears to say. The large “German belt” in the plains and mountain west reflects low linguistic diversity more than a preponderance of Krauts. There is a small group of German speakers almost everywhere; in most of these states, the percentage of German speakers isn’t much greater than the national average, which is well under 1 percent. In some, like Idaho and Tennessee, it’s actually lower.

I belabor all this because I take data analysis seriously. The processing and presentation of quantitative data is a key way that facts are manufactured, a source of things people “know” about the world. So it bothers me to see the discursive pollution of things that are essentially vacuous “infotainment” dressed up in fancy terms like “data science” and “data journalism”. I mean, I get it: it’s fun to play with data and make maps! I just wish people would leave their experiments on their hard drives rather than setting them loose onto Facebook where they can mislead the unwary.

Adjusting to the Apocalypse

May 13th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics  |  1 Comment

The news that a section of the West Antarctica ice sheet is now irreversibly melting into the ocean is awesome and terrifying. As a vivid illustration of the scale of climate change, it merits the aghast reactions that I’ve seen from the lefties around me.

Yet I can’t help but think about what I wrote recently, about another prediction of ecologically driven disaster. That prediction of civilizational collapse turned out to be based on tendentious speculation, while the findings about the Antarctic ice are the product of extended research by two separate teams of serious researchers. So in this case, it’s tremendously valuable to know what’s happening no matter what the political impacts are.

But I once again wonder if the publicity around these findings will wind up doing much good. It certainly could, if the combined enormity and easy comprehensibility of this new finding gets more people to take climate change seriously.

Yet I fear it will, instead, mostly be taken up by people who already make “being very serious about climate change” a significant part of their identity. And if the news is read in an apocalyptic way, it can as easily breed fatalism as political will.

While the irreversible nature of the melting ice sheet is touted above all else, just as important is the time scale over which it will unfold. The rise in sea levels, which could be five feet, ten feet, or even more, will occur over the span of a century or more. From the New York Times article:

The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.

While 100 years is an infinitesimal amount of time in geological terms—hence what makes the phenomenon so shocking and important—it is nevertheless an extremely long time in the context of an industrialized human society. It’s hard to imagine human society dealing with environmental changes of this magnitude, but perhaps no more so than picturing the regimes of 1914 reckoning with the upheavals of the past century.

Societies will adapt, even if those adaptations will entail enormous expenses and dislocations. And indeed, adaptation is already happening. This mostly doesn’t mean fanciful geoengineering schemes, but rather things like the secretary of Housing and Urban Development working with a water management expert to bring Dutch water-control techniques to the United States, or congress debating the impacts of flood insurance policy on low income homeowners.

It’s true, as Matt Karp writes at Jacobin, that overturning the fossil fuel-based economy will require a monumental political struggle and a massive redistribution of wealth. But we should not think merely in terms of an epochal battle to either defeat Big Oil and “save the planet” or else perish. Equally important is to contest the adjustments and adaptations that we now know must be made, even if we could somehow decarbonize the economy tomorrow.

These adaptations will impose costs and burdens, and the ruling class will do what it can to impose those burdens on those who can least bear them. In other words, the politics of climate change are and will continue to be intertwined with class struggle across all domains, not just in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. I believe, of course, that socialism is also the best answer to the ecological crisis. But I also agree with Christian Parenti that “in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of totally economic re-organization.”

To me, Marco Rubio’s climate change denialism and Obama’s dithering over the Keystone pipeline are at least as terrifying as the latest word from Antarctica. As is the rise of a climate apartheid that allows the rich to evade the consequences of a warming world. Fortunately, our immediate political obstacles, unlike the movements of the glaciers, are at least potentially susceptible to change through collective action.

Theory and Practice

April 18th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

I’ve been having some conversations about Occupy and its legacy, and whether it “succeeded”. I tend to think that if such a question is meaningful at all, I’d have to answer by going the Zhou Enlai route. But then I was thinking about the improbable media breakout of Thomas Piketty and his doorstop treatise Capital in the 21st Century.

