I was going to review a couple of new books I picked up – The Lost Art of Heinrich Kley, Volume 1: Drawings & Volume 2: Paintings & Sketches. (Those are Amazon links. You can get it a bit cheaper from the publisher. And see a nifty little video while you’re there.) But now I seem to have lost vol. 1 of Lost Art. Turned the house over, top to bottom. Can’t find it anywhere! Oh, well. Bottom line: I’ve been collecting old Kley books for a while. It’s fantastic stuff – if you like this kind of stuff – and these new books contain a wealth of material I had never seen. I wish, I wish the print quality in vol. 1 were higher because the linework really needs to pop. The color stuff in volume 2 is better, and harder to come by before now. One editorial slip. Kley’s Virgil illustrations come from a ‘travestiert’ Aeneid, by Alois Blumauer, not a ‘translated’ one. Parody stuff. (There, I just had to get my drop of picky, picky pedantry in there.) That said, the editorial matter in both volumes is extremely interesting. Volume 2 has a great Intro by Alexander Kunkel and a very discerning little Appreciation by Jesse Hamm, full of shrewd speculations about Kley’s methods. He’s a bit of a mystery, Kley is.
The books are in a Lost Art series that is clearly a labor of love for Joseph Procopio, the editor.
In honor of our Real Utopias event, I’ll just give you Kley on politics and metaphysics. (These particular images aren’t from these new volumes, but they’re nice, aren’t they?)
Click for larger.
Was the gold standard a golden age, or a gilded one? How does it compare to later monetary regimes? I mean, we know the gold standard was terrible for the US, but what about other countries? I know you want to know, without having to dig in data appendices, so I made you some charts. Because I love you that much. (But not enough to extend the floating exchange rate regime data down to the present; that’s actual work.)
Data from table 1, Michael Bordo, “The Gold Standard, Bretton Woods and other Monetary Regimes: An Historical Appraisal,” NBER working paper no. 4310.
In The Reactionary Mind, I wrote:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power: “Here is the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.
Feminism—and the backlash against it—is the paradigm case of the battle over the private life of power. As historians have shown, the attack on Women’s Lib gave the modern conservative movement what it needed to achieve its counterrevolution in 1980. But to understand why that was the case, we have to recall just how radical feminism truly was: it sought to disrupt concrete and tangible relationships in the most private relations of power.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi has a wonderful profile of Shulamith Firestone, who died last August. Firestone was a pioneering radical feminist whose book The Dialectic of Sex did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism: it gave it a language and a shape, a fixture and a feel. But Firestone was not just the master of suspicion; she was also the master of disruption, organizing actions that confronted male power exactly where it lay: not merely in the far-off halls of Congress or the Supreme Court, but also in the office, the factory floor, the kitchen, the bedroom, the left-wing meeting. Understanding that sexist domination was above all in-your-face, she responded and agitated in kind.
By then, the groups that Firestone had founded, and a host of offshoots, were making headlines with confrontational protests and street theatre. They disrupted state abortion-law hearings in Albany; occupied restaurants that wouldn’t serve “unescorted” women; conducted a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” in Arlington National Cemetery (the deceased wore curlers); released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City. When Firestone was fired from a waitressing job and her boss withheld her wages, feminists stormed the restaurant and made him pay her on the spot.
But there was perhaps no better example of the catalytic power of radical feminism, the dynamite it perpetually set off—and that set off the conservative movement, which began attracting men made uneasy and unsettled by these very personal and intimate challenges to their power—than the publication of The Dialectic of Sex itself. For, as Faludi shows in a wonderful vignette, there was back story to that publication in the back offices of the book’s publisher William Morrow.
"What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does.
There’s already plenty of commentary, here and elsewhere on Margaret Thatcher. Rather than add to it, I’d like to compare the situation when she assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party with the one we face now. As Corey points out in his post In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.” Crucially, Heath was defeated mainly as a result of strikes by the coal miners union.
From the viewpoint of conservatives, the postwar Keynesian/social democratic consensus had failed, producing chronic stagflation, but the system could not be changed because of the entrenched power of the trade unions, and particularly the National Union of Miners. In addition, the established structures of the state such as the civil service and the BBC were saturated with social democratic thinking.
Thatcher reversed all of these conditions, smashing the miners union and greatly weakening the movement in general, and promoting and implementing market liberal ideology as a response to the (actual and perceived) failures of social democracy. Her policies accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector, and its replacement by an economy reliant mainly on the financial sector, exploiting the international role of the City of London.
Our current situation seems to me to be a mirror image of 1975. Once again the dominant ideology has led to economic crisis, but attempts to break away from it (such as the initial swing to Keynesian stimulus) have been rolled back in favour of even more vigorous pursuit of the policies that created the crisis. The financial sector now plays the role of the miners’ union (as seen in Thatcherite mythology) as the unelected and unaccountable power that prevents any positive change.
Is our own version of Thatcher waiting somewhere in the wings to take on the banks and mount an ideological counter-offensive against market liberalism? If so, it’s not obvious to me, but then, there wasn’t much in Thatcher’s pre-1975 career that would have led anyone to predict the character of her Prime Ministership.
fn1. I was too far from the scene to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of these strikes or the failed strike of the early 1980. It’s obvious that the final outcome was disastrous both for coal miners and for British workers in general, but not that there was a better alternative on offer at the time.
fn2. The popular series, Yes Minister, was essentially a full-length elaboration of this belief, informed by public choice theory
Last month, New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson turned twelve shades of red when he was challenged on Twitter about his claim in The New Yorker that Venezuela was “one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries.” A lowly rube named Mitch Lake had tweeted, “Venezuela is 2nd least unequal country in the Americas, I don’t know wtf @jonleeanderson is talking about.” Anderson tweeted back: “You, little twerp, are someone who has sent 25,700 Tweets for a grand total of 169 followers. Get a life.” Gawker was all over it.
What got lost in the story though is just how wrong Anderson’s claim is. In fact, just how wrong many of his claims about Venezuela are.
Luckily, Keane Bhatt, an activist and writer at NACLA, has been on the Anderson file from the beginning, itemizing all of Anderson’s errors and forcing the New Yorker—which is widely renowned in the magazine world for its fact-checking department—to issue some corrections.
First there was this error that Bhatt caught:
Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.
Then there was this:
In a NewYorker.com piece published before Venezuela’s elections, [Anderson] wrote in error that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides.” The most recently available United Nations data show that Honduras, with 91.6 killings per 100,000 in 2011, has twice the rate of homicides as Venezuela, which recorded 45.1 in 2010. (El Salvador has 69.2.) When confronted with these facts on Twitter in February, Anderson admitted his mistake publicly, addressing even his editors at The New Yorker, and agreed to offer a correction. Over a month later, however, neither Anderson nor his editors have fixed his invented claim.
As Bhatt also points out, the headline on that second piece was originally given the hopeful title “The End of Chavez?” Once Chavez handily won reelection, the editors had to change it to “Chavez the Survivor.”
Thanks to Bhatt’s efforts—and that of his readers—both of these errors were eventually corrected.
But now we have this:
For Jon Lee Anderson’s most recent factual error, unfortunately, The New Yorker has thus far refused to issue a clarification or retraction. One month ago—the day Chávez died—Anderson wrote a third piece, for NewYorker.com, claiming:
What [Chávez] has left is a country that, in some ways, will never be the same, and which, in other ways, is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries. . .
