Monday, September 27, 2010

Right On

What more is there to say? Though I don't think I'm as optimistic as he is...



(Hat tip: TPM)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

What more is there to say?

That it's ridiculous to consider the percentage of income of the top 1% without also looking at the growth of the middle class and improvements in standard of living of the other 99%.

That the "choice" he presents is tendentiously stated and a false dichotomy.

That his characterization of the current immigration debate is shallow and mistaken.

That the only "ideological fixations" he suggests we need to shed are politically conservative ones ("leave things to the market" or "government is evil").

There's nothing newer in this than there is in the Republicans' "Pledge to America."

Ricketson said...

The previous comment hits a lot of important points. Reich relies heavily on ideological assumptions, even as he presents himself as being "non-ideological".

Every time he says "we", he is making a big ideological statement about how decisions ought to be made. He acts as though it is just common sense that the nation-state should have absolute power to manage the economy. He apparently can't even conceive of why anyone would balk at that proposal.

He acts as though "of course the nation is the natural unit of decision making; of course the interests of the ruling class are aligned with the interests of the rest of the nation; of course the economists know how to shape the economy (and more)".

All of those propositions are intensely ideological, and there is good reason to doubt each of them. Maybe he's talking to his ruling class peers (the guys who have been plundering the nation), in which case I guess I should just shut up. But they should know that this sort of talk isn't going to go over well with us pawns.

What more is there to say? Bullshit.

Russell Arben Fox said...

It's weird being in a position of defending Reich, because I see him as basically a strong progressive liberal, whereas my diagnosis of the current economic situation is much more radical and populist. Still, I put up the video because I think he expresses the central, structural problem of unequal access to and distribution of income opportunity--call it wage stagnation, call it whatever you will--very well. Was his description of various responses tendentiously partisan and ideologically narrow? Yes, absolutely. But he gets the central problem correct, and that's valuable.

[I]t's ridiculous to consider the percentage of income of the top 1% without also looking at the growth of the middle class and improvements in standard of living of the other 99%.

First, anonymous, he doesn't dismiss the growth of the middle-class; he acknowledges it, as well as the overall increase in the wealth generated by our economy over the past 30 years. But second, and more importantly, he focuses on income, and the increasing concentration of income since the 1970s in increasingly select and elite hands. That's a hardly a "ridiculous" way to critique the structure of American capitalism today; on the contrary, given the ways in which such inequality impacts social opportunity, civic life, health, political stability, and overall happiness, I think it is a perfectly appropriate way to mount a critique.

He acts as though it is just common sense that the nation-state should have absolute power to manage the economy....He acts as though "of course the nation is the natural unit of decision making"

Ricketson, maybe you have better ears than me, but I never heard him say anything like "the nation-state should have absolute power to manage the economy." I suppose you can claim to discern in his references to "reform" exactly such an idea, but if so you're bringing it in from outside this video, not from anything claimed within it.

I do agree that he, like most progressive liberals, is thinking about responding to America's structural problems at the highest national collective level; he is, fundamentally, an economist of our national political life and our national economy, meaning that very likely his suggested reforms are not going to include any distributist or localist elements. He's not, in other words, particularly populist or "small-d" democratic, which comes through in his comments about immigrants. He's absolutely correct, I think, to diagnose an economically motivated, borderline paranoid mentality amongst more than a few of the Chris Kobachs (local Kansas reference there!) out there, but matters of local culture and sentiment are obviously not on his radar screen. That's a limitation in his analysis, I freely admit. But it doesn't mean he's getting the big picture fundamentally wrong.

Anonymous said...

You and Reich both state that a temporary rise in concentration of wealth among the top 1% is a problem, but neither of you explain why. Why should that be considered a problem, when the middle class is growing, immigrant populations are climbing up the economic ladder as they always have, education opportunities are there for those who want them, there is no hunger to speak of, and standard of living has improved almost universally in America? You can't just say that the rich getting richer is a problem. You have to come up with a compelling argument for it, since a great many Americans disagree with you and Reich.

Robert C. said...

Thanks for posting this, Russell -- I think he makes some very interesting and reasonable points, even if not all of his points thus qualify.

Ricketson said...

Sorry for the delayed response...I'm sure you've been anxiously awaiting it.

My assertion that Reich wants the Feds to have absolute power is primarily based on his comments regarding ideology.