A few years ago, Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez were obscure economists, well known to income data nerds like me but otherwise anonymous as they went about generating pictures like this:


Then Occupy happened, and we saw things like this:


And now we have this:


Both Piketty’s theory and Occupy’s practice are open to criticism—some of both will be forthcoming in Jacobin. And of course the salience of inequality, and hence Piketty’s star profile, aren’t wholly a product of Occupy. Still, one could hardly ask for a simpler illustration of the dialectic of theory and practice, and of Marx’s contention that “theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”

Trumbo’s Taxes

April 15th, 2014  |  Published in Data, Statistical Graphics

Having filed my taxes in my customarily last-minute fashion, I thought I’d get in on the tax day blogging thing. Via Sarah Jaffe, I came upon the following interesting passage from Victor Navasky’s history of the Hollywood blacklist, Naming Names:

Conversely, during the blacklist years, which were also tight money years for the studios, agents often found it simpler to hint to their less talented clients that their difficulties were political rather than intrinsic. Since agents as a class follow the money, it is perhaps a clue to the environment of fear within which they operated that, for example, the Berg-Allenberg Agency was, even in late 1948, ready, eager, willing, and able to lose its most profitable client, Dalton Trumbo (at $3000 per week he was one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood)—and this even before the more general system of blacklisting had gone into effect.

The first thing that struck me about this that wow, that’s a lot of money. It’s not clear where the figure came from. But Navasky did interview Trumbo for the book, so I have to assume it came from the man himself. Now, presumably Trumbo wasn’t working all the time, but rather getting picked up for various jobs with slack periods in between. But supposing for a moment that he did: $3000 a week (or $156,000 a year) would be a pretty cushy life now, so it would have been an astronomical amount of money in 1948. (And it’s highly likely that there were people in Hollywood who were making that much. Ben Hecht is said to have gotten $10,000 a week.)

The second thing is to note that even being as rich and famous as Dalton Trumbo wasn’t enough to protect him from the blacklist. In general, of course, the rich stick together and protect their own. But there are some lines you still can’t cross, and the blacklist was one of them. In the end, ideological discipline trumped the solidarity of rich people. Which is what makes the rare radical defectors from the ruling class so significant.

But my final thought was, I wonder what Trumbo’s net income would have been, had he made that much money? After all, that was the heyday of high marginal tax rates in the United States, those legendary 90 percent tax brackets that seem so unimaginable to people now. So I got to wondering how much Trumbo would have paid in taxes then, and how much he would have paid on a comparable amount of money today.

Fortunately, the Tax Foundation provides excellent data on historical tax rates. I used the spreadsheet here, which describes the federal income tax regimes from 1913 to 2013. Using that data, we can get a rough approximation of how much our hypothetical Dalton Trumbo would have paid in taxes, although of course it doesn’t take into account any particular deductions or loopholes that may have played into an individual situation—and it’s well known that few people actually paid the very high marginal rates of that time. So take this as a quick sketch, meant to demonstrate two things. First, how much our tax rates have changed, and second, how marginal tax rates really work.

Here’s a table showing how Trumbo’s income would have broken down in 1948. Each line shows a single tax bracket. The first three lines show that rate at which income in that bracket was taxed, and the lower and upper bounds that defined which income was taxed at that rate. The last two columns show how much income Trumbo received in each bracket, and how much tax he would have owed on it.

Tax RateOverBut Not OverIncomeTaxes
20.0%$0 $2,000 $2,000$400.00
22.0%$2,000 $4,000 $2,000$440.00
26.0%$4,000 $6,000 $2,000$520.00
30.0%$6,000 $8,000 $2,000$600.00
34.0%$8,000 $10,000 $2,000$680.00
38.0%$10,000 $12,000 $2,000$760.00
43.0%$12,000 $14,000 $2,000$860.00
47.0%$14,000 $16,000 $2,000$940.00
50.0%$16,000 $18,000 $2,000$1,000.00
53.0%$18,000 $20,000 $2,000$1,060.00
56.0%$20,000 $22,000 $2,000$1,120.00
59.0%$22,000 $26,000 $4,000$2,360.00
62.0%$26,000 $32,000 $6,000$3,720.00
65.0%$32,000 $38,000 $6,000$3,900.00
69.0%$38,000 $44,000 $6,000$4,140.00
72.0%$44,000 $50,000 $6,000$4,320.00
75.0%$50,000 $60,000 $10,000$7,500.00
78.0%$60,000 $70,000 $10,000$7,800.00
81.0%$70,000 $80,000 $10,000$8,100.00
84.0%$80,000 $90,000 $10,000$8,400.00
87.0%$90,000 $100,000 $10,000$8,700.00
89.0%$100,000 $150,000 $50,000$44,500.00
90.0%$150,000 $200,000 $6,000$5,400.00
91.0%$200,000 -$0$0.00