As I pointed out in “Anderson Fails at Arithmetic,” this allegation misleads the reader in two ways. Inequality has been reduced enormously under Chávez, using its standard measure, the Gini coefficient. So one can hardly say that in this aspect, Venezuela remains the “same as ever.” Making Anderson’s contention even worse is the fact that Venezuela is the most equal country in Latin America, according to the United Nations. Anderson’s readers come away with exactly the opposite impression.
…A senior editor [at The New Yorker] sent me an email [that] offered a strained defense of Anderson’s position on inequality, arguing that Anderson’s point was valid, given that his claim supposedly combined Venezuela’s conditions of being both “oil-rich” and “socially unequal” as one assertion.
I pointed out in my response that any reasonable reading of the statement would portray Venezuela as both one of the world’s most oil-rich and one of the world’s most socially unequal countries. And the fact of the matter is that the CIA’s World Factbook ranks the country 68th out of 136 countries with available data on income inequality—that is to say, Venezuela is exactly in the middle, and impossible to construe as among the most unequal.
I also explained that when Anderson was confronted with this evidence on Twitter, the magazine’s principal correspondent on Venezuela expressed extreme skepticism toward publicly available, constantly used, and highly scrutinized data; he instead cited his own “reporting” and “impressions” as the authority for his assertions….
Lastly, I argued that the awkward formulation of combining “oil-rich” and “socially unequal”—a reading I reject—exposes Anderson’s contention as even further at odds with reality. Included in my email was the following list showing the top 10 most “oil-rich” countries ranked in order of their total crude oil production, according to the International Energy Agency. Each country’s corresponding Gini coefficient from the CIA World Factbook appears in parentheses—the higher the Gini coefficient, the greater the country’s inequality:
1. Saudi Arabia (unavailable)
When provided with these arguments and data, The New Yorker’s senior editor fell silent in the face of repeated follow-ups. I received a reply only once: a rejection of my request to publicly post our correspondence.
Bhatt closes by urging his readers to get in touch with the The New Yorker.
Readers can pose such questions to The New Yorker by contacting its editors at www.newyorker.com/contact/contactus, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @tnynewsdesk. Such media activism plays a crucial role in engendering more careful portrayals of countries like Venezuela, which has long been the target of cartoonishly hostile, slanted, and outright false media coverage. Previous demands for accuracy and accountability have already prompted two admissions of error by The New Yorker, and can lead to a third, in spite of the magazine’s obstinacy. More importantly, the magazine now faces a real political cost to publishing sloppy reporting, as well as a powerful deterrent to running reckless news and commentary during a politically significant transitional moment for Venezuela.
In the recent TLS I have an essay on Benn Steil’s new book on Bretton Woods. Unlike some notices, mine is critical. You can read mine here. If you’re interested in the theory, put forward in Steil’s book, that Harry Dexter White caused US intervention in World War II, read below the fold. If you’re more interested in the late Baroness Thatcher, please carry on down to the other posts for today.
For a quick primer on where I stand on Bretton Woods, here’s an excerpt from the TLS:
…the Great Depression showed that the gold standard came at a price – it bound governments to worsen the economic slump, forcing prices to fall further by seeking to preserve convertibility to gold. As countries left gold – Britain went off in 1931, the United States in 1933 – they began to recover from the crisis. The Bretton Woods system acknowledged this lesson by permitting nations to adjust the peg that fixed their currencies to each other in case of need.
To prevent such adjustments from coming too often, members chipped in to the International Monetary Fund, on which they could draw to cover short-term international imbalances.
And to enable more nations to join the system, signatories also contributed to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (generally known as the World Bank) which would guarantee and make loans to rebuild war-torn countries and develop poor ones.
Thus the exchange rate regime would establish a prosperous status quo of trade at levels that would ensure full employment and high real incomes; the Fund would help maintain this status quo; the Bank would ensure over time that more nations could join the ranks of the prosperous and participate in this status quo.
The Bretton Woods system operated for twenty-five years, until in 1971 the United States, under President Richard Nixon, abandoned it. The Bretton Woods era saw low, stable inflation rates and high, stable economic growth. Indeed, the economic historian Michael Bordo’s comparative examination of monetary systems (including the old gold standard and the modern regime of floating currencies) shows that Bretton Woods performed “by far the best on virtually all criteria”. Capitalism has never looked more attractive than during this short happy period.
Which puts a sharper point on one of the most peculiar, if not poignant paradoxes of Bretton Woods: its major US architect was a Soviet spy.
So, to be clear, I wouldn’t argue that Bretton Woods was without flaws. But Steil says that Bretton Woods was “an economic apocalypse in the making”. (If you missed the apocalypse, it isn’t here yet. You have to wait.) And like Steil – and nearly everybody else – I think Harry Dexter White passed information to the Soviets. (To be precise, I think there is good evidence he passed information to the GRU in the middle 1930s and then to the NKVD (the later KGB) in the middle 1940s. I lay out some this story in the TLS essay.) Steil thinks White was not only a Soviet spy, but that he caused US intervention in World War II to benefit the USSR.
The story that Steil gives is dubious on its face. An NKVD officer, in his memoirs fifty years onward, remembered having lunch with White in May 1941 and asking him, “Did the United States recognize the Japanese threat, and was it determined to do something to counter Japanese aggression?”
Now, there are problems with the story already. Leave aside the source being a much-after-the-fact memoir. Note that the date is May 1941 – this is the month after the Soviets signed a neutrality pact with Japan, and a month before the Germans violated their neutrality pact with the Soviets. There is therefore no obvious reason why the Soviets should at this point want the US to go to war with Japan, let alone be anxious for it, as they are in Steil’s account. To be sure, one might concoct an explanation as to why this might be so, but Steil doesn’t, and should.
White did, in mid-1941, write a memorandum about US relations with Japan. At this time he was an assistant to the Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Morgenthau was certainly close to Roosevelt, but he was (to repeat) the Secretary of the Treasury, not of State. Which is to say he was not at the center of US-Japan negotiations at this time. (Harvey Klehr notes this here.)
Steil’s argument is that the concessions which White’s memo asked of Japan “were unrealistic; the Japanese would never accept them. This, at least, was what Soviet intelligence was counting on.” Thus, if the White memo were presented to Japan it would ensure a war – that’s what the Soviets meant to happen. White thought the opposite, saying he aimed at “the successful transformation of a threatening and belligerent powerful enemy into a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.” So if he was acting as a Soviet agent because the Soviets wanted the US at war with Japan, he was not acting very effectively.
White presented his memo to Morgenthau; Morgenthau sent it to State; some of its language did find its way into a communiqué. As the historians William Langer and Everett Gleason write, it would “lose its identity and become merged in the final draft of a State Department document” – a memorandum from Hull to the Japanese presenting ten points, delivered on November 26.
Steil says that “That White was the author of the key ultimatum demands [i.e., those of November 26] is beyond dispute.” Clearly this statement is untrue; historians do not generally believe that White was the author of this document.
Moreover, it is not “beyond dispute” either that this document was “the key” document, or even an “ultimatum” in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. As Roberta Wohlstetter writes,
… the documents of these critical days in November make clear that history has many candidates for the “initial incident” in the last moments of tension before war, and what finally sparks the explosion is largely a matter of accident. When Secretary Hull presented his Ten Point Note, the Pearl Harbor task force had been under way for 24 hours.
So, contrary to Steil, I do not know of any reading of the scholarship, however charitable, that can justify Steil’s use of the phrase “beyond dispute”.
