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Department of "Huh?!": Freddie DeBoer and Chris Bertram Edition

Matthew Yglesias, Jan 17, 2011:

Pas D’Ennemi à Gauche : Freddie DeBoer writes, among other things:

Many of the young, upwardly-mobile bloggers out there take their cues from Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. I don’t begrudge either of them their policy preferences, even while I disagree with them. But each represents, in his own, the corruption and capitulation that comes with prominence and success in this culture. I genuinely don’t know what the hell happened to Matt Yglesias…. He is now one of the most vocal of the neoliberal scolds, forever ready to define the “neoliberal consensus” as the truth of man and to ignore left-wing criticism. Indeed, I’m not sure that you could even understand that he has critics from his left, judging by what he chooses to discuss on his blog. This is a particularly cruel way to erase the left-wing from the discourse: to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

I don’t really know what it means to criticize a writer for holding that his own views are “the truth of man.” Obviously, I agree with my political opinions and disagree with those who disagree with me…. [W]hile I’ll cop to being a “neoliberal” I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the “left” of me. On economic policy, here are the main things I’m trying to accomplish:

  • More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
  • A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
  • Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
  • Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
  • Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
  • Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
  • Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
  • Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
  • Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
  • Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.

Is this a “neoliberal” program?… I recognize that the shoe fits to a considerable extent. I’d say it’s liberalism…. I recognize that many people disagree with this agenda, and that many of those who disagree with it think of themselves as “to the left” of my view. But I simply deny that there are positions that are more genuinely egalitarian than my own. I really and sincerely believe that liberalism is the best way to advance the interests of the underprivileged and to make the world a better place. I offer “further left” people the (unreturned) courtesy of not questioning the sincerity of their belief that they have some better solutions, but I think they’re mistaken…

Matthew Yglesias, July 18, 2011:

What Is The Alternative To ‘Neoliberalism’?: The fact that Doug Henwood disagrees with me about monetary policy has suddenly turned into a sprawling cross-blog discussion of “neoliberalism” and its discontents. Personally, I find the argument to be infuriatingly devoid of content…. Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems…. Neoliberals… favor progressive taxation. Non-neoliberals criticize this agenda as not politically workable in the long-term. And they counterpose as their alternative, more workable agenda, . . . what? Kevin Drum offers this effort:

I don’t know the answer either. But as I said a few months ago, “If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.” It still is.

So I really, strongly, profoundly agree with this. The moment someone comes up with a workable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

This is too bad, because I think Henwood and I actually started out with a reasonably concrete disagreement on an important point. I think that better monetary policy, though hardly the solution to all of America’s ills, could do a lot to reduce unemployment. His view seems to be not just that a more thorough economic restructuring would be desirable, but that it’s strictly necessary to achieve recovery. In my view, that’s factually mistaken. Better monetary policy over the past several years would, I believe, have produced a much shallower and shorter recession and left progressive politics with a much stronger hand to play on all kinds of other questions.

Matthew Yglesias, July 26, 2011:

Beyond The Top One Percent: John Quiggin makes the case that redistribution of income away from the top 1 percent is essentially the only thing that matters in American politics. After all, as Willie Sutton said, “that’s where the money is.”

I’m all for that, but I really do think it’s an unduly limited view of political life. Even with several decades of median wage stagnation, the fact of the matter is that the median American household has quite a lot of money compared to the median household of almost every other country. And yet, I think there are a lot of other respects in which quality of life in the United States falls short. We spend a lot of time in traffic jams. We have both a frighteningly high murder rate and a frighteningly high level of incarceration. Our health care system is very inefficient. Americans work very long hours and have unusually little vacation time. It’s not clear to me that any of these issues can be usefully tackled primarily by focusing on higher taxation of the very wealthy.

What’s more, even in narrowly economic terms, I do think there’s a real need to tackle the issue of scarcity. The different debates about “gentrification” are instructive in this regard. The basic shape of the issue is that with housing in limited supply, those with less money will tend to be pushed out by those with more money. The result is very inegalitarian from the perspective of quality of life. And yet even if the income gap were narrowed, the scarcity would remain and it would still be the case that the richer households push out the poorer ones. To me, it’s an indication that we need to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the scarcity as such and ameliorating it. In America today, a house in a safe neighborhood with good public schools featuring a convenient commute to the central business district of an economically vibrant city is a scarce commodity. This scarcity is a problem — or perhaps an interlocking set of problems — that, like the inefficiency of the health care system and the brutal inefficacy of the crime control system needs to be tackled on its own terms.