This is a nice illustration of how marginal tax rates work. There is still, unbelievably, widepread confusion about this. People think that if the marginal tax rate is 90 percent on income over $150,000—as it was in 1948—then that means you’ll only keep 10 percent of all your income if you make that much money. But Trumbo wouldn’t pay 90 percent on all of his $156,000, only on the $6000 that was over the $150,000 threshold.

So what was Trumbo’s real, overall tax rate? The tax figures above sum up to a total bill of $117,220. The Tax Foundation data also describes some additional reductions that were applied that year: 17 percent on taxes up to $400, 12 percent on taxes from $400 to $100,000, and 9.75 percent on taxes above $100,000. Taking those reductions into account, the tax bill comes down to $103,521.

So Trumbo would have had a net income of $52,479 in 1948, for an effective tax rate of 66 percent. Now, that’s not 90 percent, but some will surely say that this seems like an unreasonably high level, for reasons of fairness or work incentives or whatever. But let’s keep in mind just how where our Trumbo falls in the 1948 United States’ distribution of income. Here’s a graphical representation of the above data:


Each bar is a tax bracket. The width of the bar shows how wide the bracket is, while the height shows the income earned in that bracket. The red-shaded portion shows how much of that income was paid in tax. This is a bit visually misleading, because the amount of income in each bar corresponds only to the height of the box, not its volume. But I’ll swallow my data-visualization pride for the sake of a quick blog post.

A few things to note about this graph. You can see how much of the income in the higher brackets was taxed away, due to the extremely high rates there. You can also see that the tax system is progressive, because the height of the red bars slopes upward, even when the amount of money contained in the brackets remains the same. But the most important thing to pay attention to is that dotted line that you can barely see on the far left. That’s the median personal income in the United States for 1948, which according to the Census Bureau was around $1900. In other words, almost all of this would have been irrelevant to half the population, who would have paid just the lowest rate, 20 percent, on all of their income.

If we adjust Trumbo’s income for inflation with the Consumer Price Index, his income would be equivalent to over 1.5 million dollars today. And the tax bill would have been over 1 million dollars. But how would that kind of pay be taxed now? Here’s a table like the one above, except applying current tax rates to Trumbo’s inflation-adjusted pay:

Tax RateOverBut Not OverIncomeTaxes
39.6%$450,000 $1,066,944$422,509.82

What a difference 65 years and two generations of neoliberalism makes! Now Trumbo’s effective tax rate is only 36.15 percent, and he takes home $968,000 after a $548,000 tax bill. To finish things up, here’s a graphical representation like the one above:


This time, most of the income falls into the top bracket. But since the rate there is only 39.6 percent, our hypothetical 2013 Trumbo still keeps most of his money. And once again, these brackets are mostly irrelevant to most of the population—note the line marking median income.

The punchline to this story, of course, is that it was things like the Hollywood blacklist that helped set the stage for the period of conservative reaction that gave us these tax rates. Check this nice documentary on Dalton Trumbo to get a sense of a Hollywood radical who puts most of our contemporary celebrity liberals to shame.

The spreadsheet used to estimate these figures is here, if you care to play with it yourself.

The Comforts of Dystopia

March 21st, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism  |  5 Comments

I’m currently working on a longer treatment of Four Futures, my social science fictional speculation about the possible successor systems to capitalism, in a world characterized by pervasive automation and ecological crisis. That book is slotted for Jacobin‘s series; more about that at a later date.