Then there is the question of sourcing. For his Pearl Harbor section, Steil relies on the decades-later reminiscence of an NKVD officer, as noted, and on the 2002 book by Jerrold and Leona Schecter, Sacred Secrets. There’s a problem with that, though. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr describe the Schecters’ work as showing how
faulty memories, Soviet intelligence agency disinformation campaigns, sloppy citations, misplaced trust in documents provided by unidentified sources under unexplained circumstances, egregious lapses in logic and judgment can lead to conclusions unsupported by evidence.
The Schecters deposited the documents on which they depended in the Hoover library, to be available after ten years. Haynes and Klehr looked at them when they became available, and published their findings in 2011.
We did … find four purported KGB documents that internal evidence clearly indicates are inauthentic. All four documents purported to report on the espionage activities of Harry Dexter White, a senior US Treasury official who cooperated with Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and 1940s.… Sacred Secrets uses three of these fake documents in sections of the book dealing with Harry White. We do not suggest that the Schecters are responsible for creating these inauthentic documents or were aware of their inauthenticity and presume their unidentified suppliers of purported KGB material are the responsible parties. The Schecters, however, should have checked.…
Steil should have checked his sources, too. Haynes and Klehr say in that passage, it’s worth noting, that they’re sure that White spied for the Soviets. Yet they do not find the Schecters reliable.
The tale that White played an instrumental role in causing the Pearl Harbor attacks is so far from “beyond dispute” that cursory attention to scholarship would have tempered any such declaration.
Furthermore, what does it have to do with Bretton Woods? Steil gives it an extended section at the conclusion of his chapter introducing Harry Dexter White. But it is hard to understand why. These stories about White originate with scholars who thought US involvement in World War II was a terrible idea.
The war against Japan upset the whole structure of the international balance of power in Asia. The United States destroyed the one power that was able to check the flow of that Red tide in the Far East.… With the fall of Japan the last barrier to Russian domination of the Far East was removed.… The present Soviet military might, which threatens our national security, is the direct product of billions of lend-lease aid, coddling of Communists in high places in the American Government and failure to understand the basic drives of world Communism.
I do not think that Steil believes the war against the Axis was a bad idea. But I do not know what he does believe that makes the implausible Pearl Harbor story an important part of his book about Bretton Woods.
Then there is the whole thing about gold. But I’ve gone on too long already; maybe more on that another time.
To get a sense of why conservatives in Britain of a certain age revere Margaret Thatcher, check out this clip of her “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1980.
The context (my apologies to the Brits in the audience; this stuff can be like ancient Greek to us Yanks): In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”
Fast forward to 1980: Thatcher had been in power for a year, and the numbers of unemployed were almost double that of the Heath years. Thatcher faced a similar call from the Tory “Wets” in her own party—conservatives who weren’t keen on her aggressive free-market counterrevolution—to do a U-Turn, and many expected she would. This was her response.
Conservative swooned: the political bravado, the literary panache of that Christopher Fry reference, the grand Fuck You to the trade unions, the Wets, the unemployed. It was almost too good to be true. When I interviewed libertarian political theorist Norman Barry—a member of the extended brain trust of the economic right in Britain—years later for an article I did for Lingua Franca, he had this to say about Thatcher:
I had thought she was just an election winner who wasn’t Labour. But when she lifted exchange controls, I thought, “This babe knows market economics.” So then I thought, “Yeah!” And then she began privatization and other things. And then she wouldn’t do a U-turn, I thought, “This is for real.”
On a different Thatcher note…
Two years ago, I wrote a post on Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society. The Left often gets that quote wrong, seeing it as a manifesto of untrammeled individualism. It’s not, and our failure to understand what Thatcher really said makes it difficult to understand what neoliberalism is all about.
Here’s what I wrote in my post:
Left critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.
But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s Own. Here’s the buildup to that infamous quote:
Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…
It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial. Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.
Thatcher isn’t alone in this. For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim. When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.
Here’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:
The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)
And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:
It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences. The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about. What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.
That post, as is, is clearly over-written. There are obviously strong individualist thrusts to neoliberalism and free-market economics, and a more considered effort to understand it would have to incorporate these thrusts. This post was merely my quick effort to restore some balance to our perception of those movements.
That said, there was one feudal dimension in Hayek’s thinking that I only glancingly referred to here and that I’d want to emphasize more. And that is his theory of the judiciary. Hayek really wasn’t a simple anti-statist. He envisioned a different kind of state. As he makes clear in both Constitution of Liberty and the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he imagines a state in which the legislature has a very small role to play but judges have a very large role to play. And not judges applying or construing statutory law, but judges applying some kind of common law, invoking its “spirit” to overturn anything in statutory law that they believe contradicts the eternal order of the law (individual parts of the law may evolve and change, but the larger order must remain).
If you read Karen Orren’s book, which I mention above, you’ll see that that the notion of the judiciary governing the workplace through its construing of common law — and being totally impervious to either the legislature or even the Constitution — is the essence of “belated feudalism” in America. It’s a holdover, she argues, of English medievalism, one that gets adapted and reinvented in the context of a thriving capitalist economy in the US. In other words, you have in 19th-century America a feudal workplace surrounded by a capitalist market—and that, of course, is on top of, and quite apart from, the intimate connections between slavery and capitalism in America. (If you want some specifics from Orren on the feudal workplace, check this out.)
According to Orren, it is that belated feudalism that the labor movement and the Wagner Act set out to overturn. If she’s right, neoliberalism might be seen as an effort to return to that kind of belated feudalism.
From: Cole, Kirsti K [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
To participants in the Feminist Workshop between 1991-2011:
Cambridge Scholars Press has contracted my book, a legacy document
In this study, I hope to contact all available members and participant. As
I presume it is a bit silly to point to any obituaries. So, instead, a heartwarming story. A few weeks before he died Eric Heffer, in one of his last interviews, Eric Heffer told a story against Neil Kinnock. (If you are too young to remember Heffer, well, here’s wikipedia). He, Heffer, was dying, and one evening, walking down a corridor in the Commons, he got to the point that he couldn’t walk any further. He thought he was alone but Mrs Thatcher was several feet behind him. Seeing his distress she made him put his arm round her, and walked him to a nearby office, made him a cup of tea, and sat with him while they waited for a nurse. His observation, about Neil Kinnock, was that he would have walked straight by.
It turns out that Heffer and Thatcher were friends of sorts; similarly Thatcher and Allan Adams. (See Frank Field on Thatcher’s liking for socialist company). The first 6 years of my political life was devoted to opposing nearly everything Thatcher did (including the Falklands War, about which I have changed my mind; the exception: sale of council houses), and that only ended because I moved somewhere that I could oppose what Reagan was doing instead. But there’s plenty of space on the internet for people who want to speak ill of the dead—I just thought I would tell a story I heard about 22 years ago and is not, as far as I can find, recorded elsewhere.
I’m not going to try to analyze the books I received yet, except to note that yes, that’s clearly the Giant Rat of Sumatra speaking the slogan from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “BORN” as a reference to the original Being or Nothingness and, uh, probably some other stuff. One of the books says “Facsimile” and the other doesn’t. I already confirmed with Jon Ronson that he got one too.
