All Hail Growth: The Language of Neoliberalism

Source: Sheffield, Carrie (2013). “Let’s Focus On Growth Rather Than Inequality In The New Year.” Forbes. Published on December 29, 2013. Retrieved from on January 26, 2014.

Excerpt: “Yet there’s no solid evidence that income inequality harms economic growth, and the left fails to properly measure inequality by controlling for taxes and transfer payments. Also, much of the economic research on inequality conflates correlation with causation from other social ills. Many from the left also don’t properly control for household size and the fact that higher-income homes typically include two workers more often than lower-income homes. When you adjust for this, inequality relative to per capita spending has been steady since the 1980s.  And as Robert Grady points out in the Wall Street Journal, ‘In periods of high economic growth, such as the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of Americans gain, and have the opportunity to gain. In periods of slow growth, such as the past four and a half years since the recession officially ended, poor people and the middle class are hurt the most, and opportunity is curbed.'”

Analysis: This excerpt reflects a much larger discourse intended to justify and defend the material conditions of the neoliberal status quo. In particular, this text seeks to defend and promote the core neoliberal tenet that economic growth is the panacea to all our problems. It does this in three ways: by making an appeal to specialization and scientific rules; by presenting a consensus of “experts” around her position in the debate; and finally, by utilizing a vocabulary that has been informed and even molded according to prevailing capitalist values. The reader is, in a sense, geared to accept her “truth.”

This text fits into a larger discourse within capitalist between those on the “right” and “left” over whether economic growth should be prioritized above all other concerns or whether the inequality created by uneven wealth creation should give us pause, either because inequality is normatively bad and/or inequality is actually harmful to growth. Sheffield is making an economic argument in this text, and as such, makes appeals to quantitative measures of the economy and criticizes the nebulous “left” for not “properly” measuring (or controlling for) assorted variables in their analyses of inequality and its effects on growth. Note that she utilizes the “confusing correlation with causation” argument, drawing on the language of social science methodology. “Focusing on inequality” is therefore not just normatively wrong, but a consequence of “bad math” and flawed research. In other words, unless the “science” of economics actually supports addressing income inequality then we should not do it; there is no consideration of addressing inequality from any other perspective; rather, it is lumped in with other “social ills,” which are presumably unpleasant but unavoidable social problems beyond economics (the “dismal science,” indeed).

I find it interesting that toward the end of the text Sheffield cites another opinion piece without presenting it as another editorial. Her like-minded colleague, Grady, “points out” that periods of high growth were beneficial to poor people as well as the wealthy and middle class. (Note that, after berating “the left” for failing to provide evidence for their arguments to focus on inequality, Sheffield cites only Grady’s conclusion, not his evidence.) Although Forbes and the Wall Street Journal are very similar in that they are both conservative, free market-promoting newspaper outlets, Sheffield’s citation of Grady gives the impression that there is a consensus around her perspective, and that putting growth before questions of wealth distribution is a foregone judgment in the minds of other “experts” who value “economic research.” Therefore, going against this judgment is not only to align oneself with “bad math” and poor research, but against conventional wisdom that what hurts poor people most is not an imbalance in the distribution of wealth but not giving them the “opportunity to gain.”

What exactly is meant by the “opportunity to gain?” The text presumes that, when the economy is growing, it follows implicitly that there will be more jobs created, wages will increase and the poor will have the chance to improve their socioeconomic status. In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats. Of course, this ignores the reality that poor people suffer from numerous disadvantages in terms of education, training, networks and otherwise that enable them to capitalize on such opportunities, if they can capitalize on them at all; if the economy is booming due to growth in the technology sector, for example, this will be of unlikely benefit to working class individuals with little knowledge or skill in that industry. Nevertheless, within the discourse of neoliberalism, the “opportunity to gain” is sufficient; whether poor people pull themselves up by their bootstraps is an individual question.

I also find it interesting how “work” is defined in the text, because it obviously takes a view that “work” means entering the economy, earning a wage, and so forth. However, what happens when we consider the labor people do on a routine basis that do not for a wage but out of duty or sheer necessity? For example, raising a child is undoubtedly work, as is maintaining a residence, finding outlets for creative expression, and so on. From this perspective, the idea that a household with two well-paid professionals “works” more than a single mother responsible for her entire household is risible on the face of it; she must juggle her occupation with all the other labor that comes from being a parent, a homeowner, a member of her community, and so on.

