Archive for March, 2010

Pessimism of the Intellect, revisited

March 22nd, 2010  |  Published in Politics, Statistical Graphics

In light of recent events and the ambivalence expressed in the Health Care Reform thread I started at the Activist, it seemed appropriate to resurrect the graphic from this post:

Against Means Testing

March 17th, 2010  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

As a teenager in Minnesota, I attended my first Democratic Party caucus, where we sat in a church basement while a prospective candidate for office appealed for our support. At one point, a member of the audience asked the candidate for his position on the means-testing of public programs. When the candidate responded by asking which programs, in particular, ought to be means-tested, the questioner replied "any that conceivably could be means-tested".

At the time I didn't yet understand what "means testing" meant, but I still found this response a bit peculiar. It suggested that "means testing" was some kind of general point of principle rather than some technical point about implementing specific programs, which is what it sounded like.

I later found out that means testing refers to the practice of making public benefits conditional on one's demonstrated need for them, and on one's financial means of obtaining equivalent services in the private market. Policies that are specifically targeted at the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid in the United States, are therefore means-tested programs. People like the man at the caucus meeting are in favor of extending this structure to programs which are not currently means-tested, like Social Security. They argue that cash support for the aged should be provided only to those who do not have sufficient income to get along without it.

This position has a superficial plausibility that makes it attractive not only to conservatives, but even to people on the left who are concerned about equality and social justice. It seems unnecessary, even unjust, to provide public benefits to those who are already affluent, particularly when doing so uses up finite public funds that could otherwise be redirected to those more deserving. However, I have come around to the position that means-testing of public benefits is something that the left should essentially never support.

The first justification for this position is entirely political in nature. In short, I do not believe it is possible to sustain the public consensus necessary to defend a generous welfare state regime, if the benefits of that regime are perceived as being directed to a privileged subset of the population. Setting up benefits in this way inevitably breeds resentment among those segments of the working class who pay taxes and do not receive substantial benefits, who then become open to the argument that the poor are parasitic on their hard work. This tendency is accentuated by the fact that the beneficiaries of means-tested programs will tend to be people who are already subject to social stigma and bigotry, such as women and members of racial minorities. The paradigmatic example of this in the United States is the dismantling of "welfare as we know it" in the 1990's. In that struggle, the barely-coded racist imagery of "welfare queens" highlighted a perception that the recipients of welfare were undeserving and opportunistic Others rather than people who could have, with a bit of bad luck, been any of us.

Not all elements of the welfare state suffer the same fate as welfare, however, not even in the United States. Consider, for example, the resilience of Social Security and Medicare in the face of decades of persistent conservative and neo-liberal attacks, culminating most recently in George W. Bush's abortive attempt to privatize Social Security. Those programs remain extremely popular with a broad cross-section of the public, to the point that Republicans will demagogue against Democratic health care proposals by posing as defenders of Medicare.

The difference between Medicare and Welfare, of course, is that Medicare is for everybody. You receive it when you turn 65, with no ifs, ands or buts. It therefore has the character of a social right, an entitlement of citizenship, rather than a special benefit or privilege. If a means test were to be imposed, however, it would convert Medicare into a program like Welfare--or indeed, a program like Medicaid, which, though ostensibly available nationwide, tends to be provided in a quite paltry form in poorer and more conservative states.

I therefore conclude that means testing of public benefits is little more than a trap set for progressives by those whose ultimate goal is the total destruction of these programs. Universal social rights are politically defensible, while particularist benefits are not. This lesson is, I think, supported by the work of Political Scientist Paul Pierson; as Joshua Tucker explains at the Monkey Cage, Pierson "explained how difficult it would be for governments to consolidate or retrench existing social policy programs, because these policies (pensions being the best example) create their own support coalition that reaches far beyond the left-wing electorate."

There is, however, an additional reason to support universalistic rather than targeted public programs, and this is a matter of principle rather than politics. The problem with means-tested benefits is not only that they are politically untenable, but that they inevitably put the state in the business of judging the worth and deservingness of applicants--and thus, by extension, judging the way in which they lead their lives. If, for example, welfare benefits are made contingent on performing work of some kind, then the state must decide what counts as a legitimate form of work. Does, for example, a mother's time spent raising a child count? Does getting a college education count? If it does, are all majors equally acceptable?