I won’t attempt any further analysis for now. But if anyone else got one (or two) please write in to say…
Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan (who I know a little and like) are blogging about their recent book on organization management, The Org (Powells, Amazon) over at OrgTheory.net at the moment. It’s both a very good book and an excellent introduction to a particular style of thinking about organizations. The book starts with Ronald Coase’s insights about the relative benefits of contract and hierarchy, and goes from there. Much of the book is devoted to showing how these insights travel across a wide variety of different contexts – Baltimore policing (building on Peter Moskos’ sociology), Christian preaching and the like. Much of the book is also devoted to explaining why apparently frustrating aspects of organizations have a rationale, and may even be the best way of accomplishing something or somethings, given the complex and multiple needs, internal incentive problems and so on. More succinctly, the book sets out to show how the world that Dilbert inhabits may not be the best of all possible worlds, but is better than we realize at first glance, and actually less dysfunctional than the obvious alternatives. It provides a lot of detail and case study to back up this basic claim. And it is in an entirely different league of intelligent argument from other books aimed at business readers.
All this said, I tend to view organizations from a different perspective than the authors, one which didn’t really get any sustained attention in the book. Fisman and Sullivan build on two major traditions in organization and management – one stemming from Frederick Taylor, and the other from Chester Barnard. Taylor emphasized the value of overt incentives, monitoring and information in achieving organizational efficiencies. Barnard emphasized the benefits of fuzzier notions of corporate culture, in creating a more diffuse, but likely valuable set of benefits in interactions between workers and management. Fisman and Sullivan start off with a Coaseian version of Taylor’s arguments, but weave in some Barnardian arguments about the benefits of corporate culture as the book progresses. A good organization is one with clear, well designed incentives, and with a culture of trust.
This, however, plausibly underplays the ways in which Taylorist incentives and Barnardian diffuse trust work against each other. Gary Miller’s excellent book Managerial Dilemmas (which Fisman and Sullivan don’t seem to have read, or at least don’t refer to), makes this argument at length, building on basic results from social choice theory. In jobs where you cannot observe actors’ efforts, you will not be able to reach efficiency with overt incentive schemes alone. Indeed, too much of an emphasis on incentives is likely to turn employees into the Good Soldier Svejk, more interested in gaming the system than in fulfilling its objectives. If Taylorist incentives and fuzzy cultures-of-trust work against each other, then Fisman and Sullivan’s emphasis on efficiency starts to look much more ambiguous.
Moreover, there’s a third account of organizations out there, which Fisman and Sullivan don’t really look at at all. This is accounts of organizations not as human institutions geared to produce efficient outcomes, but instead the by-product of struggles between self-interested actors, in which organizational efficiencies take second place to the interest of powerful actors. While Miller’s own research does not fit into this tradition, he provides a useful overview of it here. Notably, all this work uses the same rationalist building blocks as the work that Fisman and Sullivan rely on, but comes to very different conclusions about the actual organizations that self-interested rational actors will create.
So when reading The Org, I couldn’t help think that there was a shadow-story to the one that they told, one which would have depicted modern businesses and organizations in a different and less pleasant light. This alternative story indeed might explain aspects of their cases that don’t fit into the more efficiency-friendly account that they favor. Early on in the book, they tell a story about a web designer who complained online about how he could design a better site than the horrible American Airlines website in a couple of hours. An American Airlines employee “Mr. X.” then responded in a friendly email, explaining the complex processes that were needed to get all the different players in the organization to sign off on a website redesign. The story suggests that organizations can indeed get stuff done – but that one needs to pay attention to the very complex coordination tasks that they need to undertake to manage this process. However, there’s one bit of the story that doesn’t gel at all with this narrative. American Airlines tracked down “Mr. X,” who hadn’t said anything very uncomplimentary or problematic about the company, and fired him.
While Fisman and Sullivan don’t really comment on this – they simply go on to describe the other kinds of coordination that AA undertakes – it’s hard for me to see how firing an employee simply for explaining how the internal process works to good effect could be efficient. It doesn’t provide any clear, useful incentives to improve overall efficiency. Nor is it conducive to a happy and productive employee culture. The simplest explanation is that Mr. X got fired because his bosses were self-aggrandizing assholes, who saw any public commentary as potential insubordination to be ruthlessly punished, even if this made for a more dysfunctional organization.
What Fisman and Sullivan provide is a picture of the organization where various apparent inefficiencies are actually-efficient solutions to political or other problems within the organization. Another lens would see these as actual inefficiencies resulting directly from the politics of actually-existing hierarchical organizations, and the fact that there is a structural divergence between the interests of those at the top of the organization and those at the bottom. Clearly, the latter view isn’t always right either (sometimes, hierarchy is necessary, or at least useful; workers can be jerks too etc). But I would certainly be interested to see Fisman and Sullivan responding, and thinking more explicitly about the possibility conditions for their more optimistic account of how organizations work.
A very wide range of issues have been raised in the many interesting postings and comments during the Crooked Timber seminar about my book Envisioning Real Utopias which ran from March 18-28. In what follows I will give at least a brief response to the core themes of each of the eight contributions to the seminar. I will organize my reflections in the order of the contributions in the symposium.
1. What is the value of “Utopian” theorizing?
The postings by John Holbo (March 18) and John Estlund (March 20) both explore a number of issues connected to the utopian dimension of my analysis. I will discuss their comments under three headings: (1) The problem of “ideal theory” and my use of the term “utopia.” (2) The legitimacy of focusing on the viability of alternative institutions more than their desirability or achievability (3) The implications of my use of a compass metaphor.
Utopias and Ideal theory
Both Holbo and Estlund feel that I generally disparage the importance of “ideal theory”. Holbo writes:
Wright mildly deprecates ‘ideal theory’ that focuses primarily on ideal desirability. Clarifying your ideals is well and good, but it is more critical to articulate what is ‘viable’, by way of building a waystation between any castle in the sky and what is truly achievable….Let me defend the alternative view that, in fact, being clear about what is ideally desirable is the proper point of focus.
Estlund formulates the issue slightly differently by defending utopian theorizing unconstrained by feasibility constraints:
To the extent that some mode of political thought is idealistic, it is proceeding without regard to the constraints of the realistic…. Utopianism can mean different things in different contexts, but in political theory it has, I believe, lost its moorings completely if it can encompass even normative theories or practical projects that insist on remaining within the bounds of the feasible .…It is not clear, then, what argument Wright has for stopping short of fully utopian theorizing—that which abstracts from both constraints of feasibility…. Wright casts aspersions on the project of theorizing without attention to the viability of alternatives.
I actually think it is fine to be a pure utopian, including engaging utopian science fiction, and certainly it is important to develop rigorous ideal theory, in order to clarify and animate ones ideals. This is why I devote much of a chapter in the book to clarifying the moral foundations of my analysis. Sharpening an understanding of moral ideals is central to the diagnosis and critique of existing institutions, and I agree with Estlund that this is a valuable intellectual task even in the absence of any alternatives. If I seem to disparage philosophical work on the problem of justice and moral ideals, then this is a failure in exposition.
What I think may be a source of confusion here is a contrast between developing ideal theory and using ideal theory as the basis for evaluating institutions and proposals for their transformation. The latter is the central concern of the book: exploring institutional proposals that can be adopted as political programs and social projects. Ideal theory is not about the actual design of institutional and social structural alternatives to the existing social world; it is about the principles of justice – or some other moral ideals – that such institutions should try to realize. In the “equality of what?” debate, the invocation of fictional insurance auctions is not a model of institutions; it is a heuristic device to clarify the meaning of the goals. In the socialist tradition, a defense of “to each according to need, from each according to ability” is the task of ideal theory. The design of socialist central planning was an unsuccessful attempt to figure out how to move towards realizing that ideal.