On a more general level, this text reflects how, as noted before, the entire discourse is framed not as neoliberal capitalism versus some alternative, but merely whether we should take a pause from the uninterrupted accumulation of capital and economic growth to somehow consider sufficient scraps are making their way to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. There is no attempt to ask the larger question of “What is the economy really for?” As Doreen Massey recently pointed out in an editorial in The Guardian, the way we discuss the economy as though it were a force of nature, beyond human control, rather than a constellation of social relations we can manipulate. In the prevailing discourse, we debate about what to do in the wake of the market rather than whether it is serving the common interest in its present conception. I can think of no greater way to protect material conditions than to orient discourse in such a way that it is unthinkable to consider an alternative to the status quo.

Smears, Spying, Snowden & the State

Before she broke down in tears on national TV apologizing to Mitt Romney for mocking trans-racial adoption, Melissa Harris-Perry used her MSNBC show to attack Edward Snowden for seeking aslyum in other countries rather than staying in the U.S. to face the consequences for his disclosure of the NSA’s mass surveillance practices. Rather than discuss the constitutionality of what the NSA is doing, how it damages our reputation abroad and how it violates basic conceptions of privacy, Harris-Perry did her duty to the establishment to shift the narrative from what Snowden had shared with the world to his traveling around the world.

This sort of thing is sadly still going, and what is tragic is that it is still coming from the “left” media. In an article in The New Republic (later reprinted in the UK’s The New Statesman), Sean Wilentz devotes many paragraphs to personal attacks on Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange, grasping at every straw he can to portray all three men as extremist libertarian nutjobs that no “decent” tweedy liberal (just the sort of demographic TNR aims for) would dare make common cause with. As the article’s title bluntly implies, no self-respecting member of the liberal class should support what these individuals are doing because these individuals hold (or have held in the past) political views that just are not acceptable in the left’s mutual admiration society!

Henry Farrell dissects this obvious hitpiece very well over at Crooked Timber. The bottom line, however, is that it doesn’t matter to me (nor should it matter to anyone) if Snowden wants to privatize Social Security or if Greenwald at one point Ron Paul. The point of what they did was to shine the spotlight on the surveillance state, not on themselves. The fact is we were being kept in the dark about the extent to which the government was spying on us, on allied nations and their leaders, and even Congress did not know that the PATRIOT Act was being used in the way it was. When even the law-makers who crafted the law think it is being used above and beyond the authority it was meant to invest, that means it’s time for the body politic to pause and at least reflect (if not outright reject) what the government is doing. Rather than get distracted by smears and side conversations about whether Edward Snowden is Boris Badenov or if Glenn Greenwald is a “respectable” left-winger, the debate needs to be about whether what the NSA is doing is acceptable and whether Obama’s proposed (and possibly unworkable) reforms are adequate.

Hacks like Mark Ames have argued that Greenwald and Snowden are out to make celebrities of themselves, releasing info on NSA surveillance piecemeal rather than all at once, thereby enchancing their images and creating a cult of cyber-libertarians around themselves. This is risible to me since the main criticism against WikiLeaks and Greenwald for so long was that they weren’t careful enough about disclosing sensitive information, putting American lives at risk (which was and never has been proved). And if Snowden is giving interviews and Greenwald appears frequently on TV, perhaps it is not so much that they want the attention as that someone has to push back against an administration that demonizes them and an access-hungry media that is all too often eager to parrot that administration’s talking points without critical reflection.

I strongly suggest reading this piece by Peter Frase over at Jacobin about how some on the left see defending the state as a knee-jerk reaction, as if all libertarian attacks on the state are the same as neoliberal attacks on the welfare state. Simply put, the national security state and the welfare state are not the same thing, and in fact, the state has been more than happy to go along with the neoliberal program of eroding the latter and strengthening the former — more often than not, to protect private interests rather than to enact policies to aid and protect the helpless and the disadvantaged.

The Academic as Artist: “Not a Lot of Money Here”

“This is more art than science,” a professor recently said in a class on research methodology, before quickly adding, “Don’t quote me on that.” Sorry, Professor, you’ll have to settle for anonymity.

He had no way of knowing this, but the line between the social sciences and art had been something on my mind all week. It started when I saw Inside Llewyn Davis over the weekend, and while I tend to enjoy Coen Brothers movies generally, their story about a self-important starving folk artist really struck a chord (pardon the pun) with me. A few days later, some female peers of mine told me, to my surprise, that other women sometimes treated them differently when it was learned they were doctoral students, as this carried the implication that they, as academics, were more successful. I had always assumed the world went by the old adage of “Those that can, do; those that cannot, teach.” If you have the talent and skills to really make it in this world, it is presumed that you will plunge into the private sector and make money hand over fist; those who embrace academia are doing the opposite, running from the “real world” and eschewing the mind-numbing 9-to-5 rat race to pursue their esoteric projects in the Ivory Tower.