The fact that the state must adjudicate these issues--and must do so continually over time, since a person's status is constantly subject to change--means that benefit recipients are constantly subject to arbitrary bureaucratic domination. Universal benefits, on the other hand, require relatively little meddling in people's lives: in a country with universal health care, the only consideration for the state is whether or not you are a citizen. One should not, of course, understate the extremely fraught and contentious politics of citizenship itself, which may turn out to be the Achilles' heel of social democracy in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I regard it as a major step forward if we are arguing over who has the rights of citizenship rather than attempting to judge what makes a person deserving of some particular benefit.  I think that ultimately, means tested benefits tend to make the poor less free and less autonomous than the affluent. This is precisely the opposite of the goal we should be aiming at in thinking about the welfare state, which should be about enhancing human freedom and facilitating human flourishing.

This line of argument is, in a certain sense, in sympathy with critiques of the welfare state that have been offered from libertarian, anarchist, and Foucauldian perspectives. Unfortunately, discussion of these arguments tends to become bogged down in a narrow debate over whether one is "for" or "against" the welfare state. By now, however, we should all understand that there is not one welfare state but many, and that different institutional configurations can have very different implications for people's lives. Thus my goal as a writer and researcher is to promote a vision of the welfare state that enables individual autonomy and freedom by guaranteeing a basic standard of living as a human right, while simutaneously critiquing the idea that public benefits are special supports provided only to the deserving poor, and only in those instances where the private capitalist marketplace has "failed".

In Defense of Anonymity

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in Everyday life

Photo by Tony Pierce.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's odd declaration that "there are no second acts in American lives" is, as has been said, among the most inaccurate statements ever made about the country. America is defined by its second lives, and almost nothing--not terrorism, not treason, not even urinating on an underage girl on video--can prevent the eternal recurrence of our public figures.

So I was not surprised by the return of Jaron Lanier. I first encountered this asshat in Thomas Frank's One Market Under God, where he appeared as an example of the bankrupt culture of the dot-com bubble: a guy who was celebrated (by bell hooks, even!) for his dreadlocks and his general counter-cultural persona, but whose contribution to public debate consisted of defending the neoliberal conventional wisdom and sticking up for the Microsoft monopoly.

Now Lanier is back to inform us that the Internet is ruining everything. His schtick is mashup of three old chestnuts: that post-modern, sample-based forms of creation are inferior to "real" creativity, that rampant piracy is making it impossible for creative workers to make a decent living, and that online anonymity trashes civil discourse.

The first argument is so stupid--and so redolent of 1950's parents complaining about rock and roll, or baby boomers trashing rap--that I think it's basically self-refuting for anyone under 40. The second strikes me as a potential but not a real problem, since the Internet has notably failed to make a significant dent in the volume of artistic production. To the extent that online "free culture" destabilizes the careers of people I actually respect--Charles Stross, for example--I'm sympathetic, but still not inclined to join the hand-loom weaver defense committee. We need to find other ways of supporting artistic work, rather than clinging to a repressive and inefficient regime of artificial scarcity.

The denunciation of anonymity is the most compelling, however, and you hear it repeated all the time, by people of all ages and political temperaments. It is undoubtedly the case that anonymous trolls have a remarkable ability to disrupt rational discourse; anyone who has ever had their forum invaded by birthers or accidentally looked at the comments on a YouTube video can attest to this.

However, I do not think we should be so quick to give up the power and freedom that comes from anonymity. Opponents of anonymity will emphasize that when your statements are attached to your real name, you are forced to take responsibility for them. This is true, but it has some ominous implications. What makes the question of identity on the Internet so fraught is that when you reveal your identity you reveal it not just to your immediate interlocutors, but to friends, family, potential employers, the state, and anyone who cares to google your name. This point is often lost, I think, on critics of anonymity who are already public figures (often with secure academic or journalistic sinecures of one kind of another) and therefore have little to fear (and much to gain) from associating their comments with their identity.

Moreover, a lack of anonymity is no guarantee of civility. For a case study, see this thread, in which the pundit Jim Sleeper behaves like a colossal ass while denouncing the anonymity of some acerbic but basically civil critics in one of his comment threads.

