Noah, treading water

The often interesting Noah Smith offers a dubious contrast of intellectual vibrancy of left vs. right. On the right we have the Yuval Levin/National Affairs crowd, who as others have observed enjoy little support from the raging id that is the Republican base. The “Reformicons” have been roundly bashed so there is no need in this post to dwell on their dubious ideas. On the left he offers Richard Florida, advocates of schemes to boost savings (like Richard Thaler, Univ of Chicago economist), and Cass Sunstein.

I’ll leave classifications of Florida (the man, not the nutcase of a state) to others. My friend Peter Dorman characterizes him as an advocate of European-style cities. Dorman notes that this does not jibe with Smith’s notion that his leftists have transcended the old ways of social-democracy.

I’m a little tickled that someone attuned to New Keynesian models is taken with savings schemes, since in that context no such scheme enlarges the saver’s lifetime budget set, though it might increase their well-being. I debated the asset builders some time back and basically made that point. You don’t increase incomes of the poor by persuading them to spend it later rather than sooner. As for Sunstein, he’s a deregulator. There could be something to say for all these worthies, but they are a poor sample of the American left.

Instead I would suggest those interested in what’s left to look into events such as this, and journals such as this. Or my blogroll. Noah, you need to get out more.

Samantha Power was a human rights activist. You won’t believe what happened next!

(Warning, rant ahead.) Today’s datapoint in a continuing series:

Human Rights Watch gets a letter from Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Clausewitz said “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” MaxSpeak says human rights politics are the prelude to war. Human rights activists who go to work for the U.S. government become apologists for the war of the month, or of next month.

Nations, the U.S. no less than others, invariably cloak their military aggression in moral terms. I suggest moral motives are never the central factors in so-called humanitarian interventions. After all, there are human rights calamities all over the globe, happening all the time. What determines the focus of U.S. concerns? Why Syria and the Ukraine and not Rwanda or the Congo? Of course you can never fix everything. Usually you can’t fix anything. But still, to where are the government’s energies directed? Why do U.S. officials complain about Venezuela’s democratic election results but indulge brutal, absolute monarchies elsewhere? Who are they kidding?

Poor George W. Bush got too much blame for Iraq. We forget the years of economic sanctions, courtesy of the Clinton Administration. These sanctions greased the political skids for the ensuing Bushist invasion. Does anybody remember the reasons for them? Was it because Saddam Hussein did some beastly things before and after, but mostly after he was no longer our friend? To these measures have been attributed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, in response to which Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “[W]e think the price is worth it.” Then she gets to dine out on the foreign policy blunders of George Bush. Isn’t that Dick Cheney awful?

The best human rights policy is to confine interventions to instances where the U.S. has zero material national interest. (“But then they would never happen.” Well, there you go.) The latter always perverts the motivation and execution of policy. Go ahead and rescue the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. Go ahead and take out Joseph Kony. Material interests always entail entanglements, and you know what the founders said about that.

More datapoints . . .

A problem from Samantha Power

Anne-Marie Slaughter was a human rights campaigner. You won’t believe what happened next.

P.S. Chase Madar was on the case.

P.P.S. So was Bob Dreyfuss.



Growth and its discontents

I’m a bit unsatisfied with the final graphs of my Inequality-who-cares post from yesterday. Herewith a few attempts at clarification and extension, probably not for the last time.

There should be no question that for many, many people, faster economic growth is a matter of life and death, especially in the developing world. My GDP post speaks to where the U.S. is on that score. Faster growth doesn’t solve everything, and it can create other problems, but you can’t diminish its importance. As I mentioned previously, low or zero growth with increasing poverty provokes political interest in inequality, which is why Thomas Piketty is now rich. If you care about inequality for its own sake, however, growth is not enough. The burden of TP’s blockbuster book is that growth under capitalism has generated inequality and may continue to do so.

What are really in question are productivity, properly adjusted for environmental costs, and distribution. With higher productivity, we can work less, play more, and still have more stuff. We can decide how much of our increased productive capacity to deploy to leisure time. In that context, there is still the issue of distribution, or inequality. You can have more or less inequality with less or more growth. In circumstances of economic growth, is inequality still salient? I would say yes. It may not be as important to the poor as a higher floor on living standards, but it’s still a legitimate concern.

The growth agenda stripped naked of weak promises of greater social welfare is an invitation to a lottery, also known as greater mobility. People prefer limited, unfair chances at reward to no chance at all. So they buy Powerball tickets and they buy into Horatio Alger tales. For the sake of growth, we are encouraged to look askance at labor organizing and social insurance (‘don’t kill the Golden Goose’), the key components of an equality agenda.

People forget that mobility is a double-edged sword. Your lottery ticket’s prize can be hugely negative. It’s wonderful when by a combination of effort, talent, and good luck somebody rises from the bottom to the top. But with unchanging inequality, someone has also fallen from the top to the bottom, not necessarily because of any personal deficiencies.