Like for most people, my image of the stereotypical college professor is a tweedy, bespectacled intellectual, but for me, defining characteristics also included a proclivity for blowing the minds of young, doe-eyed students; forgoing formality to build bonds with students; and, invariably, some quirk that made him or her unsuitable for a “real” job, be it extreme absent-mindedness or a militant, unwavering devotion to feminism, Marxism, or something similar. What separated the college professor from the high school teacher (especially the substitute teachers) was passion. Whereas the latter were dead inside, their souls destroyed by years of apathetic and rebellious teenagers, professors loved what they taught, loved expressing and sharing their knowledge and, rather than wanting to staunch youth in revolt, actively encouraged students to think critically and question authority. Campuses were the battlefields of student activism, and I expected the professors – the good ones, anyway – on the same side of the barricades as their students.

There is always some truth nested in stereotypes, and while I may have crossed paths with professors just as dispirited as any high school teacher, the vast majority genuinely love what they research and teach. Also, I do not think it unfair to say that, in terms of personality, they range from the introverted (I count myself in this category) to the downright mechanical. All generalizations are false, as the paradox goes, but I cannot count the number of times that I have gone, demoralized and full of doubt, to a professor seeking guidance and have been greeted either with cool indifference or even further grim discouragement – not intentionally, I think, but rather because the professor either did not pick up on my deflation or did not feel responsibility for trying to rally my flagging spirits. Granted, professors are not obligated to anyone’s friends, and with the sheer number of students they sometimes have to contend with, it is unrealistic to think that they can act as therapist as well as instructor to all their pupils. Yet it is not beyond the pale in my estimation to expect some kind of solidarity between the aspiring academic and the professor who has obtained his or her degree and can relate to the cold, hard slog from coursework to dissertation to doctorate. I have been told many a time by professors that I would want to kill myself after my first few years of doctoral work, but I do not think I have ever heard that fundamental, redemptive phrase of “It gets better.” There is something wrong with that.

I do not blame the professors so much as I do the profession. The intensity of academic politics is fairly well-known. As Sayre’s law states: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Unless you are the golden child of a major prestigious university, an academic must scramble for scraps with great force and viciousness, even if the end result is securing an adjunct job, receiving a grant, or claiming that most golden of golden calves: a tenured position. Climbing the ladder also requires saying and doing the right things in the correct way. I have attended several job talks where freshly minted academics presented theses as bland as scampi so as not to invite controversy with statistical formulas as airtight as a Tupperware container. Although surveys have shown that academics are not required to conform to a particular theoretical paradigm to be published, those same surveys have illustrated that to get those coveted citations from other academics and thereby become a “name” in the discipline one should fit neatly into one of those paradigms. Those same surveys also show that grand theoretical narratives attempting to explain how the world works have all but disappeared in place of wishy-washy hypothesis-testing. Rather than seek to say anything new or novel or even just insightful about the world, most scholars run “kitchen sink” regressions with their statistical software, find a relationship they find interesting, and then build an article around it. Karl Marx has been stood on his head: the point of scholarship is not to try and change the world, but only to interpret it, to learn about it in tiny increments as set out by the very rigorous and particular demands of hard science-aping positivist methodology.

Admittedly, my dalliances into the anti-positivist postmodernist playground have not made me feel any better about the state of academia. If on one end of the spectrum is the unadventurous number-cruncher reducing “identity” and “conflict” to easily quantifiable variables in order to get a job, on the other end is the soft, feeble pseudo-philosopher for whom there can be no wrong answers or generalizable conclusions, who is absolutely petrified of staking any sort of claim for fear of “exercising privilege” or “dominating” someone or something. For them, the world is chaos, constructed entirely by norms and ideas, with virtually no grounding in material concerns. Like a pinball, reality is just bouncing from one contingency to another. This nihilism, however, does not seem to bother them since they find comfort, as did the French intellectual celebrities of the 1960s and 1970s, in “cults of personality” that serve as nice mutual admiration societies. They exist on the fringe; or rather even thrive there, as the token critical theorist on the faculty.

All of the above has led me to perceive parallels between academia and the art world, or at least the music industry as the Coen Brothers presented it in Inside Llewyn Davis. If you have not yet seen the movie and plan on doing so, you may want to stop here, since I am going to discuss the movie and some of what I write might be considered spoilers – although the move itself is less concerned with plot and a definitive ending than it is with portraying the titular artist, whose goals, lifestyle and flaws have a lot in common with many would-be academics.