I argue that institutional proposals can be evaluated along three dimensions: their desirability, their viability, and their achievability. Evaluating institutions in terms of desirability means exploring the ways in which they embody values that have already been clarified through ideal theory, but this is not the same as actually doing ideal theory. We can ask of the proposal for unconditional basic income, for example: in what ways does this embody alternative egalitarian ideals as clarified in the “equality of what” debate? This is a discussion of the desirability of an institution, but not an exploration of ideal theory itself.
If you only worry about desirability of an institution but not about viability or achievability, and you base political action exclusively on that, then you are a pure utopian. I think one should absolutely be clear about ideals and ideal theory. I refer to them as moral foundations, not just commitments. But if you want to address the problem of how to actually transform the world to make it a better place, you need to worry about viability and achievability.
One final comment on Estlund’s critique. He objects to my use of the expression “real utopia”:
The title’s term, “Real utopias” …. suggests that this will be a balancing act. It is intentionally oxymoronic, embracing a tension between two approaches to critical social theory. Are realism and utopianism compatible? There is something appealing about being idealistic. And yet no one, it seems, wants to be accused of being unrealistic. The challenge, plausibly, is to strike some kind of balance… [T]here is no feasible utopianism. Is there some way to be realistic other than a concern for feasibility?
I fully recognize that utopianism rejects feasibility constraints – either in terms of achievability or viability. My use of the oxymoron does not imply seeking solutions that are somehow a “balance” between realism and utopianism or “midway” between the two; it is a call to sustain cognitively the tension between unbounded moral aspiration and pragmatic institution building. It is an affirmation – not a rejection – of the ideals of utopianism, but also of the imperative of seeking real ways forward.
Why focus so much on viability, rather than achievability?
Both Holbo and Estlund are critical of the extent to which I focus on viability of alternatives. Holbo thinks that the main ideological battle that needs to be won is over desirability, and so this should be the main focus of analysis. Estlund believe that it is basically arbitrary to bracket the problem of achievability.
I don’t disagree with Holbo that there are critical ideological issues that hinge on convincing people about the moral justifications of democratic-egalitarian alternatives to existing institutions. Undoubtedly for many Conservatives, their complaints that a more democratic and egalitarian economy just wouldn’t work is a smokescreen – their real objection is either that they believe the wealth and power of elites is morally just or, even more crassly, simply that equality and democracy is against the interests of elites. For such people the viability issue is not the central problem; it is a diversion. Demonstrating viability of unconditional basic income won’t convince them to support it.
The agenda of Envisioning Real Utopias, however, is not mainly directed at ideologically committed Conservatives whose core values support the power and privilege of dominant classes. The core audience is people who are loosely sympathetic to some mix of liberal egalitarian, radical democratic and communitarian ideals. This, I think, is a very broad range of people. They may, of course, be quite confused about what their real values are. They might both believe in equality of opportunity as a real value and think it is just for some people to be fantastically wealthy and give whatever they like to their children and not recognize the tension between these values. For such people it is clearly important to try to clarify the foundations and implications of different moral principles. When I talk to undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin about Unconditional Basic Income, they are generally at first extremely skeptical about the desirability of the idea. After I explain the moral foundations, most students find the idea pretty attractive – it is not so hard to convince them of desirability – but they remain skeptical about viability: the “it sounds good on paper but it will never work” objection. Young people mostly are pretty good-hearted and open to democratic and egalitarian values, but the viability issue is a big deal for them and they need persuading.
But why focus on viability rather than achievability? Estlund feels that once I decide that alternatives are only worth discussing of they are viable, then there is no good reason to bracket the problem of achievability. Ultimately, of course, if we do want to change the world to make it a better place, we are constrained by what is achievable. And if I knew how to say anything about achievability in a rigorous and meaningful way, then for sure I would consider this worth doing. The problem is that in general it is only possible to do this if one also adopts a very short time horizon because of the huge uncertainty about what might be politically achievable very far into the future. We can often say more about the viability of alternatives than about their long-term achievability. It is the temporal contingency of achievability that renders it problematic.
The compass metaphor
John Holbo thinks that my use of a compass metaphor to describe the problem of thinking about alternatives to capitalism is misleading:
It’s too demanding in the sense that it’s all too likely that things will have to get worse, before they get better….….The point of utopian theory is not to tell us how to get there from here, ideally, just how to get anywhere, from here, in practice. That’s very different from saying, in nutshell: we need to be attracted to a specific place (that’s what compasses do.)”
Metaphors always have their perils. I adopted the compass metaphor to suggest that movement from here to there is like a voyage of discovery where we do not have a road map, but we can know if we are moving in the right direction. This does not imply that there is a straight path with no detours or backward movement. Indeed, that is part of the point of a compass: if you have to move backwards, it helps you know that is what you are doing. The destination pointed to by the compass is of course not a specific institutional design, but the realization of principles.
2. Complaints that the arguments are trivial or marginal, and of no real importance for the task of transformation.
Diane Coyle (March 22) is the only contributor of the postings in the seminar who basically dismisses my exploration of Real Utopias as largely irrelevant to the task of significant social transformation:
And in the end, after all the machinery of ‘stochastic Marxism’ and ‘emancipatory social science’, Wright says that actual economies are always hybrid and so the thing to do is inject a little socialism where possible. So that amounts to incremental, pragmatic improvements in the direction of a fairer society. Who could disagree?….Alas, this book shows no interest at all in real utopias, only in the one theoretical utopia or ‘no place’ of an abstract alternative to the market economy. It’s an arid scholastic exercise that at no point engages with our present economic disaster and the practical idealism of the many people responding to it.
It is hard to respond to this kind of dismissal without sounding defensive. Let me just make three basic points:
First, it is not at all the case that no one disagrees with the central model of economic structures as hybrids within which it is possible to significantly alter the overall configuration through reform. On the one hand, it is a standard argument on the left that incremental reforms are never more than palliatives and that capitalism so pervasively dominates the economic system (even if there are marginal forms of noncapitalism present), that it allows no space for what I describe. On the other hand, there are defenders of capitalism who insist that every interjection of egalitarian-democratic forms within the economy just makes things worse.
Second, contrary to the claim that I propose “an abstract alternative to market economy,” the model elaborated in Envisioning Real Utopias involves a commitment to institutional heterogeneity in connecting different forms of power relations within a market economy. Markets play a significant role in four of the seven “pathways of social empowerment” specified in the model.
Finally, while there certainly may be many other examples that could be given to illustrate the pathways of social empowerment, and some of these may be more compelling than the one’s I chose, it is incorrect to say that the empirical substance of the book fails to engage the “practical idealism” of people coping with the present economic order. Most of the examples emerge from the concrete efforts of ordinary people trying to create more just, humane, and democratic forms of economic activity.
3. Climate Change and Environmental catastrophe
Bill Barnes (March 23) raises a fundamental challenge to the central preoccupations of Envisioning Real Utopias, not because he feels the goals of an emancipatory social science are unimportant, but because he feels that they have been displaced from the historical agenda by the looming catastrophe of climate change:
I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences….
We have recently developed a good deal of relatively thick “knowledge of the conditions likely to be faced in the future,” and those conditions take “robust projects of emancipatory social transformation” entirely off the table in most respects for a long time. Instead we have to play defense against the unintended consequences of industrialization and high modernism, “capitalist” and every other kind….
At this point in our history, there is only one really real Utopia left to us: the creation of forms of political economy, and a world order, that can cope with and stabilize, in an at least minimally just and humanitarian way (de facto Social Darwinist solutions don’t qualify), the climate-changed, environmentally-degraded, resource-depleted world that is bearing down upon us. Holding open the possible realization of grander utopian visions, in some distant future, rests on achieving substantial success on this front over the course of this century. And such success is very much in question – in fact, as things stand in early 2013, a long shot.