There is also the politics of growth-meritocracy-mobility versus inequality. (Data point: an article alleging the Administration’s flagging interest in inequality, courtesy of Tom Philpott. By my previous post, this interest can be questioned.) I want to argue that the politics of anti-poverty are weak, beyond a minority, core constituency of some well-off liberals and some poor, mostly people-of-color people. There has been no integrated working class constituency for anti-poverty action for some time, even under conditions where poverty has recently increased. By contrast, an equality-anchored agenda under such conditions may carry promise, not least because growing inequality squeezes the lower sixty percent of the income distribution closer together. We become more like the old 19th century populist dichotomy of “tramps and millionaires.” We evolve to an appreciation of class.

In my previous post I contrasted my own view with what I described as the ‘liberal’ position. My liberal friend Bob Lucore pointed out that my view is coincident with that of the Americans for Democratic Action (on whose national board I once sat, so to speak, and would happily sit again). This is certainly true. Liberals are an ideologically diverse group. I wish the ADA had enough adherents to conquer the world. It would be a much better place. Alas, the common use of liberal is more closely associated with the president than with the ADA.

Some time soon we’ll unpack “neo-liberal.” That will be fun.


Who cares about inequality?


A lot of people are enjoying cheap dates with expressions of concern. To cut to the chase, what you propose to do about inequality matters more than the fact that you have recognized it. So what do our anti-inequality champions propose?

Take President Barack Obama (please!). Here’s a speech to the Center for American Progress, which does some good work (the Center, that is). And here’s an excerpt:

“Their [the “middle class”–MBS] frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time . . . “

See what he does there? He pairs up inequality with upward mobility, notwithstanding their utterly different meanings. After all, you could have crazy good mobility (people rising and falling all the time in income levels) and absolutely no change from today’s inequality.

Mobility is necessary to meritocracy, and meritocracy as a social ideal sucks eggs. Take the vastly diverse distribution of talent, mix in the inevitable storms of good and bad luck, there’s your inequality.

Mobility is not the same thing as just reward. Mobility is market-based, and markets are not just. Often they are not even markets after the economists’ mythical ideal, but mere commerce. Justice is defined by philosophers and operationalized democratically, and philosophers do not run markets, much less commerce. Mobility speaks to the Horatio Alger myth.

Obama again:

“[S]uccess doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”

What happened to inequality? What do we know about the distribution of effort and merit? Lots of people work like dogs. Is their reward proportional to their effort? As for merit, where does that come from? Picking the right parents helps a lot. Of course individual initiative can come into play, but see ‘work like dogs’ above.

I would say the alternative to mobility-meritocracy is two things. One is economic security for those with no assets but their own labor power. That means decent (subject to democratic decision-making) minimum standards of labor compensation and adequate family allowances for those unable to work. Within that framework, there is still room for differences in wages. Two is the non-proliferation of extreme levels of wealth, levels having no conceivable relationship to contribution, levels that render democratic institutions impotent. Levels like we have now.

Obama again:

“Together, we forged a New Deal, declared a War on Poverty in a great society. We built a ladder of opportunity to climb, and stretched out a safety net beneath . . . “

The New Deal was primarily about employment and episodic relief. The War on Poverty as far as end results go was also about relief (minimum income support levels). Opportunity much less inequality was not much in evidence. Income guarantees are fraying at the edges these days, not least because of the welfare reform of 1996, in which many Democrats are deeply invested.


“Now, it’s true that those at the top, even in those years, claimed a much larger share of income than the rest: The top 10 percent consistently took home about one-third of our national income. But that kind of inequality took place in a dynamic market economy where everyone’s wages and incomes were growing. And because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.”

Note, by POTUS, inequality is o.k. sometimes! In terms of definitions, you could have incomes rising from top to bottom and the same or greater inequality. (I grant you that in this circumstance, nobody would care about inequality.) The upshot is that inequality is not really the problem, in this line of reasoning. This is another illustration of the difference between liberalism and alternatives on the left. It is not a difference of degree; it’s a difference in kind. In principle.

The axe I’m grinding is summed up in this from BHO:

“So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”

My jaundiced interpretation of ‘that bargain’ is that inequality is fine as long as the rising tide is lifting all boats. You may think it’s fine, so you’re a liberal and God love you. I love you. But I suggest that the search for that rising, beneficent tide, constrained by meritocratic, market-loving rhetoric, is doomed. You can’t get there from here. Economic growth impedes social progress, not because more stuff is bad, but because nobody wants to be the pooper at the party. If we enter a period of growth (if!) blinded by delusions about opportunity, oblivious to the need for more social security, not less, and absent a strong labor movement, inequality will worsen. There might be somewhat less poverty, obviously a good thing, but there will be more dispersion of income and wealth blossoming outside the realm of democratic moderation.

If you follow the president’s closing paragraphs — his proposals for action — you will find they are focused on economic growth (how well is a different question), with a generous serving of opportunity, and scant regard for compression of the income and wealth distribution, or the expansion of social insurance. (Beware vague calls to “strengthen Social Security.”)

So who really cares about inequality?

P.S. Related: This is good, on who deserves what.