For those who do not know, Inside Llewyn Davis offers us two weeks of the life of Davis, a folk musician barely getting by on the eve of the huge folk music revival that would catapult other folk artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to national stardom. Davis is very talented, singing his hundred-year-old ballads with great emotion, but as a person he is careless, self-centered and conceited. He sleeps on the couches of friends, asks friends and family for money and burns bridges without much of a second thought. He cares very deeply about his music, however, and is concerned with being authentic; he criticizes one of his benefactors for being a “careerist” and a “square” for wanting to please the public in order to “make it” and settle down. In the middle of the film, he leaves Greenwich Village and heads to Chicago, determined to prove his ability to a well-known manager who can give him the recognition he feels his genius deserves. After pouring his soul out by performing a folk song about a medieval Caesarean section, the manager waits a beat and delivers the fateful verdict: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Davis simply cannot “make it” on his own terms, even if that is what he wants; he could “sell out” and become part of a trio (like Peter, Paul & Mary) and perform hollow but catchy folk songs, but he simply refuses to. Defeated, he returns to New York and has to choose between his dead-end music career or becoming a working stiff like his father and sister, who just “exist” as regular people.

Like Davis, the typical hopeful social scientist lives hand-to-mouth, barely survivng in whatever city she resides in, and her university is her equivalent to Davis’ Gaslight Café: it is where she does her work and collects her meager paychecks. The academic has her research interest, and while it may not be folk music per se, it could be something just as obscure as centuries-old folk songs. The academic wants to “get it right,” to uncover and share the truth, to express her passion in a way that the whole world benefits. The academic, by and large (we hope), is concerned with authenticity. Yet, as it is with Davis, there are double demons at play. The first is the internal demon: the pretentiousness, the self-importance, the arrogance. The academic, like the artist, may see non-academics as “squares” and “careerists,” content to toil through data-entry jobs in service to a hard-nosed boss, while non-academics may regard the academic (like the artist) as a dreamer, a loser, a free spirit disinterested in the “real world” and thus of no use to anyone. This mutual resentment leads the academic (and the artist) to become even more egocentric, as she probably already lives most of the time in her own head. The second demon is external, the patron who either sees “a lot of money here” or doesn’t. The academic and the artist either play to themselves or they play to the public. She is either prepared to compromise who she is and what she does or she steadfastly stresses that her genius be recognized for what it is, no conditions required. She can be a successful sell out, an authentic and pathetic failure – or she can just quit, admit defeat and petition for acceptance into the “real world,” dimming or even snuffing out the passion inside that prompted her to take the less-traveled road to begin with.

Is that just a depressing way of looking at what I do and what I hope to do? Does it say more about me than it does about the social sciences and academia? I will validate and affirm in both cases, but I think my allusion is still more realistic than the idea promulgated by many social scientists that we are akin to actual scientists, just without the lab coats. It is a myth that has done more harm than good, for reasons already stated. It may be not more sunny or positive to think of ourselves as more akin to starving artists, but it could well be that it is more honest, and I think if there is something heartening and redemptive in my possibly strained comparison, it is that deep down, academics – like artists – put a very high premium on finding the truth and sharing it.

New Year, Old Orthodoxy: On Marx, Myerson, Rolling Stone and Redistribution

One of my resolutions for 2014 is to be more open about my neo-Marxist principles. 320px-Marx_head_pageMost of my friends and peers know about my dirty secret, but there are nevertheless many times where I find myself referring to my ontology as that of an “economic structuralist” or some other innocuous appellation that does not conjure the intellectual baggage of Stalinism, the Soviet Union and Siberian prison camps. Perhaps I am subconsciously insecure about people instantly writing me off as a naïve utopian who unwittingly supports genocide or I am understandably reticent to get dragged into heated conversations about why it actually isn’t insane to be a self-identified Marxist in the 21st century. At any rate, it can be hard out there for an out-of-the-closet socialist.

Just ask Jesse Myerson. Last weekend, Rolling Stone published an article he wrote entitled “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” These reforms are: full employment for the population, an unconditional basic income, a land-value tax, the redistribution of capital income and publicly-owned banks that actually serve the public interest. In response, conservative pundits swiftly condemned the proposals as the wishful thinking of a blissfully ignorant college socialist who just doesn’t “get” the real world. A handful of more moderate individuals admitted that some of these ideas were not insane, although they nevertheless expressed skepticism and, in the case of Josh Barro of Business Insider, distanced themselves from Myerson because his “political aspirations” are communist and, therefore, bad and crazy.

As has been noted in many places, none of Myerson’s suggested reforms are particularly extreme or even especially Marxist. Full employment, at one point, used to be a valued cornerstone of Western politics, at least until the 1970s. Unfortunately, despite all the bellyaching we hear today about “scroungers” collecting unemployment benefits and thus having no motivation to seek work, there does not appear to be any impetus at all for government programs based around putting jobless people into public works or public service jobs. The fact is we have a crumbling national infrastructure, with roads and bridges in desperate need of repair, and plenty of states have fired teachers, police officers, and social workers, despite woeful education statistics, rising crime rates and rising poverty. A very similar argument is articulated over at the well-known Marxist-Leninist newsletter, The Economist.

The Economist has also in the past expressed some reserved support for a universal basic income, noting that it would help many Americans escape poverty and make them less dependent on the low wages and limited benefits (if any) provided by their employers. The Economist notes that a universal income would not on its own eradicate poverty or erase income inequality, but when you combine it with Myerson’s guaranteed jobs and the retention of existing social programs, the pitfall of treating universal income as an economic panacea is avoided. Admittedly, even with a combination of assured income and qualified welfare benefits, some people would still manage to end up in rough times. Still, at least they would be there because of their own choices rather than the contractions and busts of market forces.

On the land value tax proposal, I actually disagree with Myerson and in agreement with, funnily enough, Karl Marx. The idea of taxing land actually originated with Henry George, and Marx was no fan of Georgism and his attempts to “purify” capitalism. If you think about it, land is a God-given resource that should be in the ownership of all, and while taxing it may seem like a nice way to capture the wealth of landowners to redistribute it, it would also hit poorer people like small farmers whose assets are primarily land rather than intangible investments (which make up the bulk of wealthy people’s assets). I have greater endorsement for Myerson’s proposal of communal land ownership and reject Barro’s objection that “governments are not very good at being real estate developers.” This argument does not really address the fact that most private landlords are also terrible at developing and maintaining real estate and that at least governments (if admittedly more in theory than in practice) are more accountable to the people than real estate magnates like Donald Trump and most predatory landlords are.

Concerning income inequality, Matt Bruenig at Demos has argued that it is on the rise in the U.S. because owners of capital are capturing more and more of the national income while less and less is going to workers. Redistributing that income is a daunting prospect in any policy design, but Bruenig sees promises in Myerson’s suggestion of sovereign wealth funds, where the government collects capital income earnings and then supplies citizens with some of the wealth. Again, Barro cries foul, appealing to poor financial regulations and the potential for government mismanagement of state revenue. Yet, once more, these reservations have nothing to do with the policy in question but rather symptoms of the status quo. There is no reason to believe that, if we ever reach a point where we adopt Myerson’s reforms, we cannot also at the same time massively improve our financial regulatory apparatus and bolster transparency and government accountability when it comes to spending. The government already wastes tax revenue on illegal wars and mass surveillance; at least with reallocating income it would be a risk for a good cause.

Finally, when it comes to publicly-owned banks, Barro again dips into the “government pathologies” bucket and expresses concern about waste, bureaucratic redtape and320px-War_of_wealth_bank_run_poster something akin to the Spanish “slush fund.” Again, the answer lies in building accountability and transparency into the system: making transactions public, who is buying what, what sellers are making, and so on. Honestly, it is risible to convey anxiety about the behavior of a potential public bank when private banks have been notorious for hiding information and making shady deals. Indeed, much of the present crisis can be placed at the feet of banks that were behaving badly behind closed doors. Moreover, how many times do we hear about the U.S. Department of Justice making settlements with banks to dare to disclose such trifling details like, say, which of their clients were breaking the law? Public banks would not be perfect, but far better than what we have.

I could pick apart Myerson’s proposals for pages, but what I really find most galling about the buzz surrounding his article is the smug, condescending attitude that “kids these days” just want stuff without working for it and, living in our bubbles, we simply do not understand that free market economics constitute the “end of history” and that, warts and all, the current system cannot be improved upon. The hard truth is that many millenials (including yours truly) ended up living with their parents after college because of the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression caused by this very confidence that the neoliberal strain of capitalism had prevailed above all paradigms, that widespread deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy was the answer, and that a rising tide for the richest among us would end up lifting all boats. In the end, we ended crashing against the shores of the current epoch, in which young people are laden with debt, lucky to find a job right out of school and are more dissatisfied than ever with a political system that does not represent their interests and seems intent on debating just how drastically to ensure that the decades ahead will be ones of intense austerity and greater hardship.

What seems crazy to me is not that people like Jesse Myerson are daring to propose reforms so outside the mainstream, but that so many people continue to defend a “conventional wisdom” that has so consistently and catastrophically failed.

As an aside, Macy’s reported recently that its sales increased by 3.6% in November and December. As a growing “job creator,” they decided to close multiple stores and fire 2,500 employees. Yay capitalism!