Chris Bertram, August 5, 2011:

The problem with “left” neoliberalism: I think that something like [Matthew] Yglesias’s general stance would be justifiable if you believed… income levels reliably indicate real levels of well-being, at least roughly… [and] that an improvement in real well-being counts for more, morally speaking, if it goes to someone at a lower rather than a higher level of well-being…. This view assigns no instrinsic importance to inequality as such. If the best way to improve the real well-being of the worst off is to incentize the talented (thereby increasining inequality) then that’s the right thing to do.

Now inequalities in wealth and income can matter for [a left neoliberal Yglesias]… [but] not because they are of intrinsic significance… rather because they can translate into lower levels of real well-being for the worse off. Cue Amartya Sen… Fred Hirsch on positional goods, cue Michael Marmot and Wikinson & Pickett on health (and other welfare) outcomes consequent on inequality as such. Likewise if you think that high levels of inequality undermine social solidarity and political equality and that those also have impacts on real well being, then you’ll have a further reason to be concerned about the consequences of inequality for real lives of ordinary people. People like me think these things matters a lot for real levels of well-being…. Add to these concerns some worries about the natural and social environment. If you think that neoliberal policies are also often associated with an erosion of the natural environment and of the social commons (I do) then you’ll have further reason to believe that rises in inflation-adjusted income don’t give you the true picture about real levels of well-being…. [I]t is probably the case that extra money does very little for the rich. But it really does make the lives of the poorest better off, other things being equal. The trouble is, that as far as I can see, other things aren’t equal and their inequality leads to all the bads in the preceding paragraph…

Chris Bertram, August 4, 2011

What they don’t ask: Unfortunately, the question never came. Until these questions get asked though, we’ll still have a political debate dominated by the assumption that growth-promoting policies will provide people with better lives, even though it seems that they won’t. (Which doesn’t, of course, establish that in the absence of such policies things wouldn’t get even worse.) To protect and improve the real living standards of ordinary people, we need to get redistribution explicitly onto the agenda and not just allow the assumption that rising tides lift (the key political assumption of “left neoliberalism” it seems to me) to stand…

Chris Bertram, May 22, 2011:

The fragmenting coalition of the “left”, some musings: [T]he elite, quasi-neoliberal “left” has a spectacular record of failure since the mid 1970s. This goes for the US as well, where Democratic adminstrations (featuring people such as Larry Summers in key roles) have done little or nothing for ordinary people. Given the failures of that current, there is less reason than ever for the rest of us to line up loyally behind them for fear of getting something worse….

Haven’t things always been a bit like this, though? Well not really. Once it was possible for people on the left to pretend that differences among us were primarily about means. We all shared the same sort of egalitarian, science-fictiony, abundancy, holding hands, economic democracy vision of the far-off future, but some people were more committed to electoral persuasion than others. (I realise there was a great deal of dishonesty, self-deception, wishful thinking and delusion about that pretence, but it had some kind of reality.) Now the overt differences of aim and value between various currents calling themselves “left” are deep and irreconcilable. So what are those currents:

The technocratic quasi-neoliberal left…. Pro-globalisation, pro-market, pro-growth: keep the masses happy by improving their living standards. It’s the economy, stupid. Prone to witter self-regardingly about “grown-up” politics. Fixated on electoral competition with the right, with winning elections the essential prerequisite to changing anything…. In power, this group (or those who think like them) have achieved very little. They certainly haven’t done much to stem the rise of inequality, to protect working-class communities from the winds of globalisation, to end poverty, or, for that matter, to protect the environment. Their attitude to those to their left has been to call for discipline and silence, for fear of frightening the median voter, coupled with hostility, ridicule, character assassination. Their appeal to the left has always and only been that they are slightly less bad than the full-on right wing…