Critics of anonymity can, of course, propose the alternative of privacy. That is, even if your interventions in public discourse are associated with your name, employers or governments or schools or credit card companies  can be prohibited from using those words against you. Yet I doubt that this is really the right place to make our stand. There is, first of all, the practical difficulty of preventing state and private entities--which now gather almost unfathomable amounts of data on the population--from making use of information in ways that benefit them. But even more than this, what does the concept of privacy even mean today? We still deploy the concept of a "private sphere" as though it denotes some clearly defined part of our lives that is distinct from the "public" part, that is accessible to everyone. But this division depends for its meaning on a particular social structure, in which we have one set of "public" relations--in politics, and the labor market--and another set of "private" social relationships centered on the family. I'll quote what I said in an exchange with Rob Horning, who invoked Herbert Marcuse as a critic avant la lettre of social networking, consumerism, and the concomitant attenuation of privacy:

What does it mean for the individual to be “thrown back on himself alone”, to be able to “think and question and find”? The full explication is too long to draw out here, but I’ve concluded that the sort of non-capitalist individuality that Marcuse is defending only makes sense within a society that still makes a strong distinction between “public” and “private” spheres. It’s important to note that the private, here, is based on the bourgeois nuclear family, not the individual—Marcuse’s debt to Freud and left-Freudians like Wilhelm Reich is really important.

This kind public-private distinction is itself rooted in a contrast between mid-20th century mass consumer capitalism and an earlier form of capitalism in which the public-private distinction still had more salience (at least for the privileged classes). Such a distinction is historically specific to Marcuse’s time—for people my age (and I think I’m about the same age as you, Rob), our frame of reference is just a previous stage of mass culture. These days that’s basically true for anyone under 65. Thus my suspicion that rejecting social networking, the Internet, etc. is really just a nostalgia for an earlier kind of consumer culture.

So the recourse to individuality as an alternative ends up sounding like a kind of absurd narcissism when you counsel us to “sit quietly in a room, as Pascal prescribed”. In a society that is already totally atomized, rejecting mass culture means being totally anti-social, which is not what Marcuse was recommending.

I’m not sure anymore that defending “privacy” as such is a useful place to make our stand. Privacy from whom, and for whom? Again, without the bourgeois notion of the “private sphere” it seems arbitrary to make this distinction. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about having every aspect of the self be an open book for Capital. But I wonder if in the 21st century surveillance society, the relevant issue isn’t the right to *anonymity* rather than the right to privacy.

What does it mean to invoke anonymity as an alternative to privacy? One advantage of this move is that it allows us to leave behind the premise that each of us has a single, authentic self. The whole critique of anonymity rests upon the assumption that we can choose one of two ways of presenting ourselves: as our one "true" self, associated with our legal name, consistent and continuing over time, or as an anonymous and irresponsible avatar of the moment, who can drive-by troll a comment thread and then disappear into the night. Neither of these poles represent the way most people actually live, however. Even those of us who never post anonymously online have multiple selves: work self, school self, family self, bar self, fantasy baseball self, or whatever.

The Internet-age culture of pseudonymous handles only codifies this, and in some ways actually makes it more accountable. In the bizarre Jim Sleeper exchange I linked above, a couple of Sleeper's antagonists make an important point: just because their comment-thread handles aren't their real names doesn't mean they don't care about the reputations of those handles. Anonymity isn't a way of avoiding accountability so much as a way of dividing it, acknowledging the reality that we are legion, we contain multitudes.

To the extent that truly one-off, unaccountable, drive-by anonymity is a problem, I think the solution is not to demand that people "take off their masks" but to devise new ways of managing anonymous and pseudonymous communities. That might mean a benevolent monarchy under a blogger like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who presides over the finest commenter community on the political internet. Or it might mean technical innovations like Slashdot Moderation, a breakthrough that I wish was much more widely applied on non-geek sites. But anonymity, I think, is here to stay. And that's as it should be.

“Undercover Boss” and the misfortune of labor

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized

Cross-posted from The Activist

"To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune." --Marx, Capital

"Are you a good team player/remember the boss is your best friend/kill your head." --Born Against

CBS chose to premiere their new reality show, "Undercover Boss", after the Super Bowl, indicating that they expect big things from it. And the premise is undeniably appealing: sending CEOs out to work entry-level jobs at the companies they control. In the first episode, we follow Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management, as he picks up litter, rides a garbage truck, and cleans toilets. As cheap populist theater, it's hard to resist.

Predictably, the show is really an affirmation of the class hierarchy it pretends to challenge. Its core lesson is that, should the benevolent corporate ruler deign to walk among the peasants, he will surely recognize the injustice of their plight and leap to action to remedy the situation. We get copious evidence of the CEO's empathy, his heartfelt desire to improve his employee's lives and help them enjoy their jobs. The episode ends with O'Donnell giving a speech acknowledging the struggles of the workers he has toiled alongside, as he promises to be a different and better leader from this day forward. As the credits roll, we are given brief "happily ever after" messages about the fate of the five rank-and-file employees we have met.

Of course, it's trite and obvious to point out that television tends to portray structural inequalities in terms of personal morality and individual solutions. If that was all there was to "Undercover Boss", it wouldn't rate a post. But what really struck me about the episode was something that relates to my recent post on guaranteed income. This show inadvertently makes the point that there is nothing noble or honorable about being working class under capitalism, despite what capitalist propagandists and even some traditional leftists would have you believe. On the contrary, being forced to work at an unpleasant job in return for wages leads to a degradation of the soul and a deformation of one's character.

This is made painfully evident by the heroes and villains in "Undercover Boss". The heroes--other than the CEO himself--are the everyday workers. And they seem like basically good people dealing with difficult circumstances. But their attitude toward their jobs is, at best, a resigned cynicism, like that of the woman who shrugs her shoulders at being followed by corporate spies and forced to urinate in a can in order to make her quota of trash pickups. And at worst, they show that they've internalized a work ethic that causes them to become complicit in exploiting their fellow workers. One man, who holds his job despite suffering from kidney failure, rides O'Donnell relentlessly for being too slow to pick up trash on a windy hillside, and then fires him after ridiculing him for being a worse worker than a dialysis patient. Even more horrifying is the man who brings a cheerful, can-do disposition to his job of sucking unspeakable waste out of the depths of a carnival porta-potty. O'Donnell commends him for his talent at motivating him to do this dirty job, even making it seem "fun". And one can see why as a CEO, he would this employee so valuable. But watching the two of them interact, one is struck by the gulf that separates a man forced to clean toilets, who adopts a positive attitude in order to make the work bearable, from the CEO who patronizingly approves of his attitude.

The villains in this drama are, in their own way, just as poignant. They are, for the most part, middle managers--pasty white guys who sit a bit higher on the corporate ladder than the spotlighted workers, but many rungs below CEO O'Donnell. In several scenes of "Undercover Boss", O'Donnell puts these characters on the spot and calls them out for various overbearing and callous managerial demands. These scenes fall into a long tradition of vilifying middle management in post-industrial American culture: it's the impulse that animates Dilbert, Office Space, and the Office. Middle managers make easy targets because they're the face of the boss that workers actually see--unlike the top managers who will never meet workers face-to-face outside of the fantasy world of reality TV.

At best, people focus their resentment on middle mangers for the same reason that radicals and oppressed people feel a visceral animosity toward cops, even though they are only foot soldiers for a much larger power structure. But watching the interviews on "Undercover Boss", I was reminded of the stories of Soviet peasants and workers, faced with the brutality of, in turn, the Cossacks and the Communist bureaucracy. They would cling to the notion that the big leader--first the Czar, later Stalin--would be outraged if he only knew what his agents were up to, and would surely make things right.

But as the liberal economist Brad DeLong likes to say, "the Cossacks work for the Czar". The squirmiest parts of "Undercover Boss" are the interludes where O'Donnell expresses his shock and dismay at the brutal policies implemented by underlings as they attempt to implement the productivity targets that he himself has imposed. He behaves as though all of these nasty outcomes are the fault of small-minded managers, who simply misunderstood his benevolent motives.

In the end, then, no-one on this show comes off looking good. The boss looks like a smarmy and self-satisfied hypocrite; the managers look petty and cruel; and the rank-and-file look either beaten-down, brutalized, or brainwashed. The secret lesson of the show is that the powerlessness of workers has horrible spiritual consequences both for them and for their bosses. I think a lot of people are reluctant to make this argument--I'm reluctant to make it too--because it seems disrespectful of people who are generally less privileged than those of us with the time to write rambling blog posts about TV shows. But that's a risk I'm willing to take, if the alternative is to patronize people by romanticizing their work even though, in all honesty, I wouldn't for one second consider trading places with them.

The healthiest reaction to the plight of the people featured on "Undercover Boss" is to fight for a society in which people aren't forced to clean out toilets and then pretend they enjoy it. One way to do that is to build strong unions that can stand up for the rights of people who will never be lucky to appear on a CBS reality TV show. But the left needs to think hard about other models, including the one I raised the other day--a minimum income that allows everyone enough to survive on, no matter what. It's hard to imagine that people would be so eager to oppress their fellow workers, or feign enjoyment of their crappy jobs, if they had the same choice given to the star of "Undercover Boss": the choice not to be there.