"We get on with what has to be done. We put ideology aside....we get very pragmatic and do what needs to be done" He probably has specific actions in mind, but the broad attitude expressed here is the same as every dictator "just let me take care of the problem and don't worry about the methods that I use".

There is also the fact that he treats income inequality as a problem (THE problem) in itself, rather than it being the outcome of a particular injustice. It basically sounds like any level of intervention would be justified to solve this problem, because otherwise the entire system will go to hell. Again, he probably thinks that we only need fairly specific and limited actions, but the attitude leaves open the door for increasingly dictatorial powers in order to assure that the economy reaches the prescribed balance.

As for (macro)economists like Reich, I suspect that they are all megalomaniacs. I won't go as far to say that macroeconomics is not a real science, but I really doubt that it has enough explanatory/predictive power to be useful for engineering. The sick thing is that macroeconomics originated in attempts to engineer the economy, and they were enabled to implement their ideas, which were nothing more than speculation at the time.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Ricketson,

"We get on with what has to be done. We put ideology aside....we get very pragmatic and do what needs to be done" He probably has specific actions in mind, but the broad attitude expressed here is the same as every dictator "just let me take care of the problem and don't worry about the methods that I use".

But wait--you quote him, correctly, as speaking of how "we" put ideology aside, etc., but then say that his broad attitude is a dictatorial, "let me take care it" one. Doesn't the former completely undermine your suggestion that he's really implying the latter? Is it really dictatorial to speak of "the American people" or "the public" as doing something? I'll freely grant that, unless you're some kind of doctrinaire Rousseauian invoking the general will, or a theoconservative advocate of America as a Christian community (neither of which is true in Reich's case), then references to "the American people" is kind of lazy and routine. But dictatorial?

Or is you concern that when he speaks of "we," he's meaning "me and my fellow elites who have taken power through the Democratic party"? In which case, you're describing Reich as a dictator wanna-be; you're describing him as someone who believes too much in the authority of democratically elected majorities. Which, admittedly, may be a problem...but it's not a problem which is tantamount to thinking like a dictator.

As for (macro)economists like Reich, I suspect that they are all megalomaniacs. I won't go as far to say that macroeconomics is not a real science, but I really doubt that it has enough explanatory/predictive power to be useful for engineering.

The thing is, I probably agree with you on this point far more than disagree. The difference may be that I see macro-economics used far more often, too far greater (and, I think, damaging) effect, to justify doing relatively nothing about the problem of income equality, because the manifest harms of income inequality are primarily measured in social or cultural or health terms (education, schooling, job opportunities, alienation, demographic concentration, medical care, nutrition, etc.) that most economists don't measure. Reich, to his credit, at least tries to.

Ricketson said...

"Or is you concern that when he speaks of 'we,' he's meaning 'me and my fellow elites who have taken power through the Democratic party'? "

He very well may be thinking "we, the American people." However, regardless of how he conceptualizes it, I believe that in reality he means "we, the power elite".

I make this distinction because he alludes to certain tools and institutions, which are the province of an elite portion of our society and beyond any meaningful influence from the vast majority of Americans.

These institutions (defining the power elite) are first and foremost the state and Federal governments, regardless of who holds power at the moment. It also included the people who run the other big institutions with extensive legal power and political influence (i.e. corporations, banks).

Reich is clearly talking about political/electoral action (based on his discussion of "conservative vs. liberal"), not direct action.

"someone who believes too much in the authority of democratically elected majorities. Which, admittedly, may be a problem...but it's not a problem which is tantamount to thinking like a dictator."

I'm defining dictatorship based on the powers claimed, not the willingness to transfer those powers to another faction of the ruling class.

I believe that "democratically elected" governments are only slightly better than others (aside from their ideological connection to personal liberties facilitation of class mobility). They are mainly just a myth that power-holders use to legitimize their power.

Ricketson said...

Dear Mr. Fox,

I never introduced myself, and this may be leading to some misunderstanding. First, I am not a tea-bagger by any means. I find the greatest agreement with those identifying themselves as "left libertarian".

I've been reading this blog off and on for a year or so. I had originally marked you as "the sensible conservative" (I have trouble finding any). Though I think you recently identified yourself as a socialist, so I'm slightly confused--but I see no necessary contradiction between cultural/community conservatism and the economic egalitarianism that you seem to promote, even if it involves communal ownership of productive goods.

Sorry if it seems rude to introduce myself by way of argument. It's just that I don't say anything unless I feel that I have something substantial to contribute.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Ricketson,

Thanks for continuing the conversation, and my apologies if I initially reacted (as you noted) as if I was just dealing with another Tea Party troll. You're making this more interesting than I expected it to be.

I make this distinction because he alludes to certain tools and institutions, which are the province of an elite portion of our society and beyond any meaningful influence from the vast majority of Americans. These institutions (defining the power elite) are first and foremost the state and Federal governments, regardless of who holds power at the moment....Reich is clearly talking about political/electoral action (based on his discussion of "conservative vs. liberal"), not direct action.

See, this is where of respective "left" concerns--however distinct our conceptualizations of it may be--overlap. You're absolutely right; Reich is not thinking about democratizing or localizing our national economy. Which means that, fundamentally, his complaints about income inequality are almost certainly focused entirely upon the harm which such inequality has on individuals' ability to access and participate in a larger economy, not about the populist concern about the lack of control or purchase which individuals and communities may have over our national economy. He wants, in other words, "better"--meaning more liberal and egalitarian--management of the economy, in contrast to supporters of a corporate-dominated "free" market, which have their own kind of elite "management" in mind.

I'm basically some kind of social democrat or a democratic socialist, and as such I don't care for such management; I want something more participatory and empowering. But while I and whomever else do whatever we think may be best in regards to making such empowerment more of a possibility, we also want to see less inequality; that's the egalitarian side of my beliefs. And insofar as that is concerned, I think Reich is right on: he's talking about a structure of inequality generated by the way our markets work, he's talking about the political consequences of that, and he's talking about policies which could ameliorate some of it.

I suppose you've made me demonstrate that I wasn't telling the truth when I said "what more is there to say?"; in regards to democracy, there's a great deal still to say. But sometimes I put on my political scientist hat, look at what the practical options are (as I did back during the health care debate, in which I whined about what I saw as the numerous philosophically flawed presumptions shaping the final bill, and still very much wanted it to pass anyway), and urge people to vote accordingly.

I had originally marked you as "the sensible conservative" (I have trouble finding any). Though I think you recently identified yourself as a socialist, so I'm slightly confused--but I see no necessary contradiction between cultural/community conservatism and the economic egalitarianism that you seem to promote, even if it involves communal ownership of productive goods.

I appreciate that you don't see a "necessary contradiction" between my cultural/social conservatism and my political/economic egalitarianism; especially in the United States, most people do assume there's a pretty obvious contradiction, and I'm always trying different ways (with varying degrees of success) of explaining why I see a concern for public standards and public goods as part of a single communitarian whole. Obviously, my own worldview is one that deserves more explanation than I provided in this post here! I hope, as you read, you'll continue to press me to give better accounts of my thinking--as, in this case, I needed to explain just what it was I thought Reich was right about, even if his approach to dealing with the problems he rightly diagnoses isn't my preferred one.

Ricketson said...

Another long-delayed response...

Re: "Tea party troll"

No need to apologize. I didn't sense any hostility, just a possible misunderstanding (based only on the suggestion that I equated "Democrat" with "elite").

Re: Reich's points

I saw three basic points in his video:
1) Income equality is good for economic management
2) Income equality is good for social and political reasons
3) He is above ideology, and people who discuss ideology are trouble-makers (or at least, "non-serious").

Number 3 is what set me off. I generally agree with 2, but I dislike 1 (even if it is true in a technical sense).

I dislike 1 because it seems to presume a system where labor is legally separated from other forms of production (i.e. workers do not own the land/capital that they use). As such, the "equality" promoted within this paradigm is shallow. It is the equality of consumers, not the equality of members of a community. It presumes a system where most people have little or no control over their worklives, and the best that they can hope for is some leisure time and money to buy toys with. It's kinda like Brave New World.

The only good thing that I can say about income equality within a forcibly hierarchical economic system is that the increased income may allow regular people the spare resources with which to establish the economic basis for social equality. However, I think we've seen that when people have their basic needs taken care of by a hierarchical system, they embrace that system and seek entertainment rather than seeking to level the system and gain more control over their lives.

Re: the conflict between socialism and conservatism.

To a libertarian, it's all socialism (ha ha). This combination of opinions may actually get you categorized as "authoritarian" or "anti-libertarian" by some libertarians, but I don't find you that scary.

Even your communitarian arguments seem to have an individualist component -- such as your opinion regarding Fred Phelp's freedom of speech.

good night