Barnes is completely right that in Envisioning Real Utopias I neglect the problem of climate change and environmental destruction, except in passing. His chilling comment reminds us that whatever else we see as part of an agenda of human emancipation, there has to be a massive revitalization of a strong affirmative state project of neutralizing public bads and producing public goods. While I do not think that this implies taking “projects of emancipatory social transformation entirely off the table” and postponing to some distant future “grander utopian visions”, I do think it means placing the problem of climate change at the center of any political agenda.
Let me explain how I think the kinds of real utopian emancipatory projects discussed in Envisioning Real Utopias might be joined with the urgent climate agenda discussed by Barnes.
Much depends on how catastrophic the trajectory of climate change turns out to be, and how rapidly the empirical devastations accumulate. It is hard to imagine any strategy that will lead to progressive outcomes if it is literally the case that unless the climate problem is substantially solved in the next twenty years we will have crossed a tipping point of no return leading to the worst case scenarios – massive and rapid sea rise, mass starvation and disruption on a global scale, escalating violence and resource wars. In the worst case scenarios the most likely political trajectory would be towards increasingly militarized, authoritarian protection of pockets of relative privilege and security in an otherwise desperate and chaotic world.
I will assume that we are not in quite so dire a situation. The coming years will see an increase in the number of seriously destructive weather events, and increasingly these will force, ever more frequently, costly stop-gap interventions by the state, but I will assume that there is still time to avoid complete environmental collapse. Here is a possible scenario of how the initial disruptions of climate change could open up space for progressive political transformation:
This scenario is less a real prediction than a description of possibilities. It is easy, of course, to imagine darker scenarios. Throughout history ruling classes have been filled with narrow minded, mean-spirited, selfish and ignorant people who genuinely don’t care about the welfare of those outside their circles and think that they can escape the ills of the world through their wealth and power and end up destroying the foundations of their own privilege. Barnes expresses the contrast of alternative futures well in one of his comments in the discussion of his posting: “One of my main points is that once the shit begins to hit the fan bigtime and unremittingly, many more people will become open to education – the question is who will prevail in providing that education — those who will be arguing “America first” (or “white America first”) and keep out the barbarians, the rest of the world be damned — or people with a Green Social Democratic Internationalist Popular Front approach.” The prospects for the latter, I think, are enhanced when it is connected to a broader emancipatory agenda in which a wide range of real utopian projects are seen as integral to a sustainable world. Neoliberalism in the United States was also stabilized by a coalition with popular social forces, in that case with working class social conservatives who were consistently harmed economically by neoliberal policies. Green social democracy as well needs a mass popular base, and at least some of the proposals for more democratic and participatory economic institutions could be part of the agenda.
4. Community and cosmopolitanism
Russell Fox (March 24) raises some very interesting issues around the role of community and solidarity in the emancipatory project of creating real utopias. The key issue is this:
Surely a radical democratic egalitarianism should not be subject to, or even be expected to articulate itself through the context of, a specific local set of communal or cultural or historical or religious feelings, should it? Yet, if we truly are to take “the social in ‘socialism’ seriously”, as Wright puts it… [we will need to] make use of the power of sociality in all the variable associational and embedded forms that it will inevitably take, then perhaps liberal and cosmopolitan (that is, universal) conditions and expectations would, at least sometimes, run counter to the sources of this social power which Wright sees the potential of harnessing…..
Why do I suggest these local and cultural attachments (along with at least some legitimate liberal restrictions) as important candidates for ways of conceiving the directing and promoting of social power of an economy in democratic and egalitarian directions? …. [So] long as one wishes to enlist the social world and its diverse resources into the construction of alternatives to capitalism, then one must at least acknowledge that a lack of respect for and recognition of those attachments and spaces may result in levels of resentment and alienation which would make such emancipatory critiques that much more politically difficult to pull off.
Another view is that the answer to these questions is so contingent on the particular forces in play in any given historical context that it is not possible to formulate general hypotheses. In any case, understanding these issues should be an integral part of studying real utopian possibilities.
5. Unconditional Basic Income
John Quiggin (March 26) supports the broad normative goals of Unconditional Basic Income, but thinks that it is probably too expensive to be a “real” utopia. He argues that if every person in Australia were to receive an unconditional basic income set at the level of the minimum pension for a person over 65 – about US$16,000 – this would cost around 30% of National Income (based on an estimate of a gross cost of 40% of national income along with a clawback of 10%). Given that the state would still need to fund health, education, infrastructure, defense and other things, this would bring state spending to somewhere around 60% of national income. “There is no doubt,” he argues, “that such a policy would represent a substantial transformation, sufficient to justify the ‘utopian’ label.” He therefore proposes an alternative policy, a guaranteed minimum (GMI) income achieved “by raising existing income support benefits to the target level, then making access to the basic income unconditional for those with no other source of income.” Quiggin did not spell out the mechanics of his GMI proposal, but assuming that the “basic income” in the last clause is the same as the “target level” in the first clause, then the scheme would like this (with a target of $16,000/year): if you had zero income you would receive $16,000; if you earned $10,000 you would get $6,000; if you earned $15,000 you would get $1,000; and if you earned $16,000 or above you would get nothing.
If indeed the political conditions are such that a guaranteed minimum income would be more easily instituted than a true unconditional basic income, then it might be a good move in the right direction. A future move to UBI might be easier from a platform of guaranteed minimum income than other forms. There are, nevertheless, two reasons to be wary of GMI and prefer UBI.
First, a guaranteed minimum income of the sort described by Quiggin is a strictly means-tested program. Many people think that if one is concerned about alleviating poverty then means-tested programs are better since they direct the money where it is needed. As one of the comments to the Quiggen essay notes: “The UBI has all the problems of any universal benefit, which is that it is, well, universal. What’s the point of giving 20,000 dollars to Bill Gates? He doesn’t need it. Lots of other people don’t need it.” There are good reasons, however, that in general progressives should prefer universal programs. As it is sometimes quipped, programs limited to the poor are always poor programs. We give universal free K-12 education to everyone including Bill Gates’ children, and most countries also provide universal health care. Means-tested programs generate a clear bright line between net recipients and net contributors and therefore tend to reinforce cleavages between these groups. And since the rich and powerful are clearly on one side of this cleavage, it increases their capacity to form a coalition to minimize the level of the program. Everyone getting the benefit affirms the idea that this is a right that we all share, and softens the boundary at any given moment between those who directly benefit and those who don’t. This is an important reason why, in the United States, it has been so much more difficult to attack Medicare (the universal health care program for the elderly) than Medicaid (the means-tested program for the poor), and why social security remains such a broadly popular income support program.
It is also important to note that the total net cost of a BI is not greater than a means-tested income support program that would provide the same level of benefits to those who would be net beneficiaries in a means tested program. Remember, in a UBI system, even though Bill Gates would receive a basic income grant like everyone else, his net after-tax income would go down, not up, because his taxes would rise by much more than the BI he receives. The total cost of a UBI, therefore, depends on how steeply the income tax on total income rises.