Four Futures was, itself, an extension of “Anti-Star Trek”, a post that still gets some love around the Internet from time to time. The core intuition of both pieces of writing was that while we live in a world that abounds in utopian potential, the realization of that potential depends on the outcome of political struggle. A rich elite that wants to preserve its privileges will do everything possible to ensure that we don’t reach a world of leisure and abundance, even if such a world is materially possible.

But one of the things I’ve struggled with, as a writer, is the tendency of my more speculative writing to mine a streak of apocalyptic quiescence on the radical left. To me, the story I’m telling is all about hope and agency: the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed, and only through struggle will we get it distributed properly. I suppose it’s no surprise, though, after decades in retreat, that some people would rather tell themselves fables of inevitable doom rather than tackling the harder problem of figuring out how we can collectively walk down the path to paradise.

So of the four futures I described, the one that I think is both the most hopeful and most interesting—the one I call “communism”—is the least discussed. Instead it’s exterminism, the mixture of ecological constraints, automation, and murderous elites, that seems to stick in peoples’ brains, with the anti-Star Trek dystopia of intellectual property rentiers running a close second.

But strip away the utopian and Marxist framework, and all you have is a grim dismissal of the possibility of egalitarian politics. You get something like this, from Noah Smith, which echoes my account of exterminism but updates it to our present drone-obsessed times. For a lot of isolated intellectual writer types, it can be perversely reassuring to think that achieving a better world is not just difficult, but actually impossible. How else to explain the appeal of Chris Hedges?

Another piece of news that recently aroused this sensibility was this Guardian post about an alleged “NASA study” predicting the “irreversible collapse” of industrial civilization. Here, via Doug Henwood, is a critique of the study itself and the lazy media that propagated it. And another Twitterer links to this, which is even more damning. In short, the study—which the original author didn’t even bother to link to—had little to do with NASA, and was a crude theoretical model based on a handful of equations. Frankly, as far as futurology goes, I think “Four Futures” was built on a far sounder scientific foundation.

What depresses me is not so much the perambulations of a crank with a Guardian blog, such people will probably be with us forever. But many people I know and like were eager to share this thinly sourced bit of nonsense around Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that it spoke to a desire for apocalyptic scenarios among ostensibly pragmatic leftists.

This fatalism is the perfect complement to the equally inane positivity that pervades bourgeois discourse, whether it’s coming in the form of self-help as dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich, or as the phony utopianism of silicon valley plutocrats. The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright, while left curmudgeons reassure themselves with the conviction that it’s inevitably gloomy. We don’t win from playing this game, taking our meager emotional returns while our opponents take their payment in a much more tangible form.

Jacobin/Verso Books Launch

March 11th, 2014  |  Published in Feminism, Shameless self-promotion, Work

It seems I’m in book-announcing mode this week. Today marks the release of three books from Jacobin magazine’s collaboration with Verso Books. The trio includes Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust (slightly silly profile of Kunkel here), Micah Uetricht’s Strike For America (excerpt here), and Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore (excerpt here). I have my own contribution to this series planned for the future, but more on that later. For those in New York, the launch event is on Wednesday the 12th.

The books are all worth your time. But I want to especially highlight Melissa’s which I think is an incredibly important work. I’m proud that for some time now, Jacobin has been consistently putting forward an alternative to the dominant narratives about sex work. I may have been first to write there on these issues, but that was only opening the door to people far better versed in these issues than I, like Melissa and Laura Agustín.

Playing the Whore synthesizes a huge body of theory, research and activism by and for sex workers. But I hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed as being about sex, or about sex work, or about feminism, though it is about all those things. There’s a huge wealth of insight here about the meaning of contemporary labor, and the many complexities of trying to develop new identities that make class politics possible.

Crucially, the book reorients discussion of sex work in the direction of class politics more generally, and away from dehumanized narratives of victimization or the overwrought feelings of would-be middle class saviors. As Grant says toward the end of the book: “There’s one critical function sex worker identity must still perform: It gives shape to the demand that sex workers are as defined by their work as they are by their sexuality; it de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker, not despite sex but to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction”.

Rather than attempt my own clumsy summary, I’ll just tease you with more of Grant’s own words. Here are some of the lines that stood out to me from each of her ten chapters, which I hope will encourage others to pick up the book and delve into the rich context that motivates them.

  • “The Police”: “Rather than couching crackdowns on sex work as fighting crime, now some feminists appeal to the police to pursue stings against the sex trade in the name of gender equality. We can’t arrest our way to feminist utopia, but that has not stopped influential women’s rights organizations from demanding that we try.”

  • “The Prostitute”: “since the middle of the seventies, ‘prostitution’ has slowly begun to give way to ‘sex work.’ It’s this transition from a state of being to a form of labor that must be understood if we’re to understand the demands that sex work is work . . . the designation of sex work is the invention of the people who perform it.”

  • “The Work”: “All that is intentionally discreet about sex work . . . are strategies for managing legal risk and social exclusion and shouldn’t be understood as deceptive any more than the discretion and boundaries a therapist or priest may maintain. But this necessary discretion warps under the weight of anti-sex work stigmas and policing.”

  • “The Debate”: “Is this the real fear then: not that more people are becoming prostitutes but that the conventional ways we’d distinguish a prostitute from a nonprostitute woman are no longer as functional?”

  • “The Industry”: “To insist that sex workers only deserve rights at work if they have fun, if they love it, if they feel empowered by it is exactly backward. It’s a demand that ensures they never will.”

  • “The Peephole”: “Surveillance is a way of knowing sex workers that unites the opportunity for voyeurism with the monitoring and data collection performed by law enforcement, by social service providers, or by researchers.”

  • “The Stigma”: “Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. . . . Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others.”

  • “The Other Women”: “Sex work informs their analysis of sexualization not because sex workers’ lives are important but because sex work makes women who don’t do it feel things they prefer not to feel. It is the whore stigma exercised and upheld by other women.”

  • “The Saviors”: “For those working in the antiprostitution rescue industry, sex workers are limited to performing as stock characters in a story they are not otherwise a part of, in the pity porn which the ‘expert’ journalists, filmmakers, and NGO staff will produce, profit from, and build their power on.”

  • “The Movement”: “Without its student liberation movement, its black liberation movement, its women’s liberation movement, and its gay liberation movement I can’t imagine San Francisco birthing a prostitutes’ rights movement from a houseboat docked Sausalito.”

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”

March 10th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy  |  2 Comments

Today marks the English-language publication of Thomas Piketty’s eagerly awaited Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t comment on the adequacy of its approach to the problem of capital in the twenty-first century. But I can comment on a specific problem of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” that turns out to be illuminating.

In his review of the book, Dean Baker complains that Piketty’s account is overly deterministic, largely due to an inattention to the details of institutional structures which shape the distribution of wealth and income, and which are potentially subject to change by political means. In particular, he draws attention to one of his, and my, recurring themes: intellectual property. Using drug companies as a case in point, Baker notes that this industry makes up 2 percent of GDP and 15 percent of corporate profits, based entirely on “government granted patent monopolies”.

Drug patents may be the most egregious example, but there’s plenty more where that came from. After reading Baker’s review, I headed over to Amazon, with the thought of picking up an ebook edition of Piketty’s book. There I found that the Kindle edition retails for a whopping $27.48, for a grand total of $1.45 in savings over the physical, hardcover edition.

Only copyright law and digital copy protections make this possible, of course—copying an ebook is trivial and nearly costless. And who benefits from that? Presumably some royalties accrue to Piketty and his translator, Arthur Goldhammer. Which I can’t really begrudge, although Piketty already enjoys a comfortable faculty position at the Paris School of Economics.

But the other beneficiary is the publisher, Harvard University Press, and it’s a bit harder to see how they need the money. HUP is a division of Harvard University, which, some incidental educational operations aside, is primarily an enormous investment fund presiding over $32 billion dollars in assets. Which brings us around to another of Dean Baker’s objections, which is that the unusual success of Harvard’s investments may not simply be due to the expertise of its financial managers. He proposes insider trading as another plausible (albeit unsubstantiated) explanation: “graduates of these institutions undoubtedly could [provide] their alma maters with plenty of useful investment tips.”

All of which is to say that while I laud Piketty’s support for increased taxation of income and wealth, the peculiar case of his own book illustrates Baker’s important counterpoint. It’s a point that could equally be directed at certain Marxists and other leftists, for whom all efforts at reformist politics are doomed to fail a priori: “capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it”, and thus we should pay close attention to “the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.”

Guards, Workers, Machines

February 17th, 2014  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Shameless self-promotion, Socialism, Work  |  1 Comment

I see that a couple of my longtime interests—guard labor and the relationship between wages and productivity—have surfaced in the New York Times and the Economist, respectively.

The Times published an article by the economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, advancing their research on what they call “guard labor”: the work of security guards, police, the armed forces, prison staff, and others whose function is chiefly “guarding stuff rather than making stuff”, in the words of another economist they quote.

Bowles and Jayadev first proposed the concept of guard labor, as far as I know, in this paper from about ten years ago. Their basic insight is that maintaining a system of unequally distributed private wealth requires a large amount of repressive labor that is not directly productive. I first drew on their idea a few years ago in my sketch of the economy of anti-Star Trek (and I should note that the economics of Star Trek has also gotten another recent treatment.) I returned to it in “Four Futures”, which also considers the increasing significance of guard labor in a society characterized by abundant and unequal wealth alongside ecological scarcity.

In their latest update, Bowles and Jayadev advance their analysis by empirically analyzing guard labor in a cross-national perspective, and relating it directly to income inequality. They find, unsurprisingly, that higher levels of inequality are strongly correlated with a stronger share of guard labor in the economy. To over-simplify only a bit, societies with a greater social distance between the rich and poor require more people to protect the haves from the have-nots. Thus Bowles and Jayadev suggest that reducing economic inequality is an important part of rolling back our increasingly militarized, carceral society.

Meanwhile, at the Economist, we have Ryan Avent (technically unattributed, according to the magazine’s annoying convention), writing about an apparently unrelated topic: the relationship among productivity, economic growth, and wage stagnation. The post is long and contains a number of interesting detours, but the basic point is simple: “productivity is often endogenous to the real wage.” What this means is that technological change in the production process isn’t something that happens independently of what’s happening to the wages of workers. Rather, high wages spur productivity growth because they encourage businesses to economize on labor. Conversely, lots of workers competing for jobs at low wages is a recipe for slow growth, because there is little incentive to use labor-saving technology when labor is so cheap.

As it happens, this is exactly what I suggested a few years ago, in response to Tyler Cowen’s theories of technological stagnation. I’ve elaborated the point, and even drawn on the mainstream economist Daron Acemoglu, who also crops up in Avent’s post. But economics writers have been remarkably resistant to the idea that wages and technology can dynamically interact like this, and the Economist post still treats it as a scandalous proposition rather than something that seems compelling and obvious on its face. Thus we find ourselves trapped in an endless, unhelpful debate about whether or not technology is some kind of independent, inevitable cause of unemployment and wage polarization.

Having examined various aspects of the problems that arise from a glut of too-cheap labor, Avent ends up very close to where I do on these issues, in particular on the value of reducing labor supply. A higher minimum wage is important, since it provides the necessary incentive to economize on labor. But it’s not sufficient, because we also need to reduce the amount of hours of work, both through shorter hours and lower labor force participation. That means something like a Universal Basic Income not tied directly to employment. Which brings us back to the same place Bowles and Jayadev end up as well: massive redistribution to tackle income inequality and share out the benefits of a highly productive economy.

Avent notes with amusing understatement that “redistribution at the scale described above would be very difficult to engineer.” It will require, in fact, pitched class struggle of no less intensity than was necessary to build the socialisms and social democracies of the 20th century. But taking that path is the only way to get to something resembling the two egalitarian endings I sketched, as part of my speculative political economy choose-your-own-adventure in “Four Futures”, which I called communism and socialism. The alternative is to continue along the path Bowles and Jayadev describe, to a society locked down by guard labor—whether that’s the rentier dystopia of pervasive intellectual property I called rentism, or the inverted global gulag of rich enclaves scattered across a world of ecological ruin, which I called exterminism.