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.

Workin’ It

February 11th, 2014  |  Published in Socialism, Work  |  4 Comments

I’m pleased to see that a silly partisan dispute over an obscure finding in a Congressional Budget Office report has gotten people talking about the merits of working less. Alex Pareene has a good reaction to the finding that the Affordable Act will lead some people to quit their jobs: good! As he says, “People should be free from shitty jobs.” Even Paul Krugman is in on the act, pointing out the dishonesty of right-wingers who praise the dignity of work even as they attempt to make actual work as undignified as possible.

But in a more selfish way, I’m also glad that Kevin Drum is on hand to warn liberals against denigrating the dignity of work. He notes and approves of the fact that “Most people want to work, and most people also want to believe that their fellow citizens are working. It’s part of the social contract.”

This isn’t a view confined to liberals, and it crops up in some exchanges I’ve had with Jacobin co-editor Seth Ackerman. In a response to me, Ackerman makes a similar argument: “there is . . . an impulse to resent those with ‘undeserved’ advantages in the distribution of work”, and therefore “there will always be this social demand for the equal liability of all to work”. Thus he insists that “emancipation from wage-work should happen through the reduction of working-time along the intensive margin”, i.e., through a reduction in working hours among the employed. Alex Gourevitch, meanwhile, makes a somewhat different case, celebrating the value of “discipline” and the “renunciation of desire” against what he perceives as the embrace of pure hedonism and immediacy by anti-work writers.

The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work”, particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life”. Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.

These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear seperately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.

There are, most of us agree, some things that are socially necessary, that are undertaken for money, and that require discipline and self-sacrifice. Teaching is the first that comes to mind, in light of the struggles around that profession.

It is hard, at first, to think of something that’s necessary and paid but that doesn’t require some sort of self-discipline or renunciation of desire. But perhaps a pure form of rentier capitalist can be thought to engage in such activity. Simply enjoying a stream of investment income and blowing it on whatever you please is the opposite of self-sacrifice and discipline. And yet the drive to make investments profitable and to satisfy the consumption whims of those with money is the motor that drives a capitalist economy, so it is “necessary” within the context of that system.

By now, the left is pretty conscious of the huge amount of difficult and necessary work that isn’t paid, whether it’s women raising their children or the labor of social media. Hence the demand for Wages for Housework and, now, Wages for Facebook.

Some things are necessary for the reproduction of society even though people often do them for free and don’t perceive them as disciplined or self-sacrificing. Sex, to take the most obvious example. Of course, sex can also be a disciplined performance undertaken for money. But, as Melissa Gira Grant explores in her upcoming book, the existence of sex work can be very discomfiting for people who are emotionally invested in the idea of sex as a space of pure non-work. But that, I’d argue, is itself a symptom of our confused and fetishistic conception of what work is.

Meanwhile, some of the things people do work very hard to get paid for are of dubious social utility. The people who design high frequency trading algorithms are undoubtedly hard-working and ingenious. But it’s hard to justify what they do even within the parameters of a capitalist economy, which is why calls for a financial transactions tax are so appealing. And the things in this category aren’t necessarily bad things—professional sports aren’t necessary for social reproduction either, even though they’re well paid and are acknowledged to be “hard work” in the third sense of work given above.

At the same time, there can and does exist lots of activity that satisfies Gourevitch’s criteria of discipline and diligence, even though it’s unpaid and it’s hard to claim the status of social necessity for it. The world is full of amateur photographers and recreational hunters who have no particular ambition to get paid for what they do. And we can also add all those competitive endeavors that don’t sustain paid professional careers, like Scrabble or video gaming outside of a handful of esports.

What of the work that isn’t work in its first (necessary) or third (renunciation of desire) sense, but still keeps the “getting paid for it” part? Certain kinds of celebrities who are “famous for being famous” come to mind. This is tricky, however, since often the appearance of effortlessness conceals a disciplined and carefully managed performance. But the difficulty of conceiving of this kind of work indicates the problem with certain work-obsessed solutions to economic deprivation, such as the so-called “job guarantee”. Proponents of such schemes seem to think that people should only get paid if they have “jobs”, and yet they are indifferent to what the content of those jobs is, leading some of us to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just give out the money without the jobs.

Finally, we come to the triple negative, things that aren’t considered work in any of the three senses I’ve given. The paradigmatic example of something that is useless, unpaid, and completely hedonistic would, of course, be masturbation. And it’s not surprising that, in a culture suffused with the work ethic, “masturbatory” is a common term of denigration. But there’s nothing wrong with masturbation provided you don’t impose yours on others—although as Doctor Jocelyn Elders discovered, you have to be careful about saying that in public.

All of which is a long-winded way of making the point that if we’re going to debate the meaning, importance, dignity, and existence of work, we should be a lot more careful what we mean by the concept. When I talk about reducing or eliminating work, I almost always mean work in my second sense: wage labor. Getting rid of the necessary work of social reproduction—say, by automating it—may be desirable, but maybe not, depending on the situation; I know not everyone is down with Shulamith Firestone’s proposal to grow babies in tanks. And I certainly agree with Gourevitch that disciplined commitment to seeing a project through is an important aspect of, as he puts it, the “full expression of human creativity and productive powers”.

It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them–whether out the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something”.

So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.

I like the way Drum puts it: “people want to believe that their fellow citizens are working”. The word believe suggests that it’s the ideology of what counts as work that’s doing the, well, work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name of social solidarity.

Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work–though we do need that–but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers Voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.

Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.

The Fantasy Politics of the Libertarian Alliance

January 23rd, 2014  |  Published in Politics  |  2 Comments

Watching the online banter about my last post, I saw several people–both supporters and critics of my argument–suggesting that I was proposing some kind of “alliance with libertarians”. This is peculiar in that I never said such a thing anywhere in the post. My point was that libertarians don’t, and shouldn’t, have a monopoly on anti-statist politics, and that there are stoutly Marxist reasons to see the national security state as a key political target of the class struggle.

The main reason I didn’t call for a left-libertarian alliance is that I don’t know what such a thing would even mean. Are Cornel West and Rand Paul to have a grand summit and sign a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact declaring a cease in hostilities in light of our common war on liberalism?

Obviously that’s ridiculous, and people who criticize “alliances” with libertarians are really questioning the validity of any political issue that might find leftists and libertarians on the same side. But this applies a level of sectarian rigor that is rarely found outside of the most insular Trotskyists. Politics makes for all sorts of strange bedfellows–recall that the Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act, which would raise capital standards for big banks, is co-sponsored by progressive hero Sherrod Brown and reactionary Louisiana Republican David Vitter.

Yet I don’t recall a lot of handwringing about the left’s “alliances” with right wing Christian fundamentalists, presumably because it’s obvious that a tactical alignment on a single issue doesn’t entail accepting your enemy’s entire worldview. I would think it’s obvious that effective politics means making common cause with people who you find distasteful in some ways. But maybe I’m just used to it because I’m a socialist, and I’m used to working with liberals who believe all sorts of lousy things–for example, that the progressive legacy of the New Deal includes the military and prison industrial complex.

All of which is why, in the end, I lump in left critics of Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden’s “libertarianism” with obvious partisan hacks like Sean Wilentz. Their arguments all point to the same thing: not a clarification of the Left’s politics, but merely a stigmatization of anything that attacks the security state, as if that’s somehow incompatible with the values of the Left. And it’s dispiriting that some people are unable to see that I was never arguing that the Left needed to be more like libertarians, but rather that a position of principled opposition to the repressive functions of the state is indispensible for a consistent and emancipatory left politics.

The Left and the State

January 20th, 2014  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  2 Comments

The New Republic has long been notorious for posing as a liberal magazine while publishing allegedly provocative or contrarian articles that serve mostly to undermine liberal and progressive politics. This tendency seemed to abate a bit when Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes took over the magazine from the notorious racist and warmonger Marty Peretz. The latest from Sean Wilentz, however, falls squarely within the old tradition. We are to believe that rather than principled critics of the surveillance state, the likes of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are motivated by “paranoid libertarianism”; they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Henry Farrell has already done the necessary demolition of this particular bit of hack-work at Crooked Timber, so there’s no need for me to repeat it. And I’d be less concerned if this line of argument were limited to Wilentz, who has an established track record as a truculent apologist for established government elites. But Wilentz’s argument resembles Mark Ames’ ongoing crusade against Greenwald and Snowden, as well as David Golumbia’s tirade against “cyberlibertarianism” at Jacobin. (Golumbia can be found in the comment section at Crooked Timber as well, mostly supporting the Ames/Wilentz line.) So I’m interested in what drives this obsession with people like Greenwald and Snowden (and presumably Chelsea Manning, although she tends to be invisible in these accounts) as vectors for noxious libertarianism rather than people who are doing courageous and useful work even if their politics aren’t socialist.

I think Henry Farrell is right to see, with Wilentz, an attempt to conflate the ideal of the liberal state with the existing national security state, in an attempt to force defenders of the welfare state to also embrace the authoritarian warfare state. But with the sympathizers to Wilentz’s left, I see something a bit different going on. I found this post from Will Wilkinson helpful in thinking this through. Wilkinson is libertarian-ish in his beliefs, but I find he can provide a helpful perspective despite coming from rather different moral and political economic premises. In this case, I think he correctly identifies the trap that some of these left attacks on people like Snowden or Greenwald fall into.

Wilkinson notes that theoretically, libertarianism is “an argument against the possibility of legitimate government.” This makes it clearly incompatible with most socialist or social democratic attempts to democratize the market or expropriate the means of production. Yet nevertheless “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible.” Substitute “socialist” for “liberal”, and I think the point stands just as well. He further points out that mounting a libertarian defense of our current economic relations depends on a parallel sleight of hand, “confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal.”

But there seems to be an instinct, among some on the Left, to suppose that defending the possibility of government requires rejecting any alliance with libertarians who might criticize particularly noxious aspects of the existing state. Or, to be a bit more subtle, that any critique that emphasizes government authoritarianism merely distracts us from the critique of private power, in particular the power of the boss.

I don’t think it’s true that attacks on NSA surveillance somehow make it harder to bring up corporate privacy abuses or the tyranny of capital in the workplace. But more than that, I think that when leftists set themselves up as defenders of government against libertarian hostility to the state, they unwittingly accept the Right’s framing of the debate in a way that’s neither an accurate representation of reality nor a good guide to political action.

The Right, in its libertarian formulation, loves to set itself up as the defender of individual liberty against state power. And thus contemporary capitalism—often referred to by that overused buzzword, “neoliberalism”—is often equated in casual left discourse with the withdrawal of the state.

But in the works that developed neoliberalism as a category of left political economy, this is not how things are understood at all. Neoliberalism is a state project through and through, and is better understood as a transformation of the state and a shift in its functions, rather than a quantitative reduction in its size. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey underlines the importance of the state in forcibly creating a “good business climate” by breaking down barriers to capital accumulation and repressing dissent. Hence:

Neoliberalism does not make the state or particular institutions of the state (such as the courts and police functions) irrelevant, as some commentators on both the right and the left have argued. There has, however, been a radical reconfiguration of state institutions and practices (particularly with respect to the balance between coercion and consent, between the powers of capital and of popular movements, and between executive and judicial power, on the one hand, and powers of representative democracy on the other)

The growth of the surveillance state, in this formulation, clearly makes up a central part of the neoliberal turn, and is not something ancillary to it.

However, the misrecognition of the specifically neoliberal state continues to mislead liberals and leftists, and not only on the topic of the national security state–a state, it should be noted, that is inextricably linked with the nominally private sector, in the form of contractors such as the one that employed Edward Snowden. As the neoliberal state moves in the direction of governing through crime, it becomes increasingly important to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, a joint public-private project of domination, exploitation and social control.

And yet there is the persistent temptation to invoke the genie of state repression despite the Left’s documented inability to make it do its bidding. That can take the form of “humanitarian” warmongering or what Elizabeth Bernstein has described as “carceral feminism”: “a vision of social justice as criminal justice” that attempts to deploy the repressive power of the state to protect women who are portrayed as helpless victims.

Or take a very different issue, the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to toxic drinking water. The always acerbic and astute Dean Baker notes the witless habit of referring to this event as “a failure of government regulation” and a consequence of “free-market fundamentalism”. The real issue, he notes, is that the state protects the property rights of the rich while allowing them to profit from befouling our common resources. Baker has, I think, done some of the best popular writing attacking the fiction that the Right is for free markets while the Left is for government regulation. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the contest before us in the immediate future is between different regimes of state-created and -enforced property, not between the state and the market.

One should not have any illusions that critics of the national security state all share socialist politics. But we should judge these critics by what they say and do and what their political impact is. An endless inquisition into hidden beliefs and motives, and the attempt to unmask a devious libertarian hidden agenda, makes for a satisfying purity politics for those who want to justify their own inaction. But it does nothing to contest the predatory fusion of state and capital that confronts us today, which must be confronted in the government, the workplace, and many other places besides.

Regulatory Theater at the S.E.C.

November 7th, 2013  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

Lately the Securities and Exchange Commission has been in the news for its newly aggressive enforcement stance. Most prominently, JP Morgan is reportedly settling for $13 billion to end investigations of its mortage-bond sales.

Discussion has tended to center on the particular details of this and other enforcement actions. Was it enough money? Will they admit wrongdoing? Will it be enough dissuade future transgressions? But the profile of S.E.C. chair Mary Jo White, by Nicholas Lemann in the current New Yorker, suggests that flashy enforcement actions may be a distraction from a different problem.

White is a career litigator, who has worked as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan), as well as in private practice for some of the same Wall Street firms she faced off against in her government capacity. This led many to criticize her appointment for its apparent conflicts of interest.

This is certainly a problem. The response, presented in Lemann’s article, is that lawyers like White are part of a “Killer Elite”, too proud and arrogant to be open to corruption by private interests. This is self-serving to say the least. But even if true, Lemann suggests a bigger problem with appointing an enforcement minded litigator like White—a “cop on the beat”, as President Obama said when he nominated her.

The problem is that “the S.E.C. doesn’t just enforce rules that have been broken. It also writes rules to govern future activity.” This rule-writing process has gone into overdrive with the passage of the Dodd-Frank law, and it is an enormously complicated undertaking. Three years after Dodd-Frank’s passage, much of it hasn’t been implemented because the S.E.C. and other agencies haven’t finalized the rules. The issues involved in just one aspect of the law, the Volcker Rule, are so complex that the “Occupy the SEC” group produced a 325 page comment letter about it.

Mary Jo White’s predecessor, Mary Schapiro, was by Lemann’s account more of a regulator than an enforcer, while White is the opposite. The danger, therefore, is that even as the agency starts taking more high profile wins with headline-grabbing prosecutions, the important rulemaking side of the agency’s mission will fall into neglect or be captured by industry lobbyists. “It’s entirely possible”, writes Lemann, “for the government to become a tougher prosecutor and a more lax regulator at the same time.” And he suggests that’s more or less what White and Obama want.

But strict enforcement of the law is of little efficacy if all the truly dangerous behavior has been rendered legal. An overemphasis on enforcement also fosters a “bad apples” theory that blames financial instability on individual bad actors rather than systemically corrupt institutions. How else to explain the preoccupation with pursuing irrelevant bagmen like Wing Chau and Fabulous Fab Tourre?

Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe practices that give the flamboyant appearance of protection against terrorism while doing little or nothing to address real threats. Think of the ritual inconveniences of the airport security line—when as we now know, the people most in danger may be the TSA employees, one of whom was gunned down at Los Angeles airport by a right-wing militant.

The shift in emphasis at the S.E.C. suggests a kind of regulatory theater (a phrase I’m not the first to think of), which produces satisfying headlines of bankers laid low, while failing to write rules that address the real failures of of regulation and oversight in the financial system. The danger is that even some liberals will be bought off by a seemingly populist gesture, even as the emphasis on individual wrongdoers deepens the carceral turn in liberalism while failing to address the inherent contradictions of capitalist finance.

And just as the failure to prevent terrorism merely becomes the pretext for further elaborations of the anti-terrorism bureaucracy, so the lack of sound financial regulation can be a pretext for more of the punitive enforcement actions that White seems to relish. While reassuring the industry that she wants to avoid imposing “unnecessary burdens or competitive harm”, she remarks to Lemann at the article’s close that with regard to systemic risks in the financial system, she sees “any potential risks as a problem that needs to be solved”.

Libertarianism From Above and Below

October 30th, 2013  |  Published in Politics  |  1 Comment

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  |  1 Comment

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  |  4 Comments

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.

Frase, Parameswaran, and the Future: This Sunday in NYC

June 13th, 2013  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

This Sunday at 3:00 PM, those of you in the New York area can catch me at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 exhibition space in Queens, where I’ll be participating in a discussion with Ashwin Parameswaran. It’s part of a summer-long season of interesting talks organized by the online magazine Triple Canopy, under the heading “Speculations (‘The future is ___________’)”. (The weekend after my event, there’s another great one between Jacobin contributor Alex Gourevitch and Kathi Weeks, whose book about work and feminism I reviewed for the magazine.) Tickets are ten bucks, five for students, and you can also check out PS1′s interesting collection as part of the deal. And after that you can go eat at the only barbecue joint in New York named after a revolutionary abolitionist.

Ashwin is a fascinating character whose ideas I’ve touched on several times, in connection with topics ranging across social network companies, capitalist stagnation, ecology, and the private welfare state. His writing about automation also bears on the ideas I explored in “Four Futures”. But I’ve never engaged with his writing at length, and I’m looking forward to the chance to meet and talk with him in person.

To get a feel for the areas we’ll be discussing on Sunday, the best place to start is probably this post, followed by this more theoretical treatment if your appetite hasn’t been satisfied. Parameswaran believes that many of the problems with contemporary capitalism can be traced to an approach to macroeconomic management that ensures “stability for the classes, instability for the masses”. Individuals face economic insecurity, but bailouts and corrupt privatization schemes ensure that “incumbent firms have no fear of failure and can game the positive incentives on offer to extract rents while at the same time shying away from any real disruptive innovation.” As he notes—and as Jacobin readers will recall from Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black”—capitalism has thus reproduced the fundamental flaw of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.

Parameswaran’s alternative is what he refers to as “bailouts for people, not firms”. In other words, a strengthening of the welfare state to protect people from economic turbulence, combined with a renewed commitment to capitalism’s “invisible foot”: the real threat of failure for uncompetitive firms. A proposal that might not sit too well with the major sponsor of the PS1 series, the Nazi-founded and now pseudo-privatized Volkswagen.

He argues, furthermore, that this is the only workable alternative to the status quo. He thus rejects the project of some nostalgic liberals to return to the heyday of managed post-war capitalism—”stability for the masses and the classes”. I tend to agree with this perspective, albeit not for exactly the same reasons. But I think Parameswaran’s form of utopian left-neoliberalism is subject to the same critique that I’ve made of another writer with similar predilections. The idea that it’s OK to subject people to the constant disruptive flux of market relations, so long as there is redistribution to compensate them, may make sense as technocratic macroeconomics. Or even as abstract moral philosophy. But I’m not certain it’s sufficient basis for a viable politics, when we have so much evidence that people value stability and continuity as goods in themselves. But that should make for some interesting conversations on Sunday.