The second way in which BIG has advantages over GMI is that GMI schemes generally create what are called “poverty traps” (or, more accurately if the level of income support is above the poverty line, income-threshold traps). That is, since the benefit disappears when you reach a given threshold, these kinds of mechanisms can create disincentives for people to work for modest levels of income. Suppose the income threshold is $16,000/year and the grant takes the form proposed by Quiggin. A person with zero income receives the target level. That person then has the opportunity to get a job that pays $10,000 a year and now gets an income supplement of $6,000. What this implies is that these earnings will be taxed at 100%. In effect this turns such jobs into volunteer unpaid labor. This perverse effect can be reduced by not taxing earnings at 100%, but, say at 50%. Then a person who earns $10,000 ends up with an income of $21,000. This, however, begins to look more like a basic income grant, since it is no longer the case that low incomes are simply raised to a target minimum income, but rather low income people get a basic income grant and then have earnings taxed at a higher rate than in the absence of the grant.
Still, the core objection to unconditional basic income raised by Quiggin – that UBI is too expensive to be realistic – cannot be dismissed out of hand. To respond to this objection it is important to distinguish between the problem of the political achievability of UBI and its economic viability. UBI is certainly not achievable in the United States under existing political conditions. No coalition of supporters can be formed with sufficient power to enact it. But this does not mean it would be nonviable if enacted.
There has been much intense debate over the costs and economic viability of a generous unconditional basic income, and much depends on the assumptions one makes both about the labor market behavior of people, the specific ways that BIG-supporting taxes affect different categories of people, and the investment behavior of capitalist firms in a world with different levels of basic income. One way of approaching this problem is to think about the maximally sustainable unconditional basic income grant (MSUBIG). This is the highest level of UBI which, if enacted, would still generate sufficient income-generating activity to support the taxes needed to fund the UBI. It is obvious that a UBI of $1000/year is far below the MSUBIG whereas $40,000/year is far above, so somewhere between these extremes lies the actual MSUBIG. The question is then whether the MSUBIG generates a standard of living sufficient to enable people to freely choose their level of participation in capitalist labor markets. This might be called the no-frills culturally acceptable minimum standard of living.
It is obviously extremely difficult to make convincing predictions about the level of MSUBIG. There are simply too many contextual factors in play. (For those interested, there is some discussion of these issues in the volume in the Real Utopias project on Basic Income: Redesigning Distribution: basic income and stakeholder grants as cornerstones for an Egalitarian capitalism, by Bruce Ackerman, Anne Alstott and Philippe Van Parijs, edited by Erik Olin Wright. Verso: 2006). On balance, my judgment is that such a no-frills UBI is economically viable, even in a largely capitalist economy, but this may be wishful thinking.
What I can say with confidence is that if the MSUBIG is at this level, then it has the potential to play a substantial role in fostering other real utopias. UBI is not just a social justice issue concerned with poverty alleviation. It also opens up a different dynamic for subsequent transformations. To mention just a few issues:
The last of these effects, of course, are one of the reasons UBI would be opposed. Even if the equilibrium it would eventually create retains a space for capitalism-between-consenting-adults, the economy as a whole would be less pervasively capitalist in character.
6. Why focus on capitalism versus socialism?
Marc Fleurbaey and his students (March26) explore a range of issues connected to the way I frame real utopias as part of a strategy of transcending capitalism towards socialism. I will focus my comments here on two of the issues they raise: the extent to which capitalism is responsible for social harms, and the extent to which my model marginalizes market transactions. In both of these cases I think there is some misunderstanding of my views. I always consider it mostly a failure of exposition, not of the critic, when a criticism involves a misunderstanding of an argument. In any case, I will try to clarify my position on these issues here.
Capitalism as the object of transformation
In addition to the strategic issue of whether “Focusing on capitalism versus socialism may be counterproductive if it polarizes the audience of the real utopias project,” Fleurbaey and his students argue that since not all social harms in need of transformation come from capitalism it is a mistake to give so much attention to capitalism:
While I do think capitalism systematically contributes to the harms I explore, I do not think that all social harms in need of remedy are the result of capitalism, or that even in those cases where capitalism plays a substantial role it is the only factor involved. Capitalism, for example, is a central cause of poverty, but racism – which is not simply a reflection of capitalism – is also important, as are a variety of other causes. I don’t think that capitalism is the only fuel for hyper-consumerism, but capitalism intensifies consumerism and systematically obstructs any organized efforts to move to a less consumerist economy.
The decision to focus on capitalism, then, is based on a diagnosis of existing institutions in which I argue that capitalism is one of the pivotal causes – not the only cause, but a critical one – of many serious problems, and that its transformation is one of the critical tasks of social emancipation. More specifically, one of the most powerful obstacles to creating a more humane, just and sustainable world is the way power is organized within the specifically capitalist form of market relations. This is not a claim about markets as such, but about capitalist markets as they have developed in the modern world. Transformations which eliminate or neutralize such concentrations of economic power and subordinate the use of economic resources to systematic democratically imposed constraints (both within firms and within investment markets) is what I mean by moving in the direction of socialism.
The status of markets in the analysis
Fleurbaey and students feel that my institutional proposals are oriented towards non-market institutions:
“What I find problematic about this approach is that it ties most of the aim of social transformation to the project of developing non-market economic arrangements, through the expansion of social power, the empowerment of civil society. Given our current knowledge about how economic coordination can work with and without markets, it seems important that a real utopias project should seek to tame and use markets, with their great potential and well-understood failures, rather than bypass them.”
This is, I’m afraid, a real misunderstanding of my model. I explicitly reject efforts to dispense with markets in my critical discussion of Michael Albert’s proposal for a nonmarket participatory economy. Four of the seven configurations of social empowerment in my model involve using and taming markets rather than bypassing them: social capitalism, the cooperative market economy, social democratic statist regulation, and associational democracy.
I think the problem here is in understanding exactly what I mean when I advocate subordinating economic power and state power to social power. Social power is power rooted in civil society and based on voluntary cooperation for collective action. Subordinating state power and economic power to social power is the abstract way of talking about how to tame market processes and use them for social purposes while also blocking authoritarian statist alternatives. The pivot here is democratically subordinating economic power, which means that it no longer is the main form of power deployed in markets. This is very different from bypassing markets.
Another place where I think there is a misreading of my model is in my discussion of social capitalism as a particular way in which social power constrains economic power. Fleurbaey writes:
In my analysis, social capitalism includes a very wide range of forms in which social power (voluntary association for collective action) acts as a systematic constraint directly on economic power. I include under this rubric things like worker representation on boards of directors and other co-determination schemes, works councils, stakeholder councils, and solidarity finance (union pension funds used to gain significant participation rights in firms), as well as various ways in which social movements outside of firms can act on economic power. All of these I think are instances of attempts at taming rather than eliminating markets. I mainly locate worker cooperatives as the key institutional form in a different power configuration, which I call the cooperative market economy.
I am not sure where the source of misunderstanding of my views on markets and capitalism might lie, but I think there may be two issues in play here. First, for many people markets and capitalism are so closely identified with each other that to talk about transcending capitalism is interpreted as implying transcending markets. This is suggested when Fleurbaey interprets my treatment of worker cooperatives in which workers own the capital in their firm as revealing that my model is concerned with “eliminating markets instead of taming them.” What a worker-owned firm involves is eliminating one kind of market – markets in equity investments – but not others. Worker cooperatives would still sell their goods and services on a market and obtain much of their capital within credit markets. Household savings would yield interest via bond markets or other forms of loans. The critical change is just that the equity in firms is owned by the workers in the firm. A cooperative market economy is still a variant form of market economy. (And also remember that this is just one of the configurations of social empowerment in my model; others involve forms of capitalist ownership, albeit capitalist ownership heavily constrained by social power).
A second source of misreading my argument about markets may concern the idea of economic forms as hybrids which combine capitalist and non-capitalist elements. My argument for “taking the social in socialism seriously” is that I want to see the social power component of hybrid economic structures strengthened and the capitalist component weakened to the point where social power is dominant. But dominant does not mean exclusively present. This bears on the very interesting ideas Fleurbaey presents about the implications of “banning the market for power in democratic firms”, by which he means making it illegal for firms to be organized as dictatorships by requiring them to have meaningful democratic structures of internal governance. He argues that eliminating this particular market would be compatible with retaining many other features of capitalism:
An egalitarian and democratic economy can still have a lot of private ownership, including of the means of production (household savings can still be the source of investment funding, so that households are still the ultimate owners of the means of production), and many markets and decentralized transactions, including a labor market for dignified positions in democratic firms.
He concludes the discussion by saying that an economy with such firms “would keep the main features of EW’s definition of capitalism”. But, he adds, “it could hardly be called ‘capitalist’ because the power of wealth would be shared with labor, and in the workplace labor could even have the lion’s share of decision power.” I would agree with him that such a world “could hardly be called capitalist.” But I disagree with him that it would keep the main features of my own definition of capitalism. The democratic constraint on the exercise of private property rights, in this case, is quite significant. Or, to put it slightly differently, the bundle of “powers” that are connected to private property rights is significantly reduced. I would describe this possible world as one in which the social power component of the economic hybrid had been dramatically increased. A firm in which workers elect managers, hold them accountable, have seats on the board of directors, and have the power to review and alter major decisions about the internal working of firms is one in which social power much more significantly affects the use of economic power than in pure capitalism. Is this still “capitalism”? This is inherently a murky question once economic structures are understood as hybrids: it is unquestionably less capitalist than existing structures and much more socialist in my terms. One would have to know how much – in Fleurbaey’s model – the continuing market in equity investments undercuts this increase in social power to know whether or not, overall, one could say that social power was dominant.
7. What is the goal ot studying real utopias: Inspirational analysis or Understanding flaws?
In the final contribution to the symposium, Henry Farrell (March 28) raises an important issue with which I completely agree. After pointing out a number of inegalitarian aspects of Wikipedia (one of my favorite examples of a real utopia), he writes:
This does not undermine Wright’s basic point – that utopians should learn from practical examples such as Wikipedia and use them to plot their course. However, it does perhaps suggest that a different kind of search is attractive. Rather than looking for cases such as Wikipedia as examples of what utopia might look like, one should treat them as cases from which we might learn both positive and negative lessons, about what works, and what does not. ….Here, Wikipedia and other such systems are less examples to be emulated, than cases to be carefully decomposed, so that one can figure out (some) of what makes them work, (some) of what makes them dysfunctional, and then use these positive and negative lessons to make a better and more grounded empirical case for specific radical democratic proposals
The central empirical research agenda for real utopias is to find cases and settings in the world as it is that prefigure in important ways emancipatory ideals, and then study these cases in order to understand their potential as part of a larger project of transformation. The task of research is to see how these cases work and identify the ways in which they facilitate human flourishing; to diagnose their limitations, dilemmas and unintended consequences; and to understand ways of developing their potentials and enlarging their reach. The temptation in such research is to be a cheerleader, uncritically extolling the virtues of promising experiments. The danger is to be a cynic, seeing the flaws as the only reality and the potential as an illusion.
Story at the Guardian, thanks to people in comments below. This is very sad news. He has been a wonderful and prolific writer, whose intelligence and considerable grasp of politics were often concealed by the lightness of his touch. I would have loved it had he written more in the experimental vein of some of his earlier fiction – Walking on Glass is just a lovely book – but am grateful for what he has written. He never got the reception in the US that he deserved – some CT readers may not know his work. Readers interested in his literary side should perhaps start with Walking on Glass or The Wasp Factory (“It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.” – The Irish Times), and those more interested in sf should begin with Consider Phlebas or perhaps The Use of Weapons. They’re all wonderful novels, in very different ways.
Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:
For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..
Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.
Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.
I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:
Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.
There are, in fact, some objective moral truths. Personally, I think there are lots of them. And, in fact, our grasp of most of them is far from tenuous. Here are four objective moral truths:
Human suffering is bad
Torturing human babies simply for personal enjoyment is wrong
Deception that is much more likely to bring harm than benefits is bad
Being kind to people is good
Comments will probably attract nitpickers who want to deny one or another for these, or say that they simply express “western” values, or something like that, but all the statements are, in fact, true. The fact that stressing subjects, or reframing a problem, leads people to change their responses does not show that there are no right answers, on moral matters any more than on scientific or basic reasoning matters.
It also doesn’t show that our grasp of moral truth is tenuous. Lots of moral truths are completely obvious, and people have no problem with them. The point of varying the trolley problems is precisely to elicit confusion and inconsistency, by emphasizing different of the (very real) values that are at stake in the problems, which conflict in the circumstances described (as values do in many actual choices situations). The practice of designing and varying thought experiments is a tool for alerting us to what the conflicts are in a choice situation helping us to weigh them when we are forced, by the world, to make trade-offs. Our grasp of many of the values themselves—the objective moral truths—is not tenuous at all; under pressure it is difficult to identify all the morally salient features of a situation, and regardless of pressure it is difficult to weigh them in the circumstances.
It’s the annual World Autism Awareness Day. Last year, Twitter provided an excellent source of links and information through #WAAD – so check out Twitter later today if you are interested. I’d like to use the occasion to put in a plug for an old book, a classic indeed, that I only read last Summer, but that should be on anyone’s reading list who wants to enter the world of people with autism:
There’s only one warning, which needs repeating, especially on a day like today: if you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. The same holds for novels/autobiographies of people with autism: if you have read one novel/(auto-)biography of a person with autism, you have learnt something about one person’s autism. Autism manifests itself very differently in people, and whichever book one reads will never give a full description of ‘autism’ in general. Science books may do (since they are explaining us what autism is at a higher level of abstraction), but in my experience it’s very hard for science to convey what it really is to live a life with autism. The narrative method is much more powerful for this than any scientific method. Anyone who has read something good on autism (new or older): the floor is yours.
The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations
E-book Free! See below (about e-books)
So the Hugo nominees are here. Outside of the novels, the only nominated work I’ve read is Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature which I am entirely happy to recommend you go vote for, or, better still, buy. As for the novels, they’re:
I’ve read five of the six (and I got halfway through the first book in the series which Mira Grant’s Blackout ends), and I’ve got a serious case of the mehs. 2312 is the only one that I would recommend as doing something interesting. The other five seem to me solid, but not wildly exciting. Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a lot of fun – good sword and sorcery from a non-Christian Europe-centric perspective. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is perfectly fine, but while it isn’t the worst of Bujold’s books, it’s not close to being the best either. John Scalzi’s Redshirts didn’t grab me, perhaps because I never particularly liked Star Trek, and so was underwhelmed by the pathos.
But in the end, the Hugo nominees are no more and no less than a prestigious crowdsourced recommendation list. Which means that if your taste doesn’t gel with that of the Hugos crowd, you shouldn’t get bent out of shape about it, but also you shouldn’t take it as gospel. CT readers are a different crowd than Worldcon attendees/supporters, and I imagine would generate a different list. If people want to namecheck the books they liked in comments, I’ll undertake to write a follow up post next week that tries to pull these recommendations together in a more useful form. I’ve already listed some of my favorites here but take that as a conversation starter, not ender.
Send me your syllabi for this: